Rating: NC-17/Mature at some point
Genre: Hurt/Comfort, Romance, Fluff
Betas: My darlings Susi and Jiggles, and in later chapters the wonderful XVnot15.
Summary: What if Miranda hadn't known?
Disclaimer: I do not own anything related to "The Devil Wears Prada". I only want to play around with our two favourite ladies. I make absolutely zero profit of this.
A/N: Sort of a repost from ff.net, but as I've finally finished this story, I decided to also post it here. :)
The White Queen Falls
Miranda clutched at the high collar of her sweater, and the wool scratched over her pursed lips as she curled her fingers into the thick fabric. Her chest felt heavy as she drew shallow breaths from the moist, cold air, and her gaze was aimed at an undefined spot a few inches above the wet floor boards of the veranda. Her eyes, unwavering in their stare into nothingness, burned, but she could not cry.
Too many of her tears had already been spilled and she felt drained, raw and weak. Images of everything she had lost coursed through her mind, keeping her thoughts hostage within a dense fog of a constant, dull pain, and regardless of how much she wanted to try, she simply could not muster the strength to fight the numbness that engulfed her. She felt detached and lost.
She was almost grateful for the biting chill of the morning and how it managed to - at least momentarily - steer her senses away from the burning in her heart. Rain drummed relentlessly against the roof above her, each splattering drop joining its brothers and sisters in a steady chorus that had not eased all night.
The weather reflected her mental state perfectly. Grey, cold, and with a lingering wetness that seeped into her bones and sucked away her energy. In the distance a fog horn mocked her with its sorrowful moans at agonisingly long intervals, and despite the lack of wind, the ocean a few yards below was restless, roused by the heavy rain and forced by the tide. Waves, rising and falling slowly, pushed at a rusty buoy, eliciting the faint chiming of its bell as they rolled steadily into the secluded bay.
Miranda shivered, and she brought up her steaming mug of coffee, its heat seeping into her skin where she gripped it tightly with both hands. She brushed her mouth over the smooth porcelain, welcoming the sting of the hot cup against her lips and how it sent shudders down her spine and through her freezing limbs.
Water ran in continuous trickles down the busy rain pipes all around her, and the drips and dull splatters of heavy drops, cascading over the thick pine tree foliage surrounding the cabin, were almost deafening in the otherwise secluded silence. And yet, the padded, mossy forest ground soaked up the rain, muting its final decent to the earth, and bathing everything in surrealism.
The mist that sluggishly crawled in from the sea had Miranda wallow in her isolation, and she inhaled deeply, the scent of coffee, seaweed and damp wood rushing into her lungs, making her feel alive, even if it was almost unbearable.
She was pulled from her musings by the humming of an engine and tires grinding over the driveway behind the building. The vehicle stopped and the ignition was turned off, before the slam of the car door jolted Miranda out of her uncollected state. Rapid footsteps drew closer, hurrying over the gravel in an attempt to escape the rain, until a figure in a cerulean rain jacket, arms loaded with shopping bags, hopped up the steps to the veranda.
"Oh," Andrea said, stopping dead in her tracks when she spotted her. "Good morning, Miranda."
"Would you like some coffee?"
Andy looked up from her book and smiled at the flight attendant.
She accepted the steaming cup gratefully, cradling it between her palms as she inhaled the rich scent of real Italian espresso. Travelling first class certainly had its perks.
"And anything for you, Ma'am?"
Andy couldn't fight the cringe at the polite, but in this case unfortunate designation for the woman sitting in the seat beside her.
"Uhm, she'll have a skimmed milk latte with a double shot of espresso," Andy quickly instructed. "And could you please make sure there isn't any foam?"
She gave the blonde her most winning smile, only to realise that in business class asking for a special coffee order was considered normal. The flight attendant didn't even flinch and simply nodded.
"Of course. Anything else?"
Andy risked a sideways glance at her companion, but Miranda was unresponsive, still gazing out of the window at the clouds, as she had been doing since take-off.
"No, thank you. That'll be all."
The air hostess left and Andy relaxed back into her chair, exhaling slowly, and making as little noise as possible while she allowed her shoulders to loosen and her eyes to close. The coffee felt heavenly as it slipped past her lips and down her throat, and it suffused her with a warmth and momentary peace that helped ease away some of the accumulated tension in her body.
Paris felt a lot further away than just one week. The shattering events of the previous seven days were like a distant, violent storm through which Andy had navigated - only barely - by following her instincts and her hazy perception of what was right.
Of course thunder had been rumbling way before the trip to France, but nothing could have prepared Andy for how drastically everything could change, not just for herself, but also for the woman sitting next to her, whom she had always believed to be untouchable.
She opened her eyes, and holding the coffee to her chest she chanced another look at Miranda. In a face usually so guarded and calculated in what it expressed, Andy had found utter defeat and so much sadness over the past few days. Not to mention the tears, carefully held at bay in another's presence, just far enough to keep them from falling from eyes much too red to hide the truth.
The Fall of The Queen.
That's what the papers had dubbed it. At least that had been one of the more sophisticated headlines, and Andy did not care to remember anything printed by the gossip rags. Needless to say, the press was having a field day with Miranda's misfortunes, basking in her misery as if she were the Antichrist. It had left Andy nauseated, especially since she had caught a first-hand glimpse of the effect all of this was having on Miranda.
The termination of an unsuccessful, second marriage wasn't that much of a disaster, and Andy knew that under normal circumstances Miranda would have shaken off the nasty public voices and would have moved on without a single tear. The fact that Stephen had asked for the divorce through an email, sent on one of the most important and busiest nights of Paris Fashion Week, had made the whole thing even more ridiculous to Andy. And Miranda herself had seemed more stricken by the effect the negative press could potentially have on her daughters, than by the loss of another husband.
Regardless, Andy had felt compassion for her boss, deciding to cancel her dinner date and instead take the evening to do some soul searching. Her relationship with Nate had stranded a few days before leaving for Paris, and Andy had not been able to argue certain similarities between her private life and Miranda's. Juggling career and family at the same time wasn't supposed to be easy, but at the very least one should hope for a little support. Partners who abandoned you because of missed birthday dinners or late crisis nights at the office maybe weren't "Ever After" material.
That night, Andy had realised a few things about what she wanted out of her life, and it had vastly helped her understanding of the editor-in-chief. Miranda would always move on without hesitation. No husband could ever hold her back or bring her down, as much as he might have wished to.
Despite the impending divorce and the worry about her girls, Miranda had appeared invincible to Andy. Unshakable in her position, pushing through personal setbacks and focusing on her work, her career, her passion.
The events of the following day, however, had completely shattered that perception.
Miranda had just finished her congratulatory speech to James Holt and Runway's own Nigel Kipling on their future business partnership, when Irv Ravitz had pulled her aside. With a self-gratifying smirk, Elias-Clarke's CEO had then informed Miranda of the board's vote to remove her as editor-in-chief from the company's flagship magazine, and Andy had stood close enough to hear every word.
The rumours had been there, of course, and it certainly had not been a secret that Irv Ravitz had been trying to replace Miranda for a while now, but the tactless delivery and the smug expression on Irv's face had ignited a burning feeling of injustice inside of Andy.
Granted, her time as Miranda's assistant had not exactly been all daisies and unicorns, but in her eight months at Runway she had transformed from a cynical fashion-hater, who had spent every night complaining to her boyfriend about her impossible boss, to someone who had not only begun to be great at her job, but had also started to truly appreciate fashion for the art form it was, with Miranda as its unwavering queen.
Although having been vaguely aware of its existence, the possibility that Miranda would one day have to step aside and let someone else take the helm of her empire had never registered, and standing by her boss' side and watch that incipient, little man so easily fire the goddess of fashion had shaken her belief system to its core.
Andy, seething with anger and barely able to control herself, had been somewhat mellowed by the calm and collected way Miranda had dismissed Irv with a softly uttered "You will regret this," and "My lawyers will contact you." However, on the way back to their hotel, Andy hadn't been able to ignore Miranda's heaving chest, those lips pressed together into the thinnest of lines and her shoulders so tense that muscles could have snapped at any point. It was a complete wonder that Miranda had even allowed Andy to be in the car with her, and the silence between them had been thick and uncomfortably pressing.
"Here you go." The flight attendant handed Andy Miranda's coffee. "Would you like anything else?"
"No, thank you." Andy smiled weakly.
Miranda had not given any indication that she had even wanted a coffee, but if there was one thing Andy could be sure of after everything that had happened, it would be that no matter how bad Miranda's mood was, a good cup of coffee would always work in Andy's advantage.
She held out the cup and after a few non-responsive seconds Miranda reached for it without looking, snatching the hot drink from Andy in one swift, practised motion, before cradling it in her lap, gaze still fastened on the clouds passing by below.
Taking any of Miranda's behaviour personally was something that Andy had stopped doing a long time ago. Contrary to popular belief, Miranda did not have a personal agenda in the way she treated her employees. Andy had figured out early on that when dealing with emotions, such as disappointment, irritation or impatience, Miranda could only communicate with the world around her in a way that came with cleverly crafted insults and annoyed facial expressions.
And it wasn't as if she could blame Miranda. Dealing with a divorce and at the same time facing the loss of a job that had been her life for the past two decades, was a powerful combination. Andy didn't doubt that anyone else would have had a mental breakdown.
Miranda, however, had been so strong; determined to sit out her final two weeks while her lawyers were building a strong case against Irv and the board of directors. Back in New York Andy had worked long hours, supporting Miranda as best as she could, her tasks more centred around the older woman's fierce legal team than anything to do with Runway. She hadn't minded, though, welcoming the distraction from the reality of her own obliterated social life.
Nate had kicked her out of the apartment by her return from France, their mutual friends had ignored her calls, and when Andy had let it slip in a conversation with her parents that instead of actively searching for a new job she was still by Miranda's side, her dad had decided to pull his financial support, practically blackmailing her into leaving her boss. A boss she had once loathed, but had lately come to respect, and to a large degree, understand.
Six days after Paris Andy had found herself lying on Nigel's living room couch, attempting very hard to sleep instead of thinking about her future, when the ringing phone had pulled her from her anxiety-attack. Having looked at the caller I.D. she had been confused by the initial silence; pen and paper already poised to collect a new set of orders. The shaky sigh on the other end of the line had startled her, and the whispered words, so raw and desperate, had threatened to break her heart.
"Andrea..." Miranda had almost sobbed, making Andy shiver. "I need to get away... from all of this."
Catching herself quickly, she had offered to get Miranda's Hamptons house ready by morning.
"No! Not there. Get me away... out of the country. Somewhere without press, without lawyers... without people."
Then she had hung up, but not before releasing another uncharacteristic, shaky sigh that had caused the fine hairs on the back of Andy's neck to rise in alarm.
And so with the help of Nigel, who had promised to take care of things at the office, Andy had spent the remainder of the night booking flights, making a rental car reservation, and packing.
It hadn't been until early this very morning, when she had stood before Miranda's front door, a shiny silver town car waiting by the curb, that Andy had started to panic and second-guess her actions. When she had laid eyes on Miranda, though, big sunglasses not able to hide the older woman's puffy eyes, lips thin and looking utterly defeated, Andy had quickly gathered herself and slipped back into perfect assistant mode.
During the drive to the airport she'd had a hard time keeping her gaze away, concern constantly forcing her eyes back to the broken woman who was usually so poised and assertive, ready to take on the entire world.
"The girls," Miranda had whispered, her voice raw and cracking with barely hidden emotions, "have decided... to live with their father."
That one sentence had immediately convinced Andy that she was doing the right thing. Right then she had pushed away all nagging thoughts about her parents, about her career, about Nate and the friends who had abandoned her, and she had known that the last thing she would do as Miranda's assistant would be personal, and it would be meaningful.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the captain speaking."
Andy absently listened as their descent was announced, and she leaned back in her seat to study the woman beside her.
Miranda looked so small.
The queen who had successfully ruled her empire of fashion for more than twenty years with confidence, high intellect and an icy persona that had brought forth great efficiency in her employees, now appeared hollow and almost lifeless.
Whereas a coward husband and a conspiring chairman could at the most cause her a temporary stumble, her two little girls had completely broken Miranda. Andy remembered how concerned the older woman had been in Paris about the effect of her divorce on the girls, and she wondered whether Miranda had somehow sensed the possibility of her daughters leaving her. Andy was aware of the shared custody agreement that allowed the twins a final say in where they would live, but as Miranda's assistant, who had accomplished more than just one impossible feat for the little redheads, she knew how much Miranda adored and spoiled her daughters.
It was puzzling that the girls would decide to leave all that behind for a father who barely made time to see them. Unless, of course, the news of their mother's divorce and the loss of their stepfather had driven them to seek out the only other stability they knew.
As the plane dipped through the clouds Andy watched the white peaks of a familiar mountain range come into view. The sight seemed to even rouse Miranda, who had yet to ask where precisely they were going.
"Welcome to Canada," Andy said quietly, and although she wasn't entirely convinced that her mind wasn't playing tricks on her, she could have sworn there was a twitch at the corner of Miranda's lips.
Miranda woke to the soft calling of her name, and it took a while before she was able to find her bearings. She slowly lifted her face away from the car window and sat up straight in the back seat. She did not remember falling asleep, but evidently exhaustion had triumphed and she had dozed off.
"Where are we?" She mumbled, combing fingers through her hair to remove the evidence of her involuntary slumber.
"It's a town called Coombs," Andrea explained, turning to face Miranda from her position in the driver's seat. "There is a country market here and it has a small restaurant that serves organic food."
"I'm not hungry," Miranda quickly said, looking away from the brunette and out onto the wet gravel parking lot.
"Well, I am, and I'm not driving through the mountains without eating lunch first."
Miranda was a bit startled by the bossy tone, and her gaze fell back to Andrea who managed to sweeten her reply with a simple smile.
"You can stay in the car if you like, but I've heard good things about the coffee in this place."
She unbuckled her seat belt, and before Miranda could think of an excuse to remain inside the vehicle, the door beside her opened.
"I would like the company," Andrea said, the sincerity in her eyes and the promise of caffeine dominating the stubborn sense of pride Miranda knew hindered her social interaction far too often.
With a huff of indignation Miranda rose from the car, ignoring the offered hand. The air was cold and the sky hung above them like a heavy, grey blanket that kept the light deceptively low for midday. Pulling the collar of her fur coat tighter around her neck, she eyed the country market building, pursing her lips as she spotted the holly and pine leaf decorations. She wasn't in the mood for family-friendly small town charm.
As they stepped inside, Miranda had to fight the urge to return to the car. The sudden warmth, the rich scents, and the noise from the scattered patrons posed too high a contrast to her current state. She felt disoriented, tired, and exposed.
"The coffee is through here," Andrea said while unbuttoning her duffel coat and moving forward. Reluctantly Miranda followed, high heels clacking loudly against the wooden floorboards as they passed an aisle of honey jars and pickles. A counter with a variety of local cheeses was to their right, and Miranda refused to inhale as they walked by the freshly smoked salmon.
It was an overload of impressions that made it difficult for Miranda to maintain the distance she needed. After the subdued journey it was simply too much at once, and a dull pain began throbbing in her temples. Thankfully Andrea seemed to understand, and she quickly led Miranda to the back of the busy store and into a sectioned off seating area. She picked a table by the window and pulled out a chair.
"Here you go," she smiled again, that honest, understated smile that felt so different from the fake grimace people usually offered when doing things for Miranda. It was as unnerving as it was comforting.
Miranda eyed the offered piece of wooden furniture sceptically, but the idea of coffee was too inviting to ignore, and she removed her coat and sat down.
Andrea took the seat across from her and reached for the menu.
"It's a three hour drive from here to the other side of the island. Are you sure you don't want to eat anything?"
Raising an eyebrow, Miranda merely stared back. She was torn between annoyance and the alien feeling of gratitude at Andrea's continued concern for her.
"All right, just coffee then," the younger woman said, before turning to speak to the approaching waitress.
Miranda used the opportunity to gaze out of the window, drowning out Andrea's voice and attempting to return to that place of indifference and solitude in her mind which had kept her safe and detached from her surroundings all day. She absently counted the pick-up trucks in the parking lot, and for the first time she wondered where exactly they were headed.
She had been to Canada before, of course, but this was her first time on Vancouver Island, and she wasn't sure what to expect. Her idea of isolation didn't include busy country markets drowning in Christmas decorations. She moved her eyes to the candle on the table and stared at the swaying flame, pressing her lips together until they hurt.
"The pacific rim is a lot more quiet than this," Andrea suddenly spoke, drawing Miranda from her displeased contemplations. The waitress had already gone, and Andrea was busy checking her phone.
"I'm not used to driving long distances any more, especially through the mountains, so I needed a break," she continued. "Plus, according to the forecast," she looked at Miranda as she pointed to the phone, "the weather on the other side will be less than stellar. So, let me just eat real quick and then we'll be on our way, okay?"
Miranda allowed her gaze to flick between Andrea's eyes and the smile on her lips, before she inclined her head in a subtle nod.
They sat in silence after that, Andrea eating her Caesar salad, and Miranda sipping on a latte she had to admit was quite adequate. It still surprised her how easy it was to be alone with the brunette, when any other assistant would have driven her to the brink with their noisy breathing and their fidgeting, making not the slightest effort to try and hide the fact that they'd rather be somewhere else.
As she watched Andrea chew on a piece of chicken Miranda wondered what it was that set Andrea apart. Maybe the younger woman really didn't hate working for her.
It was still hard to fathom that, unlike everyone else, Andrea had not abandoned Miranda. Of course seven days from now, once the two-week grace period was up and Miranda would officially no longer work for Elias-Clarke, Andrea would leave her, too. It was inevitable, as her contract was with Runway and not Miranda, giving her no reason to stay by the older woman's side.
By the time they walked back to the car, Miranda had come to the conclusion that it was Andrea's work ethic that pushed her to see this job through to the end. Andrea was hard-working, dedicated, and loyal. It was almost a given that she'd stick around.
Miranda trailed behind and watched as the younger woman opened one of the back doors.
Suddenly being chauffeured by Andrea seemed bizarrely undesirable. The back seat beckoned with its promise of isolation and distance, but there was a quiet yet persistent tug, an inexplicable need for companionship, which caused Miranda to pause. Andrea's lips held another patient smile as she waited.
If Miranda had tried to find insincerity in those dark eyes, she would have failed. It wasn't pity that she saw; nor faked compassion. Miranda realised then, that Andrea did not judge her. She appeared to honestly just want to do her job, to complete the tasks that were given as efficiently and politely has possible. Down to the very last one.
Miranda pursed her lips. It was a subconscious reaction to the fact that she was about to make an uncharacteristic gesture, one which served to non-verbally thank Andrea as much as it served to ease her own mind. She stepped around the younger woman and reached for the passenger side door, but before she could pull the handle, Andrea had already stepped forward to open it for her.
Miranda slipped into the seat and inhaled deeply as the door was closed with a gentle thud. Soon Andrea would be gone, just like everyone else. It proved continuously difficult to ignore the inevitable. For decades Miranda had trained and perfected the ability to shut out emotions, to close off her heart. That ability appeared to fail her now. The painful thoughts threatened to crush her.
When Andrea pulled out of the parking lot Miranda leaned back against the head rest. Her eyes latched desperately onto the passing landscape, however the view offered no distraction, and farm houses and barren fields soon blurred into the image of two disappointed, little redheads. Miranda had to clasp her hands together in an attempt to ground herself. To hold on. To not fall apart.
"While you're up here riding shotgun, you might as well make yourself useful."
Andrea's voice was like a life ring, thrown out into the sea of sadness. Whether intended or not, the snark helped pull Miranda out of the dark waters, and she turned her head abruptly, raising an eyebrow at the brunette.
Eyes still focused on the road, Andrea held out an iPod.
"I drive better with music." She briefly glanced at Miranda. "You can pick, though."
Miranda stared down at the device for a few seconds, torn between her automatic instinct to defy, and the urge to accept the distraction. Nobody ever got away with telling Miranda what to do. Well, except for the pair of ten-year-olds who had managed to break her heart.
Before agony could overwhelm her and force out a sob, Miranda grabbed the music player. She turned it between her fingers and gazed at the small screen, taking deep breaths to calm herself.
"There should be a cable in the glove compartment."
Again Andrea's voice helped Miranda to compose herself. The tone was matter-of-fact, but not cold. It was... helpful. Miranda knew that signs of compassion or kindness would just burst the seams that had kept her together until now. It would have been intolerable for her to be around a person that could offer nothing but pity, and Miranda knew she would have verbally lashed out to protect herself.
The young woman beside her, though, simply kept driving. Her presence felt unobtrusive, and in its own way comforting. It was something Miranda might have allowed herself to analyse, had the circumstances been different. For now, however, she busied herself with setting up the iPod and scrolling through the music selection.
The next day, Andy carefully manoeuvred the car down the slope of the cabin driveway and parked beneath a tall Douglas-fir. She turned off the engine but remained in her seat, fingers drumming against the steering wheel in contemplation. Rain fell heavily through the canopy above and splattered onto the car roof not unlike the spray from an old shower head.
Sleep had not come easily the previous night. No longer accustomed to the ocean crushing against the rocky shore and the wind whipping through the trees in constant whispers, Andy had tossed and turned. Wide awake, she had listened to the night, imagining the source of every rustle and peep, every flutter and drip, until she had picked up a faint sobbing from the neighbouring bedroom.
Like a log, Andy had lain on the bed, stiff, and rooted to the mattress by shock and disbelief. Of course she had noticed Miranda's red-rimmed eyes since Paris. Hearing the queen of fashion weep, however, had suddenly confronted Andy with the depth of Miranda's humanity. It had caused a burning in her chest. An ache in her stomach. And somehow she had found herself unprepared.
With a sigh, Andy leaned over and grabbed the grocery bags from the passenger seat. It was still early, and the morning struggled against a thick layer of mist, achieving only a diffuse, eerie light that did nothing to lift Andy's spirits. The wind had died down during the night, but the air was cold when she opened the car door and stepped into the rain.
Andy was glad she had ignored Miranda's disapproving glare the previous day, and had bought a rain jacket before they had left the country market. This wasn't a climate for woollen Chanel coats and knitted ponchos. Since most of Andy's possessions were in storage she hadn't been able to pack weather-appropriately, so when faced with winter at the Northern Pacific, she didn't mind risking a scowl or two from Miranda.
She hurried along the gravel path that wound around the building, and she had to pull up her shoulders against the rain drops that managed to sneak past the collar of her jacket. Andy was so eager to get inside that she didn't notice Miranda until she was halfway up the veranda steps. She hadn't expected the older woman to be awake yet and the sudden confrontation caused her to stop in her tracks.
It wasn't the most eloquent greeting, but at that moment Andy couldn't find proper words. Miranda sat curled-up in a cushioned wicker chair, a steaming cup cradled between her fingers and the porcelain pressed to her lips. She regarded Andy with tired eyes, and the younger woman felt her chest contract in response. Compassion came so naturally to her, and yet in this situation she knew it was not welcome. It took a lot out of her to plaster on a neutral smile and pretend she wasn't affected.
"Good morning, Miranda."
With more or less steady legs she took the final steps and moved to the double doors that led inside.
"I got us some breakfast," she held up the bags for emphasis, but Miranda looked away.
"I'm not hungry."
Her voice was even softer than usual, and without make-up hiding the dark lines under her eyes Miranda looked almost like a different person. The sight reminded Andy of the night in Paris when Stephen had filed for divorce. There had still been a spark in Miranda then. She had at least talked and ordered Andy around. Then again, the divorce had turned out to be only the tip of the iceberg, and not even in her craziest dreams had Andy imagined that just a week later Miranda would have lost the three most important things in her life.
Andy studied the woman. She had never seen Miranda in something as common as a pair of jeans, but here she was, legs folded beneath herself, the sleeves of her over-sized sweater reaching as far as her knuckles, and the tip of her nose reddened from the cold, making her look fragile and... real.
That was it, wasn't it? Andy swallowed.
In the past seven days Miranda had transformed from the almost deity-like queen of fashion, to a human being. She had been pushed from the pedestal that Andy had placed her on almost a year ago, and the woman who had landed on the ground was broken, lonely and defeated.
Taking a deep breath, Andy looked down at the groceries.
"I'm going to make some scrambled eggs with cottage cheese and avocado." It felt strange to say something so domestic to Miranda. "I'll keep your eggs warm in case you feel hungry later."
The older woman didn't respond and merely stared out into the mist, lips rhythmically brushing against the cup. Andy didn't take it personally. How could she?
Her chest felt heavy as she took a moment to observe Miranda, and she realised it bothered her that she couldn't actually help. In a sense she was utterly useless to the person she wanted to please the most.
She turned and stepped inside, closing the doors behind her to keep out the chill. The cabin had barely warmed up since she had turned on the heating the previous evening. The ceiling was too high for the two small radiators, and Andy nervously eyed the large central fireplace. She would have to get over her fear of open fire at some point today.
But first: Breakfast!
She placed the bags on the dining table, unzipped her jacket and hung it over a chair. The kitchen area was part of the living room, and as she began to peel and cut the avocado, Andy kept glancing at Miranda's head through the window. She worried that the older woman would catch a cold if she stayed outside for too long. However, asking her to come inside was completely out of the question.
When she stirred the eggs, Andy's thoughts deviated to Nate. One night he had enthusiastically raved to her about a hundred different ways to make scrambled eggs. Andy hadn't really listened, but she had smiled and nodded nonetheless. That was what it meant to be supportive, something Nate had not even attempted being for her.
Andy snorted softly and shook her head. Nate would have a heart attack if he knew where she was, and for whom she was cooking breakfast. Or maybe it would make perfect sense to him. Andy chewed on her bottom lip as she recalled Nate's words on the night they had broken up.
It felt odd not missing him more than she did. Picturing his face didn't stir any particular emotion, except maybe a trace of nostalgia. Perhaps it was a reluctance to hate him, because Andy knew that regardless of his recent nasty behaviour they had been drifting apart for months. Their respective careers had taken over their lives, and in the end they had found themselves without anything left in common.
At least she had learned a couple of tricks from living with a cook for two years. Andy smiled as she arranged the avocado and cottage cheese on two plates and added the eggs to one of them. When she bent down to slide the pan with the remaining eggs into the oven she heard the veranda doors close.
Miranda walked across the varnished oak floor and set the cup onto the kitchen island. Her nostrils flared when she eyed Andy's plate, and with lips pursed in defiance, she reached out and pulled the food towards her. Not sparing Andy a glance, she sat down on one of the bar stools and picked up a fork.
Elation welled up in Andy, and she battled to keep a neutral face. She loaded the rest of the scrambled eggs onto the second plate and poured them both a glass of water, before saying in her most matter-of-fact voice, "I hope you like it."
A raised eyebrow was the only response, and Andy briefly experienced a flutter of anxiety. She couldn't help holding her breath when Miranda carefully took some egg onto her fork and lifted it to her mouth. Suddenly Andy understood how fashion designers felt when they awaited Miranda's appraisal. It was nerve-wrecking. And in this case it wasn't even a labour-intensive fall/winter collection but a simple morning meal.
When, after a few chews and a dainty swallow, Miranda didn't verbally lash out, Andy allowed herself to relax. She took a bite herself and felt a bit proud. The food was actually quite good. It wasn't a fancy dish from Pastis, but the organic produce carried a great natural flavour that had required only a little tweaking.
They ate in silence. Occasionally their gazes met, and Andy found herself nervously blinking and looking away. She couldn't put her finger on it, but something felt different. She hadn't really planned as far ahead as breakfast, and these shared, quiet moments without work or the busy New York life to distract them were unnerving.
When she had booked this trip, she had anticipated to simply resume her assistant duties. After all, she was still employed for another full week and she was a good assistant. Being around a Miranda who didn't bark orders or make last minute decisions confused her. It wasn't that she hated this side of Miranda, she just didn't know how she was supposed to behave.
So far her professional attitude had apparently been sufficient. In Paris Miranda had asked her to do her job, and Andy had done nothing else since then. However, sitting together at the breakfast bar and sharing a simple meal felt anything but professional. It was intimate, like something friends would do together. Miranda wasn't her friend, though, and the thought left a bitter taste in Andy's mouth.
As they continued eating, Andy studied the fine lines around Miranda's eyes and lips. She realised that she wished to be closer to Miranda. Maybe not best friends, but at least someone Miranda felt she could trust. The knowledge that after one more week she would likely never see Miranda again filled her with trepidation. After nine months of being around Miranda nearly every day, Andy would somehow need to adjust to no longer having the older woman in her life.
Andy felt her throat close up, and she swallowed her food with a grimace, before setting the fork down on her plate. She was no longer hungry.
Over the past week her sole focus had been Miranda. Andy had been communicating non-stop with lawyers and doing her best to get Miranda the hottest coffee and the freshest steak possible. Emily had been gone by the time they had returned from Paris, and Andy had been forced to deal with everything on her own. Between tending to Miranda's private matters and handling the remaining work-related errands, Andy had not allowed herself the time to imagine what she'd do after.
No longer working for Runway wasn't a big deal. Although she had learned to appreciate fashion, it wasn't her real passion, and the job at the magazine had always been meant as a temporary stepping stone. Andy had ambitions, she had always wanted to be a journalist. A writer. For some reason, though, those dreams about her future had never included this dull ache in her belly. This sense of loss at the reality of being without the woman now sitting across from her.
Breaking up with her boyfriend, becoming estranged from her friends, and fighting with her parents felt insignificant compared to a life where she would no longer be helping Miranda. For a second Andy considered that she might be experiencing the same paradoxical separation anxiety a puppy went through when rescued from an abusive owner. When she looked back up into Miranda's eyes, however, she knew the truth.
The face before her was so familiar. Sure, the lips were unpainted and the lashes pale without mascara, but Andy wasn't looking at a stranger. She knew Miranda, and she finally understood that she also liked her. It wasn't mere sympathy or compassion, but real, genuine admiration. Andy had the utmost respect for the editor that had captained the biggest ship of an entire industry for two successful decades. She also held a special fondness for the woman who cried herself to sleep and ate home-made scrambled eggs.
By now Miranda had finished her plate. After she set down the cutlery she took a sip from her water and looked back at Andy.
I'm really going to miss her, Andy thought.
Her heart was pounding and her eyes burned. The unfairness of it all struck her, causing the ache in her belly to roar up and force her from her seat. She quickly reached for their dishes and turned around to drop them into the sink. She opened the tap and watched rain drops roll down the panelled window in front of her. They drew wobbly lines across the glass, and the serene motion calmed her.
Andy inhaled slowly, gripping one of the plates between her fingers and closing her eyes. She would make the best of the time they had left together. She wouldn't worry about her future or her family, and simply be there for Miranda, until her presence was no longer required.
At noon it was still raining, and after the rough night she'd had, Miranda opted to forgo complete isolation and stay around Andrea. Waking up to an empty house had unsettled her, and for a brief moment Miranda had believed that Andrea had abandoned her as well. She hadn't known what to expect, but when she had spotted the opened suitcase beside Andrea's bed, the scattered clothes and fluffed-up sheets, something deep inside her had relaxed.
On her quest for caffeine, she had found a note in the kitchen. She'd read it a few times and had traced the familiar scribbling with her fingertips. Andrea had even prepared a Thermos with coffee, and while she had poured herself a cup, the foreign sensation of guilt had nagged at Miranda. As usual, she had jumped to conclusions that were based on her own insecurities and self-loathing, when deep down she knew that Andrea wouldn't just leave her like that.
After breakfast they had moved into the living area where Andrea had set up her laptop and had begun catching up on Miranda's correspondence. Miranda herself hadn't felt ready to face the world yet, and she had let Andrea deal with the lawyers, the press, and anyone else who insisted on bothering her.
She curled into the arm chair next to the window, laying her cheek onto the head rest, and looked out into the rain. The mist had lessened since morning, but the day remained grey and gloomy. She could see the opposite shore of the bay below, and despite the restless, shallow waves the sight filled her with peace. There was something very basic about feeling comfortable while the weather outside was so hostile.
Her thoughts kept returning to her daughters, but she felt like being this far away from everything helped mute some of the accompanying pain. She wondered if the girls were thinking of her now; if she was on their mind as they were on hers. Miranda had known how sensitive they were to change. Springing a divorce on them on top of the media circus surrounding her dismissal from Runway had apparently been too much.
Miranda closed her eyes and listened to the rain hitting the roof while Andrea's fingers flew over the keyboard. This little village at the edge of the world was so quiet. No car traffic, no planes, no sirens. And still, it almost felt as if the sound of the ocean, the rain, and the trees was louder than anything she'd heard on the busiest day in Manhattan. She didn't mind. The unfamiliar noises were soothing.
"More coffee?" Andrea asked from the couch.
"Hmmm," Miranda hummed in affirmation.
She opened her eyes to watch Andrea get up and walk into the kitchen, and her gaze lingered on the retreating body. Andrea might not be dressed for the office, but neither was Miranda. They were far away from Runway, and the indigo Armani jeans looked quite becoming on the younger woman. Miranda knew that a cabin wasn't the place for four-inch heels and pencil skirts, and she herself was enjoying the added warmth from her Scandinavian style sweater. It was made from a fine cashmere and cotton blend that didn't agitate her skin, and it had been tailored for her personally. Still, it supported the feeling of domesticity and helped to make her feel more relaxed.
Pulling at her sleeves, Miranda looked down at the small table in front of her. She had already spotted the antique chess board earlier, and not for the first time she had wondered how Andrea had found this rather pleasant rental cabin on such short notice. There were a few wooden sculptures throughout the house and the bookshelves were stocked with early edition classics. A large First Nation painting of two Orca whales hung above the fireplace, and a single tree trunk, sanded and varnished, stood in the middle of the main space, where it rose up into the high ceiling. Great care had gone into the design of this cabin, and the way the interior mirrored the outer surroundings spoke to Miranda. It wasn't a five-star luxury suite, but the place bore a simplicity and natural style that Miranda found she preferred.
She traced a fingertip along the edge of the chess board. It appeared to be made from mahogany, with chequered inlays of satinwood and rose. When she lifted the top she found the chess pieces hidden in the compartment below, and while Andrea ground fresh coffee beans in the kitchen, Miranda inspected the figurines. She had expected ivory, but the beautiful set was carved from regular boxwood and ebony. She placed the pieces on the board one by one and studied the fine craftsmanship. One of the white pieces appeared to be missing and once she had lined them up Miranda realised it was a knight.
Pity, she thought. She hadn't played since her childhood. It was how Miranda had learned to become a strategist, and until recently those skills had not failed her.
The white queen was the most detailed piece of the set. She stood out, and it almost felt as if her faceless head glared back at Miranda, accusing her of making the wrong move and losing her empire. The white king looked bland and chunky by her side. Maybe loyal, but useless. The rest of the white court stood pristine and alert, ready to serve, but none were as detailed as their queen.
Intrigued, Miranda picked up the white king and queen to compare the markings on the bottom. Both bore the initials 'E.S.'. As she studied the pair in her hands she thought of Stephen and his cowardice. She had known that he would break their agreement soon. He had grown impatient over the past months and had more than once demanded a change to their contract. The fact that he had chosen to file for divorce one day before Irv's coup d'etat had felt annoyingly coincidental. Now, however, as she gazed at the chequered board and the black and white pieces all with their own significant roles and strategic uses, Miranda began to think that maybe the timing hadn't been so random after all.
Her fingers shook as she set down the white king next to its black counterpart.
In the past Stephen had always warned her about Irv's plans to get rid of her. One of his golf buddies was a member of Elias-Clarke's board of directors, and thanks to the acquired information Miranda had been able to counter several of Irv's previous attempts to dethrone her. This time, though, she had been completely blind-sighted, and as she studied the two kings standing side-by-side, anger welled up inside her.
She had been so stupid, placing her trust in a man who had been bound to her only by contract. She had let her guard down, and in the end it had cost her everything. Pain shot up her arm as she gripped the white queen tightly between her fingers. If only she had paid better attention at home. Maybe then Stephen would not have betrayed her, and the girls would still be by her side. Her eyes burned and she pressed her lips together until they felt numb.
It took several deep breaths through her nose to regain her composure, but Miranda managed to fend off the tears. She would not allow herself to waste another second crying over the two kings and their hand in ruining her life. Disgusted with herself, she flung the queen back into the general direction of the board. She missed, and the chess piece bounced off the cushion on the opposite arm chair and landed on the floor. Andrea looked up at the noise, hand frozen in mid-motion from pouring coffee into a cup, and they both watched as the white queen rolled across the wood and came to a stop at the foot of the large tree trunk pillar in the middle of the room.
Miranda was stunned by her own outburst. Losing her temper was something she simply did not do. She felt heat claw at her ears and the back of her neck, and she swiftly turned toward the window. Rain still fell through the tree canopy outside, rhythmically dripping from the leaves, and she pretended that nothing had happened. She knew that if Andrea commented now, she'd lash out against the one person who hadn't betrayed her.
Footsteps, muffled by the ridiculous woollen socks Andrea had been wearing all morning, made their way across the wooden floor boards, pausing for a moment, before approaching Miranda.
"Here you go."
When Miranda snapped around she nearly knocked the cup of coffee from Andrea's hands.
With a less than dignified sniff she accepted the beverage. She welcomed the burn against her palms as she cradled the cup to her chest, and her eyes were drawn back outside, hoping Andrea would get the hint and leave her alone.
Miranda prepared her best glare, but when she turned her head she found Andrea studying the white queen between her fingers. The way she caressed the carved wood was almost tender, and Miranda felt a tug deep in her belly when Andrea smiled and gently set the piece down on the chess board. Their eyes met, and something in Andrea's thoughtful gaze disarmed Miranda. She couldn't look away. Where with others she would always find underlying judgement, in the deep sepia shade of Andrea's eyes she only saw warmth, and a bit of sadness. It was strangely hypnotising.
"Brrr," Andrea suddenly shivered and turned away, rubbing her upper arms through her sweater.
"I should try and get a fire going," she said, her voice softer than normal. She walked over to the fireplace, leaving Miranda feeling bereft and, indeed, cold.
A few sips of scalding coffee helped to soothe over the unpleasant tickles that had crawled up Miranda's spine, and she sunk deeper into her chair to squash the unease that suddenly filled her. She forced her thoughts back towards her daughters, almost finding solace in the familiar sorrow. Her earlier anger slowly dissipated, and she managed to keep herself from analysing the confusing reaction to Andrea.
Cassidy was the more independent of the duo; Caroline had always been a mommy's girl. Miranda wondered how they were holding up at their father's. They had been scheduled to spend this year's holidays with him anyway, so it wasn't much of an adjustment for them. The extra two weeks wouldn't make a difference when they were so busy with school, but Miranda recalled the stern look on Cassidy's face and the disappointment in Caroline's voice when she had hugged her goodbye. That moment would stay with her forever.
The first weekend she got to see them again would be just after New Year's, and Miranda realised that it would be the longest she had ever been apart from her girls. No matter how busy her job had kept her, she had never been away for more than a week. It often took a lot of extra effort to cut down her schedule, but to Miranda it had always been worth it. And recently, she had to admit, with Andrea's help, it had become a lot easier to make time for the twins.
Andrea. The one who had stayed.
Miranda looked over the rim of her cup and back down at the chess board. The white queen stood beside the empty square of the missing knight. Proud, but alone. Miranda knew she was looking at herself.
"Damn it!" Andrea whined, distracting Miranda once more from her depressing thoughts.
Clearly frustrated with something, the younger woman knelt in front of the fireplace. Her shoulders were slumped and she held a crumpled piece of newsprint between fingers that slowly curled into fists. Two logs of firewood were stacked in the centre of the hearth, and on top of it another newspaper ball went up in pathetic little flames before leaving a circle of ash on the untouched wood.
Andrea stared at it for a moment, her knuckles turning white as she clenched the remaining paper in her hands and she released a heavy sigh. Leaning forward, she struck a match with trembling fingers and lit the newspaper, before quickly throwing it onto the logs. Just like the previous paper ball it burned without touching the firewood below, and Andrea watched with a frustrated sigh as the last little flames disappeared.
It amused Miranda greatly to see Andrea fail at something as simple as starting a fire. She set the coffee down next to the chess board and got up from her chair.
"And I thought you could do anything," she taunted as she walked over to the fireplace.
"Apparently not," came Andrea's whiny reply. "I've never been good with fire. I suppose you could say it's my kryptonite."
"Your what?" Of course Miranda knew about Superman, but it was difficult to believe that Andrea was weakened by, or actually scared of fire.
Andrea stood and placed the matches on the mantle.
"I'll go and ask the neighbours for help. They were the ones who got the cabin ready for us, so I'm sure they'll know how to make a proper fire."
She sighed again and walked away, before Miranda's snort stopped her.
"Oh please, Andrea," Miranda rolled her eyes and grabbed the matches. "Don't be so dramatic."
"Starting a fire is incredibly easy." She picked a few thin pieces of wood that Andrea seemed to have overlooked, and squatted down in front of the fireplace. The big logs were quite heavy and Andrea hurried to her side to help her remove them from the hearth.
"More newspaper," Miranda murmured and a second later it was thrust into her hands.
She could feel Andrea tense up when she lit a match and got the crumpled paper burning. As amusing as it was to find out that the younger woman had fears just like everybody else, it also roused concern in Miranda. Had something happened to Andrea to make her so afraid? She placed the burning paper in the centre of the hearth and quickly built a tepee of thin wood pieces around it. When her hands came close to the flames, Andrea gasped.
"You cannot directly set fire to the big logs," she explained as she worked, hoping that she could somehow put the younger woman at ease. "First, use the smaller pieces."
The kindling caught quickly, and Miranda reached for the bigger logs. She owned a chalet in Aspen, and starting a cosy fire was one of the few things she had never let the housekeeper do. It had always been this basic, physical task that signalled the beginning of quiet vacation times and usually helped Miranda to distance herself from her busy life.
As she arranged the logs around the flames, leaving enough room for oxygen, she could already feel the small fire warming her face. It gave her a simple, nearly primal feeling of accomplishment to see the logs catch just a few minutes later, and with an almost smile she sat back on her heels to regard her handy work.
"Wow," Andrea whispered beside her. "That was..."
She didn't continue, and when Miranda glanced over she found Andrea staring into the fire. Her cheeks were rosy and the reflections of flames danced in her eyes. She looked mesmerised.
Over the years, Miranda had gotten used to being admired. After all she possessed a brilliant mind, and she was a successful woman who had worked very hard to reach international renown. Gay men loved her personal style and fashion sense, and women worshiped her, starving themselves to get even the smallest hint of recognition. And yet, Miranda had never been fazed by any of them.
Now she couldn't shake the feeling that she had somehow impressed Andrea on a different level. One of the many qualities Miranda valued in Andrea was that she had never seemed like a love-struck puppy, eternally chasing the figurative pat on the head. There was respect, but it wasn't immature or disrupting, as it had been with Emily. Andrea's reaction to her fire making skills warmed her.
Miranda watched as Andrea parted her lips, and the growing flames bathed her pale skin in warm shades of gold. Her earlier anger at herself, the sense of failure and defeat that had been her constant companions since Paris, were slowly melting away. Andrea hadn't given up on her. She was right here with Miranda, at the very edge of the world. She hadn't judged or complained, but had simply taken care of her.
The realisation of how much she truly needed Andrea didn't frighten Miranda half as much as it should have. She actually felt safe enough to allow it, and when Andrea turned her head and looked at her quizzically, Miranda simply stared back.
"Thank you," Andrea began, "for showing me how to make a fire. I'm not convinced that I will be able to pull it off right away," she grinned, "but at least now I know where to begin."
It floated on the tip of her tongue, but Miranda swallowed back the "You're welcome" and continued staring. Andrea's eyes were quite beautiful, round and a rich brown that almost seemed like amber in the brightness of the fire. Her eyelashes were long and thick, even with just a hint of mascara, and the strands of hair that framed her face had curled slightly from getting wet earlier in the rain.
Unsettled by the scrutiny, Andrea blinked a few times before looking away, and Miranda had to purse her lips to hide a smirk.
"Uhm... I'll go and get some more work done," the younger woman excused herself, and she stood quite abruptly to return to her laptop. The suddenly empty spot by her side reminded Miranda of the inescapable truth that in just six days Andrea would no longer work for her. The loneliness that rose inside her at that thought hurt nearly as much as hearing from the mouths of her children that she was no longer desired as a parent.
Miranda gazed down at the folded hands in her lap, and for the first time since leaving New York, she thought about the future. The divorce was uncontested and would be finalised within the next few weeks. Her mission to sue Irv and the board of directors, however, could potentially drag out for months, creating plenty of paperwork and necessary correspondence with her lawyers.
Not to mention The List of faithful followers, who needed to be contacted, so she could use them as leverage against Irv. She would need a personal assistant, and she hoped she could talk Andrea into taking the post. She would pay her twice as much as Elias-Clarke had, maybe even three times the amount. Anything to convince the younger woman to stay with her just a while longer.
And if she had to be the one who built the fire every day, so be it. Miranda grabbed the poker and pushed the logs into a better position. Andrea dreamt of becoming a writer, and being a personal assistant didn't exactly facilitate that career, so Miranda would need to give her time and space to freelance.
The sense of purpose seemed to breathe life back into her veins and it startled her. Could it really be that simple? Miranda looked back over her shoulder at Andrea who sat on the couch, deeply engrossed in her laptop screen, fingers gliding across the keyboard. The sight filled Miranda with confidence and a sense that she was doing the right thing.
It's definitely worth a try, she thought, and the warmth from the fire suffused her body, no doubt colouring her cheeks a deep shade of pink.
It was still dark when Andy woke the next morning, and for a few minutes she simply listened as water trickled down the rain pipe in front of her window. The muted murmur of raindrops brushing over pine tree foliage outside told her the weather hadn't changed over night. Andy snuggled deeper into the sheets and willed sleep to return. Facing another day stuck inside the cabin with Miranda did not appeal to her.
She felt conflicted and confused. The Miranda she knew would have wanted to leave Runway with a bang. The last issue with her name on it was scheduled to go to print in two days, but Miranda hadn't even looked at the latest mock-up. And although Andy understood that even a woman as strong as Miranda could lose all motivation when heartbroken over her daughters' rejection, it was a challenge to stay patient and not push Miranda to tend to what remained of her magazine.
So far, Andy had managed to be professional, but she wasn't sure she could deal with any more fire making, or the unnerving extended eye contact. She pulled the sheets over her head and blew out a long breath. It wasn't exactly something she wanted to analyse. She could barely handle a sad and broken Miranda, let alone a Miranda who spent an entire evening sitting by the fire, simply watching her assistant work. At least she had not heard any more sobs coming from Miranda's room during the night.
Andy groaned and turned over to bury her cold nose in the pillow.
Of course Andy knew the answer. She had stayed by Miranda's side when everyone else had left. The choice had been an easy one, and as she looked back she was certain she'd make it again.
Birdsong from her phone's alarm signalled six a.m., and with a final sigh Andy pushed off the mattress and dragged herself out of bed. Cracking her jaw with a couple of uncontrollable yawns, she went about her morning routine in the narrow en-suite bathroom. After a quick shower and a rather futile attempt at straightening her hair in the humid climate, Andy staggered back into the bedroom in search of clothes.
While she got dressed, she contemplated a quick morning walk in the rain. Miranda wasn't likely to be up yet, and Andy decided she could use a bit of fresh air to clear her mind. She pulled an aubergine cashmere vest over her head and quietly left the room.
Miranda, however, was already awake and fully dressed, prodding at the beginnings of a fire in the living space. Andy stood at the top of the open staircase for a while and watched the older woman work in silence. There was something odd, but at the same time comforting about seeing Miranda do a task so basic and - clichéd or not - masculine.
"Are you just going to stand there and stare, or will you go and make yourself useful in the kitchen?" Miranda said without looking up.
I guess that makes me the female in this equation, Andy thought.
The urge to roll her eyes and her natural instinct to counter the gender bias were suddenly pushed aside by a sharp fixation on the word equation. It caused her to blush, and she mentally scolded herself for drifting off into dangerous waters so early in the day. There was no "Andy and Miranda". They weren't friends. Five more days and Miranda would no longer be a part of her life. With the heaviness in her heart slowing her steps, Andy descended the stairs.
"Uhm... sorry. I thought that you'd still be asleep," she mumbled glumly.
"Don't be absurd, Andrea. It's nine o'clock in New York by now." Miranda turned around to look directly at Andy, fire poker dangling from her fingers. "Why would I lounge around in bed when there's still so much to do?"
Andy's heart began to beat faster at the playful tone, and with sudden relief pouring through her belly like warm cocoa, she studied the woman in front of the fireplace. Miranda's shoulders were straight, her eyes bright, and her lips held a lively smirk that filled Andy with hope.
"M-much to do? You mean...?"
Miranda rolled her eyes and moved to hang the fire poker back at its spot on the wall.
"I have a video conference with Nigel at seven-thirty. I need to go over the book until then."
She walked over to the dining table where her laptop was already booting up.
"So," she paused for a moment and smirked again at Andy before sitting down. "Coffee."
Limbs startling awake, Andy jumped into action.
"Of course! Sorry! Yes!"
During her months at Runway Andy had learned quite a few quick and easy low-carb breakfast recipes, and while the coffee maker was gently humming through the quietness of the morning, she pulled out a frying pan and raided the fridge for ingredients. After placing everything on the counter she poured hot milk into the cup of fresh espresso and carried the coffee to the table.
"Here you go. The food will be done in five minutes," Andy announced, trying hard not to sound too cheerful as she set the steaming cup next to Miranda's Macbook.
Eyes wide from shock at the extremely uncharacteristic phrase, Andy hurried back to the kitchen counter and quickly whipped up the eggs. Miranda had somehow changed over night. The defeated, mourning woman of the previous few days had been replaced by a Miranda who was pro-active and hard-working like her old Snow Queen editor-in-chief persona, but who at the same time did things like smirk at Andy and say "thank you".
Andy's heart had not yet calmed and she was buzzing with energy as the reality of this new and improved Miranda slowly settled over her. For the first time since Paris she was filled with a sense that things would be all right, and elation flooded her chest, lifting a weight off her shoulders that she hadn't known was there. Fighting the urge to whistle, she concentrated on breakfast and tried not to grin.
By seven a.m. they had eaten, and they quickly settled into that active buzz early mornings tended to bring. They were seated across from each other at the large dining table and their keystrokes clacked into the quiet dawn as they typed away on their laptops. Andy had downloaded a digital version of the mock-up, and although Miranda usually preferred going over a hard copy, she was deeply focused on making the necessary corrections to the final issue.
Andy looked over the edge of her screen to watch the older woman for a while. The dark rings under Miranda's eyes were still there, but they appeared less profound and she had applied some light make-up. Nothing she'd wear at the office, but rather the soft palette usually reserved for evenings at the townhouse. Completely engrossed in her work, she occasionally bit her bottom lip and tilted her head from left to right before leaning forward and vigorously typing notes about what she wanted changed.
It calmed Andy to see Miranda in charge like that. The fact that they were sitting at a solid wood dining table in a cabin on the rainy Pacific coast didn't take away from the feeling of professionalism that filled the air.
A chime that signalled the arrival of new mail drew Andy's attention back to her own laptop.
"Your lawyers want to know whether you'll be back in New York to sign the final divorce papers next Thursday," she informed Miranda while typing the beginnings of a reply email.
When no answer was forthcoming Andy looked up from her screen and found Miranda gazing out the window. The dark and wet morning held the older woman's attention for quite a while and Andy waited patiently for her to come to a decision. Miranda's lips were pursed and Andy wondered whether it had been too soon to bring up Stephen and the failed marriage. However, when Miranda turned back around there was no sadness in her eyes.
"No. I don't think I will," she said, looking directly at Andy. "Make a new appointment for the first week of January."
With a nod Andy scribbled down some notes and then opened Miranda's schedule.
"And when you're done, contact the owner of this cabin and book it for the remainder of the month. Change the payment from Runway's expense account and use my personal funds instead."
Andy looked up, startled, but Miranda was already focusing on her work again.
Crap! She thought.
What would Miranda say when she found out they were staying for free? The idea that Miranda should remain at the cabin while Andy was forced to leave made her feel uncomfortable, but she couldn't exactly come out and say that she had planned to stay here after her time as Miranda's assistant was up. Her good mood had almost completely evaporated, and when a few seconds later her phone buzzed and she looked at the caller ID her mood turned dark.
She stood, excused herself and quickly walked towards the veranda.
"What the hell do you want?" She barked into the phone as soon as she had closed the doors behind her. It was incredibly cold outside and she could see her breath crystallise in front of her. The angry fire in her veins, though, kept her warm.
"Andy, Andy. What's with the hostility?" Came the smarmy voice from the other end of the line.
"Oh, I don't know. How about I'm pissed at you for conspiring against my boss?" She said, trying hard to keep her voice level.
"Conspiring? Oh don't be so dramatic, Andy. Jacqueline offered me an editing job and I accepted. Besides, it was time for the Dragon Lady to move on." Andy's hand curled into a fist. "You of all people should know how insane she is. I mean, you worked for her. I'm still surprised you lasted that long."
"Work," she hissed through clenched teeth. "I work for her."
"What? You're still with her? But wasn't she fired in Paris?" He sounded confused.
"I don't know how it's any of your business, Christian, but her contract runs until this Friday and she's still finishing the January issue."
"And if that's all, I would like to get back to work." She was incredibly annoyed by his nerve, and quite relieved she had cancelled their dinner date in Paris. Spending an evening in the company of such a self-important man right after being confronted with the sacrifices Miranda had made for her career would have enraged her.
"Seriously, Andy. Why are you still working for her? What about your future? What about your writing career?"
That gave her pause. Christian Thompson was an award-winning author and remaining on his good side would probably be beneficial. Still, that didn't change the fact that he was an ass.
"Listen, Andy. I know that a recommendation from Miranda will get you some job interviews, but do you really want to start in the bull-pen of some crummy newspaper when I can offer you a junior editor position right away?"
"Yes. I did read some of those articles you sent me. You've got talent, Andy. You were the first person I thought of."
Andy had the sinking feeling that she was demolishing all the highways to her dream career, but she gripped the phone tightly and replied as calmly as she could, "Stay at Runway and work for you? Not a chance!"
Christian laughed, but his tone was humourless.
"Don't be stupid, Andy. I will only make this offer once. Your British colleague girl already works for Jacqueline, and most of Runway's core staff is staying as well. Nothing would change except that you'd earn more and you'd actually get to write."
"Emily works for Jacqueline?"
She knew she shouldn't sound so surprised. After all Miranda had destroyed Emily's dream of going to Paris for Fashion Week by picking Andy instead. Still, the idea that the senior assistant would so readily betray Miranda left her with a bitter taste in her mouth.
"She practically jumped at the offer. In fact, she arranged the refurbishing of Miranda's old office just this morning, and she seemed really driven by the fact that Jacqueline only needs one assistant."
"No doubt," Andy rolled her eyes, but her stomach was in knots. She didn't like that people were touching Miranda's things and changing everything in her office when Miranda, present or not, was still editor-in-chief for another five days. Unacceptable.
"So. Yes or no, Andy?" He sounded impatient and she wished she could somehow smack him through the phone line.
"No. Never!" Despite her attempts to sound calm she was quite worked up, and her voice rose in pitch when she continued, "I'd rather move to Newfoundland and write for the Gammy Bird than work for you or Jacqueline."
And with that she hung up.
Adrenaline had her ears ringing, and the cold, moist air burned her lungs as she swallowed it up in big gulps. Her hand began to hurt and she slowly relaxed the grip on her phone. Had she just made the biggest mistake of her life? Her parents would certainly think so. Not for the first time they would harshly judge her for a career decision. Then again her parents would be even more angry about the place she was currently at and the person she was with.
Andy closed her eyes and slowly exhaled through her nostrils. The pounding in her head gradually eased as she concentrated on her surroundings. Nothing was as calming as the sound of rain and the tide coming in, gently pushing against the shore wave after wave. In the distance she could make out a bald eagle's call, and the scent of pine needles and moss almost made her cry.
She shook herself and blinked away the small drops of mist that had gathered on her lashes. The light of dawn barely broke through the fog that came from the mountains and rolled down toward the coast, and now that her anger had lessened, Andy felt the chill of the morning creep beneath her thin blouse and vest. With a final deep breath she looked at her phone and hit speed dial number three.
"Don't tell me she's rescheduling the video call?" Nigel sounded slightly harassed, but his familiar voice soothed Andy.
"Oh, no no. I just need to ask you a favour, Nige." She felt apologetic, but the urgency of the matter pressed her on.
"For you, Six, anything," he drawled and she could picture his smile on the other end.
"I need you to get Miranda's private things from her office before those barbarians trash everything. Get the photographs of her girls, the prints by Meisel and Leibovitz and all her art books. I know you're already doing so much, but this is really important. I can't stand the thought of them disrespecting her even more, Nige."
"Doll, don't worry your pretty little head! It's already done. Lucia helped me move everything into my office last night, and Roy will pick up the boxes this evening."
Andy exhaled in relief. "You're a lifesaver, Nigel."
"It's the least I can do, Six," he said thoughtfully. "Thanks to Miranda I got my dream job, and I'll be out of here by the end of January." The sigh he released sounded happy, if a little tired. "How is she holding up, by the way? I was pleasantly surprised to get her message this morning."
Andy looked through the window into the lit cabin where Miranda was taking another sip from her coffee. For a small moment she savoured the hot liquid, eyes closing and her head tilting to the side ever so slightly, before she bent back over her laptop.
"I don't know, Nige. It was quite bad for the past few days, but today she seems all right. Driven, actually." Andy shivered and she pulled up her shoulders against the cold wind that played at her collar. "She's going over the book right now, which is quite a relief."
"That's good news," Nigel murmured. "Any idea what brought on the sudden change?"
"I have no idea," Andy replied and it was the truth. "Whatever it is, I'm glad she's back."
Nigel was quiet for a while. Then he cleared his throat and said, "and I'm glad you're with her, Six."
With another glance at Miranda, who at that moment turned to look back at her with familiar impatience, Andy sighed.
"So am I, Nige. So am I."
Miranda glared at the blinking cursor on her laptop screen, the bright background of the empty text document causing her eyes to burn. It was late in the evening and her shoulders ached from the busy day. Her hunger for perfection had often kept her up in the past and long work days had been a common occurrence. Spending all day hunched over a computer was different, however, and she could feel it in her bones. She closed her eyes and turned her head, exhaling sharply as the strained ligaments in her neck stretched.
She leaned back in the armchair and looked toward the couch where Andrea had fallen asleep. The notebook on the younger woman's stomach rose and fell with deep, even breaths, and for a while Miranda just sat and watched her slumber. Over the past few months she had learned that Andrea did indeed possess the work ethic she had so vehemently advertised during her job interview almost a year ago. Nonetheless, the amount of effort the young woman had put into helping Miranda with her last issue today had far exceeded even her wildest expectations.
Of course she would not admit to fear, but Miranda had been worried when she had seen the unrealistically small number of staff Irv and Jacqueline had left her with. Miranda was not the kind of person who would easily give up, but getting this issue of Runway-the last one she would likely ever work on-done on time had been daunting. And Andrea had helped her tremendously.
With the entire writing staff already assigned to the new editor-in-chief, Miranda had welcomed Andrea's capable mind to try and alter the tone of some of the articles. Nigel and Lucia had taken care of colour changes and an entire photo series that had mysteriously gone missing, and at the end of the day the four of them had achieved what a full team could barely produce in a week.
The only thing left was Miranda's final editor's letter. She had already written one in Paris, of course, Fashion Week being one of her prime resources of inspiration, but the recent circumstances called for something entirely different.
Reluctantly she pulled her gaze away from her assistant and glared back at the blank screen in front of her. Words completely eluded her. She was simply not ready to give up Runway. Not like this. Not when she had so much left to give to a world she had helped shape for so long. Any opening sentence she could come up with sounded like a farewell, and with a frustrated groan she relented and closed the laptop.
As painful as it was to admit, Miranda knew there was not much she could have done to keep the magazine. The directors of Elias-Clarke and the company's shareholders had the final say in who ran which publication. Several times in the past she had succeeded in thwarting their attempts of replacing her. Now, it seemed, her lucky streak had finally ended.
Maybe she should have been better prepared. Had she become a victim of tunnel vision, too distracted by details to see where the road she was on was headed? If she was truly honest with herself, she could not deny that she had felt her power slip for some time now. And she had held onto it with too much desperation, which had left her vulnerable.
Wasn't the same true for her private life?
Her perfectly constructed family situation that had silenced rumours and had allowed for a more sturdy position in her dealings with Irv in the past, had crumpled right before her eyes and she had been too preoccupied to notice.
How many times had Stephen tried to renegotiate their terms? He had been civil about it at first, but once he had begun to drink again, Miranda's patience had waned, and she had put all the blame on him. And her darling daughters had complained of never seeing her, of missing her. Instead of making more time for them she had sent Andrea on missions for extravagant presents.
Miranda's eyes stung and she rubbed her face, willing the lump to disappear from her throat. She did not want to cry again but exhaustion made it almost impossible to fight the tears.
Sleep, she thought. I need to go to bed.
Weakly massaging the back of her neck she stood and put away her computer before quietly walking up to Andrea. The younger woman looked almost peaceful, were it not for the deep frown on her forehead. The fire had died down and its emanating orange glow could not hide the dark shadows below Andrea's eyes that Miranda knew rivaled her own.
A strange sense of fellowship stirred inside her and for a moment Miranda allowed herself to bask in it. The feeling gave her back some of her strength and her tension began to recede.
Not for the first time she found herself appreciating her assistant's beauty; the elegant slope of her neck, her long lashes and those full lips any cosmetics brand could only dream of hiring for their lipstick advertorials. Gazing down at Andrea, Miranda briefly mourned the things she had sacrificed for her career, the decisions she had made to get ahead. As she stood in the semi darkness she played with one or two scenarios in her head. What if she were a lot younger? Or less bound by her industry's double standards?
She sighed heavily.
But I am where I am, she thought, and my tired, old mind is just being silly.
Fingertips that itched to brush the bangs from Andrea's forehead moved to the side and gently prodded a shoulder.
"Andrea," she whispered, mindful of not startling her. "Andrea. Wake up."
"Hmmm," the brunette murmured, drunk with slumber.
"You shouldn't sleep on the couch," Miranda said quietly when eyes fluttered open and focused on her.
"M-miranda!" Andrea stuttered as she abruptly sat up. "I'm so sorry. I can't believe I dozed off." She blinked and looked around in confusion. "Do you need anything?"
"Yes. For you to go to bed."
"Huh." Andrea stared at her groggily. "Uhm, what time is it?"
A large yawn tore through the younger woman.
"Is there anything else I can do for you, Miranda?" She asked while rubbing her eyes and standing from the couch. "A tea perhaps?"
"No," Miranda said, ghosts of the scenarios in her mind cheekily whispering a different answer in her head. "Just go. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Okay." Andrea mumbled as she drudged towards the stairs. Up on the second floor she paused and leaned over the banister.
And with that she disappeared into her room, leaving Miranda alone in front of the rapidly cooling embers of the fire.
"Goodnight, Andrea," she whispered, crossing her arms and hugging herself.
Andy threw herself into the huge pile of pillows with a giggle. She squeezed the softness in her arms and nuzzled the fabric which smelled of gingerbread and chocolate. Burying herself deeper, she purred, feeling warm, safe and so, so comfortable. There was no way she would ever move again. Exhaustion slipped away, and she closed her eyes and hummed happily.
The pillows in her arms squirmed and then hugged her back, rubbing against her skin in soothing motions. It did not surprise her one bit when she opened her eyes that instead of a pile of cushions she found Miranda squished tightly against her body. Andy smiled and she rubbed her cheek against Miranda's, inhaling deeply and then sighing in relief as strong arms held her close. It was pure bliss.
"You feel so good, M'randa," she mewled into the swell of a breast, tensing her arms and legs around the body that made her feel so at home. Fingers brushed through her hair and scratched the back of her neck as lips touched her forehead, tiny kisses filling her chest with a sense of pride and accomplishment.
"Who's a good girl?" She heard Miranda coo, which caused her to purr again and she curled up and pressed her whiskers into Miranda's neck, the praise causing the hairs on her back to stand up and her long tail to curl.
Then all of a sudden Miranda moved away and idled somewhere on the horizon. It took Andy a while to fight her way through the pillows and hurry after Miranda. Running was difficult, and she kept falling over her own legs, her goal moving further and further away. A long hallway stretched out before her, black and white tiles distorting as the walls began to swirl.
Andy stopped running and decided to use a horse instead, which made a lot of sense when you really thought about it. She had to hold on tight to the wood as the knight piece swirled through the hallway, continuously moving two squares up and one to the side. It was not the most comfortable means of travel, but she did seem to get closer to Miranda. All she could think about was curling up against her again. The softness was all that mattered.
She reached the end of the hallway, and after jumping down from the knight piece she reached for the door. The door knob was warm and she pushed into the room beyond. The heat that greeted her caused her to break out in sweat, and suddenly she was surrounded by flames that danced with the tall velvet curtains as the floor beneath her bare feet began to melt.
"Miranda!" She tried to scream, but no words came out. Panic squeezed her throat when thick, black smoke rose from all sides and swallowed her up.
Andy opened her eyes to darkness and her heart pounded so quickly that she had difficulty breathing. She pushed away the duvet and shivered at the sudden chill. Her nightshirt was completely drenched. Inhaling big gulps of air, she tried to calm down. It took a while for the terror in her heart to subside, and she sat up to listen to the quiet cabin and the persistent rain.
She had not had a fire dream in years, but as her body rapidly cooled in the night air, she remembered all too well the anxious feeling these nightmares used to leave her with. Still slightly disoriented, she turned on the bedside table lamp and glanced at the time. It was just past five a.m. and she briefly considered going back to sleep. Experience had taught her, though, that she would just fall back into terror as soon as she closed her eyes. Not to mention that she really needed a shower. With a shiver she rose from the bed and padded into the bathroom.
When she looked into the mirror, she barely recognised herself. Her hair was stuck to her forehead, and the lines under her eyes had gotten a lot darker, whereas her skin had taken on a shade so much paler than usual. She felt tired and hollow, and the miserable pull at the corners of her mouth certainly did not help to make her look more alive.
Sluggishly Andy stripped and turned on the water. As soon as it had reached an acceptable temperature she stepped under the spray, and it took a few minutes until she finally stopped shivering. Her heart slowed, and she allowed her body to relax as warmth cascaded over her. It reminded her of the part of her dream that had not been bad, the part where she had felt safe and happy. It was a bit hazy, the fear towards the end still overpowering all other emotions. But a good feeling lurked somewhere in her subconsciousness, and she held on to it, hoping that at some point she would remember it more clearly.
For now she basked in the shower, scrubbing her skin and massaging shampoo into her scalp to wake herself more fully. It helped pull her body away from the panic of her dream and into the mellow reality of the early morning. After she turned off the water she wrapped a towel around herself and walked back into the bedroom to get dressed. Sighing, she knelt down in front of her suitcase. There were not many clean clothes left, and Andy knew she had to do laundry at some point. She couldn't help but snort at the idea of asking Miranda for her unmentionables to fill up the washing machine.
Now that would be awkward, she thought.
It was funny how after just three days at the cabin with Miranda Andy felt a lot more at home than she had during the last few months of living with Nate. Being needed and useful felt good. Andy sensed that Miranda wanted her there, and it filled her with pride and a sense of accomplishment. As she pulled out a pair of black corduroy pants she tried to keep her thoughts from touching on the subject of her future, but she failed.
Coming to the island had been the only thing that had seemed sensible. Of course bringing Miranda along had not been planned, but for some reason it felt like it was meant to be, as much as it had complicated things. Andy trembled as she remembered her predicament. Miranda wanted to stay at the very place that was supposed to be Andy's refuge for the next few weeks.
She fought the heaviness that pulled at her cheeks, refusing to cry. Leaving Miranda was inevitable. If Miranda wanted to stay, Andy had to go. It was that simple. The drying water drops on her arms and legs caused her to shudder, the brief warmth from the shower long forgotten.
"Ugh," she groaned quietly, pushing the heels of her palms against her eyes.
Tears would not do. Today was the submission deadline for Miranda's final Runway issue, and Andy still had a job to do. She pushed off the floor and got dressed, her mind clinging to the last four days she would still get to spend with Miranda.
The living room was cold and dark, but Andy did not feel up to the challenge of lighting the fire on her own, and it made her feel even more pathetic. Dragging the blanket from the back of the couch over her shoulders, she booted up her laptop. She switched on the small lamp on the side table and curled up against the arm rest, balancing her computer on her knees. At least she would be able to get some more work done after falling asleep on her boss the previous night.
Surprisingly, her office mail account was devoid of new messages. She had figured that her decision to remain by Miranda's side had caused her to be removed from all the internal distribution lists as Jacqueline had taken over, but not even Nigel had written her. She blew against her bangs and stared into the blackness outside the window. It was only eight-thirty in New York, so maybe he would still contact her later.
With nothing else to do, Andy reluctantly opened her personal email. She ignored a message from Nate with the subject "pick up your books" and one from Douglas that was titled "where are you?" until she spotted an email from her father. The subject line had been left blank and that was never a good sign. For a while her eyes just bore into the sender name and she chewed on her bottom lip, hesitant to open the message. She had not heard from her family since she had left New York, and now this sign of life glared back at her ominously. Her fingers fidgeted with the edge of the blanket and she shook from the sudden chill that crept up her spine.
A door creaked upstairs and she heard Miranda pad across the landing.
"Andrea? Why on earth are you sitting in the dark?"
Miranda's voice soothed over some of the anxiety in Andy's heart.
"Oh, uhm," she straightened her back and turned around to watch Miranda descend the stairs. "I didn't want to wake you."
"Don't be silly," Miranda said softly as she switched on some more lights. "You will ruin your eyes this way."
She could not remember the last time someone had shown concern for her well-being, and having Miranda mention something even remotely into that direction caused Andy to instantly feel better. She closed her laptop and got up from the couch.
"Are you hungry?" She asked, folding the blanket. "I can fry up some bacon."
"No," Miranda said, regarding her thoughtfully for a moment. "Coffee will do for now."
Andy nodded and hurried into the kitchen while Miranda walked to the hearth and began to build a fire.
They spent the next few hours working in silence again, soaking up the warmth from the fireplace and sipping first one, and then a second morning coffee. Dawn rolled in and presented them with yet another dreary day of endless wind and rain, and Andy realised that it was beginning to effect her mood.
At least she had something to do, and she welcomed the calming repetition of verifying the contact details of a list of people which Miranda had handed her earlier. Every now and then she caught the older woman gazing at her, lost in thought, and for once in her life Andy was glad she did not have to write. She knew Miranda was trying to come up with her last "Letter from the Editor", and clearly she was struggling.
Somewhere around ten Miranda got up from her chair with a heavy sigh. Andy was ready to jump to her feet as well, but Miranda held up a hand and nodded toward the window.
"I'm going for a walk."
"Uhm... okay," Andy said in confusion. Miranda wanted to go outside? In this weather?
"Take my jacket," she offered. If Miranda wanted to clear her head at least she could do it without getting sick.
"You must be joking! That thing is absolutely hideous," Miranda looked scandalised.
"Yes, but it will keep you dry." Andy retrieved the rain jacket from the coat rack near the main entrance and handed it to Miranda. "It will stop the wind too."
Miranda just regarded the item of clothing with disdain.
"And what in heaven's name made you pick that colour?"
Despite the fact that Miranda's tone carried a pinch of humour at the significance of this particular shade of blue, Andy cringed.
"I didn't have much choice. It was either this or bright yellow."
The older woman crossed her arms, still not entirely convinced.
"I didn't want to walk around looking like a banana," Andy whined and she almost stomped her foot which appeared to amuse Miranda, a smirk slowly appearing on her lips.
"The saltwater will ruin your Prada coat, and the Donna Karan trench is useless against the rain," Andy tried again.
Miranda held up her hands in defeat.
"Oh alright then," she sighed. "If you insist."
And so Andy found herself helping her boss, whom she still considered the Queen of Fashion regardless of recent developments, into a cerulean blue Northface jacket. When Miranda turned back around Andy had to fight the urge to zip her up. It felt almost as if she was sending a child out to play in the rain.
"Something funny?" Miranda asked mockingly.
"Oh no, no," Andy smiled. "Just... this colour," she continued, folding her hands behind her back to keep them still. "It looks nice on you."
Miranda just snorted and pulled up the zipper. Thankfully she had brought more sensible footwear, and as she slipped into a pair of Armani leather boots, Andy distracted herself by rinsing out their coffee cups.
"Oh, by the way," she said when Miranda was already at the door. "The beach out front is private. It belongs to the cabin, so it's unlikely you'll bump into anyone."
"Good," Miranda said before slipping out onto the veranda and briskly descending the steps into the garden. Andy looked after her, feeling a strange mixture of loss and elation. She could not help it; she had begun to really like Miranda.
Of course, there had been a certain degree of adoration ever since Andy had stopped resenting fashion and everything it stood for. And she definitely had a huge amount of respect for everything Miranda had accomplished. Nevertheless, something else was blooming in the pit of her stomach. Perhaps it was the codependency created by their situation, or the fact that Andy had a history of becoming emotionally attached to female figures of authority. She felt a sense of kinship, a bond that, be it one-sided or not, filled her with warmth and gave her hope.
She took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders before returning to the couch and to her laptop with a spring in her step.
"Might as well make use of all this positive energy," she mumbled to herself as she loaded her personal email account.
Her father's voice echoed in her mind as she read his message, word after discouraging word. It appeared that her parents had been surprised by how instead of going back to Ohio to grovel at their feet, Andy had disappeared without a trace. Her mom had contacted Nate-something which left Andy with an especially bitter taste in her mouth-and rather than being worried, her absence had caused her parents to grow angry. How dare she ignore their phone calls and not reply to any of their messages?
Andy growled at the screen. It had been them who had abandoned her. They had criticised her for her loyalty to Miranda and had pulled all financial aid in order to blackmail her into leaving. And had her father not made it perfectly clear that her failed relationship with Nate was entirely her fault? It hurt that her parents chose to side with the ex-boyfriend, particularly since they had no idea how she and Nate had been growing apart for a while already.
"Ugh," she balled her hands into fists. The anger helped drown out the sadness her father's words had caused. Part of her wanted to phone her parents right away to give them a piece of her mind, but rational thought held her back. Nothing good could come from lashing out.
Exhaling in frustration she fell back against the cushions. What the hell am I going to do?
She was startled by her ringing cellphone. The display only said that the call was diverted from Miranda's number, so Andy knew she had to answer.
"Mom?" A small voice whispered. "Mommy?"
Andy's eyes grew wide and she quickly sat up as she realised whom she was talking to.
"No, this is Andy, your mom's assistant. Your mom went outside for a walk. Which one are you?"
"I'm Caroline. I really want to talk to Mommy." There was a hushed sob, and Andy's heart clenched at the sound.
"Well, I could get her for you if you like. Just hold on a few minutes, okay?"
"No!" Came the panicked reply. "Dad and Cassidy won't like it when they find me." Caroline sniffed. "I'm hiding in the closet. But I really want to talk to Mom. I miss her."
The girl was most definitely crying and Andy jumped up without much thought. She hurried through the door and into the rain.
"Hang on, Caroline!" She breathed as she ran. "Stay on the line as long as you can, okay?"
"O-okay," the girl hiccuped.
Raindrops and wind whipped against Andy's face, but she pressed on, stumbling over rocks and roots as she raced down the uneven path to the shore. It felt as if she was running into a wall of icy water and yet all she could think about was Miranda's expression when she would be able to speak to her daughter.
"Andy!" Caroline whispered, sounding worried. "My dad is looking for me. He's calling my name."
"Oh sweetie. Hang on just a while longer, okay? I'm almost there."
She took a shortcut and burst through the bushes onto the sand where she spotted Miranda about fifty yards away.
"Miranda!" She yelled, causing the older woman to turn around, an annoyed face peeking out from beneath the cerulean hood.
On the other end of the phone Andy heard a door being opened and a male voice spoke, "Caro, what are you doing in here? Who is on the pho-," and then the line was cut.
All purpose evaporated, Andy slowed her sprint and came to a stop a few feet away from Miranda, her chest burning from exertion, her clothes plastered to her skin and the wind freezing her relentlessly.
"Andrea, have you lost your mind?"
The furious look on Miranda's face was a blow to Andy's heart, and her knees buckled from the adrenaline crash and sudden disappointment. She felt incredibly silly. Here she stood on her socks in the wet sand, her sweater and pants drenched and her hair a complete mess.
The pulse pounding in her ears tuned out everything else, and clutching her cellphone tightly, Andy fell on her knees, sobs finally breaking through the barrier and completely consuming her.
Miranda gazed out at the restless waves and watched a buoy dance in the distance. The rhythmic chiming of its bell was so familiar by now. She tasted salt and her cheeks were wet from the rain and ocean spray. An icy wind blew sea foam across the sand and bent the tips of the tall Douglas firs lining the rocky shore. Miranda, however, felt warm and safe in Andrea's ridiculous jacket.
She pressed her lips against the high collar and pulled up her shoulders. Yes, everything about Andrea was ridiculous. Her warmth and kindness. Her naivety. The eagerness to please and impress. And of course, her pretty face and those beautiful eyes that had kept Miranda awake all night and had equally prevented her from concentrating all morning. But what was the most ridiculous of all was the fact that Miranda appeared to no longer be able to suppress this attraction to the younger woman.
In the past months she had allowed room for the occasional indulgence, fleeting fantasies and stolen looks disguised as brief, judgmental glances. Being in Andrea's presence for this long, however, uninterrupted and without the distractions of her busy career, had caused Miranda to slip. And with all the pain and disappointment of the past week she could not say that she minded.
Exhaling sharply, she pushed her hands into the jacket pockets. Her fingers brushed against something hard and she grabbed it and pulled out a set of keys. A piece of carved wood was attached as a keychain, and it took a while until Miranda realised that she was looking at a very clumsily made chess piece. A knight, to be exact.
What an ugly thing, she thought as she turned it from side to side.
The carvings looked as if they had been made by a child, and she presumed the misshapen knight piece belonged to the cabin. After all, it wasn't so strange that a vacation home filled with wooden sculptures and indigenous paintings would have a creative guest key. And again she wondered how Andrea had come by this intriguing place on such short notice.
She placed the keys back in the pocket, and closing her eyes, she once more faced the ocean. The Pacific felt so different from the Atlantic. Even through this storm and the endless rain there was a sense of stillness surrounding her. It truly was the edge of the world, and Miranda blinked against the water and looked back out at the horizon.
Staying on the island for a while longer to escape the mayhem of her changed world felt like the right choice. It would help her regroup her thoughts and come up with a proper plan to make Irv and the board of directors pay. Although, first she would need to finish writing her letter of the editor; a task which had proven to be unbelievably tricky. Every word she had typed so far had felt meaningless. An untruth.
Miranda gazed at the sand. Thick, rubbery cables of sea kelp lay tangled in heaps like lifeless snakes, their roots having been torn from the ocean floor by the storm. She had been equally ripped from everything she knew and thrown into unfamiliar territory. But as she stood in the rain, taking deep breaths through her nose and swaying along with the wind, she understood that she was not lost.
She may have been uprooted, and it was true that she had struggled against some brutal currents. However, now she realised that she had reached shallow waters, and she only needed to lower her feet and walk ashore into a new life. The almost giddy feeling of relief forced a smile upon her lips. The last year at Runway had been a constant battle. Her power had been slipping for a while, and yet she had pushed and pushed, desperately holding on as the reins in her grasp had worn thin. It had been absolutely exhausting.
Lightness poured through her as she now felt all of that tension and anxiety fall away. Perhaps the idea of 'moving on' was not that far fetched after all. An entire world of opportunity lay before her. She only needed to reach out and grab it.
Immediately she thought of her girls, and for the first time in almost two weeks she did not feel sadness. Determination filled her, the same sense of purpose she had experienced when the task of making Andrea remain by her side had become of substantial importance. With the pressure of captaining the world's number one fashion magazine being lifted off her shoulders, she felt like things were a lot less complicated than they had seemed for so long.
Miranda looked up at the grey sky and allowed a small laugh. She finally knew what to write in her editor's letter.
Suddenly she was pulled from her euphoria, and turning her head in annoyance at the disruption, she saw Andrea racing across the beach. The younger woman was not wearing shoes or a jacket, and her clothes were completely drenched. A phone pressed to her ear, her face suddenly fell, and she slowed down and stopped a few feet in front of her. The colour drained from Andrea's cheeks and Miranda felt herself panic. What on earth had happened?
"Andrea, have you lost your mind?"
Out of breath and her body shaking, Andrea looked crestfallen. Tears brimmed in her eyes, and Miranda was reminded of a time many months ago where making Andrea cry had actually been her goal as a means of self-preservation. Back then, seeing the effect of her words had not made her feel any better, but watching Andrea falter before her now was absolutely devastating. Miranda's heart burned.
She felt utterly helpless when Andrea sunk to her knees and broke into violent sobs. Rain had soaked the wool of Andrea's sweater and caused it to hang heavily off her shoulders, and wet strands of hair clung to her cheeks and forehead. She looked rather pathetic the way she was hunched over in the sand and shook like a wounded animal.
It was the moment Miranda realised how deeply she cared for this silly creature, and everything finally fell into place. For a while she just stood in wonder, carefully allowing the truth of her feelings to wash over her along with the rain.
Over the past decade she had worked so hard to close off her emotions and needs. Only with her daughters had she allowed affection to interfere with her actions, even if in hindsight it had not been enough. The part inside her that longed to be with another woman, however, had been put in chains when it had nearly cost her her career years ago. She had surrendered to live an existence based solely on structured rules, permitting only a few controlled fantasies during sleepless nights. But she had prided herself in her ability to function without love, content with how easy it had been to keep people at bay.
But that had all been an illusion, had it not? Because Andrea had gotten in.
Miranda stepped closer, driven by instinct and free from reservation. She bent down and placed a careful hand on Andrea's left shoulder.
"Andrea, get up," she said softly. Whatever had happened, she would deal with it inside the cabin where it was warm and dry.
"I'm so s-sorry..." Andrea sobbed, and Miranda could feel her tremble beneath her palm.
"Andrea," she began again. "I need you to get up and come back inside." For emphasis she squeezed the shoulder, noting how bony and tense Andrea was.
"B-but," Andrea hiccuped, "I wasn't f-fast enough." She looked up, rain and tears mingling on her lovely cheeks, and the abundance of emotion in her eyes tugged harshly at Miranda's heartstrings.
"What are you talking about?" Miranda whispered as she squatted down. "Not fast enough for what?"
"Ca-Caroline," the younger woman sobbed. "She wanted to t-talk to you, but then they f-found her and she hung up."
Miranda's gut clenched, and her fingers dug firmly into Andrea's shoulder. "My daughter? Is she alright? What happened?" A dozen horror scenarios played out in her mind as her pulse raced with worry.
"She wanted to speak with you," Andrea sniffed and wiped at her tears. "She was afraid her father and sister," she hiccupped again, "that they would scold her if they found out she missed you."
The vice grip she had on the younger woman loosened, and Miranda took a deep breath.
"That is all? Nothing bad happened to my babies?"
Andrea slowly shook her head, looking sheepish. "I promised her I'd get to you on time. But I wasn't fast enough," she repeated, and fresh tears rolled over her reddened cheeks. "I know you haven't spoken to them since they left."
She looked away, her hands balling into fists on top of her knees as she continued in a whisper, "I wanted you to hear her voice... if even for a second." She paused before adding, "I know how much you miss them."
It was difficult to breathe with all the emotions flooding Miranda, but they made her feel alive. She reached out and gently tugged at Andrea's chin.
"Andrea," she spoke softly, tasting the cold, salty rain as it ran down her own face. "Look at me."
Hesitantly, shiny brown eyes locked with hers, and Miranda could not help but smile.
"You silly, silly girl," she said, and she brushed some messy, wet strands away from that lovely face. A pout was forming on Andrea's lips and she furrowed her brows at Miranda, but her tears had stopped, and Miranda smirked.
"Come," she stood and extended her hand. "Let's get inside before either one of us catches a cold."
Andy hugged her knees tightly to her chest as she watched steam rise from the hot bathwater. She allowed the warmth to slowly engulf her while attempting to make sense of the chaos in her head and in her heart.
She raised her hand out of the water. Droplets trickled down her wrist and fell back into the bath in rhythmic drips that echoed loudly within the otherwise quiet room. Staring intently at her palm, Andy revelled in the wondrous, still lingering feeling of Miranda's hand within her own.
After a horrid night and an emotional morning of facing her parents' resentment, the added stress of having thought she'd disappointed Miranda of all people had caused her to fall apart. It had felt as if the ground had been pulled from beneath her feet, a deep chasm opening up and threatening to devour her.
And yet, instead of plunging into darkness, she had found herself tethered to light by Miranda's firm grip.
The numbness in the pit of her stomach from her father's email still remained, however it was now enveloped in a fuzzy cloud of hope, which so far proved nameless and elusive, but it was there, holding her together.
Leaning back, Andy submerged herself fully in the water until only her face and her knees were above the surface. Her heart pounded loudly in her flooded ears, and her eyes became unfocused as she remembered the smile on Miranda's lips when she had helped her off the ground. She knew she had to avoid getting even more attached to Miranda than she already was, but as she replayed their silent walk back up to the cabin over and over in her mind, she realised it was too late.
Miranda was in her heart.
Andy sat up with an abrupt splash that spilled water over the edge of the tub. She suddenly remembered the details of her dream from before it had turned into a nightmare. That feeling of warmth and happiness she had experienced when curling her feline dream self into Miranda's body now resonated deep within her belly, causing her pulse to race and her eyes to widen. The heat of the bath quickly became too much, and she grabbed at the edges of the tub and clambered out, water dripping down her legs and onto the varnished wooden floor.
She wrapped herself into a towel and stared at the fogged-up mirror above the sink. Bracing for shock to set in, she was surprised when instead of panicking, she felt oddly calm. For a while she just stood there, tentatively tasting the truth on her tongue by whispering the older woman's name.
Unbidden, a smile stretched over her lips, and she quickly hid her face in her palms.
I have feelings for Miranda.
The revelation made her anxious to get dressed and hurry back to look at Miranda with new eyes. Yet at the same time it terrified her, because the fact that she would have to leave in just three days gripped her heart with merciless claws and squeezed. Hard.
She pulled on her clothes as euphoria and glumness battled for dominance. Of course, nothing romantic could ever happen between them, but maybe there was a way that Andy could remain by Miranda's side a while longer. Worrying her bottom lip as she towel dried her hair, Andy imagined possible scenarios that would allow her to stay, but all of them included telling Miranda the truth about the cabin, which was something she definitely wanted to avoid.
Once her hair had been pulled into a messy, damp bun, her hand idled at the door knob. She had to take several deep breaths before she found the courage to leave the bathroom, and when she finally made her way across the landing and towards the stairs, her steps were hesitant and quiet.
Miranda was not down in the living space, but in the kitchen, standing behind the stove.
"Uhm," Andy asked while pulling nervously at her sleeves. "Miranda, what are you doing?"
The older woman turned around, and the smile on her lips gave Andy butterflies.
"Oh, there you are." Her gaze followed Andy down the stairs. "I was wondering whether you had drowned."
"I think I might have," Andy breathed, and she walked over to the kitchen island, attempting to keep her eyes from lingering on Miranda's face for too long. "Are you actually standing there... cooking?"
Miranda rolled her eyes and turned back to the stove. She turned off the gas and retrieved a porcelain bowl from the cupboard.
"I can cook, you know." The hint of humour in her voice made Andys cheeks burn. "But if it makes you feel any better," she poured something smooth and creamy into the bowl, "I've only warmed up a can of soup."
She placed the dish in front of Andy and reached for a spoon.
Andy was dumbstruck, but her instincts to follow Miranda's every command had her automatically reach out for the offered cutlery, and she meekly parked her butt on a barstool and began to eat. Miranda sat down beside her with a bowl of her own, and soon they ate in silence, only the occasional slurp and careful blow to a hot spoon disrupting the quiet.
Adhering to its fabled qualities, the chicken soup ran down Andy's throat and warmed her belly like a balm. Together with the familiar drips and trickles of the rain the hot meal soothed her nerves. Her mind slowly settled around what Miranda meant to her, and as they continued to eat, Andy occasionally stole a curious glance at the woman across from her.
There were minor changes in Miranda's demeanour, but Andy could not say for sure whether they were due to her own altered perception, or actually caused by the older woman's determination to see the last issue of her magazine finished on time. Her body language was no longer defensive, and she sat at an angle, her body turned towards Andy. Fingers loosely curled, her left hand rested on the island counter, not far from Andy's bowl, and there was something unguarded and open about her expression.
When their eyes met Miranda merely arched a brow, her lips pulling into a tiny smirk before they gracefully closed around another spoonful of soup. Fascinated, Andy watched as the spoon slowly slipped back out and the tip of Miranda's tongue licked at the corner of her mouth. When she saw Miranda swallow, Andy was not prepared for the reaction of her own body, veins tightening and the breath catching in her throat. She felt her cheeks flush and quickly averted her gaze.
"Uhm," she mumbled, eyes glued firmly to her food. "It's really good, thank you."
"I prefer your cooking," Miranda replied quietly, and Andy looked back up, startled.
She searched for hints of sarcasm in the older woman's face, but could find none. Miranda just appeared to study her, thoughtfully tilting her head to the side as her eyes travelled over Andy's face in return. There was something in the air between them, unobtrusive, idling. A stillness that warmed Andy with its familiarity. Miranda was still the same person. Finally understanding the true shape of her fondness for Miranda simply enabled Andy to explore those grey areas she had previously ignored.
Carefully, she allowed her past concern and sympathy for Miranda to mingle with the profound affection she had only just discovered in her heart. The result was a sense of completeness that reverberated deep within her bones, flooding her entire body and making her feel alive. She realised that she had been so caught up in her stressful daily routines, struggling to hold on to insincere promises of love and friendship as the world around her had crumbled, that she had not even noticed how miserable she had become.
As Andy continued to gaze into Miranda's eyes, she felt that misery evaporate, slowly, like a dozen veils being lifted, one at a time.
Something in her expression must have shifted, because Miranda suddenly looked away and stood, carrying her bowl to the sink. With her back toward Andy, she cleared her throat and said, "I talked to Jeremy."
She turned around, her silhouette framed by the grey, rainy afternoon outside the window.
"The girls are both fine."
Her tongue ran over her teeth behind closed lips in that way it always did when she was weighing her words, pride, vulnerability or excitement obstructing fluent verbalisation.
"They are out for the afternoon, but Jeremy will make sure that they will call again as soon as possible."
Euphoria bloomed in Andy's chest.
"Miranda, that is wonderful news!"
A smile crept onto Mirandas lips, tentative at first, but soon it grew into a full blown grin.
"Yes. It is."
She took a deep breath and shrugged her shoulders before walking into the living area where she picked up her laptop and sat down in the armchair by the window. It was left unspoken, but Andy knew that Miranda did not want to get her hopes up. There was a fair chance that the twins would not want to phone, or that Miranda's ex-husband had lied.
And there it was. The harsh reality pricked holes into Andy's skin, deflating her, draining almost all the positivity from her body. Miranda was straight. She had ex-husbands. And besides that, it was beyond unlikely that a woman of her status, of her intelligence and worldliness, would ever look at Andy as something other than an employee. Even if their current situation lured Andy into believing otherwise.
Glumly, she pushed off her seat and brought her bowl to the sink. As she washed their dishes, she heard vigorous typing in the background, and the knowledge that Miranda was finally getting somewhere with her "letter from the editor" still caused Andy to smile. She understood that above all else she wanted Miranda to be happy, for that fire to return to her eyes when she did something she loved. The fact that Miranda would not return her feelings did not take away from the intensity of the emotions in her heart.
Determined to make the best of it and to be there for Miranda, no matter what, Andy finished cleaning and proceeded to make some fresh coffee.
Miranda was not entirely indifferent, that much she knew. As she waited for the coffee maker to finish, Andy gazed down at her hand, flexing her fingers as she remembered the way Miranda had behaved at the beach. People did not think Miranda capable of kindness, but Andy had been aware that it was there, floating beneath the surface and reaching out only on rare occasions.
Andy stroked her fingertips along her chin, the ghost of Miranda's thumb brushing just below her lips rousing renewed flutters in her chest. At least now she had clarity. And who knew, maybe she would even manage to somehow remain in Miranda's life. There was nothing she wanted more.
She carried their cups to the sitting area, quietly placing one onto the small table with the chessboard as to not disturb the engrossed older woman, before returning to the couch. As she settled under a woollen blanket and pulled her Macbook onto her lap she paused, confused.
Thinking back at her hurried dash from the couch into the rain, Andy did not recall closing the laptop. Then again, it was not like she had paid attention to anything other than getting the phone to Miranda, so she just shrugged and opened the computer. Her father's email reappeared on the screen, and she took a deep breath before clicking the reply button.
For a while the blinking text cursor taunted Andy, her disappointment and feelings of abandonment refusing to shape into words. She was not even entirely sure whether there was anything she could say to her parents that would appease and calm them without her having to outright lie. The fact that they were siding with Nate stung more than anything, and the more she thought about it, the angrier she became. They had never really liked him before, blaming him for her decision to forego Stanford Law in order to pursue journalism and follow her high school boyfriend to Chicago.
She absently traced the edges of the keys on her keyboard and thought back at the years she had spent with Nate. He had been her best friend, but if she was honest with herself, she knew that whatever bond they had once shared had already begun to wither before they had moved to New York City.
Her cheeks grew heavy with sadness when she came to the conclusion that there were many different shades of love. She had cared for Nate, and their time together had certainly not been all horrible. But if she had to compare, the memory of what she had once felt for him was a dull, grey wasteland against the lush garden of colour that Miranda evoked inside her heart.
Rubbing her cheeks, she looked across the room at the older woman. There was something so very endearing in the way Miranda tilted her chin upwards and gazed down at her computer through the bottom of her reading glasses, lips parted as she intently read over her handiwork.
Andy had always had a fascination for authoritative, intelligent women, and she wondered whether that should have been an indicator for what she now slowly accepted as a romantic inclination. It had been thanks to her AP English teacher-and not due to Nate's move to Chicago-that she had picked a writing career over becoming a lawyer. And nine months ago, when she had first stepped into Miranda's office, behaving like an arrogant brat, there had been a certain pull. A spark.
Miranda looked up from her laptop and stared directly back at Andy, as if somehow aware of her scrutiny. She pursed her lips in contemplation, before removing her glasses and leaning back in her chair. Daylight had almost completely gone, and merely the glow of the computer screen and the fire still illuminated Miranda's face, casting shadows over her features. She looked so beautiful that it hurt. Andy had to look away.
Suddenly she knew what to reply to her dad, and her fingers flew over the keyboard in practised strokes.
I am happy where I am.
Do not expect me for Christmas Dinner.
She sent it before she had time to second-guess herself, and she closed the laptop. With a shaky sigh, she gazed into the fire, so many thoughts and emotions racing through her mind that they left her numb. It was not even evening yet, but she was exhausted. The fact that she had to somehow find a place she could spend the holidays at was utterly depressing.
Anguish clutching at her heart, Andy let her eyes trail back to Miranda who was still looking at her.
It was whispered softly, barely audible over the crackling fire and the steady drumming of the rain. But the word stood out as if it had echoed loudly through a tall marble hallway. Andy could almost taste it on her tongue, and yet she did not trust its meaning.
Miranda tilted her head to the side and studied the floor.
"Stay." She looked back up at Andy, and even through the darkness her gaze was intense. "Stay here with me."
The reply shot out before Andy could stop it, but when she watched Miranda visibly relax she did not regret it.
"Yes." She repeated a bit more quietly, and her entire body was alight with hope, eyes wide and her chest expanding with deep, excited breaths.
"Good," Miranda said.
"Of course," the older woman continued, her fingers reaching up to play with an earlobe as she looked away again, "I will pay you a lot more than Elias-Clarke did."
Andy's heart sank when she thought that she still only wanted her as an employee, but then suddenly Miranda seemed unsure.
"Unless you would rather not work for me any longer, in which case," she inhaled sharply, eyes darting anywhere but to the couch and its occupant, "we will figure something out."
Anything, Andy nearly shouted.
Instead she said, "I don't mind working for you. I like it, actually."
Miranda looked back at her, eyes shining. "Okay."
They fell silent then, gazing at one another in the darkness as rain kept falling and the fire crackled on. Andy was spellbound, and she dug her fingers into the woollen blanket to prevent herself from collapsing back into the couch cushions with a euphoric scream.
The phone rang, breaking the intense moment, and as Miranda switched on the light next to her chair and reached for the device to answer, Andy carefully leaned back and exhaled.
Andy rested her head on the back of the couch and watched in a happy daze as Miranda finally got to speak to her daughters.
Miranda closed her eyes to savour the sound of her daughter's voice. It had been less than a week ago when she had last seen the twins, but it might as well have been months. She pressed the phone to her ear with both hands and drew in a deep breath, carefully restraining her emotions so that she could speak.
"How are you, my darling?"
"Good," Caroline said. "We went to the park with Patricia, and we had a big ice cream."
"Is that so?" Miranda asked, barely able to keep the smile from her tone. She did not approve of Jeremy letting the girls eat whatever they liked, but she was far too overjoyed that one of the twins had reached out to her, to just push her away again with a stern lecture about sugar and fat.
"Yeah. I had the chocolate-vanilla, but it was too sweet. I didn't like it." The girl then continued in a whisper, "Cass had two portions and now she has a tummy ache."
That was typical of Cassidy; knowing how their mother felt about ice cream, and to overindulge just to make a stubborn point.
"That's okay, baby. Sometimes people need to learn their lesson the hard way."
She thought about how true that rang for herself. Gaze drawn by the dying fire, she pondered on how her pride and stubbornness had blinded her recently, when in her heart she should have known better. As a result she had lost everything. Well, almost everything. She looked over to the couch where Andrea was resting her head on the cushion, staring straight ahead through lowered lashes.
"Where are you, mommy?" Caroline asked.
Miranda rubbed the back of her neck, weighing her words. "I took a little vacation, darling." She couldn't very well tell her daughter that she had practically run away.
"Are you all alone?" the girl whispered, sounding worried.
"No, Bobbsey," Miranda replied as she watched Andrea stifle a yawn, the sight warming her heart. "I'm not alone."
"Is Stephen with you?" Caroline then asked, disdain apparent when she said her step-father's name.
"Of course not. Bobbsey, I told you we are divorcing." Miranda shifted in her chair, puzzled. "Why would you think that?"
"Uhm... the way you said... never mind." The girl fell silent.
"I'm with Andrea." The younger woman looked up at that and locked eyes with Miranda. "Remember mommy's assistant?"
"The Harry Potter one?"
"Yes." Miranda smirked. "The Harry Potter one."
Andrea quirked an eyebrow, and Miranda felt her smirk stretch into a full blown smile.
"She's okay, I guess," Caroline said, and she trailed off, remaining quiet for a few moments.
After a while she whispered, "I'm sorry, mommy."
Miranda's stomach clenched at the words, and her fingers flew to her lips to hold back a sob.
"Cass is still angry with you, but I'm not."
"Oh, darling..." Miranda's thumb caressed the phone. She wished she could just take her daughter into her arms.
"When will we get to see you again?" Caroline asked with a sniffle.
"In a few weeks, baby. After the Holidays." That time could not come soon enough.
"Will you be done with your vacation then?"
"Yes. I think I will."
The stillness of the evening in the cabin made thoughts of returning to Manhattan seem surreal and alien. But as much as Miranda felt she wanted to stay at this peaceful place, she knew she would have to return to New York. There were things she had to do; people she had to see. She just wasn't ready yet.
"I gotta go now."
Miranda looked at the time and calculated that it was past nine p.m. back home. Her daughters had school the next day.
"Go on to bed, darling. You can call me again tomorrow if you like."
"Okay." Caroline yawned. "I love you, mommy."
"I love you too, baby." She swallowed against the lump in her throat. "Both of you."
And with a click Caroline was gone.
Miranda held onto the phone for a while longer, the sudden silence accentuating the separation from her girls like a thick pen tracing the lines of barely healed wounds. Although she felt hopeful after hearing her daughter's voice, some of her earlier anguish returned, and she had to take a calming breath to prevent tears.
The fire had shrunk to a few embers, and Miranda could feel the cold seeping into her bones as she glanced towards the couch. Andrea had fallen asleep, her face half in shadow, chest rising and falling with restful, even breaths. She had to be utterly exhausted. Physically and emotionally.
Eyes wandering to the closed laptop on the younger woman's legs, Miranda felt slightly guilty for having read such a private email. The screen had been left open, and when Andrea had taken her bath Miranda had not been able to resist. She had been convinced that Andrea would not simply break down from not bringing her a phone quick enough. There had to have been more going on. And she had been correct in that assumption.
Andrea had not talked about her personal life since Paris. But all the information that Miranda had collected over the past months had come from eavesdropping on her two assistants' conversations, and Andrea had never actually shared such details with Miranda herself to begin with. Miranda was, after all, known to loathe idle chatter that was unrelated to the tasks at hand. However, now that she had realised how fond she was of the younger woman, curiosity and the urge to know as much about Andrea as possible had pulled her forward.
Reading how Andrea's father had put down his daughter, belittling her life choices and threatening her with consequences if she did not return to Ohio, had shocked Miranda. Andrea's family appeared to not know her at all. How could they be so unaware of her talents, of her potential? Miranda had never before put much thought to what Andrea's life must be like, taking the cheerful, intelligent and very competent assistant completely for granted. But when learning that Andrea had basically lost everything in her life as well, her job, her family and her home, a sense of protectiveness had stirred inside Miranda.
She had also wondered about the fact that neither Andrea's parents, nor the ex-boyfriend, seemed to have an idea where she was. Of course Andrea was an adult and in no way required to inform anyone of her whereabouts if she did not wish to, but it struck Miranda as uncharacteristic and odd for Andrea to make her parents worry. Miranda knew, though, what it felt like when everyone abandoned you, and she conceded that Andrea had equally needed to escape, to get away from perceived failures and disappointments.
But despite all the pain she must have been going through herself, Andrea had stayed by Miranda's side, had taken her somewhere calm and safe. Not once had she complained, or let on how her own life had shattered, and Miranda felt ashamed that she had not noticed.
For a while she watched Andrea sleep, mindful that it appeared to have become a new habit. Andrea was exceptionally beautiful. Miranda had always found women pleasing to the eye, but what made Andrea so different was that Miranda could see the person inside shine through, like bright sunlight filtering through leaves. The few areas that remained hidden, carefully shielded from view, intrigued Miranda like nothing else.
Andrea stirred, a hand slipping from where it had rested on her knee, and she slowly blinked her eyes open.
"Hmmm," she stretched and sat up. "I'm sorry, I fell asleep. Again."
"That's okay," Miranda said softly, and Andrea's eyes widened at the uncharacteristic phrase. Miranda was not sure whether she should be amused or hurt by the younger woman's surprise. "You can make up for it with dinner."
A smile graced Andrea's lips, masking some of her exhaustion, and she nodded and rose from the couch.
"No problem. Leave it to me!"
Miranda rolled her eyes, but smirked in return. She rubbed her arms and stood to get the fire going again, only to find that they were almost out of wood.
"Andrea," she called, causing the younger woman to turn around from the fridge. "Is there more firewood?"
"Oh, yes. In the shed next to the driveway." She closed the fridge door and grabbed the set of cabin keys from the kitchen counter. "I'll go get some."
"No, no." Miranda stopped her. "You cook. I'll get it." She adored the smirk that appeared on Andrea's face.
"Okay," the younger woman held out the keys. "Here. It's locked."
Their fingers brushed, and Miranda felt the tingle from the brief contact race down her arm and straight to her belly. She longed to touch Andrea properly, to caress her, to embrace her, but the desire slumbering behind her emotions flashed like a big warning sign. Having just secured Andrea's presence in her life for a while longer, she did not want to risk pushing the younger woman away. Pretending that she was not affected would take some effort, but she wanted Andrea to trust her, maybe even enough for them to become friends.
She took the keys and walked to the entrance area to put on the cerulean rain jacket, before slipping into her boots and reaching for the door.
The wind had died down, but rain still fell, and Miranda hurried over to the shed where she wrestled with the padlock. It appeared to be stuck and the key would not budge. The light from the driveway was barely bright enough to see what she was doing, and her frustration quickly grew.
"Would you open already," she hissed, feeling water run down the back of her neck.
She pulled the hood over her head and tried again, but her fingers were cold and slippery and she dropped the keys.
"Oh for god's sake."
When she bent down, she suddenly heard loud barking that drew closer, fast. She looked up and found herself blinded by light.
"Can I help you?"
Miranda grabbed the keys and stood, shielding her eyes until the person finally lowered their flashlight. An older lady with an umbrella and a large dog walked up to her, cocking her head in question.
"Who are you?" Miranda shot back, wary of the stranger and the still growling dog-an aged malamute by the looks of it.
"I'm Marie. I live next door," the woman replied. "Are you... you're the woman staying with Andy?"
Miranda pursed her lips, but she realised that this was probably the person whom Andrea had rented the cabin from.
"Yes," she said, subconsciously wiping rain from her lips. "I came to get more firewood, but the key does not appear to work."
Marie signalled the dog to stay put, before stepping closer.
"Oh yeah, the lock's a bit rusty." She held out her hand, and Miranda gave her the keys. "You gotta jiggle it. Like this."
With a click the lock sprung open, and Marie removed it from the door. "There you go."
"Thank you," Miranda replied, and she hurried out of the rain and into the shed where she found a big stack of dry wood.
After loading a couple of logs onto her arms, she emerged and nodded her thanks when Marie replaced the lock and dropped the keys back into her hand. Miranda wanted to dash back to the cabin, but she got the feeling that Marie still wanted to get something off her chest.
"So... how is Andy coping with everything?" She said after a moment, and Miranda squinted in confusion. How could this woman know anything about what Andrea was going through? Had Andrea really shared such information with a stranger?
"Erica's death came as a shock to all of us," Marie said, sadness clearly visible on her face. "And I remember Andy being very close to her."
The dog padded closer, and Marie absently scratched behind its head when she continued. "I know Andy stopped coming here about fifteen years ago, but before that, she spent every summer at the cabin."
Miranda did not know how to respond.
So Andrea knew this place from her past? And who was Erica? Miranda felt silly for not knowing what Marie was talking about. The fact that Andrea was keeping so much from her made her anxious.
"Andrea is coping... in her own way," she answered, and to her astonishment Marie simply nodded.
"Yes, I can imagine. She's a strong girl. Always has been." The dog took that moment to shake the rain from his coat, and Miranda stepped away out of reflex.
"I'm sorry about that," the other woman said, and she patted the malamute on the head. "We should probably get back. Come on, boy."
Marie turned to leave, but looked back at Miranda one last time. "You take good care of her, now." And with that she walked back up the gravel path and disappeared through the trees.
Thoughts racing, Miranda stood frozen to the spot. Images appeared in her mind of a young Andrea running through the cabin on bare feet, a smile on her face; of her playing at the beach in the sunshine, laughing, and being close to whoever that Erica woman had been. Miranda snorted when she realised she was being silly, but that did not stop the jealousy in the pit of her stomach.
Then she remembered the firewood in her arms, and she hurried back to the cabin. She took a moment to pull herself together under the small roof that shielded the entrance from the rain.
Andrea probably had good reasons for keeping such secrets, and it was not like she had done anything wrong. There was no obligation to share her life story, and grief was something so raw and personal that Miranda knew she had no right to feel offended. With a final breath of the cold, moist air, she reached for the door and stepped inside.
As had become common between them, they ate their dinner in silence, which gave Miranda time to bring order to her emotions. Curiosity still tugged at her resolve, but she had decided to wait until Andrea would open up on her own. In the meantime she would try to distract the younger woman, and with Runway-related work out of the way, she had to come up with something else to do.
When they had finished their grilled chicken salad and Andrea carried the empty plates to the sink, Miranda's eyes fell on the set of keys, and she suddenly had a plan. She fiddled with the keychain until the misshapen wooden knight came loose.
"Andrea. Play a game of chess with me," she said, and the younger woman turned her head to look over her shoulder from where she was rinsing the dishes.
"Uhm," She appeared daunted by the suggestion. "Sure. Should I make some coffee first?"
"Yes. That would be lovely," Miranda replied, and the apparent confusion on Andrea's face at her polite tone made her smile. She took the knight and walked over to the chessboard.
The clumsily carved piece looked out of place among its white companions, but it nonetheless completed the set. Miranda took a seat in one of the two armchairs and studied the white queen again, mesmerised by the smooth lines and the attention to detail. None of the other figures were as intricate, and she wondered whether that had been done on purpose.
Andrea brought over the coffee and sat down opposite Miranda. When she saw the ugly knight, the younger woman paused and emotions flittered across her face.
Could it be that in the same way Miranda had seen herself in the white queen, Andrea saw herself in the knight? A piece that did not belong with the rest, that stood out like a sore thumb, because it was different? Whether you were considered extremely beautiful or utterly hideous; it did not make a single difference when you ended up standing alone.
Andrea had come to the fashion world as sort of an "ugly duckling", dressed in unfortunate clothing that had done little to reveal how naturally pretty she was. Many of her colleagues had shunned her and talked behind her back, much as they had talked about Miranda, if for different reasons. And beneath the surface, both of them were made from the same wood; the white queen and her knight; the fallen editor-in-chief and her loyal assistant. The poetry of the similarities made Miranda smile.
She opened her mouth to share her clever observation, but when she looked up she found Andrea's eyes brimming with tears. Her shoulders were shaking from the effort of trying not to cry, and Miranda's stomach turned at the sight. What was happening? Andrea did not really think of herself as an ugly outcast, did she? Was she not aware of how strikingly beautiful she was?
Trembling fingers reached out to stroke over the white queen and then over the knight. Andrea could no longer fight it, and a first tear rolled down her cheek, following its gentle curve down to her chin where it formed a heavy drop that fell onto the wood of the chess board with a dull splatter.
"Andrea," Miranda whispered, her chest filling with compassion. Although not alien, the feeling burned her with an intensity she had never experienced before.
"Andrea, what's wrong?"
When shiny, dark eyes looked up at her, Miranda gasped at the pain she found in them. More tears painted wet streaks down Andrea's face, and Miranda's hand twitched, wanting to reach out and tenderly wipe those gorgeous cheeks dry. Andrea seemed startled by the brief movement, and she pulled back her fingers, knocking over a few chess pieces in the process.
She stood and mumbled, "I'm sorry, Miranda. I c-can't."
Miranda was overwhelmed by how much her heart ached for Andrea when she watched the younger woman walk back to the kitchen. Confused, she looked down at the chessboard, and her eyes were drawn to the markings at the bottom of the fallen pieces. The clumsy knight had two large letters engraved in equally clumsy lines, but unlike the rest of the set, which were marked with "E.S.", it bore the initials "A.S.".
And suddenly Miranda understood. She grabbed the knight and the queen, and she walked to the kitchen island, where she set the two pieces down on the counter. Andrea was solemnly washing the dishes, no doubt finding the same solace in working that had kept Miranda together for so many years. Miranda could still see her tears in the reflection of the darkened window panes, though, and she knew she wanted nothing more than to ease the younger woman's pain.
"Andrea," she tried again, keeping her voice as gentle as possible.
"Who was Erica Sachs?"
It was a gamble, but it was worth a shot if it meant she could get Andrea to talk. And her intuition, it seemed, had been right.
Andrea's shoulders sagged, and she sniffled loudly before whispering, "she was my aunt."
After a few shaky breaths and hiccups, she went on to say, "This... this cabin... it used to be hers."
Everything inside Miranda tightened as she imagined the painful memories Andrea must have experienced since her return to this place. She swallowed against the lump in her throat and took a step closer, heart drumming wildly in her chest.
"Whose cabin is it now?"
Fingers stilling in the soapy dishwater, Andrea took another breath and said, "mine."
Andy's head was pounding, adrenaline jolting through her bloodstream as soon as the truth had left her lips. Now it was out. And she knew Miranda would be angry, disappointed and feeling like Andy had betrayed her. She had not brought her somewhere safe and neutral after all, and Miranda hated unpleasant surprises almost as much as she hated not being in control. There would be repercussions. Andy felt herself deflate, internally recoiling and bracing for the storm that was about to come.
Foam from the detergent dried on her skin just above where her hands rigidly floated in the hot water, and she tried to focus on the tickling sensation as the rest of her body grew numb with defeat. Her eyes burned with fresh tears and her vision blurred, the rainy night before her turning to blackness that offered no refuge. Through the reflection in the window she watched Miranda walk closer, and with a racing heart, Andy closed her eyes, preparing for the worst.
Miranda stopped so close behind her that Andy could feel the heat of her body pulsate against her back. A small puff of air was blown against her neck when Miranda shakily exhaled, and for a few long seconds they remained utterly still. Andy held her breath, awaiting the deadly whisper, the words that would cut her in half, but Miranda did not speak.
Hands suddenly gripped her shoulders. They slipped down and across her chest, arms winding around her like prehensile vines. Yet before Andy could feel like prey that was about to be throttled, Miranda pressed her body close and lay her chin on Andy's shoulder.
Andy stood frozen, confusion causing her mind to run in circles around the fact that instead of scolding her, or demanding an explanation, Miranda was actually hugging her.
She could feel the swell of breasts against her back and Miranda's nose brushing the side of her throat. Her eyes fluttered open in disbelief, searching for confirmation in their reflection. As she drank in the image of them together, her gaze locked with Miranda's.
"Andrea," came the softest whisper against her skin, and Andy felt herself tremble.
Her hands shot up, and she splashed water everywhere as she bent her elbows and wrapped her palms tightly around Miranda's arms. She knew her fingers were wet, but the need to participate in the embrace, to show Miranda that it was welcome even if her lips could not form the words, was overwhelming. She clung to her, eyes wide and tears rolling freely when Miranda began to gently sway her back and forth.
Thumbs stroked over her hands, trailing patterns over her tense fingers, and finally Andy relaxed. She leaned back into the touch, only briefly removing one hand to wipe at her cheeks, before letting out a shuddering breath.
How long had it been since someone had held her like this? Hugs were often used in casual greetings among the people she had once called her friends, and of course Nate had embraced her on occasion. But as she allowed herself to fully become aware of Miranda against her back, those arms pulling her so close that she felt Miranda's heartbeat against her shoulder blade, Andy had to admit that her friends and family had never been able to anticipate when she required a hug, let alone embraced her this perfectly.
Of course, she could not be entirely sure of Miranda's motivations, but she sensed no anger in the older woman's grip, and the contact felt much too wonderful to be ruined with doubt. After all, Miranda had begun to treat her differently ever since they had come here, so perhaps the thought that she cared about Andy on a deeper level was not so strange. Was this a potential friendship? Andy sure hoped so.
She felt very tired. The last time she had been this emotionally drained she had been merely a child. Her mind still only ghosted along the vague outlines of those memories, unwilling to wake all the demons of her past at once when all she wanted right now was to curl herself around Miranda and go to sleep.
Miranda's scent engulfed her. The hair brushing Andy's cheek smelled of the forest and of rain; the even breath against her ear of coffee. She could feel the muscles in Miranda's arms flex under her palms when the older woman briefly tightened her hold before warmly whispering against her skin, "would you like to talk about it?"
Andy took a deep breath, feeling their joined arms rising and falling as her chest expanded, the pressure giving her courage. She squeezed Miranda's arms and nodded.
When Miranda carefully disentangled herself, the sudden loss of contact had Andy feeling bereft and cold. It was almost cruel. But then she was turned around and led to one of the barstools at the kitchen island, a hand pressing gently against her shoulder.
"Sit," Miranda said, and she took a seat on the stool right next to Andy, turning to the side so they were facing each other.
"Your aunt...," she asked while reaching for a napkin and offering it to Andy. "She passed away recently?"
"A few months ago," Andy replied quietly, a lump building in her throat as she slowly let in the memories. She remembered receiving the news, arguing first with her parents and then with Nate, and ultimately postponing having to deal with everything by distracting herself with work. It had been around the same time that she had begun to excel at her job and Miranda had stopped calling her "Emily".
She used the napkin to dab at her tears, before looking back at Miranda.
"You...," she swallowed, "you're not angry with me?"
"Why on earth would I be angry with you?" Miranda seemed genuinely puzzled.
"Because I lied to you... about this place," Andy said weakly. She was captivated by the softness in Miranda's face, by how her eyes shimmered in the low light.
"I never asked you about this cabin, did I?" The older woman replied with a forward tilt of her chin. "And to my knowledge you never expressly told me that we were renting it, either."
Andy shook her head, and she gazed down at her hands, her emotional turmoil now joined by the lingering effect of having just had Miranda's arms around her.
"So, you see," Miranda continued, "you did not lie."
"I guess," Andy sighed. "I still feel bad, though. You're sort of on my turf." She grimaced at the word, but technically it was the truth. "And I should have told you." With a nervous bite to her bottom lip, she tried to convey her sincerity through her eyes. "I'm really sorry."
"Apology accepted," the older woman breathed, and Andy's gaze was drawn to her lips, the sensation of that delicate mouth breathing against her neck still fresh in her mind.
Stop it, Andy!
Miranda was being kind. For some reason she seemed to actually care about her, and Andy knew she had to be careful not to reveal her... what? Crush? Attraction? She was not even sure what her feelings meant, but risking this new closeness between them was completely out of the question. It was much too precious.
For a while her fingers cautiously traced the edge of the island counter, until her eyes fell on the two chess pieces. She picked up the knight and studied the initials at its bottom.
"I made this when I was ten."
Fondly, she rolled the figure between her fingertips, caressing the crooked lines from its ears down its mane.
"I remembered it being less deformed, though."
"I think it has a certain... charm," Miranda said, and Andy caught her smirking.
"Well yeah. For a ten-year-old brat with a pocket knife this is real craftsmanship."
For a moment Andy's thoughts lingered on the fact that one and a half decades ago Miranda had already been captaining Runway for five years, while Andy had not even reached puberty yet, still caught up in summer dreams of swimming with whales and hunting for cougars. She gingerly set the knight back down and tried not to dwell on the age difference between them.
"At least it looks somewhat like a horse," she snorted.
Miranda leaned to the side and rested an elbow on the counter. She placed her chin on her palm and thoughtfully gazed at the knight.
"It was attached to the keys." Her eyes flicked back up, stirring flutters in Andy's belly. "Why?"
"I'm not really sure," Andy admitted hesitantly.
After taking a few shaky breaths she continued. "Last August I received a letter from my aunt's attorney, informing me...," she tried to suppress a sob, but failed, "that she had passed away, and that I... was her sole heir."
Heavy tears rolled down her cheeks again, and she rubbed at them, wincing when she felt how irritated her skin had become.
"The keys were in that letter, together with the deed to this land." She looked down at the white queen, unseeing due to the tears that clouded her sight. "The thing is... for fifteen years I thought she wanted nothing to do with me... that she hated me."
And suddenly Andy was overwhelmed by the grief she had not allowed herself to feel for four months. It crashed over her like an avalanche, swiping her off her feet. She could find no grip, her emotions tumbling uncontrolled, pulling her down.
"Only to find out that it had been my parents...," her voice broke when she continued in a whisper, "... who had kept her from contacting me."
"Andrea," Miranda said so very quietly when she stood and reached for Andy's hand. "Come."
Andy let herself be pulled through the cabin in a daze. Before she knew it they were sitting on the couch, side by side, and Miranda took her into her arms. Fingers began to gently scratch the back of her neck, and Andy sluggishly moved her hands to loosely embrace the older woman's waist.
"All those years," Andy breathed into Miranda's shoulder, "I... I blamed myself."
"Why?" Miranda asked softly. Patiently. "What happened?"
It took a moment for Andy to become calm enough to be able to explain. She tightened her hold on Miranda and snuggled her face against the curve of her neck, deeply inhaling the scent of Miranda's skin.
Encouraged by the warmth and the feeling of safety Miranda gave her, she then allowed herself to whisper. "Something happened... at Christmas when I was ten."
Remembering was something she had always tried to avoid, and since nobody talked about it in her family, and Nate had certainly not cared, Andy had never really dealt with it. Allowing the images back into her mind felt daunting, but Miranda rubbed soothing circles over Andy's back, gently coaxing out the words.
"On Christmas Eve my older sister and I were staying at my grandfather's house back in Cincinnati, while our parents were out," Andy began quietly. "Aunt Erica was supposed to stay with us, because after the death of my grandmother, grandpa had become depressed and unable to look after two pre-teens on his own."
Miranda gently stroked up and down Andy's spine while her other hand still cradled her head, fingers continuing to lightly scratch at the base of Andy's neck.
"They had a fight... my aunt and grandpa," Andy shivered. "And she left."
"My sister and I didn't really need a babysitter, so we just cooked our own dinner and watched TV. When it got late we went to bed. Grandpa didn't pay any attention to us. He just sat in his chair all evening."
She turned her face, resting her temple on Miranda's shoulder to look at the fireplace.
"They said he was burning photos and old letters."
"Dear god," Miranda gasped and she stilled her caresses to hug Andy tightly.
"I woke up to sirens and a room filled with smoke." Andy continued in a whisper. "I remember my sister screaming, but I couldn't see anything. I tried to crawl to the window, but the floorboards were so hot that I burned my knees, and it was so dark...," she trembled, "and I was so scared."
Andy hid her face in Miranda's neck again, needing to purge the vivid smell of burning furniture from her memory.
"Nobody died," she mumbled against soft skin, vaguely aware of how intimate the action was. "But Jill and I had to both be taken to hospital for smoke poisoning and minor burns. And my grandparent's house was completely destroyed."
She felt Miranda release a shaky breath, and out of instinct Andy nuzzled her collarbone and carefully tightened her embrace. Maybe her emotional state was confusing her, but being like this with Miranda felt completely natural. She felt protected, safe and above all, cherished.
"That was the last time I saw my aunt." Andy said softly, tears drying as Miranda's finger resumed the calming caresses at the back of her neck.
"I felt responsible. After all, we had ignored my grandfather all evening, because we had no clue how to deal with a grieving, old man."
Taking a deep breath, Andy melded herself to Miranda, realising how addicted she had become to the feel of her body.
"I thought that aunt Erica blamed me for the fire, and that this was the reason she no longer answered my calls, or my letters, and why I did not get to spend my summers at her cabin any more."
She paused, absently playing with the hem of Miranda's cashmere sweater.
"But she explained everything in her final letter to me. You see... my dad", she swallowed against the lingering anger against her father, "he had forbidden her any further contact with us girls. Specifically me. Jill always spent most of her summers at a ranch in Montana, riding horses. But me... I used to come here."
With a sigh she rested her cheek on Miranda's shoulder, her eyes growing heavy from all the tears and the long, emotional day.
"My aunt was a painter and a sculptor. She designed this cabin herself, and most of the art here is hers as well. I think she was a bit of a hermit, because she loved living a secluded life. But during the summer she always opened her doors and shared her life with me."
"During my last visit she was in the process of making a chess set, and I wanted to help. So she told me to choose my favourite piece, and...," Andy stifled a yawn, "... she handed me a knife and let me loose on a block of boxwood. When I was no longer allowed to come here, she used my knight as a keychain. I think, maybe that way part of me would always belong to the cabin, even if the chess set remained incomplete."
Aware that slumber was slowly creeping in, Andy knew she would have to get up and drag herself upstairs and to bed. However, she had no desire to leave the warmth of Miranda's arms. The current sadness in her heart helped to keep any inappropriate physical reactions at bay, but that did not stop Andy from thoroughly enjoying the affectionate embrace.
She remembered the previous few days, and how much she had wanted to hug Miranda, to make her pain go away with this simple, but effective act of kindness. It would not have worked then, but although Miranda seemed to feel a lot better now, the spark having somehow returned to her eyes on its own, Andy decided that while they were already crossing all sorts of professional boundaries through this intimate, physical contact, she might as well make the most of it.
Her hands wandered up, beginning to slowly caress Miranda's back, and she briefly felt the older woman tremble in response.
"You know," Andy whispered sleepily into Miranda's hair. "My aunt's favourite chess piece was the white queen. I did not quite understand it yet then..." she yawned again, and this time she failed to mask it. "But now I do."
Miranda took a deep breath through her nose and carefully leaned backwards against the cushions, taking Andy along with her.
"I figured out," Andy mumbled as she vaguely felt Miranda pull a blanket over them, "that the white queen is my favourite too."
The gentle, melodious trickle of bird song filtered through to Miranda's subconsciousness and gradually lured her from slumber. As she listened, still barely awake, she noticed that it was the only sound she heard, occasional twitters and whistles breaking through an otherwise surprising silence. There was no wind brushing through the trees around them, no rain drumming against the roof, and not even the steady crashing of waves booming in the distance. After four days of seemingly endless downpours, the absence of constant noise from the elements was unsettling.
She took a deep breath, and as her lungs filled with crisp morning air she felt an unexpected heaviness push against her chest. Blinking her eyes open, she could only make out the vague outlines of the cabin around her, dawn still too young to help her see. However, Miranda did not need to rely on sight to know that she was not alone. Pressed against her under the blanket was Andrea, her warm body pinning Miranda to the couch.
As the foggy remnants of sleep dissipated, Miranda slowly became aware of how their legs were tangled, and even through the layers of their clothing she could feel the younger woman's breasts push into her side. Andrea had an arm wrapped around her waist, and when Miranda turned her head to squint into the darkness, she felt the cold tip of her nose brush against the softness of Andrea's cheek. Her own arms were loosely slung around the slumbering body, and when she carefully allowed herself to revel in Andrea's proximity, she had to suppress the sudden urge to squeeze.
Heat crept over her face as she quietly inhaled through her nose, the mixed scents of shampoo, slumber and something uniquely Andrea causing her to feel lightheaded. A knee was nestled between her thighs with deliciously teasing pressure, but as much as she wanted to give into her instincts, she restrained her hips from grinding against it. Closing her eyes again, she instead attempted to focus on Andrea's even breathing, finding a sense of peace and protectiveness in simply holding the younger woman close.
Miranda knew she could not permit herself to indulge in her physical attraction to Andrea. But whereas in the past she would have distanced herself altogether, seeking safety by avoiding all contact, she now longed to preserve the bond they had formed. It was something wonderfully intriguing and entirely new. She realised that never before had anyone been as selfless and trusting as Andrea had been by bringing her to this place.
People always wanted something out of their acquaintance with Miranda, be it money, favours or fame. But not Andrea, no. At a time when Miranda had needed it the most, the younger woman had swept her away to a place where she could safely lick her wounds and heal, without asking anything in return. And the fact that the cabin held such emotional significance only showed Miranda how much Andrea truly trusted her.
It had taken a while for Miranda to fall asleep the previous night, her mind too busy with thoughts and emotions from hearing Andrea's heartbreaking story. She had learned so much about the younger woman, and the new information had only cemented the growing affection in her heart. In a world ruled by self-serving opportunists and greedy strategists, Andrea was a rare flower, blooming despite the acid rain and the toxic air. Some would call it naivety, but Miranda now understood that Andrea wasn't kind to others due to a lack of knowledge or awareness of how the world worked, but in spite of it.
Miranda had only ever had a handful of close friendships in her life, most of which had not survived her lifestyle and the merciless pace of the fashion industry. Nigel was one of the few people whom she could still count on, since even Stephen, after so many years, had turned his back on her. Miranda knew she was largely to blame for people abandoning her, the strong need for survival inside her erecting impenetrable walls that shielded her from almost any lasting connection. It was something she wanted to absolutely prevent from happening with Andrea.
As dawn progressed, Miranda studied the peacefully sleeping woman in her arms. Andrea looked so young that the excited flutter in Miranda's chest quickly turned to guilt. She felt like a fiend, a predator lusting after an innocent maiden. Why did her heart suddenly want to have a say in things, after keeping quiet for so many years? She knew that she would be able to handle mere sexual attraction by squashing it down, just as she always had. But the added fondness for Andrea created an explosive combination that she found incredibly difficult to control.
Rational thought was of no use, either. She could repeat over and over in her head how Andrea was most probably straight, and how even if she were not, the likelihood of such a beautiful, intelligent woman harbouring anything other than admiration for Miranda was practically nonexistent. And yet those thoughts could not stop the warmth that spread through her when Andrea stirred in her sleep, the arm around Miranda's middle tightening as soft lips pressed against her throat in sleepy murmurs.
She did not take Andrea for someone who was insincere, and from the responses she had seen over the past few days, Miranda deduced that Andrea held at least some form of affection for her. Miranda knew that she wanted to cherish that affection, even if having to suppress some of the physical reactions would pose a real challenge. After all, she was not some teenage boy who could not keep his hormones in check.
Andrea shifted again, and her socked foot subconsciously rubbed against Miranda's own. The featherlight friction travelled up Miranda's legs like a strong electrical surge, and it settled low in her abdomen, causing her to squirm. That movement in return caused Andrea's knee to press firmly between her legs, and with wide eyes, Miranda gasped into the morning.
This would not do.
"Andrea," she whispered, her voice raw. "Wake up."
In her sleep-drunk state Andrea only managed to rub herself more against Miranda, who in turn felt fire erupt in her veins.
"Ugh," she groaned in frustration. "Andrea, you need to get off me. Now."
The younger woman lifted her head and blinked in groggy confusion, until finally their position seemed to sink in.
"Oh!" She started upward, her knee pressing even harder in between Miranda's legs as she propelled herself off the couch. "Oh my god, I'm so sorry, Miranda!"
Closing her eyes and balling her hands into fists barely helped keep Miranda together, but she was able to swallow down a loud moan.
"Did I hurt you?" Andrea continued in near panic, and Miranda realised she must look as if she were in pain.
"No, no... just," she covered her face with her palms. Torn between laughing and lashing out in frustration, she exhaled slowly and rubbed her cheeks, hoping she wasn't blushing.
"Cramp." She sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the couch. "I had a cramp. That's all."
"Oh," Andrea said, sheepishly looking down at Miranda. "Is it better now?"
The early morning yielded no more than a diffuse, grey light, but Miranda noticed how Andrea's hair was a dishevelled mess, her left cheek had press marks from where it had lain on Miranda's knitted sweater, and her eyes were heavy with sleep. She looked utterly adorable, and Miranda had to smirk.
"Yes. I'm fine."
She tugged at her collar and smoothed over her pants. Thanks to the past few stressful months at the magazine, Miranda was not unaccustomed to waking up in clothes she had worn the previous day. It was something she despised, since it left her feeling ragged and unclean, resulting in an almost obsessive compulsive need to get undressed and take a shower. This morning, however, she wanted to keep Andrea's lingering scent on her a while longer, so she just stood and discretely stretched her spine.
"But you know what would make me feel even better?" She raised an eyebrow, and Andrea immediately jumped into action.
"Coffee! Of course, Miranda!"
Once in the kitchen, busy refilling the water of the coffee maker, Andrea asked, "would you also like breakfast?"
Miranda had followed across the room, and as she sat down on one of the bar stools she stroked her chin in contemplation.
"Yes, I think I would like some scrambled eggs." She was rather hungry.
"Coming right up," Andrea smiled.
For a while Miranda watched Andrea work, the sense of domesticity not escaping her. As her assistant at Runway, Andrea had always fetched coffee and brought her breakfast, but here on the island in Andrea's own cabin and with the dynamic between them having so profoundly shifted, the setting felt positively homey. Miranda could imagine the sound of small feet trampling down the staircase, her daughters lured by the noises of food preparation, and she pictured them reading their Harry Potter books on the couch while the adults drank their lattes by the fire.
"Here you go," Andrea grinned when she placed the steaming cup on the counter in front of Miranda. In the dimmed kitchen light Miranda could see that the younger woman's eyes were still slightly red from all the crying, and she recalled the feeling of a distraught Andrea in her arms, clinging to her as sobs had shaken her tired body. Before she realised what she was doing, Miranda reached out and carefully brushed an unruly strand of hair behind Andrea's ear.
Gaze cast downwards, Andrea traced the movement with her own fingers, smoothing down her chestnut locks as best as she could, suddenly self-conscious. Miranda's heart beat faster. She was appalled by her own lack of control, but thoroughly endeared by the small blush that appeared on Andrea's cheeks.
"Thank you," Miranda tried to break through the ensuing awkwardness. "For the coffee."
"It's no problem," Andrea smiled again, but she did not look Miranda in the eye. "You're my guest... in a way." She shrugged and began cracking eggs on the edge of a glass bowl. "Although that still feels really weird."
"What does?" Miranda inquired after taking a first, perfect sip from her coffee. "Me being your guest, or the fact that all of this," she gestured to their surroundings, "belongs to you?"
Andrea scrunched up her face in that unattractive, but completely adorable way. "Both?"
"It's a beautiful place," Miranda said softly, her lips brushing against the porcelain of her cup.
Whisk in hand, Andrea stared down at the eggs she was about to beat.
"You know... when I got the letter from the attorney... Nate wanted me to sell all of this. He said that the money would allow me to quit my job at Runway."
"I'm glad you didn't listen to him," Miranda said, her chest constricting at the thought of Andrea leaving her.
"Well," Andrea began stirring the eggs. "He just saw it as an opportunity for me to stop working at a place and for a person he really hated." Her hands paused, and she looked up, eyes wide, "Oh, sorry, I mean..."
"It's alright," Miranda interrupted, not without an unpleasant burn in her heart. "I'm well aware that most people hate me." She waved her hand dismissively and drank another sip of coffee.
"I don't hate you," Andrea said quietly, her eyes shyly flicking to the side, before she dared look back up at Miranda.
"You're not 'most people'." Miranda replied softly, and her entire being became engulfed in warmth when Andrea answered with a blinding smile. Still fresh in her mind, memories of waking up with Andrea in her arms forced Miranda to avert her gaze.
Luckily, the younger woman quickly focused on breakfast again, giving a slightly flustered Miranda the chance to calm herself with more coffee. The eggs were whipped, seasoned and fried, and soon Miranda and Andrea sat opposite each other, once again eating in silence. After a few forkfuls of food, Miranda felt like the lack of conversation was forced, as if they both tried to adhere to rules that no longer mattered. She thought of things to say, but being horribly inept at small talk, she drew a blank.
"Will you tell me," Andrea came to her rescue, "how you found out my aunt's name?"
"Hmmm," Miranda swallowed her bite of food. "Last night, when I went outside to get firewood, the next-door neighbour came to talk to me."
"Yes." She finished her coffee before continuing, "she asked me how you were coping with Erica's death."
Andrea thoughtfully studied the kitchen counter. "Marie and her husband know me from those summers when I came to visit. They're nice people. When I inherited the cabin, they agreed to keep an eye on it for me until I had time to figure out what to do."
"Does your family know where you are?" Miranda asked, careful to not reveal that she already knew the answer from having read Andrea's private email.
"No," Andrea admitted quietly. "I didn't want them to know. We had a bit of a falling out, because of... stuff."
"Stuff?" Miranda teased gently.
"Yes... well," Andrea dropped her shoulders with an unhappy sigh. "I had broken up with my boyfriend before Paris... and when I returned from France, my future at Runway unsure, he had kicked me out of the apartment, all my belongings crammed into a few miserable boxes that waited for me in the hallway." She snorted humorlessly. "When I asked my parents for help they refused."
Miranda squared her jaw and inhaled sharply through her nose. She had already gathered from the email that Andrea had lost her home after ending her relationship. What she had not realised, however, was that the young woman had been thrown out onto the streets, left to her own devices by people who were supposed to care about and love her.
"Where did you sleep?" She managed to ask, keeping her anger in check.
"Well," the rage inside Miranda quickly abated. "Nigel is one of the very few who can always be counted on."
"Yes," Andrea looked up, and a small smile graced her lips. "He's one of the good guys."
"He is," Miranda agreed.
Outside, a seagull chose that moment to land on the wooden railing of the veranda and disrupted the peace and quiet with a loud shriek. Andrea giggled at the noisy creature, and Miranda was mesmerised by the sound. It reminded her of water trickling down a small, pebbly stream. She knew it was something she wanted to hear more often.
"I think I will go take a shower now," she said, pushing herself off the barstool and out of her reverie. "I submitted the editor's letter last night, so Nigel should call some time today about the board's approval."
"Okay, I will pay attention to the phone then," Andrea confirmed while clearing away their dishes. "I do have to go out for more groceries, though, at some point."
Miranda paused and turned around at the foot of the stairs she was about to ascend.
"You know what?" A finger tapped against her lips in contemplation. "I think I will accompany you."
Of course Miranda did not believe that she needed to go out and be among people again. If it were up to her, she'd gladly forego any forced form of socialisation for months on end. However, she was not too fond of the idea of being separated from Andrea, if even for an hour, and from the beaming smile she received she deduced that Andrea would not be too happy either.
Andy gripped the steering wheel tightly as they drove down the quiet road through the forest. It had stopped raining some time during the night, but heavy mist still drifted through the trees and a layer of clouds obscured the sun. Miranda sat beside her, silently staring out of the window, and Andy struggled to keep her eyes on the road as she repeatedly glanced over.
Waking up and finding herself safely wrapped in Miranda's arms had been like a dream. The lingering numbness from having fallen asleep after such an emotionally overloaded day had gradually been eased away by tentative elation. Not only had Miranda patiently listened to the horrors of Andy's past, she had also held her all through the night without complaints.
Cheeks flushing in the cold car, Andy remembered the softness of Miranda's body beneath her own and how her knee had accidentally pressed into such intimate warmth. Miranda had been surprisingly gracious about the whole thing, masking her shock with fabled cramps and that lovely, crooked smirk that Andy had grown so fond of.
A truck passed them, and Miranda turned her head, causing Andy to sit up a bit straighter in her seat.
"We're nearly there," Andy said breathlessly, eyes searching desperately for signs of the nearby town.
Sitting in the confined space of a car with the woman she felt herself increasingly physically respond to was pushing Andy's limits. The almost tender way Miranda had brushed away that strand of her hair during breakfast played over and over in her mind, the ghosts of the older woman's fingertips still tickling behind her ear. For a moment, Andy contemplated that two weeks ago she would not have thought Miranda capable of such a simple gesture of affection, but once she reflected on her time at Runway, she realised that there had always been a guarded sweetness in Miranda. It had been evident in her interactions with her daughters, sometimes with Nigel, and, as much as Andy hated to admit it, with Stephen as well.
She chanced another side glance and found Miranda gazing back at her, head leaned against the headrest of the seat. At least Andy knew that Stephen was history. And whoever else might come Miranda's way in the future; for now the older woman appeared to concentrate all of that sweetness on Andy. As surreal as it felt, it was hardly something to complain about.
Her stomach clenched when Miranda kept silently studying her face, and Andy blushed again, her cheeks buzzing with heat. A quizzically raised brow made her turn her eyes back to the road, and she had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from grinning. The fact that Miranda had chosen to be genuinely nice to her did not automatically give Andy a license to behave like a fool. She pressed her knees together, took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on driving.
Much to her relief, they reached the first few houses of the small coastal town, and it was not long until they rolled onto the supermarket parking lot. Andy found a spot close to the entrance, parked the car and turned off the ignition, her heart pounding loudly through the ensuing silence. Part of her wanted to flee from Miranda's proximity, the sporadic ticking of the cooling engine almost like a countdown, causing her muscles to twitch in preparation to jolt. When she turned her head, however, she found Miranda still looking back at her with a gaze so intense that she felt chained to her seat. Had Miranda been watching her this whole time?
"Uhm," Andy began lamely. "We're here."
Subconsciously, she had expected Miranda's response, but her breath still caught, leaving her lips slightly parted when she received that lovely, crooked smirk in return.
"So I gathered," Miranda said softly, her arched brow revealing only a hint of mockery.
Her gaze dropped to Andy's mouth, where she halted, the smirk slowly leaving her lips as her cheeks coloured a very subtle pink. Andy's eyes widened, but before she could make sense of what she was seeing, Miranda blinked and turned away, reaching for the door and quickly exiting the car.
What the hell just happened? Andy was confused.
She looked into the rearview mirror to check whether she had some breakfast left between her teeth, but she found nothing. Her mouth was clean and her lipgloss impeccable. Frowning, she grabbed her purse and stepped from the car. Miranda was already striding into the shop, shoulders squared, her back straight. She carried herself with familiar regal bearings, even if her attire was not exactly high fashion.
As Andy watched her disappear into the supermarket, she giggled into her palm, feeling slightly guilty for laughing when she was secretly thrilled that Miranda had insisted on wearing her cerulean rain jacket again. She could not argue the fact that Miranda was less likely to be recognised in jeans and boots, even if they were designer brands. And as much as she enjoyed the older woman in pencil skirts and heels, she thought the outdoorsy look suited Miranda rather well. Glad that Miranda was not around to witness her blushing yet again, Andy shook her head and snorted, before collecting a shopping cart on her way to the entrance.
When she stepped into the building, she found it quite busy for the supermarket of a small town that knew little to no tourism during winter. The cheesy Christmas music that rang from the numerous ceiling speakers did nothing to lessen the noise or heighten her spirits, and Andy felt overwhelmed by the sudden onslaught of sounds, smells and people around her. The few isolated days with just Miranda had spoiled her with their peace and quiet, and she had to close her eyes and take a deep breath to allow the chaos to gradually wash over her.
If she had difficulties adjusting to the pace of the world outside their safe little cabin life, then Miranda was likely finding it unbearable. Worried, Andy looked around, and she pushed the cart past a pile of plastic Christmas trees before she spotted Miranda standing in the vegetable section. Her back was turned to Andy and her head was bowed. Finding solace and time for healing in a place that was pretty much cut off from society was not that difficult, but holding on to the acquired strength as life continued might prove a challenge. There was a real possibility that seeking the confrontation with people again so soon after her breakdown had not been the wisest choice for Miranda.
Fear weighing her down, Andy slowly drew closer. Her fingers curled around the push bar of the cart and images of a broken Miranda, eyes swollen from tears and devoid of that beautiful spark ghosted through Andy's mind.
"Miranda?" She tentatively asked, stopping a foot or so behind her.
At first Miranda did not react, and Andy squeezed her eyes shut in apprehension. She knew that this time it would be a struggle to not take Miranda into her arms. Andy was convinced she would not be able to watch the older woman's pain without showing how deeply she cared.
When she dared to look again, Miranda's head was shaking slightly from side to side, and with a heavy heart, Andy reached out just as Miranda turned around.
"How on earth is anyone supposed to be able to read this?" Miranda complained, eyes squinting at the small jar in her hands, her reading glasses perched low on the tip of her nose. "The writing is tiny."
"Huh?" Was all Andy managed, fingers hovering in mid air.
"Andrea, are you not feeling well?" Miranda asked, glancing at her over the frame of her glasses. "You look pale. Where is that charming shade of magenta from just a moment ago?"
Despite the light tone there was concern in Miranda's eyes, her brows drawing together in a subtle frown. Had she not been holding onto the shopping cart, Andy would have swayed.
"No, no, I'm okay," she breathed, her chest heaving beneath her thick Chanel winter coat. The urge to throw her arms around the older woman was so strong that Andy's toes dug harshly into the soles of her shoes to keep her from lunging forward.
"I'm okay..." she repeated in a whisper, startled by how strongly her body reacted to the piercing look Miranda skewered her with, bright eyes knowingly searching for hints of what Andy so vehemently tried to hide.
"Then I'm sure you won't mind telling me," Miranda tilted her head and ever so slightly pursed her lips, "what it says on the label right here."
She pointed at the jar, and Andy had to blink a few times to jolt herself out of her state of trance. With clammy hands, she reached out and turned the jar in order to read the label, her analytical mind digging through a dozen different interpretations of Miranda's behaviour, but finding logic in none.
"Uhm," she squinted at the small print. "It says the oregano they grow is ninety-nine-point-nine percent organic. No elaboration on the remaining zero-point-one."
"Well," Miranda jutted her chin forward and removed her glasses. "It will have to do."
She took the jar from Andy's hands and placed it in the shopping cart, and Andy was almost disappointed that their fingers did not brush. As Miranda walked away, browsing over the shelves of fresh vegetables, Andy bent over the cart in frustration, her belly pressing hard into the push bar. She wanted to scream.
"Andrea?" Miranda called from a few feet away, holding up some broccoli as her eyebrows arched in question.
"Ugh," Andy straightened and hurriedly shoved the cart to her side. "Sorry, Miranda."
"Ah." Fingers suddenly fluttered against her cheek. "Your colour is back."
So was that crooked smirk.
Andy's chest burned as if she had inhaled a pack of mints.
"Much better," Miranda whispered, and there was a sudden curiosity in her gaze, as if she had glimpsed something new and intriguing. Andy felt exposed and far too tired to shield the thoughts and emotions running through her head. For a moment she feared Miranda could see right through her.
"Excuse me," an elderly gentleman stopped next to them, indicating he wanted to get to the pile of broccoli they were blocking.
Miranda stepped back to make room; as always, carefully guarding her personal space from strangers. Andy took the opportunity to shuffle away and bring more distance between them.
"I will go check out the fresh fish," she said, hands aimlessly waving in front of her as if they could somehow bring reason to what she was sure just looked like a pathetic excuse to escape. As Andy retreated with a pained smile, Miranda leaned her head to the side and squinted at her past the old man.
"See whether they have salmon," she said before Andy could hurry around the corner of another aisle to catch her breath. The way Miranda had said salmon resonated low in Andy's abdomen, the 'L' drawn out and the second syllable sounding almost like a moan. She must have imagined it, her mind playing tricks.
Andy unbuttoned her coat and loosened her scarf.
What am I going to do? She thought, fanning herself.
If she could not get her reactions under control around Miranda, any chance of building a friendship and keeping Miranda in her life, would be in jeopardy. Closing her eyes, she clutched the cart and inhaled deeply. Spending the night in Miranda's arms had been absolutely wonderful, but it had also lulled her into a far too safe and familiar frame of mind. One well-meant and comforting cuddle session did not mean she could completely disregard the rules and boundaries of friendship. There were lines one simply did not cross.
Determined to keep her body in check from now on, Andy made her way to the seafood section. She asked for two large pieces of salmon and tried to stay calm when she watched the woman behind the counter carefully fillet the slippery, pink meat. Why did she have to have her big lesbian awakening now, after living in peaceful ignorance for more than twenty-five years? Thinking back, she could not remember ever crushing on any of her female friends. Then again, there had been a few older women whom she had always thought she had simply admired, and now she realised that her feelings for Miranda were very similar, albeit a lot stronger.
"Thank you," she accepted the wrapped pieces of fish and placed them in the cart before continuing through the aisles.
Maybe the age gap had something to do with it, and she simply was not attracted to women her own age, which would explain why she had not really given it much thought in her youth. Obsessions with women far older than herself had been put down as a simple and healthy fixation on female role models, and she had never once questioned it. And when it came to guys, she had only ever been with Nate, her childhood buddy, turned high school and college boyfriend. She had thought that never looking twice at another guy just meant that she was monogamous.
She walked past shelves of laundry detergent, reminded that she needed to wash her clothes sometime soon, and from there her mind trailed back to Miranda. Images of their combined delicates tumbling in the dryer quickly turned into visuals of Miranda wearing nothing, but beautiful lace lingerie. Andy clenched her teeth, and with a frustrated huff, hauled a big plastic bottle of liquid detergent into the cart.
There was no use denying that her attraction to Miranda far surpassed innocent hero worship. Her nostrils flared as she remembered Miranda's scent and the delicious pressure of her breasts against her own as they had lain on the couch. Why did it have to be Miranda? A woman so far out of her league that she lived on another planet. A woman who had two daughters and ex-husbands and who would never look at a girl half her age as a sexual, sensual being. Why Miranda, and not someone a little more realistic?
When she rounded another corner and spotted Miranda at the far end of the aisle, Andy began to understand why.
Warmth shot not only between her thighs, but also to her heart as she watched Miranda inspect a package in her hands, eyes peering through her glasses in that inquisitive, owlish way as she read another label. She stood straight and proud, untouchable by the world around her, but there was a layer of humanity and tenderness that instantly reached out to Andy, drawing her in. That layer had always been there, from the very first moment she had met Miranda. The difference was that work-related stress and her exhaustingly inadequate relationship with Nate and her friends no longer obscured what that part of Miranda let loose inside of her.
As she stood observing the older woman from a safe enough distance, she knew the truth. How could it not be Miranda? Everything about her triggered something in Andy, be it in her body or in her mind. From the heady and direct way Miranda ran staff meetings to how her in equal parts analytical and creative brain could tackle any problems in her path. Her vast amount of knowledge, not only about design and fashion, but also when it came to art, music, history or politics was amazing, and Andy felt intellectually stimulated by it all.
That Miranda was beautiful was a simple, uncontested fact. And now that she guiltily allowed her thoughts to venture into those previously unexplored worlds of Miranda's skin, her lips and her gorgeous silver hair, Andy conceded that there had always been a physical pull as well. It was not all sexual either. As a matter of fact, the urge to simply be close to Miranda, to hold her, be touched by her, or to do something as mundane as share body heat, was still stronger than the low throb of desire in the pit of her stomach.
Suddenly Miranda looked up, eyes searching and quickly finding Andy. Seduced by the almost magnetic force of that smirk, Andy slowly walked up to her, heart hammering against her chest.
Miranda gazed back down at the package in her hands, the mirth in her face slowly turning to melancholy.
"It's quite amazing how much corn syrup and starch they can fit into one small bag of candy," she said softly, her thumb caressing the bright lettering on the plastic.
"Uhm, I guess," Andy mumbled, mesmerised by the image of Miranda Priestly standing in the middle of a candy aisle, tenderly fingering a bag of saltwater taffy.
"It's Cassidy's favourite," Miranda explained, smiling softly, and Andy's chest flooded with careful delight when she found not sadness, but hope as Miranda's lashes fluttered before she looked up.
I love her.
She could think nothing else.
I really, really love her.
She wasn't obtuse. Becoming aware of her feelings over the past week, those four letters had repeatedly skirted the edges of her subconsciousness, but she had not dared to let them form a word, still unprepared to reevaluate its true meaning. Now it felt like the big balloon in her chest and belly that had stretched and grown with each new revelation finally burst, filling her body with a sense of rightness. Love was nothing new; at some point she had felt it for Nate and her friends. And despite everything, she still dearly loved her family. But when thinking of what Miranda meant to her, the word itself took on far greater significance, majestically towering over her feelings for anyone else.
I love Miranda.
It was such a simple, obvious statement, but at that moment it defined everything.
Miranda's eyes flickered down to Andy's lips, and Andy was overwhelmed by the urge to kiss her right there in the candy aisle, to the saccharine tunes of "White Christmas". The cart between them was her saviour, and she gripped the push bar tightly in an attempt to ground herself. When Miranda looked back up, mouth slightly parted, Andy decided she needed to take control of the situation before it had a chance to escalate. Whatever was going on between them, she did not want to risk it by succumbing to selfish desire.
Wordlessly, she took the bag of saltwater taffy, and after dropping it into the cart she answered Miranda's enquiring eyebrow tilt with a wide smile.
"Come on," she said as lightly as her nervous lips permitted. "We still need to find some eggs."
Before Miranda could reply, Andy turned and walked away, the sound of boots on the linoleum confirming that Miranda followed.
They resumed their grocery shopping, occasionally pausing to discuss various ingredients and even debate on a dinner option or two. Andy knew that the only place Miranda ever shopped at in New York was an organic produce market, so although this place carried a lot of local, unmodified food, it was still a journey of discovery for the older woman. Whenever Miranda donned her glasses to read a label, Andy would bite her bottom lip, gradually learning a safe balance between torturing herself and indulging.
By the time they made it to the checkout counter, their cart held not only a frozen, albeit organic, whole-wheat pizza, but also a bar of Fairtrade milk chocolate. Andy was not sure what had been more tempting: the sugary cocoa treat or the mischief in Miranda's face when she had handed it to her.
"That'll be one-hundred-twenty-seven dollars and sixty-five cents," the girl at the register said, and Andy cringed as she reached for her wallet. With her future work situation not set in stone, she was wary of how much money she was spending. Before she could pull out her credit card, however, Miranda had already stepped around her and was paying for their food.
When Andy shot her an incredulous look, she merely pursed her lips in an attempt to hide Andy's favourite smirk.
"I will not have you feed me, Andrea."
"Oh, okay," Andy said with a helpless smile, her rebellious mind visualising doing exactly that. "Thanks."
Miranda nodded and then helped her load the plastic bags back into the cart. They left the store, and Andy welcomed the cold air against her heated cheeks.
"Give me the keys," the older woman demanded softly as they made their way across the parking lot. Andy did as asked and let Miranda unlock the car and open the trunk. When the food was stowed away and Andy had gone to get rid of the cart, she returned to find Miranda in the driver's seat, ready to go.
Oh boy. Andy swallowed.
She quietly slipped into the passenger side and fastened her seatbelt, hopeful that watching Miranda drive would not be as enticing as the sheer idea sounded inside her head. Of course, as soon as Miranda revved the engine, Andy was a goner. Despite having a chauffeur back in New York, Miranda was a practiced driver, and the commanding way her booted foot pressed down on the gas pedal had Andy clenching her thighs within seconds.
The twenty-minute ride back to the cabin became a raging oxymoron of delightful agony. Experiencing Miranda in control at a work situation was one thing. Watching her so easily command a large vehicle down the winding roads through the rainforest was transcending into madness. By the time they had arrived at their street, Andy was a delirious mess.
When the car approached the driveway to the cabin, Andy caught sight of Marie and her dog. She lowered the window, and Miranda stopped as the woman came closer.
"Hi, there," Marie greeted them through the malamute's bark.
"Hi," Andy said with a little wave, relieved by the distraction. She could not remember very much of Marie and her husband, but the few memories she did have were pleasant ones.
"Frank and I were wondering if you ladies would like to join us for dinner tomorrow evening."
Andy turned her head in question to find Miranda smile and politely answer, "that sounds delightful. We would love to, thank you."
"All right then," Marie returned the smile. "Come by the house around seven."
"Okay," Andy nodded. "Will do. Thanks."
"See you then." Marie waved, before calling the dog and walking off.
"Hmmm," Miranda began once Andy had closed the window and they were driving the few remaining yards towards the cabin. "I wonder if they are aware that their invitation conflicts with pizza night."
The slight disappointment in Miranda's voice caused Andy to giggle.
"Well, you were the one who so readily accepted it," she teased.
The car rolled to a stop, and Miranda turned off the engine and removed the keys.
"I thought it would be nice," she looked at Andy with uncharacteristic uncertainty, "for you to talk to someone who knew your aunt during the last fifteen years."
Love roared through Andy at Miranda's concern, and unable to restrain herself, she reached out and placed a hand on the older woman's knee.
"Thank you, Miranda," she whispered, the simple words inadequate for expressing the sincerity of her gratitude. "I can't remember the last time anyone has been this nice to me."
"Well, people tend to be... stupid." Miranda said softly, looking away, and Andy could only deduce that having her knee touched was making Miranda uncomfortable.
She removed her hand and leaned back in the seat, unsure of what to say. For the first time during their stay at the cabin, the silence between them felt awkward. Andy did not know what to do with her hands or whether she was supposed to get up. To her relief, Miranda unfastened the seat belt and opened the door.
"Come on. Let's get the food inside," she spoke quietly as she stepped from the car. "After all," she continued when Andy followed suit and walked back toward the trunk, "we can't have you wriggle your way out of cooking dinner every night."
Andy gasped, and her mouth hung open in mock exasperation. Was Miranda seriously joking her way through the suddenly uncomfortable tension between them?
When Miranda looked up she completely disarmed Andy with a grin.
I guess so, Andy thought, before realising, shit! I'm so whipped.
Although she had never much enjoyed the sensation of water drumming down on her face and shoulders, this morning Miranda revelled in the relentless stream of the shower. She welcomed the multitude of prickles on her skin as she leaned her forehead against the wall, palms flat and fingers spread wide on the smooth tiles. The hot spray massaged her scalp continuously, causing an overflow of sensory stimulation that left little room for thoughts and images to dominate her mind.
Dreams of Andrea were not exactly a recent occurrence. But, whereas in the past her unconscious mind had often played with ambiguous scenarios and fragmented, faceless desire, when she had woken today, Miranda had found her heart aching from the overwhelming, emotional intensity of the dream. Her body had not merely been affected by arousal, sweat and other stickiness creating unpleasant friction beneath the tangled covers, but a large part of her had been utterly enthralled by the spiritual intimacy she and Andrea had shared under Morpheus's watchful gaze. Finding herself alone in bed, the chilly morning air cooling her clammy forehead, had left her feeling bereft and devastatingly empty.
Miranda opened her lips and took deep, even breaths through her mouth as the bathroom gradually filled with steam. Running away from her emotions was a habit that was hard to shake, and her mind struggled to stay within that noncommittal grey area between complete denial and simple stagnation. Despite the appeal of following familiar patterns, she knew that pushing any part of what she felt away was not an option.
Contrary to what her public image of the 'Snow Queen' suggested, being in love wasn't an alien concept to her. Throughout the course of her life she had fallen for quite a few individuals. Some less deserving of her love than others, but all of them female. After fifty years, Miranda had thought to possess a pretty accurate understanding of love, how it progressed, how it tasted when in full bloom, and how it ultimately faded. The way Andrea had slowly invaded her heart, however, unnoticed at first, lowering Miranda's defences one by one with her intelligence, integrity and kindness, had been something entirely new.
Finding herself in love with a woman more than twenty years her junior wasn't that great of a shock. It was the magnitude of what she felt, and how it affected her entire being. Her love for Andrea had preceded the revelations on the beach by a few months, even if most of it had been hidden away, slumbering in the depths of her heart, where it had grown roots that by now reached deeply into her soul. Any of her past dalliances blanched in comparison, appearing almost meaningless, regardless of how serious some had managed to become. Andrea blew all of them away, and Miranda was hard-pressed not to be afraid.
She turned around and rolled back her head, allowing the hot water to cascade down her face as she wrapped her arms around her middle in an attempt to keep the raging tide of thoughts and feelings her dream had evoked from bubbling to the surface. Much like a magic mirror, her mind had shown her the possibility of an affectionate and passion-filled life with Andrea, where the helpless feeling of needing the younger woman had not actually scared her, but instead had been positively exhilarating.
Accepting her attraction and coming to terms with the idea of a possible romance was not difficult. She had been there and done that in the past. Now, however, she understood that never before had her heart been truly on the line, and as much as she hated to admit it, she was terrified.
Gently rubbing her temples, she exhaled against the water. The pact she had made with herself to suppress her deeper feelings for Andrea had completely crumbled halfway through the previous day. After spending the car ride chastising herself for having too vivid an imagination, she had, in fact, glimpsed several more tell-tale signs of Andrea appearing to be affected by her. Inside the grocery store there had been a few stutters and plenty of glorious blushing, and on the way back, when Miranda had deliberately chosen to drive in order to gauge possible reactions, Andrea had looked unmistakably feverish.
It seemed that Miranda's affinity was not unreturned. The depth of the younger woman's affection, however, was surprisingly difficult to decipher. On the surface, Andrea was an open book. Her beautiful face often revealed the state of her mind, be it through her eyes, the colour of her cheeks, or the shape of her lips. Nonetheless, when one needed to discern the extent of her emotions, she made it near impossible for anyone to read between the lines.
Miranda gazed down to study her hands. Her wrists did not look as slim as they had once been, and beneath her pale skin her veins stood out like the winding channels of a river delta on a satellite photograph. That Andrea was drawn to her Fashion Queen persona was easily comprehensible. Miranda knew the effect the calculated, powerful and alluring act could have on people, male and female alike. What if, however, the reality of her age ended up pushing Andrea away? After all, the last time a beautiful young woman had cupped her face or held her hand had been many years ago.
Andrea had already seen her at her worst, though, had she not? Miranda vaguely remembered the ghostlike reflection of herself from a week ago, when tears had rendered even the best make-up useless and her hair had been a frightful, unstyled mess. And yet, despite the absence of her Runway mask, Andrea had taken care of her, had opened up about her past, and now even responded positively to careful flirtations. Still, it was highly unlikely that Andrea felt much more than admiration. There had been at least one boyfriend in Andrea's life, and it would not be the first time that Miranda had temporarily managed to turn the head of a straight girl. But when it came to Andrea, a trivial fling was the last thing she desired.
Ugh. Whatever happened to living on hope?
She groaned into her palms. Willingly placing herself into any situation that left her vulnerable went against Miranda's very nature. If she revealed too much, Andrea might become overwhelmed and frightened. Misinterpreting the younger woman's actions would have severe repercussions that Miranda was not sure she would be able to handle. Before she could make any kind of move, she needed to be certain.
The warm water had by now lost its soothing appeal, and Miranda turned off the shower. She wrapped herself into a towel and stepped out onto the fluffy, white bath mat. Despite the steamed-up glass obscuring her view, her eyes were inevitably drawn to the large mirror on the side wall. As someone whose livelihood had depended on her outward appearance for so long, she had developed a substantial love-hate relationship with her reflection. Her toes curled in between the thick threads beneath her feet, and she clutched the towel to her chest as the room gradually cooled, and the image turned from a fogged-up, blurry shape into the sharp contours of her face.
For a while she shifted her weight from foot to foot, indulging in the softness of the rug as water drops ran down her legs in tickling streaks and seeped into the fibres. Of course, she was aware that for a woman her age she was in an admirable form. Nonetheless, a strict diet and years of pilates were still losing to gravity. Miranda knew her body well, and before now she had not really minded the gradual passing of her youth. The classic definition of beauty had never much applied to her, and her strength had always lain within her mind rather than her physique, rendering a few lines here and there inconsequential. But trying to look at herself through the eyes of a potential young partner was still incredibly daunting.
Slowly, she opened the towel, and her eyes hesitantly travelled over her exposed torso. What would Andrea think of the faint stretch marks and the thin layer of loose skin just below her stomach? Miranda had published quite a few plastic surgery articles in Runway, but the thought of placing herself under the knife to erase the evidence of the pregnancy with her twins had never crossed her mind. As her fingers poked at her soft belly, she wondered whether perhaps a little surgical help should have been considered. She stroked upwards and over her breasts, which had begun to slightly sag since she had stopped breastfeeding ten years ago. And yet, the idea of radically changing her body in order to feel less apprehensive about situations that would not likely come true was preposterous. With a bite to her lower lip, she silently scolded herself for being silly.
The Andrea she had grown to love so much was a woman of principles, a woman who had practically stomped her way into the fashion industry with the strong belief that beauty came from within. And despite the many months of working for a magazine that superficially existed purely on a make-belief world of very selective aesthetics, Miranda was convinced that Andrea had retained most, if not all of her convictions. From what she had learned of the younger woman during the past week, judging Miranda's body for its little imperfections was something she would definitely never do.
Miranda blew out a breath and watched herself deflate in the mirror. She suddenly realised that this was the very first time she had ever been afraid of disappointing someone other than herself or her daughters. Bizarrely, that revelation filled her with strength, confirming that Andrea was worth the torture of, after four long decades, feeling like an insecure, restless teenager again. With a snort, she wrapped the towel back around her shoulders and rolled her eyes at the ceiling. She was losing her mind.
What am I going to do?
Perhaps having a concise plan would help with her anxiety. First and foremost, she needed to verify that her interpretation of Andrea's behaviour was correct, and the way of achieving that was to conduct more research. Lots of it.
With a wave of sudden determination pushing her body into action, she got dressed and dried her hair. As she styled her signature forelock, curling it just so that it lightly settled above her left brow, it crossed her mind how much it felt as if she were getting ready for a date. Instead of fighting or suppressing her nerves, though, she decided to embrace them, aware that a healthy amount of apprehension would make success taste that much sweeter.
When she descended the stairs, she found Andrea already in the kitchen, cooking. The younger woman turned around and looked up with a smile, and Miranda's heart instantly transformed into a hummingbird whose tiny, rapidly beating wings filled her chest with the sweetest buzzing. It made her feel alert, alive and free, and she knew that as soon as she had certainty, she would hold nothing back.
"Good morning," she softly greeted while sitting down on one of the bar stools.
"Hi," Andrea said brightly before returning her attention to the stove.
"So, what's for breakfast?" Miranda inquired, adding cheek to her tone to keep their morning banter light and playful.
Andrea did not reply, and instead just quietly loaded the contents of the frying pan onto two plates. With an almost dramatic swirl she turned around and slid the food onto the kitchen island counter.
"Pancakes." She said excitedly as she took the opposite seat.
Astonished, Miranda studied the two paddies of fried dough in front of her.
"Pancakes? I haven't eaten pancakes in years."
"Huh?" Andrea looked at her with wide eyes, her mouth agape in exaggerated shock. "But... have the twins never had them for breakfast?"
Miranda bit her bottom lip and looked up at the younger woman through lowered lashes, taking note of how Andrea's eyes were immediately drawn to the movement of her mouth.
"Of course the girls have eaten pancakes, Andrea. The best New York has to offer." She picked up her fork and pulled the food closer. "I myself, however, have kept a disciplined diet over the years, which has not exactly permitted for indulgences such as pancakes."
Andrea met the challenging quirk of her eyebrow with another wide smile.
"Well, these are low-carb," she beamed proudly. "Cream cheese, eggs, a little bit of almond flour, and a handful of blueberries. No added sugar. So you can safely dig in."
"I'll take your word for it," Miranda teased with a smirk, and the way Andrea shyly averted her gaze helped her feel confident that her flirting was at the very least somewhat effective.
Miranda took a bite, acutely aware of Andrea's attention on her as she chewed.
"Hmmm," she said after a while. "Not bad."
"Oh thank god," Andrea exhaled and then grinned. "I was worried."
After swallowing another bite, Miranda looked at her intently. "You shouldn't be, Andrea. You're a wonderful cook."
She rested her fork on the edge of the plate and dabbed her mouth with a napkin.
"Finding ingredients that work together is not that difficult a challenge. But you seem to truly grasp the importance of attention to detail. I often prefer simple meals that were created with care over the experimental concoctions that may outwardly appear creative, but then rarely achieve this perfect... harmony," she nodded at the pancakes, "of texture and flavour."
Andrea blushed at the compliment, and Miranda wanted nothing more than to tenderly stroke her fingertips over those luscious, pink cheeks.
"Uh, wow. Thanks."
Rather than lessen the impact of her words through further talking, Miranda simply smiled, a full, happy smile that came directly from her heart. Its effect on Andrea was instant, the shade of her face darkening as she looked away with a grin of her own, before she shyly picked up her fork.
As they ate their breakfast, Miranda made sure to continuously seek eye contact with Andrea and use every subtly seductive move in her repertoire. After each bite she would lick her lips, just barely grazing them with the tip of her tongue, watching closely how Andrea shifted in her seat. And whenever their gazes met, Miranda would tilt her chin forward and lower her eyelashes, causing the younger woman to fidget with her napkin and look away, suddenly utterly fascinated by the ceiling lamp.
Miranda basked in those responses, positive that they indicated Andrea indeed being attracted to her, whether she was aware of it herself or not. From here on, however, Miranda knew she had to tread carefully. If she pushed Andrea too far too quickly, she could lose her forever. So she gradually mellowed her flirtatious attacks, and instead began to focus on being sweet. When Andrea stood up to clear the island counter, Miranda walked to her side and held out her hands.
"Here. Let me," she offered, and Andrea rewarded her with a shocked face that was easily worth the labour of washing a hundred dirty plates.
"What? No, no, that's okay. Really," Andrea muttered, out of breath.
"Please," Miranda said softly, and with a slight tilt of her head she took the dishes from Andrea's hand, purposely brushing her fingers over the younger woman's knuckles in the process. "I insist."
Andrea's pupils dilated at the contact, and she abruptly stepped away, clasping her hands behind her back. Miranda felt guilt emerge in the back of her mind. It was not her intention to play games or torture Andrea.
She softened her gaze and asked, "Didn't you say you wanted to do laundry?"
"Uhm, yes," Andrea confirmed cautiously.
"Well, will it not prove more efficient to split these tasks?" Miranda continued softly, sensing that Andrea would respond better to basic logic.
"Uhm, I guess."
"Then go. Wash your clothes, and I will finish up here." Miranda opened the water tab and quickly rinsed their plates, before looking back at Andrea. "When you get back, I will require your assistance with sending out more emails."
That seemed to spur the younger woman into action.
"Oh, okay. Yes. Got it," Andrea said, the stable, familiar territory of work clearly a prospect that appealed to her.
Quickly, she made her way up the stairs and into her bedroom, and Miranda tried not to dwell too much on the apparent eagerness with which Andrea had fled from her. It was likely that Andrea was merely overwhelmed by her own responses and oblivious to the fact that Miranda actually welcomed them.
A brief moment later, Andrea reappeared on the second floor landing and carefully made her way down the stairs carrying a laundry basket. The domesticity of the image was ridiculous, but Miranda absolutely loved it.
"I won't be long," the younger woman called over her shoulder, before she vanished through the door to the basement. Miranda was left with giddy anticipation.
I'll be waiting.
She smirked and rolled her eyes at the ceiling, slightly scandalised by her soppiness. Now was not the time to let herself get completely lost in romantic sentimentality. They still had so much work to do. The problematic list loomed above her like a grey rain cloud, threatening to ruin her bright and happy day with an unpleasant outcome. Sighing, Miranda turned back towards the sink, but before she could start with the dishes she heard her phone ring in the livingroom.
The only numbers she had not blocked were her girls', Andrea's and Nigel's, so she dried her hands and hurried across the room. The phone display showed an incoming call from her townhouse, and wondering what the girls were doing back home, she quickly answered.
"So. You're not dead," a familiar male voice spoke from the other end of the line.
Miranda looked at the open basement door to verify that Andrea had not been alerted by the ringing phone, before she grabbed the blanket from the couch and made her way towards the veranda.
"What do you want?" She replied through clenched teeth as she stepped into the clear but cold morning and closed the door behind her.
"What do you think?" Stephen said with a tired sigh.
The air outside was freezing, and Miranda pulled the blanket around herself and sat down in one of the wicker chairs.
"Don't play games with me, Stephen," she hissed. "Why are you at the house?"
There was a pause, and Miranda could hear the sliding of his palm as he rubbed his face.
"Why haven't you signed the divorce papers yet?" He asked quietly, and Miranda realised that for the first time in months, Stephen was not drunk when he spoke to her.
"I'm out of the country," she replied. "I will sign them once I get back to New York."
"And when will that be?"
Miranda leaned back in the chair and looked out over the bay. A flock of seagulls screeched in the distance, and Miranda pulled up her legs under the blanket. The peaceful morning at the cabin made her feel safe and less irritable, and thoughts of returning to a busy Manhattan were no longer intimidating.
"After the holidays."
"After the holidays?" Stephen was getting angry. "Damnit, Miranda. I promised...," he halted and took a deep breath before he continued. "Fine. Just... please do it as soon as possible."
They were quiet for a while, and Miranda became aware of a dull pain in her chest. It was the faint memory of the good friend Stephen had once been, long before he had started drinking again. Miranda truly missed that man.
She gentled her voice. "Stephen, what are you doing at the house?"
"Getting the last of my things," he replied. Hesitantly he added, "before I go off to rehab."
He sounded sincere, and Miranda felt somewhat relieved that he was finally seeking help. Countless times in the past she had urged him to deal with his drinking, and yet he had never listened. Whoever had managed to finally get through to Stephen and open his eyes, the part of Miranda that would always love him was grateful to them.
"That is good news, Stephen," she breathed into the phone. "I'm happy for you."
Instead of retorting with a doubtful remark, Stephen slowly exhaled and simply said, "Thank you."
Miranda realised that they had not had a civil conversation in months, and not for the first time she understood that getting married had probably been one of the biggest mistake of their lives. The arrangement might have temporarily stabilised both their careers, but it had thoroughly ruined their friendship.
"So," Stephen said softly. "Where are you anyway? The press is starting to notice your absence."
"Took them long enough," Miranda replied with a snort, and she could hear Stephen's quiet chuckle through the phone.
"I'm in Canada," she explained, astonished by how the removal of the tension between them almost made it seem as if they were still friends.
"Is she with you?" He suddenly asked.
"That pretty assistant of yours. The brunette," Stephen elaborated.
For a split second Miranda considered lying, but despite having drifted so far apart in their time of sharing a household, Stephen probably still knew her better than most, and he would be able to see right through her denial. So instead she opted for the truth.
"Yes. Andrea is here with me," she allowed.
It felt so odd to dance around the subject when in the past they had always shared information about their respective love interests. Of course she had still been partially aware of the comings and goings of young gentlemen in Stephen's life, but after their marriage arrangement and the need for complete discretion, their heartfelt talks had gradually disappeared. She had gotten too absorbed in her work, and the hunger to keep hold of her position at all costs had alienated her friend. Looking back at their years together, Miranda missed the bond they had once shared.
She bit her bottom lip in an attempt to not sound too eager.
"Andrea actually whisked me away to her secret cabin," she could not keep the mirth from her voice.
"That sounds really romantic," Stephen said, and Miranda could hear him smile through the phone.
"Well," Miranda sighed and curled deeper into the blanket. "Me having a mental breakdown isn't all that romantic, Stephen."
The resentment was still there, even if she and Stephen had both always agreed to end their marriage as soon as either one of them no longer wished to carry on with the facade. She knew that her dismissal from Runway was not his fault either, but part of her still blamed him. When she felt betrayed and vulnerable, forgiveness did not come easily.
"I... I'm sorry for my bad timing." Stephen began. "That was not my intention."
Miranda pursed her lips and watched a bald eagle circle high above the water, focused on its prey in the sea below. The image of the two kings, standing side by side sneering down at her still haunted Miranda, but rationally she knew that Stephen would not have had a part in Irv's schemes.
"I had no idea what the board had planned," he said, his voice sad, and Miranda believed him.
"The last time I spoke to... Robert," Stephen paused, and Miranda recalled the face of his long-time golf buddy who also happened to be a board member of Elias-Clarke. "The last time I saw him was eight months ago," Stephen continued, his tone brimming with melancholy. "He insisted that you were safe for at least another two years. Clearly he was wrong."
Tears formed in the corners of Miranda's eyes when she suddenly understood. Eight months ago had been around the same time when Stephen had begun to drink again. Her chest filled with dread when she realised that her best friend had actually been heartbroken, and she had been oblivious and uncaring, which had driven him back into the clutches of the substance he had fought so hard to forever avoid.
"I'm truly sorry, Miranda."
She swallowed hard.
"So am I."
Silence stretched between them, but Miranda felt as if they had exchanged more words of significance in this one phone call than during the entire previous year.
"Hey, I'm okay now," Stephen said softly, and Miranda wiped at her tears, touched that he still knew how caring a person she could be. "I've moved on. I've found someone new, and it's beginning to become serious."
"I'm glad," she sniffled.
"Thank you," he said, and Miranda could hear that he was truly happy. "I just... I know I should have talked to you first before springing the divorce on you like that. I guess I was getting impatient."
"It's all right, Stephen. I realise I was not exactly... approachable the last few months." She rubbed her temples and thought back at the vague blur her home life had become. "I truly wish I had paid more attention to you and the girls."
"Hmmm," he murmured. "It's not too late, you know? I realise I've never been much of a father figure, but even I could tell how much those girls adore you. They will be back."
"I hope so," she whispered. Oh god I hope so.
"So, this Andrea. Is she taking good care of you?" He asked, kindly changing the subject.
Thinking of the younger woman effectively stopped Mianda's tears and caused her to smile, "Oh you have no idea."
She turned around in her chair and looked back at the cabin, only to find Andrea standing by the window, concern subduing her beautiful face.
"Feel free to tell her about us," Stephen offered, and Miranda knew he was right. Andrea deserved to know everything.
"I will," she replied, eyes still locked with Andrea's.
"Well, I have to go. It would be rather comical if I ended up being late for rehab," he laughed, the joyful, easy-going character Miranda so fondly remembered shining through. "It was really good to talk to you, Miranda. Thank you."
"No, thank you," she whispered, truly glad they had gotten the chance to clear the air between them. "I will make sure to sign the papers as soon as possible."
"I really appreciate that. Well... goodbye."
She hung up and motioned for Andrea to join her on the veranda. The younger woman did not hesitate and quickly stepped through the door.
"Miranda, are you okay?"
The tear tracks on her cheeks were freezing and her eyes burned from the cold, but Miranda nodded. She felt more than just okay.
"Yes, I'm perfectly fine." Her wide smile seemed to convince Andrea, and the tension in the younger woman's shoulders noticeably lessened.
"Who was that?"
"Stephen. We sort of... made our peace," Miranda replied, and she watched as Andrea's eyebrows drew together in panic. "Not in the way you think," she continued, unwilling to give the wrong impression when it so visibly upset Andrea.
"Come here," she said softly, opening the blanket and holding out her hand.
"W-what?" Andrea squeaked.
Miranda smirked and lowered her feet back to the floor. She patted her thighs and quirked an eyebrow. "I said, come here."
Hesitantly, Andrea walked closer, and Miranda grasped her hand and turned her around.
When Andrea did not react immediately, Miranda snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her rigid body backwards and onto her lap.
"My god, Andrea. Would you relax," she gently scolded while pulling the blanket closed around the both of them.
Gradually, the younger woman settled within her embrace, and before long Miranda was finally able to press her face into the warm crook of Andrea's neck. Her scent was like a safe haven, and Miranda slipped both arms around her belly and held her tightly.
"Hey!" Andrea squirmed.
"What?" Miranda breathed into her hair, her lips so very tempted to press sweet kisses to Andrea's earlobe.
"Your nose is icy," Andrea whispered, but she leaned back against Miranda's chest and grasped the hands around her middle. "And so are your fingers." She began to rub over her cold knuckles. "Maybe we should get back inside."
"No!" Miranda said immediately, and she possessively hooked her chin over Andrea's shoulder. "No. Let's sit here for a while longer."
"Okay." Andrea sighed, and the sound of it coursed through Miranda's body directly to her heart.
AN: A big thank you to my beta reader faeries Susi, xenavirgin and Jiggles! You guys are the best!
How ironic, Andy thought as an icy breeze toyed with strands of her hair. The media often referred to Miranda as the 'Snow Queen', the 'Dragon Lady' with a frozen heart, and yet here Andy sat outside on a veranda in December and it was Miranda who was keeping her warm.
Carefully, she leaned her head to the side and pressed her cheek against the cool, tear-dampened skin of Miranda's face. The arms around her briefly tightened, and Andy released a shaky sigh. Of course they had hugged before, but now that she had discovered the depth of the love in her heart, the intimate embrace had Andy hovering between self-preserving hesitation and an incautious eagerness to blindly surrender to physical sensation.
Her fingertips continued to stroke Miranda's hands under the blanket, and she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Except for her exposed face and feet she was ensconced in warmth, and the gently heaving chest against her back lulled her into a mellow state of prolonged indecision. A nagging voice somewhere within the depth of her conscience questioned her morality for giving in to such pleasures when she had no evidence of Miranda's intentions being anything but friendly. However, Andy pushed that voice away; she did not want to think too much when sitting together like this felt so, so good.
"I want you to know the truth," Miranda suddenly whispered, her breath ghosting over Andy's cheek.
"The truth?" Andy asked, her mind reluctant to be distracted by words when she was so busy feeling. "About what?"
"The truth about Stephen," Miranda said quietly before faintly brushing her nose against Andy's neck. "About my marriages..." She paused. "About me."
Andy tensed against her will. The gentle way Miranda nuzzled behind her jaw prevented a full-on panic, but Andy still felt a surge of apprehension.
Was an undisclosed truth not a lie?
Andy waited, but Miranda did not speak, her arms still holding Andy close, her breath agitated and shallow against the side of Andy's throat. It felt as if Miranda was more afraid of revealing her secret than Andy was of hearing it.
"Hey," Andy said as she gently pried the arms around her loose and turned on Miranda's lap to bring both knees to one side. "It's okay," she whispered, her fingers shyly toying with the collar of Miranda's sweater. "You can trust me."
"I know," came the shaky reply, and Andy looked up into shining eyes.
She felt as if she was about to leap off a cliff. Pulse roaring in her ears like the unseen, thundering waves a great distance below. Beckoning, luring her while her mind tried to grasp for a safety rope, for thoughts of reason. Thoughts of how Miranda was straight, and how the affection in her eyes was not desire, even if the look she gave her burned. Anything to tether Andy to secure ground, to hold her back when all she wanted to do was jump.
"I trust you more than I have ever trusted anyone," Miranda whispered, and Andy took a shuddering breath.
"You do?" She meekly asked, gaze moving from Miranda's eyes to the trembling fingers on her sweater and back again.
Miranda's arms tightened their hold around Andy's middle once more, and Andy had a hard time resisting the urge to bury her face in the crook of Miranda's neck. She wanted to hide, to escape the overwhelming intensity of their locked gazes. To encourage Miranda, however, to show that her trust was not misplaced, Andy stilled her fingers, held her breath and waited.
"Stephen and I..." Miranda's voice cracked, and she briefly closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nose before she continued, "we have been friends for more than twenty years."
Not sure how she would react to hearing details about Miranda's marriage, especially when two decades of friendship preceded it, Andy turned her face and looked out over the bay.
"Three years ago we..." Miranda briefly paused, and Andy tried hard to suppress the irrational jealousy bubbling up inside her at the word 'we'.
"We made the... strategic decision to marry in order to secure our careers and to... silence rumours," at this Andy frowned and looked back at Miranda whose fingers distractedly stroked Andy's waist under the blanket.
"Rumours?" Andy quietly asked, briefly remembering the golden rule at Runway to never ask Miranda anything. "What kind of rumours?"
The older woman exhaled and studied Andy for a long moment before answering, "rumours... which questioned our sexuality."
"Huh," Andy heard herself mumble dumbly, until the words finally registered and adrenaline surged through her blood, causing her ears to ring and her cheeks to rapidly warm. "Uhm... oh."
She wanted to smack herself at her lack of tact or eloquence when she saw the vulnerability in Miranda's face. Aware that she was blushing, Andy looked away, but still kept her palm lightly pressed between Miranda's collar bones.
"So...," she whispered, "you only married him..." She faltered. The idea that Miranda had not married Stephen out of love was too unbelievable precisely because it fit too well into Andy's world of wishful thinking.
"... to keep my position at Runway," Miranda finished, her voice sad. With a humourless snort she continued, "in hindsight it only delayed the inevitable."
Andy felt her heart clench at the tone, and without thinking she reached around and hugged Miranda fiercely. Despite the many unanswered questions in her mind, she held on tightly, shivering when Miranda's arms squeezed her hard in return.
They sat like that for a few minutes; silent, with only an occasional eagle's call and the faint chime of the buoy bell in the distance. Andy felt cold air nibble at her socked feet and the tips of her ears, but their embrace under the blanket kept the rest of her body warm. She brushed her cheek against Miranda's neck and revelled in the older woman's scent. There was no doubt about how much she loved Miranda. She was absolutely consumed by love. And now, despite the rather imprecise explanation Miranda had given, it was hard to keep hope at bay. Could there really be a chance that Miranda was romantically open to women? Was that not too good to be true?
"So uhm...," Andy whispered, searching for words that didn't sound blunt or disrespectful.
"You wish to know what truth there was to the rumours?" Miranda quietly voiced Andy's thoughts.
Andy timidly nodded against her shoulder. "Yes."
The arms around her loosened, and one of Miranda's hands pushed at Andy to sit up. Intently, Miranda searched Andy's face until suddenly she appeared triumphant, that small, crooked smile Andy loved so much making its return. Fingers snaked around Andy's neck, and Andy could only stare when Miranda gently pulled her closer.
Feeling her lips connect with Miranda's was a revelation, a clarity which momentarily blinded Andy with the beauty of its simplicity. The many thoughts running through her mind formed only background noise, dissolving unacknowledged into the distance, and nothing else existed except the soft mouth against her own. The kiss was featherlight, so careful and unforced, and although somewhere in the back of her mind Andy realised she should probably respond, she was entirely spellbound, unable to move. Only after Miranda slowly released her lips did Andy even notice she had been holding her breath, and when darkened eyes gazed at her through lowered lashes she drew a shaky breath that sounded rather like a sob.
"Does that answer your question?" Miranda asked quietly, her face but a few inches away.
"Oh," Andy whimpered, and she looked at Miranda's lips, too stupefied to take the initiative and steal a second kiss, however much she wanted to.
Luckily Miranda seemed to understand, and as she leaned in once more, Andy found the courage to meet her halfway.
This time she remembered to breathe, drawing cold air through her nose as their mouths delicately came together again. Their movements were subtle, not much more than a gentle meeting of lips and noses, but inside Andy felt as if she was experiencing the entire universe all at once. This was magic. Unfathomable beauty. The tender physical connection instantly confirmed everything she felt for the older woman.
"Hmm," Miranda hummed and her fingers wandered up the back of Andy's neck before tangling loosely into her hair. Encouraged, Andy pressed closer, causing Miranda to lean back in the chair as their kiss gradually became more daring. The blanket slipped off and fell to the ground, and Andy shivered at the sudden chill against her waist where Miranda's thumb tentatively probed beneath her sweater. The sweet way Miranda's mouth kept capturing her bottom lip, however, felt much too wonderful for Andy to concern herself with her surroundings, and she wrapped her arms around Miranda's shoulders and held her tight.
"Andrea," Miranda suddenly spoke, her warm breath caressing Andy's slightly parted lips. "Aren't you getting cold?"
"No," Andy quickly replied, eager to continue the kiss.
"Are you sure?" The older woman asked as she rubbed her thumb along the waistband of Andy's pants under her shirt and sweater. "You have goose bumps."
As if on cue Andy shivered, but she tried to mask it by once more claiming Miranda's lips which promptly drew into a smile.
"You know, there is a perfectly fine couch inside. Where it's warm," Miranda tried again, an eyebrow raised as she regarded Andy.
"But I don't want to move," Andy replied with a pout, and she wriggled around a bit on Miranda's lap, causing the older woman to grunt in what Andy suddenly realised was discomfort.
"Oh no!" Andy exclaimed as she quickly stood. "I'm so sorry! I was totally crushing you!"
She couldn't believe she had been so oblivious. I'm such an idiot!
"Don't be dramatic, Andrea," Miranda rolled her eyes, but then smirked as she got up and carefully stretched her legs. "I'm hardly made of glass."
"Yes, but I'm heavy and I..." A finger against her lips silenced Andy, and Miranda gave her a thoughtful look.
"You're not heavy," she said as her finger trailed lower and she tenderly cupped Andy's cheek. "Actually," her chin jutted forward and she tilted her head to the side as her thumb caressed Andy's jaw, "it was your bony little bum that started cutting off the blood circulation in my thighs."
Andy gaped. She wasn't sure whether Miranda was serious or not.
"Uhm..." Andy's eyebrows drew together. "Sorry?" What else could she say to that? Even if apologising for such a thing to a person who had once called her fat felt utterly ridiculous.
Miranda brushed her thumb over Andy's lips before sweetly kissing her again. "You may make up for it inside, on the warm and comfortable couch." And with another smirk she turned around and opened the veranda door.
After quickly picking up the blanket and Miranda's phone, Andy hurried after the older woman back into the cabin. Miranda walked over to the fireplace and Andy paused to watch her skillfully prod the fire and add another log. She couldn't believe that just a moment ago she had been kissing that beautiful woman. When Miranda hung up the fire poker, however, and turned to look straight at her, reality settled over Andy, warm and heavy like the blanket in her hands. Miranda smiled, and Andy carefully allowed elation to spread from her chest through the rest of her body.
This is real. It's really happening.
"Come here," Miranda said as she stepped around the coffee table, holding out both arms.
As if Andy needed an invitation.
The blanket was flung over the back of the couch as Andy quickly strode across the room, but before she could step into Miranda's embrace the phone in her hand suddenly rang. Curious and slightly annoyed, she looked at the display.
Miranda frowned, and after a brief moment of hesitation she took the phone from Andy and answered the call.
Andy wanted to pout at the distraction, but then Miranda reached for her hand and pulled her toward the couch where they sat down side by side, fingers intertwined.
"What do you mean, 'he did not consult you'?"
The sudden shift in Miranda's demeanor alerted Andy, and she ran her thumb over Miranda's palm in what she hoped was a soothing motion. The older woman, though, grew agitated and shook Andy's fingers loose as her hand exasperatedly darted into the air. She looked extremely displeased and Andy grew increasingly concerned as she watched Miranda pinch hard at the bridge of her nose.
Andy listened intently, confused about what was going on, but she couldn't make out specific words in Nigel's equally agitated voice on the other end of the phone line.
"You know," Miranda sighed and rubbed at her forehead. "I should not be surprised. I really shouldn't." She gazed at the fire and Andy saw glimpses of defeat and sadness return to Miranda's face, and she did not like it. In a bold move she placed her hand on Miranda's knee and began to rub gentle circles with her thumb. To her relief Miranda did not flinch or push away her hand, but instead, reached down and relinked their fingers, confirming her approval with a slightly strenuous, but genuine smile.
"Nigel, don't be ridiculous," she suddenly scolded. "This is not your fault, and I will not have you throw away a promising career opportunity out of a sense of loyalty that won't further either of our causes."
Miranda gripped Andy's hand tightly. "I will deal with it." She paused and closed her eyes while taking a calming breath. "Thank you, Nigel, for letting me know."
Something that Nigel said then made her arch an eyebrow and she looked at Andy, her gaze softening.
"Agreed. I wouldn't know what to do without her."
Andy's heart thumped strongly against her breastbone when Miranda smiled again and caressed the inside of Andy's wrist with her thumb.
"I will," she said in a tone that should have sounded odd and out of character to Nigel, but Andy didn't waste precious seconds thinking about that when Miranda ended the call, dropped the phone on the coffee table and raised her free hand to cup Andy's cheek.
"Nigel wanted me to not tell you how glad he is that you are here with me," she said with a slightly conspiratorial smile. "So that it doesn't go to your pretty head and inflate your ego."
"It's much too late for that," Andy giggled and leaned into the older woman's touch. "You kissed me," she whispered dreamily. "I'm on top of the world."
Miranda rolled her eyes, but she continued to gently stroke Andy's chin, growing slightly contemplative.
"You kissed me back," she said, eyes focused on the lips before her.
"I did," Andy replied, and she overcame any remaining reservations about initiating physical contact with Miranda and kissed her again, sweetly, reassuringly.
"So," she softly spoke after a few kisses. "What was that phone call all about? What's going on?"
She didn't want to pry, but somehow she knew that they had crossed too many lines to pretend that she cared far less than she did. Whatever new crisis Miranda needed to tackle, Andy wanted to be right there with her.
"James Holt, it seems," Miranda said with contempt as she tilted back her head to look at Andy properly, "has decided to disregard those individuals who have made him what he is today, and has just signed a twelve-month contract with Runway." She pursed her lips. "We can strike another name off 'the List'."
"What an ass," Andy blurted out, and Miranda's unhappy purse transformed into that perfect, crooked smirk.
"He is an ass," she conceded with a tiny giggle.
"I don't know what I was thinking," Miranda then said thoughtfully as she scooted back against the couch cushion, her hand pulling Andy along. "Most people will always choose to further themselves. It's almost inevitable, especially in this industry. I might have done the same thing."
Andy snuggled against Miranda and rested her head on her shoulder while draping an arm across her waist. It was not difficult to imagine Miranda crushing some loyal minion's dreams in order to save herself, and although Andy wasn't keen on such a thought, she realised that in the long run she wouldn't be able to blame Miranda either. In a way she had done the same to Emily by accompanying Miranda to Paris, and in hindsight she knew that stepping back and giving up her job out of a self-righteous sense of fairness would have made everything so much worse.
She hugged Miranda tightly as she pictured her in Paris, dethroned, abandoned and all alone, while Andy was in New York, fired and blacklisted as a result of defying Miranda's wishes out of loyalty to her fellow assistant, who, as it turned out, had been part of the conspiracy against Miranda to begin with.
"Ugh," she mumbled against Miranda's shoulder. "People suck."
Miranda kissed the top of her head and gave her hand a squeeze. "Not all of them."
Andy couldn't help but smile at that, and she turned her head so she could softly kiss Miranda again.
"Which reminds me," Miranda gently broke the kiss and stroked Andy's cheek, "that there are still many names left on 'the List', and I'd feel a lot better if I had a clearer picture of whom I can still trust." She patted Andy's thigh. "I need to know where I stand. What my options are."
"Oh, yes," Andy sat up and reached for her laptop. "You should have some replies by now. Hold on."
And so they spent the next few hours carefully reading through people's responses, a couple of which were indeed nothing but insincere drivel. Some of Miranda's contacts, however, seemed pretty adamant about supporting her in her battle against Irv and Runway's board of directors, and after Miranda had spoken to a majority of them on the phone or through a satellite video link, 'the List' did not end up as empty as Andy had feared. It didn't really surprise her that it was mainly the younger generation of designers, the industry newcomers with fresh careers, who seemed to so readily discard the person who had basically hand-reared them.
The fashion veterans did not exactly hurry to turn their backs on Runway and burn all their bridges in the process, but they did offer to help Miranda with whatever she might need. Those who had a strong foothold within the world of fashion apparently did not need to pick sides based on future financial interests, and could instead afford to remain as 'loyal' as they pleased.
Miranda still did not seem entirely confident, but her tone was a lot lighter when, shortly after six, she finished up a video call with a designer based in Sydney.
Andy had leaned back into the couch and had listened to the many conversations, reminiscing on those early mornings in the Runway office when Miranda had taken phones calls from Europe, or those late evenings when she had spoken to designers in Tokyo. Looking back, Andy realised she had always enjoyed Miranda's melodious, charming telephone voice, even if parts of it were entirely acted and only used to coax someone important to sway matters her way. Of course, back then Andy had not understood why listening to Miranda speak had often calmed her down, but now it was obvious that experiencing Miranda in control had given Andy a much needed sense of stability in an otherwise completely chaotic work life.
"What are you thinking about?" Miranda asked as she snapped her laptop closed, rousing Andy from her memories.
"Hmm," Andy hummed with a languid stretch, before getting up from the couch. "You."
She walked over to the dining table where Miranda had spent most of the afternoon talking with contacts all over the planet.
"Only good things, I hope," Miranda smirked, and Andy leaned down to where the older woman sat in one of the dining chairs to deliver a brief kiss. Then she answered, "hmm, mostly," which earned her a playful slap to the arm.
But Miranda quickly made up for it with another kiss. And then another.
"I..." Miranda looked up at her, "I very much want to talk about all of this. About us." She gestured between them. "There are a lot more things I want to share with you."
Andy slowly nodded. "Okay."
Ever since their first kiss, she hadn't really spent another second thinking about the how and the why, too preoccupied with stealing more kisses whenever possible. But they had not really resolved anything, nor had they said things to each other that would put their minds at ease, if even for a moment.
"It's too late for that now, though," Miranda continued, and Andy felt slightly confused, almost worried if it weren't for the fingers reverently playing with her hair.
"We have to get ready for dinner."
"Dinner, Andrea. With the neighbours." Miranda arched a brow. "Don't tell me you've forgotten about that."
"Oh dear. I fear that kissing isn't good for your brain function. Maybe we shouldn't do that again." Miranda looked dead serious.
Andy gasped and pressed a hand to her chest in faux shock. Part of her wanted to childishly stomp her foot and demand more kisses even if she'd end up with the brainpower of a pumpkin.
"Too bad," Miranda continued as she rose from her chair and reached out to loosely encircle Andy within her arms, "that I find myself somewhat addicted." And she kissed Andy again, slowly, more deeply, before smiling against her lips.
"Tonight when we get back we will talk. Is that alright with you?"
"Yeah," Andy breathed, before stealing another kiss. Miranda wasn't too far off; all this kissing business was quite detrimental to her verbal abilities. But she couldn't make herself care when Miranda's mouth was so delicious, her lips so soft and responsive.
"For now, I just think you should know," Miranda whispered while rubbing her nose against Andy's, "that I really, really care about you. This means a lot to me, and I want to go about things... properly."
This time Andy's goosebumps had nothing to do with the cold, and she pressed herself against Miranda with a shuddering sigh.
"I care about you too. So very much," she whispered against her neck. "I still can't really believe this is happening. But I'm very, very happy."
Miranda's fingers gently combed through her hair. "So am I, Andrea. So am I."
Miranda had never been a social person. Sitting together and conversing with strangers in situations that yielded no business advantage was something she usually avoided; she loathed small-talk, and when somebody was of no use or interest to her she saw no reason to engage them in pointless, superficial dialogue.
Through the years she had established a structured and safe approach to the many social gatherings she, as Runway's editor-in-chief, had been required to attend. Fifteen minutes was a sufficient amount of time to show one's face, to exchange false pleasantries and to play one's moves in the dull and repetitive game of networking.
There were only very few personal friends Miranda could stand to be around for more than an hour. And even the deeper, more intimate talks with familiar people she trusted always, inevitably, caused her to grow restless. Fully letting go when surrounded by others tended to be disconcertingly difficult for Miranda, so it was with mild astonishment that she found herself actually quite enjoying dinner at Marie's and Frank's.
The meal had been simple but tasty, and the conversation, as light as it had started, had felt sincere enough to put Miranda at ease. Mostly, though, it was Andrea's interaction with the older couple that had held Miranda's interest. Not only was this the first time she had witnessed her former assistant engage in heartfelt, non work-related conversation with other people, but listening to the emerging stories painted a rather charming picture of Andrea's childhood.
Miranda was told of a daring, inquisitive tomboy who climbed trees and large boulders on exploration missions into the wild. Not quite surprisingly, young Andrea had shown a tendency to hurt herself during her adventures and would then come crying to Marie with scraped knees and bruised elbows, only to be quickly consoled by cookies and lemonade.
It proved impossible for Miranda to not smirk at the deepening blush on Andrea's face as Marie and Frank kept recounting episodes of her rambunctious youth.
"I still remember that one misty morning when Frank took you out onto the ocean," Marie said with a chuckle as she began stacking their empty plates, "and you got so excited about seeing Humpback whales that you couldn't sit still..."
Andrea, across the table, looked apologetically at Miranda.
"We hit a big wave and I... kinda fell from the zodiac," she mumbled.
"A zodiac?" Miranda asked.
"Yeah, you know," Andrea briefly gestured with both hands. "A big rubber boat that goes really fast... and bounces off the waves..."
Judging by the bashful aversion of her gaze, Andrea had likely just stopped herself from adding sound effects to her description. Endeared, Miranda watched her squirm, and she could not shake the imagery of Andrea imitating the noise of an engine while making jumping motions with her flattened palms.
"I fished her out of the water right away," Frank chimed in with a chuckle, "but she was inconsolable until I returned her to the shore."
"Yeah," Andrea said, a hand coming up to absently rub the side of her neck. "I think I pretty much clung to my aunt's leg for the rest of that summer."
"Didn't want another thing to do with my boat," Frank conceded as he patted Andrea's shoulder. "You never went out again after that, did ya?"
Andrea shook her head. "Nope. I didn't get over my fear of the ocean until a few years later." The embarrassment in her features transformed into sadness. "But that was when I was no longer allowed to visit."
Miranda's chest ached when she remembered holding a distraught Andrea in her arms just a few days ago, when the younger woman had shared her tragic past. Unbidden, thoughts of her own daughters appeared, and Miranda wondered whether she or any other adult in their lives had ever, mistakenly, made them feel unwanted.
Frank's hand gently squeezed Andrea's shoulder. "I hope you know by now that you were definitely still welcome, whatever your parents told you."
"Yes," Andrea nodded and smiled, the spark returning to her eyes as she looked up at him. "I do now. Thank you."
"Well, I think it's time for dessert," Marie said as she stood to carry the dirty dishes into the kitchen.
Frank rose as well, offering the half-empty bottle of Merlot to Miranda. "More wine?"
"Yes, thank you."
"You know," Frank said to Andrea as he refilled Miranda's glass, "Erica really did miss you. A lot."
He set down the bottle and retook his seat at the head of the table. "We didn't know about what had happened until a few years ago, but it was hard not to notice that she was heartbroken."
Andrea looked saddened again, and Miranda felt the strong urge to just walk around the table and hug her. Instead of making an uncharacteristic and dramatic scene, however, she resorted to seeking out the younger woman's feet under the table, and soothingly ran the tip of her boots up and down Andrea's calf.
Frank, on the other hand, found himself on the receiving end of a 'Grade A' Priestly glare, which, much to Miranda's contentment, still had its desired effect. When Marie returned and observed the ladden silence, she set the dessert down on the table and shook a finger at her husband.
"Frank, what did you do? Did you upset Andy now?"
"As a matter of fact, he did," Miranda said as she crossed her arms. She wasn't exactly surprised by how protective she felt of the younger woman, but drawing a line and putting others in their place when she thought they were harming her Andrea still felt good. Very good.
"Hey, it's okay," Andrea spoke up, the charm and grace with which she smoothed over the awkwardness a testament to her no longer being a child in need of band-aids and treats. "I'm sure he did not mean to."
"Yes," Frank nodded, avoiding Miranda's gaze. "That was not my intention. I'm sorry."
"And I think," Andrea spoke further, her foot reassuringly brushing against Miranda's, "even if it will make me a little sad, I still want to hear about my aunt." She looked first at Marie and then at Frank. "I want to know more about how she was doing after I no longer came to visit."
"Don't worry. We will answer all the questions we can," Marie said with a smile. "But first," she continued while scooping a large piece of pie onto a plate, "please, have some dessert!"
Andrea's eyes widened. "Oh! I remember this pie!"
"Of course you do," Miranda drawled, which earned her a subtle kick to her shins under the table.
"Just wait until you've tasted it," Andrea smirked as she pointed her dessert fork at Miranda. "This is a pie you will never forget."
Generally not someone to succumb to sweet foods, Miranda had to concede that the cherry pie was indeed rather scrumptious. Everything about it was quite perfect; the flavour, the texture, and especially the little hums of delight it elicited in Andrea. As she watched bite after bite disappear between the younger woman's lips, anticipation of the night to come grew inside Miranda. She longed to feel that mouth on hers again, but part of her also revelled in waiting, and in the restraint.
After dinner, the older couple invited them for coffee in the sitting room, and when Andrea chose a seat next to Marie on the wide leather couch, Miranda opted for an armchair by the fire. As soon as she sat down, the family's malamute padded to her side and resolutely lay its head on her knee.
"Boomer, down," Frank commanded, but Miranda held up her hand.
"It's quite alright," she waved him off. "I don't mind."
A brief glance at the couch told her all she needed to know about how Andrea felt about seeing her pet a dog, so, with a satisfied smirk, Miranda settled deeper into the chair and began to gently scratch behind Boomer's ears.
As the evening progressed she contentedly watched and listened from the sideline, and occasionally her mind would wander off. The fire felt pleasant, and the two glasses of wine over dinner, in combination with the soft animal fur against her fingertips, lulled Miranda into a peaceful, unhurried state. She lost herself in the even motion of stroking Boomer's smooth coat, and soon she found her thoughts drifting to Patricia, the twins' St. Bernard. She missed that big, drooling dog terribly.
Patty was almost ten, and although she still had her boisterous and playful moments, age was creeping up on the old girl. Miranda did not want to think too much about what losing that dog would mean for her children. Or for herself. She had spent many evenings at home working by the fire with that large, furry head on her lap, and in hindsight she had to admit that, although she had clearly been in denial at the time, without that dog she would have been unbearably lonely.
"Miranda?" Andrea's voice was suddenly close by. "Are you ready to go?"
The younger woman was right by her side and rested a gentle hand on her shoulder.
"Hmm?" Her mind scrambling to get back to the present, Miranda looked up. She felt slightly guilty for not paying attention and apparently missing most of the conversation. "Yes."
Boomer was not happy, and he began to whine when she gave him a final pat and stood.
"Down, Boy!" Marie instructed, and the dog obeyed and quietly padded over to his owner's side.
"I'm sorry, Boomer, but I'm gonna take her home now, okay?" Andrea said, and she smiled at Miranda, who felt her cheeks quickly warm in response.
Andrea is taking me home.
Only the decades worth of learned and perfected social skills kept Miranda from grabbing Andrea and rushing out of the house.
"Marie, Frank, thank you very much for your invitation and for the lovely evening," she politely addressed their hosts. "I had a wonderful time."
"It was our pleasure," Frank replied when he, slightly stiffly, shook her hand.
"Maybe sometime next week you could come over to the cabin for an early Christmas dinner?" Andrea offered. "Unless you already have plans, of course."
What if we already have plans? Miranda thought impatiently.
She was happy that Andrea had reconnected with Marie and Frank after all those years, and especially that the older couple were able to answer quite a lot of her questions. But now it was time to go home.
Determined, she retrieved Andrea's coat and the cerulean jacket from the clothing hooks by the entrance, but instead of joining her, Andrea was lured into the kitchen by the promise of takeaway pie.
Frank took that opportunity to approach her alone, and as Miranda slipped into the jacket he waited and stared at her intently. It wasn't exactly hostile, but he looked serious enough.
"I hope I'm not out of line here, because I don't really know you," he said, his voice low, "but I think you realise that it is very uncommon for an assistant to take her boss on vacation."
Miranda felt her hands, still stuck in the jacket sleeves, ball into fists. What was he playing at? As far as she knew they had not spoken about their situation all evening. Neither Runway, nor anyone's employment or unemployment had come up.
"Andy has a big heart, and she's been through alot in her young life," Frank continued. "Both Marie and I care about her. If you happen to have any dishonorable intentions, if your aim is to exploit her, or her inheritance," there was a low-burning fire in his eyes now, which cautioned Miranda, "I must strongly advise you to rethink your actions."
Torn between her natural instinct to verbally lash out and intimidate, and the realisation that Andrea had people outside her family who loved her and watched out for her, Miranda bit her tongue and carefully weighed her words.
"You are correct. You don't know me." She squinted at him and pushed her fists the final inches through the sleeves. "But since it seems that you have Andrea's best interest at heart, I will let your rather insulting insinuations slide."
She zipped up the jacket.
"As for Andrea being my employee, that is no longer the case," her eyes bore into him.
"She is my friend, and I...," she swallowed, suddenly aware that she was about to voice her feelings to another person, a stranger no less.
She adjusted the collar and hood of the jacket, and took a deep breath before quietly continuing, "I care about her. So much more than you could possibly understand."
For a moment they looked at each other in silence, until Andrea and Marie emerged from the kitchen.
"Good," Frank then said, and there was a smile on his face that spoke of agreement and sympathy as he gave Miranda's shoulder a pat.
"Ready?" Andrea asked cheerfully as she handed Miranda a plastic food container in exchange for her coat.
"Ready," Miranda answered, and she gave a final nod to Marie and Frank before reaching for the door.
Finally, she thought as the freezing night air greeted her.
"Goodnight," the younger woman called out behind her, and Miranda heard the door close.
Andrea hurried to Miranda's side, and they followed the narrow path towards the trees, away from Marie's and Frank's porch light, and into darkness.
When they walked down the path through the trees, Andrea stopped and looked up at the sky.
"Wow, look at the stars," she whispered in awe.
But Miranda didn't look up. She looked at Andrea. Thanks to the moonless night all she could see was the younger woman's outline. Their breaths, faintly illuminated by starlight, mingled between them, and Miranda felt frost nibble at her cheeks and nose. She imagined what Andrea's chilled skin would feel like against her own.
"I forgot how beautiful they are," Andrea said, still gazing up. "When you live in the city you get blinded by all that artificial light," she continued, and Miranda listened, mesmerized by how the sound of Andrea's voice travelled within the freezing air. "And after a while you no longer know to look up." She gestured at the sky. "But look at them. Magnificent!"
"It is humbling," Miranda whispered, still facing Andrea. She understood the trap of complacency, of getting so caught up in life that you forgot the ability to wonder.
However, at that moment Miranda felt full of wonder. And it wasn't the billions of stars forming the Milky Way, stretching across the sky like the spine of a great whale, that had her pulse quicken in appreciation. It was this one woman standing right beside her, who was every bit as fascinating and inspiring to Miranda as the cosmos itself.
Miranda's empty hand reached out, and when her fingers brushed against Andrea's face, the younger woman abandoned the heavens and immediately leaned into her touch. When Miranda moved closer, blindly searching for the lips she longed to kiss again, their noses collided and Andrea giggled against her cheek. But then they found each other, the cover of darkness chasing off potential shyness or hesitation as their mouths finally came together again.
The romance of the setting was not lost on Miranda, and she felt almost giddy that at her age, and after pretty much resigning herself to a life without all-encompassing, lasting love, she still, somehow, found herself graced with this one chance, this promise of something absolutely magical.
She pressed closer, both arms snaking around Andrea so quickly that she nearly lost her grip on the food container in her hand.
"Hey, don't drop the pie!" Andrea breathed as she smiled against her lips.
"Hmm," Miranda rolled her eyes at the silliness, but then whispered in return. "Oh, I see where I stand."
Boldly, she swiped her tongue across Andrea's lower lip, desire coursing through her abdomen when the younger woman gasped and trembled in response.
"Let's get your pie to safety then," Miranda said, aware that her teasing had an effect on both of them.
Her fingers slid down Andrea's coat sleeve to firmly take her hand. "Come on."
A sweet kiss to her burning cheek was all the response she needed, and she gently tugged Andrea along the path down to the cabin. Their muted footsteps and the crashing of waves against the shore below accompanied them as they walked in silence, words not needed to convey their mutual anticipation of things to come.
Once they were inside Miranda started to get the fire going while Andrea stored the pie in the fridge and made them both another cup of coffee. Miranda did not question how natural it felt to return home with Andrea after an evening out, or how easily they fell into an unforced and wordless domestic rhythm.
"Here you go."
Having Andrea bring her coffee was something Miranda knew she'd probably never tire of. Somewhere along the lines, long before Paris, it had become one of those soothing, reliable constants in her life. She didn't need to worry about timing, whether the coffee had the wrong temperature or its flavour would be too weak. Andrea always got it just right. Not because she was overly skilled in making coffee, but, and this was something Miranda only now fully realised, because Andrea cared; she paid real attention, and she understood.
With a smile, Miranda accepted the steaming cup. "Thank you."
They sat down on the couch, side by side so that their legs touched, and Miranda wrapped an arm around Andrea, who, mindful of the coffee in Miranda's other hand, snuggled close. To someone whose life up until then had been a non-stop race, sitting together so peacefully, so quietly, revealed a simplicity that felt like it could very well be the answer to everything. As far back as she could remember Miranda had always been striding, hurrying from one goal to the next without pause, because standing still meant relinquishing control.
Now, as she gazed into the fire and Andrea tenderly stroked the back of her hand, Miranda was bathed in a stillness she had not experienced before. It didn't frighten her. She felt at ease, without the slightest urge to run. And oh yes, she had plans to move forward, but now she knew that instead of constantly fighting against the stream, she could simply swim along with the currents created by the people in her life who mattered.
The flames in the fireplace gently swayed, and the wood popped and crackled as the fire gradually warmed the room.
"This is really nice," Andrea sighed.
Miranda turned to kiss the top of her head. "Yes. It is."
"Do you think it could be like this in New York?" Andrea asked quietly, and for a moment Miranda wasn't entirely sure what she was referring to.
"What do you mean?"
"This," Andrea took a deep breath. "You and me. Together. Like this."
Pictures of her old life fluttered through her mind, and Miranda tried to imagine what the changes to her career and home situation would feel like back in Manhattan. So far she had avoided thinking about returning to what she had viewed as nothing but ruins. But now as she allowed herself to see things from a different angle, images of Andrea at the townhouse with the twins came to her so easily.
"I would like that," she whispered into Andrea's hair. "Very much."
Andrea leaned up to kiss her and then said, a smile on her lips, "Me too."
"It's strange," she then continued thoughtfully, her hand stroking up and down Miranda's arm. "When I booked our flights to come here I believed that this was the last time I would ever see you. That on top of everything else I would lose you as well."
"Hmm." Miranda sniffed softly, her fingers caressing Andrea's neck. "And here I was, actually shocked that you, unlike everybody else, decided to stay with me in the first place."
"Of course I stayed," Andrea whispered. "I wasn't fully aware of it at the time, but you were already a part of me. Leaving voluntarily was not an option."
Miranda thought back to Paris and the days after their return to New York, and how Andrea hadn't strayed from her side even for a moment. Knowing now what she hadn't been aware of then, it was even more remarkable that despite her own life falling to pieces, Andrea had made Miranda her priority.
"Thank you," she nuzzled Andrea's temple. "Thank you for everything."
Overcome by gratitude, she set her cup down on the coffee table and wrapped both her arms around the younger woman.
"Without you I wouldn't have coped," she sniffled, eyes brimming with tears as her mind skirted the devastating alternative of Andrea no longer being with her.
"I don't believe that, Miranda," Andrea said, her own damp face pressing against Miranda's neck. "You are a strong woman. I'm sure you would have managed."
Miranda took a deep breath, inhaling Andrea's soothing, familiar scent as they held each other close.
"Oh, you have no idea how important you are."
Andrea tilted back her head and looked at Miranda through glistening, lowered lashes.
"Then tell me," she whispered, her voice cracking.
Love welled up inside Miranda, and she gently cupped Andrea's face and kissed her. The words would come, very soon, but for now she just needed to convey through actions to this wonderful, caring creature in her arms how truly precious she was. Her thumbs brushed over Andrea's cheeks and her lips lingered for a while, warmly pressing against Andrea's mouth.
When Miranda slowly drew back, the younger woman's eyes remained shut, and she swayed a little as her lips parted with a sigh. For someone who had earned a big part of her living for so many years by describing countless desirable clothes, accessories or people, Miranda found her vocabulary utterly insufficient to accurately capture the beautiful vision before her.
Chest heaving under the weight of her emotions, Miranda took Andrea's hands.
"I thought I was done," she spoke softly, head tilting to the side when Andrea's eyes fluttered open to gaze at her attentively. "No more women. No more... dalliances thatalways turned out to mean far less to me than I was willing to risk."
Andrea frowned, but Miranda gently stroked over the back of her hands and continued.
"Oh, yes. I've been with women," she looked down and briefly pursed her lips, preparing herself for the truth she had never before shared with another human being by saying the actual words. "In fact, I have only been with women."
Miranda could almost see the confusion as it struggled to turn the cogs in Andrea's head.
"But what about...?"
"Jeremy? My daughters?"
"Just as with Stephen," Miranda smiled sadly, "Jeremy was a tactical choice, a means to pave a secure road through unstable territory. After my first ten years at Runway, some of the board members started to question my being unattached. Not to mention that although it was in the nineties, as an unmarried woman I still faced a lot of sexism in high places."
The younger woman looked pained, and Miranda reached up to gently brush some stray hairs from her face.
"I knew Jeremy from my time in Europe," she continued. "I needed someone to play a husband and he needed a Green Card. It wasn't ideal, but we made the arrangement work. For a while, at least."
Now it was her turn to grimace, and Andrea reassuringly squeezed her hand.
"I wanted to be a mother, and Jeremy, with his handsome looks and musical talent, seemed like a good donor choice, perfect for the picture I tried to uphold. So, we came to an agreement. Many frustrating visits to fertility clinics followed, until, finally," she sighed, "my two little darlings arrived."
Andrea smiled at that, and Miranda knew she did not have to explain how much her daughters meant to her.
"Jeremy wasn't very interested at the beginning, but when the girls were around two he started to warm up, and, quite surprisingly, he turned out to be a good father. So, when he fell in love and we divorced in order for him to pursue a real relationship, he wanted partial custody. It was only fair, even if I wasn't exactly thrilled."
"Although he's remarried now and doesn't always make time for them, the girls adore him. We agreed that the choice of where to live should be up to them, but I never really believed that they would pick him... over me."
Before she could sink back into the remnants of self-pity at her daughters' abandonment, Andrea took her in her arms and kissed her deeply.
"They will be back," the younger woman whispered against Miranda's cheek between kisses, her fingers tenderly sliding through Miranda's hair. "They love you."
"I know," Miranda said, but although she had hope, it proved difficult to be fully optimistic. "I just don't want to be the parent they only see every other weekend."
"You won't be."
Andrea held her tightly, and Miranda revelled in the feeling of being cherished and understood. She wondered whether the people she had been close to in her past had just never truly seen her, or whether it was only now, after her life had been stripped bare, that she was capable of fully allowing another person inside. Part of her wanted to believe that Andrea was special. And whereas circumstances had certainly caused Miranda to lower her guard, she was convinced that Andrea had made a real effort to know her better than anyone else ever had.
"Are the twins aware?" Andrea asked then. "You know, of the truth about Stephen and their dad?"
"I don't think so," Miranda said as she gave it some thought. "We never told them anything, but I can't entirely exclude the possibility that they picked up on things."
"They are smart little buggers," Andrea said with a smile, and Miranda felt a little proud.
"Yes, they are."
Then she grew contemplative.
"The last woman I dated was back when the girls were five or six. I was careful, though, and I don't think they were old enough to understand the insinuations in the papers when things ended... less amiably. As for the others... they all happened before my daughters were born."
Miranda didn't really want think about her past relationships. She considered none of them a mistake per se, but with her mind so strictly focused on her career she had never been fully invested in her lovers. Often she had ended, what she now considered barely more than affairs, when they felt too restrictive. Yes, she had enjoyed the flutters of romance and the physical intimacies, but she had never depended on them.
"How many were there?" Andrea suddenly whispered, and Miranda could hear traces of anxiety in her tone.
"Oh... well," the younger woman pushed her face against Miranda's neck. "That is not a lot at all. You made it sound like... well..."
"Like I left behind a trail of bodies?" Miranda snorted.
Andrea squirmed a bit and then sheepishly kissed Miranda's cheek. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to be nosy."
"You are allowed to ask me things, you know," Miranda said with a smile while she curled her fingers into Andrea's hair and lightly scratched her scalp. "And I want you to know about my past."
"Okay," was mumbled against her neck. "Thank you."
They sat quietly for a minute or so, before Andrea raised her head and looked at Miranda thoughtfully.
"When did you know that you liked women?"
Growing quite comfortable talking about this, Miranda took a moment to really ponder the question.
"I didn't. At least until I was in my twenties. Boys and men just never interested me, and the concept of romance as a whole... well, let's just say I saw no point in it when I was young."
She smirked at Andrea's incredulous look.
"I had my studies, and then work. I knew what I wanted, and I was driven, wanting to be the very best at anything I wished to achieve. That puzzling game of dating and courtship that my contemporaries played seemed to me a waste of time. It wasn't until I moved to Paris in the early seventies that my mind was even open to the possibility of women being an option."
"Wow," Andrea gazed at her with a mixture of astonishment and adoration. "Miranda Priestly, a late-bloomer. I never would have guessed."
"I will have you know that I was quite the mousy wallflower."
"I'm not sure I believe that," Andrea smiled, her index finger gently stroking Miranda's bottom lip. "You are so confident now, and... you know," she blushed. "So incredibly sexy."
A spark ignited the slumbering desire in Miranda's belly at the way Andrea looked at her then.
"That took years of practice," she whispered against Andrea's fingers, before softly kissing each digit and then leaning forward, her breath caressing the younger woman's slightly parted mouth.
"I hope I don't disappoint you," Andrea said, insecurity suddenly crossing her features. "I've only ever been with one person."
"The scoundrel chef who tossed you on the street?" Miranda heard herself practically growl.
Andrea made a pained expression. "Yeah." She rested her hands flat against Miranda's breast bone, and the warmth from her palms quickly mellowed Miranda's rage at the cook.
"And, you know... before you," Andrea continued as she shyly gazed at her fingers, "I hadn't really thought of women... in a sexual way yet either."
Miranda's heart skipped a beat as the words sunk in. Of course she had succeeded in reading the signs, but hearing the confirmation fall from the younger woman's lips caused Miranda's cheeks to burn and the ache in her lower abdomen to grow.
"You're nervous," she realised, and Andrea leaned her forehead against her collarbone and exhaled sharply.
"Oh god, yes."
A tension Miranda hadn't known was there fell from her shoulders, causing her lips to widen in a relieved grin. She felt like giggling.
"That makes two of us."
With a kiss to Andrea's hair, she stood and pulled the smiling young woman along with her across the room where she had spotted a turntable a few days ago.
"How about we start with some music, hmm?"
Music: The songs they are listening to are "When You're smilin'" and "Tenderly", both performed by Billie Holiday.
Leaning forward, Miranda used her index finger to carefully push the pickup arm into position, and Andy watched in fascination how the needle slowly lowered itself onto the spinning record.
When the characteristic dust crackles came from the speakers, Miranda straightened, turned around and extended a hand.
"Care to dance?"
Andy, cheeks ablaze, could only nod.
A lively piano intro filled the cabin, and Andy's heart fluttered apprehensively when she was pulled into Miranda's arms. Soon, a muted trumpet and the rest of the big band joined in the well-known, jazzy tune, and when Miranda slid one hand down to Andy's hip and grasped her free hand with the other, Andy felt herself swoon.
Miranda smiled at her with encouragement and warmth. Her earlier admitted nervousness was barely betrayed by her confident movements, and Andy felt herself become completely unraveled by the older woman's charme.
"When you're smilin', when you're smilin', the whole world smiles with you."
Andy wasn't a born dancer, and unless one counted the randomised flailing of limbs at college parties she had no real experience either. But as Miranda securely led her across the wooden floorboards, their hips moving from side to side to the quick, happy rhythm, Andy thought she'd never want to do anything else ever again.
"When you're laughing, when you're laughing, the sun comes shining through."
Miranda's eyes were twinkling, and biting her bottom lip, she alternately shimmied each shoulder to the side in a way that Andy found absolutely adorable, making her feel so giddy she couldn't stop grinning.
"But when you're crying, you bring on the rain. So stop your sighing, be happy again! Keep on smilin', cause when you're smilin', the whole world smiles with you."
They continued to dance through the piano solo, and when Miranda suddenly wiggled her eyebrows to the rhythm Andy finally lost it. Heartily, she laughed away the rest of her nerves and hugged Miranda tightly. Miranda then curled her arms around Andy's waist and kept swaying the both of them to the rhythm while Andy giggled against her warm neck.
Who would have ever thought that behind Miranda's cultivated and aloof exterior was such a wealth of humour and silliness? Of course Andy had seen glimpses of that playfulness during the prior months, but then again she had also consciously paid attention when others had not. Sharing this side of herself wasn't something Miranda did lightly, and Andy understood that it spoke of trust and a feeling of familiarity that she still could not believe herself worthy of.
The song ended, and with a sigh Andy stroked her hands over Miranda's shoulder blades and down her back. A saxophone and trumpet began playing a new, much slower tune, and Miranda stepped forward and pulled their bodies together as Billie Holiday started to gently sing.
"The evening breeze, caress' the trees, tenderly. The trembling trees, embrace the breeze, tenderly."
They swayed together, like two Douglas firs gently brushing against one another in the coastal winter wind.
"Then you and I, came wandering by, and lost in a sigh, were we."
Andy could feel the entire length of Miranda's legs pressing against her own, and their socked feet slid together as Miranda so very carefully guided her in front of the fireplace. Had it not been for the excited beating of her heart, the heat from the fire and the soothing warmth of the woman in her arms would have probably lulled Andy to sleep. She felt cherished and at peace in a way she hadn't felt since her childhood.
"The shore was kissed, by sea and mist, tenderly. I can't forget, how two hearts met, breathlessly."
Miranda rubbed her nose against Andy's cheek, causing the younger woman to lift her head from her shoulder and gaze back.
"Your arms open wide, and close me inside."
Andy felt the arms around her tighten, and, shyly, she mirrored Miranda's radiant smile.
"You took my lips, you took my love, so tenderly."
Then Miranda's mouth sought out Andy's, and they met in a tender kiss that eventually stilled the movement of their feet. As the music continued they remained in front of the fire, firmly wrapped around one another. Their lips came together in a dance of their own, slow and very gentle, until suddenly Miranda ran the tip of her tongue across Andy's lower lip.
Just as previously, outside under the stars, the sensation had Andy tremble and she gasped as sharp desire shot through every nerve ending. This time, however, Miranda wasn't teasing, and while Andy stood rigidly, fingers tightly curling into the wool of the older woman's sweater, Miranda slid her tongue past Andy's lips and into her mouth.
For a few moments Andy couldn't react. She was too entranced by what the delicious friction of Miranda's tentative strokes let loose inside of her. After a while, though, she felt a hand tug at the back of her neck, and Miranda gradually deepened the kiss, coaxing Andy to finally meet her tongue with caresses of her own.
Andy felt her nostrils flare as she took a deep breath through her nose to steady herself. Her knees had gone weak, but Miranda safely held her upright as with each stroke their kiss grew in intensity. Andy found she had no time for insecurities, because the doubt she had about her kissing skills was completely wiped away by the guttural groan Miranda released when Andy carefully closed her lips around Miranda's tongue and sucked.
Long forgotten was the music. All Andy could hear was Miranda's panting, the sliding of hands over wool and skin, and the rich noises of their lips and tongues upon each other. Her entire body was buzzing, her cheeks burning, and judging by the tremors she felt running through Miranda's body, neither one of them would remain standing for much longer. They would need to sit down. Soon.
"M'randa," she breathed against the older woman's mouth, but Miranda clearly had no mind for talking and instead she greedily sucked Andy's tongue into her mouth.
And just like that Andy's knees gave way. Miranda's hands grasping her biceps somewhat slowed Andy's descend, and together they sunk down until they were kneeling on the soft rug that covered the floor between the couch and the fireplace.
Still holding onto Andy's arms, Miranda burst into a laugh. It was a rich, heavy laughter that sounded so natural and true that Andy found it impossible to feel insulted by the older woman's sudden outburst. So instead, she joined in, a giggly shriek bubbling from her chest when Miranda suddenly pushed her over.
"Ooof," was all Andy managed when she fell onto her back.
Miranda smirked as she gracefully crawled on top of her. Holding herself up, hands pushing into the soft rug to either side of Andy's chest, Miranda then slipped one leg between Andy's and very gently lowered her hips. She gazed down at Andy with a mixture of mischief and a low-boiling hunger that was so enticing that Andy impatiently reached for her and pulled her into another kiss.
Andy was in heaven. Miranda's weight pinning her down, that sweet, teasing pressure between her thighs and Miranda's demanding tongue stroking inside her mouth were almost too much. But Andy allowed herself to fully give in, palms sliding over Miranda's back, holding her close as they lost themselves in the embrace of their tongues.
At some point Andy became aware of the heat of the fire permeating her woollen socks and warming the soles of her feet, but to her surprise it didn't make her feel panicked or anxious. In fact, when Miranda playfully rubbed her toes against her ankle, Andy actually felt like purring. She couldn't remember ever feeling this comfortable and happy before in her life.
Unbidden, memories of Nate appeared in her mind, only to be dismissed, almost with pity, by the intensity of what Miranda made her feel. The comparison itself was ludicrous, and yet it strengthened Andy in her conviction that this was absolutely right. This was how love was supposed to feel.
Miranda suddenly released her lips, and Andy realised that as her thoughts had raced on their kiss had slowed. Gentle fingers combed through Andy's hair and caressed her cheeks, and Miranda leaned on one elbow and gazed down at her.
"Where did you go?" She asked quietly, her voice kind, without accusation. She tenderly brushed a few stray hairs from Andy's forehead and continued, "you suddenly seemed miles away."
"Huh... oh... I'm sorry," Andy whispered hoarsely, barely louder than the crackling of the fire.
She reached up to caress Miranda's lips with the tip of her right index finger.
"I just..." she trailed off when her eyes began to burn. "You make me feel so safe."
Miranda grasped Andy's wrist and gently, reassuringly, kissed her palm.
"When I'm with you like this," Andy continued, voice breaking as a single tear rolled down her cheek, "I feel like nothing bad can happen to me." She took a shuddering breath. "I've never had that."
Wordlessly, Miranda rolled onto her side and took Andy into her arms. A hand soothingly rubbed at the back of Andy's head, and she clung to Miranda in return, both arms firmly clasped around Miranda's waist as she pressed her face against her warm, satiny neck. Gentle kisses were pressed to her hair and Andy inhaled deeply, taking in Miranda's scent and revelling in the closeness between them.
"I want to say I'm sorry," Miranda quietly said, "that the cook boy didn't take proper care of you." One of her hands stroked down Andy's side and came to rest at the small of her back. "But then I'd be lying. In truth, I am quite glad that he was inadequate."
She first nuzzled, and then kissed Andy's cheek. "Or else you wouldn't be here right now."
"Miranda," Andy whispered against her throat. "I'm not here because Nate was wrong for me." She squeezed the woman in her arms. "I'm here because you are right for me."
Miranda pulled away and rested her head on her arm, looking at Andy with shining eyes. Love fluttered unstoppably in Andy's heart, and she leaned in to kiss Miranda once more, tenderly, lips lingering for a few seconds before she withdrew.
"He was never a match for you. And somehow he knew that."
Reading the question in Miranda's gaze, Andy thought back to the night of her breakup.
"Remember when you asked me to come to Paris?"
Miranda nodded and Andy slid one of her hands up and into the short hairs at the back of Miranda's neck, fingers lightly scratching.
"When I told Nate I wanted to go with you, he broke up with me."
The older woman's eyebrows rose.
"We had an argument about my devotion, not to my work, but to you. Then, right at that moment, you called me. When I reached for my phone to answer Nate got even angrier, and he said that the person whose calls I always took was the person I was in a relationship with."
She rubbed her foot against Miranda's.
"I didn't even question it. I picked up the phone... and he gave up and walked away."
"Smart boy," Miranda murmured, eyes focusing on Andy's lips.
"He actually said, 'I hope you two are very happy together.'"
"Well then," Miranda whispered, her breath caressing Andy's mouth. "Let's not disappoint cook boy." And she leaned in and kissed Andy again, more demanding this time, almost as if making sure to stake her claim. Andy readily accepted her tongue, meeting every stroke. The hand at her back slipped beneath her sweater and she felt Miranda's thumb caress her bare skin, causing her to gasp at the fire it ignited between her thighs.
"You know," she breathed distractedly against Miranda's lips, "it's kind of funny how he picked up on my feelings for you before I did."
Miranda pressed their lips together one more time and then leaned back to caress Andy's face.
"So your... uhm... feelings for me," Miranda said carefully, "are not a recent occurrence?"
"No, I don't think they are," Andy replied, suddenly aware of what she had just revealed, not only to the older woman but also to herself. Her gaze wandered back to the collar of Miranda's sweater which she found herself tracing again with her fingertips. "I've been pretty obsessed with you ever since I started working at Runway. Just ask my so-called friends."
At that, Miranda sweetly kissed the tip of her nose, and overcome with emotions, Andy snuggled back into her embrace.
"I just hadn't figured out this whole gay thing yet," she mumbled, unsure why she felt so embarrassed. "In hindsight there were many clues. I guess with everything that was going on I just didn't have time for self-reflection."
She remembered receiving notice of her aunt's death, of constantly fighting with Nate and her former friends, and of burying herself in work to forget about the stress of her personal life. Her focus on her job and Miranda actually being the reason why she had been able to keep going. Hugging the older woman tightly, she slowly exhaled.
"And now, when I look back, I cannot separate what I have recently come to realise, from how it was then."
"What do you mean?" Miranda asked softly, her thumb still gently stroking Andy's lower back.
"Well, you know... I remember certain outfits you were wearing, and suddenly all I can think about is how much skin you were showing, or how a specific dress... hugged your hips," she trailed off and hid her flushed face against Miranda's neck. "I should have known. I mean, I did think you were very beautiful... it just... it didn't fully sink in."
Miranda just held her then, seemingly lost in thoughts of her own as she continued to caress Andy's skin. Her breathing returning to normal, Andy simply enjoyed the cuddling and she contentedly listened to Miranda's heartbeat and the crackling fire.
"That day in summer, with the Harry Potter book," Miranda suddenly spoke. "That was the first time you got under my skin."
"You were wearing that army green Calvin Klein cotton dress... with the buttons in front," Miranda drew a hissed breath that tickled in Andy's ear as well as in her lower abdomen. "And you defied me."
Miranda shifted against her.
"You defied me. And I liked it."
Andy's pulse pounded in her ears at those words, and she leaned back to look at Miranda's slightly flushed face.
"But... but that was months ago."
Miranda bit her bottom lip and gazed back at Andy through lowered lashes. "It was."
Unsure of what to do with that information, Andy just stared, her ears burning.
"I don't normally allow my assistants to distract me... in that way," the older woman continued with a purse of her lips. "I never have before."
Her thumb traced the waistline at the back of Andy's pants, partially slipping underneath.
"Despite preferring women in my bed, I don't usually, in everyday life, think of them in... sexual terms."
Andy swallowed hard. At Runway Miranda had often been surrounded by models, in all states of undress. How was it even possible that Miranda had not been affected by them?
"None of them ever had the power to break through that barrier between my professional life and my private life," Miranda continued. "Until you."
Her thumb stilled, and she pressed her warm palm against the small of Andy's back as her gaze turned vulnerable.
"It takes a lot, especially in recent years, for me to consider someone in personal terms, let alone... in such an intimate capacity."
Her lips then drew into a tiny smile.
"But then you came. The one assistant who talked back and questioned me. Who wasn't afraid to speak her mind... or even outsmart me. That was entirely new."
Eyes softening, Miranda lowered her chin, and instinctively Andy reached up to caress her face.
"You affected me," Miranda breathed. "And of course I tried to ignore it; my control over the magazine was slipping and I had no time to indulge in fantasies."
She leaned into Andy's touch and gazed at her rather cheekily.
"At least not often."
"What?!" Andy stared, mouth slackened in disbelief.
"I've had occasional intimate dreams about you," Miranda admitted as her eyes wandered over Andy's mouth and her fingers continued their earlier caress of Andy's lower back.
"But they were nothing emotional. Not then. I would not allow it."
She looked back into Andy's eyes.
"The idea that you could possibly harbour any kind of... affection for me was just... unthinkable."
Andy leaned forward to gently rub their noses together.
"But here I am. Full of affection for you." She smiled widely. "I'm bursting with it."
Miranda raised an eyebrow.
Andy eagerly nodded, causing Miranda to smirk.
"Well, let me see if I can do something about that."
She firmly kissed Andy's lips, tongue sliding with determination until Andy quickly and willingly granted entrance.
It was exhilarating to know that Miranda had been drawn to her for quite awhile, even if Miranda's lack of confidence in Andy's potential feelings filled her with a bit of sadness. Then again, if she were to be honest she wasn't sure how she would have reacted if Miranda had dared to make advances months ago. In a way, being alone with Miranda at this secluded location had paved the way for them to connect on an altogether different level. With life as they had known it stripped away, everything had become a lot clearer. Andy considered that it would have taken much longer to admit to herself what Miranda meant to her back in New York.
They kissed languidly, holding each other close as they slowly became experts in the textures, tastes and movements of each other's mouths. Andy felt herself blossom, eagerly embracing all these wonderful new sensations that were coursing through her body, while her mind felt completely at ease. Her heart and soul were wide open, but she did not feel exposed. Miranda appeared to wrap her into a safe cocoon, a capsule that protected her fully from the world.
Andy pressed closer, revelling in their physical connection. Everything about Miranda felt familiar. And so right. Andy realised that over the past few months she had come to greatly rely on the older woman. She had not been aware of the intensity, nor the true nature of her growing attachment, but she had slowly developed a trust in Miranda that, given the fashion maven's reputation for ruthlessness and ownership of an icy heart, would have surprised anyone.
However, Andy had known, even then, that there was so much more to Miranda. It had taken a month or two for the culture shock of working at Runway to settle, and for Andy to swallow her pride, but from then on she had kept seeing past Miranda's orchestrated work persona, growing fonder of the woman behind the mask with every day.
To now be this close to Miranda, to solidify this bond between them through intimate touch and kisses, quickly became Andy's top priority. Although she lacked some details and technicalities within her imagination, Andy knew she needed more. Gripping the older woman tightly, she intensified their kiss, stroking harder against Miranda's tongue. Miranda responded by pulling at Andy's hips and softly moaning into Andy's mouth, the vibration of the sound resonating deeply within Andy's chest.
Then Miranda's hand sneaked fully below the waistline of Andy's pants, where it began to leisurely massage Andy's left buttock.
"Oh...," Andy groaned against Miranda who didn't stop their kiss, nor the movement of her hand.
The warmth of her palm permeated the thin fabric of Andy's underwear, and for a second Andy panicked as she remembered that instead of silk or lace, she was wearing simple cotton briefs. Miranda did not seem to mind, though, since one of her fingers slipped under the material and began to stroke over bare skin.
"Hmmm... M'randa...," Andy trembled at the intimacy. It felt so wonderful that she didn't know what to do with herself. Grabbing Miranda by the shoulders, she simply tried to hold on, meeting the sensual caresses of Miranda's tongue as best as she could while the devious finger travelled further and further.
Suddenly Miranda broke their kiss and stilled her finger. Panting slightly, she buried her face in the crook of Andy's neck.
"Oh god, what am I doing?"
Her hand withdrew, and Andy immediately missed it.
"I'm so sorry," Miranda whispered.
"What? Why?" Andy cradled Miranda's head against her shoulder and tenderly stroked through her hair. She felt confused and a little frustrated. Miranda had come so close to touching...
"I'm not usually this aggressive," Miranda mumbled apologetically.
"Hey. Miranda," Andy kissed her temple. "It's okay. I didn't mind!"
"But I moved so fast. I didn't even notice what I was doing until you pretty much froze up."
"Oh," feeling guilty, Andy hugged the older woman tightly. "I didn't mean to. I just... all those sensations were so overwhelming. I didn't know what to focus on."
Miranda moved her head to look into Andy's eyes.
"That is not excuse for my... behaviour. I clawed you like a horny teenager!" That caused Andy to laugh, and even Miranda's concerned facial expression allowed for a small smile. "I just... I can't seem to help myself when it comes to you."
"It really is okay, Miranda," Andy reassured her. "I want you to touch me."
She gently kissed her mouth while rolling her hips forward.
"But this is all new to me," Andy continued. "And not just the woman part."
She snuggled against Miranda's soft neck.
"You make me feel so many things... good things... that I have never felt before. I think I just need some time to process."
Cupping both of Andy's cheeks, Miranda leaned forward to kiss the tip of her nose.
"We have all the time in the world, darling," she whispered as her hands slipped around Andy's back. "I just need to learn not to be too greedy."
"I think I like it when you're greedy, though," Andy replied. "At least when it comes to me," she grinned.
"Duly noted," Miranda smirked in return, and she captured Andy's lips once more.
They kissed for a few more minutes, less frantic this time. It did nothing to calm the fire in Andy's abdomen, but at least now it was on a low boil instead of nearing nuclear meltdown.
After a while, Miranda seemed to become a little restless, though, and concerned, Andy gently released her lips and asked if she was alright.
"Hmm, yes... just," the older woman looked reluctant to admit to it, "the hardness of the floor is starting to get to me." Reaching down, she rubbed her own hip and groaned in discomfort. "How about we move to the couch?"
Andy disentangled their limbs and was the first to stand. Worried, she held out her hand to help the older woman up.
There was a moment of hesitation as Miranda regarded the hand, but soon her fingers encircled Andy's wrist and she allowed herself to be pulled off the floor and into waiting arms.
"It's... odd," she said as they settled onto the couch.
"What is?" Andy asked, slightly distracted by the silky feel of Miranda's cheek against her own as she nuzzled the older woman's earlobe.
"I...," Miranda paused, searching for either the right words, or the courage to say what was on her mind.
"Hey." Encouragingly, Andy kissed her cheekbone. "You can tell me."
"Hmm. Well, maybe it's not that strange, considering everything else..." Miranda murmured, her fingers lightly scratching Andy's scalp. "I usually loathe it when I am reminded of my age. You know... when my body shows it is no longer twenty. Especially when someone else is close enough to witness such... shortcomings."
There was a humourless snort, and Andy lifted her head to gaze at the older woman. Shortcomings? Could Miranda really be that insecure about her age?
"But when you offer to help me," Miranda's eyes were shining in the glow of the fire, "I don't feel weak, because I find neither triumph nor pity when you look at me. Not now...," she tilted her head and chewed her bottom lip."Not in Paris."
The image of Miranda in that bathrobe returned unbidden, and Andy closed her eyes to allow the emotions it evoked to flow through her. Back then she had thought Miranda heartbroken over a marriage. The sympathy and kindness Andy had felt for her had definitely been real. However, now she also recognised the love she hadn't previously understood. It was there, its fine, deep red thread winding through pretty much every one of their interactions over the past months.
"I could never pity you, Miranda," she breathed as she blinked her eyes open. Fingers reaching up to caress Miranda's face, she slowly exhaled. "Seeing you devastated over losing the most important things in your life made my heart ache, but not once did it cause me to think less of you. Quite the contrary, in fact."
Miranda leaned into her touch and smiled.
"When it comes to what you referred to as... 'shortcomings'," she bashfully averted her eyes, "I... I think you are perfect just the way you are."
She felt Miranda kiss her palm and returned her gaze to find tears, resting like small, beautiful pearls upon the older woman's eyelashes.
"And for the record," Andy continued in a whisper, slightly overwhelmed by Miranda being so touched by her words. "That floor is damn hard. You were not the only one getting uncomfortable."
Miranda snorted and blinked away her tears before gently prodding Andy's hip.
"Ah, but that is because you are a bit bony, Andrea."
"Hey!" Andy pouted. "I know of at least one person who used to call me 'fat'."
The finger on her hip stopped poking her, and instead her waist was encircled by firm arms.
"I'm very sorry about that," Miranda said quietly. "I... hmmm, I do not truly mean those kinds of things. I just," she looked away. "I tend to have a knack for finding people's vulnerable spots, and when I feel overwhelmed by a situation I often hit where it hurts the most."
Andy knew this. It was a defense mechanism that had helped keep the people in Miranda's work life at a safe enough distance. Not once had Andy believed that Miranda truly thought of Emily as "stupid", or that she had lost all faith in Paul or Jocelyn, just because they might have had a bad day. And yet, that one comment about her weight at the beginning of her time at Runway had hit Andy harder than she would have liked to admit. Her own stubbornness had prevented her from joining the rest of Runway's staff in their zero-carb mania, but subconsciously her relationship with food had indeed changed. All because Miranda had called her fat?
"It's okay," Andy murmured. She felt silly for taking to heart a comment that would have rolled off her back had it come from anyone else. Maybe even then the possibility that Miranda could think of her as inadequate in any way, had influenced her thoughts and actions.
"It's not like I stopped eating," she murmured meekly.
"Good," Miranda said firmly. "As I said earlier, I have always found you... very appealing." She gently rubbed her palms over Andy's back. "And I appreciate an adjustment towards healthier food, but I don't want you to change who you are because of something... stupid I said many months ago."
Andy nodded. There were still a few questions at the back of her mind about Miranda having been one of the many people in the fashion industry who had influenced and enforced the skewed beauty ideal of minimal body fat, but for now she was quite satisfied with the knowledge that Miranda thought of her as 'appealing'.
Miranda hugged her tightly, hooking her chin over Andy's shoulder.
"I want you fed and healthy. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Miranda," Andy replied, unable to keep herself from grinning.
"Now," Miranda then said. "Enough talking." And she leaned backwards and settled along the length of the couch, before pulling Andy on top of her.
Andy happily complied.
Miranda blinked her eyes open, groggy and slightly confused about what had woken her. Pushing the nagging suspicion that she had been snoring to the back of her mind, she licked her dry lips and allowed an indulgent yawn.
It was morning, and red-golden sunlight fell through the windows and welcomed her to positive thoughts, hopefulness and lingering arousal. She smiled, carefully stroking the fingers of her left hand over their newly preferred resting place beneath loosened jeans on Andrea's derriere. Her other arm was slung around the younger woman's waist under the blanket, apparently having held her securely, even in sleep.
It didn't surprise Miranda anymore that everything she used to find intrusive and annoying about her previous lovers was something she actually found herself craving when it came to Andrea. Waking up with someone else this close, feeling their pulse, their breath, their clothes and warm skin, could be incredibly stimulating. Clichéd or not, it just had to be the right person.
Gently she rubbed her nose against Andrea's temple.
Miranda couldn't say how long they had ended up kissing the previous night, but she felt rejuvenated and younger than she had in over a decade. Closing her eyes again, she smiled and inhaled deeply through her nose, before leisurely and possessively hooking her right leg around Andrea's left thigh. Exhaling through parted lips, she then, very slowly, rubbed the sole of her foot all the way down the leg to the younger woman's ankle.
The wonderful combination of her cotton sock sliding over denim and being able to feel the heat from the younger woman's soft calves against the ball of her own foot had Miranda ponder, not for the first time, how easily she was stimulated by tactile sensation. As she thoughtfully repeated the motion she paid close attention to her body's response. Her arm around Andrea's waist tightened when she moved her foot a third time, and then a fourth. Eyes closed, she surrendered to the sharp jolts of pleasure travelling past her knee and up her leg toward her abdomen.
Fighting the amusing urge to purr, Miranda hid her face against Andrea's throat and continued; dragging out each motion, up and down, inch by inch.
When it came to her work, Miranda had a practised hand and she was able to assess through a single touch how a fabric would behave under any circumstance; whether a certain cut would cause a dress to delicately fall or insultingly droop off a model's frame. Extensively touching the luxurious materials of new collections had always been something she loved, but up until now Miranda had simply attributed this to the exclusive, triumphant feeling of being the first person to discover stunning creations and innovative, young talent. When it came to garments and accessories, she had remained "hands on" throughout her career, and it dawned on her now how important touch was in her way of experiencing the world.
That her already so sensitive tactile awareness could be amplified with another person involved, however, was new. After all, she had not allowed her previous relationships to exist on such an intimate level. Simply falling asleep in each others arms had been unthinkable in the past, because her need for personal space had always made her avoid physical contact beyond sex.
Now she reveled in it.
Gone was the barrier she had wrestled into place a few mornings ago when she had woken to a similar position with Andrea. Confident, and like a child who had received permission to eat not one, but all the cookies in the jar, she pressed her fingers harder into the younger woman's backside. Reverently she massaged through the thin cotton of the briefs in rhythm with the motion of her foot, slowly, but with purpose. It was difficult not to grind against the thigh nestled between her own legs, and Miranda almost growled against Andrea's neck, wondering how the younger woman could continue to sleep through all this.
Andrea, however, slumbered on; motionless, but for the deep, even breath that caused her chest to gently push against Miranda's side. One of Andrea's hands was resting, palm flat down just above Miranda's left breast, and the subtle pulse so close to Miranda's heart added to the swarm of sensations that gradually threatened to overwhelm her.
Her skin was buzzing as if all remaining space between her and Andrea had become electrically charged, and she intensified the pressure of her foot as it rubbed up and down to chase the tremors that had somewhere along the way become undeniably sexual.
I am so close...
Startled, Miranda let her leg fall to the side.
What am I doing?!
Heartbeat drumming in her ears and eyes wide she stared up at the ceiling. And yet, reluctant to simply push Andrea off of her and flee from the couch, she permitted the hurricane inside her to remain, as if to carefully observe a wild, unpredictable beast from a safe enough distance instead of simply shooting it out of fear.
Although she had stopped moving, her body still hummed like a cast-iron bell deeply resonating from the sound waves of its own ringing. Amazed that she could get this worked up from just the friction of fabric between her and Andrea, she shakily exhaled, and with a mixture of pride and excitement she turned and tenderly nuzzled the still sleeping woman's cheek.
The sensations in her lower abdomen lingered, ebbing away at an agonisingly slow pace, and Miranda unsuccessfully attempted to calm her breathing. Not even the serenity of the quiet morning helped, because the rich, golden light and fresh air only heightened her state of awareness.
Every part of her body that touched Andrea felt like it was pounding, pulsing, living a life of its own, and Miranda quickly realised that she lacked the patience to appreciate the prolonged, unintended teasing. She needed to get herself together or she would explode.
"Shhh…," Andrea suddenly whispered, and her face turned to press a soothing kiss to Miranda's cheekbone.
"You're amazing," she continued as her hand slid from the older woman's chest down her arm to link their fingers.
"Were you awake this whole time?" Miranda croaked, unsure whether she should feel embarrassed or betrayed. But Andrea rubbed against her nose and kissed her so sweetly that Miranda settled on simply feeling cherished.
"Yeah. I'm sorry, I just..." she kissed her again, "It seemed as if you were having… a moment. I wanted to experience what you were feeling… through you." She lifted her head so they could look into each others eyes, and smiled. "Good morning."
Miranda raised an eyebrow, but could not stop the smirk she knew Andrea enjoyed so much.
"You woke me up when you rubbed your foot down my leg. Which felt really nice," the younger woman continued with a slightly dreamy grin of her own. "But then you became so intense that I did not want to distract you." She tilted her head, and suddenly bashful she added, "all I could do was quietly lie here, hold you, and… observe. Trying not to intrude."
"Oh but you did intrude," Miranda replied, encouragingly squeezing Andrea's hand. "In a good way. I felt you everywhere."
"Everywhere?" The younger woman blushed, her eyes shining.
"Everywhere," Miranda repeated in a laden whisper.
She had wanted to wait, to progress their relationship at a slow pace, to give Andrea enough time to adjust. But her body was still humming, and the younger woman gazed down at her with such thoughtful tenderness, that Miranda knew she would make love to Andrea Sachs right there and then, on the squeaky couch in the red-golden dawn.
"You know what today is?" Andrea spoke before Miranda could pull down her face for a kiss. "It's Monday. Fifteen days after Paris."
Having lost all sense of time on the island Miranda had not paid attention to the date, but she quickly understood the significance.
"Neither one of us works for Elias Clarke anymore...," she concluded. "Now we're officially," she lifted her hand from under the blanket to tuck a strand of hair behind Andrea's ear, "simply two people..."
"... two adults..." Andrea whispered, as she slowly leaned down.
"... two women," Miranda breathed, her lips less than an inch away from Andrea's.
But before their mouths could touch, a phone buzzed on the nearby side table.
Ignore it, Miranda internally pleaded.
Still the ever efficient assistant, however, Andrea looked up and reached for the phone.
"What is the point of a secluded cabin when everybody can still reach us?!" Miranda complained, rolling her eyes and only barely restraining herself from a purse of her lips that would have definitely come out as a bratty pout. A quick kiss to the tip of her nose did nothing to pacify her anger.
"It could be important," the younger woman suggested helpfully.
Miranda could only grumble.
"See? It's Caroline." Andrea pointed at the display, and immediately Miranda felt her agitation transform into hope.
"Here you go."
Indeed happy to speak to her daughter, Miranda did not hesitate to take the phone and answer.
"Hi mom," Caroline greeted her cheerfully. "You sound sleepy. Are you still in bed? Did I wake you?"
"No, darling, you did not wake me," Miranda replied while smirking at Andrea who was snuggling against her chest, arms sliding around her waist.
"What time is it there? Shouldn't you be in school?" Miranda continued as her fingers lightly combed through Andrea's hair.
"We're on our lunch break, mom."
"Yeah, Cass is here, too."
Miranda closed her eyes at the emotion that flooded her when she heard her other daughter speak in the background.
"It's wonderful to hear both of you," she told Caroline. "I miss you girls very much."
"We miss you too, mom. I… uhm… Cass wants to tell you something..."
There was a bit of commotion and a whispered discussion between the twins.
"... no, you do it..." "... you're the one who was angry..." "... but I'm embarrassed..." "... ugh… Cass, just do it. Here."
"Uhm… hi mom… it's me, Cass," then came from the other end of the line.
"Hi baby. What's the matter?" Miranda asked.
"Well… uh… I… mom, I'm sorry for how I acted."
Caroline whispered something in the background and Cassidy corrected herself. "How we acted."
Eyes burning, Miranda hugged Andrea close and breathed into the phone. "Oh, sweetheart."
Cassidy sniffled and continued, "we don't really want to live with dad. We want to live with you."
Andrea looked up, concerned, but Miranda smiled at her through her tears.
"My sweet darlings..."
Now that her chest was swelling freely with so much love for her daughters, for the young woman in her arms, and for this new opportunity at life, Miranda couldn't imagine why on earth she had closed herself off for so many years. Holding her emotions at bay had been part of her defense mechanism of denial and internal suppression. From now on, however, sharing her state of mind with the people who were most important to her would become a priority.
"That makes me so happy to hear," she whispered, her voice cracking. "And I want you two to know that I am also very sorry for how I behaved. I let you girls down..." she swallowed hard against the feelings of guilt and regret, "and I wasn't being a good mother."
"That's okay, mommy," Cassidy said, sniffing.
"No, it's not okay, darling." Miranda disagreed. "But I will make it okay. From now on I will be a proper mom."
Andrea, cheeks glistening with tears of her own, quietly pressed her lips into Miranda's palm, and the gesture erased the last remnants of doubt in Miranda's heart. Opening up and sharing one's humanity with someone worthy was not a sign of weakness, but a sign of love.
And it wasn't one of those half-hearted promises she had made in the past, that had been so easily forgotten or shoved aside for Runway business. Regardless of what the future held in store for her career, Miranda was determined to set things right with her daughters.
"I love you, mommy," Cassidy whispered, and Caroline chimed in, "me, too!"
"And I love you, my dear, sweet babies."
She heard Caroline giggle and could easily imagine Cassidy rolling her eyes when she said, "mooom, we are not babies!"
"You will always be my babies, Bobbsey." She stressed the pet name, aware that despite the occasional complaining her daughters still enjoyed being called after their favourite children's book characters.
"Hey, mom?" Caroline was back on the phone.
"Yes?" Miranda asked while gently wiping the tear tracks off Andrea's cheeks.
"Is it okay if we still spend Christmas with dad? Ken and Sarah are coming over, and we were gonna see the Chaiskufskie."
The what? Miranda wondered.
"Yeah," Cassidy chimed in. "The Nutcracker."
Miranda snorted. Oh, Tchaikovsky!
Then she realised she wouldn't be with her daughters for the holidays, and her heart grew heavy at the thought that she'd still have to wait until the new year to see them again. It was just one extra week, though, and then she'd have them back. For good.
"We already agreed that your dad has you for Christmas this year, remember? It's alright, my darlings. I will see you soon enough."
"Okay. Thanks, mom," Caroline said, before becoming thoughtful. "Will you be alone for Christmas, though?"
Miranda looked at Andrea and smiled.
"No, I won't be alone." At this the younger woman beamed back at her. "Andrea will be here with me. We will celebrate together."
"Uhm… okay… I guess."
Judging by the tone it was possible that her daughters suspected something more was going on between her and Andrea, but that was the kind of conversation Miranda did not want to have over the phone.
"Don't worry about me, Bobbseys."
Andrea gently stroked over her fingers before slowly kissing every knuckle, and in a way Miranda was glad that she'd have a bit more time alone with the younger woman.
"But we will do the Skype with you, yes?" Caroline asked.
"I promise, sweetheart."
Then Miranda heard the school bell through the line.
"Oh, we have to go, mom."
"I love you, my darlings. And I will miss you and think of you every day. Phone me whenever you like, okay?"
"Got it!" and Cassidy shouted in the background, "we love you too, mommy."
Miranda returned the phone to the side table, and then immediately leaned back down to wrap herself around Andrea as tightly as possible.
"My girls are coming back," she breathed against the younger woman's throat, and while she cried tears of relief warm hands rubbed over her back and sweet lips pressed soothingly against her temple.
"I'm so happy for you, Miranda," Andrea whispered.
They lay quietly for a few minutes, lightly caressing each other's faces. Gone was Miranda's earlier arousal, and now she simply bathed in Andrea's affection. So raw it shone through her eyes, lay on those full lips and spoke to her through the faintest touch. Miranda had never seen or felt anything more beautiful.
"I love you," she softly spoke against the fingertips that had been trailing across her mouth.
Andrea stilled her hand and inhaled deeply through her nose.
"Miranda…," she shakily exhaled. "I… I love you too."
For a short moment Miranda felt almost as if her chest would burst from the flood of emotions, but she allowed the waves to flow through her and wash away any remaining traces of darkness in her heart. She pressed a kiss to Andrea's thumb, then to her wrist, before reaching behind her neck and pulling the radiant young woman's face against the side of her throat. Reverently she rubbed the corner of her mouth against Andrea's jaw, revelling in the soft skin and the by now so familiar scent. For someone who had spent a large portion of her life running, she would now gladly never move again.
What the hell was that?
Andrea began to tremble against her, attempting to suppress her giggles.
Amused, Miranda whispered into her hair, "Darling, would you like a moment, or should we get up and eat some breakfast?"
"Breakfast, please," the younger woman spoke with a chuckle against her throat. "But I don't want to move," she added with a kiss.
"I don't want to move either," Miranda tightened her arms around Andrea for emphasis. "But you're not the only one who is hungry, and we will need the sustenance."
At that Andrea looked up, sceptically raising an eyebrow. "Will we?"
"Oh yes," Miranda whispered while licking her lips. "We will."
There was a spark in Andrea's eyes that Miranda recognised from their months of working together. She realised that Andrea had always, even if subconsciously, responded to her flirtations. It proved to Miranda that their dynamic had been present from the start, although neither one of them had been aware at the time. Many people would probably liken them to cat and mouse, to predator and prey. However to Miranda it felt a lot more that if she had to be the cat, Andrea would be an adolescent kitten. The younger woman was perhaps less experienced, occasionally clumsy, still quite innocent and naively eager to explore, but Miranda saw a lot of herself in Andrea, and she felt that there would soon come a time when the young kitten would grow into a proud, strong tiger.
Miranda couldn't wait.
She disentangled herself and rose from the couch, pulling the younger woman along with her.
While Andrea prepared a breakfast of oatmeal and fruit, Miranda leaned against the kitchen counter and wondered when exactly she had agreed to fully welcome carbohydrates back into her life. Over the past week Andrea had gradually shifted their meals from her predominantly protein-based diet to whole foods high in carbohydrates and fibre, and as much as it went against her years of persistent restriction, Miranda couldn't say she minded.
As she watched Andrea slice into a mango, Miranda heard her own stomach speak up. Maybe it was a sign that along with so many other limitations she had used to set for herself in her private and her professional life, she would drop this specific rule as well. Being in control of every single detail had been a necessity for her survival. Now, however, Miranda no longer wanted to survive. She wanted to live.
"Hey!" Andrea protested when Miranda stepped behind her and, in a move the older woman herself thought rather smooth, slithered a hand around Andrea's waist to steal a piece of mango off the cutting board.
"Hmmm," she hummed while chewing on the sweet fruit, before planting a kiss to the back of Andrea's neck. "Delicious."
"Cheeky!" Andrea replied with a smirk.
The oatmeal tasted wonderful, the vanilla and cinnamon very nicely blending with the maple syrup Andrea had insisted on adding.
"Aunt Erica used to make it like this," Andrea explained as they ate side by side at the breakfast bar. "When I moved to college I practically lived on oatmeal, and it was one of those small things about my summers here that I allowed myself to remember and, I guess, cling to."
Miranda gently rubbed the younger woman's thigh.
"After a few months at Runway I stopped eating breakfast altogether," Andrea continued.
She looked up at Miranda and gave a small smile, which Miranda understood as a sign that she was not being blamed personally. Still, the older woman acknowledged that she would have to do some thorough soul searching in the near future about the ideals and values she used to, perhaps not enforce, but certainly endorse. But not today. Miranda felt she was not yet ready to face the consequences that line of thought would bring.
In order to distract her mind she asked, "would you like to go for a walk on the beach?"
"Sure," Andrea replied with a smile. "Let me just rinse the dishes."
A few minutes later, after they had pulled on their boots and jackets and were ready to leave the cabin, Miranda found herself at the receiving end of a particularly adorable stare. It seemed as if Andrea was holding something back, because she chewed on her bottom lip and fidgeted with the hem of her coat, her eyes locked onto Miranda's chest.
"Yes?" Miranda inquired, enjoying the light blush that crawled over the younger woman's cheeks.
Andrea looked up then, gaze softening. "I… uhm." She stepped forward and grabbed the zipper of the cerulean rain jacket Miranda was wearing. Slowly she zipped her up, lips curling into a delightful little smile.
"The last time you went out to the beach on your own, I really wanted to do this," she explained.
"Oh?" Miranda breathed, momentarily feeling a lot like a pampered child as Andrea proceeded to adjust the hood of her jacket.
A tender kiss to the tip of her nose completed the unexpected ritual, and Miranda found herself at a loss for words. Although she welcomed the change in her, for it opened her up to these beautifully intimate signs of affection, it still surprised her that her body did not react negatively in the slightest to something which in the past she would have described as ridiculous and unpleasantly condescending.
"There. All done." Andrea stepped back to regard her handiwork, before pushing her hands, with sudden self-consciousness, deeply into the pockets of her duffel coat. It looked as if she was only now realising that she had just zipped up the former editor-in-chief of Runwaylike a six-year-old.
"Come 'ere," Miranda said softly, unable to keep her voice from cracking.
Andrea complied and the older woman gently pulled her into a lingering kiss.
"Now we're all done," she said after releasing Andrea's lips again, and briefly considering that the amount of smiling she was doing recently far outweighed all the smiles, fake or genuine, she had shared over the past three years combined, she reached for Andrea's hand and opened the veranda door.
The morning air was fresh, but deceptively warm sunlight greeted them as they followed the overgrown garden path toward the beach.
"What were you thinking when you raced down here in your socks?" Miranda asked while lacing their fingers together. "You could have slipped and hit your little head!"
Andrea squeezed her hand and smiled.
"As a kid I often ran down this path, and to this day I still remember every turn. Is that odd?" She stopped walking and looked at Miranda, eyelashes fluttering against the low sunbeams that permeated the tree canopy behind them.
"No, it's not odd." Miranda tilted her head as images of a young Andrea briefly appeared in her mind. Thoughtfully, she continued, "I believe all it says about you is that you were happy here."
"I was," the younger woman smiled, before adding, "I am."
A renewed wave of joy flowed through Miranda; what a profound difference to her emotional state of just a week ago, when endless rain had amplified her misery and that feeling of utter defeat. Now she was bathed in sunlight and her heart no longer ached. She felt so happy it was ridiculous.
She loved it.
"Come," she grinned, pulling Andrea forward.
The ocean was calm, waves serenely licking the shore, and Miranda lead the younger woman all the way to the water's edge where their feet stopped amidst dried kelp and faint lines of sea foam. The sun warmed their backs, and they stood hand-in-hand, gazing out toward the horizon.
"For the first time I can remember," Miranda spoke softly, "I feel that… everything will be all right."
She side-glanced at Andrea, who, although still looking out at the ocean, was listening intently.
"Being in control of every little detail in my life did give me confidence that any plans I had would succeed," Miranda licked her lips and took a deep breath. "However, now, despite experiencing a degree of uncertainty that would have greatly unsettled me just a month ago," at this Andrea squeezed her hand, "I feel strangely... reassured about what may happen in my future."
Andrea disentangled their fingers and turned to tightly embrace the older woman.
"Of course everything will be alright! You'll see! Your girls are coming home, and with your still quite substantial list of supporters you might even get Runway back!"
Miranda slowly pulled away, and without first mulling the words over in her head, replied, "I don't think I want Runway back."
The sudden revelation echoed on in her head, but she knew it was the truth.
"What?!" Andrea gasped, hands grasping Miranda's sides. "But Runway is your life!"
"Maybe I no longer want that life."
Fascinated, Miranda watched Andrea's face, and she could almost see the cog wheels turn inside Andrea's mind as the younger woman appeared to discard old scenarios and create new ones in her head. It was wonderful to see the person she loved readily re-adjust their mindset to accommodate her wishes. Acceptance shone from Andrea's eyes when she looked back at Miranda, and a beautiful, wide smile graced her lips.
Overcome with tenderness, Miranda brushed a strand of hair behind Andrea's ear.
Yes, this was absolutely the right decision.
"Oh! But what about Irv?" Andrea suddenly blurted. "We cannot let him get away with what he did to you!"
The determination in the younger woman's face was utterly endearing. Calmly Miranda linked her hands behind Andrea's lower back and began to explain.
"At this point, revenge holds no appeal for me. As strange as that may sound."
Andrea scrunched up her eyebrows in that unattractive, yet adorably sceptical way.
"I know, I know. I am quite surprised myself," Miranda admitted, briefly raising her chin for emphasis. "However, think about what I would gain if my lawyers pressured Elias Clarke enough to go back on their decision."
"Which I no longer want."
"To which purpose? To make a point? To show that I'm not weak?"
"You are not weak!"
As she felt her body react to Andrea so eagerly wishing to fight for her, Miranda smirked and replied, "I am a little weak."
Judging by how quickly the younger woman blushed, that small weakness was definitely appreciated.
They continued to hold each other as waves brushed the sides of their shoes where they had slightly sunk into the sand.
Wishing to help Andrea fully comprehend the reasons for her decision, Miranda searched for a better illustration of her state of mind.
"During the past months I felt... as if trapped in quicksand. I could sense myself sinking; losing my foothold, and yet the more I fought against it, the faster I lost control. And then in Paris the ground devoured me whole. I found myself in darkness and in pain, which I feared would suffocate me."
"But you did not die!" Andrea resolutely tabbed Miranda's chest with her finger.
"No, I did not," Miranda smiled, convinced Andrea would catch on regarding her own significance here.
"And now the question is, why should I attempt to fight myself back up to the surface where more quicksand and more battles await me," she tilted her head to the side and gazed invitingly at the woman she loved. "When I could also simply stop struggling, and let the sand carry me away to secret chambers, filled with treasures and opportunities?"
Andrea beamed at her. "That sounds like an adventure. Can I come along?"
"Oh, I'm not letting go of you," and with that Miranda closed the distance between Andrea's lips and her own.
The kiss began softly, their cold noses playfully brushing as they nibbled and teased between smiles. Gradually, though, as their tongues met and their fingers dug more firmly into the fabric of their coats, the sweet moment grew heavy with purpose. Miranda slipped a hand into Andrea's hair, lightly scratching her scalp while sliding her tongue hungrily forward into a welcoming, warm mouth. Andrea tightly embraced her and answered with a determined suckling that caused Miranda's knees to buckle.
They swayed, and Miranda feared they might fall into the sea.
"Come," she instructed, attempting to keep their lips connected as she walked Andrea backwards. She guided the younger woman past a few washed-up logs until they reached a tall rock that would hide them at the foot of the slope that led up to their cabin. Carefully Miranda pressed Andrea against the jagged stone, hoping that the thick, woolen hood of her coat would cushion Andrea's head.
"There," she whispered as she briefly pulled back from the kiss and gazed at the flushed face before her.
Andrea's breath had turned ragged, the buttons of her coat heaving with her chest as she pulled in several big gulps of air. Then greedy hands reached for Miranda again and an eager mouth reclaimed her lips. With her rational mind threatening to abandon her, Miranda instinctively reached up and cradled the back of Andrea's head, before firmly pushing her hips into Andrea's body. The younger woman moaned around her tongue while her hands flew down to Miranda's backside, pulling and kneading the flesh through her jeans.
There was a brief moment where Miranda mourned her detailed plans of making love to Andrea for the first time, so slowly and tenderly, in front of the fireplace. But then ice cold fingers slipped beneath her clothes and stroked up her back, while seagulls cawed above. Her own free hand ineptly fumbled to open a zipper, and the air smelled of the sea and of Andrea.
Two voiceless gasps; the mist of their breaths rising in the sunlight, and overwhelmed, Miranda pressed her face against her lover's slender neck.
Andrea was deliciously hot, and for a while Miranda basked in the sensation and let her frosty fingers linger at that first touch. Soon, however, Andrea's hips began to impatiently roll against her, and Miranda relented and allowed a languid stroke through the glorious wetness between her lover's thighs.
"Oh…," Andrea trembled, and her fingers dug into Miranda's sides.
Amidst the daze in her head Miranda sought words to ask for permission to go further, but found she could not speak. At a loss, she rested her parted lips against the side of Andrea's throat and thoughtfully continued her reverent caress.
"Miranda…", the younger woman spoke, voice cracking, as she widened her stance to grant more access. "I want you."
Andrea's hands fluttered back down to Miranda's backside, but this time beneath the jeans and the lace of her undergarments. Miranda shivered with delight, and smiling, she leaned her forehead against Andrea's cheek and angled her wrist as best as she could in its denim confines.
"My darling," she whispered, before pressing a tender kiss to Andrea's chin.
Eager to answer that beautiful plea, Miranda slipped into her lover.
Andrea clung to her, panting into her ear as Miranda began a slow rhythm of curling and pumping her two fingers, so snugly buried in slick heat. Guided by the erratic grabbing at her rear, she then pushed her hips forward again to intensify the pressure against her hand.
"M-miranda," Andrea breathed hotly.
Her fingers slid down over the swells of Miranda's buttocks, where they clawed at pliant skin and caused Miranda to hiss in anticipation. As she kept pushing deeper into the younger woman, Miranda felt Andrea's fingers, seemingly accidentally, slip into the liquid fire between her own legs, and she found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on standing upright and touching Andrea, while her lover in return so distractedly brushed over her intimate flesh.
Inhaling sharply through her nose, Miranda tried to focus. Determined to stay in control she raised her knee and pressed her thigh hard against the hand inside Andrea's jeans.
"Ah…," the younger woman moaned, and to Miranda's slight disappointment one of the hands left her backside and flew up to curl behind her neck. Andrea tensed and held Miranda's face to her throat as the older woman firmed her strokes inside her.
There, Miranda thought, a tad triumphantly, but predominantly awed when she felt the first tremors rise inside the younger woman. Then Andrea's thighs abruptly closed and she began to ride Miranda's hand so frantically that Miranda feared her wrist would break. Pain also drew Miranda's attention to her other hand when in a silent cry of ecstasy, Andrea threw back her head and gasped up into the heavens.
Her vision had become blurred, but as Miranda watched the strained tendons in Andrea's throat slowly relax and a deep red blush sweep across Andrea's lovely cheeks, she forgot about her aching wrist and how her knuckles had been rammed against sharp rock. All that mattered was that the woman she loved looked spectacularly radiant.
Andrea's body had stilled, but Miranda remained inside of her a while longer, happy to simply experience the hammering pulse of the warm flesh around her. When she did carefully withdraw her fingers, she kept her palm pressed to her lover, cupping her gently to allow their physical connection to linger.
A lazy smile spread over Andrea's lips, and while tenderly scratching at the nape of Miranda's neck, she gazed at her through lowered lashes.
"Yes, darling?" Overcome with adoration, Miranda grinned back in what she considered to be an otherwise unacceptably goofy smugness.
Andrea, however, uttered no more words. Suddenly very sure of herself, she pulled Miranda into a deep kiss and began to unbutton her jeans.
Andy stood before the closed bathroom door, nervously shifting her weight from one foot to the other. She bit her bottom lip and pressed her bare toes into the cold floorboards. There was no reason for her to suddenly feel self-conscious, and yet her hands shook and she apprehensively curled her fingers into the towel that was wrapped around her body.
Feeling a few rogue grains of sand still stuck beneath the soles of her feet, Andy recalled what had happened earlier on the beach, and she blushed furiously. Her body hummed with the memory of Miranda's touch, and of touching her in return. Swept up by passion then, Andy had forgotten all her insecurities, however now, as she stood shivering only a door away from her love, thoughts of inadequacy plagued her mind.
Holding each other tightly against icy winds, with hands sneaking beneath thick winter coats and tight jeans was one thing; standing naked in front one of the most body-critical people Andy had ever known was quite another.
What would Miranda think of her? Would she still look at her with the harsh gaze of a fashion magazine editor, or would Andy find eyes filled with love and kindness? Wearing all those pretty clothes from the Closet had given her so much confidence when in Miranda's presence during the past half year, but now she was stripped bare, and unbidden memories of Miranda's voice drifted into her mind.
"Take a chance. Hire the smart, fat girl."
In the room beyond she heard the water tap being closed, followed by the lapping sounds of someone leaning back in a full bath tub.
"Are you going to just stand there and stare at the door, Andrea," Miranda called out, "Or will you come in?"
The warm, expectant tone in the older woman's voice-such a contrast to the chilling memory-brought a smile to Andy's lips. And encouraged by the love and trust she felt for Miranda, Andy turned the doorknob and stepped into the bathroom.
The curtains were drawn, keeping out the departing afternoon sun, and tea light candles lined the sink and shelves above, their flames dancing in the draft caused by the opened door.
"Hi," Andy said shyly as she quickly closed the door behind her.
Miranda did not reply and merely gazed back through lowered lashes with a smug contentment that only being submerged in hot bath water could illicit. The short hairs at the nape of her neck were wet, and droplets glistened on her forehead and the gentle slopes of her shoulders.
"Come 'ere," she drawled, a lazy hand emerging from the clear water; steam rising.
Andy did not hesitate. By the time she had arrived at the edge of the bathtub, reaching for the offered hand, her towel had already slipped off her shoulders on its own accord. All modesty forgotten, she climbed into the water, Miranda's eyes never leaving her face.
"Ah," she sighed happily as she settled opposite Miranda at the other end of the tub, the water now reaching to their necks.
Miranda smiled at her. "It's lovely, isn't it?"
Andy hummed in agreement and stretched out her legs, allowing her feet to gently slide along the outside of Miranda's thighs.
For a while they just grinned at one another, comfortably floating in warmth and companionship.
"You're very far away," Miranda suddenly spoke, and she gently stroked over the instep of Andy's left foot. For emphasis she wiggled her own toes, stretching to poke them into Andy's belly.
Lured by the adorable pout on the older woman's lips, Andy sat up and slowly moved forward. To make room, Miranda bent her legs so that her knees stuck out of the water and were pressed to the sides of the bathtub. Andy gently kissed the inside of each knee before being pulled into waiting arms.
"Much better," the older woman whispered while pressing her lips to Andy's temple.
Gently, Andy allowed her body to fully settle on top of Miranda. And although the sensation of Miranda's naked form against her own was very enticing, being this comfortable and close with the woman she loved took Andy beyond lust and desire. Her fears and worries seemed so insignificant and weak compared to the completeness she felt while lying naked in Miranda's arms.
This was where she belonged. Andy could not imagine ever finding such happiness anywhere else.
"I love you, M'randa," she mumbled against a partially-submerged collarbone, and the arms and legs around her tightened in response.
"And I love you, Andrea."
They stayed together like this for a long while, Andy drifting into near-slumber under the steady, devoted caress of Miranda's hands on her back, until a chill finally had them both shudder in water that was barely still warm.
"Darling," Miranda spoke into Andy's hair, her voice echoing through the tranquil silence as her fingers trailed up a goose-bump lined spine. "Let's get out before we catch a cold… or worse… shrivel like prunes."
"Hmmm, dunwanna… so comfy…," the younger woman replied sleepily, only to shiver once more as cool air licked at the trail of water left by Miranda's fingers.
"Come," Miranda urged. "Let us get dry and…," her nails wandered up the back of Andy's neck, "curl up in bed…"
Water swept over the rim of the tub with Andy's swift move to sit up. Miranda rolled her eyes, but still smirked as Andy quickly rose.
Without much thought, Andy clambered out and held out her hand to Miranda. It was only when the older woman hesitated that Andy became aware of her own nudity and the water so carelessly dripping from her torso and legs onto the white rug and tiled floor.
Instead of falling back into self-conscious doubts, however, Andy realised that it was Miranda who actually looked unsure. Very slowly the older woman reached for Andy's hand, and when Andy helped her up, Miranda wound a nervous arm around her own waist.
Why would Miranda of all people feel insecure about her body? Andy could not think of anyone more beautiful than the woman who now stood before her, wet and shivering, water pearling down her shoulders. And yet, there was a look of trepidation on Miranda's face, as if she were expecting a blow. She did not meet Andy's gaze.
It struck Andy how much alike they really were; that despite their different age and background they shared such similar fears. And the fact that Miranda, who had perpetuated the stick-thin beauty ideal through her work for a good two decades, was not immune to the absurd expectations she herself had helped place on women worldwide, caused Andy to mentally sway between compassion and a small amount of triumph.
Compassion easily won, though, and Andy picked up her towel and tenderly wrapped it around Miranda's shoulders. For a moment she considered telling the older woman how beautiful she was, mulling over which words to use, but then decided to show her instead.
She stepped so close that their toes touched on the fluffy rug, and still holding on to the towel to keep the older woman warm, Andy gently leaned her forehead against Miranda's. Smiling, she pressed her lips to a flushed cheek bone, to the bridge of Miranda's nose and finally to a mouth that gradually relaxed from a thin line into inviting softness.
Miranda's hands returned to Andy's back, moving down around her middle and pulling her closer so that their bare skin touched. Their kiss, however, remained very slow and tender; meant to reassure, not set ablaze. Attentive to the slightest possible discomfort within her lover, Andy let her fingers carefully wander, moving down along a smooth waist, sliding between them and over the gentle swell of Miranda's belly, where she idly trailed over the beginnings of coarse hair. The older woman grasped Andy tighter and her nails dug into Andy's hips. Instead of lowering her caress, however, Andy slid her palm upwards again, only barely brushing against the side of a breast.
"Hmmm," Miranda hummed. She cupped Andy's backside and pulled their groins together.
Andy did not want to brush away Miranda's self-doubt with sensuality. She did not want Miranda to believe that she only found her beautiful in relation to sex. No, she wanted to prove the depth of her love with unmistakable clarity.
Rather than deepening the kiss, Andy abandoned Miranda's lips and grabbed the towel which had almost slipped off Miranda's shoulders. Reverently, and under the older woman's lidded and slightly puzzled gaze, she began to dry first Miranda's shoulders and upper back, then one arm, until she arrived at her left hand, where she bent her head to place a gentle kiss.
Miranda's knuckles, Andy noticed, bore several deep scratches, the skin around them red.
"What happened?! When…," she looked up to find the older woman smirking.
"It was well worth it," Miranda said, and she gave a squeeze with the hand that had remained on Andy's naked butt.
"I'm so sorry you got hurt," Andy said, tenderly kissing the broken skin.
"Well, I could not let you hit your pretty little head, could I?" Miranda replied.
They smiled at each other, and the older woman allowed Andy to pry her other hand from its favourite gluteal spot so that it could receive equally loving attention to its twin. Andy continued to dry Miranda, taking her time to slide the towel over skin she then peppered with kisses.
Of course Andy was aware of the prejudices against the bodies of women over fifty, but as she permitted her eyes to roam over Miranda's chest, all she saw was beautiful softness and skin that begged to be loved and caressed. She was overcome with the urge to press her lips to every dip and slope, and while Miranda held her breath, Andy ever so gently cupped one of her breasts and leaned in.
It was a challenge to not get lost in the glorious feeling of such intimate skin against her mouth, and it was equally difficult to not get distracted by Miranda's responsive sighs and the fingers tangling in her hair. But Andy forced herself to keep the touch light and to only communicate her sincere adoration. She understood that it was not within her power to completely change Miranda's body image, for she knew neither would Miranda succeed in fully erasing Andy's own doubts.
What Andy hoped, however, was that the trails of kisses she planted would grow like seeds into beautiful flowers, causing love to linger and bloom all over a body that had been under siege by self-criticism for far too long.
Chancing a quick glance upwards, she found permission in Miranda's darkened eyes. And so Andy knelt down on the fluffy, white rug, hugged Miranda's hips and gently rubbed a cheek against her stomach. The fingers in her hair stroked tenderly, cradling Andy's head as she kissed a circle around Miranda's belly button, while Andy's fingertips lovingly traced the faint, stripy scars on the outside of Miranda's upper thighs.
A sniffle brought Andy's attention back to Miranda's face, where tears rolled down reddened cheeks. Miranda looked down with so much love, however, that Andy knew she did not need to worry. Instead, she clung to Miranda's hips and craned her neck so that their gaze remained unbroken while her ear still pressed into the older woman's soft abdomen. Fingers fluttered over Andy's chin and lips, drawing out a teary smile.
"Andrea," Miranda quietly said, her voice cracking as her hands smoothed down over Andy's shoulders and grasped her upper arms.
Andy rose and placed a kiss to Miranda's sternum along the way, before she found herself encircled in loving arms.
Miranda's lips stole the tears from upon Andy's cheeks and then pressed against her mouth with so much tenderness that Andy hiccupped from the immense emotions bubbling from within her heart.
Miranda had understood.
And as the older woman's comprehension quietly echoed within Andy, a new sense of self slowly made itself known. Andy felt it awaken inside of her consciousness, like hidden windows suddenly having their thick curtains pulled away, with decades-worth of dust swirling in freed beams of sunlight.
For most of her life Andy had made fun of the cheerleading or model types, had gossiped about the Elias-Clarke "clackers" with Nate and her friends in order to distance herself from the skewed body image she nonetheless was a victim of, too. She had believed herself well-defended against those beauty ideals, but her resolve had crumbled just the same under the self-imposed pressure to please and to be desirable within a culture that made up the rules of beauty based on pure business logic.
Andy clung to Miranda and allowed the older woman to take her turn and tenderly dry any waterdrops left on Andy's skin.
As Miranda's thumbs gently stroked across Andy's protruding hipbones, it dawned on Andy that although her feelings for Miranda had perhaps at first been hiding beneath the surface of silk dresses, thigh-high leather boots and an eagerness to prove herself, they were separate from her work at Runway. She had not fallen in love with Miranda Priestly because of her being the queen of fashion with all its superficial glitter and glamour, but in spite of it.
When Miranda had finished drying Andy she leaned back to hang the towel across the bathroom radiator. Andy took the opportunity to gaze once more at Miranda's curves and skin, internalising the unspeakable beauty she found within the older woman. Beauty was life. It breathed and caressed; it warmed and made your heart flutter.
Andy smiled, and Miranda tenderly took her hands and led her toward the door.
Love was a curious thing. How could it so easily wash away fears and damaging beliefs, and leave you with only the truth; simple, yet wholesome.
Miranda was perfect exactly the way she was.
And so was Andy.
When she woke the next morning daylight was already pouring through the windows. The curtains had been pulled back, and Andy squinted against the brightness as she slid her hand over the spot beside her, finding it empty and cold. Disappointed, she lifted her head and spun around so quickly that her neck gave a small pop.
How late was it? Had Miranda gone for a walk? Or was she perhaps making breakfast?
Leaning her forehead against the pillow, Andy massaged the sore spot on her neck and pictured Miranda with sleep-mussed hair, wearing her charcoal dressing gown in the kitchen, flipping pancakes.
Or maybe Miranda was taking a shower?
Andy listened, but heard only the ocean, the lazy buoy bell, ticking heater pipes and… a rhythmic scratching from the other side of the room that sounded vaguely familiar.
Turning onto her side to avoid hurting herself again, she looked toward the foot of the bed. And there, on the worn armchair in the corner, scribbling in her notebook in a beam of sunlight, sat Miranda; reading-glasses perched on the tip of her nose and not one item of clothing on her skin.
Apparently deeply focused on her work, the older woman did not seem to notice Andy having woken, so Andy pressed her elbow into the mattress, rested her head in her palm, and just stared at the marvelous creature before her. She was so lost in the soft lines, the concentrated frown and gentle bite of a lower lip that at first she did not realise how little the movement of Miranda's hand equaled the strokes of words. Only when eyes darted upwards, locking intently on to Andy while the pencil continued its dance, did it register that Miranda was not writing.
"Hey," Andy said, her voice hoarse from sleep. "Whatcha doing?"
Miranda raised an eyebrow and smirked. The pen halted as she dragged her gaze up and down the length of Andy's legs, which were only half-covered by the duvet.
"If you hold still…," she wet her lips and looked back into Andy's eyes, "...you might find out."
Andy felt her ears burn, but she did not move and just watched as Miranda bowed her head and continued to draw.
Miranda's bare feet had already fascinated the younger woman back in Paris, but instead of curling into the carpet in resignation, Miranda's toes now bent and flexed as her right foot swayed from side to side. Her legs were crossed at the knees, and although Miranda's calves lured Andy with their usual, sharp-lined elegance, they now had a soft familiarity to them, too. There wasn't an inch of them that Andy had not kissed the previous night.
Observant eyes flicked up and narrowed briefly to lock onto a detail, before falling back to the paper.
Miranda's features were relaxed and peaceful, and for a while Andy basked in the subconscious play of tongue, teeth and lips that often accompanied the creation of art. Her eyes wandered from Miranda's mouth to follow the line of her jaw and throat, over gentle collar bones and toward creamy shoulders.
Andy had been allowed her first glimpse of this sinful expanse of skin at the benefit ball a few months ago, stealing secret glances whenever she'd felt unobserved, but averting her gaze when she had to step close to whisper the name of a guest. Back then she had forced herself to think of a disappointed Nate whenever her eyes had lingered too long. Now, though, Andy could openly indulge, and so she drank in the glorious vision before her, imagining her own lips and fingers retracing every spot she had caressed a mere few hours ago.
Miranda shifted on the seat cushion and tilted her head to the side, elongating her neck, while seemingly studying the folds and creases of the bedsheets. Her hand had stilled and Andy automatically looked down at the fingers holding the pen.
At the start of her time at Runway Andy had wondered why Miranda preferred to keep her nails short, but hadn't thought much of it and just put it down to the former editor-in-chief's many whims. With time, however, Andy had learned that her hands were Miranda's most coveted tool, within her work and also within life. Miranda touched everything. Not people, of course, but fabrics, books, photographs and flowers. From the absentminded dangling of her reading glasses, to the gentle stroking over paper imprinted with lines of undecipherable handwriting; Miranda explored haptically.
Andy adored Miranda's hands, especially her thumbs. She longed to brush her lips over every knuckle, slide her tongue between each finger and place open-mouthed kisses to the sensitive inside of Miranda's wrists...
"You are making love to me with your eyes, Andrea," Miranda suddenly spoke.
"Well," Andy heard herself say, "Someone told me not to move." She was unsure when her breathing had become so ragged.
Miranda's smirk grew as Andy continued. "So... I had to... improvise."
The notebook fell from Miranda's lap when she abruptly stood, and the sound of a pen rolling over wooden floor boards accompanied her lynx-like prowl towards the bed. Andy lifted up the heavy duvet just in time to welcome her back into her arms.
"Oh my god, Miranda, your feet are ice lumps!" Andy squeaked and tried to pull away her legs, but Miranda had locked them firmly between her own.
"Ah!" Something else cold pressed against Andy's neck. "And your nose, too!"
The older woman giggled mischievously and Andy thought it was the happiest sound she'd ever heard.
They smiled at each other, and Andy very gently took off Miranda's reading glasses and carefully placed them on the bedside table. She then rubbed her nose against Miranda's and hugged her lover tightly.
"I wish we could stay here, like this, forever." She kissed Miranda's temple.
Miranda folded her hands on Andy's chest and thoughtfully gazed into her eyes. "You don't want to go back to New York?"
"Well," Andy slid her warm palms up and down Miranda's back. "Right now I just want to be with you. Far away from the world and our crazy lives..."
"I was under the impression that we had already established that this," Miranda gestured between them, "would continue back home?"
"Yeah, I just..." Unsure where exactly the sudden anxiety was coming from, Andy shook her head and grimaced. "I'm sorry, I'm being selfish."
"It just feels so strange," she tried to explain, "going back to Nigel's couch… well... I guess, I will need to somehow find my own place anyway."
"And we'd need to hide from the press, they would just have a blast with all this, wouldn't they... and then there are your daughters…" Panic struck Andy at the possibility that her and Miranda should maybe not be together, because it could be better for the twins. "Oh Miranda, I don't want to cause any new trouble between you and your girls!"
"I understand that they are your number one priority. And I wouldn't have much time to begin with, because there is my unemployment situation to consider and I could probably not afford anything even in Brooklyn and..."
"Andrea!" Miranda had clasped Andy's face between her hands.
"Darling," her gaze flicked back and forth between Andy's eyes. "I want to be with you... out there in the 'world'. I want you in my 'crazy life'."
Andy wasn't sure she entirely understood.
"What I am saying is… and I hope you will excuse me for being perhaps a little presumptuous in this matter," her thumbs stroked over Andy's lips, "I do not want to hide you. I want you with me when I attend public events, I want to have dinner with you at restaurants and I want us to walk down the street together..."
As romantic as all that sounded, Andy nonetheless felt apprehensive.
"You want to come out to the press?" Nasty possible news headlines flashed through her mind, and that while she was still angry at the disrespectful words printed after Miranda's dismissal from Runway.
"Only if you are okay with it," Miranda replied. "They don't deserve an official statement, of course, but I… I'm done pretending."
For a split second Andy wondered how her former friends or her family would react to finding out about her and Miranda in the papers, but then she remembered how they had all abandoned her and she decided that their reaction was completely irrelevant.
"Okay." She kissed Miranda's thumbs and smiled. "No hiding."
"And my daughters… Andrea, I want them to know you. They are old enough to understand, and I feel that they should see me happy." Miranda paused and stared intently at Andy's lips. "And I know I won't be happy without you..."
"Miranda..." Andy pulled her down for a tender kiss.
I make her happy.
The very thought suddenly caused their future together to seem like a solid reality, and thanks to Miranda's reassurance about her daughters and about the press Andy felt her apprehension recede.
"As for your housing situation," here Miranda let her gaze drift away, avoiding looking at Andy directly. "I had hope that upon our return to New York you would come and stay at the townhouse."
She paused and took a deep breath through her nose, before adding. "If you'd like to, that is."
"Miranda," Andy touched her cheek and turned her face so that their eyes met again. "Are you asking me to… to move in with you?"
"No… not exactly. You could take your time and look for your own place, if you prefer." Miranda's voice was very soft, and she sounded uncharacteristically shy. "I realise our relationship is very young, and I do not mean to pressure you, of course..."
Andy's heart beat faster at the word 'relationship', and she was too caught up in the glee of having heard Miranda utter it first, that she didn't notice right away how nervous the older woman was.
"Perhaps it might prove healthier if we don't rush into things." Miranda continued to babble. "Even if it means I won't have you with me every night..."
Andy was absolutely endeared.
"Okay," Miranda suddenly blurted, eyes darting away again, "so maybe I was asking you to move in with me,"
"Hey..." Andy said with a smile, her fingers brushing Miranda's forelock from her face. "I'll gladly come stay with you. We can see how it goes and decide how to proceed then, alright?"
"You don't think it's too fast?" Miranda still had doubts.
"Honestly,...?" Andy took a deep breath and shifted under Miranda's weight to find a more comfortable position. "I have lost all sense of time here with you. Now that I understand how long I've had feelings for you I can't really say if there was ever a time I did not love you."
She combed through the shorter hairs at the nape of Miranda's neck and gazed into her eyes.
"My future is pretty much a blank space at this point," Andy continued. "But I know I need you in it. And we don't have to act like a married couple or anything," she snorted slightly and lured a smirk from the older woman. "I don't care how healthy or unhealthy it is, or whether circumstance unnaturally sped things up for us... I just know that you make me happy, and wherever you are I will feel at home."
Miranda hugged her tightly and pressed her face back against Andy's neck, lips lingering and warm breath caressing Andy's skin.
For the first time since coming to Canada, the prospect of returning to the world they had left behind no longer frightened Andy. She had someone who loved her, had a place to stay, and she realised that everything else would somehow work itself out, too.
"Now that that's settled..." Miranda did not finish the sentence, but her hands suddenly grabbed Andy by the hips. She lifted her head and stared down with that typical Priestly fire in her eyes; that challenging glare Andy had once mistaken for arrogance and villainy, when in truth it simply meant that Miranda wanted to play.
Smiling lips quickly captured Andy's own, and tongues met in a languid, deep caress.
Andy slid her palms down Miranda's spine and gently squeezed her buttocks, eliciting a delicious growl from the older woman. A knee slipped between Andy's thighs and hips rolled fervently against her, while a parted mouth whispered sensual sweetness.
Out of all the situations where Miranda's playful nature manifested itself, making love had easily become Andy's favourite.
That afternoon, after a lazy lunch and plenty more play-time, Andy found herself in the kitchen making coffee, while Miranda was setting up her laptop in the living room. Nigel had messaged earlier, requesting a video call, and as much as Andy wanted to spend the entire day in bed and in Miranda's arms, she understood that they still had work to do.
When she walked over to the couch with two mugs in her hands, the laptop signaled an incoming call and Miranda beckoned for Andy to sit.
Andy's bald, bespectacled friend and former colleague appeared on the screen.
"Good evening, Miranda. Hi, Six."
He grinned at them, and Andy took a seat next to Miranda, handing her a coffee.
"Wow, you two look," he squinted at his screen and then raised his eyebrows. "Hmmm... great. You two look great."
"You sound surprised," Miranda said, before taking a sip from her coffee.
"Well, I'm just happy to see you haven't turned into sweatpants-wearing hermits up there in the woods."
He made an amused face, and Andy had to hide a grin of her own behind her coffee mug. Her friend had no idea that they had spent the better part of the day without any clothes at all.
"Well, I am so glad you approve of our appearance," Miranda drawled. "Is there any news, or do we just have your inquisitive nature to thank for this... disturbance?"
"You wound me, Miranda," Nigel held his chest in faux shock, and their banter swept Andy up in a wave of nostalgia. They would never all three work together in the same office again, and that thought stung.
"I had the chance to speak with Michael this morning," Nigel explained. "He has received your note and is considering your request."
Here Nigel rubbed his forehead, clearly choosing his next words carefully.
"Michael did have some questions, though. Looking for reassurance, I think. Miranda, I'm not sure whether you've seen the papers," he looked pointedly at a stack of newspapers in front of him, "but people seem to be under the impression that you have disappeared due to issues concerning your… mental health."
Andy felt her fingers clench at the last words, her knuckles around the coffee mug turning white. Of course the press couldn't leave Miranda alone. People were obsessed with seeing Miranda fail and suffer, gladly celebrating the misery of those they envied.
Suddenly Miranda's hands closed over hers, gently stroking over her rigid fingers, encouraging them to relax.
"Darling, you're going to hurt yourself."
She had leaned close, her breath ghosting over Andy's face, and for a moment Andy forgot that Nigel was watching.
"It's just... how dare they?!" She unclamped one hand from its angry grip on the mug to gently stroke Miranda's cheek. "And to think I used to want to be a journalist."
Miranda took the hand and briefly kissed its palm, before smiling and saying, "those gossip rag stories about me aren't journalism, Andrea. And although I find your protection of me rather charming, might I suggest we discuss this at a later time, and try to not give our dear Nigel a heart attack?"
Eyes wide, Andy glanced back at the laptop screen, heat crawling up the back of her neck.
Nigel had covered his face with both of his palms, and Andy couldn't tell if he was genuinely upset or just embarrassed.
They waited a few seconds, Miranda linking her fingers with Andy's while pursing her lips at Nigel's dramatic display.
Then Nigel peeked through his fingers, a whimsical smirk appearing on his lips as he held on to his cheeks.
"I'm sorry." His grin widened. "I had my suspicions, but I was not prepared for you two to be this sickeningly adorable."
"I beg your pardon?"
Andy snorted and had to quickly set down her coffee or she would have spilled it from laughing too hard.
"Nigel, there is nothing 'sickening' about us," Miranda pretended to be insulted, but her thumb stroked Andy's fingers and a smile pushed its way onto her lips.
"I'm happy for you two." He sounded as if he was about to cry.
"Aw, Nigel," Andy said, thoroughly touched that they had his support. Not that it would have changed anything for her if they didn't, it was just nice knowing she still had a friend.
"Well, that's enough sappiness," Miranda interjected, straightening her spine as if to shake off the emotions clinging to their exchange.
"You may inform Michael, and anyone else who dares ask, that I am of sound mind. I have plans involving the rest of the people from the list I sent to you, however those plans do not involve Elias-Clarke or Runway."
"Wait," Nigel's eyebrows rose. "They don't?"
Miranda gave him a glare that challenged him to ask her to repeat herself.
"I will share more after my return to New York," she allowed.
"And when will that be?" Nigel asked, grabbing a pen from his worktop.
"I was thinking... after the holidays?" Miranda turned to Andy, who was taken by surprise that she was being consulted about this. Then again, it wasn't just a business decision of Miranda's. It also involved their relationship and how they would return to their lives in New York as a couple.
"Uhm, sure." Andy nodded. "Yes."
"Meanwhile," Miranda turned her attention back to Nigel, "how are things at the office?"
"Ah," Nigel held up his index finger. "Well, it might not surprise you to hear that although I'm not leaving for another month, I have been excluded from two editorial meetings already. There is a certain animosity towards those among us known to remain loyal to you."
"Scandalous," Miranda said with a conspiratorial smirk.
Andy listened as Nigel recounted some of the things that had transpired after Miranda's departure, but the gentle, steady caress of Miranda's fingers kept her from growing too angry at the injustice of it all.
Miranda's final 'letter from the editor' had been approved by the board without comment, and Nigel let it slip that he was quite pleased with what she had written. That sparked Andy's curiosity, and she wondered if Miranda would share it with her before the issue was published.
"Well, my two love birds, I have to go now," a grinning Nigel said after a while. "I'm meeting James for dinner."
He could still barely contain his excitement at the mention of his new business partner. Andy was so glad that he'd landed his dream job and wouldn't have to stay at a Miranda-less Runway.
"Nigel," Miranda stiffened slightly. "Treat this," she raised hers and Andy's hands for clarification, "as confidential for now. I don't want new rumours flying around before I have a chance to talk to my girls."
"Miranda, I do love good gossip," he leaned closer to the camera. "But I am your friend, and this news isn't mine to share."
"Thank you, Nigel," Miranda answered softly. "For everything. I always knew I could count on you."
The man looked again as if he might cry, and Andy felt her heart burn at the friendship between the two.
"Okay. Going now," he waved with one hand, while rubbing his eyes with the other. "Bye-bye!"
"Bye, Nigel." Andy waved back.
The screen turned black and Miranda closed the laptop.
They were quiet for a while, simply sitting in the waning afternoon side by side, holding hands and each with her own thoughts. Miranda leaned her head against Andy's shoulder, and Andy pressed a tender kiss to her hair.
Realising she had not checked her personal email in a few days, Andy wondered if her family had tried to contact her again. She had set her phone to auto-decline her parents' numbers, as well as those of Nate and her former friends. However, with the press now wildly speculating about Miranda's escape from New York, it occurred to Andy that at least her mom might be genuinely worried. Having witnessed Miranda's distress when separated from her daughters had somewhat mellowed Andy's anger at her own parents, and now she was unsure whether or not she should reach out and risk getting hurt again.
"Miranda," she asked out loud, "do you think I should phone my mom?"
The older woman thought for a moment. "Hmmm, perhaps that is a good idea."
"Just to let her know I'm okay, you know?" Andy continued.
"Actually, I was thinking about this earlier," Miranda said as she sat up and gently stroked down Andy's thigh.
"I don't feel so comfortable with having your parents potentially thinking that I kidnapped you."
Andy snorted. "You did not kidnap me. It's more the other way around, isn't it?"
Miranda smiled at her, but her hand nonetheless gave an insistent squeeze to Andy's knee.
"They don't know that." She raised an eyebrow and continued, "and from what you have told me, they don't seem to think very highly of me."
"That's my fault," Andy said meekly, and she reached for the hand on her leg and kissed Miranda's knuckles .
"Remember last spring when you were in Miami and I couldn't get you a flight out because of the hurricane?"
Miranda furrowed her brows. "Was that the time I missed the girls' recital?"
"Yup," Andy nodded. "Well, I was with my dad that evening. You know, dinner and a Broadway show. Father-daughter time..."
"And he witnessed me being frightfully horrible to you over the phone," Miranda continued for her, dread visible on her face.
"I think it was more him witnessing my freaking out that left an impression. " Andy said, not wanting to make Miranda feel guilty. "And you weren't horrible. Not really..."
"No, no. I was." Miranda held onto Andy's hands, her tone sad as she recalled what had happened. "I was in a bad place then. Stephen had started drinking again and the girls were angry with me for not keeping my promises."
She briefly closed her eyes and then looked back at Andy.
"And you see, I had promised them I would try harder and really be there for when they played Rachmaninov."
Andy felt her heart clench. For the twins, as well as for Miranda. Now she understood why Miranda had been so mean to her once back at work. Miranda had gravely disappointed her daughters and had felt so bad about it that she had needed a scapegoat.
"Not my finest moment," Miranda said quietly. "I'm very sorry, darling."
Andy flashed an encouraging smile and kissed her, very tenderly. "I forgive you."
"You know," she pulled Miranda into her arms. "When I first struggled at Runway, everybody kept telling me to just quit. My parents, Nate, my friends... even Nigel. It was as if nobody believed in me."
Miranda's warm hands found their way under Andy's sweater and began to soothingly stroke up and down her back
"Except for you," Andy continued. "When you did your speech about having had hope, but ultimately being more disappointed in me than in anyone else, something inside me finally snapped into place. I'm not sure what it must have looked like from the outside, but I was driven. You had set me a challenge, and I had accepted it."
She snuggled against the older woman and sighed. "To be honest, I became so invested in my work and… well… in you, that I can't even remember speaking to my family much at all. It's no wonder that they can't understand my loyalty to you..."
"Andrea," Miranda interrupted her, sweetly kissing her cheek. "Phone your mother."
"Yeah." Reluctant to get up, Andy held on and buried her face in the curve of Miranda's shoulder. "In a minute."
One minute turned into at least fifteen, but by the time Andy had disentangled herself from the couch and Miranda's warm embrace, she felt a lot less apprehensive.
She sat down in one of the armchairs by the window and booted up her laptop to briefly scan over her personal inbox. Among the thirty-seven unread messages were three worried-sounding emails from her mother, and even one from Jill titled 'phone mom'.
Miranda walked by with their empty coffee mugs, kissed the top of Andy's head along the way, and then proceeded into the kitchen, leaving Andy to her task.
Okay, here goes nothing, Andy thought as she dialed the number.
"Andy!" Her mother picked up after just one ring and sounded definitely anxious.
"Hi, mom." Andy wasn't quite sure what to say. "So… uhm... what's up?"
"'What's up'?! Honey, your father tells me you aren't coming for Christmas and then you don't answer your phone or any of my messages!"
Andy instantly felt bad.
"I'm sorry, mom. I…," she looked at Miranda for help, but the older woman stood at the kitchen sink and was cleaning the dishes, back turned towards the living room.
"I didn't mean to make you worry," Andy tried to apologise.
"Honey, where are you? What's going on?"
"I… I'm in Canada. At the cabin."
"All by yourself?"
"No, mom. I'm...," she took a deep breath for courage. "I'm with Miranda."
"Mom? Are you still there?"
"I… yes. I'm here..."
Andy felt her eyes begin to burn. This was the moment when her mom would give her a piece of her mind, too. Not quite sure what exactly she had expected, Andy stared down at her laptop keyboard with trepidation.
"Honey, why is... she," Andy flinched at the way her mother said the word, "there with you?"
"Because I want her here with me, mom." She sniffled against the tears.
Because she is the love of my life, Andy wanted to say.
"Because she is my friend," is what she said instead.
"Honey…," her mother replied quietly. "How can you call that woman your friend, after the way she treated you?"
"Mom, you don't understand..."
"No, Andy, I really don't." Andy could hear her cry at the other end of the line. "So please, explain it to me."
Taking a moment to carefully weigh her words, Andy looked back at Miranda, who had turned around in concern and was now leaning against the kitchen counter, listening intently while dishwashing foam dripped from her hands.
"Miranda cares about me."
The truth was very comforting, especially when it was accompanied by that reassuring smile Miranda was sending her way.
"She watches out for me, and I for her. It's true that things between us were perhaps a bit turbulent at the beginning, but back then she treated me no different than any other employee."
"That's not an excuse," her mother interjected.
"Maybe not, but things have changed. I no longer work for her. And at this point we are really just having a vacation together."
That wasn't exactly a lie, was it?
"The papers said…,"
"The papers don't print the truth, mom."
There was a drawn out sigh.
"Honey, I still don't understand why you aren't coming here for the holidays."
"Because...," Andy remembered her father's harsh words and thought about saying that she didn't feel welcome. However, she did not want to upset her mother any further.
"Because this year I want to spend the time with Miranda. Here. At my cabin."
"But, Andy, just the two of you?"
"Yes, just the two of us."
There was another long moment of silence, and Andy wondered whether her mom was guessing the exact nature of hers and Miranda's relationship.
"Look, mom. I'm safe and I'm happy. This is where I want to be."
"Okay,... I guess." Another long sigh.
"I'm not doing any of this to hurt you or dad."
"I know that, honey."
Andy felt drained, but sensed that they had made at least a little progress.
"Well, I'm gonna go now, alright? I will take care to not ignore any more of your messages. And you may phone, too, if you like."
"Okay, honey," her mom replied, sounding slightly less weary than at the beginning of their conversation. "I'm very glad that you called."
"I love you, honey."
"I love you too, mom."
"Speak to you soon."
They hung up, and Andy threw her head against the armchair backrest and let out a long groan.
That could have gone a lot better. Then again, it could also have gone a lot worse.
"Are you alright?"
Miranda appeared by her side and bent down quickly for a hug and kiss.
"Yeah, I'm okay." Andy did indeed feel a sense of relief, and she smiled up at Miranda. "Thank you."
"Let me just finish up the dishes," the older woman wiggled her glistening fingers for emphasis, "and then we can go for a walk to clear your head."
Wanting to be a bit cheeky as a means to lighten her mood, Andy replied, "and make out at the beach?"
Instead of feigning disinterest, or delivering a witty, teasing comeback, Miranda began to slowly walk backwards into the kitchen, gazing hungrily at Andy through lowered lashes. She bit her bottom lip and said a simple, "yes," before making an elegant turn, hips swaying, and sauntering the final steps to the sink.
Andy's good mood was definitely back, and she grinned into her palms, attempting to keep her arousal in check.
Finished with the rest of the world for the day, Andy wanted to shut down her laptop, but suddenly her eyes fell upon one of the unread emails. It was from an address she did not recognise, but what particularly stood out was the subject line:
"TOP SECRIT ANDREYA."
What the hell?
Following her instinct that this wasn't typical junk mail, and hopefully not a virus either, she double-clicked the message.
Her eyes widened as she read, and blood pounded in her ears when she realised what this meant.
How in the world was she going to keep this hidden from Miranda?!
A/N: I want to take this moment to thank all of you who have stuck by me through the past four years. It is your continued support that helped me find the motivation to continue and finish this story. I love you all so much!
Sometimes I just sit down and read back through all the lovely reviews and comments you have left for me, and I feel so humbled by the positivity. It really does feed me and causes a sense of responsibility in me that spurs me on to continue writing for you, and inadvertently, for myself. I'm so very sorry that the updates for this story have stretched over such a long period, and it amazes me how many of you kept asking for more, making sure I would not forget. :)
So much has changed in my life. I've gotten divorced, had to leave my home and my family, and had to deal with the result of over a decade worth of emotional abuse. Along the way I have learned so much about feminism, human and animal rights, and most importantly about being my own person. I have grown a lot, and I worry that the old and new "me" might not mesh so well when it comes to my writing. If that is the case, and these last pages feel a bit messy, I hope you can forgive me. :P
This story turned out to be a reflection of my own life, in which I am both Andy and Miranda, hurting, healing and learning to love and forgive myself for not leaving sooner, as well as understanding that admitting defeat does not mean you give up, or that you are weak. These two characters, and how they have evolved in this story are very important to me, and to have you all take part in this journey through my writing means so, so much.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. You people are amazing! Don't ever underestimate the impact your words of support have on a writer! I love you all!
A/N #2: A big giant thank you goes out to XVnot15 for beta-reading these last two chapters! My dear, you are supercalifragilistikexpialidocialiscous! You helped me so much, and you are such a wonderful English teacher! Thank you!
A/N #3: Small note - this story, and the DWP movie, take place in 2006, in which Sally Ride was still alive and closeted.
A/N #4: Trigger warnings for: very brief suicide and depression mention.
The air was so still that if Miranda held her breath she could almost pretend it was summer. Not a cloud to be seen, the sky a deep venetian blue, and a bright sun painting long shadows behind evergreen trees. But then she inhaled the icy air and her lungs burned, causing her to shudder where she sat on the veranda. Her notebook lay opened on her lap, a pen resting atop, and she warmed her hands on a steaming cup of coffee.
The days she had spent in this beautiful place had left her with many pleasant memories, and despite her eagerness to see her daughters again and to start setting her future plans in motion, there was a part of her that was disappointed she'd soon have to return to New York.
Two seagulls competitively dove towards the ocean below, and as Miranda watched them play she recalled the previous week with Andrea. Happiness and lingering arousal spread through her freezing limbs, and she giddily hid an indulgent grin behind the porcelain rim of her cup.
It had been a journey of rediscovery for Miranda. Andrea and her were excitingly compatible in more ways than just beneath the sheets, and with love and desire guiding them the differences in their experience had proved to be altogether negligible. The sex was extremely satisfactory, but above all else Miranda had found herself cherishing the small, tender moments they shared in between.
She set down the coffee and gazed at her sketches: a pair of douglas firs, the knots and bumps shaping their trunks like frail, feminine bodies, with needled foliage lining bony human shoulders, and spiky twig hair that covered the hint of a familiar face. Eyes, carved from a rocky cliff staring out over the ocean, and the slopes of cresting waves appearing so similar to the dip of an arched back. As her fingers traced the ink, Miranda tried to remember how many years ago she had last drawn this freely.
Fondly, she turned the pages and perused her drawings of Andrea. Most of them were of fleeting, subconscious moments, simple lines and shadows, captured in fast, messy strokes, and yet Miranda recognised the younger woman in all of them. The very first one that she had made a week ago was a study of her sleeping lover, which she had drawn the morning after their first intimate night together. Compelled, perhaps, by a renewed taste for life, Miranda had woken with an urge to create.
When she had picked up that ballpoint pen and taken to a lined notebook meant for writing, she had been unsure of how much of her former skill remained. Andrea's reaction at seeing herself through Miranda's eyes, however, aided by the intensity of the resulting lovemaking, had easily convinced Miranda to fully dive back into her old favourite past-time.
No longer having a team of professionals at her beck and call and therefore being forced to plot and draft her ideas by herself, she had gladly welcomed the sudden surge of creativity into her life and had made an impressive amount of progress with what Andrea now referred to as the 'Project'.
She sniffled against the cold and absentmindedly wiped at her nose.
Her plans were slowly taking shape, and the way things looked, she'd have the support of quite a few big industry names after all. Being proactive over the past couple of days had smoothed over the remaining sense of loss in her heart, and although she realised it would take time for her to fully adjust to a life without Runway, she felt confident about her continued influence in the world of fashion.
"Nobody can do what I do."
Indeed. And with Andrea by her side nothing seemed impossible.
Another grin stole its way onto her lips and she realised she'd have to somehow keep this new frequency of smiling in check, or else her reputation as the Snow Queen might suffer. Even her body betrayed her, shivering once more against the cold midday as her mind tempted her with warm thoughts of Andrea in front of the fire. Promptly, she finished her coffee, closed the notebook and stood.
When she opened the veranda door to return inside, she caught Andrea's hushed voice.
"Sh… I gotta go. Speak to you later."
The younger woman hurriedly snapped her phone shut and turned to Miranda with a tremulous smile.
"Oh hi, Miranda! Done sketching already?"
It wasn't the first time she felt like she had walked in on Andrea being secretive on the phone during the past week, and she really did not like the suspicion it elicited in the pit of her stomach. Was Andrea hiding something? Did Miranda have the right to question her?
"Who was that?" She tried to sound nonchalant, but the way Andrea's smile morphed into a grimace only fed her misgivings.
"Oh, you know, no one important."
Andrea was such a bad liar.
Miranda narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips, but as she watched the younger woman squirm under her gaze she realised that in this relationship she no more had the right to bully Andrea than Andrea had the right to lie.
So instead she opted to soften her features, dropped her notebook onto the dining table and walked across the room to Andrea.
"Darling," she said, trying hard to keep the accusation from her tone. "I don't want us to keep things from one another."
She slid her arms around Andrea's waist and pulled her close.
"Whatever it is, it won't weigh against the damage keeping a secret might cause."
"Miranda, I can't..." Andrea was struggling, and despite having manipulated people into telling her what she wanted to hear all through her career, Miranda felt uncomfortable pressing on.
"Andrea, whatever the reason you believe you can't confide in me, whether you are scared of my reaction or you simply wish to protect me, I promise you that it is your honesty I will always value above all else."
There was a visible moment of indecision, and Miranda patiently watched Andrea's beautiful face until it finally relaxed in surrender.
"Okay," Andrea softly conceded.
Her gaze was downcast and Miranda wondered why she sounded as if she was letting someone down by sharing the truth.
"Here," Andrea said as she led her to the opened laptop on the couch. "I think I'd better show you."
They sat down side-by-side and Andrea pulled up her personal email inbox. Miranda briefly wondered if someone had sent Andrea a particularly unpleasant news article, which the younger woman had meant to spare Miranda the sight of, but then Andrea opened a message and upon seeing the sender name, Miranda instantly knew.
"I wasn't supposed to tell you," Andrea sighed.
"TOP SECRIT ANDREYA," it said in the subject line, and Miranda's hand flew to cover her mouth. Her eyes as well as her heart began to burn as she quietly read the rest of the text.
"Andreya, this is Caroline. Can you help us? This is top secrit mom can't know. Cass and I want to come see mom and surprise her for x-mas. Dad says it's ok. You should talk with dad about the plan. C+C"
Andrea was silent and so nervous while awaiting Miranda's reaction that her restless leg shook the entire couch. Miranda placed a calm hand on her thigh and met her worried eyes.
"They're coming... here?" She asked incredulously. "My babies?"
"Yes," Andrea nodded. "Please don't be angry."
"I'm not angry," Miranda replied truthfully, but her chest was nonetheless swelling with emotions that were hard to contain.
Suddenly a laugh broke free, and she threw herself at Andrea, who barely had time to prevent the laptop from falling, and kissed her long and hard on the lips.
"I'm… ecstatic!" She spoke against the cheek of the still rigid younger woman beneath her. "When will they be here?"
Andrea finally exhaled the breath she'd been holding and snaked her arms around Miranda. "We can pick them up tomorrow at one. I was going to lure you out on a quick drive after lunch…," she said as she squeezed Miranda and kissed the tip of her nose. "Their dad is bringing them all the way, and they should land at that small airfield just north of here, so no long drive across the island for them either."
Pleased by the amount of thought that had apparently gone into all the planning, Miranda took the laptop from Andrea's grasp and set it on the floor. She then grabbed the younger woman's knees and parted them to slide her own body in between, before pushing Andrea fully back into the cushions where she hugged her tightly.
"I stand by what I said about keeping secrets," she spoke against Andrea's throat, feeling the warmth of her own breath on her lips.
"I do not want us to keep things from one another. Even if it involves well-meant surprises by my mischievous little angels." She smiled and snuggled closer. "That said… I want to thank you for taking care of things, and... for allowing them to come here."
Andrea tenderly stroked through her hair, scratching her scalp ever so lightly in exactly the way Miranda loved best.
"Of course they are allowed to come here, Miranda," she replied. "I wanted you to see them again as soon as possible."
"You are a gift," was all Miranda managed to murmur in her current state of bliss. One more day and her daughters would be in her arms again-on Christmas Eve of all days. And she still couldn't quite fathom what she had done in life that made her deserve the love of someone as kind as Andrea, but she knew she would relish in it forever.
At one in the afternoon on the following day, Miranda found herself nervously pacing in front of their car at the parking lot of what looked more like a derelict old farm than an airport. They stood near the runway and were surrounded by only two other cars, as well as a few scattered barns that, according to Andrea, were apparently hangars. There wasn't a plane in sight, and not another person either, and had it not been for Miranda implicitly trusting Andrea, she'd have believed they were in the wrong place altogether.
"Hey," Andrea stepped up beside her, rubbing her gloved hands together. "Don't you want to wait in the car? It would be slightly warmer."
"Hmmm," Miranda shook her head, but slipped an arm around the younger woman to briefly rub her back through her coat. "I'm too nervous. I need to keep moving."
"They're fine, Miranda. They'll be here in a few minutes," Andrea tried to reassure her.
And rationally Miranda knew this. She had gone over the travel details with Jeremy the previous evening, and he had even messaged her a little over an hour ago that they had made their connection in Vancouver. It was only a sixty-minute flight and there wasn't any snow or ice. Subconsciously chewing on her bottom lip, Miranda mused that her apprehension was probably also due to the fact that she would be seeing her daughters again after having parted on such painful terms two weeks ago.
"When we came here I wanted us to fly in too," Andrea suddenly spoke, "but no flights were going because of the storm. It would have been faster."
"No-no, it was quite alright," Miranda smiled at her. "In hindsight, that first drive was very beautiful. I think it was what I needed,... a slow-paced departure from civilisation towards a place of peace."
Andrea grinned back, and Miranda leaned in for a kiss.
Suddenly she heard the humming of engines in the distance, and she looked up to see a small plane headed their way.
"They're here," she breathed, eyes wide and hands grabbing Andrea's arms. "They're here!"
She watched the smooth landing, but only once the plane had fully touched down, then slowed and was taxiing toward them did she feel that she could freely breathe again.
The aircraft stopped rolling just a few yards away and the cabin door opened. An older couple climbed out first, but then-and oh how Miranda's heart jumped at the sight-familiar red hair appeared and she watched Caroline climb down onto the tarmac. The girl briefly scanned her surroundings, and, as her sister descended the steps behind her, quickly locked onto Miranda. The excited wave that followed instantly brought tears to Miranda's eyes, and before she knew it she was running.
And then she was kneeling on the ground and her arms were filled with her two little darlings. She held them so very tightly, inhaled the smell of their hair, and revelled in the feeling of their little faces pressed to hers.
"Mommy," Caroline shrieked in delight, while Cassidy just quietly clung to Miranda.
"Bobbseys," Miranda sniffled, her heart soaring.
"Why are you crying, mom?" Cassidy asked as they pulled away to all look at each other.
"I'm just so happy to see you, my darlings." She gave them a wide, watery smile and tenderly cupped their cheeks.
They both looked a bit tired, excitement about the journey no doubt having kept them from proper sleep. But they were healthy and they were right here, looking back at her not with the heartbroken gaze of disappointed children, but with wide happy grins and eyes full of love. Miranda drew them into her arms again, squeezing them so much they giggled and squirmed.
"Mom," the sound of Caroline's laugh was absolute music to Miranda's ears. "You're squishing me."
"Ahem," someone next to them cleared their throat, and Miranda looked up to see that it was the girls' father.
She stood and nodded at her ex-husband. "Hello, Jeremy."
They hadn't seen each other since the summer when Miranda had last picked the girls up from his Hampton's home. And although they had never been as close friends as her and Stephen in the past, Miranda nevertheless appreciated Jeremy's leniency regarding the girls' visitation rights. She knew he could have been difficult, had he so chosen. And taking her own behaviour of the last few years into account, she wasn't sure she could have entirely blamed him.
He heaved two small suitcases from the plane and handed them to the twins.
"Thank you, for coming with them," Miranda thanked him. "And for allowing the girls to spend the Holidays with me."
"Well, there was no stopping them, to be honest," he scratched the back of his head and gave a wry grin.
"As soon as they decided they would use your… uhm... assistant," he looked past Miranda to where Andrea was waiting by the car, "to come here and surprise you, there was no talking them out of it."
"Andrea is no longer my assistant," Miranda corrected him, while her daughters used her as a shield to sceptically glance behind her and inspect the younger woman.
"Right," Jeremy nodded. Although she hadn't spoken to him about Andrea's new role in her life, he seemed to be putting two and two together.
Miranda hesitated for a moment, but then asked, "do you have time for a coffee?"
"Nah, I think we have to fly back right away. The pilot said the weather's gonna turn."
"Ah, alright," Miranda replied, but she was slightly distracted by the uncharacteristically shy behaviour of her girls who were still merely eyeing Andrea from a safe distance.
They had met Andrea many times before, because, among other things, she had quite often helped with their various school projects as part of her duties as Miranda's assistant. Ever since that fateful day in August the twins had even started calling her "the Harry Potter Assistant" for getting them the unpublished book manuscript long before its release, and Miranda didn't know why they were suddenly acting so bashful.
It amused as much as it puzzled her, so she called out to the younger woman, "Andrea, come here."
Andrea's steps were perhaps a tad more cautious than usual, but she walked up to them with a wide smile on her beautiful face. Miranda wasn't quite sure whom she was more proud of, the twins or Andrea, but she sensed that having the three of them get along would make her life complete.
She gave her daughters a gentle nudge in the back and said, "girls, say hi to Andrea."
"Hello," Caroline was the first to speak; Cassidy held up a hand in greeting.
"Hey," Andrea replied warmly, looking between the girls, before focusing on Caroline. "We spoke on the phone, right?"
"Yeah." Caroline's eyes sought out her sister's. "Thanks for letting us come here."
Then Cassidy added, her voice low, "even if you can't keep a secret."
"Girls," Miranda warned, but Andrea reassured her with a brief look, before squatting down in front of the twins.
She said, "yeah, I'm sorry about that. But I don't want to lie to your mom."
"You ruined the surprise," Cassidy accused, looking at the ground.
Miranda squeezed her daughter's shoulder. "No she didn't, Bobbsey." She pressed her hand to Cassidy's cheek and continued, "I am so glad you are here. When I found out you two were coming I was so excited I could not contain my happiness."
"Really? So you were surprised?" Caroline asked, eyes wide.
Smiling at her babies, Miranda nodded. "Yes, I was very surprised, and I'm very proud of you. Your plan was a success."
She looked at the younger woman. "And Andrea told me about it, because I asked her to. When you trust someone you want them to be honest with you, don't you?"
"Yeah, I guess," Caroline conceded.
Cassidy remained quiet, but eyed Andrea intently in a way not much different from how Miranda herself typically perused those she found potentially worthy of her interest.
"Now," Miranda then spoke, offering a hand and smirk to Andrea to help her stand up.
"Let's get out of the cold."
When Miranda walked into the small supermarket twenty minutes later, a clingy daughter on each arm, she didn't even flinch at the unexpected crowd that met them. The rush of last-minute Holiday grocery shopping surrounding them couldn't faze her one bit, because her girls were back, and the world was right again. Andrea followed them with a cart, sending Miranda a warm, understanding smile every time the older woman found herself glancing back apologetically for focusing so much on the twins.
Caroline had taken the lead, pulling them from one shelf to the next and taking advantage of Miranda's splendid mood to add to the ever growing pile of junk food in the shopping cart. Miranda knew she wouldn't let her daughters make a habit out of it, but for now she gladly indulged them.
"Mom, can we have pizza tonight?"
They stood in front of the freezer section where Andrea was thoughtfully weighing a large frozen turkey in her hands.
"We have dinner guests tonight, Caroline, and they will bring half of the meal we already agreed on," Miranda explained, watching her daughter scrunch her nose in disappointment. "But how about instead of a Christmas Turkey tomorrow we make a pizza? You and your sister can help and create your very own." She looked at Andrea who raised her eyebrows. "And it would save Andrea a lot of time in the kitchen."
The younger woman quite eagerly put the dead bird back into the freezer.
"Who's coming for dinner?" Cassidy asked as they continued onwards.
"The nextdoor neighbours," Miranda explained. The twins didn't seem particularly impressed by the prospect of having to sit through a meal with adults they didn't know, so Miranda added, "they are bringing their dog."
The magic word to the rescue, she smirked to herself at the excited response she received.
When they had found everything they needed they moved to the checkout line, where the girls fought over who could help place all the items on the counter. Miranda watched them with a lazy smile; she had missed them so much that even their squabbling couldn't destroy her good mood.
"Hey, Miranda, look," Andrea suddenly spoke beside her, handing her a magazine.
It was the just-released January issue of Runway, and Miranda reached for it with a hand that trembled ever so slightly.
There it was. Finality.
Not exactly shocked that even this small town supermarket at the edge of the world would carry Runway, she stroked her thumb across the glossy cover. What gave her pause was that she wasn't experiencing the lingering sadness she had expected. She wasn't certain what it was she was feeling, but one thing she knew for sure. She had no regrets.
Andrea gently touched her arm. "You okay?"
And it was the truth. She was more than okay. It was time to put Runway behind her.
"Put it back." She smiled at the startled look on Andrea's face as she handed her the magazine.
"We don't need it."
"But…" Andrea pouted, "maybe I want it."
Miranda hadn't considered that. So busy with moving on from the loss of the magazine herself, she hadn't thought about the fact that Andrea, too, had lost a job that had been pretty much her life.
"Of course. I'm sorry, darling," she caressed Andrea's hand while the younger woman cradled the January issue to her chest with the other.
"It's just… you know… this is us," Andrea now whispered so the twins couldn't hear. "This is where we happened."
She fondly stroked the cover, and Miranda had to fight the urge to grab Andrea and kiss her right there.
Returning to the cabin with Andrea and the girls felt unsurprisingly natural, as if she had done it a hundred times before. Andrea and her were so in tune, so used to their little domestic routines that it was difficult to remember they had only shared their lives this intimately for the past two weeks. But it spoke volumes about their future and how smoothly they would be able to transition back to life in Manhattan.
Miranda helped carry some of the grocery bags into the kitchen, and when the twins followed behind, curiously taking in their surroundings, she smirked and told them to go explore.
"Your room is up the stairs and to the left."
Suitcases were haphazardly dropped near the entrance and eager little feet trampled up the stairs. Andrea snorted as she opened the fridge to stow away the food.
"So much for peace and quiet."
Miranda stepped behind her and slithered her arms around the younger woman's waist.
"You better get used to it, darling," she whispered into her hair, before nuzzling the spot just behind her ear.
"Oh I do like them," Andrea said as she leaned into the caress. "And it's not like they can trick me into getting fired anymore, can they?" She suddenly became thoughtful, body slackening in Miranda's embrace. "I mean, if they don't like... or accept me,..." her voice was so soft, "I would understand if you didn't want me in your life anymore..."
"Andrea," Miranda gently turned the younger woman around, quite aware that Andrea's words weren't meant in the altruistic way they appeared, but were, in fact, more of a frightened call for reassurance.
"My sweet, wonderful Andrea," she took her lover's face into her hands and pressed their foreheads together. "I won't let anything, or anyone come between us. I love you and my daughters equally."
Her hands stroked down over Andrea's spine before coming to rest at the small of her back.
"After being lost for so long, living my life chasing after this elusive, short-lived sense of gratification that comes with power and success, I finally understand that my true happiness lies with you and the girls. I can survive anything-even very public dethroning," she snorted, "as long as I have the three of you by my side." She briefly kissed Andrea's lips, before adding, "and I know that we will make this work."
Andrea smiled, her teary eyes sparkling, and Miranda leaned in for a longer, deeper kiss, that was filled to the brim with love and promises.
"Mom, what are you doing?"
Caroline's sudden voice startled them apart, and Miranda looked up at the landing above the stairs.
"I was kissing Andrea, Bobbsey," she replied carefully, arms nonetheless remaining around the younger woman as she turned to fully face her daughters.
The girls were quiet, their hands holding onto the banister.
"Why?" It was Cassidy who had asked.
After a subtle pat to Andrea's backside, Miranda let go of her and walked into the living space, stopping near the bottom of the stairs.
"Come," Miranda said, holding out her arms to her daughters. "I will explain everything and answer any questions you may have."
Caroline walked down first, her gaze flicking between Miranda and Andrea, while Cassidy followed closely behind. They didn't seem too perturbed, but this was the first time they had seen their mother kiss another adult on the lips, and although Miranda had planned to tell them about Andrea's place in her heart as soon as possible, she still grew a little apprehensive.
"Here, let's sit down." She walked to the couch, took a seat in the middle, and patted the two cushions to either side of her. The girls sat down and Miranda took their hands, unsure how to begin.
"Is Andreya your girlfriend?" Cassidy asked quite suddenly, and Miranda was startled by her directness.
"Uhm." Miranda blinked and looked at Andrea who still stood frozen behind the kitchen island. "Yes, Andrea is my girlfriend."
"Does that mean you're gay?" Caroline wanted to know, and Miranda really couldn't judge whether or not the girls were upset.
"Well, having a girlfriend wouldn't in itself make me gay," she explained, gazing at where she held her daughters' hands in her lap.
"But yes, I… I'm a lesbian. "
She allowed for a short silence, before she dared to ask, "are you girls okay with that?"
"I guess so." Caroline shrugged. "Batwoman is a lesbian. And she's really cool."
"Sally Ride is too." Cassidy said.
"She is?" Andrea chimed in, sounding intrigued, as she walked over and sat down in one of the arm chairs.
Miranda, who was glad that Andrea had chosen to be a part of this talk, couldn't quite place the name, although she was sure she had heard it before. "Sally who?"
"Sally Ride, Miranda. How on Earth is it possible that you don't know about America's first woman in space?!" Andrea rolled her eyes, mocking Miranda, if in a playful manner, but it caused Cassidy to giggle so heartily that Miranda instantly forgave her.
"Well, you see, Andrea, I am not the NASA specialist in this family," she patted her beaming daughter's head. "Cassidy is."
"May I ask how you know that Sally Ride is gay, Cassidy?" Andrea had slid to the edge of her seat, apparently rather excited about the subject matter.
"There wasn't anything official the last time I checked," she continued. "And I did do a lot of research, because I wrote an extensive article about her for the Daily Northwestern. I even won a prize for it." She smirked and eyed Miranda. "It was in my resume."
Perhaps that was why the name rang a bell. Miranda had taken the time to actually read Andrea's sample articles a few months back, once she had found herself becoming increasingly interested in the younger woman.
"A girl from Spacecamp said so," Cassidy mumbled, now sounding doubtful.
"Hey, don't get me wrong, Cass, I also think she's gay." If Cassidy had any objections to her name being shortened by Andrea, she gave no indication. "But you know, one should always be careful with rumours until there is something official out there."
With a pointed look at Miranda, the younger woman continued. "The press can be vultures. You know how they get with your mom."
"Andrea is very protective of me," Miranda told the girls. "However, I have no desire to hide Andrea from the public, so there will be speculations and rumours about us." She hugged her daughters. "When that happens, it could become unpleasant again."
"It's okay," Caroline said as she hugged her mother back. "Andreya is pretty, so we will be more popular in school."
"How so?" Miranda asked, hard-pressed not to laugh at the prominent blush on Andrea's face.
"The dad of a girl in our class had an affair with that young actress from that show we like," Cassidy explained. "When it was in the papers, everybody in school wanted to be that girl's friend."
"Bobbseys," Miranda stroked their hair, making sure they both listened. "What Andrea and I have is not an affair. I signed the divorce papers on Monday and had them couriered to New York, so the divorce with Stephen should be final next week." She looked first at Caroline, then Cassidy, hoping they understood Andrea's importance. "And Andrea and I… well, we liked each other before," she grinned at the younger woman, "for quite a while, actually, but we didn't become involved until..."
Suddenly Cassidy reached out, and her small hands unexpectedly flew up and cupped Miranda's cheeks. Stunned, Miranda allowed her daughter to carefully map her face and pull at her skin as she traced the lines around her eyes and mouth.
"Darling, what are you doing?" Miranda whispered, fascinated.
"I'm checking if it's really you," Cassidy replied, and she tilted her head to the side and squinted in that contemplative way that Miranda knew she herself was prone to doing.
"Because… mom," Cassidy dropped her hands and looked at her sister for support. "You're suddenly smiling, like... all the time."
"Oh," Miranda blinked. Looking back over the past few days, she supposed the girls' assessment wasn't wrong. "And you feel that's a bad thing?"
"No, not really," Caroline answered. "It's just… strange, I guess." Gazing down, she began to fidget with the hem of her mother's sweater. "You were always so… sad and… angry with us back home."
"Oh, my babies," Miranda sniffled against her tears, kissed both girls on the hair and held them close. "I was never angry with you. "
"I was angry with myself, and… I was lonely and yes…. sad," she gazed at Andrea whose eyes were sparkling with compassion and love. "But that was never your fault, Bobbseys. I'm so sorry that I made you feel like I was angry with you. I love you both so, so much. "
"We love you, too, mom," Caroline mumbled, burying her face against Miranda's stomach, her little arms squeezing with all their might while Cassidy clung to Miranda's other side.
Andrea wiped the tears from her own face and walked around the couch to place a gentle hand to Miranda's neck. Quietly, as to not disturb the emotional heap of Priestlys before her she stroked her fingers through Miranda's hair and asked, "anyone up for some hot cocoa?"
Three sniffly yeses were all Andrea needed to hear to magic away into the kitchen. Just a few minutes later the four of them sat huddled together in front of the fireplace, drinking abhorrently sweet hot chocolate while having light, giggly conversations, and Miranda knew this was the happiest she had ever felt in all her life.
It was past nine, and after a pleasant dinner Marie and Frank had invited them all to join them by their outdoor stone firepit for some roasted marshmallows. The women were sitting on a log, cradling their hot, spiced punch and warming their faces and feet at the fire.
"Miranda, your girls remind me a lot of Andy at that age," Marie said as they watched Frank teach the twins how to play fetch with Boomer a few yards away. "They're just as lively and... adventurous. "
"Well, at least there was only one of me back then," Andrea snorted.
The fire and spiced punch had coloured her nose and cheeks a delicate pink, and not for the first time that evening Miranda had to clench her fists in restraint to not tackle the younger woman to the ground and make sweet love to her right then and there.
"I think Erica would have loved two versions of you just the same," Marie replied a little wistfully, gazing into the flames. "She had a special bond with you, Andy. You were the only Sachs who never treated her any differently."
"Well, I loved her." Andrea shifted against Miranda, thoughtful at the memory of her aunt. "She was my favourite."
"Mine too," Marie sniffled, before wiping her face with the back of her gloved hand. "Mine too."
Miranda hadn't expected to be hit so hard by that revelation, and despite the other woman still somewhat counting as a stranger, Miranda reached out to gently touch her arm.
"In the years after your summers here," Marie continued, subdued, "Erica and I… we spent a lot of time together. Frank was always up north at the oil rigs for weeks at a time, and so it was just the two of us."
As she watched Frank teach another dog trick to the twins, Miranda wondered how much he knew, and how a genuine marriage-if that was the case here-could survive something like that. Her own two marriages had only been for show, and when Miranda had been involved with her previous lovers, not a thought had been lost on her husbands, who had equally found their fulfillment elsewhere.
Judging by the sudden stillness in Andrea, the younger woman had also caught on to the meaning of Marie's words, and wanting to comfort her, Miranda hugged Andrea to her side and rested her head against her shoulder.
"She spoke of you often," Marie continued, and she gave Andrea a teary smile. "And you should know she never blamed you for any of the things that happened."
"Thank you," Andrea replied quietly, voice cracking, "for telling me all this."
"No," Marie said as she dried her tears. "Thank you for bringing life, and... happiness back here. I think Erica would have enjoyed," she gestured at the giggling twins, "all this laughter at her cabin."
She then looked at Andrea. "I'm so happy you didn't sell. It wouldn't be the same if some stranger had made a bed and breakfast for surfing tourists out of it."
"Don't worry," the younger woman reassured Marie. "I have no intention of selling, and I think," she eyed Miranda, "we will come visit often. With the girls?"
Miranda nodded, endeared that Andrea was already planning a future with her daughters in it. Thanks to the information they had just learned, Marie's presence did not stop Miranda from tenderly kissing the corner of Andrea's mouth. And although the younger woman seemed a bit self-conscious at first, she fully turned her head towards Miranda for a proper kiss.
"I just realised we forgot the gram crackers," Marie said as she stood rather quickly and walked towards her house. "Let me get those real quick, and then the girls can make s'mores."
"Okay, thank you, Marie," a slightly flustered Andrea said, while Miranda took her hand and grinned to herself.
"Andrea," she spoke after a few moments of just sitting together and staring into the flames. "I never asked how your aunt passed away. She wasn't much older than me, was she?"
The younger woman took a deep breath and squeezed Miranda's hand. "She drowned herself."
Miranda's eyes closed at the mental blow.
"According to the letter I received from her lawyer, she had been battling with depression for a long time. One morning she just swam into the ocean... and didn't return."
"Oh god. Andrea, I'm so sorry." She slipped both arms around Andrea's waist and just held her for a while.
Briefly, Miranda recalled how hollow and defeated she had felt when they had come to the island, and although she couldn't quite imagine getting to a point completely devoid of hope, she knew it absolutely wasn't her place to judge. She thought of how Andrea must have felt learning that news at a time in her life when she didn't have any support from her friends and family, and her stomach clenched. She nuzzled Andrea's cheek and whispered words of love and comfort, and Andrea snuggled close.
"Thank you, Miranda. I'm okay." She smiled and Miranda gently wiped the tears from her adorably rosy cheeks. "You're the one who has, in these past weeks, taught me to forgive and to move forward. I can do that now." She exhaled one more time and then straightened her spine. "My aunt will always be in my heart." She eyed the fast approaching twins. "And we will make plenty more happy memories here."
"Mom!" Miranda released Andrea just in time to catch an excited Caroline on her lap. "Mom, did you see? We made Boomer sit! Frank said we can try to teach Patricia, too, once we're back home."
Cassidy arrived by Andrea's side, and, without hesitation, plopped herself down in front of the younger woman. "Andy, have you ever had a dog?"
At some point during dinner, when they had talked extensively about women astronauts and comic book superheroes, Cassidy had taken to calling Andrea by the shortened version of her name. And although it annoyed Miranda, she knew it meant her daughter had accepted Andrea in her life, at the very least as a friend.
"Yeah, we had a beagle."
Marie had returned and was rustling with the cracker wrappers while Frank handed everyone a long skewer for the marshmallows.
"Which ones are those? 'Beagles'?" Caroline asked from where she had slipped down on the ground next to her sister, her back leaning against Miranda's legs.
"Snoopy is a beagle," Miranda joined the conversation as she handed her daughter a bag of rainbow marshmallows.
"Who is Snoopy?" Caroline wanted to know. "You mean Snoop Dog?"
"No, your mom meant the dog from the Peanuts," Andrea explained with a laugh.
"I'm allergic to peanuts," Cassidy said, while sliding four marshmallows onto the skewer.
"I knew that," Andrea beamed smugly.
And while the twins proceeded to burn their sugary shish kabobs to a crisp, and an amused Frank and Marie sang old, swinging Christmas tunes, Miranda held Andrea's hand behind their backs and silently counted down the minutes until bedtime.
When Miranda woke on Christmas morning she wasn't quite sure if there had been an explosion or an earthquake, but the bed was shaking and there was a high-pitched noise that brutally pulled her from her pleasant dreams.
A knee landed in her side and somewhere between all the screaming she heard Andrea utter a startled curse word or two beside her.
"Bobbseys, what on earth?!" Miranda slowly pried her eyes open.
"Mom, look outside!" Caroline screeched, entirely too loudly for Miranda's head which was still recovering from one cup of spiced punch too many.
Cassidy threw herself next to Andrea and shook the younger woman by the knee that was propped up under the duvet.
Luckily Miranda had planned ahead, and her and Andrea had showered and put on nightgowns before falling asleep. She sat up and groggily leaned against the headboard. The girls were bouncing up and down on the mattress, and Miranda regretted not stopping them from eating so much sugar the night before.
"Can we go play outside?"
"Yeah, can we?"
"Yes," Miranda relented. "You may."
As quickly as it had appeared, the storm of two little redheads departed again, their excited "whee!" and the sound of small, naked feet on the wooden floor echoing from beyond the still ajar door.
"Girls!" Miranda shouted, sensing Andrea cringe beside her. "Get dressed first!"
"Oh my god," the younger woman rolled over and curled around Miranda with a groan. "What the hell just happened?"
"Welcome to the family, darling," Miranda drawled, and she felt Andrea's body shake against her in exhausted laughter.
Worried about what the girls might get up to unsupervised, they got dressed quickly and hurried downstairs. Andrea made coffee and Miranda stood by the veranda door and kept an eye on the twins who were already entirely covered in snow.
"Mom, are you coming?" Caroline yelled from outside.
Unwilling to shout any more than necessary, Miranda opened the door far enough to poke her head through and answer, "let mommy finish her coffee. We will come in a bit."
A snowball zoomed past her, narrowly missing her head, and it hit the veranda ceiling and caused bits of snow to rain down. Miranda pretended to be unfazed, and she closed the door and shook out her hair just as Andrea walked over with two steaming cups.
"Who raised those demons?"
Andrea smiled and pressed a finger to Miranda's chest. "You did. They really do take after their mother."
Miranda narrowed her eyes at her cheeky lover, but she couldn't fault her for speaking the truth. Playfulness was a wonderful trait, even if one had to cultivate it into finer shades as life progressed away from childhood.
She was about to whisper a dirty comeback in Andrea's ear when the younger woman's cellphone rang.
"Oh, it's my mom."
"Go on, it's alright." Miranda nodded. "Talk to her while we drink our coffee."
They sat down in the armchairs, and Andrea placed her phone on the table between them, indicating to Miranda that she'd turned on the speaker.
"Hey mom, Merry Christmas."
"Hi, Andy. Merry Christmas to you, too," Mrs. Sachs spoke on the other end of the line.
"So, how is everyone?" Andrea asked while drawing patterns on the table surface with her finger.
"Everyone's great. Jill and the boys flew in yesterday, and we all just really miss you."
"Does that 'we' include dad?"
"Honey,..." Andrea's mother was about to find excuses for her husband, when a loud splat against the cabin window startled Miranda upright. The twins outside shrieked with delight at her reaction, and Mrs. Sachs on the phone voiced her confusion.
"What's going on, Andy? Why do I hear children in the background? Where are you?"
"Miranda's kids are throwing snowballs at the windows," Andrea said, and she smirked and shook her head at the girls who had already run off again and were now making shapes in the deep snow.
"Miranda's daughters? Why would her daughters be there with you? Why is she there, really?" Mrs. Sachs sounded frustrated, and part of Miranda could empathise with the maternal fear that her children would one day not want to share things anymore.
"Andy, what aren't you telling me?" Mrs. Sachs pleaded.
Gently grabbing Andrea's hands, Miranda nodded for her to go ahead.
"We're together, mom," Andrea said with a shaky breath. "Miranda and I. We're a couple."
There was a pause, but before it could unsettle Andrea, her mother sighed and spoke, "yes, that's pretty much what I've suspected."
Andrea frowned. "You have? How?"
"You've never spoken about a boy the way you've spoken about that woman in these past months." Hearing this caused a small amount of smugness to claim its place in the pit of Miranda's belly. "And then bringing her to Erica's cabin,..."
"Mom, does dad know? Have you told him?" The prospect seemed to greatly worry Andrea.
"No, but Jill knows, and she shared my suspicion. Oh honey, all those long nights you spent at the office..."
"Mom, we weren't together when I worked for her. It just sort of happened here, while we genuinely got to know and took care of each other."
Miranda smiled at that and used her thumbs to lightly stroke her lover's palms.
"Andy, are you sure about this? She's so old," Andrea's eyes widened, and she quickly looked at Miranda and pointedly shook her head. "And isn't it possible she's just using you?"
Andrea wanted to answer, but Miranda held up her hand and mouthed, let me.
"Mrs. Sachs? This is Miranda."
"Oh." Andrea's mother immediately sounded anxious. "Uhm, hello, Miranda."
"From one mother to another, I want to say that I understand your concerns about your daughter's well-being. That said, let me reassure you that my intentions are noble, and that I am neither taking advantage of Andrea right now, nor have I ever, in our professional time together, approached her in a personal manner."
Andrea beamed at her.
"I love and respect Andrea, and I suggest that in the new year we could perhaps meet face-to-face, so that you can make your own assessment of our situation."
Mrs. Sachs remained quiet, and Andrea took the opportunity to speak up again. "Mom, I'm safe and happy. Please trust me in this. I love Miranda, and I want to be with her. We're good for each other, so please don't worry. I promise I'll see you soon, and then we'll talk properly, alright?"
"Oh well, I guess I'll have to take your word for it, Andy." Mrs. Sachs finally relented, and Miranda saw the tension fall from Andrea's shoulders.
The twins could be heard laughing again, and Miranda, who had finished her coffee, decided it was time to join her daughters, so she stood from her armchair.
"Okay, mom," Andrea followed suit. "I need to go. There is a snowball fight to be had, and you know how I love those."
That lured a small laugh from Mrs. Sachs. "Okay, well, go get 'em, honey."
"I will." Her eyes sparkled at Miranda.
After saying their goodbyes, Miranda and the younger woman pulled on their boots and zipped up their coats by the veranda door.
"You should know I'm very good at snowball fights," Andrea grinned as she clapped her gloved hands together.
"Is that so?" Miranda replied, and she leaned closer to whisper, "well, you better run, darling. There is a reason why they call me the 'Snow Queen'. I've got the toughest balls."
Throwing her head back in a delightful laugh, Andrea yanked the door open and hurried outside. She yelled for the girls to run and hide, and the three of them proceeded to tumble around in the snow in a mixture of giggles and exhausted panting against the cold. Miranda got in a few good shots that hit their targets square on the face, eliciting more happy shrieking and some empty, half-hearted threats of revenge.
She was ready to throw another perfectly rounded snowball that was pressed together just firmly enough to fly well, yet not hurt its victim, when suddenly three white blurs came simultaneously at her. Two of the snowballs hit her on her chest and one spattered apart on her cheek, sending snow down her collar.
The surprising impact had sent her stumbling, and before she could regain her balance she fell backwards. A thick layer of snow gently caught her, but she had no time to scramble back to her feet, because three laughing, snow-covered beasts jumped her and pressed her deeper into the snow in a jumble of hugs and kisses.
And Miranda happily thought to herself, 'The Fall of the Queen', indeed.