Out of India

by Enginerd


Chapter 12 - Two Steps Back . . .

 

Mel was furious. She marched down the hallway and stopped in front of Janiceís door. Pushing up her glasses, she took a few calming breaths, certain if she didnít try to calm down she might actually strangle the archeologist. With great control, she knocked on the door, firmly, determined to find out WHY Janice could borrow from Sophia but not from her.

After a few moments with no response, she clenched her teeth and knocked harder.

Had she NOT offered to help her?!? Mel thought angrily and exhaled with annoyance that there was still no response. Had she not offered REPEATEDLY? Mel considered and started to pound loudly on the door that finally swung open between strikes.

"Miss Pappas!" Raj said with surprise, rubbing his tired eyes.

Taking a calming breath, Mel said as pleasantly as she could "Good evening, Raj. I would like to speak with Janice." Mel brushed past him, not waiting for an invitation.

Raj could tell the woman was upset, forgoing her usual manners. "Where is she?" Mel said with alarm, immediately noting the second twin bed was still made.

Raj sighed and went to the archeologistís night stand and picked up an envelope. Mel looked at it numbly, prompting Raj to offer "She told me to give this to you in the morning."

 

Melís heart pounded with dread. She nervously took the envelope and read its contents.

Mel,

I have some business to take care of which should take a few days. You, Raj, and Sophia can start looking for evidence of Xena. I recommend contacting Dr. Sayjit Tangore of the University of Delhi for help. Tangore is an authority on Krishna texts and will likely faint at your piece of parchment. Please make sure he is sitting first.

Janice

"Do you know where she went?" Mel asked tightly, extremely unhappy.

"No. Dr. Covington would not tell me. I did ask," Raj offered uncomfortably.

"Her business . . . itís Simon isnít it?" Mel asked, looking at Raj, who sighed.

***

Hours before sunrise, dim yellow lights lit the train station. Among the travelers that ventured out for an early morning train was a fedora capped, pony-tailed woman, who fished out a cigar from the leather saddlebag draped over her shoulder.

Lighting up the stogie, Janice leaned against a wall, waiting. After a few minutes, she glanced around nonchalantly, spotting one of her three shadows awkwardly retreat around a corner.

"Idiots," she muttered and walked to the ticket counter. "The 4E, please."

"Round trip?" the man at the counter asked.

"No. One way," Janice said, handing over her money.

***

First thing in the morning, Mel, Sophia, and Raj rode through the city in a taxi. Raj keenly watched the driver, ensuring he didnít take a longer route than was necessary to the University. Though, Sophia would not have minded a longer ride. She wanted to see this exotic land and its people.

Sophia gasped as a cow meandered into the road. Some of the cars ahead veered off the road, crashing into street vendor carts. Others skidded to a stop, all to avoid injuring the wandering beast. Their taxi driver, having no option but to slam on his breaks, collided into the vehicle in front of them, jolting the passengers. Melís glasses flew off just before she heard a disheartening crunch.

The cow, unharmed and oblivious to the calamity, left the road and strolled down an alley.

The taxi driver started to curse in his native tongue as smoke billowed up from under his crumpled hood.

"Are you two all right?" Mel asked Sophia and Raj as she picked up her glasses from the floor of the taxi. She frowned at the two pieces now in her hands.

"Anybody get the license of that goddamn cow?" Sophia shook her head with amazement as she sat up, getting a startled look from the driver and a wince from Raj.

"What?!?" Sophia said defensively.

"Cows are considered sacred," Raj explained to the prostitute.

"A holy cow?" she said with a snicker, looking to Mel with amusement. Her smile faded as she watched Mel nod in agreement. "Oh," she blurted uncomfortably, then noticed Melís predicament. "Your glasses!" she said with concern to Mel as the driver got out of his cab to inspect the damage.

"Iíll manage until I can get a new pair," Mel said with a heavy sigh, placing the pieces in her purse.

As they got out of the cab, the three passengers surveyed the bovine-created chaos that looked like it wasnít going to clear up anytime soon. They cringed when the driver from the car in front of them got out and started to yell at their driver, who yelled back.

Through squinted eyes, Mel noted a cycle-rickshaw managing to make some headway around the congestion, though to the dismay and consternation of some unfortunate pedestrians. Pulling some rupees from her coin purse, Mel handed them to their driver. "Weíll find other transportation, thank you," she informed him.

"Oh! Let me get you another cab, Memsahib. My brother . . . " he quickly offered.

"No, thank you," Mel said.

"But my brother is right over . . . . "

"No, THANK you," Mel said with irritation and started towards the sidewalk with Sophia and Raj in tow.

***

Holding onto her hat as they roughly rode in the rickshaw, they made progress through the congestion, though Mel felt bad Raj ended up sitting behind the carriage on a shelf meant for luggage.

"We might actually get to the University," Mel offered, squinting down at her map, ignoring the now blurry scenery.

Sophia looked at Melinda with a frown. "Please tell me youíre not an all work and no play, kinda gal," she said. "I was kind of hoping to go shopping sometime."

"Weíll have some time, but I need to speak with Dr. Tangore," Mel said.

"And you need glasses," Sophia noted.

"Iíll get them. Iíd just like to have done something and maybe get some ideas . . . before Janice gets back," Mel said, then sighed, wishing she knew when that would be.

Sophia glanced over at the dejected Southerner and nodded. "What can I do to help?" The Greek asked, her sincerity and offer made Mel smile.

"Well, you can help with research on Indian folklore about a Warrior Princess and Amazon Bard from Poteidaia."

"Xena and Gabrielle, right?" Sophia asked, getting another smile from Mel, who visibly perked up when discussing her work.

"Yes. The parchment we have places them in India. It discusses a meeting between Xena and Krishna and then part of a grand battle between Xena and the king of demons, Indrajit."

"Uh huh. So . . . what do Xena and Gabrielle look like?" She asked, trying to find something to relate to, not being a student of Indian mythology, or history for that matter.

"Uh, well from what the scrolls we had indicated, Xena was tall," she said, trying to push up her glasses, awkwardly dropping her hand when she realized they werenít there. "She had long, dark hair . . . and blue eyes," Mel continued with a weak smile, not sure what Sophia was thinking at the moment, as she was just staring at her, blinking. Plowing ahead, Mel continued to describe her ancestor. "The most distinctive weapon she used was a chakram. It was a round metal weapon she would throw and catch, not unlike a boomerang. Xena was also skilled with variety of other weapons . . . the dagger, staff, chobos, and of course, the sword," Mel said and shrugged.

Cho whats? Sophiaís brow furrowed.

"There was even one reference to her use of fresh fish. . . ," Mel said with a small chuckle, which died when she noticed Sophia continued to stare at her, blinking.

"What about Gabrielle?" Sophia asked.

"Well, she was a bard and Xenaís best friend," Mel informed her with an enthusiastic smile that faded as she continued "Unfortunately, the scrolls donít really discuss her very much because she was the author. However, from the some of the scrolls we found, we were able to determine she was apparently shorter than Xena . . . with lighter hair . . . I imagine it was like Janiceís," Mel added thoughtfully as they arrived at the University.

Sophia nodded. "MmHmm."

***

With an . . . interesting . . . description of the Warrior Princess and the bard from Poteidaia, Sophia headed to the Universityís library with Raj to investigate whether the duo made it into Indian folklore.

Melinda found Dr. Tangoreís office. Squinting at her reflection in the pane glass before going in the office, Melinda straightened her suit top and brushed away a pieced of lint on her skirt, knowing first impressions were always important. With a smile, she approached the secretary, who wore an attractive green sari. Not one for wearing much jewelry herself, Melinda still appreciated it when tastefully worn. The bangles on the secretaryís wrists and the tikli at her forehead were wonderful accents, Melinda considered, though she could have gone without the silver stud in the womanís nose.

"Excuse me? Is Dr. Tangore in?" Melinda Pappas asked, trying not to stare at the stud.

***

After a few hours on the train, Janice got up from her seat. Looking up and down the aisle, she chose to go forward. She pulled open the door, almost drowning out the loud chatter of the passengers with the noise from the rails. The door shut behind her as she stepped onto the small platform and opened the door to the next car.

"Sheís going for another walk," Simon announced as he returned from the door window and sat next to a large, muscled man that didnít appear to have a neck.

"She probably hates sitting still as much as I do," Eric Donavitchi said coldly and cracking his knuckles, looking incredibly bored.

"B. . . But you fly planes on long trips," Simon pointed out nervously.

"Thatís different," Eric said gruffly.

"Oh," Simon said.

"Quit complaining, Eric. This long annoying trip will be worth the inconvenience. Wonít it, Simon?" Giorgio Donavitchi asked with a smile that was not friendly.

"Absolutely," Simon said with as much confidence as he could muster.

***

"Dr. Tangore, Dr. Covington recommended I come to you for help. Iím Melinda Pappas from Columbia, South Carolina." Mel smiled at the grey-haired Indian as she entered his office, holding out a hand.

Dr. Tangore eyed her curiously as they shook hands. "Harry?" Dr. Tangore asked in confusion, knowing Harry had died a couple years ago and it was highly unlikely he pursued a doctorate after leaving India.

"No, his daughter, Janice," Mel said with surprise. "Iím her partner."

"Janice is here?" He asked with surprise, looking behind her into the front office and only seeing his secretary.

"Uh . . . Doctor Covington is away on business at the moment," Mel said uncomfortably. "But she expects to be rejoining us in a few days."

"So she got a doctorate! That is good news. I had known she was capable but with, well, it is enough of a challenge," he said, awkwardly stopping. "She was an intelligent girl, I am pleased she succeeded with her education," he said warmly, glancing over to one of many pictures on his wall, which were little more than organized blurs to the Southerner at that distance.

"May I?" Mel asked with interest, getting up and closely inspecting the pictures. Dr. Tangore followed and pointed out the one picture in particular.

"Janice, Libby, and Harry, taken by yours truly."

"Libby, Janiceís mother?" Mel asked, mesmerized by the snapshot of Janiceís past, absorbing every detail. Janice, who looked no more than fourteen or fifteen, was laughing. Mel had to smile at the joy on her friendís face.

Janiceís shirt and shorts were blotched with mud, but that didnít seem to bother her mother, whose features and hair were clearly passed down to her daughter. Libby was also a beautiful woman, Mel considered, noting how Libbyís arms were lovingly wrapped around her slightly shorter daughter, peering at her Fedora-capped, mud-covered husband with an amused smile. Harry scratched the back of his neck with a sheepish look on his face, apparently explaining something.

"Tell me about this day," Mel asked. "Please?"

Dr. Tangore studied the tall woman a moment. With a small smile, he recalled the warm memory. "Harry was driving us to his campsite when we encountered a little problem due to the recent rains. . . ."

***

"Uh Dad? I really donít think you should. . . ." Janice said warily, climbing into the driverís seat of their jeep as instructed by her father. Dr. Tangore sat quietly, watching his old friend jump out of the jeep and into a mud puddle that had captured the jeep.

"I know what Iím doing!" He interrupted. "We used to get stuck in snow all the time growing up," he explained as he moved around back of the jeep.

"Itís not snow, Dad," Janice said flatly, glancing over to Dr. Tangore, who smiled politely.

"Now when I say go . . . go," he said confidently, adjusting his hat on his head and leaning his shoulder into the back of the jeep. Janice frowned.

"It is not always easy to obey oneís father. But it is a daughterís duty," the Indian lectured softly. Janice rolled her eyes at the Indianís philosophy, then cringed when Harry said "GO!"

Janice sighed in defeat and pressed on the gas peddle. The wheels spun frantically, unable to move anything except a stream of mud that plastered her father. Janice removed her foot, hesitantly looked back over her shoulder, and winced.

"OK. That didnít work," Harry said, spitting out mud from his mouth.

Janice bit her lip and climbed over the dashboard and windshield and stood on the hood of the jeep. "Iíll go get mom," she said, struggling not to laugh. "Sheíll want to . . . help," Janice said with a snicker before she jumped off the hood. She landed at the edge of the mud puddle, splashing herself, and jogged back to the nearby camp to get her mother.

Dr. Tangore smiled at his friend. "You must have known you would get splashed."

Harry shrugged as he tried to wipe the mud off his face. "You should see Libby and Janice laugh, Sayjit. Itís the most wonderful thing," he said with a big smile. "Iím a lucky man."

". . . And he was," Dr. Tangore said with a sad smile, sitting at his desk as Mel sat across from him, hanging on every word. "When Libby left him, it was something he could not overcome. His passion for life died, along with his marriage. After he and Janice had left India, she wrote to me a few times, but the letters stopped. The last letter I received from her was to tell me of his death. The drinking had finally caught up to him," he said with a heavy sigh.

"Such a tragedy. He still had much to live for but . . . ," he said with a heavy sigh and looked up to see that his story had deeply saddened the American as well. "But I am very pleased Janice was still able to succeed with her education. I do hope Doctor Covington stops by for a visit," he said with a warm smile.

"I will let her know youíd like a visit," Mel said softly, taking a deep breath. He nodded with satisfaction.

"So, Doctor Covington sent you to me. What can I do for you, Miss Pappas?" He said with renewed energy.

Mel wanted to ask a billion questions about the Covingtons. But she guessed that the family friend might not appreciate being grilled about their personal lives by a stranger. She would ask her questions in due time. The Southern lady was, if anything, persistent.

"We found a piece of parchment that you might be interested in."

***

Janice slept with her hat over her eyes.

The rhythmic click of the train rolling over the tracks had always been a soothing sound. She had traveled many miles around the world by rail. Yet, ironically, the train trip that had started her most significant journey, was one of the shortest.

She was beautiful, Janice sighed, having first spotted the Indian woman boarding the train. She had never seen anyone who could make her palms sweat and heart race before. Next to her were two elderly people sitting in the aisle seats that faced each other. But there was an empty seat across from her, Janice noticed with excitement.

"Uh, Mom? Iím going to sit over there, OK?"

Her mother looked over "there" curiously. "Why?"

"You are always telling Dad that I need to be with people my own age, and well, I thought Iíd go meet some," Janice said glancing at the Indian beauty, who stared out the window.

"She doesnít look your age, Janice," Libby said, noting the woman must be at least four or five years older than her little one. "And sheís Indian," Libby said in a concerned whisper, not yet sure about the country or itís people.

"I hate to tell you, there are Indians all over this country, hun," Harry joked softly, getting an unamused frown from Libby. "Let her go, sweetheart. Meeting people is the most important part of traveling," Harry lectured, then kissed her cheek. Libby nodded reluctantly, getting a big smile from Janice, who jumped up and started towards the empty seat.

Janice slowed, then stopped near the two elderly people, who were asleep in their seats. She glanced at the young woman, who continued to stare out the window. After a long moment of Janiceís hesitation, the young woman spoke. "Would you like to sit down?" the Indian asked softly, careful not to wake the older people up.

Startled by the lovely voice and the brown eyes that glanced up at her, Janice just stared, mesmerized. "You do speak English, donít you?" The woman smiled.

"Heh, Iím American actually," Janice said awkwardly, cringing at her stupid answer. She carefully stepped past the sleeping travelers and sat in the prized seat. "Iím Janice Covington," she blurted nervously, holding out her hand.

"I am pleased to meet you, Janice. I am Najihma Singhare," she said and took Janiceís hand and gently caressed it. Janice felt a surprising wave of warmth wash over her. She really hoped she wasnít blushing.

"I am happy you have the courage that I lack," Najihma said softly, reluctantly letting go.

"What?" Janice looked at her with surprise.

"I saw you on the platform," she explained, her eyes dropped with embarrassment. "I had hoped we would meet." The shy admission brought a big smile to Janiceís face.

"Really?"

"Really," Najihma smiled, further captivating the smitten young American.

The train lurched, waking some passengers, including Janice. She stretched as much as her small seat would allow as remnants of her dream continued to linger in her thoughts. She shook her head with a frown.

With a yawn, Janice silently got up and grabbed her leather bag. Opening the passageway door between the cars, she cringed at the sudden noise. Shutting the door as quickly as she could, she patiently waited to see if her three shadows in the car behind hers would follow. After a few moments, she only noted a few passengers shift in their seats. She smirked.

Enjoy Tibet boys, she thought as she adjusted the saddlebag on her shoulder and hat on her head. With a deep breath, she jumped into the darkness.

 


Chapter 13 - Hobbling Along

 

"GODDAMIT TO HELL!" Janice blurted as she sat on the ground cradling her throbbing ankle. "FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK!"

"FUCK!" She added for good measure, knowing trying to get to a town and get transportation would be a pain in the . . . ankle. She fell back on the ground, looking up at the stars and laughed, then moaned at her luck. Not only were three dangerous creeps following her, her dreams were now plagued by the woman who broke her heart, and her ankle throbbed like hell. And that was just today....

On the bright side, she considered wryly, it would be a long, painful trip back to Mel, who was probably very pissed. She winced as she got up and put pressure on her ankle. Well, at least if Mel was really mad, it would be easier to say good-bye, she considered and immediately snorted. Yeah, you keep deluding yourself, Covington.

A disturbing thought suddenly occurred to her, causing her heart to clench in panic. What if Mel had already left? She really couldnít blame her, she thought sadly, knowing Melinda was appalled with how she handled those jerks at the air strip. She wasnít happy about it either, but was not about to apologize for something that had to be done. Something she knew sheíd do it again, no matter how much Mel might object.

The knot in her chest relaxed slightly as she considered that Melinda Pappas was an excruciatingly polite person and would never just leave without a proper good-bye. As to whether that was really a good or bad thing, she wasnít so sure. Hobbling towards a village, trying not to pay attention to her ankle that screamed for her to stop, she considered it was amazing that Mel had managed to stick around as long as she had.

Janice knew she had not been easy on Mel, especially in the beginning. After her unexpected apology to the tall woman, who had made her feel so angry, uncomfortable, and guilty, all at once, she actually agreed to a partnership.

Since that surprising agreement, she had often wondered what the hell she had been thinking. It was like she was someone else, apologizing and being nice and all . . . and she certainly didnít want a goddamn partner! But, in a weak moment, Janice would later conclude, she knew the Southerner didnít deserve the crap she had dished out and tried to be nice, ignoring the obvious fact that kind words would only attract Southern trouble, like a bear to honey.

Janice had quickly concluded it was best for both of them if Mel realized she really wasnít cut out for the hard life ahead and was only indulging in a temporary whim.

"Get up," Janice said to the unmoving Southern lump on her fourth morning, which Melinda would argue was the middle of the third night, but knew it didnít really matter what you called it. At four AM, people were supposed to be asleep!

"Get UP!" Janice barked, startling the tall woman.

"What! Whatís wrong?" Mel asked with concern, sitting up on her cot, quickly reaching for her glasses on her night stand.

"Nothing. Weíve got work to do."

"Now?!?" Mel asked incredulously, looking around her dark tent.

"Well, Iím sorry," Janice said sweetly. "If youíd rather sleep than work like the rest of us, just say so," she said in challenge.

"I didnít realize it was an either-or choice," Mel said tightly as she got up and fumbled in the darkness for her clothes. "Ouch!"

"You might want to consider a hotel," Janice said. "Besides having accommodations youíre more accustomed to, itís likelier to be more quiet."

Mel looked at her curiously.

"Weíre using dynamite." Janice explained with a smile. She liked dynamite.

"Thank you so much for your thoughtfulness, Dr. Covington. But I can assure you, a hotel wonít be necessary," she said politely as she dressed for the long day ahead.

***

"Ok, weíve got a few more feet to dig out," Janice said, wiping her brow with her sleeve before returning to shoveling dirt.

Mel stared at her, wanting to scream, cry, or strangle the woman. Around Janice, she wasnít really sure what she was feeling. They had been digging for over four hours and hadnít stopped for one break. Who did she think she was - a slave driver? What happened to breakfast!?! When was this ditch going to be deep enough? And where was everyone else!!!

But she wouldnít ask. Oh no. She would not give that small ogre, who claimed to be a Doctor of Archeology, the satisfaction. That was exactly what she wanted. Dr. Covington wanted her to give in, to prove that she was just a flighty Southerner who didnít know a hard dayís work or what a blister was.

Mel quietly took a deep, determined breath and started shoveling again, anger fueling her drive.

"Well, Iíll show you, Dr. Covington," she thought and thrust the shovel in the dirt forcefully.

"Iíve got blisters," she thought and tossed the dirt into the large pile.

"Iíve even got dirt under my nails. And you know what? Iím not going to do anything about it!" she thought defiantly and scooped more dirt up, tossing it on the pile. Well, until later of course, she considered, quickly wincing at her dirt encrusted nails. She looked forward to cleaning up, even if it was just a sponge bath. She was drenched in perspiration.

"Iím even perspiring more than you, my short, sadistic partner," she considered with a sneer.

"And you happen to be riper than a month old banana!" She blurted, tossing another shovel full onto the pile, then froze.

Maybe she didnít hear me, Mel thought, biting her lip as she surreptitiously glanced over to the archeologist, who looked at her and blinked.

"That reminds me, Iím hungry. Letís break for some grub," Janice suddenly responded, adjusting her ever-present fedora. The agile archeologist quickly climbed out of their deep hole with amazing grace. Looking back at the still unmoving and embarrassed Southerner, she asked "Arenít you hungry?"

"Uh . . . Well," Mel looked up, eyeing her suspiciously, wondering if this was another stupid test. "Now that you mention it. I could eat," Mel offered cautiously as she pushed up her glasses. Seeing Janice just nod, Mel realized she wasnít going to lend a hand and started to awkwardly climb out of the ditch. Not even a simple offer of her hand, Mel noted with irritation, which faded when she realized with an odd sense of satisfaction that she was doing just fine without it, thank you very much!

Finally out of the hole and standing tall, Melinda eyed the archeologist, who stared at her a moment before nodding and walking towards the mess tent.

Janice was impressed with how determined the Southern lady was. Over the time Janice had known her, Melinda Pappas had not only proven that she belonged in the field, but any-cotton-pickín-place Melinda Pappas darn-well-wanted to belong!

Janice shook her head with a smirk as she slowly hobbled towards a town.

***

In the morning, Melinda met once again with Dr. Tangore. He paced excitedly as she pulled out a small pouch from her large leather satchel. She hesitated a moment and smiled at him. "Janice wanted me to make sure you were sitting."

"Yes maíam," Dr. Tangore chuckled and quickly sat at his desk. "Discussing it was one thing, but it is so much more satisfying to actually see it!"

She carefully opened the parchment and laid it on his desk. "Oh this is wonderful," he gushed, looking at the Greek lettering.

Melinda pulled out her note pad from her bag. After squinting at her writing and flipping to the correct page, she placed it next to the parchment. "Here is my translation. I believe it is accurate," Melinda said with confidence.

The eager man absorbed the fascinating translation, then looked back at the parchment with joy. "To actually see a new story of Krishnaís wisdom," Dr. Tangore said, reading more of the translation, then looking back at the parchment with reverence. "I wish I had your talent with ancient Greek," he said.

Mel smiled. "We believe there may be more evidence of the Warrior Princess and the bard from Poteidaia in Indian folklore."

Dr. Tangore sat back in his chair shaking his head in amazement. "Harry had always said this Xena existed. This parchment is incredible. Itís a shame it is only a fragment."

"Dr. Covington and I had found a number of complete scrolls," Mel offered enthusiastically.

"Really!" He asked with excitement. "Janice must be delighted with the discovery."

"She was, until they were . . . lost," Mel said uncomfortably.

"Oh that is terrible! To lose something that meant so much to her and her father."

"And her mother too, I would expect."

Dr. Tangore shook his head and sighed. "Libby did not share the same passion for archeology as Harry and Janice did."

"I find that hard to believe," Mel said, knowing how contagious Janiceís enthusiasm could be.

"Perhaps. Even though she supported her husband for many years, she had always wished for the day when he either found something or gave up," Dr. Tangore said sadly.

"Well, if Harry Covington was anything like his daughter, he was too stubborn to think of giving up," Mel said with a knowing grin.

"And he didnít. Even when Libbyís money ran out, he found other ways to continue," Dr. Tangore said with a disapproving shake of his head.

Melís grin faded. "He used Libbyís money?"

"Yes. Libby was very wealthy. Well, until Harry had used all her inheritance," Dr. Tangore offered. "Her family was not pleased with how quickly he "squandered" it, nor were they particularly interested in continuing to finance his frivolous hobby, especially since it kept Libby and Janice away from her family for so long."

"Was that why she left?"

"I do not know. But how could it not play a part?"

Mel nodded absently.

***

With the help of a friendly librarian, Mel found Sophia, who was in a private corner of the library. She sat at a large desk covered with books and papers, furiously taking notes. The surprised Southerner hoped Sophia had found a lead on Xena and Gabrielle. Dr. Tangore, unfortunately, had no insight or new ideas on where to begin.

"Sophia?" Mel asked the busy woman, who nodded and held her finger up as she finished writing a sentence.

Mel curiously looked over the womanís shoulder at the text that had captured the prostituteís interest. She looked at the colorful pictures of people, noting as she squinted that the people were . . . couples.

"Oh my," Mel said, quickly standing rigidly upright, looking around with embarrassment.

"I canít believe there are so many different versions . . . this one is an English translation, by Sir Richard Burton. There is an Ancient Greek one, and one in the original Sanskrit," she noted then suddenly looked up. "You donít happen to know Sanskrit too, do you?" Sophia asked eagerly, guessing Melinda actually might know that obscure language.

Mel stared at her and blinked.

"This is the Kama Sutra. According to the librarian, it is a very respected. . . ." Sophia explained.

"I know what it is," Melinda interrupted with exasperation.

"Have you studied it?" Sophia asked curiously.

"Why are you looking at that and not for evidence of Xena and Gabrielle?"

"Professional development?" Sophia said happily. "I had no idea someone actually took the time to develop principles for making love." She gazed appreciatively at the page.

Mel couldnít help but glance down and squint at the picture of two entwined bodies.

"Heís sticking his "ligum" in her "yonni," Sophia said with amusement at Melís wince of embarrassment, helpfully pointing to the body parts.

"I understand the mechanics, thank you," Mel said with irritation. "Well, at least between ligums and yonnis." Mel muttered without thinking.

"Not that much different for two yonnis," Sophia said casually, looking over her notes.

"H . . . How can that possibly be?" Mel challenged, glancing around again for unwanted ears.

"Well, OK, there is a big difference," she admitted, then added "Both partners are usually much more satisfied." Sophia smirked, turning the page to another picture and lesson.

"B. . ." Mel blurted and exhaled, losing her nerve to question the woman further. "We should probably . . . ." she said, glancing at her watch.

"In my experience, a woman can usually anticipate another womanís needs better than a man," Sophia explained as if Mel had asked her question. "The touches and caresses that please and excite you, are very likely to please another woman," she added. "Itís a wonder sometimes that men and women ever get together," she shrugged as she gathered her notes.

"You sound like you prefer women," Mel softly said with surprise, glancing around the library.

Sophia chuckled softly. "While a good man is hard to find," she admitted. "A hard man is great!" Sophia joked as she stood.

Mel remained silent, not sure how to respond. Though she didnít have the prostituteís extensive experience, she suspected she would never agree with that assessment.

"But Iíll tell you, if I could find someone kind and decent, who really loved me, I think Iíd be happy, regardless of sex," Sophia said and walked away from the Southerner with a small smile.

Mel sighed, truly hoping the key to happiness was not sex.


Chapter 14 - A Visitor

Mel squinted into the vanity mirror as she brushed her hair angrily. The sun was setting on their fifth day in Delhi with still no signs of Janice.

"Kama exists when the five senses together with the intellect and spirit, consciously and intentionally explore the full and complete pleasure of bodily contact," Sophia blurted reverently, nodding as she read over a page. "That is so true," she said and made a note, happily sitting on her bed, surrounded by a blanket of notebooks and sheets of paper.

Mel put her brush down and eyed Sophia, who busily organized her notes. Mel wondered if they actually might have had a lead by now if Sophia had as much enthusiasm for Xena and Gabrielle as she did in the countryís entire collection of Kama Sutra writings.

The Southerner was mighty miffed she hadnít had any luck finding leads, expecting Janice would tell her "I told you so." Mel had diligently researched the various library archives and grilled many scholars in Delhi to no avail. The only progress she had made during the past few days was thanks to Dr. Tangore. While her long visits didnít help her find anything out about her ancestors, or get a new pair of glasses, they had provided something she found much more valuable, insightful stories about Janice and her family.

"Why is it you two always seem to be covered in mud?" Libby said, shaking her head when her husband and daughter returned to the main tent covered with a coat of mucky grey and two big smiles. Dr. Tangore followed behind, unscathed and amused.

"Dad pushed m . . . !" The muddy teen blurted defensively.

"Donít argue with your mother, sweetheart," Harry interrupted and turned to his wife with a sweet smile.

"But I wasnít arg. . . !!" Janice protested.

"Your fatherís right, Janice," Libby agreed with a thoughtful nod, glancing at her husband with a mischievous glint in her eye. "You shouldnít argue with your mother."

"Dr. Tangore . . .?!?" Janice turned for help.

"Well, it is disrespectful for a daughter to . . . " the Indian automatically relayed.

"Fine," Janice interrupted, exhaling dramatically. "Iím going to get cleaned up," she announced, then eyed Libby. "If thatís all right with you, Mother," she asked deferentially.

"Very well," Libby said, dismissing her daughter with a regal wave of a hand.

"Thanks, mom!" Janice blurted with a devilish grin, gave her mother a quick bear hug, and dashed out of the tent before Libby could react.

"JANICE WILHELMINA COVINGTON! You are in SO much trouble!" Libby sputtered, hearing Janiceís distant laughter as she looked down at her now mud-smeared clothes.

"And what are you going to do about YOUR daughter?" Libby asked accusingly, looking up at her husband who smiled, not even making an effort to appear shocked by his daughterís actions.

"Iíd say you are able to handle YOUR daughter quite well, all by yourself," Harry said, grinning.

"Something tells me you put her up to it," Libby accused calmly, crossing her now-muddy arms.

"I did n . . . !" He protested.

"Harry, you shouldn't argue with your wife," Libby interrupted sternly, suppressing her amused smile.

"Yes dear," Harry said deferentially, eyeing her with a familiar devious glint.

Her eyes widened as he stepped closer. "Donít you d . . . ." she warned, just before he wrapped his mud-covered arms around his beloved and gave her a big kiss.

Mel smiled at that story. While she was close to her parents, her family never "played" like that. Janice was the first person who really brought out that side in her. It was . . . wonderful. She sighed, wanting Janice to come back. She missed her.

"Heh, conversation," Sophia blurted with amusement. Noting Melís curious look, she read more as explanation ". . . talking of arts and sciences and sharing in conversation will keep affection and adoration for each other strong. Consciously enjoying each other is the ultimate satisfaction." Sophia paused a long, thoughtful moment, and wrote some notes.

Melís eyes narrowed at her room mateís continued and enthusiastic "professional development." Knowing it was unfair to be annoyed at her new friend, who wasnít the one who decided to go off by herself, doing Lord knows what, Mel shook her head and got up.

As she walked to the door, Sophia looked up from her copious notes.

"Iím going for a walk," Mel said softly.

"Do you want some company?"

"No, thank you. I just wanted a little time alone," Mel said awkwardly. Sophia nodded in understanding, well aware of how uptight the tall woman was the past few days.

"Sheíll be back soon, you know. Then you can yell at her," Sophia said with a warm smile.

Mel didnít want to yell at her. She just wanted Janice back. "I wonít be long," Mel said absently, then left the room.

Sophiaís smile turned into a frown. "Well, if she doesnít yell, I will," Sophia promised, shaking her head.

***

Not far from her hotel, Mel wandered into a public park. She suspected it was very beautiful from the general arrangement of the blobs of flora and probably spectacular to see during the day . . . with her glasses.

She sighed heavily as she strolled on the tree-lined, brick walkway. It was bad enough that she had to wear glasses in the first place. Regardless of the style, she never found them flattering at all. But being without them was frustrating as all get out, she considered, having plenty of frustration already without having to worry about seeing.

It was going to be a miserable few more days until she could get a new pair made, she considered. Though she could have worn her broken pair, taped together, the Southerner stubbornly refused. Whether due to bad memories of grade-school teasing or just simple vanity, she just couldnít do it, no matter how sensible.

She had broken quite a few glasses as a child, considering it fortunate her parents were well off since it wasnít cheap to replace them so often. Even as an adult, she had broken a few pair. Mel grimaced, recalling how her pride had contributed to one particularly troubling time, after her first few months with Janice . . . .

"Mel wait! Iíll go secure the guide rope on the other end and come back for you," Janice said with a rope in her hand, looking down at the river from the unstable rocky ledge, then back at the stubborn Southerner intent on following.

"Thereís no need. We can make better time if I just follow you now. Iím not afraid of heights, Dr. Covington," Mel argued stubbornly as she pushed her glasses up and slowly followed the archeologist along the narrow ridge, hugging the rocky wall. She was determined not to be a burden to the smaller woman.

"Mel, thereís plenty of time. And the cave isnít going anywh . . . MEL!" Janice cried as the rubble shifted from beneath the tall woman, who lost her footing and started to fall. With the rope in hand, Janice dove for the Southerner. Mel hung onto Janice for dear life as they swung and bounced against the side of the cliff, coming to a jarring stop that sent her glasses tumbling.

Janiceís muscles trembled under the sudden load, and Melís grip made it difficult to breath, but the struggling archeologist managed to hang onto the rope with one hand. Barely. When the rope started to painfully slide through her hand, she grabbed the rope with both hands.

"Janice!?!" She blurted with concern when the strong grip around her let go.

"Just hold on to me, Mel," Janice growled out unnecessarily, for even a crowbar couldnít peel Mel away from the archeologist. "I need both hands to climb," she said and slowly ascended the rope, knowing the alternative was a nasty fall that would likely kill them both, or make them wish it did.

"Ugh." Janice grunted as she held on with one hand and grabbed the Southerner again, helping her back onto the ledge.

Through her gasps for air, Janice said "Come with me," carefully guiding the trembling Southerner up to her feet and to safety.

"Are you ok?" Janice said, still breathing heavily when she stopped, satisfied there was stable ground beneath their feet. Noticing Melís ashen face that now lacked glasses, she quickly looked the shocked woman over, relieved to find Mel only got a few scrapes and bruises.

As Janice took a moment to catch her breath, the Southerner hesitantly took her hand and inspected it.

Seeing the torn and bleeding hand, tears filled Melís eyes. "Iím so sorry, Janice," she said with anguish as Janice pulled her hand back with annoyance.

"Come on, we should get back to camp," Janice said tightly and walked to the truck and got in. Mel followed, feeling sick that Janice was hurt, all because of her pride.

"Janice?" Mel said nervously, noting Janice staring out the wind shield for a long moment.

"I find itís much harder to protect you when you ignore what I say," Janice said angrily, staring ahead as she strangled the steering wheel, trying to ignore the pain that action caused.

"I am so sorry. If anything ever happened to you because of me," Mel blurted.

"This isnít about me, Mel. This is about how you are going to get yourself killed because you are too FUCKING stubborn to listen to what I tell you! JESUS CHRIST, Mel, this wasnít the first time you ignored what Iíve said and got yourself into trouble. I was trying to HELP you, GODDAMNIT!!" Janice roared, making Mel wince. "This life you are hell-bent on living with me is dangerous enough as it is! For Godís sake, donít add to it by NOT LISTENING to me!!"

"I promise . . . ." Mel said meekly, wiping her tears with a shaky hand.

"Donít," Janice snapped, startling the Southerner. "Youíve never lied to me before, Mel. Donít start with a broken promise," Janice warned angrily.

Mel nodded in defeat as tears rolled down her face.

The shaking archeologist forced a calming breath. "Weíll be going into town tomorrow to get you new glasses," Janice said in a suddenly calm voice that Mel found more disturbing than the yelling.

"Again," Janice added flatly.

She rubbed her eyes, vividly recalling how angry Janice was. Except for a few grunted words, her tent-mate had barely spoken to her for a week after that incident, making Melinda wonder if Janice was going to end their partnership. That was the most miserably nerve-wracking week she could ever recall. Though, this week was turning out to be a strong contender, she considered.

Mel sighed heavily, thinking about her absent friend, who was probably doing something she really didnít want to know about. She felt incredibly frustrated that all she was able to do was pray that Janice was all right, just like she had done every night since Janice left.

Hearing heavy footfalls of someone getting closer, startled her from her thoughts. Mel picked up her pace, realizing that walking alone, at night, in a foreign city, wasnít the brightest idea she ever had. She felt even more vulnerable when she glanced over her shoulder and squinted, only able to make out a blurry dark figure approaching.

Janice was going to kill her for being so stupid, she thought uneasily.

Melindaís heart pounded rapidly as she debated about running or confronting the man. Suspecting she probably could not out-run the man back to the safety of her hotel, she stopped and suddenly turned towards him, hoping her appearance of confidence would discourage him. She sucked in a surprised breath, realizing the imposing figure was much closer than expected - and reaching out for her. Oh Dear Lord!

"M . . ." The sound escaped his lips before his arm was intercepted and painfully twisted. "Ugh!" The large blurry stalker grunted when punched in the stomach, causing him to immediately hunch over and clench his belly. His chin was met with a powerful uppercut, whipping him in the opposite direction before he fell to the ground. "Ooooff."

Mel would have known that shorter blurry figure anywhere.

"Janice!" Mel gushed with happy relief at the timely arrival of her fedora-capped protector, who had emerged from the darkness.

The archeologist stood between the Southerner and the dazed man, glancing over her shoulder.

"Are you OK?" Janice asked with concern, getting a big smile and nod from the taller woman.

"I am now," Mel exhaled happily. Her smile was radiant.

Taken aback by the surprisingly warm welcome, it took a moment before Janice noticed something was off. "What the hell happened to your glasses?!?"

"I was in a little accident," Mel said with a shrug.

"Accident?!? Wha . . . ." Janice stopped and turned back to the man as he stood slowly, rubbing his jaw with a groan.

The nervous Southerner stepped closer and placed a hand on Janiceís shoulder.

"Mel? I really donít need a distraction at the moment," Janice said uncomfortably, trying to ignore the disturbing effect of Melís touch and focus on the other threat. The plea surprised the Southerner, who awkwardly withdrew her hand as she stepped back.

"Melinda?" The man finally croaked, holding his sore stomach as he stepped closer. "Melinda, itís me. . . ."

"Frank???" Mel gasped, squinting at the man with the familiar voice. "What are you doing here?!?"

"I came to see you," Frank said with a shrug and sheepish smile as he joined them beneath the walkway lamp.

Janice frowned as she got a look at the tall, handsome man. Something told her she shouldnít have left the polite Southerner to write that Dear John letter on her own.

Mel squinted in disbelief at the man, who chuckled as he rubbed his jaw and eyed the shorter woman.

"Quite a punch youíve got there," Frank said, offering his hand to the surprisingly short woman. "You must be Dr. Covington. Iím Frank Coleman," he said warmly.

Janice took his hand and shook it firmly. "Sneaking up on someone at night isnít very wise, Francis."

"I was so happy that I finally found her, I wasnít thinking . . . obviously," he said with a self-depreciating chuckle. "And itís just Frank, like it says on my birth certificate," he joked with a disarming smile.

Janice blinked at him. He had perfect teeth too.

"What on Earth are you doing here, Frank?" Mel said, glancing towards the archeologist with concern when she attempted a quiet retreat.

"Do you know youíre a hard woman to track down, Melinda Pappas?" he said with an amused smile.

"Janice?" Mel said with concern.

"Well, you kids probably have a lot of catching up to do and the eveningís still young. Nice to meet you, Fred," Janice suddenly said, looking up to the tall gentleman.

"Frank," he said with a good-natured smile.

Janice looked at him and smiled weakly. "Right."

"Janice," Mel said uneasily, not wanting for her to slip away again so quickly.

"Weíll get together at breakfast. You still need to tell me about your "little accident" and where we should go next. Iím sure you and Sophia have come up with some interesting ideas," Janice offered. "Good night, Mel."

Mel nodded and watched Janice walk away with a slight limp.

"Now wait a cotton-pickín minute!" Mel said, taking a few determined strides to catch up.

Janice turned and eyed her.

"What happened to your leg??"

"Ankle."

"What happened to your ankle?!?"

"Itís really nothing, Mel."

"Janice Covington, tell me now, or so help me. . . ." Mel warned with irritation.

"I sprained it," Janice offered reluctantly.

Mel pinched the bridge of her nose. "And how, may I ask, did you sprain it?"

"Uh, I sort of jumped out of a train," Janice said, scratching the back of her head. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

"You sort of . . . ," she repeated in disbelief. "What?!?"

"Well, it was at night. I didnít see the ground that well," Janice explained defensively.

Melís opened her mouth and her jaw moved, but she couldnít think of what to say to that. "Are you all right?" She finally blurted.

"Yeah," Janice said and glanced over to the tall man, who was trying not to listen but found their discussion . . . interesting. "Mel, your . . . friend came a long way to see you. You donít want to keep him waiting."

"Donít you dare lecture me on manners, Dr. I-think-I'll-disappear-for-a-week-without-telling-my-partner-why Covington!"

Frank looked at the angry Southerner, who had her hands on her hips. Averting his gaze to a fascinating tree, he was extremely glad he was not on the receiving end of Miss Pappasí fury.

"Well how about a lecture on common sense? What the hell were you thinking walking around at night, alone?!?" Janice struck back.

Mel laughed with amazement. "This from a woman who jumps out of moving trains??"

"Good night, Mel," Janice said evenly and glanced over to the very uncomfortable tall man, who didnít think it prudent to correct her when she nodded and said "Ed."

Mel watched Janice walked back to the hotel with her slight limp. She considered that this had to be a new record. From wanting to hug her, to strangle her in less than two minutes!

After a silent moment, Frank cleared his throat and carefully joined her side. "Shall I walk you back to the hotel?" He asked, politely holding out his arm.

Mel nodded absently and started walking back, oblivious of his arm.

***

Always the Southern gentleman, Frank guided Melinda to a seat in the hotelís small lobby. "Why are you here?" She asked as she sat, squinting at her watch.

"You look wonderful," he gushed with a smile.

"And you look . . . different," she said hesitantly, eyeing the man whose wiry frame had certainly filled out nicely since college.

"Iíve been working out at the gym," he said with a smile, gazing into Melís beautiful eyes. He had always been drawn to Melinda Pappas, but knew he didnít stand a chance with Wilson Pendelton always around. Then, after the incident, Frank understood why Melinda was in no rush to go back to courting someone, which he thought was good for him. He planned on establishing himself at the law firm before courting Melinda, and after a respectable amount of time, he'd propose.

He didn't expect her to leave. No one did.

"Frank, what possessed you to come all the way to India?" She asked impatiently as she squinted at her watch again, surprising the Southern gentleman with her unusual abruptness.

"You," he said with a confident grin he hadnít possessed as a student. "But I have to say, I didnít expect to have to travel to India."

"Didnít you read my letters?!?" She said warily.

"Yes," he said as his smile quickly faded. "And after your last letter, I was very concerned."

"Frank, there is no reason to be concerned," Mel said, squinting at her watch again.

"You donít intend to come back home? I think thatís reason to be concerned."

"I am happy with my life, Frank," Mel said with a sigh.

"How? A Southern Lady should live in a comfortable home, near her family and friends, starting her own family - not in a tent, traipsing from camp to camp . . . or hotel to hotel," he said adamantly, motioning awkwardly to the hotel.

Mel rolled her eyes.

"I know youíre not the kind of woman who likes confrontations, Melinda. How can you possibly be happy working with Dr. Covington, arguing like you two did tonight? Something tells me that wasnít the first heated argument and it won't be the last," he said.

"Just because two people argue occasionally, doesnít mean. . . ." Mel said uneasily.

"How can you possibly tolerate someone, who just dumps you in a foreign country without even telling you . . . ," Frank argued, on a roll.

"Stop!" Melinda boomed, startling him. "Right now," she finished her crisp warning.

"But Melinda. . . ."

"Donít you dare say one more word about Janice," she cautioned, in a low, angry voice. "You donít know her."

"Then Iíll get to know her," he said with determination, prompting an amused chuckle from the Southerner. After nearly a year, there was still so much she didnít know about Janice.

"Melinda, your family is worried too," he blurted with frustration, not understanding her amusement. Perhaps it was that time of month, he considered.

"Iím sure. They are probably having difficulty explaining my absence from the Pappas socials. Oh! And letís not forget the fund raisers for the Ladiesí Sewing Circle," she said dryly.

"Why are those things suddenly bad?" Frank asked.

"They are not bad, Frank," she conceded. "But I believe there is so much more to life," she said emphatically, looking for understanding, or at the very least, acceptance.

"Well, of course, there is," he agreed sincerely. Mel smiled with relief that he understood. "Marriage and children," he offered.

Her smile disappeared as a sigh of disappointment escaped.


Chapter 15 - Eggshells

 

Finally able to politely excuse herself from Frankís presence, claiming she was very tired, which was not entirely untrue since she was incredibly tired of their conversation, Mel immediately headed for Janiceís room, down the hall from hers. After a thoughtful moment staring at the door, she took a deep breath and knocked.

Raj opened the door and smiled. "Good evening, Raj. Is Janice here?"

"You just missed her," Raj said and winced at the incredulous look on her face.

"Good Lord, what must I do? Tie her down?!?"

***

So she went to get some food and drink, Mel thought with a sigh as she entered her room. Well she wouldnít mind a drink either, the Southerner considered and quickly picked up her purse.

"Did you see her?" Sophia blurted with a grin as she tied the sash of her robe.

"Yes," Mel growled. "And I ended up yelling at her. I told myself I wasnít going to do that, but thatís exactly what I did! What was I thinking?!? I know yelling at her only makes her clam up like . . . like a, well, a clam! But she was just so . . . so . . . she was limping, Sophia," she said with exasperation, as if that explained everything. "So, of course, I asked why."

Sophia nodded.

"And do you know what she told me??"

Sophia blinked and shook her head no, guessing that was just a rhetorical question. Although, she had a few ideas.

"She said she jumped from a train! A moving train!"

Sophia grimaced.

"Do you think she explained WHY she felt compelled to jump from a moving train? Of course not! I guess that just wasnít important enough to share. Oh, but she did tell me it was dark. It was dark!! Well, that makes perfect sense, doesnít it? Janice Covington couldnít possibly have landed funny if it was LIGHT out, now would she? Oh, and THEN, do you know what she did?!?" Mel said with fire in her eyes.

Sophia weakly shook her head no, figuring silence was the best response for the moment.

"She actually had the gall to lecture me. Twice! She just had to lecture me about walking alone at night, which was entirely unnecessary. I immediately recognized my mistake when I heard someone following me," she said indignantly. "Of course, it would have been better to realize that before I knew I was being followed. . . ." she muttered uncomfortably.

Sophia took a breath to ask what had happened when Mel continued her rant. "But it was just Frank, who SHE thought I should be paying more attention to since he came all that way to see me. Janice Covington has the gall to lecture me, ME, on manners. The same woman, who went off to Lord knows where, doing Lord knows what, and coming back with a limp. A limp! Unbelievable!" Mel blurted, pinching the bridge of her nose and taking a long, deep breath to calm down.

"Whoís Frank?" Sophia ventured weakly, curiosity outweighing fear.

"Oh, uh . . . an old friend from South Carolina," she said with an uncomfortable smile. "I knew someone was following me, but I didnít know it was him. Honestly, would you have expected someone from your hometown to pop up, out of the blue, in India of all places?"

Before Sophia could answer, Mel continued. "Well, Janice showed up and . . . uh . . . protected me."

Recalling Melís past reaction to Janiceís Ďprotection,í Sophia quickly blurted "She doesnít just randomly pick people out to beat them senseless, you know."

"Sophia, I know," Mel said with a sigh. "At least his jaw wasnít broken," she added. Though that would be one way to stop his lecturing on a proper life for a Southern lady, she considered wearily.

"Whether you agree with her reasons or not, she always does what she thinks is. . . ." Sophia continued to stick up for her friend.

"I know," Mel interrupted firmly.

"Do you?" Sophia asked cautiously.

Mel nodded. "Iím not upset with her for protecting me, again."

"Oh," Sophia said with relief. "Good."

"Iím upset with her for so many other reasons," Mel said wearily, rubbing her temples.

Sophia rolled her eyes. "Well perhaps youíll be less upset after you open her gift?" Sophia offered with a cautious smile.

"Gift?" Mel asked, pretty sure Janice hadnít just returned from a four-day shopping spree.

"On the night stand," Sophia pointed and grinned at the surprised woman, who cautiously approached a cigar box.

Mel grimaced in confusion until she picked up the box and felt the contents shift, relieved there was something other than "fine" cigars inside. A small grinned emerged as she shook her head. Janiceís choice of gift boxes was so . . . Janice.

Her grin faded as she curiously noted a piece of paper also on the night stand. Picking up the note with anticipation, she squinted at the distinctive handwriting.

Mel,

Something told me youíd eventually need these.

Janice

Suspecting the contents, her heart pounded as she focused on the box and opened it. With amazement, she carefully extracted one of the two gifts that was profoundly thoughtful, touching her heart in a way no other gift ever had, not the wonderful pony on her fourth birthday, or the grownup encyclopedia set on her seventh, or the shiny new sedan when she got her driverís license. And she strongly suspected all other gifts would forever pale in comparison, including the second gift, which she would just have to hold on to for Janice, for when she was out of cigars. Mel softly chuckled, blinking back tears as her heart soared.

"She knows you pretty well, huh?" Sophia said with a grin, fascinated by the expressions that had crossed the Southernerís face.

Mel nodded as she slipped on the glasses, finally seeing with glorious clarity. "Sheíll shrug this off as nothing," Mel noted thoughtfully as she stared at the wonderfully simple note.

"You know her pretty well," Sophia said with a chuckle, watching the tall woman trace her finger over Janiceís name.

"At times, I do. Itís amazing," she said with gentle awe. "But sometimes . . . itís like sheís a total stranger," Mel said, looking up uneasily to the sympathetic face. "No one has ever driven me this crazy," she confessed softly.

Sophia smiled warmly. "If itís any consolation, I think itís mutual."

Mel looked at her with a mix of hope and fear. Her eyes dropped to the note. If that was truly the case, what on Earth she was going to do about it?

***

Janice sipped her drink and set the half-empty glass down next to her empty plate, staring at the map of India. A land of many lessons, whether you wanted them or not, she thought with a weary sigh and scratched her brow.

 

"Janice!" Najihma blurted anxiously as the American teen climbed through her window with a large bag. The edgy Indian quickly peeked out the window and into the dark alley for unwanted eyes. After they had been caught during an intimate moment by Janiceís appalled, then angry mother, Najihma had fled home in panic. What would become of her once her family found out?

Satisfied no one had seen the young American, the Indian closed the shutters and focused on her lover.

"Oh! Your face!" She gasped at the nasty gash over Janiceís eyebrow. She quickly grabbed a nearby scarf to stop the blood. "What happened?!?" She asked, tenderly dabbing the wound.

Janice captured her hand, abruptly stopping her ministrations. She released her hand, struggling between wanting to hit something and cry. Instead, she paced anxiously. "After you left, I . . . I had a . . . discussion with my mother," Janice said with a humorless laugh, combing her fingers through her hair with a trembling hand. "She . . . she said she knew that dragging a family all over creation was a mistake and, oh, d . . .did you know? You and I are going to hell for our sin," Janice blurted with a nervous laugh as she blinked back tears.

"She didnít appreciate it when I asked which one of us would get better accommodations, the adulterer or lover of women. She . . . she hit me," Janice said through a gasp as unwanted tears fell. "I canít change what I feel. Even if she tries to beat it out of me. Iím not going to change."

"Oh, Janice," Najihma said sadly, wrapping her arms around the American in an embrace that was desperately returned. Janice clung to the woman, who she needed now more than ever.

"She was not thinking. Her own guilt plagues her," Najihma said softly in her loverís ear, rocking her gently to calm her down.

"We used to talk about everything. I was going to tell her about you and how happy you made me," she admitted, feeling the heartbreaking loss of not just her mother, but best friend. "She would always tell me she wanted my happiness. I believed her. Stupid, huh?" Janice sniffed as Najihma pulled back from the embrace uneasily and looked in her loverís eyes.

"What do you think she will do now?" Najihma asked with concern.

"It doesnít matter, Najihma. You and I will be together, just like I promised," Janice said firmly, her mind racing with possibilities. She needed to take action and she would. "We can go West, to Greece," Janice said, her heart pounding with excitement as her plan solidified. "I have an uncle that can help us out until I get a job and get enough to go back to the States," Janice said with a hopeful smile. She knew not being a legal adult would make things tough for a while, but she could still make this work. No, she corrected herself, she would make this work, she thought with confidence.

"Leave? But I . . . I can not," Najihma said uneasily.

"Iíll get the money," Janice assured her, gently caressing her cringing face. Guessing at her reluctance, she offered Ď"we donít have to go to the States, Najihma. We can find someplace else. . . ."

"No, Janice. I can not leave with you," Najihma explained as her guilty eyes dropped.

"But . . . you know we canít stay here," Janice said patiently, her hand caressing her loverís shoulder. "My mother has made it clear she will never accept us and you were worried about your family finding out. But if we get away from here, Najihma, weíll have a chance," Janice argued with conviction, hanging onto the one thing she knew would enable them to overcome any obstacle - their love.

"I can not leave," Najihma whispered sadly.

Janice briefly tried to tell herself she just misunderstood. Perhaps if she explained it again, she considered, then watched with concern as her lover withdrew from her.

"I have duties I can not ignore, Janice," Najihma explained somberly.

"Duties?" Janice repeated weakly as her stomach dropped.

"My parents have arranged a marriage for me. I can not delay it much longer," Najihma blurted with a wince at the pained look on Janiceís face.

"Marri . . . " Janice choked out, unable to finish the word. "You canít possibly want that."

"The union will help our family greatly," she added in a rush as tears welled up.

Janiceís heart never felt so tight - like her loverís words had wrapped around the already injured muscle to strangle the remaining life from it. A bitter laugh welled up at her naivety. How could she have ever thought that their love was invulnerable? Didnít she see first-hand how love could erode into a mangled mockery? Why did she ever think it would be different with Najihma?

"I suppose it never occurred to you to tell me before I gave you my heart?" Janice said, eyeing the beautiful woman, who she thought she knew. But as the young American had painfully learned a second time that tragic day, you never really know anyone . . . no matter how close.

"Janice, I . . . I never promised you any more than what we have now," Najihma said guiltily, tears freely falling.

"No, you didnít," she agreed numbly. "But I promised," Janice said as she allowed her anger to grow, a desperate salve for her deep wound. "And you let me, without saying a single GODDAMN thing about being engaged to someone el. . . !!!" Janice roared, her angry tirade interrupted by Najihmaís younger brother, who burst into his sisterís room yelling. "I will kill her!"

Tanje spotted the American who had disgraced his family. He lunged towards the defiler of his sister, intending to make good on his vow.

"NO, Tanje! She has done nothing wr. . . .!" Najihma grabbed his arm in panic, but was harshly cast off, falling to the floor as she pleaded for him to stop and listen to her.

"You will pay for your insult to my family," he spat, grabbing Janiceís arm and raising his fist.

Eyeing his fist an unimpressed moment, the American elbowed him in the face. He let go with a pained yelp and clenched his bleeding nose. Now his pride, in addition to his family, had been insulted! His fury soared, causing him to lunge at her again.

"No!" Najihma moaned and begged for Tanje to stop.

Janice grabbed and twisted the young manís arm and slammed him against the wall. "Trust me, Tanje, Iíve just paid in full and wonít make the same mistake twice. And if you ever attack me again, I swear to GOD I wonít stop until you canít stand," she seethed, throwing him to the floor.

"If you ever return, I will kill you!" Tanje vowed as he scrambled to his feet.

As Janice retreated out of the window, she considered if she was stupid enough to return, she just might let him.

Janice left, more alone than she had ever thought possible.

Mel entered the restaurant and smiled with relief when she finally found the archeologist. Janice sat at a table, with a map, an empty plate, and a drink that looked about half-full. Stepping towards the archeologist, Mel hesitated, not knowing if Janice wanted to be alone. But there was something unsettling about the faraway look on her face, reflecting a profound sadness, that made Mel need to know Janice was all right.

After the bitter lessons of the heart, Janice had no interest in exposing herself to any more pain. The world was already littered with false hopes and broken promises. There was absolutely no sane reason to add to it with silly expectations that were doomed from the beginning. Yet . . . . Yet was a dangerous word, Janice acknowledged, knowing it existed because there was a persistent contradiction to her hard-learned truth, who made her want to hope, even as she was being wooed right now by that lawyer, only proving her original truth - she was not sane. Janice sighed heavily.

Mel smiled uneasily when Janice gaze suddenly found her. From Janiceís startled look, she wasnít sure if she was a welcome or unwelcome surprise as she approached her table. "Hey."

Janice stood politely. "Why Miss Pappas, I certainly hope you didnít walk here alone."

"Well, I was looking for a train to jump out of but couldnít find one," Mel countered with an innocent shrug, meeting her gaze.

Janice had to smile. "Have a seat," she said, pulling out a chair.

"Donít mind if I do," she said with a satisfied grin as they sat at the small table.

"Do you want something? Some food or a drink?" Janice asked.

"A drink would be nice."

"Oh," Janice said with mild surprise. "Coming right up," she said as she got up.

"Donít you want to know what I want?" Mel asked curiously.

"A glass of burgundy," Janice said as if it was obvious.

"How could you possibly know that? I hardly ever drink," Mel said with amazement.

"And that was the last drink you had. So . . . ," Janice said and finished with a shrug, leaving the logic for the Southerner to ponder.

Mel watched her thoughtfully as she made her way to the bar to order, then shook her head and studied the map. When Janice returned with the wine and a refill for herself, Mel looked up. "Iím afraid I still have no clue where to look," she said apologetically.

"You met with Dr. Tangore?" Janice asked as she sat.

"Yes. Unfortunately, he couldnít shed any light on our research. But heís a very pleasant man and was thrilled to see new text on Krishna," Mel relayed. "Donít worry, I took your advice and had him sit first," she quickly added, getting a small chuckle from Janice. "He asked about you. He wanted to know when you would pay him a visit."

Janiceís nod was of understanding, not committal.

"We could go tomorrow," Mel offered, surprising Janice.

"Donít you have something to do with Ted?"

Mel looked at her a confused moment. "Frank??" Mel asked, getting a shrug as Janice sipped her drink. Mel frowned and pushed up her glasses, not sure of what to do about him. "Well, he was interested in talking more, but unfortunately not in listening," she said sadly.

"So he struck out, huh?"

Mel eyed her with irritation. "He was never even at bat! Havenít you been listening at all to me?!?"

"Hey, a gal can change her mind. Especially when a guy goes to the trouble of following her to India, like Hank did."

"His name is . . . " Mel said with exasperation and suddenly stopped, eyeing her curiously. "Frank," she finished thoughtfully.

"Right, just like on his birth certificate," Janice noted nonchalantly and sipped her drink. "So, how did your glasses break this time?"

"A cow," Mel said distractedly, her thoughts still preoccupied with the possibility that Janice could be . . . jealous?!?

"A cow?"

"Itís a four legged . . . " Mel supplied helpfully.

"Cute," Janice chuckled.

The suddenly emboldened Southerner smiled and in a moment of daring, flirted. "Why thank you, Dr. Covington," she said silkily, eyeing the archeologist closely.

Janice felt extremely uncomfortable, as if she was being teased for staring again . . . or something. "I was talking about the cow," Janice snapped back flatly with a thin smile.

The wounded look on Melís face surprised and troubled Janice, who wanted to go find a train to throw herself under. Janice quickly captured her friendís hand and held it firmly, getting Mel's startled and undivided attention. "If I were describing you, Melinda Pappas, it would be "beautiful" not "cute," Janice declared softly.

Mel couldnít stand the intensity of those green eyes that made her heart race. She dropped her gaze, her wounded look replaced by one of embarrassment for her silly reaction, which practically begged for Janice to say that.

"Iím sorry," Mel said weakly "I . . . "

"Hey, donít apologize. Iíll be the first to admit, you can be distracting at times. But itís a burden Iím happy to endure," Janice said nobly, squeezing her hand for emphasis before letting go.

Mel chuckled awkwardly, still unable to meet Janiceís gaze, not entirely convinced Janice wasnít just being kind.

At first worried she may have said too much, Janice quickly realized she had not said enough, growing angry at whatever had caused this extraordinary woman to have such doubts about herself.

"Mel?" Janice said, waiting for the Southerner to look at her. "You are a beautiful woman. Never doubt that," Janice said so seriously, it startled the Southerner, who stared at her a silent, amazed moment, before she nodded and nervously pushed up her new glasses.

"Thank you," Mel said shyly with a blush that she could swear she could feel down to her toes. "And thank you for the glasses," she said, awkwardly adjusting them again.

Janice dismissed the thanks with a shrug. "Enjoy the cigar?" Janice asked with interest, withholding a grin.

"Ah . . . not yet. I was actually planning on saving it, for a special occasion" Mel responded politely and sipped her wine.

Janice chuckled. "You know, the taste may suffer a bit if you wait until hell freezes over," Janice offered helpfully.

"Your sage advice is appreciated as always, Dr. Covington," Mel said with amusement as she placed the glass gently down.

Janice smiled and sipped her drink. "So, what about this cow?"

"Well," Mel said and took a deep breath. "Raj, Sophia, and I took a cab to the University when a cow, painted in a rather festive pallet of pastels," Mel noted with appreciation, making Janice smile. "wandered into the road. The cab in front of us slammed on his breaks. It all happened rather quickly. Our driver couldnít avoid hitting him and my glasses flew off and, well, they broke."

"Youíre OK otherwise?" Janice asked with sincere concern that warmed the Southernerís heart.

"Only my glasses suffered," Mel relayed dramatically. "But I have to say, I had never really thought about how much udder chaos a cow was capable of."

Janice cringed, eyeing her amused partner. "Well, I guess now you can . . . ruminate all you want about the complications one can encounter traveling in India." Melís brow rose with appreciation, making Janice smile.

"And I have," Mel offered thoughtfully. "I still canít believe how pushy our cab driver was right after the accident, trying to herd us over to another cab driven by his relative," she noted indignantly, with challenge in her eyes.

"Trying to milk you for more money, no doubt," Janice said with a smirk.

"We probably didnít save any money by going with the rickshaw driver, but at least we didnít have to hoof it all the way to the University."

Janice took a breath to respond but drew a complete blank. Seeing Melís eyebrow rise expectantly, she could only laugh and hold her hands up in surrender. Never challenge a linguist in word play, Janice considered.

Mel smiled with satisfaction as she pushed up her new glasses.

"So that had to be a first for you - a cow destroying a pair of . . . , " Janice said with amusement then saw Mel shift uncomfortably. "Youíre kidding," Janice blurted flatly. "Youíre not kidding," she said with amazement after Mel bit her lip.

"I was just a child, Janice," Mel explained with exasperation, rolling her eyes, as Janice laughed and sat back in her chair.

"Do tell, Miss Pappas. Do tell . . . "

***

". . . Then Sophia asked if I knew Sanskrit," Mel said flatly.

Janice laughed at Melís grimace. "Well you of all people can appreciate how much better a work is in the original language."

"Well, there were so many pictures, I was surprised she actually noticed there was text," Mel joked, then realized with dread she had started down a path she really wished she hadnít.

Janice looked at her with amusement, tempted to tease her. But noticing the mild panic in those blue eyes, she just smirked and sipped her drink.

Mel exhaled with relief. She really does seem to know me, Mel thought with amazement, regarding Janiceís face, which was no longer bruised and puffy. The word "cute" came to mind, though she was pretty sure Janice wouldnít appreciate that description. Yet, Janice was cute. Some might even say at times handsome, Mel mused, glancing over her friendís strong body, hidden beneath menís clothing. But at other times, when Janice allowed her heart to peek through that gruff exterior, she was simply the most beautiful person Mel had ever met.

Finishing her drink, Janice knew it really wouldnít be wise to have another but she wasnít ready to let the evening end. "You want some coffee or tea?"

"Iíd love a . . . ," Mel said with a pleased smile, almost jumping when the bartender suddenly appeared and cleared his throat.

"Excuse me," he interrupted apologetically to the women, "weíre closing up."

"Oh," Janice said with disappointment, glancing around the bar with surprise, seeing all the chairs upside-down on all the tables around them. A janitor, finished with the floor except for the area beneath their table, stood with his mop and bucket, waiting.

As they stood, Mel looked at her watch. "Good Lord, itís three AM."

"Not in South Carolina," Janice noted as they walked to the door.

Mel eyed her and laughed. "What does that have to do with anything?"

Janice looked at her a thoughtful moment. "Iím not really sure," she admitted as she opened the door for the Lady, who rewarded her with more laughter.

Except for a sore ankle, Janice really enjoyed their stroll back to the hotel, which topped off an incredible evening. She hadnít felt this carefree in ages. They had laughed, joked, and just talked, like there were no problems in the world, no thugs chasing them, no old beaus or bad memories intruding - just the two of them.

And it just felt . . . right.

As they arrived at Melís door, Janice grew uneasy. Sure, Mel was everything she could want in a woman - smart, beautiful, a good heart, wonderful sense of humor, and perhaps most amazingly, after all the crap she had put Mel through, a good friend. But . . . .

But experience told her she should not even think . . . .

The sudden closeness of the tall woman and the lips gently pressing against her cheek, made it impossible to recall her sage truths, or pretty much anything else.

"I'm really glad youíre back, Janice. Iíve missed you. So much," Mel whispered in her ear.

As easily as her soft lips and warm breath aroused Janiceís flesh, Melís honest declaration stirred her heart. The Southerner stepped back, leaving Janice to try and remember how to breath.

"If we stand here much longer, we could just go to breakfast," Mel joked with an uncertain smile, nervously eyeing the archeologist. With every silent moment, she grew closer to abandoning the hope that had grown by leaps and bounds all evening - that Janice felt the same way.

Janice nodded absently. Her heart clearly demonstrated that it recalled how to beat, pounding so hard she thought it might come out of her chest.

"Good night, Janice," Mel finally said despondently, fearing her incredibly embarrassing mistake had also just damaged their friendship.

Her own distress was quickly forgotten when Janice watched the dejected woman turn towards her door. "Mel?"

Mel turned to the archeologist hopefully, until she noted how uneasy Janice seemed.

"I . . . ," Janice said, halting as she searched for words. What the hell was she going to say?!?

Mel waited a silent, disappointing moment, then sighed. "I understand, Janice. And Iím sorry I ruined a wonderful evening," she said sadly. "Good night," she whispered and turned to the door, desperately wanting to escape this uncomfortable situation.

"Huh? Wait a minute . . . Mel," Janice said with slight panic, realizing her silence was making things worse.

"Look, I appreciate the fact you want to make me feel better. I really do. But you don't need to say anything," Mel blurted curtly and turned back towards the door, briefly wondering if the pain of banging her head against the door until she was unconscious would be worse than having to listen to Janice awkwardly try to let her down.

Janice blinked, then got annoyed. "Jesus Christ! Itís just that . . . I . . . I don't know what to say to you!!"

Mel rolled her eyes and blurted with exasperation "Janice, if you would just listen to me, I just told you, you donít have to say any. . .umpft!"

Janice didn't plan to kiss her. There just wasn't anything else she could think of doing. Though she wasnít actually thinking when her hand darted up behind the taller woman's head. Nor was she really thinking when she pulled her down and possessed the Southernerís lips.

After a stunned moment, Melís lips parted with a soft moan, welcoming a more intimate encounter. Their tongues touched, explored, then eagerly engaged in a new form of sparring.

No, Janice wasn't thinking . . . just feeling. She could feel her hard-fought restraint further crumble when she pulled the Southernerís body into hers, wanting more. She could feel Melís suddenly possessive hands slide around her back, her thorough fingers apparently charged with memorizing each and every muscle. Janice could feel her desire threaten to consume her, never before having been so close to losing all control. Aided by that fear, Janice reluctantly pulled back from the addictive contact - before she couldnít. Her eyes fell to Melís intoxicating lips, which were parted for her ragged breaths. Janice wanted to taste them, to feel them, to possess them, again. Yet, with great effort, she refrained. Mel deserved better than being groped in a hallway.

"I . . . I still . . . donít know what to say to you," Janice admitted with difficulty and stepped back.

That was OK, Mel considered, firmly believing that actions speak louder than words. And oh how Janiceís actions spoke to her!! She pushed up her glasses with a trembling hand.

"But I . . . ," Janice blurted.

Mel looked at the troubled archeologist, who fell silent, searching for the right words, any words. Instinctively reaching out, Mel stopped Janiceís struggle with a gentle hand that lifted her chin, so Janice would look at her instead of the ground.

Janice nervously looked into her eyes.

Taking a liberty that she never would have thought possible before that kiss, Mel slowly traced her fingers over Janiceís face until her palm cradled her cheek and thumb leisurely ran across her lips.

Janice blinked, unable to move from the tender touch.

"Lipstick," Mel said absently.

"Oh," Janice whispered weakly against the digit.

Mel indulged in the contact a moment longer, slowly rubbing her thumb over the already lipstick-free lips, which she ached to kiss again. But from the turmoil in Janiceís eyes, she thought better of it.

While she had been given an extraordinary glimpse behind the door to Janiceís heart this wonderful evening, it had been only cautiously cracked open. For reasons Mel didnít fully understand, she knew the archeologist stood ready to slam it shut. But what the cautious archeologist didnít realize was that once the Southern Lady had gotten a peek of what was behind that door, Melinda Pappas wouldnít be satisfied until she was invited in . . . to stay.

"We really do need to get some sleep," Mel offered, looking into Janiceís eyes as she gently caressed her cheek a final time and slowly withdrew her hand.

"Yeah," Janice said. "Good night, Mel," she said with surprising shyness.

"Good night, Janice," Mel said with a warm smile and retreated into her room.


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