All warnings, disclaimer, thanks, and so forth can be found in the first couple installments. No need for redundant redundancy. Should anyone get a hankerin to communicate on this here story (eeep!) for any reason, feel free to contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The two women turned the corner into the alleyway and Jennifer tried to ignore the pungent odor emanating from the dumpster as they passed. They were making their way down the back of one of the ubiquitous strip malls that seemed to clutter Los Angeles like a plague of bad taste with the scenery even less pleasant than usual. And this was a fairly decent section of the neighborhood. Jennifer had to quicken her pace in an effort to keep up with Resas considerably longer stride before she tripped a little on a raised portion of the broken cement and frowned. God, this place was in dire need of repair.
"How much further?" Jennifer asked.
"Couple blocks," was the terse reply.
Jennifer accepted this, then wondered for the hundredth time in the past twenty minutes since theyd left the refuge of the bushes just where the heck they were headed. Resa, of course, wouldnt say and although it irritated her, Jennifer didnt want to push the wounded woman on the subject. Theyd be there soon enough she supposed and she didnt want to tire the former gang leader. Though she seemed in fairly good shape, considering. Clearly Resa was a strong person both physically and mentally. How had Father Hector described her? Ah, yes. A very determined individual. This brought a slight grin. She was that indeed or, as Patrick, her friend back home, liked to say, "All that and a bag of chips." Watching the confident sway of the taller womans back as they walked, shed have to agree. There was just something about her...She couldnt put her finger on it but there was something compelling about Resa Gustavez that made Jennifer want to follow her even if it was down a back alley in the middle of the worst part of a major metropolis like Los Angeles knowing they were being hunted like wild animals by an angry and violent street gang. Even still, she felt...almost safe. It made no sense. But then again nothing about the past 24 hours had made much sense. Well, at least itd make for an interesting entry in her journal.
Another thought popped into her mind and she chewed on the corner of her mouth. Lord only knew what the Vartans were doing to her Land Rover, if anything at all. Resa seemed pretty confident the gangsters wouldnt just let it sit there. When shed asked Resa if shed seen any sign of the car or new damage to it, the former gang leader had said no, but then asked if Jennifer had insurance. The younger woman groaned inwardly at the thought. Sure, she had insurance but she hadnt the first clue how shed go about explaining...whatever she needed to explain...to her agent about...whatever may have happened to her car. And the thought of telling her parents... Lordy. . .
She sighed and rubbed a hand across her tired face. "How long do you suppose before the cops catch those guys?"
Resa glanced briefly back at Jennifer. "They wont."
"Wha-how-why not?" she, sputtered.
"Because no one will cooperate them and they wont learn anything."
"Well, thats just stupid," scoffed the younger woman.
"Yeah, survival for the gang-bangers."
Resa stopped and spun to face Jennifer, placing a hand on the college students shoulder and looking at her with a surprising intensity.
"This isnt like your world, Jennifer. The rules that youre used to dont apply here and what may seem stupid to you is to many a necessary evil which keeps us alive."
A sudden realization dawned upon her. "Youre not going to talk to the police either, are you?" she asked, incredulous.
Resa paused a moment before answering: "No."
"Why? Those guys broke into your apartment. They shot at you, tried to kill you. You have every right--"
"I cant talk to the police."
Resa looked at her for a long moment and Jennifer sensed the other woman was on the verge of telling her...something...but then she dropped her gaze and stood back a step.
"I just cant."
"Well I can."
Resa regarded her. "And what will you tell them?"
"Well, I --"
"No. You wont tell them anything either because you didnt see anything. You heard voices, men shouting, thats all. You cant identify anyone from a lineup, you cant say for sure who was there."
"But we both know--"
"I know. You know only what Ive told you."
A thought popped into her mind that sent a chill down her spine. "You werent lying to me, were you?"
"Of course not. It was the Vartans."
"So its not that simple."
"Because this is a gang were talking about. Its--its like a hydra. You cut off one head and before you know it two more appear. You talk to the police, tell them what you know and they go off to arrest, what? Three guys? Four? How do you think the rest of the Vartans are gonna feel about that, huh? Having four of their homeboys arrested? Ill tell ya: pissed as hell. And they wont just sit back and do nothing about it either. Theyll come after you just as sure as youre standing here." A strange look came over Resas face. "If they havent already," she murmured under her breath.
Jennifer frowned. "What do you mean?
"Wheres your purse?"
"Well, its back at your -- " She stopped as a cold shiver of realization hit her.
"Which means the Vartans have it by now...Do you live with anyone? Roommate, boyfriend, family?"
Jennifer shook her head slowly, a numbness creeping over her. "No."
"Any pets you need to worry about?"
"No. Just plants and theyre half dead already." Jennifer swallowed hard. "My God...they know where I live."
Resa nodded. "Count on it. Youre going to need to cancel your credit cards as soon as possible. How much money do you have on you right now?"
Jennifer fished around in her pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. "Forty four dollars and seventy three cents. And a stamp." She managed a wry grin. "Maybe Ill send my folks a post card from East LA. Hi. Wish you were here." Then sighed as if the weight of the world was suddenly placed upon her shoulders.
Resa tipped her head to one side, her expression not unkind. "Now do you understand? You go to the police and itll just get worse. And they wouldnt let up. Ever."
"Then what do I do? Live in fear? Change my name? Move? What?" Jennifer asked in desperation.
Resa regarded her for a long moment, then murmured in a low voice "Ill take care of it."
Jennifer sighed. "Your way. Just like that?"
The college student ran an exasperated hand through her hair. God, would this nightmare ever end? All shed wanted was to fulfill a promise made in haste to a priest...and now she found herself broke, homeless, and possibly the target for ruthless gang members. Suddenly taking a pop quiz held a whole new appeal.
"Im sorry about all this," Resa said softly.
Jennifer looked up to meet her gaze and its sincerity took her by surprise. Somehow shed grown quickly accustomed to seeing either an expressionless mask or striking intensity from the ex-gangsta but this earnestness was something else entirely. As if by magic, Jennifers frustration eased away until she was left with a peculiar sense of calm.
"Its not your fault," she replied equally soft.
"Of course it is. I misjudged you, didnt think for a second youd go into Palos. Thats why I picked the place. I almost left when I saw Manny was in there but...youd already gone in." She shrugged. "I couldnt leave you."
Jennifer was silent a moment. "Im glad you didnt," she murmured.
Blue eyes locked with hers. "Yeah?" Her voice sounded slightly surprised.
"Yeah." She shifted her feet, a little self-conscious under the scrutiny. "Who knows if Id have made it out of there at all without your help. That Manny guy was pretty hostile." She subconsciously tugged on her ear. "He sure doesnt like you much."
Resas eyes grew hooded. "He shouldnt...I killed his brother," she said, her voice low, her tone guarded.
Jennifer sucked in a breath at the disclosure and noted Resas deliberately impassive expression, as if braced for Jennifers response.
The blonde woman didnt quite know how to take this news. Any revelation at all to her by the former gangster was unexpected...but one of this magnitude was a particular surprise . She instinctively felt she was being tested somehow and wasnt sure what to say. So she dropped her eyes and uttered a simple,
"Oh." Resa was silent a beat longer and Jennifer raised her head to meet the other womans gaze. "Did he deserve it?"
"He was trying to shoot me," came the quiet reply.
Jennifer cocked her head to one side, contemplative. "Then I guess he deserved it."
Resas jaw shifted to one side and Jennifer caught a fleeting glimpse of naked remorse wash over the other womans face.
"Its not for me to decide who deserves what," she said. "Yeah, I defended myself and yeah, he lost...But, I let myself get into that situation. Im to blame for that."
Jennifer had no rebuttal to that argument and she felt certain Resa wouldnt have accepted one anyhow. She seemed to have a solid grip on her own sense of guilt and nothing the younger woman would say right now would loosen that hold so, wisely, she chose not to make the effort. Rather she filed away the information with the intention to deal with this issue at a later time.
Jennifer gently touched Resas upper arm. "Come on," she murmured. "We need to get you taken care of."
Resa didnt move, her enigmatic expression impossible to read.
"Were here," she said at last.
Jennifer reacted with surprise. "We are?" She glanced around the alley, noting all the signs until her eyes fell upon the words: Marcus Vet Hospital.
Jennifer turned dubious eyes back on Resa. "A vet clinic?" she said in disbelief.
Jennifer rolled her eyes. "You know, when I said you needed a professional, I was referring to the kind that works on humans."
"I know, but sewing is sewing and I know someone who works here."
"What do you have against regular hospitals?"
Resa sighed. "Its a long story and in case youve forgotten, Im bleeding, so..." she nodded toward the back door of the vet clinic.
Jennifer was instantly contrite at making the other woman wait for treatment...no matter how odd the source...and quickly opened the door for her.
"Sorry," she murmured as Resa passed within, then turned to follow.
The rear hallway of the vet clinic was brightly lighted and narrow. The sounds of barking dogs and distinct aroma of ammonia filled her senses as she traipsed along behind Resa. It was, of course, ludicrous that they would come to such a place as this for aid, but clearly the former gangster had issues with going to a regular hospital so who was she to argue? She just wished she better understood what those issues were.
"Resa?" a deep voice called and Jennifer glanced around the taller woman to spy a tall, handsome African American man in a white lab coat at the top of the hallway, watching their approach sans the slightest trace of surprise. Evidently this was not the former gang leaders first visit to the Marcus Vet Clinic.
"Hello, Tony," Resa said.
He noted her bloodstained T-shirt, shook his head with a sigh and, without a word, pointed to the nearest examination room. Resa entered, followed by Jennifer with the man called Tony close behind. Jennifer heard him tell one of the nurses not to bother him for a while, that he had a special patient to deal with.
"And she can be a nasty bitch, too," hed added loud enough for Resas benefit, then winked at the former gang leader. "Cant ya?"
"So they say," was Resas reply, clearly no offense taken.
Tony closed the door and moved over to where Resa leaned against the examination table. The man was well over six feet and his hulking frame served to dominate the already tiny room. Jennifer quickly picked up on the air of easy familiarity between these two and surmised they had been at least friends for some time.
She glanced up to meet curious brown eyes focused upon her.
"Who do we have here?" he asked. She could tell by his expression she wasnt at all the sort of person he expected to be hanging out with the infamous Resa Gustavez and she had half a mind to tell him he was right. Instead she stuck out her hand, her naturally friendly personality happy to have a receptive outlet after the past twenty-four hours.
"Jennifer Logan, nice to meet you."
He accepted her hand politely. "A pleasure, Ms. Logan. Im Tony Marcus, but feel free to call me Tony. Im an old friend of Resas." His smile was warm.
Resa cleared her throat. "When youre done there..."
Tony grinned, then turned his attention back to the dark-haired woman, peered at her wound and frowned.
"Damn, sister," he muttered at what he saw. "Who sewed you up? Dr. Frankenstein?"
"Hey," Jennifer protested. "It was my first time, okay? I was under duress."
"Her dress?" Tony repeated innocently.
"Stress. I was stressed," Jennifer said, enunciating each word. Then she caught the wink behind Tonys brown eyes and knew she was being baited. Fortunately, shed been raised with brothers so she was fluent in the language of smart-ass. "Ha, ha. Very funny," she said and bit back a grin.
Tonys smile widened. "Actually, you did just fine. For a beginner. Looks like shit now, though." He frowned at a slightly pale Resa. "What have you been up to, huh?"
"Oh, the usual," Resa replied mildly but Tony apparently knew her rather well.
"Uh-huh. I can see that. Thought you gave that up...or was that just rumor?"
"No," she said softly, her glance dropping to her hands. "I gave it up. This is just..." Her words trailed off as her eyes rose to meet Jennifers. "A miscalculation on my part."
Tony glanced between them and snorted. "Miscalculation, huh? Pretty deadly miscalculation if you ask me."
"Almost," she acknowledged.
"Well, lets see what we can do here with the consequences of your miscalculation."
He reached over to take hold a pair of scissors and snipped along the seam of the T-shirt and Ace bandage until Resas wound was exposed. Jennifer winced involuntarily at the sight and dropped her eyes. Now that she didnt have to be so brave, her intense dislike for all things bloody resurfaced, as did the weakness in her knees. Yowza, didnt we just go through this?
As if sensing the younger womans unease, Resa lightly tapped her on the arm to get her attention.
"Maybe you should go make some of those calls," she suggested, her eyes closely watching Jennifers face. "Cancel those credit cards."
Jennifer felt eternally grateful to the other woman. "Yeah. Thats...a good idea." And quickly left the room in search of a free phone line.
* * * *
Resa watched the door click closed behind Jennifer as the younger woman exited and felt a strong, protective rush deep in her gut. This was a damnable situation all around and Jennifer was smack dab in the middle of it all because of her. Because of her...Christ, how many times would that refrain continue to haunt her?
"Nice kid," Tony murmured.
"Yes. She is." She could feel his strong fingers work with impressive care on her wound. It had always surprised her that a man as strong as Tony could also be so amazingly gentle.
"Howd she hook up with a hard ass like you?" he asked amiably before dabbing an alcohol soaked cotton square around the perimeter of her wound. She flinched a little before he carefully snipped the previous stitches to remove them.
"It was Father Hectors idea," she said through gritted teeth.
Dark eyes met hers. "Some sort of Adopt a White Kid program?" he asked with a crooked grin which she shared after the initial throe died down.
"Shes a college kid he wants to write my life story. Thinks itll help keep me away from the Vartans."
Tony snorted. "Doin a bang up job so far I see."
"Well, at least Im running from them and not trying to rejoin them," she said wryly.
"Like thats possible after. . ." His voice trailed off and the room grew thick with unspoken, painful memories.
"Yeah," she agreed softly and for several moments neither spoke.
"So...you really give it all up?" he asked.
She met his eyes with an unflinching gaze. "Absolutely."
He seemed to accept this after a moment, his attention returning to her wound. "Glad to hear it," he murmured.
He nodded. "You deserve better. You always did."
She shook her head gravely. "I dont know about that."
"No, I dont suppose you do but, then again, you were always a stubborn one. I can tell youre holding onto your guilt as hard you used to hold onto your hatred and thats not gonna get you where you need to go either. Youre gonna have to forgive yourself eventually, Resa. Its the only way."
She felt a little uncomfortable and tried to dispel this sudden turn in the discussion with a teasing, "Marriage make you philosophical, Tony?"
He chuckled but never broke his concentration on his task.
"Maybe. Or maybe just bein happy is enough. Makes me want to see those I care about be happy, too." He glanced up now, his expression sincere. "I got out. Made a new life for myself when everyone round me was sayin it was impossible, that Id never change. Now most of them are dead or in prison and here I am. A legitimate doctor. I did it, Resa and you can too. As long as you believe you can, believe you deserve it."
She couldnt look away from the candor in his eyes and it felt as if a vice had closed around her heart. "I dont know what I believe in anymore," she said. "I feel..." Her eyes closed against the ache. "...hollow." The word came out on a whisper.
He gently brushed the bangs off her forehead. "Then you need to find something to fill your heart."
Her short laugh was devoid of humor. "How?"
"Thats for each of us to figure out on our own. Its different for everybody...But I do know this. Youre such a stubborn son of a bitch its gonna take someone pretty damn extraordinary to get past all the barriers you have up."
Her sigh was laden with doubt. "You think there really is such a someone?"
"Yeah. I do...but youre the one who has to be willing to see..."
* * * *
In all it took Jennifer nearly forty five minutes to cancel three credit cards and report her drivers license stolen which, given the nature of modern, automated phone systems, was pretty darn good.
Then she phoned her landlady to tell her about her stolen purse and to ask her to watch over her apartment the next few days. Mrs. Goldman was a well-meaning crone whose annoying tendency to pay extraordinary attention to anything and everything that transpired in her complex now, ironically, came in handy. The nosey widow naturally insisted Jennifer give her every detail about the crime -- "You poor girl! You must have been terrified!" -- which left the college student to quickly spin a fanciful tale about purse snatchers and friends from The Valley with whom shed decided to spend some time...Okay, it was a lie, but she had no intention of telling the chatterbox about her little sojourn to East Los Angeles...nor about Resa. She didnt know how, but she felt certain dear Mrs. Goldman would find a way to mention it next time her parents were in town and that was to be avoided at all costs...In the end Mrs. Goldman promised to pay extra attention to apartment 7B and be on the lookout for any nefarious characters.
One of the clinics nurses had brought her to Dr. Marcus office where she had placed the calls. It didnt escape her notice when the nurse had made a bit of a show about leaving the door open behind her, as if to say she didnt fully trust her but was still following Dr. Marcus wishes. Oh, well. Who could blame her? The nurse didnt know her from Adam, she could have been anyone, especially in this city. Still, it irked the Mid Western girl inside her a little, this lack of trust she found so often on display around her, irrational though those feelings may be. Perhaps because her first instinct was always to look for the good within the other person, not the suspicion, she would never truly understand this distrustful attitude. It was a terribly naïve outlook, of that she was aware, but it was an intrinsic part of who she was and she never wanted to lose that. Never wanted to grow too callused to the emotions of those around her like so many others.
Jennifer was just starting to rise from her chair when the sounds of nearby voices coming from the nurses break room caught her attention. Well, it wasnt so much the voices that pricked up her ears as the mention of a familiar name. Resa Gustavez. Jennifer stopped in her tracks, knowing it wasnt right to eavesdrop but powerless to prevent herself from doing just that.
"Whats she doin back?" the first female voice asked in a tone that fairly oozed malice.
"I dunno. Looks like she done got hersef in a heap a trouble," replied the second. "Again."
"And Dr. Marcus is supposed to just fix it all, huh? Sheeeet, That one has no cares for nobody but herself, Im telling you."
"You got that right. She scares me what with all shes done."
"I guess she musta just come out, eh?"
"Yeah, and already back at it."
"Why am I not surprised?"
Suddenly Jennifer heard the sound of footsteps as a third person must have entered the break room. "Yall better hush up," said a third, deliberately quiet voice that was more difficult to hear. "I can hear ya all the way down the hall and Resas friend is just in the next room."
"Shit!" Voice Number One.
"Resa Gustavez has a friend?" Voice Number Two.
"I dont know what she is but shes with Resa so shut up." Voice Number Three.
Jennifer flushed with embarrassment. Even though technically she hadnt been caught listening in, she felt as if she had. She quickly exited the room, careful to avoid glancing through the break area door as she passed, and made it back to the examination room. She stopped directly outside and drew in a deep breath.
I guess she musta just got out, eh? one of the women had said of Resa and Jennifer felt a prickling of unease. Given Resas background she had a pretty good idea what the women were referring to...and she wasnt entirely certain how she felt about that.
She knocked twice before opening the door. Resa and Tony were seated across from each other, talking, the sewing procedure already completed. She noted Resa had changed into a fresh, dark blue T-shirt that bore the vet hospitals insignia -- a cartoon rendering of a happy dog and cat -- on the left breast pocket. It looked totally out of place on the former gangster. Jennifer also noted the color was already returning to the other womans cheeks and felt mildly relieved about that at least.
Both Resa and Tony glanced up from their conversation as she entered and closed the door behind her.
"Howd it go?" Resa asked.
Jennifer crossed her arms and leaned against the wall. "Well, they cant get to my credit...of course, now neither can I so that kind of leaves us in a bind."
Tony scratched his chin. "You guys are broke, huh?"
"I have forty four dollars and seventy three cents...And a stamp," Jennifer said ruefully, her eyes drawn back to Resa as a dozen questions immediately leapt to the forefront of her mind.
"You have a stamp?" Tony said with great interest.
"Uh, yeah." she answered, dragging her eyes away from the other woman.
He stuck out his hand. "That just happens to be the exact amount this little procedure cost. Fork it over." Jennifer laughed as she reached into her jeans to extract the piece of postage and hand it to the vet. "Excellent. I am so late with this cable bill theyre gonna turn me off and its not like I dont have the money, Im just too damn busy to buy damn postage."
Jennifer chuckled and Resa grinned. Then Tony grew a bit more serious.
"So, what are you going to do, huh?" he asked. "Not much money between you and the Vartans on your tail. You know Id take you in, but -- "
"I wouldnt let you...and I dont think Karen would be too happy about that either." Tony grinned, then nodded his head sheepishly. "Besides, I have a plan," Resa continued smoothly.
"You do?" Jennifer and Tony echoed in union, earning an arched dark eyebrow in response.
"Yeeeees, I do." Resa drawled and Jennifer fought down the wave of impatience that swelled inside her chest as Resa failed to elaborate on what her said plan might be. Would she have to pry every piece of information out of the other woman every single time? Apparently so.
"Care to share?" the college senior prompted at last, deliberately keeping her tone light.
Resa just gave her a look...eyes slightly narrowed and lips somewhat pursed with a restrained smile...
* * * *
"A convent?" Jennifer repeated incredulous. "Did you say convent?"
"Yes." Resa said.
Pause. "And, you want us to hide out there?"
"Thats the idea."
Jennifer searched the dark-haired womans inscrutable face, then shook her head. "Wow." She sat in silence for a long moment, her gaze drifting out the bus window as they rode past the infamous Echo Park Lake.
The late afternoon sun shimmered across the waters surface, casting into shadow the casual fishermen and mothers pushing their childrens carriages around cement pathways. It was a small lake that somehow managed to maintain its considerable repute despite the dangers of the area in which it existed. In the center there was a small island with numerous palm trees that stretched high into the cloudless sky and couples could be seen cuddling on blankets beneath the green branches. In its own way, Echo Park was a man-made oasis in this desert of concrete and graffiti, providing a much needed haven...but you sure as hell didnt want to be anywhere near it after dark.
Which was fast approaching.
Jennifer glanced out the corner of her eye at her traveling companion. Resas body was tense and alert to any sign of potential danger as her eyes continued to dart around the mostly empty bus, wary of every passenger. They had left the Marcus Vet Clinic to board the inner-city bus nearly a half hour earlier and it had taken this long for Jennifer to pry their destination from the dark-haired woman. Needless to say, it wasnt quite what shed anticipated.
"What makes you think theyll even take us in?" Jennifer asked.
Resa didnt respond for a long moment. "They might not," she said with a slight seemingly unconcerned shrug but Jennifer sensed there was more going on beneath the surface.
Jennifer threw frustrated hands in the air. "Why do I get the feeling youre not telling me something? Oh. Thats right. Because you never tell me anything."
Resa glanced down at the smaller woman, then said simply, "I used to live there." This caught Jennifer totally off guard and it must have shown as a hint of a smile flirted around Resas blue eyes. "Not recently."
"You lived in a convent?" Resa nodded and Jennifer somehow managed not to laugh in astonishment. "Well, youre just full of surprises, arent you?"
Resa merely inclined her head to one side as if to say, perhaps...
"How long ago were you there?"
Blue eyes took on a faraway expression. "It feels like a lifetime ago...I was ten when I first entered Sacred Heart and left not long after my fourteenth birthday."
"Four years? You had four years of convent life? And you still joined a gang?"
"I was a student, not one of the nuns," she said dryly.
"Hmmm...You have a point...Do they know about your, um, you know..."
"I imagine they do. They were always well informed."
Jennifer felt the bus slow to a stop and Resa stood, her hand on the torn vinyl seat in front of them.
"We get off here. Cmon." And she headed with distinct purpose to the back door of the bus. Jennifer swallowed back the tart retort to the innately commanding attitude the older woman exuded, grabbed the bag of medical supplies Dr. Marcus had provided for them and followed her off the bus into the fading sunlight of the approaching evening.
They walked for a couple blocks and Jennifer noted the distinct tenseness to Resas posture as they forged ahead out in the open. This hiding and looking over the shoulder business was all new to the college student, but Resa handled it as one whod already made such behavior routine. What would it be like to have that paranoia be a constant part of your daily life? To have no haven in which to retreat? To trust no one?
Resa stopped abruptly and Jennifer had to pull up quickly not to slam into the tall womans back.
"Here," Resa said.
Jennifer took a step back and noticed for the first time the high, white brick wall that wrapped around half the block. Impressive though it was, the wall was still not enough to obscure the view of the majestic, six story house that stood behind it. Actually, it was more a mansion than a mere house, the sort that when buffed and polished would easily command millions were it but in a different neighborhood rather than this area of the acutely poor and easily dismissed.
Standing before the imposing, ten foot solid oak doorway, Jennifer vaguely felt like Dorothy as she first attempted to enter the magic kingdom of Oz, only here her companion was a six-foot, ebony haired Amazon of a woman with a piercing, blue eyed stare. Hardly Toto...
A small intercom was situated next to the imposing entrance and Resa pressed the button. It took a few moments before a gentle, soothing voice answered from within.
"Welcome to St. Ruths of the Sacred Heart. This is Sister Therase, how may I help you?"
Resa tipped her head up and Jennifer followed the direction of her gaze to a small security camera tucked in the corner of the doorway. It appeared the sisters were high-tech.
"I need to speak with the Mother Superior," Resa said.
"And whom may I say is inquiring?" came back the disembodied voice, still as sweet as molasses.
Resa cocked her head to one side, as if considering something for a moment, then said simply, "Resa Gustavez."
So this is what the inside of a convent looked like, Jennifer mused as her eyes darted around every nook and cranny of the surprisingly exquisite marbled and wooden foyer. Given her most prominent paradigm of such an institution came from The Sound of Music, the Convent of St. Ruths of the Sacred Heart wasnt at all what shed expected. A former mansion from the early part of the 20th century, the interior and exterior of the estate projected an image of understated opulence that she couldnt have begun to anticipate. Shed always thought of a convent as a plain, stark environment and while the décor was certainly understated and modest, there was just no disguising the classic beauty of the interior design. This place was conceived to inspire and no amount of simplification on the part of the sisters could alter that fact.
As they passed through the foyer, Jennifer noticed a set of double doors to her right that, though closed, gave the impression of being the gateway to something extraordinary.
"Thats our South Parlor," Sister Therase said helpfully, having noticed the direction of Jennifers gaze. "We rent that out for weddings or conferences or for movie people as a way to help the upkeep around here. It can get most overwhelming at times, what with having to buy new school supplies and books for so many of the little ones." She smiled warmly.
Jennifer found herself smiling back. At least this young nun was closer to what shed expected. Sister Therase was a diminutive woman who made Jennifers average 54" frame seem statuesque by comparison and who carried about her an air of gentle enthusiasm that her traditional white habit and wimple could not contain. Jennifer had a vague memory that nuns didnt have to wear the whole kit-n-kaboodle outfit anymore since Vatican II, but apparently some orders opted to go with it and this Sacred Heart appeared to be one. She was glad they did. Somehow to her a nun wasnt as impressive dressed in everyday clothes. Perhaps that had more to do with the type of attire chosen by most sisters which, because of their humble nature, always left them looking frumpish rather than inspiring deep feelings of religious devotion. Even to a non-Catholic, there was something kinda groovy about seeing a nun in full regalia. It may have had to do with the Hollywood depiction shed seen as a child but whenever she saw a nun in her habit she couldnt help thinking they were one good, stiff breeze away from taking flight.
She decided not to mention this to Sister Therase.
Jennifer briefly glanced at the lithe lines of Resas back evident through the T-shirt as they followed the diminutive sister through the foyer. Try as she might, she simply couldnt conjure the image of the imposing former gang leader as a young school-girl innocently running through these hallowed halls. Such an attempt would have been difficult even if she hadnt known about the other womans ruthless past for Resa gave the impression of having never been young. Rather it was as if shed sprouted fully armed from Zeus forehead, ready to do battle, only without Athenas intrinsic sense of justice.
All three rounded a corner that took them down a long, narrow hallway with high ceilings and nearly collided with another nun.
"Oh, excuse me, Sister," exclaimed a startled Sister Therase. "I did not see you there."
"Its all right, Therase," the second nun replied smoothly but her eyes were fastened exclusively on Resa. "The Reverend Mother has asked me to retrieve our guest. She is most anxious to see her." The young nun addressed Resa directly. "You are Resa Gustavez?"
Ice blue eyes returned the stare with equal intensity and Jennifer could tell the dark-haired womans defenses were up in full. She paused a long moment before replying. "Yes," she said, her tone guarded. "And you are?"
"You may call me Sister Stephanie."
A dark brow arched wryly. "Oh, may I?"
Brown eyes narrowed at the overtly sarcastic tone.
"Actually, there are two guests," Therase interjected quickly in an effort to dispel the sudden tension. "Sister Stephanie, Id like to introduce you to Jennifer -- " She paused, as if suddenly aware she hadnt been told the younger womans last name.
Jennifer quickly stepped up, extending her hand. "Logan. Jennifer Logan. Hi, nice to meet you."
Sister Stephanies dark eyes turned upon her with a reserve that bordered on hostile before glancing at the outstretched hand and taking it in a stern though brief shake.
"Hello," she murmured without conviction.
Sister Stephanie was young, perhaps close to Jennifers own age, and possessed a natural beauty that was striking even through the restrictions of her wimple. Whereas Sister Therase gave the initial impression of a nun to the point of cliche -- plain, cheerful, and overtly kind -- Sister Stephanie most certainly did not. Wide brown eyes framed with thick lashes flicked over Jennifers figure before returning to Resa, having apparently found the younger womans presence easily dismissable.
Sister Stephanie addressed Resa. "Come this way, please." Then glanced over at Sister Therase. "Sister, why dont you show Miss Logan the gardens."
Jennifer stiffened at the younger nun's tone. She was being brushed aside, and none-too-subtly either. Okay, nun or no nun, this really pissed Jennifer off. She drew in a breath to speak when she caught Resa's eyes on her. The dark-haired woman shook her head almost imperceptibly but it was enough for Jennifer to understand and hold her tongue. Fine. She'd play along, bide her time in the gardens. But the former gang leader had better tell her everything later. There was only so much of this following blindly she could tolerate.
Jennifer smiled brilliantly at Sister Therase. "As it happens, I'm a sucker for a good garden. Lead on."
* * * *
Resa watched Jennifer trail after the smaller nun and felt a smile creep up on her unbidden. Clearly the college Senior knew she was being foisted off on the unsuspecting sister and didn't like the notion one bit. But she recognized the necessity of it and went along. She was a good kid in that way and Resa liked that about her. Truth be told, there were several things she liked about the Kid. She was so different from any of the other gringas shed met before. Smart. Strong. Even funny. If shed been initiated into the Vartans, theyd have given her a nickname to match her eyes and the way they lit up when she smiled...but a kid like Jennifer would never let herself get mixed up in a gang. She was too good for that. Too pure of heart. Gangs were for the weak...
"Miss Gusatvez," a voice to her left said.
Resa glanced over at the brown-eyed nun and the slight smile hovering over her lips dissipated.
Sister Stephanie silently indicated the way down the long hallway to her right and Resa started on, very aware of the other woman's presence by her side. She didn't know the exact reason the nun had taken such an instantaneous and obvious disliking to her but she had long since grown accustomed to such behavior from others. It seldom garnered more than amusement from her and now was no exception.
She could feel the young nun's eyes fasten on her with a boldness that had long since passed being impolite. Without turning, she murmured, "Something about me you find fascinating?"
"Yes," Sister Stephanie said without hesitation. "I've never met a murderer before."
The word felt like a physical blow to her midsection and, oddly, her first thought was she was glad Jennifer hadn't been present to hear it. Resa stopped and turned narrow eyes on the other woman.
"I'm so honored to be your first," she said, her voice dangerously low.
The two women locked eyes in a silent battle of wills and the thin veil of courtesy now completely dropped away.
"How do you live with yourself?" the nun asked harshly.
"By not dying," came the terse reply, belying the self-animus that raged beneath her breast.
Brown eyes raked her over in blatant disgust. "It doesn't bother you at all, does it? All the pain you've caused others. The lives you've ruined."
"Have we ever met before, Sister?"
A slight pause..."No."
Eyes bore into hers with a flash of icy fierceness. "Then dont ever presume to know how I feel or dont feel."
Anger had apparently gotten hold of Sister Stephanie as she continued, heedless of the warning in the taller womans tone.
"Ive heard about you, Resa Gustavez of the Vartan Bloods. And I know what youve done." Her lips curled in distaste. "How you abide facing yourself in the morning knowing what youre responsible for is beyond me."
Resa bit back on the rage that threatened to consume her. No, no, no...She had to control herself. It was imperative. Besides, she wouldn't give the other woman the satisfaction of knowing just how damn hard it was, every minute of every hour of every day, to endure the guilt of her past actions without giving up. And there were so many days when she'd felt like doing exactly that. But somehow she didn't...though she couldn't say for certain why.
"Ive long since confessed my sins, Sister," she said once shed disciplined herself. "So why don't you just lead me to the Mother Superior like a good little nun and check that holier than thou attitude at the door. kay?"
The look she received in response was withering yet the other woman spun on heel to silently lead her the rest of the way down the hall to stop in front of a set of closed, oak doors which were slightly more elaborate than the others theyd passed.
"Stay," Sister Stephanie said in a clipped tone as if to a dog, then ducked inside. Only a few moments passed before the doors were thrown open to allow Resas entrance.
"Come," the young nun said and stepped aside.
Resa took a step forward and leaned in close enough so that only Sister Stephanie could hear.
"Im not your pet. Itd be wise for you to remember that."
Without waiting for a response she brushed past the nun to enter the Mother Superiors office.
It was almost exactly as she remembered. The distinct waxy odor from the dozen or so unlighted candles brought back a rush of memories from her childhood that hadnt been touched upon since shed left Sacred Heart. It was a fairly large room with three enormous, full-length windows dominating the wall to her right. But their wooden blinds were drawn closed, casting the area in growing shadows broken only by the light from the lamp perched atop the wide oak desk. Shed been here so many times in the past and it held so many memories, some good, some painful and one... She swallowed. It was in this room that shed first learned about Luis...
"Well, well, well," came a voice from across the room. "The prodigal has returned."
Resa froze in her tracks, her blood chilled. She didnt need to see to know the identity of the speaker; she recognized the voice quite well. Sister Mary Elizabeth...better known as The Gorgon. In an instant a dozen different emotions coursed through her and she was surprised, with as much as shed been through since their last meeting, that the mere sound of the other womans sharp timbre could raise within her such undeniable dread...yet it did. Funny how childhood anxieties never truly leave us as we grow older. They just get transmuted into something else until they are unexpectedly brought screaming back in a flash. But why did it have to be here and why now?
She slowly turned her eyes to meet those of her youthful nemesis and managed to cover her surprise at seeing how much the other woman before her had aged in the ensuing years. Which was only natural, of course. Yet she held in her minds eye a mental snapshot of a harsh woman with hawkish features and taut skin that always seemed to glisten. Now those features had begun to sag and droop and lines of Middle Age had long since deepened with more advanced years...But the greatest surprise of all --- and not a happy one at that --- was Sister Mary Elizabeth now wore the habit of the Mother Superior.
Resa frowned. "Wheres Mother Gloria?" she asked, referring to the Mother Superior from her childhood. Mother Gloria had been Resas one salvation from her time with the nuns, the salve to her childish wounds and the closest thing shed come to having a loving maternal figure in her life.
"Retired a year ago. Im the Mother Superior now," Sister Mary Elizabeth said with a glimmer of satisfaction in her faded hazel eyes and Resa felt the older woman was enjoying her discomfort in this situation. Of all the nuns from her childhood, it would have to be Sister Mary Elizabeth who got put in charge of the Sacred Heart.
"Have a seat." Sister Mary Elizabeth indicated the simple chair opposite her desk then glanced over Resas shoulder to where Sister Stephanie lingered. "That will be all, Sister. Thank you for your assistance."
Through the glass reflection off the oil rendering of the Virgin Mary Resa could see Sister Stephanie visibly hesitate before exiting the room at last and closing the door behind her.
"What brings you here, Resa?" Sister Mary Elizabeth asked, attempting to keep her tone neutral and were she addressing one less perceptive, shed have been successful. But Resa knew her too well. Still, she had to proceed forward. It was important, and not just to her anymore. There was another whose concern was at stake.
She took a deep breath and plunged ahead. "I need some help."
The corner of the Mother Superiors mouth twitched. "In trouble again." It was not a question and Resa used all her still developing self-control not to say something shed regret.
"Yes," she replied simply. Her instincts told her it was wise to be completely honest with the woman before her; now was not the time to manipulate.
"But, its not your fault, of course" the nun said, her sarcasm now undisguised.
"No..." The Mother Superiors face twisted with disdain. "...Its my fault." The hazel eyes opposite her widened slightly in surprise; this was clearly not the reply the nun anticipated from the former gang leader. Resa sighed. "Its a long story but the Vartans are after us. I need a place to stay for a few days and I wondered --"
"Absolutely not." Resa paused. "You were going to ask if you could stay here, werent you?"
"Yes," the raven-haired woman confirmed.
"Then the answer is no," the Reverend Mother stated sharply. "If that abominable gang of thugs with whom you used to associate is after you, then having you here can only mean danger to the sisters and the children and I will not bring such peril under my roof. I will not invite the serpent into Eden."
Resa cocked a dark brow. "How poetic," she said dryly.
"You have no one to blame but yourself for your situation, Resa Gustavez. It would be wise of you to accept that."
Resa dropped her eyes to the top of the Mother Superiors desk and was quiet for a long moment before she murmured, " I have accepted it." She met Sister Mary Elizabeths critical stare. "And youre right to be careful. The last thing I want is to bring danger here... But Im not the only one involved."
"Oh, yes. You have a friend. Sister Stephanie mentioned you hadnt come alone. Another gang member?"
The manner in which the Mother Superior referred to Jennifer, with such open contempt, instantly brought forth Resas protective instinct. She straightened in her chair. "No. Shes not like that at all. Shes...shes good."
"Really?" The nun clearly didnt believe such an idea possible, that anyone of any worth would deign to be near a monster such as she.
"Yes. Really," Resa said tightly. Maintaining a grip on her temper was more difficult than shed anticipated under this barrage. "She just ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Yes," she acknowledged.
"Is there ever a right time to be around you?"
With that, Resas tenuous hold on her ire snapped. She shook her head in disgust. "You know, I thought this was supposed to be s House of God. A place of welcome to all sorts of people, sinners as well as saints." She stood abruptly. "I guess I was wrong."
She made it across the room in three long strides and had the doorknob in hand before something within her, a voice she barely recognized, made her stop. It would be sooo easy to let her pride propel her onward, to chalk up this experience as a mistake and try to figure out an alternate plan. But there was no alternate plan. None of any viable nature. Resa had come to the Sacred Heart under the impression that Mother Gloria was still in charge and despite the unfortunate change of leadership, she knew without question staying here was still their best bet. The idea of Jennifer enduring some fleabag, rent by the hour hotel made her stomach turn. She couldnt do that to the young college student. She was Resas charge now and she had to take care of her, even if it was at the expense of Resas pride.
The hand on the doorknob dropped to her side and she turned to face the Mother Superior who watched her every move. The air between them grew thick with a gravid silence and Resa recognized these next few seconds would determine everything; she had to be careful.
Then her eyes fell upon the shutters and an idea came to mind. Without a word, Resa crossed the distance to the full-length windows and flicked open each of the blinds, allowing a flood of the remaining golden sunlight to pour into the room. But, more important, she knew from experience these windows overlooked the impressive gardens of the Sacred Heart.
Resa turned to a Sister Mary Elizabeth forced to squint into the lingering remnants of the fading sun and pointed out the window.
"Her name is Jennifer Logan. Shes a college student who Father Hector Kulvane from the Santa Monica Parish asked to meet with me yesterday hoping that we could work together to try to..." she hesitated, then sighed a little. "Do something positive, I dunno. But what I do know is shes not guilty of anything except trying to be a good and decent person. You dont consider me worthy of your help...and I cant say youre wrong. But look at her, Sister. Look. Shes a nice kid and she is worthy. As worthy as any person youll ever hope to find. You feel it the moment you meet her."
She ran a hand through her long dark hair and glanced back out the window to where she watched Jennifer and Sister Therases figures walk through the tall, green hedgerows. She noted Jennifers face alight at something the diminutive nun said and felt a brief, sharp twinge in her breast.
"Shes my responsibility," she said quietly, unaware at how her
expression softened as she beheld the younger woman through the glass. "I just want
to make sure shes all right until I can get her out of this mess, you have my word.
And thats why I want her to stay here, where shell be protected for a few
days." She turned her attention back to the ever-watchful Mother Superior. "Just
her. That way you can keep this place safe and my presence wont invite
Sister Mary Elizabeth observed her closely for what felt an eternity, then stood. With small, studied steps she moved beside Resa and looked out the window. Her expression revealed neither clue nor suggestion as to what she might be contemplating as she gazed out over the gardens, her clasped hands hidden within the enormous sleeves of her habit. After a moment she tipped her head at an angle and narrowed her eyes.
"I have a responsibility, too," she said thoughtfully but her voice no longer held as severe a tone. "To the sisters of the Sacred Heart and to the students who come here every day of the week. Parents trust their children to my care and I do not take their trust lightly. It would be sinfully remiss of me to bring even a hint of danger into our midst." She flicked a brief glance at Resa, the returned her attention out the window. "That said, youre quite right. This is indeed a House of God, where all people are welcome, sinners and saints...though I find the former to be in far greater abundance and have yet to meet any of the latter." A lilt of irony floated about her words before she paused again as if to choose carefully what next she said. "How much time do you think youll need?"
Resa fought down the swell of hope that arose within her. "Four days," she said evenly.
The Mother Superior pursed her lips. "Ill give you two."
"Done," Resa agreed and turned to hide her dumfounded grin.
* * * *
Jennifer leaned in to inhale the sweet aroma of the gardenia then glanced over to where Sister Therase sat on a bench made of white marble.
"It's so beautiful here," Jennifer said in wonder, her eyes taking in the unexpected lushness of her surroundings.
The gardens were truly amazing. While the house projected an awe-inspiring marbled majesty, she felt the gardens invited a more intoxicating visual splendor. Standing in the heart of it all, Jennifers senses were filled with the fragrances of over a hundred different types of flowers and plants and East Los Angeles faded into the background as if it were no more than a bad dream. It was astonishing how, in the middle of all the violence and deterioration that lay just beyond the imposing walls, this group of nuns had managed to carve out so remarkable a sanctuary. Hedgerows that stood at least ten feet tall; a modest pond that held a small school of bright orange and gold Koei fish; a white, pillared gazebo tucked off in a far corner together united to create the effect of another time and place.
"How big is all this," Jennifer asked, glancing down another row of hedges as the dimness of the early evening now served to cast everything in shadow. "It feels like it goes on forever."
Sister Therase smiled. "Not quite. All in all the Sacred heart takes up about half of a city block but the gardens are designed to twist and curve to make it seem even larger."
"Who designed them?"
"Oh, the gardens have been essentially unchanged since Sister Beatrice arranged them back when the house was first donated to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart by a Xavier OMalley."
"So it was donated. I wondered about that."
It only made sense that a place as wonderfully extravagant as this would not have been the original design of an institution as conservative as the Catholic Church. True the Catholics had the gaudy spectacle of the Vatican as well as countless gothic churches scattered around the world to their credit, but the house of the Sacred Heart projected a decidedly more secular aura of affluence.
"Oh, yes. And its quite a romantic story, too."
Jennifer smiled as the other woman fairly twittered with excitement at the prospect of relating the tale and, well, Jennifer was hardly one to prevent the telling of a good story...
Sister Therase needed no further prompting. "Well," she began, clasping her hands together. "At the turn of the Century a young peasant girl named Marianna Ramirez lived in a poor village down in Mexico. Marianna worked her fathers farm with her brothers and sisters but from her early years knew in her heart of hearts that she would become a nun. She was by all accounts a lovely young girl with a pure and kind heart and she was beloved by many. It seemed the most natural thing in the world for her to enter the Church.
"Then one day an American man from California by the name of Xavier OMalley stumbled into the village and collapsed, apparently suffering from influenza (which had seized the country with abandon at that time). No one in the village would help him, all being too afraid of going anywhere near one who carried what was then considered tantamount to a death sentence. Only young Marianna would risk infection as she helped nurse the strange man back to health. And as she nursed him she learned about his life and what had brought him so far from home.
"Apparently Mr. OMalley was a boxer who killed a man and left his country over the matter (he was acquitted of any wrongdoing as I understand it). His travels brought him to Mexico and ultimately to Mariannas village. It was to no ones surprise that the two fell deeply in love. Xavier stayed in the village for several months, by all accounts blissfully happy... until word reached him of American involvement in what was then known as The Great War."
"World War I," Jennifer acknowledged as she moved to sit beside the young nun on the bench.
"Exactly. Now, Xavier felt compelled, as did many of the young men at the time, to join his fellow Americans in the fight so he returned to his homeland to sign up, reluctantly leaving Marianna behind. It wasnt long before he was overseas and in the center of battle. He was a gifted warrior and quickly rose through the ranks with his courage and cunning. He wrote daily to Marianna and his letters were the only joy she knew as the months stretched on and on...until one day they suddenly stopped coming. She grew fearful but could find no reason for this to be so other than that Xavier was dead. She held out hope until after the signing of the Treaty at Versailles which brought about the end of the war; but Xavier did not return with the other veterans. Marianna wanted to go to America to find out what became of him but didnt have the first clue where to begin nor did she have enough money for her search. And she felt, deep down, that were Xavier alive, he would have returned to her. So, two years after the end of WWI, Marianna did the only thing she could -- she entered the convent.
"For the next few years or so she served her people as a Sister of the Sacred Heart, changing her name to Sister Beatrice. But she never forgot Xavier. Eventually she came to America and ended up in the city of the Angels working for the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in the poor, run-down area. It was dangerous then much as it is now so it was hardly surprising when one day Sister Beatrice was accosted by a roughian not far from where the convent of the Sacred Heart was then situated. But the criminal was frightened away by a stranger who came to her aid from out of nowhere... just like in the movies...and that stranger turned out to be Xavier."
Jennifers eyebrows rose in surprise. "He was alive?"
"Yes. Sister Beatrice was stunned to learn that he had not died in the war as she thought but was instead gravely wounded and deeply scarred both physically and emotionally. He wasnt the same man she once knew and he felt it was better for her to believe him dead than to see him in such a broken-down condition."
"What was wrong with him?" asked Jennifer, utterly entranced.
"I dont know exactly. Something to do with his legs. I think they were horribly broken and left him with a terrible limp. Either that, or he may have even lost one in the battle. I just know it devastated him and left him feeling as if he couldnt inflict himself on one as sweet and good as Marianna."
"He didnt trust that she would love him no matter what?" Jennifer said, vaguely aware of a peculiar anger swelling in her chest.
Sister Therase shrugged. "Romantic love is strange from what I understand."
Jennifer had no response for such a statement as she had no greater insight to the notion than the nun before her. Romantic love was not now nor had it ever been an active participant in her life so she could not personally vouch for its strangeness.
"Where had Xavier been this whole time?" she asked instead.
"Living in America. Apparently he had used his winnings from his boxing days and his familys wealth to build a house of breathtaking grandeur."
"Here?" She waved her hand to indicate the Sacred Heart.
Sister Therase nodded. "Yes. And it was here that hed been hiding the whole time."
"What did Marianna do when she realized Xavier was alive? Did they get together."
Sister Therase shook her head. "No. Naturally when Marianna learned her love was alive she contemplated leaving the convent, but Xavier refused to allow it. Too much of her life and soul were tied up in her work with the Sisters and he felt too much had transpired for them to ever get together so Marianna remained Sister Beatrice."
Jennifer frowned. In her heart she felt instinctively that was not how the story should have ended; Xavier and Marianna were in love, they should have ended up together...but she also knew herself to be something of a romantic despite her own lack of experience in such regards and she was keen enough to know real life seldom ended up as it should.
"So they parted?"
"For a while...But Xavier couldnt stand not having Marianna near him so he donated his house and the surrounding land to the Convent of the Sacred Heart with the stipulation that it be turned into a school and that Sister Beatrice be a part of that school. Xavier stayed on as the head gardener, choosing to live in a small room in the back of the house and never speaking to Sister Beatrice again until the night of his death three years later. No one knows what he said to her before he passed on as his death took place in private, with just the two of them.
"Not long after Sister Beatrice took a vow of silence and turned all of her attention to the construction of this glorious garden. Xavier OMalley was buried in a tomb at the back of the property, built over, in fact, the place where he lived out his final days. Sister Beatrice died sometime later and was buried in the tomb alongside Xavier where they remain to this day."
Jennifers eyes widened. "Theyre both buried here?" Sister Therase nodded. "Can I see them?" she asked anxiously.
Sister Therase considered the possibility then smiled. "I dont see why not." And stood abruptly.
But the suddenness of her movement had a strange effect on the young nun. Her expression grew unexpectedly slack and she reached out in near desperation to grasp Jennifers hand. The college student quickly moved to steady the swaying woman and help her back to the bench where she resumed sitting.
"Are you all right?" Jennifer asked with concern as she knelt looking up into the nuns wan face.
Sister Therase nodded but Jennifer wasnt convinced. She could see tiny beads of sweat break out along the womans brow and tightened her hold on the nuns thin fingers.
"Im going to go get help," she said firmly and started to stand but Sister Therase hastily took hold of Jennifers other hand.
"No. Please. Youll just worry the others." She drew in a deep, stabilizing breath. "Ill be all right in a moment. I must have arisen too fast."
"Whats wrong with you?" the younger woman asked.
Sister Therase smiled wryly. "My heart. It has always been weak."
Jennifer gasped a bit in surprise. The nun seemed so vivacious, so effortlessly energetic that such a malady as dire as this seemed impossible.
"Are you in pain?"
"No, no. Just dizzy. Ill be fine. Really." Sister Therase looked slightly worried. "Please dont tell the others. Theyll just get needlessly bothered by it, especially Sister Stephanie. She gets worried about me so easily."
Jennifer found that idea difficult to believe, given what little shed seen of the peevish nun but refrained from comment out of respect.
"All right," she said after a moment and against her better judgment. "But if this happens again, I wont stay silent."
Sister Therase smiled and patted Jennifers cheek. "Of course. Thank you dear."
Jennifer was about to answer when she suddenly felt an odd tingling crawl up the back of her neck and knew before she turned that Resa would be there. As, indeed, she was. Having just arrived to stand at the end of the hedgerow, quietly watching. And it was the fact that such awareness didn't surprise her in the slightest that genuinely gave her pause...
Blue eyes stared at her with their characteristic intensity before they turned to Sister Therase. Jennifer noted the slight frown that flickered across her brow before the expression turned once again impassive and she knew Resa had instinctively sensed something was wrong even if she didn't quite know what.
"Everything okay?" the dark-haired woman asked, a light wariness to her tone.
Sister Therase answered before Jennifer could even drawn a breath. "Of course. I was just telling Jennifer here how the gardens came to be. Are you familiar with the story?"
A tiny smile pulled at the corner of Resa's mouth. "Yeah, I've heard it before."
"Didn't you think it was sad?" Jennifer asked.
"I suppose." Resa shrugged, clearly disinterested.
Jennifer made a little tsk of annoyance. "But Xavier and Sister Beatrices love was thwarted by the horrors of a war that left them forever parted."
Resa rolled her eyes at the younger womans melodrama. "Maybe it was their destiny never to be together," she said dismissively.
"That is so wrong." Jennifer fairly pouted at the thought.
"Look, I need to talk to you." She glanced at Sister Therase. "Excuse us a second." Resa placed a hand on Jennifer's upper arm to lead her off to one side, out of Sister Therases earshot.
Jennifer immediately picked up on a vague unease in her companions behavior and frowned. "What's up?"
"I spoke with the Mother Superior and she's agreed to let you stay here for a couple nights so you'll be safe from the Vartans. Now, I "
"Wait, wait, wait." She held up her hand and Resa paused. "You mean she's agreed to let both of us stay, right?"
Resa stiffened a little. "No. It'll just be you here."
Jennifer's frown deepened. "Why?"
"There are a lot of reasons. Now -- "
Resa sighed in frustration. "It's not important right now. Right now we just need to make sure youre safe."
"What about you?"
"Don't worry about me."
"Well, that's just not an option. Of course I'm going to worry about you; we're in this together and either we both stay here or we both find someplace else to camp out for the night."
Resa set her jaw to one side in a look of barely suppressed irritation. "Such as where? The street? An abandoned building? A shelter?"
"Look, I have over forty dollars; we can get a room in a hotel or, or something but I'm not staying here without you. End of discussion."
"You have no idea what youre saying. This is the only sensible option for you -"
"I cant stay here," she blurted harshly.
Resa sighed and her eyes fell. She hesitated before murmuring, "The Mother Superior wont allow it."
"Wha--?" Jennifer cried indignantly. "On what grounds?"
Resa clenched her jaw. "On the grounds that violence follows me...you know that by now." The admission was one that clearly did not come easily for the dark-haired woman.
"But its not like you start it."
"Doesnt matter. The Mother Superior doesnt want to tempt fate and I dont blame her. She has other people to look out for and I...I can be a dangerous woman to be around."
Jennifer observed Resas lowered gaze, the unconscious clenching of her fists, the way her voice dropped an octave as she spoke...and was deeply touched. Here before her now was a woman of surprising vulnerability and hidden sorrows, a woman with the capacity for great violence striving to perform what she felt was the right and noble action. To leave her at such a moment was simply not an option. It would be cruel and inhuman and, more than that, it would be a betrayal of one who had risked her very life to save Jennifers.
She reached out to gently cup Resas upper right shoulder, ducking her head a little until blue eyes rose reluctantly to meet her own.
"I wont argue that violence follows you," the younger woman said softly. "Obviously it does...but so do good things."
"How can you say that?" Resa said, shaking her head incredulously. "Youre in this situation because of me. Youre in danger because I lead you to a bar I had no business bringing you to."
Jennifer interrupted her. "Other people not only could have just left me there, but would have. Without a second thought...You didnt."
"That doesnt make me a saint."
"No. It makes you a good person." She took a step closer, compassion churning within her. "I know you must have done some terrible things in your past ---"
"You have no idea." Her hushed voice came precariously close to trembling.
"No. I dont. And I wouldnt even try to guess...but thats history now."
"No." Resa shook her head as a look of untold regret played over her face. "Its with me every day. Its who I am."
"Its who you were."
"Its who I will always be. Jennifer...you dont know what Im capable of doing."
Jennifer swallowed hard against the catch of pain and regret she heard in the other womans voice and reached without forethought to clasp long fingers in her own. "I know you saved my life," she said simply.
"After I endangered it."
"Resa, I chose of my own free will to enter that bar. Im not so naïve as to be clueless about what kind of place that was. I knew. And I went in regardless. You didnt force me...just like youre not forcing me now. This decision is mine to make and either we stay together or we leave together but no matter what, I am not remaining here without you. Its that simple."
Blue eyes held hers for what seemed like an eternity and within them Jennifer saw a flicker of...something. Hope? Hesitation? A yearning to believe...mingled with the fear of what believing brings...defenselessness and emotional exposure...Or perhaps all of the above.
But it was just a flicker, then Resa sighed, shook her head and lightly squeezed Jennifers fingers once before letting them drop.
"This is just crazy..." she murmured half to herself. "But all right."
Jennifer gave her a look, half-surprised, half-teasing. "Did you just agree with me?"
Resa slowly smiled in return. "Yeah. But dont get cocky," she said, echoing their earlier exchange. "I have no idea what were gonna do from this point on."
"What you will both do, of course, is stay here," proclaimed a voice from the side and Jennifer and Resa turned in unison to see Sister Mary Elizabeth, the Mother Superior of the Sacred Heart, step forward from the shadows.
It was Jennifers first glimpse of the imposing older woman and she could not deny the slight shiver of intimidation the austere visage evoked within her. Visions of Dame Judi Dench danced in her head and she took an unconscious step closer to Resa.
"I insist," the Reverend Mother continued as if her word was to be taken as law, then turned her attention exclusively to Jennifer. "You must be Jennifer. I am the Mother Superior."
Jennifer was suddenly seized by the urge to curtsey but caught herself and instead managed to eke out a simple, "Hi."
"Id like to extend to you a sincere welcome."
"To-- to both of us," Jennifer said cautiously and it was as much a statement as a question.
The Mother Superior nodded. "Of course."
At this Resa seemed utterly perplexed. "But I thought ---"
"The only real constant is change, Resa," the Mother Superior interrupted smoothly before she could go any further. "And I changed my mind."
"Thats not important right now; just be glad I did." The two women locked eyes for several heartbeats until at last Resa silently acquiesced. The Mother Superior seemed satisfied and continued. "Sister Stephanie will escort you to your room. Im afraid its not much. We are no longer a boarding school and most of the bedchambers have been converted into additional classes. But theres a small apartment just outside the chapel which we keep for visitors and I think that applies here."
A surge of joy and relief washed over Jennifer as she realized their most pressing dilemma was no more.
"Thank you," she said, unable to keep the happy grin from her face. She glanced over at Resa where she saw the remnants of a doubt still lingered...until blue eyes slowly turned to catch her own and a look crept over her face as if to say, I dont understand this at all but what the heck. Jennifer laughed a little.
"Yes," the former gang leader said, turning back to direct her words to the Reverend Mother. "Thank you."
"Youre welcome, Resa," came the reply yet Jennifer received the distinct impression there was a wealth of meaning in the words not being spoken between these two. "Sister Stephanie is waiting for you just inside."
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