Lilah had tried her hand at cooking, and the blonde was left to deal with the aftermath. It was bad enough they shared a bedroom, but Lilah seemed to deeply loathe her for some unknown reason.
"Tara, come in here after you finish cleaning up," John Maclay's order rung through the hall.
Tara's ears perked as she continued scrubbing the stove. She lingered over the grime, hoping to delay the short walk to her father's room. When she had convinced herself that there was nothing left to clean, she sighed, tossed the brush into the sink, and slid to her father.
"Ah, good. Tara, we need to have a talk. The situation with Donald has become dire, and I must leave as soon as possible. In order to pay the train fare, you must put in a couple of shifts at the Bismarck."
Tara turned white. She thought about the lewd behavior from the men, and what was expected from the women. She knew her singing ability would only entertain the clientele for a short time before she would be expected to circulate among the crowd and settle on a customer for the evening.
"Tara, did you hear what I said? I said you are going to the Bismarck, but only for a couple of nights. I don't want you getting into that lifestyle, there is too much at stake. You'll be going on Saturday night. It's all been arranged."
Tara gave a silent nod to acknowledge her father's words. She only wished that she could become so horrid that no man would want to lay a hand on her. She also did not want to mention the possible contract with Liam. If her father found out that she had a more viable future, he would do whatever it took to keep her in his grasp. No, she would suffer in silence until she got to Liam's office on Monday.
She wandered into the parlor to do some reading before she retired to bed. It was only Wednesday, three days since she and Willow had their rendezvous at the beach, and she had been saving the note in the mail. She had managed to slip a piece of paper with her address into Willow's palm a few days ago in the Haymarket, and she longed for some note from the beautiful redhead. Now it appeared that her wish has come true.
She settled into a volume of poetry, hiding the note between the pages. Walt Whitman seemed to write so well, yet she needed to read what Willow had written.
I know you want to hear all about me, but I hope you'll forgive me if all I do is expound on how lovely you are. My life has not been the same since you entered it, my sweet Tara. You make all the elementary things seem so complex, and you make the complicated things seem so simple. When we are apart, I cannot sort my feelings. Yet when you are near, my emotions could not be clearer. You drive me to distraction, Ms. Maclay. I have never known a person like you, and I doubt I will meet someone that intrigues me as you do.
If we must learn about each other through correspondence, so it will be. I moved here with my parents when I was very young. My father is a professor at New York University, and my mother helps workers get better conditions. They want me to go to college, which is actually better than most of the parents of my female friends, of which I really only have one. I think you'd like Buffy. We've been friends for a long time.
When can we meet? Surely, my going to the Haymarket is not going to suffice. Please, help me see you. It is becoming hard, wondering when I will see you next. Please write back.
Tara closed the letter and let her eyelids close. She shook at the idea of seeing Willow again, and yet she knew it needed to happen soon or else she would burst. Every time she thought of the redhead she could barely contain the smile that threatened to break out on her face. She knew she needed to figure out a way to see her regularly, or else she would go mad. It was risky, but Willow was worth it.
Buildings hunched over Henry Street, and the sun lit the road like a valley nestled between large mountains. The redhead stood outside, lingering and waiting for a glimpse of the blonde, her Tara.
Willow knew she was taking a chance. Tara might push her away, but the last few days had been interminable. She had not been able to think of a single thing that did not lead to memories of the blonde. The sun shone like her golden hair. The tenement windows glimmered like her blue eyes. Yet nothing could capture her full voice and the mirth within, especially when she addressed the redhead.
The girl shot her head up and saw Tara looming over her. She quickly rose to her feet and tried to hide her blush. She cleared her throat, "Oh gosh, I was hoping you wouldn't see me. I just, you know, since I had your address and all, I wanted to see you. It's early yet; I was just on my way to school. I just, I... I had to see you. The last thing you need is some schoolgirl following you around. Do you hate me? You probably hate me!"
Despite the impropriety, Tara found it impossible to be mad. She had been desperate to lay eyes on the redhead ever since they parted ways on Sunday, and the sight of the girl before her was the best thing she could have had before her shift at the factory. She managed a smile before she answered, "I'm not mad, Willow. Please, breathe."
Willow let out a sigh and eagerly looked up to the blonde, "Did you, um, get my note?"
The blonde nodded, "I received your letter, and please rest assured: I have been racking my brain. I just can't come up with a regular place we can meet. I live in close quarters, as do you, and I rarely have a moment to myself, let alone a moment for the two of us."
The redhead chewed on her lower lip. These fleeting moments were wonderful, but she needed more. She just wanted to be able to have a conversation with Tara. Okay, not just talk... but their relationship had been based on quick interludes, and she wanted to find a way to see her away from a dirty theater, and away from her friends. Still, she would settle for those backstage moments until they found a way. She ventured, "So, in the... meantime, are you at least going to the Haymarket this weekend?"
It was Tara's turn to chew her lower lip. She grimaced and replied, "Actually, no. I'm going somewhere much worse."
"Oh no, not Harry Hill's again! I hated that place the first time around, and I don't fancy sneaking in again and having my wallet lifted. I don't want to think about you there or any place like it."
"I'm sorry, Willow. My father has is all arranged. I'm going to the Bismarck. I only know what I have heard about the place, and none of it is very nice." Tara turned her head to the ground and offered, "I would love to see you on Saturday afternoon. Perhaps you and I could meet by the river? It's not far, and it's not particularly nice, but the water's pretty and we could at least talk without much interference."
"That would be wonderful. How about this Saturday? I could be down by the river on Pike Street around 11:00 a.m. Would you be able to meet me then?" The redhead's eyes were hopeful as she waited for Tara's response.
"I think that could work. Until then, my sweet Willow." The blonde grasped the redhead's hand and dared to kiss the back of her hand. Seeing the other girl's happiness, she stepped off to go to work. She never thought she could ever be so happy going to the factory.
Tara stood by the water, letting the sun reflect off the water and onto her face. She looked across the river and saw the bustle that took place even on a Saturday. She loved the moments when the sounds of the city could wash over her like a wave. New York has its merits, and she took pleasure in the fact that she would probably live the rest of her life discovering everything the city had to offer.
She was starting to fear that the redhead might not be able to make it when she felt a familiar hand slide over her shoulder. She turned her head to see Willow, looking at her with smiling eyes and lips curled into a grin. She placed one hand over the redhead's and turned to face Willow.
"Thank goodness you came, I wasn't sure if you would have been able to escape your parents."
Willow shrugged, "It wasn't so hard, I just told them I needed to go to the library. They both seem to have such a passion for reading and school, especially my reading and my going to school, it was easy to get out of the apartment. It just took me longer than I had anticipated getting down here. I'm sorry I'm late. Forgive me?"
Tara smiled, intertwined her fingers through Willow's hand, and replied, "I don't think I can be mad when you are near. One look at your pretty face makes time stop and life feels wonderful." She gestured north and suggested, "Would like to walk for a spell? Like I said, it's not very nice, but we'll be mostly alone."
The redhead nodded and answered, "After you, Miss Maclay."
The two girls walked and talked all afternoon. The conversation wound between their pasts and their futures, their dreams and their goals. They fell into a comfortable silence, and their own thoughts began to occupy them. Tara felt more comfortable with the girl than with anyone else in her entire life, except perhaps her mother. She loved the way they could talk about anything, the way Willow's face lit up when she talked about school, and she could not help but regret that she did not have the same opportunities or encouraging family that Willow had. She also recognized an ache in her chest whenever the other girl was around, and a desire to let her hands linger over her lithe frame.
Willow was lost in Tara's presence, and the joy of just being together. The redhead loved the way the sun bounced off the water and illuminated Tara's face. She looked around and found that there were no people in the vicinity, so she ventured, "Tara, you look so beautiful right now. You have to know that I have been desperate to kiss you all afternoon."
Tara shuddered and craned her neck to assess their environs. They had wandered to a secluded point along the river, but she still feared that they would get carried away and be discovered. She took note of a large tree with a broad trunk, and she grabbed the other girl's hand and quietly responded, "Willow, there is nothing I want more. Come with me, but we must be quick."
The two girls walked at a brisk pace until they were behind the tree, and their lips met furiously. Hands grabbed at shoulders and fingers wove into hair, bringing them as close together as humanly possible. Their kiss was urgent at first, and gradually slowed to allow them to explore the other girl's mouth. The kiss ended slowly, and they rested their foreheads together.
Willow was the first to speak, "I really needed that. Oh Tara, you taste so good."
Tara blushed and grabbed the other girl's neck, "Me too, you have no idea how often I think about feeling your lips against mine." She breathed in loudly, "But I am worried about being out in public like this. Willow, if we are caught it could be very bad for both of us."
The redhead nodded reluctantly, "I know, I just couldn't resist. As much as I love to see you, I would not trade these touches for anything. We could meet like this, or I can come to where you sing. Think you'll be returning to the Haymarket anytime soon?"
The blonde shrugged her shoulders, "I couldn't say, possibly next week. My father has me going to the Bismarck for now, but I'm planning to go see Liam about a steady contract. If I knew I could have better pay, I might be able to move away from my father. I know I haven't told you much about him, but he, well, he... isn't very nice."
Willow dipped her head, "I know, and I'm sorry. And I would love to see you out on your own! This city would bow at your feet, Ms. Maclay. I just hope I can follow along for the ride."
"Are you kidding, Willow? I would want to take you with me, or at least have you near me as often as possible." She reached out to cup the redhead's face, "And I think it should be pretty clear that I like to have you near me."
The sound of a pair of children running ahead of their parents caused Tara to tear her hands away from Willow. She immediately regretted the action, but when she looked up she saw a pair of understanding green eyes looking back at her. She offered a weak smile, grateful for the forgiveness of the redhead.
Willow leaned forward, took one of Tara's hands into her own, and whispered, "It's okay, Tara. I'm just glad we can be together."
Tara sighed and responded, "I feel like we spend more time wishing things were different than actually being together. Let's just enjoy the time, we have, okay?"
The redhead nodded and suggested, "Let's take our time going home, okay? I should get home soon, anyway."
"You know I love to stroll on your arm, Miss Rosenberg. Now, let's head back."
The girls wandered back along the East River, and as it began to grow dark, they said gentle good-byes.
The redhead sat on her bed, lost in thought. She knew she might anger Tara with what she was about to do, but she could not help it. Willow felt like Tara was the center of the universe. Before they had met, she was a girl that did her lessons and spent time with her friends, but not too much time, and thought that life was simple. She couldn't bear to think of Tara in that place, all alone, with no one looking out for her. If she could be with Tara, it would be wonderful. But that was not as important as the blonde's safety, and she was determined to go.
She rose and checked her appearance in the long mirror once more before heading out to Bismarck Hall. Although this was her second excursion in male garb, she still felt nervous about her ability to blend into society. Her black suit contrasted sharply against her pale skin and red hair, which was tucked tightly under her cap. 'Plus, I do want to look good for Tara,' she mentally added.
Her mother was at a meeting and her father was locked up in his study. She shouted to her father, "Dad! I'm going to Buffy's!" before she went out into the night.
The exterior of the Bismarck left much to the imagination. The dark entrance was identified only by the collection of men loitering by the door. Daniel told her where it was, only after she lied and told him that she heard about it and someone told her not to go near it at night. The boy, considerate of his friend, told her the location only with her safety in mind.
It was not difficult to gain entrance to the saloon. Men snuck glances at her as she walked in, sizing her up. The redhead meekly crept into a secluded booth, which allowed her to maintain a view of the stage. A magician finished his act, in the meanwhile she signaled to a waitress for a drink. Two singers performed their acts before they descended the stairs into the crowd. Willow glimpsed one girl immediately set upon a gentleman in the audience, and she trembled to think that she had been too late, she has missed Tara's song and the blonde was already occupied.
Just as her fear began to get the better of her, the redhead heard a gruff announcer introduce "The Irish Rose," and Willow's throat dried up like the Sahara. She caught sight of Tara on the small stage, and she suddenly felt that she was in heaven. Despite the unsavory surroundings, she loved to see Tara sing under any circumstances, and tonight was no exception. The blonde was as lovely as ever, standing out from the scene like a diamond in a coal mine. Willow could not decide if she wanted everyone in the audience to sit up and take note of her beauty, or leave their prying eyes to the other girls.
Willow suddenly became petrified. Tara did not want her to come here tonight, and the reason was clear. She was not the sort that was welcome, and she did not have the money to keep Tara in her presence. Tara was gorgeous, she could fetch any man in the room. And each of them was definitely interested in her company.
The song ended and Tara descended a set of stairs to the floor of the saloon. She glanced around and saw that many were interested, but she knew she could get a better price if she withheld her services for a time. She decided to take a turn about the room and really assess the potential customers. She spun past the bar and glimpsed a flash of red hair that she would never forget. Her throat almost closed when she saw Willow, dressed as a boy, looking back at her.
Needing to protect her safety, and if she was honest with herself... be close to the redhead... she slunk over to the booth that held the adorable girl. She sat down next to Willow, threw one arm behind her back, and urgently whispered, "Oh Willow, why are you here? Don't you know how dangerous this place could be? You should not have come," she put her other hand on the redhead's thigh, "but I can't help but be very glad that you did."
Willow gulped and replied, "I'm so sorry Tara, and I just wanted to be here to protect you. You told me about this place and I wanted to be here to help in case things got rough. And I know we saw each other this afternoon, but it is becoming difficult for me to be away from you for very long."
"Willow, I appreciate your concern, and believe me, I appreciate that I w-will be able to, um... touch you... as if you were a real boy and I was a girl," Tara suddenly blushed, "fulfilling her duties."
The redhead suppressed a grin before she placed one hand on Tara's knee and the other across her cheek. "I admit, I did consider the convenience of the setting."
Tara shivered under Willow's hand, and remembered the potential dangers, "Willow, did it occur to you that... in a place like this... I would be the one that would have to protect you? But, oh god, Willow, when I see you it almost becomes too much."
"I'm so sorry, Tara, I can see now that I should not have come. I'll go. I hope you don't get into any trouble." the redhead replied before she moved to depart.
A pair of hands kept her in her place. Tara looked the other girl square in the eyes and stated, "Willow, please don't go. It may not be perfect, and I'll probably regret this later." She took a deep breath, "but you are here and I want you to stay. Besides, have I mentioned that you look rather handsome?"
The redhead smiled and leaned forward, bringing her lips to Tara's ear, "I was hoping I did, especially since I definitely wanted you close to me tonight."
The sensation of Willow's breath on her neck overwhelmed the blonde. She quivered, "Oh Willow, can you please kiss me? Now?"
Willow first brought her lips to Tara's pulse point, letting her mouth linger over the other girl's skin. Hands started wandering, and the girls began to forget that they were in public, though technically, their conduct was expected amongst the clientele. Willow moved her lips from Tara's neck down to her mouth, pausing only to slip one hand behind the blonde's neck and pull her closer.
Tara put her hands on Willow's waist and gasped, "Don't be alarmed, but I'm going to do something. Just stay close, okay?"
"I don't think it would be possible for me to tear myself away," the redhead responded with raspy breath. She suddenly felt the blonde's fingers undoing the buttons of her shirt.
"That's good to hear. It's lucky you chose to sit in a booth, or else I wouldn't be able to do this," she replied as her hand snuck into the opening of Willow's shirt and let her fingers stroke the soft skin beneath. She paused to look around and make sure people were not looking too closely, while she reveled in the sensation of the girl's skin under her fingers. She knew it was dangerous, 'But god, I've been wanting to touch her all day.'
Willow closed her eyes and felt her head spinning as they kissed. She was barely aware of the din of the bar patrons, and the only smell she registered was Tara's sweet perfume. She could not have hoped for the other girl to touch her in a place like this, and she could not believe how wonderful it felt. She pulled back and let her eye lids shutter open to take in the sight of Tara looking back at her with dark blue eyes. She felt Tara's hand move up and down her side, gripping her waist and pulling her closer.
Their lips met passionately, hands continued to explore in an attempt to pull the girls closer together. Tara's hand remained under Willow's shirt, and the redhead snuck a hand under the waistband of Tara's skirt, hoping to pull up her blouse and feel her luxurious skin. Tara released a groan when she felt the path of Willow's hand, and smiled lightly when she felt the other girl lightly touch her back.
A voice hit in Willow's ears sharply, "Hey there, you done with her yet, mate?"
They pushed apart as Willow angrily stood to face the intruder. She did not even realize she had such a short temper until Tara entered the picture. As he inched closer, the smell of beer and cigar smoke came off him in waves. She knew he would pound her to oblivion if they came to blows, but she could not quell her anger at the interruption of her time with Tara.
Tara rushed up and threw herself between the redhead and the tall man that leered down at her. She faced Willow and put her hands on her shoulders, hoping to stop the girl from moving toward an almost certain beating. She caught her eye and whispered, "Just go, Willow. I would not have been able to stay much longer anyway. Please, don't get hurt on account of me."
Willow heard the worry in her voice, and as her face barely softened, she told the gruff man, "Almost, give me a minute and I'll try to forget your lack of manners. Now back off, and I'll be on my way."
The man gave Tara a smirk that left his intentions clear, and she gave him a look to assuage his need for attention. She instructed him, "Please go back to your table, and I'll be with you shortly."
As the man walked away, she spun back to see Willow's downtrodden face. Her heart ached at the realization that their night had come to an end. She led Willow to the booth and leaned close one last time and said, "I'm so sorry, Willow, but I have to go to him. I won't let anything happen, for you. I am so very sorry. Do you believe me?"
Willow nodded, and she knew her love was telling the truth. 'Wait, love? Where did that come from? Enough of that, Rosenberg, pay attention to the beautiful girl that is standing in front of you.'
Tara offered a weak smile and said, "It's best that you go. I cannot apologize enough. I don't want you to see me... working. Can I see you again, soon?"
Willow nodded again and she placed one last kiss on the blonde. As she turned to leave she felt a hand pull her back, and she found herself in Tara's arms once again. The blonde demanded her attention, "Will you please tell me that you believe me, and not just nod your head? I'm so glad you came. Really. Please tell me you believe me?"
The redhead realized that Tara would have just let her leave if she wasn't really serious about her feelings. She answered, "I believe you, Tara. I just played this night out differently in my head. I guess I thought that we could maybe be alone, or something."
"And please know that I wanted nothing more than to be alone with you, Willow. It is getting harder and harder to stop being close to you. And...if your wandering hands are any indication, you feel the same way? Please, just know that you are the only one that I want to be with."
Willow sighed, "I know, Tara. I guess that deep down, I do know. I'm just not used to feeling anything for anyone, not to mention anyone feeling something for me. This is all new for me. And knowing that he will be able to touch you, and roll out the cash to spend more time with you, it just... it's upsetting. I'm sorry. We'll talk soon, okay?"
Tara smiled, content that the other girl's feared were calmed. As she lost sight of the schoolgirl, dressed so smartly as a boy, she recalled her the man that was waiting for her. She knew she could keep him at bay, but it would take a lot of alcohol, and possibly slipping something into his beer, to knock him out and get away. She hiked up her skirt and walked back into the bar.
The redhead turned the knob to her apartment as quietly as possible. She began stripping her clothing, and blushed to think that her shirt had been unbuttoned once already that night. She heard a rustling in her father's study and began to quickly tiptoe to her bedroom. She was too late.
"Willow, is that you? I wanted to speak with you about-" Ira Rosenberg's eyes widened and his jaw froze. "What are you wearing, Willow? Did you go out in public dressed like this? Where did you go? Tell me!"
Willow's head sunk. She didn't know how to answer her father's inquisition, and she knew deep down that she had to lie, or face a much worse punishment. She couldn't tell him about Tara, but she would have to admit where she had gone. Okay, maybe not say that she went to the Bismarck, but the Haymarket. That place wasn't so bad.
She steeled herself and turned to face him, "I'm sorry, father. I don't want you to be mad at me, I just wanted to have some fun. I knew I had to dress up to get into the bar, some place called the Haymarket, I think it was called. I just went into the first place I found."
Ira's eyes remained hard, but revealed the concern that he felt for his daughter. He shook his head and ordered, "You will go to you room, and we will talk about this tomorrow with your mother. I can tell you now, you are not going to be allowed out of our sight for a very long time."
John Maclay emerged from the Church on Oliver Street. His eyes squinted with the sunlight, but he soon recognized the figure of Richard on the corner of St. James Place.
"Richard, what brings you down here this time of morning on a Sunday?"
The tall man smiled tensely, "I have come to inquire about the status of your pretty daughter, John. You assured me that we would eventually be married, and I have respected your desire to wait until your family is reunited, but I am growing impatient. When do you expect to have Donald back?"
"Coincidence would have it, my friend, that I am leaving to go west next week. I expect to return with Donald within the month," John replied.
"Excellent news, Mr. Maclay. I hope you understand my impatience, but a man my age cannot afford to waste a single day! It's been a long time coming for me, and your daughter certainly is the finest girl I've laid eyes on in, well, a good long while. Please extend my regards when next you see her."
"You can tell her yourself, Richard. She's here, only lingering with the pastor for a time."
As the reply left John Maclay's lips, Tara stepped out into the street. She glimpsed the two men conversing and felt a chill pass through her body.
Across town, another mass ended and the parishioners exited onto the street. Buffy Summers stayed close to her mother and sister as the crowd left the church. She had glimpsed William Blythe and his mother in the congregation, and hoped that she would not be forced to speak to the boy. He had already tried speaking with her once today, but his words of apology were cut short when his mother joined his side.
The sun hit Buffy's face and she followed her mother to extend regards to Reverend Giles. The tall preacher was speaking with another tall man, a police officer by the looks of his uniform. She heard her mother suddenly speak.
"Oh Reverend Giles, I just wanted to tell you that your sermon was wonderful, as usual. Thank you. Oh have you met my daughters, Buffy and Dawn?"
"I do not believe I have had the pleasure, Mrs. Summers," the preacher answered. "And this is Lieutenant Riley Finn, of the police."
Both girls curtsied gracefully. Buffy turned her eyes from the priest and then let it rest on the lieutenant, who was letting his own eyes travel up and down the girl's figure. She turned red under his gaze, and suddenly wished that he would turn around and walk the other direction. Fortunately, her mother chose that moment to give her regards to Reverend Giles and lead her daughters home for a leisurely Sunday afternoon.