Beth was tapping away on her home computer to finish off an urgent assignment. The fingers flew over the keyboard not from any divine inspiration but in completing a pot-boiler of an article. It was nothing in particular but her acquired competence over the years knew enough to conjure up the phrases in first take writing. As the Independent's latest arts critic, she had found that her enforced banishment from the political section had its advantages. She approached the end of her piece, ran the spell check over it and prepared to e mail it into the office to feed the ever hungry news desk and the editor to cast his eye over it. She knew that this was an average page 11 article that helped bring in her salary. She knew that it wasn't in the same class as her inspired coverage of the Karen Betts trial and her coverage of Nikki Wade's slashing criticism of the running of Larkhall Prison but it would have to do. As she saw the e mail with its attachment start to disappear down the invisible lines of communication, she heard the key turn in the front door and she grinned widely. She spotted the lithe, slightly windswept figure of Karen Betts herself walking towards her with a spring in her step, arms outstretched and a wide smile spreading across her face.

"Mmmm," Beth said as she reluctantly came up for air after a long, deep kiss as Karen settled down on her lap."You are the most gorgeous kisser without exception - and after a day of slaving away at the hospital."

Karen marvelled at the sight and feel of her lover as she sat on her lap and draped her arms around her lover's shoulders. Even working at home in her jeans and loose fitting top, Beth retained her glamorous look about her, her neatly bobbed hair and artfully applied make-up, even if it had recently been interfered with. A more tangible feeling for her inner glow was the way they'd felt each other up, an appetiser for the main course later on.

"I get all sorts of interesting ideas as I'm driving home," came the smirking reply as the

fingertips of her right hand continued to caress Beth's physical charms.

"Aren't I the lucky one to find another woman as sexually demanding as me?" Beth murmured."I'd finished my assignment so the evening could be ours?" she questioned tentatively. Normally, the paths of their independent careers were sure to coincide in the most delightful of ways.

"It's my night off from my coursework studies too, darling," Karen teased, kissing the tip of her lover's nose. Instantly, feelings of release flowed through both women's systems knowing that work demands didn't always make that possible. Later on, they'd knocked up together a quick and tasty meal with the ease and synchronicity born of their deep bonding. Karen only had to think of the need of a wooden spatula that she needed when Beth placed it in her hand. After they'd eaten and put the dishes in the washing machine, Beth had changed into a lacy white negligee exposing a teasing display of thigh while Karen's display of comfortable semi-nakedness was more directly expressed. As they sat back for an intimate evening with soft music in the background, they slipped into a conversation about themselves, where they were heading.

"Darling, you've been so patient to put up with my mad ambitions. I know that some evenings, I'm not the best company,"Karen said tenderly, thinking of the hours she'd spent in the evening, studying for her nursing exams. She remembered years ago how she'd taken her BA in Sociology while working fore the prison service and had passed it but despite the grousing from the male partner of the time. Instead, Beth imperturbably busied herself on the computer while Karen felt her intangible presence all around her. Karen felt that Beth had that indefinable knack in working around her but had wondered how much that had been translated into reality from her past experience of failed relationships and her own ambition.

You're here and that's all that matters. You worked your way up to wing governor in the prison service till that bastard Fenner screwed you over. It's not enough for me to admire the way you slave away as a nurse," Beth said softly as she suspended her glass from her delicate slim fingers. The gesture was provocative- her words were deadly serious.

"You know, it's still a revelation to come across a lover who's so reasonable," Karen said in melting tones, her emotion rising to the surface even after a hard day's work.

"It's not so hard. I know that you're after promotion and you'd run the show so easily. I can tell it in every move you make," Beth said softly, putting her weight on her elbow.

Karen rose out of her seat, laid her body against her lover and kissed her tenderly and deeply. This wasn't just about sexual desire- this was about the sort of emotional and spiritual love that she once thought she would never dare expose. She had been denied so long being appreciated for who she was- Beth made it the easiest thing to ask for that was one of many reasons why she loved her Beth so deeply.

As for Trisha and Sally-Anne, they put on their glad rags for another party at Chix. They had no need for change- they were fine as they were.

George and Alice had learnt to accommodate the angularities of their differing work lifestyles. Alice as a social worker was bound to care for the dysfunctional underdogs of the world and had learnt the dangers of identifying with them too far. As for George, she reconciled the need to earn sufficient well paid civil cases against her backhanded style in crusading criminal cases for which she was gaining a growing reputation which Jo Mills couldn't help failing to notice. Alice had learnt her lessons well enough in not letting her heart carrying her head away. George knew that the details of her one night stand with John would remain safely under wraps as long as she and John willed it. Both women also were doing their best to not mention the upcoming trial of Alice's manipulative drama ridden ex partner Becky Elliott for stabbing her psychotic mother, an event which Alice witnessed in her professional capacity. She'd paid for this misdemeanour as her boss had criticised her as she should have known that that her client's daughter was also her ex-lover and the wound to her self-esteem hadn't healed.

Somewhere in the cold, dark depths of three o clock in the morning, the world is a different place. Some inner prompting demanded that Jo Mills' senses wake up, bright and alert, for no particular reason she could think of and at a time that was certainly not welcome. It wasn't necessary, she fumed, for her vital sleep to be disturbed. All at once, feelings of miserable emptiness flooded in , making her highly conscious of the empty space in her double bed. If only life were other than what it was, she confessed to herself, even if she had made her recent choices. Only in these secret places did Jo Mills silently dare to question just why she had ever acted so compulsively in going off the straight and narrow all those months ago. It didn't make for comfortable reliving when she had all the time in the world to contemplate the gravity of her actions. Despite her best wishes, her mind to flit back to the day she bumped into Mel Bridges in the respectable local store and she'd made her first mistake in assuming that this woman was the teenage schoolgirl she'd known, only grown older. Through the eyes of hindsight, she'd seen them meeting in the local teashop and how she'd become softly nostalgic about their shared childhood and blossoming adolescence. The sweet innocent swirl of emotions had concealed so well, Jo laughed ironically, how she'd woven a spell round her, how they'd spent evenings drinking and playing guitars like the old days should have been and she'd been delicately guided down the seductive slide of sexual desire that had always been there since her school-days.

here it was, right out in the open. It was one thing to get in from a days work and to be gadding off to Mel's house so she never gave herself time to think, never to switch on her barrister's brain and enquire just what she did for a living. God, she'd been so blind, so spellbound. It was quite another thing after months of living at home on her own with way too much time to brood to recall the sick feeling in her stomach when she discovered the brutal truth that Mel had been using her as a protective veneer of respectability to conceal her criminal enterprise. That was what all the charade was all about, she fumed as she shook her fists impotently. Now she was in the cold light of night and she was left wondering what in hell had happened to her? She was a respectable widow, mother of two sons, she sniffed, as she reached for the familiar emotional comforter. This time, it didn't work.

Temporary rescue came when her mind veered off in another tangent to realise in the middle of all this trauma that at one point, life had taken an unexpected upturn. Far away in the distance was a golden glow of the one instance in her life when she could have gone against the habits of a lifetime and simply given way to the direction to which she was being pointed. She remembered when the truth about Mel had hit her like a sledgehammer blow when she was steered in Helen and Nikki's direction and stayed overnight at their flat, emotionally weepy and needy of the kindness and understanding that she'd received from them. They'd chatted awhile and talked her situation through until Jo had settled down for the night on the settee, just as John had done a couple of times. When she'd woken up the following day, her momentary disorientation had given way to an eerie feeling of detachment of all the horrors of the previous day, so that it didn't occur to recriminate herself for her reckless foolishness in being pulled into Mel's schemes. That had been in another era while this was today. She remembered the simple joy of buying the simple black dress while her friends looked on and going out to Chix without a care in the world. Hanging out with her women friends felt good. When she'd entered the mythical world of Chix, she hazily remembered that she'd contemplated it as a forbidden zone where she'd heard that George frequented. Yet here she suddenly appeared out of nowhere along with all the women she'd met in one court case or another in a beguiling world of pulsing music, flashing lights and other glamorous women who all smiled welcomingly at her. This other world now felt completely natural, right out in the open not something to be furtively hidden from the neighbours behind Mel Bridges' front door. She remembered mixed feelings of hesitancy and excitement as she wondered maybe she'd lock eyes with some shapely woman until she connected thought with a laughing woman with loosely flowing blond hair. In no time at all, she danced the night away with this woman, not letting her eyes stray away from her feminine attractions while shouting out a conversation that made her feel young again. When the tempo of the music slowed, what could have felt more natural than to slide into each other's arms. This felt more like life, she sighed to herself. When they all finally came to leave, her hand was clasped in Jane's as the group of women chatted amongst each other. There was an indefinable buzz circulating so that Jo felt high with a new life opening out before her, that she was finally turning a corner. As they found themselves in the back seat of a taxi, the city lights flashing past them, Jo automatically asked the taxi driver to head to the hotel she'd booked for the night, not wanting to put on Nikki and Helen's kindness for a second night, having taken her night suitcase along with her. Jane raised her eyebrows and said nothing.

As they were spilled out into the night air, the taxi engine still running, Jo suddenly pulled the other woman into her arms. The whole evening had had that feel of promise in the air. Instantly, their tongues sought each other's out and their bodies pressed against each others. It was a long, slow kiss and all her neediness was expressed for this gorgeous woman. Only when they came up for air was it on the tip of Jo's tongue to suggest heading off to Jane's place. She'd ruled out as impossible the thought of sneaking Jane past the hotel reception and perhaps the second date for Boxing Day seemed more appropriate.

"Excuse me, Jane, I'm not sure of the etiquette for first or second dates," Jo finally confessed nervously, a phrase that came out of nowhere from past encounters going back down the years. She tried making up for this by kissing Jane softly on her lips one more time.

"In which case, I'll write down my address so you know where to come for me and you'll believe this is for real,"Jane said softly, reaching for her handbag. They exchanged one last soft kiss and then Jane skipped away towards the taxi which swallowed her up. In the frosty air and starlight illumination, this image remained imprinted forever on Jo's mind.

In the cold loneliness of the night, Jo could remember Christmas Day when she remained in a positive mood while her sons watched "The Great Escape" and Nikki phoned her could remember chatting in an innocent, insouciant tone of voice to Nikki wade about the gorgeous woman she'd got dancing with at Chix and exchanging that goodnight kiss. In chatting away on the landline in the hall, she felt as if she was communicating with a secret part of herself that had always been attracted to the bright lights, big city of London where Nikki and Helen lived. They were right in the heart and centre of all that was fast moving, cutting edge and she'd had a taste of it all, the night she'd gone to Chix.

"Mum, what do you want to watch on TV? This is a family Christmas after all," called out her son Mark in a complaining tone of voice, lazily deploying an argument to exercise a passing whim for the family to be together.

That did it. Jo put down the receiver with a shaking hand and a clatter and stalked towards the living room. Her eyes flitted back and forth over the gleaming surfaces, checking all the spring cleaning she'd done after all the months of neglect last autumn when she'd spent all her spare time drinking and making love with one Mel Bridges, her old school friend, one time rock musician lover and drugs baroness and standing temptation to embrace the wild side of life. She'd briefly passed her empty council house on the way back from work and the windows were boarded up with coarse wooden planking. When she'd spring cleaned the family home, she'd worked so frenziedly in hoovering, cleaning and polishing that she hadn't given herself time to think but worked round the house like a whirling dervish and, at the time, was simply pleased by the simple act of restoration, at setting a part of her world straight. Now she realised that another siren sound had been calling out to her from the rocks on which breaking waves smashed their weight. She'd been asked once again to go off the straight and narrow, to abandon the line of duty that had driven her career, the family she'd created. Not this time, she vowed as her sons let her pick some random programme and she forced herself to enjoy it.

That Boxing Day, instead of beautifying herself to enjoy the charms of one Jane Lancaster, she drunk heavily from the bottle of whisky and, after Christmas, steered clear of Chix and any other temptation. This contrary impulse blocked off the moment forever for her letting nature's urgings set her course and she was never more miserable at four in the morning..

As for Jo Mills, she couldn't even begin to deal with the crippling burden of guilt that was all the harder to deal with as her relationship with him had never been like this. Despite her best efforts, sleep continued to elude her.