part 8

by SX Meagher

Please see part 1 for all disclaimers.

Chapter Seventeen

The muted but insistent stirrings of the huge camp woke Ryan just before dawn. She felt surprisingly good considering that she had cramps, had slept on the ground, and had ridden 90 miles the day before. She had an insistent need to go to the bathroom again, but before she did so, she gently woke Jamie by lightly rubbing her all over her body. Jamie nestled up against her, muttering a small protest. "Come on, Jamie. You've gotta get up. There's a cute little orange bike that wants you to take it to King City."

Jamie pried her eyes open and yawned. She stretched every muscle and joint before she sat up, blinking her eyes groggily. She turned to Ryan as she ran a hand through her wild hair and asked solicitously, "How are you feeling?"

"Pretty good, all things considered," she replied. "I can't believe how much better I feel just sleeping next to you."

Jamie gave her a big smile and leaned over to offer a hug. Ryan gladly accepted, and they held each other lovingly for a few moments, allowing themselves to wake up fully. Ryan let go reluctantly as she slid out of the tent. She pulled on her sweats and dragged her gear bag out with her. After rummaging through the bag for a few minutes, she found the outfit that she wanted to wear and then got ready to head to the shower. "Are you going to take a shower in the morning, too?" Jamie inquired.

"I normally don't," Ryan replied. "But it's probably good for my cramps."

Jamie kissed her goodbye and gently patted her seat. "I'll take the tent down and get us packed, then we can go eat breakfast and get you some more pills."

"I'm going to try to do without any more pills," Ryan said. "I'll bring some along in case I really need them, but they make me feel a little lightheaded and I don't want to lose my concentration."

"Can I give you a little tummy rub during our pit stops?"

"I can't think of anything I'd like better," Ryan replied with a big grin. "Oops, one thing I forgot," she said, digging into her bag again. "Bring your swimsuit!"

After they pulled their bikes out of Madrid, Ryan worked on their water bottle mix. They were all loaded up by just before seven, but right before they left Ryan had to make another pit stop. Jamie patiently waited for her, getting a sheepish little grin when she returned. "I have to go constantly when I get my period," Ryan admitted.

"Speaking of periods," Jamie said as they left the campground, "After I get mine this month, I'm going to stop taking the pill."

Ryan looked at her quizzically, "I didn't know you were still taking them. I guess I assumed you would stop after you broke up with Jack." Ryan felt her stomach do a little flip as she considered the only obvious reason Jamie would continue to take the pill.

"Yeah, I stayed on them because I wanted to regulate my period so I would be sure not to get it during the ride. I thought ahead for a change," she said proudly, causing Ryan to let out a sigh of relief.

"That's pretty darn smart, Jamie. I wish I had done that." Jamie didn't understand why this little discussion had caused Ryan's face to light up with delight. As the grinning woman surged ahead of her, singing a happy tune, she forgot the question entirely and just took in the view.

The first 15 miles of the day were problem free. The road was well paved, and they were both able to make good time. The first pit stop was at the Monterey Bay Academy, overlooking Sunset Beach and the stunningly beautiful Pacific Ocean. It was a memorable setting and caused Jamie to pull her tiny camera from her seat pack to take a few pictures.

"I've got to get a shot of this gorgeous vista," she said as she focused on her partner.

"Uh…Jamie, the ocean is that way," Ryan jerked her head in the correct direction.

"Ocean? What ocean? You're the only scenery I'm interested in," she said sincerely.

After the photo session, they enjoyed the view longer than they normally would have at the first stop of the day. Ryan even agreed to lie down and let Jamie work on her abdomen for a while, and she had to admit that she felt better. After forcing down two bottles of water, they took off again.

Pit stop two was also along the ocean, and they removed their helmets and let the breeze dry their hair as they rested on the ground. Ryan lay with her head on Jamie's lap while she worked her magic on her still tender tummy. After the stop they continued on Highway 1 for quite a while, and then cut inland through fields of flowers and artichokes. They were no more than a few miles from the ocean when it became obvious that early June in California farm country was pretty darn hot. They followed some little-used agricultural roads, riding smoothly until they reached their lunch stop.

They pulled into a very shady state park and got in line to pick up lunch. Ryan looked at Jamie and asked with a twinkle in her eye, "Are you really hungry?"

"Yes, I'm starved, Ryan. Go ask them for another lunch. I plan on eating all of mine," she said as she narrowed her eyes and placed her hands around her bag protectively.

"That's not why I asked, Jamie. There's a neat spot not too far from here where we could have a more private picnic, so I thought we could eat a little now and a little later."

"Don't you mean a lot now and a lot later in your case?" she teased.

They ate half of their lunch, but stayed until they could force enough fluids down before continuing. They had to manage a long, rather steep slope to climb into the Salinas Valley. It was slow going, but they both managed it well. When they reached the crest of the hill, they sped down it until they crossed a one-lane bridge. Ryan was in the lead, and she motioned for Jamie to pull over. They peeked over the edge to see about a dozen people in the Salinas River, skinny dipping.

"Uhh, Ryan?" she asked slowly.


"Is that where we're going?"


"It looks awfully cold," Jamie worried.

"How can you tell that from here?"

The smirk that greeted that question soon turned into a full out smile as Jamie teased, "You really don't know much about men, do you."

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

They walked their bikes down to join the other riders, then continued on foot for about forty yards until they came to a more protected little spot. Ryan yanked off her jersey and shorts, revealing a totally hot suit that made Jamie's mouth water. Her top was a Lycra sports bra in a brilliant white. The bottom, of navy blue Lycra, began just under her navel. From the front it had the appearance of a thong, as it was cut up very high on her legs. As Jamie slowly walked around to the back she saw with some regret that both cheeks were covered by the fabric. Only about an inch of material held the front and the back panels together at her waist, and Jamie spent a moment wondering how long it would take to chew through the barrier. "I take it you like my suit," Ryan said teasingly as she regarded Jamie's open-mouthed stare.

"I'd like it better if I could take it off you," came the sultry reply as she ran her hands over the firm abdomen.

"You are the randy little one, aren't you?" Ryan asked fondly.

"I...I guess I am," Jamie said, as her hands stilled immediately. "I never thought of myself that way, but it's practically all I think about when I'm with you," she admitted with a good bit of embarrassment.

"I think it's adorable," Ryan said soothingly as she wrapped her arms around her and gave her a firm squeeze. "Hey, I showed you mine, now show me yours," she taunted as she tried to remove Jamie's jersey.

"I don't have mine on yet. Give me a minute," she insisted as she pushed the darting hands away. "Turn around," she chided as Ryan tried to peek. When she had finished she declared, "All ready," and Ryan turned around to perform her own little staring ritual.

"Wow," was all that Ryan could get out, and even that one word was a little strangled. The suit was absolutely perfect for Jamie's body. It was made of a shimmery deep blue and emerald green material that almost looked metallic. The top was a skintight tank top with tiny little spaghetti straps, and it stopped just above her navel. The bottom, in the same fabric, covered her rather modestly except on the sides, where two tiny little ties were all that held the suit on her body.

"I have never," Ryan said in a whisper, "ever, wanted to pull a string as much as I do right now." Her hands roamed over the slick material, and her fingers paused on the little ties. Jamie removed the tempted digits and placed them firmly on her waist. Ryan gave her a brilliant smile as she said, "I had no idea I would benefit so personally when I offered to train you. I really should give you back every dime I took from you." She ran her hands up the tautly muscled abdomen, feeling each dip and curve with her thumbs. "I just can't believe how hot your body is," she said with admiration. "I knew you had the potential to look really good, but I didn't foresee this," she said as she continued to run her hands lightly all over the firm body.

Jamie wrapped her arms around Ryan's neck as they kissed tenderly for many long minutes. She finally pulled back as she asked, "Are we gonna swim or make out?"

"I guess we're gonna swim," Ryan replied glumly as she dropped her head to her chest. Jamie lifted her chin with two fingers to see the twinkling eyes as Ryan yelled, "Let's get wet!" and, throwing Jamie over her shoulder, jumped into the ice-cold river.

They both screamed in shock from the cold as they tried to catch their breath. When Jamie recovered she jumped onto Ryan's back, dragging her under the water. When she shot back up a second later, she sputtered and dove for her friend. The next few minutes were spent dunking each other and playing wildly in the cold water.

After they had burned off their excess energy, they took turns floating on their backs. Jamie had to support Ryan's effort since her body was too dense to float on its own. They lazed about in the water for a good half-hour before they regretfully decided they needed to get back on the road.

Ryan had brought her swimmer's towel and a set of underwear. She got dried off quickly and dressed, then she gave Jamie the towel as she went to collect the rest of their lunch. Jamie dressed in private, and when she emerged from the trees she saw Ryan sitting on the ground with a happy little smile on her face. "I'm gonna think about you in that suit all day long," she said slowly. "It's gonna be a long forty miles," she added as she shook her head.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

As predicted, the last forty miles were very hard. They fought a headwind most of the way, and by the time they arrived at camp they were both totally exhausted. They were too tired to even think of a shower, so they set up camp together and stripped to their underwear for a nap. Mere seconds passed before they were both soundly asleep.

After waking, they were relieved to find that the shower line was quite short since most people were at dinner already. They were clean and refreshed when they joined the crowd just before six p.m. Ryan went through the line first, and when Jamie finished she looked around to find her standing by a table full of people. "Hey, Honey," Ryan called out, waving to her to join her.

Balancing her heavy plate, she walked over to the group and stood patiently while Ryan made the introductions. There were twelve people at the table, an even mix of men and women. Jamie tried to catch all of the names, but her hunger was winning out over her politeness. "Can we join you?" she asked, sitting down before anyone had the chance to say no.

"Of course," a pleasant looking woman named Naomi said. "We were just telling Ryan how much we miss her at the "Y,"" she said.

"Y?" Jamie replied through a mouth full of food.

"I worked at the YMCA for a few years while I was in high school," Ryan said as she shoveled her own dinner into her mouth.

"Ryan got us all involved during the second ride," Naomi informed Jamie. "She dragged us all over the hills of the city. The ride was nothing compared to her training!"

"Don't I know it!" Jamie agreed wholeheartedly.

They spent the meal chatting about friends they had in common and the ride in general. Jamie was charmed to watch her partner in this setting, and she realized that she had never seen her around a group of people that she wasn't related to.

When Ryan was in public, or with people she didn't know well, she maintained a rather dignified air. She wasn't stuffy or remote; even with strangers, she invariably exhibited a polite interest. There was a definite distance that she obviously felt more comfortable with. With this group of former coworkers and training partners, she was just like she was at home-- funny, relaxed, outgoing and constantly teasing everyone at the table.

After they finished their spaghetti dinner, they took their leave to walk around the perimeter of the camp. They found a picnic table far away from the other campers, and they sat on the bench to chat. After a few minutes Jamie began to get cold, so Ryan sat on the table, scooting back as far as she could while Jamie snuggled between her legs.

She rested her head back against Ryan's shoulder and let out a heavy sigh. "This is bliss," she mumbled. "You know, I had no idea how it would feel to be with you 24 hours a day."

"And?" the deep voice rumbled behind her. "What's your verdict?"

"Twenty-four hours a day isn't nearly enough," she said decisively.

"Is that right?" Ryan drawled as she quickly leaned forward and kissed her partner on every inch of exposed skin she could get her lips on. Jamie giggled and squealed wildly, but stayed right where she was, determined to weather the pleasurable assault.

"YES!" she yelled as she jerked away from the ticklish torture. "I need more! Much, much more!"

"I do too," Ryan's now soft voice floated by her ear as she wrapped both of her strong arms around Jamie's waist and squeezed her tightly. "A lifetime with you isn't going to be nearly enough."

Jamie rested her head against Ryan's shoulder and languidly stretched for a moment. "I feel so good," she murmured.

"You're not stiff?" Ryan asked.

"Oh yeah! I'm stiff and my butt feels like it's pounded veal, but I'm so happy to be out here with you that none of that matters at all." Ryan's arms were still holding her firmly, and she spent a moment gazing at the muscular appendages. Tilting her head slightly to nestle more closely, she began to trace the protuberant muscles and tendons with the tip of her finger. A surreptitious grin crossed her lips as she felt her buff partner unconsciously tense the already firm muscles. Showoff, she laughed to herself. She secretly loved the fact that Ryan was proud of her hard earned muscles and liked to display them.

"Ryan?" she finally asked, breaking the peaceful silence.


"Do you mind if I want to talk about Jack's phone call?"

"Of course not, Honey," she said, even though she could have very happily lived the rest of her life without ever hearing that particular name again.

In fits and starts Jamie finally related the story of her former fiancé's call. It was hard for her to organize her thoughts, but she got it all out eventually. "Boy, that was a generous thing to do," Ryan said with genuine admiration. "I can see why you picked him, Jamie. He sounds like a really decent guy in many ways." She privately thought there were ways in which he was also a total jackass, but she didn't think this was the proper time to bring that up.

"He is, Ryan, and that's why I felt so guilty about how I treated him. He deserves someone who can really love him fully."

"Everyone deserves that, but not many get it," Ryan said sagely. "We're both very lucky in that way," she added with a winning grin that Jamie could just see a corner of.

"Would it bother you if I went to his graduation next Saturday?" Jamie asked with a note of hesitation in her voice.

"Bother me? Why would that bother me?" Ryan asked, truly perplexed.

'Well, it's our last day in Pebble Beach, and I hate to take time away from us," she admitted. "But I was with him all through law school, and I just feel it would help me get some closure on the relationship."

"I don't mind a bit, Jamie. I respect you for wanting to make a gesture like that. Losing one day is not that big a deal," she said as she gave her a gentle squeeze. "We do have the rest of our lives to spend together." I sure didn't do the math on that one, she grumbled to herself. I didn't realize she wanted to knock a day off our honeymoon! But now that she was committed she could hardly turn back.

Turning around more completely, Jamie pulled back just a few inches and stared directly into Ryan's eyes for several minutes. Ryan didn't say a word, although she felt like an impressionist painting as the perusal continued. "Sometimes I can't believe how generous you are," the smaller woman finally murmured. "You honestly amaze me."

As she leaned forward to offer a heartfelt kiss, Ryan thanked her mouth for having stayed shut at just the right time.

"You know," Jamie said reflectively, after they separated, "I wanted to ask you about your cousin and why the opening ceremonies affected you so strongly. Do you mind talking about it?"

"No, I don't mind," Ryan said softly. She was quiet for a long time, obviously gathering her thoughts. As her face clouded with long held pain, Jamie deeply regretted bringing up the topic, but it was too late to pull back now so she snuggled closer, trying to offer solace with her body. Ryan finally began, "As you know, my mother died when I was seven. The family found out about Michael's illness just a few months before her death, although we found out later that Michael had known for several months before he told anyone."

"He was afraid, huh?" Jamie asked solicitously.

"No, he wasn't. That's not how he was at all, Jamie. He was the most self-confident guy you'd ever want to meet. He knew his mother would be supportive and that his father would go ballistic, but he held off because my mother was so sick. He didn't want to add to the burden." A few tears rolled down Jamie's cheek and Ryan sniffed a few times. She kept her head so close to Jamie's that she could feel her words coming through her body.

"He finally had to tell because he had to be hospitalized. The adults didn't tell us at the time. They said he was going on vacation." She laughed bitterly at her own words. "I freaked out just because he was gone for a couple of weeks. When my mother was in her last months, either Aunt Maeve or Michael was at the house around the clock. He was twenty-one at the time, just starting his senior year at USF, and we all idolized him. He did whatever Da asked of him—babysitting for me and Rory, helping us with our homework, making a meal for us, anything," she said.

"Even though the adults knew, my brothers and I were clueless that he was ill. He had Kaposi's Sarcoma, and even though he had lesions, they were hidden under his clothes. As the year went on, it became clear that something was wrong—especially to me. Even though I was young, I had become hypersensitive to everyone's physical health. I watched over every person in the family, looking for signs that there was something wrong with them. A few months after my mother died, they told us he was going on vacation again, but I knew they were lying. I totally freaked! I can remember screaming at Da and Aunt Maeve, begging them to tell me the truth." She took in a few deep breaths, trying hard to maintain her composure. Jamie stayed as still as she could, knowing that revealing this pain was a very difficult thing for Ryan to do, and not wanting to break the moment.

"After a few minutes they looked at each other. I can still remember the look on Da's face when he told me that Michael was going into the hospital. I immediately jumped to the conclusion that he was dying, and I was inconsolable." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before she could continue.

"They kept telling me that he would come home and be all right, but I could tell from their eyes that they were lying." She paused for several lingering minutes, and Jamie thought she might stop talking, but she finally shuddered slightly and continued. "I think the hardest thing was that I stopped trusting the adults to tell me the truth. They hadn't told me he was ill, and I didn't trust them when they said he would get better." She gave a sad little smile as she added, "I guess I was right on that one."

Now Jamie couldn't help herself. She pulled away from Ryan's embrace and climbed onto the table, taking the position that her partner had just held. She sat up as tall as she could and clutched Ryan's head to her breast, gently kissing the top of her dark head. Ryan sucked up the affection like a sponge, and it seemed to help as she got her second wind and continued. "Anyway, he did recover from that bout of K.S., and he had a good year or so. He just began to fall apart, one piece at a time. Even after all this time, it still boggles my mind," she whispered. "It was like his body was decaying while he was still walking around. Like his brain was alive, but his body was already dead." She shook her head slowly as she tried to erase the images from her mind but, as usual, she was unsuccessful. "He lived for five years after his diagnosis, which was remarkable for that time; but he was truly unrecognizable for the last year. During his last months, he didn't even know any of us," she choked out as she began to cry. "It was so horrible, Jamie!" she cried in pain. "So horrible."

Jamie held on as tightly as she could, but Ryan was nearly limp with her grief. She ended up collapsed against her small partner's chest, great heaving sobs wracking her body. Jamie was gently rubbing her legs, giving her silent support.

To her surprise, when Ryan calmed a bit she continued with her tale. "Hearing those words when they brought in the riderless bike just took me back to that time," she whispered. She hugged Jamie's arms tighter around her body as she added, "I know that Da and Aunt Maeve thought they could spare us the pain of knowing about Michael, at least for a little while. I learned something very valuable through that experience. Kids know. They are very intuitive little beings, and hiding things from them just backfires. I hope I have the guts to be honest with my children even when difficult issues come up."

"Our children," Jamie gently reminded her as she kissed her tear-stained cheek. "Our children," she added for emphasis. "I feel the same way, Ryan," she vowed. "I would try my best to be honest with our children, even with painful issues."

"I'm not angry with Da for what he did," Ryan said. "I was only seven, and I had just lost my mother. He was having a heck of a time with me, anyway."

She sighed deeply, and Jamie couldn't resist the urge. "Why was he having trouble with you, Honey?"

"Jesus, Jamie," she muttered, blowing out a frustrated breath. "I was a little girl, and my mother had been desperately ill almost my whole life. Losing her and having Michael get sick sent me into a tailspin. I had to be attached to someone around the clock! Aunt Maeve had a dying son at home, but she nearly lived at our house. Aunt Moira came for almost a month, and it was another blow when she left. My other aunts helped out a lot, but they all had kids around our age so it was really hard for them, too. I just attached myself to Aunt Maeve. I couldn't sleep unless she sat on the edge of my bed and rubbed my head to comfort me. I know that it was hard for Da, but I just couldn't trust him to be there every night! It must have been so hard for him to know what to do with us. And he loved my mother so much, it had to be devastating for him to go on without her. I just can't imagine," she said softly as she started to cry against Jamie's shoulder.

After a while Ryan lifted her tear-streaked face and looked at Jamie with a forlorn expression, "It makes me think of losing you," she choked out as she began another round of sobs.

Jamie just patted her and spoke soothingly into her ear. She knew there were no words to assuage Ryan's sorrow, so she tried to comfort her with her mere presence. Ryan quieted down after a long while and sat up slowly to get the kinks out of her back. Turning to her partner, she delicately captured the tears on her face as she gazed up at Jamie with a look of pure love on her face. "Thanks for just letting me get that out. You're the only person outside of my family that I've ever let see that side of me." She dropped her head to Jamie's chest again as she added, "You just make me feel so safe." After a minute she picked her head up and stared at Jamie in wonder, "You made me feel like I felt when my mother held me!"

"Pardon?" she asked confusedly.

Ryan sat up abruptly, then got to her feet and started pacing. "That's it!" she said excitedly. "I get it! I really get it!"

"Get what?" Jamie asked, thoroughly confused. "What do you get?"

"The reason that I never let anyone get close enough to really love me!" she said excitedly. "I was afraid to let another woman make me feel that way!" she nearly shouted. "But I trusted you; I really trusted you! I knew you wouldn't hurt me, and I let myself feel that deep connection again with you. Thank you, Jamie. Thank you!" she said with an overwhelming sense of relief as she grasped her by the shoulders.

Jamie was dumbfounded. She knew how Ryan felt about her, but she had no idea what an important role her love for Ryan was serving. As she thought about it, she realized that it made perfect sense. Ryan could only love someone who she trusted to reach her in that dark, broken space. She wouldn't let most people try, because she was so afraid of being hurt by another loss. Only because she trusted Jamie implicitly, was she willing to risk being this vulnerable, and it was only through sharing her pain that she was able to let in the comfort that she so desperately needed.

Jamie felt so honored to be trusted so thoroughly that she was at a complete loss for words. Ryan had obviously used up all of her cogent thoughts also, because she just wrapped her arms around her and held on tight. They sat on the table top in a solid embrace for a very long while. It was fully dark when Ryan pulled back and gave her several small kisses, finally taking her hand and guiding her back to the tent where they snuggled tightly until morning.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Just like clockwork, Ryan's demanding bladder woke her up at two a.m. She lay there for a moment trying to get her bearings and to remember to put the light stick out. She searched around for a tampon and was just starting to crawl out of the tent when she stopped to look at her lover. Jamie was sound asleep with a look of quiet contentment on her face. Ryan thought of how much she loved the gentle, caring woman, and how she would do nearly anything for her. She smiled sweetly as she thought of how freeing it had been to talk about Michael so openly. I love you more than I can say, she thought with another fond gaze. But I'm not going to let you wake me up two minutes after I get back to sleep! Love has its limits! She gently woke her partner and said, "I'm going to the bathroom. Why don't you go with me?"

Jamie just nodded mutely and crawled out of the tent compliantly. Not bad, Ryan thought with satisfaction. Not bad at all.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter Eighteen

Jamie felt Ryan begin to stir as soon as their neighbors made a sound. Soft hands soothingly patted her back until she turned and grasped her partner tightly. "You have the sweetest ways of waking me up," she murmured into Ryan's ear as she snuggled up close.

"And you cuddle up to me so nicely," Ryan said as she rubbed her body all over, "that it makes me want to stay in bed all day."

"Have you always liked to cuddle?" Jamie asked softly, as she turned to gaze into Ryan's bright eyes.

"Yeah, I've been addicted to touch my whole life," she admitted. "How about you?"

"Well, I wasn't cuddled much as a child, and I had to be careful with Jack, so I suppose I'm just now developing my cuddling abilities."

"What do you mean when you say you had to be careful with Jack?" Ryan asked, unfamiliar with the rudiments of loving a man.

"Um…sure you want to talk about this?" Jamie asked, assuming that hearing about intimate matters with Jack might be hard for her partner.

"That depends," Ryan said, sitting up a little and bracing her head on her hand.

"On what?" Jamie asked, as she turned onto her side to mirror her lover's posture.

"On whether it bothers you to talk about it, of course," she replied with a sweet smile, as she trailed her fingers down Jamie's cheek.

"Oh…so only my opinion matters, huh? I don't think so, Sweet Cheeks," she insisted as she pinched one of the sweet pink cheeks at her disposal.

"Okay…" Ryan said as she flopped onto her back. "Here's the deal. I want to know everything about you. I want to know about every factor that has influenced, molded, pleased, dismayed, saddened or impressed you since the moment you slid from your mother's womb. Whether the topic is painful, or funny, it's important to me to know you intimately."

Jamie had moved over and was now leaning over Ryan's face. Placing a whisper soft kiss on her forehead, she said, "I feel the same way. If it happened to you—I'm fascinated."

Ryan sat up and gave her a kiss as they both assumed their earlier positions. Propping her head up again Ryan asked, "So…you were saying?"

"Right…well…okay, I remember where we were," Jamie recalled. "It's like this. If I rubbed up against Jack very much in the morning, he'd want to have sex. Well, actually," she blushed, "he wanted to have sex even if I didn't rub up against him much, so I learned to get out of bed quickly if I wasn't in the mood. Not like it is with you," Jamie whispered as she leaned in close. "Now I want to stay in bed all day, and this is probably the most uncomfortable bed we'll ever share!"

"Far be it from me to turn down sex in the morning, but it's not my peak time," Ryan informed her thoughtfully. "And even if it was my favorite time, I wouldn't want you to have sex just to please me. So you can rub up against me all you want."

"I don't think I'd mind having sex with you in the morning," Jamie whispered seductively into her ear as her hand began to stroke Ryan's back.

"Mmm," she sighed in response. "Maybe I am a morning person." She slid her hand under Jamie's t-shirt and began to rub her back in slow, delicate circles.

Jamie sat up abruptly, her eyes wide with alarm. "You'd better stop that right now, Ryan," she warned. "My back is a total erogenous zone."

Ryan gave her a delicate little kiss as she withdrew her hand. "That's good to know, but don't tell me any more of your erogenous zones. I want to find them all by myself…manually," she said with an evil grin. "So, what is your favorite time to get busy?" she asked, grabbing her gear.

"I'm not sure what my preference is," Jamie replied. "I've never really been the one controlling sex; I was usually the one responding. " She looked at Ryan quizzically, "What is your favorite time?"

"Every day at three o'clock in the afternoon, I'm ready to rock," she said decisively. "But I'm totally flexible. I'm sure I wouldn't have any trouble accommodating you at any time of the day or night," she added, as she kissed Jamie again and began to slide out of the tent. She indicated her shower supplies and asked, "Same deal as yesterday?" Jamie nodded her assent and began to organize their supplies while Ryan made for the showers.

The day was starting out cool, but they expected very warm weather later in the morning. After their usual breakfast, they headed out. They passed through King City, a neatly manicured little town in the middle of lush farmland. As they pedaled along, Ryan told Jamie about her third ride when the temperature had reached 117 going through this valley. "It was really brutal. A lot of people had to get picked up by a support vehicle and taken to the next campground. It was a very tough day for everyone. I don't think I've ever consumed so much fluid--I was drinking 20 ounces every fifteen minutes--and even with that, I passed two pit stops without having to pee."

"What are they predicting for temperatures today?"

"It'll still be hot, but it's not supposed to be much over 90," she replied with an encouraging smile.

"Goody," Jamie replied facetiously.

Ryan had warned her that they would face a major hill early in the day, and after about fifteen miles they encountered the beginning of the upward slope. They slowly began to climb a five-mile grade of between two and four per cent. They pumped along steadily, making good progress, but then the real hill began. It was two miles long and ranged from a six to an eight percent grade--a real thigh buster. Ryan stayed really close and encouraged Jamie all the way up. "You're doing good; not much farther; keep pumping; pull on your upstroke, that's it; you can do this, Jamie, come on!" she exhorted.

They made it to the top together, where the cheering crew greeted them. Music played loudly on boom boxes, and they noticed that a number of riders had joined the crew to encourage other riders up the hill. After the girls got their breath, they stayed for a while to cheer on those behind them. Jamie got her camera out and took a few pictures of the triumphant riders cresting the hill. When they got ready to leave, Ryan just wiggled one eyebrow as Jamie laughed and patted her on the back. "Go on, Speed Racer. I'll see you at the second pit stop."

Ryan took off, pedaling furiously, and was a blur in seconds. Jamie just shook her head as she watched her fly, and then prudently began her own descent, finding herself cruising down the five-mile drop at a fast 30 miles-per-hour.

The next pit stop was at an Army base, and the crew was dressed for the occasion in fatigues and other military paraphernalia. Jamie found Ryan lounging on the ground, eating a banana and drinking a large bottle of Gatorade. She was chatting with a woman who looked to be around thirty, a little stocky, but obviously very full of life. Ryan greeted her partner with a big smile as she patted the ground next to her. "Jamie, I'd like you to meet an old friend of mine. This is Karen Joncas." She draped her arm around Jamie as she said, "I did pretty well for myself, wouldn't you say?" She smiled smugly at her friend.

Karen regarded Jamie with a long look as she pointed at Ryan and said, "I never thought I'd meet the woman who could snag this one." She smiled broadly as she continued, "I'd say you both did pretty well for yourselves."

They chatted for a few minutes until Karen was ready to leave. "You two take care, now. You'd better double up on your vitamins, Jamie," she said with a laugh as she pedaled away.

Jamie raised one eyebrow and threw Ryan a mock glare. "And that was?"

" tentmate from the first ride?" Ryan replied sheepishly.

"Ryan, did you sleep with every person you shared a tent with?" she asked incredulously.

"Gee, Jamie, it gets cold out at night. You wouldn't want me to freeze would you?" she asked as she batted her blue eyes ingenuously.

"So does Karen think I'm just the girlfriend du AIDS Ride 6?" she asked with a sharper tone than she intended.

"No. She thinks you're the woman I love," Ryan replied, sliding closer. "She thinks you're the woman I'm going to be with for the rest of my life." Her arms wrapped around Jamie's torso as she nibbled on her neck. "She thinks you're the last woman I'll ever do this with," she said reverently, kissing her deeply.

"Oh...well...that's better," Jamie murmured, now completely placated.

Ryan nuzzled her ear for a few seconds as she whispered, "Did you see me fly down that hill?" Jamie's response was limited to a nod as Ryan took her breath away with a dizzying series of kisses. "I was going 42 miles an hour," she breathed right into her ear. "Doesn't speed make you hot?"

Jamie pulled back a bit as she tried to focus her blurred vision. "You make me hot at any speed," she replied with a sultry little grin. "But unless you want to give these guys a real show, you'd better calm down, Tiger."

Ryan agreed to cool off as they sat back to watch the crew do a competent rendition of "In the Army," a takeoff on The Village People. As they prepared to leave, Jamie indicated that she was feeling a little tender on the insides of her thighs and Ryan generously offered to get some butt balm for her from the medical trailer. She accepted the offer and waited in line for an available privacy tent to apply the ointment. Ryan gallantly offered to help with the application, but Jamie just laughed at her and gave her a little kiss.

When they were back on the relatively flat road, they had the opportunity to ride side by side for a while. "Karen didn't look like your usual type, Ryan," Jamie said reflectively.

"Oh? And what, may I ask, is my usual type?" Ryan asked with a chuckle.

"Well, most of the women I've seen you with are young, and hot, and really cute," she said thoughtfully.

Ryan gave her a beaming smile. "My, aren't we stuck on ourselves?" she laughed.

"I don't mean me, I mean the other women I've seen you with," she protested defensively, a bit embarrassed.

"In your case, I'd say young, hot and gorgeous is more apt," Ryan said with a twinkle in her eye. "But I honestly don't really have a preference for a particular physical type. I'm much more attracted to energy than looks. And Karen has great energy. She and I actually became pretty good friends, but she moved to Sacramento, so I don't get to see her often."

"But why is every woman I've seen you with young, hot and cute?" Jamie persisted.

"Well, given my dating history, first impressions were fairly important," Ryan admitted. "I'm a sucker for a pretty face, too, but I've been with many women who would not be called attractive in the traditional sense. The best-looking woman in the world wouldn't attract me if she was listless or lethargic."

"So, do you like me because I'm peppy?" Jamie inquired.

"You are the total package, Jamie. Brains, energy, looks, sense of humor, and most of all," she said over her shoulder as she picked up speed, "lots of dough!"

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jamie really had to pound it to catch her mischievous partner, but she finally tracked her down about four miles outside of the lunch stop. The blacktop of Highway 101 was beginning to heat up, and the temperature was rising quickly. Ryan had shed her jacket and Jamie had to consciously slow her heart down when she saw her in her new sleeveless jersey. It was a bright orange with vivid yellow designs that looked like little whirlpools. It flared just a bit where it skimmed the waistband of her shorts, accentuating her thin waist. Jamie intentionally lagged a bit to watch her muscles move as she pedaled up a slight incline. In addition to her recent discovery that she was most definitely a breast woman, Jamie had been surprised to discover that she was a back woman as well, and, luckily for her, Ryan had the nicest back she had ever seen. Every one of the muscles was fully developed and they popped out when they were under stress. But even with the impressive musculature, the back was not at all bulky looking; it was sleek, and firm, and taut when stressed, but when relaxed it felt smooth and soft. Jamie thought that it was Ryan's best feature, but she decided that she should reserve judgment until she had seen all of the assets properly displayed. She started to let her mind wander to their upcoming honeymoon, but her reverie was interrupted by the lunch pit stop.

They were pleased beyond words to have the crew misting them with cool water as they pulled in for their meal. Ryan spotted a man she knew, and took Jamie over to say hi. She greeted him warmly and introduced Jamie. "Jason, I want you to meet my partner, Jamie." She went on to explain that she had met Jason and his lover, Eric, when they were part of her training group for AIDS Ride 4. She looked around as she asked, "Where is Eric?"

"He's riding solo this morning. He should be along soon, though. Have a seat and join us for lunch," he offered.

Ryan looked a little confused, but she sat down and waited for further explanation. Just then a woman approached, holding her lunch bag in one hand. Her other hand was encased in a substantial cast. "Ryan, Jamie, this is Ellen. She's riding with me this morning, and Eric is on her bike."

Ryan looked at her wrist with a questioning glance and Ellen explained, "I took a tumble yesterday and landed right on my wrist. I fractured it, but the medical team got it casted for me. It didn't feel too bad today, so the crew helped me find all the tandem riders, and they all agreed to let me take a shift on the back where I don't have to use my wrist. Jason took the first shift; I think it went pretty well. What did you think Jason?"

"I think I'm going to trade you for Eric permanently," he laughed. "You pedal just as hard, but you're a lot lighter."

They enjoyed their lunch together, exchanging stories of the ride and little things they had seen. Jamie snapped a few pictures as they prepared to leave, then they rode through the cool mist one last time.

It was quite warm now, and as they went up a small hill, Ryan unzipped her jersey. The deep zipper stopped just above her navel and it clearly exposed her yellow sports bra to Jamie's very interested eyes. The vision of the dark woman straining as she pedaled up the hill, sweat flying from her body, and all of that luscious, exposed, tanned skin was almost too much for Jamie's heart to take. She forced herself to take the lead for the first time all day, just to regain her focus.

As they pulled into pit stop four Jamie noticed a man pulling a little child carrier, just like Caitlin's. "Ryan, can you bring a child on this ride?" she asked, rather dumbfounded.

"No, he's not carrying a child, Jamie. He pulls that empty carrier as a memorial to all of the children who've died of AIDS. See the little 'Positive Pedaler' flag on the back of the carrier?" she asked, indicating the flag that some people with AIDS displayed.

"Oh, Ryan, that's so sad," Jamie said, her eyes welling up with tears.

Ryan just slipped her arms around her and held her for a few minutes. "So much loss," she said quietly as she shook her head.

After their stop they rode in reflective silence until they reached the last stop of the day, Mission San Miguel Archangel. Located just twelve miles out of camp, this beautiful 200-year-old church had been beautifully restored and lovingly maintained by the Franciscan Friars. The friars had generously offered their grounds for the pit stop and had even set out hoses for riders who wanted to cool down. After they sat in the shade for a while, forcing fluids, Ryan said that she needed some time to go into the church. She didn't ask Jamie to accompany her, so the blonde remained outside to stretch her back on the shady ground. After a good fifteen minutes had passed, Jamie went in to the gift shop to buy some postcards. She peeked into the church and saw Ryan, deep in thought, sitting on a chair in front of an imposing statue. It dawned on Jamie that it must be a statue of St. Michael, and that Ryan's late cousin must have been named after him. She paid for her cards and went back outside, leaving Ryan to her prayers. After another 15 minutes, she went inside to check on her partner.

Ryan was in the exact position she had been in earlier. She was sitting in a straight-backed chair that she had pulled up in front of a very large marble representation of a battle-clad-angel who held a massive sword against the neck of the groveling devil that was curled up at his feet. She was leaning forward, with her torso braced by her elbows, which rested on her thighs. Head slightly bowed, eyes closed. Moving to her side, Jamie gently placed her hand on Ryan's dark head and pulled it against her hip. Ryan nuzzled against her, indicating her acceptance of the touch. "Mind if I join you?" the smaller woman asked softly.

"Please," Ryan nodded, opening her eyes to gaze at her partner.

"Feel like talking?"

Her bottom lip stuck out for a moment as she considered her answer. A short nod followed and even though that wasn't a rousing 'yes,' it was enough to assure Jamie that she wasn't interfering.

"I was just thinking how ironic it was," Ryan said as she turned her gaze back to the statue.

"How ironic what was, Honey?"

"How ironic it is that I feel his spirit so strongly here," she related after a moment. Turning to Jamie she explained, "He was no fan of the Church."


"Really," Ryan said clearly, smiling a little at her memories. "I was still a kid when he died, but I recall him talking about it quite a lot—especially in his last year."

"What did he say?" Jamie asked, wanting to share some of Ryan's memories.

"I think he held back a little with me, to tell you the truth," she recalled. "I was still in choir and I was an acolyte so I was really connected, and I think he was afraid of harming my relationship with the Church.

His father, my Uncle Charlie, couldn't come to terms with Michael's sexual orientation. They fought—a lot—and it made the whole situation so much worse. My uncle was very old school about religion. He had been taught that homosexuality was a sin and he was not going to let Michael die without doing his best to get him to repent. But Michael didn't buy into that at all. After a particularly nasty fight one afternoon, he looked at me and said, 'Ryan, I always want you to remember that God loves you just the way he made you.'"

"That's sweet," Jamie said. "Do you think he knew…about you?"

"Oh yeah," she laughed. "He never said anything, of course, but I was a baby dyke from the time I was in diapers. Anybody who was sensitive to gay kids would have known. But he said something else that day. He said, 'God is with you everywhere, Ryan, although he seems to be mysteriously absent in the Catholic Church.' "

"Hmm," Jamie mused. "Do you think he grew disenchanted with the Church when he discovered he was gay?"

"No, I think it was before that. Actually, I'm sure of it," she related. "He was a very bright guy, very much into philosophy and theology. Theology was actually his major in college. He kept a journal from the time he was 16 or so, and a couple of years ago Aunt Maeve let me read them. Wow," she said with a laugh. "He was more than a little disenchanted, but it got worse when he came out, and much worse when he contracted AIDS. He thought the Church was a willing participant in the genocide of gay men worldwide because of its rigid stance against using condoms. Plus he was angry with the Church for refusing to ordain women, not allowing birth control, and a dozen other issues."

"That does sound like he was more than a little disenchanted," Jamie laughed softly. "Did his feelings influence you?"

"No, not at the time," she mused. "I needed the security of the Church at that point in my life. And Michael was usually very gentle in his criticism around me. By the time I read his journals, I had reached my own conclusions," she smiled. "My feelings now closely follow his, but I still enjoy going to Mass. I just look at it in a different light now."

"Tell me how you look at it?" she asked, intensely curious.

Ryan grew pensive for a few minutes. When she spoke again she turned to Jamie and related, "Now I view going to church as a chance to be with other people who are seeking some spiritual answers. I like singing the songs, and the prayers are nice too. It makes me feel very connected to our ancestors," she mused. "I sometimes get an image of prehistoric man, trying to make some sense out of his life, looking to the stars or the moon or whatever it was that they worshiped. I don't think we've made much progress from that point, to tell you the truth," she laughed. "But it's somehow reassuring to be with other people who are trying to answer some of their own existential questions."

"So you don't feel like a Catholic?" she asked.

"I would have to say that I believe about one percent of what the Church considers dogma, so I'm sure the Church doesn't consider me Catholic," she explained. "But it is the faith of dozens of generations of O'Flahertys and Ryans, so I feel culturally Catholic."

"Did you make that term up?" she asked as she patted Ryan's leg.

"Probably," she admitted. "Some people refer to 'Cafeteria Catholics' as the people who pick and choose which parts of the faith they believe. But I believe so few of them that I'm basically fasting!"

"But it doesn't bother you to go to Church, given how you feel about it?"

"No, not really. I actually enjoy myself most of the time. It feels very familiar and usually quite reassuring. I like to recall my childhood, when I believed every word. It was a very peaceful feeling, and going to Mass sometimes lets me recapture that."

"I want to go with you sometime," she offered.

"I'd love to take you," Ryan stated as she gave her a very generous hug. "Thanks for coming to get me." A shy grin crossed her face as she squeezed Jamie's thigh. "It helped."

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

After the stop Ryan seemed in a much lighter mood, and they tossed teasing comments back and forth as they rode the last 12 miles. Jamie would occasionally try to zoom ahead, putting on as much speed as she could generate. Of course Ryan could easily best her, no matter how concerted her efforts. But the effort was always worthwhile when Ryan passed her, pedaling furiously, her muscled rear high off the seat, twitching with effort. Mmmm, maybe that's my favorite body part, Jamie thought as Ryan blew past one more time.

They pulled into the Mid-State Fairgrounds in Paso Robles just before two p.m. This was considerably earlier than they had finished the previous two days, and they decided to shower and nap before dinner. Jamie showered first, as had become custom, while Ryan set up camp. After her shower, Ryan slipped on a white tank top and a pair of vivid blue print running shorts. When she returned to the tent she tried to quietly crawl in to join her lover, whom Ryan expected to be sound asleep. She was a little surprised, but enormously pleased, to find her wide awake, wearing only a light blue cotton tank top and matching panties. She was lying on her side, her elbow firmly planted, her head resting on her open hand. "Hi," she said in a sultry tone as she wiggled one eyebrow.

Ryan was a bit taken aback, but she rallied quickly, assuming a similar tone. "Hi, yourself. You look like something's on your mind, " she said as she crawled up right next to her partner, mirroring her pose.

"Something is," Jamie replied with a small nod and a gentle smile. "Wanna guess what it is?" she asked as she started to trace light patterns on Ryan's arm.

"I think I have a pretty good idea," Ryan purred as she closed her eyes to soak in the sensation.

"Tell me," Jamie teased as she continued to play with Ryan's sensitized skin.

"I think you want to move our honeymoon up a few days," Ryan finally replied, as she shivered involuntarily at the delicate touch.

That response seemed to jolt Jamie back into reality. She shook her head a little as she moaned, "God, Ryan I don't know what I want! I mean, I know what I want, and I really want it now. I really, really want it now. I...I...I've just never felt like this. Sleeping with you at night and waking up in your arms just makes me want to touch you...everywhere," she said shyly. "I think about it all day long," she groaned as Ryan moved closer and cradled her in her arms.

"Shhhh, it's okay, Jamie. It's okay," she said soothingly, as she lightly patted her back.

"I just feel so confused," she mumbled into Ryan's chest. As she pulled her head back, she added sternly, "And you're not helping matters in that tiny little outfit." As she ran her hands up and down Ryan's back she moaned again in frustration. "No underwear, either?!"

"I thought we were going to sleep," she replied innocently. "Would you like me to put some more clothes on?"

"No," she muttered, "you're a total hottie no matter what you're wearing."

"Um...I'm sorry?" Ryan teased.

Jamie looked at her seriously and finally asked, "Can you help me figure out what I want?"

"I think I can," she replied confidently. "Let's go back to when you decided you wanted to wait until our vacation. Why did you want to wait?"

Jamie looked a little embarrassed, but she gamely replied, "I know it's kind of silly. But I've built this up in my mind, and I really want it to be special. Does that make any sense to you?" she asked timidly.

"Of course it does," Ryan said reassuringly. "This means a lot to me too, Jamie. I want to look back and remember our first time together for the rest of my life."

"So you don't think I'm just being silly about this?"

"Not at all," she said vehemently. "I want this to be an experience that will be burned into your memory."

"But what do you want, Ryan? I feel that all of our discussions about sex focus on my needs."

"To be honest, when you first told me of your feelings I was worried that it would be too hard for me to wait. I mean, I had been with Tracy for three months by then, and I was really getting twitchy," she gave a little embarrassed chuckle. "But I think waiting has really been good for me. With Tracy I wasn't sure of my feelings, so I was pulled in both directions. But with you, I'm absolutely certain that you're the woman for me." She sat up to better organize her thoughts. "This might sound weird, but it's been a little like Lent for me." Jamie gave her a quizzical grin, encouraging her to go on. "During Lent you deny yourself some things that you like, and you really try to focus on the important lessons of the season. With you, I've had to deny myself some things I really, really like." Here she laughed a bit. "But that self-denial has made me focus on my feelings for you outside of the sexual arena. I know that I'm more in love with you than I was in March. And I really think that keeping our relationship less sexual has helped those feelings blossom." Now she leaned in and wrapped her arms around Jamie again as she whispered right into her ear. "Even though I want you with a passion that I've never felt for another human soul, I'm glad we waited."

"So, you agree that making love in a tiny tent in the middle of three thousand people isn't the most memorable setting?"

"It might be memorable," she grinned. "But I want the memories to be ours alone. I don't want our neighbors to remember our first time as well as I do."

"Well, you do have a point there," Jamie said as she listened to the people come and go in the surrounding tents. "Besides," she teased, "I'm kind of proud of being your first tent-mate on the AIDS Ride to resist your charms."

"Okay, you've got me there," she agreed happily. "Now can we take that nap?"

As they snuggled up together, Jamie abruptly sat up and asked, "You had sex with every other tentmate on the ride. Didn't people hear you?"

"Oh yeah," she said with a chuckle. "I always tried to wait until it was quiet, but I'll admit that I got a lot of knowing looks from my tent neighbors."

"But you don't want to do that with me?" she asked.

"No, definitely not," Ryan said firmly. "It was just sex with those women, and having people hear us was no big thing. Actually," she said with a rakish grin, "since my neighbors were usually guys, it was kind of a competition. I was just doing my part to show that lesbians like sex too!"

"That might be fun next year after we need a little spice," she said with a chuckle. "But right now I agree that some nice quiet romance is in order."

"Romance it is," she said with a few delicate nibbles of Jamie's tender neck. "But until then how about a nice quiet orgasm?"

"Not a bad idea," Jamie said, after a moment's thought. "Give me fifteen," she demanded, jerking her thumb in the direction of the tent opening.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

After her forced exile, Ryan crawled back in and snuggled up behind her physically satiated lover. When they awoke an hour later, Jamie was half sprawled across Ryan, with her thigh wedged between the long, muscular legs. Her right hand had strayed up under the white tank top, resting on her rib cage, just below a tempting breast. They laughed a bit at their position as Jamie said, "My subconscious has a mind of its own."

"I think I'm gonna like your subconscious," Ryan whispered in a sultry tone as she leaned in for a kiss.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

They were already waiting in line when dinner was served. Ryan was jiggling her foot and generally looking anxious for some minutes when the line began to move.

"Hey, are you okay?" Jamie asked.

"Yeah, I'm just really hungry. I normally eat a bigger lunch than we get here, and it's starting to catch up with me, I guess."

"Why don't you go back for seconds at lunch?"

"It's kind of a delicate balance. I need to get enough fuel, but if I eat what I normally do, I'd feel too heavy. So I just try to make sure I'm getting enough calories, even if I still feel hungry."

"You look like you've lost a couple of pounds," Jamie said as she ran her hand up Ryan's tummy. "Try to make sure you get enough tonight, okay? It's early enough so you'll have digested it before we go to sleep."

"I'll do my best," she happily agreed.

After Ryan had tucked away more chicken burritos, rice, beans and salad than Jamie thought possible, they went for another stroll around the campgrounds. They stopped by a group of UPS drivers who were still handing out gear bags to riders who had come in late. Jamie asked, "Are they volunteers, too?"

"Yep. Not only are all of the drivers volunteers, they take their personal vacation to do this. UPS donates the trucks, which is no small thing, but the drivers really make this ride happen. They cart all of the food and water to all the pit stops, and they transport all of the gear from site to site. It's really a remarkable contribution."

They continued on their little stroll, meeting a few of Ryan's old friends in the process. When they were at the farthest point of the campground, they found a quiet spot and grabbed a picnic table. "I really like how you introduce me as your 'partner'," Jamie said as she cuddled up against her partner's warm side.

"Well, since you're my first real significant other, I had to think about your title," she admitted. "Lover is way too one dimensional. Girlfriend doesn't sound serious or permanent enough. That left me with partner, mate, wife and spouse." She pursed her lips and cocked her head a little as she continued. "I kind of like spouse, and I really like mate. But they both seem more appropriate if we had a public commitment to each other. So partner seemed the best term for us right now. What do you think?" she asked.

"I think it is so sweet that you spend time thinking about things like this so carefully," Jamie replied as she wrapped her arms around Ryan's neck and kissed her soundly.

"I looked them all up in the dictionary," the grinning woman added with a hopeful little eyebrow wiggle.

"Then you clearly deserve more kisses," Jamie replied solemnly. When she was finished bestowing the reward, she asked, "Would you like to have a public commitment ceremony?"

"Absolutely," Ryan said decisively, clearly having given the issue some thought. "I'd like to tell every person I've ever known how much you mean to me." She placed a few sweet kisses upon her partner's lips as she added, "When we get back I'm going to write a long letter to my very traditional grandparents to tell them the good news."

"Do they know you're gay?" Jamie asked, realizing that Ryan rarely spoke of her Irish relatives.

"We've never formally discussed it, but I think my Aunt Moira may have indicated that I was. Neither of them has ever asked me a question about who I'm dating or if I'm going to get married, so they must know something, since my granny is always on the boys about it."

"How old are they?"

"My grandmother is 80 this year, and my grandfather is 85. They still live in the little town where my great-great-great grandfather was born. They're not very wise to the ways of the world, but my grandmother knows people. So I don't think they'll be overjoyed, but I think they'll come to accept it. My Aunt is very cool about it and all of my cousins know, so my grandparents can vent to them if it really bothers them."

"When did you see them last?"

"My Aunt and my cousin Aisling were here just last summer—about a month before you and I met. But my grandparents won't leave County Mayo for love nor money, so I last saw them two summers ago. I try to save up to go at least that often since they're getting up in years."

"So you should go this summer, huh?"

"Yeah, ideally I would, but I think I'm going to be terribly busy with a little blonde I know."

"Likewise, I'm sure," she said with a grin. "Did you go to Ireland often when you were young?"

"Yeah, I did. After my mother died, Da had a heck of a time keeping track of me during summer vacation. He enrolled me in every kind of sport, and gave me every kind of lesson to keep me busy, but summers were always hard for him. I always had too much time on my little hands, and I was always in some sort of trouble. So he would send me to my grandmother for anywhere from one to three months. I think he did it partly to give Brendan a break, actually," she laughed at the memory of her brother tracking her down all over the city.

"Wasn't it hard for you to leave your father for that long?" remembering how hard it was for her partner to say goodbye to Rory.

"Yeah," she reflected. "The first time I went was the summer after my mother died. That was tough, but Brendan went with me, which helped a lot."

"Wasn't there any other option?" she asked timidly, hating the thought of her tiny partner being sent away so soon after such trauma.

"Oh, don't get me wrong, Jamie, I wanted to go," she said quickly. "It was my idea. My Aunt Moira was here a lot during my mother's last year, and I grew very close to her. And my cousin Aisling is my age, and it was cool to be around my only female cousin for a whole summer. Plus I think there was a bit of me that craved to be in my mother's country, in her childhood home, with her family. It made me feel closer to her somehow," she said with a small voice.

"I'm glad you could go," Jamie said softly as she draped an arm around her back. "But what did you do all summer?"

"Oh, lots of stuff. That first summer, both Brendan and I were pretty depressed. We spent a lot of time going through our mother's things that my grandmother had saved. It was sad in a way, but it let Brendan and me get closer. My mother was buried in the small church cemetery, and I made Brendan walk me down there every day, just to talk to her. My grandmother didn't like it, and she tried to dissuade us, but you know how determined I get," she said with a wry chuckle.

"That I do," she said fondly as she patted Ryan's back. "So what about subsequent years?"

"Well, Brendan was in high school the next summer, and he didn't want to go. Rory didn't want to miss a summer of music lessons, and Conor never had much interest in the small town life, so I went alone."

"God, you were only eight!"

"Yep. The plane ride was kinda scary, especially since I had to change planes in New York," she said with wide eyes.

"I thought they had rules about little kids flying alone!"

"Oh they do, but I looked twelve when I was eight and they didn't require I.D.," she said lightly. "The flight attendants kind of took to me, and they made sure I was okay. I had an escort to the connecting flight, so it was safe and everything."

"Jeez, that still must have been freaky!"

"Yeah, it was, but it taught me that you had to make some sacrifices to get what you want. I wanted to go, and I had to put up with some scary things to get there. I really have to hand it to Da for letting me go. It must have been hard for him, but I really wanted it, and he let me."

"So did you just play with your cousins all summer?"

"Ha! I wish! No such luck when my grandmother's in charge. I had to take Irish lessons every morning at the National school. Aisling took them with me, so it wasn't too bad, but those masters would not put up with any nonsense! The schoolmasters in Killala closely follow the 'children should be seen and not heard' dictum. Then we had to take Irish dance lessons three afternoons a week until we were in high school!"

"Irish dance?"

"Yep. Aisling would never have done that on her own, but Granny force-fed me Irish culture the whole time I was there. She always said she had to make sure I didn't turn into a heathen, which in her view, is anyone from outside County Mayo!"

"God, school every day! Did you have any fun?"

"Yeah, I got to play lots of sports. The competition was much better in soccer than I got here, so it really helped me as a player. Plus I got to play Irish football, which is kinda like soccer but you can use your hands. And when I was a little older, Aisling and I joined a hurling team, and that helped me with a lot of skills. I'd say that most of my skills as an athlete came from my time in Ireland," she reflected. "But it took months to get rid of my accent every year. I sounded like an immigrant until Christmas!"

"I bet your family was wild to have you back," Jamie said fondly.

"Oh, they were glad to have me back—for about a week," she laughed. "I ran them all pretty ragged, to tell you the truth."

"You really must have been a terror, Ryan," she said lovingly. "I can't imagine you with the energy of a little kid."

"It was frightening. Luckily, Da didn't think there was anything wrong with me. One of my teachers tried to convince him that I needed medication for my hyperactivity, but he told her I was just very high spirited, thank you very much."

"Good for him," Jamie said decisively.

"When I was ten, I switched from staying with my grandparents to staying with my Aunt. The last extended time I spent there was right after the debacle with Sara. I went for the whole summer that year, and believe me, I was a mess. I didn't have the guts to tell my aunt then, but I finally told her what had happened and she was totally great about it. She's been very supportive ever since. I know you'll like her," she said confidently.

"I like everyone who loves you, Ryan. That's the litmus test," she replied firmly.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

They walked back to the main stage to watch the evening's entertainment, settling down to watch as a very funny comic amused the crowd. Ryan was leaning back on her hands, and Jamie was nestled between her open legs with her head resting on her abdomen. Finally, she turned around and ordered, "Don't laugh so much, you're making me seasick."

Ryan put her index finger up to her lips, dramatically making the sign for quiet. But she was unable to keep her promise, and Jamie finally got up and sat next to her. After a minute she said, "Need more contact," and she scooted over behind Ryan to wrap her legs around her. Ryan leaned back against her chest, completely content, while Jamie slid her arms around her torso and leaned over to whisper, "Perfect."

Since everyone was already laughing non-stop, Jamie leaned over and began to tickle Ryan unmercifully. She had finally found two very sensitive spots on each side, about halfway between her waist and her armpits. Ryan writhed on the ground, trying to keep from screaming over the comedian, and Jamie finally relented. Ryan quickly got her revenge by stooping down and flinging her giggling partner over her shoulder, carrying her like a sack of potatoes over to the Porta-Potties for their last pit stop of the evening. Unbeknownst to them, every move they made was watched by a pair of very angry dark brown eyes.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter Nineteen

Just before dawn Ryan blinked her eyes open to the delightful sensation of being almost completely covered by Jamie's sleeping body. As she lay on her back, she reached down to run her fingers through the soft blonde hair that tickled her chin. Somehow, Jamie had wound up nestled between Ryan's spread legs, lying mostly on her side. The blonde head was resting on one plump breast, and her hand covered the other. Her hand twitched periodically, providing a nice gentle sensation that helped ease Ryan to full awareness. She softly stroked the golden head as she felt her begin to stir.

Jamie shivered and stretched as she slowly woke, looking up finally with a sly little grin on her sleep-creased face. "Do you think we make love while we sleep?"

"I think it's a distinct possibility," Ryan replied in her slightly raspy morning voice. "We do wake up in some pretty compromising positions."

"God! I wake up horny, I ride all day horny, I go to sleep horny. Then we roll around all night like bunnies, and I'm asleep! I miss all the fun!"

"Maybe this is the lesbian equivalent to wet-dreams, like we just have to let off some steam, so we touch while we're asleep."

"Speaking of dreams," Jamie said shyly, "have I told you about the dream I had on my birthday?"

"No, I don't remember you telling me about a dream that day."

"Oh, I wouldn't have told you then," she said with a blush.

" of those kinds of dreams," Ryan mused as she nodded her head. "Do you want to tell me about it now?"

"Um...I don't think telling you about it in detail is a very good idea. I think I'd be too tempted to act it out," she admitted with a shy little glance up at Ryan. "Suffice it to say that it was the most erotic, sensual dream I had ever had in my life, and you, my love, were the featured player."

"How did you explain that to yourself? I mean, didn't it bother you that you were dreaming about a woman like that?"

"I have excellent powers of denial," she replied proudly. "I just convinced myself that seeing all the other women at the bar flirt with you put the idea in my mind. But I do remember feeling bad that I'd never gotten that hot with Jack." She looked up at Ryan with a crooked grin, "Do you think I had enough clues?"

"I think your mind just processes what it can handle, a little at a time. I really think it's a good thing that you can be in denial a little bit. It makes things less overwhelming for you."

"Speaking of overwhelming, we've got 95 miles to do today, so we'd better get shakin'," she said as she gingerly extricated herself from Ryan's body.

Ryan hopped up and started to get her gear ready. As she exited the tent, she looked over her shoulder with a sexy little smirk. "Don't forget your swim suit today. You might need it."

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

They were both feeling pretty good and the first few miles were quick ones. The initially flat terrain quickly became a long succession of hills and mountains, all leading to the coast. After the first pit stop they turned onto Old Country Road. They rode up and down some quick little hills, but Jamie was surprised by the three-and-a-half-mile, very sharp, very steep downhill that ended in a treacherous hairpin curve. Even Ryan took her time on this one, keeping her speed under control, staying just in front of her lover. As they leveled out they passed the Whale Rock Reservoir. They hopped off their bikes and spent a few minutes just enjoying the magnificent view. Jamie asked another rider to take their picture, and she carefully posed Ryan sitting on top of one of the rocks, then climbed up and sat between her legs. Ryan draped her arms around her neck, and leaned forward so their cheeks brushed as they smiled for the camera.

A short time later they came to another steep hill. They fought their way up and were rewarded with the pit stop being at the top of the hill for a change. Every day the crew at pit stop two had a different theme. Today's was White Trash Trailer Park. Everyone was cross-dressed in truly tacky clothes, with cigarettes dangling from overly made up mouths.

After the stop they reached the largest of the morning hills. They climbed steadily and were greeted at the top by Scott, a famous AIDS Ride cheerleader. He had made a large sign that read, "Halfway To L.A." which he hoisted up every time a rider crested the hill. Jamie got out her camera and took a picture of Ryan standing next to Scott with the glistening blue Pacific in the background.

After another hilly 12 miles, they came to the lunch stop. It was located in the parking lot of a typical mini-mall. The grocery chain located there had provided fruit and other snacks as a generous donation, but the most amazing thing to Jamie was the large number of local residents who had come out just to greet them. Three little girls walked around shyly with plates of home made cookies for the riders. Their mother watched from a distance as the girls were fussed over by everyone they encountered. Ryan, of course, got down on her haunches and spoke to each of the girls, asking them how old they were and thanking them for their gifts. Jamie snapped a picture while Ryan wasn't looking, thinking that her little gesture captured her personality perfectly. As Ryan stood, a woman approached her, reached into her purse and handed her a wad of bills. Ryan's mouth dropped open as the woman said, "It's all I have, but you people are worth every dime," and she leaned over and gave Ryan a kiss on the cheek.

Ryan turned to Jamie, her mouth still open, and a stunned look on her face. Jamie helped her organize the money, and they found the crew chief to ask her to hold the donation until they could give it to the ride staff later at camp.

Ryan was still a bit dumbfounded by this unexpected gesture, and as they ate their lunch she said, "One thing this ride does for me every year is that it lets me store little things like that in my memory. When people are jerks or worse during the year, I pull one of these little events out and think about it. It always makes me feel better, and it reminds me that most people really are nice."

"I'm going to have a nice surplus of sweet memories, too," Jamie readily agreed.

Leaving lunch they headed back inland to San Luis Obispo, a lovely little town that Ryan sometimes stopped in for a break. But this year she had other ideas in mind. After leaving S.L.O. they headed back to the ocean, but the typical cool breeze was absent this calm day. It was beginning to warm up, and as they reached the outskirts of town, Ryan asked over her shoulder, "Would you like a little break?"

Jamie knew that all of Ryan's breaks included some form of pleasure, so she happily agreed. To her eternal satisfaction, this stop proved to be far more pleasurable than most. They exited onto Avila Beach Drive and rode for just a few blocks before Ryan signaled and turned into the Sycamore Mineral Springs Spa and Resort. Jamie's eyes anticipatorily widened in pleasure as she gamely followed her partner. She pulled alongside and grinned up at her, saying, "Have I ever told you that you have the best ideas on earth?"

"I don't believe you have," Ryan mused. "But I guarantee that this will be one of the best hours of your life." She bent and kissed the tip of her nose, adding a happy grin as she asked Jamie to hold her bike while she went inside.

Curiosity got the best of the smaller woman, and she quickly secured the bikes and walked into the office after her partner. Ryan was deep in negotiations when she sidled up next to her. "A view is nice," the dark-haired woman mused, "but I'm more interested in tranquility today."

"The most tranquil spot we have is probably Oasis," the clerk opined. "But it's a big one. It can hold forty people."

"Sounds good," Ryan decided as she extracted a few folded, and quite damp, bills from the hidden pocket of her shorts. "You might want to let those dry out before your touch them," she politely informed the clerk, as she grasped Jamie's hand to lead her to their tub.

The smaller woman was bubbling with excitement as Ryan led her to the path that caressed the hillside. They climbed up a short distance into the dense undergrowth that nearly obscured the wooden steps leading to the individual tubs. Towering oaks and massive California sycamores fringed a lovely small garden, filled with roses and star jasmine. The beautiful plants emitted a sweet scent that diminished quickly as they continued to climb. By the time they reached the platform that held their tub, the strong, acrid scent of sulfur filled the air, and Jamie cocked her head and asked, "Natural springs?"

"Yep," Ryan agreed. "A hot sulfur mineral spring lies about 1,000 feet down." She opened the redwood door that guarded their haven, and Jamie gasped in surprise and elation.

"Honey, it's wonderful!" she enthused as she took in the gently flowing waterfalls that cascaded into the pool. The little room could have been lifted right from a tropical island with its in-ground rock walls and lush green plants. Jamie tossed her arms around her partner's neck and leaned back in the embrace, smiling up at her sweetly. "Wanna go naked?" she asked with just a hint of a flush covering her cheeks.

Ryan's slowly shaking head and gentle smile answered her question.

"No?" Jamie asked, perplexed that her bold partner would want to wear a suit.

"No. Definitely not," Ryan insisted. "That would be like taking a child to Disneyland and making her stay outside the park. Looking at your beautiful body without being able to touch it would be torture of the highest degree."

"You say the silliest, sweetest things to me," Jamie replied, standing on her tiptoes to bestow a kiss.

"All true, Hot Stuff, all true," she insisted as she patted her butt.

They modestly turned their backs to change into their suits and when they were ready they held hands to climb into steaming tub. Simultaneously, they let out a hiss of pleasure as they sank in up to their ears. "Ohh, God, this is heaven," Jamie purred as her eyes fluttered closed, and she dropped her head back against the wall.

"If this is what heaven is like, I can see why you have to be good to get there," Ryan agreed completely in a lazy, relaxed drawl.

The water was a little deep for Jamie so she eventually sat on Ryan's lap. Practicality quickly gave way to passion, and soon they were engaged in a torrid make out session that they were barely able to control. Leaning heavily against her partner, Jamie finally moaned, "Can you imagine the awesome sex that we're going to have?"

Ryan closed her eyes, letting her mouth quirk into a little satisfied smile as she slowly nodded her head. "I imagine it several dozen times a day," she murmured softly. "When I'm awake; when I'm asleep…"

"You don't have to imagine for much longer," Jamie whispered. "Monday will be here before you know it."

"The minutes will seem like years," Ryan gently corrected. "Maybe decades."

After they had soaked for a good long time, Ryan hopped out and laid a towel on the redwood deck. She reached into her little pack and pulled out a bottle of massage lotion. One eyebrow wiggle had Jamie climbing out of the tub, ready to be rubbed. Ryan worked on her partner's thighs, butt and lower back, effectively removing all signs of fatigue from the overstressed muscles.

Jamie just grunted in pleasure all through the session. When Ryan was finished, the smaller woman summoned all of her strength and managed to give Ryan a similarly thorough rubdown as grateful repayment. When her muscles were nice and loose Jamie lay down next to her, drawing her into her arms and kissing her for a few more minutes. They were deep into their enjoyment of each other when Ryan's watch alarm chirped. "Five minutes before our hour's up, Hon," she regretfully informed her blissfully relaxed partner.

"Buy us another hour," Jamie begged pathetically.

"Okay," Ryan dutifully agreed as she hopped up, but her progress was stopped by Jamie's hand gently grasping her ankle.

"We can go, Honey. I'm just…I'm so relaxed I can't imagine having to hop back on that bike."

"I know," Ryan agreed as she extended a hand to help her up. "You don't regret stopping, do you?"

"Regret? How could I regret the most wonderful hour of my life?" she asked with a wide grin. "You, a steaming hot tub, you, a tranquil tropical setting…did I mention you?"

"Yes, you did," she grinned. "I feel very appreciated."

"Well, you should," she reminded her. "Because I appreciate you more than words can express."

"The feeling is decidedly mutual," Ryan pronounced as they turned around to shimmy back into their bike clothes.

When they were finished, Jamie stood still for Ryan's chronic re-application of her sunscreen. "This little pink skin is too precious to burn," she said as she kissed her on the nose.

When they left the springs, they headed back inland. The terrain was very flat in this agricultural valley, and they were chatting contentedly until Jamie spied a very steep hill in the distance. "What's that?" she asked as casually as possible.

"That's Little Agony," Ryan replied with a grin.

"Um...where's Big Agony?" she asked nervously

"You'll see," Ryan said smugly. "I do want to warn you though, Jamie. This is a very, very steep hill. It's almost impossible to go more than five miles an hour, so I want you to consider just walking up it. It's only about a quarter-mile long, but it's narrow and heavily traveled."

"What are you going to do?" she inquired.

"I'm gonna bust my thighs," her buff partner said with an evil grin.

Ryan was right about the hill being very steep. It was about a 20% grade, the steepest by far of any they had encountered. The vast majority of the riders had chosen to walk up the hill, given the traffic and the narrow shoulder. But Ryan just put her head down and powered right up it. She actually didn't go a whole lot faster than the walkers, but her slow pace let Jamie ogle her for a while, so they both ended up happy.

At the top of the hill, many riders had gathered to cheer on their compatriots. Ryan was smiling broadly when Jamie finally crested the hill, and she gave her a kiss for her caution.

After the hill, another quick descent brought them to the last stop of the day. The sight of an entire Girl Scout troop that had come out to greet them charmed them both. Jamie caught an adorable interchange with Ryan and a whole group of the kids with her camera and then submitted to Ryan's order that she also pose. "Good thing you guys have on your uniforms," Ryan joked. "Or I wouldn't be able to tell which of you was my friend."

"Very funny," Jamie scowled as the nine-year-olds who surrounded her ineffectively tried to suppress their giggles.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The last 15 miles of the day were flat and blissfully quick. The girls pulled into the park to the cheers of hundreds of riders, crew, local residents, and community leaders all acknowledging their efforts. It was the largest welcome they had experienced yet, and neither could resist adding to the ranks. So, as tired as they were, they joined the crowd to welcome home their fellow riders, cheering them on for a long time.

They joined yet another of Ryan's old teams for dinner. This group, of almost 20 people from San Francisco General Hospital consisted of nurses, orderlies, technicians and a couple of doctors, all of whom kidded and teased Ryan unmercifully for finally finding a lover. During a fantastic tortellini dinner, they debated strategy for the next day. They only needed to cover 55 miles--quite a short distance compared with the usual 90+ miles--but 11 of those miles were devoted to just one hill. They also had to face "The Wall," a really steep climb, right at the end of the day. "So do you want to power through the day and get to the camp really early, or would you rather take it easy and slow?" Ryan asked.

"Are there any cool places we could spend an hour or two?" Jamie replied, knowing that if such places existed, Ryan would know of them.

"Yeah, we actually stop for lunch at the Zaca Mesa Winery. It's a beautiful spot with lots of trees and shade. We could go on a tour if you want. But I don't think we can afford to sample the fare," she added with a grin.

"What's tomorrow night's camp like?" Jamie asked, trying to gather all of the pertinent info before she made up her mind.

"It's the nicest one on the whole trip," Ryan said confidently. "Real showers and real toilets. And it's a beautiful setting, too. A gorgeous lake called Cachuma."

"Why don't we try to do both? Let's leave as early as possible, stop for a while at the winery, and then ride hard for the rest of the day. Then we should get back early to get one of those real showers."

"You are a genius," Ryan said reverently, giving her a sweet kiss.

"Don't eat my dessert," Jamie ordered, as she got up to stand in line for a Porta-Potty.

"Oh-oh," a nurse named Barbara said under her breath as Jamie walked away.

"What?" Ryan asked idly, still concentrating on Jamie's rear.

"Here comes trouble," she said a little louder.

The object of her concern made a beeline for Jamie, falling in right behind her in the slow-moving line. "Does your girlfriend know about your…uh…past?" Barbara asked Ryan as tactfully as possible.

"She knows the truth," Ryan nodded. "But my version of the truth and Tiffany's probably don't have many similarities." She turned to Barbara and said, "I think I'll have to do some damage control later. I'd better go get some more cookies. I might need my strength!"

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The purposeful woman slipped into line behind Jamie and tapped her on the shoulder. "Tiffany Grable," she said, as though the name should mean something to Jamie.

The blonde regarded the confident-looking woman who stood before her. Dark wavy hair, cut to just shoulder length; very dark, almost black eyes that radiated heat but not warmth; attractive but sharp features that curled into a smirk as Jamie extended her hand. "Jamie Evans," she said.

"Are you the girlfriend of the week, or did you buy the line about going for a longer ride?" she asked, with sarcasm dripping from her words.

"Uhh, Tiffany, is it?" Jamie asked sweetly.


"Don't dis my lover," she snapped, green eyes flashing. She turned on her heel and stalked back to the table where 21 pairs of eyes tried not to let her see they were watching her. She flopped down heavily onto the bench and shook her head. "She must have had me confused with someone who gives a damn," she pronounced as she looked at the empty plate in front of her partner and demanded, "Where are my cookies?"

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

After a stop to replace the purloined cookies they strolled around the camp grounds, walking near a large duck pond in the center of the site. They sat on the ground and watched the ducks forage for dinner for a long time. They didn't speak much, being content to just be in each other's presence.

They hadn't discussed Tiffany's display, since there were so many other people around, but Ryan knew it had to be bothering her partner. "Wanna talk about it?" she asked gently.

"What, that idiot?" she asked, as she cocked her head.

"Yeah, didn't that bother you?"

Jamie sat and contemplated her reply. Finally she turned to Ryan and said, "Not really. I mean, to be honest, I'd be pissed if you made love to me and then dropped me as soon as the ride was over."

"But I never led her on…" Ryan began, but Jamie cut her off.

"That's how you are, Ryan. You weren't invested, and you told them the truth. But most women aren't that way. They believe your signals more than your words. And knowing you, your signals were pretty encouraging," she said with a smirk.

"So are you angry with me?"

"No, of course not," she said quickly. "I know how you behaved before we got together. I know you were honest, but I also know that a lot of women must not have believed you. I feel sorry for them because I know how easy it is to fall in love with you," she said as she gave her a sweet smile. "But just because someone is mad at you is no reason to get in my face," she said decisively. "That's completely uncalled for."

"She didn't know who she was tussling with," Ryan agreed as she gave her partner a squeeze.

After several moments had passed, Ryan lay down with her head in Jamie's lap. As the nimble fingers began to slide through her long black locks, giving her a little scalp rub for good measure, Ryan warned, "You'd better be careful, there, Jamie."

"Why, is this one of your erogenous zones?" she teased.

"Well, it can be," she admitted. "But it's a surefire knockout when I'm tired."

"This puts you to sleep?" she asked as she continued the rub.

"Like a blow to the head," she replied knowledgeably.

"And just how many blows to the head have knocked you out?" she teased, tapping her skull playfully.

Ryan silently counted in her head, finally replying, "Five, I think."

"Jesus, Ryan!" she nearly shouted. "How did they happen?"

"Gee Jamie, it's really not all that hard to knock yourself out," she explained logically.

"Ryan, I don't know another person who's been knocked out once! So how did you get so lucky five times?!"

"Well, let me think now. I got a doozy of a concussion when I was about ten. We were skateboarding down Lombard, and somebody cut me off. I flew over one of those little flowerbeds and landed right on my head. If I hadn't had on the helmet that Da made me promise to wear, I would have bit it."

"My God!" she said as she tenderly rubbed the skull lying in her lap. "Did you have to go to the hospital?"

"Oh yeah, paramedics, ambulance, the whole nine yards. I don't remember any of it, of course, but Da and the boys have never joked about it, so they must have really been scared."

"How long were you in the hospital?"

"Just overnight, I think," she mused. "But I was pretty out of it for a while. I had headaches and vertigo for a couple of weeks. It was really pretty scary. But the worst thing was that Da wouldn't let me use my skateboard for months! I had to run like the dickens to keep up with my buddies."

Jamie shook her head and rolled her eyes as she considered that Ryan's perspective and hers were quite different regarding the worst part of the incident. "When did he relent?" she asked.

Ryan chuckled as she related, "I had been saving up for something special, and I bought one of the first pairs of rollerblades sold in San Francisco. I really wasn't very competent on them, and he caught me trying to go down Noe on the darned things. He went right into his room and handed me back my skateboard! He said at least on a skateboard I could jump off and be on solid ground."

"How many sleepless nights that man must have gone through," Jamie muttered, patting Ryan's grinning cheek. "Now I'm afraid to ask, but what were the other times?"

"A couple of years later I took a flying kick to the head in karate class. That laid me out for a few minutes, but I didn't tell Da, so I didn't have to go to the doctor," she said proudly.

"We're definitely adopting," Jamie scolded. "Tell me the rest."

"I got kicked in the head playing soccer in high school. It wasn't that bad, and I didn't even lose consciousness, but the trainer wouldn't let me back in the game just because I didn't know what day it was," she grumbled. Jamie shot her a disapproving glance, but she added, "We were behind, Jamie," as if that explained everything.

"Okay, that's only three. Were the others from sky diving or cliff jumping?"

"Ooh, I've never sky dived, but I'd love to," she said with wide eyes.

"Number four?" Jamie scowled.

"I was playing basketball, and a girl from the other team was on me all night. I don't know what her problem was, but she was really harassing me. Near the end of the game, I got the ball and went right over her head for a basket. As I turned around, she took the ball and heaved it right at me. It hit me in the back of the head, which would not have been so bad, but I didn't see it coming and it knocked my head into the basket support. They said I fell like the building had dropped on me," she laughed at this image, but Jamie saw no humor in it at all.


"Yep. Just overnight for observation, though."

"Okay, give me number five."

"You sure?" she asked cautiously. "It's kinda bad."

"Yes, I'm sure, Ryan. If it happened to you, I want to know about it."

She took a deep breath and blinked slowly a few times, causing Jamie's heart to pick up in anticipation of the obviously distressing story. "I was gay bashed," Ryan finally said, her voice just above a whisper.

"What?!!" Jamie cried, her shocked gasp seemingly a hundred times louder than Ryan's small voice.

"About a year ago," she continued. "Actually, it was the week after Gay Pride, so that would make it the end of June. I was on a date with a woman I was just getting to know. We were down in SOMA, going to a bar. We'd taken my bike, and she had her arms around me, just holding on—nothing sexual at all. As we got off, a group of guys came out of the alley and started hassling us. We were only about a block from the bar, but there was nobody around," she shook her head sadly as Jamie began to rub her head again in comfort.

"I would have gotten back on the bike and run them over if I could have. It was obvious that they were going to hurt us if they could. But I knew I couldn't get Kelly on with me, so I tried to talk them out of it. She was a lot smaller than I was, so they tried to push her around first. Things started to get out of control, and I made a mistake that haunts me to this day," she mumbled. "I showed my trump card too early. I took out the guy who was shoving her, but when I went to get the second guy a third one pulled a knife and put it to Kelly's throat. He said he'd kill her if I didn't back off. Of course, I had to, so two of them grabbed me and made me watch while they beat her senseless," she closed her eyes and tried to blink back the tears.

"When they finished with her, they started on me. One of them had a pipe and they broke some of my ribs and bruised the rest, then they hit me on the head. That was the only time I was happy to be unconscious," she said as she shivered slightly at the memory of the pain.

"What happened then?" Jamie asked with a tremulous voice, terribly afraid of the answer.

"Luckily they found us too repellant to rape, so they left us lying in the street. Somebody called an ambulance, and we were both taken to the hospital." She shook her head as she added, "It was so hard to see Da's face when I woke up. I don't think I'd seen him that upset since my mother died," she said softly.

"How bad were your injuries?" Jamie asked, with a pale, frightened face.

"I had two black eyes, a small fracture to my skull, three broken ribs and a bruised kidney. They were afraid that my spleen was ruptured, but luckily it wasn't, and I didn't have to have surgery. I don't think there was a part of me that wasn't bruised. I looked like I'd been hit by a bus, and it took me most of the summer to really be pain free. That's when my Aunt and cousin Aisling came to see me. It was pretty bad, and they were all worried, so they came to reassure themselves that I was going to be all right. I was just getting back to normal when I met you."

"What happened to Kelly?" Jamie asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

"She was okay. She had tons of bruises, too, but nothing was broken. Obviously, it really freaked her out, and she wouldn't go out with me again. Not that I blame her," she added bitterly.

"But you tried to defend her!" Jamie said indignantly.

"I know," she said, in a comforting tone. "But I think I reminded her of what happened. Besides, I didn't feel like seeing anyone for a long time. I was afraid to let anyone touch me…well, no, that's not true," she amended. "I was afraid to relax enough around people I didn't know to let them get close to me. It really bothered me emotionally, so I finally had to see a therapist for a while. She helped me see how it was just a random act, and that there was nothing I could have done differently to prevent it."

"Now I understand why it was so hard for you when I was attacked," Jamie said quietly.

"Yeah, it was only about five months after this happened, so it was still pretty fresh."

"Your poor little head," Jamie murmured soothingly, stroking her hair again. "How could anyone hurt such a sweet woman?" she said, as she leaned over and kissed her all over her face.

"I don't know the answer to that, Jamie. Some people are just filled with rage. There's not much you can do except stay out of their way."

"How long were you in the hospital?" she finally asked.

"Three days. They did every test known to humankind on my head. I had to tell them the truth about how many times I had been unconscious. Boy, Da almost knocked me out again when he found out that I didn't tell him about those other times," she laughed.

"What did they find?" she asked a bit tentatively.

"Nothing much. There were a couple of spots that they could see had been damaged, but they're pretty confident that I won't have any future trouble. But I really try to protect my head now when I do anything risky."

"You'd better," Jamie said. "I love every little synapse in that pretty little head." She leaned down again to kiss her forehead. "But Ryan, I want you to promise me something," she said seriously.

Ryan sat up and looked at her squarely. "What is it?"

"Please promise me that you'll never keep things like that from me. I don't want to see you hurt, but if you ever do hurt yourself, promise me that you'll tell me."

"I promise I'll tell you, Jamie. And I already made that promise to Da, so I really have to keep it, or I'll have both of you on my tail," she said with a little grin.

"I can't imagine how hard it must have been for you to be laid-up for so long," Jamie said, unable to imagine her hyperactive partner sitting still for very long.

"Yeah, it was hard in some ways. I spent a lot of time in Lincoln Park, just looking at the water. I couldn't walk much because of the ribs, but there are some great spots out there where you can sit and contemplate life. When I could move around without too much pain, I started to go out to Land's End. I love it there—I think it's the wildest place in the whole city."

Jamie smiled to herself, acknowledging that her partner would logically seek out the wild parts of any locale. "What did you think about?" she asked softly.

"Oh, I don't know. I guess I thought about the randomness of life—and how lucky I am."

"Lucky?" Jamie asked, thinking she would probably not feel lucky to be beaten half to death.

"Yeah...lucky," Ryan mused. "I can think of 50 countries just off the top of my head, where every day is a struggle just to survive. I could have been born in Bangladesh and been sold into slavery as a young child. I could have starved to death in a Rwandan refugee camp. I could have been shot or crippled in any number of ethnic or religious civil wars. I was hurt...both mentally and physically...but I've been so blessed to be born in this country, in this age, and to my family, that I just couldn't let myself wallow in that pain. That's what got me through it, Jamie. I just counted my blessings."

They both grew quiet then, letting the story settle a bit. Jamie still ran her fingers through the dark hair, but her touch was even more loving and gentle than before. Ryan blinked up at her and asked, "What are you thinking?"

A heavy sigh preceded the answer. "I was thinking of how many times you've been hurt in your life. How often terrible things have happened that you did not deserve," she said as she shook her head.

"Bad things happen to everyone, Jamie," she assured her. "Nothing you can do about it."

The small hand stilled completely as her rough voice choked out, "There is when I'm the one who hurts you."

"What?" Ryan cried, jerking into a seated position. "What are you talking about?"

"I hurt you, Ryan. I hurt you worse than the people who beat you up because I knew you and loved you. I hurt you by going back to Jack," she gasped out between wracking sobs.

"Jamie, we've been over this," she soothed. "That was a hard time for you…"

"And it wasn't for you?" she asked with a bitter tone. "How does that make up for how I hurt you?"

"It wasn't easy," she agreed as she pursed her lips together in memory of the pain it had caused her. "But I'm glad you did it," she insisted.

"You can't be!" Jamie replied forcefully. "No one could be glad to have someone jerk them around like I did you!" She shook her head forcefully, eyes closed tightly. "I'll never forgive myself for doing that to you, Ryan. I used both you and Jack, and I did it only to make myself more comfortable. It just makes me sick when I think about it!"

"Jamie," she soothed, pulling the resisting body into her embrace. "Granted, you did hurt both Jack and me, but I don't agree that you did it with any malice. You were doing exactly what I told you to do," she insisted.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Look, Honey," Ryan said clearly. "I would rather be hurt that way before we got too involved, than to have you have doubts about your choice. Lesbianism wasn't a choice for me, Jamie. I was either going to have sex with women or be celibate. But you probably could have stayed with a man and been reasonably fulfilled sexually. If you had a guy who pleased you in every other way, it would have probably even made up for the spark that you lacked physically."


"And your short time with Jack showed you in the most compelling way that you were willing to take the risk to be exactly who you are…with no compromise. I honestly think that if you hadn't given it another try, you might regret your choice when things get tough—and I guarantee that things will sometimes be tough, Honey. It's not always easy to be different, as my poor fractured skull can tell you."

"You're really not disappointed or angry with me?" she asked in a tiny voice.

"Are you disappointed or angry with me for inadvertently leading women on?"

"No, I'm not, Ryan. It bothered me at first, but I'm okay with it now that I really know you."

"I'm definitely not angry or disappointed in you, Jamie. I was hurt, but sometimes you do hurt the people you love. Forgiving is part of loving, Honey. They both have to exist to make any relationship work."

"And I so badly want ours to work," Jamie agreed fervently.

"It will, Baby, it will."

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

While they lay in bed that night, Jamie traced the tiny knots on her lover's torso that marked her broken ribs. She bent and kissed each bump, then placed Ryan's head on her chest and began to rub it gently, soothing her to sleep.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter Twenty

As the first rays of sunlight hit the tent, Ryan woke in a comfortable little nest. She was spooned up against Jamie with her face pressed against her back. Her left arm was behaving itself, nestled between their bodies, but her right arm had snuck down across her partner's torso where her hand was firmly wedged between Jamie's legs. She slowly extracted her hand from its little haven and placed it on the much less dangerous terrain of her waist. The movement caused her partner to stir, and moments later green eyes looked up at her in question. "Is it time to get up?"

"If you want to get going early it is," Ryan replied as she nuzzled her neck.

"Okay, I'm up," she said as she struggled to her knees. "Hey, c'mere," she said, as Ryan turned around to crawl out. Ryan crawled back over, and Jamie ran her hand up and down her torso. "You are losing weight. You're all concave here," she said as she patted her tummy. "We've got to get some more food into you."

"I'll have an extra bagel for breakfast. And I'll bring some GU today. They'll give me another 500 calories."

"What's GU?" Jamie asked.

"They're little tubes of a flavored energy replacement. Each one is 100 calories, and it's fat free. It's just an energy source that doesn't upset my stomach, but gives me some easy calories."

"Do you like them?"

"Given how much I love food, I'd prefer to get my calories the old-fashioned way. But I'm really sick of energy bars, so I haven't been eating enough of them. And too much lunch really upsets my tummy, so this is my only option."

"You'd better take care of yourself, because you're going to need every ounce of energy you can get your hands on next week. This ride is nothing compared to what I'm going to do to you," Jamie purred.

"You really are a little sex maniac, aren't you?" Ryan teased.

"You're just going to have to wait and see," Jamie said as she kissed Ryan right on the tip of her nose.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan was already well into her breakfast when Jamie finally joined her. She was chatting with an Irish couple who had come from Dublin just to do the ride. She introduced Jamie, and they all chatted for a while. The couple got up, wishing them both a 'good ride,' giggling as they left. "Why was that funny?" Jamie asked.

"We were just joking about that before you came up. "Ride" is slang for making love, and they just find it funny that people are always wishing them good sex."

"Do you know a lot of Irish slang?"

"Yeah, I do. My cousins always had to give me a crash course every summer to teach me the current terms, and I'm sure a lot of what they taught me goes in and out of style just like here, but I can figure most things out when I hear them in conversation."

"Will you take me to Ireland with you sometime?" she asked with a big smile.

"I can't imagine ever going without you," Ryan replied solemnly.

They got started really early, pedaling out of Santa Maria just before 6:30 a.m. The first 15 miles were a breeze: flat road, good pavement, and no traffic. They pulled into the first pit stop just as a huge truck from an L.A. television affiliate did. "We're getting close, Jamie. The media's here," Ryan observed.

"I couldn't imagine saying this before this week, but I don't want this to end, Ryan," she said with a catch in her voice.

"I know just what you mean," Ryan said, as she gave her a hug. "I always start to feel like this by day five, but this year it's worse. I just feel like we're in such a blissful little cocoon. People take care of all of our needs, we're together twenty-four hours a day, and we can be as affectionate as we's really been idyllic."

"I can't think of a better way to start our life together," Jamie reflected.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan proved to be correct when she described the Zaca Mesa Winery as a gorgeous little place. They ate their curried chicken salad sandwiches in a beautiful setting, surrounded by vibrant grapevines, then found a spot under a small grove of tall trees, where they decided to take a little nap. Ryan had brought a shiny metallic space blanket that they spread out after they had cleared the area of rocks and twigs. Ryan rolled up their jackets and made an adequate pillow for herself while Jamie was perfectly content to use her favorite human pillow—namely, Ryan's shoulder.

Moments later they were both sound asleep. Jamie soon had her leg thrown over Ryan's pelvis; an arm draped across her torso was next. By the time Melanie saw them, they looked as though they were welded together. She reached into her fanny pack and snapped a few pictures of them, grinning the whole while.

They slept for over an hour in the cool shade. They were both a little groggy when they woke, but the rest had done them good, and they started off again around noon. Heartbreak Hill was their first real obstacle of the day. It was just over a half-mile long, but was about a 12% grade, so it was challenging. They both rode up without stopping, and Jamie felt a good bit of satisfaction as she powered up the last fifty yards.

They zoomed along for another four miles or so until The Wall. This little beast was a full one and a half miles of at least a six percent grade. Ryan knew that Jamie was tiring a bit, so she offered her an inducement. Jamie was constantly begging Ryan to sing to her, and while she usually indulged her requests gladly, she had yet to sing a note on the ride. "I'll make you a deal," Ryan said mischievously, as they took a water break just before the hill. "I'll stay behind you and sing a song. I'll keep a nice, steady pace. But you'll only be able to hear me if you stay in front. So I'll serenade you up the hill, but I'm not repeating any of the verses, so keep moving," she said as she poked her in the butt.

Jamie took off, trying to keep an even pace. Ryan began her song, a long, lyrically dense story about a young maiden who is seduced by an old flame who intentionally gets her lost on the back of Rare's Hill and has his way with her after they drink a nip or two. Jamie missed an important verse as Ryan passed her at one point, but she pressed her lips together in concentration, lifted her butt from the saddle, and cranked for all she was worth until she was back within earshot. They crested the hill to the cheers of many other riders and crew, and as they pulled over to join the crowd for a bit, Jamie gave Ryan a heartfelt kiss for trying so hard to make the hills fun for her.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

As they approached the campsite, Jamie mused to herself that Lake Cachuma was one of the most glorious sights she had ever seen. She knew that the place was actually not the stuff of postcards, but the lure of real showers made it seem like a showplace. The only drawback was that they weren't allowed to swim, but that was a small sacrifice, given the lovely setting. Their first stop was not to look at the scenery however, it was to find that porcelain and take a real shower. They were among the first in line, and they soaked up the hot water like manna from heaven. They were both careful not to use too much, since they knew everyone else needed a turn, but every drop was delicious to their dirty bodies.

They got into the tent in their t-shirts and panties and fell into a deep sleep in a matter of minutes. As they woke, Jamie thought that nothing had ever felt quite so good to her as snuggling together with their clean, shower-scented bodies and fresh clothes. A light breeze blew through the open tent flap, and Jamie could not resist tasting the toothpaste-fresh mouth right next to hers. She kissed and nibbled and sucked on that sweet mouth for many minutes. Ryan tried her best to control the escalation of passion, but as usual, she failed miserably. Jamie wound up straddling her hips, grinding against her with overwhelming need. Ryan took pity on her and whispered, "Do you want me to leave you alone for a while?"

But Jamie merely pressed her lips together and shook her head in frustration. She rolled off her hips and once again started kissing Ryan deeply. The dark woman eventually came up for air as she again whispered, "Honey, you seem so frustrated. Are you okay?"

But Jamie held steadfast--frustrated beyond belief--but steadfast. She bent down again for another round of frantic kissing, seemingly trying to physically merge with her partner. After a long while she rolled over onto her back, panting deeply. Ryan leaned over and asked solicitously, "Is there anything I can do to help you, Honey?"

Jamie blinked up at her and shook her head, a tiny smile finally gracing her lips. "I'm gonna assume that was rhetorical," she chuckled. "Because we both know that you could help plenty."

"Well…" Ryan drawled, "I don't like to boast, but I do have some experience in these matters."

"Save your experience until Monday," Jamie said, as she flopped down onto her back. "I can use all the help I can get."

"Don't think I'm laughing at you," Ryan insisted as she chuckled deeply. "But I think you're gonna prove to have a certain natural gift." She placed a few final kisses on Jamie's swollen lips and added, "I predict that you're going to be a real phenom."

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

After they loaded up on dinner, they walked around the lake. They found a deserted little spot near the banks of the placid lake, and sat down to chat. After a while Jamie asked, "Have you given much thought to our living situation?"

"Yeah, I have," Ryan replied. "I don't think I can live without you, even for one night, so whatever we do, I really need for you to be with me."

"I agree completely," she replied as she gave Ryan a kiss. "But what would you be comfortable with? Would you consider moving in with me?"

"That makes the most sense," Ryan agreed. "But I'm a little worried about moving out completely. I know Da probably seems really independent to you, but I think he'd be lost without me around. So I'm kind of torn."

"Well, we have the house to ourselves until September. I want to go to summer school, so it makes sense to stay in Berkeley during the week. But I'd be willing to go back and forth on the weekends if he's serious about letting us sleep together at your house."

"Would you really do that for me?" Ryan asked with a look of wonder on her face.

"Ryan, I'd carry you back and forth to Berkeley if it would make you happy. I love you, you big goofball," she teased.

"Okay, okay," she laughed. "It does make the most sense to stay in Berkeley during the week since I have to work every day. But we could go to my house on Friday evening and stay until Monday morning. Would that be okay with you?"

"Yeah, then we can see Caitlin, and have Sunday dinner with the boys," Jamie happily agreed. "I would really miss Sunday dinner, Ryan," she said seriously.

"You really do understand my connection with my family, don't you?"

"Yes, I do, but I have a connection too, and it's important to me to spend time with them also."

"You know, if I were to design a girlfriend, she wouldn't be a perfect as you are," she said contentedly, as she gave Jamie a brilliant smile.

"Well, that settles the summer. Let's see how it goes and then decide later what we want to do during the year."

"Okay," Ryan agreed. "Let's just make this the best summer we've ever had."

"It already has been, for me," Jamie said as she kissed her tenderly.

"This does bring up one little tiny issue, however," Ryan said.

"What's that, Hon?" Jamie asked lazily.

"I think your parents are going to have a few questions. Have you given any thought to telling them about us?"

"Uuhhhh…no," she admitted. "I've been so focused on the ride and everything that I haven't really thought about it. But I guess I do have to do it at some point."

"Yeah," Ryan drawled. "And given your mother's visit, I think that point might be soon. You really should think about how you want to do it…and when," she added.

"Okay, as soon as we're back from our honeymoon, I'll start discussing it with Anna. At least then it'll be too late for them to protect my lesbian virginity," she said with a giggle.

"It certainly will be if I get a vote," the dancing blue eyes agreed wholeheartedly.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Day Five was the night of the traditional rider talent show. Jamie pestered Ryan to sing, but she firmly refused. "I'm saving my voice for the woman I love," she replied. "I only perform for an audience of one."

They had a great time watching the show; several people had marvelous voices, and a few professional-quality drag acts had everyone howling. One guy was a terrific juggler, and a few really talented guitar players rounded out the high quality talent. A few people with more enthusiasm and guts than talent really made the night fun, though. It was great to see people feel so much a part of the community that they didn't mind exhibiting their foibles.

They were in bed by nine and asleep by 9:01. The next day was going to be a tough one--emotionally, it was their last night of camping; physically, the Gaviota Pass awaited them.

Continue to part 9

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