I Found My Heart in San Francisco

Book 6: Fidelity

by S X Meagher

Part 12

By the time Ryan’s foot hit the top step, Conor’s deep voice asked, "Want breakfast?"

"Sure," she grinned, feeling like all was right in the world because at least one member of her family was available to have breakfast with her. As she rounded the corner to the kitchen she stopped dead in her tracks and gasped. "What did you do to your hair?"

Conor had maintained basically the same hairstyle for all of his adult life. In his late teens he had passed through a very unfortunate mullet look, with the hair short on the top and collar-length in the back. Once that disaster was over, he found a barber he liked and stuck with him and the style that Ryan had grown used to—quite short all around his head, with about four inches of length on the top. He seemed to like the way it often fell into his eyes, enhancing his carefully maintained boyish image. Now, however, Ryan observed that he still looked boyish—gay boyish!

"I decided I needed a new look," he said, doing a pirouette so his sister could view the new "do" from all angles. "Like it?"

She furrowed her brow and narrowed her eyes, grasping his chin in her hand as she moved his head to and fro. Conor’s hair was now about an inch long on top, and it tapered down to less than a quarter inch in the back. Combed straight forward, he had put some sort of pomade on it to make the very front stick straight up. Whatever he had used not only smelled nice, it made his hair so shiny and black that it nearly looked blue.

"It’s really nice," she said sincerely. "I’m a little surprised that you like it, but it’s good."

"Why wouldn’t I like it?" He returned to the stove to remove the omelet he was making from the heat.

"Mmm… it looks kinda…"

"Gay?" he asked brightly.

"Uh…yeah," she said, surprised that he would be pleased by this.

"I know that," he said, happy that his sister was so observant. "Giancarlo told me that this style is just about over for gay guys."

"Giancarlo? My Giancarlo?"

"I believe he’s Jamie’s Giancarlo," he corrected, "but he seems to like you, too."

"How on earth…?"

"I asked Jamie who cuts her hair ‘cause she always looks so trendy," he said, pleased with himself. He carried their plates into the dining room, while Ryan brought out the coffeepot and two place settings. Once they were settled, he continued his tale. "Anyway, Giancarlo confirmed what I’ve always believed—women love the way gay guys look. Now, I don’t want to look too gay, because I’d prefer to have women hitting on me, but I figured if I picked up the style right when the gay guys were done with it, I could look cool for a straight guy."

"I hate to admit this, but I think you might be onto something," Ryan mused, shaking her head in amazement.

"That Giancarlo is a cool dude," Conor opined. "At least I think he is…To tell you the truth I couldn’t understand half of what he said."

"That’s my Giancarlo," Ryan agreed, smiling at her now trendy brother.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After breakfast, Ryan put on some navy blue Dockers and a crisp Tommy Hilfiger oxford-cloth shirt that Jamie had recently bought for her. She generally didn’t like to advertise for designers, but in this case, the logo was very discreet, and she really did like the shirt. It was light blue and white striped cotton, with bands of pink and white striped fabric inside the collar, cuffs, and placket. She knew that no matter what she wore she would be wrinkled and wet from the baby, but she thought she should at least try to look neat to welcome her beloved back home.

She pulled up in front of Tommy’s at a few minutes to nine, deciding that she might as well go to church so she could peek into the auditorium and see her aunt for a few minutes. The baby was waiting at the screen door, sitting on her little butt and shrieking with delight when she saw her cousin. Ryan grinned from ear to ear when she made eye contact with the deliriously happy baby. Letting herself in, she scooped Caitlin up in her arms for a big hug and a sloppy kiss. The tyke was still in just her diaper, so Ryan carried her into her room to get her dressed. Annie was tossing clothes all around the room, trying to pack for the trip. "Oh Ryan," she said with relief, "thank God you’re here. I haven’t been able to get one thing done this morning," she moaned as she gave her a kiss on the cheek. "Tommy’s not due home until ten and she’s been a terror today." She stopped short when she heard herself and said with a tired laugh, "I guess that’s not a very good sales pitch when I want you to take her for four days, huh?"

Ryan placed a few noisy kisses on Caitlin’s back, then she said, "Don’t worry about it, Annie. She’ll be fine. If we need anything, we’ll just buy it. We don’t get to spoil her nearly enough, do we punkin’?" she asked the laughing baby as she tickled her bare tummy.

"Sure you don’t," Annie laughed. "I think every nice outfit she has is from you two. Speaking of which, you need to get going if you want to be at church on time. Come here, sport," she said as she held out her hands to take the baby, "Time for some clothes."

She chose a little dress that Jamie had bought at the same time she got Ryan’s shirt. It wasn’t identical, but it was also starched oxford-cloth. Caitlin’s was a sunny yellow with blue and white striped trim around the neck and the little short sleeves. Tiny white socks and soft black slippers completed her stylish ensemble, and she was begging for Ryan to rescue her long before her mother was satisfied with her look. "I was going to try to cut her hair before we left, but it took me an hour to do her nails this morning," she admitted, grasping a few strands of the haphazardly cut hair.

Ryan had to admit that Caitlin’s white blonde locks did look a bit scruffy. Annie tried her best to keep them trimmed but she generally had to do it while Caitlin was asleep, not the ideal conditions for a neat haircut. "Do you mind if we give it a try?" Ryan inquired, loving a challenge on any field.

"Be my guest, Ryan." In her normal easygoing style, Annie patted the taller woman’s back and said, "It’s okay with me if you shave it off and start over. Almost anything would be an improvement over what I’ve been doing. One more element of motherhood I was not prepared for," she smirked.

Ryan handed Annie the long list of instructions she had prepared for Pebble Beach, then fished the keys to the house from her pocket and made sure Annie noted her pager number on the bottom of the list. "Call me if you have any trouble. I think I covered everything, but you never know. Oh, one last thing," she said with a slight blush. "I didn’t add this because I didn’t want to embarrass Tommy or myself, but there are security cameras in most of the common areas. We found out the hard way that it’s best to keep intimate behavior confined to the bedroom."

"Intimate behavior, huh?" Annie teased. "I think I remember what that is," she said with a thoughtful look as she cocked her head. "Oh yeah, that’s how we got Sweet Pea, here," she laughed. "I really appreciate all that you and Jamie have done for us, Ryan. But I feel so guilty leaving Caitie with you on the day that Jamie gets back. I’m really afraid you won’t be able to enjoy each other. Intimate behavior becomes a dim memory with this little scamp around," she said affectionately, ruffling her daughter’s blonde locks.

Trying to appear magnanimous, Ryan assured her, "We get to enjoy each other constantly. Another week of abstinence won’t kill us." She paused for a second and decided to ask, just to make sure. "How do you feel about us being close with Caitlin around? I mean, I obviously wouldn’t actually have sex if she was awake, but where should we draw the line?"

Annie furrowed her brow and tried to think of what to say that would be most helpful. "I think you just need to play it by ear, Ryan. Both of us take her in the shower with us, so she’s used to naked adults, and we try to be physically affectionate around her. I think it’s good for her to see that we love each other, and that we express our love physically. We take her into bed with us whether or not we’re dressed, but obviously we also would never have sex when she was awake." She shivered visibly and said, "That’s just too creepy. I guess it depends on how you feel about it, because I don’t think she’ll be affected one way or the other. If you can get aroused with another person in the room with you, don’t be afraid to have fun while she’s asleep. We’ve gotten pretty good at making love without a sound," she admitted. "Sometimes it’s actually kind of fun to see how quiet you can be."

After a week’s worth of abstinence, I don’t think either of us would win a prize for quiet, Ryan mused privately. "Do you let her come into your bed often?"

"More often than we thought we would," she admitted. "She goes through periods where she just seems to need to be held at night. I just don’t see how it’s healthy for her to be alone when she’s like that."

"My guess is that she’ll be pretty needy when she realizes she’s not going home for a while. Is it safe to sleep with her all night?"

"Oh yeah. You won’t sleep very well at first, though. You just have an awareness that keeps you from rolling over onto her, but it doesn’t let you sleep as deeply. I wouldn’t do it if you’ve been drinking or if you sleep really soundly, but we’ve adapted so we actually sleep as well when she’s with us as not."

"I don’t plan on drinking to excess when I’m in charge of this precious bundle," Ryan assured Annie. "But Jamie sleeps like she’s flatlining, so I think we’ll keep her in her crib."

"I’m not worried, Ryan. I know you’ll do as good a job as we do."

"I’m sure it’ll go fine," Ryan agreed, "but I also know she’ll miss you both a lot. Call us tonight before you go to bed, okay? I think we’ll probably leave for Disneyland in the morning, and I want to make sure you’re settled before we take off."

"I will, Ryan. And thanks again. You just don’t know how much I’m looking forward to this trip." She sighed heavily and admitted, "It honestly feels like it’s been ten years since I’ve had any time to myself. As much as I love Tommy, I wouldn’t have complained if he wasn’t able to go with me. I plan on spending four days remembering what it was like being Annie Clancy rather than Caitlin’s mommy, which is my new name, by the way."

"I’ve heard people refer to you that way at church," Ryan admitted. "It must be kinda hard to have your identity redefined when you have a child."

"It is," Annie agreed, "but I wouldn’t change a thing."

It was getting late and Ryan knew she had to take off to be on time. "I hope Pebble Beach is as magical for you as it was for us," Ryan said as she hugged her.

Annie picked the baby up and kissed her on every exposed inch of her face and head, with the baby spluttering at she tried to avoid her mother’s overly enthusiastic farewell. Pulling away slightly, Annie hugged her tightly as she closed her eyes to fight back the tears. "You’d better go before I upset her," she said with a trembling lip as she handed her child to Ryan.

Ryan patted her back as she said softly, "We’ll take good care of her, Annie. I promise," she said fervently.

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

"Jamie, dear," Catherine said with an indulgent smile, "We have plenty of time to get there, and fidgeting in your seat isn’t going to help."

Jamie gave her a sheepish grin as she admitted, "I know it doesn’t help, but I’m so anxious I can’t stop myself."

Their departure from the cottage had been a little strained, as David, Patsy, Louise, and Oliver could not understand why six members of the family had to leave together to help Adam and Carolyn prepare for their hasty move to Europe. The tension from their final conversation only added to Jamie's anxiety over finally being with Ryan again, making her more fidgety than she could ever remember being.

They had been in the limo for nearly an hour, and traffic was running freely, leaving them ample time to reach their flight, but Jamie was so anxious that she could only foresee some disaster or another interfering with their plans. Just to reassure her, Catherine had made a call to the airline a few minutes before, but her attempt to soothe her daughter had backfired when she relayed the information that if they missed their scheduled flight, the next available one was not scheduled until five o’clock that evening.

"Jamie, I’m certain that we’ll be in plenty of time. I’m just worried that you won’t be able to sit still all the way to San Francisco. Do you think you’ll make it?"

Shrugging slightly at herself, Jamie asked, "Do you think they’ll mind if I run up and down the aisle the whole time? I think I’ll be okay if I can blow off some steam."

"It always amazes me how much you can get away with in first class," Catherine said drolly. "I’ve seen far worse behavior than a little aisle running. Have at it, Dear."

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

Ryan and Caitlin settled into their seats at 9:20, after a very quick trip to the auditorium to say hello to Maeve. Or rather, Caitlin settled into Ryan at 9:20, since she was still too small to sit upright on the hard bench. Thinking ahead, Ryan had selected the end seat in a pew right by the side door, so they could get out easily for their frequent forays around the building. Even though she and Jamie had taken Caitlin to church on several occasions, Ryan had never done so alone, and she was a little overwhelmed by the huge diaper bag that Annie had given her as they left. The bag held three bottles of breast milk, four jars of baby food, one lemon biscotto, and six diapers and a complete change of clothing, as well as soft felt picture books and some sturdy plastic toys. If she needs this much stuff for an hour, what are we going to have to take to Disneyland? We’re gonna have to rent an RV!

As Ryan tried to get comfortable in the unyielding pew, she realized how very sore she was. Even though she'd had frequent massages and had iced her knees and ankles every afternoon, the constant pounding on the hard court had taken its toll. Caitlin was standing on her thighs, observing the crowd, and Ryan was trying to decide if the pain in her legs was helped by the unintentional massage when someone slid into the pew next to her. Ryan had started to turn her head when the woman leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Hi," Sara Andrews said, a happy smile on her face. "Where’s your girlfriend?"

Ryan blinked slowly, trying to remember the question. She knew it was her turn to talk, but her brain wasn’t firing quickly this morning and she looked confused for a second. "Oh!" she said, finally tracking, "she’s visiting relatives in Rhode Island."

"That’s a drag," Sara sympathized. "Why didn’t you go with?"

The question was simple enough, and Ryan knew the correct answer, but for just a flash she felt a little left out to not have been invited. Mentally slapping herself, she focused on the facts and replied, "One…Jamie wanted some alone time with her mom. Two…I had to go to Santa Cruz for a week for volleyball training camp. Just got back last night."

Sara shivered in sympathy, remembering the not-so-distant past when she was in training for the upcoming soccer season. "Is Jamie coming home soon?"

The relief on Ryan’s face was evident as she sighed and said, "This afternoon." She gave her old friend a wry smile and added, "It seems like time is standing still."

"Speaking of standing," Sara said as she focused her attention on Caitlin, "who’s this little beauty standing on your thighs?"

"My cousin Caitlin," Ryan whispered as the priest began to walk down the aisle.

The baby stared at Sara with interest, leaning hard against Ryan’s chest for added security until she felt comfortable with their unfamiliar visitor. She batted her big green eyes at Sara, glad that someone new was paying attention to her, and graced her with a shy but charming grin.

The warm-up period did not take long, and Caitlin slowly inched closer and closer to Sara, indicating her willingness to allow this person to entertain her. "Can I hold her?" Sara finally asked, unable to resist the baby’s charms. She held her hands out in invitation, and the baby immediately went to her, leaning forward to tumble into Sara’s lap.

Sara bit back a laugh at the forwardness of the little girl who was now happily standing on her own thighs. Caitlin started her favorite game of ‘grab parts of the big person’s face’—always a crowd pleaser. Luckily no one was sitting right behind them, so they could stay seated and get to know one another intimately during the opening hymn. As the baby got more and more comfortable, she grabbed Sara’s nose so hard that the older woman had tears in her eyes. Chagrined, Ryan tried to take her back, but Sara waved her off with a good-natured smile.

Caitlin found the new person thoroughly fascinating, her interest captured by Sara’s willingness to allow her to do whatever she wanted to her. The baby had examined Sara’s ears, her eyes, and her hair in minute detail by the time the hymn was finished, and Ryan couldn’t help casting fond glances at the twosome who were so thoroughly entertaining each other. As the congregation sat down to listen to the bible readings, Caitlin announced both the completion of her investigation and her satisfaction with the results by grabbing two handfuls of hair and planting a very big, very wet kiss right on Sara’s mouth.

"Isn’t she a little young for that?" the amused woman whispered into Ryan’s ear with a chuckle.

Ryan gave her helpless shrug, shaking her head with surprise. "She usually doesn’t make a move like that until the second date," she whispered. That drew a very familiar, warm laugh from the woman at her side, the melodic sound now a little deeper and a little fuller than it had been when they were young. Sara gave her old friend a gentle nudge with her shoulder, a gesture she had made a thousand times over the years.

When the congregation stood for a reading from the New Testament, Sara remained seated with the tyke, and Ryan gave them a quick glance to find Sara whispering into the tiny ear, delighting the baby each time her breath tickled. Since Caitlin’s second favorite game was ‘do whatever it is that I like until I’m sick of it,’ Sara willingly went along with the program, whispering into Caitlin’s ear again and again.

When the congregation began to sing the Celtic Alleluia, Sara held Caitlin up high on her chest so that the baby could easily see her face. Her warm, smooth soprano voice filled Ryan’s ears, and she involuntarily closed her eyes as she remembered all of the services they had attended together in high school. Sacred Heart required daily attendance at Mass, and the two friends always managed to sit next to one another, even though they were in different classes. Whichever young woman arrived first would save a seat for the other, and no one ever attempted to sit in the seat that the whole school knew was saved for one half of the O’Flaherty/Andrews pair.

The melody of the familiar tune surrounded her like a warm embrace as Ryan was touched by a very strong sense memory of sitting in the little chapel at the high school, listening to Sara’s voice. Ryan recalled that there was always something so warm and comforting about it, and to her surprise, she felt the same old tingle. With a start, she realized that it must remind her of her mother’s voice, which, to her memory, was very much like Sara’s. Caitlin was now under the spell of that angelic voice, as she leaned back in Sara’s arms to watch her mouth move as the words came tumbling out.

Feeling very shaky, Ryan sat down after the gospel reading and tried to listen to the homily, but she was having little success. There was a very large part of her that wished her old friend had not chosen this day to attend Mass, even though it was nice to have a hand with Caitlin in what was likely to be a long day. It was hard enough to have her anxiety building about Jamie’s return without the added stress of her friend’s presence and the accompanying memories that assailed all of her senses.

The ten or fifteen minutes of the homily were always the toughest time of the Mass for Caitlin, since only one person was talking and there were very few visual effects to keep her focused. But today she snuggled up against Sara and spent most of the time investigating her heavy bracelet-style watch and the interlocking three-band ring she wore on the ring finger of her right hand.

Ryan cast repeated glances at the twosome, pleased that Sara was so adept at entertaining the baby, but still uncomfortable with her old friend’s presence. After a while, Caitlin’s lids began to blink slowly and she fought to stay awake, jerking herself upright several times. Sara instinctively handled her just perfectly, putting her hands on the baby’s back and giving her a gentle massage. In a matter of moments, Caitlin’s fair head dropped into the soft valley between Sara’s breasts and her little thumb drifted towards her mouth, where she began to suck gently. I can’t count how many times I’ve wanted to do that, you lucky kid, Ryan thought with a tinge of envy, before catching the thought and giving herself a mental shake. Knock it off, Ryan! 1992 is over!

Sara smiled over at her friend and whispered, "She is so adorable, Ryan. She’s just precious."

No matter how uncomfortable Ryan felt in this situation, she was touched by the pleasure Sara was obviously getting from playing with Caitlin. The smile that lit up her old friend’s face was infectious, and Ryan returned it full-force. As a thin string of drool left Caitlin’s mouth, Ryan leaned over and whispered, "Do you want me to take her? She can get a little heavy—and a little messy."

"After all those years of lugging law books around? I can handle a little wisp like this," Sara scoffed with a dismissive grin. "And a little spit never hurt anyone."

Caitlin continued to snooze through the middle of the Mass and Ryan was actually able to pay attention for the first time since they had been coming to church with the baby. Caitlin liked to go to the sanctuary with the other kids for the Eucharistic Prayer, which was fast approaching, but since she was so sound asleep Ryan thought it wise to allow her to continue her nap. But just a few minutes before the prayer began, she woke up with a start and looked around in a daze. Once she caught sight of Ryan she was fine, and when the kids began running up the aisle, she wanted to be a part of it. "She likes to go up with the other kids. Want me to take her?" Ryan asked, thinking that Sara would likely not feel comfortable going up with them.

"She seems perfectly happy now," Sara said. "Why don’t I just keep her? Besides, it’ll be fun. I haven’t been up there since I was an acolyte."

As they settled in with the big crowd, Ryan noticed that they were the only same sex couple, but she thought it was a good thing for her fellow parishioners to see. She met and held Father Pender’s slightly concerned glance, but Sara didn’t seem to notice it since she was focused on Caitlin.

Father Pender began the long prayer, with Caitlin babbling along in her usual indecipherable language. She would occasionally make a loud point, but she kept it down when Ryan patiently shushed her. Caitlin seemed to really like being in Sara’s arms since she could see Ryan more clearly from there. Occasionally, the baby would reach out and pat her face, or lean over to pucker up for a kiss, but she seemed to prefer being held by Sara.

As the prayer was completed the priest offered them all the sign of peace, and the people moved from person to person shaking hands and kissing cheeks. Sara gave Caitlin a kiss and then leaned over to kiss Ryan. Prudently turning her head to present a cheek to Sara, Ryan then accepted a big wet one from Caitlin. Each adult moved a few feet in each direction, shaking hands with the others surrounding them, but as they moved away, Caitlin started to feel a little insecure. She started to fuss in Sara’s arms as she tried to get Ryan’s attention. Sara was busy greeting the others, so Caitlin finally took matters into her own small hands, choosing that moment to clearly speak her first words. "Da Da!" she shouted as she held her arms out to Ryan, a fiercely determined look covering her small features. Turning around in amazement, Ryan reached out and took the baby, giving her a comforting hug, as everyone around the altar tried to suppress their laughter. Ryan blushed deeply until her excitement at being the object of Caitlin’s first words overtook her embarrassment.

As they walked back to their seats, Sara companionably slid her arm around Ryan’s waist in a gesture that they had shared since they were in grammar school. There was something so reassuring and familiar about her touch that Ryan felt a little weak in the knees. Involuntarily, she flashed on what her life would be like if Sara had accepted her love seven years before. She guessed that if they were still together, they might very well have a baby of their own by this point. If they had focused on career over family, Ryan would just have finished her second year of graduate or medical school, since she would not have had the two-year hiatus after high school. Her head spun with the imagined possibilities and the reality of what had actually happened. Sara was sitting very close to her in order to satisfy Caitlin’s wishes to touch them both at once, and Ryan kept getting a whiff of her delicate scent. I don’t think I can be around this woman, she thought to herself, feeling her head shake in dismay. I’m unable to control my thoughts and stay in the present when I’m with her.

Mass ended while this jumble of thoughts was playing in her head, and Ryan suddenly felt Caitlin tumble back into her lap, nearly dropping the baby when her hands didn’t react as quickly as normal. "Hey, are you okay?" Sara asked, placing her hand on Ryan’s shoulder.

Shaking her head briskly, Ryan managed to say, "Yeah. Fine. I’m just a little preoccupied today, what with Jamie coming home."

"When is she due back?"

Ryan groaned audibly, checking her watch as she muttered, "not for two and a half more hours. I guess I need to go run the hills to take my mind off of waiting."

"Why don’t we pass some of that time by having lunch together?" Sara asked, cocking her head in question. "I have a feeling that you’ve been a busy girl while I’ve been away. Knowing you, you’ve interviewed every member of your class from Sacred Heart."

Ryan mind was so slow that it took her a minute to understand what her friend was talking about. Away? She’s been away? Oh, right! She went on vacation after the bar exam. As the seconds ticked away, she realized that she had to give Sara an answer, but she was having an internal dialogue that was driving her to distraction. I shouldn’t be alone with her…I told Jamie that I wouldn’t see her! Yes, another side of her brain reminded her, but Jamie told you that you were free to see Sara or anyone else that you wanted. She specifically said that she did not want to police your interactions with other people.

Sara’s open, inquisitive gaze had never left her face, and Ryan finally found her own head nodding hesitantly. "I’d like to have lunch. As you surmised, I’ve got a lot to tell you."

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Wow, nice ride, Ryan," Sara said appreciatively as they walked up to the Lexus.

Ryan looked a little sheepish as she admitted, "Jamie bought it for me."

Sara stopped in her tracks as she stared at her friend. "She bought it for you?"

"Yeah. Jamie’s the heir to a very substantial fortune," she said simply, shrugging her shoulders a little, deciding that if she was going to reinstate her friendship with Sara she had to try to be as open with her as she had always been.

"God, I know her dad makes a lot of money, but this is a very big gift. Not that I don’t think you’re worth it, of course," she amended with a laugh.

"Thanks," Ryan smiled, blushing a little. "Her mom really has the big bucks, but Jamie does have money of her own, too. It’s kind of a sore subject for me, Sara. We’re having some financial issues right now because of a number of things."

"Hmm, I guess there are worse problems, but knowing you, I can see how having a girlfriend with tons of dough would be difficult." She placed her hand on Ryan’s back as she said, "I bet it drives you mad when people think you’re with her for her money, right?"

"Just a little," Ryan chuckled, deciding that she should not reveal who her main tormentor was since Sara would soon be working for Jim’s firm.

"I would never think that of you, Ryan. Actually, I’m a little surprised that you let yourself fall for a rich woman."

Ryan laughed gently, shaking her head at the memory. "I didn’t let myself, Sara. I thought we were just friends—and then one day…bang! I was in looooove." She adopted her best lovesick expression, rolling her eyes at her own naïveté.

"Well, you certainly seem happy," Sara commented thoughtfully as she got into the back with the baby.

"I am," Ryan said decisively. "I feel more optimistic about the future than I ever have."

"You’re the most optimistic person I’ve ever known!" Sara threw her head back and laughed heartily. "You must be off the scale now, then!"

"That’s a safe bet," Ryan smiled, pointing the car down the hill to the business district of 24th St.

"Where are we headed?" Sara asked.

"Caitlin has worn out her welcome at most places in the neighborhood, but there are still a couple that don’t know her reputation. I think we should exploit one of those."

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

Sara and Caitlin were chattering away nonstop during the short ride, and Ryan couldn’t help but grin at them when she looked into the rear view mirror. "I don’t think I’ve ever seen you around children," Ryan observed. "You’re really a natural."

"Thanks," Sara replied with a blush. "I hope I can have kids some day, but I wouldn’t consider it if I didn’t have a partner." She looked rather glum as she added, "I’ve got a long way to go before I’m in that position, though."

"So what are you doing home?" Ryan asked with forced brightness, changing the subject entirely.

"Well, I haven’t been home in a while. I thought it would be nice to spend a little time with my parents before I start my job tomorrow."

"Boy, I’m obviously still in student-mode," Ryan laughed. "When you said that I thought, ‘But it’s still August! Vacation’s not over yet!’ "

Sara looked a little wistful, staring out of the car window for a moment as she said, "Those days are over, Ryan. I become a full-fledged adult tomorrow."

Ryan looked in the rear view mirror, catching the resigned look on her friend’s face. "You could run away and join the circus," she suggested playfully, pleased when Sara met her eyes in the mirror and gave her a gentle smile.

"If I was going to join the circus, I should have done it before I spent three years in law school and had to sit for that wretched exam," she smirked. "That was just poor planning on my part."

"How do you think it went?" Ryan asked.

"Who knows?" she replied lightly. "I’ll find out on Thanksgiving weekend. I’m just going to assume I passed and deal with it later if I didn’t."

"I’m sure you did fine," Ryan assured her, knowing that Sara would have focused all of her energies to insure her success on the bar exam.

As usual, there was no parking anywhere on 24th St., so Ryan drove back to her house and put the car in the garage. It took a while to arrange all of the things they needed for the short walk, but they were finally on their way.

The day was warm and bright, and both women slipped on their sunglasses as they walked along. They had traveled only a few feet when Sara asked, "We haven’t spoken about the day I came to your house, Ryan. I didn’t cause too much trouble for you, did I?"

Ryan debated only moments before she decided to be completely honest with her old friend. "I’m happy to talk about it," she said quietly. "Are you sure you want to?"

"Yes," Sara replied firmly. "I’d like to know where I stand."

"It’s really complicated, Sara," she admitted. "Seeing you was both wonderful and terrible for me. It really made me feel great to learn that you did not betray me. I mean, I felt seven years of pain just float away when I learned that," she said with a gentle smile. "It really meant a lot to me."

"But?" Sara led her.

"But it hurt Jamie a great deal and introduced some doubt into her mind that wasn't there before. I’m afraid that’s going to take a very long time to heal."

Sara slowed her pace, looking slightly stunned as she asked, "What did you tell her?"

"I told her everything," Ryan said, as though that should be obvious.

"God, Ryan, you didn’t have to tell her everything! She didn’t need to know that we kissed!"

Ryan stopped and stared at her for a moment. "I do need to tell her everything, Sara," she said evenly. "I’m building a life with Jamie. Honesty is the foundation of that life. I told her about how we started to kiss…" Ryan gazed into the warm brown eyes that blinked up at her while she struggled to decide how much to reveal. Thinking back on all of the pain Sara had caused her by hiding the truth, she made a decision. Resting one hand on Sara’s shoulder, Ryan faced her and admitted, "I told Jamie the absolute truth. I told her that I didn’t want you to stop."

Sara emitted a startled gasp, her hand reflexively rising to cover Ryan’s, where it still rested on her shoulder. "I…I thought that..."

"No, Sara. I wanted to keep going. I wanted you to touch me just like I touched you seven years ago. I had to be honest with her. Jamie would know if I kept something like that from her."

Caitlin chose that moment to start wailing, and a quick visual confirmed that a diaper change was immediately required. They were less than a block from her home, so Ryan asked, "Do you mind if I take her home and change her?"

"No…no, of course not," Sara said mechanically. "I’ve uh…kinda lost my appetite, anyway."

They backtracked in silence, Ryan’s last statement hanging over their heads. When they reached the house, Sara stayed on the deck, allowing Duffy to wildly greet her while Ryan took care of business.

When she emerged from the house, Sara was sitting down, staring out onto the street with unseeing eyes. Ryan sat opposite her, bouncing the baby on her knee. She stared at her friend until the dark brown eyes lifted to meet and hold her gaze. "I uh…I had no idea, Ryan," Sara murmured. "I just assumed that you didn’t want to…" she trailed off helplessly, a look of stark pain on her face.

"Sara," Ryan said softly, her eyes reflecting the pain that Sara felt. "I spent my entire senior year playing that night over and over in my mind, wondering what I had done to make you accept my touch and then turn on me. It never, ever made sense to me." A few tears slid down her face, and Sara reached for the baby to allow Ryan to wipe them away. "It made me question everything," she whispered, trying to hold the onslaught of emotion at bay. "My faith, my judgment, my love for others…everything!" Ryan got up from her chair and went to the railing, leaning on it as she continued. "Allowing you to touch me when you were at my house would have been a healing balm for my soul." Her shoulders slumped as her body shook with her tears, the years of hurt and pain flooding her.

"But you couldn’t do that to Jamie," Sara supplied, knowing that was the answer.

"I will never intentionally hurt her," Ryan said, the ferocity in her voice causing Sara to unconsciously shrink back from her. "It hurt her to know the truth, but our relationship is based on honesty, Sara. I have to be honest with her."

Getting up from her chair, Sara stood next to Ryan, reached down and grabbed her hand, squeezing it tight. Her voice was slow and deliberate, and for the first time she sounded like a much older woman. "Does anybody need that much honesty, Ryan?"

"She asked me, and I had to tell her. I’d do anything not to hurt her, but I also can never lie to her. It’s…been hard," she admitted softly.

"I guess that means she’d be too upset to allow us to try and be friends again, huh?"

"It’s not that," Ryan said quickly. "She’s very understanding, and I know she’d support me in anything I tried to do. I don’t think it’s a good idea to see you again, Sara. For me, not for Jamie," she added softly.

Sara looked crestfallen as she gazed at Ryan through pain-filled eyes. "I understand," she said as her lower lip began to tremble. "I was asking a lot to expect you to forgive me. I can just walk home from here," she added as she handed the baby to Ryan and turned to walk away.

"No, no!" Ryan grabbed her arm. "That’s not it. The problem is just the opposite," she explained. "I was really in love with you, Sara," she said fervently. "I really believed that you loved me too."

"I did, Ryan," she said, grabbing her hand again.

Ryan shook her head to stop Sara from defending herself. "When everything happened, my feelings didn’t just go away. In a way, they got stuck right there. I knew I could never have you, but it didn’t really change the way I felt about you. I hated what you did, but I couldn’t hate you. Do you understand that?"

"Yes, I think I do," she said as she gripped Ryan’s hand a little tighter.

"So I fumbled through the next seven years, never falling in love again, until Jamie, of course. Then you tell me that everything was different than what I had believed. You didn’t betray me--you loved me then and you still love me now! I fell in love with Jamie thinking that what I felt for you could never be returned. But you’ve shown me that we could resurrect that love and be together, and the prospect of that is just too tempting for me, Sara."

Sara fell into Ryan’s arms and started to cry uncontrollably, the puzzled baby nestled between their bodies. Ryan did her best to comfort her, but she was terribly sad also. She stroked Sara’s hair and murmured soothing words to her as she continued to cry. "I’ve never regretted anything in my life more than listening to my mother when she tried to convince me that I wasn’t like you," she sobbed.

"I know, I know," Ryan said softly as she continued to comfort her. "But you did, and it’s over now, Sara…it has to be. I’m committed to Jamie. I want to be committed to Jamie. I love her very much, and she loves me just as much. I will not do anything to jeopardize our relationship. It means far too much to me," she said vehemently as the tears began anew.

"So there’s no chance for us?" Sara asked shakily, despair in her voice.

"No. There’s no chance at all. I’m going to be with Jamie for the rest of my life." The look on Ryan’s face told Sara everything that she needed to know about her commitment.

"But what if…I mean, I know it’s not likely, but what if you and Jamie…?"

Ryan’s head was shaking rapidly, even while Sara was completing her statement. "No," she said firmly, her voice cracking with emotion. "It has to be over between us, Sara. We had our chance. It’s time to move on…for both of us."

"But Ryan," she sobbed. "If you really loved me…"

Silencing her first love with a gentle squeeze of her shoulder, Ryan slowly shook her head; her face composed, but determined. "I did love you, Sara, but loving Jamie has shown me a level of love and commitment that I didn’t know existed. I…I could never go back to how I felt about you, Sara. It…it obviously wasn’t enough."

"But Ryan, I swear you’re all I’ve thought of for the past seven years! Every time another woman kisses me, I see your face—I feel your lips. It’s your hands that touch me, your body that moves against mine…"

Nearly overcome with empathy for her friend, Ryan spoke the truth, even though she knew it was more painful to hear than it was to say. "That may be, Sara. You may dream of me, you may wish that we could be together. But you didn’t have the guts to make a phone call for seven long years. You couldn’t write one letter to me…one paragraph…one sentence…telling me how you felt. I hate to say this—it kills me to say this--but I have to be honest with you, Sara. I could never trust you enough to love you—even if Jamie didn’t exist. I would always fear that you’d give up on us if things got to be too difficult."

Sobbing freely, Sara asked the obvious question. "How do you know that Jamie can be trusted?"

Smiling softly, Ryan said, "She’s willing to give up anything to be with me, Sara. She’d give up her family, her friends, her wealth. She’s completely dedicated to me and to our relationship. I know that in my heart and in my soul. It’s a bone-deep confidence, born of the sacrifices she’s already made."

"Okay," she sniffed, standing tall and squaring her shoulders. She shook her head to settle her hair, and wiped her eyes with the back of her hands. "I can accept that, Ryan. I won’t try to contact you again."

"No, that’s not necessary," Ryan replied as she draped her arm around her shoulders. "Just because that phase of our relationship is over is no reason to think we can’t be friends again, Sara. I just don’t think it’s a good idea for me to see you alone. I really think we both need some time to mourn the loss of our what could have been. When the sexual and emotional tension has died down I’d love to get to know you again." A wide smile settled onto Ryan’s face as she said, "I didn’t just fall in love with you because I wanted to sleep with you, you know. I loved your personality and your energy. I’m sure that Jamie would like you if she got to know you, too. So let’s give it some time and see how things go." Ryan cocked her head slightly and asked, "Do you know what I’d really like?"

"Tell me," Sara urged.

"I’d love for you to find someone to settle down with. I’d love to be able to hang out together—as couples. I truly don’t want it to be over between us, Sara, but my obligation is to my partner."

Sara nodded slowly, obviously still fighting her tears. "I understand," she said softly.

"Hey, why don’t we walk down the street and have a little lunch?" Ryan asked. "I’ll be grouchy if I don’t get a little food soon."

"Umm…okay," she said, looking a little confused. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, I’m sure," Ryan assured her. "We’ve got Caitlin here to chaperone us."

Sara laughed in spite of herself, shaking her head at Ryan’s ability to see the humor in every situation. "Let me rinse my face off first, okay? I’m sure I look a mess."

Ryan waited outside while Sara freshened up, and a few minutes later they took off. As they walked down the street, Sara rested her head on Ryan’s shoulder and asked wistfully, "Why is it that the qualities that make you so lovable are the very ones that keep me from being with you?"

Ryan assumed the question was rhetorical, so she just turned her head slightly and placed a light kiss on the soft chestnut hair. This feels too good…too comfortable…too right, Ryan decided. I will not invite this kind of temptation into my life. "I’ve gotta switch Caitlin to my other arm," she lied, trying to get Sara to move away. "A week of volleyball took a lot out of the old serving arm."

Sara complied with her implied request, and they walked the rest of the way with a respectable distance between them.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Through the longish wait for a table and the extended lunch, Ryan shared the entire story of her discoveries about the events of her senior year. By the end of the meal, they were finishing each other’s sentences just like they had always done, and each woman was significantly more relaxed with the other than when the day had begun.

On the walk home, Ryan asked, "Did you have a good time on your trip?"

"Ehhh." Sara shrugged, looking slightly annoyed. "It was okay. My friends spent the entire ten days trying to hook me up with nearly every guy between the ages of 18 and 60, but other than that, I guess I enjoyed myself."

Ryan just nodded, deciding that Sara probably didn’t really want to hear her thoughts on the easy way to solve that complaint. But Sara clearly knew what Ryan was thinking, and she asked, "You think I’m a big chicken, don’t you?"

"Umm…well, umm…I don’t know if ‘chicken’ is the right word."

"What is, Ryan?" There was a decided challenge in Sara’s tone, and Ryan sensed that she really wanted an honest answer.

"Well, let me ask you a few questions. Is there any doubt in your mind that you’re gay?"

"No," Sara said decisively. "I’ve dated nearly every guy that any of my friends fixes me up with, and I’ve never felt a bit of sexual attraction for any of them. I’m definitely a lesbian."

"Okay…is there any compelling reason that keeps you from telling people who you are?"

"You mean like, do I fear for my life or something?" Sara gave Ryan a puzzled glance, furrowing her brow a little as she did.

"Well, that would be a big one," Ryan laughed. "But I meant things like having your parents withdraw their financial support or something like that."

"No, nothing. Especially not now that I’m through with school."

Ryan nodded slowly, pursing her lips as she pondered her friend’s earlier question. "Then I guess chicken is the right word," she said decisively, tempering her pronouncement with a fond smile.

"I think so, too," Sara said, looking glum. "I’ve been telling myself that there’s no need to come out until I find someone that I want to be with, but I think I’m using that as an excuse."

"It’s a pretty common one," Ryan agreed. "But, in a way, it’s easier if you do it when you’re single. Then your partner doesn’t become the hate object."

"Personal experience, Ryan?" Sara asked, looking concerned.

"A bit," she agreed. "Jamie’s dad is not one of my fans."

"Give him time," Sara urged. "No one can resist your charms for long." She gave Ryan a look filled with so much love and admiration that the taller woman felt the fluttering in her stomach again, and had to look away.

When they approached the O’Flaherty house, Ryan stood on the lowest step with Caitlin, sending the clear message that she did not want Sara to come into the house to say goodbye. They stood facing each other, both a little uncomfortable. Sara let out a sigh and gently patted Ryan’s cheek. "Take care of yourself, Siobhán," she said with a heartbreakingly sad expression on her face. She started to move forward, caught herself, then tentatively asked, "Can I kiss you goodbye?"

"How about a hug?" Ryan demurred, as she slid an arm around Sara’s trim waist.

"I would never refuse a hug from you," she whispered in her ear as she held on tight.

"I’ll never refuse to give you one," Ryan promised, and Sara knew that it was a promise that she could depend on.

Releasing Ryan, Sara backed up a little and addressed Caitlin, "Don’t let her get you into too much trouble this week, Little Bits." Ryan heard her voice break and saw the tears start to flow again, but Sara straightened her shoulders and walked up the sidewalk with a purposeful gait.

Continues in Part Thirteen


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