I Found My Heart in San Francisco

Book 6: Fidelity

by S X Meagher

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Early on a Monday morning in August, a young blonde woman slowly became cognizant of the world around her. Her eyes had not yet opened to greet the day, but that did not prevent her from taking in a great deal of information about her environment.

Shifting her body slightly, she refreshed her nerve endings, allowing them to recognize the surfaces they had been in contact with. Her right hand informed her brain that it rested on a warm, soft plane that was moving in a slow, steady cadence—up and down, up and down. As a small smile settled onto her face, the woman realized that her hand rested on her lover’s stomach, which chose that moment to rumble, signaling that it was time for breakfast.

The message from her right leg conveyed that her knee was pressed up against a cushioning tuft of curly hair, and it didn’t take her brain long to recognize the familiar sensation. She moved her leg slightly, delighting in the soft tickle that the wiry curls caused.

Before she opened her eyes, she consciously filled her lungs with the scent of her lover. The aromatic notes that wafted up from the body that she loved always made her senses reel, and today was no different. Her partner had run around like a hyperactive child the day before, the energy rolling off of her in waves. When she'd finally collapsed shortly after nine o’clock, it was all Jamie could do to peel the clothes off her body and get her under the sheet. That being the case, Ryan had not showered before bed, and now all of the various elements that made up her natural scent surrounded the very appreciative blonde woman.

The artificial aromas that usually adorned Ryan’s body were long gone. Her hair no longer smelled of ginger and green tea, and the light scent of soap was completely absent. In place of the artificial, the natural aromas were allowed to shine. Jamie often wished that Ryan would use only unscented personal care products, but her partner liked the scent of the items she used, not sharing Jamie’s fondness for her own fragrance. Therefore, the smaller woman had to wait for opportunities like this one—which were all too rare for her tastes.

Breathing in the distinctive, spicy scent, she let the various notes fill her senses, her head moving slowly to allow every element to reach her olfactory bulb. From the pattern of her breathing and the muscular tension she could feel in the warm body, Jamie knew that her partner was awake. She also knew that Ryan knew that she was awake, the perceptive woman never missing a trick. But over their weeks together they had developed the habit of lying together quietly in the morning, generally not speaking until they wished or needed to arise, and she had no desire to change that pattern today.

Jamie loved this quiet time together, and cherished each moment. Sometimes she woke almost an hour before they needed to get out of bed, and she was always happy to sense that it was still dark out, since that meant more time communing with Ryan’s body.

When she thought of it, that’s exactly what she was doing—she was experiencing Ryan’s body. Allowing the warm, soft, strong, powerful aura of her partner to fill her up—to nourish her soul before the events of the day slowly drained her reserves. It wasn’t that their days were particularly stressful—they weren’t. It was just that these stolen minutes of their busy day refreshed her spirit in a way nothing else ever had, and she guarded them zealously.

Feeling the sun begin to warm the room, Jamie knew that they would have to rise soon, and she forced one eye open to see how wide awake her partner was. Not surprisingly, Ryan’s bright blue eyes were fully open and an adorable half-smile graced her handsome face. Unable to contain her curiosity, Jamie uttered the first words of the day, "Whatcha thinking about?"

A deep, rumbling chuckle preceded Ryan’s reply. "Who says I’m thinking?"

"You’re always thinking, Love," Jamie correctly declared. "I can see those blue eyes darting, and can almost hear you thinking. What’s going on in that pretty head?"

Letting out a heavy sigh, Ryan said, "I don’t feel like I’m thinking, Love. I feel like I’m feeling."

That enigmatic reply didn’t shed much light, so Jamie tried again. "Okay, what are you feeling?"

Ryan turned her head, locking her gaze onto her partner, the intensity of her crystal eyes a little startling this early in the morning. "I’m feeling happy," she said with a voice full of conviction.

"Happy?" Jamie asked softly, feeling like her very soul was being lured into those hungry blue eyes.

"Yes, happy," Ryan declared. "Happier than I can ever remember being. Happier than I was as a child when I would lie in bed and make my plans for the future. Happier than I ever thought I could be." Her head dipped just enough to be able to capture the coral-tinted lips that had automatically moved closer. Several tender, emotion-filled kisses followed, the final kiss softer than a sigh. "You make me happy, Jamie," she whispered. "With you in my life I feel that everything will work out—that everything I ever wanted is attainable. You make me feel powerful and strong and vital. You’ve made my dreams come true."

Overcome with emotion, Jamie couldn’t reply with words. With trembling lips she showed her lover how much her beautiful words meant to her. Their tender kisses continued to speak for their souls, long past the insistent chirping of the alarm clock.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After waking up to such blissful happiness, Ryan was uncharacteristically grumpy on her morning run with the volleyball team. She had been forced to rush to get there on time, and had never gotten into a good groove, probably because she hadn’t been able to warm up properly. She was lying on a small patch of grass in front of the football stadium, trying to stretch her long body out when Jordan came over to sit beside her.

"Question," Jordan said, in her usual clipped manner.

"Shoot," the dark woman said, cocking her head slightly.

"You wanna room together?"

Ryan frowned slightly, puzzled as to why Jordan would want to wrap up this little detail at this point of the year. She felt pretty confident that Jordan didn’t want to make a move on her, but she still had enough doubts that she wasn’t really ready to make a season-long commitment yet. "Gee, Jordan," she kidded, hoping to put off the decision. "Pretty early to be thinking about road trips, isn’t it?"

Now Jordan looked puzzled. "We leave on the eighth, Ryan. That’s the end of the week, if they haven’t changed the calendar recently. They’re making room assignments today."

"What!?" Ryan exclaimed, causing the other players to stare at her. She consciously lowered her voice to a more normal level. "We don’t have a road trip for weeks!"

"Call it what you will—road trip, training camp—all I know is that we leave at the end of the week. No big deal if you don’t want to room with me, Ryan. I just want to know..."

"Jordan, what in the hell are you talking about?" Ryan was getting quite agitated, and it showed in her voice as well as her demeanor.

The tall blonde sighed heavily and explained as she would to a child. "We leave for our volleyball training camp on Sunday, Ryan. Haven’t you been paying attention at all?"

Jumping to her feet Ryan cried, "I had no idea we had a camp. Nobody told me one damned thing about it!"

"Uh-huh," Jordan nodded blithely, "I just told you, so the problem’s solved."

"It most certainly is not!" Ryan retorted. "I have commitments, and plans…I can’t just take of for…where in the hell are we taking off for, anyway?"

"Santa Cruz," Jordan supplied.

"I can’t just take off for Santa Cruz with no warning!"

She was really fuming now, and Jordan didn’t even try to calm her down, preferring to wait her out. Ryan stomped around in a small circle, muttering to herself until her anger had abated. She finally stopped and looked at Jordan accusingly, "Why didn’t you say something?"

"Me? Last time I checked I’m not the coach, the assistant coach, or the student manager. Take it up with them, pal."

Dropping to the ground in defeat, Ryan held her head in her hands, muttering, "This is what I get for trying to play a sport when I’m 23 years old. They treat me like I have no life outside of volleyball…and I do, damn it, I do!"

Jordan finally let some compassion show for her friend, and she placed a hand on her shoulder. "If you’ve really got a conflict, talk to Coach about it. He’s very easy to get along with."

"No," Ryan grumbled. "I don’t really have a conflict. I just don’t want to be away from Jamie. How long is this damn thing, anyway?"

"Just a week," Jordan informed her. "You’ll hardly know you’re apart."

Smirking, Ryan corrected her. "It bothers me to go to work without her, and that’s only for three hours."

"Ooh, right," she winced. "Forgot about that conjoined twin thing you two have going."

"Well, enough of my bitching," Ryan declared.

"You still didn’t answer my question," Jordan reminded her.

"Oh, right. Sure. No problem. I’d love to room with you," she decided, realizing that she had to make the decision quicker than she wished. "You don’t snore, do you?"

"I’ve never had any complaints," she said blithely as she sauntered off.


* * * * * * * * * * *

"Hey," Ryan mumbled, falling into one of the kitchen chairs with a thump.

Looking up from the newspaper, Jamie gave her a puzzled look and asked, "What’s wrong, Honey?"

"Do you want to go to Rhode Island on Sunday?"

"Huh? I thought we decided I’d go the week before school started."

"We did," she said, a definite pout forming. "But that was before I knew that I had to go to Santa Cruz for a week starting on Sunday."

"Santa Cruz, what on earth is in Santa Cruz?"

"Apparently, the team goes there for a week to start training. Believe me, Hon, it was news to me."

Pushing her chair from the table, Jamie walked over to Ryan and climbed aboard her lap. "You poor thing," she soothed, giving her a generous hug.

"Me? Why am I a poor thing? I thought you’d be angry that our plans got screwed up."

"Of course I’m not angry," she protested, surprised that Ryan would assume such a thing. "I feel bad for you because I know you don’t like being away from home for that long. It sounds like it will be a lot of work, and you won’t have me there to baby you. That’s why you’re a poor thing," she gently teased, pinching Ryan’s cheek.

Giving her a huge smile, Ryan said, "You are, by far, the best girlfriend in the whole world."

"No, you are," Jamie insisted, getting in a tickle on her ribs.

They wrestled for a few minutes, finally calling a draw when it started to get a little too rough. "Do you think you can arrange your trip this quickly?" Ryan asked.

"Oh sure. We fly into Boston. There are quite a few daily flights, so there shouldn’t be a problem. I guess I’ll call Mother and let her know I’m coming, huh?"

Ryan tossed her arms around her waist and gave her a hug that felt as desperate as it did fond. Burying her face in Jamie’s neck she whispered, "I don’t want you to go."

"Oh, Sweetheart, I don’t want to go, either. But at least this way you’ll be really busy. You’ll hardly have time to miss me."

Looking up at Jamie with a fragile look in her vivid blue eyes, she heartily disagreed. "I’ll always have time to miss you, Jamie. You’re the best part of every day of my life."

"You are the sweetest, most loving person I’ve ever known, Ryan. Being with you is so much better than I could have ever imagined." They were wrapped around each other so tightly that it was difficult for Jamie to take a deep breath. Pulling back a little, she tugged at Ryan’s wet T-shirt and suggested, "Let’s go upstairs and take two showers."

"You don’t want to take one together?"

"Of course I do," she affirmed, sliding off and extending a hand to help her partner up.

"Then why two?"

She tossed her arms around Ryan’s neck and pulled her down so that she could whisper into her ear. "One is to get clean…two is to get clean after we get dirty. And we’re going to get very…very…dirty."

Taking her hand, Ryan immediately started for the stairs, commenting, "I don’t know how you come up with these fantastic ideas, but you are truly a genius!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

Catherine was very pleased by Jamie’s change of plans, since they would be able to fly to Rhode Island together. The older woman offered to make all of the travel arrangements, and Jamie agreed to let her. Now the only item remaining was to spend as much time with Ryan as possible to store up enough hugs and kisses to last for an entire week.

The Friday team run was cancelled to give the players an extra day of rest before training camp began. Since Ryan would not have to go across the bridge during rush hour, they decided to go back to San Francisco on Thursday afternoon. Jamie played golf that afternoon at Olympic, and didn’t arrive home until after six. Going downstairs, she nearly tripped over the stroller on the landing. Ohhh, Caitlin’s here, she thought happily.

She dashed down the stairs and was just about to call out when she spotted the baby and Ryan lying on the bed, sound asleep. Oh my God, this is just too precious. I’ve got to get a picture.

Ryan was in her bright white underwear, lying on her right side with her knees drawn up a little. Her left arm was draped across the baby, who was nestled tightly up against her, her posture a baby-like imitation of her big cousin’s. She was in just her diaper and was also on her right side. Her little back was supported by Ryan’s chest and her left arm hung over the bigger one that cradled her body.

Jamie crept across the room as quietly as she could and found her camera. She turned off the flash to avoid waking them and moved around until she could perfectly capture both of their peaceful faces. The late afternoon sun was still warming their bodies and creating deep shadows across the bed. With the flash off she was able to take several pictures without waking the pair. She moved around the room stealthily, trying to capture the simple beauty of their slumber. She knew that Ryan would wake soon, since she seemed to have a sense for when Jamie was in the room, but she cherished every moment of her intense observation. It was so rare to find Ryan asleep and her expression unguarded that she went over to the loveseat and sat down to just gaze at them. When she caught the first vague stirrings of awareness moving through her lover’s body, she turned on the flash and took several more quick shots, then she laid the camera down and crawled into bed behind her. Snuggling up to the warm back, she rested her face on the smooth skin as she felt her partner begin to fully wake up.

"I feel like I’ve been drugged," Ryan mumbled sleepily.

"When did the baby get here?" Jamie asked.

"Tommy paged me when I was still at work. He got called in to work, and Maeve wasn’t home. So I went and got her at about 3:30."

"What did my two favorite babies do all afternoon?"

"She wanted to play her favorite game of ‘try to kill Ryan by running up the hills in my jogger,’ so we did that for about 45 minutes. Then we played in the yard with Duffy. We came down here at about 5:30."

"Ryan," she asked thoughtfully, drawing little patterns on the smooth skin right in front of her. "How did you know she wanted to run in the hills?"

"Oh, you can just tell. We communicate nonverbally, but it’s just as effective," she replied airily.

Just then they heard the front door open. "You guys there?" Conor called.

It was a measure of her comfort in their home that Jamie answered for them. "Yeah, we’re all down here."

Since their open door was visible from the landing, he went down, but stopped in the doorway. "Can I come in?" he asked rather hesitantly.

"Sure," Jamie replied quietly. "We’re helping Caitlin take a nap."

He took in the tableau of the three on the bed and shook his head. "I hate to get all mushy," he said, "but this is about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. I should take a picture of you three."

"My camera’s right on the loveseat," Jamie informed him, "but I’m so overdressed," she teased as she snapped the waistband of Ryan’s boxers.

"Good point," Conor replied sagely. "I’ll wait..."

"Take the picture while you still have fingers that work," Ryan threatened.

"Yet another good point, Sis," he laughed as he snapped a few. "Hey, aren’t you on dinner duty tonight?"

"Looks like takeout," Jamie suggested. "What sounds good?"

"Italian combos," the siblings said in unison.

"I don’t know why I bother to ask," she complained aggrievedly. "Are you sure you’re Irish?"

"The Irish are just Italians with bad weather, bad food and no opera," Ryan confidently informed her.

"Don’t forget the pubs," Conor reminded her.

"I didn’t forget the pubs," Ryan insisted. "The Italian version of the pub is the espresso bar," she elaborated. "We could have had espresso too, but we need the pubs to have someplace to drink away the rain."

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

After the adults had finished their combos and Caitlin had consumed her brown mystery meat with carrots and peas, they walked her home since her parents were both due home by seven.

Jamie decided that this was a perfect time to bring up the subject of a small vacation for Tommy and Annie, and she and Ryan discussed the particulars during their walk.

"We have a proposal for you two," Jamie began when they were all sitting in the living room. "Ryan and I have talked about doing this ever since we got back from the ride, and it seems like we’re about to run out of free time. So, if you approve, we’d like to watch Caitlin for a few days after I come home from Rhode Island."

Annie looked at Jamie, then at Ryan. "You know you can have her any time you want. But why on earth would you want to have her around the clock?" She obviously realized how harsh that sounded and moderated her question. "I mean, I know it’s fun to be with her for a few hours, but it’s quite a different thing to have her for days at a time. You wouldn’t have a moment to yourselves."

"That’s our point," Jamie said. "We think you two need some time alone. Ryan tells me that your anniversary is coming up, and we’d like to do this as a little present for you."

"Are you serious?" Tommy asked, since Annie couldn’t make her mouth work. "You want to give us time alone? Completely alone?"

"Yes," Ryan confirmed. "We really think you need some time to just relax. We see how hard you both work to take care of the munchkin here, and your schedules don’t allow you to be alone enough. We’d really like to give you this little gift."

Annie finally got her mouth to relay the messages that her brain was firing. "But we can’t…" she stuttered. "We can’t impose on you for something like that. It’s just too much."

"Look, Annie," Ryan explained. "Once school starts I’m going to be busier than I’ve ever been. I have a game almost every Friday and Saturday, and I’m going to have a ton of homework. My time with Caitlin will really be reduced and spending time with her now will fill my tank up a little bit. We really want to do this—both for you and for us."

"How much time are we talking about here?" Annie asked, her excitement showing in her dancing blue eyes.

"We could go for a week," Ryan said, "but whatever you think is best for her would be fine."

Annie cast several questioning glances at Tommy, but he was apparently content to let her make this decision. "I’d guess that four days would be her capacity," she mused. "Would you just hang around the house, or what?"

"Well, we were really planning on going to Disneyland," Jamie proposed. "Neither of us have been, and we thought it would be more fun if we had Caitlin with us."

Annie smiled broadly, charmed by their naïveté. "I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but at her age, she would be just as happy to sit in the back yard and dig a hole with her little shovel, but if you don’t mind taking her, I certainly don’t mind her going."

"Fine with me," Tommy agreed. "Then when she’s 20 and complains that she never got to go anywhere, we can point to this trip that she won’t remember, just to make her mad!"

"That’s what parents are for," Ryan agreed with a laugh. "Taunting the kids is one of the biggest perks."

"Are you sure you know what you’re in for, guys?" Tommy asked seriously. "She can really be a hellion nowadays, and I’d hate for you to have your trip ruined."

"I know there’s a chance that she’ll hate it and want to come home," Ryan agreed. "But I think it’s worth the risk. Besides, we’ve discussed our plans for having a family, and it would be nice to get some firsthand experience. It might give us a more realistic impression of what it’s like to have a baby."

"I’m sold," Tommy said. "I’ll put in for a few days off when I get to work tomorrow."

"So where do you plan on going for your trip?" Jamie asked, very excited at the prospect of them having their first vacation in nearly two years.

They looked at each other in rather stunned silence as they both realized that they were free to leave the house alone for the first time in a year. "I’m happy to turn off the phone, lock the door and sleep," Annie admitted.

"That sounds a little boring to me," Tommy said thoughtfully. "I’d like to go to a nice resort where we can turn off the phone, lock the door and sleep," he said with a laugh. "But we have a lot of bills coming up. So I don’t know if that’s possible."

"Maybe something will turn up," Jamie said with a sly smile that only Ryan caught. "You never know."

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

When they were getting ready for bed, Jamie prevailed upon Ryan to pose for a picture of the temporary tattoo that Jordan had bought for her. She had her in just her undershirt, lying on her side with one leg drawn up. She finished the roll, and took it out of the camera, slipping it into her bag to drop off for developing. "I think that might be a nice picture for our Christmas card this year," she teased.

"Just remember, paybacks are a bitch!"

"And knowing you, it will be a doozy," she acknowledged wisely.

"Count on that, Babe," she agreed as she pulled her onto the bed. "I’ll have lots of time on my hands during the next week to think of an apt punishment."

"Speaking of hands," Jamie teased, pulling Ryan’s hands to her face and kissing them tenderly. "How many times a day do you think your hands will be in my favorite place while I’m gone?"

"I don’t know. This will be a new experience for me," she admitted. "Since you’re my major erotic stimulus I don’t know if I’ll have the need with you gone."

"I don’t know, Baby. I think your drive will continue unabated," Jamie guessed.

"We could have phone sex every night," Ryan said suggestively.

"We could," she agreed. "My cell phone has nationwide access. Have you ever had phone sex?"

"Does having sex in a phone booth count?" she asked with her most innocent face.

"No, Ryan, it does not, you little exhibitionist."

"Then I have not had phone sex," Ryan said proudly.

"Oh boy, virgin territory," she said sleepily as she snuggled closer and drifted off, wrapped around her partner like a human blanket.

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

As soon as Jamie thought her mother would be awake on Friday morning, she gave her a call.

"Hi, Mother," she said in greeting. "Feeling generous today?"

"For you? Always, Dear. What do you need?"

"I wanted to ask a favor of you, Mother."

"Anything in my power, Sweetheart. Just ask."

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

Ten minutes later, Annie was staring at Jamie in open-mouthed shock. "But...but...but Jamie, we can’t just go use your parents house," she stuttered.

"Why not? It’s my mother’s home, and she is very happy to share it with the people I care about. She was very enthusiastic when I asked her. You’ll offend both of us if you don’t accept," she threatened.

"But won’t they want to use it?"

"No. Mother will be in Newport for the rest of the month, and my father doesn’t go down very often at all. Mother said he’s sailing in a race the weekend you’d be there, so there’s no chance that he could go even if he wanted to."

"But Jamie, this is just so generous. I don’t know if we can accept. You know how Tommy is about gifts."

"It’s not a gift, Annie. It’s a big house that’s sitting empty on a week that you’d like a little vacation. It won’t cost my parents a dime more to have you there. They have the pool heated all the time, the lights come on every evening at dusk, there’s a maid who comes in even when they aren’t there. It’s a waste not to use it."

"Did you say a pool and a maid?" she asked weakly, finding a chair and sitting down before her legs gave way.

"An indoor pool that you can go skinny dipping in," she added, keeping up the pressure.

"Okay, we accept," she said decisively. "And if Tommy makes a fuss he can stay home. I’ll go alone!"

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

Jamie didn’t play golf that afternoon, deciding to stay home and get ready for her trip. When Ryan returned home from work, she lay with her head hanging from the end of the bed and watched her partner pack. "You really are good at this, aren’t you?" she queried from her upside-down perspective.

"Years of practice," the blonde admitted. "I can pack for a month in one suitcase if I need to."

"Where did you ever go that you were limited to one suitcase?" she teased, knowing that the Evans family would never be concerned with paying for excessive weight on a flight.

"I’ve had some pretty rugged trips," she informed her with a scowl.

"Like what, Provénce on $2000 a day?"

"No, smarty pants. Like riding llamas up to a remote mountain in Peru. Or a wildlife preserve in Kenya, or..."

"Your mother rode a llama??!"

"No. I took a lot of vacations with just my father," she recalled fondly. "We were quite the pair when I was young. I looked forward to those trips for months," she said with a faraway look in her eyes.

Ryan rolled over quickly and jumped to her feet. The quick motion made her very dizzy, and she stumbled drunkenly until she reached her lover. "Whoa!" she said as she grabbed her head. "Head rush!"

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, you just looked sad, and I wanted to give you a hug," she said, doing just that.

Jamie let out a heavy sigh as she snuggled into the hug. "Who’s going to do this for me next week?" she asked in a small voice. "I’ve become very hug dependent, you know."

"Can you store up some extras? I could hug you all afternoon."

"I didn’t think about how hard this was going to be when I agreed to go," she admitted. "I used to just pack up and leave and not give it another thought. But now, I don’t think about anything but when I’ll be with you again. It’s really going to be hard to live without you, Baby. I don’t know how I’ll be able to sleep."

"Why don’t you call me late every night? We can cuddle over the phone, and I can tell you bedtime stories about the fair princess in the faraway castle and her handsome lover, the dark, brooding Celt."

"You’re as far from brooding as people get, but I would love to have you talk to me while I lie in bed."

"Just make sure that your phone works nationwide and make sure you take your charger."

"Okay, I’ll make sure it’s on my list." She walked over to a neatly typed sheet and read it carefully. "Yep. It’s on here," she said.

Ryan walked over and checked the list. "This isn’t very long, and there’s almost no clothes mentioned. Are you nudists?" Her waggling eyebrows indicated how receptive she would be to that practice.

"No," Jamie laughed, snatching the list from Ryan’s hands. "What we do best as a family is shop. I just thought it made sense to take clothes for the first day and then let mother buy me all new things. She’ll do it anyway, so I might as well have less to carry."

"I can take you to your flight, can’t I?" Ryan asked.

"Sure. I assumed you would. Why do you ask?"

"I thought you might feel uncomfortable with me kissing you madly and making a dramatic scene in front of your mother. I was afraid you’d be embarrassed when I fell to the ground and wrapped my arms around your ankles and begged you not to leave me."

"How can I be embarrassed when I’ll be glued to you like a moray eel?" she teased back. "The airport personnel may have to pull us apart."

"When’s the flight again?"

"Sunday at 12:20 a.m."

"That’s just a nice way of saying really late Saturday night," Ryan admonished her.

"I know, but the red eye really makes the most sense. I can sleep the whole way and not feel like I’ve lost a day with you. Think you can really wear me out tomorrow so I fall asleep as soon as we leave the ground?"

"Now that I can do," she promised with a kiss.

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

They set a new record for early bedtime on Friday night. Even Martin had to tease them a little as Jamie dramatically stretched and yawned at 7:15, just minutes after the dinner cleanup.

Their passion for each other was much fiercer than normal, the upcoming separation making them nearly wild with desire. By 9:30 they were limp, sweaty, and unbearably thirsty. "Why don’t we remember to bring something to drink with us when we come down?" Jamie whined.

"I don’t understand why we can’t learn a simple lesson, ‘making love makes you thirsty’."

"I hate to have to get dressed to go upstairs," Jamie moaned pathetically as she gave her lover a surreptitious glance to see if she would take the bait and run upstairs.

"I feel exactly the same way," Ryan replied, not noticing, or choosing to ignore the obvious plea.

"What should we do?" she asked in her best helpless voice.

"I’ve got an idea," Ryan replied with a gleam in her eye. She crawled out of the mess of tangled sheets and stumbled over to Jamie’s phone. She shot her lover a smug smile as she dialed. "Hey," she said in her traditional greeting.

"Can I help you?" Conor asked with a chuckle.

"Do you remember when you thought that Mary Beth Ennis was pregnant?"

"What!?" he shouted.

"Do you remember?" she asked slowly.

"Well, yeah, that did tend to stick in my mind, since I thought my life was over."

"If you don’t bring down two huge glasses and a pitcher of ice water I’m telling," she declared defiantly.

"Gee, Ryan," he laughed. "That threat would have a lot more punch if I was still 19. I think Da knows that I’m having sex now. You know, you could just ask nicely, rather than trying to coerce me," he suggested.

"What fun would that be?" she asked, as though it was totally obvious.

"You do have a point there. Trickery is always more fun," he admitted with a laugh. "I’ll be right down. Do you have the energy to come to the door? Or should I snake a hose under it and pour the water through it?"

"No, the cubes wouldn’t fit. I’ll come to the door...after you leave," she said sternly.

"I never get to have any fun," he grumbled.

"Why don’t you get your own girl, rather than sitting at home on a Friday night? That could be fun."

"But who would bring you little sex maniacs your water?" he reminded her.

"Good point. My needs are paramount. Now make it snappy," she ordered. "We’ve had tremendous fluid loss down here. Lives are in the balance."

"Okay, okay, I’ll be right there," he said with a laugh.

Several minutes later Ryan opened the door to find the requested pitcher of water, two 64 oz. Big Gulp cups filled with ice, two oranges, and four Oreos. As she brought the tray in she looked at Jamie and said with a grin, "Living here isn’t half bad, is it?"

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

"Are you sure you don’t mind me playing golf with Daddy this morning, Honey?" Jamie asked for the fifth time.

"Jamie," Ryan soothed, wrapping her arms tightly around her. "If I had my way, I’d slap a pair of handcuffs on you and throw away the key. But I don’t in any way wish to stop you from spending time with your family. I think it’s important that you do, so you’ll never hear a complaint from me."

"I like the thought of being handcuffed to you," the smaller woman purred, thinking that it was impossible to have too much togetherness.

"Let me get my bag of tricks, and I can make it happen," Ryan assured her, starting to head towards the closet.

"After I play golf," Jamie decided, placing a fond kiss on the tip of Ryan’s nose. "Having you bound to me would screw up my swing."

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

They played their round very quickly since the course was wide open on this foggy Saturday, and it was only eleven when they finished up. "Can I convince you to have lunch with me?" Jim asked with just a touch of uncertainty in his manner.

Jamie desperately wanted to get home to Ryan, but she wanted to send up the first trial balloon about her distribution, and she thought it best to do that when Ryan wasn’t there. "That would be great," she agreed, tucking her arm around his waist as they walked into the clubhouse.

After their order was taken Jamie took a deep breath and launched into her speech. "I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my financial situation, Daddy."

He cocked his head but didn’t comment, even though she thought she could detect some irritation in his intent green eyes.

"Looking carefully at my trust portfolio, I’ve been distressed to see that I’m barely keeping pace with passbook interest."

"You do understand that the funds are invested very conservatively in compliance with your grandfather’s instructions, don’t you, Jamie? His intent was to preserve principal, not to grow the fund."

"I understand that, Daddy, and I think that philosophy might have been valid when he made that decision, but it doesn’t seem wise at this point in my life. I’m just 21 years old, and I can afford to be a little more aggressive with at least some of the money."

Folding his hands on the table, he looked at her and asked, "Just how do you plan on accomplishing that, Jamie?"

"I’d like to take the 25% percent distribution that I was entitled to on my birthday," she said.

He looked like he was trying to remain calm as he took in several deep breaths. His hands were clasped together so tightly that she could see his fingers digging into the spaces between his knuckles. "Entitled is not the correct term, Jamie," he finally said. "You’re entitled to the distribution of your entire account upon your 30th birthday. Up until that point, all distributions are purely discretionary. The mere fact that there is a schedule of possible distribution dates should not lead you to believe otherwise."

She was stunned by both his tone and the formality of his speech, and she sought to determine what the cause of both was. "You sound like you’re angry, Daddy. Is something wrong?"

He consciously tried to appear relaxed, and was fairly successful at doing so, years of practice in the courtroom once again paying off. "No, nothing is wrong, Jamie. I just like to be clear on matters like this. I’m just sounding like a lawyer. Sorry about that." He gave her a smile and added a pat on the hand, and this seemed to reassure her.

"That’s okay," she said dismissively. "So, to phrase it correctly, I suppose I’m asking for a discretionary distribution of 25% of my trust." Her vivid green eyes were locked upon his, and both of them could feel that this was turning into a test of wills.

"What do you plan on doing with the money?" he asked. "This is a very large sum, as you know."

"Yes, I know that, Daddy, and at this point I’m not sure how I want to invest it. I assume I’ll hire a broker to help manage it. I don’t want to be reckless with it, if that’s what you’re worried about," she insisted.

"What does Ryan think about this?" he asked, almost casually, as the server delivered their meal.

Jamie waited until they were alone, then spent a few moments arranging her BLT to her satisfaction, intentionally keeping her father waiting. "She’s in favor of it, of course. I wouldn’t make a decision like this without her support."

He waited her out this time, making his next comment when she took the first bite of her sandwich. "I received a very interesting call from Tuck Gray this week. He tells me that you and Ryan were at his office interrogating him about your trust." His smile was still affixed to his face, and a casual observer would not see the rancor behind those words. But Jamie knew him well, and she recognized the tone all too well.

"If taking an interest in my finances and asking my own trust officer for clarification on certain items should be called ‘interrogating’, then he’s absolutely correct," she smiled disingenuously.

"Look Jamie," he said, giving her an intense stare. We’re both concerned about the level of trust you’re bestowing on Ryan."

"I thought you were supposed to trust your spouse," she said quietly.

"Jamie," he began in a derisive tone, but when he saw the look on her face he softened his reply. "I understand that you believe this is your last love, but I beg you to go slow with this. The choices you make now will have a long-lasting effect, Honey. Please don’t be so rash!"

She could tell that he was being completely sincere but she could not let this point pass without comment. "Daddy, I want you to be able to tell me whatever is on your mind, but I have to do the same. I love Ryan, and I swear this is not some fling. The first time I kissed her, it was like the pieces of my life snapped together like an intricate puzzle. She completes me, Daddy, and I love her more than I can express. Please don’t belittle my feelings."

"I swear that I am not trying to belittle you, Jamie. But I can’t stand by and let her influence you like she has been doing. Tuck told me how she interrogated him about your trust! Can’t you see what is going on?"

"Yes, I can," she said with a simmering fire in her eyes. "You’ve decided that you don’t trust her, and my opinion is not as valid as your gut instinct!"

"Jamie, that is not true! I trust you, but you’re 21 years old! You haven’t been exposed to the types of things that I have. I only say this because I love you, Honey, but I believe that Ryan is trying to take advantage of you."

"That’s not acceptable, Daddy," she said firmly as she stood to leave. "I can’t let you insult her like that."

"Jamie, Jamie, I’m sorry," he said as he got to his feet and placed a gently restraining hand on her arm. "I admit that I don’t know her well, but it just looks terribly suspicious."

"You could take my word for it," she snapped.

"I know, I know, Honey," he soothed. "But this is incredibly hard for me, Jamie. Can’t you at least try to see things from my perspective?"

She sat down again, glancing around the room at the members at the other tables, all trying to look like they were not staring. It took her a moment, but she tried to have some empathy for her father’s feelings. "I’m not hungry, and it doesn’t look like you are either. Let’s go outside and talk about this without an audience, okay?"

He nodded gratefully, signaling their server for the tab and signing it immediately when it was presented. They walked outside and took seats by the swimming pool, waving off the attendant who scampered out to see if they wished to order.

"Can we start over?" she asked after a few minutes of silence. "Yelling at each other is not very productive."

"I’d like that," he said gratefully. He stared at her for a moment, and admitted, "Few things upset me more than arguing with you, Jamie. It feels like a physical assault." He dropped his head slightly. "You won’t understand this until you have children of your own, but this honestly tears me up inside." He looked more vulnerable than she had ever seen him, and her heart immediately went out to him.

"I do understand, Daddy. I hate this too! It just doesn’t have to be this way. All I’m asking is that you honor my decisions!"

Looking up slowly he reminded her, "All I’m asking is that you slow down in making them, but it appears that neither of us wants to give in."

Shaking her head slowly, she said, "I can’t for the life of me figure out why you distrust Ryan so much. I know that my being in a lesbian relationship is hard for you to adjust to, but other than the fact that she’s a woman, I would think you’d be overjoyed that we were together."

He cocked his head, encouraging her to go on.

"She’s so mature, Daddy, and she really encourages me to have a relationship with you and Mother. She understands that you feel uncertain about her, and she doesn’t try to cut you down because of it. But the biggest reason is that she makes me so happy, Daddy. If you really love me, don’t you want me to be with the person who best fulfills my needs?"

"Yes, of course I do, Jamie…" he began.

She cut him off quickly, insisting, "I’m the only one who knows what I need and what I want, Daddy. Only I can judge who makes me happy. And I swear—Ryan is the one. There isn’t a doubt in my mind."

"Jamie," he said fondly, patting her hand, "I know that you believe that. But it was just over a year ago that we had a similar discussion about Jack. As much as your mother and I liked him, neither of us thought it was wise for you to get engaged at such a young age. Do you remember what you told me then?"

Hanging her head she recalled the conversation, and her insistence that Jack was the love of her life. "I don’t know how to convince you of this, Daddy, but Ryan has opened a whole new world for me. At that point, Jack was the love of my life—and I could have been moderately happy if I had married him. But life with Jack would have been monochromatic. With Ryan, it’s like I see the world through a kaleidoscope of colors. The difference is so huge as to be unbelievable, Daddy."

Realizing that he was getting nowhere fast, Jim took another avenue. "I realize there is no way to convince you to take it slow with Ryan, Jamie, so let’s just leave that issue. My problem is, and always has been, that no matter her gender, she has you asking questions and making decisions that just don’t sound like you. That is what has me worried!"

"Daddy, I’m just growing up! It makes total sense that I want more of a say in my finances."

"Jamie, you were completely uninterested in your trust when you were with Jack. How can I not wonder about the change, when your interest coincides with Ryan’s arrival on the scene? All of a sudden you need a bigger car, you need a copy of your trust agreement, you try to have her granted the ability to make distributions from your trust. Don’t you see how bad that looks?"

She waited a long while to answer his question, even though it was most likely rhetorical. "It only looks bad if you don’t trust either of us," she murmured, unable to look up at him.

"I don’t trust her, Jamie, I’ll admit that freely. She is going to have to earn my trust, and so far, she has done a poor job of that. I do trust you, but I still feel that she’s exerting undue influence on you. I will consider your request for the distribution, but I seriously doubt that I’ll grant it at this time."

"I already spoke to Mother about it…" she began.

"Your mother doesn’t look at these matters from a business perspective, Jamie. As you know, either of us can veto a distribution, and at this point my vote is ‘no’. That’s not an irrevocable decision, but I’m going to need much more convincing evidence before I decide to make a payment."

"Even though it’s money from Mother’s family," Jamie muttered, hitting a nerve.

Narrowing his eyes, Jim gave his daughter a glare that nearly caused her to gasp. "There was obviously a reason that your grandfather gave me veto power, Jamie. If he had trusted your mother’s judgment, he likely would not have done so, would he?"

"Funny how you inherited that trait from him, even though he wasn’t your father," Jamie snapped, pushing her chair back roughly and stalking out of the pool enclosure.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan was sitting at her computer responding to her e-mail when she heard Jamie’s tread on the stairs. Swiveling around in her chair, her bright smile fell when she saw the look on her partner’s face. Most people would have only seen the anger sparking in the bright green eyes, or noticed the grim set of her mouth, but Ryan knew that just beneath the angry appearance was a very sad young woman. One concerned look from Ryan brought the sadness to the fore, and without a word Jamie fell into her embrace and finally allowed the tears to flow.

Ryan didn’t ask what was bothering her, knowing that Jamie was in no position to speak right then. She adroitly maneuvered her to the bed, where they snuggled together, with Jamie holding on rather desperately. She wasn’t crying all that hard, but she certainly didn’t seem very verbally expressive, so Ryan continued to provide the physical comfort that Jamie was soaking up like a sponge.

Her first words came as if in response to her partner’s unposed query. "I hate to be treated like a child," she finally said, confirming Ryan’s suspicions.

She knew of Jamie’s plans to speak to her father about the distribution, and she had tried to gently dissuade her partner from bringing it up quite yet. But dissuading Jamie from her intended path was easier said than done, and Ryan desperately wished she had not been right about her predictions regarding Jim’s reaction. But now her concern was for her lover’s injured feelings, not about who had been right or wrong. "What happened, Babe?"

Jamie rolled over and sat up on the edge of the bed, grabbing some tissues to dry her eyes. "Oh, the usual," she said bitterly. "He’s in charge…he doesn’t think I know what I’m doing…"

She looked like she was going to say more, but she stopped herself, shaking her head angrily. Ryan knew what she was holding back. She looked at Jamie with compassion and asked, "He thinks I’m behind this, doesn’t he?"

Jamie nodded slightly, a few more tears falling when she saw the understanding in Ryan’s eyes. "I just don’t get it, Ryan. He’s spent time with us…he sees how you are, and how we are together. I honestly thought that once he got to know you…" She wiped at her eyes viciously, angry with herself for crying about this.

"We knew this was going to take some time, Love. I think we need to be more patient," Ryan said softly, reaching out to pull her partner against her chest. This was a recurrent discussion, and Ryan knew that it was one that her partner did not want to hear, especially not right now.

"I shouldn’t have to be patient," she pouted, looking like an adorable little tow-headed child. "He should trust me, Ryan. Even though he doesn’t know you well, he knows me! My word should stand for something, shouldn’t it?"

"Of course it should," Ryan agreed, nuzzling her head against Jamie’s neck in a move that usually relaxed her. "I really believe that over time, it will. I mean, look at how good things are going with your mom. He’s going to realize that he’s outnumbered eventually…and it’s not like you need the money right now, right?"

Her warm, calm voice was slowly relaxing Jamie, and she felt some of the tension start to leave her body. She slumped heavily against her partner, enormously happy that she had her in her life. "No, I don’t need it now," she agreed. "It just upsets me more than I can even say, Ryan. Being autonomous is very, very important to me, and it irks me every time I have to go to him or Tuck to get money for something."

"I can understand that, Honey. It would drive me wild to ask Da for money, so I really get why it bothers you. But being upset about it and butting heads with your father isn’t going to make the problem go away. I’m afraid that it will actually exacerbate it over the long term, and I know you don’t want that. Let’s just keep the status quo for a while. We can spend the time learning more about investments and money management, and when you do get the distribution we’ll know what we want to do with it." Leaning her head around so that she could see Jamie’s eyes she asked, "Deal?"

The blonde head reluctantly nodded, her pursed lips not allowing for a smile, but Ryan was satisfied with her agreement, even though it wasn’t enthusiastic. Thinking it would be wise to get Jamie’s mind off of her encounter with her dad, Ryan sought a diversion. "It’s one o’clock," she announced. "We’ve got the whole afternoon and evening to ourselves. How do you want to spend it?"

Jamie considered the soft breast on which her cheek rested and felt some of her stress drain away. "Gosh," she said innocently, nestling and nuzzling, "the symphony is in town. We could go hear some Chopin concertos. There are a couple of new movies out that I’d like to catch…Maybe a visit to the park?" As she offered this suggestion, she turned around and started to undo the buttons of Ryan’s chambray shirt, a little grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. "We could probably get a reservation to tour Alcatraz…Have you ever been?" The shirt was pushed off Ryan’s shoulders and tossed aside, then Jamie reached behind her and unhooked her bra.

Even though the day was warm, there was a chill in the room, and as Ryan’s clothes fell, goose bumps covered her body, slowly traveling across the expanse of skin until her nipples became rock-hard. Both women watched the transformation of the deep pink skin, their eyes glued to the small points. Swallowing audibly, Ryan tried to continue their conversation. "Uh-huh," she murmured. "I went to Alcatraz with my class in grammar school." She swallowed again, realizing that her mouth was bone-dry. "Given those choices, I think I’ll take the symphony," she decided, whisking Jamie’s polo shirt away. "I’ve never been, you know."

"Really?" Jamie asked lazily, as she watched her bra being removed and felt Ryan’s warm breasts rub against her own. "What were you saying, Love?"

"I was saying," Ryan purred, lowering her lover to the mattress to efficiently remove her shorts, "that I’ve never been to the symphony."

"What an odd thing to bring up now," Jamie breathed. "Does your mind often wander like this while we’re making love?"

"Is that what we’re doing?" Ryan asked, as her mouth traveled slowly down the center of Jamie’s body. "I thought we were going to the symphony."

"You can call it that if you want to," Jamie allowed. "I suppose that’s as good a term as any, since you always make me hear the most beautiful music when we make love."

Smiling seductively, Ryan sang a few bars of music from her extensive mental catalogue. "Whenever you’re near me, I hear a symphony…"

* * * * * * * * * * *

A few hours later, Jamie was lying on her back with Ryan’s head resting on her chest. She repeatedly ran her fingers through the dark hair, pulling a handful of strands up and letting them slowly fall back down. "I love your hair this length," she said as she continued to play with the shiny locks. "It actually allows me to play with it more than I could before. It’s so thick and heavy that it just glides through my hands."

Somewhat remarkably, they had not yet technically had sex, but they had been making love for hours. They were both sad about their imminent separation, and it seemed that prolonged touching of each other and talking were more reassuring than the rush of sexual desire that usually overtook them when they were intimate like this.

Ryan lazily rolled her head from side to side to allow her lover full access. "I could honestly lie here and let you play with my hair for the rest of the day. It almost puts me in a trance to have you run your hands through it so rhythmically."

"What’s most relaxing for you? Head rubs, backrubs?"

She thought about that question for a while, going over the merits of each style of pampering. "I think a really good foot massage works best," she said decisively.

"Really? I would have bet that your head would win."

"Well, to be honest, it’s almost a tie. Both head rubs and foot rubs can put me to sleep. I just prefer to have my feet rubbed since I have a foot fetish," she said with a leer. "How about you?"

"I don’t know. I love to have my back rubbed, but it certainly doesn’t relax me," she said with a chuckle, remembering how nearly every backrub Ryan had ever given her had evolved into sex. "I suppose a head rub is the most relaxing for me, although I’ve never had you rub any part that wasn’t enjoyable."

"Why don’t you let me rub your back for a while? Dinner isn’t for another hour..."

"Oh, gosh, Ryan, I don’t know..." she said as she picked up her lover’s head and turned over quickly. She was spread out and waiting for the ministrations to begin by the time her sentence was finished.

"I always have to talk you into everything," she teased as she reached into her bedside table for the massage lotion. She climbed onto Jamie’s upper thighs to begin the massage, and within moments Jamie was humming with pleasure. Ryan got so totally focused on the massage that she failed to notice when her lover peacefully fell asleep, until the heavy, rhythmic breathing caught her attention. She slid off her hips and snuggled down next to her, chuckling to herself. Backrubs don’t relax you, huh? Good thing I love snuggling as much as making love, Ryan thought with a smirk as she nodded off minutes later.

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

Part 2

As soon as the kitchen was cleaned from dinner, Ryan got a fiery look in her eye and literally chased Jamie down the stairs to their bedroom. "Don’t forget to take water with you," Conor called out as they raced past him. Ryan did a quick about-face and ran back into the kitchen to snag a bottle of Gatorade. "Thanks, Bro," she replied with a grin as she blew by him on the return trip.

By the time she returned to their room, Jamie was already naked and waiting patiently on the bed, lying on her right side with her head supported by her braced hand. "What took you so long?" she inquired, attempting to look cross with her partner. "We don’t have a minute to waste!"

Ryan gave her a wide grin as she hurriedly started to strip, working on the buttons of her shirt with ruthless efficiency.

"I love the cute little face you make when you undress," Jamie murmured, her eyes fixed on Ryan’s face.

"I wasn’t aware I made a face when I took off my clothes," Ryan said, the adorable expression becoming a little brighter.

The smaller woman shook her head briskly, and tried to clarify. "You don’t make a face per se, and you don’t do it if you’re only getting undressed for a shower or something equally prosaic. But when I’m waiting for you in bed, and you think we’re going to make love, you get the cutest little sexy grin on your face when you start to strip. It always gives me chills."

"Chills, huh?" the dark woman repeated as she kicked off her boxers. Approaching the bed, she knelt down on the edge, perusing her lover carefully, her index finger tracing a path all over her back and sides. "Let me see...oh yeah, I see some chill action here."

Rolling onto her back, Jamie looked up at Ryan for a long moment, an appraising look in her eye. "Would you wear some sexy underwear for me if I bought them for you?" There was a touch of hesitation in her voice that puzzled Ryan.

She flopped down on the bed, grabbing her partner and pulling her down with her. "I’d wear absolutely, positively anything that would in any way please, excite, arouse, or titillate you, my pet. It surprises me that you even ask."


"Anything. But I can’t guarantee I’d wear anything outside of our room. I’m not going to work out in a thong, and that’s final!"

"Mmmm, you’d look so incredibly hot in a thong you’d never be able to wear it out of the house. I’d have it off you in moments."

"If you recall, I told you when we were in Pebble Beach that I’d willingly play any little dress-up games that you can come up with. I meant it," she said firmly.

Now Jamie looked embarrassed as she admitted her agenda. "I love you in your boxers, and I’m crazy about your new ‘uglies’, but sometimes I’d like you to wear sexy girlie kinda stuff. Would you mind that?"

"Of course not!" Ryan insisted. "I’ll dress up like those women in the ‘lesbian’ movies that they make for guys, if that pleases you, Babe. Camisoles, bustiers, thongs, G-strings, edible panties. Absolutely anything your heart desires."

Now Jamie was a little embarrassed by her hesitancy. "I know you’re particular about what you wear on a daily basis, and I just kinda thought you might not like the girlie stuff."

"Nope. I like girlie stuff just fine. It’s not comfortable for me when I work out, and since I work out at some point every day I’m not in the habit of wearing sexy undies. But I must admit that I like wearing soft, sexy things, and think it’s wonderful attire for the boudoir." Her heavy French accent cracked Jamie up, as usual, and she kissed her soundly as a reward.

"In that case, I think I’ll have some little--and I do mean little--presents for you when I come back," she purred. "I wonder if Mother will be scandalized if I take her shopping with me."

"Ummm, I think there are some things that parents just don’t want to know. It’s one thing to approve of your child’s sexual relationship, it’s quite another to think of your daughter and her girlfriend playing naughty dress-up games."

"You’ll think this is silly, but it still gives me a thrill to hear you refer to me as your girlfriend," Jamie admitted shyly.

Ryan turned over onto her stomach and leaned over her partner. "Why would I think that was silly? I get a thrill when I say it. I love that you’re my girlfriend," she said softly as she began to nuzzle her neck.

Jamie wrapped her arms around her lover’s neck and drew her in for a long kiss. "Mmmm, I love that I’m your girlfriend too. The hours are great and the benefits are fantastic," she teased.

Ryan could tell where they were headed, and she had a feeling that they were going to get there soon, so she tried to inject a note of caution. "Before we get too involved I want to set an alarm just in case. I don’t trust either of us to watch the clock," she said with an eyebrow wiggle as she set her trusty watch alarm. "If you need to be there by 11:30 we need to leave by 11. How long do you need to get ready?"

"Well, I hope I need another shower," she said seductively, "so I need a half hour."

"Okay, 10:30 it is." She tossed her watch onto the bedside table and resumed her position. "Now, where were we?"

"We were just starting to get sad that we’re leaving," she said with the beginnings of a pout forming on her lips.

"Hey now," Ryan soothed, wrapping her partner in a warm embrace. "We’ve got two and a half hours until we need to get up. Let’s give ourselves something to remember when we’re alone in bed for the next week." Moving away slightly so that she could see Jamie’s expression, Ryan trailed her fingers over her lover’s face, watching the small muscles react to her touch. "I’m sure I could put a smile back on that pretty face if you let me."

"Oh, I’ll let you, all right," she replied as she tilted her head and brushed her lips against Ryan’s. "I’d like to see who could stop me."

They moved against each other slowly, letting their desire dictate their actions. Jamie felt an insistent pull that demanded she take the lead this evening, and she expressed her desire to her partner. "I need to fill myself up with all of the sensations of your body, Ryan," she murmured, her lips very close to the beautifully formed shell-pink ear.

Without question, Ryan shifted position until she was lying on her back. Maintaining eye contact, she slowly extended her arms and legs until she was stretched out fully, her hands lying passively above her head. Her gaze burned with its intensity, and she softly said, "Anything you want…anything you need. My body is completely, eternally yours."

The selflessness of the proud, powerful woman struck a chord deep in Jamie’s soul, and she accepted the gift with reverence, knowing that her partner had rarely made herself this vulnerable with others. Smiling at the stunning beauty laid out before her, Jamie sealed the offer with a kiss, lingering for a long while as she languidly explored the warm, wet mouth that offered such comfort.

She kissed Ryan with such fervor that both women were struggling to breathe in moments, the dark woman’s chest straining from the effort. Knowing that she wanted to slowly explore her partner, Jamie backed off and started to move down the beautifully displayed flesh. Kissing, licking, suckling and nipping the tender skin, soon the smaller woman found herself at the end of the bed,

Deciding to focus on the soft, clean, soap-scented feet, Jamie sat cross-legged at the end of the bed and gently lifted one of the appendages and placed it in her lap. Her hands began to slowly and carefully massage, continuing her gentle movements, moving from one foot to the next and back again until Ryan drowsily said, "Honey, that feels great, but you’re about to put me to sleep. Remember, that’s the easy way to relax me, not arouse me."

"Oh, I must have gotten confused," Jamie said innocently. "I thought you said foot rubs excited you."

"Well, I guess they can," she mused. "After all, I do have a foot fetish. But generally they just feel so good that I relax and fall asleep."

"Hmmm, I certainly don’t want you to fall asleep," the blonde murmured. "Since I’m already down here, maybe I can think of something that would arouse you. Let me see," she said thoughtfully as she continued to rub the sensitized feet. "Would this arouse you at all?"

She lifted one foot and brought it close to her mouth, and then methodically licked each toe, one at a time, grinning to herself when she felt Ryan’s body twitch to attention, all traces of sleepiness gone in an instant. Slowly, teasingly, she moved her tongue up and down the perfectly formed arch, making a little wet trail from the tip of the toes to the base of the heel. Ryan responded as expected, emitting tiny little moans as each part of her sensitive foot was loved tenderly. "Is this having any effect on you?" Jamie asked softly, knowing the answer.

"Umm, hmm," Ryan groaned, her body taking on muscular tension as she tried to control her response.

Each little toe was pulled into Jamie’s warm mouth, with Ryan’s moans increasing in volume as the warm, wet tongue bathed each digit. She did not increase the pressure, nor did she suck very forcefully, wanting Ryan to feel the warmth of her mouth rather than the force of it. She continued to lavish her attentions on the pink feet, not stopping until Ryan was nearly beside herself with arousal, her hips unable to remain still.

Loving her partner’s feet proved to be nearly as stimulating for Jamie as it was Ryan, and by the time she was finished, her mind was no longer able to manage complete thoughts. Her body was clearly in charge now, and oddly it kept telling her to use her breasts to continue the foot worship. Not quite sure of what she was looking for, she scooted to the edge of the bed and poked around in the drawer of the bedside table. A small bottle of mango flavored ‘motion lotion’ caught her eye and she grabbed it before settling back onto the bed.

She placed some of the warming lotion on her fingers, and carefully applied it to each of her own nipples, which immediately stiffened under her delicate touch. Once again she lifted one pampered foot, slowly rubbing the toes over her slick nipples in a thoroughly arousing manner. The lotion began to warm, and tingle with the friction of the skin sliding across them, and soon Jamie was flying along at Ryan’s level, both of them groaning softly as the hyper-sensitive toes glided past the equally sensitive nipples. Soon, both points had grown so rigid that she could hold her breast in one hand and slide the nipple between two of her lover’s toes. Ryan’s moans were both loud and continuous by this time, and she tried to stretch her foot to get more pressure, but Jamie held her firmly, exerting full control. She finished by rubbing Ryan’s entire foot over her rock hard nipples, letting the little points tickle the wondrously soft instep.

Deciding to stop before they combusted, she crawled up Ryan’s squirming body, straddling her waist as she leaned over to kiss her deeply for a few minutes. "You do have a foot fetish, don’t you?" she purred.

Ryan just smiled up at her with a weak grin. "Umm-hmm," was all she could manage before a massive shiver darted up her spine, causing her body to twitch roughly.

After several more minutes of deep kissing, Jamie sat up with a slightly stunned look on her face. "I have to stop," she murmured. "Your kisses are too much for me tonight, Love." Ryan smiled up at her, obviously pleased with her ability to take her partner’s breath away. Reluctantly, Jamie slid off her partner, leaving a noticeable wet spot on her tummy. With a sexy grin, she wiped the moisture off with her fingers and moved her hand to Ryan’s face where she delicately transferred the slick fluid onto her cheeks and chin, just to remind her of what was to come. Ryan’s mouth tried to capture her fingers, but she kept them tantalizingly out of reach, reminding her, "I’m in charge, Baby. Your patience will be rewarded."

Surveying her prey, Jamie felt chills chase down her spine as she took in her partner’s stunning beauty. A very light sheen of perspiration had formed from her shoulders to her knees, and the subtle glow from the bedside lamp made her skin appear to shimmer. She was still stretched out in her submissive pose, her breasts riding high on her chest, plump from arousal. The pink glow of desire merged with the bronze highlights of her skin, reminding Jamie of a lavish oil painting by one of the masters of the Renaissance. How will I be able to stand being apart from her for a whole week? she sighed, a low-level depression settling over her. She spent a few minutes touching Ryan’s body languidly, not trying to increase her arousal, merely to imprint the look, the smell, and the feel of the warm skin on her memory.

Trying one of Ryan’s tricks, she reminded herself, Be in the moment. She’s here with you now, and if you spend this time pining away for her when she’s here, you’ve wasted this precious time! To her surprise, the little mantra was fairly effective, and she was able to focus her mind on the present, chasing her concerns away to concentrate on the time they had left.

Forcing her mind on the present, Jamie began to take in the signals that her own body was sending. As usual, her desire for her partner was tremendous, but today it had become nearly painful. It was a need to merge with her…to consume her…to become one. The need was familiar, but the rabid intensity of the need was wholly unfamiliar, and she wasn’t sure how, or if, it could be satisfied. All she knew was that the only chance she had of satisfying her goal was to touch and kiss every inch of Ryan before the night was through, so she began to do just that.

Since Ryan’s feet had been thoroughly worshipped, she began at the ankle and slowly, methodically worked her way up, finally finding herself at the glistening black curls that beckoned her to move just a little closer and sample the alluring sensations that they held.

Shaking her head firmly, Jamie smiled when she realized that she didn’t need to physically manifest her refusal to nuzzle her face between Ryan’s legs. The dark woman’s eyes were firmly closed so that she could more fully enjoy the sensations that buffeted her, so Jamie’s argument was purely internal.

She kissed two of her fingers and, with the lightest of pressure, touched the warm spot that called to her, promising, I’ll be back.

It had been a few moments since her hands were active, and the deep blue eyes finally blinked open. Ryan gazed at her partner with a slightly quizzical expression.

Smiling softly, Jamie revealed, "Some of your bolder body parts have been propositioning me."

With a broad smile, Ryan nodded slowly. "They do that. You have to keep them in line."

"I’m not sure I know how to do that, since some of my parts are ill mannered also." She paused in thought for a moment, and finally decided, "Time to roll over, Baby."

Ryan blinked slowly, obviously having assumed that her demanding parts would be attended to. Seeing the hesitation, Jamie assured her, "We’ll come back to the front half soon. I just can’t have the back half getting jealous."

Smiling serenely, Ryan forced her body to follow instructions. When she was on her belly she resumed her submissive pose, stretching her long arms out over her head, sighing deeply as she did so. Taking the warming lotion, Jamie squirted a cool stream right down the center of Ryan’s back, smiling when she saw every muscle tense from the chill. Neither the tension nor the chill lasted for long when she began to rub the lotion in, and in minutes, Ryan was simmering once again. Jamie repeatedly leaned over and blew a warm stream of air across her back, her breath warming the lotion even more.

As her body shifted and twitched, she made her way down Ryan’s long form, finally finding herself astride her thighs. When she worked the lotion into the soft, smooth skin of Ryan’s ass, her lover’s hips began to grind against the mattress, as her low, incoherent grunts begged for more. Responding immediately, the smaller woman squirted another stream onto the smooth cheeks and began to massage them in a very erotic fashion. She kneaded, and rubbed and pressed her fingers into the firm flesh, causing Ryan to squirm under her, too turned on to even moan. Without thinking, Jamie allowed her index finger to slip between Ryan’s cheeks, finding herself slightly stunned by the reaction her touch elicited.

All movement stilled immediately. It seemed as though Ryan was even holding her breath as she waited…but for what? Jamie wondered. Intensely curious about her partner’s reaction, her finger swiped along the area a second time, with Ryan still not uttering a sound. Her body was so unearthly still that Jamie reasoned that she was either on the verge of telling her to stop her exploration or was very interested in having it continue.

As she pondered the question, Jamie tried to still her racing heart and decide what she wanted to do. She had never considered touching her partner in this way, automatically putting this spot in the "untouchable" category. But tonight, she felt an intense desire to break down any remaining barrier between her and her partner, to have no secrets, no qualms about fully experiencing every possible part of each other’s bodies. She wasn’t absolutely sure, but she sensed that Ryan wanted this too, that her lover wanted to demolish any vestiges of discomfort that lingered between them. As much as she was tempted to explore, Jamie was loathe to ever cause her partner discomfort, so she leaned forward and placed her lips right next to Ryan’s ear. As her fingers dipped between the soft cheeks one more time she whispered, "Can I touch you…here?"

"God yes!" Ryan moaned, a massive expulsion of air leaving her lungs.

That was clear, Jamie smiled gently as she sat up again, still astride Ryan’s legs.

Worried that the warming lotion might irritate the ultra-tender skin, she reached back into the open drawer and found a bottle of thick gel lubricant. Her fingers brushed by a small package of latex finger cots, and she smiled in memory as she recalled the evasive answer Ryan had provided when she quizzed her about their purpose. Take one out of the pack, Jamie once again sat on Ryan’s thighs and resumed her exploration.

More lotion was applied as her fingers continued to play, one hand braced on Ryan’s lower back to provide stability. Her fingers continued to dip--lower and lower, the silky lotion easing her way. Frantic little pants and insistent thrusts made Ryan’s needs very apparent, and Jamie decided to follow her lead—wherever it took her.

She ran a bead of the gel right into the crease of Ryan’s cheeks, smiling at the heavy sigh that greeted her act. For the next few minutes, Jamie teased the incredibly soft skin, moving from one cheek to the next, then dipping inside, getting a little bolder each time. Needing a better angle to experiment with, she slid off the strong thighs completely, smiling to herself at Ryan’s disappointed groan.

Leaning over just enough to allow her erect nipples to dance across her lover’s back, she whispered, "Don’t worry, Love. All of your desires will be fulfilled tonight. Trust me."

Jamie had never heard her partner squeal, but that’s just what she did, almost causing the smaller woman to burst out in laughter. But Ryan wasn’t laughing in the least—she was about to explode—waiting only for Jamie to light her fuse.

Grasping the powerful hips that lay before her, Jamie was just beginning to guide her partner onto her hands and knees when Ryan flew into the desired position of her own volition. Smirking at her prescience, the smaller woman quickly got down to business, realizing from the labored breathing that Ryan was almost at the end of her rope. Slipping the latex barrier over her index finger, she smoothed more of the gel between the firm cheeks and slowly rubbed it in, this time focusing completely on the unexplored expanse of skin, but completely avoiding the tiny opening. Ryan was once again holding her breath, so Jamie humanely expanded her probing, and let her finger pause on the puckered star--pressing just a bit. "Yessssssss," Ryan hissed, thrusting sharply in the direction of her hand.

Finally taking pity on the moaning woman, and afraid that Ryan would faint from frustration, Jamie moved to satisfy her need. Covering her index finger with the gel, she knelt next to but slightly behind her lover with her right knee between Ryan’s shaking legs. Gently placing her left hand on Ryan’s lower back, Jamie stroked her softly to reassure her as she tried to part the cheeks with her right. The unfamiliar angle was a little difficult for her, so she decided to ask for a little help. "Open up for me, Love," she murmured softly.

Ryan’s hands immediately left their supporting position, causing her face to thump hard against the bed. Her fingers splayed apart as she grasped as much of the firm flesh as she could manage, and opened herself as wide as possible.

Her head throbbing with unquenched desire, Jamie sat back on her heels and ran her finger down the crease once more, taking in a breath as she reached her destination. Ryan sucked in an identical breath as the finger neared its goal once again, the air fraught with anticipation. Jamie squeezed out a few drops of gel right onto the puckered target, watching it flinch perceptibly as the cold liquid hit. Every fiber of Ryan’s coiled body seemed to freeze as Jamie slowly slid her index finger near the mark, one millimeter at a time. She began to enter the small opening, pushing in a tiny bit, then withdrawing, moving at a glacial pace to allow her partner to accommodate the intrusion. Her left hand resuming its gentle stroking of Ryan’s back as she moved deeper and deeper into her, her own arousal causing a near-painful ache between her legs.

Ryan’s body was still nearly frozen in its position, and Jamie was afraid that her muscles would start to cramp, so she gently eased the assisting hands away and guided her back onto her heels. The long legs splayed a bit as Ryan scooted back as far as she could, trying to increase the depth of the delicious penetration.

Jamie’s pulse was racing and her own arousal was making her head, as well as other parts, throb wildly as she gazed at her lover in the completely arousing position. A trickle of moisture trailed down her own thigh, and she knew that release had to come soon for both of them.

Ryan’s arms were straight out above her head, with her hands grasping handfuls of sheet. Her face was slightly turned to allow her to breathe, and it pressed hard into the bed. Her long, graceful back was slightly arched in anticipation, her legs as wide apart as they could possibly stretch, as she sat back completely on her feet. Jamie took in the vision, her heart thudding in her chest as she considered the most mesmerizing element of the scene--her hand, splayed out against Ryan’s smooth buttocks, one finger markedly absent.

Jamie began to slowly glide her finger in and out in a rhythmic fashion, Ryan’s hips grinding sensually as she swiveled and twisted her body to increase the pressure. Just when Jamie was sure they would both combust, Ryan grunted out her plea in a raspy voice, "Please…let... me...come, Baby. Please!!"

Jamie nearly came herself as her throbbing vulva reacted to her lover’s tortured plea. With a shuddering sigh she brought her other hand down and quickly slid two fingers into her lover’s lavishly wet opening. She slid in so effortlessly that she quickly added a third finger as she began to move her hands in unison. Chills raced up and down her spine as she felt the fingers of her left hand throbbing through the membrane that separated them from her right.

Ryan was moaning weakly as she continued to thrust back against her lover’s hands. Jamie knew that she needed just a tiny bit of stroking to achieve her release, but she was all out of hands and she was unwilling to remove either, so she leaned over and instructed, "Slide your hand down and touch yourself for me, Baby. Come for me while I’m so deep inside of you."

Faster than Jamie thought possible, the favored left hand shot down to rest between Ryan’s remarkably open thighs. With practiced ease two fingers slipped around the hood of her clitoris and began to stroke, causing a low growl of satisfaction to escape from both women. Within seconds, Ryan’s internal muscles began to pulse and spasm around Jamie’s fingers. The contractions began to flow through both openings in a series of waves, as Ryan grunted and moaned into the mattress, Jamie lodged deep inside of her. The spasms continued for a long while, longer than Jamie had ever been aware of. As they slowly stilled, the dark woman moaned softly for a few moments, then she became completely, almost eerily, still. When Jamie slowly, delicately, removed her fingers, she watched a shiver run down Ryan’s spine, but her spent lover made no other response. She was still stretched out in her rather lewd position, although she had impossibly sunk down even deeper against the mattress. Jamie knew that the poor woman could not possibly be comfortable, so she disposed of her accessories, crawled up next to her and rolled her over onto her back. This feat was made much more difficult due to the fact that Ryan offered absolutely no help, but Jamie was determined, and after a few hearty tugs the exhausted body teetered on the edge for a second, then collapsed onto the bed with a "thump".

The blue eyes were closed and the ruby-tinted lips were slightly parted as Ryan lay exactly as she had fallen when Jamie pushed her over, and if the smaller woman did not know better, she would have thought Ryan unconscious. The golden skin was covered with a sheen of perspiration, and a deep flush began at the still-plumped breasts, extending up to her shoulders.

After several minutes, one blue eye cracked open to regard Jamie with a mixture of surprise and startled amusement. Jamie merely rolled her eyes and shrugged her shoulders, sparing an adorable grin for her lover. The blue orb snapped shut again as Ryan’s chest slowed from its rapid cadence and her breathing evened out.

Jamie generously allowed her to rest for a few minutes, allowing herself the pleasurable sensation of watching her partner sleep. It was terribly difficult to resist the urge to continue to touch her, but she held out, reasoning that it would be cruel to wake her at this point. My God, she is so incredibly beautiful when she sleeps. There was not a hint of muscular tension anywhere in her body as the green eyes wandered over her from head to toe. I honestly don’t know how I will be able to stand being away from her for a whole week. My life revolves so completely around her that I feel lost when she’s not with me.

She was deep in her reverie when Ryan uttered a small sigh and began to stretch. "Are my hips still attached to my pelvis?" she asked lazily, swiping a hand down her torso to check.

Jamie laughed and placed her hand on the nearest hip, intently tracing the connection . "I believe so," she said. "I think you missed your calling, Love. You should be trying out for the gymnastics team at school. I don’t think I’ve ever seen legs spread that far apart." Ryan chuckled weakly as Jamie snuggled up next to her still sprawled out body. "You really loved that didn’t you?" she asked her partner curiously.

"Hmmm, let me see," Ryan mused with mock sincerity. "Do I usually almost faint from arousal?"

"Not usually," she admitted, giggling a bit at her partner’s hyperbole.

"Then I must have loved it," she declared decisively, "because I was almost unconscious there for a minute."

Scooting up to rest on one elbow, Jamie asked, "Have you done that before?"

"Mmmm-hmmm," she acknowledged, a small smile on her face, her voice a low rumble.

Jamie considered that for a moment, then asked the logical extension. "Have you wished I would do that to you?"


"More than once?"


"Why didn’t you ask me to?"

Pausing to take in a breath, Ryan considered her answer for a moment. "Umm, I guess because I thought you’d do it if I asked you to—even if it didn’t appeal to you. I don’t like to press you to do things you’re not ready for, Honey."

After a few seconds, Jamie traced a finger all over Ryan’s face, trying to memorize the strong planes that merged to create her stunning beauty. "I appreciate how you try to look out for me, but I give you permission to ask for anything that you want from now on."

"Um...I hate to tell you this, Honey, but we’re almost out of new frontiers. There is only so much territory to cover.

Tracing a bead of sweat that was creeping down her partner’s side, Jamie asked the question that she had been pondering. "Have you wanted to do… that…to me?"

"Do what?" Ryan drawled, being intentionally obtuse.

Long months of study gave Jamie a clue that she was being toyed with, and she slapped her lightly, asking, "I think you know what I meant, Tiger. Have you wanted to touch me…there?"

Ryan gave her a lazy, sexy grin, as her blue eyes narrowed dangerously. "Mmmm-hmmm," she growled. "Several times."

Her partner leaned over until they were nose to nose and said, "Ain’t gonna happen, Babe."

"Okay," Ryan said, giving in immediately. "But don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it."

"Honey," Jamie said hesitantly, not sure if Ryan was being serious or not, "don’t you think we can find ways to keep the already explored territory exciting?"

Realizing that her teasing had gone too far, Ryan wrapped her in her arms and insisted, "Baby, if you touched me in the same way every day I could maintain my excitement for years. You are a pure turn-on no matter how you make love to me. I am perfectly satisfied with the settled territory. I just have a fleeting desire every once in a while to touch you in a way that I enjoy. But I understand completely if you’re not comfortable with it." She reached up and trailed her fingers over Jamie’s cheek. "I have absolutely no complaints, Babe. I couldn’t hope for a hotter lover."

"You’re not so bad yourself," she said in her most sultry voice. "Wanna show me?"

"I thought you’d never ask," Ryan grinned, flipping her giggling partner onto her back.

She spent a solid hour teasing, taunting, caressing and loving every inch of Jamie’s burning body. Her head was buried in between strong thighs as she used her mouth to bring her to yet another orgasm, but as the strong pulsing began to signal the impending climax, her watch began to bleat its insistent alarm. Luckily, Jamie was too far gone to have the sound interrupt her concentration, and the contractions began to throb against Ryan’s mouth as she shook with her final release of the night, calling out weakly as she collapsed from exhaustion.

Knowing that their schedule did not allow much room to delay, Ryan regretfully pulled away from her lover’s limp grasp, slid out of bed, and stumbled into the shower. She turned on the water, letting it run until it was the temperature that Jamie preferred, then padded back into the bedroom to begin the difficult job of actually getting her weak partner to her feet. She finally had to carry her into the steaming water, letting the warm spray wash over them until she believed that her lover was strong enough to stand. Jamie was actually better at leaning than she was at standing at the moment, so Ryan allowed her to embrace the wall with her arms splayed out while she gently removed the significant evidence of their passion. It took several minutes to remove the copious lubrication, but she was finally satisfied with her efforts. She washed herself in the same manner while Jamie leaned against the wall, cleaning all of the natural and artificial moisture from all of her hidden folds, smiling to herself as she recalled the pleasurable sensations she had so recently experienced.

Turning off the water, she dried Jamie briskly, which concurrently helped to revive her. While Jamie dried her hair Ryan picked out an outfit for her, choosing a simple cream and light green print jersey dress. She wanted her to be comfortable on the long flight, and she reasoned that the unstructured dress would give her a lot of room to move. Since she assumed that the plane might be cold, she added a mint green cardigan sweater to protect her delicate skin from the chilled air. Next she chose some cream colored sandals that were simple enough to match the style of the dress, but substantial enough to allow her to run through the terminal if need be.

Jamie was pleased with her selections, and she smiled her approval as she stepped into the salmon-colored satin panties her partner had chosen. Ryan came around behind her to fasten the matching bra, bending to kiss her shoulders reverently as she did so. As the blonde started to put on her dress, she heard a sharp intake of breath and turned to see Ryan standing in the middle of the room, tears running down her cheeks.

Jamie nearly dove for her, and they held each other and rocked slowly until she absolutely had to leave. Neither spoke, there being nothing they could say to make their parting any easier.

When the emotion eased, Ryan slipped on some chinos and a bright blue oversized cotton blouse, crisply ironed, as usual. She laced up her Topsiders and picked up Jamie’s nylon suitcase as they slowly made their way up the stairs, holding hands to maintain contact as long as possible.

Martin was in his room, but the door was open and the light was on, so Ryan poked her head in. "We’re leaving, Da," she said, her voice still a little hoarse from emotion.

Putting his book down, he came out into the living room to kiss Jamie goodbye. "We’ll miss you, Sweetheart," he said as he hugged her. "I don’t know how I’ll keep her happy," he said with a smile towards his daughter as he pulled away.

"Take care of her for me, Martin," she said as a tear started to escape. She stood on her tiptoes and gave him another kiss as she took Ryan’s hand, and they made a dash for the car. Traffic was light, and for a change there were no off-hours highway projects on 101. After parking in the short-term section of the lot, they rode the long people mover through the airport, both still uncharacteristically silent. They were nearly at the terminal when Jamie pulled her lover into the boarding area for another airline. She reached into her bag and took a small purple object out, lifted the tail of Ryan’s shirt and clipped the little gift to her waistband.

"A pager?" Ryan asked in confusion.

"No, it’s a phone like mine, but I got you a cute little neoprene cover for it. I want you to wear it when I’m gone, and since you’re sweating most of the time I thought I should get you a waterproof cover," she said with a grin as she tweaked her nose, some of her humor returning.

"I don’t really need a phone," Ryan protested. "And it’s just another bill to pay every month, Honey."

"This will make me feel better, Baby. I’ll rest easier knowing I can get you quickly if I need you."

"Okay," Ryan said indulgently with a little smile. "Anything to make you feel better."

Jamie wrapped her arms around her neck and kissed her tenderly. Ryan held onto her tightly, fearing that she might leave a bruise, but completely unable to relax her grip. The kiss deepened until Ryan knew they must be attracting attention, but she felt powerless to stop. Jamie finally pulled away, resting her forehead against Ryan’s as they both closed their eyes and fought the temptation to begin again. She picked up her head and lifted her fingers to gently trace her lover’s cheekbone. "I love you so much, Ryan. You’re the most precious gift I’ve ever been given. Please take care of yourself while I’m gone."

"I promise," she vowed as tears welled in her eyes. "But you have to do the same for me."

"I will," she said as she hugged her fiercely. "We’d better go. Mother will be waiting."

They walked along the wide corridor and reached the gate just a few minutes after their desired arrival time. Catherine was sitting in a chair reading a clothbound book as they approached, and she looked up and smiled when she caught sight of them. Jamie leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek, and Ryan did the same when Catherine turned to her. "Just in time," she said brightly as boarding for the flight was announced.

Jamie took her bag from Ryan when they went to stand in line, and Ryan felt a sense of loss just from that simple act. They tried to make small talk while they waited, but neither had the heart for it, so a long silence settled over them. When the gate attendant had checked their tickets, Jamie stepped out of line and stood on her toes to give her lover one last kiss. Holding her chin in her fingers, she lightly brushed her lips against Ryan’s as her eyelids fluttered closed and she softly murmured, "I love you."

"I love you too, Jamie," she whispered, and immediately bit her bottom lip to keep from crying. Moving away from her lover, Ryan caught Catherine’s sympathetic gaze, and shyly waved to her. The older woman gave her a fond smile and returned her wave, then made her way onto the ramp. Jamie turned quickly and followed her mother, not turning around for another glance.

Ryan stood in the waiting area, unable to will her feet to move. Maybe, if she hurried, she could still get a ticket, could get Jamie off of the plane, could… An insistent burr penetrated her sense of loss and loneliness. She looked around in consternation before she realized that it was coming from her waistband, from…Jamie!

She hurriedly unclipped the tiny phone from her waist and fumbled it out of the cover. "H’lo," she said breathlessly, having been afraid that her lover would give up before she was able to establish the connection.

"Hi," came the loving voice of the other half of her heart. There was a hesitation. "I told you I wanted to be able to get you quickly if I needed you. Well, it’s been less than five minutes and I already need you, Baby."

Ryan drew a deep breath. This wasn’t going to be easy for either one of them, but she’d be damned if she’d make it any harder for the woman she loved more than her life. "I know, Love. I miss you, too." A touch of the cocky Ryan confidence returned to her voice as she teased, "But a wealthy admirer of mine gave me a little toy to play with that will make it easy for me to keep in constant touch with you, if you know what I mean."

Jamie could just imagine the eyebrow waggle that accompanied that statement and her mind flashed to their discussion about phone sex. Sitting next to her mother, as she was, she flushed slightly then smiled. "Wealthy admirer, huh? She’d better not let me catch her giving you gifts or I’ll kick her butt."

A full-fledged grin crossed Ryan’s face. "Careful," she drawled, "you might just find that she would like having her butt….kicked."

The blush deepened and Jamie crossed her legs, thinking of the evening’s activities. She cleared her throat and glanced at her mother, who was assiduously perusing her way through the flight magazine. She self-consciously lowered her voice. "Ain’t gonna happen, Babe," she said, repeating her earlier declaration.

"Uh-huh," Ryan smirked. "It’s gonna be a week, Love. A verrry long week. Filled with hours and hours of only phone sex. Speaking of which, I love those sexy panties you’re wearing. Know what I’d like to do…" She broke off and smiled at the barely audible moan issuing from the tiny receiver.

Jamie half-turned in her seat and lowered her voice almost to a whisper. "Ryan, behave yourself," Jamie scolded. "My mother is sitting right here!"

"Well, she’s gonna have to find her own phone pal, Baby."

"Eeeuuugh. Ryan!"

"Okay, okay," Ryan laughed. She was feeling a lot better. "Thanks for calling me, Love. And thanks for thinking of this way for us to keep in touch while we’re apart. I love you, Jamie."

"Love you, too. And if things get too bad, I’ll just get on the next plane and come home."

"To Santa Cruz," Ryan corrected.

"Absolutely. To Santa Cruz," Jamie agreed with a smile in her voice. "I’ll be the first volleyball groupie."


"I promise."

"And you’ll call me every day?"

"Several times," Jamie assured her.

Ryan’s voice took on a deeper, seductive timbre. "And we can really try out phone sex? You know what they say about the phone—‘It’s the next best thing to being there.’"

"Honey, if it will make you feel better, we can leave the line connected all night long and sleep together. At least I’d be able to hear you breathing."

Ryan chuckled. "I think that’s how the phone sex starts…" She could hear the muffled announcements crackling out of the loudspeakers in the plane.

"Ryan, I’ve got to go now. Time to shut down the cell phones. I’ll call you when I get there, okay?"

"Okay, Babe." There was a brief pause before Ryan added, "Uh, Jamie…"


The response was sultry and sexy and full of promise. "Be sure it’s from your room…and that you’re alone."

Jamie laughed. "That’s my girl."

"And don’t you forget it," Ryan threatened with a growl.

"No chance, Babe. Gotta go, I love you."

"Love you, too," Ryan answered, then heard the dial tone following the disconnect.

She took a deep breath and replaced the phone on her waistband, somehow drawing comfort from its presence there, as if it was a direct link to Jamie.

Ryan shook her head. In a lifelong relationship, there are going to be some times when we can’t help being separated. The thing to hold onto is that it is a lifetime commitment. We have the rest of our lives together.

Still smiling, she turned to go collect the Lexus, fingering the phone on her hip. Their being apart was going to be difficult, but it did present some interesting possibilities. Possibilities that she couldn’t wait to explore.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The opening bars of Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy" slowly invaded the sleep-clouded mind of the woman lying face down across a very disordered bed. She was clothed in a once neatly pressed blue blouse and a pair of equally rumpled khaki pants. Low black boots encased her feet, which dangled off the end of the bed.

A large, jet-black, curly haired dog lay at her side, her arm draped across his broad chest. His right ear twitched at the sound, and as the woman’s arm lifted from his body, he leapt to his feet and took off for the front door, growling ominously at the imagined intruder.

"Duffy," Ryan moaned, her voice muffled by the mattress. "Quiet!"

Still the music played on, persistently repeating the same sequence, and the woman tilted her head in an irritated fashion, searching for its source. "Shit!" she cried, getting to her hands and knees and scrambling across the bed. She grabbed the small neoprene-encased cell phone that rested on her bedside table and blinked rapidly, trying to focus her eyes clearly enough to find the "talk" button. "H’llo," she gasped, pushing the raven hair that had fallen forward in sleep back from her eyes.

"Good morning, Sleepy. Sounds like someone didn’t lie awake all night cursing my absence."

The teasing voice coming from the phone brought a smile to the dark woman’s face, and she nearly moaned in pleasure. "What a nice way to wake up," she said rather dreamily, forgetting about the irritations of the barking dog and the ringing phone.

"I miss you, Ryan," her partner’s voice murmured.

"I miss you too, Jamie," she said. "I was asleep, as you could tell, but I tossed and turned all night long. Worst night’s sleep I’ve had since we’ve been together." She surveyed the tangle of sheets that surrounded her, and looked down to see that she was still fully clothed. A small chuckle escaped as she admitted, "Although I am still in my clothes, so I guess I fell asleep rather quickly."

Jamie laughed gently, having a perfect image of her lover as she had left her five hours earlier at the airport. She allowed her mind to imagine how she must look now—mentally adding wrinkles to both her clothing and her face, mussing her hair thoroughly, and imagining her clear blue eyes cloudy and puffy from lack of sleep, "I think you look absolutely beautiful," she murmured, meaning every word.

"But you can’t see me," Ryan laughed. "We need those video phones." Oops, better watch that; she’d probably buy some.

"I can see you just fine, Babe," she disagreed. "I have very keen powers of visual memory."

Ryan’s voice dropped an octave, a feat easily accomplished so early in the morning. "Excellent," she growled. "That will come in very handy during your trip."

"Even from 3,000 miles I can see your blue eyes flashing when you think about sex, Ryan O’Flaherty." Her tone was very playful and filled with longing for the object of her affection.

"I miss you," Ryan said again, wishing desperately that she could reach out and touch her precious partner. "I know I’m repeating myself, but I can’t get past it. This is the first time since May that I haven’t woken to the feeling of you in my arms."

"I know, Love," she soothed, feeling their distance like an impervious barrier. "I fell asleep as soon as we got on the plane, and didn’t wake up until the landing gear dropped. I didn’t even feel that tired, but I didn’t want to be awake if you weren’t there to share the trip with me."

"Where are you now?" Ryan asked, thinking as she looked at her watch that this was far too early for Jamie and her mother to be at their destination.

"Boston. Mother’s waiting for her luggage, but since I didn’t have any I thought I’d let you know we made it safely."

"I’m glad you called, for several reasons," Ryan informed her. "One—because I miss you like crazy. And two—if you hadn’t, I might have slept all day. I forgot to set my alarm!"

Jamie laughed at her practical lover. At least her missing me was number one. "You’d better get going, Love. You have to get to Berkeley and get packed, you know."

"Yes, I know," Ryan agreed, uncharacteristically not looking forward to spending a week in Santa Cruz with her volleyball team, getting ready for the season. "I’ll have breakfast and get going. Jordan’s coming over at ten, and then we’re heading down together."

"Coach didn’t give you a hard time about driving yourself, did he?"

"No, not really. I just had to sign a waiver saying that I was over 21 and had voluntarily declined to accompany the team. He’s pretty easygoing about stuff like that. It really makes me glad that I chose the volleyball team."

"I’m glad too," Jamie agreed. "I think you’re gonna love playing, Baby, and I know I’m gonna love watching you. Oops…luggage is here. I’d better go help Mother."

"Are you going to sleep when you get there?"

"Yeah…probably for a while. Why?"

"Before you do, look in your bag. I put a little something in there to help you sleep."

Jamie paused for a moment, casting a quick glance to make sure her mother’s bags had not arrived on the conveyor belt. "Does it have to be plugged in?" she asked cautiously, knowing that her lover would most likely gift her with some form of sex toy to relax her.

"Nope. No batteries required either," Ryan chuckled. "It’s completely innocent, Babe. I’m turning over a new leaf."

"Don’t you dare!" she responded with some alarm. "I’m just starting to exploit the old leaf!"

Ryan laughed gently, the deep rumble causing a shiver of delight to travel down Jamie’s back. "You got it. I’ll stay my naughty self until you tire of me."

"Never," Jamie whispered fiercely, the longing she felt for her partner like a sharp pain in the pit of her stomach. "I’ll never tire of you in any way, Ryan."

"I love you, Jamers," she said with a catch in her voice. "I wish I didn’t have to go."

"I love you too, Sweetheart. I’ll call you tonight."



As Ryan disconnected, she replaced the phone on the table and flopped over onto her back, staring at the ceiling for a long while, the ache she felt for her partner nearly palpable. "Jesus, it’s gonna be a long week," she grumbled, finally getting to her feet to tread upstairs for breakfast.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After attending early Mass with her father, playing with Duffy in the park to deplete some of his energy while retaining as much of her own as possible, and driving back across the bridge, Ryan was hard-pressed to get organized before Jordan arrived. They didn’t have to be in Santa Cruz until four, so they didn’t have to leave as early as they were planning, but Jordan had a favorite place she liked to stop for lunch about halfway down, so they wanted to allow plenty of time.

The doorbell rang at nine, and Ryan uttered a small curse as she ran down the stairs to answer. "I’m barely going to be ready by ten, Jordan, give me a bre…" As she threw the door open, Jim Evans stood staring at her, a look on his face that could only be described as intense.

"May I come in?" he asked, not waiting for permission as he did just that.

"Uhhh…sure," Ryan said as she reached behind him to close the door. "You do remember that Jamie’s gone, don’t yo…"

He turned quickly, fixing her with his vivid green eyes, so like Jamie’s in color—so unlike hers in warmth. "I’m well aware that she and Catherine have left, Ryan. It’s you that I wanted to speak to."

Every instinct told her to turn and run as fast as her long legs would carry her, but she knew that was not a viable choice, so she walked slowly towards the sofa and sat on the edge of a cushion, waiting for him to choose a spot. He didn’t sit, instead pacing back and forth in front of the fireplace, not saying a word, marshalling his thoughts. Ryan briefly considered that he looked a little like a windup toy, but she feared that the energy he was mustering was going to be released in her direction very soon.

Her fear proved valid when he finally stopped and stared at her, his hands balled into fists. "What have you done to my daughter?" His question was simple, deceptively simple, but Ryan had no idea how to answer him.

"I don’t know what you mean…" she began, but he started to advance on her, finally standing dangerously close as he leaned over, his eyes blazing with anger.

"She’s not the same reliable girl she was before she met you, Ryan. There’s not one part of her personality that has remained intact, and Jamie was a wonderful person just the way she was. Need I recount the dramatic, unpalatable changes that have occurred?"

Ryan didn’t want to sit here and have him tower over her, but at the same time she certainly didn’t want to have a physical confrontation with him—even though she was sure she would come out on top if one became unavoidable. Deeming, for the moment, that discretion was the better part of valor, Ryan didn’t say a word, scooting back on the cushion to get some distance from the irate man.

He straightened up and began pacing again, ticking off the changes he found so objectionable on his fingers. "One—out of the blue, she starts having doubts about her engagement. Two—she decides to buy a bike and undertake a grueling physical conditioning program to support a charity that I’m sure she did not even know existed before she met you. Three—she starts picking fights with Jack, her mother and even me…something she had never done with any of us. Four—she pushes poor Jack until he’s forced to break off their engagement, just to preserve some semblance of his dignity. Five—she marches in here one day and declares that she’s entered into a permanent relationship with a woman. Six—she and I have had more disagreements in the few months she’s been with you than we have had in the blissful 20 years before you darkened our door. Seven—she decides that all of a sudden her investments are not aggressive enough…not earning enough…not growing enough. Suddenly she’s a market analyst, and she believes she’s competent to manage her own multi-million dollar trust. This from a girl who doesn’t know how to balance her own checkbook!"

She’s one of the brightest people I’ve ever met, you jerk! she cried to herself, knowing that she had to hold her tongue.

He stared at Ryan angrily, his face getting redder by the moment. "All of these things are so unlike Jamie. I want my daughter back!" he yelled, his voice so loud that Ryan’s ears rang.

Deciding that she didn’t want to be trapped on the couch again, Ryan got to her feet and started her own pacing routine, safely away from Jim with the couch as a barrier.

The silence hung heavily in the room until Ryan finally answered, "I don’t know what you expect me to say. It’s not in my power to give you what you want. Jamie is her own woman. Everyone changes, Jim…especially someone 21 years old. Jamie’s just growing up and learning to make her own choices."

"I don’t have a problem in the world with her growing up or making her own choices," he spat. "She did that when she became engaged to Jack, when she chose her course of study at school." He paused to look accusingly at Ryan. "My problem is that she isn’t making her own choices…you’re making her choices for her!"

Ryan could feel her anger start to boil, and she tried every trick to calm herself down. "I…am…not," she enunciated slowly, each word spoken with fervor. "I never have…and I never will. She’s a mature adult who is more capable of making her own choices than any ten women her age. You should be proud of the person she’s become…not angry that she’s not your little girl any more!" Oh shit! she chastised herself when she saw his anger blaze at her words. You went too far, Big Mouth! "I didn’t mean it like that Jim," she said in a conciliatory tone, knowing in her heart that it was too late.

To her surprise, her wounding words seemed to calm him down. He quickly controlled his temper and within seconds his face was an expressionless mask. In a monotone he responded. "I’ll not have you telling me to be proud of my daughter. I have always been proud of my Jamie. You know nothing of our relationship." As he spoke, his emotion grew until his voice was once again dripping with sarcasm. "You’ve been her lover for what…two months now?"

"Six weeks," Ryan supplied, constantly amazed that it had been such a short time.

"Six weeks," he mused. "Six weeks. And in these six weeks you’ve come to know her better than her mother and I do, is that right, Ryan? You know her better than Jack, who was her boyfriend, and then her lover, for three years. You know her better than her friend Cassie, who’s known her since preschool. Are you just naturally perceptive, or do you have some special skill at learning my daughter’s deepest feelings?"

"You’re always more perceptive concerning your soul-mate's feelings," she announced, a defiant look in her eye. "But I’ve never claimed to know her better than any of you do. I know her just well enough to know that she’s able to make her own decisions. And I love her just enough to allow her to do so…without interfering." She knew that she was inciting him, but she could not allow him to continue denigrating Jamie or their love.

He paced back and forth with his hands linked behind his back, head bowed in concentration, silently thinking of the young woman who had brought him so much joy before this interloper appeared on the scene. "This is getting us nowhere," he decided. "I think it’s time we stopped playing games and got to the point, don’t you?"

"I have no idea what your point is," she countered.

"Oh, I think you do, Ryan." He turned and sat in one of the upholstered chairs, reached into the inner pocket of his jacket, and extracted a cigar. While she waited for the punch line he fussed with the precious object, finally lighting it and taking several deep puffs. Blowing out a stream of smoke into the air above his head he gazed at Ryan and asked, "What exactly do you want from my daughter?"

"I have no idea what you’re getting at," she stated, folding her arms across her chest.

"Okay, let me make it more clear." His tone was now almost conversational, and Ryan realized that he was adopting his deal-making persona. "When Jamie comes to her senses and goes back to her true sexual orientation, as I am certain that she will, what do you hope to take away from this relationship?"

Ryan couldn’t conceive of her life without Jamie, but considered his question seriously since she assumed he was asking it in the same fashion. "I suppose I would take my shattered heart and try to recover enough to start over. But I would question my judgment for a very long time if I could be so wrong about someone."

Jim had expected her to be evasive concerning how she was using Jamie, so he phrased his intent more directly. "I think you know that I was referring to your monetary aspirations," he said quietly.

"I have no monetary aspirations when it comes to Jamie," she replied in a tone even quieter than his. "And if you knew how special she was, you would know that no amount of money could ever make up for the loss of her love."

He was taken aback by this simple declaration. He didn’t believe it for one minute, but the thought crossed his mind that Ryan could make a good trial attorney since she was able to come up with such ready, yet sincere-sounding lies.

"I know exactly how special she is, Ryan. Sometimes I think I know her much better than she knows herself. I love the Jamie that I know far more than you ever could. And I also know, with every fiber of my being, that she is not a lesbian."

"She may not be," she said agreeably, loathe to get into a full-blown argument over a definition, "but she loves me, and I love her, and we’re going to be together until death parts us." She made this last statement with such a determined look in her eye that he realized he would not be able to shake her confidence on the issue, though he doubted that—even left alone—their relationship would last, given Ryan’s past history.

"Fine," he said dismissively, waving his cigar in the air. "Let’s table the lesbian issue, since that isn’t the main point, anyway. I’m not happy about Jamie taking this little detour, but I know it’s a common thing for girls to try. You were something different, something intriguing that Jamie was duped into thinking she wanted to experiment with. You girls aren’t the first to try to shock society, Ryan. It was even going on when I was in school!" He tilted his head back, reminiscing about his youth. "We called them members of Phi Beta Lesbiana, as I recall. After graduation, most of them got married and forgot all about their little flings. I’m quite sure that’s what will happen with Jamie—even though I know you don’t share my opinion."

"That’s putting it very, very mildly," Ryan said flatly, her face a blank canvas. Her first impulse was to attempt to provide evidence that would sway Jim’s stance, then realized that nothing she could say would make any difference. She refrained from adding to her simple statement of disagreement.

"Be that as it may, it’s not the source of my worry. I am certain that Jamie will come back to her senses. In the meantime, my worry is about the financial harm that you can cause my daughter."

Ryan’s mouth gaped open, and she stared at him in amazement. "You DO know how much money she has, don’t you? What in the hell do you think I’m going to do…buy a yacht? A raft of classic cars?" She blinked slowly, reminding herself that using examples from Jim’s life was probably not wise.

He ignored the insult, acting as though he had not even heard it. "I think I’ve been quite generous with you, Ryan. I’ve paid for your golf, I’ve let you use our home, I’ve let you drive my cars. I’m sure that Jamie has bought some of your clothes and pays for your entertainment, as well as buying you a very expensive car."

"Yes, sir. You’ve both been very generous. You probably don’t understand this, but Jamie gets pleasure out of buying things for me. I don’t need the things she buys, and in some cases I don’t even want them, but it makes her happy, so I try not to complain."

"You’re too kind, Ryan," he drawled, his words dripping with sarcasm. "Be that as it may, the money she’s spent on you up until now is chump change compared to what she plans on doing in the future, and I think you know that. You plan on living in my house with my daughter supporting you for God knows how many years until you finish some form of graduate education. If you attend medical school that will be at least seven more years! The tuition alone could run over $100,000! Given her generosity, you could easily take her for several hundred thousand dollars by the time your education is complete."

"I don’t ‘take her’ for a dime!" she snapped, growing so angry she was beginning to shake.

"You’re willing to soak her for a quarter of a million dollars, and you have the nerve to say that you have no monetary aspirations with her?"

"I don’t!" she insisted.

To Jim Evan’s legal mind, the evidence to the contrary spoke for itself--was irrefutable. As her father, it was his obligation to protect Jamie’s interests, even if she did not agree with him as to what those were. "Then why were you down at Bank of America grilling Tuck Gray about the terms of her trust? Why have you convinced her to add you to her checking account? Why is your name on the title to the car? Those are not the actions of a woman who is not interested in money or what it can buy her!"

Money. Always the fucking money! Like it matters that was all Jamie’s idea! "I know you don’t believe me, but I swear that I would love Jamie just as much if she had less money than I did!" Ryan insisted.

"Fine!" he cried. "Then prove it! Live in your own house and support yourself! Get a scholarship or take out loans to go to medical school. Live like you lived before you had her to foot your bills!"

She ran her hands through her hair in an agitated fashion. He was really getting to her, but she didn’t want him to know it, so she tried valiantly to control her physical reactions. "It’s not fair to ask me to do that. It’s not what Jamie wants, and I won’t hurt her by rejecting her offer," she said quietly. "We are partners now, and she wants to support me. Our relationship is just as valid as her relationship with Jack was. I bet you never had this kind of talk with him," she added rather derisively.

"I didn’t have to," he said as he glared at her. "In three years he never took a penny from her. He took out loans to go to Stanford, he drove a ten-year-old car, and he lived in a small apartment that he paid for with his summer earnings. That’s after three years mind you, and with a formal engagement behind him!"

Ryan had no ready answers for this one. She knew that her intentions towards Jamie were completely honorable, but she had no way of convincing Jim that was the case. "All I know is that I love Jamie, and she and I have decided that it’s best if she supports me through graduate school. I can only hope that over time you come to realize that my love for her is in spite of her money, not because of it."

"Look, Ryan," he said carefully, backing off and changing topics as he had done several times—and keeping her severely off-balance. "Just for the sake of argument, let’s say that I’ve misjudged you. Let’s assume that your feelings are sincere. Monetary issues aside, neither of you know what it takes to make a successful long-term relationship. You’ve admitted that you’ve been with dozens of women, and given your age you obviously haven’t been able to make a go of a relationship. Jamie was trying to get back with Jack during the time she was supposed to be falling in love with you. She’s just experimenting, Ryan, and when she moves on, or tries to get back with Jack or another man, you’ll be left to pick up the pieces."

Much to her chagrin, she found that the mere mention of Jack still caused her to grind her teeth, and the thought of her partner leaving her made her crazy, even though she knew it would not happen. But she did not want him to know that he had gotten to her, so she tried to appear unconcerned. "She chose me over Jack. That’s the bottom line. And even if I’m dead wrong, and she is just experimenting, being with her has been so wonderful that I swear I would not regret one day that we’ve spent together. I’m willing to risk everything to be with her."

Regrettably for Ryan, Jim’s years of pouncing on weakness served him well. He could tell that the composed looking young woman was angry, and he had a perverse desire to poke her a little to test his assumption. He actually thought his daughter was quite steadfast with her affections, but he sensed a weakness in Ryan, and guessed that it was because of her own checkered past. "You know, the way Jamie tells it, she was engaged to, and sleeping with, Jack while she was falling in love with you."

She just glared at him, which encouraged him to continue.

"And, she was, in effect, cheating on you when she tried to reconcile with Jack. I know she was sleeping with him since our maid told us he slept at our home when we were gone. How can you be so sure she won’t cheat on you again?" he challenged triumphantly when he saw the fire in her eyes.

In retrospect, Ryan had to admit that she set the course of their future relationship when she uttered the words that flew from her mouth. She deeply regretted saying them, and she knew that she was wrong to do so, but he caught her at a weak moment and her tongue was quicker than her brain. "Don’t you dare paint her with that innuendo!" she yelled. "Just because she’s your daughter doesn’t mean she cheats on her partner!"

It took a few moments for her slur to really reach his brain. As it did, a mask of fury settled over his features. He glared at Ryan, a plume of cigar smoke settling over her like a toxic cloud. "I think you’d better explain that statement," he demanded icily, glowering at her as though he wished to tear her limb from limb.

She knew she had no way out. It was impossible to just write it off as a flippant comment, so she tried to extricate herself from the situation with as little damage as possible. "I apologize," she said softly. "Your personal behavior is none of my business."

He got to his feet and stood opposite the couch, glaring menacingly into her eyes. "Tell me what you meant by that statement," he repeated, ignoring her apology.

She took a breath and bit the bullet. "Last May, Jamie and I were trying to find a safe place where we could be together," she said softly, terribly angry with herself for having gotten into this position. "We went to your apartment one Saturday afternoon. We were in the guest room when you came in." She paused for a moment as she could see the recognition dawn in his eyes. "You weren’t alone."

"So Jamie knows, too," he stated with a pained expression that had replaced his anger.

"No, she doesn’t," she said softly. "She doesn’t know because I didn’t tell her. She went out to talk to you, and you went down to the garage with her. Your, um…friend came in after you left…I guess you told her to wait or come up separately. As soon as I could get out of there, I left too. I didn’t tell Jamie anything!"

He gazed at her with a haughty smile, feeling as if he had an out. "And your point is that having an associate at my apartment is proof of infidelity! I’ll have you know that my job is very demanding. I work nearly 24 hours a day, and quite often I conduct business at my apartment! How do you even know my associate was a woman?" he asked suspiciously. "You were sneaking around in my personal retreat!" he accused. "A civilized person would have made their presence known!"

"I assume it was a woman," Ryan said as she began to blush furiously, "because you were…umm…conducting your business on the floor of the hallway. I didn’t look closely, but I heard her voice…" She trailed off weakly, knowing that there was nothing she could say to make the situation any better.

He was so quiet that Ryan swore she could hear his watch ticking. Only the arrhythmic rasp of the breath leaving his lungs broke the stillness. His mind raced, falling back on a standard ploy he had used during his 20 years of practicing law. In times too numerous to count he had been cornered, and he had learned to deal with such situations in a very simple manner. When someone had him dead to rights, he attacked. It didn’t always work, but he had learned over time that the best defense was a very aggressive offense. His very real concerns for his daughter’s happiness and life choices were totally subverted as his personal welfare came to the fore. He used the only weapon he had at his disposal—Jamie.

"If you ever breath a word of this to my daughter…" he trailed off, leaving his unspoken threat hanging in the air. He leaned forward and let his body eat up the space that separated them. Resting his hands on the back of the sofa he stared at Ryan, and said in a fairly normal tone of voice, "It’s over, Ryan." The words sent a chill of fear down the frightened woman’s spine, even though the tone was relatively calm. "You’re in over your head, kid. Nobody—but nobody--tries to blackmail me."

She was shaking so hard she thought she would fall. All at once it became clear to her. Jim actually thought she was trying to use his infidelity as a weapon against him. Forcing her lungs to project enough air to make her voice heard, she gasped. "I would never do anything like that! I don’t want to hurt Jamie—that’s why I haven’t told her!"

"How stupid do you think I am?" he roared, looking like he was going to throttle her. She jumped back from him through instinct alone, trying to keep enough space to prevent an assault. "Nobody puts the screws to me, Ryan. Your little game is over. I’m going to put a stop to this nonsense right now."

"What are you going to do?" she asked, her voice quavering so badly that her words were nearly indecipherable.

"I’m going to make sure that you’re never alone with her again," he thundered, causing Ryan to break out in a sweat at the mere thought of never holding her partner again. "I’m going to see to it that she stays with her mother in Rhode Island until school starts." He leaned toward her once again, his body seemingly larger than it actually was. "I’m going to stop you, Ryan. You do not want to defy me on this. You can do it the easy way, or the hard way." Standing at his full height again he demanded, "Do I have your word that you will stay out of her life?"

Ryan took several deep breaths, fighting to maintain her equilibrium. Her brain was racing with the implications of his threat, but there was no hesitancy in her response. "I can’t do that," she said slowly, but with firm resolve.

"Can’t or won’t?" he asked menacingly, his green eyes boring into her like lasers.

"Both," she replied as she gulped audibly. "I won’t, because I love her with all my heart, and I promised I would never let anything keep us apart." She found that her hand had unconsciously risen to her ear and twirled the blue diamond that rested there. "That promise comes before anything. I can’t, because even if I stopped seeing her, she would not let me go. She loves me! Can’t you see that?"

"No, I can’t," he nearly spat. "I’ve given you the options, Ryan. If you’re as smart as you think you are, you’ll choose the easy way out."

He leaned even closer…so close that she could see the tiny blood vessels in his green eyes. His voice grew quieter, but the menace in his tone increased until Ryan began to shiver once again. "I’m going to see to it that you stop seeing each other. I’m not a person that you wish to have as an enemy, young woman. I’ve made short work out of far more formidable opponents than you." He stood up abruptly and walked towards the door. "I want you out of here by the time she returns." His hand was resting on the doorknob as he said, "If you can make it seem like this is your idea, I guarantee that your life will improve in some very significant ways." Walking halfway across the threshold he added ominously, "The converse is also true, Ryan."

Part 3

The long drive from Boston to Newport was a tedious necessity since Catherine did not care for the small planes that Newport airport could accommodate. Luckily, the family limousine made the trip bearable, allowing both women to stretch out in comfort. Jamie made the most of the space, falling asleep almost immediately.

"We’re nearly there, Dear." Catherine’s gentle voice woke Jamie, and as she slowly blinked her eyes open, she saw that they were already in Newport.

"I feel like I’ve been drugged," she mumbled, pushing her hair from her eyes and sitting up in her seat.

"If I didn’t know better, I’d think you had been," Catherine agreed, a smile curling the edge of her mouth. "Luckily I brought a good book, because all of the conversation I’ve gotten from you has been you muttering Ryan’s name a few times in your sleep."

She was clearly teasing, but Jamie was embarrassed nonetheless. "Umm…is that all I said…just her name?"

Smiling fondly at her daughter, Catherine reassured her. "Yes, Dear, it was very innocent. Rather sweet, I might add."

Her blush grew brighter as Jamie informed her mother, "I was dreaming about her." She sighed deeply and stretched a little, feeling like she’d been in a straitjacket for the last few hours. "I really miss her."

"Of course you do," Catherine allowed. "You’re supposed to miss your beloved, Jamie."

Cocking her head slightly, Jamie asked, "Did you ever have to be away from Daddy when you were newlyweds?"

The older woman thought for a few minutes, trying to recall her early years with Jim. "Not when we were married, but he did go on a trip when we were dating." Laughing softly she recalled, "We nearly broke up over it, to tell you the truth."

"What happened?" It was unusual for Catherine to share stories of the early years of her courtship and marriage, and Jamie was fascinated by this glimpse into her mother’s past.

"It seems so silly now," Catherine admitted, laughing softly at her youthful insecurities. "Your father was in law school while I was still in college, as you know. His spring break was several weeks after mine, and he made plans to go to Reno with some of his buddies from college."

"Without you?" Jamie asked.

"Quite," Catherine confirmed. "That was made quite clear. This was a little get-away for Jim and some of his friends from the football team. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it was his law school friends, but this crowd was really quite wild, and I did not want him to go."

"My guess is that he didn’t like to be told what to do," Jamie posited, recognizing the same trait in herself.

"He didn’t then, and he doesn’t now," Catherine agreed. "Little did I know that one day I’d have two of you with the same pet peeves!"

Jamie accepted the comparison with a smile. "So how did it turn out?"

"You know, he wasn’t even very excited about the trip until I forbade him to go," she recalled. "Then, of course, it became vital that he attend!"

"Ouch!" Jamie empathized. "You must have been furious."

"Oh, I was angry," Catherine admitted. A pensive look came over her and she paused for a moment. "But it obviously blew over, because we decided to get married later that spring."

"Wow," Jamie mused, "he must have realized how much he missed you while he was gone."

"Perhaps." Catherine smiled at her daughter, and pointed out the window. "There’s the first view of the point, Dear."

Jamie looked out and saw the spit of land that the Dunlop estate occupied. The view only lasted for a moment, before the road curved and obliterated it. "We’re almost there," she agreed.

"Indeed. Are you ready to live in the lap of luxury for an entire week?" Catherine’s twinkling brown eyes were full of fond regard for her daughter. She knew that Jamie did not feel comfortable in the big house with the servants and the lavish displays of wealth that this branch of the family reveled in , which made her all the more grateful that her daughter had agreed to make the trip.

"Bring it on," Jamie encouraged. "If Ryan has her way, we’ll be shopping at the Army/Navy surplus for our clothes and Goodwill for house-wares. I might as well soak it up while I can."

* * * * * * * * * * *

The limo pulled into the long drive off the main road, the tires crunching loudly over the oyster-shell surface. Jamie lowered her window and smiled as she heard the crackles and pops. The sea air was thick and heavy with moisture, and she turned to her mother with an excited grin. "I’d forgotten how familiar this all is to me. I can still remember riding bikes down this drive and hearing those shells crack under the weight of my tires."

Sharing her smile and her recollections, Catherine said, "I don’t know why, but the ocean even smells different here. You’d think the Atlantic and the Pacific would have the same feeling, but they really don’t."

"No, they don’t," Jamie agreed. Cocking her head, she asked, "I don’t know why but I have a memory of your father being here with us. Was he?"

Catherine reached over and squeezed her hand, smiling softly as she said, "The year before he died, he finally agreed to come with us. I think that was the longest period of time you and he ever spent together. You had a fabulous time." Her voice cracked a little, and Jamie gave her a return squeeze.

"I’m glad I came with you, Mother. It’s nice to be able to share these things with you."

"Indeed it is," Catherine agreed, taking in a deep breath, letting the familiar smells of the ocean waft over her like a cloud. Without conscious thought, her mind wandered to a picture of a very young Jamie sitting on her grandfather’s lap while he captained them around Narragansett Bay. Even though Bill Smith had lived just up El Camino Real in Atherton—mere minutes from Hillsborough, Jim and Catherine had not seen him frequently. The older man had little patience with infants, and only slightly more with toddlers, so they kept most of their visits to an occasional Sunday brunch at the club, or holiday dinners. But on this one trip, something about Jamie had captivated him. Perhaps it was because Jamie was an extraordinarily mature child, able to converse with adults at a very young age. Or maybe it was because Bill had the time to really relax and enjoy the young child, with few interruptions, or other obligations. Whatever it was, Catherine mused that she had rarely been as happy as she was during that month. Her father bonding with her child was a wish she had never seriously held out hope for, and to have it given to her was enormously rewarding.

Sadly, only a few months after that trip his health began to fail, and shortly after Christmas he passed away, leaving Catherine completely bereft. Jamie had obviously retained some faint memories of that trip, but they had rarely spoken of that time together, indeed had rarely spoken of her father at all. Instead, Catherine often pulled those lovely times from her memory bank and savored them gratefully, but alone. Speaking of it now, she realized how much more fulfilling it would have been to let her daughter share in her grief and longing at the time of her father’s death. She honestly thought that she was doing the right thing at the time, that Jamie was too young to understand death and the impact it had. But looking back, she realized that she had squandered an opportunity to grow closer to her daughter. How many of those chances have you ignored or found that you were too afraid to capitalize on, Catherine? Well, no more! Jamie’s doing her very best to give you another try—and you’re not going to ruin this opportunity!

* * * * * * * * * * *

As the servants carried their things into the house, Jamie whispered, "It’s nearly ten o’clock. Shouldn’t someone be up by now?"

"You know that your Uncle David was never a morning person," Catherine reminded her. "And since he’s just getting over the flu, I’d expect that he’d be taking it easier than normal."

That would be comatose, Jamie mused to herself, thinking of her uncle’s normal lethargic routine. David Dunlop was the brother of Catherine’s mother, Phoebe. He had inherited the estate, or "cottage" as the family insisted upon calling it, upon his mother’s death in the early 1960s. Jamie had not seen him for an extended period in twelve years, but even then he was almost completely inactive. His health was actually fine, perhaps because he uses his body so infrequently, she thought with a mental smirk.

"May I show you to your rooms?" asked the white-jacketed, bow-tied young man who had carried their bags in.

"Certainly," Catherine said, and she and Jamie followed the man up the central staircase. The suite they were shown to was, in Jamie's recollection, the same one that they had occupied during their previous visits. Near the back of the house, the two generous bedrooms were connected by a very large bath. Both rooms had a view of the ocean, and Jamie immediately opened her windows to let in the fresh breeze. Like most grand houses of the period, the house was not air conditioned, but there was nearly always a good breeze, and each room had a large transom over the door to allow for a cross breeze from one room to the next.

"Mr. Dunlop has asked me to tell you that the family will gather at eleven for brunch. Will you be able to attend?"

"Of course," Catherine replied, and Jamie saw her nap fly out the window. "You’ll join us, won’t you, Jamie?"

"Wouldn’t miss it," she smiled, reminding herself that she was here to spend the time visiting with her mother, not catching up on her sleep. "What was your name?" she asked the young man who was exiting the room.

"Duncan," he replied evenly.

"Good to meet you, Duncan," Jamie said.

"It’s a pleasure." His face remained expressionless, and Jamie mused that Duncan looked less than happy with his job. He probably hates to have a house full of people here for a month. I bet Uncle David keeps him hopping—and doesn’t give him a dime more in salary…for hazard pay!

* * * * * * * * * * *

As Jamie was getting ready for brunch she heard a knock on the door. "Come in, Mother," she called.

Catherine opened the door just a few inches and asked, "Do you have a moment? I need to talk to you."

"Sure, come on in."

Jamie had just started to change for brunch and she paused in mid-action, not quite knowing whether she should continue to undress, or put her travel clothes back on. She had been slightly uncomfortable to have her mother see her undressed for years now, and the fight they had over Christmas break didn’t help the issue. Catherine had seen her daughter nearly naked when she was getting ready for a bike ride, and the older woman was dismayed over the muscles that Jamie had developed through her workouts. It had actually been quite upsetting for both of them, and Jamie was a little afraid of having a repeat of the argument.

As Catherine entered the room, she averted her eyes and said quickly, "Let me come back when you’ve changed."

Steeling herself, Jamie decided to accept this small test. She needed to force herself to act more naturally around her mother, and changing clothes was one such act. "No, it’s fine. I don’t mind," she reassured her.

"All right," Catherine said with some hesitation, then walked over and sat on the upholstered window seat and began watching the boats plying the waters.

Jamie had taken her clothes out of the suitcase and was in the process of placing them in her dresser when her mother had entered. She was clad only in her bra and panties, but she forced herself to continue her tasks as if she was alone. She had only one outfit to hang in the closet, and as she did so, her mother laughed softly. "Are you staying the whole week?" she asked.

"Yes, I just assumed that we’d go shopping. No sense in bringing clothes that I won’t wear," she said logically. "Did I guess correctly?"

"Yes, I’d love to go shopping tomorrow." There was a long pause and Catherine asked tentatively, "Do you still like to shop, Dear?"

"Lesbians don’t all wear jeans and T-shirts, Mother," she said in a slightly pointed tone.

"That’s not what I meant, Jamie," she began to say, but she stopped herself short. "I suppose that is what I meant to say after all," she admitted. "You’re just going through so many changes, I’m not sure what you like to do any longer."

"I think I’ll always like clothes," she assured her with a smile. "I think that’s the Dunlop genes coming through."

"It must be, because the Smiths are some of the most poorly attired people I’ve ever met!" Catherine laughed at her joke, continuing to stare intently at the boats that were visible from the window seat.

"So, what did you want to speak to me about?" Jamie asked as she stepped into a pair of celadon-colored linen slacks.

"I’m uncomfortable asking you for this favor, but it means a lot to me, so I’m going to ask anyway," she said as she nodded her head once in a decisive gesture.

"What is it, Mother?" Jamie was just about to put on a cream-colored cotton sleeveless v-neck sweater, but she walked over to her mother with the garment still in her hand.

Catherine took a deep breath and seemed to steel herself, finally looking Jamie directly in the eyes. "I wish you would not bring up your relationship with Ryan, at least in front of your great-aunts and uncles," she said firmly.

Sitting next to her mother on the window seat, Jamie blew out a breath and slipped her sweater over her head. After a few minutes she asked, "Do you mind telling me why?"

Catherine replied to that question with a question of her own. "Do you recall why you told me that you would not admit to your relationship when I first asked you about it?"

"Yes. I said I wasn’t comfortable with the idea yet. I didn’t want to have to explain or defend myself before I felt completely comfortable." She placed her hand on her mother’s knee and gently asked, "Is that how you feel?"

Catherine gave her a nod so slight that it was almost imperceptible.

"Okay. I promise I won’t bring it up. But I hope you don’t expect me to lie about Ryan. I’m proud of my love for her, and I can’t betray that love by denying it. But I will agree to do my best to avoid the topic in conversation. Is that good enough?"

"That’s very generous of you, Jamie." She reached up and brushed the hair off her daughter’s forehead with a gesture very similar to one that Ryan often made. "You’ve been so mature about this whole thing, it makes me very proud of you."

Jamie took her mother’s hand and kissed it gently before releasing it. "You’ve been very supportive so far, Mother. I want to thank you for that support by giving you the time you need to become comfortable with my sexual orientation."

"Thank you, Dear. I know this is just temporary for me. And it won’t bother me if you wish to speak to your cousins or even my cousins about this. It’s mainly your great-aunt’s and uncles that I’d rather have not know just yet."

"All right. I don’t know any of my cousins well enough to assume the subject will come up, but if it does I might tell them."

"Thank you, Dear. Are you ready?" she asked as she stood.

Jamie stood and hooked her mother’s arm in hers. "Let’s go greet the Dunlops," she said with a smile.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Just a few minutes before ten, Jordan came up the driveway on her bike, an enormous backpack nearly causing her to tumble off when she stopped. "Hey, what are you doing sitting outside?" she asked, when she spotted Ryan sitting on the top step, head in her hands.

The dark head lifted, and it was obvious that she hadn’t even noticed that Jordan had arrived. She blinked her eyes slowly, trying to snap out of the fog she was in. "I’m sorry, what did you say?"

Walking her bike up the sidewalk, Jordan approached cautiously, a little surprised by Ryan’s odd demeanor. "Hey, are you okay?"

Ryan looked anything but okay, but Jordan couldn’t actually figure out what was wrong with her. She looked more depressed than anything, so Jordan hazarded another question when Ryan didn’t immediately respond. "Are you really this upset to be leaving Jamie?"

Standing up and stretching to unkink her back, Ryan shook her head briskly. "No, she’s out of town with her mother. She was going to go later in the summer, but when I found out about this, we decided to move it up. It’s actually worked out well, schedule-wise."

"Then what is it?" Jordan was not usually the type to pry into the personal lives of others, but Ryan looked so completely bereft that she couldn’t help herself.

"Long story, pal," she said. "I’ll fill you in on the way down to Santa Cruz." As they walked into the house to fetch Ryan’s gear, she added, "Next time, let me come pick you up, okay? I didn’t realize that you didn’t have a car."

"It’s a deal," the lanky blonde agreed, sliding her arm around Ryan’s waist as she gave her a grateful smile.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Now, let me get this straight," Jordan said, nearly an hour after they had departed. "Jamie’s in Rhode Island with her mother…her father came here this morning and basically threatened you…now tell me again why you’re not on the phone with her?"

"I told you," Ryan explained patiently. "She just got there, and I don’t want her to get hit with this the second she walks in the door. Besides, she said she was going to go to bed as soon as she could. She took the red-eye, so I know she’s really tired."

"Ryan," Jordan said with less patience, "You are insane if you don’t tell her immediately. Her father sounds like a total loon! You said yourself that he was going to make her stay in Rhode Island for the rest of the summer, and that he threw you out of the house! I don’t know Jamie that well, but if it was me, I’d be on the first plane back here!"

Ryan shook her head in irritation, knowing that Jordan had a good point, and not really wanting to be reminded of it. "You don’t know Jamie well, Jordan, but your guess is completely accurate. She’d probably hire a charter jet to get back here this afternoon! She’s usually calm and deliberate about her decisions, but this will drive her absolutely crazy!"

"And that’s a reason NOT to tell her?" Jordan was completely puzzled by her friend’s hard-headedness on this topic, and she could tell that Ryan was struggling with it.

"I’m torn, Jordan," she admitted. "She’s a little hot-tempered where her father is concerned right now, and I’m afraid she’ll come back here and do something crazy."

Jordan took that statement in, letting it roll around in her mind for a few moments. She finally looked at Ryan and asked, "Isn’t what her father did crazy?"

"Yes, yes, of course it was," Ryan said, irritated that Jordan was bringing up yet another good point. "But with him angry, and her angry, God knows what would happen. I don’t want her to have an irrevocable split with him."

"Isn’t that her decision?" Jordan’s soft soprano voice was unyielding, and once again Ryan wished she had given one of the nice, malleable freshmen a ride, rather than her opinionated friend.

"Yes, Jordan, it is her decision. And I won’t stand in her way if she chooses to do that. But I want to calm down before I tell her. There’s no sense in me getting her more upset than she will be on her own. She’s supposed to call me tonight…I’ll tell her then."

Reaching across the car, Jordan squeezed Ryan’s knee. "You’ll feel better when you do, Ryan. I’m sure of it."

"That makes one of us," Ryan muttered, knowing that having Jamie upset never made her feel better.

* * * * * * * * * * *

On the way down the stairs, Jamie could hear the murmur of voices as well as the tinkling of ice in glasses coming from the solarium. The lovely glass-enclosed room was located right next to the dining room, and was the usual gathering place for the family for before-dinner drinks.

Entering the sun-drenched space, Jamie mentally corrected herself to include before-brunch drinks, also. All three generations of Dunlops were gathered, and the alcohol was flowing liberally.

When their arrival was noted, Patsy Dunlop, David’s wife, approached and greeted Catherine with a tentative hug and a kiss that landed well short of her cheek. Turning to Jamie, she made a move to offer the same to her, pulling away immediately when Jamie attempted to actually touch her body. After several more rounds of uncomfortable encounters she wondered, Lord, does everyone have osteoporosis, or do they just hate touching!? I was hugged with more enthusiasm by Ryan’s neighbors at the 4th of July party than I am by relatives here!

Much was made of Jamie’s attendance at the gathering, most of the family having not seen her in 12 years. Her uncle David was mixing Bloody Marys for everyone, and he pointedly told Jamie that he was glad she and her cousin David were finally "legal."

She accepted the drink, but almost choked when she tasted the tremendous amount of alcohol in it. He seems to have forgotten the ‘Bloody’ part, she thought while she tried to find an inconspicuous place to leave the drink. If I drink this, I’ll be on my ass, and it’s only eleven a.m.!

Luckily, a white-jacketed butler called them to brunch. As everyone filed out, she dashed over to the wet bar and poured half the drink down the sink. Filling the glass up with tomato juice, she trotted after the others into the dining room to take her seat.

She observed her great-uncle David as he took his place at the head of the table. He was a small man, as were most of the Dunlops. He actually looked a good deal like the faded photos and oil paintings of the patriarch of the family, Wilbur Dunlop. Jamie’s mind strayed for a moment to her great-great-grandfather, the font of the family wealth. Wilbur’s eventual social standing belied his humble beginnings as an accounting clerk in the office of one of the leading coal mines in Pittsburgh. His tremendous business acumen and a series of very favorable circumstances slowly gave way to his rise, first in the Pittsburgh Mining Company, and eventually to the ownership of Dunlop Mines. This ultimately led to his becoming known as the "Crown Prince of Coal"—a sobriquet which befitted his position as the owner of over 30% of the operating coalmines during the last part of the 19th century. He and his wife Maxine, had two children, Orville, Jamie’s great-grandfather, and a daughter, Julia, who died at the age of 88 the year Jamie was born, never having married.

Orville had assumed control of the mining company upon his father’s death, but the business never held his interest. In this instance, however, his indifference served the family in good stead. Fortuitously, he began to sell off individual mines to smaller companies, just before the price of coal began to plummet thanks to the more ready supply of natural gas and diesel fuel as a source of home heating. He wisely diversified his massive wealth, investing in a wide variety of concerns. Even after the market crash of 1929, he was still flush enough to be able to acquire a great deal of stock in many companies at rock bottom prices, and when the market began to turn around in the 40s, the financial security of the Dunlop family was assured for many, many generations of spendthrifts. Jamie was pulled from her reverie by the scion of the family making a semi-formal address.

"I’d like to welcome the last of our group to our little gathering," David began. "It’s been quite some time since Jamie has joined us, and I hope this is the first of many trips she and Catherine will make together." His small face broke into a playful grin as he teased, "Of course, I assume one of these years she’ll bring a handsome young man to join us also."

She blushed at this prediction, shaking her head a little, while not commenting on the accuracy of it. I promised Mother. "Thank you, Uncle David. It’s wonderful to see you all again, and I certainly hope to be able to attend in future years."

"Hear, hear," David agreed, lifting his Bloody Mary in a toast. Glasses clinked and everyone joined in, tilting their glasses in celebration. Please, don’t let us do this for everyone. They’ll have to carry me out of here!

Luckily, no more celebratory toasts were offered, and the meal continued to the accompaniment of polite conversation. Jamie was seated near a coterie of David Dunlops--her great-uncle, his son David Junior, known as Skip, and Skip’s son, David III, called Trey.

Her great-uncle David’s only other child, John Orville Dunlop, and his son J.C. were also seated near them, and Jamie spent a moment considering her two male cousins.

Trey was just two months, and J.C. three years, older than Jamie. At 24, J.C. was still trying to finish college. He had been thrown out of the best prep schools in the country, and finding a college to admit him had been a chore. But enough donated money can make even the poorest student shine in the eyes of the administration of an under-endowed university, and the Dunlop money had gained him admittance to a small private college in New Hampshire. As it turned out, one too many calls to the local police station had made even the Dunlop money an inadequate inducement, and several small- and medium-sized colleges later, he was crawling towards a degree in American Studies at a degree-mill in New York. With any luck, and an inattentive police force, he would graduate when Jamie did.

Trey had already successfully graduated--from the Betty Ford Clinic. He had been struggling with substance abuse since he was in high school, but he had ostensibly been clean for over a year now. Jamie wasn’t sure what type of treatment program he was participating in, but she had never heard of one that allowed Bloody Marys for breakfast.

Even with their checkered backgrounds, Jamie had always been fond of her wild cousins. She had enjoyed the summers spent in Newport when she was small, since it was the only time of the year that she really got to act like a kid. Trey and J.C. were raised by nannies also, but they went through them quickly. When the families were in Newport, the nannies were left behind, and since the adults had neither the time nor the interest to supervise the children much, they were allowed to run a little wild. Even though Jamie had loved her nanny, Elizabeth, she enjoyed being allowed to play with the boys in unaccustomed freedom.

She had never thought about it in this way before, but she wondered if the burgeoning delinquency of the two boys played a role in her mother’s quick agreement to allow her to stop coming to Newport twelve years earlier. By the time Jamie was ten, J.C. had already been expelled from two schools, and there were more to follow. He would regale her and Trey with tales of his pranks and his nearly chronic class cutting. She always found his stories funny, but even then she thought that he seemed to be crying out for attention from his parents.

"Going sailing later, Jamie. Would you like to go with us?" Trey asked.

"If mother hasn’t planned anything else, I’d love to," she agreed. "I haven’t been out all summer." She fondly remembered the last time she and Ryan had been on the boat, just before the AIDS Ride. The thought of lying in the hammock on the gently swaying boat brought a wistful smile to her face, and she had to blink repeatedly to dispel the images of her love and bring herself back to the present.

"Do you still play golf?" J.C. asked, remembering her beginning attempts during her last visit.

"Yeah, I do. I’ve been playing a lot recently. Would you like to go out?"

"Yeah, Grandfather belongs to two clubs in the area. I’m sure we could play either one of them. How about Wednesday morning? Maybe eight or nine?"

Hmmm…eight a.m.? Maybe he is reforming a little bit. That’s pretty early to go out if you’ve got a hangover. "Fine with me. I’m used to getting up early, so any time is fine."

"Okay, I’ll be in charge of getting us a time," J.C. offered.

Looking around the table, Jamie felt a twinge of sadness to be in this home, filled with so many family memories, so few of which she shared. Over the mantle above the massive log-burning fireplace was a huge oil painting of three generations of Dunlops. It showed Orville's three children--David, Jamie’s grandmother Phoebe, and Louise Dunlop--seated on chairs from this very dining room; younger versions of Catherine, Skip and John stood behind their parents. None of the children of her own generation had been born yet, and she was struck by the obvious affection that Catherine exhibited for her own mother as she gazed down at the seated woman. I really wish that I had been able to know my grandmother, she thought with a tinge of regret. Phoebe Dunlop Smith had died when Catherine was pregnant with Jamie, and even though her mother did not speak of her own mother often, Jamie knew that she still carried grief over her loss. I hope that our kids can spend time with Mother and really forge a relationship with her. She certainly wasn’t able to be very connected to me when I was little, but there’s a part of me that thinks being a grandmother might be easier for her.

Looking across the table, Jamie shared a smile with her Aunt Louise. Louise, born in 1927, was two years younger than Phoebe. She and her husband, Oliver Whitmore, lived in Sarasota, Florida much of the year, but they usually stayed in Rhode Island most of the summer to avoid the heat and humidity of their southern home. Their son Adam and his wife Carolyn were flanked by their daughters, Julia, 14, and Stephanie, 16.

The younger girls were too far away for Jamie to converse with, and she decided to go out of her way to spend some time with them, knowing that it would not be easy for teenagers to be stuck in Rhode Island away from their friends for an entire month.

Catherine’s generation was involved in a passionate discussion about the proposed abolition of the federal estate tax, a subject near and dear to the hearts of those family members who still had living parents. Catherine looked a little disinterested, but she was well trained to be able to appear fascinated by the most boring discussion.

Hearing these ridiculously wealthy people talk about the estate tax like it was going to reduce them to pauper status made Jamie laugh to herself. To the best of Jamie’s knowledge, none of the members of her grandmother’s generation had ever had a paying job. For that matter, no one in her mother’s generation had ever had what anyone would consider a "real job." Adam had previously raced, and now sponsored, Formula One race cars, a pursuit that had never made him any money but allowed him to travel all over the world in pursuit of his hobby. Skip was part of the syndicate that had bankrolled the last America’s Cup yacht--regrettably, a failing effort. John played at being a stockbroker, but his own portfolio made up most of his client list, and his opulent office on Wall Street was usually occupied only by a secretary.

Jamie had often marveled at how much money was still in the family when she considered how little anyone had produced. The saving grace was that Wilbur had only one child who had procreated, and Orville had produced only three, so the fortune had been split only three ways in Jamie’s grandmother’s generation. Since both Catherine and Jamie were only children, Jamie was the eventual heir to a full one-third of the original fortune. Her four cousins would eventually split the other two-thirds. If there’s any left, she thought with a shudder.

Her father had often said that her Uncle David could take an unlimited budget and overspend it. When she observed how he lived, she thought that her father had been too kind in his assessment. David lived in a style that could only be described as baronial. Besides the two young men who had managed their luggage and called them to brunch, two middle-aged women served the meal, and there was obviously a cook or two in the kitchen. A full-time chauffeur drove David and Patsy in the smallish limo that David preferred and spent the rest of his time washing the fleet of cars that were seldom used or watching television in the small apartment over the garage. Three gardeners made up the full-time staff, and additional workers appeared on a regular basis to do large jobs. The house had both indoor and outdoor pools and a championship-caliber tennis court, but Jamie wasn’t sure who was in charge of maintaining those toys. While you visited the cottage, if your glass was empty, someone unobtrusively filled it; if the sun was in your eyes, an umbrella appeared; if more than three hours had passed, someone was at your elbow offering food. None of the staff looked very old, and Jamie assumed that David either did not pay them well enough to keep them for long or he worked them to death at a young age. He also didn’t seem to know any of their names. He would start to point and his wife, Patsy, would gently ask, "What would you like, David?" After he stated his immediate need, she would call the proper staff member and quickly resolve the emergency.

Thank you, Jesus, for giving me a partner who helps keep me grounded, she thought to herself. There is zero chance of me ever living like this with my baby around. As Jamie toyed with the remnants of her breakfast with the tines of her fork, her mind inevitably strayed to her beloved partner. I wonder what she’s doing right now, she thought longingly. It’s just nine o’clock there. I bet she’s already packed up and waiting for Jordan to arrive. I bet she looks cute…probably has on her favorite sweatpants and one of her roomy T-shirts…Jeez, Jamie, don’t sit here speculating what she’s wearing! That’s just pathetic! A gentle smile came over her face as she spared one last thought. I bet she smells good, whatever she’s wearing. I love the way she smells in the morning right after her shower. Of course, I love how she smells when she hasn’t showered, too…stop it! You’ll never get through this week!

Rather glumly, she forced herself to pay attention to the conversation around her, finally smiling at her mother when the older woman made eye contact and said, "Thank you for coming with me, Jamie. It means a lot to me."

* * * * * * * * * * *

After brunch, Uncle David and Aunt Patsy took Catherine and Jamie on an extended tour of the house. Although she had been at the cottage at least nine times, Jamie’s memory of it was very vague. She had much clearer memories of the boat they used to sail on, and the extensive gardens where she played with Trey and J.C.

The house was a bit different from most of the mansions in Newport. For one thing, it was shingle style, rather than finished with the normal stone or stucco exteriors. And while it was terribly large, it didn’t appear opulent from the outside. Wilbur and Maxine had wanted the home to look like it belonged in New England, unlike the English or French manor houses that most of the industrialists were building. Because of their desire to blend in, the house could have fit in very well on the coast of Maine or Massachusetts.

It was designed by a prominent architect of the late 19th century, but it had never garnered much acclaim due to its understated style. The home was only two stories, but it was designed with a long U shaped footprint. From the front it looked almost like a regular shingle style colonial, but when viewed from the side, it was clear just how massive the place was. There were 15 bedrooms, 22 baths, and two dining rooms--one formal, one informal. There were parlors for daytime and evening entertaining, and a very large unstructured room that could be used for dancing or set up for very large dinner parties. There was a great walnut paneled library on the first floor and a smaller, but much warmer and brighter one on the second. A good-sized balcony opened off of the library and afforded a view of the ocean, one of Jamie’s favorite places to hide out with a book when she was small. The indoor pool was located next to a massive game room, the only place inside the cottage that Jamie had a clear memory of.

Jamie had to admit that David and Patsy had done a wonderful job in decorating the house. They had discarded most of the original furnishings and had spent most of their lives searching out authentic pieces from the Arts and Crafts movement to grace their home. They spent a substantial amount of time every year visiting small towns and hamlets in Britain to find hidden treasures and have them shipped back to Rhode Island, and their efforts had clearly been worth it from a stylistic perspective. Jamie presumed that the home could be donated to the historical society as a perfect example of the movement, but she assumed that they would leave the home to their sons. It was anyone’s guess what Skip and John would do with the home, as neither seemed to have much interest in it, other than as a place to vacation.

After the tour they went to the outdoor pool area to while away the afternoon. Stephanie and Julia were lying poolside with their parents, and even from a distance, Jamie could see that the little family didn’t look very happy.

Because they were at opposite ends of the table during brunch, Jamie had not spoken much with any of the Whitmores. They made their home in the Hamptons on Long Island for most of the year, but Adam spent large amounts of time following his investments on the Formula One circuit. He spent a great deal of time in Europe and Carolyn joined him often, but the girls usually stayed at home due to school commitments. Stephanie had been at boarding school for two years now, and Julia was scheduled to join her the following month when the new school year commenced. The school was in rural New Hampshire and was considered to be top notch academically. Jamie assumed that with Julia out of the house, Carolyn would spend even more time abroad with her husband.

Catherine was particularly close to Carolyn and Adam, much closer than to any of the other members of her extended family. Since much of the Formula One season was in Western Europe, they had purchased a spacious apartment in Rome as their base of operations. Catherine had a small but elegant apartment in Milan, and spent a month or two there every year, so they visited back and forth when they were all in Europe, and had actually grown closer in recent years than they had been when they were younger.

Julia, the younger child, was face down on a chaise lounge, the top of her bikini untied in order for her to tan evenly. Stephanie was dressed in baggy khaki shorts and a man’s style blue oxford shirt. Her chaise was also fully reclined, and when Jamie heard nothing from either of them for several minutes she realized they were both asleep. "So, Jamie, we were just trying to remember the last time we saw you," Adam commented as she sat down on one of the lounges.

"I’ve not been here in twelve years," she replied. "But I believe we spent Christmas together in Rome about eight or nine years ago."

"That’s right," Carolyn said proudly. "I told you that Jamie was there that year!"

"Well, it’s been far too long," Adam said. "What’s been keeping you in California all of these years?"

"August is the slow time for my father at work," she explained. "We would go sailing and play golf and just be able to spend time together. It was really the only time of the year that we got to do that." With a flash of pain, Jamie spent a moment wondering if she would ever be able to spend time bonding with her father again. Even though her mother assured her that her father was just in a funk, part of her believed that there was a distance between them now that would never be breached. Her eyes fluttered closed momentarily as she offered up a prayer that they would somehow find a way to reconnect.

"Hear that, girls?" Adam commented to his daughters. "Jamie likes to spend time with her father." He didn’t seem to notice that the girls were asleep, and Jamie wondered if perhaps they were feigning sleep to avoid being part of the conversation. "I can’t get these two to have a civil conversation with me, much less join me to spend a day together," he admitted with a smirk. "But I guess that’s just part of adolescence. I bet you were the same way, weren’t you Jamie?"

"I’m sure I was," she said agreeably, knowing there was not a shred of truth to the statement.

"Your mother told us you called off your engagement, Jamie. Are you doing all right?" Carolyn asked tentatively, not wanting to appear impolite.

"I’m fine," she said rather airily. "It was for the best. I see now that I was too young to be tied down." She paused just a moment before adding, "with Jack." Shooting a glance at her mother she saw that she looked to be holding her breath.

"Are you seeing anyone special now?" Carolyn continued.

Jamie gave her a bemused grin and said, "I wouldn’t see anyone who wasn’t special, Carolyn. But I’m certain that I won’t settle down with a man any time in the near future." Another quick glance showed that Catherine was breathing normally again and looked much more relaxed.

"You never know, Jamie. Love can sneak up on you."

"I know that’s true," she agreed with a smile. "Sometimes when you least expect it."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Jordan and Ryan were enjoying lunch at a fish taco stand in Half Moon Bay when the tinny strains of "Ode to Joy" chimed once again. A delighted smile settled onto Ryan’s features as she hurriedly wiped her hands and grabbed for the phone, getting it off her waistband and open before the third measure. "Hi, Love," she said rather dreamily.

"Hi yourself," Jamie said. "Where are you little jocks?"

Glancing at Jordan, Ryan chuckled a bit and said, "Not many people would look at the two of us and use the term little, Hon. You’re talking twelve and a half feet of volleyball power here."

"Point taken," Jamie agreed. "And half of that twelve feet is just about the cutest assemblage of DNA on this earth." At Ryan’s hearty chuckle, Jamie added, "I like to mix in some biology terms just to keep you interested."

"Oh, I’m interested," Ryan agreed. "I’ll always be interested." She cleared her throat, consciously setting aside the images being conjured before her "interest" became overwhelming. "Now to answer your initial question, we’re in Half Moon Bay eating fish tacos. They’re really good," she added, winking playfully at Jordan.

"Sounds better than the brunch I just sat through with my relatives," Jamie muttered, feeling a little out of sorts. "I now remember why I stopped coming here in the first place."

"Is it really that bad?" Ryan asked solicitously.

"No, it’s not," Jamie said, realizing that she was whining for no good reason. "But you’re not here, and nothing is quite right if you’re not with me. Luckily for me, you’re the most thoughtful woman in the world, and you provided me with a very lifelike substitute for your sweet self."

Getting up and walking over to the parking lot for some privacy, Ryan asked, "Do you really like him?"

"Him?" Jamie’s tone was playfully shocked. "She’s a her, I’ll have you know." She regarded the orange and white striped tiger that Ryan had secreted in her carry-on, and gave the animal a hug. The little beast wore a tiny white T-shirt, upon which Ryan had used fabric paint to write "I love Jamie" in bright green sparkly letters. "I don’t think I’ve had a stuffed animal since I was tiny," she revealed. "I absolutely love her. And I love you for going out of your way to remind me of how much you love me."

"I searched and searched for the squishiest tiger in town," Ryan said, her voice gentling. "I wanted you to have something to hug at night."

"I want you to hug at night," Jamie murmured, rubbing her face gently against the soft orange fur of her tiger. "I miss you so much, Ryan, and it’s only the first day."

"I know, Honey, I miss you too. I guess though, for me, it’s nice to know that you’re with your mom, getting in some bonding time while I’m stuck down in Santa Cruz. It would be much harder to think of you alone in our bed."

"You know, I guess that’s true for me too," Jamie allowed. "Thanks for reminding me of that, Love. I should have known that you would be able to see the bright side of this."

"That’s me," she agreed brightly. "I’m your built-in optimist. So, what are you doing the rest of the day?"

"We’re going sailing in a few minutes. I just came up to change."

"That sounds like fun," Ryan said, thinking of Jamie in her brightly colored sailing gear. "But you don’t have your stuff. Won’t you get wet?"

Jamie laughed gently. "No, I don’t think so. Uncle David’s boat is closer to the QEII than to Daddy’s racing boat. It’s huge, and slow and never heels much. Besides, the Atlantic is quite warm this time of year. I’m just going to wear my swimsuit and shorts."

"Mmmm…." Ryan let out a strangled groan as images of Jamie in her form-flattering suit flooded her mind. "You look so incredibly hot in that suit…" she began, her voice low and sexy. Her musings were cut off when she heard Jamie say, "No, come on in, Mother. I’ll be off the phone in a minute."

"Say hi for me," Ryan asked. "Tell her to take care of my precious one for me."

"I’ll tell her when I hang up, Babe. Call me on my cell when you get there, and tell me if there’s a phone in your room, okay? I’m not sure your phone will work down there."

"Really? Why’s that?"

"There are a number of pockets down there where there isn’t cellular service," Jamie informed her. "If your cell doesn’t work I’ll have to call you on a land line."

"Will do. Now you stay safe out on the ocean, Jamie. Don’t go falling in like I did."

With a gentle laugh, Jamie agreed. "I’ll take very good care of myself, Love. You too."

"Talk to you later, Hon."

"Bye, Sweetheart. I love you."

"Me too," she agreed wholeheartedly, feeling a stab of longing as she turned off the phone and went to finish her lunch.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Let me guess," Catherine mused playfully. "That was either AT&T trying to get you to switch to their long distance service, or…Ryan."

"You’re good," Jamie laughed. "You’re very, very good."

Raising one perfectly formed eyebrow, Catherine looked pointedly at the stuffed animal that Jamie still clutched against her chest. "Care to introduce me to your friend?"

Blushing fiercely, Jamie held the tiger out, and her mother grasped it gently. "She’s a very thoughtful woman, isn’t she?" she commented absently, stroking the bright orange fur into place. "She seems very gentle."

Jamie’s mind roamed to images of her partner and let the thoughts of her gentle nature flood her mind. But something about the tone of Ryan’s voice when she talked about her swimsuit snuck in with those thoughts, and Jamie spent a moment thinking of how absolutely fierce and powerful her lover could also be. She had to force herself to banish these tempting thoughts and focus on her mother once again. Giving her a big smile, she agreed completely, "Yes, she’s very gentle. You should see her with her little cousin. There’s a part of her that’s very wild with the baby. They roughhouse and run up and down the hills like banshees, but she can comfort her and rock her to sleep in seconds. Caitlin actually responds as well to Ryan as she does to her parents. She just has a gift for making people feel safe."

"Do you spend much time with this child?" They hadn’t really spoken much about their interactions with the O’Flaherty/Driscoll clan, Jamie realized, and her mother didn’t know how important Caitlin was to both of them.

"Oh yes, we see her every weekend. It’s hard for Ryan to be apart from her during the week, but living in Berkeley has been good for both of us."

"But your weekends with Ryan’s family are important to you too, aren’t they, Dear?"

"Absolutely. It’s so nice to just fit in with the family, and Martin treats me just like another daughter. I’ll miss them almost as much as Ryan this week," she laughed, knowing that she wasn’t exaggerating in the least.

Looking out at the ocean, Catherine’s brow furrowed as she said, "I hope one day that Ryan feels as comfortable with our family as you do with hers."

"She feels very comfortable with you already," Jamie informed her. "But I would truly love it if one day you and Daddy would welcome her into our home in the same way that you did for Jack."

Catherine did not reply to this last comment for a long while. Jamie finished getting ready, bending over to lace up her deck shoes when her mother asked, "Does it bother you to talk about Jack?"

"No, not any longer," she said, realizing the truth of the statement as she made it. "I went to his graduation, you know."

"No, I didn’t know that." Catherine was a bit surprised to hear this, but she was pleased that Jamie and Jack were not antagonistic towards each other. And, as the topic did not upset her daughter, she decided to indulge her curiosity. "How was that for you, Dear?"

"It was pretty dreadful," she admitted, shaking her head at how awful the entire experience was. "I wasn’t prepared for how I felt when I saw him with his new girlfriend."

"Oh, my!" Catherine was truly shocked at this development. Jack seemed like the type to spend a good long while licking his wounds after a breakup, and she wondered if her assessment of him was that inaccurate. " I take it that this was a surprise?"

"A complete surprise. I’d only spoken to him once since our failed attempt at reconciliation, and he hadn’t mentioned it then. I certainly didn’t expect him to be alone for long, but it seemed awfully quick."

"Is he serious about her?"

"What isn’t he serious about?" she replied with a small laugh. After a moment she looked at her mother thoughtfully and asked, "Were you happy that he and I were to be married?"

Catherine looked a little uncomfortable with the question, but she wanted to be more open and frank with Jamie, and this was an opportunity to be just that. Breathing out a small sigh, she said, "No, Dear. I did not think it wise for you to commit to marriage so early in your life."

Piercing green eyes locked onto hers, and Jamie asked the follow-up question that naturally segued from her mother’s answer. "Does that mean that you think it’s a mistake for me to be committed to Ryan?"

I should have married a musician or an artist, Catherine mused. Having two people in the family who think in such a linear fashion will be the death of me yet! Knowing that her answer would not be popular, she nevertheless truthfully admitted, "If it was my choice, I wish you would take a few years to experiment with different people. I think that you truly might be a lesbian, Jamie, so Ryan’s gender has nothing to do with my feelings. I’m just afraid that one relationship with a man and one with a woman are not enough to base a permanent choice on."

Jamie pursed her lips as she considered her mother’s opinion. She nodded her head slightly as she said, "I can see how you would feel that way, Mother. It does seem like I’ve had almost no experience with love. But I’ve had a wish list in my head since I was young. Ryan has every attribute that I could ever want in a partner, and I’m just not sure you can schedule when you meet the person that really clicks with you."

"Tell me about your list," Catherine asked with a gentle smile on her delicate features.

A beaming smile lit up Jamie’s face as she began to speak in an animated fashion. She had obviously spent a lot of time coming up with her list, and she launched right into it. "I wanted someone who was bright and funny, and Ryan is incredibly bright. I feel downright slow around her sometimes. And she’s bright in the areas that I’m not. She’s a genius at math, and she’s a whiz at all of the sciences. She’s also very interested in the areas that she isn’t that knowledgeable about. I guess I would say she’s just a student of life. She looks at me with such concentration when I’m talking about a topic that I know would not appeal to her on her own. Then a few days later she’ll ask me an incredibly perceptive question about what I told her. It’s like she has a computer running in the background all of the time, just processing the little things that go through her mind."

"I can’t imagine anyone making you seem slow-witted, Jamie," Catherine said fondly, "but I’ll defer to your view."

Jamie smiled broadly and admitted, "Well, I guess I don’t feel slow-witted, but she’s really extraordinarily bright, Mother."

"She seems it, Dear, I’m just teasing you."

As these words sank in, Jamie realized that they had rarely teased each other in the past, and she wondered what was causing the change. She knew that her mother had a very droll sense of humor, but it wasn’t often directed at her. She found this lighter, more playful side of her mother very appealing, and she hoped that it continued.

Continuing her list she said, "Ryan has the most delightful sense of humor of anyone I’ve ever met. She can be very cerebral with her humor, but she can also be so silly. She’s like a four-year-old sometimes, and that’s really appealing to me. She has an irrepressible joy that is truly infectious."

"What else was on your list?" Catherine asked with great interest, eager to know more about the young woman who had so enthralled her daughter.

"I was certain that I wanted someone who was very kind, and who cared about others. Someone like Poppa," she said fondly. But she immediately regretted her comparison when she saw a brief flash of pain pass across her mother’s face. She reached over and grasped her mother’s hand as she gave it a little squeeze. "You know how I meant that, don’t you?"

"Yes, Dear, I do know how you meant that," she said sadly. "While I believe that generally your father and I have been kind people, I agree that we’ve never set a very good example in caring for others."

Jamie squeezed her hand again as she said, "I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I just meant that Poppa has spent his life trying to help other people. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that you are self-centered."

"But we have been, Dear," she said simply. "There’s no need to apologize. Now tell me more."

Looking at the sadness that had settled in the dark brown eyes that regarded her, Jamie was quite uncomfortable continuing with the comparison, but she did so since her mother was clearly waiting for an answer. "Ryan is very much like Poppa in that she thinks about other people first. She has been so busy with work and school and athletics, but she still managed to devote tons of hours to helping teenagers in trouble. And, of course, she participates in the AIDS ride every year. That requires year-round training."

"She’s helping you to be that way, too, isn’t she, Dear?"

Jamie sat on the edge of the bed, thinking about her answer for a few moments. She had always thought that she was committed to helping others, but she had to admit that she had been satisfied with doing so through monetary donations rather than taking an active role. She knew that she would never be satisfied with that remote style again, and she acknowledged that Ryan was the force behind the change. "Yes, Mother, she is. I’m very grateful to her for that." Noticing that the brown eyes had not regained their sparkle, Jamie turned the tables on her mother, and threw the question back to her. "You know, I’m going on and on about Ryan, but I have no idea why you chose Daddy. Will you tell me?"

Catherine uttered a gentle laugh and protested, "I’m not sure my memory goes back that far, Jamie."

"Come on, Mother," she insisted, sitting next to her on the window seat. "Skip said we’re leaving at one, so you’ve got fifteen minutes to jog your memory."

"All right, Dear," she agreed, cocking her head to gaze at the ceiling for a moment. "I’m a little embarrassed to admit just how shallow I was at nineteen, but I may as well be honest. I’m quite sure that I didn’t have a list like you do, Jamie. I was more concerned with how a man looked and how he made me feel." A faraway look settled on her face as she grew thoughtful and said, "Your father made me feel special, I suppose. He was older than the boys I generally dated, and he seemed much more mature and settled. It’s hard to explain, but we just clicked. In retrospect, I think he reminded me of my father."

Jamie rolled her eyes at this revelation and said, "Gee, I have no idea what that’s like, Mother. Jack was soooo different from Daddy."

"Well, you were just my age when you started getting serious about Jack," she agreed with a laugh. "Do you think I would have wound up with a Ryan if I had waited another couple of years?" When Jamie’s round eyes stared back at her, Catherine laughed heartily and insisted, "I’m kidding, Dear. I’ve yet to be attracted to a woman…even though some times I wish I had been."

Now Jamie’s stunned expression turned to concern. "Why would you wish that, Mother?"

Getting to her feet, Catherine laughed again and said, "I can’t imagine that every woman in a 22-year marriage doesn’t at one time or another wish that her husband had some of the qualities that her women friends had. And for that matter, I’m sure every man wishes his wife thought and acted more like his male friends at times. It’s part of the tension that keeps things interesting, Honey."

"Hmm…interesting," Jamie murmured, thinking that Ryan could resemble a man quite easily, so long as her little bag of tricks was in the vicinity.

Part 4

An hour later, mother and daughter were sitting near the bow of the large, luxuriously appointed yacht, letting the wind play in their hair and generally enjoying the experience.

"Were you finished with your list of spousal attributes, Jamie? It seemed like there were a few more things on your list."

She laughed and admitted, "It was a fairly extensive list. But most of the details aren’t important. Only one big thing was an absolute deal-breaker for me, and thankfully Ryan is the perfect fit for this attribute."

"I can’t wait to hear this one," Catherine teased, a broad smile on her face.

Jamie grew quiet for a moment, thinking about how important this trait really was to her. "I wanted someone who wanted to have a family. It was very important for me to choose a mate that would be a good father. Obviously I’ve had to re-think the title, but whether she would be the birth mother or a co-parent, she would be fantastic. She’s loving and patient and very gentle, and she is a tremendous amount of fun when she’s around kids. I can’t think of anyone who I would rather raise a child with."

Catherine looked just a trifle taken aback as her smile dimmed. It took her a moment to reply, but Jamie waited patiently, having assumed that this might be hard for her mother to accept. "I must say I had not given that thought any consideration. I just assumed that most lesbians remained childless, and that we wouldn’t have grandchildren."

"I think that’s probably accurate, in raw numbers," Jamie agreed. "I don’t know what the statistics are, but I’d guess the majority of lesbian couples don’t have kids. But I think that might be changing for women our age. There were so many babies at the Gay Pride Parade it looked like a really colorful day care facility!"

"Gay Pride Parade," Catherine said with a look of stunned disbelief. "I…I have a hard time imagining you at that event, Dear."

"Yes, we went, Mother, and I know just what you mean because I had a hard time imagining myself there. But Ryan’s very much involved in the community, and we had a great time. It’s taking me a little while to get comfortable, but I really enjoy being around her friends."

"I just thought that since you don’t really consider yourself a lesbian…" she said tentatively, not sure what to make of this development.

"It’s not a big deal, Mother. "I’m not going to lead the parade or anything. I do enjoy going to those events, though, and I expect we’ll continue to do so. You don’t have to be a member of the club to go either…Ryan’s father and her brothers and her aunt were there to support us, and of course, Poppa was there for his congregation."

Catherine shook her head, trying to get her mind around this concept. "I just had no idea…"

"Don’t worry, Mother," Jamie assured her. "It’s taking me some time to get used to all of this. I assume it will take you a little while also."

Catherine nodded, deciding to be completely honest. "I don’t want to upset you, Dear, but the idea of you having children will take me a while to get used to. I just don’t know that it’s wise to raise a child in a non-traditional family. It seems to me that is an additional burden for the child."

Jamie had a tremendous amount to say regarding this issue. She and Ryan had discussed it from nearly every perspective, and they had covered it extensively in her psych class. But she knew that she had come to embrace the idea only after a good deal of discussion and soul-searching, and she knew that her mother had not had time for either. She knew there would be plenty of time to do that before she and Ryan made any concrete plans to have children, so instead of defending her point, she said, "We’re not planning on having children for several years. We can revisit this when we’ve decided to proceed, okay?"

"That’s a good idea, Dear," Catherine agreed immediately, obviously not in the mood to discuss the issue at the moment either. "Anything else on your list?"

"One last big one," she acknowledged. "I always dreamed about having a partner who loved me as much as I loved them. I wanted someone who would consider me an equal partner and who always respected my opinions, even when we disagreed."

"And your Ryan does all of these things?" she asked with a twinkle in her eyes, knowing the answer.

Jamie shot her a shy grin as she acknowledged, "Yep. Every one of them. She treats me like I’m a precious gift. She never really loses her temper or yells at me. And even though we’ve just been together a short time, we’ve had some pretty trying situations already. I think I would have seen her temper come out if it was going to."

"That is a big issue," Catherine agreed, privately wishing that her own husband had the ability to consider her an equal partner in their marriage. Thinking of Jim brought up the topic that she knew he was fixated on. "How does she really feel about our money, Jamie?" she asked a bit hesitantly.

"I was concerned that the money would be a problem, too," her daughter responded with a serious look on her face. Jamie waited just a beat for the surprise to register on her mother’s face before she smiled broadly as she added, "But she loves me in spite of it."

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

The Santa Cruz-bound women got back into the Lexus after lunch and spent the rest of the drive discussing what could be expected from the upcoming season. "You know," Jordan said, "we really have to go out of our way to set an example this year. This is the youngest team I’ve been on at Cal, and there’s going to be a leadership vacuum if we don’t step up."

"Weren’t you one of the leaders last year?" Ryan assumed Jordan would take charge of almost any situation, so she had not really even considered this point.

"Nope. The two seniors were really dominant. They did a good job of keeping the team focused, even though we weren’t very good. And the year before that, we had three seniors who kicked butt when it was necessary. But you and I are the only seniors this year; of course, you’re by far the oldest player," she teased, getting a smirk out of Ryan.

‘I see your point, Junior," Ryan mused. "I’m not unwilling to step up, as long as the returning players don’t think I’m stepping on toes. It’s pretty rare to have a senior walk-on, and I don’t want people to think I haven’t earned my stripes."

"The juniors saw you play for USF," Jordan reminded her. "I don’t think they’ll mind having you keep them in line. The four sophomores are all pretty quiet, and the freshmen already think you’re a goddess just from watching you in the weight room, so there won’t be a problem with them."

Ryan’s right eyebrow popped up a couple of times. "A goddess, huh? Smart girls."

"Right," Jordan laughed, always amused by Ryan’s cockiness. "So I think we have to go all out this week, to really show these kids how hard we’re going to have to work. I don’t think we need to give rah-rah speeches or anything like that. Let’s just work our asses off to set an example."

"I wouldn’t have it any other way," Ryan agreed, privately musing that she couldn’t see the point of doing something if she wasn’t going to go all out. "We’ll see if you can keep up with me," she taunted.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Hi, Love Bug," Ryan said into the receiver, once she found the phone in the hallway of the dorm they were assigned to. "Bad news all around, Babe. The cell doesn’t work, and there’s no phone in the room. I’m going to have to use the phone in the hallway of the dorm." She grimaced as she considered the effect that was going to have on their plans for extracurricular phone usage. "Which reminds me…I don’t mind that I’ve never gotten to live in a dorm. How do people stand these places?" She looked around the long hallway, wondering how a space that large, painted a bright peach, could look so dull and drab. Remembering that she was talking to Jamie’s message center, and that her question would, perforce, remain unanswered, she concluded, "I’ll hang out by the phone at nine o’clock your time, okay, Babe? If I don’t hear from you then, page me with the time you will call, and I’ll be here. We’re having dinner at seven, so don’t call from 6:45 on, okay? Love you. Miss you." Hate this, she added to herself, feeling quite ill at ease in the strange dorm so far from her beloved.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The 14 members of the volleyball squad gathered on the floor of the empty gym, a smallish facility that looked like it would generally be used for pick-up basketball games, or rec league play. They had all followed their own schedules over the summer, and some of the girls had not been in town, so this was really the first chance they had to be all in one place.

Ryan looked speculatively at her teammates. She knew many of the women from their morning workouts, but she was not sure what position most of them played, even though she could hazard a guess based strictly on height.

The setters and the defensive specialists were generally the smallest players, and were fairly easy to spot. More Jamie’s height, she thought, a smile curling her lips. The middle blockers were generally the tallest players, but she knew that she and Jordan were two of the three tallest team members, even though both of them were outside hitters. The other six-footer looked like a middle blocker to Ryan’s assessing eye, and she hazarded a guess that a shorter, but powerfully built woman also played in the middle. She figured that Coach would carry four outside hitters, and she was engaged in trying to guess who the other two were when the student manager called them to attention.

"Hi, everybody," the nervous looking young woman said. She cleared her throat, then shifted from one foot to the other, tossing her head to sweep her shoulder length hair back from her face. "I’m Liz Chang, and I’m going to be the student manager this year. It’s my first year at this, so you might have to bear with me while I learn my job, but I’ll do my best for you all. First thing we have to do is some paperwork." She handed out multi-part forms to each player, and the team members compliantly dropped to the floor and began to fill in the forms with the pens Liz provided.

Only in school or the military can you give a group of people a form to fill out and have them drop to the floor to do it, Ryan grumbled, still feeling grumpy about being confined to a dorm for a week. Once they had written in their emergency contacts and listed food allergies and any other special needs, Liz gathered the forms and announced that the coaching staff would be along presently.

As predicted, the staff made their entrance, and the players stayed where they were when Rich Placer indicated they should remain in their relaxed positions. "Okay, everyone. Good to see you all. Let’s spend a few minutes getting to know one another, and then we’ll get started."

Everyone spent a moment or two introducing themselves, and Ryan concentrated intently, trying to associate the names with the faces. Coach then introduced assistant coaches Ken Nakajima and Erin Malloy, and launched into a detailed assessment of their potential as a team. He realistically admitted that they would have their hands full with UCLA, USC, Arizona, and Stanford in the PAC-10. Both UCLA and Stanford had beaten them handily the previous year, and both had their key players returning. Nonetheless, he claimed that this year’s team had the talent to do very well in their non-conference games, and if they played well he thought they could make the NCAA tournament for the first time in several years. Ryan and Jordan exchanged determined looks, each knowing that the other was thinking of aiming even higher than just a tournament appearance.

"I’d like to spend today getting an idea of where each of you is in terms of fitness and ability," he announced. "Now that we’re into our practice time, we won’t run as a team any longer. I think each of you will get enough of an aerobic workout that you can stop running, but if you still choose to do so, have at it. Just don’t leave all of your energy out on the road." He looked directly at Ryan and Jordan as he said this, well aware that his competitive seniors had a tendency to overdo their training. Ryan grinned slightly and nodded, showing that she had received the message. "So, since we’re not going to be running any longer, let’s celebrate by having a final blowout!" His proclamation was greeted with groans, even though no one knew exactly what he was proposing. These lifelong athletes had learned at an early age that whenever a coach tried to make an exercise sound like fun—they were in trouble. "Let’s head over to the track." His enthusiastic voice did not diminish the grumbling, but everyone dutifully followed him.

The well-maintained track was located right next to the gym, and Coach Placer explained his goal. "I’d like to gauge your physical condition and your stamina by having you run a series of 400-meter laps." Now the groaning increased among most of the players, but Jordan just sat down on the bleacher and pulled out a pair of shoes. While she was lacing them, Ryan sat next to her and casually asked, "Spikes?"

A quick nod of her head caused her long blonde hair to cascade down her shoulders. "It pays to be prepared," she announced.

"It also pays to have been on the team last year," Ryan reminded her, adding a sharp slap on the back.

Coach allowed them a few minutes to warm up, then had the players run in pairs until everyone had finished the first lap. He timed them with a stopwatch, with Erin keeping notes on everyone’s performance, and after all had finished the first heat, they switched partners and did another.

Ryan was paired first with Jordan and then with the tall woman named Jenny Fletcher, who was, as Ryan had predicted, the incumbent middle blocker. She was a pretty good runner, but Ryan beat her handily, even though the 400 was a little long for her. Ryan’s best track event was the 100, but she was no slouch in the 200 or the 50 for that matter. Speed had always been her greatest asset, and she was both surprised and pleased when she turned in a near personal best in the 400.

When she considered her time she acknowledged that her fast showing was probably due to the fact that she was down to just under 180 pounds, partly from the grueling workouts she and Jordan had been struggling with, and partly because she had never fully regained the weight she had lost during the AIDS Ride. She knew that she was running well this summer, and she had a feeling that her lighter weight gave her a burst of speed that she had not experienced in a few years. I guess I won’t try to put that weight back on, she thought wisely. I need it for the AIDS ride, but I think I’ll play volleyball better at the lighter weight. I’m as low as I was my freshman year in college, but I feel good, and my energy level is good, so I may as well stay here.

Erin posted the combined times on an erasable white-board she carried, and Ryan smiled with pleasure as she noticed that she had beaten Jordan by .05 seconds. This was clearly not a decisive victory, but she was inordinately pleased to beat her fleet-footed friend at any distance.

"Okay, now let’s make this a little competition," Coach suggested, causing both Ryan and Jordan to perk up. "Two more heats, ladies. Overall winner gets to lead warm-ups during training camp. This is not a small incentive, as you returning players know, since you can tailor the warm-ups to suit your personal preferences. Bob Nymoen, our fitness and strength trainer, has a preference for ab crunches, as you well know." Once again everyone groaned, the ab crunch always appearing at the bottom of the players’ list of favorite exercises. "As a little more incentive, the players with the four slowest times are in charge of bringing the equipment from the dorm to the gym every morning." Now the groans and grumbling increased, since the dorm was nearly a half-mile from the gym. "Okay, let’s get ready to fly!"

Two more laps, and Ryan was declared the winner, nipping Jordan for the title by a full two seconds. As they walked back to the gym, Jordan caught up to her and complained, "I have cramps and a really bad headache. I think I broke one of my toes, and I might have appendicitis."

Ryan laughed heartily as she tossed her arm around her friend’s shoulders. "It’s only a couple of seconds, pal. Don’t take it so hard. I’m sure you’ll beat me next time."

"Next time I’m going to remember to take the lead weights out of my pockets," she promised, shaking her head as she tried to suppress a smile.


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

The next exercise was the vertical leap, the best gauge of the athletes' ability to jump high and often--one of the prime skills they would need as volleyball players. Ryan hadn’t tested her vertical leap for two years--since she had played for USF--but she recalled exactly what her personal best had been, and she was determined to beat that number.

She watched as the first player rubbed the colored chalk on her fingers and walked to the white painted cinderblock wall. The middle blocker stood tall, keeping her feet fully on the floor, and lifted her fingers as high as she could-- making a small mark with her chalked hands. Her comparison mark made, Jenny backed up about 15 feet from the wall, which would allow her to take a four-step approach, taking off about six feet from the wall, extending as high as possible for the touch that would measure her vertical leap.

Ryan was concentrating so hard on her mental preparation that when Jordan gave her a firm push to indicate it was her turn, she nearly fell flat on her face. She shot her a menacing look, but quickly gathered herself for her attempt, determined not to let Jordan distract her.

She moved to the wall and made her first mark. Jamie would love this, she smirked as her extension caused a rippling in her abdominal muscles. Ryan backed up farther than the other women had, and took four very big running steps. She shifted her momentum on the last two steps and propelled herself upward, straining to get as high as possible. Standing right next to Ken as he measured her effort, she did a little hop and let out a whoop when he announced that her vertical leap was two inches higher than it had been at USF. Maybe I’m not getting older—I’m getting better, she thought happily. Or maybe Jamie’s breathing new life into me. She thought about that for a moment, then had to admit, More likely she’s sucking all the life out of me with her insatiable demands! She sobered as she thought, I’d give anything to have that sweet face with me here right now. She realized that she was staring dreamily into space and she reminded herself, Focus Ryan, focus! You’ve got a job to do here.

When Jordan took her turn, she bettered Ryan by 1½ inches, so her pride and her good humor were fully restored. She stood next to Ryan and teased, "Leave it all on the track, did you?"

"Uh-huh," Ryan muttered, "Just keep telling yourself that, Jordan."

Coach was not overly pleased with the overall group performance on the leap, so he decided they would spend the rest of the session working on jumping ability. Ken and Erin brought out a big basket filled with ankle weights and everyone strapped on a set. The weights they wore were only 2 ½ pounds each, but that extra five pounds of weight would make an appreciable difference in their ability to elevate.

He had them practice their jumping technique before starting the exercise, using Jordan as his model since she had excellent form. She demonstrated the proper technique several times and then got into line behind Ryan for the drill. "Learn anything, Lead Butt?" she whispered.

"Yeah, I learned that you’re overly impressed with yourself," she said thoughtfully. "Oh wait, I already knew that. So, no, I didn’t learn a thing," she said sweetly, patting her cheek.

As the seniors, Ryan and Jordan started off the jumping exercise, which required them to take off from a line three meters away from the net and try to leap as high as possible while extending their hands up over the net. Determined to lead by example, they gave each jump everything they had. By the time each of the team members had taken 20 turns, they were all sweating and breathing heavily. Even though they were obviously tiring, Coach only let them pause enough to drink some sports drink or water. As soon as they were hydrated, he introduced the next little torture.

Ryan and Jordan exchanged challenging looks as the coach described the sequencing. This one had them stand at the net and try to jump straight up, as they would to block a ball. Once again the senior duo led the way, joined by the two middle blockers. Four players did this drill simultaneously, so the rotation went quickly, but the speedy rotation also meant that they had to take their next turn quickly. They flew up to the line and leapt as high as they could, ran to the back of the line and got ready to jump again. Since they were already winded, this drill was a killer, and Coach loudly pointed out each time a player seemed to be dogging it. The torture went on for 15 full minutes, and the other women were bent over at the waist as soon as a halt was called, but Ryan and Jordan both tried to act like they were fine, even though Ryan felt like she was getting a stitch in her side.

Ken and Erin collected the ankle weights and passed out two-foot lengths of surgical tubing. Each woman tied an end to each leg and spent the next ten minutes running sideways up and down the length of the floor. The tubing was fairly stiff to force the player to stretch as far as possible, and really extend. After a few laps, Ryan cast a glance down to see her quads bulging under the pressure, and she thought with a grimace that from a purely sexual perspective, it was lucky Jamie wasn’t with her, because she would be too sore to wrap her legs around that beloved body any time in the near future.

"Okay, people. That was a pretty fair first day." The coach’s understatement brought audible murmurs from his squad. "Now let’s cool down by running four more 400s!"

His announcement was met with nothing but groans, with even Ryan joining in, but everyone filed out of the gym and hit the track as instructed. They gulped sports drink for a few minutes, until the coach reminded them to take it easy or they’d get cramps. When they were all ready to go, he had them split up into pairs, and run the lap as a relay. The first runners were given batons, and before they took off Coach added an incentive. "Winning team gets the whirlpool first and a full body massage."

Ryan turned to Jordan, her partner, and demanded, "Run like you’ve never run before in your life!"

Luckily, they both had enough pop left in their legs to come out on top, which was slightly surprising since they badly bungled the handoff. "Race you to the showers," Ryan grinned, as they took off at a pace just slightly quicker than a pair of tortoises.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The ringing phone jolted Ryan from her exhausted slumber, causing her to jerk awake so abruptly that she banged her head sharply on the pay phone. "Damn it," she muttered, yanking the receiver from the device. "H’llo?"

"Which of those greetings was for me?" The amused voice at the other end immediately warmed Ryan’s heart while it simultaneously soothed the ache in her head.

"The second, Honey, only the second. I hit my head on the phone when it woke me up. Sorry about that."

"Woke you up? I thought you didn’t have a phone in your room."

"I don’t," Ryan said. "I was sound asleep sitting in the hallway on a desk chair." Even as she spoke a massive yawn escaped, and Jamie smiled as she could imagine the ritual stretching that followed.

"Did you sleep that poorly, Hon?" Her voice was filled with compassion, and that alone made Ryan perk up a bit.

"No, not really. But Coach thrashed us at our first practice. If we weren’t required to show up for dinner, I’d skip it."

"Honey!" Jamie had never heard her partner make such a startling admission, and she was utterly speechless for a moment before she could gather herself enough to ask, "Are you sure you’re okay, Love? I’ve never heard you willingly bypass a meal."

Ryan’s gentle chuckle made her sound a little more normal, and Jamie calmed down a bit. "Yes, Sweetheart, I’m fine. We just had a very intense two hours. I think Coach was trying to give us all a warning. Don’t worry, though, now that I’m awake I’m feeling hungry again." She patted her empty stomach as a hollow gurgle alerted her to its demanding presence. "My tummy’s already growling."

"Whew!" Jamie laughed a little at her own relief. "I’d be on the next plane if I thought there was something seriously wrong with you, you know."

Oh boy, Ryan sighed to herself. Something is wrong, Love, but not with me. She glanced at her watch when she heard some of the other players leaving their rooms, their playful taunts and jovial bouts of singing nearly drowning Jamie out. Damn, it’s already 6:45. I can’t hit her with this and then hang up. I’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

Jamie roused her from her musings as she said, "I’m so tired I almost drifted off there myself, Hon. I’ll let you go get dinner while I collapse."

"I hate this, I hate this, I hate this," Ryan repeated in a childlike chant, her lower lip stuck out in a pout. "I miss you, and I want you with me."

"I miss you too, Sweetheart," Jamie soothed. "I want you right by my side…every day of my life. But we’ve already gotten through one day, and we only have seven left."

"You mean we’ve only gotten through one day, and we have seven more horrible, grueling days to stumble through." It was obvious by now that she was teasing a bit, even though she was sincere in her wish to be together immediately.

"Yes, that’s exactly what I meant, Love. Now you go eat a nice meal. You’ve got to keep your strength up, Baby. You’re gonna need every bit of stamina you can corral when I get home."

"Mrrphh." The strangled little groan that made its way through the phone line put a cheery smile on Jamie’s face. Her voice lowered a bit and she promised, "When I get home I’m gonna put you through a more rigorous trial than Rich Placer ever dreamed of."

"Jamie," Ryan whined. "Don’t make me crazy like this! I’ll never last the week!"

"I’m sorry, Love," she whispered. "I just can’t think of much else when I hear your sweet voice."

"I know what you mean," Ryan murmured. "I was thinking about what you’d probably do to me if you were here this afternoon to watch us work out."

"Ummmmm," Jamie growled, her voice growing even huskier. "I love to watch you work out. Were you all sweaty and flushed?"

"Umm-hmm. Just the way you like me." Ryan’s voice was now rivaling Jamie’s in the sexiest phone voice contest. She was concentrating so hard on the sound of Jamie’s breathing that she didn’t even hear Jordan approach from behind, and jumped at a sharp rap on the back of her neck.

"We’re gonna have to run to make dinner on time, Romeo. Say goodnight to Juliet."

"Damn. I’ve gotta go, Honey. There’s probably some additional torture if we’re late."

"I love you, Ryan," she whispered. "Take care of your precious self for me."

"I love you too," Ryan said quietly so that Jordan couldn’t hear. "We work out from eight until ten, and from two until four tomorrow. So page me with the time you plan on calling, and I’ll be here waiting for you."

"Okay, Honey. Goodnight."

"Night, Babe. Sleep tight." Though Jordan and dinner were both waiting, she did not want to sever the connection.

Jamie’s response was worth the delay. "I only sleep tight when you’re wrapped around me," she insisted. "When you’re not here I just sleep."

* * * * * * * * * * *

At nine o’clock that night, the coaching staff made a discreet exit from the pizzeria where they had enjoyed their evening meal. One of the goals of the week, besides preparing for the physical aspects of the season, was to begin to forge a group of individuals into a team. Rich Placer believed that allowing the young women plenty of time to just relax in each other’s company was a good start in that direction. Towards that end, he and his assistants departed the restaurant as soon as was polite, handing Jordan $40 to purchase dessert for anyone who wished it.

As a group, they wandered down the main street in town, looking into shops and generally just playing around. After a few blocks, Jordan spotted an ice cream shop, and everyone agreed that ice cream was a perfect complement to the spicy pizzas they had just wolfed down.

It took longer than the harried clerks would have preferred, but eventually everyone who wanted a cone made up their minds. Next, nearly all of the tiny tables and wrought iron chairs were dragged across the floor to allow everyone to sit together. Finally comfortable, they relaxed and chatted about Santa Cruz. "These shops look really great since they rebuilt them all," Kelly Linder, a junior from Monterrey, commented.

"Rebuilt?" Jenny Fletcher looked around and noticed that the building did look quite new.

"Yeah, after the earthquake."

"Loma Prieta," Ryan said, able--like most Californians--to spout off the names and Richter scale readings of all of the major earthquakes she had personally experienced.

For the next 15 minutes, the teammates related various horror stories of their own, as well as few apocryphal tales just to keep the conversation interesting. Everyone from the Bay Area had been affected to some degree by the massive 7.1 quake, even though most of them had been in elementary school when it hit.

Jordan and Heather Clark, a freshman from a small farming town in the San Joaquin Valley, were strangely silent while everyone else was trying to impress the others with their personal tales. Ryan considered this, but then remembered that neither of them would have been anywhere near the quake, with Jordan growing up near L.A., and Heather in the fertile farm region in the center of the state.

The banter went back and forth until Ryan reminded everyone, "The ten-year anniversary is coming up in October, guys."

"Are you sure, Ryan?" Kelly asked. "It seems like lots longer than that."

"I’m positive," Ryan declared, looking up at the ceiling briefly to focus her memory. "I was in seventh grade, and we’d played a soccer match against a school in Oakland that afternoon." She laughed briefly, shaking her head as she did so. "It’s funny what you remember, but one of the kids couldn’t find her jacket. Our coach told her to get on the bus or he was leaving without her. The World Series was supposed to start at 5:30, and he wanted to get home so he didn’t miss much." Cocking her head, a small smile crossed her face. "Lucky for us he was a baseball fan. We were in the middle of the bridge when the quake hit."

13 sets of very wide eyes stared at her, every one of the young women understanding the import of her statement. "But the bridge…it…collapsed," Kelly squeaked out, her face nearly white with fright.

"Not all of it," Ryan reminded her, chuckling a little. "You’ll notice it is still standing today. Only a small part of the upper bridge collapsed onto the lower deck, luckily for us. If we had been delayed just ten or fifteen seconds…" her voice trailed off as a shiver ran down her spine, and she quickly tried to make light of the experience. "I actually feel pretty safe going across it now," she insisted. "If that old structure can shake like it did that day and still stay up, there’s not a thing to worry about."

Ashley Bond, a freshman from Menlo Park, gasped, "Weren’t you terrified?"

"Do the math," she joked. "Put a dozen 13-year-old girls on a bus in the center of a suspension bridge in the middle of the bay and then shake it real hard. Duh!" Ruffling Ashley’s long blonde hair she added, "That was the closest I came to wetting my pants since I was in diapers."

That comment broke the tension, the mere image of this imposing woman in diapers causing the team members to break out in slightly nervous laughter. Ryan’s laughter faded when she looked over and saw Jordan staring at the ground, her mouth set in a hard line. She didn’t want to question her at this point, but since everyone was ready to go, she pulled her to the back of the pack and asked, "You okay?"

A curt nod was all her friend was willing to share, pulling her arm from Ryan’s grasp and walking to the head of the group. Touchy, touchy, Ryan commented to herself, shrugging her shoulders. Oh well, if she wants to talk about it, she will.

As they passed another new building that formerly housed the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company, someone noticed a small bronze plaque near the doorway. The plaque was in memoriam of two young people who were killed during the quake when the brick wall at the front of the store collapsed. "Wow, she was just our age," Grace Browne commented soberly, seeing that one of the employees was just 21 when she died.

"Creep me out!" Cami Jackson cried, slapping Grace on the back.

"You think that’s creepy," Ashley said conspiratorially. "I had a cousin who went to school here during that time, and he said that the building codes were really lax around here." She looked contemplative for a moment and she said, "I wonder how old that dorm we’re staying in is?"

"Knock it off!" Every head snapped towards Jordan where she stood rigidly in the middle of the sidewalk. "We’ve had enough talk of earthquakes and death. I don’t want to hear another word about either!" With that, she stormed off by herself, leaving every other player to stare at her in shock.

"Somebody needs a nap," Ryan intoned solemnly, causing the other players to chuckle nervously. "Actually, I think we’ve all had a long day," Ryan declared. "I’m feeling a little grouchy myself. Let’s go home and get some sleep."

* * * * * * * * * * *

"You, uh, want to talk about what’s bothering you, Jordan?" Ryan asked as she tossed her room key onto the dresser.

"Nothing’s bothering me, Ryan." She sighed heavily and gathered her supplies before slipping past her roommate to head to the communal showers. "I just don’t see the fascination with morbid stuff like that. It irritates me, that’s all." As she stepped into the hall she added, "I think I’ve humiliated myself enough for one evening. Can we just drop it?"

"Uhh….sure," Ryan agreed, crossing the room to jump onto her single bed. When the door closed she laced her hands behind her head, staring up at the ceiling as she considered Jordan’s unexpected comment. What was humiliating? Just yelling at Ashley? That was no big deal. She bunched up the lumpy, thin pillow that rested on the bed, deciding that if Jamie was there she would have already found a store that sold some fluffy down ones. Damn, I sure like having Jamie for a roommate a lot better than grouchy old Jordan.

* * * * * * * * * * *

By the time Ryan returned from the bath, Jordan was either asleep or trying to appear as though she was. I sure hope she’s in a better mood tomorrow. It’s gonna be a long week if she’s snapping at everyone. She flopped around on the bed, trying to make her long frame comfortable on the short, narrow mattress. She finally had to kick the covers from their tucked-in position and let her feet dangle off the end of the bed so that her head didn’t hit the wall. Stretching out, Ryan felt some of the fatigue that she had been battling wash over her, her last thought of the night trickling through her head. I don’t think I can sleep without Jamie snuggled up next to me. Seconds later, her soft, rhythmic breathing was the only sound that her wide-awake roommate heard from her.

* * * * * * * * * * *

What in the hell was that??? Ryan flew into a sitting position, blinking repeatedly to clear her eyes so that she could make out shapes in the darkened room. It took her a moment to remember where she was and who she was with, while she simultaneously tried to determine if her own dreams had woken her or if there were cats mating outside of her window. That was the strangest damn noise, she mused, deciding to get up and go to the bathroom since she was mostly awake. Checking her watch, she saw that it was only two a.m. As she trudged down the hallway, scratching herself idly, she thought, It’s almost dawn in Rhode Island. I’d sure love to be able to see the first rays of sunlight coming into the windows and flickering across Jamie’s sweet face.

She returned to her dark room and was nearly asleep when she heard it again. A strangled sound, halfway between a cry and a moan, it grew in intensity until it became a high-pitched wail. My God, that’s nearly inhuman! The sound continued unabated from Jordan’s bed, and Ryan grumbled to herself, First the bad mood, now the howling in her sleep. I wonder if it’s too late to switch rooms with one of the freshmen? Remarkably, the sound not only continued, it became worse, and Ryan was afraid that it would frighten their teammates on the other side of the thin walls. What in the hell is going on with her? She sat up, tossing her legs off the side of the bed, and rested her head in her hands. I’m gonna find a drugstore and buy some earplugs during our lunch break tomorrow! No wonder she’s never had a long-term relationship! She’s good looking, but nobody’s good looking enough to tolerate this for!

Ryan’s head began to throb from a combination of frustration and fatigue. I’ve got to get to sleep! Maybe I should wake her up…nah, then she’ll remember the nightmare…That’s too cruel. Damn! I wonder if there are any unused rooms. I’ll pay the tab on a single if I can find one.

Her grumblings were halted when Jordan’s moans turned to tears, and the obviously terrified woman began to sob. Her piteous cries were too much for Ryan to take, and she did the only thing she could think of. Slipping into Jordan’s bed, she snuggled up behind her and wrapped her in her strong arms, holding on tightly while she whispered soothing words into her ear.

Jordan thrashed about weakly in Ryan’s grasp, her pathetic cries nearly breaking Ryan’s heart. My God, I’ve never heard anyone cry like this! With one final gasp she jerked into a sitting position, her hands flailing wildly, barely missing popping Ryan right in the face. "It’s okay, Jordan," Ryan soothed, running her hand down her friend’s sweat-drenched back. "It’s all right."

Jordan collapsed onto her back, wiping at her eyes as a shuddering sigh escaped. "Ohhh God," she moaned, dropping her forearm across her eyes. "Shit! Shit! Shit!" She threw her long legs off the side of the bed and sat up, wiping her face with the thin sheet. Her body was covered in sweat, and the sheets were cold and clammy.

Ryan reached out again to touch her gently, but she shrugged off the comfort and went to the dresser, pulling out a dry T-shirt and a pair of plaid boxers. "I’m sorry, Ryan," she mumbled. As she tossed off her wet clothes she added, "I assume you weren’t in my bed for any reason other than trying to get me to shut up."

Ignoring the last comment, Ryan got up and returned to her own bed, asking, "Do you want to talk about it?"


Jordan went back to her bed and ripped off the wet sheets, throwing them into a ball on the floor as she flopped down on the bare mattress. A few more shuddering breaths managed to get out, and Ryan made another offer. "Come sleep with me," she said, even though the thought of Jordan sharing her tiny bed was not very appealing. Jordan was obviously very shaken up by the incident, and Ryan didn’t want another incidence of the nightmare to wake her up again. She thought that some physical comfort might soothe her friend enough to let them both sleep for the remainder of the night.

Without a word, the lanky blonde slid into bed in front of Ryan, cuddling up to her just like Caitlin did. Her heart was still racing, and her body was still terribly warm. Ryan draped an arm around her and gently rubbed her arm, whispering, "It’s okay now. Just relax and go to sleep. Nothing will harm you tonight, Jordan. Just relax."

"I’m sorry, Ryan," she sniffed, soaking up the comfort gratefully. "I thought they were over. I haven’t had one in years and years."

"It’s okay, don’t worry about it, Jordan, we all have things that frighten us. We can talk about it tomorrow if you want to."

Her blonde head shook slowly. "Don’t wanna talk about it," she said in a touchingly childlike voice.

"Then we won’t," Ryan agreed. "Just relax now and go to sleep." Please!

* * * * * * * * * * *

The alarm rang far too early for either of the exhausted athletes. Ryan slapped the button on the top of the small clock radio and tried to force her mind and her body to wake up. It actually took her a minute to recall why Jordan was in her bed, but she managed it. She was just about to speak when her bedmate tossed the sheet off and stood up. She walked to the dresser, got her shower supplies, and left the room without a word.

Jeez, Ryan mused, I’ve had total strangers show me a hell of a lot more courtesy after a night together than that! Hurry home, Jamie, she begged silently, feeling her lover’s absence even more acutely after sharing a bed with someone that she felt little emotional attachment with.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Moments after Catherine returned to her room from breakfast, the telephone on the bedside table began to trill. She picked up on the third ring and said, "Hello, Jim."

A small chuckle was her husband’s initial reply, followed by, "When did you become a psychic, Catherine?"

"Oh, I have quite a few hidden talents," she replied blithely. "However, since you’re the only person who has my number here, I thought there was an excellent chance that it might be you. Is everything all right, Dear?" It was quite odd for either Evans to call the other while on holiday, except out of necessity.

"Yes. I think things are fine." He hedged a bit, reasoning from her tone that she had not yet heard of his argument with Ryan. "Are you both settled in?"

"Yessss…" Catherine decided that something was definitely up, and she was determined not to let her husband off the phone until she knew just what it was. "Would you like to tell me why you called, Jim?"

There is no way in hell she’d be this civil if she knew I threw Ryan out of the house, he reasoned. Maybe I can back into this. "I know you’ve only been gone the better part of one day, Catherine, but I’ve spent nearly the entire time thinking about Jamie and the situation with Ryan."

"Situation?" she replied rather archly. "That’s an odd choice of words, Dear."

"No, it’s not," he said firmly, deciding to reveal some of his evidence. "I didn’t have a chance to discuss this with you, Catherine, but I now believe that Ryan is trying to gain control of Jamie’s trust."

There was a long moment of silence before Catherine burst into laughter. "You’ve got to be kidding," she gasped. "You are kidding, aren’t you?"

"Of course I’m not kidding! She was down at Tuck Gray’s office demanding to know if she could get a power of attorney to make withdrawals!"

"She most certainly was not, Jim," Catherine said in a voice uncharacteristically firm. "Jamie wanted to ask for her distribution, but she didn’t even have a copy of the agreement, thanks to you, I might add. She wanted to get a copy, and while they were there she asked a few questions. She’s tired of being treated like she can’t make her own financial decisions, Jim. In my personal opinion, part of that is your fault!"

"My fault! My fault!" he yelled. "How can you possibly say that?"

"If you had not been so rigid about this, I doubt that she would have any interest in managing her own money. I’m certain she would have been happy to take her distribution and put it in a fund for you to manage. But now she’s worried that she’s going to be financially tied to you until she’s 30!"

"At this rate, she’s going to be," he muttered, now angry with his wife, as well as his daughter.

"Jim," she said sharply, "don’t take that attitude with her. She’s not a child any longer, and treating her like one will only drive her further from you."

She could hear the frustration in his voice, and felt a stirring of sympathy for him when he sighed heavily, seemingly in resignation. "What’s happened to her, Cat?" His voice was nearly a whisper as he added, "She’s just not my little girl any more."

"Oh, Sweetheart, she’ll always be your little girl," she soothed, touched by his very uncharacteristic vulnerability. "But only in some ways. In others, she’s an adult, and she has to make the choices that adults make. One of them is how much trust to put in your partner. She trusts Ryan completely, Jim, and we have to respect that."

"No we don’t, Catherine," he said, his normal confidence returning as quickly as it had fled. "I can’t stand by and let that woman make a fool out of her. Jamie will never forgive herself if Ryan is just using her for her money."

There was a long pause as Catherine tried to understand how her husband could be so shallow and shortsighted on this important topic. "Of course she would never forgive herself if Ryan was using her, Jim. But it wouldn’t be because of the money she lost, it would be because her heart would be so badly broken. The money would be totally irrelevant."

"Fine. Frame it any way you wish. I believe that the sooner Ryan is exposed for who she really is and what she is after, the sooner Jamie can get back to her old self."

"Jim," she started to explain that Jamie’s true self had never left her, but she knew that her husband would not understand that concept. "The more likely scenario is that Jamie would hate whoever successfully exposed Ryan as a fraud. Do you really want to be in that position?"

"No," he fumed, actually sounding like he was going to cry. "But someone has to, Catherine. I don’t want her to get hurt!"

"Then don’t be the one to hurt her, Jim." She let that sink in for a moment before she added, "I’ve spent more time with Ryan than you have. I’m confident that she loves Jamie and is not interested in her money."

"Oh, Catherine," he scoffed, "you wouldn’t recognize the fox in the henhouse. You always think the best of people."

Truly insulted, she bit her tongue to prevent herself from tossing back a hurtful retort. The silence continued for a moment, Jim either not recognizing that he had been rude or not believing he owed her an apology.

"Look. As I said, I’ve thought about this a lot since you left. I’ve come to the decision that Jamie should stay in Newport with you for the entire month. She needs some space to get her head on right, and I think being with your family will help her do so."

The silence continued for a long moment as Catherine tried to get her mind around his statement. "First of all, my family is much more skilled at skewing heads than straightening them. Secondly, I’m not going to have her lashed to the mast of David’s boat and cast adrift, Jim, and I guarantee that’s the only way to keep her from Ryan."

"There are other ways, Catherine," he said slowly, his unspecified threat sending a chill down her spine.

"Listen, Jim," she said with uncharacteristic fervor, "Jamie is my daughter too, and I will not tolerate you trying to force her to see things your way. I’m not sure what you’re suggesting, but whatever it is, I’ll have no part of it."

His heavy sigh showed that he knew arguing the point would be futile. "Fine. I thought I could count on you to support me in this. I assumed that you cared about Jamie’s long-term happiness. I’m obviously wrong."

"Jim," she said gently, her voice filled with as much empathy as she could muster, "I know how hard this is for you, Sweetheart. But the only way to stay connected to Jamie is to support her choices. You don’t have to like them, but you have to honor them."

"There is no way I’m going to honor her choice to welcome that woman into our family. She’s up to no good, Catherine, and one day Jamie will thank me for making the hard choices to protect her."

Her voice grew firm again as she demanded, "What are you planning on doing, Jim?"

"Whatever I have to do, Catherine. I will do whatever I have to do to protect my daughter." Before she could utter another word of protest, the dial tone sounded in her ear.

Part 5

Mother and daughter got an early start on their shopping expedition, at least in Catherine’s view of the world. At eleven a.m. they entered the first of a string of small, elegant boutiques in the ultra-chic shopping district of Newport.

Since the family dressed rather formally for dinner, Catherine had already decided that Jamie needed at least five new outfits. Reluctantly, the younger woman agreed, insisting that she be allowed to pay for at least some of the items. Catherine agreed, and they reached a compromise. Since Jamie knew that she would rarely, if ever, wear the relatively dressy outfits that her mother wanted to buy, Catherine decided she would pay for the more formal clothes and Jamie could buy anything that she would wear in her normal activities. That settled, they forged a trail through the exquisite little shops, charge cards a-blazing.

"I can’t believe that I’m even saying this, but I’m about shopped out!" Catherine admitted when they stopped for a bite of lunch. "We marched through these stores like Sherman taking Atlanta."

"We did do a bit of damage," Jamie agreed, mentally shuddering at the amount of money they had just spent. "I’m afraid I’m going to have a hard time of it when I get home."

"Maybe she’d go easy on you if you brought her something nice," Catherine advised, smiling conspiratorially. "She has such a perfect body for clothes, with those long legs."

"Well, I did have something in mind, but it’s a little intimate. Ryan says I shouldn’t rub your nose in the physical side of our relationship," she said, testing the waters.

"You don’t have to worry about my being shocked. I was a child of the 70’s, you know. Granted, it was the late 70’s, and I was a Stanford sorority girl, but it still counts!"

Gauging her mother’s sincerity, Jamie asked, "So you won’t faint if I buy her some sexy underwear?"

"Ha! I’m made of tougher stuff than that, Dear. As a matter of fact, I know just the place."

Moments after their lunch was finished, they were enveloped in a sea of silk and satin and lace. Catherine had chosen a very small, very exclusive, and very expensive lingerie shop. Most of the items were imported and all were of the finest natural fabrics, each item beautifully displayed and artfully lit with tiny halogen spots.

When the dangerously thin salesclerk approached, Jamie told her that she was looking for a gift for someone.

"Ah," she acknowledged with a heavy French accent. "A nightgown or robe perhaps?"

"No," she replied. "I was thinking of a thong or some tiny bikinis."

"Ooo, an intimate gift. For your lover perhaps?" She rolled her r’s with a sexy trill, and Jamie noticed that her dark brown eyes lit up with interest.

"Perhaps," Jamie replied with a glint in her eye, feeling like she was back home in San Francisco. Normally, such an obvious question about her sexuality would stun, or at least offend her, but this woman’s attitude was so challenging that all of her spunk rose to the occasion.

She was escorted to a neat display of tiny little thongs and even smaller bikinis, the saleswoman draping herself casually against the table, watching Jamie through the cloud of cigarette smoke in which she was enshrouded. Jamie looked through the selections for a few moments, occasionally asking Catherine her opinion. "Is this your lover?" the woman asked conversationally, gesturing idly with her elegant hand.

"No," Jamie said with a shocked look, as Catherine chuckled mildly. "This is my mother!"

The woman scrunched her face and added a bored shrug, ignoring the outrage on her customer’s face. "What size does your lover take?"

"Definitely large," Jamie decided, holding up a pair that would obviously be too small. "Maybe even extra large."

The salesgirl assumed a knowing look, smiling slyly. "Ah, your lover is a man, no?"

"No!" Jamie snapped, ready to pop the woman for her insolence. "She is definitely a woman. She’s just a large woman. She wears size eight in panties."

"All of our things are European sized," she stated, the censure in her tone making it clear that this should be obvious. "How much does she weigh?"

"About 180," she replied.

"Ah, she is a very large woman," the clerk said with a contemplative nod. "Perhaps you do not want to see so much of her, no? We have some things to cover her up, to spare your eyes."

Jamie pursed her lips together so hard that they turned white. Grabbing her wallet, she extracted the picture of Ryan posing with her temporary tattoo. Holding it up to the woman she asked petulantly, "Do you think this should be covered up?"

The woman gazed at the picture for a moment, her dark eyes taking in the entire image. Gracing Jamie with a seductive, slightly envious smile, she said, "I think something tiny and very easily removed, perhaps in black?"

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

"This is by far the best I have felt all day," Jamie said appreciatively from beneath her mud mask.

After the demands of an afternoon of shopping, Catherine decided that they needed to rejuvenate their spirits, so they gratefully treated themselves to a visit at an elegant little day spa near the harbor. Long sessions in the herbal scented steam and the sauna, hour-long massages, and another round in the sauna had them sufficiently prepared for a full-body clay masque.

As Jamie relaxed on the towel-draped chaise, she had to admit that the pampering felt terrific. The masseuse was not as talented as Ryan, but her lover clearly had an advantage. Having spent hours memorizing every square inch of your client with both your hands and your mouth had to be a big help, she thought lazily. After the clay dried, her attendant led her into a shower where she was scrubbed from head to toe with a stiff loofah brush. When she was finished, her skin glowed and tingled, and she noticed that she felt calmer and more relaxed than she had since she left California.

Catherine was lying on one of the nicely padded chaise lounges in the spa area when Jamie joined her. She looked half asleep, but as soon as Jamie sat down, she spoke up. "Shouldn’t it be illegal to feel this relaxed?" she mumbled.

"I’ve got to thank you again for this, Mom," she said. "I haven’t been to a spa in a few weeks. And even though Ryan gives great massages, there’s something fabulous about the whole package."

"I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself, Dear. Are you sure you’re quite relaxed?"

"Yes. Deliciously so," she murmured.

Catherine rolled onto her side, gazing at her daughter directly as she said, "We need to have a little talk about your father, Jamie."

Her stomach flipped a bit at the mere suggestion, but Jamie steeled herself and agreed. "Sure. What do you want to talk about?" She assumed that her father had complained to her mother about their argument on Saturday at the golf club. Jamie shook her head in dismay about that little incident. She had such high hopes that spending the day with him might ease the tension that had built up between them, but the opposite had occurred. They'd fought about Ryan, as usual, and both had said things that were impossible to retract.

Catherine sat up a bit and braced her head on her open palm. She was covered in a pale pink sheet, and her skin glowed so brightly that it almost matched the color of the wrap. "I spoke to him this morning, Jamie. He’s…he’s very upset, and I’m afraid the tension between the two of you is going to fracture your relationship. I know that’s not something that you want, Dear."

"No, of course it’s not, Mother." Just as I suspected, he wants to cause the problem and then let her try to placate me. Well, it’s not going to work this time, Daddy. This is between you and me!

"I just want to be sure that you have some understanding of his position, Dear," Catherine said soothingly.

"Umm, I think I do," Jamie reminded her. "I think it goes something like ‘Drop Ryan and everything will be fine. Oh, and if you could manage to be straight again, that would be nice, too.’"

Visibly grimacing, Catherine frowned and offered, "I was afraid that might be your view. But I think it’s inaccurate, Jamie. Do you mind if I give you my opinion?"

"Not at all," she replied with a wan smile. "Especially since you asked first. I’m a little tired of having Daddy trying to force his opinion on me."

Catherine gave her a small smile in return and conceded, "Our styles are a bit different, I admit, but I honestly think that we both want what’s best for you. I think it’s been very, very difficult for him to have you grow up so much in the last year."

"Last year?" Jamie repeated wonderingly. "What do you mean by ‘last year’?"

"The past year has been when you’ve really matured, Jamie," she said thoughtfully. "Doesn’t it feel that way to you?"

She lay back with the chaise in the fully reclined position, and after a moment she laced her fingers behind her head and lifted it a bit to make eye contact with her mother. "I…I suppose I know what you mean. It was just a year ago that Jack and I got engaged."

"Oh, no," Catherine disagreed. "That’s not what I meant, Honey. I think you started acting like an adult when you broke up with Jack."

"Well, he broke up with me, to be accurate."

"And if you had not been turning into your own person, he’d still be with you," Catherine said quietly.

Now Jamie sat up completely and stared at her mother. "What do you mean?"

"Honey, even though 20 years separate them, Jack and your father could be twins! When you first started going out with him, it honestly felt like déjà vu to me. I look at him and see the same earnest young law student that courted me so diligently."

"I didn’t know that," Jamie said quietly. "I mean, it’s obvious that they are alike in some ways, but I didn’t know their similarities were so striking to you."

"Oh yes," Catherine assured her. "And both of them treated you in exactly the same way. They both love you, and they want the best for you, but neither of them wants you to make decisions on your own. They’re both very confident, controlling men, and both of them believe that they know what’s best for you. When you started to make your own decisions and break with their view of you, they both tried their best to get you back under their control, but you’ve really stuck up for yourself. And that is the most mature thing I’ve ever seen you do, Honey. Following your own heart is what is making you an adult," she declared.

"Th…Thanks, Mother," she said with a nearly vacant look on her face. She was frankly stunned that her mother had so much insight into her relationship with Jack, and was enormously pleased that she would see her decisions as the result of mature thought rather than childish insolence.

"You’re welcome, Dear. I really do think you’ve been terribly mature through this whole process, but I want to ask you to consider something that will require significantly more maturity than you’ve already shown."

"What’s that?" she asked, leery of her mother’s preamble.

"I want you to try to put aside your anger and reach out to your father. I’m truly afraid that if you can’t take that step, it might be a very long time before you have a relationship with him." The fiercely determined look in those brown eyes told Jamie that this was something her mother had given a lot of thought to, but she didn’t like the suggestion one little bit.

"Shouldn’t he be the one to reach out to me, Mother?" she asked quietly. "He’s the one who keeps escalating the issue."

The older woman nodded slowly. "I wish he was mature enough to do that, Honey. But I don’t think he is."

Jamie looked at her very curiously and queried, "Mature enough?"

"Yes. I don’t believe he’s mature enough," she replied confidently. "He’s just childish enough to let his animosity fester until it destroys him."

"You really believe he would give up the chance to have a relationship with me?" the younger woman asked, feeling a little sick at the thought.

"Let me put it this way, Honey," Catherine soothed, "he believes he’s doing the right thing. He honestly doesn’t see this as an attempt to make you into the image he has of you. He’s certain that Ryan has some sort of unnatural hold over you. And he’s just as certain that she’s as interested in your money as she is in you."

"That’s very complimentary," she snapped with a bitter edge to her voice.

"Honey," Catherine cajoled, "please try to step back and see this from his perspective."

Jamie gave her an even look, and tilted her head just a bit to urge her mother to continue.

"Let’s look at the history here, Honey. The first time he spends any time at all with Ryan is the day you tell him you’re in love with her. He immediately finds out that she’s living with you, and that you’re planning on supporting her. She tells him that you’re going to send her to medical school or some other graduate program and that you’ll be supporting her the whole while. She doesn’t have any money of her own, she doesn’t even own a car! And then he finds out that you’ve bought her a nice Lexus. You take her to meet your trust officer, and he fans the flames by telling your father that he’s certain Ryan is trying to steal from you!"

"I didn’t know that," she grumbled. "I mean, I know that Tuck told him we were there, but…"

"That’s when he really went off the deep end, Honey. I know that there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for all of this, but your father’s very cynical about people and their motivations. He truly does think that money is a prime motivator for most people, and you must admit that it looks as though Ryan is calling the shots!"

"But she’s not!" she cried.

"I know that, Honey," she soothed. " I can see how you have to force her to take anything, but your father doesn’t see that since he doesn’t see you two together like I have."

"Whose fault is that?" she snapped, once again losing control.

"It’s his, of course. But he truly believes that he can force you to come to your senses if he treats you this way, Honey. He doesn’t want to have this distance between you—it’s eating him alive! I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so lost, Dear."

Jamie flopped down on the chaise dramatically and draped her arm over her eyes. "What can I do?" she asked, slowly. "I won’t stop seeing Ryan, and that’s final!"

"I would never even suggest that," Catherine soothed. "All I ask is that you try to keep a dialogue open. I don’t think you should give in to his demands, Honey. He has to realize that you are a woman now, and the only way he’ll see that is if he can spend some time with you."

"You mean go hang out with him?"

"That would be nice, but I don’t know if that’s the answer. I thought you might actually agree to some family therapy."

"All of us?"

"Well, it wouldn’t work to have Ryan there, at least not at first. But I think the three of us could use some outside help to get through this rough patch."

The younger woman sat up and gazed at her mother for a few moments as she considered the alternatives. "I’m willing to try," she replied softly. "I love him enough to try."

"Maybe we can all start over, Jamie," the older woman said wistfully. "I mean, I know I’ve done a poor job at being a proper mother, but maybe we can learn how to be friends."

She looked so fragile, yet hopeful, that Jamie felt her heart go out to her. Reaching out to grasp her hand, she slowly said, "I don’t think that’s a good idea, Mother."

Feeling the flinch through their linked hands, Catherine looked at her daughter with wide eyes. "I…I thought that we…"

"I have all of the friends that I need," Jamie said decisively, "but I only have one mother. I wouldn’t change that for the world."

The luminous smile that lit up her mother’s face brought a tear to Jamie’s eye. "Thank you, Sweetheart," Catherine whispered, pools of tears forming in her eyes. "Thank you."

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

After they returned from shopping, Catherine enticed Jamie to sit outside with her and enjoy the late afternoon sun. Both Louise and Patsy were already on the patio, well protected by large umbrellas that the servants moved as the sun shifted. The wives of the Dunlop men of Catherine’s generation joined them presently, and Jamie spent a few minutes reacquainting herself with them. Since she had spent some time with Carolyn already she focused on Claire, John’s wife, and Sara, married to Skip. All three women were around the same age, early 40s, and all bore the distinctive look of the very wealthy. Beautifully maintained hair and skin, elegant, perfectly tailored clothing, and tasteful but hugely expensive jewelry.

Louise and Patsy had been at the pool for quite a while, and the drinks were flowing incessantly. Taking one look at the obvious inebriation of the women in attendance, Jamie pulled the waiter aside before she sat down and told him to serve her just sparkling water with a twist. She had learned long ago that when she was with people who drank a lot, it was better for all concerned if she acted as though she were joining in the fun. That way, they didn’t spend time trying to cajole her into joining them. It seemed that gin and tonic was today’s libation of choice, and her beverage was visually identical.

After a while, she got up to locate a bathroom, finding one in the pool house. As she was returning, she stopped by the little outdoor bar where a young man was working away on the latest round of drinks. "Hi," she said as he looked up in surprise.

"Wh--wh--what can I get for you, Miss?" he stammered, obviously uncomfortable at having one of the guests in his work area.

"What’s your name?" she asked, in her normal friendly manner.

"Daniel, Miss."

"Please call me Jamie," she requested with a smile.

"Oh, no Miss. I’d lose my job if I did that."

"Okay, Daniel, I don’t want to get you into trouble. But when you’re on duty, could you do me a favor?"


"Whatever the drink of the hour might be, please give me what everyone else is having but omit the liquor."

"Really, Miss? Omit it completely?" His brow furrowed as he tried to process her odd request.

"Yes, please. I don’t want to go home with a drinking problem," she clarified with a smile.

A look of relief settled on his face as he realized that she was genuinely confiding in him. "Pardon me for saying so, Miss, but you’ll be the only one without one."

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

After a while, when conversation lagged, Patsy directed her attention to Jamie and said, "We were ever so sorry to learn that you’d called off your engagement, Jamie. What was the young man’s name again?"

"Jack," she answered, saying as little as possible about the entire relationship.

"That’s right. Jack." Though Jamie’s terse reply should have signaled her preference to not talk about her former fiancé, her great-aunt looked pensive for a moment, obviously unwilling to let the topic drop. "How old are you now, Dear?"

"I’m 21," she said.

"21…21. That’s a very lovely age." Her speech was a trifle thick from the afternoon’s refreshments, but she didn’t seem totally drunk. "Now that it’s just us girls, why don’t you tell us who’s replaced this boy. You’re far too good a catch to remain single for long."

Oh-oh. Time to make a decision. This one’s gonna be hard to get out of without telling the truth, or lying outright.

"Yes, Jamie," Carolyn said. "You’re the only female member of the family that we can live through vicariously. Tell us what a young, single woman does for fun in San Francisco."

Oh boy…I could tell you stories… She looked briefly at her mother, seeing the lines of tension in her face, and tried her best to get out of the situation without revealing her relationship with Ryan. "I really don’t have much to say. I’ve not dated any other guys since Jack and I broke up."

"How long has it been?" Patsy asked, blinking slowly.

"He called off the engagement in February," she said, feeling no need to be entirely forthcoming about their attempts at reconciliation.

This caused all of the women present to laugh, save for Catherine, of course. "Oh, Jamie," Louise said, "Tell the truth! A man would never break up with a Dunlop woman if she didn’t give him good cause! Now who was it?" Her face was alight with mischievous delight, and it was all Jamie could do not to tell her to get a life.

"Who was what?" she asked, knowing full well what her great-aunt was hinting at.

"Who did you leave him for?" Louise asked, as though that was the only logical explanation possible. "Don’t try to fool us, Jamie."

"I’m not," she lied. "I swear that I’ve not been out with a man since the day we broke up. I need some time before I’m willing to get into another relationship." Now she was lying, something she'd sworn she was not going to do. But the look of relief on her mother’s face made it all worth it.

Their fun thwarted, the older women made some noises about understanding how difficult a breakup could be, then moved on to other topics, much to Jamie’s relief.

Dinner was to be served at eight, and as it grew near to six, Jamie excused herself to take a nap and freshen up. After an all too brief sleep, she got up and took a shower. She was just finishing her preparations when there was a quiet knock on the door.

Jamie responded with an invitation to enter, and Catherine opened the door and poked her head in. "May I come in?" she asked.

"Sure. I’m just about ready. Does this look okay?"

Catherine gave her a thorough appraisal. The shell and slim-fitting pants showed off every muscle in her trim body, and the flattering colors of the gold and yellow print highlighted her hair and her tanned skin. "You look absolutely marvelous," she said honestly. "Do you have a sweater? It gets chilly in the dining room once the sun sets."

"Yes, I have a matching sweater," she replied, then took the gold silk garment off a hanger and draped it around her shoulders.

Her mother walked over to her and gave her a tender hug, rubbing her back gently as she let her go. "Jamie, I asked you to do something that I know you were uncomfortable with. I know you’re proud of Ryan, and I assume that you would have been forthright about your relationship. I know that you held back this afternoon only because I asked you to. That shows a great deal of respect for me and my feelings, and I want you to know that I appreciate it very, very much."

"I’m happy to go as slowly as you need to, Mom. I just need to know that you’re trying."

Catherine pursed her lips together as she held back her tears. "I don’t think you’ve ever called me ‘Mom’ before," she said in a shaking voice.

Jamie slid her arms around her waist and gave her a squeeze. "You just seem a lot more like a mom lately," she admitted. "It just feels right to me. Do you mind?"

Catherine shook her head rapidly as she buried her head in Jamie’s neck for a much longer hug. "I’m deeply, deeply honored," she said softly.

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

During the pre-dinner cocktail hour, Jamie made it a point to spend a few minutes with her young cousins. She had barely had the opportunity to say a word to either Julia or Stephanie, so she sought them out as soon as they entered the room with their parents.

Neither young woman looked thrilled to be in attendance, which didn’t surprise Jamie in the least. Being sent to Newport for a whole month at 14 and 16 to be cooped up with your much older relatives would seem like banishment and was not something that most kids would look forward to. Except Ryan, she mused. She’d love to spend a month in Ireland with her grandparents and all of her other relatives.

Stephanie was sitting on a leather club chair when Jamie approached. She looked up with a modicum of interest and asked, "Hey, Jamie, would you slide over to the bar and get me a drink?"

"Sure," Jamie replied, thinking it odd that Stephanie wouldn’t ask one of the waiters, but willing to do it for her nevertheless. "Do you want a Coke?"

"Hardly," she scoffed, giving her older cousin an odd look. "I can get a Coke from the server. I want a gin and 7-up," she declared, "preferably Tanqueray," and looked away, obviously waiting for Jamie to deliver the drink forthwith.

"Unless you’ve been doing some time travel, you’re about five years too early with that request," Jamie informed her with a patient smile. "I’m happy to get you anything non-alcoholic, Stephanie, but I won’t help get you drunk. I know it’s hard to be here, but that’s not the answer."

Julia was standing nearby and Jamie detected the interested gaze as well as the hidden smile. "Fine, don’t bother," Stephanie said, her voice bored and unemotional. "I’ll get it myself." She rose and strolled across the floor, leaning against the bar and beginning to flirt with the young man mixing the drinks.

"That was funny," Julia said, making eye contact with Jamie.

"What was?" Jamie asked, unsure of how much the younger girl had heard.

"Not many people say no to her. It’s funny to watch."

Ahh…perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing to be an only child, Jamie mused, watching Julia’s dark eyes dart from Jamie to her sister. "She’ll talk him into giving her whatever she wants," Julia predicted. "Guys love her."

Jamie turned to regard the older of the two young woman. She was quite pretty, although reed thin. She stood about 5’4", and Jamie figured that she weighed no more than 95 pounds, she herself having been that low before Ryan got hold of her and started getting some real food into her body. Stephanie’s chestnut brown hair had just a hint of a wave in it, settling attractively around her shoulders. She looked older than 16 at first glance, but Jamie realized that was mostly because of her world-weary attitude rather than her actual features. She looks bored, Jamie thought. And not just with this crowd. She looks like she’s bored with life. That thought immediately caused Jamie to think of her beloved partner and the unlimited zest she had for life. Now that I think of it, I think that’s the thing that attracted me to her the most. She’s so thankful for every day that she’s given. She sighed heavily, sitting down in the chair Stephanie had vacated, and spent the rest of the cocktail hour conversing with her youngest cousin while trying to keep her mind from focusing only on Ryan.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The drawn-out affair that was dinner was winding down at last when Catherine stood and said to Jamie, "I must turn in. Today was a terribly long day. Honey, would you walk me upstairs?"

"Sure mother," she said agreeably. "I’m tired also."

They said goodnight to everyone and had just crested the stairs when Catherine confessed, "I couldn’t stand to sit there another minute, listening to the men talk about race cars. Will you join me for a nightcap?"

Jamie smiled over at her mother, charmed by her honesty. "Sure. What would you like?"

"I have a bar in my room. I’ll get a bottle of something and meet you in the garden. It’s too nice a night to be cooped up inside. Meet me by the gazebo in ten minutes."

Jamie descended the back stairs, checking her watch as she went. It was 9:30, and she and Ryan had decided to play it by ear for their evening call. She decided to page her when she was back in her room for the night, and if Ryan wasn’t available, she could call Jamie from the pay phone when she could free up the time. Guessing that an hour or so would be plenty of time to have a drink with her mother, Jamie assumed she would be back in her room in time to catch Ryan just after her dinner.

As she waited in the gazebo, she thought about what the bartender, Daniel, had said earlier. Her mother had been drinking gin all afternoon, then she'd had at least two cocktails before dinner, and Jamie had counted three wine courses. Jamie had nursed each glass of wine, discreetly refusing the near-constant attempts of the waiters to refill her glass. Even so, she felt a little tipsy as she sat in the pleasant stillness waiting for her mother. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I’d had as much as Mother has. Does she drink like this all of the time? Maybe Cassie was right when she called her an alcoholic. Well, she reasoned, maybe we’ll get the chance to talk about how much she drinks. But it’s probably best to approach her when I know she’s sober. And that’s not tonight.

Catherine arrived moments later, carrying a bottle of cognac and two small brandy snifters. Even as a young child, Jamie had been able to drink a small glass of the intensely flavored amber liquid, and though she didn’t drink it often, she still had a fondness for it. They both settled into the padded white wicker chairs, with Catherine gently running a hand over the graceful curve of an arm. "My grandmother bought these chairs when I was just a little girl," she recollected. "They’ve held up remarkably well, haven’t they?"

"They’re wonderful," Jamie agreed, a flash of memory startling her. "I remember sitting on Grandfather’s lap in one of these chairs. Wow, I can see it like it was yesterday."

A heavy sigh escaped from Catherine’s lips as she thought of her father holding the young Jamie. "He was quite a gardener, you know. Every evening after dinner he’d bring you out here and show you some of his favorite roses. Then you’d sit on his lap while he smoked his evening cigar."

Jamie shook her head while emitting a soft laugh. "I wonder if that’s why I like cigars so much." She didn’t add that she didn’t much care for them on Ryan’s breath the day after, since she thought that was a bit too much information for her mother.

"Your father picked up the habit from my father, you know. I’ve been surrounded by cigar smoke since I was born."

"I didn’t know that," Jamie mused.

Catherine laughed as she suggested, "That’s one very big plus about loving a woman, Jamie. You won’t have to deal with those nasty cigars."

"Umm-hmm," she murmured noncommittally, keeping her thoughts on the matter to herself.

They sat for a few minutes in silence, sipping cognac, while they took in the evening sounds. The garden was alive with crickets, small birds and even a nightingale. Lulled by the rhythmic chirping of the multitude of crickets, Jamie was nearly asleep before she knew it. Taking a few deep breaths she concentrated on the myriad of scents that surrounded her. The ocean’s tang was still noticeable, even with the profusion of trees and flowers, each giving off its own distinctive scent. There were close to 1,000 rose bushes in the expansive gardens, many of them species roses, some of them from the time the house was built. Jamie was particularly fond of the ones that emitted a sensual hint of myrrh, and she let her mind wander to how delightful that scent would be on Ryan.

"Mom," she began, the unfamiliar term feeling a little odd as it rolled off her tongue. "I know I’ve said this before, but I want to thank you again for your support. I can’t tell you how much harder it would be for me to handle if both you and Daddy were opposed to my relationship."

"I’m not opposed, Jamie," she said, and for the first time, Jamie detected a hesitancy in her comment.

"That sounded pretty equivocal," the younger woman said with a touch of concern.

Catherine sighed, taking a long sip of her drink. "I ahh…I don’t know if this is really the time to bring this up," she said.

"Why not? I really like that we’re being honest with each other, Mom. Tell me what you’re thinking."

"It’s a little hard to put into words, Dear. There’s just something…"

"What, Mom? This is important. Please, don’t worry about hurting my feelings. "I want to know how you really feel about this."

"All right," she conceded, taking in a deep breath. "I’ve told you before that it concerns me that you’ve had so little experience with love."

"Yes," Jamie acknowledged, "you have. And I’ve told you that Ryan surpasses all of my requirements."

"Yes, you have, Dear." Taking in another breath, she tried a different tactic to make her point. "Would you consider Jack to be a very passionate man, Jamie?"

"Uhh…" she gaped, never having foreseen this avenue of questioning. "He was passionate about a few things, but no, in general, I’d say he was much more logical and deliberate than passionate."

"Umm-hmm," Catherine mused, "that’s as I expected. He seemed like a very nice young man, and in many ways I would expect him to make a good husband. But I always thought you were making a mistake to settle for such a logical choice, Jamie."

"Okay…but Jack’s quite out of the picture now, Mother."

"I realize that, Dear," she agreed. "But it seems to me that you’ve applied the same logical thought process to choosing Ryan. Now that might be exactly how you want your life to go, Jamie, but I can’t help but think that one day you’ll regret never having been intimate with a man who is truly passionate. I just don’t want you to miss out on that experience."

Jamie tried to look calm but her mind was racing. I really, really, really don’t want to hear about my parents being in bed together. And of all the things I’d say my father is, passionate is not one of them. I guess you just can’t tell from the outside.

"I don’t have any intention of missing out on passion, Mother. I have a very fulfilling relationship with Ryan. I have all of the passion that I’ll ever need." And all that I can handle.

"But Honey," she explained, "it just can’t be like that with a woman. I see how you are with each other, Dear. I’ve been with you several times and, while she seems sweet and thoughtful and very caring, I just don’t see how she could fulfill you like a man could. It’s been on my mind since I saw Ryan say goodbye to you at the airport on Saturday night. I just don’t see any passion between you two, and it occurs to me that perhaps you just don’t know what you’re missing."

This line of questioning was starting to piss Jamie off. She knew that her mother was well-intentioned, but it annoyed her to think that she would assume that women couldn’t be wild together. "I have no way to prove that you’re wrong, Mother, but I can assure you that I’m more than satisfied." She spoke with more asperity than she had intended, and her mother immediately tried to explain further.

"Jamie, don’t be upset with me," she urged, "but when I saw her kiss you, it just looked so...friendly. Not that that’s a bad thing, of course, but if that’s all you ever know I’m afraid that you’ll regret it in the future."

Talk about a plan backfiring. "Mother, we try to act discreet in public, and we’re both sensitive to your discomfort with our physical affection. Just before we reached the waiting room I pulled her off into another concourse, and the kisses we gave each other were far more friendly than the one we gave each other in front of you."

"I can tell this is bothering you, Jamie," she said slowly. "I think I’ve offended you."

Taking in a deep breath of her own, Jamie reminded herself to allow her mother to make her point without jumping down her throat. She knew that her mother was trying to make what she assumed was a helpful suggestion, and she wanted to hear her out. "It’s okay, Mother," she assured her. "Just because I don’t agree with your point, doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear it. Please go on."

"I swear I’m not trying to think for you, Jamie, or make your choices for you. I’m just trying to recall what it was like to be your age. Goodness! Your father and I would have made a spectacle of ourselves in that terminal if I was leaving for a week."

"Well, to be honest, it’s a little different for us. We have to be more discreet than you and Daddy did. It’s no fun to be stared at and get dirty looks for being loving towards one another."

Catherine nodded slowly, lost in her own reverie, and letting the loss of her own passion wash over her. She knew that what she and Jim had left was just a tiny glimmer of the fire that once burned between them, and she assumed that if Jamie and Ryan started out with merely a friendly feeling it would all be extinguished quickly. "I don’t think we could have controlled ourselves if every eye in the airport was on us, Jamie. It’s impossible to be rational when a passionate man takes you in his arms and just overwhelms you with his power and his drive and the force of his need." She sighed deeply, then recalled herself to the point she was making. "A woman can’t possibly do that for you, Jamie. I don’t doubt that she makes you feel very cared for and nurtured. And I’m sure that she loves you and pleases you sexually. But don’t ignore the lure of the force and the intensity that a man could bring to you. It’s just something that I’d hate for you to miss, Jamie. Every woman should be swept off her feet at least once in her life."

She’s already swept me off my feet, and right into bed, more times than I can count. "Okay, Mom," Jamie laughed. "Ryan said that I shouldn’t be too forthcoming about our relationship, and I agreed with her, but you’ve got some goofy notions that I just have to address."

"Goofy?" she asked, with a raised eyebrow. "I don’t recall the last time someone said that I was goofy."

Patting her gently on the thigh, Jamie nodded slowly. "Your ideas are just plain goofy, and I’m gonna set you straight…as it were."

"Well, well, well, do continue, Dear." Catherine cocked her head slightly, her twinkling eyes encouraging Jamie to proceed.

"Here’s the deal, Mom. You seem to think that having a penis is a corollary to having passion. Not true. To be honest, not having one can be a very good thing. Ryan is always, and I do mean always, ready to perform. She never has been, and she never will be, impotent. She will never ejaculate prematurely. She will never go limp just when I need her the most."

Catherine didn’t say a word in response to Jamie’s little soliloquy. Her wide eyes indicated that she was a little shocked by her daughter’s directness, but Jamie honestly felt that the only way to allay her mother’s concerns was to be brutally honest.

"Now I’m not saying that penises can’t be fun. I’ll admit there was something kinda nice about being face to face while you shared the same pleasurable sensations. And I’m sure that being with a man who really knows how to use his penis would also be great. But not having a penis between us is not a problem, believe me."

"I believe you, Dear," Catherine said, still a little wide-eyed. "I just assumed…"

"I think I know what you assumed, Mother. And I could give you a run-down on all of the ways Ryan can fill my…needs. But I think that might be more information than you really want."

Catherine’s rapidly nodding head assured Jamie that she had learned plenty.

"You also seem to think that a woman can’t be wildly intense and powerful in bed. Also not true," she declared. "Have you ever seriously looked at Ryan’s body?"

"Well, umm, yes, she has a lovely body," Catherine said. "Very tall, with that trim waist, very much like a model."

Jamie laughed out loud at that assessment. Then it dawned on her why her mother thought this. "You’ve never seen her in anything that showed off her body, have you?"

Catherine shook her head. "No, I’ve not seen her in a dress, if that’s what you mean."

"Oh no, that’s not what I mean at all, Mother. Did you hear me tell the sales clerk that Ryan weighs about 180 pounds?"

"180?! No, I didn’t," she gaped. "How is that possible?"

"That’s possible because about forty pounds of that 180 is pure, hard, sexy muscle," Jamie declared. "Hard earned, well-used muscle. And if you want to feel well loved, let me tell you, nothing is sexier than having her pick me up like I don’t weigh a thing and hold me in those big, strong arms. When she does that, I run my hands down her back and feel those bands of hard power that lie just under that smooth skin, and I want to swoon!"

Jamie was so wrapped up in her vision that she didn’t even glance up when Catherine leaned her head back and let the remainder of her brandy roll down her throat in a single gulp.

Still intent on giving her mother an accurate picture of their relationship, she continued. "You know, you also don’t have to be a man to have a powerful sex drive, Mother. We make love almost every day, often twice a day, and I’ve never failed to have an orgasm with her. Never! Actually, I usually have two, and quite often three in an evening. She can be so tender, and sweet, and gentle that it breaks my heart to look into those gorgeous blue eyes. But two minutes later, those eyes can be glittering with need, and my pulse starts to race."

The younger woman swallowed slowly, her vivid imagination allowing her to perfectly recreate the mental impression of her partner’s desire filled eyes. She was almost in a fog of memory, and she continued to speak, almost oblivious of her mother’s presence. "She can get me so turned on that I feel like I’ll die if I don’t get release, but she knows just how much I can take. I’ll never know how she does it, but she manages to take me just to the edge of my capacity—never beyond."

She shook her head slowly, remembering the fevered lovemaking they had engaged in just before she departed. "I’ve asked her to do things to me that I never would have asked a man to do, and I’ve done things to her that I would have never considered doing with Jack. It’s almost amazing how unencumbered I feel with her, but I think it’s because she knows how I feel, because she’s a woman, too."

Slowly swallowing a mouth-warming sip of cognac, Jamie leaned her head back against the wicker chair, her eyes fluttering closed in memory. "When she makes love to me she concentrates on me fully. She’s not concerned about herself--only me. I feel so loved…and so special…and so unbelievably precious…that I feel sorry for the women who can’t experience what it’s like to be loved by her. I know you mean well, Mother, but don’t even think that we’re lacking in passion. I’ve felt it, I’ve given it, and I’m going to continue to feel it and lavish it on Ryan for the rest of our lives!"

Catherine leaned her head back and tilted her glass once more, surprised to find it empty. She slowly poured more of the liquor into her own, and then tipped the bottle into Jamie’s nearly empty glass. After a few minutes of dead silence she started to giggle. She laughed harder and harder until she was bent at the waist trying to catch her breath. After a very long while she finally gasped out, "Would you consider lending her to me for my birthday?"

Jamie joined her mother as they dissolved into fits of laughter. Tears were rolling down their faces, and they didn’t even try to collect themselves. They laughed harder and longer than they ever had together. Finally, sides aching, they sat back in their chairs and giggled a few more times. Catherine looked at her and asked with a straight face, "Three in one night?"

"Well, four is the current record," Jamie informed her, trying to be accurate. "Three is the norm."

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

Jamie stumbled over the threshold of her door as she unsuccessfully tried to enter her room quietly. She and her mother had emptied their glasses several more times as they sat in the cool night air, talking about love and life. It had been a tremendous amount of fun—probably the most fun they had ever had together, but she was paying the price now. Her head was spinning as she tried to remove her clothes, and she had to sit down several times to hold the room in one place. But once she got her clothes off, and slid in between the cool, soft sheets, she started to feel that familiar tingle that came from thinking about and talking about Ryan, especially in such intimate terms.

She found her phone and punched in Ryan’s pager number, putting in her cell number when prompted. In just a few minutes, her cell phone rang, and she drawled in her sexiest voice, "Hi, Love."

"Hi, yourself," Ryan replied, a little surprised by Jamie’s tone. "I was beginning to worry about you. It’s almost midnight there."

"Is it really?" she asked. "I just went outside with mother for a little drink. How could bat thee?" she slurred as she mixed her words up.

"How many 'little drinks' did you have?" Ryan asked in an indulgent tone, realizing that her partner was well over the legal blood alcohol limit in most states.

"I guess a couple," she said. "I think."

"Well, you sound like you need some sleep," Ryan said. "Do you want to hang up now?"

"No, no, I really don’t, Honey. I miss you, and I need to hear your voice. Will you help me get to sleep?"

"Sure, do you want me to sing to you? I found that my cell phone works tonight for some reason, so I’m in my room."

"Uh-uh," Jamie insisted, "I want the other kind of sleep aid," she said with a seductive growl.

"Oh my!" Ryan laughed. "Well, you know me. I’m willing to give it a try."

"You are such a good sport, Ryan O’Flaherty. Have I told you that I love you today?"

"Not nearly enough," Ryan admitted. "It’s hard not talking to you all day."

With a deep sigh, Jamie agreed wholeheartedly. "It’s torture, Ryan. It really is. I was talking about you all evening with Mother, and now I just want to hop on a plane and get my little hands all over you."

"Well, I have to say that would be the nicest surprise I’ve ever received," Ryan chuckled. "But I’d still be stuck in a little room with Jordan. They don’t do bed checks, but sharing our private time with her isn’t my idea of a good time."

"What is your idea of a good time?" she asked huskily.

Ooh, her engines are really stoked, Ryan thought. I wonder what she and her mother were talking about? Oh well, I’ll have to ask that when she’s sober. I have a feeling her memory isn’t too clear right now. "You know what I like, Baby. And you’ve never failed to give it to me."

"Ummmmhhh," Jamie murmured, "I love that tone of voice. What are you wearing, Baby? I need a good picture of you."

Ryan glanced down and considered her outfit. After dinner she had put on a pair of Conor’s old basketball shorts that came almost to her knees. They were so baggy that one or two of her teammates could have gotten in with her, but they were quite comfortable for lounging around in. One of Rory’s ribbed undershirts served as her equally ill-fitting top, but she knew that outfit would not be suitable to spark Jamie’s imagination--so she improvised. "I have on the same underwear that I wore the first time we made love," she murmured. "It reminds me of you, and how wonderful it was to be able to touch every part of your body for the first time."

Jamie’s mind was so muddled by the cognac, that she didn’t ask the obvious question—namely, why Ryan would wear her sexy undies to volleyball camp.

"That is so romantic," Jamie sighed. "You know just how to make me feel special."

"That’s because you are special," she insisted. "Now help me fill in my mental picture. What do you have on?"

"Nothing but a smile," she purred lazily, languidly rolling over onto her stomach. "Guess where my hand is?"

Ryan immediately realized that she could get to like this game rather quickly. But she was not really in ideal circumstances to let herself get aroused right now. Lying on a tiny bed in a strange room with a grumpy roommate liable to walk in at any moment just didn’t provide the type of ambiance she needed to relax enough to get hot. So she tried to stay involved enough to please Jamie, but distant enough to remain lucid. "If it’s your right hand, I bet it’s snuggled up some place soft and warm."

"How did you guess that?" Jamie asked in wonder.

"Because every place on your body is soft and warm," Ryan explained, letting her voice drop a little.

"Mmm, you’re sweet," she said. "Are you wearing a bra?"

She was, but she saw no reason to let reality intrude. "Uh-uh. I’m completely bare under my lacy black tank top."

"I want you to slide your hand inside and gently rub your nipples just like I do," she whispered.

Ryan paused a second and grimaced a bit, not feeling very forthcoming about her inability to follow Jamie’s requests. But she knew that her very tipsy partner needed a little loving, and since this was the only way she could accommodate her, she continued to play the game. "Okay, Love, ummmm….I’m touching them…one at a time. Nice and gentle, just like you do. I’m using the palm of my hand to just barely brush against them. Mmmm, that feels good," she purred. "Now a little harder…aaahhh….yeah. That’s nice," she murmured. "Now I’m scratching them a little with my fingernails. You know how much I love when you do that, don’t you, Honey?"

"Mmm-hmmm," Jamie murmured, her breath catching a little as Ryan imagined her doing the exact same thing at that very moment. "They’re getting hard," Ryan continued, sucking in a breath that whistled between her teeth. "Oooh…so hard…almost painful when I touch them."

"Take your thumb and finger and squeeze them," Jamie purred, hew voice taking on a deep, sexy timber. "I wanna hear that gasp you always make when I give them a good…hard…squeeze."

Ryan paused again, blinking slowly as a shiver of desire ran down her back. Even though this was exactly how Jamie touched her, she had never put words to her actions, and hearing her partner speak like this was really giving her a rush. Wrapping two of her fingers into her shoulder length hair, Ryan gave a firm yank, letting out a startled gasp as the pain hit her. "Oooh, I like that," she growled. "Mmmm, it hurts when I do it really hard, but it sends tingles straight down to my clit."

"Tell me about the tingles," Jamie breathed.

Ryan didn’t really have to imagine the feeling at this point. She had quite a buzz between her legs, and she merely had to describe it, something that was harder to do than she would have guessed. "Mmm…feels like pins and needles radiating out from my clit. It throbs a little, too. Yeah…but a really good throb, Baby. Mmm, when I press my legs together it throbs a little stronger. Oh yeah, I can feel the blood pulsing between my legs. It tingles more when I squeeze my legs together really hard. Oooo, that feels good." It was taking more concentration than she would have believed to allow her desire to build while at the same time keeping both eyes and ears alert for any sign of Jordan, who was due back at any time.

"Feels good to me too," Jamie sighed, rolling over onto her back and running her right hand up and down her body, languidly stroking every sensitive inch of skin.

Jamie’s breathing was getting heavy, and Ryan knew just what she was doing to herself. The tingle she was feeling increased dramatically as she imagined how hot Jamie would look, spread out in bed, completely naked and slowly touching herself. Even with her humongous shorts on, she had to shift on the bed and pull the fabric away from her sensitive, swollen skin.

"Can you hold the phone without using your hand?" Jamie asked haltingly.

"Uh-huh," Ryan said immediately, even though she could do no such thing, definitely not wanting Jamie to get sidetracked now.

"Put both hands under your shirt and tease your nipples again."

"All right," Ryan murmured. "They’re still so hard and so sensitive. Mmm, it feels good to run my nails over them. Now I’m holding my entire breast in my hand. Ohhh, it feels so good to give it a good hard squeeze. Mmm, the other one is even more sensitive." She gasped as she sucked in a breath while quickly removing a Band-Aid from a cut she had gotten while scraping against a wall in a drill that morning. "Oooh, they’re so sensitive tonight. You loved them so well on Saturday night, they’re still a little sore."

"Can you take your panties down?"

"Yeah, I really need to. I’m just throbbing, Baby. I have to touch myself soon." She gently slid the receiver across her shirt to replicate the sound of fabric being lowered, then said, "My panties are off now, Babe. Lots of bare skin all primed and ready to be touched."

"Slide your fingers into yourself and tell me how it feels," she murmured.

"Mmm, it feels hot and wet and slippery," she said. "So slippery and wet. Just waiting for you to come home and taste me."

"Bring your hand up and taste yourself, Baby. Tell me how you taste."

The throbbing in her crotch was certainly not going away, and Ryan tried to figure out how to play the game for real. Maybe I could slip my hand up the leg of these baggy shorts, she mused. I might be able to yank it out if I hear Jordan coming. Biting back a groan, she concentrated on making up something good to keep her partner going. "I taste like sex," she purred. "Hot…wet…sex. I’m hot for you, Baby. All I need is a soft touch from your sweet mouth, and I’ll explode."

"God! I want to taste you," Jamie cried, her voice filled with emotion. "I want you more now than I did before, Baby."

"I know," Ryan soothed, feeling exactly the same way. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy touching herself—she had in fact, spent years perfecting her technique, and it was quite impressive, if she did have to say so herself. But loving Jamie was so much more fulfilling, so much more exciting, that simulating sex just showed how much she was missing. Nonetheless, she knew that Jamie was massively turned on, and she thought that a release would help her sleep, so she tried to focus her partner back on the task at hand. "I want you too, Love. So much…so very much." She could hear Jamie sigh heavily and she added, "I can close my eyes and feel your hand on my breast, feel your fingers trailing down over my ribs…sliding across my belly to glide over my curls and slip into my wetness." She gasped aloud as the temptation grew to be too much and she snuck her hand up the huge leg of her shorts, touching her pulsing flesh just as she said the words.

"How do my hands feel on your body, Ryan?" Jamie gasped out in a halting voice.

"Ohh, so good, Baby. I can feel your fingers gather a little pool of moisture and slide up and down both sides of my clit. Oooo, so wet and slick." Ryan’s throat was going dry as she rasped out, "Tell me how you’re touching yourself, Baby. I need to see you."

Jamie’s voice fell into an even deeper register, the low tones sending another set of chills up Ryan’s back. "I’m not touching myself, Love. You are. Your hands are brushing over my nipples. Your hands are gliding down my body. Your sweet, sweet hands are touching me everywhere."

"Mrrrrfff." The involuntary whimper that escaped from Ryan’s mouth was just the reaction that Jamie was going for, and she let out a satisfied sigh.

"Your fingers are stroking me so gently," the smaller woman breathed, hearing another strangled cry from her partner. "Your hands know me so well, Ryan. They know just how to touch me…how to please me."

"Oh, Jamie," Ryan moaned. "You feel so good, so right."

"I’m coming inside, Baby." Momentary silence, then Jamie let out a satisfied gasp, slipping a finger inside herself as she imagined doing the same to Ryan.

"Ooo yeah," the dark woman growled, long fingers sliding across slippery skin as her breathing grew ragged. "I need more, Baby. I feel so open and hot. I need you to fill me up."

Just then she heard the phone drop from Jamie’s grasp and hit the bed. If she strained she could just barely hear her gasping breath. Then a much louder sound crackled through the air. "Oh God, oh God, oh Baby ooooo!"

The sound of her lover’s orgasm sent Ryan’s arousal into overdrive. Just a little more pillow talk from my baby will take me where I need to go, she confidently predicted. "Jamie? Baby?" Several moments passed without a response, and Ryan heard the heavy breathing settle down slowly into the unmistakable sounds of Jamie’s sound slumber. I guess this is as high as my sweetie’s gonna take me, Ryan smirked as she blew a kiss into the phone and slipped both hands under her waistband, determined to join her partner in a slightly delayed climax.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Before her left hand was halfway into her roomy shorts, Ryan heard the distinctive sound of a key slipping into the door lock. Oh goody! Jordan’s home…and just in time, too! Gosh, I’m so happy she’s here! The tension that had developed between them had not abated in the least during the long day, with Jordan managing to remain at least 20 feet away from Ryan through both practices. As soon as dinner was over she'd convinced a few of the underclassmen to accompany her on an ice cream run, the invitation not extending to her roommate.

Since Ryan knew that Jordan was just embarrassed about her nightmare, the distance didn’t bother her. She actually wasn’t used to much sullen behavior, however, since that type of display would not be tolerated in her own home. The O’Flaherty way was to harass whichever family member was in a bad mood until they lightened up or took a swing at their tormentors—both methods usually proving to be effective at chasing away a bad mood.

As the door opened, Ryan turned onto her side, showing only her back to her roommate. Jordan moved about the room in the dark, gathered her supplies and took off again, ostensibly for the showers. Hmmm, Ryan mused, anxious to scratch her itch. I doubt she’s gonna take another shower. Wish I’d had the lights on…I could see if she just took her toothbrush. Oh well, as soon as I hear her fall asleep, I’m gonna take care of business. I’m so turned on I ache!

Just a few minutes later, Jordan crept back into the room, and Ryan waited patiently as she heard her get into bed. Come on, Jordan, conk out, will ya? Little Ryan’s dying down here!

A few minutes passed, but Ryan didn’t hear the normal sounds of sleep. Actually, she didn’t hear a thing, not even the rustling of sheets. The silence was finally broken when a very soft voice asked, "You asleep?"

With a sigh that was primarily born of frustration, Ryan rolled onto her back and said, "Not really. What’s up?"

Jordan was sitting on the edge of her bed, her hands folded together, her blue eyes looking tentatively at Ryan. Ryan started to repeat her question, but Jordan looked down slightly and tilted her head just an inch. The unasked question hung between them for a long moment, with Ryan’s horny self debating with her generous, sympathetic self. The generous self won the battle, and she grasped the sheet and pulled it back in invitation, smiling warmly when Jordan’s childlike grin appeared. The lanky blonde slid into the small bed, staying as close to the edge as possible to give her larger friend as much room as she could.

Jordan’s right hand rested lightly on her own hip for a minute, then she gave in to her need and grasped Ryan’s hand, drawing it around her body and tucking it against her chest. A massive sigh escaped her lips, and within seconds she was peacefully asleep.

The same could not be said for Ryan. Being close to Jordan actually made her miss Jamie all the more, and her mind focused on her partner and how slowly the days were passing. This is so weird, she mused. By any measure, Jordan is one gorgeous hunk of woman, but holding her has absolutely quenched my desire. That’s gotta be a first for me. Get horny, go to bed with a beautiful woman, wrap your arms around her, and lose all interest in sex. If there was ever a doubt in my mind that I was in love, it has been resolved tonight!


Part 6

Tuesday dawned foggy and cool, and for just a fraction of a moment Ryan thought she was home in bed with her beloved. But as soon as she was mostly awake, that thought faded. Lying in bed with Jordan was absolutely nothing like being with Jamie. Jordan was much taller, so her head was level with Ryan’s, unlike Jamie’s convenient shoulder-reaching height. Ryan was used to moving her head down just an inch or two and kissing Jamie’s soft blonde hair as soon as she was half awake, and she realized how much that unconscious ritual meant to her when the first thing she laid eyes on was the back of Jordan’s head.

Her arm was still clutched tightly in Jordan’s grasp, but being wrapped around her long muscular frame was so unlike feeling Jamie’s soft curves that the experiences were nowhere near comparable.

Jordan woke a few minutes later, and she gently lifted Ryan’s arm from around her waist and started to get up. Deciding that she didn’t want to go through another day like the previous one, Ryan stilled her with a hand on her shoulder. "Hey, wait a sec, will you?"

The blonde head nodded, and she sank back down into Ryan’s warm embrace. "Do you want to talk about what’s upsetting you?" Ryan’s low voice was calm and undemanding, but Jordan still began to tense up. Ryan could feel her whole body coil as she shook her head firmly, not saying a word.

Ryan rolled onto her back and started to gently trail her fingers down Jordan’s spine. Trying a different tactic she asked, "Have I told you that I was gay bashed last year?"

"Huh?" The abrupt change in direction worked perfectly to get the recalcitrant woman to at least speak, and Ryan was pleased with that small victory.

"I was gay bashed, just over a year ago," she repeated. "I was hurt pretty seriously, and it took me a couple of months to recover physically."

Jordan didn’t say anything to this, but she snuggled a little closer to Ryan.

"My physical injuries weren’t the hardest part, though," Ryan confided. "It was the fear that was hard to get over. Actually, I’m still not nearly over it. I had terrible nightmares every night for a long time, and I still have them occasionally. Actually, I had one a few weeks ago—really scared Jamie," she added.

The blonde head nodded sympathetically, and Ryan continued to stroke the long, smooth back as she said, "I was embarrassed and angry that I showed her how scared I was, but after we talked about it for a while, I felt better." She let the silence build and then said, "I’m not pressuring you, Jordan, but if you want to talk, I promise to listen. I’d never make fun of you for having something that frightens you."

In the blink of an eye, Jordan had flipped over, startling Ryan a bit. She wrapped her long body around Ryan tightly, nuzzling her head into Ryan’s neck. She didn’t cry, but she was hugging Ryan so hard that her ribs ached. Running her hand down Jordan’s back, Ryan asked again, "Wanna tell me about it?"

"No." There was a pause and she finally added, "I’ve been talking about this since I was nine fucking years old, Ryan. I really thought I was over it."

"I could be off base here, but maybe you need to talk about what’s bothering you with someone outside of your family. Maybe you need to see a counselor."

Jordan’s grip loosened, and she released Ryan from captivity. Sitting up on the edge of the bed, she tossed her blonde hair over her shoulder and said, "I’ve only talked about it with professionals, Ryan. My parents didn’t believe in taking on a job that they could more easily hire someone to do. All of my soul baring has occurred with the meter running."

Whoa! You’re out of your league here, O’Flaherty. Better step back. "I’m sorry, Jordan," she said softly, giving her back a little scratch. "I’m butting into your business way too much. I just want you to know that I understand what it’s like to be afraid of something, and if you ever want to talk or just be held, I’m here for you."

Jordan's heavy sigh caused her shoulders to rise, and Ryan could see some of the tension leave her body. She reached back and grasped Ryan’s hand, bringing it to her face. Softly kissing the back of her hand she asked, "No charge?"

Ryan chuckled and assured her, "No charge, pal. And I’m available 24 hours a day…at least until we get home."

"That’s the best offer I think I’ve ever received, Ryan," she murmured, giving the hand that she still held a firm squeeze.

Ruffling Jordan’s hair with her free hand, Ryan advised, "You’ve gotta get out more!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

The sunlight was bright and the hour was late when Catherine knocked softly on the door to her daughter’s room. "Go away!" Jamie mumbled into her pillow.

Ignoring her command, Catherine opened the door to see her daughter curled up in a little ball, holding her stuffed tiger tightly against her chest with one arm. Placing the tray she carried on a mahogany table, she sat down and waited for Jamie to wake up. She got a great deal of pleasure out of watching her only child sleep, and she realized that she hadn’t had the opportunity to do so since Jamie was quite small. The independent young girl had never expressed a need to have either of her parents tend to her during the night, even when she was sick. Elizabeth, Jamie’s nanny, occupied an adjoining room when Jamie was small, and any of her nocturnal needs were met by the competent, but domineering older woman.

Catherine was in a bit of a daze as she thought about those early years, and before she knew it, it was nearly lunchtime. The rest of the family was planning to take the yacht out for the afternoon meal, and while it was obvious that Jamie would not want to go, Catherine felt that she should at least make sure that her daughter knew they were all leaving.

Moving to the side of the bed, Catherine gently shook Jamie’s shoulder, surprised by the firm muscle she felt. "Come on, Jamie, I need you to wake up for a minute, Dear. I brought you something for your headache."

Responding to her mother’s request, Jamie tried to open her eyes, only to have some sort of white-hot spikes thrust into her red-streaked green orbs. "AAAAHHHH!" she cried, curling her hands into fists and covering the tortured organs.

"That bad?" Catherine asked, obviously shouting at the top of her lungs from a distance of a millimeter.

The pillow was automatically pulled over Jamie’s head, this small action completely ineffective in lessening the pain. She tried to speak, but someone had filled her mouth with spun wool while she slept. Trying to free her tongue, she smacked her lips together, the stunningly loud sound of her jaw moving nearly causing her to burst into tears. With Olympian effort she moaned, "Pleeeease leave me alone."

"You’ll feel better if you take this, Honey. Come on, let me take care of you."

Deciding that the horrible noise would not go away, she pushed the pillow from her face and peeked at her mother with suspicious, slit eyes. "Why aren’t you as miserable as I am?"

She sat down on the edge of the bed and tenderly brushed the hair out of Jamie’s eyes with what seemed to Jamie to be razor blades. "I guess I’m a little more used to alcohol than you are. You don’t drink much, do you?"

"No. Ryan gets kind of mad at me when I do," she croaked out, her dry mouth feeling like she was chewing glass. "I don’t seem to know when to stop."

Catherine laughed as she recalled, "I was just like that in college. Your father used to think it was so funny. We’d go to a party, and the next day he’d feel fine, while I’d just want to die."

"That about sums it up," Jamie agreed, as she placed the pillow over her face again.

"Come on, Honey. At least drink this before you go back to sleep. You’ll feel better when you wake up, guaranteed."

Jamie decided that she’d do almost anything to end the conversation and go back to sleep, so with great difficulty she forced herself to sit up. Catherine dropped two Alka –Seltzer tablets into a glass of water and waited a moment for the cacophony to ebb before handing it to her daughter.

Jamie stared at the glass for a long moment, trying to decide if drinking the bromide would make her vomit. She finally steeled herself and gulped it down, not stopping until the glass was drained. Handing the glass back, she sank down into the pillows again, sighing heavily. "What time is it, anyway?"

"It’s around 11:30."

"11:30!" she cried, her own voice sounding like it was coming through a public address system. "I never sleep that late!"

"Well, you did today, Dear. It doesn’t matter, though. You didn’t have anything to do this morning, did you?"

"No, but I don’t like to sleep late. It upsets my internal clock."

"Once won’t hurt," her mother reassured her, ruffling her hair. "Now you go back to sleep. The rest of us are going out for a sail. We should be back well before dinner."

"Oh boy," Jamie said with false enthusiasm. "Sailing sounds like fun!" She started to struggle out of the mess of sheet she was tangled in, but she quickly realized that she was naked. "Could you hand me a T-shirt from the dresser?"

"Why on earth do you want to get up?" Catherine asked.

"If I’m going to get that drunk, I have to punish myself somehow," Jamie said, her reasoning totally lost on her mother. "I’m going to get up and take a shower."

Walking over to the large cherry-wood lowboy, Catherine pulled out a shirt for Jamie, bringing it over to the bed and waiting for her daughter to slip it on before helping her up. Catherine held out her arm and tried to guide Jamie to her rubbery legs, but the younger woman muttered, "Whoa," as she was forced to sit down immediately. "Dizzy."

"I don’t think a shower is a good idea, Jamie," Catherine cautioned worriedly.

"I’ll be okay," she reassured her. "A shower always makes me feel better."

"You wait here. I’ll go turn it on for you." Moments later Catherine was back. She wrapped her thin arm around Jamie’s sturdy waist and guided her into the bathroom, then opened the shower door as she said, "I’m going to stay to make sure you don’t get dizzy and fall down."

"You don’t need to do that, Mother," she reassured her. "I’m sure I’ll be fine."

"Jamie, I’m not going to be the one to have to call Ryan and tell her I got you drunk and then let you fall in the shower and crack your head open. This is pure self-preservation," she said with a smile.

Jamie gave her a small smile in return as she held her arms up over her head. "If you’re going to stay, you may as well help." Catherine obliged by tugging her shirt over her head, an act she had not performed in a good 18 years. She took her daughter’s arm to steady her as she stepped into the hot, steamy shower. "Oooh, this feels better," Jamie moaned, as she leaned against the wall and rested her cheek on the cool tile.

Catherine waited patiently while Jamie steamed some of the alcohol out of her system, at one point tilting her head back and letting the stream hit her mouth just to hydrate herself. After the water was turned off, Catherine held out a fluffy white towel that Jamie accepted and wrapped around herself as she stepped out. Her mother did not appear to be leaving any time soon, so the younger woman began to rub her body dry with the towel. After a long appraising look Catherine said, "I must have been out of my mind when I criticized you last winter about how your body had changed. You really look lovely, Dear."

"Thanks," Jamie said with a slightly embarrassed smile. "It takes a lot of work, but I really like to be strong. It just gives me more confidence."

"I think I was needlessly worried that you’d look hard or tough if you developed your muscles. But you don’t look hard at all. You look soft and smooth and firm. It’s really quite becoming."

"Thanks," she said wanly, knowing that she looked anything but attractive this morning.

The shower really had helped, and with the benefit of the Alka-Seltzer Jamie was starting to feel a bit better. After slipping into her swimsuit and a loose pair of shorts and a T-shirt, Catherine helped her make her way to the pool, where she pledged to spend the entire day.

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

"Hi there, sleepyhead," Ryan said as she returned her page.

"Oooh, I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I swear I’ll never get drunk again."

"You have said that before," Ryan agreed, her voice rather serious. "Maybe you should pay attention this time, Love."

"Don’t lecture me, Honey. I’m not in the mood. My head feels like it’s going to split apart."

Ryan’s concern was immediately focused on her partner’s pain. "I wish I was there to give you a good neck massage. That seems to help," she commiserated.

"I think this pain is beyond even your talents, Love, but I wish you were here, anyway. I miss you an awful lot." After a pause she asked, "Did we…umm…talk about sex last night?"

"Yes," Ryan drawled. "We most definitely talked about sex last night."

"That sounds suspicious. What did I say?"

"Oh, it wasn’t what you said as much as how you said it," Ryan laughed. "You convinced me to self-pollute," she teased, using a term one of the older nuns in her grammar school favored. "I assume you were pleasuring yourself while we talked, since you exploded in a very erotic sounding orgasm."

"Oh God," she moaned. "I am such a slut when I drink. I have no memory of any details, Ryan. Was it fun?"

"Yeah, it was. And since you have no memory of it, I can use the same script the next time you need a little release. So you’re saving me time and creativity."

"Is that why my phone was dead this morning?"

"Yeah, and you’re going to have one whopper of a phone bill. I could hear you snoring seconds after you finished."

"Well, that sounds appealing. Your girlfriend calls you and makes you get her all hot, then she falls asleep and snores into your ear, leaving you high and dry."

"Oh, I wasn’t dry," she laughed. "I was very far from dry. I was wet and frustrated. Still am, for that matter. Frustrated, that is," she clarified.

"So you couldn’t…"

"Nope." Deciding that she needed to tell Jamie about what happened, Ryan said, "Something frightened Jordan on Sunday night, Honey. I still don’t know what it was, but she was absolutely terrified. She eventually calmed down, and I let her sleep with me the rest of the night."

There was a longish pause before Jamie asked, "Umm…what does that have to do with last night?"

"Well, she was still freaked out, almost like she was afraid to go to sleep, and she needed a little comfort." Ryan paused for a moment and asked, "That doesn’t upset you, does it Jamie?"

The pounding in her head nearly caused her to snap off a biting retort, but Jamie focused her energies on how forthcoming Ryan was being about this incident. "I um…I guess I’m just a little jealous," she admitted.

"Jealous? Of Jordan? Jamie, you’ve got nothing to worry--"

"No, Honey," Jamie interrupted. "I’m not worried that you’ll be unfaithful. I’m just jealous that she gets to sleep with you this week. I miss you so much, and it’s hard to hear that there’s someone else in my spot."

"Oh, Jamie," Ryan murmured, "no one could ever take your place. Sleeping with Jordan was a chore, Honey. It reminded me of why I usually didn’t sleep with women I didn’t know very well. I thought I slept poorly on Saturday, but that was nothing compared to sleeping with Jordan. She’s so upset that I don’t have the heart to say no, but I’m praying that she feels better tonight. I am absolutely dead on my feet." As if to punctuate her point, Ryan let out a massive yawn, causing Jamie to follow suit.

"Now you’re making me tired," she chuckled. "And Ryan, I know that no one could take my place in your heart. I just don’t like someone taking my place in your bed."

"Especially a twin bed," Ryan intoned dramatically.

"Now I know you didn’t enjoy the experience!" Jamie laughed. "Our king-sized bed is hardly big enough for the two of us."

"Well," Ryan chuckled, "you and I move around a lot more than I did with Jordan."

"Ha! You’re gonna need a seatbelt in that bed when I get home," Jamie growled, sending a shiver of delight up Ryan’s back.

"You know that I’m going to hold you to every one of these promises, don’t you?" Ryan drawled.

"I’m counting on it, Love. Now go take a nap before your afternoon practice."

"Will do, Baby. I love you, Jamie. Take care of your sore little head."

"Thanks, I will. Bye, Ryan. I’ll call you tonight."

As Ryan hung up she retained the receiver in her hand for a long moment. Okay, Ryan, what’s your excuse now? She’s awake, she’s alone and you have an hour to spare. She shook her head as she recognized that she just did not want to have an upsetting talk with Jamie while she was being held captive in Santa Cruz. I don’t feel like myself down here, and she’s not herself either, she decided. It just feels too scary to bring this up now. She replaced the receiver and vowed to try to get up the courage to tell her partner about the incident with her father—later.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Soaking in the sun by the pool with her Walkman and some of her favorite tapes, Jamie was starting to feel like herself again. She ate lunch outdoors, took a few dips in the pool, drank at least a half-gallon of water, and let the toxins bake out of her body. She was just about to go inside, since it was nearly five o’clock, when Stephanie came down to sit by her.

The young woman was a little more animated now that the adults were gone, and she quizzed her older cousin with a good deal of interest, "So what happened to you last night?" she asked. "You didn’t really go to bed, did you?"

Jamie laughed and replied, "No. Mother and I sat in the gazebo and talked for a long time."

"Right," Stephanie replied, as though she was waiting for the punch line. She nodded her head, waiting for Jamie to continue, but when her cousin didn’t do so, Stephanie asked, "Are you serious?"

"Quite. That’s why I agreed to come, Stephanie. I wanted to spend time with my mother. I don’t get to see her that often."

The younger woman just stared at her for a moment, obviously trying to determine if she really was serious.

"What did you do all day?" Jamie asked, trying to deflect the intense stare leveled in her direction.

"Just got up," she responded casually, with a touch of pride. The young waiter, Daniel, approached and Stephanie asked him for a Bloody Mary and some toast.

The waiter looked at Jamie with an unstated plea in his eyes. "Make Stephanie’s drink just the way I like my Bloody Mary," Jamie advised him with a wink, sending the grateful young man off to prepare a Virgin Mary.

Focusing again on Stephanie, Jamie asked, "Do you normally sleep until five?"

"No. I don’t usually get to. But David and I went out for a while last night. We came looking for you, but you weren’t in your room."

"Really? Where did you go?" Jamie asked, thinking it a bit odd for her 21-year-old cousin to go out with a 16-year-old.

"Just driving around. You know."

Jamie did not know, but she decided to find out. "Did you stop anywhere?" she asked casually.


"How long were you out?"

"I don’t know. A few hours."

"And you just drove around the whole time?" she persisted.

The young woman tossed aside the magazine she was pretending to read and glared at her older cousin. "God, Jamie, get a clue. We went out to get high!"

"You and David?" she asked in open-mouthed alarm.

"Who else am I going to go with? He could find a dealer in a convent," she laughed.

"What kind of drugs do you do?" Jamie demanded in a tone that let Stephanie know that she was not a kindred spirit.

"We just smoked a little weed. No big deal. My parents know I get high every once in a while. They think it’s better than drinking."

Jamie closed her eyes and shook her head. My family is so totally fucked up! "That’s all that you do?" she asked again.

"Yeah. A little weed. Everyone does it, Jamie. God! Don’t you go to Berkeley? I thought you’d be cooler."

"No, Stephanie, I’m not cool. I don’t think it’s cool to destroy your mind and your body with drugs. You don’t have enough experience to know what a habit can do to you. And it really angers me that you involved Trey in this. He’s trying to stay clean!"

"Oh, yeah. That’s right. Trey’s clean," she said with a smirk as she stood to leave. "Eat my toast," she said dismissively as she turned and stormed away. Stephanie had only gone a few feet when Trey came around the corner and nearly bumped into her. As she brushed past him she snapped, "What a bitch!"

He continued on his path and soon flopped down onto a chaise next to Jamie. "What’s with her?" he asked, pointing at their cousin’s retreating form.

"She told me about your little escapade last night, and I told her that I didn’t approve," she said evenly. She turned in her chair to look Trey directly in the eye. "Are you using again?"

"God no, Jamie!" he said defensively. "I almost died from that last overdose. I’m not stupid, you know!" He sat up and ran his hand through his medium-length brown hair. "I shouldn’t tell you this, but I think she needs our support." He could tell by the look on Jamie’s face that so far she was unconvinced of his innocence. Sighing heavily he said, "Stephanie told me she was going out to score. I didn’t want her driving around alone, so I took her. I know you can’t get someone to stop by ordering them around, so I thought it was better to go with her and make sure that she was safe."

"She says you just smoked some pot. Is that true?" Jamie’s green eyes were boring into him, and he nodded somberly.

"Yes, just some pot," he agreed. "High school kids smoke pot like we used to drink. It’s really no big deal, and it’s less harmful in the long run. I know my problem wouldn’t have been so bad if I wasn’t drinking at the same time, so I’m glad she just does a little weed." He gave his cousin a big smile and said, "Don’t worry about her. She’s just going through that almost-an-adult thing. She’ll be fine."

"Stephanie does drink, Trey. She asked me to order her a drink the other night."

"She’s sixteen, Jamie!" he laughed. "She’s just testing her limits…really."

"Are you telling me the truth, Trey?"

"Absolutely. I care about Stephanie too. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt her. Ooh, toast and a Bloody Mary," he said delightedly as Daniel approached. "Who read my mind?"

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

Ryan was sitting on the training table getting her ankles taped for afternoon practice when Coach Placer signaled to her. "When you’re done there, Ryan, can I have a minute?"

"Sure. Be right with you."

A few minutes later she caught up with the coach, and he motioned towards the bleachers. They climbed about halfway up, and as they sat down she noticed that he looked a little uncomfortable. "I’ve got some bad news, Ryan," he began, and her entire stomach did a major flip.

"What?" she asked, her heart racing with anxiety, panicked that something had happened to Jamie or someone in her family.

"Calm down," he smiled, patting her knee. "It’s not that bad."

"Okay," she replied, taking a deep breath. "Let me have it."

"I just got a call from the athletic director," he began, and Ryan tried to figure out how a call from the A.D. could have a negative impact on her. "He tells me that the NCAA has decided to change the status of Melinda Grover."

"Melinda Grover?" Ryan repeated, having never heard the name before.

"Yeah. She was a junior last year, and after just one game she blew out her knee. We thought she’d be back this year, but the rehab hasn’t gone well and we assume she won’t be able to play at all."

"That a tough break," Ryan commiserated, still puzzled.

"For both of you," Coach Placer informed her. "They told us that we have to keep her scholarship open for her."

The light dawned and Ryan nodded slowly. "I’m guessing that scholarship is the same one you offered me?"

"I’m afraid so, Ryan. I know the scholarship means a lot to you, and if you choose to drop off the team, I’ll understand."

"But if you had a scholarship, you would offer it to me, right?" she asked slowly, trying to fully understand the situation. "I mean, you’re happy with me so far, aren’t you?"

He laughed gently, shaking his head as he said, "Ryan, if I was any happier with you…well, I don’t know what I’d do!"

"Then I’ll stay," she decided. "I’m having fun…I like the other players…I like you…why not finish what I’ve started?" The words were out of her mouth before the reality of her situation hit her. "Uhh…check that, Coach," she muttered, biting her lower lip in thought. "I uh…need to talk to Jamie first. We’ve uh…there are some financial aspects that have come up that uh…"

He looked at her sympathetically and offered, "If you need to work this year, I’ll figure out a way to let you have a reduced practice schedule, Ryan. I’ll do anything in my power to help you stay on the team if it’s important to you."

"It is, Coach," she admitted, realizing at that moment just how important it was. "I appreciate your concern."

"I am concerned, Ryan. I feel awful that this has happened, and I’m really sorry for leading you to think you’d get a free ride."

"I think I’ll be okay," she said. "I just need to check with Jamie to see if she agrees. I’m a double major and this is going to be a tough year for me academically, anyway."

"I don’t think you’ve told me what you’re majoring in," he said, looking at her with interest.

"Math and biology," she said vacantly, thinking about getting time to call her partner.

He smiled and nodded, waiting for the punch line. "Oh…you’re serious," he said slowly. After another moment he added, "Are you nuts?"

"Yeah. As a matter of fact, I guess I am," she agreed, smiling brightly.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"What’s up with the private talk?" Jordan asked, sidling up to Ryan when she returned to the floor.

"Ehh, I’ll tell you after practice," Ryan said, unwilling to discuss the matter with everyone else around.

The two-hour session was devoted mostly to critiquing each player's form as they executed the various skills most important to their respective positions. Ryan was pretty happy with the comments that Erin, the assistant coach, made, but she was still not happy with her jump serve. After practice ended, she approached her and asked, "Any chance you’d be willing to stay around for a while and work with me on my serve?"

Erin smiled, already recognizing that Ryan had enough motivation for four women. "Sure. I’d be happy to."

During camp, kids from various local volleyball teams helped the coaches out. One of their main tasks was chasing balls during drills. Two little girls, about ten years old, agreed to stay and shag balls so that Erin could stand by Ryan to look at her technique.

When the kids fetched the balls, they tossed them into a wheeled basket so they were easy to return to the server. Each basket held about ten balls, and by the time each one had been filled four times, the little girls were toast. Ryan kept banging away though, oblivious to everything but her own body and the little tips that Erin kept providing.

A woman entered the gym, obviously looking for the ball girls, and after a few minutes of watching, she lent a hand to her exhausted children. Mother and daughters shagged balls until the maintenance staff came to shut off the lights, and only then did Ryan’s concentration break. She blinked up in surprise when her eyes caught the big clock that read six p.m. "Is that clock right?" she gasped, grabbing a towel to wipe the sweat from her face.

"Yep," Erin confirmed. "I would have stopped you, but you really seemed to be in a groove for the last fifteen minutes, and I thought you should decide when you’d had enough."

"Who’s that woman?" Ryan asked, perplexed that one of the ball girls had morphed into a 30-something woman.

Erin smiled at Ryan’s confusion, knowing she had been in the zone when the woman had arrived. "I think she’s a mom who came to pick up her kids and decided to help out."

The woman helped her girls roll the baskets back one final time, giving Ryan a big smile as she did so. "I tell these two all the time that there’s no substitute for hard work," she said, as she extended her hand. "Thanks for making my point much better than I ever could."

"My pleasure," Ryan said, squatting down a bit to talk to the girls. I had no idea that any of you were here, but I’m glad to help out—inadvertent though it was.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Jogging back to the dorm, Ryan reached into her gym bag to check her pager once again. Still nothing from Jamie, she thought. I had a feeling she’d be going to bed early tonight. I hope her headache’s all better.

Jordan was taking a little nap and barely flinched when Ryan entered. Well, at least I can nap alone. Plucking at her drenched clothing, she realized that it would be imprudent to sleep in the state she was in and that a shower would help keep her from getting stiff, so she gathered her things and headed for the communal bath. Much to her dismay, she returned to find that Jamie had paged her twice during her long shower—first with her number, and then five minutes later with 1000# entered in the display, indicating that Ryan should call back at ten. "Damn, I was hoping to be asleep by nine," she grumbled to herself. "Ah well, at least I can get a short nap in now."

She practically dove for the bed, and had just gotten the thin pillow thumped into shape when someone knocked loudly on the door. "Dinner!" a cheerful voice called out.

Glancing at her watch, she saw that it was, indeed, almost seven o’clock, and she got back up with a string of silent curses.

Grumbling mightily, Ryan nearly spit when her pager finally went off. Great…just in time to not be able to talk. She almost failed to check the number, but did so automatically, blinking in surprise when she saw that her home number was backlit in the display. Grabbing her calling card, she dashed for the hall phone and dialed. "What’s wrong?" she asked anxiously when Conor answered on the first ring.

"I’m not sure," he said slowly, causing her heart to start beating wildly. "I just got home and there was a message on the machine…"

"For God’s sake, Conor, spit it out!"

"Okay, okay," he soothed. "I don’t think anything’s wrong, because she asked for you, but Granny called this afternoon."

Ryan blinked in surprise, pulling the phone away from her ear to look at the receiver in shock. "She doesn’t do that," she muttered.

"I know," he replied somberly. "She talked into the machine like we were all standing right next to it, and said that she wanted to talk to Siobhán and no other. There was a long pause, then she said she’d write a letter."

"Is that it?" Ryan asked, her heart still racing.

"No," Conor said, relating the rest of the message as he obviously tried to understand it himself. "She said that you might think she was a culchie, but that she had a very good view of the world from her little corner of Ireland." He paused a minute and asked, "Do you have any idea of what she’s talking about?"

"’Fraid I do, Bro. ‘Fraid I do. I wrote her a letter and told her that I was a lesbian, and that I had fallen in love."

"Oh-oh," Conor muttered, full of empathy for his sister. "Well, look at the bright side, Ryan, she can’t get her hands on you to beat you!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

Walking to the dining hall, Jordan reminded her, "You didn’t tell me what happened with Coach. Are you in trouble?"

"Not with him," she grumbled. "But my grandmother seems to be pissed at me." Jordan gave her an uncomprehending glance, but rather than go into the details Ryan focused on the volleyball news. "Coach had some bad news for me," she replied, still a little miffed about the whole affair. "Seems that the NCAA won’t let him award me a scholarship because of some injured senior."

"Really? Is this Melinda?"

"Yeah, I think that’s her name. He just found out that he has to leave it open for her in case she returns."

"But she’s not going to be able to return, Ryan. I talked to her not two weeks ago. Her rehab is going really poorly."

Ryan shrugged her shoulders, indicating her helplessness on the subject. "I’m just telling you what he told me. The bottom line is that I don’t get a scholarship."

"That just sucks!" Jordan stopped dead in her tracks, grabbing Ryan’s T-shirt to pull her to a halt. "You’re not gonna quit, are you?"

"Not a chance," Ryan assured her, hoping that Jamie agreed with her. "You’re stuck with me, pal."

"Whew!" Jordan let out a breath and wiped her brow rather dramatically. "Don’t get a big head, O’Flaherty, but this team would blow if you weren’t on it."

"Why, Jordan, I do believe that is the closest you’ve come to actually complimenting me on something." Ryan coquettishly batted her eyes at her friend, drawing a hearty laugh from the blonde.

"You SO cannot pull that off! You just look like you’ve got something stuck in your eye."

"Works with Jamie," Ryan sniffed.

"What wouldn’t?" Slapping Ryan hard on the butt, Jordan took off laughing, leaving her slightly slower friend in the dust.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After dinner, the roommates walked back to the dorm, both too tired to even think about going out. "Did you tell Jamie about the scholarship?" Jordan asked.

"Nah. She’s not gonna call me until ten. I think she’ll be okay about it. She never thinks money is an issue."

"Sounds like she doesn’t have to," Jordan opined. "I take it she took the news about her dad better than you thought she would?"

It was just eight o’clock, and even though Ryan didn’t want to hit downtown Santa Cruz, she knew she had to stay out of her room or risk being unconscious in moments. In an effort to remain awake until she called Jamie at ten, she offered a suggestion to her friend. "Let’s sit outside for a while."

"Okay. It’s too nice out to be inside."

Sitting down on a bench, Ryan leaned back and let out a breath. "I uh…haven’t told her," she admitted.

The surprise Jordan felt showed on her face. "You are looking for trouble, Ryan, mark my words." Jordan’s tone was calm and non-judgmental, but it was obvious that she felt strongly about this. "Keeping a secret like this is bound to bite you on the ass."

"I’m not keeping a secret," Ryan insisted. "Jamie had a hellacious hangover this morning, and she was in no condition to hear about it."

"Hangover? Isn’t she with her mother? Who gets drunk with their mother?"

"Apparently, Jamie does," Ryan said, still not very happy about her partner’s tendency to binge drink, especially in the company of her family.

"Huh…well, whatever works for you, I guess. But no matter how many excuses you find for not telling her, the fact remains that you’re keeping a secret…and it will come back to bite you."

"I really don’t want to keep this from her, Jordan. You just don’t know how she gets about stuff like this. She’s already in a really bad place with her father, and this will put her over the edge for sure. I mean, I can take care of myself, but I know she’ll take this very, very personally and feel like she has to do something. She’s very defensive of me."

"She loves you, Ryan," Jordan said softly, a hint of sadness in her blue eyes. "Of course she wants to protect you."

"I know," Ryan said, reaching over to give Jordan’s shoulder a squeeze. She stood up and tried to stretch her back out, grimacing a bit as she did so. "I think I need to keep moving. This cool air is stiffening me up."

"Why don’t we walk for a while."

As they walked along, Ryan asked, "Why do you know so much about this place, anyway? I thought you were from L.A?"

"Mmm. I am. My brother went to school here."

She tossed the comment off and didn’t offer a follow-up, so Ryan asked, "I didn’t know that you had a brother. Older than you, I suppose?"

"Yeah." Again, nothing but the bare facts.

"When did he go here?" Ryan queried.

"Mmm, he graduated in ’93."

Ryan did a little math, as was her wont, and asked, "So…he was here during the earthquake, wasn’t he?"

A brief nod was all that Jordan offered as a reply.

Ryan grasped her arm, pulling her to a stop. "He wasn’t…hurt, or anything, was he?" She had a very bad feeling about her friend’s withdrawn attitude, and she feared that her brother had been one of the people killed during the quake.

"Nope. The students all fled the dorms and slept outdoors that first night. It turned into a huge party, to tell you the truth."

"What’s his name?" Ryan asked, always interested in people’s families.


"Huh…sounds Swedish," Ryan observed idly, not really thinking about her comment.

"We are Swedish," she said with just a touch of irritation. "Didn’t Ericsson give it away?" They walked just a few more feet before Jordan said, "I’m too tired to hang out tonight, Ryan. I’ve got to get a good night’s sleep. Try to stay in your own bed tonight, will ya?" She leaned close and kissed Ryan’s cheek, then turned and broke into a trot, headed back to the dorm.

Something tells me that Gunnar is not one of her favorite people, Ryan mused as she watched her friend glide out of sight.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"I want to thank you for being so attentive today, Mother," Jamie said as Catherine walked her to her door at 12:30 that night.

"My pleasure, Honey. You looked so completely miserable this morning that even the most hard-hearted person would have tried to help you."

Jamie leaned against her door, the solid surface not budging an inch against her weight. "I don’t have many memories of you tending to me when I was sick, so today was doubly nice."

Catherine stared at her for a few moments. "I...I guess you’re right. I don’t really remember taking care of you when you were ill."

She raised her hand and placed it gently on her mother’s arm. "Please don’t think I’m criticizing you, because I’m not. I just remember Elizabeth being in charge."

"That’s certainly the proper term," Catherine laughed wryly, a sad smile on her face. "I was so afraid of getting on her bad side that I never contradicted her."

Jamie opened the door to her room and stepped inside. She held the door open in invitation, so Catherine came in also. "Why were you afraid of Elizabeth? She was a dear!"

"She was kind, Dear, but she was a very traditional English nanny. If she had not had full authority, she would have quit in a minute."

Jamie let that thought percolate for a moment, finally offering, "I can’t imagine letting someone else have full authority in my house."

Catherine sighed as she recalled the young woman that she had been. She sat on an upholstered chair and considered her position. "I wouldn’t do the same thing now, of course. But that was such a stressful time for me, Jamie. I was absolutely terrified at the prospect of raising a baby, and Elizabeth just stepped in and took charge."

"Why were you terrified?" Jamie asked softly, not seeing how a tiny baby could frighten anyone.

"I was 20 years old, and I had never even been around a baby. None of my friends were married yet, and I had no siblings or younger cousins. I was honestly totally overwhelmed by the experience."

Jamie considered how she felt the first time she had been to Ryan’s house for her birthday party. "I guess I understand what you mean," she mused. "I was just that age the first time I met Caitlin. Luckily, Ryan is completely casual with the baby, but if I had been alone with her, I guess I would have been freaked out, too."

"It wasn’t just the fact that you were a baby, Jamie. I really didn’t have anyone else."

"But what about Daddy? Wasn’t he able to help out?"

Catherine laughed gently, shaking her head the whole while. "Your father was just starting out in his career, and he was gone at least twelve hours a day. A first year associate works hellacious hours, Jamie. I remember one week when you were barely a month old. He was working on some big trial, and he didn’t return home until after midnight for the whole week. When the next week began, and it looked like it would be just as bad, he asked me to take you down to Pebble Beach for a few days so that he could get some rest during the little time he had home." She shook her head, as though to remove the memory. "That was…hard."

Good God, I would have been in the same situation if I had married Jack! No wonder Mother thought I was too young to get married! She must have been afraid that Jack would be the same way Daddy was. "Didn’t you have anybody else to help out? It just sounds so lonely."

"It was," Catherine sniffed, getting up to get a tissue. "My mother had just died a few months earlier and I was still grieving her loss. Elizabeth was my lifeline, Jamie. I would have done anything to keep her from leaving."

Jamie sat on the arm of the chair and placed her arm around her mother’s shoulders. "I never saw this from your perspective. I just thought you didn’t want to be very close to me," she said in a near whisper as tears formed in her eyes.

Catherine leaned in close, relishing the sturdy warmth of her daughter’s body. "That’s absolutely not true," she said fervently. "I just didn’t know how, Jamie. I swear, I just didn’t know how."

They held each other close for a few minutes, both women unaccustomed to the sensation, but neither wanting the embrace to end. Catherine said softly, "I remember the first time you were sick. You had a bad cold when you were just about a month old. You were so tiny, not more than seven pounds at the time. You had a lot of congestion in your lungs, and I was trying to make you a little more comfortable. Elizabeth found me sitting in the rocker holding you. She snatched you away and told me that I was endangering your life by holding you the way that I was. She said that your lungs could fill with fluid and you’d be dead before I knew it." She shook her head as she recounted, "I was absolutely terrified! I felt so incompetent, Honey. I was just trying to comfort you and here she was telling me that I might kill you!" She brushed the tears from her cheeks as she continued, "I suppose I started to defer to her opinions more and more. Soon she was completely in charge, and I felt like an outsider. I assumed she was doing a better job than I could, and you seemed to be more comfortable with her, so I didn’t fight it."

Jamie leaned over and wrapped her arms around her mother’s small torso. "That must have been so frightening for you," she said sincerely.

"It really was," she sniffed. "I missed my own mother so much. It was so hard for me that she had died while we were estranged. My sorority friends didn’t come around much since my life had changed so dramatically and we had so little in common. We just didn’t have much to talk about since the only thing on my mind was you. I just felt so alone, Jamie."

Jamie pulled her mother into an even tighter embrace, cradling her head against her chest. She tenderly ran her fingers through her mother’s fair hair, smiling to herself when she heard a huge sigh similar to the ones Ryan gave when she cuddled her. "Did your mother take care of you, or did you have a nanny also?"

"I had a nanny, Jane. She was a nice old woman, but not very motherly."

Jamie laughed softly, seeing the parallels in their lives. "We were raised in a very similar fashion, weren’t we?"

"Yes, I suppose we were," Catherine said. "I don’t know what I would have done differently if I had to do it over again, but I hope I would have the courage to demand the right to get to know you better when you were young. I’ll regret that until the day I die, Jamie."

"We can’t fix the past, Mom, but we can change the future," she said with a small smile as she gave her mother another gentle hug. "And someday you can get to be the doting grandmother."

"I can’t tell you how much I’d like that, Jamie," she sighed, as she leaned fully against her daughter and soaked up the comfort the younger woman offered.

* * * * * * * * * * *

At ten o’clock Ryan was sitting near the phone, trying her best to keep her eyes open. A long walk around campus had kept her moving, but had only served to make her even more tired. The shrill ring nearly caused her to leap from the straight-backed desk chair, but she gathered herself and answered on the second ring. "Hi Love," she said, with much less enthusiasm than she wanted to convey.

"Ohh…somebody sounds tired. Is this too late for you?"

"It’s a little late," Ryan admitted honestly. "But then, it’s three hours later for you, so I shouldn’t complain. What are you doing up, anyway?"

"Oh, everyone went out sailing, and they got in late. We didn’t even start cocktail hour until nine o’clock."

There was a pause as Ryan took in that bit of information. "You have a cocktail hour before you eat dinner?"

Jamie laughed softly, knowing how odd that must sound to her lover. "Lunch too, Baby," she admitted. "It’s a family tradition."

That’s a tradition that will never rear its head in our home, Ryan vowed immediately. "Did you have a good day? Headache all gone?"

"Yeah. I feel fine, actually. I just hung around by the pool all afternoon. Read a little, listened to some tapes. It was pretty relaxing. How about you?"

"Hmm…not so relaxing, but I got some good work in today. Both practices went well, and I stayed after to work on my jump serve for a while."

"I don’t know what that is, but I’m sure you do it very, very well," Jamie said, her support for her partner far outstripping her knowledge of the game.

"I guess I’m going to have to teach you a little about the game so that you can enjoy it more," Ryan suggested.

"Let’s see…" Jamie mused. "You jump around a court in skintight shorts…isn’t that enough?"

Ryan’s gentle laugh warmed her all over, making her feel much closer to home. "I guess that’s plenty," Ryan allowed. "You certainly know what you like."

"I do indeed. I like you. As a matter of fact, I love you. A lot. A whole, whole lot."

"I love you too," Ryan murmured, allowing the longing she felt for her partner to come to the surface. "As tired as I am, I hate to go to bed without you."

"Well, at least you don’t have to sleep alone," Jamie countered, still a little jealous that Jordan got to snuggle with her partner.

"Honey," Ryan said. "Having Jordan there is worse than being alone…really."

"Why, Ryan? I would think it would be comforting to have someone next to you."

"Nope. Even in my sleep I know it’s not you."

"How so?"

"Well, for one thing—she’s too tall. Her head is on the same plane mine is, so I get a face full of blonde hair all night. Yours never does that," she added. "I can hold you tight and tuck your head right under my chin. A perfect fit," she said wistfully.

"What else?" Jamie asked, somehow reassured that Ryan wasn’t enjoying her nights with Jordan.

"She’s too bony, " Ryan decided. "You have such nicely rounded curves…very smooth and gentle. Jordan’s a little too angular, and my mind obviously rebels when it feels her sharp edges."

"Oohh, your poor mind is trying to figure out who’s in bed with it, huh?"

"Apparently," Ryan agreed. "I way lying in bed this morning thinking about how wonderful it feels to hold you the first thing in the morning. It’s just the most peaceful feeling in the world, you know."

"I do know. My poor little Tiger tries her best, but she’s no match for the real thing."

"Do you sleep with her?" Ryan asked, charmed that her partner would do so.

"Absolutely! When mother came in to wake me this morning, I had the poor thing in a death grip. I must have looked three years old!"

"I’d give anything to see that," Ryan said, just able to conjure up the image of her partner with her stuffed animal. Then, getting to the source of her desire, she added, "I’d give anything to see you."

"Me too, Sweetheart. I am honestly counting the minutes."

Ryan sighed heavily, missing her partner so much that it felt like a constant ache. "What’s up for tomorrow?" she asked, already trying to figure out when they would be able to speak.

"I’m playing golf with my cousin, J.C. Nothing much after that. Our big family sail is the day after tomorrow. This is a big deal for Uncle David—so much so that he claims that we’re going to get an early start…we shall see."

"Going anywhere in particular?"

"Yeah…we’re going out to a little island off the coast for a picnic lunch. It should be fun."

"That does sound like fun," Ryan agreed, thinking that she would love to do something like that with Jamie. "Don’t forget to wear you life vest, okay, Love?"

"I will, Honey, but you really don’t need to worry. Both Uncle David and Skip are expert sailors. Skip has crewed on America’s Cup yachts."

"All well and good, but I’ll sleep better if I know that you’ll wear a life vest. Promise me?"

"Yes, I promise," Jamie agreed, privately loving the fact that Ryan was so concerned for her safety. "You get to bed, Sweetheart. You can’t afford to get run down."

"Okay. Call me in the morning if you have time. If not, I’ll await your call at the end of the day. I think we’re going to the Boardwalk tomorrow night, so I might be a little late."

"No problem. I’ll call you until I reach you. You’re well worth the trouble."

"Oh, Baby? Call my cell first. It worked last night, but it’s not clear tonight."

"Will do, Honey. I love you."

"I love you too, Jamie. Sleep tight."

As she hung up the receiver, Ryan slapped herself on the forehead. Jesus! Not only didn’t we talk about her father…I didn’t tell her about the scholarship! Duh!

* * * * * * * * * * *

As Jamie hung up she heard a noise in the hallway and opened her door to see Trey and Stephanie tip-toeing down the hall. She crept out the door to watch them descend the stairs and leave by the main entrance. Checking her watch, she noted that it was 1:20. Well, that would explain why they sleep all day!


Part 7

As promised, J.C. was well into demolishing a hearty breakfast when Jamie came downstairs on Wednesday morning. No one else was up, but the always present wait staff was at the ready. "Toast and cereal for me, please," Jamie requested before Daniel was out of the kitchen door and into the dining room. He smiled at her and turned to fill her order while she poured her own coffee from the urn on the breakfront.

"Looks like a great day for our round of golf," she said conversationally. "Are you typically an early riser like I am, J.C.?" Jamie asked as she sat down next to her cousin.

"Mmm, I can be," he decided. "But only for things I’m interested in. I make it a habit never to schedule a class before noon." He shot her one of his impish grins, and she had a glimpse into his impressive success with women. Everyone expected J.C. to become the family playboy, taking over for his father, who had relinquished the title upon his marriage. Father and son had similar appeal, Jamie thought, studying the young man while he rose to get another glass of juice. True to the Dunlop heritage, J.C. was not a very large man, but he wasn’t nearly as diminutive as his grandfather, who was practically elfin. J.C. stood about 5’8", but his well-muscled body gave him the appearance of a larger man. His hair was fair, not as light as Jamie’s, but closer to blonde than brown. Since it was late in the summer, the crown of his head was quite sun-bleached, and the color complimented his golden tan. He had the typical brown eyes of the Dunlop line, a stunningly bright smile, and a very even temper—so long as he wasn’t drunk. J.C. was never one to turn down a party, and he generally behaved himself at the frequent bashes he hosted. But if trouble started, he was always in the middle of it—fists flying.

They finished breakfast while chatting companionably about their schedules for the coming school year. When they heard J.C.’s grandmother Patsy come down the stairs and speak to one of the servants, J.C. jerked his head towards the door, whispering, "If we don’t get out now, we’ll be here another hour!"

Jamie nodded her readiness and they made a dash for the kitchen, startling the cooks and wait staff as they barreled by them, heading for the back door. "That was close." The look of relief on J.C.’s face was quite comical.

"You can make a quick getaway when you’re in the mood," Jamie laughed as they searched for the chauffeur to request a car.

"Practice, Jamie. Lots and lots of practice."

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Coming on the big sailing adventure tomorrow?" J.C. asked as they stood on the first tee of the Newport Country Club.

"Sure. It sounds like fun," Jamie said. The event was an annual affair, and every member of the family was expected to attend. "How about you?"

"Yeah, I’ll be there. Spending the day listening to my grandfather’s stories isn’t my idea of fun, but you do what you have to do."

Jamie had no ready retort to that comment, so she merely nodded as she went to hit her drive. She felt a little off today and her drive was decent, but not as sharp as usual. "Hmm, I think today could be a long day," she mused as she watched her ball roll into the short rough.

"You know, this is the first time I’ve been alone with you since we got here," J.C. stated. "Every other time some adult has been with us."

Jamie smiled at him as she observed, "We’re adults, too, J.C."

"Only chronologically, Jamie. I’m not about to give up my hard won immaturity." He was smiling as he said this, but Jamie knew there was more truth than jest in his comment. She also had the distinct feeling that he was completely happy with his lot in life, and she considered that being a good looking, wealthy playboy in New York City really wasn’t such a bad life.

"I really like being an adult," she said reflectively. "I like being responsible for my own choices, and I like the freedom of feeling that I don’t have to curry favor with my parents."

"That’s because you not only are assured of getting tons of dough when your mother dies, you never do anything to piss your parents off! You’ve always been the perfect kid."

Something about his tone irked Jamie and before she stopped to think she replied, "That’s not true, J.C. I’ve actually had a very difficult year with my parents. I’ve made some choices that have upset both of them, and even though things are going well with my mother, my father and I are not even speaking right now."

"What did you do?" he asked with an astonished look on his face. "I thought your dad idolized you."

"It’s not what I did, it’s just that he doesn’t like the direction that my life is going," she explained, being intentionally obtuse.

"Did you join a religious cult or something?" he asked, a slightly mocking smile on his handsome face.

Jamie thought about her reply for a moment. Her mother had clearly stated that she did not mind if she told her cousins about Ryan, but she was a little concerned that J.C. would just take her declaration and use it as family gossip. Still, the thought kept coming back to her that she only wanted to maintain relationships with people who knew her and accepted her. And the only way for people to know her was to be open and honest about the most meaningful relationship in her life. "No, I didn’t join a cult, although sometimes I think my father would have preferred that. I fell in love with a woman," she stated simply.

He stared at her for a moment to make sure she was serious. The determined look in her eyes told him that she was. "That’s a shocker," he said slowly as he let out a breath. "I never would have guessed that, Jamie. You just seem so…straight."

"If that’s a compliment, thank you," she said warily.

He looked a little embarrassed as he explained, "I mean that in every sense of the word. Being gay just sounds a little wild and I don’t think of you like that."

"It’s not a political statement for me J.C., I just fell in love."

"So, do you think you’re a lesbian? Or is this just a…"

"No, it’s not just a fling; no, it’s not an experiment. I love this woman with all my heart, but if we weren’t together, I wouldn’t go back to men. I’m definitely a lesbian, J.C." As she said those words she realized that it was the first time she had ever made that declaration, and she smiled broadly as she realized how comfortable she felt having made it. She wasn’t even certain why she had said it, but it felt so true—so right, that she was immensely glad that she had done so.

"Boy, it’s a pretty screwed up family when I’m the most socially acceptable kid."

"I think Julia’s got you beat," she said sweetly, as she approached her ball and gave it a beautiful ride.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After morning practice Ryan headed for the dorm, intent on getting in a serious nap. Jordan had remained in her own bed the night before, but Ryan’s sleep did not improve significantly, even though she had appreciably more room to move around in. Jamie has absolutely ruined me! I not only don’t enjoy sleeping with other women…I don’t enjoy sleeping alone either!

When she got to the dorm she was dismayed to see that several of the younger team members had the doors to their rooms open, and they were gathered in the hall dancing to a new CD that one of them had just bought at the campus bookstore. Ryan fixed them with a glare and warned, "I’m in charge of stretching exercises today. If I don’t get a good nap in before afternoon practice, the lot of you will feel like you’ve been beaten with a rubber hose when I’m finished with you!"

Four sets of very wide eyes stared at her as she passed, and by the time she entered her room the CD had stopped and she heard four doors close so quietly that there was barely a "click." Sometimes it’s nice to be a senior, she smirked, falling onto her bed fully clothed.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"How about an ice cream cone?" Catherine asked, a few hours after lunch was finished.

One blonde eyebrow twitched as a slow smile spread over Jamie’s face. "I thought you’d never ask!"

Procuring a car, mother and daughter took off for one of the places that Jamie had very fond memories of. Cruising up Highway 114, Jamie decided that she had better inform her mother of her discussion with J.C. "The opportunity arose, and I told J.C. about Ryan, Mom."

Catherine looked neither surprised nor displeased, and that reassured Jamie immediately. "I’m glad," she said, smiling fondly at her daughter. "If you told him that, it must mean that you feel comfortable enough to share your private life with him. I’d really like it if you could foster a relationship with your cousins, Jamie. They’re the only family that you have." At the raised eyebrow query she received, Catherine hastened to add, "Blood relations, Dear. I know you consider Ryan your family, too."

"I do, Mom," she said. "But it’s more than that. I don’t feel like the O’Flahertys are my in-laws. It honestly feels like they’re blood relations, too. It’s like I was adopted by them—and now we’re family."

"I’m so glad that you have that, Jamie," Catherine said sincerely. "I so longed for a larger family when I was young. It must be nice." Her voice was so wistful that Jamie felt a pang of sympathy for her.

"You know, Mom," she said. "There’s no reason that you can’t be part of the clan. The entrance requirements are really simple."

Catherine gave her an impish grin and demurred, "They might be simple for you, Jamie, but I don’t think I’m oriented in that direction."

"Mom!" she cried, slapping her lightly on the thigh. "I’m not offering you my girlfriend!"

They laughed together, both amazingly comfortable with the other. "I’d really love to get to know Ryan’s family," the older woman said after she caught her breath. "Now tell me about these entrance requirements."

Jamie smiled over at her mother and said, "Well, when I joined, I just had to show that I loved Ryan. But since I’m a member now, I think I could get you in just because you love me."

She graced Catherine with a beaming smile and extended her hand. Catherine grasped it and gave it a gentle kiss, saying softly, "I love you more than you know, Jamie."

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Hey, good lookin’," Jamie said into the phone after they returned from their ice cream excursion. "I didn’t think I’d catch you before your afternoon practice."

"Must be your lucky day," Ryan agreed, her mood significantly improved after her three-hour nap. "What’s going on?"

"I just got back from the most sensually delightful experience," Jamie said, sighing heavily. "The only way I could have had a better day was if I could have used you as a cone."


"We went for ice cream," Jamie informed her. "Probably the best ice cream outside of France, in my humble opinion."

"Really? I looooove ice cream," Ryan needlessly commented. "What kind did you have?"

"I got the specialty…ginger," she said reverently, speaking the word like a prayer.

"Ginger? I don’t know about that," Ryan said. "I take it this was not Baskin-Robbins?"

"Nope. It’s a little place called Gray’s in Tiverton. Just on the mainland, almost in Massachusetts. It’s so cute, Honey. They have llamas outside, contentedly chewing grass…It’s really Rhode Islandy."

"I still don’t know about the ginger," Ryan insisted.

"Have I ever steered you wrong on any taste treat?" Jamie asked, her voice indicating that the innuendo was intentional.

"Hmm…now that you mention it," Ryan purred, her own libido waking up after its forced hibernation.

"I know you’d like the ginger, but when I bring you here I would allow you to get a cabinet," she teased.

"Hey, just because I eat a lot, doesn’t mean I want to chew on the furniture."

"It’s not furniture, silly. A cabinet is another Rhode Islandy thing. It’s whatever syrup you want…in your case, chocolate, some ice cream…in your case chocolate, and some milk. Blend it all together and you have a cabinet."

"Sounds like a shake to me," said the always practical Ryan.

"A shake it may be, but a cabinet it is when in Rhode Island. Whatever you call it, it’s delicious. I prefer the coffee myself, but I’ll buy you chocolate."

"You know," Ryan mused, "you’ve never suggested that you’d like me to go with you some day. That must mean you’re having a good time."

"I am," Jamie said. "I really am. I mean, I think I’d be having just as good a time if it was just mother and I, but it’s really nice to be in a place that means a lot to her and be able to do the things that she did when she was a little girl. After we got ice cream, we went to this really cool topiary garden where I could kinda remember going with my grandfather. It’s neat, Ryan—and I’d love to share it with you."

"Then I’d love to come. I’d be happy to go with you next year, Love."

"Well…" Jamie hesitated, not wanting Ryan to be hurt, but decided to be honest anyway. "Except for my cousin J.C., the family doesn’t know about you and me yet. I think I might have to get them comfortable with the idea before we showed up together."

"That’s cool," Ryan said easily. "You’ll tell them when it feels right. Not a problem, Babe."

Jamie let out a heavy sigh. "I love you so much, Ryan. It’s just so nice that you don’t get all bent out of shape over things like this."

"That’s probably because it really doesn’t bother me, Babe. I know you love me, and whether you feel comfortable talking about our relationship with others says more about your relationship with them than with me. It’s not a problem."

"Lord, you’re mature!"

Ryan chuckled deeply, making Jamie smile in reaction. "After three days of two-a-day practices, I feel very mature," she laughed. "Very, very mature. Downright ancient!"

"Ooh, are you all achy?"

"No, not too bad. We get massages whenever we want them, and that helps a lot."

Jamie’s thoughts flashed briefly on strong hands moving over Ryan’s body, then with an effort of will she returned them to formulating an acceptable response. "Really? How can they accommodate all of you?"

"Oh, there’s lots of people with us. Some of the student trainers from the other sports are down here too. It’s kinda training camp for them, too. They’re not as talented as you are, but it’s been helping to keep me loose. We also have a spa in the locker room, and a really nice outdoor pool. If you were here, it would be a nice week."

"My sentiments exactly," Jamie agreed. Checking her watch, she realized that Ryan was due at practice very soon. "You’d better get going, Love. Don’t want you to be late."

"Luckily, the gym’s close, and running will limber me up a bit. I’ll call you tonight, okay, Love? I don’t know when we’ll get back from the Boardwalk, and I don’t want you to wait around for me."

"You call no matter how late, okay? If I’m in bed, that’s all the better."

"Oooh…somebody wants a re-creation of Monday night, huh?"

"Yeah…." Jamie’s most sultry voice made chills chase up Ryan’s back. "And this time I’m going to be sober enough to enjoy it!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

Jordan was sent as the emissary to negotiate with Coach Placer. Just after practice, 13 sets of eyes tried to act like they were not watching her approach the coaching staff to make their request. The conversation did not last very long, and when she returned to the pack, she shot them a discreet thumbs up, much to the pleasure of the entire group.

"Your negotiating skills must be excellent," Ryan praised as she draped an arm around her friend on their way back to the dorm.

"Yes, they are," she agreed, tossing her long blonde hair over her shoulder. "But in this case, they didn’t have to be. He thinks it’s a good idea for the team to hang out together, and Bob said he’d love to go too, so he’s going to drive us."

"Cool. Good job, Jordan."

"I live to serve," she drawled, meaning not a word.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Since they skipped dinner, the entire group was ravenous as soon as they entered the Boardwalk. The team trainer, Bob Nymoen, wanted to give the women time alone, so he informed them that he and Erin would meet them near the entrance at nine o’clock.

"Okay, guys," Jordan said, "let’s pool our money and buy two blocks of tickets for rides." She collected a few dollars from every player and got in line. "You guys decide what you want to eat while I wait in line here, okay?"

They conferred and decided that there were four votes for pizza, four for hamburgers, four for corndogs and two for Mediterranean. "I’ll go get our food, Jordan," Ryan said, since she and Jordan were the only takers for gyros and falafel. As she turned to leave, all twelve of her teammates stood in front of her, looking puzzled. "Um…do you guys want to eat tonight?"

Every head nodded, and Ryan decided that this was a group that was a little better at taking orders than making up their own minds. She quickly assigned tasks, pairing people up to go in search of their preferred fare. Four of the women were sent for lemonade, leaving the freshmen Cami Jackson and Heather Clark without a task.

"Okay, you two, you’re in charge of finding us a place to sit together. Can you handle it?" Both of the freshmen nodded without speaking, showing that neither was yet entirely comfortable with their imposing senior teammate. "Go get ‘em," she growled, smirking to herself when they scampered away.

"You are torturing those two," Jordan laughed. "They act like you’re gonna bite!"

Ryan looked a little embarrassed, deciding to admit what she had done earlier in the day. "I kinda yelled at them this morning. They were playing their stereos when I wanted to nap, and I think I freaked them out a little."

Slapping her friend on the arm Jordan said, "They’re afraid of you even when you’re nice, O’Flaherty! Don’t give them a heart attack!"

"I’ll be better," she grumbled, leaving Jordan to wait for the tickets while she headed off in search of gyros.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The line for gyros was long, and Ryan had only made it halfway to the window when Ashley came running up to her in a panic. "Ryan!" She grabbed the older woman by the shirt and started running back in the direction from which she had just come, tugging Ryan behind her.

"What in the hell are you doing?" Ryan yelled, prying the young woman’s fingers from her shirt.

"Heather and Cami! Come on!" Without another word of explanation, the frightened freshman took off again. Ryan ran after her, muttering the whole while.

Ashley rounded a corner and stopped dead in her tracks, nearly causing Ryan to plow into her. Ryan looked in the direction that Ashley was pointing and saw Cami and Heather sitting at a table with four young guys. Draping an arm around the young woman’s shoulders, Ryan said in a deceptively agreeable tone, "That’s very nice, Ashley. I’m very happy that Cami and Heather can pick up four surfers." Her voice changed to an implied reprimand as she growled, "Now can I go get my dinner?"

Ashley’s head shook violently, and she exclaimed, "Those guys won’t let them leave! They’re trapped!"

"Oh for God’s sake!" Ryan strolled over to the table, checking out the layout as she drew closer. The two freshmen were seated on heavy concrete benches on opposite sides of a large concrete table. Each woman was flanked by two men, who were --Ryan guessed--close to her own age. The guys looked a little scruffy, but not dangerously so. She decided they were probably local surfers or skateboarders who routinely hung out on the Boardwalk. She was well acquainted with the type of guy who lived for the beach, and she wasn’t very worried about this group, figuring they were just having fun with the young women.

Hoping for an easy way out, she approached the table in a friendly manner. "Hey, could you guys come help me carry the food?" she asked, addressing the women. "I can’t handle it all."

Both young women looked up at her with relief flooding their tense faces, and simultaneously they started to rise. But the young man on Heather’s right clamped a large hand onto her shoulder and pulled her right back down. As soon as he did so, one of the guys next to Cami did the same. "They don’t want to leave," the first guy said, a haughty smirk on his face.

Oh-oh, I think I underestimated these guys, Ryan realized, seeing the malevolent look in the eyes of the first speaker. Still trying to get out of this as easily as possible, she maintained her friendly attitude, as well as the ruse, and said, "I’ll bring ‘em right back, guys. I just need a little help."

The first guy, who Ryan named The Mouth, shook his head firmly. "That one over there can help you," he decided, jerking his thumb at Ashley. "These two are staying with us."

Ryan nodded, shrugging her shoulders as she did so. "Okay, no problem. I’ll see you two later." She turned and walked back to Ashley, reaching into her pocket to extract some change. "Call the cops," she instructed just as Cami’s frightened voice called out, "Ryan, we don’t want to stay here!" Ryan shot Ashley a grin that she hoped looked genuine, and patted the frightened woman on the back as she pushed her in the direction of the pay phones. "Don’t worry. I can handle them." I hope.

Strolling back to the group, she casually perched on the edge of a nearby table, and looked around to see if anyone looked like they could help if she needed it. It was still quite early for dinner, and very late for lunch, and there wasn’t a soul around. The table seekers had chosen the most hidden spot on the whole boardwalk, which would have been fine for sitting together but proved not so fine for self-defense purposes.

Knowing it was best to keep the guys occupied until the police arrived, Ryan kept her appearance calm and unthreatening. Both Cami and Heather looked like they were about to pass out, and their fear filled Ryan with determination to keep them from harm. She looked at the four young toughs, trying to see how agile and muscular they appeared. To her disappointment, they looked pretty darned fit, with The Mouth fairly rippling with muscles. I hope they’re just for show. Maybe he doesn’t really know how to fight, she mused. Picking on young girls might just mean he’s a bully.

The spokesman for the group looked her over and said, "You can join us too, baby. There are plenty of us to go around."

"I don't think so," she said slowly, looking a little regretful. "I really wish we could, but we’ve got to eat and leave. We’re here with a tour bus and the driver’s going to come looking for us soon. We really should get going."

Narrowing his gaze to focus on Heather he said, "Fine. Go. But these two are staying with us."

Heather tore her eyes from the man’s voracious stare and gave Ryan an utterly piteous look. She looked frightened out of her wits, and as a tear rolled down the freshman's cheek Ryan concluded that she needed to take action before the police arrived.

She stood at her full height and folded her arms across her chest, flexing firmly against her breasts to enhance her muscles so they would seem as impressive as possible. "They don’t want to stay with you," Ryan said, leveling her gaze at The Mouth.

"That’s not for you to decide, Stretch. We decide who joins us, and we decided that we like her," he sneered as he slapped his hand onto Heather’s thigh causing a startled gasp to escape from her mouth. "Who the fuck are you to make her decisions, anyway?" he scoffed. "You her mom?" His friends found his humor absolutely hilarious, and they all laughed long and hard at his snappy repartee.

"No, I’m not her mom, but I know her pretty well. Heather," she said calmly, addressing her, "do you want these guys to leave?"

The young woman was so frightened that she didn’t even speak. She just nodded, wide eyed, her pleading look begging Ryan to make them go away.

You’re going to pay for scaring these two so badly, Ryan thought, but remained outwardly unaffected. "I suggest you get up and leave her alone. Now," she said firmly.

He turned to his friends and laughed heartily. "Think she's a dyke, guys?" he asked his friends as they all appraised her.

Her cold blue eyes moved from man to man, showing each that she was not afraid of them individually or together. "Why can’t people ever come up with anything more creative?" she asked rhetorically as she looked back to the speaker, a disgusted smirk on her face. "Is that comeback number one in the Idiot’s Handbook?"

"This one’s not a dyke, is she?" he asked, gazing intently at Heather. Ryan did not respond to his taunt; she merely stood a little taller and waited for his next move. Looking at his friends, he said, "I think I’m gonna have to test her out for myself." A nasty leer covered his face as his friends all hooted their approval of his plan.

Three people present didn’t think his idea was sound, but Ryan was the only one in a position to express her displeasure physically. His head had barely traveled an inch toward Heather’s lips before Ryan's strong hands latched firmly around his throat. She picked him up slowly; not having to lift all of his body weight since he willingly rose with her. The man had obviously decided that he rather liked breathing, so he followed her lead like a small puppy. When she had pulled him off the bench, she kept her hands right where they were, but eased the pressure a bit to let him suck in a few gasps of air. His friends had scrambled to their feet and warily regarded Ryan as they backed away from the scene.

Leaning close to his ear, Ryan asked, "Will you leave us alone now?"

"Fuck you!" he grunted, turning quickly in her grasp to wrench away from her. He stumbled a little, but got to his feet quickly, grabbing onto one of the tables for balance. One of his more cowardly friends approached Ryan from behind, but she sensed his approach and launched a precisely executed flying kick, landing it square into his stomach. The "ooof" that escaped was painful even to hear, and the other two men backed up even further, deciding to let The Mouth take care of the rest of this battle.

With one man on the ground, holding his gut and gasping for air, Ryan got into a well-balanced fighting stance, her weight evenly distributed so that her opponent could not read her intent. Sensing another of the men approaching, she started to turn, only to catch sight of long blonde hair. Coming up to stand next to Ryan, Jordan quickly took in the situation and asked, "Want me to hold your cape for you, Super Girl?"

"How are you at kicking ass?" Ryan asked, keeping her eyes fixed on The Mouth as he started to circle her.

"After you," Jordan demurred, giving her an exaggerated bow. "This face is too precious to serve as a punching bag."

"Nice to have your support," Ryan called, moving slowly to keep tabs on her opponent.

By this time all of the rest of the team had gathered, most of them standing behind Jordan. Ashley had called the police, who were obviously in no hurry to mediate such a small a dispute, which meant that Ryan was pretty much on her own. Luckily, the man that Ryan had kicked finally got to his feet and wisely decided to retreat, taking one of the other two with him. Of the remaining twosome, only The Mouth seemed like he wanted to fight. His friend just hung in the background, looking around to see if anyone was going to come to the aid of the women.

"Think you’re pretty tough, don’t ‘cha, Butch?" The Mouth asked, an unattractive sneer contorting his features.

"I do all right," Ryan agreed, as they continued to circle each other, deciding that showing him her most confident side was the prudent move. "Ask your friend who’s probably blowing chunks right about now."

"Fuck you," he growled, making another lunge for her. He engaged her in a wrestling move, grabbing both of her shoulders as he leaned in close. His head was nestled right next to hers as they grappled, and she realized this was not a style of fighting that she could prevail in. He was stronger than she and nearly as tall, which gave him several advantages. But Ryan’s mind was working the whole time, plotting angles and running through moves that could disable him enough for the women to get away.

Without warning, he released her and reared back to deliver a knee-weakening slap right to the side of her face. Even though it was a physiological impossibility, Ryan could feel smoke coming out of her ears. Slapping is just so…so…chickenshit, she fumed, deeply insulted by such a weak move.

He had backed up just a bit to deliver the smack, and that was all of the room that she needed. Her right knee came up quickly, catching him right in the solar plexus. As the air left his lungs, he doubled over in pain, and that’s when she drew her hand back and returned his slap with significantly more force than the one she had received. The sharp sound that accompanied the blow made every one of her teammates gasp, and as the helpless man fell to the ground his friend took off, running towards the growing crowd on the boardwalk. "Slap me, will ya?" Ryan spat, kneeling on his shoulders to hold him in place. "Nobody picks on my friends," she fumed. Now that she felt able to let her anger show she was shaking all over, the image of her young teammates quaking in fear still very fresh in her mind.

Just as she got him under control, the police arrived, nightsticks waving. They paused as they took in the sight of this large, muscular woman kneeling on the back of an equally muscular, but quite docile man. Brushing past the other members of the team, the police grabbed Ryan, pulling her arm up against her back to render her helpless. "Hey! I’m the one who called you guys," she complained.

"We’ll get this sorted out in a minute, lady," the officer assured her. "Just hold your horses."

"Could ya ease up on the pressure there, officer?" she asked as politely as she could manage. "That’s my spiking arm!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

After a few moments of discussion, the officers allowed the women to depart, assuring them that they would remove the man from the premises. No real harm was done and none of them wanted to press charges, so they watched in silence as the police removed The Mouth, then everyone but Ryan started to talk all at once. Looking over at Jordan, Ryan patted her stomach and said, "Kicking ass always makes me hungry. Can we eat now?"

* * * * * * * * * * *

Over dinner the inquisitive teammates grilled Ryan and Heather and Cami about what had happened. Both freshmen were still pretty shell-shocked, and neither was very forthcoming, so Ryan answered as many questions as she could.

"I’ve never seen anybody look so calm in a fight," Ashley said, still wide-eyed over the events she had just witnessed. "How could you stay that calm, Ryan?"

"I’ve had a lot of training in martial arts," Ryan allowed. "Staying calm is absolutely essential to protect yourself. There’s not a trick to it," she insisted. "Its just part of my training."

"It surprised the heck out of me when you grabbed the guy by the throat," Amy said. "How did you decide what to do?"

Ryan shot a glance at Heather, still a little worried about the young woman, who was quite pale and seemed to have a hard time even making eye contact with Ryan. "I don’t know," she lied. "It doesn’t matter that much, really. All that matters is that we let those guys know that they can’t mess with the Golden Bears!" She let out a vicious growl, making everyone laugh despite their jangled nerves.

The rest of the dinner break was spent in idle speculation and conjecture, and by the time they were all finished eating, everyone seemed back to normal. As they got up to leave, Heather hung back and made eye contact with Ryan. "You okay?" Ryan asked, lowering her head to look into Heather’s warm brown eyes.

"I’m fine…thanks to you," she mumbled, obviously embarrassed. "Thanks, Ryan. I would have been lost without you."

"No problem, Heather," Ryan grinned. "We can’t afford to lose one of our best outside hitters!"

The luminous smile that lit the young woman’s face reminded Ryan once more of the importance of making these young players feel like they were an important part of the team. "Thanks," she mumbled, then turned and jogged a bit to catch up with her buddies.

"So," Jordan said when Ryan came alongside her. "Another day battling for truth, justice, and the American way, huh?"

"Yeah. Although it would have been nice if you hadn’t turned into Lois Lane." She bumped Jordan hard with her hip, nearly making her lose her balance.

"Hey, somebody has to look good for the crime scene photographers," she sniffed, tossing her hair dramatically.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Dinner at the Dunlop home was late again, and Jamie smiled to herself when she considered that Ryan would most likely be down in the kitchen eating with the staff at six o’clock if she were ever to accompany her on a trip to Rhode Island.

I wonder how she would feel about being here, she mused as she idly worked away at her Scallops Provençal. Well, for one thing, she’d absolutely hate the food. She’d be at the supermarket hoarding fresh vegetables and fruit on the first day. Her lover took the admonition to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables every day very, very seriously. It was fine if her veggies were stir-fried or steamed, but she honestly preferred most of them raw, claiming that their nutritive value was at its peak in the uncooked state. To satisfy her craving, Jamie made sure that they always had fresh broccoli, cauliflower, jicama, and blanched green beans in the refrigerator for Ryan’s near constant snacking.

While vegetables were served with meals at The Cottage, they were not only thoroughly cooked, they were usually covered with some heavy cream sauce, an addition that she knew Ryan would not tolerate well. The food was very tasty and well prepared, but was usually of the classic French style. Nouvelle cuisine had not made any inroads with David Dunlop, and Jamie assumed that the lighter style of French cooking would never make an appearance so long as he was in charge.

She would also hate being waited on all of the time, she decided. I’m sure she’d want to get up and help clean the kitchen after every meal. She giggled to herself at the thought of her partner trying to shove aside the kitchen staff to get at the piles of dirty dishes.

Catherine leaned over and whispered, "There’s nothing funny going on here, Dear. I’d wager that you’re having a little private vision of a tall, dark, and handsome woman."

Blushing to the roots of her fair hair, Jamie dabbed at her mouth with her linen napkin, trying to cover the worst of her embarrassment. "She’s on my mind nearly every minute," she whispered back. "I’ll try to focus."

Beneath the table, Catherine patted her leg gently. "I have a better idea. After dinner let’s go walk in the garden and you can sing her praises once again. I’d love to hear more about her."

"Really?" Jamie cocked her head, locking eyes with her mother. "Are you really interested?"

"Most definitely," Catherine agreed, a sly smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. "I need to know all about her so I can start spoiling her!"

"Oh, she’ll love that!" Jamie rolled her eyes dramatically, causing her mother to giggle right along with her, to the puzzlement of the assembled family members.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Damn, we’re outta tickets," Jordan grumbled as she handed over the last five to the attendant at the roller coaster.

"I’ll go get more," Ryan offered, having already been on the impressive wooden coaster twice.

"No, let us," Heather said, Cami right beside her nodding her agreement.

"Uhh…okay." Ryan reached into her pocket for some money, but Cami shook her head.

"Our treat, Ryan. It’s the least we can do to thank you for getting us out of that mess."

"It’s no big deal," she insisted. "Really."

Cami reached up and touched the still-visible handprint on the older woman’s cheek. "Yes, it was, Ryan. You could have been badly hurt."

"Nah…he was just a bully," she insisted.

"You didn’t know that at the time." Cami was sticking to her guns, and even though Heather wasn’t speaking, it was clear that she was in complete agreement. "We’ll be back in a few."

As the twosome scampered off to the ticket window, Jordan patted Ryan’s unmarked cheek. "Are you going to tell Jamie about this little incident? Or will this go in the growing ‘tell her when she gets back’ pile?"

"Funny. Very funny. My sides are aching from laughter," Ryan deadpanned, her voice devoid of inflection.

* * * * * * * * * * *

When dinner was finished, most of the family reconvened in the conservatory for brandy and cigars, but the Evans women made a quick getaway to the garden, managing to escape before they were missed. "I’m getting pretty good at sneaking out of the house," Jamie smiled. "Too bad I didn’t acquire this skill earlier in life when it could have come in handy."

"Were we that strict?" Catherine asked, surprised that her daughter might think so.

"No, you really weren’t," Jamie assured her. "Besides, I didn’t have anywhere I wanted to go that would have kept me out past curfew."

"Well, like mother like daughter, I suppose." Catherine took a seat on a cedar garden bench, and Jamie joined her. They were in the part of the garden furthest from the house, surrounded by dahlias, one of the showcase flowers of the Dunlop estate. Jamie had no idea how many flowers there were in the grouping, nor how many varieties were represented, but she did know that at their peak, her uncle and aunt always welcomed the members of the American Dahlia Society for a garden tour. "I was never much for breaking the rules in my house, either."

"So dating Daddy was your first act of rebellion?" Jamie asked, curious to know just what had attracted her mother to her father.

"Oh, I wouldn’t say that was rebellion per se, Jamie. I mean, I was already in college when we started dating. My parents were only unhappy that I decided to get married so young. Once my father really got to know Jim, he honestly thought of him as the son he never had."

"I don’t think my little act of independence will turn out that way," Jamie mused, idly drawing patterns in the buff-colored crushed granite of the garden path.

"Don’t give up hope, Dear. Ryan is terribly charming once she opens up. Once your father gets over his irrational fears about her lusting after your money, I truly believe he will come to like her."

"I just don’t get it," Jamie said, her frustration showing. "Especially since Daddy was treated as a gold-digger by your father. Shouldn’t he have some empathy for people who come from middle-class backgrounds?"

"He certainly should," Catherine agreed. "Have you ever noticed that all of his friends, even though they are wealthy now, come from backgrounds very similar to his?"

Stopping to think about it for a moment, Jamie realized that her mother’s observation was quite true. As a matter of fact, Jim had a very strong dislike of people who came from inherited wealth, and he took every opportunity to poke fun at the idle rich. "You’re right, Mom," she said slowly. "That makes it even stranger."

"But it also gives me hope that he will come to his senses, Jamie. He certainly wasn’t raised to think the worst of people."

"That’s the truth," Jamie agreed, knowing that her grandfather was one of the most open-minded people on the planet. "Oh well, I guess we’ll just have to be patient and hope he wises up."

"Let’s go walk around the Shakespeare garden," Catherine suggested, naming the formal garden composed only of plants and flowers mentioned in The Bard’s works.

As they walked along the dimly illuminated path, Jamie asked, "Did Daddy ever come here with you?"

"Just once," Catherine said, rolling her eyes. "Once was enough, I might add. I don’t think I’ve ever even invited him again."

Jamie stopped dead in her tracks, the gravel giving way with a loud crunch as she skidded a bit. "You’ve never invited him again! What did he do?"

"Oh, he didn’t do anything, Dear. It was just more trouble than it was worth to have him here. I was pregnant with you at the time, and I wasn’t feeling that well to begin with."

"Ooh…were you sick a lot?"

"No, not really. But I was just a couple of months along, and I had just started to have morning sickness. I’ll admit that I wasn’t the life of the party either, but your father had this idea that we’d be out sailing and hiking and doing all sorts of activities. I think he imagined it would be like camp." She laughed softly, recalling her young husband’s dismay at finding that the main activity at the Dunlop’s was idleness. "He had just taken the bar exam, and he was justifiably anxious to let off some steam, but I just wasn’t up to it. He wound up sailing or playing golf every day with John and Skip, and I barely saw him. Needless to say, I wasn’t happy with the situation, and we fought during most of our alone time." She sighed heavily, adding, "It’s not a trip I remember fondly."

They had reached the Shakespeare garden by this time, and Jamie wandered around the paths, deep in thought. Catherine was similarly silent, each woman lost in her own private musings. "Are you sorry that you married Daddy?" Jamie asked, her voice abruptly cutting through the stillness.

Catherine’s head snapped up as she was ripped from her contemplations. She started to answer automatically, but then stopped and considered the question for a moment as Jamie’s green gaze burrowed into her. "No, no I’m not," Catherine finally answered. "In a perfect world we would have waited until we were a little older, but the world isn’t perfect, Jamie. We’ve had to overcome a lot of problems, but we’re still together. Many couples can’t say that."

"Um…do you want to talk about the problems you’ve overcome?" Jamie asked hesitantly. "I’m happy to listen if you feel like talking."

Catherine smiled at her daughter and approached her, lifting one tentative hand to cup her cheek. "I know that, Jamie, but the issues we’ve had to face are just between me and your father. I wouldn’t want him to talk about the problems we’ve had, so I shouldn’t either."

Covering her mother’s small hand with her own, Jamie turned her head slightly, placing a gentle kiss on the inside of the older woman’s wrist. "I think it’s nice that you don’t talk about him behind his back, Mother. That shows that you respect him and your relationship."

"I try to, Honey. Sometimes it’s hard…like with his problems with Ryan. But I think his good sense will come back so that we can both respect him again."

Jamie sat down on a carved wooden arbor bench, the intricate woodwork supporting a heavy purple-flowered clematis. "Mom?" she asked pensively, "do you think it’s inevitable that Ryan and I will lose the joy we have in being together?"

Catherine sat down next to her and relaxed against the bench. "That’s a tough one, Jamie." She lifted her head and stared into the night sky, so heavy with stars. "I think most couple do lose the vibrancy that they have when they’re first together, but if you’re lucky you replace it with a depth of feeling and intimacy that, in some ways, is even more rewarding."

"Have you lost it, Mom?" Her question hung between them for a moment. Catherine didn’t want to answer, but she felt that she needed to be open with her daughter so long as the questions didn’t intrude on the privacy she felt that she needed to maintain.

"Yes, Honey, I’m afraid we lost the joy in our relationship far, far too quickly."

Jamie nodded, not surprised in the least. "I’m worried about that, Mom," she admitted. "I don’t know how to make sure we keep the spark going between us. How do you avoid taking each other for granted?"

Catherine answered immediately, obviously not needing to reflect on the issue. "You make each other your top priority," she said firmly. "Not your careers, not your hobbies, not even your children. You have to put your spouse first, and remember that all of your other decisions ultimately have an impact on you as a couple."

"Have you done that?"

Catherine sighed, shaking her head slightly as she did so. Has she always been able to see right through me? I suppose she has, she thought fondly, giving her daughter a smile. "No, Jamie. We have not." She could have gone on at length about the things that kept both her and Jim from focusing on each other, but she didn’t think those issues were to be shared with her daughter, so she kept them to herself.

"I didn’t think so," the younger woman mused. "I was really shocked when Daddy told me he might accept an appointment to fill Senator Sommers' seat and move to Washington. It didn’t seem like a decision you were making jointly."

"No, it’s not," Catherine said quickly. She caught herself and realized that she was doing exactly what she was trying to avoid, so she softened her voice and said, "This is important to him, Jamie. I’ll support him in this, even though it’s not what I would choose for him."

Jamie caught the slightly defensive tone in her mother’s voice and asked, "Is this hard for you to talk about, Mom?"

"No, not really, Dear. It’s funny, but I’ve spent more time thinking about my own relationship since you’ve been talking about yours. I think it’s helpful for both of us to talk about our loves."

"I miss mine," Jamie sighed. "Sunday seems soooooo far away."

Reaching out to grasp her daughter’s hand, Catherine gave it a squeeze and said, "Enjoy this time, Jamie, and hold on to it as tightly as you can. It fades all too soon."

Part 8

"Okay, guys," Ryan said to the assembled group, holding out the long string of tickets Cami and Heather had just purchased. "I think we should play in two teams of seven. Any objections?"

The group all agreed and Ryan handed out five tickets to each woman while they tried to come up with an equitable means of choosing sides. Jordan finally spoke up, "Let’s go by class. Every team should have two freshmen, two sophomores, two juniors, and one senior. Argue amongst yourselves for who goes with Ryan and who goes with me." When most of the players started lining up next to Ryan, Jordan shot them a glare and said, "Remember that I lead warm-ups during the season." Now all of the players scooted over to Jordan’s side, giggling as they did so.

"I have a car for making ice cream runs for the rest of the week," Ryan taunted, and miraculously she was surrounded by 12 bright smiles.

"This could go on all night," Jordan decided. "Let’s go in alphabetical order. I’ll take the first two of each class alphabetically."

"The first shall be last, and the last, first," Ryan teased, surrounded by her six smiling teammates.

* * * * * * * * * * *

As the members of her team got into their reflective vests, Ryan gave them a few pieces of advice. "Okay guys, the key to winning in laser tag is to move unpredictably. This should be easy for us, since we’ve been hurling our bodies all over the gym since Sunday. Don’t move in a straight line—start and stop repeatedly. And don’t stay on the same plane for long. Stand up tall, then drop into a crouch quickly. Don’t ever let them be able to guess where you’re going to go next. Any questions?"

"Does it hurt?" Amy asked, her eyes darting from Ryan to the laser tag gun in her hand.

"Hurt? You mean the laser?" Ryan shot her a puzzled look and scratched her head. "Um…they’re not surgical lasers, Amy. Why would they hurt?"

The embarrassed woman shrugged her shoulders helplessly and said, "My brother had welts all over himself when he played."

"Nah…he was probably playing paintball," Ryan guessed. "My brother plays that all the time, too. He looks like someone’s been hitting him with a ballpeen hammer!"

No one else knew what a ballpeen hammer was, so her joke didn’t have the desired effect, but Ryan had successfully allayed their fears.

The teams took off when they were given the signal, running through, around, and over the obstacles and barriers placed around the huge space. The room was completely devoid of natural light, instead using black light to provide the dim illumination. The darkness made maneuvering difficult, but the reflective vests showed, in eerie contrast, the exact path that every woman trod.

Using the skills they had been honing for the last four days, the women followed Ryan’s advice beautifully, and managed to pick off two members of Jordan’s team before their opponents copied their strategy and began to follow it as well. They all dropped, weaved, jumped, rolled, and squatted, moving from obstacle to obstacle, doing their best to stay unpredictable.

After running around like mad for quite some time, Ryan realized that very few people were being "shot". Then she realized that few of the women had probably ever had real or fake "guns" in their hands before. She got down behind a low barrier and relaxed for a moment, taking her time to slow her breathing. Dropping to one knee, bracing her free arm across the other leg to help steady her weapon, she aimed carefully, picking off three more members of Jordan’s team, leaving just two of her opponents standing. She had no idea where the other two members were, but she found out the location of one of them very quickly when Jordan popped up on the other side of the barrier and shot her right between the eyes. "Die, sucker!" she cried, obviously enjoying herself immensely.

Hating to lose at anything, Ryan grumbled all the way back to the sidelines, only partially cheered when her team emerged victorious a few minutes later. "Hey this is like in ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ Erika said. "We won, but the captain died."

"Great. Just great," Ryan grumbled, still a little miffed at being killed.

"Quit crying, O’Flaherty," Jordan teased. "We have to do your stinking laundry for the rest of the week. That should give you some satisfaction."

Ryan immediately brightened at the prospect of her friend having to wash all of her very ripe clothing. "Now that you mention it, Jordan, I’m feeling better already." She smiled as she draped an arm around her new laundry woman, and they made their way to the bus for the short ride home.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The minute Ryan arrived at the dorm she tried her cell, grumbling to herself when she could not get a strong signal. Hmm…maybe it’s the building, she decided. Shrugging into one of the Cal Volleyball sweatshirts they had been issued, she went outside and turned on her phone, smiling to herself when the signal strength meter indicated that there was an acceptable level. I wonder if maybe I can get this a little stronger. She walked around aimlessly, not paying any attention to where she was headed, looking only at the level of the signal. She wound up near the tennis courts and took a seat on a wooden bench, spreading her arm out across the back of the bench as she settled in for a long chat with her beloved.

Jamie answered on the second ring. "Now there’s the voice that makes me smile," Ryan said upon hearing her partner’s warm tones.

"Ooh, that goes double for me, Love. I just want to listen to you breathe." She sighed heavily, wishing there was some way to crawl through the phone lines to wrap her body around her partner.

Ryan thought that was a pretty good idea herself, not wanting to go into any of the upsetting topics that she knew she had to broach. "I’ve uh…got a few things to talk to you about, Hon," she said. "Can I do that before I breathe for you?"

"Of course, Honey." She paused a beat adding, "Nothing is wrong, is it?"

"No, no, not wrong…but I don’t have a lot of good news," she admitted.

"What is it, Ryan?" Jamie’s voice was a little sharp now, and she felt her heart start to beat faster. "It’s so hard to do this on the phone," she moaned. "I can’t see your face and look into your eyes to see how you really are."

"I’m fine, Love," she assured her. "Let me stop torturing you and tell you what’s going on."

It took 20 minutes to discuss the revocation of the scholarship. Ryan had chosen this item first since she needed to talk to Coach Placer the next day, and she didn’t want to run out of time. As expected, Jamie felt strongly that the scholarship should have no impact on Ryan’s decision to play, and Ryan felt very secure and happy to know how enthusiastic her partner was in her support. Jamie’s point was that if her father gave them a hard time about the money, she would ask her mother for a loan. Ryan had never considered this option, but she had to acknowledge that it made sense. The suggestion made Ryan feel better immediately, and she thanked the heavens that Catherine was being so supportive of their young relationship.

As they continued to talk Ryan could tell that Jamie was fading fast, and she considered continuing their discussion the next day. But the incident at the Boardwalk had bothered her much more than she had let on, and she knew that Jamie would be angry if she didn’t tell her something like this as soon as she could.

"Anything else going on, Hon?" Jamie asked sleepily.

"Umm…" Ryan thought fast and made a decision. "Yeah, actually there is. I uh…got into a little scrape tonight and…"

"Scrape?" the sharp voice demanded, now very alert. "What kind of scrape were you in, Ryan?"

"Um…we were all at the Boardwalk and some guys were harassing two of the freshmen. I um…made them stop."

"Ryan," Jamie said slowly. "Did you get hurt?"

"No, no, really I didn’t," Ryan assured her. "My face is a little red where this asshole slapped me…"

"WHAT?! Someone slapped you?" Her voice was now firm and low, and Ryan knew that trouble was a-brew. "I’m coming home on the first plane," she announced, not sounding like this was a topic for discussion.

"Jamie," Ryan soothed, "please, Honey, don’t make this into a bigger deal than it was." Damn it, damn it, damn it! I knew this would upset her! I should have kept my big mouth shut!

"How can you even say that? Someone assaults you, and you don’t want me to make a big deal about it?! Have you been to the police station to make a statement?"

"Uhh…we decided not to press charges," she said weakly, immediately realizing that Jamie did not agree with her decision.

"Pardon me?" Each word was enunciated slowly as Jamie tried to understand her partner’s words. "You didn’t press charges…after someone HITS YOU!"

Oooh…sounds like someone else would hit me if she was in town. Thank God for Rhode Island. "Jamie," she soothed in her best placating voice, "I handled it, Honey. Believe me, I gave him a much harder whack than he gave me, and I got in a very good knee to his chest. He’s gonna have a bruise that will remind him of me every time he breathes."


Oh boy…when it takes two minutes to get out five words, I’m in big trouble. "No, no, of course I didn’t. I was defending my friends, Jamie. He clearly asked for it."

"My point exactly, Ryan," she insisted. "Some thug hits you…you press charges. How could you let him off scot-free, Ryan? That gives him permission to do this again."

Okay, so I didn’t think of that, she admitted. So maybe I do need Jamie close by to keep me from doing stupid things. "I screwed up, huh?" Her voice was low and soft, and Jamie could just picture the big blue eyes peeking out through the long bangs.

"Yes, Honey, you screwed up. I’m proud of you for helping your friends, but I think you were wrong to let the guy off. People like that have to suffer some consequences or they have no reason to behave civilly."

"I’m sorry, Jamie," she said, very contrite. "I should have been thinking of the long term, but I just wanted out of there." Her voice grew quiet as she admitted, "The whole thing upset me, Honey, and I wasn’t thinking."

"Ryan, I’m going to come down there and make sure you’re really all right. I’m feeling very uneasy about this."

"Jamie, please don’t do that," she begged. "I’m absolutely fine, Honey, and if you came down I wouldn’t be able to spend any time at all with you. I swear it would be more stressful than reassuring for me." It was clear from the pleading tone in her voice that Ryan was serious, but Jamie had such a bad feeling about the incident that she had a hard time acceding to her wishes. "Please, Honey," the dark woman continued. "I really don’t want you to come."

With a heavy sigh, Jamie capitulated. "All right, Honey. I don’t want to make things worse for you." She sounded tired—defeated, and Ryan immediately felt guilty for the way she had presented her last point.

"Jamers," she soothed, using the pet name she invoked infrequently, "I always feel better when you’re with me, Love. You know that, don’t you?"

"Yes, Honey," Jamie replied softly. "I know that. This is just hard for both of us. My imagination runs wild since I know you downplay everything."

Thinking of a solution to the problem, Ryan said, "I’m outside now. Call me on the dorm phone in ten minutes, okay?"

"Okay," Jamie said slowly. "What’s--" But Ryan had hung up by the time she uttered her question, and she was forced to wait to determine the point of the exercise.

Exactly ten minutes later, Jamie dialed the dorm phone, smiling to herself when Ryan’s out-of-breath voice said, "Jordan wants to give you the story, Honey. She’s impartial."

"Hi Jamie," Jordan’s soft soprano voice said. "I’m looking at Ryan’s homely mug right now, and I promise that she’s no uglier than she was earlier in the day."

An amused chuckle greeted Jordan’s news, and Jamie asked, "Did she get hit on the head, Jordan? I don’t know if you know this, but she’s had a number of head injuries. She really has to be careful."

Recognizing the seriousness of Jamie’s question, Jordan assured her, "No, she didn’t really get hit, Jamie. The idiot slapped her on the cheek and he’s the only one who touched her."

"How many were there?" Jamie gaped, not realizing there had been multiple assailants.

"Four," Jordan informed her. "She kicked one guy in the gut, two of them ran, then she took the last guy out. She did pretty good for herself, to be honest. I was there to back her up of course, but she didn’t seem to need it."

Ryan wrestled the phone from her friend’s hand, informing Jamie, "With backup like Jordan, I’d better carry a firearm." Looking up at the outraged look on her friend’s face she said, "Dismissed, pal. Thanks for your help."

"Anytime, Ryan. Remember, I live to serve."

As Jordan shuffled back to their room, Ryan said, "Feel any better, Love?"

"Yes, Honey, I’m sure Jordan would have loved to bust you if she could."

At her gentle laugh Ryan had to agree. "You’ve got that right! She’s worse than my brothers!"

"Here’s the deal, Babe. I’ll call you tomorrow to make sure you still feel all right. If you have any…and I do mean any…pain or stiffness or anything…you will tell me, right?"

"Yes, Dear. If I feel any pain other than the chronic pain from two-a-day practices, I will let you know. My health is worth more than this camp, Honey. I promise you that."

"Okay, Love," Jamie sighed. "I’ve got to get to bed, now, Honey. I’ve got to get up early for sailing."

"I love you, Babe. Talk to you tomorrow."

"Night, Honey. Love you."

Well, this is just not the night to tell her about her father, Ryan decided. One more day won’t make any difference at this point.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Good morning," Jamie said to the assembled guests when she went down for breakfast. Much to her surprise her mother was already sipping a glass of orange juice, looking quite awake and perky.

"Morning, Jamie," the older woman said. "Ready for our sail?"

"Yep. I’m looking forward to it, actually. It’ll be nice to go out a little farther than usual." When she sailed with her father they almost always stayed within the confines of the Bay, not wanting to risk the unpredictability of the Pacific, and she found that she was enjoying the thought of a long sail on the calm Atlantic.

She looked around the table to see that all hands were on deck, save for Stephanie. "It looks like we’re almost all here," she said, smiling at Trey, who looked like he could use another five or six hours of sleep.

Carolyn spoke up. "I sent one of the servants to try to rouse my eldest. I swear, that girl would sleep until dinner if I allowed her to."

The servant in question returned to the table moments later, and bent to whisper into Carolyn’s ear. She folded her napkin and sighed heavily, pushing her chair back. One of the waiters was in the process of delivering her omelet, and she grumbled, "Just when my breakfast gets here, and I have to go wake that child up."

"Let me," Jamie offered, getting to her feet. "I haven’t even decided what I want for breakfast, Carolyn."

"Are you sure you don’t mind, Jamie?" Carolyn was already sitting back down, and her napkin was neatly placed on her lap by the time her sentence was finished.

"Not a bit." Catching the waiters eye, she indicated that she’d have an omelet too, and made her way towards the stairs.

"Oh, Jamie, here’s the key to her room. I doubt that she’ll answer your knock."

* * * * * * * * * * *

After the fourth round of knocking brought no response, Jamie inserted the key and poked her head into Stephanie’s room. The young woman had been occupying the room for less than a week, but it looked as though at least six people were squatting in the space. Clothes covered every piece of furniture, CDs, tapes, and other accessories of adolescence lay scattered across the dresser and the club table, and discarded shoes provided an additional hazard.

The room was pitch dark, even though it was a bright, sunny morning. Jamie didn’t want to wake her cousin too abruptly, so she stumbled around in the dark room for a few minutes, trying to reach the bed. She finally found it, and grasped Stephanie’s shoulder and shook it a few times. "Stephanie…it’s time to get up." No response. Three more tries finally elicited a response, but it was merely a very unhappy sounding moan. Well, at least she’s breathing.

Deciding that drastic action was called for, Jamie turned on the bedside lamp, casting a warm glow over the disordered room. What a pit! Jamie thought to herself. I would never have been allowed to leave my room like this! She stooped to pick up some of the discarded items that littered the area around the bed, grabbing a pair of jeans by the hems to fold them. A ticket of some sort fell to the ground, and she retrieved it to put it on the dresser. Hmmm…that’s odd. Why would she have a receipt from The Minuteman Mini Mart in her jeans? She looked at the paper idly as she placed it on the cluttered dresser, and almost gasped when she noted the time and the date. This is from Boston…and it’s from this morning! What in the hell was she doing in Boston at four a.m.!?

Turning back to the bed, she shook the frail young woman harder, not stopping until she got a response. The response was a mumbled, "Leave me the fuck alone!"

Jesus! I don’t think she knows it’s me trying to wake her up! Don’t tell me she talks to her mother like that!

Her patience at an end, Jamie got close to Stephanie’s head and insisted, "I’m not leaving until you get up, Steph. Let’s go!"

As the young woman rolled onto her back, Jamie crossed the room and flung open the curtains. The bright light that washed in glinted off a small, foil- wrapped packet lying on the floor, and Jamie bent to pick it up, also. "Stephanie," she said, much louder this time, "it’s time to get up!"

"Fuck off, Jamie," she growled, pulling the pillow over her head.

Hmm…maybe she just doesn’t like me, Jamie thought with a smirk. She unwrapped the tiny package and found a brownish-white powder. I might not know a lot about drugs, but this is certainly not marijuana! Damn…this sucks!

Now angry, Jamie grabbed her cousin's damp tank top and yanked hard, finally propelling the young woman into action. Stephanie threw her pillow across the room and sat up, scrubbing at her face with both hands. "What in the hell is wrong with you? The fucking door was locked!"

"I know that, Stephanie. Your mother asked me to come wake you to go sailing, and since you ignored the earlier attempts to get you up, she gave me the key to your room."

"I’m not going sailing or any other goddamned place. Now leave me alone!" She flopped back down on to the bed, the acrid smell of perspiration hitting Jamie as she did so.

"I’m not leaving you alone until I know why you were in Boston early this morning," Jamie demanded in her best no-nonsense voice.

"Go fuck yourself," Stephanie snapped, pulling the covers over her head. "What I do is none of your business."

Not to be deterred, Jamie grabbed the covers with both hands and yanked hard, pulling them completely off the bed. Stephanie was wearing a tank top and a pair of bikinis, and as Jamie got a good view of her emaciated body, she shuddered involuntarily. Her earlier guess of 95 pounds was a significant overestimate, as she now realized that her young cousin was probably ten pounds under that.

With an outraged squawk, the girl jumped from the bed, and Jamie feared for a moment that she would punch her. Instead the irate young woman stormed into the bath and slammed the door, locking it after her.

"I don’t know if this is cocaine or some other drug, so I’ll just take it downstairs and let everyone discuss it over breakfast," Jamie called to the closed door.

The door flew open, and Stephanie lunged for her older, bigger, and much stronger cousin. Jamie sidestepped her, causing the young woman to hit the carpet forcefully. "Gimme that!" she cried, her thin arms flailing.

"No way, Stephanie. Come downstairs with me, right now, and we’ll get this out in the open. You obviously have a problem."

"I do not!" she cried. "It’s Trey’s! He’s afraid that his parents will search his room, so I agreed to keep it for him! Don’t tell on him, Jamie. Please!"

"Oh, Jesus." Jamie sank onto the bed, holding her head in her hands. "And that’s a reason not to tell!? Stephanie, that makes it even worse! He almost died from a overdose!"

"He’s trying to stop, Jamie, I swear! I’m helping him to stop. That’s why I’ve got his stuff! He’s going to call his counselor from the last clinic he was in to see if he can get admitted. Come on…you’ve got to let him do this on his own."

"Why? Why does it matter who calls as long as he gets back in treatment?"

"His grandfather will disinherit him if he finds out he’s using again! He told him the last time that he would not stand for it if Trey had a relapse. You can’t let that happen, Jamie! Trey would be out on the streets if Grandfather told Uncle Skip to throw him out!"

Jamie considered this argument for a moment. David Dunlop had some very strong views on a number of topics, and one of them was drugs. He thought that illegal drug usage was a sign of weak character, and Catherine had confirmed that Trey was on thin ice after his last relapse. "So what’s his plan?" she asked.

"He’s going to try to contact his counselor today. If he can get in, he’ll just make some excuse to his grandfather and take off. Give him a chance, Jamie. Please! He’d never make it without his inheritance."

Jamie took a deep breath and locked her eyes on Stephanie. "Do you swear you are telling me the truth?"

"Yes. Yes, I am, Jamie. I swear it!"

"Okay, Steph. I’ll wait until tomorrow. But if Trey isn’t on his way to treatment by tomorrow evening, I’m going to talk to Skip."

"He will be, Jamie. I’m sure he will be."

* * * * * * * * * * *

By the time Jamie returned to the dining room, Trey was nowhere to be found. "Any luck?" Carolyn asked from across the table.

"Yes, she’s up. She should be down in a few minutes."

"Have you ever seen a girl who was more difficult to wake?" Carolyn asked, laughing softly.

"No, she’s something all right," Jamie agreed, forcing a smile.

* * * * * * * * * * *

It was 7:45 on the west coast by the time Jamie was finished with breakfast, but she desperately needed to speak with her partner. Maybe there’s a phone near her practice area, she hoped, dialing in her number on Ryan’s pager service.

Thankfully, just a few minutes later Ryan’s honeyed tones came through the receiver. "God, it’s good to hear you," Jamie sighed.

"What’s wrong, Baby? You sound upset."

"Can I ask you a question about drug use?"

"Uhh…Jamie, that’s not the best way to open a conversation when I’m due at practice in ten minutes. What in the heck is going on?"

"It’s a long story, Honey, but the bottom line is that I found drugs in my cousin Stephanie’s room. She swears that they belong to my cousin Trey, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t believe her."

"Jesus! How old are these people?"

"Steph is just sixteen. Trey is my age. He’s been in and out of treatment centers since he was in high school. He’s been clean for a year now but Stephanie told me that he’s using again."

"Shit." Ryan desperately wanted to go to Rhode Island and bring her lover back from the crazy situation, but she knew that wasn’t an option. Instead, she tried her best to provide as much help as she could.

"It sounds like you are confident that Trey is using, huh?"

"Yeah…that seems pretty likely. But I don’t know how to tell if Steph is, too, Do you know much about drugs, Babe?"

"Well, not from personal experience," Ryan said. "But I’ve taken a number of seminars on drug use when I worked at the teen crisis center. Describe her manner and her appearance."

"She looks pretty normal, actually. She dresses like a Dunlop, and she obviously cares about her appearance. She’s painfully thin, but I think that’s normal for her age. Her eyes are funny, though. On Monday they looked dull and flat, but yesterday they just sparkled. I guess that could be boredom, but it seemed odd."

"Does she look like she has a rash or does she scratch her skin a lot?"

"No, nothing like that."

"Does she wear long sleeves all the time?"

"No. But she’s normally pretty well covered up. She wears the oversized clothes that girls her age wear. I saw her almost naked today and she didn’t have tracks in her arms or anything, if that’s what you mean."

"How’s her mood?"

"Well, on Monday she acted really withdrawn. We were by the pool for a couple of hours, and she was either asleep or bored to death. She didn’t say two words at brunch or dinner. I also noticed that she moved her food around her plate, but she didn’t seem to eat hardly any of it"

"Sounds like she could be bulimic or anorexic. Does she have a history of eating disorders?"

"I think all of the women in my family have some sort of eating disorder," she admitted. "I look like I could play nose tackle for the 49ers compared with the rest of the women here."

"Hmm…" Ryan’s agile mind was considering all of the details, and just hearing her partner think was reassuring to Jamie. "You say you saw her today when she was almost naked. What’s that about?"

"I went to her room to get her up to go sailing. Stumbling around in her pit of room I came across a foil packet which is obviously drugs of some kind. I confronted her about them, and I was afraid she was going to hit me! She got so angry that it was a little frightening."

"Unfortunately, that all sounds like plausible adolescent behavior. But it could also indicate cocaine or even heroin use."

"Heroin! But I didn’t see any marks on her arms or anything."

"Kids smoke or snort heroin more than they shoot nowadays. What drugs did Trey do?"

"I’m not sure. You know how closed-mouthed my family is about problems. But I know he overdosed a little over a year ago. That’s when he got clean. Steph says that he’s trying to get back into treatment now. She doesn’t want me to tell his parents because they’ve threatened to disinherit him if he relapses."

"Jeez! So all you have is Stephanie’s word, huh?"

"Yep. That’s it."

"Only one problem with that, Honey."

"What’s that?"

"Addicts lie. All the time. It’s the universal trait of an addict. So if he’s using and she’s using, you won’t get one bit of truth out of the pair of them."

"Great. Just great," Jamie muttered.

"Does it seem like he’s at least trying to straighten up? Is he going to AA or NA meetings this week?"

"Apparently he participates in a very liberal treatment program," Jamie scoffed. "The program includes wine with dinner and Bloody Marys by the pool."

"Huh," Ryan mused. "I guess that would make more people get into treatment wouldn’t it? That’s very progressive." Her tone was heavy with derision, and Jamie realized that Ryan would have very little patience for people who voluntarily abused their bodies.

"What do you think I should do, Honey?"

"Where’d you leave it with Stephanie?" Ryan asked.

"She said he’s going to try to get into treatment today. If he does, I won’t have to worry about him. But I still think I have to tell Stephanie’s parents that she was traipsing all over New England with him at five this morning. I’m willing to wait to make sure Trey gets located first, but if you think I should just tell now, I will."

"Gosh, that’s hard to say," Ryan mused, giving Erin the signal that she’d be right there. "I guess it can’t hurt to wait a little bit. Are they going sailing with you today?"

"Yeah, the whole bunch is going."

"Well, keep an eye on them. Maybe your mom will have some advice. She knows the personalities involved a lot better than you do."

"True. I’ll do that. Thanks for calling back so quickly, Babe. I feel better now."

"I always feel better when I talk with you," Ryan said sincerely. "But I’ve gotta scoot. Love you."

"Love you, too. OH! How’s your head?"

"Fine, Love. I’m only volleyball sore today. Call me tonight."

Just ten minutes with her, and I feel so much better, Jamie mused, giving her stuffed tiger a hug.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The first hour out, Stephanie and Trey took turns running for the head. No one but Jamie seemed to notice, and after they got their sea legs, they both sprawled out on towels on the bow deck and promptly went to sleep.

The boat was impressively long, providing numerous places for the various members of the family to gather. During the trip people moved about, sometimes gathering around the large round table in the dining area near the galley, sitting on the edge of the deck and leaning against the rails. At one point, Jamie was alone with her uncle David as he piloted the yacht. "Why don’t you take the wheel, Jamie," he offered. "Your mother tells me that you’ve become quite the little sailor."

She wasn’t fond of the "little sailor" comment, but she decided to bear with these indignities, deciding they were not worth making a fuss over. Taking the helm, she smiled when she felt the bulk of the huge teak wheel in her hands. The yacht was nearly seventy feet long, substantially larger than her father’s boat, but her years of experience piloting the smaller craft had prepared her well for the job at hand. They didn’t speak for a long while, and Jamie let her mind wander as the brilliant sun glinted off the small whitecaps they powered through. The day was quite warm, with very little marine layer, and the fresh breeze felt delightfully cool on her exposed skin. As she had promised Ryan, she wore a thin life-vest over her suit, and she had a pair of cargo shorts on to protect her legs from the burning sun.

"It’s bad for morale to have the captain be the only one with a vest on, Jamie," David kidded her. "You really don’t need that bulky thing. Why don’t you take it off and get comfortable?"

It was awfully warm, and she briefly considered his suggestion. She decided that her promise to Ryan overrode all other considerations, and she shook her head briskly, saying, "I’m more comfortable with one on, Uncle David. I’ve taken quite a few spills into the drink, and I like to be prepared."

"Okay, Jamie," he said gravely, "but don’t complain to me if there’s a mutiny."

"I won’t," she grinned. Her thoughts returned to her absent partner. I miss you, Love. But when I look at my relatives I realize how very much we have to be thankful for. Jamie looked at her family scattered around the decks of this ultimate emblem of wealth and privilege, her eyes coming to rest on her cousins. This entire family should be so thankful, and yet… Her mind became preoccupied with the thought of drugs and the destruction they could cause. As if on cue, Trey got up from the deck and made his way below. He was gone for a long while, and Jamie decided to go fishing for information. "It’s really been nice to be able to spend some time with J.C. and Trey," she began, but David didn’t bite. He just nodded, gazing across the horizon, looking for other vessels.

"I haven’t really seen either of them since I was a child," she mused.

"I suppose that’s true," he agreed, focusing his attention on her. "You should be glad that you were spared watching that foolish young man almost throw his life away," he said somberly, twitching his head in Trey’s direction. The young man in question had just popped back up on deck, and he quickly made his way back to his towel in the furthest part of the bow.

"Drugs are a horrible thing," Jamie agreed. "He’s doing well now, though, isn’t he?"

"Oh yes, we’ve made it clear that nonsense will not be tolerated any longer."

"Umm…how did you do that?" she asked, surprised that he was talking about this so openly.

"We spoke to the boy in the only language that he seems to understand, Jamie. Skip is with me 100% on this, I’m proud to say. We’ve told Trey that if he’s caught one more time, he’s on his own financially. Neither his father nor I will give him another cent!" He looked very proud of himself for taking this stand, and since he seemed approachable, Jamie asked a follow-up question.

"Does Sara feel the same way too?" Knowing that the easygoing woman had always overlooked her son’s transgressions, she was surprised to think that Trey’s mother would agree to this plan.

"Skip and I control the funds in this family, Jamie," David said, as though that should have been obvious. "Sara’s coddling of that boy is the main reason he’s gotten in half of the trouble he’s been in. It’s time someone took a firm hand with him."

It sounded more like a plan for controlling a three-year-old, but Jamie kept that opinion to herself. "Let’s hope that you never have to follow through on your threat," she said, shuddering with the knowledge that the consequences could be realized in the very near future.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After her stint at the helm was completed, Jamie managed to get her mother alone in the bow of the boat. "I uhh…have some bad news about my cousins," she said when they were comfortably seated on a pair of cushions.

"Bad news? What…how…do you come to have bad news about them, Jamie?"

"Long story," Jamie said, anxious to get to the heart of the matter.

Catherine pointedly gazed ahead to the still very distant island, then back to Jamie. "We have time," she stated, encouraging her daughter to start from the beginning.

"Okay, on Tuesday while the rest of you were sailing I spent a little time with Stephanie and Trey. Steph inadvertently revealed the fact that she and Trey had been out the night before, and after a few questions she admitted that they had been smoking grass."

Catherine nodded, a small furrow in her brow. "I don’t think that’s uncommon for high school girls, to be honest, Jamie. And I’m sure that marijuana is one of Trey’s drugs of choice. I don’t think it’s anything to worry about, Dear."

"Uh-huh," Jamie nodded, not surprised that her mother took this news in stride. "Don’t you find it a little odd that he drinks and smokes grass? I mean, he is supposedly clean, isn’t he?"

Pursing her lips, Catherine nodded, considering the matter. "Yes, I think he’s clean," she agreed, looking at Jamie rather blankly.

"When you’re trying to stop doing drugs, you have to stop all drugs, Mom, not just the one you’re addicted to."

"Oh, I didn’t know that, Dear. You mean to say that Trey can never drink again?" Her tone of voice sounded like she thought never was a very, very long time.

"That’s the general plan, Mom. If you’re addicted to one substance it’s very easy to become addicted to another. Every treatment program I’ve ever heard of stresses complete abstinence."

"But surely Skip and Sara know that he drinks, Jamie. He has alcohol with his meals, just like everyone else."

"I’m sure they do, Mom, and that’s part of my concern, but that’s not the major problem."

"What is, Honey?"

"At least one of them is also doing hard drugs," she said gravely.

"What!? Oh, Jamie, are you sure?" The concern in her voice was genuine.

"When I went to wake Stephanie this morning, I found some drugs on her floor. She claims they’re Trey’s, but for all I know they are both doing them."

"That’s so sad." Catherine looked truly pained, and Jamie shared her dismay. "Sara told me just this morning how happy they were with him. She said they still watch him for warning signs like agitation or dilated pupils, but she says he’s been very calm and tranquil ever since he quit."

"That may be, Mom, but if Trey isn’t using, that means that Stephanie is. I’m not sure if it’s cocaine or heroin, but either way it’s very bad news."

"What should we do?" Catherine asked, looking absolutely helpless.

With a sigh, Jamie gave her mother a slow smile. "Thanks for feeling like this is something for both of us to deal with, Mom. That helps a lot."

Catherine clasped both hands around a knee and leaned back, letting her head drop back against her shoulders. Her face was composed, but her eyes held a good deal of sadness. "This is something for us to handle together, Jamie. It’s going to be hard for me, as odd as that seems. Discussing matters like this is just not something that we Dunlops do, and I doubt that anyone will be pleased with us for sharing this information. But Trey almost died last year, and I couldn’t live with myself if something horrible happened to either him or Stephanie."

"If you want, I could talk to them alone—I don’t want to make this difficult for you, Mom."

Sitting up straight, Catherine shook her head firmly. "Jamie, the other day you told me you wanted me to be your mother, not your friend. I’m going to try to be your mother—even when it’s not easy."

* * * * * * * * * * *

After morning practice, as the teammates walked into the bright sun, Jordan immediately grasped Ryan by the shoulders and turned her so that the morning light shone directly onto her face. "You’ve got a little bruise under your eye, Slugger. That jerk must have struck the bone."

Ryan reached up and fingered the spot, wincing a little as she did so. "Probably did," she agreed. "I’d like to see his ugly mug today," she chuckled. "I bet they could dust him for fingerprints!"

"You really walloped him," she said a little pensively. "I’ve never hit anyone. It must feel weird."

Ryan considered the implied question and shrugged. "I’ve been hitting people since I could crawl. You get used to it."

"Hmm. I always figured you for a lover, not a fighter. You seem pretty gentle."

"I am, but my family is really physical. We’ve always fought—even though we never hurt each other. It’s a good tension reliever. Call it the Irish version of psychoanalysis."

Jordan looked a little surprised by this information. "You and Jamie don’t…" she trailed off, giving Ryan a very concerned look.

"God no! I would never raise a finger against her, even in jest! It’s a completely different thing with my family, Jordan. Wait ‘til you meet them—you’ll understand what I mean."

"Do you have a big family?" Jordan asked, pausing at the door.

"Just to give you the lineup would make us late for brunch," Ryan said with a laugh. "I’ll give you the whole rundown when you have an hour."

* * * * * * * * * * *

The yacht pulled into a slip on Block Island just in time for lunch. Nearly everyone wanted to remain on board to eat, but Jamie agreed to go ashore with Julia to enjoy a meal.

She hadn’t spent any quality time with the young woman, and was frankly a little afraid to get to know her. She could only assume that Julia would follow the path of the rest of her cousins, and she was loath to come to know her well only to see her destroy her life.

As soon as they hit solid ground the young woman announced, "If I don’t get a hamburger soon, I’m gonna die! That French junk we’ve been eating is making me sick!"

Jamie laughed and agreed with the fourteen-year-old. "It is a little rich, isn’t it?"

"Aaaccchhhh!" was Julia’s pithy assessment.

Wandering around the small shops on the quiet streets, they found a place that Julia approved of and went in to have some good old-fashioned American cuisine. For the first time all week, Jamie saw her young cousin actually enjoy a meal, and she was quite astounded at the amount of food the young girl could put away. "Do you eat like this all the time?" she laughed as Julia looked longingly at her unfinished fries.

As Jamie handed them over, the young woman shook her head. "Nope. But I don’t think I’ve had a full meal since we’ve been here. I’m about to starve!"

"I’d have to say that both you and Stephanie look like you could use a few square meals."

Julia scoffed at the statement, crushing the sack that her fries had come in. "She doesn’t need to eat any more, Jamie. Haven’t you noticed?"

"Umm…I’ve noticed that neither of you seems to eat more than three bites during our meals, but I assumed you just didn’t like the food."

"I don’t like the food," Julia corrected. "Stephanie doesn’t need to eat. Big difference." She got up from the table and yawned, shaking her head as she said, "One decent meal and I’m ready to go back to bed. Let’s go back so I can grab a bunk before they’re all taken."

Does anyone in this family have any stamina at all? Even the fourteen-year-olds are sloths! "Hang with me for a while," Jamie urged. "We’re gonna be on the boat the rest of the day. Let’s at least walk around a little."

The girl considered the request for a moment, shrugged her narrow shoulders, and then agreed. "Okay. Will you buy me some ice cream?"


As they walked along, Jamie tried to engage the young woman in conversation, finding the task quite difficult. "Are you excited about your new school?" she asked, nearly biting her tongue as she heard the words come out of her mouth. She had always despised the fact that adults focused on school when they tried to talk to her when she was young, and she had sworn that she would not do the same thing when she reached adulthood.

"Um, I..ah..I guess so," Julia said haltingly, shrugging her shoulders a little.

"Doesn’t sound like it," Jamie decided. "What’s bothering you?"

"I guess I’d rather go someplace different," she explained, not shedding much more light on her concerns.

"Anywhere in particular?"

"Not really. Just not there."

"So you don’t like the school much?"

"It’s okay, I’d just rather go by myself."

"You mean that you’d rather not be with Stephanie, right?" Jamie prodded gently.

Julia looked down at the ground and hesitated. It appeared she was debating whether she could trust her cousin, but she apparently resolved the issue because she replied, "I don’t get along with her much anymore, and I don’t like the people she hangs around with." It was clear that the tension between Julia and her sister had been growing for a while, since the young woman looked so completely frustrated. She stared up at her older cousin with a defiant look on her face, as if to say, ‘You want me to share my thoughts? Well there they are. Now fix the problem!’

Was I this difficult to communicate with at that age? Jamie wondered as she shrank back a bit from the penetrating glare of her cousin. Deciding to back off a little, Jamie pointed to a well-known and much loved ice cream parlor just up the street from where they stood. "Let’s get a treat and then talk about this some more, okay, Julia? I can see that this is really bothering you."

"No it’s not," the young woman grumbled, dropping her head as she walked along to the store.

Oh boy, this should be fun. Good thing I’m used to cross-examining Ryan!

After they were served, they sat down at a picnic table next to the shop and Jamie tried to resurrect the conversation despite Julia’s complete focus on her ice cream. "Julia," she began, receiving no indication that her cousin heard her, "I know I haven’t been in your lives much, but we’re all part of the same family, and I care about you both. I think there’s something going on with Steph, and I think you agree with me. I’d really love to know what you think the problem is."

Julia lifted her head and stared at Jamie for a full minute, her dark brown eyes flicking across her cousin’s face. "Why do you really want to know?" she asked, her gaze narrowing.

Trying to maintain her cool, Jamie smiled and said, "Julia, I have nothing to gain by getting involved here. Honestly…I just care about your entire family, and I don’t want to see Stephanie harm herself." She returned the intense stare and said, "That’s all, Julia. I just want to help."

The younger woman nodded, apparently satisfied with her cousin’s motives. "Okay. What do you want to know?"

"Do you think she’s doing drugs, Julia?"

"I know she is, Jamie," Julia said, shaking her head as she cast an unhappy look at her cone and got up to throw the uneaten portion in the trash, her appetite deserting her. "I’ve seen her."

"You’ve seen her, what? Smoke pot?"

"Yeah, but everybody does that. That’s not a big deal," she replied impatiently.

"What is a big deal, Julia?" Jamie persisted.

The young woman sighed, considering how much to trust her older cousin. She shrugged again, and decided to tell what she knew. "Every once in a while my mother makes Stephanie take me with her when she’s going out. About a month ago we went into Manhattan and we picked up this guy she knows from school. We drove around for a while, and the guy turns around and tells me to get out!"

"Get out of the car?" Jamie asked. "Why did he want you to leave?"

"Cause they were going to buy drugs!" she exclaimed, her frustration evident. "I wouldn’t get out, and we had such a big fight that I thought they were going to beat me up! I had my cell phone out, and I told them I’d call the police, so they finally just decided to ignore me. The guy was really mad at me, but Stephanie told him that she’d make sure I kept my mouth shut. We went to some horrible neighborhood, and this guy takes all of Steph’s money and goes into this place that looked like it was about to fall down. He came back a little while later, and we drove a few blocks away. The whole time Stephanie was asking, ‘Did you get it?’ like she couldn’t wait, you know?"

Jamie nodded without speaking, not wanting to interrupt or deprive her cousin of the catharsis of getting all of the story out now that she had started.

"Steph pulls a mirror out of her purse, and they starting cutting this stuff up with a razor blade. Then they each snorted a couple of lines, and they both kinda collapsed. We were in this really scary neighborhood—they were unconscious or something—and I don’t know how to drive! I was so scared, Jamie. I’ve never been more afraid in my life!"

"What did you do, Julia?"

The young woman was still shaking her head, obviously trying to take the scene that had frightened her and erase it from her memory bank. "I decided that I was never going out with her again! If my mom ever makes us go together, I’m gonna have her drop me off at the mall!" Jamie stared at the girl for a moment before recognizing that fourteen-year-olds usually saw the world only as it affected them personally, and Julia was obviously no different.

"I meant, what did you do about Stephanie," she clarified patiently.

"Oh," the girl said. "Nothing. My parents don’t care." She stood and ran her fingers through her hair, settling it in place. "Can we go back to the boat now? I really need that nap."

Jamie shook her head, reaching up to grasp Julia’s hand. "We’ve got to do something about this. I want to talk to your parents today."

The young woman shrugged her shoulders. "Go ahead. They won’t believe you."

"I thought they might if you backed me up," Jamie suggested hesitantly.

"No way, Jamie. I have to be with her up in New Hampshire. She could turn the whole school against me if she wanted to—if she didn’t kill me first."

Jamie patted her leg and reassured her, "It’s okay, Julia. You don’t have to get involved. I am going to talk to your parents though. They might ask you questions. You just have to decide how much you’ll tell them."

Julia gave her a sad smile, chuckling a little to herself. "You’re pretty naïve for an adult, you know. They won’t ask me questions, Jamie. They won’t believe you, and I bet they tell you to stay out of it."

"I hope you’re wrong, Julia. For Stephanie’s sake, I hope you’re wrong."

Part 9

Pushing a limp looking serving of pasta salad around on her plate, Ryan muttered, "I’m gonna get a vitamin deficiency if we’re here much longer."

Jordan looked up in surprise. "I think the food is pretty darned good - for dorm food, that is."

Ryan nodded, placing another forkful of the salad in her mouth. "It tastes all right," she agreed, "but they don’t give us any fresh veggies…and the only ripe fruit I’ve seen is bananas."

"So…you’re a health nut?" One blonde eyebrow was raised as high as it could go. "I’ve seen you shovel a load of junk into your mouth in the short time I’ve known you, O’Flaherty."

"Nah, I’m not a health nut. I just need a lot of fuel, and I feel better when I get the majority of my calories from fruits and veggies."

"Maybe we should all go out for dinner tonight. I think Coach likes it when we do things as a group."

"Okay," Ryan said, "but I doubt we’ll eat any better if we go out. It would be nice to get off campus though. I’m going a little stir crazy."

"I’ll check with the coaching staff and see if any of them will drive the van. Do you care where we go?"

"Nah…I like everything. I just have to stop at an ATM before we go."

Jordan’s curiosity got the better of her tact. "Do you guys share money, or what?"

Ryan blushed just a little and nodded. "In a way we do, but I don’t have much to contribute. I had to quit my job before we came down here."

"Wait a minute! Now you’re telling me that she supports you? No wonder you’re monogamous!"

Jordan made this statement with a smile on her face, and her tone was light, but Ryan gave her a penetrating glare and growled, "I hope that was a joke."

"Yeah, of course it was," Jordan said quickly, her brow furrowing slightly. "Did that piss you off?"

"Look," Ryan said firmly, "you can tease me about anything. I can take it. But don’t even imply that I’m using Jamie. She means everything to me, and I don’t like to have our relationship called into question. If I had my choice, she’d be poorer than I am. Her money has caused us more problems than it’s worth, in my opinion. It’s not always a blessing."

"I’m really sorry, Ryan. I didn’t mean to imply that you were using her—I’d never think that about you. It was just a bad joke. I promise I won’t do it again," she said with conviction.

Ryan gave her a half smile. "It’s okay. I think I overreacted a little," she admitted. "It’s just that most of our problems with her father seem to be because of her money."

"Does she really have a lot?"

"Yeah. It’s clearly enough to be concerned about. And I don’t blame him for trying to protect her. It just pisses me off when people assume that the poorer person is trying to scam the richer person in a relationship. I know people from every socioeconomic group, Jordan, and I’ll tell you this, I’d leave my valuables with a poor person over a rich one every time."

* * * * * * * * * * *

The sailors arrived back in Newport late in the afternoon. The salt air, brisk breeze, warm sun, and glare on the water combined to make everyone long for a nap, and as soon as they returned to the house, that’s just where most members of the family headed.

Jamie purposely delayed going upstairs until she saw Trey headed towards his room. Dashing up the stairs, Jamie intercepted her cousin when he was halfway up the long staircase. "Your room or mine?" she asked without preamble.

He gave a start and looked like he was going to wave her off, but Jamie narrowed her eyes and said, "Those are your only options, Trey."

Shrugging his shoulders, he followed her to her room, taking a seat near the window. "I heard you and Steph had a little incident this morning," he said, with about as much emotion as he would have shown if they were merely speaking about the menu choices for dinner.

"That’s one way to characterize it," Jamie said, cocking her head at her cousin’s cavalier attitude. "I guess finding your drugs on the floor of her room is an incident."

He nodded, his demeanor still casual. "So…what is there to talk about, Jamie? Steph was telling the truth. I’ve had a relapse, and I’m trying to get admitted somewhere. My counselor is probably trying to get hold of me right now." He looked longingly at the door as if his confession should be the end of this unwanted discussion, but his determined cousin was not through with him yet.

Having almost died as the result of a drug overdose, Trey knew the consequences of his actions better than any Jamie could point out. Her primary goal now was to make a difference where she still could. "Is Stephanie doing drugs with you, Trey? I know that she uses, too."

He looked genuinely shocked at the mere suggestion that their younger cousin could share this habit with him. "No! She just smokes a little grass, Jamie. I’m sure she doesn’t do anything dangerous. Why would you even think that?"

"That doesn’t matter," she started.

"Julia’s put that idea in your head, hasn’t she?" he hazarded.

"I’d rather not say, Trey. What’s important is whether or not Stephanie needs treatment also."

"Look, Jamie, you know that Julia and Steph don’t get along. Julia is trying to get her parents to let her stay home and go to school locally. What better way to get what she wants than to tell her parents that the school is some breeding ground for drug habits? Trust me—I know that Steph isn’t doing hard drugs."

"Fine," she said, not believing his carefully contrived story. "I’m still going to talk to Adam and Carolyn. They need to know that she’s smoking grass, and I’m going to tell them that she might be doing hard drugs."

Finally exhibiting some emotion, the young man pushed to his feet and hovered next to Jamie’s chair. He looked at her curiously, his anger just beneath the surface. "Why do you want to screw with her like that? This is really none of your business, Jamie."

"It is my business to stop a sixteen-year-old from going down the same self-destructive path you chose, Trey," Jamie snapped, her voice rising in volume. "You’re an adult, Trey, and you’re old enough to make your own decisions. Stephanie should at least get the chance to reach adulthood!"

"You’re being melodramatic, Jamie," he said, his face a mask of boredom. "Are you the only person in California that thinks grass kills? Jesus, my grandfather knows more than that!"

"You can insult me, and you can try to make me doubt myself, but it’s not going to work, Trey. I’m talking to Adam and Carolyn today, and if you’re not in rehab by tomorrow, I’m talking to your parents, as well."

"How am I supposed to manage that without everyone knowing, Jamie?" Now his anger was showing plainly, his voice rising precipitously. "Steph told you that my grandfather will cut me off if he finds out. What am I supposed to do then?"

"Well," she mused sarcastically, "you could do something wild like stop doing drugs and perhaps even get a job!"

"Yeah, all this money lying around here, and I’m supposed to get a job. That’s fair!"

"Fair or not—I’m talking to your parents if you’re not signed into some place by tomorrow. That’s it, Trey."

He glared at her for a full minute, his eyes flashing with rage. "Thanks for ruining my life, Jamie. Thanks a lot!"

As he stormed out of her room, she held her tongue, thinking, You beat me to the punch, Trey.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Once again, Bob Nymoen, their strength and fitness trainer, agreed to transport the team to downtown Santa Cruz. For the second night in a row, Erin Malloy, their assistant coach, accompanied him, and the team members were quietly gossiping about a possible love match the whole way to the restaurant. Jordan had picked the eatery, and as the fourteen women entered, Ryan wished that the choice had not been left to her friend.

The place was more bar than restaurant, and the state’s prohibition on smoking in bars was obviously not being enforced at this place. When Ryan gave Jordan a suspicious glance, the tall blonde shrugged her shoulders and said, "This was the only place that had a separate room for us to sit in. The food’s good—even though the atmosphere is a little lacking."

"It’s lacking all right," Ryan muttered, deciding that since they were there they might as well make the best of it.

The place catered to a college aged crowd and it was quite full, even on this Thursday evening. A harried hostess got them settled, and a few minutes later, when their appetizers were delivered, Ryan was pleased to find that the food was actually quite good. "This was a good choice," Ryan complimented her friend. "Ambiance is highly overrated in my book."

When everyone was finished with their entrees, many of the women drifted into the main room to play darts or one of the video games. Ryan didn’t join them, preferring to stay in their private room and chat without the grating noise of the jukebox in the main area. One by one the other team members dispersed until only Ryan and the freshmen remained. Cami was sitting by Ryan and when she got up to use the rest room, a very pleasant looking man walked into the room and slid into her seat. Ryan turned and started to ask him what he was doing there, but he quickly introduced himself.

"Hi," he said, extending his hand. "I’m Rob Thomasson. Mind if I join you?"

"Well, actually, Rob, my friend was sitting here, and I think she’d like her chair back." The three remaining freshmen, sitting on the other side of the table, got up and left, giggling the whole time. All of the young women crowded into the rest room with Cami, leaving Ryan with Rob, much to her annoyance.

"Hmm," he said brightly, "looks like your friend doesn’t want her chair back. Can I keep it?"

Ryan assessed the young man trying to chat her up. He looked to be close to her age—maybe 25 or 26—with dark, slightly wavy hair, parted down the middle and stylishly long. His face was quite handsome, but he had the pink cheeks of a young kid, which softened his features and made him look very approachable. His light blue eyes were friendly and warm, and when he gave her a very bright smile, she found herself smiling back. This is a switch, she thought with an internal smirk. Strangely, men had not often approached Ryan, for which she was totally grateful. Even though she was very good looking, she didn’t give off vibes that made her seem interested in them, and nearly all sober men caught on to that. Add to that the fact that she rarely went to predominantly straight bars, and her chances of being picked up were quite slim.

"I don’t mind if you sit here, Rob," she said, in her normal friendly manner, "but I think you could get a better return on the investment of your time from one of my teammates. Still, if you don’t mind talking to a married woman, be my guest."

"You’re married?" he asked, quite surprised that this young woman would be attached. "You don’t wear a ring." Taking her hand in his, he traced his thumb over her bare ring finger, just to make his point.

Pointedly removing her hand from his grasp, she said, "No, I don’t, but that doesn’t make my relationship any less valid. Nor does the fact that we’re not allowed to be legally married. I’m irrevocably, permanently partnered."

"Not allowed…?"

"We’re both women," Ryan said, a broad smile on her face.

"Ohhhh…" he said slowly. "You’re…" He waggled his brow, drawing a chuckle from Ryan.

"Yeah, we’re…" she replicated his facial gesture, and he joined her in laughter. "That’s why I think you could have a little more success with one of my single friends."

"Now what makes you think I came over to talk to you just because you’re the prettiest woman I’ve ever seen," he drawled, his blue eyes sparkling.

"Because that’s just the look I used to use when I was trying to pick up a woman," she laughed. "It worked pretty well, too."

"You know," he chuckled, leaning back in the chair. "I think I’d rather talk to you than anybody else here…even if you won’t go out with me."

"Fine with me," she said agreeably. "My name’s Ryan." She extended her hand, and he gave it a shake.

"You’re pretty well set on this lesbian thing, huh Ryan?" he asked conversationally.

"Yep. I’d say I’m pretty set on it. If I did go out with you, which I won’t of course, you’d be my first date with a boy."

"Whoa…" he said, his eyes wide. "That’s remarkable! Tell me how you discovered you were gay, Ryan?" With that, they engaged in a very pleasant conversation that lasted well into the evening. Ryan found that she was entirely comfortable in his presence, and once he stopped teasing her, Rob proved to be a very enjoyable companion. He seemed genuinely interested in Ryan and gay life in general, a topic that he claimed little knowledge of. It was after nine when Jordan came back into the room and announced, "The bus is leaving, pal. You’d best be on it, unless you’ve got alternate plans for the evening."

"Get in here, you goofball," Ryan laughed, introducing Jordan to Rob.

He looked at Ryan for a second and asked, "Is Jordan…" waggling his eyebrows again.

"No," Ryan said honestly, grinning at him. "She’s susceptible to the charms of men."

Jordan batted her eyes, doing a much better job than Ryan was capable of. Rob looked back at Ryan and lamented, "I’ve just spent the better part of the evening talking to a woman that I have zero chance with while your gorgeous friend was hanging around all alone?"

"Don’t say I didn’t try to steer you in another direction," Ryan teased.

"Lucky for me I had a really nice time talking to you, Ryan. Now I’ll just go cry in my beer for the rest of the night." He got up, mumbling, "Two gorgeous women…and I spend the whole evening with the lesbian." Turning towards Ryan, he winked and whispered, "I had a lot of fun tonight. Let me know if you ever want to switch teams."

Taking his offered business card, she smiled as she flicked her thumb against the edge. "Not likely, Rob. The grass seems pretty darned green on my side of the fence."

"Hey, you never know," he said brightly, as he shook her hand and went back to his friends in the main room.

"Sometimes you do," she murmured, folding the card neatly and tossing it into an ashtray.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After dinner at the cottage, Jamie gathered her courage and gave her mother a nod as they left the dining room. She then approached Adam and Carolyn with an invitation. "Mother and I are going for a walk in the garden. Care to join us?"

"Sure, Jamie," Adam said. "Let me see if the girls would like to come with."

Placing a restraining hand on his arm, Jamie shook her head. "There’s something we’d like to talk to you both about. Do you mind if we go alone?"

"Okay," he said, a touch of hesitation in his voice as he glanced at his wife for agreement.

As they walked down the crushed gravel pathways, Jamie approached the difficult subject. "I hope you don’t think that I’m intruding in your business, but I’d like to talk to you about Stephanie."

"What has she done now?" Carolyn asked with a resigned sigh.

"I’m pretty sure she’s been using drugs," she responded quietly.

"Oh," Adam said, nodding briefly, "we’re aware of that, Jamie. We’re not crazy about it, but all the kids smoke pot. We just decided not to make a big deal about it, since it is relatively innocuous. I mean, we all smoked when we were her age, didn’t we Catherine?"

"Well, no, I didn’t Adam. Not when I was sixteen."

That was equivocal, Jamie thought to herself. It never occurred to me that mother might have smoked grass. I guess it makes sense, though, given her age.

Adam raised an eyebrow, but continued making his point. "Well, I smoked grass when I was sixteen, and it didn’t permanently affect my life in any negative way. I really prefer it to alcohol for someone Stephanie’s age, to tell you the truth."

"How do you feel about heroin, or cocaine?" Jamie asked, getting to the crux of her concerns.

Both Adam and Carolyn stopped abruptly, staring at Jamie in unison. "What do you know?" Adam asked, not looking terribly surprised.

"I found something on her floor when I went to wake her," Jamie informed him. "It was either heroin or cocaine, I’m not sure which."

"God damn it!" Adam muttered, collapsing heavily onto one of the garden benches. "I knew she was lying!"

"You knew?" Catherine gasped, amazed that her cousin would allow his young daughter to hang around with Trey if he suspected her of drug use.

"No, we didn’t know," Carolyn said, laying her hand on her husband’s back. "We just had some suspicions. I called her psychiatrist, and he assured me that he would know if she was doing anything dangerous." Shaking her head she muttered, "I always thought he was a quack."

"Well, we’re going to have to do something," Adam said. "If mother finds out, she’ll have a fit!"

"Maybe we can find some place near her school for her to get treatment," Carolyn mused. "Then she’ll be nearby during the year."

Gee, I wonder if we can get a family discount at the Betty Ford Clinic, Jamie thought wryly. They sure don’t seem very upset about this. They must realize that it could be life-threatening.

"Is there anything we can do?" Catherine asked. "We’ll help in any way that we can."

Adam looked at her for a long minute, finally nodding his head. "As a matter of fact, you can, Catherine. Your Italian is a lot better than mine. Would you call some of your friends in Italy and find out if there is a good drug treatment center near Rome? I think we have to get her the hell out of this country."

"Really?" Jamie was a little stunned, but as she let it sink in, she thought that perhaps getting Stephanie away from her current set of friends wasn’t really such a bad idea. "Would you move to Italy full time?"

"We’ve talked about doing that anyway," Carolyn said. "Adam’s commitments keep him in Europe for so much of the year that having the girls with us would be nice. Actually, I’ve heard of a wonderful boarding school in Milan where all of the Ferrari children go. That way they’d be close."

New continent, same parenting, Jamie mused, thoroughly disheartened.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Once the team arrived back at the dorm, the players decided to gather in the lounge at the end of the hall to watch a little TV. Ryan was sitting on the couch enduring the playful teasing of about six of her teammates. "So what’s up with the guy who was hitting on you, Ryan?" Erika asked.

"He wasn’t hitting on me," Ryan scoffed. "We were just talking."

"So…he didn’t ask you out?" Amy chimed in.

"Well…I guess he did kinda ask me out, but I told him immediately that I wasn’t his type."

Heather and Cami came into the room just as Ryan was answering, and they both joined in. "He was sure my type!" Cami exclaimed. "Why wouldn’t you go out with him?"

Everyone but the two freshmen laughed at the comment, but neither young woman got the joke. "Ryan’s gay," Grace said, putting words to the open secret.

Ryan shrugged her shoulders amiably, nodding her confirmation. She had purposely not made an announcement about her sexual orientation, preferring to just live her life and let people figure it out. Jamie had gone on their team run several times, and they acted perfectly naturally in front of the team, kissing lightly if the whim struck, holding hands, and exhibiting their usual signs of affection. Now that the issue was out on the table, she thought it wise to be frank about it, preferring to head off any problems if any of the women were ill at ease with it. "Yes, my name is Ryan, and I’m a lesbian. Any questions?"

She looked around the room, seeing nothing but calm acceptance. Until her eyes met Heather’s. The young woman blushed deeply, and averted her gaze, suddenly finding the pattern in the carpet absolutely fascinating. Oh-oh. May be trouble here, Ryan thought. I’d better talk to her privately.

"I have a question," Jordan said, batting her big blue eyes at Ryan.

"Does anybody besides Jordan have a question?" Ryan teased, preferring not to set herself up for any more taunting from her friend.

"Nah. We’ve been talking about you since the first morning you came on a run," Amy laughed. "I’m sure your real life isn’t as exciting as the one we’re dreamed up for you."

"Don’t be too sure about that," Jordan began, but Ryan snaked an arm around her and pulled her onto the couch beside her, clapping a hand over her mouth.

"I lead a perfectly ordinary life, though I’m partnered with a perfectly extraordinary woman," Ryan smiled. "I’m not even particularly kinky…although Jordan does bring out my hidden sadistic side," she mused as she used her free hand to swat her friend sharply on her perfectly positioned ass.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After their talk with Adam and Carolyn, Jamie and Catherine returned to the house, leaving the Whitmores to discuss their plans for dealing with Stephanie’s drug problem. David, Patsy, Louise and Oliver were all sitting in the game room, playing a dispirited hand of bridge, when the Evans women walked in.

Patsy gave them a smile and said, "We just decided to have some Calvados," a delightful apple liquor that Jamie was quite fond of. "Will you join us?"

Catherine nodded her assent, and Jamie offered, "I’ll go ask the waiter to include us."

"No, no," Patsy insisted. "They’ll see that you’re here. Let them do their jobs, Jamie. That’s why they’re called servants, Dear."

She nodded at her aunt as she sat down in a club chair to watch the game. Please God, don’t ever let me think of people like that. Seconds later Daniel came scampering over to ask for her order. "Hi," Jamie said with a friendly smile.

"Good evening, Miss. What can I get for you?" She noticed that he looked absolutely exhausted, and recalled that he had also been on duty at breakfast, which was 16 hours ago.

Deciding to skip the alcohol this evening she said, "I’d like some iced tea, if you have it."

"Long Island or regular, Miss?" he asked quietly, just to make sure she was still on her temperance binge.

"Regular, please. No sugar."

As the young man quietly left the room, Jamie’s great-uncle turned in her direction and said, "I haven’t had the chance to speak with you much, Jamie," Oliver Whitmore said. Tell me what’s been going on in your life."

Let’s see, she thought. I found out I was attracted to women a few months ago. I have a really hot girlfriend who is to die for, and my father wants to have her killed. Deciding that was probably more information than the family would want, she said, "Nothing too exciting, Uncle Oliver. I’ll be a senior this year, I’m still living in the house my parents bought in Berkeley, and I’m thinking about going to graduate school. You know, just the usual college stuff."

"We were surprised to hear that you had broken up with your fiancé, Dear. Now, what was his name?"

"Jack," she said simply, hoping to get off the subject quickly.

"Yes, Jack. We never got to meet him. Has he been replaced?" he asked with a twinkle in his eyes.

Hmm, how do I answer that one without lying? "I don’t think you can replace people, Uncle Oliver. But no, I don’t have another boyfriend." I’m not lying, Ryan, you’re a long way from a boy.

"Well, you’ll surely meet someone this year. You’re too pretty a girl to stay unattached for long," he said in a completely patronizing tone of voice.

"Thank you," she replied, mentally rolling her eyes.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Although she had rejoined the group for only a few minutes, Heather got up and said she was heading to bed. Waiting until she left the room, Ryan stood and said, "I need to call Jamie. I’ll come back when I’m finished." Waving off the teasing and catcalls that were immediately forthcoming, she followed the freshman down the hall. Catching up with her, she asked, "Hey, could I talk to you for a minute?"

The young woman tried to avoid looking at the senior, her pale blue eyes darting all over the hallway. "Um…I’m really tired…"

"Won’t take long." They were near Ryan’s room, and she opened the door before Heather could protest. "Come on in."

Looking very hesitant, the young woman entered the room, standing awkwardly while Ryan sat down on the bed. Trying her best to appear non-intimidating, Ryan smiled at the young outside hitter, but Heather was once again doing her best to look at anything but Ryan. Gazing at her thoughtfully, Ryan saw some of herself in the young woman. She was tall, probably about six foot, and had the beginnings of a muscular build, even though she was currently fairly willowy. Her dark brown hair was usually pulled back in a braid, but tonight it hung around her shoulders, giving her thin face a more rounded look. Her skin was generally pale, but tonight her cheeks were flushed—whether from embarrassment or discomfort Ryan did not know, but she was determined to try to find out. "Umm…would you like to sit down, Heather?"

The older woman twitched her head towards Jordan’s bed, but Heather shook her head vigorously. "No," she said, her voice cracking like an adolescent’s, "I’m good."

"Okay…" Ryan wasn’t really sure of where to start, and the discomfort that was radiating off her teammate was not helping her confidence. Deciding to just go for it she said, "Can I ask you a question?"

"Uhh…sure." Her pale blue eyes finally lighted on Ryan, and she cocked her head a little.

"Does my being gay make you uncomfortable?"

Without warning, Heather suddenly found Jordan’s bed very attractive. She sank onto the mattress, her back to Ryan. "Uhh…why do you ask?"

Thank you for not lying, Ryan thought, pleased that her teammate was trying to be honest. "I ask because you look uncomfortable, and you seem to be having a hard time looking at me, and I don’t want this to become an issue for the team, or for us." After a pause she added, "It’s not that uncommon for people to be uncomfortable around lesbians, Heather. I’m used to it."

"I…I guess I’m a little uncomfortable," she admitted, her voice very faint. "I just don’t think I’ve ever met a um…lesbian before."

Ryan considered that for a moment, and acknowledged that fact wasn’t terribly surprising. She recalled that Heather was from a very small agricultural town in the San Joaquin Valley, and it made sense that she might not have been exposed to much diversity in her relatively sheltered life on the farm. "We’re not that bad a bunch, once you get to know us," Ryan teased, pleased when she saw the young woman’s shoulders relax a little.

"It’s just different," Heather said, still facing the wall. "I thought they were kidding."

"Who was kidding?" Ryan asked.

"The other players. They don’t really tell us much, ‘cause we’re freshmen, but I heard some of them say that you were gay. I thought they were kidding," she admitted. "I um…didn’t know that gay people looked like you."

"That’s true," Ryan said slowly. "Most lesbians are much shorter than I am."

At that comment Heather turned and caught sight of Ryan’s laughing eyes. "You’re making fun of me, aren’t you?" Her lower lip was stuck out a little, and she was gazing over at Ryan from beneath half-lowered lids.

"I’m just teasing you, Heather. Don’t you like to be teased?"

"Umm…I guess," she hesitated. "I’m just not used to it."

"Don’t you have any siblings?"

"No. I’m an only child."

"Well, I can guarantee that you’re going to take a lot of ribbing with this group. Do you think you can handle it?"

"Um…I’ll try. This is just a lot for me to handle all at once, ya know?"

God, she reminds me of myself when I started high school! "I do know, Heather, and I’ll try to keep the other players from going after you too hard, but you’re going to owe me a favor if I do that."

Turning completely around, the young woman looked at Ryan with wide eyes. "What do I have to do?"

Ryan’s warm smile reassured her slightly, and her words did even more so. "You have to talk to me when things are bothering you. You can ask me any question that you want…I’ll always be honest with you, Heather. We’re teammates now, and we have to take care of each other."

The younger woman nodded, paused a moment and asked, "Have you always been gay?"

"Yeah. I’ve always been gay, but my lover hasn’t," she supplied, knowing that Jamie wouldn’t mind having her history divulged in the name of education. "Some women know very early, and it takes some a long time to come to terms with it. It’s different for everybody."

"Do you ever wish you weren’t…gay, that is?" She was now looking at a point somewhere near Ryan’s midsection, and the older woman considered that significant progress.

"No. I really like who I am. To me that’s like wishing I was short. It’s just not gonna happen." Pausing a moment, Ryan asked, "Have you ever wished that you weren’t?" At Heather’s shocked look, Ryan added, "Tall, that is."

"OH! No, no…well, um…yeah, now that you mention it. It was hard being the tallest girl in my class. I used to wish I didn’t stand out so much."

"You know, Jamie, my partner, used to feel that way about being attracted to women. She didn’t want to stand out. But over time she’s gotten over that, and I think she’s pretty happy with herself now. Everybody has something they’d like to change at some point in their lives, Heather. But it’s hard to be happy if you don’t learn to accept yourself for who you are."

Heather gave her a grin and said, "I like being tall now. Being tall got me this scholarship—I never could have gone to a school like this without one." She blushed a little and added, "Being tall gave me the chance to be on a team with some pretty cool people, too. Thanks, Ryan." She stood and looked at her teammate a little tentatively. "Umm…can I go now?"

"Dismissed," Ryan smiled, snapping off a salute.

* * * * * * * * * * *

As soon as she could make her getaway, Jamie excused herself and headed for bed. She dropped her clothes to the floor as she walked across the room and plucked a T-shirt from the dresser. After brushing her teeth and washing her face, she settled down on the window seat to stare out at the inky stillness of the ocean at low tide. The night was very warm, not even a breeze coming through the open window, and as she stared out at the night sky she felt a few tears start to roll down her cheeks. A few minutes later she was startled out of her mood by a quiet knock on the door.

"Come in," she said flatly.

Catherine opened the door and stepped in, shutting it quietly behind her. Seeing the bereft look on her daughter’s face, she immediately crossed over to the window and sat down. "What’s wrong, Honey?" she asked as she caught the tears with a fingertip. "Has all of this started to get to you?"

"A little, but mostly I miss Ryan," she said as she started to cry more forcefully.

Catherine scooted closer and pulled her daughter near, running her fingers through her hair and patting her back gently as she let her cry for a while. A wave of sadness hit her as well, and she said, "I can’t tell you how much I regret not holding you like this when you were small. We both missed out on so much."

Sniffing softly, Jamie looked up with red-rimmed eyes and asked, "Why didn’t you?"

Catherine closed her eyes and let the memories fill her mind, trying to recall the young woman she had been 20 years ago. "I’m not sure, Honey," she said, the sadness feeling like a sharp pain in her stomach. "I guess I just didn’t know how."

"I don’t understand that, Mom," she said, her lower lip quivering. "Didn’t you want to hold me?"

"Of course I did," Catherine said, holding Jamie close. "You just didn’t react well to me. When your father held you, you quieted down immediately, but when I did it, you always fussed even more. Either he or Elizabeth used to take you from me almost immediately," she sniffed. "I thought you didn’t like me."

Now Jamie cried even harder, her tears merging with her mother’s as they both mourned for the wasted opportunities of those early years—irredeemably lost forever. "I don’t ever remember not liking you. I thought you didn’t like me," she choked out.

Pulling back slightly, Catherine fixed her daughter with a fierce stare, her brown eyes flashing with an inner fire. "I loved you then…and I love you now. I love you more than I’ve ever loved another soul, Jamie. You mean the whole world to me! I’m so sorry that I wasn’t able to show you that then."

Clinging tightly to her mother, Jamie released some of the hurt and pain that she had been storing in her heart for so many years. "Thanks, Mom," she said finally. "That means a lot to me."

"I have so much to make up for, Jamie. It’s not too late, is it?"

Catherine had such a hopeful look in her eyes that Jamie would have told her it wasn’t, even if it was. Luckily, she was able to answer honestly. "It’s not too late, Mom. Not at all."

"God, I’ve been hoping for this," Catherine sighed, resting her head on her daughter’s shoulder. "You don’t know how much."

Jamie kissed the fine blonde hair and asked the question that had been in her mind for weeks. "What made you decide to try to get closer to me?"

Taking in a heavy breath, Catherine wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand, smiling when Jamie pulled one of her enormous T-shirt sleeves out and dabbed at her eyes. "Thanks," she said. Looking at the inscription on the shirt, she smiled and asked, "Ryan’s?"

Jamie looked down and blushed as she read the front of her shirt. "Um…I’m not really a Lesbian Avenger…and neither is she. She just likes T-shirts with a message." Blushing even more fiercely she admitted, "I took it out of the dirty clothes so it would smell like her."

"When I was young I used to wear your father’s dress shirts before I had them sent to the cleaners. Elizabeth thought I was mad." She chuckled softly, adding, "Marta used to take them from the laundry chute for me. I think she approved."

"She would," Jamie agreed. "Too bad Marta wasn’t my nanny. I think we would have done much better as a family."

"I couldn’t agree more," Catherine said. "Although having Elizabeth for a cook would have been frightening also!"

"Good point," Jamie agreed, the elderly Englishwoman’s penchant for the blandest of foods legendary in their house.

Now that the wash of emotion had passed, the embrace they shared began to feel a little too intimate for both of them, and they slowly broke apart, but not before Jamie leaned in and placed a soft kiss on her mother’s cheek. "Let’s do that again soon, okay?" she asked, putting words to her fear that this developing closeness might evaporate.

Catherine gazed at her and smiled, nodding her head slightly as she did so. "We have a lot of hugs to make up for, Jamie. I’ll do my best."

The younger woman stood and stretched, releasing some of the tension and sadness that had been building up in her body. "You didn’t answer my question," she prodded, as she recalled getting sidetracked. "I really think you made the first move here. What made you decide to do so?"

"I might have made the first move, but you’re entirely responsible for that, Dear. I saw the light when I came to your house this past spring to ask you about your relationship with Ryan."

"Huh? Why did that make you want to be closer? I thought you were angry with me."

"I was, Jamie. I was angry that we didn’t have the kind of relationship where you felt safe to be honest with me. The next week I got on the phone and found a therapist. I’ve been seeing her twice a week ever since."

"You have?!"

"Yes, I have, and it’s been wonderfully helpful. She’s helped me see how much of the distance between us is just a legacy of my family. But she also helps me realize that just because I was raised that way, doesn’t make it all right to continue the tradition with you. I’m responsible for my actions—irrespective of how I was brought up."

"That’s true," Jamie said thoughtfully. "We are each responsible for our actions. That’s why we need to make sure we keep talking like this. We have only ourselves to blame if we don’t try to make our relationship better."

Catherine got up from the window seat and crossed the room to stand directly in front of her daughter, the light scent of her perfume wafting on the air to reach Jamie seconds before her mother did. Catherine placed one small hand atop each of Jamie’s shoulders and tilted her head up to be able to gaze directly into her taller daughter’s eyes. "This is a life goal for me, Jamie. I know that I’ll never be the best mother in the world, but I promise to try to be the best that I can be."

Sniffling away the latest wave of tears, Jamie nodded her head, unable to reply with words. She wrapped her arms around the remarkably thin waist and held her close, relishing the comfort and security of a mother’s love.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Hi, Sweetheart." Ryan’s deep voice came through the phone line clearly, making her sound like she was nearby, rather than 3,000 miles away. "I didn’t wake you, did I?"

"No, no," Jamie sniffed a little, looking around the room for a tissue. Catherine handed her one and gave a small wave as she walked towards their adjoining door. "Mother and I were just talking."

"Honey? Are you crying?" Ryan’s voice was immediately full of concern, and Jamie smiled broadly as she soaked up the love she could feel speeding her way through the phone line.

"Just a little, Love. But they’re good tears." She paused a moment, trying to decide how to characterize her feelings. "I just realized that I’ve felt more loved in the past three months than I have in the previous 21 years."

"Even with the problems you’ve had with your father?" The question was out before Ryan could censor herself, and she mentally kicked herself since she had decided to wait until her partner was home to tell her about Jim’s visit.

"Yeah." Jamie paused a beat then added, "I’m angry with him, but I don’t feel that he loves me any less than he did before. I just think he’s misguided, Hon. I’m hoping that by the time I get back he will have had some time to reflect on this, and be able to be more open minded."

"That would be nice," Ryan agreed. It’s not gonna happen, but it would be nice. "So tell me about these happiness tears," she asked.

"I’ve got so much to tell you, Love, but it’s too late to go into detail. Let me just say that this is the second best trip of my life. I’m so glad that I came."

"What was the absolute best?" Ryan asked, having a pretty good idea that she accompanied her partner on the one in question.

"That’s a toughie," Jamie teased. "It’s either the summer Olympics in Barcelona in ‘92…or being on the AIDS Ride with you."

"Hmm…I can see why that would be a tough choice. Either being up close with some of the most gifted athletes of our time, watching people show off their gorgeous bodies, seeing people perform feats that you could barely imagine…or going to the Olympics. I think it’s a flip."

"It’s a flip all right," she giggled. "God, I miss you. Nobody makes me laugh like you do."

"Me either," Ryan sighed. "I enjoy your sense of humor more than anyone else’s I know."

"I enjoy every one of my senses when I’m with you," Jamie murmured. "I was thinking today about what I miss the most. It was a very difficult job, since a thousand different things came to mind, but I think I came up with the answer."

"Don’t tell me, let me guess," Ryan said, thinking for a moment. "Is it a part of my body?"


""Let’s see…a part of my body. Do I have two of them?"

"Mmm-hmm. You sure do."

"Is it the part of me that you can’t wait to get your hands on when we make love?"

"Nope. Not even close."

"You like a part of me better than my breasts? I’m stunned!"

"Hey, just because I have a fetish doesn’t mean that I’m fixated only on your luscious breasts. I like other parts of you equally well."

"That’s good to know," Ryan said. "I was beginning to feel objectified," she sniffed. It was clear that she was kidding, Jamie’s interest in her breasts a long-standing point for teasing between them.

"The things I miss most about you don’t even factor into my arousal—give up?" They loved to play guessing games, and it was no small issue that Ryan almost invariably won. Today, Jamie was confident that she had her stumped, and she was wringing every bit of satisfaction she could from that fact.

"Hmm…at this point I’m just guessing, so I’ll say that you miss my eyes." Before Jamie could reply, Ryan’s voice dropped into its lowest register, causing a warm tingle to inch its way up Jamie’s spine. "When I look at you, I know that you can see in my eyes how much love I have for you, how much I respect you, how much I desire you. You can see the unquenchable need I have to be near you and to share my life with you. I know that you can look into my eyes and see that you make all of my dreams come true, and that you’re the answer to every prayer I’ve ever made."

A low, slow whistle came from Jamie’s end of the phone, and she murmured, "I thought I missed your hands the most, but I just changed my mind. Lord, Ryan, the things you do to me with just a few words."

"Ummm, my hands…don’t get me started on what I’d like to do to you with my hands," she whispered.

"Oh, Ryan, I need to see you. I miss you so much…My world just doesn’t feel right when you’re not beside me."

"I know, Love, I know," she soothed. "I feel the same. Only two more nights, though, and we’ll be together again."

"Two more nights after this one, my little optimist," she reminded her.

"Just trying to put the best spin on things," Ryan admitted.

"Well, I hope you clear your calendar for the first two days that I’m home, Love, because you’re not going to see the light of day. Actually, your feet might not hit the floor."

"I’ve got a teensy little bit of bad news on that front," Ryan said. "Annie paged me earlier today and said that Tommy’s days off got switched. He’s off from Sunday afternoon until Thursday. I uh…I said I’d pick the baby up on Sunday morning so they could get ready to leave."

"So we’re gonna have Caitlin from the minute I get back?" Jamie tried to contain her disappointment, but she failed miserably.

"It’ll be okay, Babe. We’ll figure something out so that we can have some alone time."

"How soundly does she sleep?" Jamie asked, only partially kidding.

"Not that soundly," Ryan laughed. "Don’t worry, Honey. We’ll have our time together. I promise."

"I sure hope so," Jamie sighed. "Now that you’ve turned me into a sexual being, you can’t just pull the plug on me!"

"I’ve got a week’s worth of love saved up for you, Sweetheart," Ryan crooned. "This little bout of abstinence is the longest I’ve gone without for a very, very long time. Lefty thinks I’m mad at her!"

"Poor Lefty," Jamie empathized. "You kiss her and tell her that she’ll be put to good use soon. I think she’s kinda partial to me now, anyway, Ryan. She’s probably glad for the rest."

Kissing her left hand audibly, Ryan informed her partner, "She’s waving at you, Babe. Says she misses you and that you are the favorite."

"Heh heh. I’m winning over all of your body parts…one by one. Soon I’ll have complete control over you, Buffy."

"You already have my heart, Jamie. That’s the most important part."

Part 10

After a quick breakfast, Jamie decided that she needed to get her heart rate up for the first time all week. Ryan’s down in Santa Cruz working her ass off, and I’m sitting on mine eating enough butter and cream for a small country! She wasn’t familiar enough with the neighborhood to feel comfortable going for an extended run, so she decided to swim. No one else was up yet, since it was only seven o’clock, and she slipped down to the pool area, relishing the alone time.

Her mind was occupied with thoughts of Stephanie and Trey, and she had slept quite poorly, now feeling disconnected and a little frazzled. Even though she was able to speak to Ryan every day, and they were able to connect emotionally, there was something vital lacking in their interchanges. I think it’s because we don’t spend our time talking about our days, she decided. I don’t really want to burden her with the details of what’s going on with my cousins. I mean, she can’t do anything about it, and it seems like such a waste to spend the little time we have available talking about problems that neither one of us can fix. Still…not knowing everything about her day and not sharing all of mine is so different from what we usually do that it is really making me feel unsettled.

She stepped into the warm water, her skin reacting with goose bumps as she did so. The day was going to be a warm one, but there was still a bit of chill in the air, and the 85-degree water felt soothing to her stressed body. Submerging herself fully, she shook her head to get the water out of her eyes and then began to loosen up. A few slow laps of each of her stokes had her feeling awake and energized, and she began to extend her body in the water, enjoying the tug and pull of her lats and traps as her back muscles powered her through the water.

Nearing the end of the pool, she decided to work a little on her racing turns, her technique having severely eroded since she no longer swam regularly. The first one was more than a little sloppy; while her flip was good, she hadn’t twisted her body properly to return to her lane, and she wound up a few feet away from the line she was carving in the water.

I bet this week is harder on her than it is on me, she reflected. She’s not only away from me, she’s separated from her whole support system, and my baby needs her family to keep her happy. I hope she’s gotten to know Jordan or some of the other women on the team better so she has someone to talk to down in Santa Cruz —although I haven’t seen much indication that Jordan is the sensitive chat kinda girl. Oh well, maybe Ryan can help her to learn how nice it is to be able to share your feelings openly. She’s the poster child for sharing, she thought, as a warm feeling settled in her stomach at the mere suggestion of being able to share all of her own thoughts with her partner very soon.

* * * * * * * * * * *

As she executed her 35th racing turn, Jamie straightened her body to the fullest, cutting through the water as swiftly as possible. Her form had smoothed out, but she was not really concerned with it. Nor did she care about her time, which was actually quite good. Rather, she was trying to use Ryan’s technique of full immersion in a task to dispel her anxieties about her cousins

It took 22 strokes to reach the end of the pool, one strong racing turn and another 22 strokes to the other end, and soon the only thing on her mind was "stroke, stroke, breathe, stroke, stroke, breathe." It had taken many laps, but she slowly began to enter that state of flow that Ryan seemed to achieve so easily. Thoughts of Stephanie and Trey and Adam and Carolyn and Skip and Sara all drifted away as she sliced through the warm water, concentrating only on her breathing and the cadence of her strokes.

She began to feel lighter, both physically and emotionally, as she continued to lose herself in the experience, eventually becoming one with the water to achieve a kind of high that she had realized only a few times in her athletic endeavors.

By her 50th lap she began to tire, and she slowed down a few laps later and turned onto her back to do a few lengths of a lazy backstroke.

When she climbed out of the water, her mother was sitting in a lounge chair, sipping a cup of coffee. Catherine gave her daughter a bemused grin as she padded over to her chair. "Are you going out for the swim team or the golf team?" she teased.

"Definitely golf," Jamie answered with a smile. "I hardly ever swim."

"Really? You look so sleek in the water, like you are a natural swimmer. I guess it’s a good thing I married your father," she reflected. "No one in my family has one iota of athletic talent. Our best sports seem to be drinking and doing drugs," she added with a healthy dose of self-derision.

Jamie patted her leg as she sat back completely in her chair. "Anyone can become an addict, Mom. You don’t have to be a Dunlop."

"No, but it helps," she said with a weary smile. "Are you warm enough, Honey? I can go to the cabana and get you a robe."

"No, I’m fine." Jamie was wrapped in a bath sheet, the chill of the morning air helping her cool down from her tiring swim. "I think I’ll go get some juice, though." Before the words were fully out of her mouth, one of the white-jacketed servants was standing next to her chair.

"Something for breakfast, Miss?"

"A glass of orange juice would be nice," she said, smiling at the young man.

He nodded, and left for the kitchen, and as Jamie watched him leave she asked, "How do they know to appear just when you need them?"

Catherine pointed to the edge of the cabana. "Closed circuit cameras, Honey. There is a monitor in the kitchen so they know when people are poolside."

Catherine was puzzled by the nearly scarlet blush that immediately covered her daughter’s face and neck. Trying to appear casual, Jamie ran her fingers through her wet hair, fluffing it a bit to help it dry.

Observing her carefully, Catherine asked, "Something on your mind, Dear?"

Okay, Jamie, you want to be honest and open with her. How open do you want to be? She thought for a second, finally deciding to reveal a little of the camera fiasco in Pebble Beach. "I uh…was just thinking about being down in Pebble Beach," she said slowly, trying to decide how much to censor. "We um…didn’t…rather, I didn’t remember that you had installed those security cameras, and we uh…"

"You were being affectionate?" Catherine suggested helpfully, a teasing smile settling on her face.

"Yeah…that’s it," Jamie said, relief flooding her features. "We were being affectionate, and I didn’t want you to find out about us that way."

"Wow," Catherine said, shaking her head as she smiled. "Thank you for that, Honey. That would have been tough for me."

"It’s the closest I’ve ever come to having a heart attack," Jamie laughed, recalling how absolutely panicked she had been at the time. "Luckily, Ryan’s brother knew all about this type of system, and he knew that you wouldn’t necessarily see the tapes."

Looking very empathetic, Catherine reached out and placed a hand on her daughter’s arm. "That must have been terrifying for you, Jamie. I’m glad that her brother could reassure you. Obviously, we didn’t review the tapes, so your private life will remain private."

Jamie nodded, deciding not to tell her of the lengths to which she and Ryan had gone not only to find the tapes, but then erase each of them. She didn’t think her mother would be angry, but she didn’t want to tell her how terrified she had been at the prospect of what she assumed would be a very poor reaction.

Catherine cocked her head at her daughter and carefully framed her question. "Was the beach a…special time for you, Jamie?"

Once again blushing to the roots of her hair, she admitted, "Yes. It was. The beach was where we made love for the first time."

Catherine nodded her head slowly, a dozen thoughts buffeting her mind. She was relieved that Jamie had technically been telling the truth when she'd visited the house in Berkeley in April to ask about Ryan, but at the same time, the news gave her pause. Something about the surreptitiousness of the trip niggled at her mind, even though she wouldn’t have dared speak her concern to her daughter. She decided to banish her worries and show Jamie her most generous side. "I don’t know why, but something about the way you talk about your trip made me think it was very special for you. I hope you will go back often, Honey. When I bought that house, I hoped that someday you and your family would enjoy it."

Jamie’s smile was so bright that every inch of her face lit up. "That’s very sweet, Mom. I would love to go back with Ryan. Maybe it could be a little anniversary tradition for us."

Catherine looked wistful as she commented, "Your father and I had room 215 at the Claremont Hotel. I find it charming that your room at the beach will always be special for you both."

Jamie blushed again and Catherine began to laugh heartily. "But I see I shouldn’t assume that your room was the special place," she teased.

"Let’s just say that the whole house will live on in our memory," she admitted through her crimson blush.

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

Over a bowl of cornflakes, Jordan looked across at Ryan with a twinkle in her eye and asked, "What did Jamie think about your new boyfriend?"

"I uh…didn’t get a chance to tell her," Ryan admitted, a little perturbed that her friend continually managed to focus on all of the things that she was already a little uncomfortable about.

"Hmm…imagine that," Jordan said dryly. "You…not revealing something to Jamie…who would have ever thought it!"

"Hey, uh, Jordan?" Ryan asked, looking up at her quizzically, "how many long term, committed relationships have you been in?"

"One less than you have, wise-ass. Does that mean I can’t express my opinion?" It was clear that she wasn’t angered by Ryan’s question, but equally clear that she thought her view was the correct one.

"No, of course you can, but I think that things look different to an outsider than they do to someone in the relationship. I plan on telling Jamie everything that has happened since she’s been gone, but I’m going to do it when I think the time is right, and not a minute before."

Shrugging her broad shoulders, Jordan gave her friend a smile and said, "Don’t come crying to me when she pops you one, pal. You’ve been warned."

"Time and again," Ryan agreed, rolling her eyes.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The chill had definitely left the air by nine o’clock, and the Evans women spent a few minutes in the warming sun planning their day. "I think Uncle David is planning another sail for this afternoon. Would you like to join him?"

"I don’t think so," Jamie said, shaking her head. "I really like to sail, but I like a little excitement when I’m on the water. Sailing with Uncle David is like going on a Sunday drive in the country."

"Shopping?" Catherine asked, trying to find an activity that they could enjoy together.

"I guess we could," Jamie agreed, shrugging slightly.

"Not an overwhelming level of enthusiasm there, Jamie." Catherine’s lively brown eyes were twinkling, showing that she was teasing.

A sheepish grin settled on Jamie’s face as she admitted, "I am officially bored, Mom. Besides missing Ryan, I miss my routine. I miss making my own meals and going for a run in the morning." She looked up helplessly and said, "It doesn’t sound all that interesting, but it means a lot to me." She paused a moment, rolling her eyes at herself, then added, "Well, maybe it is mostly that I miss her. I could run here, and the cooks would probably welcome my help as long as Aunt Patsy didn’t catch me. The little things are just so much more fun when Ryan does them with me."

"That makes perfect sense Jamie," Catherine said, "but I think you’d probably be somewhat bored even if she was with you. I don’t think this lifestyle has ever appealed to you."

"No, no it hasn’t," she agreed. "It’s not just that we don’t do many things here, Mom, it’s that everything is so…so topical. I don’t feel like I know these people any better than I did when I got here, and that just seems like a wasted opportunity."

Catherine nodded slowly, her brow furrowing slightly as she said, "It’s funny, but I’ve never noticed that before. I suppose that we are a little distant from one another…"

"It’s not that bad, Mom, and I know it’s not all that different from the way most families are. But I’m used to talking about everything with Ryan’s family—and I really miss that openness. When you don’t have that, spending one day with any family is really long enough. That’s plenty of time to see everyone and hear what’s new with them."

"I suppose you’re right," Catherine mused, a troubled frown on her face. "I’ve had a perfectly marvelous time with you, Honey, but I’m going to be lost once you leave."

"Maybe you can try to get some of your relatives to interact with you a little more. You could change the pattern."

Catherine’s gentle laugh caused her narrow shoulders to rock slightly. "I think I have my hands full just trying to figure out how to be more open with you, Dear. I’ll need a lot more experience to take on this group."

"Well, keep an open mind, Mom. You never know when an opportunity will present itself. It sure sounds like Sara might need someone to open up to. I can’t imagine that Trey’s problems aren’t getting to her."

Catherine nodded, looking very pensive. The comfortable silence stretched on for several minutes as she considered how her cousin and his wife were dealing with their son. "Have you ever taken drugs, Jamie?" she asked slowly.

Hmm…truth or evasion… Deciding on truth, Jamie cocked her head and made a proposal. "I’ll tell if you will."

"Sneaky, Dear. Very sneaky." Sighing heavily, Catherine shrugged and nodded her acceptance of the terms. "I’ll tell, but I think there should be some sort of statute of limitations here."

"Okay," Jamie agreed slyly. "You only have to go back to when you were sixteen," recalling that her mother had denied drug use at that point in her life.

"I still don’t know why you aren’t applying to law school," Catherine smirked. "You obviously have a gift!"

"Stick to the facts, Mom."

"I asked you first, Dear. After you."

"No, you go first," Jamie insisted, "then I’ll know how honest to be."

Smiling fondly at her child, Catherine agreed. "All right, Dear. I smoked grass in college, but I stopped when I was pregnant with you, and never did it again. It just didn’t seem like the kind of thing a mother should do, do you know what I mean?"

Jamie nodded, and asked the obvious follow up question. "Does that mean that you and Daddy both did it?"

"I don’t really feel comfortable talking about his habits, Dear. I think you should ask him if you want to know that."

"Okay," Jamie said, appreciating that her mother kept her father’s confidences. "Guess it’s my turn, huh?"

"The ball’s in your court," Catherine agreed.

"Okay." Jamie took a breath and said, "I’ve smoked grass."

"Is that all?" Catherine asked, chuckling softly. "By the look on your face, I was afraid that you’d been smoking crack!"

"No, nothing more than grass." Looking a little embarrassed she added, "I’ve never told Ryan, and I don’t think she’d approve."

"Ahh, so you and Ryan don’t smoke together," Catherine said.

"Lord no! Ignoring the fact that she doesn’t like to be out of control, she would never intentionally inhale smoke—no matter what type! She’s very, very protective of her body." She chuckled a little and added, "Well, that’s only partially true. I’m sure she’d do just about anything for a rush, no matter how dangerous it was, but she’d never risk damage to her lungs."

"Have you done it many times?" Catherine asked.

"No, not really. I smoked a couple of times in high school," she admitted. "Remember Scott Hastings?" At her mother’s nod, she continued. "When we were going out, he was always getting high. Since I was just a sophomore and he was a senior, I think I wanted to impress him a little with my worldliness," she laughed. "I wouldn’t sleep with him, which I’m sure was his first choice, so I smoked pot with him a few times at parties, just so I didn’t seem like a total dweeb."

"What about in college? I’d think Mia would enjoy getting high."

Jamie laughed at her mother’s accurate perception. "Yeah, she’s open to most experiences. She and I have gotten high a few times…not very often though. Jack would not have been happy if he knew, so I never did it when he was around. I seem to pick people who are quite abstemious," she laughed.

"That’s not a bad trait, Jamie," Catherine said softly. "You’ve seen what drug use can do to a person." Jamie nodded, and they spent a few minutes musing about the topic. "Are you afraid to tell Ryan that you’ve smoked grass, Honey?"

"No, not afraid, per se," she decided. "But I hate to have her think less of me."

Catherine gave her a grin and teased, "Doesn’t she have any faults? You’ve never told me one thing about her that wasn’t a glowing compliment."

"Hmm, let’s see," she mused, pursing her lips in thought. "I know this sounds crazy, but she hasn’t shown me any yet. I mean, I might find out that she’s really a psycho, but she’s kept it very well hidden." Her hearty laugh showed that the chances of finding that out were very, very slim in Jamie’s opinion.

"Nobody’s perfect, Jamie," Catherine warned. "There have to be things that will come up that hurt or disappoint you."

"Oh, don’t get me wrong, Mother, we have issues, but so far her only hot button has been my desire to spend money on her!" she laughed. "We had kind of a big fight at the beach because I bought her a $350 leather jacket. She really got angry about that. But we worked it out after a long talk."

"I’d be miffed if you spent $350 on a leather jacket for me too, Dear," she chided. "Surely you could have bought her something nice."

Jamie tossed her head back and laughed for a full minute. "She wasn’t mad because it was cheap, Mom. She was angry because it cost too much!"

"Where on earth can you get a decent leather jacket for $350!"

"It was used, Mom. We bought it at a second hand store in Carmel."

Pursing her lips, Catherine shook her head slightly. "That’s one affectation of youth that I never understood. Wearing someone else’s clothes seems…I don’t even know the word, but the attraction eludes me."

"I like wearing Ryan’s clothes, but I see your point," she agreed. "It doesn’t bother me, but I can see that it wouldn’t be for everyone. I think Ryan just likes it because they’re a good bargain. She hates to pay a dime more for things than she absolutely has to."

"Then you had better hide the receipts for your new clothes! Goodness Jamie, the lingerie you bought her cost nearly as much as that used jacket!"

"Maybe I should leave everything in Hillsborough and bring things back to Berkeley one at a time," she laughed. "I’m sure that we spent more this week than her entire wardrobe cost."

"We’re just going to have to work on her, Jamie," Catherine said conspiratorially. "She would look so fabulous in Armani…Once she had some nice things, she’d never go back to second-hand stores."

Jamie laughed at her mother’s confidence, shaking her head slightly. "Don’t underestimate her, Mom. She’s not easily influenced. The chances are just as good that I’ll be shopping at Goodwill!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

Morning practice was so exhausting that Ryan and Jordan decided to head back to the dorm as soon as their mid-morning meal was finished. To their dismay, they had both been working so hard that they had a hard time relaxing enough to sleep.

"You awake?" Jordan’s gentle soprano called out.

"Yeah. My heart rate’s been up for so long that I’m having a tough time slowing it down. Do you think Coach is actually trying to kill us?"

"That would seem to be counterproductive," Jordan replied lazily, "but all signs point in that direction."

"I’ve had a lot of coaches, but Coach Placer drives us harder than anyone I’ve ever played for. Is he like this during the year?"

"No, not at all, as a matter of fact. He just tries to set the tone during training camp. He figures that if we get used to working really hard now, we’ll keep it up during the year. I think he’s right, but it’s a tough week to get through."

"Thank God Jamie’s not here," Ryan said. "If she saw how many times he made us sprint the length of the gym, she’d pop him one!"

"Yeah, but we should be in better shape than a lot of the teams we play. Stamina is really important for us because we got taken to five games quite often last year. If we can hold it together in long matches, it will really improve our chances."

"Yeah…makes sense." Ryan rolled onto her side and thumped her pillow a few times, trying to make the thin foam into something that would help relax her. "I’ve got to get to sleep," she muttered. "I’m so tired I’m slap happy! Thank God this is over tomorrow. I can get a good night’s sleep in my own bed before my girl gets home."

"What’s the deal with your living situation, anyway?" Jordan asked through a yawn. "Do you stay with your parents sometimes?"

"Yeah. We live with my family in San Francisco on the weekends, then we have Jamie’s house in Berkeley to ourselves during the week. It’s kinda nice."

Jordan rolled onto her stomach and propped her head up with her hands. She eyed Ryan curiously. "Do you have to do that, or do you want to?"

"Uhh…why would I have to? I’m not under house arrest or anything." She laughed softly and said, "I love my family, and I miss them when I’m gone too long. Is that so strange?"

"Uhh…yeah, it is to me," Jordan said, her face very serious. "I’m already trying to come up with a good excuse to avoid going home for Christmas, and it’s only August."

Looking closely at the other woman, Ryan said, "I guess I understand why you didn’t attend UCLA."

"Yeah," Jordan laughed. "They wanted me pretty badly, but I had to get away. I’m still pissed that Stanford didn’t recruit me, though. Just my luck that they only had a couple of scholarships to give out for my class and the other contenders were local. I think the coaching staff felt more comfortable going with people they'd scouted more often. Damn! We would’ve been something," she mused idly, visions of a national championship dancing in her head.

"That would have been something," Ryan agreed. "They recruited me, too. If we’d both gone there, we could’ve cleaned up!"

"Oh well, I guess we just have to make Cal into a powerhouse," she decided. "Do you have any younger sisters to carry on our legacy?"

"Nope. Three older brothers. I’m the closest thing to a girl in the family. What about you? I know you have a brother. Anybody else?"

"Uh-uh. Just two kids. Well, I guess you could count my father in that number, but technically, he’s an adult."

"What’s he do?" Ryan asked lazily.

"He’s in development at Paramount," Jordan replied. "You know what that is?"

"Nope. Not a clue."

"Hick," she chuckled, getting great pleasure out of teasing Ryan for her naiveté about Hollywood. "He works with writers and directors, trying to get ideas translated into movies. He spends most of his time going out to lunch and dinner, near as I can tell, but then again, I don’t see him very often."

"Are your parents divorced?" Ryan asked, surprised that she knew so little about her new friend’s family.

"Yeah. My dad moved out when I was seven, but they went back and forth for two years before they finally decided to get divorced."

"Wow, that must’ve been tough," Ryan sympathized.

"Yeah," she sighed. "I thought he’d come back home at some point. You know how kids are. They believe in fairy tales."

"You must have been awfully broken up when they finally decided to call it quits," Ryan said softly, seeing the pain in her friend’s eyes.

"Changed my world," she murmured. "Oct. 1, 1987."

"Damn, you either have a fantastic memory, or that was a very traumatic event."

"Both," she sighed, turning over onto her other side, signaling the end of the conversation.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"As much as I dislike limos, it’s kinda nice to have someone drive us to New York," Jamie mused as they sped along Interstate 95 "I’d hate to have to manage midtown traffic in this big car."

"So would I," Catherine agreed. "New York is best explored in taxis and limos. I give credit to anyone who can drive a car here and keep their sanity."

"So what would you like to do first?" Jamie asked.

"I need some new perfume. Do you mind spending some time helping me choose some?"

"Not at all. I’ve become quite interested in my olfactory perceptions since I’ve been with Ryan. She has the most extraordinary sense of smell. If she wanted to, she could get a job at one of the perfume companies creating new fragrances. She can honestly differentiate between all of the elements of a scent--and name them. It’s really remarkable."

"Then I think we should devise a scent for you and put her to the test," Catherine declared.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"A little more Asian pepper, I think," Catherine decided as she sniffed delicately at the cotton swab that held the latest mixture her scent designer had just created.

They were seated comfortably in a small, well lit room at the Creed Boutique, and Jamie was getting a demonstration of the art of perfume design. The elegant shop specialized in creating personalized scents for their clients, and at $500 an ounce for the customized fragrances, the demonstration was far from inexpensive. Catherine had been having her perfume custom made for years, but Jamie had never had much interest in taking the time to do so. However, at her mother’s urging, she was also participating. The designer had created Jamie's first, and she had dabbed a small amount on one wrist and was now letting it settle and blend with her natural scent. The designer had instructed that the fragrance would change and mellow as it was warmed by her body, and as she took another sniff she had to agree.

She had chosen a light, sporty, citrusy scent composed mostly of Indian lime, clementine, and kumquat, thinking that style of perfume best suited her lifestyle. Catherine, on the other hand, was looking for something sexy and romantic, and Jamie hoped that bespoke the vitality of her parent’s intimate life.

The perfume they were now sampling was heavy with spice and had a decidedly woody flavor. Jamie considered the ingredients and smiled when she realized that her mother had a few key elements of a good pumpkin pie going on. The scent incorporated cardamom, Asian pepper, amber, nutmeg, coriander, cinnamon, honey, geranium, and cedarwood, and even though it should have smelled like something from the baker’s rack, it most certainly did not. On Catherine, it smelled decidedly sexy, and Jamie wished she could buy one like it for Ryan. But the purpose of the customization was to match the combination of scents to the particular body they would adorn, and she didn’t want to make a mistake at these prices.

Once she was satisfied with her choice, Catherine paid for both creations, insisting that Jamie should spend her own money on buying something nice for Ryan. Their car was waiting for them, as expected, and as they entered, Catherine asked, "Where to now, Dear?"

"I wish I could buy some perfume for Ryan, since she loves scent so much, but I’m not sure what she’d like."

"What does she wear now?" Catherine asked.

"Usually Coast soap and baby-powder scented deodorant," Jamie laughed. "I don’t think she owns any perfume."

Leaning forward to address the chauffeur, Catherine instructed, "Rockefeller Center, Richard, and hurry!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Coach, I don’t know whose idea this was, but I’d like to kiss whoever came up with it." Ryan was smiling broadly at Coach Placer, pleased beyond measure that the staff had decided to hold afternoon practice in the Olympic-sized pool. The workout they were subjected to was actually more strenuous than the ones in the gym, but the buoyancy of the water made it seem significantly easier.

"I thought I’d take pity on you guys for a change," he smiled. "I want you to work on your spiking technique, but I don’t want you to take that much pounding on your legs."

"You’re getting my vote for humanitarian of the year," Ryan called out as she executed a shallow racing dive into the pool.

The team spent the next hour jumping as high as they could to spike the ball over the low net that the staff had strung across the pool. The team had split up for this exercise, with the shorter players—who couldn’t possibly get up high enough to spike over even this low net--moving to the indoor fitness pool, which had a shallower end. That left the outside hitters and the middle blockers, all of whom were at least 5’10". Their competitive urges quickly came to the fore, and they spent a solid hour banging the ball into the water, while the ball girls struggled valiantly to retrieve their efforts from the five-foot depth.

By the time they were finished, every muscle in Ryan’s body ached, and it was all that she could do to drag herself to the nearby spa to collapse for a good long soak. The trainers scheduled everyone for a deep tissue massage, but Ryan chose to go last, in order to stay in the spa as long as possible. She sat in the hot, bubbly water with Jordan, Heather, Grace, and Ashley, none of them having enough energy to even converse. As he was preparing to leave the pool deck, Coach Placer called out, "Who’s up for a farewell dinner downtown tonight?"

Not a single hand went up, and he shared a conspiratorial smile with Ken Nakajima, one of the assistant coaches. "That’s one way to stay within my budget. Get them so tired that they don’t have the energy to go out and spend money!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

"How did you know there was a Sephora store in Rockefeller Center?" Jamie asked as they entered the brightly lit space.

"I’m truly a psychic when it comes to shopping, Jamie," she smiled. "I know by instinct where every potentially appealing store is in the entire city."

"Sounds like Ryan. Only her ability is limited to finding sporting goods stores. I swear she can smell the leather from the baseball gloves or something!"

"I’d really like to spend some quality time with her," Catherine said. "You two will have to come to the house for a long weekend."

"We’d love to, Mom, but I think it’s going to be a while before Daddy shares your opinion on that."

Recalling the last conversation she had with her husband, Catherine had to agree. "That will change, Dear. We just have to give him a little time. Now, what type of fragrance would you like for Ryan?"

They were approached by a tall, thin woman in a black lab coat who asked, "May I help you find a fragrance today?"

"Yes," Jamie said. "I want something for a woman who is very…earthy," she decided, thinking that single word best described her partner.

It took quite a while, and they had sampled over 20 fragrances before Jamie came upon the one she wanted. "This is it," she said decisively, holding up a bottle of Eau de Guerlain.

"This is technically, a man’s fragrance," the salesclerk said, "but it can easily be worn by a woman."

Catherine picked up the card that listed the ingredients and read them aloud. "Citrus, thyme, Bergamot, mint, tarragon, neroli. Reminiscent of the aroma of fresh cut hay." Sniffing delicately, she declared, "It’s nice. Clean and decidedly earthy."

"That’s my girl," Jamie agreed brightly, handing the bottle to the clerk to ring it up.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Ryan! Jordan! Get out of there this minute!" Coach Placer stood on the side of the pool, yelling at his two seniors, both of whom were submerged at the bottom of the pool.

Ryan’s hand broke the surface, holding up one finger in a plea for just another minute. "If one of you bursts a blood vessel I’ll kick your butts all the way back to Berkeley!" he yelled, to the amusement of the rest of the team. All twelve of their teammates stood on the deck, anxiously watching the women, while Grace held the stopwatch. The competition had started out innocently enough, but when the hyper-competitive seniors were involved, things quickly got out of hand.

Jordan knew she was about to surface, so in a last ditch effort she leaned forward and pushed hard on her friend’s stomach, causing most of the air to leave Ryan’s lungs. Not to be outdone, with the last of her reserves Ryan wrapped her arm around Jordan’s neck as she tried to swim away. Once she had her secured, she clamped her arms around her waist and squeezed as hard as she could, making the blonde flail about wildly as her air was forcibly expelled. They surfaced together, arms and legs thrashing about as they tried desperately not to drown. Both women were coughing and spitting water, much to the delight of their teammates. Their coach, however, failed to see the humor in the situation. "Out of the pool, you two! You’re going to kill each other with these ridiculous games!"

"Sorry, Coach," Jordan gasped, struggling to the side of the pool. "Ryan just can’t stand to lose!"

"Me?" Ryan cried.

"Enough!" the coach warned. "Tell that to someone who hasn’t seen you play for three years," he muttered to Jordan, rolling his eyes at the purple-faced young women. "I honestly don’t know which one of you is worse."

"She is," they both charged, pointing their fingers at each other.

Part 11

"What are you in the mood to eat, Dear?" Catherine asked after they had whiled the day away at the tony boutiques of Manhattan.

"Hmmm…not French," Jamie decided immediately. "I feel like we’ve been stuck in a 1960’s vintage Paris restaurant for the past week. I’ve not seen that many reduction sauces and beurre blancs since the last time we were in Monaco."

"It is a little bit of a time warp, isn’t it?" Catherine agreed as she stopped to consider the style of food served at the cottage. "Hmm…what’s the antithesis of French." Pausing to think for a moment she nodded confidently, sure that her choice would be far removed from the high-fat, intensely-flavored, complex meals they had been dining on. "I’ve got it," she said. "Sushi."

A few well-placed phone calls later, they were dining well and simply at Nobu, one of New York’s finest Japanese restaurants. "My Lord, I love good sushi," Jamie exclaimed, as she took a bite of remarkably fresh tuna sashimi. "I don’t think I’ve had it since I’ve known Ryan."

"Why not, Dear? Doesn’t Ryan like fish?"

"Yes, she does, but I’m not sure she’s ever had sushi. Her tastes are pretty traditional. Plus, I’ve not wanted to get into an argument about how much dinner would cost. I don’t think she’d see the logic of spending a few hundred dollars on dinner…especially when it isn’t even cooked!"

"Do you think your money will continue to be an issue between you two?" Catherine asked. She was busily mixing wasabi with a little soy sauce, but even though her attention was divided, it was clear that she was paying close attention to Jamie’s answer.

Idly dipping a piece of salmon in the sauce her mother had created, Jamie nodded her head slowly. "I don’t see it going away any time soon, to tell you the truth. Ryan’s pretty hardheaded about the issue, and I must admit that I am too. Was it hard for Daddy?" she asked, not really knowing how her father dealt with her mother’s wealth when he was a young man.

Thinking back on their first years together, Catherine admitted that it was hard for her new husband to deal with the family fortune. "I think it was more of a problem for us when we were dating," she mused. "He took a good bit of teasing from his friends, as I recall, and I think that’s hard for a man to take. Once we were married, though, he seemed to acclimate quickly. We’ve always kept separate accounts, and he spends his own money on things that he wants, so he’s never had to ask me for anything. I don’t think that would have gone over very well," she decided. "For either of us."

Pausing thoughtfully, Jamie queried, "For you too? But why…?"

"I hate to admit this, Dear, but I’m quite sure I would not have been attracted to your father if he didn’t want to earn his own way. There is something slightly unseemly about a man that allows his wife to support him."

"Hmm…I guess that’s just conditioning," Jamie decided. "I admit that I felt the same way about Jack. I was downright miserly with him! But it would be absolutely fine with me if Ryan never worked a day in her life."

"I’m guessing that scenario would not be to Ryan’s taste," Catherine observed.

"Not hardly," Jamie chuckled. "She has every intention of finishing school and going into some professional field. Even knowing that this is temporary, though, she’s having a tough time adjusting to accepting my support. Now that she’s quit her job, she’s dependent on me for everything from clothes to spending money. She’s still accounting to me for every little thing she wants to buy—as though she needs my permission. I don’t know how to get through to her that the money in our joint account is ours…not mine." Her frustration showed as she scrunched her face up in a scowl and shook her head.

"I don’t have the answer for you, Dear. I suppose this is one of those things that will work out over time. I just hope that it isn’t too difficult for you both to deal with—I’d hate to have it drive you apart."

Jamie laughed wryly, a small smile on her face. "No way, Mom. If it’s causing too much strife, I’ll just move into Ryan’s family’s house and get a job. I’d rather renounce my inheritance than lose her."

Reaching across the table to lightly grasp her daughter’s hand, Catherine said, "I hope she’s as determined to make your relationship work as you are, Jamie. I know it will be a difficult adjustment for her."

"She is, Mom. I’m confident of that. She loves me more than she hates my money."

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Hey, Beastie," Jordan greeted Ryan as she walked into the TV lounge in the dorm.

"Beastie?" Ryan asked, as one eyebrow lifted dangerously. All of the other women gathered in the room burst out laughing, and Jordan let Ryan in on the joke.

"Amy observed that when you get really focused it’s like you let your inner beast roam free. After your little demonstration in butt-kicking the other night, we decided that it really fit—so your new nickname is Beast, or Beastie depending on how fond we are of you at the moment."

"Well if I’m the Beast, you’re gonna have to be Beauty," Ryan countered, "since you were more concerned about your pretty face than in helping me put some hurt on those guys."

Jordan tossed her long blonde hair and licked her lips in a suggestive fashion. "Beauty," she breathed, trying to put as much sex appeal into her voice as she could muster. "It works." She adopted one of her fashion model poses, gazing at the other women haughtily until they gave her the applause she sought.

She flopped down on the floor in front of Ryan and handed her a narrow-toothed comb. "Will you braid my hair?" she asked, sending a glance over her shoulder. "It will enhance my beauty."

"Why can’t you braid your own?" Ryan asked, nevertheless accepting the comb and running it through the shiny, pale blonde tresses.

"One—my arms are tired from spiking the ball down your throat all day. Two—it’s too hard to reach."

Shrugging her shoulders, Ryan separated the hair into three large bundles and started to braid it.

"Not that way, Beastie. I want little braids." She shook her head briskly, causing the strands to fall from Ryan’s hands.

"How little?" Ryan asked, having a sneaking suspicion this task would take a while.

Jordan did the first braid herself, showing Ryan that she wanted about fifty hairs included in each one. Given the thickness of Jordan’s hair, Ryan calculated this little endeavor would take all night.

"I’ll do half," Ryan decided, scooting over as she picked the right side. "The rest of your fan club can help you out on the other side. That’s my final offer."

"I’ll do it, Jordan," Heather offered, shyly sitting next to Ryan on the sofa.

"Let’s race," Ryan proposed. "Loser has to go for ice cream."

"Hey! That’s my head you’re bartering with," Jordan complained as the two women started to furiously grasp tiny little bunches of her hair and braid it.

"Beggars can’t be choosers," Ryan informed her, chuckling as she caught sight of the determined look on Heather’s face. With a little work, I think we can turn young Heather into quite a competitor, she decided happily.

* * * * * * * * * * *

They began the long drive back to Rhode Island a little after ten o’clock, and Jamie could already feel herself starting to fall asleep. Car trips had put her out almost immediately ever since she was a baby, and it appeared to Catherine that she had not outgrown the tendency.

"It’s all right if you want to sleep on the trip back, Dear."

Yawning loudly, Jamie shook her head and said, "Have I always done this? It’s a little embarrassing to conk out as soon as the engine turns over."

Her mother nodded in remembrance. "When we couldn’t get you to quiet down, your father used to put you in your car seat and drive around the neighborhood," she revealed, with a fond smile. "I suppose it’s partly our fault that you developed that response."

Reflecting on her solitary childhood, Jamie cocked her head a little and asked the question that she had entertained since she was young. "Why didn’t you have any more children?"

Catherine looked a little taken aback by the question, but she pursed her lips for a second, then answered. "At first we thought one child was enough for us," she said thoughtfully. "As I told you, I went back to school full-time after you were born, so for two years I was too busy to even entertain the notion. I’d say I was 25 or so when I got the idea that I’d like to have another child, but your father was quite antagonistic to the idea."

"Really?" Jamie asked, privately thinking that she would have believed it more likely that her mother wouldn’t have wanted another child. "Why was that?"

"You were five, and he liked the fact that you were turning into a ‘person’ by then. I don’t think he wanted to deal with the stress that a baby brings into your life."

"So—just because he didn’t want to, you didn’t do it?"

"No, that wasn’t the end of the discussion. It took me another year or two, but he finally agreed that we could try." She looked pained as she went on, "It just didn’t happen. I tried to talk your father into going to a fertility specialist, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He said that if it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen, and there was a reason for it." Catherine tried to smile, but it looked forced. "At least I didn’t have to use birth control any more," she said, a touch too brightly.

"I’m sorry, Mom," Jamie said softly, reaching out to grasp her mother’s hand. "That must have been very disappointing for you."

"It was, Dear," she admitted. "I think I would have been a better mother if I had tried again when I was older and a little more mature. It would have been nice to have another opportunity."

"You’re doing pretty well now," Jamie said, giving her a loving smile. "And I think you’ll be a kick-ass grandmother!"

"I don’t think I’ve ever been a kick-ass anything, Honey," Catherine said, a bemused smile covering her face. "It will be fun to try."

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Hey, Grace, will you take over for me for a while?" Ryan asked her teammate, though Jordan’s hair was less than one-third finished. Heather had given up long ago, replaced by Amy, who was lagging so far behind Ryan that the older woman had called a halt to the bet.

"Sure," Grace said amiably, watching Ryan get up to leave the room. "You coming back?"

"Yeah," she said, stretching languidly. "I’ve gotta call Jamie while it’s still a decent hour on the East Coast."

"Don’t forget to tell her your new nickname," Jordan called after her. "I’m sure she’ll find it apt."

"You’re a funny, funny woman," Ryan drawled, smiling at her friend even though she tried not to.

The cell signal was weak, but Ryan didn’t want to spend the time going outside, so she pulled her calling card from her pocket, dialed the number for her partner’s cell phone, and counted the rings…one…two…threeThat’s funny, she usually picks up immediatelyfour…five

"Hello, Ryan."

Catherine’s soft voice surprised her a little, but Ryan quickly replied. "Hi, Catherine. Are you serving as Jamie’s new answering service?"

"Actually, I’m serving as her pillow." As she spoke, Ryan realized that Catherine’s voice was even softer than usual, and she immediately conjured up a mental image of the small, elegant woman cradling Jamie’s head while she slept.

"I’ve been there," Ryan laughed. "Sometimes I think that’s my main appeal."

"Trust me, Ryan," Catherine said softly, "your position is secure, even if you loose your squooshy qualities."

Chuckling softly Ryan said, "Once she falls asleep on you, you might need some help to get her off. She’s absolutely dead weight! Can you use the cell phone to call for assistance?"

"We’re in the car, driving back to Rhode Island," Catherine informed her. "Luckily, the chauffeur is a burly sort—I’m sure he can lend a hand."

"Where did the Evans women take off to today?" Ryan asked, having no idea how her partner had spent the day.

"We went to New York," Catherine reported. "The shops of Newport weren’t big enough to hold us!"

"Well, well, well," Ryan laughed. "I assume New York is still reeling from the influx of capital?"

"They were repaving the streets and adding police officers by the busload," Catherine agreed, fully enjoying the easy banter with her charming young daughter-in-law.

"How deep is the coma?" Ryan asked, well acquainted with the varying levels of her partner’s sleep.

"It seems quite severe," Catherine opined, picking up her daughter’s hand and letting it drop onto her leg. "I think there’s a fire extinguisher in the trunk. I could give her a good spray to wake her…"

"Nah…I’m going to bed soon, so I’ll just call her in the morning. If I don’t catch her, tell her that we’re playing an intra-squad match in the morning, then we’re taking off. I’ll be home by dinner."

"I shall, Ryan. Thanks for calling."

"Um…Catherine?" Ryan’s voice was uncharacteristically high, evincing her discomfort. "When she wakes up, will you tell her that I love her?"

"Of course, Ryan," she agreed, smiling broadly. "She loves you too. You’re all she thinks about, you know."

"I feel the same," Ryan said, her embarrassment diminishing as she experienced Catherine’s obvious support. "She’s absolutely precious to me, Catherine."

"I echo your feelings, Ryan. We’re both lucky to have her."

* * * * * * * * * * *

The next morning, after Jamie got out of the shower, she heard her mother moving around her room, so she slipped on a robe and knocked softly on the adjoining door.

"Come in, Honey."

Opening the door, she found her mother, fully dressed and sipping a cup of coffee, the telephone receiver cradled between her neck and shoulder while she made some notes on a pad. Catherine gestured to her, and she crossed the room to look over her shoulder. A myriad of notes was hastily scribbled on the legal pad, and Jamie was just able to make out that her mother was doing the research that she had promised Adam she would handle.

A coffeepot was sitting on the table in front of the two upholstered chairs, and Jamie poured herself a cup and refreshed her mother’s. The older woman was speaking in Italian and seemed to be making good progress. After a while she concluded her business and hung up, letting out a heavy sigh. "My, but it’s fun to try to get information out of hospital administrators."

"Any luck?"

"Yes. I think I’ve found a good facility for Stephanie. It’s near Milan, which would be nice since that’s near the school they want to send the girls to. It sounds like a well run place."

"How did you find it?" Jamie knew that her mother was eminently resourceful when she needed to be, but she had feared that this task would be beyond even her impressive skills.

"I have quite a few contacts in Milan," Catherine explained. "Just a few phone calls, and I had some recommendations."

There was a knock on the door to the hall and Catherine called out, "Come in."

Carolyn poked her head in, looking at Catherine and Jamie. "Is this a good time?"

"Certainly," Catherine said warmly. "Join us for coffee."

Carolyn sat on the window seat after pouring a cup of coffee for herself. "Have you had the opportunity to make any calls for us yet, Catherine?"

"Yes, I have," she said. "I think I’ve located a good place for Stephanie. It’s right outside of Milan, and they have availability. Have you spoken to her about it yet?"

"No, not directly. Adam hustled her over to David’s doctor yesterday afternoon, and we got the news this morning. Regrettably, our fears were confirmed. She tested positive for opiates. That must have been heroin that you found, Jamie." Carolyn looked absolutely ill, her face drawn and pale in the early morning light. She was dressed neatly, as always, and her hair and makeup were flawless, but she looked as though she hadn’t slept in days.

"I’m sorry," Catherine said, moving to join the shaken woman on the window seat, and covering Carolyn’s trembling hand with her own. "I was hoping that she was covering for Trey."

"I was too, Catherine." Carolyn shook her head slowly, as she said, "I’m so disappointed in her…not to mention how I feel about Trey. Adam won’t hear of it, but I have half a mind to report him to the police for this. I think a good long stint in jail might give that young man some perspective!" Her eyes were shining with fury and both Catherine and Jamie could empathize with her, even though neither thought that was the best solution for Trey’s problems.

Directing the conversation away from Carolyn’s anger, Catherine asked, "What will you do now? Will you leave immediately?"

"Oh, we must!" she said. "I don’t want her to miss too much school. We talked to the headmaster at the academy we want them to attend, and school starts at the end of September. If we get her into treatment immediately, she might be able to start on time."

"Is there anything I can do to help you prepare, Carolyn? Anything at all?"

"You aren’t, by any chance, going to be in Italy soon?" Carolyn asked hesitantly. "We could really use some support in getting her settled."

"I can leave immediately," Catherine decreed, looking to Jamie for agreement.

"I definitely think you should go, Mom. Since you know Milan so well you can help get Julia ready for school."

"That’s another issue," Carolyn said. "Neither of the girls speaks Italian well enough to get by. They’re both going to have to take an intensive course just to get ready for school."

"That settles it," Catherine said. "I’ll go to Milan with you. Of course, you’ll all stay with me. Julia can attend a language academy and we can all speak only Italian to her. She should be fine by the time school starts."

Carolyn was shocked at the gracious offer. "Are you certain that you don’t mind, Catherine? This is such an imposition."

"Nonsense," she insisted. "I’m only too happy to help in any way that I can. What are your travel plans?"

"We thought we’d leave tomorrow and spend a week in Long Island getting packed and taking care of details. But if Stephanie can be admitted sooner, I suppose one of us will take her over and then come back."

"I’d be happy to take her," Catherine offered, much to Jamie's surprise.

"That might work," Carolyn said slowly, "although you should know that she’s very angry with both you and Jamie."

"That makes sense," Catherine said. "I won’t take it personally if she refuses to speak to me." She smiled slowly and added, "Although I would request that our seats not adjoin. That’s far too long a trip to sit next to an angry teenager!"

"Let me talk to Adam and see what he thinks," Carolyn suggested. "I want this to go as well as possible."

"I assume we don’t want the older generation to know what’s going on, correct?" Catherine asked.

"Oh no!" Carolyn replied, shaking her head briskly. "We’re telling Adam’s parents that we’re moving because of his Formula One commitments. We’ll just say that you’re going along to help up get settled."

"There’s a good deal of truth in that," Catherine reminded her. "I’m sure this will work out fine, Carolyn. Let me know what Adam thinks."

"I will. And thank you, Catherine. This doesn’t seem like such an unbearable thing when we have your support."

After Carolyn left, Jamie looked at her mother and said, "That was a very generous offer, Mom. I’m proud of you."

Catherine blushed a little and said, "I wish I could accept your praise, but my motives are not totally altruistic. This just illustrates how much I’m ready to leave. I’d rather go on a trans-Atlantic flight with a drug-addicted, angry teenager than stay here without you!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

Jordan fought her way out of the tangle of sheets that had wrapped around her legs during the night. She grabbed her shower supplies and smiled at Ryan as her friend joined her to clean up. "This is your last day to wake up with me, Beastie. Can you feel the loss already?"

"Oh, yeah, Jordan. It’s gonna be soooo horrible when I have to wake up with Jamie nestled in my arms. I just hate to have her warm body pressed up against mine. It’s positively awful to feel her skin react to my touch, and hear her sharp little intake of breath when I nibble on her neck while she’s still half-asleep. It’s just torture…" She stopped abruptly when Jordan darted into the shower room and slammed the door in her face.

"What’d I say?" Ryan asked plaintively as the closed door. "I was agreeing with you!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

Through the long week of practice, the team had worked diligently on the individual elements that, hopefully, would bring them success during the season. On this, the last day of camp, they finally got to put it all together and play a five-game match. The staff split the team up into two six-member squads, with two extra defensive specialists who would rotate between the teams as needed. Coach Placer announced that he was merely an observer, with Erin coaching Ryan’s team and Ken taking the helm of Jordan’s.

The match got under way at precisely ten a.m. Erika served the first ball. If my team doesn’t win this match, I’m going to have to put up with her banging on me for the rest of the season, Jordan and Ryan thought simultaneously. I’ve got to go all out today!

* * * * * * * * * * *

"I think we’ve got everything organized," Catherine informed her daughter over lunch by the pool.

Jamie looked up from her cold lobster salad and cocked her head. "What’ve you come up with?"

"I had a long talk with Sara after you came down to swim," Catherine informed her. "She was upset to hear about Trey’s relapse, but I think she’s calmed down now."

"That must be so hard to hear," Jamie agreed, musing about how disheartening it must be for parents to have to go through such a thing with their child.

"Yes, but I’m glad that she was willing to talk about it rationally. I’m not sure Skip would have done the same."

"So Trey’s going back to Betty Ford?"

"No, after talking about how to keep this quiet, Sara decided to send him to the same place Carolyn is sending Stephanie."

Catherine looked very pleased with herself, but Jamie furrowed her brow and asked, "Is that really a good idea? I think they’ve proven that they can’t be trusted together."

"Oh, no, Dear, they won’t be in the same program. Stephanie will be with the teenagers, and Trey will be with the adults. They won’t have any contact at all. The good news though, is that Sara is going to go with both of them tomorrow morning to check them in. I can take my time and go over when Adam and Carolyn go in a week or so."

"Oh, that works out much better," Jamie agreed.

"Indeed it does," Catherine smiled. "Now I can go home with you tomorrow and prepare properly. The clothes that I brought here just won’t work in Milan."

"You could buy everything new in Milan," Jamie teased, her eyes twinkling.

"I think you’re trying to live vicariously through me, young lady," Catherine laughed.

"Well, Ryan will never let me be as frivolous with my spending as I used to be…so maybe I am," she winked. "You don’t mind, do you?"

"Not a bit, Honey. As soon as lunch is over I’m going to switch my flight to tomorrow, and then go speak to Uncle David. He’s not going to be happy to have all of the women leave, but our minds are made up."

"What about Skip? What will Sara tell him?"

"Everything but the truth, I’m sure," Catherine smiled, rolling her eyes a little.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After the first two games, the teams were even with one win each. Jordan’s squad had won the first match all too easily, and Ryan’s competitive fires were stoked for the second, which they finally won at 15-13. They had a ten-minute break between the second and third games, and Ryan used her time wisely, putting in a call to her partner.

"Hi, Love," she gasped as the line connected.

"Hi, Sweetheart! It’s so good to hear your voice! But you sound winded…what’s up?"

"We’re playing our first intra-squad match. We’ve got ten minutes between the second and third games, so I thought I’d try you again."

"Sorry I wasn’t here earlier, Babe. I was in Mother’s room, and I forgot to take my phone with me."

"No problem. I was just about to go into withdrawal so I thought I’d try again." She took in a few deep breaths, trying to slow her heart rate. "You know, I’ve spent more on phone calls this week than I think I have in my whole life! You’re a very bad influence, my pet."

"It’s worth it, Honey. I couldn’t have stayed the whole week without talking to you every day. As it was, I was denied your sweet voice last night."

"And I assume you lay in bed all night long, unable to sleep a wink," Ryan teased, knowing that her partner slept like a log in almost all circumstances.

"Well, no," Jamie replied honestly, "but I missed you nonetheless."

"I miss you too, Love, and I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to having you back in my arms again."

"That goes double for me, Babe. Call me tonight, okay?"

"From our bed," Ryan promised. "I doubt that I can sleep well without you, even at home, but at least I’ll be able to smell you on the pillows."

"Maybe I’ll just have to relax you more effectively," she growled, giving a clear indication of her relaxation regimen.

"I appreciate the offer, Love, but I’ve waited this long…I might as well wait another night. I’ll give Lefty a thorough rest so she can get busy on your lovely body as soon as you step off the plane."

"Uhh…Mother’s coming home with me, Babe. There’s been a thousand things happening here—too many to tell you on the phone. But one offshoot is that she’ll be with me tomorrow. So you might have to keep Lefty in check long enough to be polite."

"It won’t be easy," Ryan grumbled, "but I’ll try. I’ll call you tonight, Love. I love you."

"I love you too, Sweetheart. Be careful driving home today."

"I will. Bye."

Twenty-four hours, Jamie sighed as she looked at her watch. I can get through twenty-four hours, can’t I? I mean, I waited twenty-one years for her, twenty-four hours can’t be that bad…can they?

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Why don’t I buy you lunch?" Jordan asked as they loaded up the Lexus with their gear.

"We already ate lunch, Jordan," Ryan grumbled, still smarting from losing, three games to one.

"Yeah, but you didn’t eat much. I was watching you, pal. You’re not getting sick are you?"

Sick of losing, Ryan thought to herself. "No, I’m fine. I guess I could stomach another one of those fish tacos. Is that cool?"

"Totally. Let’s rock."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Slipping her key in the lock of her family’s front door, Ryan called out, "I’m home!" Expecting a greeting from Conor or her father, she was met instead with stark silence. Dropping her bag in the entryway, she went to investigate. "Duffy?" To her surprise, not even her faithful pooch was home to greet her, and she had to wrestle with her disappointment. They knew I was coming home today, she moped as she flopped down on a dining room chair to look through her mail. Coulda left a note or something. She tossed the mail back onto the table with a dejected sigh. Now what? I’m hungry and tired, and I have a headache from driving into the sun all afternoon. My baby’s not home, and my dog isn’t even here to lick my face!

She went to the phone and dialed her Aunt Maeve, sticking her lower lip out even further when there was no answer at her house either. Where in the hell is everybody? Next she dialed Brendan, and was pleased when he picked up on the second ring. "Hey," she said laconically.

"Ryan!" her oldest brother cried, sounding very happy to hear her voice. "Are you home?"

"Yeah…but nobody else is. Where is everyone?" She sounded just as irritable as she felt, but she knew that Brendan would not hold it against her.

"Da’s at work, and I think Conor is over at Niall’s."

"Where’s Duff?"

"Oh, Da wanted him to be clean for you and Jamie when you came home, so I took him to the groomer. I was just going to go pick him up."

"Are you free tonight?" she asked hopefully.

He caught the tone in her voice and said, "I can be if you need me to be. What’s up, Sis? You sound kinda down."

"I’m okay," she said, fibbing just a little. "I guess it just feels funny to be home without Jamie," she admitted, getting to the crux of the matter.

"I’ll swing by and get you on my way to pick up Duff. We can have a bite to eat before I go out tonight." He was in full-on big brother protector mode now, and Ryan was very touched by his thoughtfulness.

"You don’t have to do that," she assured him. "Are you going out with Maggie tonight?"

"Yeah, but she went in to work today, and I haven’t heard from her. Don’t they always tell women not to be too available? Maybe I should play a little harder to get." His deep voice rumbled through the phone, and Ryan once again thought that the woman who snared Brendan was a lucky woman indeed.

"Well…" She really did want to spend some time with her brother, but she didn’t want to upset his plans. "I’d love to have dinner with you, but I don’t want to mess up your evening."

"Nah. Don’t worry about it. We’re still spending most of our time uh…not talking," he laughed. "As long as we get together by ten, we can still have our usual entertainment."

"It’s a deal," Ryan said, sounding as relieved as she really was. "I’ll be waiting for you."

She dashed downstairs and stripped out of her oversized basketball clothes, reasoning that they’d probably stop some place decent for dinner, knowing Brendan. Slipping into a clean pair of jeans and a khaki colored cotton shirt, she ran a comb through her hair and dashed back upstairs, smiling to herself when she saw Brendan’s dark head through the window in the front door. He’s a quick one, she thought, admiring her brother’s chronic punctuality.

They stopped to pick up Duffy first, since the groomer was closing soon, then they had to find a spot they could eat with the exuberant dog in tow. Luckily, Barney’s on 24th Street had an outdoor patio, and they were able to hook the leash on the white picket fence that separated the diners from pedestrians. Duffy would have preferred a long walk, a run in the park, or an hour with his doggy pals, but he was so glad to have Ryan home that he happily settled down to wait.

"So, tell me all about camp," Brendan encouraged, looking at his sister with genuine interest.

"Not much to tell, other than two-a-days for a week. It was pretty taxing, to be honest. I think coach wanted to make an impression on us. He did," she laughed wryly.

"Was it really rough being away from Jamie for a week?" he asked, cocking his head slightly.

"Oooh…" Ryan moaned, dropping her head in her hands. "I am sooooo whipped. I never thought this would happen to me, Bren, but I can hardly breathe without her!"

"I feel your pain," Brendan laughed, realizing that he was in the same straits as his sister. "Who would have thought that half of the O’Flahertys would fall in the same year?"

Three fifths, Bren, she thought to herself, the mathematician in her always striving for accuracy. Speaking of which, I need to speak with Da about making his news public. I hate having secrets from my brothers.

"So, when is your keeper coming back?" Brendan asked, a playful smile on his face.

"Not until tomorrow afternoon," Ryan sighed, still unhappy about the arrangements. "Luckily, I’ll have Caitlin with me to pass the time, but it’s gonna be tough. I might show up at the airport at dawn on the off chance that she’ll be early."

Smiling at her obvious hyperbole, Brendan asked, "Are you sure that you know what you’re in for, keeping Caitlin for the better part of a week? I’d have thought that you two would want to be alone."

"We do," his sister admitted. "But we also want to watch the baby to give Tommy and Annie a little time alone. This is the way the schedule worked out. If we could just have one day alone it would be nice," she mused. "But it doesn’t look like that will happen."

"Damn, I wish I could help you out, but I’m in trial this week and I’ve got to spend tomorrow prepping. Da’s got to work tomorrow, too, and Aunt Maeve has her big thing for the Hibernians," he reminded her.

"Oh, right," she nodded, remembering that her aunt had been working on the social group's annual fundraiser for months now. "What’s Conor up to?" she asked, looking for any help she could get.

"Niall’s putting in his new driveway. They’re over there tonight trying to get the bed level."

"Can you explain why that guy needs a brick driveway?" Ryan asked, shaking her head. "Other than as another delaying tactic so he doesn’t have to move out, of course."

Brendan shrugged his broad shoulders, as his eyes rolled dramatically. "I’d say that is the only logical reason," he agreed. "His concrete drive was perfectly fine, but he says brick is more elegant." He chuckled softly, shaking his head as he added, "This from a guy who’s using lawn furniture in his living room."

"Ah well, the good news is that Niall will be beholden to every one of us for the rest of his life," Ryan decided, making the best of the situation.

"At least!" Brendan agreed. Surreptitiously slipping Duffy a cracker, he asked, "So, how are things going with Jamie? I mean, I know you’re head over heels, but I got the impression that you were having some trouble with her parents."

"Not parents—father," Ryan corrected. "Her mom has been beyond wonderful, much to Jamie’s surprise." Their food arrived and both O’Flahertys spent a few minutes gobbling down a substantial portion of the meal in silence. Once the edge was off of her appetite, Ryan continued with her explanation. "I could actually use a little advice here, Bren," she said thoughtfully.

"Go," he urged, in his usual succinct style.

"The day I left for camp, he showed up at the house." Brendan’s eyebrow lifted, in a gesture very reminiscent of the one his sister habitually made. "Yeah," she said. "It was a little tense."

"He didn’t hurt you, did he?" her older brother asked, the menace in his tone entirely intentional.

"No, he’s not stupid. Manipulation and intimidation are his things," she said derisively.

"What happened? What did he even want from you?"

She sighed heavily, reaching over to pat Duffy, which always calmed her down. "It’s kinda complex, but the bottom line is that he thinks I’m after her money."

He looked quite surprised and said, "I thought it would be homophobia. Are you sure the money isn’t just a subterfuge to mask his intolerance?"

"No, I’m not sure, but I think I believe him. I mean, he also doesn’t think Jamie’s gay, but that seems like a side issue. He seems to think that she’ll outgrow this ‘crush’ that she has, but he’s afraid that I’ll have run through all of her money by then."

"Yeah…that’s you, all right," he said, rolling his eyes at the mere thought. "I can tell he’s really taken the time to get to know you."

"No, of course he hasn’t," she agreed, "but at this point, I don’t know how to proceed. He ordered me out of the house, and he said that he’s going to stop Jamie from supporting me this year."

"WHAT?!" Their neighboring diners all stared in their direction, and Duffy put his tail between his legs and looked guiltily in their direction, not sure of what he had done, but figuring that he was being yelled at anyway.

"You heard me," Ryan said. "He’s playing rough."

"What does Jamie have to say about this? I’m surprised she didn’t come home and throw a fit."

"Umm…that’s the part I need your advice about," Ryan informed him, looking a little guilty herself.

"Don’t tell me that you’ve kept this from her." His brow had furrowed, and he gazed at her with a look of stark concern.

"Uh…okay, I won’t tell you that." Her eyes grew wide as she shrugged her shoulders, looking very much like an adolescent.

He leaned back in his chair, shaking his head slowly. "That’s a dangerous game, Ryan. Hiding things from someone you’re supposed to share everything with is rarely a good idea."

"I agree," she nodded, "but I thought it was the proper thing to do in this situation. She’s very volatile when it comes to her father, and I knew she’d hop on the first plane and have it out with him. Given his mood when I saw him, it just seemed like that was a recipe for disaster. I hate to think for her, but it just felt to me like it would be best to tell her in person. I’ll be there to stop her from doing something that she’ll eventually regret."

"Okay," he said thoughtfully, leaning back in his chair. "I guess I can see that. Did he tell you to move out immediately?"

"No, he said I had to be out when Jamie got back. He seems to think he can make her stay in Rhode Island for the whole month of August."

"Make her?" Brendan asked slowly. "I’ve only known Jamie for a short while, and I wouldn’t be foolish enough to think I could ‘make her’ do anything! Doesn’t he know who he’s dealing with?"

"Apparently not," Ryan muttered. "But I’m afraid he’s gonna find out—soon."

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Guess where I am?" Ryan asked when she finally got hold of her lover.

"Hmmm…your voice sounds kinda funny," Jamie mused. "Let’s see…it’s nine o’clock there, you’re probably at home, and you sound a little muffled. I’d guess that you’re in our cozy little bed."

"You are so good at this," Ryan praised. "You really should consider being one of the telephone psychics."

"It’s on my list, Love. We liberal arts majors don’t have as many opportunities available as you science and math types do."

"Don’t worry your pretty little liberal head," Ryan joked. "I’ll happily support you." And I just might have to if your father has his way, she thought, that secret still eating at her.

"I’ll happily let you," Jamie replied, finding it adorable that her partner was fully willing to do so, even though it would never be necessary. Sighing deeply she asked wistfully, "Does our bed feel nice?" She herself was lying in bed amidst the sumptuous feel of Egyptian cotton sheets and plump eiderdown pillows, but she longed for the lumpy old mattress, foam pillows, and nearly threadbare sheets that surrounded her beloved partner.

"Not really," Ryan sighed. "Without you, it’s just a bed. It’s when we’re in it together that it becomes magical."

"It is magical, isn’t it?" Jamie asked, stretching out languidly and rolling over onto her stomach.

"It sure is," Ryan purred, unknowingly mirroring her partner’s posture. "It’s just wood and steel and cotton batting and foam, but when you’re here with me, it’s nirvana."

Jamie signed heavily, her need to be near her partner rising to painful proportions. "Do you think you miss me as much as I miss you?" she asked softly.

"I don’t know," Ryan answered in her usual thoughtful style. "I do know that I’ve never had a week pass so slowly, nor have I ever slept so poorly or been so preoccupied. Thank God that playing ball is so ingrained in me that it’s nearly automatic, because I was so inattentive this week that coach would have kicked me off the team!"

"I feel scattered, too," Jamie agreed. "I’ve been much more tired than normal, and more emotional, too."

"Ha! I almost cried while I was braiding Jordan’s hair last night. Try looking mature in front of your teammates when you do that!"

"Ooohh, why did you almost cry, Sweetheart?"

"I’m not sure," Ryan mused. "I just felt lonely, even though the whole team was there. It reminded me of my mother, and I was missing you and before I knew it, I felt this knot in my chest, and I almost let loose with the waterworks!"

"My poor baby," Jamie soothed, her voice low and soft and comforting. "I can’t wait to wrap you in my arms and kiss all of those sad thoughts away."

Ryan sniffed a little, still feeling much more emotional than usual. "I miss you, Jamie," she said, her voice hoarse with feeling.

"I miss you too, Honey," Jamie agreed, wrapping her arm around her tiger and giving her a substitute hug. "Less than 24 hours, Babe."

"Sixteen hours and…five minutes," Ryan sniffed, a smile making its way onto her face despite her tears.

"Is Duffy with you?" Jamie asked, knowing full well that the big black dog had likely claimed her spot in the bed.


"I want you two to go to sleep now, and cuddle up next to each other for at least eight hours. Then we only have to get through another eight. Okay, Honey?"

"Okay," Ryan yawned, her exhaustion prevailing over her sadness, "we’ll try." She patted the space next to her, and her happy pet left the foot of the bed, where he had slept since he was a pup, and nestled immediately into Jamie’s usual spot. She rested her head against his back and said, "He just had a bath but he still doesn’t smell as nice as you do."

"You are such a romantic, Ryan," Jamie laughed. "It’s wonderful to know that I smell better than a dog."

"This isn’t just any dog," Ryan teased. "Very few women would win that contest, I’ll have you know."

"I gratefully accept the honor. He’s an extraordinary dog who has an extraordinary mommy, who I love very, very much."

"Love you too," Ryan murmured sleepily. "I’ve been waiting all week to say this…see you tomorrow, Jamie."

* * * * * * * * * * *

A very light touch on her exposed arm woke Jamie on Sunday morning. "For such a sound sleeper, you certainly do wake up easily," her mother observed from her position on the edge of the bed.

"Gggrrrr." The unhappy growl that escaped Jamie’s lips was followed by a mumbled, "I’m trying to sleep until we have to leave." Her eyes were still firmly closed, and Catherine could clearly see the child that still remained in her daughter’s personality.

"You’ve done pretty well, Dear," the older woman observed, checking her watch. "It’s nearly ten."

"What?! I had no idea that I could really DO it!" She jumped to her feet, forgetting that she was wearing only Ryan’s T-shirt. Luckily, the length of the shirt was just enough to cover her, so she was spared that little bit of embarrassment. "I have to get packed and have some breakfast! We have to leave at 10:30!"

"Relax, Honey. I brought some breakfast up for you, and I’ll happily pack for you while you take a shower. Go on now," she urged, touching Jamie lightly on the back.

"You sure?" the childlike face asked.

"Positive. I’ll have you packed up in a jiffy."

Impulsively kissing her mother on the cheek, Jamie dashed for the shower, humming a happy little tune as she went.

This is, without a doubt, the nicest trip I’ve ever taken, Catherine mused as she reached up and touched the spot on her cheek that still held the barest bit of moisture from her daughter’s lips.

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.

Part 13

As they drove along on the way to the airport Ryan chatted excitedly with her young companion. "Do you know where we’re going, Munchkin? We’re going to get Jamie! Yes, Jamie! Do you miss her as much as I do?"

Caitlin caught Ryan’s excitement and shrieked so loudly as she banged away on her car seat that Ryan feared her eardrums would burst. How stupid am I? I’m alone with the baby in the back seat, and I’m intentionally trying to whip her into a frenzy! The little girl could just reach the door panel with her foot and she kicked it for all she was worth during the 30-minute drive, her stamina simultaneously pleasing and vexing her cousin. Ryan had nothing to offer as an alternative, so the banging continued unabated for long miles. Okay, first lesson of parenthood, Ryan thought, Never get in a car alone with a child. That should be easy enough to accomplish, she thought wryly.

When they arrived at the airport it was just 12:30, giving her at least 30 minutes to get to the gate. She checked Caitlin’s diaper and gave her a quick change just to make sure she was fresh smelling for her beloved Jamie. Grabbing a biscotto for a snack, they made their way to the terminal.

After sailing through security they were still 20 minutes early, so Ryan decided to spend the time freshening up. Ducking into a gift shop, she bought a travel toothbrush, managing to keep Caitlin’s grasping hands from snagging any of the brightly colored items near the cash register. The restroom was equipped with a wide, sturdy, pullout changing table, and Ryan sat the baby on the surface while she brushed her teeth. Of course, Caitlin begged to get into the act, so as soon as Ryan finished with her own, they spent ten minutes brushing Caitlin’s mostly illusory choppers. When they were finished, the toothpaste covered her round face more than her teeth, but she'd had a very good time, so both of the cousins were happy. Giving the babe a kiss on her minty fresh cheek, Ryan pulled out her comb and tried to create some order with the flyaway strands of white-blonde hair. She finally wet her hands and slicked down every recalcitrant piece, giving the baby a wet but neat look. After carefully combing her own hair to remove all of the tangles that Caitlin had so meticulously put in it, they were ready to go.

A bored voice was announcing the flight's arrival just as they walked into the waiting area and they went over to the window to watch the huge 767 roll up to the gate. Ryan was so nervous that she babbled constantly to the baby, explaining that Jamie and her mommy were on the plane, but Caitlin was much more interested in slapping her own reflection in the window and screaming at the top of her lungs.

When the gate attendant opened the double doors, Ryan jumped into the air a few times to see over the assembled crowd. Her heart was racing and it nearly exploded in her chest when she spotted Jamie’s blonde head bobbing down the jet-way. There were only three people in front of her, and Ryan briefly wondered how many people her lover had knocked over to get out so quickly, but when those bright green eyes locked onto hers like a pair of heat-seeking guided missiles, every other thought evaporated.

Every other person faded away as the small but determined woman pushed through the crowd, the widest grin imaginable on her face. Ryan gave her a megawatt smile in return, and as the baby caught sight of Jamie she started to shriek, jumping wildly in Ryan’s arms. Jamie trotted the 20 feet or so that separated them, opening her arms to Caitlin, who was leaning so far forward in Ryan’s arms that she was on the verge of falling. Her little arms were stretched as far as they could go and she grunted loudly in frustration, trying to reach Jamie.

Caitlin’s shrieks of joy could be heard throughout the entire terminal when her wish was finally granted and she was enveloped in Jamie’s warm embrace. The taller blonde swung her around in a little circle, then raised her to her face and kissed her cheeks, as she allowed the baby to bestow her patented open-mouthed kiss/sucks.

Ryan was struggling with her desire to elbow the baby out of the way, but she somehow managed to control herself. She was almost startled to look up and see Catherine standing beside her partner, a look of sheer delight on the older woman’s face. "My God, Jamie, she looks just like you!" she exclaimed.

Turning to her mother, Jamie gave her a pleading look and asked, "Would you hold her for a minute? If I don’t kiss Ryan in the next two seconds I’m gonna spontaneously combust!"

It was hard to tell who looked more shocked by that statement, but an impartial judge would likely have awarded the prize to Catherine. Her big brown eyes grew very round and she took an involuntary step back. Her arms had dropped to her sides, and she looked like she had been asked to hold a pipe bomb, but she rallied for her daughter and extended both hands tentatively.

The look on her face was nearly comical, but she did her best to accept the equally hesitant bundle. Pausing a second to make sure Caitlin would tolerate the handoff, Jamie turned back to her partner and launched herself right into her arms, causing Ryan to let out a startled "ooof" when their bodies impacted.

Shimmering green eyes looked up into Ryan’s as Jamie begged, "Kiss me like you missed me."

Her wish was immediately granted as Ryan tossed her inhibitions aside, dipping her head as she slid her arms tightly around her lover’s torso, lifting her slightly off her feet. Ryan’s eyes fluttered closed as she paused for just a breath, her lips mere millimeters from their goal. As much as she needed to kiss her partner, she needed to feel her breath on her cheek and her solid warmth in her arms. The sensations were so overpowering that her knees nearly buckled, but she focused and placed her lips against Jamie’s, tasting her sweetness, feeling the heat of her skin, and reveling in the reassuring familiarity of their bodies pressed tightly together.

As the kiss progressed, Ryan could feel her brain give up all volitional control of her body. A distant voice told her that they were in a very public place and that Jamie’s mother was standing nearby, but she could not force her very happy body to give up one second of this delicious gift. The blood was pounding in her veins, and she could feel it rushing to her head as a wave of dizziness descended over her. Lowering her partner to the ground, Ryan tried to pull back but Jamie held her tight, refusing to give up an inch of her possession.

Ryan finally pulled her head away to take a breath, but Jamie grasped her face with both hands and held it tightly while she kissed all over her mouth and chin with delicate little butterfly kisses, the sensations too compelling to stop.

Warm hands caressed her back, reassuring Jamie with their soft touch. Finally releasing Ryan, Jamie dropped her forehead, where it rested upon Ryan’s as they took in a deep collective breath.

As her brain started to exert some control, Ryan lifted her head to see Catherine standing at the window, pointing things out to a very interested Caitlin. The baby was munching on Catherine’s heavy gold pendant, and both females looked very content to be in each other’s company.

Ryan grasped Jamie’s hand and walked the short distance, giving Catherine a broad smile.

She was unsure of how to greet the older woman, extending first a hand, then leaning forward a little for a kiss. Catherine sensed her uncertainty, smiling at Jamie as she handed the baby back. Placing a hand on Ryan’s shoulder she gently pulled her forward, kissing both of her cheeks. As the taller woman stood, Catherine took out a handkerchief and removed her daughter’s lip-gloss from Ryan’s face. "Never put on a fresh coat of lipstick before you greet your beloved, Jamie," she teased. "Haven’t you read the manual?"

"I wouldn’t complain if she threw a can of paint on me," Ryan said truthfully, a dazed yet blissful expression on her face.

"That’s rather obvious, Ryan," the older woman said fondly. "You look rather stunned, Dear, are you feeling all right?"

Ryan just nodded, her eyes blinking slowly as she tried to regain control of all of her faculties.

Jamie had snuggled up under Ryan’s chin, resting her head against the strong chest as Ryan draped her arm around her back, settling her hand on her waist. Ryan’s head dropped until her chin rested on her lover’s head, and she closed her eyes tightly as she took in her familiar sweet scent. "This is the best I’ve felt in a week," the dark-haired woman murmured as Catherine chuckled at the display.

The baby was itching to get back to Jamie as well as join in the hug, so Catherine handed her over, smiling at the little tableau. Jamie snuggled her up tight between their bodies and the happy little baby gurgled and smiled, feeling very content and well loved.

"I’m going to let you three get home now," Catherine said. "You don’t have to wait with me, Honey. I’ll just grab a limo from the luggage area."

The thought of her mother-in-law fending for herself snapped Ryan out of her reverie. "No!" she said forcefully. "We’ll take you home."

"There’s no need, Ryan, a limo is the most convenient thing."

"That might be, Catherine, but you’re family. I’d never hear the end of it if my father knew I didn’t drive you home."

"But Ryan," she began, but Ryan cut her off decisively.

"I assure you, the lecture I'd get would take longer than the time it takes to drive you, Catherine."

"All right, dear," she said, patting Ryan’s cheek. "But it’s really not necessary."

"Humor her, Mother," Jamie advised. "The O’Flahertys have strange ways. I’ve learned it’s best not to argue." She giggled wildly as Ryan gave her a hard little pinch on her waist.

They walked down the concourse together, Jamie chattering away in her animated style. Catherine noticed that Ryan hardly said a word, but she knew that when Jamie was excited it was hard to get a turn. Ryan certainly did not look like she minded, however, the blissful smile on her face giving ample evidence of her euphoria. The baby was babbling away as she rode on Ryan’s left hip and Jamie was latched onto her right arm, talking a blue streak while she gestured with her free hand. Ryan turned her attention to each blonde in order, apparently keeping track of both conversations simultaneously.

The younger women were so oblivious that they walked along at their own pace, leaving Catherine to follow a few feet behind. Gazing at the threesome as they moved along, Catherine was struck by how tremendously happy her daughter seemed. Jamie had always been mature for her age, but in the last few years she had developed a certain weightiness to her personality that had caused Catherine some concern. She hadn’t seemed like a 19- or 20-year-old girl, and Catherine had noticed that she seemed older and more cautious than her friends. But with Ryan she seemed bubbly and light, much more like she had been as a child. It wasn’t that she seemed any less mature--in fact, she seemed more reasoned and confident than ever--but she was more playful now, and obviously much more affectionate.

One of Catherine’s main worries about Jamie’s engagement to Jack was how careful they seemed around each other. They were sweet together, and he was always very attentive, but they never looked like there was much intensity between them. Obviously, Catherine did not expect her daughter to behave in a scandalous manner, but she never sensed an underlying sexual tension between Jamie and Jack.

With Ryan, however, the tension was so thick you could see it. The energy was just crackling off Jamie as they young women walked down the corridor together. And even though Ryan was much quieter, and more controlled, some of the looks she gave Jamie truly radiated desire.

Catherine was happy to have the young women take her home, but she truly hated to impose. It was clear that Jamie wanted to get her hands on Ryan as soon as possible, and she hated to delay that any longer than necessary. But Ryan was obviously a determined young woman, and Catherine realized that when Ryan said she was taking you home, you might as well get in the car.

As they approached the baggage area, Ryan offered to go fetch the car and bring it up to the curb. Catherine could see the longing in Jamie’s eyes to join her, so she generously offered, "You go with her, Jamie, and I’ll have a skycap bring my bags out."

"Are you sure?" Jamie asked hopefully, sparing a glance at Ryan to see if she approved.

"Of course, Dear. Now you two get going." Ryan grinned at her partner, clearly happy to get her alone for a minute, but Catherine realized that they would have a pretty big distraction if the baby accompanied them. Steeling her nerves, she made an offer that amazed both the young women and herself. "Why don’t you leave the baby with me, Ryan, I think you might need both hands to defend yourself," she added with a chuckle.

Jamie blinked in surprise, but her brow furrowed as she said, "I don’t think she’d like Ryan leaving her, Mom. They’re practically attached at the hip."

"Don’t be so sure, Honey," Ryan corrected her, her eyebrows waggling. "I have a secret weapon. She handed Caitlin to Catherine and extracted the biscotto from her pocket. The little green eyes lit up in delight as the little girl reached for the cookie. Ryan guided them over to a chair by dangling the cookie in front of the lunging baby while Catherine got her settled in her lap. The older woman looked quite unsure of her capabilities, but Caitlin didn’t seem to notice, having eyes only for her favorite cookie. When they looked comfortable, Ryan handed the highly desired object over. "Are you sure you don’t mind?" Ryan asked Catherine as she watched the little teeth immediately begin sawing away. "She’ll get crumbs all over you."

"I’d really enjoy it," she admitted, a faint blush stealing up her cheeks. "It’s almost like having Jamie’s babyhood back."

"Okay," Ryan whispered, as she slowly backed away, watching Caitlin’s reaction to her departure. As quietly as possible she added, "We’ll be back in a few."

She grabbed Jamie’s hand and the pair ran down the wide hallway, then crossed the street and rode the elevator up to the third floor of the garage. Not a word had been spoken on the whole jaunt, but they held hands so tightly that their fingers were beginning to grow numb. They nearly sprinted for the car, and as Ryan hit the remote, the doors unlocked and Jamie grabbed the rear door and opened it wide.

Beaming a lecherous smile, Ryan slid across the leather seating, and waited for Jamie to join her. To her surprise, the smaller woman hopped in, closed the door and maneuvered herself onto Ryan’s lap, her back resting against the far door.

As Jamie settled her weight against her lover’s body, she slowly lowered her head, closed her eyes and parted her lips, welcoming Ryan’s long awaited touch. Tenderly, and with aching slowness, the dark woman brushed her lips against Jamie’s waiting mouth, astounded at the softness and warmth of the lips she had spent every night dreaming about. Jamie moaned against her mouth, needing more—much more. She raised her hands and grasped Ryan’s head and began to kiss her deeply, sliding her tongue into her mouth as Ryan let out a soft moan. Their breath merged as their hearts began to race, the warmth growing in their chests as their bodies molded into each other. Jamie’s caresses became more insistent and more fevered, and within a minute they were panting softly as they sought deeper and firmer contact.

Ryan was quickly losing her ability to reason as Jamie wrapped her arms even tighter around her body, pressing her warm, soft breasts against her. Her senses warred with each other—her body begged for surrender, while her brain urged reason. With a grunt of effort, she gritted her teeth and pulled her head away from Jamie’s ravenous mouth. "Honey," she panted, "we have to stop!"

Jamie’s eyes were already wild with desire, but they grew wider as Ryan’s words registered. "Stop?! I can’t stop," she growled as she slipped her hand behind Ryan’s neck and pulled her to her waiting mouth once again.

Ryan used all of her strength to grasp her ravenous partner by the shoulders and push her away firmly. "Your mother! Caitlin!" was all she could choke out.

That seemed to reach Jamie’s cerebellum. She dropped her head back and tried to control her breathing as she released her vise-like grip on Ryan. Then she shook her head to clear it as she slid her arms around her neck for one last lingering kiss. She smiled at her sweetly as they broke apart and leaned over to whisper in her ear. Blinking slowly, the dark woman shook her head to clear it, murmuring, "You expect me to drive while I’m thinking about that? Cruel, Jamie. Absolutely cruel!"

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

After they had straightened their clothes as much as possible, they drove like hell to get to the baggage area. A happy Catherine, a giggling Caitlin, and a disgruntled skycap all stood on the sidewalk waiting for the Lexus to pull up. To Ryan’s experienced eye, it was obvious that baby-holding was not something that Catherine did frequently, but the baby didn’t look like she minded one bit. Once again she had her chubby little hand wrapped around the gold chain that Catherine wore, yanking for all she was worth.

Sparing a quick glance in the rear-view mirror to check her appearance, Ryan’s fears were confirmed. She and her partner looked exactly like what they had been doing, but she assumed that Catherine knew what to expect when she sent them off. Still, she struggled to keep her shirt collar closed when she noticed that her neck sported a clear set of teeth marks.

Ryan hopped out after she hit the remote for the rear lift gate. "I’m sorry that took us so long," she apologized when she caught Catherine’s eye.

"Don’t be silly," Catherine assured her. "You were only gone a few moments."

The skycap looked at her like she was crazy, but his attitude improved radically when Catherine handed him a 50-dollar bill. "Thank you for waiting with me," she said politely, adding a genuine smile.

"Anytime, ma’am," he replied, his mood brightening appreciably. "I’ve gotta say, that’s one good-looking baby you have there. She looks just like you."

Catherine was beaming as she got in the rear seat with the baby. "That’s the nicest compliment I’ve had all day," she informed Jamie as she settled in. "He thought Caitlin was mine."

"Gee, Mom, you could easily have a baby Caitlin’s age. You’re only 41."

"I suppose I could," she admitted, "but I think my calling is as a grandmother. I think I’ll be much better at that role."

Ryan opened the opposite rear door and wrestled Caitlin into her car seat, ignoring her pathetic entreaties to be allowed to stay on Catherine’s lap. Her new best friend silenced her when she slipped the heavy gold rope from her neck and handed it to the baby, allowing her to whap Ryan on the head with it several times. "Ah…sorry, Ryan," Catherine blushed as Ryan bobbed and weaved. "I should have waited until you were finished."

"No problem," she smiled, happy that Catherine was being such a good sport. "Did everything go okay while you waited?"

"Just fine, Ryan. She’s such a sweet baby, I can’t imagine her giving anyone a bit of trouble."

"Oh, she has her moments," Ryan assured Jamie’s mother, rolling her eyes dramatically. "But generally she’s incredibly happy."

Ryan finished securing her cousin, then hopped back into the driver’s seat. "How did your last day go?" she asked, casting a quick glance into the mirror to make eye contact with Catherine. "Did everyone else leave yesterday?"

"Sara took Trey and Stephanie to New York this morning. She’s flying with them to Italy to check them into the treatment center." Catherine shook her head slowly. "There but for the grace of God, go I." She shuddered visibly, enormously glad that she was not the one consigned to chaperone the pair. "Adam and Carolyn left yesterday afternoon. I got the impression that Skip, John, Claire, and JC were planning on staying for the rest of the month."

Ryan had almost no idea what she was talking about, but she knew that Jamie would fill her in later. "JC wasn’t very happy about that when I spoke to him this morning," Jamie related. "He said it’s much harder to suck up to his grandfather when Trey isn’t around. Apparently, he gives a better impression when compared to his cousin."

Ryan gave her partner a half smile, unsure of what her reaction should be. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I try to compete with my cousins for my grandparents’ favor, she thought. Of course, my grandparents are about 1,000 pounds away from being on the dole, but I can’t imagine feeling that way even if we were wealthy. I think these kids just don’t have any moral fiber! Looking at Catherine in the rear view mirror, Ryan said, "I’m sorry your vacation was so stressful for you both."

"Thank you, Dear. But to be honest, I had a wonderful time."

"You did?" Ryan asked in amazement, thinking that the events Jamie described would have ruined the trip for the entire family.

"Yes, I did. I actually feel quite guilty about it, but I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I think I learned more about my daughter in the last week than I had learned in the previous 21 years," she said softly, "and I can’t tell you how pleased I am with the young woman she has become."

"You shouldn’t feel guilty about that," Jamie insisted. "We did have a good time together, but you were also really helpful to Claire and Sara."

Catherine nodded, acknowledging Jamie’s point. "I think it made me feel guilty to see how poorly my cousins’ children have turned out, given that I didn’t perform any better as a parent than they did."

Ryan saw the sad look in her eyes and tried to lighten the mood. She shot Catherine a big grin as she heartily agreed with her assessment of Jamie, "She is extraordinary, isn’t she?"

Jamie reached over and squeezed her knee affectionately. "Enough, you two! You’re embarrassing me."

Ryan gave her a smile that was filled with love as she reminded her, "Don’t be embarrassed about being special, Jamie. You should take pride in who you are."

Jamie returned her smile, blushing a little as she said softly, "I do, Ryan." From her vantage point of the back seat, Catherine couldn’t help but watch the interplay between the young lovers. Whenever traffic slowed to a stop, Ryan would reach over and touch Jamie’s leg or grasp her hand. For her part, Jamie was touching some part of her partner on the whole ride. They didn’t speak a lot, but they gave each other loving, longing looks every time they had the opportunity. Catherine noticed that even though Ryan’s voice was calm, her hands shook a little as she held the wheel. She knew from their disheveled appearances that they had done more than steal a few kisses in the parking lot, and she wondered if they would be able to make it home safely. Ryan seemed more distracted than was probably safe, and she worried that also having to watch the baby would make it worse. Jamie was clearly not making matters easy for the brunette, squeezing her thigh and trailing her hand up her leg in a fashion that was obviously more stimulating than comforting.

By the time they reached the house, Ryan’s jaw was set in a tight grimace and her hands were gripping the wheel painfully hard. Her manners took precedence over her desires, and she hopped out quickly to unload the bags, then nearly dropped the heaviest one on her foot when she was hit in the face by the notion of what she way about to do. Am I abso-fucking-lutely insane?? Jim orders me to stay away from Jamie, and I not only flaunt his order, I bring his wife home from the airport! Jesus! I hope he doesn’t pull a gun!

Catherine came around to the back of the car and Ryan stuttered, "I…I…I’ll just take your bags up to the door. I’m sure you want to spend some time with Jim." There was a definite look of panic in her clear blue eyes, and Catherine immediately grew suspicious. She didn’t think it wise to question Ryan at this point, but when she told her, "Jim’s out of town until next weekend," the young woman immediately relaxed. Hmm…I think my husband has been up to something. Ryan is usually not nervous like this. I wonder if I can track the little rat down and find out what happened.

Ryan was just running the last of the bags up to the door, anxious to get back into the car and head home, but Caitlin had begun to fuss the last few miles and now she let out a yell that made her needs quite clear. Ryan realized that the baby was hungry since she really had not eaten much all day. The last thing Ryan wanted to do was take her out of the car and feed her, but she realized that the second rule of childrearing was ‘don’t let your sexual frustration get to the point that you neglect your child,’ so she asked Catherine, "Do you mind if I bring her in to feed her?"

"Of course not, Dear," she said quickly. Her estimation of Ryan’s good qualities rose another notch as she realized that she was making sure the baby’s needs were satisfied before her own.

Caitlin was only interested in Catherine at this point, so the older woman carried her into the house, calling out for one of the servants as she entered. Turning to stare at Jamie, she looked chagrined as she said, "Everyone’s gone. I forgot that the entire staff has the month of August off, since I’m always gone."

The look on the older woman’s face was a cross between puzzlement and panic, and Ryan briefly wondered if she even knew how to make coffee in the morning. Oh well, she can afford to eat all of her meals at restaurants, or she could always hire a substitute cook for the month.

"Are you okay with this, Mom?" Jamie asked, her concern evident. "This is a big house to be alone in."

Catherine snapped out of her reverie and assured her daughter, "Oh, of course, Honey. I just forgot that everyone was gone. I’ll be fine."

Nodding suspiciously, Jamie led the way into the kitchen to get the baby set up. Ryan had seen very little of the house on her ill-fated visit, and she looked around the kitchen with obvious interest. "Wow, this is a beautiful room, Catherine."

Catherine gazed around the kitchen, trying to see it through Ryan’s eyes. She had decorated the entire house in keeping with the style of the exterior, so the home was done in a French provincial style, a little bit more formal than the house in Pebble Beach, but not too stuffy. The kitchen was beautifully decorated, and even though it contained every modern appliance, it could have been lifted from a country estate in Provence.

Jamie took a bottle of breast milk and heated it up by running it under warm water while Ryan sorted through the baby food jars to pick one that Caitlin might be interested in. She put it in a bowl that Catherine provided, and Jamie quickly heated it up.

A rustic, farmhouse-style table stood next to the semi-circular banquet under a massive window, and Ryan sat down with the baby on her lap. Jamie brought the dish over and they took turns trying to get some of the food into her. Caitlin was becoming proficient at feeding herself with her own little spoon, but Ryan wanted to make their stop as quick as possible, so they took over. Caitlin was much more interested in taking food from Jamie today, probably because Ryan was serving as the mother substitute, so after a while Ryan just sat back and let Jamie take over.

Catherine sat across the heavy oak table and watched her daughter with amazement. "Where did you learn how to handle a baby so efficiently?" she asked, looking slightly envious.

Jamie blushed a little as she replied, "I guess from Ryan." She gazed up at her lover with deep affection as she added, "I don’t know how I’d be with a difficult baby. Caitlin’s such a dream that it’s easy to make her happy."

"Did you help raise younger siblings?" Catherine asked Ryan, remembering that there were a number of children in her family.

"No, I’m the baby in the whole clan in America."

"Ahh…I recall that you mentioned that," Catherine said.

By this time, Caitlin had eaten all of the solid food she was interested in, but she definitely wanted her bottle. Jamie put her on her lap and scooted over next to Ryan. When Ryan slid her arm around Jamie’s shoulders, Caitlin sprawled across both of them as she leaned back against Jamie’s breasts to drink her milk. Jamie leaned her head against Ryan’s chest and sighed contentedly. "I’m going to have to work hard to get some weight back on you, Sweetheart," she said as she tried to find a cushy spot. "You’re just skin and bones. I can’t believe you lost so much in one week!"

"I probably lost four or five pounds," she admitted sheepishly, guessing it was more like ten. "It was hard to adjust to the meal schedule. It seemed like we were practicing when I was hungry."

The baby started to kick her leg reflexively against Ryan’s thigh so she quickly moved her free hand down to cushion the blows. Catherine gazed at the scene with rapt fascination. Jamie looked so blissfully happy in the intimate setting that it was almost embarrassing to watch, but neither woman seemed self-conscious about her presence so she stayed right where she was.

About halfway through, the baby stopped for a break. She looked interested in moving around, so Catherine stood up and extended her hands as she requested, "Let me walk her around the house for a few minutes to burn off some energy."

Jamie handed her over and snuggled closer to Ryan. "Are you sure you don’t mind?"

"Of course not, Dear. I really enjoy holding the little angel. It’s been years since I’ve been around a baby." After she had her settled on the floor, they started to walk around the huge kitchen. Catherine delicately asked, "Will you two have any time alone this week?"

"Martin’s watching her tomorrow isn’t he, Honey?" Jamie asked.

"Ahh, no," Ryan said grimacing a little. "I got mixed up on his schedule. He’s off on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday this week, which doesn’t do us a bit of good. I’m afraid we’re on our own."

Jamie looked more than a little disappointed but she rallied quickly. "That’s okay, Honey. We’ll have a little time alone when she naps. Where will she sleep, anyway?"

"Uhh…with us?" Ryan answered, knowing that was not the answer Jamie expected.

"Oh," she blinked slowly, seeing her plans for romance evaporate before her eyes. "I guess I assumed she might stay in Rory’s room."

"No, we’d never hear her if she cried. It’s not fair to get Conor involved in this, so I think we need to keep her close."

"Oh…well, I guess that’s only fair," she said, wishing they had planned this out better.

Catherine shot a worried glance at the young women, seeing the disappointment in her daughter’s eyes. The baby quickly led her from the room, making a mad dash for the dining room with Catherine right on her heels.

"I’m sorry, Baby," Ryan murmured, her breath warm against the top of Jamie’s head. "I could ask Aunt Maeve to watch her if you want to just ditch the idea."

"No, no, that’s not what I want," Jamie admitted. "I’m looking forward to this, too. I just need a little time alone with you, Love. It’s been too long," she added needlessly, looking up into Ryan’s understanding eyes.

"It certainly has," the dark-haired woman replied, dipping her head as her eyes closed, taking in the sweet warmth of Jamie’s lips.

Caitlin was busy examining the intricately carved legs of the dining table, and only by scrambling under the table after her was Catherine able to stop her from examining the table leg with her small, but surprisingly sharp teeth. She lifted her into her arms and impulsively tossed her into the air, making her squeal with delight. Well, that was unique, she thought to herself. I’m quite sure I never did that to Jamie…but Caitlin certainly seemed to enjoy it. She was careful not to jar the baby too much, remembering that it was dangerous to be too rough with an infant. Just for fun, she did it again, nearly squealing with delight right along with Caitlin. Wanting to share her happiness with her cousin, Caitlin made a beeline for the kitchen as soon as Catherine put her back onto the floor. Catherine was right behind her, laughing helplessly, but she stopped short when she caught sight of the torrid make-out session going on.

Ryan had turned in her seat and had Jamie pressed back against the banquet. She wasn’t exactly straddling her, but she was close. Jamie’s hands were laced into her hair, holding her tight as they kissed and rubbed against each other passionately, small moans escaping from both women, who were oblivious to Catherine’s presence.

More empathetic than embarrassed, Catherine cleared her throat and smiled when Ryan sat up abruptly, banging into the table when she did so. The embarrassed young woman tried to straighten her hair, while Jamie just looked flustered.

"Jamie, where are your manners?" her mother chided. "This is Ryan’s second visit, and she still hasn’t had a proper tour of the house."

The younger woman blinked slowly, thinking that her mother was either very slow-witted or was trying to ignore their clearly inappropriate behavior.

"Go on, Dear," she continued. "Take her on a little tour while I walk the baby around the grounds. I don’t think Ryan has ever seen your room, has she?" she added innocently, meeting Ryan’s understanding gaze.

"It’s okay, Catherine," Ryan assured her, exceedingly grateful for her mother-in-law’s thoughtfulness. "We’ll survive."

"Is there anyone at home today, Ryan?" the older woman persisted.

"I doubt it. My father’s at work, and my brother’s helping our cousin lay a brick driveway."

"Niall?" Jamie asked, one eyebrow raised.

"Who else?" Ryan shrugged.

"Well, I’m here, and I’d love to spend some alone time with this little charmer. I’m quite sure I can keep her entertained for the rest of the evening."

Jamie’s eyes shot open, utterly stunned by the offer. "But, Mom," she began, but her mother confidently cut her off.

"It’s been a while, Jamie, but I do have some experience with infants. Elizabeth did get a day off, you know." From the look on her face, it was clear that this was important to Catherine, so Jamie gave her partner a quick glance, pleased when Ryan nodded agreeably.

Giving Catherine a bemused smirk, Ryan stood and extended her hand to Jamie. She pulled her to her feet, then walked over to Catherine. She bent down a little and impulsively gave her a kiss on the cheek as she said, "Thanks for being so understanding, Catherine. It really has been a long week."

Catherine patted her cheek and said, "Now get going, and don’t rush back. Caitlin and I can entertain ourselves quite well."

Ryan stopped at the kitchen phone to call her house and let Conor know she wouldn’t be home for a while. No sooner had she hung up than a pretty blonde was tugging at her arm.

"Let’s go, Baby," she begged.

Ryan smiled down at her and joked, "I really do want to see the rest of the house, where do you want to start the tour?"

"I’ll give you a tour," she growled as she grabbed Ryan’s hand and began to drag her through the house. "Dining room!" she said as though calling out a stop on BART. "Living room!" she barked, not allowing Ryan time to even turn her head. "Foyer! Staircase! Landing! Hallway!" She turned sharply and marched into her room, pulling Ryan around the corner with a firm yank. "Last stop," she said as Ryan looked around.

"Nice room," the dark-haired woman got out before she felt herself being slammed against the door with all 120 pounds of her ravenous lover pressed against her. Jamie began to frantically unbutton Ryan’s blouse while kissing her deeply. This was no small task, requiring both coordination and dexterity, but she performed admirably, tossing the shirt aside as her hands roamed all over the now bare torso. Ryan just submitted to her lover’s obvious need, waiting patiently for further instructions as Jamie continued to ravage her mouth.

Her bra was quickly added to the pile of discarded clothing. Jamie sucked in a deep breath as her hands glided over the soft mounds that had been kept from her for an entire week, her eyes closing as she hefted the warm flesh in her hands. As much as she wanted to continue kissing her lover, the tempting breasts called to her, and she was compelled to answer. She regretfully left Ryan’s warm mouth and focused on the delectable bare breasts, touching and rubbing them with a wild intensity. Her head dropped to suck each aching mound into her warm mouth, lavishing love on each one in turn.

Ryan’s knees were quickly losing their ability to hold her upright, but Jamie had her pinned to the door so firmly that it hardly mattered. She fumbled for Ryan’s belt and roughly unclasped it, unzipping her pants and pushing them down hastily. Ryan sank a little lower down the door but she managed to stay upright mostly due to the weight of Jamie’s torso, which was pressing against her so fiercely that she imagined the wood grain of the door must be imprinted on her back.

My God, she’s as bad as I was when I was seventeen, Ryan laughed to herself, recalling the days when her awakening sexuality made her nearly frantic to touch her bed-partner. Though she sympathized with Jamie’s need, she didn’t agree with the plan of attack, and she felt compelled to voice her dissent.

"Can we slow down a little, Love?" she suggested, breaking Jamie’s concentration.

The smaller woman blinked up at her, not quite understanding her point. "Slow down?" she gaped. "I…I don’t think so."

"Sure we can," Ryan assured her, wrapping her arms around her in a comforting embrace. "Come on, Love, let’s just draw this out a little. Your mother doesn’t mind, and we don’t have anyplace to rush off to. Let’s make the most of our time here."

"I was making the most of it," Jamie argued, slipping a hand into Ryan’s briefs, causing her partner to gasp in a breath when determined fingers touched a warm, wet spot.

"Uh-uh-uh," Ryan chided, removing the hand. "I seem to remember a certain someone telling me that I didn’t have enough patience. Now it’s your turn, Sweetheart." Ryan stepped out of her slacks, leaving them pooled on the floor. "I’m standing here in my shorts, while you’re fully dressed. Let’s equalize that, shall we?"

"Oh, all right," Jamie agreed, playfully rolling her eyes as though she was doing Ryan a huge favor.

"This really might be the last time we can make love until Wednesday," Ryan murmured, as she moved slowly around Jamie’s body, placing delicate kisses on every bit of skin she could reach. "Let’s do it right."

"If we must," the smaller woman moaned, already feeling her control taxed to the limit.

"We must," Ryan breathed. "Trust me."

"I’m putty in your hands, Love. Do with me as you will."

Ryan slid her hands low on Jamie’s back, pulling her against her body. The smaller woman nestled against her, smiling up at her earnest face. "I want to show you just how much I missed you…how I thought of you every minute…how I missed your smell and your touch. I…I have so much to show you." Ryan’s voice cracked a little, the emotion in her heart spilling over. "God, I’ve missed you."

Tears sprang to Jamie’s eyes as she allowed herself to savor the experience of being held by her partner’s gentle hands. She blinked back the tears, thankful that her partner had the presence of mind to curtail her passionate gropings and allow them to satisfy the need that burned brighter than their sexual desire—the elemental need to love and be loved. Burrowing her face into Ryan’s bare chest she whispered, "I missed you more than I thought possible. If I had known how hard it would be…" she trailed off, leaving the wish unstated.

Ryan nodded, knowing that there would be times in the future that they would have to be apart, but hoping those times were very rare and very distant. Right now she wanted nothing more than to merge with her beloved—to share the same blood and sinew and flesh--to be so intimately connected that no force on heaven or earth could separate them.

Her hands drifted to Jamie’s blouse, and she began to unfasten the buttons, needing to feel her partner’s skin against her own. As she pushed the fabric from her lover’s shoulders, her head dropped to sample the tempting expanse of bare skin. She allowed her tongue to dart from her mouth to languidly swipe at the smooth, fresh smelling skin, inhaling the intoxicating scent. "You smell so absolutely delicious," she murmured, interspersing soft kisses with her tastes.

"Mother bought some new perfume for me," Jamie replied, not sure if her lover actually needed feedback to her observations. "Does it suit me?"

"Mmm-hmm," Ryan breathed, inhaling the sweet/spicy scent deep into her lungs. "It reminds me of one time on the AIDS Ride when we camped by a citrus grove. I could smell the orange and lemon blossoms all night long—it was so fantastic that I almost couldn’t sleep."

"That’s good to know," Jamie purred. "The last thing I want is for you to fall asleep."

Her low, sexy chuckle caused the hairs on the back of Ryan’s neck to rise, and the dark-haired woman hastened to assure her, "I’m about as far from sleepy as the human animal can get. I’m most definitely…alert." Her eyes were glimmering with desire, and as Jamie looked deep into those clear blue depths she felt her heart surge with love for the wonderful woman who held her close.

Ryan nestled her face into the crook of Jamie’s neck, her hands moving slowly up the smooth back, tracing the firm, supple muscles hidden under the soft skin. The smaller woman blinked in surprise when suddenly her bra was hanging loosely from her shoulders. How in the world does she do that? she wondered, continually amazed at Ryan’s effortless dexterity.

The large, warm hands trailed down her belly, the strong thumbs caressing the striated muscle in Jamie’s abdomen. With her breath catching at the teasing touch, Jamie allowed her head to drop back, exposing her entire torso to Ryan’s appreciative gaze. "You are so breathtakingly beautiful," Ryan murmured, dipping her head to place a slow, soft kiss on Jamie’s lips. "It’s so wonderful to hold you again." The sincere, vulnerable expression on Ryan’s face caused Jamie’s heart to clench, the emotion threatening to spill out once again.

"Take me to bed, Ryan," she whispered. "I want to feel your body touching mine."

Her desire was immediately fulfilled as Ryan bent and swooped her up into her arms. Jamie’s hands went to the sculpted back, lightly running her fingers over the curves and dips that the effort created. "My God," the smaller woman murmured as she examined the body that she craved. "I swear you’re more muscular than ever." Her hands continued to roam freely, hoping that Ryan would hold her in her arms for a while so she could continue to enjoy the experience.

"No, I don’t think so," Ryan demurred. "I’ve just got a little less flesh covering my muscles. My body fat’s at an all-time low."

"We have to fix that," Jamie worried. "You can’t play your sport if you don’t have some reserves."

"Yes, mom," Ryan teased, gently depositing her partner on the bed. "You can fatten me up as much as you wish."

"I don’t mean to nag, Sweetheart, but I’m worried about you." Ryan was leaning over her partner’s prone body, and Jamie could clearly see the outline of every rib.

The shriek of a happy baby echoed up to the room, and Ryan shot her partner a grin as she moved to the window to investigate. Catherine was chasing the child around on the pristine green lawn, both blondes on their knees. It was hard to tell who was having a better time, since both heads were tossed back in laughter, but Ryan was quite certain that she had never seen her mother-in-law look so absolutely joyful. "Somebody is going to be a very good grandmother," Ryan mused, smiling broadly as she turned back to her partner. "I am so glad that we came back here, Honey. Your mom’s having a ball."

"I’m glad too, Babe. God, I have so much to tell you! Mother was so amazing this entire week…" She shook her head--too many details and impressions to even begin to relate.

"You can tell me everything on the way to Disneyland tomorrow," Ryan smiled. "You’ll have my undivided attention for at least eight hours."

"Ha! If you think that, you don’t know Caitlin very well. We’ll be chattering to her the entire time, Love."

"Nah, she falls asleep just as quickly as you do in a moving car. My bigger task will be to keep you awake."

"Come to bed, Sweetheart." Jamie patted the soft surface next to her. "We’ll have lots of time to talk later."

"You’re my kinda girl," Ryan smiled, shucking her shorts and padding over to the bed naked. "Single minded determination…that’s a wonderful quality in a lover." When she reached her partner, Ryan spent a brief moment efficiently removing Jamie’s slacks and panties. "Oh yeah," she mumbled, enormously pleased by the vision that gazed up at her. "This is how I imagined you every time of thought of you."

Jamie blushed a little and opened her arms, welcoming her lover with a generous hug. "You think of me naked?"

"Uh-huh," Ryan murmured into her neck. "You have the most extraordinary body, and I love that I’m one of the few people privileged to see it."

"You are so good for my ego, Ryan O’Flaherty," she said fondly. "When a woman who could stop traffic tells me I’m beautiful, it really turns my head."

"Your head should constantly be turned," Ryan insisted. "I missed every gorgeous part of you, and I intend to show you just how I feel about you and your stunning body."

Jamie lay back on the bed, her limbs spread out to make every part of herself accessible to her partner. "Feel free to start anywhere you wish, Honey. Anywhere at all."

"I think I’ll start at the bottom and work my way up," Ryan decided after a moment’s thoughtful consideration. Shifting her body to the foot of the bed, she grasped a foot and stared at it pensively. Her finger traced a line from the tip of Jamie’s toe, all along the sensitive arch and back around to the heel. She turned the foot a little, surveying it from all angles, deep in thought. "You have the prettiest feet," she decided, lifting the appendage so that she could place some delicate kisses along the baby-soft arch. "Perfectly manicured toes, soft, smooth skin, such lovely form."

The second foot was lifted and complimented in the same manner, with Jamie holding in a giggle as Ryan’s warm, wet tongue trailed over her arch. At this rate we’ll be here for a week, but I’m not complaining, Jamie thought.

Moving up slowly, Ryan investigated and praised her calves, knees, thighs, buttocks, and the small of her back. Neither the inspection nor the attendant compliments were particularly sexual, but the sensation was decadently sensual. Jamie lay on her back, feeling Ryan slowly travel up her body, experiencing delicious tingles as she progressed.

When Ryan reached her belly, the game took on a more sexual tone, with Ryan lapping long stripes across the skin stretched taut over her quivering abs. "Mmmm, I’m starting to throb," Jamie murmured lazily, her hands loosely tangled in Ryan’s raven tresses.

Ryan continued taking lazy swipes with her tongue, her head nodding slowly as she did so. "It makes my mouth water to do this," she admitted, lifting her head to make eye contact with her partner. "I think about another little part of you that I’m going to explore with my tongue, and it makes me want to rush."

"Don’t let me stop you," Jamie offered, spreading her legs slightly, hoping that her partner would experience the scent of her arousal.

"I’m a pretty methodical person," Ryan decided, trying unsuccessfully to hide a grin. "You know—plan your work, then work your plan."

"I don’t think of you as methodical," Jamie observed. "I think you’re wild and creative and extemporaneous. Liable to scrap your plans at a moment’s notice if the need arises." There was a definite dare in her tone, and Ryan picked up on it immediately. "I think I’m both methodical and extemporaneous," she decided. "Which part of me appeals to you today, Love?"

After just a moment’s thought, Jamie lifted her knees until her feet were flat on the bed. Spreading her legs in an inviting manner, she waited until her partner’s eyes locked onto her most private part to voice her wish. "I want you to be methodical," she whispered. "I want you to methodically investigate every square inch of me…but I want you to start right here." Her fingers dipped between her legs, letting out a satisfied gasp of pleasure as she did so.

"Are you ready for me now?" Ryan asked, a little surprised that her partner was interested in fulfillment so early in the game.

"Uh-huh," Jamie whispered. "You almost always wait until I’m nearly mad with desire to touch me. Today I want to enjoy your touch for a very, very long time." Her voice was a seductive purr, and Ryan could feel the blood pounding in her head at the thought of savoring her partner for the better part of the afternoon. "Will you do that for me, Love?"

Unable to speak, her mouth alternately going dry, then flooding with moisture, Ryan’s head nodded slowly as she approached her goal. Jamie’s hands drifted down to open herself to her lover’s touch, but Ryan gently pushed them away. "No, let me," she insisted, her voice slightly husky. "Lie back and let me love you, Jamie."

Grasping a pillow for her head, Jamie did as her lover instructed, settling back into the fluffy goose-down just as Ryan’s mouth made its first contact. "Ooohh," she sighed, feeling the air slowly escape from her lungs. "That’s so nice."

"Mmm-hmm," Ryan murmured, the scent and taste of her lover causing her mouth to tingle with sensation. Pulling back to gaze at the warm, soft folds, Ryan was pleased to see that the usual signs of her lover’s desire were largely absent. Just slightly moist, the skin was its usual shade of deep pink, not the luscious dark rose that it would slowly become. Her scent held the beginnings of the distinctive complexity that it would eventually develop, but the aroma of her favorite soap still predominated, giving her a clean, fresh, slightly spicy flavor.

Ryan snuggled close to her partner, nestling her shoulders into the solid warmth of Jamie’s smooth thighs. A slow smile settled onto her face as she felt a pair of feet rest on her back, then start to move erratically as Jamie began to quiver under her determined ministrations.

Grinning inwardly Ryan mused, Either I’m really good at this, or my sweetie is the most responsive woman I’ve ever been with. Of course, there’s no reason why both statements can’t be true, she decided, taking her compliments where she found them.

She was pleased, and a little surprised by the rapid changes in her partner’s body. As her tongue trailed over every ridge and depression, the flesh plumped and darkened, the musky scent of arousal bursting from every pore.

Jamie’s hips began to twitch, her heels digging into Ryan’s back as she jerked spasmodically. Oh yeah, Ryan smiled, I love to make you move, Baby. I can’t see them, but I bet your little toes are curled up tight.

"Oh, Ryan," Jamie moaned, her fingers twined in the dark hair splayed across her thighs. "God! The things you do to me!"

Another burst of moisture coated Ryan’s tongue, smoothing the path she blazed across the throbbing flesh. Her own toes curled involuntarily as Jamie’s breath came in ragged gasps, fingers tightening in her hair. "That’s sooo good, Baby, oh yessssss."

Slipping a hand under a flexing thigh, Ryan eased a finger, then two, into her partner, her eyes closing in pleasure as she heard the deep sigh welcoming her inside. God, I’ve needed this. I am lost without this woman.

Jamie’s hips started to buck, nearly forcing Ryan away, but she managed to clamp a strong arm across them, holding her in place as the first shudders of her climax hit. The smaller woman cried out loudly, her hips dancing across the bed, Ryan’s grip rendered ineffective by Jamie’s primal need to move.

Slipping from the spasming flesh, Ryan placed a hand on each hip, pressing down firmly to hold her partner in place. Softening her tongue, she laved the throbbing flesh tenderly, determinedly loving Jamie once again, her own need having grown even as she satisfied her partner’s.

Jamie’s body had grown slightly tense and Ryan feared that she would ask her to stop. Somehow, the smaller woman sensed that her lover needed to continue, and she consciously calmed her racing heart and opened herself to being loved.

Now the heady aroma of Jamie’s passion mixed with the copious moisture that continued to flow, the combination intoxicating to Ryan’s overtaxed senses. She loved nothing more on earth than to take her nearly spent lover and revel in her essence—the slickness of her flesh, the moans that continually fell from her lips, the twitching and flexing of her muscular form. The merging of both of their needs satisfied through touching and being touched-, both women equally sated through the experience.

As Ryan’s tongue and lips continued on their quest, her own vulva began to contract and spasm, the sensation causing a shiver to chase up her spine. Her moans, muffled by her partner’s flesh, merged with Jamie’s, both voices rising in pitch as the delicious sensations multiplied and finally crested, with Jamie crying out loudly; while Ryan’s muted whimpers continued for long moments, her delicate nuzzlings never faltering.

Every muscle failed as Jamie lay sprawled out across the bed, her partner’s damp head resting on her quivering thigh. Summoning all of her energy, Jamie’s hand clumsily trailed down Ryan’s face, coming to rest on her throbbing pulse point. "Did you…?" she asked, fairly certain that Ryan’s groans signaled her climax.

"Yep." Looking very pleased with herself, Ryan managed to crawl up next to her lover. "Cool, huh?"

"You’re the coolest," Jamie agreed wholeheartedly. "That’s one talent I didn’t know that you possessed, Buffy."

"That’s my ‘Look Ma, no hands’ trick," she chuckled. "It’s a tough one to pull off, but sometimes it’s just what the doctor ordered." Running her hands through her tangled hair, Ryan shivered with the memory of their lovemaking. "I was so turned on that I had to either come or explode. I think I made the wise chose."

"Well I guess so," Jamie teased. "The servants are on holiday. Mother and I are not used to messy clean-ups."

Turning quickly, Ryan caught her partner in a fierce embrace, launching into a wild bout of tickle torture. Their gasping, shaking bodies rubbed against each other, rolling all over the surface of the big bed as they howled with laughter. Ryan’s hand slipped into a very vulnerable spot and Jamie froze, her laughter dying down as an interested look crossed her face. Locking eyes with Ryan, one dark blonde brow twitched in question, Ryan rolling her eyes in mock exasperation. "Oh, all right," she huffed. "Name your poison."

"Your tongue…right here…right now." Falling onto her back again, Jamie spread her thighs, pointing at her well-loved flesh.

Ryan’s eyes grew comically wide, but she shrugged her broad shoulders and scooted down towards the end of the bed. "Think we’ll get out of here before Caitlin’s ready for pre-school?"

"I guarantee that mother will make sure she’s enrolled in the best available," Jamie assured her. "No doubt she’ll be speaking Italian by the time she lays eyes on you again."

"I can live with that," Ryan decided, unable to think of a better way to spend the next two years.

Part 14

The loud shriek of a baby roused Jamie from sleep. Slowly lifting her arm, she recalled that when the clasp from her watch had snagged in Ryan’s hair one too many times during their frenzied lovemaking, Ryan had solved the problem by slipping it from her wrist. It now lay on the floor next to the bed, so Jamie had no idea of the time. The sun was still bright, but she was decidedly hungry, so she reasoned that it was around five, since her body and her appetite were three hours ahead.

Ryan was draped over her body, her heavy leg effectively pinning Jamie. It looked like the exhausted woman was out for the night, not moving an inch when Jamie tried to extricate herself. Finally resorting to an old standby, Jamie lightly tickled behind Ryan’s knee, and just like clockwork the larger woman drew her legs up and rolled over, curling up into a tight little ball, protecting herself in her sleep.

Slipping out of bed, Jamie crept over to the window, being careful not to wake her partner. The sight before her nearly brought tears to her eyes. Her mother had changed into her swimsuit, and she was guiding a wildly enthusiastic Caitlin around the pool. The baby was as naked as the day she was born, and she kicked her tiny feet out behind her as Catherine held her by her waist. They both looked so happy that Jamie was slightly awestruck. I’ve got to get in on this, she thought as she went into her dresser and found a suit for herself. She slipped it on and quietly padded out of the room, blowing a kiss to her partner as she silently closed the door.

When Jamie arrived on the pool deck both swimmers greeted her enthusiastically, although only one spoke much English. "I’ve decided that I’m ready to be a grandmother!" Catherine declared happily.

Jamie gave her a beaming smile before cannonballing into the water, grabbing her knees as she submerged completely. She swam over to the happy twosome and stood up behind her mother, giving her a full body hug as she reached around and kissed her cheek. "Thanks for the present, Mom, I’m not sure we could have made it all the way back to the city," she admitted with a shy grin.

"I wasn’t sure you could make it all the way to your bedroom!" the bemused woman observed. "You two really do throw off some sparks!" Jamie blushed deeply as her mother reassured her, "There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, Honey." She turned and regarded her seriously as she pulled the baby up into her arms. "I’m just happy that you enjoy each other so thoroughly. It’s hard to make a partnership work, Jamie, but if you have that physical spark it helps to even out the road."

"Does it bother you to see us be affectionate with one another?" Jamie asked, guessing that it might be difficult for her mother at first.

Catherine thought about the question for a moment as she turned slowly in the chest deep water, dragging Caitlin’s little legs with her. "No, it doesn’t ‘bother’ me in the traditional sense. It will take some time for me to be completely comfortable with it, but I’m really happy that you seem so relaxed around me. That’s the gift you’ve given me, Jamie."

"I’ll admit that it’s a conscious choice," she said. "It seems like the best way for us all to get to know one another. But I feel so relaxed with Ryan, it’s hard for me to be any other way when we’re together."

"The only hard part for me is that I’m seeing two major facets of your personality that I did not know existed. I’d never seen you be so physically expressive with Jack, and of course, I didn’t know that you preferred women. I suppose it will take me some time not to give a little start when I see you touch, but I really want you to continue to act normally around me, Honey. It’s the only way that I’ll get used to it."

They started to pass the giggling Caitlin back and forth between them, and she splashed around so forcefully that they were all three drenched in moments. After a few minutes of this animated activity Jamie resumed the conversation. "I’ve got to admit that it has been a surprise to see how easy going and accepting you are about the whole sex thing, Mom. I guess I always assumed you were pretty hung up about it."

"Really?" Catherine asked in surprise. "Why would you think that?"

"Mostly because we never talked about sex," Jamie admitted. "I learned everything from Elizabeth, and most of what she told me was pretty conservative. I guess I just assumed your views mirrored hers."

"No, Honey, I’m not terribly conservative about sex. This is just another example of my neglect," she said, a small scowl covering her face. "Elizabeth and I actually discussed this on several occasions. I worried that the message you were getting was overly conservative, but she told me that she had been talking to you about sex since you were small and she convinced me that to talk about it with you would send you a mixed message that would only serve to confuse you. I assumed her view would be conservative, but I wasn’t so sure that my more liberal views were right for you either. Growing up in the 60’s showed me some of the havoc that sex without rules could produce. In my day we believed that if it felt good, it was all right to do. I certainly didn’t want you to grow up believing that sex was something to do with strangers, so a part of me thought Elizabeth’s way might be best." She looked at Jamie carefully as she asked, "Did we do you a great disservice?"

Jamie pursed her lips, grasping Caitlin’s slippery little body as she carried her around the pool. "No, not really," she finally decided. "If I had stayed with Jack I don’t think I would have come out of my shell, but Ryan has just unleashed my sexual persona so fully that my early training is less important."

"I’m so glad that she makes you happy, Jamie. Sexual fulfillment is such an important part of life."

Their little discussion was interrupted by a deep chuckle from the doorway of the house. "Where’s your camera, Honey?" Ryan asked. "I’ve got to have a picture of this."

Jamie turned and grinned at her extremely rumpled lover. Cotton clothing did not take well to the rough treatment they had shown her clothes, and she was paying for it now. "Have you looked at your clothes, Sweetie?" she asked innocently.

Ryan’s face grew slightly flushed as she grinned and replied, "Yes, Honey. But I wasn’t the one who treated my clothing so shabbily. And I don’t have a closet full of clothes to substitute for these."

"Would you like me to have someone press your clothes for you, Ryan?" Catherine asked helpfully.

"No, that would be a little more embarrassment than I’m up for today," she admitted. "Besides, you’re alone this week, Catherine. If you direct me to the iron and board, I could do it myself."

"My camera’s in my bag, Honey. I think it’s still in the kitchen. Come out and play with us for a few minutes, and then you can take care of your clothes."

Ryan did as requested, returning to take candid and posed shots of the threesome. It was 5:30 and the sun was just dipping behind the house as Jamie noticed that Caitlin’s skin was a little cold despite the 83-degree pool. "Sweetie, can you go in the pool house and get us some towels?" Jamie asked.

Ryan brought out three big fluffy towels, then grabbed the offered baby and wrapped her up despite her screamed protests. "She would live in water if she could," she explained to Catherine. "Bath time lasts for hours."

After they were dried off they went back into the house, where Ryan got Caitlin dressed again. Jamie walked the baby around the kitchen while Ryan did her best to return the creases to her clothes, doing a reasonable job given the wrinkled state her clothing had been in. When Ryan was finished, Jamie ran upstairs to change, and by the time mother and daughter had returned, Caitlin was sound asleep in Ryan’s arms, her bottle hanging loosely from her little cupid’s-bow mouth.

"That’s just how I feel now that I’m home," Jamie said as she gave her partner a kiss on the cheek. "Safe and warm and protected."

Catherine had changed into a pair of buff-colored linen slacks and a deep blue cashmere v-necked sweater. She had quickly dried her hair in a more casual style than she usually wore, and Ryan noted that--without makeup--she could easily pass for 30. Catherine usually looked very well put-together but Ryan much preferred this more casual look. Once again she thought, I’m so glad I met Jamie first. If her mother had been a client of mine I’m sure I would have wormed my way into her bed. After a moment the terrifying thought hit her. As angry as he is with me for being with Jamie, I can’t even imagine what Jim would do to me if he caught me with Catherine!

"So what’s on your agenda for tonight, Catherine?" Ryan asked, trying to dispel the notion from her head.

Catherine shrugged her shoulders slightly. "I suppose I’ll just have a little dinner and turn in early."

Ryan knew that Catherine was completely inexperienced in the kitchen, so she persisted. "Do you have anything to cook?"

"Cook?" she asked slowly, a puzzled look on her face. "Oh! I forgot again! I…I…I suppose I’ll order something to be delivered. I’m sure I can figure out how to do that," she said a little helplessly.

"Nonsense," Ryan insisted. "You both must be starving by now. No one is home at our house, so why don’t we have a Peninsula version of Sunday dinner?"

"I’d be happy to treat you all to dinner," Catherine suggested. "There are some fine places in San Mateo."

"Umm…that might be stretching Caitlin’s limits," Ryan decided. "She’ll be fine if she gets a little meal soon, but going to a restaurant would rile her up. If you don’t mind, I think we should cook something."

"I agree," Jamie said as she peeked into the refrigerator. "Hmm…looks like we have every type of condiment known to man, but not one other thing. Marta did a fine job of cleaning out everything that could spoil while you were gone. Toss me the keys, Babe, I’ll make a grocery run."

Ryan used her free hand to fish them from her pocket, telling Jamie, "If you want to stay home, I’ll be happy to go."

"Nah. I know where I’m going, Love." Placing a gentle kiss on Ryan’s cheek, Jamie whispered, "I can’t believe I’m letting you out of my sight, but I’ll be right back."

"Hurry home," Ryan said, giving her a fond smile. "We’ll miss you."

"Any special requests?" Jamie asked, searching for her wallet.

"Anything you make will be fine, Sweetheart," Catherine said. Ryan nodded her concurrence and Jamie took off, waving at her partner as she departed out the front door.

Ryan went back to the banquet, her arms fatigued from holding the sleeping baby. Catherine walked over to the well equipped bar near the dining table and mused thoughtfully as she considered what to have. "I was going to open a bottle of wine, but I don’t know what we’re having for dinner. Would you like a drink before dinner, Ryan?"

"No, I don’t think so," Ryan said, not really understanding why one would want the taste of alcohol interfering with the food.

Catherine looked at her carefully and asked, "Do you mind if I have one?"

"Uh…no," Ryan said, wishing that Catherine did not seem to need alcohol on a daily basis. "Please do."

Catherine nodded, turning back to the bar. "Perhaps a little vodka," she decided. "Maybe Jamie will join me." She spent the next five minutes expertly preparing her drink. To Ryan’s surprise, Catherine had an entire set-up just for chilling the spirit. Taking a foot-high glass container, she filled four tall, leaded crystal shot glasses with Cristall vodka, placed the glasses in the container, and filled it with crushed ice, nestling each little glass in the ice. Placing the container on the table, Catherine idly swirled each of the glasses, gazing at Ryan pensively as she did so.

"Call it a hunch, Ryan, but I have a suspicion that you’ve had some contact with my husband while we were gone."

Her statement was rather matter-of-fact, but Ryan understood that she was waiting for confirmation or denial. She nodded her head, gazing down at the table as she did so. "He came to our house in Berkeley on Sunday morning," she admitted. "It…it wasn’t very pleasant."

"How so?" Catherine asked sharply, narrowing her eyes at Ryan.

Never having seen Catherine’s temper flare, Ryan wasn’t sure if the suspicious glance was for her or Jim. Her face flushed a little as she mumbled, "He uh…he ordered me out of the house. He was really angry when he left, Catherine."

"He didn’t hurt you, did he Ryan?" Her voice was filled with concern, and Ryan was immediately reassured that Catherine was on her side.

"No, he didn’t touch me," she related. "He looked like he wanted to, but he just tried to wound me with his words."

"He’s very skilled at that," Catherine said derisively, grasping a glass of vodka and draining it. She shivered a little as the ice-cold liquid hit her stomach, and Ryan wondered once again why anyone would choose to drink something that caused such a reaction. Catherine shook her head, looking angry at herself as she said, "Forgive me for saying that, Ryan. I find it utterly distasteful when people complain about their spouses behind their backs."

Reaching across the table, Ryan placed a hand on her arm, giving it a gentle squeeze. "Don’t mention it, Catherine. This must be hard for you."

"It is," she sighed, her shoulders slumping dejectedly. "I never dreamed I’d be caught in the middle between my husband and my child." Looking at Ryan curiously, she asked, "You haven’t told Jamie, have you?"

"No. I didn’t get a chance to on Sunday when it happened, and then with the events in Rhode Island…" she trailed off, knowing that she didn’t have a good excuse for not revealing the happenings to Jamie. Her gut had told her to wait until they were together again, so that’s what she had done.

"He called me in Rhode Island…I’m not sure what day, but it was likely Monday or Tuesday. He didn’t tell me about his visit with you, but he tried to convince me to ask Jamie to stay with my family for the rest of the month." She laughed softly, adding, "I couldn’t stay the entire month, and it was my idea to go."

"Giving Jamie an order doesn’t seem like the best way to get her to agree to something," Ryan observed wryly.

"That would seem all too obvious to me too, Ryan, but Jim apparently hasn’t learned that simple lesson. He continually amazes me," she added, shaking her head.

"I thought I’d go into the whole thing tomorrow," Ryan informed her. "It just seemed like we needed a little time to reconnect before we got into this can of worms." She gave Catherine a shy smile as she said, "Thanks again for letting us have some alone time this afternoon. We really appreciated it."

"My pleasure," Catherine insisted. Hearing Jamie’s key in the lock she said quietly, "You just let me know if you need anything from me, Ryan. I’ll get involved in any way you two wish."

"Thanks, Catherine." Ryan gave her arm another squeeze, getting to her feet to welcome her partner home.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan and Caitlin shared an enormous vegetable salad while Jamie prepared some seared ahi steaks for the adults. "I’ve never seen a baby get so excited about eating her vegetables," Catherine observed, staring at the twosome in fascination.

"Yeah, Caitlin likes them too," Jamie chuckled, getting a smirk from her partner.

"I missed my veggies almost as much as I missed you," Ryan teased, her sentiment very close to the truth.

"Was the food bad, Honey?"

"No, not bad, but they can’t leave well enough alone and serve some raw veggies. Everything has to be cooked to limpness. I just don’t get that." She leaned over with a string bean in her mouth, letting Caitlin try to use her little front teeth to chomp away on it. The baby did a very good job, getting a kiss when she reached Ryan’s lips.

"I think I see the attraction to the vegetables," Catherine mused. "Ryan makes mealtime into playtime."

"Ryan makes every time into playtime," Jamie observed, smiling broadly at her partner.

"Life’s too short to spend your time being serious," Ryan agreed, meaning every word.

When the entrees were ready, Ryan settled Caitlin on her lap, letting her play with tiny pieces of her meal. The babysitters spent as much time gazing at each other as they did at the baby, but Caitlin had a knack for grabbing their attention when it flagged. If she noticed that they were not watching her carefully enough, she would take a piece of food and shove it into the closest face, not caring whether she hit a mouth or not. That usually did the trick, and the focus would return to her, where she believed it rightfully belonged.

Jamie was enormously pleased that her mother seemed as playful and fun loving here at home as she had in Rhode Island, and it slowly dawned on her that part of the reason her mother was so charming was because her father was not here. Thinking about it for a moment, she realized that when her father was present, her mother deferred to him on nearly every subject. It wasn’t that he was a dictator, but he had a presence that drew attention to himself and Catherine did not fight him for the spotlight.

They had just finished with the meal when Ryan’s pager went off. "Is this your number in Pebble Beach?" she asked, showing Jamie the display.

"Yep. It must be Annie and Tommy."

Ryan was directed to the kitchen phone, and she smiled broadly when Annie’s first anxious words were, "How’s my baby?"

"Simply marvelous," Ryan reassured her, "Can’t you hear her?" Caitlin was loudly singing a just-created tune as Jamie bounced her on her knee. "She’s been such an angel today I’m sure we’ll pay for it later," Ryan teased. "She got to go to church and out to lunch. Then she went to the airport and down to Hillsborough for a swim. Now we’re just finishing dinner."

"She went swimming?" Annie squealed with delight. "She must have been in heaven!"

"Yep, the only time she was unhappy today was when we took her out of the pool," she admitted.

"Did she get enough to eat today?" Annie asked. "She hates to eat when there’s much going on."

"Eat? I’m supposed to feed her?" Ryan asked with a shocked tone in her voice.

"Okay, I’m being a pest," Annie admitted. "I’m just amazed by how much I miss her, and I’ve only been gone for ten hours!"

"She’s fine, Annie. You really don’t need to worry. If I get into any trouble Maeve is just minutes away."

"It’s not that, Ryan. I trust you completely. I just don’t know what to do with all of the time on my hands. I’ve forgotten how to read a book or watch a television show straight through. Having a conversation with Tommy is just a distant memory. I think it’ll just take me a while to relax and enjoy myself."

"Is everything okay at the house?"

"Okay? You’re kidding, right? We never imagined that the place could be this wonderful, Ryan. This is like something the Queen would live in. It’s just remarkable!"

"It is nice, isn’t it?" she said fondly. Turning to the wall and lowering her voice, Ryan said, "I did some of my best work in that place."

"Speaking of that, which room should we use? You didn’t mention that in your little checklist."

"Let me ask Catherine, she’s right here."

"Could you put her on? I really want to thank her for her generosity."

"Sure, hold on a minute, Annie. Feel free to call me tomorrow. I want you to relax and enjoy yourselves, and if you need to check in often to do that, please do."

Ryan walked back to the table and said to Catherine, "My cousin is on the phone. She has a question about the beach house. Would you mind talking to her?"

"Of course, Ryan." She rose and spoke to Annie for quite a while, with Ryan returning to the table to entertain the baby.

"Lovely girl," Catherine said when she returned to the table. "Should we have let Caitlin talk to her mommy?"

Ryan’s eyes grew wide as she shook her head slowly. "For the sake of your sanity, don’t let her near a phone. You’ll spend the rest of the day fighting with her over it."

Catherine’s wide eyes matched Ryan’s, and she dimly recalled that Jamie had been fascinated by the phone as well. "It’s been such a long time," she said softly, gazing fondly at her daughter. "I’ve forgotten most of the lessons Jamie taught me."

"Caitlin is a marvelous teacher," Ryan assured her. "She’d be happy to give you some remedial classes."

"I would love to be able to spend some more time with her," Catherine said, a note of hope in her voice.

"Anytime, Catherine. I’m sure there are days when Annie would put her on the bus and send her to you."

"I’m sorry, Ryan, but that seems impossible." She was leaning over in the chair, playing with Caitlin’s tiny little toes, delighting the happy baby with the game.

"She has her moments, Catherine," Ryan assured her. "Pray that you never have to experience one."

It was after 9:30 when they finally finished the meal, and by the time Ryan got up to clean the kitchen Caitlin was sound asleep in Jamie’s arms.

"Let me help, Honey," Jamie offered.

"I can help, too," Catherine said, not know the first thing about cleaning a kitchen, but willing to learn.

"Why don’t you hold Caitlin, Mom," Jamie suggested. Halfway through the hand-off, Caitlin woke with a start, seemingly on the verge of tears. However, when she saw Catherine, she held out her chubby arms and tumbled into her lap, nestling up to her contentedly.

The look of bewilderment on Catherine’s face was both comic and poignant, and Ryan observed, "She must know you’re a good mom, Catherine."

Fighting tears, the older woman wrapped the baby in a snug embrace, bending to kiss her golden head. "I’m trying to learn how to be, Sweetheart," she whispered, just loud enough for Jamie to hear her.

Jamie stood behind her mother’s chair and wrapped her arms around both Catherine and Caitlin. "Caitlin is very intuitive, Mom. She knows the truth."

Caitlin had already reached her capacity for quiet time, and she tried to scamper off Catherine’s lap to join Ryan at the sink. To distract her, Catherine took her into the living room, scooping up delicate knickknacks from low tables as she went. The baby had clearly gotten her second wind, and she crawled around the large room shrieking with delight. It was all Catherine could do to keep an eye on her, and by the time the girls emerged from the kitchen she was ready to relinquish her duties.

"I hope you two know what you’ve gotten yourselves into," Catherine laughed as she sat down to catch her breath.

"I’m not sure we do," Ryan admitted with a worried look. "I’m so tired I could just drop, but we won’t get to sleep until Miss Caitlin allows it."

"What have you planned for the week, girls?" Catherine asked.

"We want to take her to Disneyland tomorrow," Jamie revealed, surprised that she hadn’t mentioned that detail yet.

"Disneyland?" Catherine marveled. "Isn’t she a little young?"

"She is," Jamie admitted with a grin at her partner, "but Ryan’s just the right age."

"Oh, are you a big fan of Disneyland?" Catherine asked.

"I’ve never been," Ryan revealed. "But I love rides and roller coasters so I think it’ll be right up my alley."

"But how will you go on any rides with the baby? Isn’t she too young?"

"We haven’t worked out the logistics," Jamie agreed. "It’ll take us all day Monday to get there, so we thought we’d go to the park on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, then come home Thursday afternoon. I’ll watch her while Ryan goes on the roller coasters, and we’ll go on the kids stuff together."

Catherine’s face lit up as a brilliant scheme dawned on her. "Why don’t you let me go with you?" she suggested excitedly.

Jamie blinked in surprise. "Would you want to do that?"

"Yes! I really would!" she bubbled, showing more excitement than Jamie could ever remember seeing. Her organized mind quickly determined the appropriate logistics. "I could stay at the hotel in the morning with the baby and let her play in the pool before the sun gets too hot. Then you could take her to the park during the afternoon. We could all have dinner together, and then I could stay in the hotel while you went back to go on the rides."

"You’d enjoy that?" Jamie asked in amazement.

"Yes!" Catherine said emphatically. She was nearly giddy with excitement, and Ryan saw such a strong resemblance to Jamie that it made her grin from ear to ear. "I think it would be great fun, and it would let you two have some time alone."

"I’m just worried that she’d be too much for you, Catherine," Ryan said. "You’ve seen how she can wear a person out."

"Ryan," she said dismissively, "I’m 41 years old. You act as though I was ready for the retirement home."

Ryan blushed deeply as she tried to backpedal. "It’s not your age, Catherine. You’re just not used to chasing a baby around."

"No, I’m not," she agreed, "and I wouldn’t volunteer to take her to the park. I think that would be beyond my capacity. But watching her at the pool for a few hours in the morning and putting her to bed at night are certainly things that this poor old body can handle," she said with a twinkle in her deep brown eyes.

Ryan blew out a breath as she said, "Well, I’m sold. How about you, Honey?"

Jamie smiled at her mother and said, "I always wanted you to take me to Disneyland. Better late than never, huh?"

Catherine got up from her chair and went over to give her daughter a hug. "I really regret not doing those things with you, Honey. I know it’s not the same to do them now, but it can still be fun."

Jamie was both pleased and shocked at her mother’s emotional openness in front of Ryan. She gave her a big smile and said, "I really want you to come with us, Mom. I think we’ll have a blast."

"I’ll make some phone calls tomorrow and see if I can get us a room. When do you have to be back?"

"I have practice on Thursday afternoon," Ryan informed her. "I just need to be at the gym by two."

"Marvelous. It will take me some time tomorrow to make the arrangements. Is it all right if we leave on Tuesday?"

"I suppose," Ryan said, even though she recognized that would only leave them one full day at the park. "If we leave on Tuesday by ten or so we’ll be there in time for dinner."

"That’s only an hour flight, Ryan," Catherine informed her. "We’ll be there for lunch!"

"Oh…um…We were going to drive the Lexus."

The senior Evans woman didn’t express displeasure with the plan, but after just a moment to reflect she suggested, "Look, girls, I want to go to enjoy playing with the baby, but I also want both of you to have fun. The only way to have sufficient time there is to fly. I propose that you allow me to plan the trip."

"Oh, Catherine, that really isn’t necessary," Ryan began, but Jamie’s mother gently interrupted.

"I would enjoy myself much more if we flew. Seven or eight hours in a car with a baby is just not something that you should do unless it’s absolutely necessary," she said from no experience whatsoever. "I do want to go, but I’d have a much better time if we did it my way."

Ryan looked at Jamie in question and after just a moment of thought, Jamie smiled at her mother and said, "We’d love to have you come with us. Any way you want to travel is fine. We’ll call Annie and Tommy to make sure they don’t object, of course."

It was after ten by the time they had made tentative plans to begin their trip on Tuesday, and Ryan was fading fast. Giving Jamie a questioning look, Catherine asked, "Honey, do you have to go back home tonight? Why not stay over?"

Jamie shrugged, looking to Ryan for her opinion. The dark woman said, "Well, we could, but where would Caitie sleep?"

"In Jamie’s nursery of course," Catherine smiled, tremendously excited to be able to use the room once again.

"You still have her room set up as a nursery?" Ryan gaped, recalling what she assumed were apocryphal tales of sleeping in the bottom drawer of a bureau because Rory was still in the family crib. Space had always been at a premium in the O’Flaherty house, and baby accoutrements were quickly discarded when they were no longer utilitarian.

"Of course," Catherine said. "I reasoned that one day I’d have a few grandchildren sleeping there."

"Works for me," Ryan decided, enormously pleased to avoid the 45-minute drive home. "If you can stand to see me in the same clothes tomorrow, I’m all in favor."

Jamie had providentially thought to buy a package of disposable diapers when she went to the grocery, so Caitlin was set for the night. Ryan stayed downstairs to warm a bottle while the Evans women escorted the little guest to her room.

When the baby saw the carved mahogany crib, she began to get agitated and started looking around wildly for Ryan. "I think she just figured out that she’s not going home tonight," Jamie observed, steeling herself for the inevitable scream.

Ryan’s foot was on the first stair when it hit. Oh-oh. Somebody’s unhappy. Catherine might get that look at Caitlin’s dark side after all.

The frightened baby fought Jamie, trying to escape her embrace. When Ryan entered, she looked up at her with terror in her big green eyes. It had been a very long day, and as much as the baby loved to be with her big cousin, it was obvious that she was ready to go to her own home now and see her mommy and daddy. To avoid hurting her, Jamie allowed her wish to get on the floor. The baby threw herself flat onto the carpet and began to kick her arms and legs, screaming bloody murder the whole time. Ryan had never seen her have a tantrum before, and she was a bit unsure of what to do, but Jamie’s maternal instincts kicked in immediately. She lifted the baby from the floor and clasped her to her chest, sitting down in the rocker to speak to her in soft tones as she slowly rocked her. The baby tried to fight, and she got in a few good kicks and one painful punch to the side of Jamie’s head, but she held her firmly and allowed her to cry out her fears.

Catherine kissed Jamie’s head, gave Ryan a hug and whispered, "I’ll see you all in the morning. Let me know if you need anything."

"Will do," Ryan assured her. "I hope you can sleep if she cries all night."

"My room is at the other end of the house," Catherine admitted, a self-mocking smirk on her face. "I’m afraid it was Elizabeth who comforted Jamie during the night." Looking at her daughter with a face full of regret, Catherine shook her head slightly and left the room.

Ryan sat down on the floor by the rocker and helped to reassure Caitlin. The screaming had quieted down to a less painful level, so she began to sing to her in a very gentle, low tone, getting through at least eight little songs before Caitlin stopped crying, and another three before she stilled completely. Both adults were exhausted by this time, but Jamie was afraid to get up until the baby had been asleep for a little while longer, so she continued to rock.

Ryan’s head rested on Jamie’s leg as they spoke softly for a few minutes. Jamie began to run her fingers through Ryan’s dark tresses and before she knew it she had two babies sleeping on her. What is this soporific effect I have on women? she wondered as she smiled down at them.

After 15 minutes of calm she figured that Caitlin would stay asleep even after being moved, so she patted her lover for a few seconds, surprised at how deeply she slept. Ryan finally let out a low moan and started to sit up. She was still obviously very groggy, so Jamie got up to put the baby to bed alone. After removing Caitlin’s dress and diaper, Jamie searched for the bag from the store, dismayed to realize they had left it downstairs. A soft knock on the door revealed Catherine, clad in a jade green silk nightgown and robe, holding the package of diapers. "Need these?" she asked, crossing the room. She spared a smile at Ryan, sprawled out on the floor, sound asleep. "Let me take care of the little baby, while you get the big one into bed."

"You don’t mind?" Jamie asked.

"Not at all. Go on now."

"Okay. Thanks, Mom," she whispered. "You’ve been great."

"The pleasure is entirely mine, Jamie," she said sincerely, placing a soft kiss on her daughter’s cheek.

Jamie knelt down next to her partner on the floor. "Ryan, Honey," she whispered as she shook her gently.

But Ryan just lifted her hand and brushed Jamie’s fingers from her shoulder, as if shooing a fly.

Shaking her a little more forcefully, Jamie continued the motion until she finally got a response. "Come on, Ryan," she said firmly. "You’ve got to move to the bed."

Her eyes did not open, but she rolled over onto her side and slowly sat up. Jamie grabbed her hand and gave her a big boost, holding on to her waist as she teetered a bit. Sparing a wave to her mother, Jamie guided her nearly sleepwalking partner to her room, managing to get her pants off her once again. It took a little more work to remove her blouse and bra, but she managed, finally allowing Ryan to sink to the mattress. The dark-haired woman was asleep before her head hit the pillow, and Jamie gave her an affectionate glance as she went into the bath to get ready for bed.

When she came back Ryan was curled up in the middle of the bed, obviously seeking her partner. I’m coming, Baby, she thought fondly as she walked back to the adjoining door to the nursery, wanting to check on the baby one last time.

Biting back a gasp of surprise, Jamie saw her mother, holding the baby tight with a bottle gently pressed against her lips, rocking the diaper-clad infant while she sang a soft song. Caitlin’s eyes were half-closed, and she sucked mechanically, her little hands grasping and releasing handfuls of slick green fabric as she did so. Catherine was staring at the baby so intently that she didn’t hear her daughter approach.

She gave a start when Jamie placed a hand on her shoulder, looking up at her with a slightly embarrassed look. "Is this okay?" she asked tentatively. "She started to fuss a little, and I saw you hadn’t given her the bottle."

"Of course it’s okay," Jamie assured her, kissing her head. "You have very good instincts, Mom. Just follow them." She pulled a chair close and sat down, placing her hand on Caitlin’s warm back, smiling when the baby sighed heavily at her touch. "This is nice, isn’t it?" she asked softly, not really expecting an answer.

Catherine nodded slightly, a single tear rolling down her cheek. Jamie knew that her mother was once again thinking of the past, but she knew that was a pain that she couldn’t heal for her. Catherine had made choices that had hurt both of them, and even though her actions were understandable, they still carried consequences. Nonetheless, Jamie had never felt more hopeful about their relationship, and she wanted to make sure that her mother knew that.

"You know, Mom, years from now, when I look back, I’m confident that I’m going to remember this as the best year of my entire life."

Catherine nodded, smiling affectionately at her daughter. "That doesn’t surprise me, Honey," she agreed. "Finding your life-mate is a turning point in every woman’s life."

"Yes, of course, Ryan will be a very big part of my memories. I just want you to know that you’ll be an equally big part. Getting closer to you means more than I would have dared dream, Mom. I can’t tell you how happy I am that you’ve tried so hard to be here for Ryan and me."

"It’s the least I can do, Jamie," she whispered, taking in a ragged breath. "I know it’s too late to make up…"

She was silenced by Jamie placing two fingers upon her lips, and she looked up through her tears to find a pair of compassionate green eyes gazing at her. "No more apologies," Jamie said firmly. "Going over the past isn’t helping either of us. We both have regrets, Mom. Let’s bury them tonight."

"Bury them?" Catherine asked, looking up in puzzlement.

"Yes. Bury them," the younger woman insisted. She reached forward and took the now-sleeping baby from her mother’s arms, placing her in the crib and covering her with a light blanket. Extending a hand, she guided her mother over to a sturdy mahogany table and indicated a chair. Pulling over her own chair, she sat down and opened a drawer, retrieving a note pad and a pair of pens.

"I want you to make a list of every single thing that you regret about our relationship. I’ll do the same." Catherine looked mildly frightened, so Jamie assured her, "I won’t read your list, so please be totally honest. Let it out, Mom," she urged.

With a heavy sigh, Catherine began to work on her list, pausing thoughtfully every few minutes, the pen repeatedly finding its way to her pursed lips. Jamie wrote down quite a few of her own regrets, most of hers focusing on the last few years when she intentionally pulled away from her mother.

Jamie finished long before Catherine, and she leaned back in her chair, watching the older woman as she focused intently on her task. A fond smile was gracing Jamie’s face when Catherine finally looked up. "Mmm…now what?" Catherine asked.

"Now…we burn them," Jamie explained, rising to fetch a large pillar-style candle from the narrow mantel over the fireplace. Catherine was giving her a suspicious glance, but that didn’t deter the determined young woman. "This will only work if you do it sincerely, Mom," she instructed. "You have to be willing to let your regrets burn away so that we can start over."

"I’m willing, Jamie," she whispered, wiping at a tear with the back of her hand. "I want to start over."

"Okay. Here goes." Jamie lit the candle, then held her list up to the flame, watching as the amber glow touched, sparked, and slowly ignited the paper. At her daughter's nod, Catherine brought her own list to the flame, where it similarly combusted. Both women watched with rapt fascination as their regrets were slowly obliterated by the spreading flames.

Jamie lifted a short metal wastebasket onto the table and they dropped the still-burning papers inside, watching them in silence as they slowly extinguished themselves.

Not a word was spoken for long minutes, and when Jamie was certain that the remnants were cold she asked, "Where should we put the ashes?"

Catherine smiled and suggested, "Let’s throw them to the winds."

Jamie returned her smile and agreed with her suggestion. "Your room?"

"Absolutely," Catherine nodded, smiling brightly. "Let’s go."

They each blew Caitlin a kiss and walked down the long hallway together, Jamie carrying the wastebasket. Entering her parents’ room, she switched on the light, but Catherine immediately doused it. "Light ruins the ambiance," she insisted, going to the French doors that faced the back yard. She opened the large doors, pleased that there was a noticeable breeze. Jamie joined her on the balcony, gazing down at the verdant green lawn, the glistening pool, and the neatly tended gardens.

The ashes in the wastebasket were scant, but Jamie managed to scoop up enough so that they each held a small handful. Jamie was right-handed and Catherine left, which allowed them to hold hands while they performed their ritual.

Jamie nodded, and on the count of three both women threw their regrets to the winds, watching in fascination as the scarred bits of paper flew around their heads for a moment before being whisked away.

Suddenly, and for no good reason, Jamie began to laugh, a small chortle that quickly grew until she was laughing out loud. Catherine gave her a slightly puzzled look, but within seconds she joined her, unexpectedly feeling lighter and more carefree than she had in years. Their linked hands separated, then slid around each other’s waists, each woman holding tightly onto the other as their laughter echoed against the stone patio beneath the balcony. Slowly, their laughter faded, replaced by a warm, satisfied feeling that seemed to settle deep in their bones.

I never thought that I’d have the chance to start a new family, Jamie mused, the warmth of her mother’s body pressed against her. A family of choice, made up of all of the people who want to share our love. Ryan will always be at the center, of course, but I know that Mom will be there too. All of the O’Flahertys and the Driscolls, of course. Hmm…Mia’s part of my family, too, when I think of it like this. This is such a gift…this feeling of being drawn together by love. Leaning her head against her mother’s shoulder, Jamie recognized the feeling for what it was, and thanked the gods for giving her the opportunity to experience it. She leaned her head back and stared up at the moonlit sky, offering a silent prayer for the unexpected but cherished gift: the promise of a bright new beginning.

The End.

Stay Tuned for Book 7

Dedication: To Carrie. The woman I pledge my fidelity to.
As always, my deepest thanks goes out to Day and Stacia for their time, skill and efforts in beta reading this piece.
Disclaimers: Even in a committed relationship, when both partners have tested negative for HIV and other STD’s, it’s wise to use a barrier for anal play to prevent transmission of bacterial infections. Please refer to the attached links for extensive guidelines for safer sex.
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