I Found My Heart in San Francisco

Book 10: Journeys

by S X Meagher

Part Six

After loading up the Boxster with a change of clothes, Jamie and Ryan took off for Hillsborough, wanting to arrive before the rest of the guests. Jamie was driving, and as they got onto the freeway Ryan mused reflectively, “You know, it was kinda fun to be one of the girls today. I don't think I've ever done that.”

“What do you mean? You do girl things with me all of the time.”

“Ahh…not really, Jamie,” she chuckled. “Although I clearly enjoy the fruits of your womanhood, we don't really do girl stuff. I mean, things like doing each other's hair and putting on makeup. I honestly don't think I've ever been in a room with a group of women while we all got dressed for an event. It was kinda cool,” she decided. “I think I'm on an estrogen high.”

“I'm glad you enjoyed it,” the smaller woman smiled. “I sometimes forget how male-centered your upbringing was. Didn't you ever have slumber parties with your friends in elementary school? That's when you start doing all of that girlie stuff.”

“No, I didn't do that. I stayed at Sara's a lot, but we never did that kind of stuff. We were more into playing on the Internet or watching TV. They had cable,” she informed her partner, her eyebrows twitching.

“What did they have…porn?” Jamie smiled.

“No. Just regular cable. But we didn't have it, so it seemed really exotic to me.”

“You still don't have cable, do you?”

“Huh-uh. My cousins all have it, so we used to go to one of their houses to watch a game that wasn't on broadcast channels. Da didn't want us to watch TV much, and he figured we wouldn't be tempted if there wasn't much to choose from. 'Course, he might have just been being cheap,” she added.

“He sure surprised the heck out of your aunt,” Jamie laughed. “Springing for a limo was quite out of character!”

“Yeah. I think he's really gotten into the whole thing, to tell you the truth. He really looked happy today, didn't he?”

“Oh, yeah!” Jamie smiled broadly at her partner and said, “I've never seen him smile so much. His cheeks are gonna be sore.”

“He deserves it,” Ryan decided, enormously gratified that her father had seized this chance at happiness, despite the obstacles.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Maeve let her hand drift down to capture Martin's left hand, looking carefully at his new ring. “Are you sure that you want to wear this, Marty? It's really all right if you…”

“Hush,” he whispered, touching her lips with his index finger. “Of course I'm sure.” They had discussed the issue of rings on two occasions, with Martin assuring her that he wanted to replace the ring he had worn for over thirty years with one that she would give him. But she had noticed that he still wore the band at dinner the previous evening, and she knew that he was struggling a little.

Unbeknownst to Maeve, Martin had risen early that morning and traveled down to old St. Patrick's Church, where he and Fi had been married. He sat in the sparsely filled church as the 6:30 Mass let out, awash in the memories of his first wedding. He knew that the vow he took that day was no longer in effect—that since death had parted him and his beloved wife, he was free to move on. But he had never taken off the ring that she had given him that day, and it was harder than he could have imagined to even contemplate doing so.

Tears rolled down his cheeks as he reached for the ring and tried to tug it off, suddenly alarmed that he might have to stop by the firehouse and have one of his co-workers cut it off. But determined pressure finally did the trick, and the band came free, resting in the shaking palm of his right hand. He was crying so hard that the band was all but obscured, but he managed to lift it to his lips and kiss it, just as he had done on the day that Fionnuala had given it to him.

He stayed in the church for nearly an hour, memories of the life they had shared settling over him like a warm blanket. It was nearly eight o'clock when he was finally composed enough to leave the church, but he managed to return home before he was missed. The last thing he did before he left the house for St. Phil's was to tuck the ring into the inside pocket of his jacket, unable to part with it.

Maeve watched the panoply of emotions cross her new husband's face and knew that the issue was still not settled for him, no matter his protestations. “I know this isn't the common thing to do, Marty,” she said softly. “But I think it's fitting in our case.”

“What's that, sweetheart?” he asked, cocking his head in question.

“I'd like it if you wore the ring that Fi gave you on your other hand,” she said, lifting the unadorned right hand, and brushing her lips across the knuckles. “One of the things I most love about you is how much you still love her. Having you wear that ring would just remind me of what a loyal, devoted man you are.”

His composure failed him for the second time that day, as he buried his face into his wife's neck, shaking as tears once again streaked down his cheeks. “Are you sure?” he rasped.

“Yes,” Maeve whispered, rubbing her hand in soothing circles on his back. “I'm very sure.”

With a trembling sigh, he sat up and reached into his inner pocket, pulling out the ring that Maeve had been certain was on his person. His watery smile nearly broke her heart, and Maeve's hand covered his as he struggled a bit, but managed to get the ring over his knuckle. “Thank you,” he said, gazing into her eyes with all of the love he felt for her. “Thank you for understanding.”

“She'll always be a part of both of us, Marty. Let's not try to shut her out of our memories.”

“I won't,” he whispered, his smile growing brighter. “I promise that I won't.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

After surveying the grand buffet that Marta and her assistants had created, Jamie went inside to express her appreciation to the cook. “Marta, how did you do all of this! Mother told me what your budget was,” she said, “and it just seems impossible!”

“I had a challenge,” she admitted. “I love a challenge!”

“Come on, Marta, tell me your secret,” Jamie urged.

“It's not a secret, Jamie,” she insisted. “I go to the Costco to buy things for my church. Since your mother told me about the party, every time I see they have a special on something I buy it, and then figure out how to make it part of the menu. The freezer was bursting!”

“Thanks so much for working so hard, Marta. It means a lot to all of us.”

The older woman hugged her and reminded her, “I love to do things like this, Jamie. It makes me feel like I finally earn my salary!”

* * * * * * * * * * *

The guests began arriving relatively close to the announced time, in deference to the party being at Catherine's house. At 1:45 she sought Martin out and said, “I think your family is taking it easy on me, Martin. I said two o'clock, but I assumed they'd come directly after the service.”

“Oh, give them a chance,” he smiled. “Soon they'll be imposing on you routinely.”

It was quite nice to have just the immediate family together for a while, allowing everyone to spend a few minutes congratulating the happy couple before the crush of guests arrived. Catherine had arranged for a valet service so the neighborhood wouldn't be filled with cars, and as the first guests arrived, Jamie asked Martin if the limo was going to wait for them to take them back home. He looked at her with a puzzled smile and said, “They charge by the hour, love,” as if that made the question moot.

The guests began to pour into the back yard, and as more and more arrived, Maeve went up to Catherine and asked, “Where should we put our gifts, Catherine?”

“Gifts?” the younger woman asked.

Maeve blinked at her and rephrased. “People have brought gifts for us. Where can we put them?”

“They brought gifts here?” she asked, astounded that someone would actually bring a gift to the reception.

“Well, yes, of course, they did. Don't your people give gifts for a wedding?”

“Yes…of course they do,” she nodded. “They send them to the bride's home well before the ceremony.”

Maeve blinked again and said, “Oh! Well, we don't do that. We bring them along, and then we open them after the meal.”

“You open them?” Catherine said, her mouth opening in surprise.

The older woman tilted her head and said, “They're gifts, dear, of course we open them.”

Her eyes still wide, Catherine excused herself, saying, “I'll have Helena set up a table or two, all right?”

“Brilliant!” Maeve agreed, privately thinking, What odd customs these people have.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Jordan and Mia arrived right on time, both women tastefully attired in dresses. Mia's was clingy, black, and strapless with a short, nubby silk jacket in shades of blues and greens. Jordan's was a cool blue sheath that nearly perfectly matched her eyes. Her long, lean frame looked even longer than usual in the striking dress, serving to accentuate the difference in the couple's heights. Mia obviously didn't mind the discrepancy, since she hadn't even chosen to wear heels, telling Jamie, “I wore flats so we could dance. We are gonna dance, aren't we?”

“Count on it,” Jamie agreed. “Rory's band is getting set up right now.”

“Cool,” Mia smiled. “Your mom really outdid herself, babe. The place looks great!”

“Well, my mom had the ideas,” Jamie reminded her. “The staff did the work. Go tell Marta and Helena that you appreciate them, will you?”

“Sure. Does she have any of those homemade biscotti lying around?”

“Probably,” Jamie smiled. “Especially since my mom knows that Caitlin loves them.”

“She's not the only one!” Mia exclaimed, setting off in search of the cook.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The O'Flaherty children had sprung for a professional photographer, and he was busily recording the event, rushing to obtain a majority of the pictures “before everyone's shoes and ties come off” according to the groom's predictions. Once the formal photos were completed, Annie took Caitlin inside and removed her silk dress, knowing that it was only a matter of time before it was ruined. She came back out in a pair of pink overalls and a pink, pale yellow, baby blue, and mint green plaid shirt, a recent gift from Jamie. Someone was assigned full time to watch the toddler, due to her propensity to head for water. The pool was a powerful lure, however, and only her beloved biscotti could tear her attention away from it. Mia took over watching the baby for a while, and the pair sat in a chair together, both contentedly chewing on their treats.

As soon as everyone had arrived they began to serve lunch. Catherine had set up for a buffet, deciding that the group was too large for a formal meal. Round tables had been arranged on the lawn, each seating eight. Martin and Maeve ate quickly, then moved from table to table, chatting with each group of guests for a while.

Bryant fit right in with the Driscoll brothers, and he joined them, Annie and Caitlin at a table. Within a short while Caitlin was in Bryant's lap, and they were inextricably bonded for the rest of the afternoon.

Mia and Jordan, Jamie and Ryan, Brendan and Maggie, and Conor and Rory sat together, the group teasing and joking as usual. Maggie was sitting next to Jordan and they were engaged in an intense discussion, neither of them looking up when Brendan stood to return to the buffet. “I'm getting some more of that fabulous soup. Refills, anyone?”

Mia nodded, then Brendan gave Jordan a questioning look, but Mia told him, “She can't eat it, Brendan, she's allergic to peanuts.” Conor gave her a funny look at that comment, but she didn't notice his pointed glance.

They all ate more than was prudent, and after the meal everyone was slumped a bit in their chairs. Mia's hand was on the back of Jordan's chair, and she unconsciously began to stroke the soft, bare skin that was so delightfully exposed to her touch. Jordan gave her a warning look, but Mia either didn't understand or didn't care if their relationship was revealed. The band set up, and as soon as they started to play, Mia looked at Ryan and asked, “Do we have to wait for the bride and groom to start the first dance?”

“No way!” Ryan insisted. “My father would kick Rory's butt if he put him on the spot like that. Go right ahead, girls.”

The smaller woman stood and announced, “Okay, let's go!” Jordan took her extended hand and followed her to the stone pool surround, where the surface was most conducive to dancing. Jamie and Ryan followed, and soon many of the guests had joined them.

The young women danced as though their bodies were quite used to being in close proximity, and when Brendan spotted the dark scowl on his brother's face he discreetly asked, “Hey, what's bothering you?”

Conor twitched his head in the direction of the dancers, and growled, “Who says they don't recruit?” With that, he pushed his chair back and left the table, headed in the direction of the gardens.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After dancing to a few songs, the young women returned to the table. “Where's Conor?” Ryan asked.

Brendan shrugged and said, “He looked like he wanted a little space.” He gave Ryan a meaningful look and she shrugged in response, not really understanding Brendan's comment.

Jordan, however, did, and she leaned over and whispered something in Mia's ear. The smaller woman flinched and nodded a couple of times, finally standing up and asking Brendan, “Which way did he go?”

As Mia got up, Maggie leaned over and smiled at Jordan, continuing their conversation. “So, how long have you and Mia been dating?” she asked.

Jordan's eyes widened and she looked to Ryan for help. “How long have we been dating?” she asked, her face paling a little.

Ryan smiled at Maggie and patted Jordan's back. “They've only been dating a short time,” she revealed. “She's still getting used to it.”

Maggie smiled in return, looking a little puzzled but hiding it well. “You make a very cute couple,” she said.

“Thanks,” Jordan said, brightening a little.

“I didn't know Mia was a lesbian,” Brendan commented, just trying to stay involved in the conversation.

Three voices joined to say, “She's not!” Jamie, Ryan, and Jordan shared a look and then broke into a laugh, rendering Maggie even more confused.

* * * * * * * * * * *

“Hi,” Mia said, finding Conor sitting on a garden bench, his feet stuck straight out in front of him. He looked to be sulking a little, and she felt a flash of irritation at his mood.

“Hi,” he replied, not meeting her eyes. “What's up?”

“That's what I wanted to ask you.” Sitting down next to him, she fixed him with a pointed look. “Are you as pissed off as you seem?”

He folded his arms and asked the question that had been racing through his mind since he'd realized what was going on between the two women. “Did you stop seeing me because of her?”

“No,” Mia said immediately. She paused and looked at Conor for a moment, then added, “Not that it's any of your business, but no, I didn't.”

He finally made eye contact, and she was shocked to see the obvious pain in his deep blue eyes. “Are you serious about her?” he asked, assuming that she wouldn't answer.

Mia took in a breath and decided to tell the truth—to both herself and to Conor. “Yes, I am,” she said softly.

“So, you used that 'I don't wanna be tied down thing' just as an excuse to get rid of me, huh?” He actually looked like he was going to cry, and Mia felt a little sick to her stomach. She knew that Conor had been more serious about her than she had been about him, but she had assumed he'd shrug it off and forget about her in a short time.

“Conor,” she said, her voice gentle and soft, “I didn't lie to you. I'm not ready to settle down and get married any time soon. I don't want to have children until I'm at least 30. I was completely honest with you about that—really.”

“Then how can you be serious about her so soon?” he asked. “What do you even mean when you say you're serious about someone?”

“That's a good question, Conor,” she sighed. “I wish I knew.” She got up and paced a little, the stone crunching under her feet. “I think I'm more serious about Jordan than she is about me,” she admitted.

“Sucks, doesn't it?” he asked, staring at the ground once again.

“Yeah, it does,” she agreed, placing her hand on his shoulder. He looked up at her, his eyes still carrying pain. “I'm sorry that I hurt you, Conor. I meant exactly what I said. If I were a few years older, I would have fallen for you—hard. You're exactly what I'd love in a man…in a husband.”

“But, I'm not what you want in a woman,” he said, stating the obvious. “Are you a lesbian, Mia? Is that the problem?”

She rolled her eyes, annoyed and surprised at the way he framed his question. “Ah…no, I'm not a lesbian, Conor, but if I were, it wouldn't be a 'problem'.”

“I didn't mean it like that…” he started to say, but when she fixed him with a raised eyebrow, he admitted, “All right, I did mean it that way. I guess I'd prefer to think you were a lesbian than that you just like her better than you like me.”

“I can understand that,” Mia said, patting his shoulder. “But it's not like that, Conor. It's not that I like her better than you. Things just kinda clicked with Jordan. We're the same age, we're both afraid of commitment, we're both a little hazy on our sexual orientations…I don't know…it just felt less serious with her. It felt more like we were just playing around, you know?”

He nodded, understanding that role quite well.

“This was nothing I'd planned, Conor, and I swear I would never have gone out with her if I'd thought she wanted to get serious.”

“So my mistake was being honest?” he asked, his voice still reflecting his hurt.

“That's never a mistake, Conor,” she chided him. “I think you know that. Would it have been better to go out for a few months, or a year, and then find out I didn't want to get married for another eight years? Gimme a break!”

“What if she wanted to be partnered with you, Mia? Would you marry her?”

It was really bugging Mia that Conor refused to say Jordan's name, but she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of knowing that it irked her. “I can't answer that, Conor. It's not gonna happen, and it doesn't do any good to speculate. I do know that even if we got together, and stayed together, I still wouldn't have kids for another eight or nine years. I refuse to give up my youth until I've really lived it, Conor, and I think that was the biggest problem between you and me.”

He nodded somberly. “You're right. I'm a lot closer to wanting to settle down than you are. It just caught me by surprise, Mia. I didn't expect to feel like I did about you. You just felt right to me, ya know? I've never really felt like that before…especially so quickly.”

“We just had bad timing, Conor. You were born a little early…I was born a little late. It just can't be helped.”

“Mia, if you were ready to settle down, would you consider being with me? Please be honest with me,” he said, his blue eyes boring into her.

“Yes, I would, Conor. If I wasn't with Jordan, and I was ready to settle down, I would chase you like a little pit bull, grabbing onto your pant leg.”

“Okay,” he sighed, finally giving her a small smile. “That makes me feel better. When I saw you with her, I just felt like you'd lied to me.”

Mia extended a hand, and Conor took it as he got to his feet. “I know this is hard for you, but if you don't start calling Jordan by her name, I'm going to belt you one.”

“You're my kinda girl, Mia,” he said fondly, slipping his arm around her shoulders. “Jordan,” he enunciated carefully, “is one lucky woman.”

“I'm not sure she knows that, but thanks for the vote of confidence,” she said, offering up a small, sad smile.

* * * * * * * * * * *

By the time Mia and Conor returned, the gift opening had begun. Conor went back to sit with his siblings, but Mia spotted Catherine standing in the back of the crowd and sidled up next to her. “What in the world is going on?” the younger woman asked.

It was obvious that Mia was as puzzled by the tradition as Catherine was, and the older woman couldn't resist teasing her a little. “They're opening their gifts, of course. Is yours up there, Mia?”

Mia blinked at her, and said, “Um…I sent a gift to the house…last week. I uh…”

Catherine laughed, and said, “I'm just playing with you, Mia. I was a bit surprised by this myself.” They watched for a few more minutes, and Catherine said, “You know, this does look like a lot of fun. Rather like a birthday party.”

“Yeah,” Mia decided. “Plus, doing it in public shames people into giving you really nice stuff!”

* * * * * * * * * * *

Conor decided to go to the bar for drinks for the table, and he nodded in Ryan's direction and asked, “Help me carry?”

“Sure,” she agreed.

As soon as they were alone, he said, “It would have been nice of you to tell me that Mia was seeing someone else.”

She blinked at him and asked, “Why would I do that, Conor? You know I don't get involved like that.”

“I just looked like a fool today, Ryan, and you could have prevented it.”

She bit back the sarcastic reply that was itching to leave her mouth, and said, “Look, Conor, I'm sorry you feel like you looked foolish, but I'm not in the business of giving updates on my friends and their dating habits. I respect your confidences, so I have to respect hers, too.”

“Well, you could have at least told me Jordan was a dyke. That would have given me a clue.”

The bar was set up near the entrance to the garden, and Ryan grasped Conor none-too-gently by the upper arm and pushed him down one of the paths. “Look,” she said, her eyes flashing with anger, “I know your feelings are hurt, but don't you dare use that term with that tone of voice. That is unacceptable!” Still glowering, she gave his arm a good shake before she released him.

“I'm sorry,” he muttered, the tips of his ears turning pink from embarrassment. “I didn't mean that like it sounded. I'm just…I'm…”

“You're hurt,” she snapped. “You really liked Mia…it didn't work out…someone else is with her now, and she seems happy. It makes sense that you're hurt, Conor, but that's no reason to blame Jordan. She didn't take Mia from you. Mia wasn't yours.” Her words didn't bear their usual gentle concern, since she was still smarting from his slur.

Conor looked at her, obviously stung by her harsh tone. “This has never happened to me before, Ryan,” he said softly. “I don't know how to handle it.”

Quickly, she wracked her mind and realized that Conor had never been dumped by anyone he cared about. He was actually more phobic than she had been about getting close—with the exception of his one long-term girlfriend, Melissa, whom he had dated for two years. She gentled her voice, and said, “Conor, I know this is hard for you, but you need to look at reality here. You went out with Mia twice. I know you felt there was a lot of chemistry there, but you don't know her that well, and she doesn't know you very well, either. She wasn't rejecting you—heck, she didn't know you well enough to reject you.”

He gave her a startled look, and she assured him, “You know what I mean. I think you see Mia more as an archetype than as a person. You just don't know her well enough to be this bothered by her choice to be with Jordan.”

“I don't know what an archetype is, but I see Mia as a person, Ryan. Maybe this has never happened to you, but I just clicked with her. I don't want to give up.”

“You don't have to, Conor. You can sit around and waste your time waiting for her to break up with Jordan, but I wouldn't advise it. They're really getting close, but even if they weren't, Mia decided not to be with you even before she met Jordan. That's not an insignificant fact, bro.”

“Maybe,” he said, not looking convinced in the least. “I guess we'll just have to wait and see.”

He started to walk back towards the party, but she placed her hand on his chest to stop him. “Don't let this get to your ego, Conor. Mia isn't a prize—she's a person.”

Shaking his head he said, “That's where you're wrong, Sis. She's both.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

As the afternoon went on, more and more of the people from the neighborhood, fellow firefighters, and people from the parish took their leave. By the time dusk fell, about 30 people remained, most of them family members. A few of the cousins had brought dates, and eventually most of the clan wound up on the dance floor. The crowd was no longer paired off in couples; now all of the women danced with all of the men, without regard to sexual orientation. Ryan noticed that Conor made it a point to dance with Jordan a time or two, and she was pleased to see that he was sulking less.

The band was playing mostly Irish music, most of their selections very sprightly and easy to dance to in an exuberant manner. They threw in an occasional ballad, some of them popular songs, just to appeal to everyone. As one ballad began, Ryan spotted her mother-in-law standing near the pool, checking on some detail, taking her role of hostess very seriously. Ryan walked up and adopted a formal air, asking, “Would you care to dance?” Catherine blinked at her in surprise, then her mouth twitched into a grin, and she placed her hand in Ryan's, allowing herself to be led to the dance area. “Have you ever danced with a woman before?” the younger woman asked.

“Let's see now…have I ever danced with a woman?” She acted as though the question merited great thought, finally saying, “I think not, Ryan, not unless you count junior high.”

“I don't,” Ryan said, and drew her close by placing a hand upon the small of her back. “This doesn't make you uncomfortable, does it?”

“No, of course not,” she smiled. “You know, given how most men feel about dancing, I should always dance with women. The only problem would be who would lead.” She smiled up at her daughter-in-law, and said, “I bet you never have that problem, do you, Ryan?”

“No,” Ryan agreed, “I tend to lead. Byproduct of my size, I suppose.”

“I think your personality might be a small contributing factor,” Catherine said dryly. “You're no shrinking violet, Ryan.” She let out a light chuckle as she added, “Besides, you dance beautifully.”

“Thanks,” she said, and deciding to reveal one of her hidden desires, she informed Catherine, “I wanted to be a dancer for the Niners when I was a little girl.”

“That's a switch,” Catherine laughed. “I can see you dreaming of being a defensive back, but I can't see you as a dancer.”

“Yeah, I think that was my only sex-typed goal,” Ryan decided. “Of course, Jamie thinks I wanted to be a dancer just to be around a lot of good-looking girls.” She paused a beat and added, “She might be right.”

Catherine slid her arm around Ryan and gave her a squeeze. “I'm having such a good time today.”

“I hope you know how much we all appreciate this. It's made all the difference in making this day memorable for Da and my aunt.”

“The pleasure is definitely all mine,” Catherine assured her.

Just then Jamie swept by, leading Maeve around the dance floor. “Will you give me lessons in how to lead, honey?” she asked. “This is harder than it looks!”

“It's not a bed of roses being a top,” Ryan smirked. “Lotta hard work involved, babe.”

Ryan looked around at their fellow dancers and saw that most of her aunts were now dancing with each other, a common event in her family, since none of her uncles would set foot on the dance floor. Her aunts Peggy and Eileen were always in demand, since they were both very good at leading, always finding their dance cards full at the Hibernians' socials. When Rory noticed that all of his aunts were now on the dance floor, he continued to play songs that were conducive to dancing. Soon, Jordan and Mia got into the act, with each of them taking a turn with Catherine, Maeve and Moira. Ryan danced with each of her aunts, finally ending up with Moira.

“What's your tall friend's name again, love?”

“That's Jordan,” Ryan supplied.

“Yes, Jordan. She's a very good dancer,” Moira said. “She'd never have a chance to sit at one of our parish dinner dances.”

“I'll tell her that,” Ryan smirked. “She likes to be the best at everything…that'll make her day.”

“You have nice friends,” Moira said thoughtfully. “They seem very fond of you.”

“Yeah, they are,” Ryan agreed.

“I have a favor to ask of you, Ryan,” Moira said.

“Anything, Aunt Moira. All you have to do is ask.”

“Cait has a little Internet computer now. She saved all year and finally got enough money to buy it and pay for a connection. Will you start corresponding with her?”

“Sure,” Ryan said immediately. She noticed the slight look of concern on her aunt's face, and asked, “What's bothering you, Aunt Moira? Is Cait giving you trouble?”

“No, no, not at all. She's just…I see a lot of similarities between Cait and you, Ryan, and I think she could use someone to talk to. Someone who might understand and help her through this time in her life.”

“I take it that you don't mean she's gifted in math,” Ryan guessed, “and I know she's not extraordinarily tall. That leaves one main theme,” the younger woman said. “Do you think she's gay, Aunt Moira?”

The worried look became more pronounced as Moira said, “I don't know for sure, Ryan. I haven't even spoken to Eamon about this. I just see how she is with her good friend, Maddie, and it reminds me of you and your friend, Sara. I know it's common for girls her age to have a good friend…but there's something more, Ryan, and I'm a little afraid to ask her.”

“That's probably wise,” Ryan decided. “Asking her directly might upset her…especially if she doesn't know yet.”

The song finished, and Moira stayed right where she was, her arms loosely draped around her much taller niece's waist. As the music started again she looked up at Ryan and asked, “How do you mean? How would you not know that you were in love with someone?”

“It's different, Aunt Moira,” she said. “It's hard to explain, but many young lesbians aren't aware that what they're feeling for another girl is love or sexual attraction. It's tough growing up as a member of such a small minority group—we're really quite invisible. And we're the only minority group that doesn't share our status with our parents—for the most part, at least. It takes most girls a little while to get comfortable that what they're feeling is normal—for them, but isn't what most of their friends are experiencing. I swear that I didn't know I was gay until I was seventeen—even though I had always been attracted to women. I just assumed that's how everyone felt.”

Moira nodded and said, “I've never thought of it like that, Ryan. I just assumed it was something that you always knew—but you had to wait for the right time to share it with others.”

“Maybe it is for some girls—especially ones who have positive role models—but it wasn't for me, and we lived in the most lesbian neighborhood in the city. It just didn't click.”

“Well, I can assure you that we don't live in the most lesbian neighborhood in Ireland, Ryan. If Cait is a lesbian, she's not getting much in the way of positive role models. That's why I'd like your help. I'd really like you to lend an ear if this is how she's feeling.”

“How do you feel about it, Aunt Moira?” Ryan asked gently.

“Well, I've thought about this a lot, Ryan, and while it's not what I'd choose for her, I'm fine with it. I just worry that she'll head off to Dublin as soon as she finishes school, so she can be around other girls like her.”

“That's a definite possibility, Aunt Moira. Killala would be a lonely place to be gay.”

“Yes, and I want her to be happy, so I suppose I have to prepare myself for that eventuality.”

“Well, don't assume that she's packing her bags, Aunt Moira. Maybe she and her friend are just very close.”

“Maybe,” the older woman said hesitantly, “but I don't think so.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

It was fully dark by six, and all of the cousins went into the pool house to change into their casual clothes. The band was taking a break, and Martin came by to say that he and Maeve were thinking about leaving, since they had a long drive to Pebble Beach.

“How will you get there?” Ryan asked, knowing that he had released the limo.

“Kevin drove Maeve's car down. Our things are already packed in it,” he said. “Bryant has a rental car, and he's going to take Kevin back home.”

“Great. Well, all you have to do is dance with your bride once, and we'll let you go.”

“Oh, Siobhán, you won't make your poor father embarrass himself that way, will you?”

“Of course I will,” she laughed. “Aunt Maeve would be disappointed if you didn't dance with her, Da. I know you don't want to disappoint her.”

“That threat will lose its effectiveness one day,” he muttered as his eyes narrowed, “but it's still working just fine now. I'll go find her.” He was just a few feet away when he stopped and said, “Let's get everyone together and do a reel. I can't believe we haven't done one yet.”

She knew this was just a ploy to have the spotlight diffused, but Ryan knew her father well enough to know that it was nearly painful for him to have too much attention focused on him. “That's fine idea, Da. Jamie doesn't know any reels, and it's high time she learned.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

While Martin arranged for all of the remaining guests to join them, Ryan gathered up the few neophytes and demonstrated the rudiments of the simplest dance she knew. She had Jamie, Catherine, Mia, Jordan, Bryant and a few of the cousin's dates mimicking her steps in short order, and by the time Martin had instructed the band, all were ready.

Following Martin's instructions, the band started off rather slowly, letting everyone get used to the pace. The lilting melody carried the inexperienced dancers along, and soon nearly everyone was up to speed. Speed soon became the operative word, as the band increased the tempo slowly, but inexorably. Soon, the entire group was nearly flying around the dance floor, the energetic, joyous beat causing everyone to laugh helplessly as they passed each other in the chaotic whirl. With a loud crescendo, the piece finally ended, most of the participants forced to bend from the waist to catch their breath. “Good Lord!” Martin gasped, “they're trying to kill us!”

“That was a blast!” Mia piped up, the energetic dance barely raising her heart beat. “Let's do another!”

The band slowed down a bit for humanitarian reasons, and eventually Martin joined the group again, gamely participating in the fun. Ryan was even a little winded when they finally stopped, but since she was holding Caitlin upon her shoulders, she had a valid excuse.

“That was grand!” Maeve exclaimed. “Now we need a nice, slow piece so I can dance with my Marty.” She gave him a look that he was unable to resist, and he found himself approaching her with his hand extended, waiting to begin.

Knowing this was difficult for him, Ryan made an offer. “We'll accompany you, Da. Come on fellas,” she said to her brothers. “Let's give them a nice sendoff.”

Rory suggested a traditional Irish tune that he knew their father liked, so since the piece didn't call for drums, Ryan decided to play the bodhrán. The instrument looked a bit like a tambourine, consisting of goatskin stretched over a round wooden frame. The sound was not similar, however, since the bodhrán was more of a timekeeper than melodic or percussive. Brendan took the acoustic guitar, Rory handled keyboards, and Conor played the fiddle, not his first choice, but the band didn't usually carry a mandolin.

They hadn't played together in over a year, but their previous years of practice allowed them to get comfortable quickly. As the boys tuned up, Ryan was struck by memories of childhood--sitting in the living room, playing simple tunes with her brothers. She had started off playing the Irish whistle, mainly because her small hands were not competent to play any of the more complex instruments, and even though she had taken up other instruments over the years, she still felt a special place in her heart for her whistle. She didn't think Rory had one with him, however, so she thought the bodhrán was a good substitute.

As agreed, Martin led his bride onto the dance floor, pleased that everyone didn't abandon the space when he and Maeve entered. Jamie could see that he was uncomfortable, so she enlisted Mia and Jordan to join her as they asked Martin's brothers to join them in a dance. Even though the men never danced with their wives, none of them were foolish enough to pass up a chance to dance with a pretty girl, and by the time Martin had taken just a few steps, all of his brothers had joined him. Regrettably, if Martin and Maeve had any hope of being able to have a quiet, low-key dance, that chance flew away when the brothers were lured onto the floor. Now all of the aunts and all of the cousins, paid rapt attention, but thankfully, the attention was split between the four of them, lessening Martin's discomfort. In fact, of the four brothers, he was the most graceful, but that wasn't saying much. As much as Maeve appreciated his attempt, by the time the song ended she was privately resigned to dancing with her sisters-in-law at the next dinner-dance they attended.

The applause at the end of the song was as much for the dancers as the band, even though the siblings had performed admirably. Maeve came over to thank them for playing and asked, “Have you no whistle, Ryan? Your father would love to hear you play a tune.”

“I have one,” Rory volunteered, and Ryan immediately agreed to switch instruments. They decided to play an ancient tune, one that had been heard in the west of Ireland for centuries. Ryan hooked the heels of her low boots onto the lowest rung of a stool and concentrated for a minute, looking over the sheet music that Rory provided. The boys agreed to accompany her and, after calling out the time, she began to play.

It was fully dark, and the band was nearly outside of the perimeter lighting that illuminated the yard and pool. Ghostly shadows were cast over them as they started the sad, haunting tune. All of their faces were indistinct, and as the music wafted over the crowd in the darkened evening, thoughts of previous generations of their ancestors joining together for music and camaraderie settled in the hearts of the family members, the music evoking emotions that none of them could name but all felt strongly.

Martin was transfixed by the tune as he stood behind his bride, his long arms wrapped around her in a tender embrace. Maeve's head was resting against his shoulder as she let the music transport her back to her youth, the tune one she had heard hundreds of times and one that her father often whistled.

When the song was finished, the family insisted on another, and the siblings continued to play until it was too dark to see the music any longer. Some of the cousins moved the large gas heaters close to their set-up, giving them just enough light to read their music, but Ryan checked her watch and decided that it was time for the happy couple to leave.

It took quite a while for the assembled guests to say good-bye, and they were only about halfway through the crowd when someone remembered that Maeve had not thrown her bouquet. There was a paucity of single women, and it was only by force that the small group was convinced to gather in front of the band. Maeve tossed the bouquet, giving it a good ride, hitting Mia right in the chest. She acted as though it were a live grenade, throwing it right back into the air, where it dropped into Ryan's defensive grip. She waved the flowers good-naturedly at her partner, calling out, “Oh, Jamie…I'm next!”

“You'd better change that to we're next, Tiger,” she called back, to the laughs of the assembled family members.

The band members abandoned their instruments to bid farewell to their father and Maeve, with each of the children giving both of them generous hugs. Determined not to cry, Ryan practically bled from the pressure she put on her lower lip. She managed remarkably well, then almost lost it when her aunt let a few tears slip down her cheeks. “You'd better go, or we'll be out here crying all night,” the younger woman whispered, trying desperately to remain composed.

Maeve nodded and grasped Martin's hand, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue as she tugged him towards the house. Martin gave his daughter one final look, all of his conflicting emotions swirling in the depths of his blue eyes. She dug her fingernails into her palms to present a happy face to her father, but as soon as he turned for the house she whirled and made a hasty retreat to the garden. Jamie was right on her heels, not wanting Ryan to be alone with her feelings. When they were out of sight, Jamie wrapped her in a hug and held on tight as Ryan unleashed some of the emotion she had been holding in all day. She cried soundlessly for a long time, allowing herself to feel the mixture of joy, loss, pleasure and pain that had buffeted her ever since the ceremony.

Jamie shed a few tears herself, knowing how hard this was for Ryan and how much she felt the loss of her mother during this celebration. “Are you all right, love?” she asked softly.

“Yeah, I'm fine,” Ryan murmured. “Thanks for being with me, Jamie. I just needed to let some of that out. It's been building up all day, but I was determined not to spend the day crying.”

“You did very well,” Jamie soothed. “I know it wasn't easy for you, but you were very composed today.”

“It wasn't that hard, 'cause I really am incredibly happy for them,” Ryan reminded her. “It's just when they left that it all hit me.”

“I know. I was sad, too.”

“I'd better go check on the boys,” Ryan decided, taking her role as the emotional center of the family seriously. “Today was as hard for Brendan as it was for me.”

As they walked through the garden, Jamie spotted Brendan sitting on a bench with Maggie, his dark head resting against her chest as she ran her fingers through his hair in a calming fashion. Ryan saw them and squeezed Jamie's hand as she said, “I think I've been replaced. Brendan finally has a shoulder he can cry on. Two down…two to go,” she said, giving Jamie a watery smile.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Catherine had to ask the boys to turn off the amplifiers at eleven, since she knew she would be receiving a visit from the Hillsborough police if she did not. They played on once they were unplugged, however, since the crowd was now small. All of the uncles and aunts had gone, including Moira, who had decided to go back to Maeve's with them. Now it was the cousins, their dates, the O'Flaherty children, Bryant, and Mia and Jordan.

Ryan went on a mission, spending a few minutes talking with each of her cousins, deciding who was in shape to drive and who wasn't. Luckily, the ones who were sober were the designated drivers, and she didn't have to wrestle the keys out of anyone's hands. She thought Conor was a little over the limit, but he agreed to let Rory drive home, so all was safe on the family front.

Mia and Jordan were another matter, both women having imbibed too much, probably trying to cool themselves down after dancing for hours. “You two are staying over,” Ryan declared, not even giving them the opportunity to complain. “Give me your keys so I don't have to worry about you again,” she demanded, and Mia docilely handed them over.

“I love a woman that takes charge,” she purred as she placed the keys in Ryan's outstretched palm.

“Do I take it that you're ready for your room?” Ryan smirked.

Mia's hand slid up the center of Jordan's chest and she touched her chin with her fingers, turning her head slightly. “Ready for bed, sweetheart?”

Jordan's blonde head nodded up and down slowly, her expression giving the clear impression that she'd follow the smaller woman anywhere she wanted to lead her.

“I'll go ask Helena to show you to your rooms,” Ryan smiled. “I'll ask for two, just for propriety.”

“Doesn't matter,” Mia said breezily.

“Doesn't matter tonight,” Ryan called over her shoulder. “It might tomorrow.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan encountered Catherine coming out of the house, and she gave her the update on everyone's sobriety and transportation plans. “Oh, Ryan, thank you for doing that! I was worried when I saw some of your cousins looking a little wobbly during that dance.”

“They're good about having a designated driver,” she informed Catherine. “They all take turns, so they each only have to behave every fourth or fifth party.”

“Well, it looks like we're about ready to wrap it up,” she decided, looking around at the dwindling crowd.

“I think we'll stay over, Catherine. We can help get everything organized for the rental service in the morning.”

“That's not necessary, but I'm always happy to have you. It will be nice to have company for breakfast,” she decided.

“We'll need a good one,” Ryan reminded her. “We have to move Da out and Kevin in tomorrow.”

“I think that's one family gathering that I'm going to miss,” Catherine decided, her good sense overtaking her family loyalty.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After seeing that the band's gear was properly put away and saying good-bye to the boys and Bryant, Jamie and Ryan headed off to bed. They had to pass by Jordan and Mia's room, and they shared a meaningful look as they did so. “Think they were making that much noise when your mom came up?” Ryan laughed.

“Maybe she thought Jordan was performing a really rigorous aerobic conditioning program,” Jamie mused. “Athletes are a strange bunch, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” Ryan agreed as she stood next to her partner and wrapped her in a hug. “Did you have fun today, honey?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jamie smiled. “I particularly liked two things. I loved it when you played your whistle.” She shook her head in surprise and revealed, “I got shivers up and down my spine when you played that first song. It sounded like something the Celts would have played on some primitive instruments. It was really moving.”

“Thanks. I really should practice more, but it went surprisingly well. What else did you like?”

“I loved it when you caught the bouquet,” she smiled. “The look on your face was just priceless.”

“Think it'll come true?” Ryan asked as she methodically undressed her partner. Her blue eyes were intent on her task, but they rotated up to meet Jamie's, and they locked on each other for a long minute.

The smaller woman nodded, a smile affixed to her face. “I certainly hope so. I think we'll be able to have a ceremony this year. We just have to make some decisions about when to have it and how we want to conduct it.”

“Do you think your father will come?” Ryan asked, slippng her partner's shirt off and starting to kiss her neck.

“Yes, I think he's at the point where he would be well-behaved,” she decided. “I'd like him to have a little more time, but he's close. He's made a lot of progress.”

“Yeah, he has, but the hole he dug for himself still has him well below ground.”

“This is also true,” Jamie agreed, shivering as Ryan blew a stream of cool air over her bared breasts, making the nipples pop up in response.

“Your turn, Tiger,” Jamie purred, performing the same service for her partner. Soon they were both in their jeans, their warm breasts rubbing against each other as they shifted their shoulders slightly. “Mmm…feels marvelous,” Jamie moaned, as she realized how much she had missed their sensual couplings. “Need more.”

“Ooo…greedy tonight, are we?” Ryan murmured as she bent over to grasp her partner by the waist and lift her until her legs wrapped around Ryan. “I absolutely love holding you like this,” the larger woman soothed, her strong, warm hands playing over the smooth skin that covered Jamie's back.

The blonde leaned back as far as she could, holding on with her hands clasped around Ryan's powerful neck. She sighed heavily and said, “This is bliss. I can feel all of the muscles in your back—where they twitch when you move. I can hold you tight, and feel your breasts against mine, and make your nipples hard when I rub against them. God, Ryan, your skin is so soft…and the way it glides over your hard muscles just makes me throb.”

“Throbbing is good,” Ryan sighed as she tossed her head back and let the sensual pleasure of moving so intimately with her partner wash over her. She twirled a little bit, one heel firmly planted to provide stability. “Ooo…you make me dizzy.” She sat on the edge of the bed and slowly dropped back onto the mattress.

Jamie slid from the prone body, staying on her knees as she reached up and started to unbutton Ryan's jeans. The larger woman co-operated, lifting her hips when instructed, as she laced her hands behind her head and let her partner undress her.

When Jamie had the jeans off, she scooted closer to the bed and asked, “Remember when I bought you these shorts?” Her hand started to sketch abstract patterns at various spots on the white cotton, sending shivers up Ryan's spine at the unpredictable contact.

“I have a vague memory,” Ryan teased, chalking that experience right up there with her most erotic. The tender, shy, but determined exploration of her body by her completely inexperienced partner had nearly driven her mad, and she had thought of the touch often during their months together. “Wanna do it again?” she asked, hopefully.

“Huh-uh.” The blonde head shook, and she looked up at Ryan from between her legs, letting her face twitch into a sexy grin. “I wanna do it the way I wanted to that night. My imagination was way ahead of my body at that point.”

“All righty then,” Ryan decided, having not heard a better idea in weeks. “Shall I stand…if I can?”

“Nope. I like this angle.” The saucy look she was giving Ryan was revving the dark woman's engines enough that foreplay was really unnecessary, but Ryan knew a great opportunity when she saw one, and she wasn't about to complain. During their months together, one of Ryan's most pleasurable experiences was sharing her partner's burgeoning interest in sexual play, and she was bound and determined to always respond favorably to the smaller woman's overtures. Besides, Jamie had quickly figured out Ryan's triggers, and the smaller woman had yet to have an idea that wasn't a complete success.

Jamie's hands began to wander all over Ryan's thighs, and she shared with her lover how she had felt the first night she had given her the form-fitting shorts. “I remember you standing in front of me in your new boxers,” she recalled, her voice soft, and smooth as silk. “You had on a polo shirt, and I kept running my hands all over your legs…I was just amazed at how muscular and strong they looked in your shorts…just like carved marble,” she purred.

Ryan's hips started to twitch as Jamie spoke of that night nearly six months before. The smaller woman's hands were never idle, continuing to tease Ryan's sensitive skin through the knit fabric.

“Your shirt kept getting in the way, so you just yanked it off…” She licked her lips, and looked across Ryan's body, making eye contact with her. “That was the first time I'd seen you in a bra and panties…I nearly fainted,” she recalled, shaking her head at how arousing the scene was. Ryan's warm chuckle reached her ears, and she tickled her a little for her insolence. “You laugh now, but that was a whole new level of desire for me, baby. I wanted to rip that sports bra off of you and fill my mouth with one of those luscious breasts.”

“That would have been fun,” Ryan mused, glad they had waited for sex, but more than willing to have started earlier.

“No…I wasn't ready for that yet,” Jamie decided. “I had to get my mind off of them though, so I concentrated on your adorable butt. Remember that?” She urged Ryan over on her tummy, and even though it was difficult with her legs dangling off the bed, she executed the move.

Jamie started to knead her cheeks, feeling the fabric sliding over the firm flesh. The smaller woman was still on her knees, bending forward to apply strong pressure to the sensitive skin. “You started to moan when I was rubbing your ass, and I could feel my heart start to race,” Jamie recollected. “I'm surprised you didn't hear it. It was pounding!”

“So was mine,” Ryan said, gasping a little as Jamie hit a sensitive spot on the inside of her cheek.

“Do you know why I focused so much on your ass?” the smaller woman asked, her fingers now lightly stroking the curved mounds.

“Unh-uh. Why?”

“Because I wasn't ready to do this,” she replied, running both of her thumbs down the cleft of Ryan's cheeks, just barely grazing her mound.

“Yow!” Ryan's legs tried to come together, but her partner was still between them, holding them apart.

“Ooo…did I startle you, love?”

“Yes…yes you did, but it would have startled me even more then. I should be used to your tricks by now,” she chuckled.

“Turn over again,” Jamie urged gently, helping her partner onto her back. “As I was saying,” she continued, bending her head until it was less than an inch from the apex of Ryan's thighs. “I was afraid to touch your breasts yet, and I was certainly afraid to touch you here.” Her eyes lingered on the tempting sight right in front of her, and she added, “I'm not afraid any more.” Her head traveled the rest of the short distance, and she opened her mouth wide and covered as much of Ryan's mound as she could with her mouth. She blew a long stream of warm air onto the flesh, delighting when Ryan's hips began to twitch harder, trying to direct her mouth downward just a few inches.

“Jesus, Jamie, you're killing me,” she groaned, her fists grabbing onto the bedspread.

“I wanted to do this to you that night, Ryan,” the blonde insisted. “Even though I was terrified, I wanted to drop my head right between your legs and consume you.” She nuzzled her face into the spot she had denied herself earlier, and rubbed every bit of hypersensitive skin. Ryan's legs spread wide—so wide that it looked painful, but she needed the touch so badly she was ready to do the splits, if need be.

The smaller woman began to nibble on Ryan through the fabric, her white, even teeth tugging gently on one sensitive spot after another. Ryan's hips were quivering so badly that Jamie had to hold onto her, so she grasped her hips firmly, unintentionally increasing Ryan's desire. “Oh, God,” the painfully aroused woman moaned. “Come on, Jamie, touch me, please!”

Ryan had her eyes locked on her partner, unwilling to look away when snapping teeth were so close to her favorite spots. Jamie tilted her head and met her eyes, giving her a devastatingly sexy look as she opened her mouth and bit down on the fabric on Ryan's thigh. She started to tug, twitching her head repeatedly, making some progress with removing the shorts the hard way. Her mouth hovered above Ryan's mound for just a second, meeting the startled blue eyed gaze as her teeth clamped down on the soft fabric and began to pull, managing to draw the shorts off her partner smoothly, with the aid of Ryan's raised hips.

Ryan let out a sigh of relief, glad that Jamie's sharp teeth were no longer a threat. Her sighs quickly switched from relief to pure pleasure when her partner maneuvered her feet onto her shoulders and started to please her with her warm mouth, loving every inch of her overheated flesh with a fervent focus that curled Ryan's toes. “My God, you're good at that,” she gasped, her arousal spiraling out of control so fast that she could barely keep up. Giving up all pretense of control, Ryan just grasped the blonde head and pulled it close, offering herself up to her lover's voracious appetite. Her entire body shook and jerked spasmodically, her legs splaying wide open as she lost her fine muscle control.

Knowing that her partner always liked to be cuddled tight after she was loved, Jamie climbed onto the bed and wrapped her in a snug embrace, thoroughly enjoying the feel of her steamy breasts as they rested against her own. “You've ruined me,” Ryan muttered, her voice nearly indecipherable through her fatigue.

“Oh, I haven't ruined you, I'm just breaking you in,” Jamie teased.

“Nope. You've ruined me. I used to be able to lie back and spend a good long time letting someone please me. Now, I barely have time to lay my head down before I explode! Where is the famous O'Flaherty control? No one would recognize the woman you've made me,” she moaned, in her mock-serious tone.

“That's my plan,” Jamie insisted. “I want to render you unrecognizable to all of my predecessors. How am I doing?”

“So far so good,” Ryan decided, bestowing her partner with a warm smile. “I think it's a very sound plan, and you're just the woman that can pull it off.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

Some time later the young women lay tangled in the disordered sheets, their naked bodies pressed tightly against one another as Jamie's heart slowly reverted to its normal rhythm. The dark woman was methodically kissing her partner, her tender, yet insistent kisses giving a good indication that Ryan's ardor had been slaked, but not sated.

Jamie kept opening her eyes just to experience the passionate look on Ryan's face. Blue eyes were shut tight, a little furrow of concentration on her brow. Her tongue slid into Jamie's mouth repeatedly, and with each gentle foray, a low, sensual moan accompanied the invasion. Jamie's hand slid down Ryan's overheated body and slipped between her legs, questing fingers asking a silent question. “Uh-uh,” Ryan murmured, lifting her head just enough to be able to speak. “I'm completely satisfied. I just need to kiss you.” Her mouth quirked into a sexy half-grin as she said, “I can't get enough of you tonight.”

“This feels so nice,” the smaller woman sighed lazily, her body completely relaxed. She tightened her grip and returned Ryan's kisses with as much emotion as she could generate. Stopping for breath she whispered, “It makes me feel so intimate to kiss like this after we make love. Now it's not foreplay…there's no goal to work towards. It's just love.”

“It's just love.” Ryan smiled serenely as she lowered her head and continued to love her partner deep into the night.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Part Seven

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