I Found My Heart in San Francisco

Book 12: Lifeline


by S X Meagher



Part 1

Damn! How much did I have to drink last night?

Head pounding, muscles screaming in outrage, eyes filled with grit, and a tongue swollen to twice its normal size led the confused woman to the obvious conclusion. I obviously got massively shit-faced last night. Trying to roll out of bed was a huge mistake, she immediately learned, falling back to lie flat on the mattress while trying to keep her stomach from rebelling.

Time to assess the damage, she thought, her brain still muddled. Well, one thing's for sure. I've never been so dehydrated. She wasn't sure what day of the week it was, or what bed they were in, so she forced an eye open, nearly screaming when the sun's incredible brightness flooded her retina. Very bad idea … very, very bad idea. Damn! Was I drinking grain alcohol? I've never had a headache this bad. I feel like I was run over by a …

Suddenly, her heart started to pound in her chest and snippets of memories began to assault her with astounding force and rapidity. Blindly, she reached out and felt for her lover, nearly crying out in relief when she touched her warm body. Thank God!

Like a marsupial crawling blindly into its mother's pouch, she slid across the bed and sighed heavily when Jamie automatically wrapped her arms around her. Judging from the steady, slow rhythm of her breathing, it was clear that the smaller woman wasn't going to wake, and Ryan nestled her head against her neck, breathing in her usual morning scent. That simple act calmed her enough for her to allow some of the awful memories of the night before to surface. As the images flooded her brain, her heart felt like it would explode in her chest, and her headache somehow managed to worsen as the gut-churning fear coursed through her body.

You have to stop this! You promised Jamie you'd focus on being grateful to be alive! She lay still for a moment, then forced herself to scoot to the edge of the bed and sit up — feeling each and every overstressed muscle complain vigorously. Damn! Maybe I did tear a muscle … or fifty. Shaking her head, then cursing herself for having voluntarily increased the pain by doing so, she got up and stumbled into the bathroom. A fifteen-minute shower, with the water as hot as she could stand, helped her stiffness significantly and she began to believe that she could get through the day. Be grateful you're alive … be grateful Jamie's alive … be grateful Caitlin's alive … She repeated the mantra while she got dressed; then, just as she started for the stairs, she stopped abruptly and crossed back over to the bed.

Gazing at her sleeping partner made the words of gratitude resonate within her, and she felt her headache ease just a bit. “Thank you, God,” she whispered, then kissed the tips of her fingers and gently brushed her partner's cheek. “Thank you.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

It was after nine when she shuffled into the dining room to find Martin, Maeve, Brendan, Conor, Kevin, and a very wide-awake looking Mia enjoying a leisurely breakfast together. “Well, well, well,” she said with a reasonably lifelike smile, “what do we have here?”

“There's my precious one,” Martin said, rising to greet her. He wrapped her in a hug that threatened to last the better part of the day, finally pulling away only to draw her close again and place a flurry of kisses on her still-wet hair. “Where's Jamie, love?”

“I let her stay in bed. Every time I woke up, those big, green eyes were staring at me. I bet she didn't get two hours of sleep.”

“I imagine Caitlin's the only one who had a good night's rest,” he said. “Sometimes it pays to be largely unaware of the ways of the world.”

“I'm all for that,” Ryan sighed. She slowly made her way around the table, giving a kiss on the head to all. Then she sat down, trying not to wince when she did so, but every pair of eyes was intently focused on her and she was unable to hide her discomfort. “Anybody know where I put those muscle relaxants?” she asked, deciding she was wasting her energies in trying to put up a front. She dropped her head into her hands and muttered, “Thank God Coach Hayes gave us two days off. I don't think I could run 25 laps for missing practice today.”

“How bad is it?” Maeve asked, reaching out to brush her fingers across Ryan's cheek.

She shrugged her shoulders, flinching as she did so. “I'll be okay,” she said. “I'm just stiff and sore. Nothing permanent.”

“Headache?” Maeve persisted.

“Mmm … more than that,” she said, smiling thinly. “This one needs its own title. What's bigger than an ache?”

Mia got up from her chair and stood behind Ryan. “Close your eyes,” she said, then began to work at the rigid muscles in her neck. She looked up at Martin while she worked, and asked, “Do you have an ice bag?”

“Of course.” He got up and poked around looking for his daughter's medication and returned a few moments later with the bottle of pills and the ice.

In a matter of minutes, Ryan's head had dropped and she began to moan with pleasure. “You're good at this. It's really helping.”

“Take your pill,” Mia said, pausing in her ministrations while Ryan did so.

As soon as she placed her glass back on the table, Mia started in again, working gently until Ryan said, “It's better now, thanks.” Mia stopped her massage and took the ice bag, using it to give Ryan's head and neck a rather vigorous rub. “That feels so much better,” Ryan said, her voice a little brighter.

The curly-haired woman leaned over and kissed the top of her head and Ryan slowly opened her eyes, only to see her brothers and her cousin all gazing at Mia like a trio of does.

“Now I see why you like living in Berkeley,” Martin said. “You have two women to tend to you.”

“It takes at least two, Martin,” Mia said seriously. “She's very high maintenance. Jordan used to take a shift too, and since she's gone Jamie and I have to work doubly hard.”

Ordinarily, Ryan would have risen to the bait and lobbed a comment back, but she didn't have the energy this morning, so she just smiled placidly. “I'm so out of it, I barely noticed what time it is,” she said. “What got you up so early on Christmas Eve morning, Mia?”

“It must be the aura of the house,” she said with a laugh. “I was wide awake at 8:30. Of course, it might have been that your dog was hogging the entire bed. I only got about two inches of mattress to sleep on.”

Ryan gave her a sheepish look and said, “We should have left our door open. Sorry about that.”

“I didn't mind,” she said. “He's really very sweet. So what's on the agenda for today? I'm happy to help out in any way I can.”

“Hmm … we need a lot,” Ryan began thoughtfully, but the ringing phone interrupted her. Still in her press secretary mode, Mia hopped up and spoke just a few words into the receiver before she got an absolutely stunned look on her face. She looked like she might drop the phone, so Ryan walked over and placed a hand on her shoulder.

Mia extended the phone like it was a snake, and gasped out, “It's the President!”

Ryan scowled at the phone, and lifted it from Mia's weak grasp. “Yes?”

“Ms. O'Flaherty?'

“Yes.”

“This is Joe Lockhart, President Clinton's press secretary.”

“Go on,” she said, suspicious of the authenticity of the call.

“President Clinton wants to say a few words to you and Ms. Evans, congratulating you on your heroic deeds of last night.”

“Okay …” she drawled. “Put him on.”

“All right. It'll take a minute, we need to make sure all of the hook-ups are in place …”

“Hook-ups?”

“Yes, CNN wants to run the audio …”

“No thanks,” she said quickly. “If he wants to talk to us, that's fine; but I have no intention of your using this call for political purposes.”

There was a rather stunned silence before he managed to get out, “I'm sorry, Ms. O'Flaherty. I just assumed that Senator Evans would want you to …”

“Are you calling Senator Evans?” she asked. “Because if you are, you've got the wrong number …”

“No! The President sincerely wants to congratulate you both, Ms. O'Flaherty. I know you and Ms. Evans are registered Democrats, and …”

“Don't make assumptions about me, Mr. Lockhart. I'd be happy to talk to the President, but I will not allow our conversation to be broadcast. Period.”

“But surely it couldn't hurt …”

“Look, Mr. Lockhart, I don't mean to be a pain in the ass, but you're pushing my buttons. I was in high school when Mr. Clinton ran for office. I worked my tail off canvassing and volunteering in his San Francisco office. The gay community up here supported him unequivocally, mainly because of his promise to support gay rights, and repeal the ban on gays in military service. And after all of our efforts in providing seed money to get his campaign moving, his first major act is to come up with that bullshit 'don't ask, don't tell' crap. Are you aware that there are more cases of dishonorable discharge for consensual gay acts now than there were during the Bush Administration?”

“Ahh … let me get back to you, Ms. O'Flaherty. Maybe a nice letter of commendation would be more to your liking.”

“That's fine; but I'm warning you, don't sent it to CNN first, or I'll give them my opinion of a man who uses his power to have sex with an employee on government property during a working day!”

“Congratulations again, Ms. O'Flaherty. Nice talking to you.”

“I just bet it was,” she smirked as she placed the phone down and stared at the six sets of eyes that were staring back at her. “He pisses me off!” she said as she sat down to eat.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The rest of the family was not nearly so cavalier about the President's call, and it took quite a while for the buzz of excitement to die down. “Well, that was one way to get the heart racing,” Martin said. “Not that we've been in need of that type of thing recently. We've got some practical matters to take care of, now. Which one of you will go pick up Rory at the airport?”

“No can do,” Conor replied. “The three of us,” he said, pointing to Kevin and Brendan, “are going to Sacred Heart to install those lights.”

“I guess that leaves me,” Ryan said, realizing as the words came out of her mouth that she had planned on tricking Mia into going to the airport to pick up Jordan.

“Nonsense,” Martin said. “You're not in any shape to even think about it.”

“Let me go,” Mia said.

“Sure you don't mind?” Ryan asked.

“Not a bit. I'm really happy to help out.”

“Superb,” Ryan said, the plans falling into place neatly, although inadvertently. “Hey, you can forge Jamie's signature, can't you?”

“Sure can,” Mia said, giving her a sly smile. “I haven't gotten yours down yet, but we can both do each other's. Why?”

“Don't bother learning mine,” Ryan said. “I'm proprietary over it.”

Mia wrinkled up her nose and Ryan continued, “Jamie's so tied to her phone that she's gonna stress without it. Would you be willing to go pick us up a couple of replacements? You know our numbers, and I'd really like to be able to keep them, so make sure you go to our current provider. I'll write down all the details for you.”

“Okay, but why do I need to forge Jamie's signature?”

“Because I'm going to give you her charge card to pay for them. Is that cool?”

“Sure. No problem. I'll run by the house and get some clothes for tonight, get the phones and then go pick up your brother. Let me just sneak downstairs and swipe some clean clothes from Jamie, and I'll be off.”

She got up and started to leave, but Ryan caught her by the sleeve, tugging her over to wrap her in a hug. “Thanks. I'm just not up to driving today.”

Mia kissed her head and leaned over to whisper, “I really appreciate that you're letting me help out, Ryan. It makes me feel like part of the family.”

“You are,” she said, giving her a warm smile and another hug.

As soon as Mia was out of earshot, Ryan turned to her brothers and said, “Thanks for the set-up, guys. Now Mia will really be surprised when she gets to the airport and finds out that she's picking up Jordan. Problem is, we still have to go get Rory. Any takers?”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When Mia entered the Berkeley house, she saw that messages filled the answering machine to capacity so that it had stopped accepting new ones. She called the O'Flaherty house and asked Ryan if she'd like to hear them all. Surprisingly, Ryan declined. “I'll call back and change the greeting. I'm gonna turn it off if you don't mind. I'll ask people we know to call all of us on our cells.”

“That's fine,” Mia said.

Ryan dialed the number, cleared her throat, and changed the greeting. “Hi, this is Ryan. Thanks for all of the nice wishes we've received. Feel free to call any of us on our cell phones. If you don't have those numbers, please call back in a couple of weeks. You can't leave a message, so don't try. Have a good day.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After she hung up, Ryan started to go back downstairs, but her father stopped her. “What do you need from us today, love?”

She gazed at him for a moment and said, “I think we need some time to rest. Neither of us slept well at all. Thankfully, Jamie's making up for that now,” she said, noting that it was after 10.

“How's the head?”

“It's better. I guess you can't cry that much in a single day and not get a headache. Getting some fluids down seems to have helped.”

“I'll clear the house if you want quiet, Siobhán. We can take Duffy back with us.”

“No.” She shook her head and slipped her arms around her father. “I'd like you and Aunt Maeve to stay, to be honest. I feel better when you're close.”

He kissed her forehead and said, “I feel better when you're close to me, too. We'll make some cookies.” With a frown furrowing his brow, he asked, “Do you want to go ahead and have the family over for Christmas Eve? We can cancel if it's too much.”

“No! I'd like things to stay as normal as possible, Da. Keeping everything familiar will really help.”

“Familiar it is,” he said. He reached down and swatted her rather hard on the seat, chuckling at her outraged squawk. “As long as I'm acting normal, I can't let you go unpunished for disrespecting the President!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Merely eating a light breakfast had thoroughly worn Ryan out, and she went back downstairs, hoping for a long nap. Jamie hadn't moved, still curled up on her right side with her open hand resting under her cheek. Ryan felt a need to watch her for a bit, and since she was so stiff herself, she rolled her desk chair over so she didn't have to bend.

She observed her partner for a long time, watching the slow, steady rise and fall of her chest, noting how her eyes darted rapidly under her eyelids. There were faint smudges of blue beneath her eyes, and her color was on the pale side, but other than that, she looked remarkably well. Ryan let her mind wander, and she recalled that it was only 24 hours ago that she'd come home to surprise her lover in the middle of a mesmerizing dance. That could have been the last time we ever made love, she sighed to herself. The last time we ever held each other while we slept. Shivering roughly, she reached out and let the backs of her fingers barely graze the soft cheek, gasping when Jamie's eyes flew open and she sat up abruptly. Bloodshot green eyes darted around the room while she tried to orient herself. “What happened?” she panted, out of breath.

Ryan placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and soothed, “It's okay, love. I'm sorry for waking you.”

“What …?”

“I touched your cheek,” Ryan said. “Really softly … just the way I always do. But it frightened you and you woke up.”

“Oh.” Jamie lowered herself onto the mattress, taking in a sharp breath when her bruised ribs reminded her of the unkind treatment they had suffered the night before. “S'okay.” Her eyes closed again and she murmured, “Hold me?”

Ryan slipped off her clothing and got into bed, wrapping both arms around her lover, while whispering endearments to her. “Sleep now, sweetheart. You're safe.” Her soothing words also calmed her own racing heart, and soon they were both asleep again, wrapped around each other tightly.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

A horrifically realistic dream woke Ryan not long after they had dozed off. She held her partner so tightly that Jamie was unable to take a deep breath, and she only released her frantic grasp when the smaller woman began to struggle. Burying her wet face against her lover's neck, Ryan started to cry softly. “I'm sorry,” she rasped out. “I'm so sorry I hurt you.”

“It's okay, sweetheart,” Jamie soothed, turning to hold her. “You had a bad dream. It's okay now.” She trailed her hand through Ryan's hair, whispering to her the whole while. “Go back to sleep now.”

“No,” Ryan mumbled. “I don't wanna. I'm afraid I'll have the dream again.”

The smaller woman stroked Ryan's hair for a few minutes, trying to wake up. From the tense set of Ryan's posture, it was clear she was unable to relax again, so Jamie finally sighed, “Okay, we should get up anyway. I'm sure there are things we should be doing.”

“No, everything's taken care of,” Ryan said. “Mia's out running some errands for us. I told Da we needed to sleep today.”

“I should call my parents,” Jamie said. “I need to make sure Mother's all right.” She sat up and looked up at the dresser, a puzzled look on her face.

“Mia's going to get us new cell phones,” Ryan said, noting her puzzlement.

“Damn! That thing's a part of me. I guess I remember how to use a land line.” She got up and called her mother's home, frowning when no one answered. “She's not home,” she said. “I'll call my dad and see if he knows what's up.” His phone also rang for a while until the answering machine picked up. “I don't remember his cell phone number,” she said, scowling. “I had it programmed in my cell phone.”

“Maybe they called here,” Ryan said. “Let me go check.”

“No, let me. I should get a little something in my stomach, anyway.”

“I'll make you breakfast,” Ryan said. “It'll do me good to stretch a little.”

“Is your father still here?”

“Uh-huh.”

“No way you're taking his spot in the kitchen, love. That's his domain.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

As expected, Martin insisted on cooking for them, after informing Jamie that Ryan had only eaten a little toast for her first breakfast. “My stomach's upset,” she grumbled. “Those drugs are really strong.”

“Are they helping?” Jamie asked.

“Yeah. I'm still stiff, but I moved like a mannequin when I woke up this morning. I think they've helped a lot.”

“How about a vanilla shake?” Martin asked. “Ice cream might go down easier.”

“Make it banana and you've got a deal,” his daughter said, giving him a grateful smile.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan tried to avert her eyes, unable to watch Jamie eat her omelet, the sight of cooked food making her queasy. To distract herself, she updated her partner on the morning phone calls. “We got a message that we probably have to return.”

“What's that, babe?”

“Well, two actually. I blew off President Clinton this morning. I hope you don't mind.” She had such a cute, sheepish grin on her face that Jamie had to laugh at her expression.

“The President, huh?” She looked thoughtful for a moment and asked, “Why would he call?” Her brow scrunched up and she tilted her head. “He would only call if it benefited him somehow …”

Ryan tapped her nose. “You hit it.”

“I'm gonna guess that he wanted to let everybody know that you and I are big supporters of his.”

“In a roundabout way,” Ryan said. “He wanted to congratulate us for being so heroic; but he wanted CNN to record his message. I'm assuming they hoped we'd gush about how wonderful it was that such an important man could take a moment off to call us.” She scowled and grumbled, “Given how he acts, he's got nothing but free time — especially for young women.”

Jamie's head dropped into her hands. “Don't tell me you gave him the lecture about exploiting his power to get blow jobs at work!” She leaned over to whisper “blow jobs” concerned that Martin or Maeve might hear.

“Kinda, but that wasn't my first complaint. I started out with the gays in the military thing. I would have gotten to the blow jobs, but his press secretary had blown me off by then.”

“You are incorrigible,” Jamie said with a fond smile as she patted Ryan's cheek.

“Do you mind that I did that, honey? I don't want to embarrass your family. I mean, he was behind getting your father appointed to the Senate …”

“No, babe. I'm a bigger fan of the President than you are, but I fully recognize that politicians do this kind of thing for publicity. I'm sure my father wouldn't want us to play along just for his sake. Besides, neither my dad nor the President is running for re-election.”

“I'm sorry if I went too far,” Ryan said. “Da wasn't very happy with me, either.”

Jamie cocked her head and said, “It's always puzzled me a little that you're so angry with him. You're certainly not a sexual prude, and you seem awfully jaded about every other politician.”

Ryan nodded her head briskly. “I'm jaded all right.” She mulled the issue over for a moment and said, “I think I'm angry with him because he could have been so good, but the guy doesn't have a strongly held conviction in his whole body. I think he had the desire to be a leader, but he's the most political of all politicians. He runs every issue up the flagpole and sees how many people salute — rather than doing what he thinks is right. It doesn't do much good to finally have a President that isn't afraid of gay people — only to have him screw us just as badly as Bush did. At least Bush thought we sucked!”

“Okay, that makes sense, but why does the sex stuff bother you?”

“It was just the power imbalance, Jamers. He was the President, and she was an unpaid intern. I believe she wanted to do it, but what if she hadn't? How do you say no to the leader of the Free World, when you're just 22 years old? I just hate it when people use their power to get what they want.”

“You're always looking out for the little guy, aren't ya, sport?” Jamie smiled fondly at her partner and said, “I'm afraid to ask who the second call was. You didn't insult the Pope, did you?”

“No,” Ryan said, “but I could give him an earful, too!”

“Siobhán!” Martin's warning tone floated out from the kitchen.

“Sorry, Da,” she called back, snickering softly. “No, the other call was from Willie Brown's office.”

“Well, you like him better than you like the President,” Jamie said. “Did he want publicity, too?”

“Probably,” she said, shrugging. “They want to honor us with some ceremony, and give us a medal.”

Ryan looked like she had just learned the mayor was going to perform oral surgery on her without anesthesia, and Jamie immediately said, “We don't have to do it, baby.”

“You really don't mind if I say no?” she asked, tentative about her instinct.

“If it were you alone, would you go?” Jamie asked, knowing the answer.

“Absolutely not!”

“Then we won't go together,” she said, surprised that Ryan would even think she would be interested in participating if they weren't in agreement.

“You sure you don't mind, honey? I'd hate to get in the way if you'd like a little stroking from society at large, but I just can't stand it!”

“I only need to be stroked by you,” Jamie said.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Just after noon, Catherine and Jim popped in unexpectedly. “Hello all,” she called out brightly, not bothering to knock.

“We're in the dining room,” Jamie replied.

“Breakfast?” the older woman asked in surprise.

“Yep,” her daughter mumbled around a mouthful of eggs.

First Catherine and then Jim kissed her head and hugged her gently. “Did you just get up, honey?”

“No, I've been up for a little while. Actually, a very little while,” she admitted. “Tough night.”

“Well, no wonder,” Catherine said. “It will be a while before any of us sleep well, honey. You need to be gentle with yourself.”

“I know,” she said. “I'm trying not to feel guilty about my bed slug tendencies.”

Catherine greeted Ryan in exactly the same way she had Jamie, but Jim was satisfied to just squeeze her shoulder. “How are you?” he asked.

“Not bad,” she said, shrugging. She smiled at her partner and said, “I'm counting my blessings.”

Martin and Maeve came out of the kitchen, and the group sat down at the table and shared another cup of coffee, snacking on some of the sugar cookies they had just taken from the oven. “I can't imagine either of you feel like going with us,” Catherine said.

“Going?”

“I told you last night that I wanted to replace the gifts you purchased for the girls,” she said.

“Oh, Mom, you don't have to do that!”

“But I want to,” Catherine said. “We came by to get a list.”

“I spoke to Jen this morning,” Ryan said. “I told her about the gifts, but said that we wouldn't be able to replace them until we got back from our trip, so the girls aren't expecting anything.”

“Nonsense, Ryan. It's Christmas.” Looking pensive for a moment she said, “Actually, since she knows about them, I think we'll go pick her up and take her with us. She'll know what everyone would like. She'd enjoy that, wouldn't she?”

“Of course she would,” Ryan said. “But it's a zoo at the mall today, Catherine.”

“I'm not much of a mall shopper,” Catherine said. “I'm sure we can find a few places that aren't overrun with shoppers.”

“Be gentle with her,” Ryan said. “She's not used to running with the big dogs.”

“I realize that, sweetheart,” Catherine said. “She acted like Nordstrom's was the most fantastic place she'd ever seen. Don't you worry. We'll be fine.”

Ryan watched the pair get ready to leave, musing that Catherine looked completely normal. God, if I'd been that drunk, I'd still be in bed. She's got some constitution!

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

They went downstairs together, and Jamie got into the shower while Ryan returned a few phone calls. When the blonde emerged she said, “I was thinking, honey. What do you say to doing some short-term therapy?”

“Mmm … we'll see,” Ryan said. “Once we get back from the Bahamas, we might feel fine.”

“Ryan …”

“Yes?”

“This isn't going to go away like a bruise or a sprain. This is a big deal, honey.”

“I know that,” she acknowledged. “I said I'd consider it, didn't I?” With an obviously forced smile, the brunette said, “I'm gonna go upstairs for a minute. Want anything?”

“No. No, thanks.” Jamie watched her leave, shaking her head at the retreating form.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When Ryan came back down, Jamie was on the phone, but she hung up after just a minute. “I left a message for Anna. I really need to vent a little today, and I'm getting the impression you're not the right person to do that with.”

Looking trapped, Ryan nodded briefly. “I don't want to talk about it,” she said. “Maybe in a few days … but not now.”

“All right,” Jamie said soothingly. “When you feel ready, love.”

“Right. As soon as I'm ready.” She stretched and looked around the room briefly. “I guess I'll go back upstairs,” she said. Before Jamie could say a word, she was gone once again.

I guess I'd better stop pushing this, or I'll never see her again!

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Hmm, it's not so bad here
, Mia thought as she approached the Arrivals section of the airport. I guess most people have already gotten to where they're going for Christmas.

She pulled over to the curb in front of the huge United terminal and gazed out the passenger window to try and locate the smallest of the O'Flaherty brothers. Jordan was eagerly waiting just inside the wide sliding doors, and she ran out of the one located just behind Mia's car, then snuck around the back of the little coupe and crouched down next to the driver's door. She lifted her hand and tapped lightly on the window, very glad that the glass was up when Mia let out an ear piercing scream of delight upon seeing her face. The smaller woman was so stunned that for several moments she fumbled to find the switch to lower the window. Jordan just smiled as she heard the string of curses that flew from the cherubic looking face, but the window finally slid down. Mia reached out with both hands, pulled Jordan's head and shoulders into the car, and immediately set upon her lips with a vengeance.

“Whoa,” Jordan finally murmured as she tried to extract herself from Mia's torrid embrace.

“Get in here,” the smaller woman growled with a suggestive smile on her face. Jordan was only too happy to comply. She dashed back around, and tossed her small duffel bag into the back as her long legs slid into the front seat. She gave Mia a jubilant smile, but it was knocked off her face by the very determined brunette as she hurled herself against her taller lover, nearly squeezing the breath out of Jordan's lungs.

They both lost all sense of time as they rained kisses onto each other's mouth and face, but they were jarred from their passionate reunion by a sharp rap on the driver's window. “Move along, lovebirds,” the scowling police officer warned them sternly.

Mia shot upright and flashed the officer her most adorable grin. “I missed her,” she said simply as she shrugged her shoulders while batting her eyes.

Even the stern police officer couldn't help but smile back at her. He cast an appraising look at the two of them and said, “I'd miss either one of you, but you still can't use this lane as a motel!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When the giddy young lovers came running in, Mia dashed right over to Ryan and gave her a big kiss and an even bigger hug. “This is the best present anyone ever got for me,” she said.

Jordan was right behind her, giving her friend a similar greeting. “I'm so glad you're both all right,” she said as she released Ryan and wrapped Jamie in a hug. “I was sitting in my room last night, channel surfing just before I went to sleep, and I saw this remarkable chase. I said to myself, 'That guy really loves that damned car.' Then they came on and said the car was registered to Jamie Evans and Si'-ob-han O'Flaherty. I yelled so loud all of my roommates came running in, and we all got on the bed and watched until it was over. I must have been wild, because one of the girls showed me the bruises I made on her shoulders when you flew into the bay!” She shook her head slowly as she said, “I don't think I've ever been that frightened.”

“It was a bitch,” Ryan said, then she got up and started to walk into the kitchen. “Can I get you guys something to eat?”

Jordan gave her a puzzled look, and Jamie whispered, “She doesn't like to talk about it.”

“Oh,” she said, nodding her head. “Yeah, I'll take some water or juice,” she called out to Ryan.

When Ryan came back in quite a few minutes later, she carried steaming mugs of apple cider. “I'm still cold,” she muttered.

Jordan was sitting on the loveseat, and after Mia got up to fetch two mugs, she sat on the larger woman's lap.

Martin came in with a tray of cookies, and Jamie saw his eyes widen when he caught sight of the pair. Maeve followed close behind him and gave them a startled glance herself. The older couple joined them when Ryan invited them to, and they all chatted for a while, sticking to safe topics like the Olympic tryouts. Eventually, Mia looked at Ryan quizzically and asked, “I wasn't really supposed to wait for your brother, was I? It just dawned on me that I had a job to do!”

“No, he's not coming in until this afternoon. You were only supposed to pick up Jordan.”

“That I did,” she said, leaning over to give her a tiny kiss. “Actually, I think Jordan needs a little nap. Borrow your room?”

“Sure,” Ryan said. “Be my guests.”

Martin had a hard time keeping up with the convoluted love lives of his own children, much less their friends, but he tried to understand this permutation. “Have I missed something here?” he asked with a puzzled look on his face after the pair had departed. “I thought Conor was interested in the lass.”

“Oh, he is,” Ryan said. “But Mia seems to have chosen a different path lately.”

“Hmm, I can't fault her taste,” he said. “Conor's not bad, but that's the way I'd go!” He let out a laugh that turned into a giggle when Maeve gave him a good tickle. With a fond smile on her face, Jamie watched the pair tussle, thinking that her little apple had landed very, very close to the tree.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Conor got home a short time later, dusty and tired from a long day of playing electrician's helper. “Hi, bro,” Ryan said as she gave him a quick hug. “Did Brendan go to the airport?”

“No, we roped Dermot into going since he was the last to come over to the school. They should be here in an hour or so.” He looked around the room and asked, “Did Mia get back with Jordan?”

“Yeah, about a half hour ago,” Jamie said.

“Where are they?” he asked, then paused and answered his own question. “I assume they're … reconnecting?”

He received a nod in confirmation, and shook his head as he climbed the stairs to take a shower. He was grumbling to himself as he walked, and Ryan didn't catch most of it, though she was fairly certain that she heard the words “rubbing my face in it.”
*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When Dermot dropped Rory off, the last brother followed the O'Flaherty tradition of saying little, but offering a lavish degree of physical affection to both his sister and Jamie. “Why don't you come upstairs and help me unpack?” he asked Ryan after a while.

She inclined her head and gave him a diffident shrug, “Okay.”

As the pair walked upstairs, Jamie quietly commented to Martin, “I'm worried about her. She won't talk about it at all today, and I'm afraid she's gonna explode!”

“She'll talk to Rory,” Martin said, and Maeve echoed her agreement.

“Are you sure?” Jamie asked. “It's not healthy for her to keep everything bottled up inside.”

“Count on it,” Martin said. “He's always been the one who could make her talk about anything.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

She sat on her brother's bed, watching him put his things away. He'd only been gone four days, so he didn't have much, but it was taking him quite a while to finish. “I thought you'd start talking if I gave you the opportunity,” he finally said, grinning slyly as he turned to her. “But I can only fuss with my clothes for so long.”

“I don't much feel like talking,” she said. “I'm probably still a little bit in shock.”

He sat backwards on his rolling desk chair, crossing his arms over the back of the piece. Rolling the chair right next to the bed he commented, “You don't look like you're in shock. You do look like something's bothering you, though. Wanna tell me?”

“Uhm … let's see … the three of us were almost killed, we went swimming in the freezing bay in December, I shot a guy, Jamie almost drowned trying to save my stupid ass …” She scowled slightly and said, “Pick one, Rory. Most folks would be bothered by any one of 'em.”

Gazing at her speculatively he said, “Okay, I'll pick one. I pick the one where you shot the guy. Tell me about that.”

Her scowl deepened and she grumbled, “Nothing to talk about. I winged the asshole, and probably caused him to drive into the bay.”

“I don't know half of what happened, sis, but why did you have a gun? You're not packin' as a routine matter, are ya?”

“No,” she said, failing to recognize his question as a joke. “I uhm … took it away from one of the carjackers.”

“You took it away …? How?”

“He stuck it out of the passenger window and fired it blind, thinking he'd hit me. I managed to twist it out of his hand and break … something … either his arm or wrist … in the process.”

“Wow,” he said, closing his eyes as he considered how horrible the night must have been for his baby sister. “So then you shot him?”

“No.” She didn't say another word, just glumly stared at her feet.

Having a feeling that he was on the right track, he followed up, “What happened after you got the gun away?”

“We drove around for another twenty minutes while the other guy tried to kill me. They shot at me through the roof until they were almost out of ammo, then Jamie warned me that the driver was going to get out at the bottom of the hill and kill me. I winged him so he couldn't.”

He let her words sink in, then nodded slowly. “Even though you haven't been to the shooting range in a while, I bet you're still a very good marksman, Ryan. I've got to assume you meant to wing him — especially at that range.” He'd been watching her carefully, noting that she seemed to grow more and more agitated while talking about this element of her ordeal. He really had no idea why she was so bothered by merely wounding one of her attackers, but he knew her well enough to know that she was very upset by something she'd done.

“Yeah. I intended to wing him.” Again, she didn't elaborate, just gazed blankly at a spot somewhere above the toes of her shoes.

He cocked his head, and asked the question that had been niggling at the back of his brain. “Why didn't you kill the driver as soon as you got the gun? Did you think they'd chicken out or give up if you gave them a little time?”

Her dark head shook, and her eyes closed tightly. “No.”

Tears were leaking out of her eyes, and he reached out and put his hand on her shoulder. “Tell me, Ryan. Come on, tell me why you're hurting.”

She was squeezing her eyes so tightly closed that her long eyelashes were fully hidden. “I was afraid,” she gasped out, starting to cry hysterically.

He hopped out of his chair and sat on the edge of his bed, drawing her tightly against his chest. Holding her, he soothed her as best he could. “Of course you were afraid. Only a psychopath wouldn't be afraid in a situation like that. I would have wet my pants.”

“No,” she croaked. “I was afraid to kill him. I knew it was the best solution, Rory, but I couldn't make myself do it.”

“Oh, Ryan,” he sighed, “You can't feel bad about that! I don't think I could have done it, either. But that doesn't matter now. All that matters is that you're all alive!”

“No, no, no, no,” she said, her voice growing progressively louder. “That's not all that matters! They were trying to kill us, and instead of making sure they couldn't, I let them terrorize my lover for another twenty minutes.” She took in a shuddering breath and said, “One of them almost killed her right before it was all over. He had the gun aimed at her head, and his finger was on the trigger. But he wanted to kill me just a little more than he wanted to kill her. If there had been another round in that weapon, she'd be dead today, Rory. We'd be at the mortuary right now, picking out her fucking casket! And it would be all my fault!” Her hands went to her head and she grabbed handfuls of her hair and gave them a rough yank, trying to physically rip the gruesome image from her head. “I swear I would have turned that gun on myself if she had died. My life would be nothing without her, Rory!”

“Ryan, Ryan,” he soothed, “I know how you feel about her, and I know you'd do anything to keep her safe. For God's sake, sis, you practically volunteered for death last night just to protect her and Caitie!”

“I should have killed him! I should have killed both of them!”

“Now just stop it!” he said, giving her a good shake. “Stop it right now, Ryan.” He held her by her shoulders so that he could look into her eyes. “You don't get second chances in a situation like that. You made your choice, and it worked out beautifully. Shit, Ryan, what if you had killed him and the car had swerved and been hit by a MUNI bus or a cable car. You'd all be dead! Would you feel better in your last moments for having killed him first?”

“Of course not,” she grumbled.

“Ryan, I'm not just blowing smoke at you! You thought the right choice was to kill them, but you could have been horribly wrong. You claim that you were just too afraid to kill them, but maybe something inside told you to take a more moderate course. Those assholes made their choices, you each made yours. You're all bound by your choices now, Ryan. And from my perspective, you made the perfect choice — for whatever reasons. It's the result that matters.”

She shook her head slowly and muttered, “I'm doubting who I am, Rory. I've always said that I could kill to protect my family — I was certain of that! I've told Jamie that a number of times. But when I was faced with the choice, I put the same value on those motherfucker's lives as I did on Jamie's and Caitlin's. I feel so guilty about it that I can hardly look Jamie in the eye today.”

He looked at her carefully for a few moments, then said, “You have nothing to feel guilty about. You voluntarily put your life at risk to protect Jamie and Caitlin as best you could. You did your very best to make sure that all of you survived. There's no disgrace in that, Ryan. How can trying to avoid killing a person be a source of shame? That's just nuts, and you're not the kind of woman who thinks irrational thoughts.”

“I'm exactly that kind of woman,” she sighed. “I feel like I'm going insane, Ror. I haven't had one rational thought since it happened.” She shook her head and revealed, “I absolutely lost it at the hospital last night. The doctor called in a security guard because he was afraid of me.” Looking at him with a face full of stark confusion, she repeated, “He was afraid of me.”

“Oh, Ryan,” he sighed. He clutched her tighter and gave her a hearty squeeze. “You've been through a horrible, horrible experience. You're not going to be thinking straight for some time. All sorts of things are going to go through your mind, but only one thing matters,” he said. “Because of you and because of Jamie, we're not at the funeral home today. We're celebrating Christmas Eve with every member of our family healthy and whole.” He bent and kissed her forehead, lingering for a moment while he tried to stop his tears. “I have never been prouder of you.”

“I love you, Rory,” she said, sobbing. “Thanks for being my brother.”

“Best job in town,” he said, giving her another hearty embrace.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan had been upstairs for well over an hour, and when she returned her eyes were red and swollen, as were Rory's. Even though she looked extremely upset, her mood somehow seemed lighter, and Jamie once again mused that Martin knew his children very, very well.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Not long after Rory and Ryan had returned to the group, Tommy dropped Caitlin off so he and Annie could catch a nap — their sleep having been terribly fitful as well. The toddler's arrival seemed to cheer Ryan even more. She was too stiff to play their usual games, so Rory took over for her, carrying the laughing baby around on his shoulders and holding her upside down until her face turned pink.

Conor came down after he had showered and had a quick nap, and he was in much brighter spirits than he had been in when he'd first returned home. He and Rory got down on the floor with the baby, and created a human playpen by sitting opposite each other with their legs spread wide and their feet touching. Every time Cait tried to escape one or the other would grab her and tickle her tummy, making her laugh so hard that Maeve kept warning that someone would soon be receiving her lunch in his lap.

Watching her brothers and the baby laugh loud and long, Ryan started to relax a little, and she soon forced herself to ignore her stiff muscles and join the boys, expanding the dimensions of the playpen significantly with the addition of her long legs. Jamie was feeling pretty spry, having taken some pain relievers for her ribs; so she assisted her partner, crawling around the outside of the playpen, making threatening gestures at the shrieking baby, warning her not to even try to escape from their side.

Mia and Jordan came upstairs after their “nap,” and they got into the game, also. Soon the walls were nearly shaking with laughter, and Martin leaned over and commented to his wife, “I thought the house would quiet down once they were grown.”

“No, Marty, they just get louder,” she said, raising her voice to be heard.

“I wouldn't change it for the world,” he said, tucking an arm around her shoulders and hugging her firmly.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When Jim, Catherine and Jennie arrived just before four, they were so loaded down with boxes and bags that Conor and Rory were recruited to help carry the excess.

The boys went outside with Jim, and as soon as they cleared the door Jim asked, “Do the girls know how bad it is out here?”

Conor stood on the deck and looked down at the street. The narrow roadway was almost completely blocked by news vans, satellite trucks, huge SUV's loaded with cameras and other equipment, and a raft of cars belonging to the phalanx of reporters. “No, they don't know,” Conor said. “We decided this morning to try to keep them in the dark. I know my sis, and she'd freak if she knew they were surrounded like this.”

“She's not in good shape,” Rory said. “I spoke to her for a long time this afternoon, and she's very, very shaky. Isn't there anything we can do to get rid of these vultures?”

Jim nodded, his eyes narrowing. “I'm gonna call in a favor, fellas.” He pulled his cell phone from his pocket and dialed a number, then waited for his secretary in Washington to answer. “Merry Christmas,” he said brightly. “Now, don't worry. No big crisis, I just want a phone number.” He waited patiently until she turned on her laptop, then made his request. “I need the private cell phone number for Willie Brown.” Conor and Rory's eyes widened, and a moment later Jim switched off. “He's a very creative guy,” he said confidently, dialing the number. “Willie? Jim Evans. Merry Christmas, Mayor! How would you like to give your favorite senator a nice, big present?”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“My God!” Martin cried as the loot was taken down to the basement. “What on earth did you buy?”

“We bought just enough to give each of the girls a couple of nice outfits, some underwear, a few casual blouses, some jeans and a few computers so they can get their schoolwork done more efficiently,” Catherine informed him. “We just replicated the things the girls had in the Lexus.”

Jennie's eyes were glazed as Ryan helped carry the last of the bags down to her room. “Kinda hard to get used to isn't it?” Ryan asked gently as she placed her hand on Jennie's shoulder.

“I … I … I've never seen anything like it,” she mumbled, her eyes wide and unfocused.

“We wanted to make sure that you had all the help you need at Sacred Heart,” Ryan said.

“I've never seen a computer like the one you bought me,” she said. “It weighs less than two pounds and it's actually got a little digital camera built right in. Catherine said I can take it to school and take my notes right on it! And buying me Corel Draw was just too much!” she enthused. “I never, ever thought I'd have anything that cool, Ryan! I just don't know what to say!”

You can say, 'Thank you, Catherine,' because that was clearly not the Costco special!

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Later that afternoon, Jamie was downstairs dressing when she heard a quiet knock on the door. “Yeah?”

The door opened slightly, then Catherine's voice asked, “Would you mind some company?”

“No, of course not. Come on in, Mom. I'm just getting dressed.”

The older woman entered, and stood close to the door, looking a little uncomfortable.

“Have a seat,” Jamie said, indicating the loveseat. She saw her mother hesitate, and she said, “I really don't mind having you here when I'm getting ready. I'm much less shy than I used to be.”

“No, it's not that,” Catherine said. “I'm just a little nervous.”

“Why?” The younger woman slipped her slacks on and zipped them, then went over to sit next to her mother. “What are you nervous about?”

“I don't … I don't handle shame well,” she said quietly. “And I'm deeply ashamed of myself for how I behaved last night.”

Giving her a robust hug, Jamie murmured, “You have nothing to be ashamed of. It was a horrible night for all of us, Mom, and you were just … you did what you needed to do to get through it.”

“I owe you an apology, honey,” she said. “I hope … I hope I didn't embarrass you.”

“Oh, Mom, don't think like that. Last night was so out-of-control — on every front. You've never embarrassed me, and you never will.”

“I'm glad that one of us thinks that,” Catherine said softly. “I'm not so confident.”

“Well, I am,” Jamie said. She got up and finished getting dressed, her mother quietly watching her.

“I'm afraid of making another promise, Jamie, but I'm going to try, with all of my heart, to be available to you while you recover from this trauma. I'm not sure I know how to help, but I'll certainly try.”

Sitting down next to her again, Jamie patted her leg and said, “I know you will.”

“Is there anything you want to talk about now? You seem to be doing remarkably well, honey.”

“I'm okay,” she said. “I spoke to my therapist today, and she thinks I'm still in shock. She says that things will start to break through over the next few days or weeks — probably when I'm sleeping, unfortunately. I don't look forward to that, but knowing that it is likely to happen is strangely reassuring. She says my psyche will let things in a little bit at a time, and we'll just deal with them as they come up.”

“You like her very much, don't you, honey,” Catherine said.

“Oh, yeah, she's just perfect for me. She's always very up-front with me, and she warns me about things before they happen. Some people might not like that, but it's great for me.”

“I'm very glad you have her. Of course, with the way you and Ryan talk about everything … it's like you have two therapists.”

“Sometimes,” Jamie said, “but not this time. Ryan's very closed-off about the whole thing. It worries me, Mom.”

“Give her some time, honey, I'm sure she's in shock, too. She'll probably be ready to talk in a day or two.”

“I hope so,” she said, a worried look on her face. “It's never good when she clams up. She's always happier when she's able to talk.”

“That's why you're such a good pair,” Catherine said, smiling at her.

“One of the main reasons,” Jamie said. “We have more sensitive chats in a month than most people have in their whole lives.” She chuckled softly and said, “But it works for us.”

“Well, I'm no Ryan, but I'm always available to chat,” Catherine said. “Actually, that's the other reason I came down here. I want you to think about something and give me your honest opinion.”

“Sure. What is it, Mom?”

“I think I should cancel my trip to Italy. I think I'd feel much better if I was close by.”

Jamie nodded, then contemplated the issue for a few minutes. “I think you should go,” she said. “We're going to be down in North Carolina, then in the Bahamas, so we won't even be around for most of your trip. I think it would be good for you to get away for a while, to be honest, Mom. I know you've been looking forward to the trip, and to seeing Giacomo — so I honestly think you should go.”

“Are you sure, honey? I worry about being so far away. What if you need me?”

“I always need you, Mom,” she said. “But I can always reach you on the phone — and if some emergency arose, you could be on the next flight home. I really want you to go. I want you to have a nice New Year's.”

Catherine sighed, then nodded. “All right. It might be best for all of us to get away for a while.”

“I agree. And by the time we all get home, this mess will be just a memory. A really horrible memory.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Martin had invited the crowd for seven o'clock so, as expected, nearly everyone was there by five. As the room got more crowded, Jim went out onto the deck to get some fresh air. Conor saw him leave and followed him out, quietly surveying the near-silent street. “Nice job,” he said.

“I have no idea how the mayor did it,” Jim said, “but he said it was a one-day-only proposition.”

“I just couldn't stand to have her Christmas Eve ruined,” Conor sighed, his voice catching as a few tears slid down his cheeks. “She loves Christmas.”

“So does Jamie,” Jim said. “They're coming back to our house after the midnight church service. Things should be calm down there.”

Conor wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand. “You're going to church with us? Not with your father?”

“First time for everything,” Jim said. “I'd go to a Republican fund-raiser with her at this point, Conor. I can hardly bear to be away from her.”

“I know what you mean,” the younger man said. “I had to go do a job today, and I spent every minute wishing I were at home.”

Jim chuckled quietly. “We're a pair, aren't we?”

Conor shrugged agreeably. “So are they, Jim. So are they.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan looked quite elegant in her black silk pants and a snug black wool turtleneck. A thin, silver chain belt rode low on her hips, and her platinum necklace, as well as both of the blue diamond earrings, gave her a little sparkle.

Since they'd gotten dressed separately, Ryan hadn't seen her partner yet, and she cornered Jamie in the dining room as soon as she appeared, spending a few minutes showing her just how lovely the smaller woman looked in her navy blue velvet slacks and short jacket, with the ivory satin chemise underneath. “One of the things I love about the way you dress is that your clothes always feel great,” Ryan whispered as she ran her hands all over the soft garments that covered her lover's body. “Sometimes we're in a room with other people, and I just want to lean over and touch your soft clothing.” Her eyes closed as she continued to touch her. “Mmm, I'll think about the way you feel all night,” she said.

“Knock it off you two,” Conor said as he stood in the doorway, nearly filling it with his substantial body.

Patting her partner, Jamie reluctantly shifted her eyes away from her to turn to her brother-in-law. “You look very nice tonight, Conor,” she said appreciatively as she took in his monochromatic steel gray shirt and tie, and the slightly darker gray suit.

“Thanks. Lot of good it'll do me though. A house full of great looking women, and every one is allergic to testosterone!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The party was in full swing when Sara arrived at eight, having put in a full day of work. Jamie answered the door, and the taller woman gently wrapped her arms around her and held on for a long while, sniffing her tears away while her shoulders shook. “I'm so grateful that you're both safe.”

Ryan caught sight of the display and dashed over to the door, urging both her partner and Sara outside so they could have a little privacy. Sara gave Ryan a hug as well, but it was much briefer than the one she had bestowed on Jamie. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and said, “I must be the only person in San Francisco who didn't know about your … adventure,” she said, not having a better word for it. “I was at work so late last night that I didn't watch the news when I got home, and I was running late today so I didn't even glance at the morning paper.”

“When did you hear?” Ryan asked.

“Well, actually, while I was on the bus going in I heard people talking about the woman who rode all over the city on the roof of a car, and then dove into the bay to save her attacker, but of course I didn't know it was you.”

“You should always assume that news reports of a crazy woman doing something wild are very likely about me,” Ryan said, trying to lighten the mood.

“Ally called me from San Diego and she's the one who told me it was you two,” Sara said. “She said to give you each a big hug for her.”

“We spoke to her earlier,” Ryan nodded. Once again, she tried to shift the topic. “I'm a little jealous of her being able to go surfing today.”

Sara's face grew serious as she placed her hands lightly on Ryan's crossed arms. “I'm very glad that you're safe.” Her dark brown eyes blinked slowly as she said, “I'm also very glad I didn't know it was happening at the time. I don't know how your family survived the anxiety.”

Ryan had been fidgeting the entire time, but now she looked like she wanted to climb off the deck to get away from the distressing topic. “You just do what you have to,” she said. “Uhm … let's go in, huh? It's kinda cold out here.”

Giving her a puzzled look, Sara followed her in, but as soon as they were inside, Jamie tugged on her sleeve. “She can't talk about it, Sara. It's still too fresh in her mind.”

Her face fell and she sighed. “Is there anything I can do?”

“No, I don't think so,” Jamie said. “Just try to act as normally as you can. I know it's hard, but it's what she needs.”

Sara nodded and said softly, “She was like this when Michael died.”

Jamie blinked, having it once again hit her that Sara knew Ryan so well. “Would you come downstairs with me?” she asked. “I need some help.”

“Sure.” Duffy saw they were heading downstairs, so he came along, much preferring to be away from the crowd, if possible. Jamie sat on Ryan's desk chair, with Sara claiming the loveseat. Duffy lay at Jamie's feet, shifting around until he was pressed up against her leg.

“I don't know much about how Ryan handled Michael's death,” Jamie said. “But it just occurred to me that she might have some of the same reactions to this trauma that she did then. Can you think of anything that might help me get her through this?”

Sara gave her a puzzled look and asked, “You make it sound like this was something that Ryan did alone. Aren't you just as upset as she is?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I'm not sure why, but she's not dealing with this well at all, Sara. She seems so bottled up. It's beginning to frighten me.”

The brunette sighed and nodded briefly, “To be honest, she was exactly the same when Michael died. She couldn't talk about it at all — with anyone. Her father was so worried about her he was just sick. Finally, he and Maeve forced her to go to a grief support group.” She shivered and said, “It was a horrible time for the whole family.”

“They went with her?” Jamie asked.

“Oh, no,” she said. “This was a group for kids. But one of them had to take her to make her stay in the room. For the first few weeks, they dropped her off, and she'd run out of the room as soon as they left. They only found out because Martin was driving home after he'd dropped her off one day, and he passed her running down the street.”

The smaller woman shook her head. “She's told me before about being in therapy. I got the impression that she thought she benefited from it.”

“Oh, she did,” Sara said. “She was about to go mad, Jamie. It was a terrible time for her. All she did was bang on that boxing stuff that Conor had, and play Michael's guitar. She played so long and so hard that her fingertips bled. She had calluses like I've never seen.” She shook her head slowly. “It was so hard to reach her,” she said. “It was like all of the joy was just sucked out of her. But once her father made her start talking about it, she started to let some of her anger out, and she finally got back to her old self.”

“Why was it so hard for her to talk about it with her family?” Jamie asked. “Didn't they want to?”

“Oh, yeah, they did. But they were as sad as she was, Jamie. I think she was afraid of making it worse for them. You know how she hates causing anyone pain.” Her brow furrowed and she said, “I think Michael's death was so awful for her because of her anger. You know how hard it is for her to express that.”

The blonde nodded, thinking that her lover hadn't changed much at all in the intervening years. She got up and hugged Sara impulsively, saying, “Thank you. It's really helpful to know things like this. I'll know what to look for this time out.”

“You're welcome,” she said. “I'll do anything to help, Jamie. Anything.”

“You've helped a lot,” Jamie said. “Just having you here helps make things seem more normal for both of us.”

They went back upstairs, and Caitlin came toddling over. Sara stooped to swoop her into her arms, asking, “Who's my favorite baby?”

“Tanna!” she gurgled, her eyes bright.

“Tanna?” Sara asked, looking to Jamie for interpretation.

“New word,” she said, winking. Turning to Caitlin, she asked in an excited voice, “Who comes down the chimney tonight?”

The brunette caught on quickly, and she and Caitlin cried in unison, “Tanna!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Aren't they cute together?” Ryan commented to Jamie from their perch on the second floor looking down on the crowd.

“Totally,” she said fondly. They had been sitting together for quite a while, the crowd having grown too loud and the room too warm for Ryan. At the moment they were watching Mia and Jordan attempt to eat dinner. For some reason, both women had decided that the other was unable to feed herself; though the crowded room, the paper plates, and the tiny plastic knife and fork made the task a challenging one, they seemed to be having a good time, nonetheless. “I think the present was a success, babe.”

“Yeah, I even guessed the right size,” Ryan noted. “When do you want to give them their tickets for New Years?”

“Let's do it tonight before we leave for Mass,” Jamie said. “Why don't you give Jordan hers first, just to make sure her schedule hasn't changed. Then give me the high sign, and I'll give Mia hers.”

“Deal,” Ryan replied amiably. Her stomach had acclimated to the muscle relaxant, and her appetite had partially returned. It seemed the only thing she was interested in was cookies and ice cream, but at least she was getting some calories. They had both been munching on the assortment of desserts that the aunts had baked, and Ryan gallantly finished everything that Jamie could not handle. She put the plates aside and scooted up against the wall, pulling Jamie up against her side. As her arm wrapped around velvet-covered shoulders, Ryan leaned her head against Jamie's. “I was just thinking about last Christmas,” she said softly.

“I've been thinking about that all night,” Jamie said with a shy laugh. “It was so vitally important that I come to see you, I honestly didn't care how mad Jack got if he found out. But that's the first time I can ever remember intentionally deceiving him,” she said with a quick shake of her head.

“That must have been hard for you,” Ryan said. “I know that period was particularly difficult for you and Jack.”

“You know,” Jamie said thoughtfully, “I don't think I've ever properly thanked you for helping to keep me sane during those months. I swear, Ryan, if it wasn't for you I would have been profoundly depressed … at best.”

Ryan squeezed her tight and murmured right into her ear,” You don't have to thank me for being your friend. It was an intensely pleasurable experience.” She leaned over a tiny bit and placed a soft kiss on her partner's cheek. “I don't think I've ever expressed just how much your Christmas presents meant to me. At the time, I didn't know exactly how much money you had, but I knew it was a lot,” she said, chuckling. “I was really kinda worried that you would buy me some extravagant gift that would make me feel uncomfortable. I was so amazed when you gave me the tickets for all of the kid-oriented attractions in the city.” She shook her head slowly, still savoring the memory.

“Why was that so meaningful for you?” Jamie asked curiously.

“A couple of reasons. First, it showed that you understood that buying me something expensive would offend me. It showed that you understood who I was, and that always makes me feel special. Secondly, it showed that you understood how important Caitlin was to me. Tracy had just hurt my feelings pretty badly when she made it clear that she didn't want to spend time with the baby. You not only understood she was important to me, you wanted to come along with us, which really made me feel good.”

Jamie snuggled up a little closer, tickling Ryan's nose with her hair as she did so. She chuckled briefly as she admitted, “You have no idea how much time I spent thinking about a gift for you. But you know, I never considered a gift that didn't include me!” She laughed wryly as she added, “God! I was clueless!”

“I think you're being a little harsh with yourself,” Ryan said. “We'd only known each other four months at the time, Jamie. You processed things as quickly as you could.”

“I guess, but my behavior still amazes me. Wanna hear about the gift that I really wanted to give you?”

“Sure.”

“I actually used to dream about this one,” she said, chuckling softly.

“Dream about it?”

“Yeah. I was so grateful for all of the time and energy that you had already expended helping me get ready for the ride. I thought, and I thought, and finally I came upon an idea that seemed just perfect. So perfect that I had several very … pleasant dreams about it.”

“This I gotta hear,” Ryan said.

“I thought that since you were teaching me to ride your way, I'd pay you back by teaching you to ride my way.”

Ryan tilted her head back and closed her eyes halfway. “I'm thinking sherpas to carry our stuff and motors on the bikes.”

Slapping at her partner's thigh, Jamie said, “Not at all! We were going to ride in the traditional way — we were just going to be riding in Tuscany,” she said, her eyes glimmering with the fantasy. “I wanted to rent a couple of road bikes and ride from town to town, stopping at elegant little spots along the way.”

“Tuscany?” Ryan asked, her eyes wide.

“Definitely,” Jamie said, sighing deeply. “I'd put myself to sleep at night thinking of sitting on a broad terrace, overlooking a slope filled with lavender, the sun warming our bodies. We'd be sipping a crisp wine, eating a big slice of melon — so fresh from the fields that it was still warm. A little strip of salty prosciutto would be wrapped around the melon, and I could almost taste the contrast of the salt with the incredible sweetness of that melon.” Her eyes fluttered closed, and she purred softly.

“I can taste it now,” Ryan murmured, feeling like purring herself. “What a nice thought.”

“Oh, yeah,” Jamie moaned. “I'd lie in bed and think about popping that last bite of melon into your mouth … and having your teeth rake across my finger.” She shivered a bit and said, “But then I'd force myself to stop thinking like that. Waaaay too dangerous. The next night though, I'd imagine feeding you an herb-flecked olive, and I'd think about your tongue sliding down my finger … and I'd have to stop for the night.” She fanned herself with her open hand. “You sucked on my fingers all across Tuscany in my fantasy.”

“Did I ever feed myself?” Ryan asked, just a hint of teasing in her voice.

“Oh, sure. And of course, sometimes you fed me,” she said. “Then I'd imagine staring into your eyes while sucking on your fingers when you placed a bite of a big juicy peach in my mouth … and I'd have to stop for the night.”

“We sure would have had clean fingers,” Ryan said.

“Okay, wise guy. Do you still think I wasn't clueless?”

“Maybe just a tiny bit,” Ryan admitted. “It's really tough on your psyche when you're trying to deny something that desperately wants to get out.”

“I know,” she sighed. “It was wonderful to dream about, though. I knew we'd have a marvelous time.”

“Without question,” Ryan said. “But I'm glad you didn't try to give me that trip, honey. It wasn't the right time. Now we can do something like that and suck on each other's fingers with a consciously salacious intent.”

“Some day,” Jamie said, “I'm gonna get you to Tuscany by hook or by crook. I know you'll love it so much you won't want to come home.”

“I look forward to it,” Ryan sighed. “I can't wait to get away from home for a while. Our trip can't start soon enough for me.”

They were quiet for a moment, each of them thinking idly of the previous year. “I have to tell you again how much the gift you made for me meant,” Jamie said. She turned slightly and regarded Ryan for a moment. “People have given me things my whole life. But I'd been given so much that things started to mean less and less to me. That little homemade training journal really made an impact on me because you made it with your own hands, and I could see how much of yourself you put into it.” She chuckled once again as she admitted, “I sometimes used to read the little sayings and poems that you had written, and trace the words with my finger, imagining your hand as you wrote them. It made me feel close to you when I was lonely,” she said softly.

“I spent a lot of time making that book for you,” Ryan said. “I felt like I was giving you a part of myself, and I needed it to be perfect.” Ryan laughed deep in her chest, and Jamie lifted her head a bit to look up at her. “I remember getting dressed on Christmas Eve,” she said. “I think I put on every sweater that I owned before I finally decided on what to wear. And as you now know, obsessing about my wardrobe was pretty unusual for me. After I fussed with myself in the mirror for 20 minutes, I finally said, 'What's up with you today?' It didn't dawn on me then that I wanted to look nice for you, but that must have been it.”

“It worked,” Jamie said softly. “I remember seeing you standing there in the doorway in that deep red sweater, with your glossy black hair, and thinking that you were the most beautiful woman that I had ever seen.” She turned slightly and rested her hands flat against Ryan's chest. “I haven't changed my mind,” she said as she dipped her head and started to place sweet, gentle kisses on Ryan's dark pink lips.

The kisses quickly deepened in their intensity as Ryan slowly opened her mouth to allow Jamie's questing tongue to enter. A guttural groan came from the larger woman as Jamie grasped her face with both hands and taunted her mercilessly by running her tongue all over Ryan's lips, tracing the outlines with a maddeningly slow pace. With a growl, she leaned heavily against Ryan's body to kiss her more deeply, feeling her quickening heartbeat against her breast. After a few moments Ryan pulled away forcefully and gasped, “I … I can't ... it's too much.”

“Shh …” Jamie soothed, seeing the fine glow of perspiration that had begun to form on Ryan's skin. “I don't mean to push you, sweetheart. I know things are intense for you right now.”

She looked absolutely helpless, her eyes wide and glassy. “I want to be close … I really want to! But it feels like I'm suffocating …”

“We are close,” Jamie reassured her. “We've very close, sweetheart. We'll get through this, Ryan. I promise we'll get through this.”

Ryan held her tight, squeezing a little harder than Jamie would have chosen, given her sore ribs, but she didn't say a word. “Are you sure?” she rasped out.

Pulling back, Jamie stared directly into her eyes and enunciated clearly. “I promise you that we'll both be fine, Ryan. There isn't a doubt in my mind.”

Seeing her confidence, Ryan nodded slowly. “I believe you,” she whispered.

“A minute ago you reminded me how tough it is on your psyche to try to hold things in. That's why I want you to have a little therapy. You've got things that are trying to get out of that pretty head, and you're trying not to let them.”

She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, and Jamie could feel her start to shake. “Not now, Jamie, not now … please.”

“I'm sorry for bringing it up again,” she sighed, wrapping her lover in a snug hold. “Don't think about it now, Ryan. Let's just try to have as nice a Christmas as we possibly can.”

“I'll try,” Ryan said, her voice tight with the tension she was unable to express.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Late in the evening, Jordan spied her friend sitting on the second floor overhang, looking down at the crowd. She excused herself from the conversation she and Mia were having with Catherine to spend a few moments alone with her. “Hey, buddy,” she said as she wrapped her arm around Ryan's waist. “You look like you're a million miles away.”

Ryan nodded. “That feels about right.”

“So how are you … really?” she asked, locking eyes with her. “No bullshit.”

Ryan tilted her head back, and allowed herself to think for a moment. “You're one of the first to ask that,” she admitted.

“That's understandable.” Jordan said as she leaned back and dropped her head against her friend's shoulder. “It's hard to know what to say.”

“It's so odd, Jordan. I was nearly killed, and then I nearly killed someone, and the President called to congratulate me. I just can't wrap my mind around it.”

“I truly can't imagine,” she said. “But I'm here if you want to talk about it. I mean, I'm no Jamie, but I'm a good listener.”

“Things are weird between us,” Ryan said. “I don't feel like I can vent to her, since she has her own fears and I don't want to hear them. She was in the car with them, Jordan, and I know they said some things and did some things that scared the piss out of her, but I don't want to know about it. This is the first time that I've ever been unable to be there for her.”

“Are you okay being with her if you don't talk about it?”

“Yeah. Off and on. We've actually been pretty physical with each other, holding each other and things like that.” She shook her head and revealed, “I freaked out a few minutes ago, though. She started to kiss me and when she pressed her weight against me, I felt like I was being strangled.” She shivered roughly and said, “I hope to God that doesn't continue, or I'll lose my mind. Having her close is the only thing keeping me sane.”

“Just take it slow,” Jordan said. “Talk about it in little bits --just until you start to feel uncomfortable.”

“I can't,” Ryan said, her color beginning to drain from her face. “I just can't talk to her, Jordan.”

“Are you okay talking about it with me?”

“Uhm … not okay,” she admitted, “but it's definitely easier. You weren't involved,” Ryan said. “That's the key. She knows what it was like — she knows how it felt to plunge into the bay — she knows how terrifying it was to try to save Caitlin — it's just too much. It's like her fear makes mine exponentially greater.”

“Maybe you'd do better if you both agreed not to talk about it for a while. I mean, I know you've got stuff to get off your chest, and she does too. Maybe you just shouldn't do it together.”

Ryan slid her arm around her friend and said, “Not a bad idea. Maybe we should just offer each other physical comfort for a few days.”

“Speaking of your mate, where is she?”

Ryan shook her head slightly and pointed. “She's talking to Sara. Actually, I was just sitting here thinking of how odd it is that Sara is still in my life.”

Chuckling mildly, Jordan said, “I don't know how you two do it. I sure wouldn't want Mia's old boyfriend celebrating the holidays with us.”

Ryan's eyes narrowed and Jordan wished she could pull her opinion back into her mouth and swallow it. Enunciating crisply, Ryan said, “Jamie asked me to invite her.”

“I wasn't criticizing, buddy. I was actually trying to pay Jamie a compliment, but it didn't come out like that. All I meant to say was that she's a special woman to be able to welcome someone like Sara into your home.”

“She's beyond special, Jordan,” she said, some of the tension leaving her body. “She's … she's ... ” Her head dropped down, and she sat completely still for a moment. “I don't have words for what she means to me. I'm sorry I got pissed when you brought up Sara's being here, but when I think of how I feel for Jamie, compared to how I felt for her … it's not even in the same ball park. Yes, I loved Sara, but Jamie's my very life.”

“That's how you treat her, too,” the blonde assured her.

“Sometimes,” Ryan mumbled softly. “Not often enough.”

“We're all guilty of that,” Jordan said. “It's when you come close to losing someone that you stand back and think of how you sometimes fail to appreciate people like you should.” She smiled gently at Ryan and said, “I spend a lot of time thinking about Mia. There have been so many opportunities that I've let pass me by. Damn, Ryan, I've been in love with her almost from the start.” She lifted her head and gazed at her friend sadly. “Why haven't I told her?”

“I can't answer that,” Ryan said. “But you can remedy your oversight at any time, buddy.”

“I'm just … I'm just chicken,” she muttered.

“I think she loves you too, Jordan.”

Jordan blushed deeply as she admitted, “I think she's leaning in that direction. God! I've never had anyone in my life act that happy to see me! It just made my heart ache, Ryan,” she said as she shook her head. “I find out on Friday if I make the team. Maybe once I know what my status is, I'll feel more confident about talking to her about a commitment.”

”Are you planning on coming home to see her if you make the team?”

Jordan shook her head glumly, “No, I just can't swing it. I'll get paid if I make the team, but this is all gratis now. I've been running through my money really quickly since I can't stand to eat in the dorm. It's not bad food, but it's dorm food, you know? We've been eating out almost every meal, and Colorado Springs is expensive,” she said. “We're planning on spending New Year's Eve talking on the phone,” she said with a wry chuckle. “Mia was thinking about coming over, but I can't have her stay with me in the dorm. We'd have to get a hotel room, and they're really expensive because of this millennium nonsense. So we decided that she'd wait and come visit me if I make the team. Then I'll have an apartment where we can have some privacy.”

“That sounds like a pretty grim way to see in the New Year,” Ryan murmured, her math conscience unwilling to incorrectly call it the new millennium.

“Well, the good news is that if I get cut, I can take the last plane out and be home for New Year's Eve. Of course, I'll be so depressed, I'll feel like killing myself!”

“I don't think that's a very good plan,” Ryan said as she shook her head. “I think you should plan to do something that you would enjoy -- no matter what happens.” She reached into her side pocket and pulled out a slightly rumpled envelope, handing it to Jordan with a smile.

“What's this …?” she began, but quickly stared at Ryan in slack jawed surprise. “Miami?” she asked slowly. “But why …?”

“That's just the first stop,” Ryan said. “Jamie's mom found us a great hotel in the Bahamas, and we want you and Mia to join us. I can't think of anyone I'd rather see the New Year in with than you two.”

“But, Ryan,” she said weakly, “this is just so … so incredibly generous …”

“Would you like to come?” Ryan asked as she lowered her gaze and stared into Jordan's eyes.

“Of course!”

“That's all that matters,” Ryan said. “It will really make it special for us to have our best friends with us.” She smiled up at her friend, and gasped a bit as Jordan threw her arms around her and squeezed her tight.

“This means more than I can ever tell you,” she said. “Not just the trip, and not just the chance to be with Mia, but to be one of your close friends.” She couldn't stop the tears from falling as Ryan wrapped her in a gentle embrace. They held each other close for a few minutes until Jordan pulled back and let out a soft sob. “I was so fucking scared for you guys last night,” she said as a shiver ran down her body. “You both mean so much to me.”

“You mean a lot to us too, Jordan, and we're both going to try to be around for a very long time.”

“That's my Christmas wish,” she said softly, squeezing Ryan until her ribs ached.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan caught Jamie's eye and gave her a 'thumbs up' sign that was really unnecessary once the smaller woman caught sight of Jordan's beaming face.

They watched together as Jamie pulled Mia aside and broke the news to her. The scream that the brunette let out shocked the entire room into momentary silence, and every eye watched her scramble up the stairs to throw her arms around each of the tall women on the second floor. By the time Jamie got upstairs, they all shared a group hug for a few moments as the assembled audience returned to their conversations.

Jumping up and down, Mia cried, “We're gonna have so much fun!”

“Lying on the beach, swimming in the ocean … What's not to love?” Jordan asked.

“I don't care if we have to make love in shifts to have some privacy,” Mia said.

“No need, pal,” Jamie said. “We rented a little cottage with two bedrooms and two baths. You two can howl all night long.”

Mia grasped Jamie's face with both hands and vowed, “You are my permanently enshrined best friend!”

The curly-haired woman leaned in and gave Jamie a very enthusiastic kiss right on the mouth, and as she pulled back Jamie blinked her eyes to focus while she murmured, “Why didn't you do that in high school? I would have seen the light years earlier!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


Part 2

An hour later they were ensconced in a pew at St. Philip's with Martin and Maeve, Catherine and Jim, Brendan and Maggie, Rory, Conor, Tommy and Annie, Sara, all of the aunts and uncles, and three of the twelve cousins. Mia and Jordan had taken Jennie and all of the loot back to Berkeley just before the crowd left for Mass, and Ryan had little doubt as to what two of the three of them were doing right then.

It took a few minutes for Ryan to get comfortable in the familiar old church, site of every one of her Christmas eves. She was a little reticent to allow her mind free rein since she was justifiably worried about what might float to the top. But the travails of the previous two days lifted slightly and seemed to fade into the distance after just a few minutes of stillness.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

To the strains of Joy to the World, the congregants began to disperse. The church had been filled to capacity, and as they hit the steps, Ryan sucked in a deep breath of the cool, moist air and threw her head back, gazing up at the stars for a moment.

Her partner came up beside her and softly asked, “You seemed a little shaky in there. Too close?”

“Yeah,” Ryan said quietly, nodding her head. “I've never liked crowds, but since the uhm … accident … I feel a little claustrophobic. It was starting to get to me.”

“Your hand felt clammy when I touched you a little while ago,” Jamie said as she searched Ryan's face for an indication of how upset she was. “Why didn't you get up and come outside for a breath of air?”

“Mmm … I don't like to give in to things like that,” Ryan said dismissively. “It's just mind over matter.” She stretched again, and Jamie could nearly see the stiffness that had settled in her muscles. She knew that her partner was feeling very sore, but Ryan refused to even acknowledge her pain — although she religiously took her muscle relaxants every six hours, an act Jamie knew was a massive concession to the signals her body was sending out.

Looking around at the large crowd they were with, Ryan cast a speculative look at her father-in-law. He had been doing his best to fit in with the family ever since the incident, and she had to admit that it was more than odd to see him in the group. Having him attend Mass was weird enough, but when he and Catherine got to his car, he offered a happy wave and said, “See you at home, girls.”

“Did I miss something?” Ryan asked quietly as the assembled throng walked back towards the O'Flaherty house. “Your dad acts like he's living with your mom again.”

“I think we did miss something,” Jamie said, her face scrunched up in a puzzled frown. “I don't know what's going on, but I suppose there's only one way to find out.”

Jim had insisted that the young women drive his Range Rover, and they'd stowed their overnight bags in the car on the way to Mass. It was now parked in the drive, and they paused in front of it to say their goodbyes, anxious to get going on their drive to Hillsborough. It was hard for Ryan to say goodbye to her father — having never been away from him on Christmas morning, but she muddled through because this was important to Catherine — and by extension, to Jamie.

As they settled themselves into the car, Ryan spent a few minutes adjusting the mirrors and the electric seat to her preferences. As she pulled out she said, “Maybe we should just take this car off your dad's hands. I don't think he's driven it in months, has he?”

“No, I don't think so,” Jamie said. “I guess we could, and I'm sure he'd be happy to give it to us, but I don't know if that's such a good idea. I think we need to maintain a little distance with him for a while. I mean … I don't think he'd use it for leverage if he was angry with us, but you never know.” She sighed heavily and said, “I feel like I'm just learning who he is. Much of what I knew about him before wasn't really accurate, and I just don't want to step on any potential landmines.”

Ryan nodded, understanding her lover's worry. “Yeah, I didn't think of it like that, but we probably should be more self-sufficient. Besides,” she said, grinning, “you look like you're driving your daddy's car when you're in this behemoth.”

Jamie sniffed and tossed her head as she said, “It doesn't fit my mature, sophisticated image, does it?”

Ryan smiled at her. “I bet you're dreading another trip to the car dealer with me, aren't ya? Especially after I assured you we wouldn't need to go again until the wheels fell off the Lexus.”

“Maybe I'll just call Sandra, and ask her to find me a similar deal,” Jamie said. “You haven't changed your mind about liking the car, have you?”

“No, I like it a lot. It's a nicer car than I ever dreamed of having, so I'd be happy with a steady diet of Lexi. Ya think that's the plural?”

Jamie smiled at her, recognizing that the question was rhetorical. “Let's wait until we get back from the Bahamas to decide what to do. We can use the Range Rover until then.”

Ryan gave her a startled look and placed her hand over her heart, feeling the strong beat against her fingers.

“What's wrong?” Jamie asked, turning in her seat to look closely at her.

“I'm just checking to make sure I'm in the right body,” Ryan said, her head shaking slowly. “We're sitting in a Range Rover, talking about buying a second Lexus — but we have to wait until we return from our quick little jaunt to Eleuthra to make up our minds. I know this is run-of-the-mill stuff for you, but every once in a while it makes my head spin!”

Jamie reached over and patted her leg, looking at her with warm concern. “You know, I have to admit that when we were first together I thought you were being a little silly about the money thing,” she said, “but after being a part of your family for six months, I've gotten a very different perspective. I see how your family looks at money as almost incidental to their happiness — rather than as a requirement. Do you know what I mean?”

“Yes, I do,” Ryan said. “That's it exactly. I mean, yes, it's gonna be marvelous to lie on a pink sand beach and soak up the sun after the bitch of a time we've had lately. But I could honestly be just as happy with a bottle of bubble bath, our tub, and a delivered pizza. It's the quality of the relationship that matters — not the accoutrements.”

“We're agreed.” Casting a glance at her partner, Jamie followed up with a question. “Given that you'd be happy at home, why did you so willingly jump on the bandwagon about our vacation?”

Ryan smiled and said, “I'm not averse to being pampered. We've had a tough time — a lot tougher as of last night — and getting away from the madness at this point is one of the things that's helping me keep it together. I'm clinging to the thought of this trip like a life raft.” She shook her head briskly, trying to banish the recurrent images that were on the verge of overwhelming her again. Consciously trying to focus on their upcoming trip, she said, “I know I act like a Spartan sometimes, but I like creature comforts as much as the next guy. I'm looking forward to being spoiled a little. My only reservation is that I don't ever want to get to a place where I need pampering to feel happy. I would be very, very disappointed in myself if that ever happened.”

“I can't see that happening. I grew up thinking I needed stuff to be happy, and you've shown me that I don't. If I can be converted to the good side, it's clearly the better way.”

Giving her a wide grin, Ryan said, “Welcome to the team, babe.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan had the moon roof open, hoping the cold air would help her to stay awake, and they were singing Christmas carols as they drew near Hillsborough. The dark head lifted as she heard the distinctive whine of a helicopter. “Do the police search for many fleeing felons around here?”

“No, I've never seen a helicopter here. Maybe there's an accident on the freeway.”

“Freeway's that way,” Ryan said, jerking her head in the opposite direction. “That one's over residences.”

Jamie peered at the chopper, noticing it had the emblem for the local ABC affiliate on the tail. With eyes wide she looked at Ryan in dismay. “You don't think …”

As they came closer to the house, their fears were confirmed. The street was so filled with cars, vans and news trucks, that they had a very difficult time even getting up to the driveway entrance. Two uniformed Hillsborough police officers were blocking the drive, but when they spotted the Range Rover, they lifted the barricades and signaled Ryan to approach. She rolled down the window and exchanged grim looks with the officer.

“We've kept them off the property, ma'am, but there's only two of us. I suggest you park close to the house and make a dash for it.”

She nodded, cursing under her breath as they rolled the car up as close as they could get to the front door. As they got out, the reporters started yelling questions at them, their voices growing more frantic when the door opened and Jim dashed out, helping them in with their bags.

Jamie was shaken by the feeding-frenzy, and she stood in the doorway shivering as her father closed the door on the stunningly bright lights that were aimed at them. “Why are they following us? What do they want?” Catherine walked over to her daughter and wrapped her in a hug, holding on tightly until she could feel the trembling body stop shaking.

“Maybe I need to get my office involved,” Jim said, his brow furrowed in concentration. “You could record a statement, then we could play it for everyone with equal access. That might satisfy them.”

Ryan walked into the living room and sank onto one of the sofas, shaking her head the entire time. She looked at her partner and said, “Jamie, you can do what you want, but I'm not talking to anyone … ever. They can follow me to the grave.”

Jamie knew that her partner meant business, and she turned her gaze from Ryan to her father, and then back again. Making a decision, she said, “I'm with Ryan, Daddy. You can make a statement about us being safe and all of that public relations crap, but we're not going to talk.”

Jim's severe expression softened, and he came over to perch on the edge of the coffee table so that he could look at both young women at once. “I appreciate your feelings on this, but you're public figures now — even though you don't want to be. Particularly you, Jamie. I know you didn't ask for this, but as the daughter of a senator, you come under heightened scrutiny.”

She leveled her gaze at him, grasping Ryan's hand as she did so. “They can scrutinize us all they want. I won't participate in it. This was a terrifying experience for both of us, and talking about it in public will make it even more upsetting. We're not going to budge on this, Daddy. I'm sorry.” She brought her partner's hand to her lips and kissed it lightly, feeling some of the tension leave it. Privately, she thought her father had a point, but she knew that Ryan was not the sort of woman who could bear to have strangers intrude on her or her family, and she had no intention of doing anything but support her without question.

He folded his hands and looked down at them for a moment. “Don't apologize. I think it might go away sooner if you talk, but I could be wrong. You have to do what you think is right.” Getting up from the table, he walked to the small bar in the living room and said, “Cognac, anyone? My nerves are shot!”

“I'm game,” Ryan said. Jamie and Catherine declined, with Jamie having only a momentary desire to remind Ryan she was taking medication. She quashed the urge, though, deciding that she didn't want to supervise her partner. The foursome sat in the quiet room for a few minutes, gazing idly at the elaborate decorations, while the low buzz of generators and helicopters provided the nerve-jangling background noise.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

They were settled in their room by two a.m., both so tired they were dead on their feet. Ryan was busily brushing her teeth as she asked, “Who was that reasonable, passive man who was in the living room with us?”

“I haven't a clue,” Jamie said, “He's a source of constant surprise, isn't he?” She walked into the bath to wash her face, staring at her tired and haggard image for a moment. “I'm just glad that mother didn't drink today,” she said quietly. “She apologized to me this afternoon, by the way. She was really ashamed of herself.”

“Yeah, it was bad last night,” Ryan said, not elaborating further. She had seen Catherine tipsy before, but never blind-drunk, and it was an experience she hoped she never had to revisit. She knew that the terror of the night provided a very good reason to drink, and she had to admit that she would have likely done the same in Catherine's situation, but it was still jarring and unpleasant to see the woman she had come to love be so out-of-control.

Jamie stood in the doorway of the bath, looking out the window as she reflected, “It wasn't bad when I was young, but I think she's been that way many times in recent years. Occasionally I would call home, and she would claim that I woke her — but it would be the middle of the afternoon, or early in the evening. I think she was too drunk to talk to me. The next time we'd talk she wouldn't mention it — so I can only assume she didn't remember.”

“I hope she can cut back on her own,” Ryan said softly, “but if she can't, we're going to have to get involved.”

“Involved?” Jamie asked, unconsciously moving back a step.

“Yeah. We can work with her therapist to do an intervention if we have to.” She approached Jamie and placed her hands on her waist, looking into her eyes. “Your mom is not going to cut her life short while we stand by and watch.”

“Bu …” Jamie blinked at her partner in surprise. “You can't make someone stop if they don't want to, Ryan. This isn't one of those things you can force your will on.”

“I know that,” Ryan said. “Remember, I watched my Uncle Charlie drink himself to death. We were all involved, and he had more support, and more chances at staying sober than most. He wasn't able to accept the help — he was just too far gone, and he hated himself too much.” Ryan gazed into her partner's eyes and said, “I don't see that level of destructiveness in your mom. I think it would really help to let her see how her drinking affects you — if it comes to that.”

Jamie looked up at her, a worried frown slowly etching itself onto her face. “Do you think I should have been talking to her about her drinking before now?”

“No, no, I don't. I think she's just now becoming receptive to the idea of trying to control it. It's hard to make a dent when the person isn't self-aware.”

Jamie hugged her tightly and asked the question that had been floating around in her mind for quite a while. “Do you think I should stop drinking?”

Ryan took a breath and decided to be completely honest, having given the matter a good deal of thought. “I think it would be easy — very easy -- for you to become an alcoholic, Jamie. If I were you, I would never drink to excess, or start to rely on alcohol to calm down, or help you sleep. I think you're genetically programmed towards alcoholism, and it wouldn't take much to push you over.”

She nodded, revealing, “Anna says the same thing. She thinks I should be very careful.”

“I always liked that Anna,” Ryan said. “She cares about my best girl.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After lying in bed, tossing and turning, Ryan finally decided to get up. She didn't want to wake her partner with her movements, but given the depth of Jamie's sleep, she had to admit that wasn't her primary motivation for rising.

She was struggling with an unfamiliar curiosity about the members of the press who had put the rest of the world's news on hold to focus on her and Jamie — even though she was certain that knowing the motivations of the reporters would not make her feel better. The newspeople were holding her and Jamie hostage either because their editor told them to be there, or because they were free-lancers who smelled a big payoff if they could be the one to get the women to break their silence. It was really as simple as that, but the reality of the situation didn't make her feel any better.

Slipping into sweats and a T-shirt, she walked down the dimly lit hall, finding herself pulled towards a full-story-high, leaded glass window that graced the center of the second floor. She had been drawn to the window the first time she saw it, the golden light that flooded the hallway on a sunny day very appealing to her. Two upholstered wingback chairs flanked the window, and she sat in one, drawing her feet up on the substantial cushion and locking her arms around her shins.

The lights from the news vans had not dimmed, and her second floor perspective allowed her to get a much better view than she had been able to glimpse when they were rushing into the house. Her thoughts were vague and unfocused, her mind trying to understand something that she was wholly unprepared to comprehend. She had never had much interest in the celebrities the media created, and she was frankly puzzled by the people who were interested in them. She didn't understand what she or Jamie could say that would in any way have an impact on a stranger's life. Her mind was idly wondering if the public really cared, or if the news conglomerates just believed they did, when Jim came up and placed his hand on her shoulder. She jerked around in startled surprise, not having heard him approach.

“Having trouble sleeping?” he asked.

“Yeah. I'm trying to understand why in the hell those guys would rather be here than with their families on Christmas morning.”

“That's a tough one,” he said, taking the other chair. “Having the press here is making this much harder for you, isn't it, Ryan?”

She nodded quickly, turning her attention back to the street. “I almost lost two of the most important people in my world … not to mention almost dying myself … and now I'm expected to share my feelings about that with a bunch of strangers? Why? What do they want?” Her head dropped to rest upon her knees, and he felt his heart go out to the normally self-assured young woman, seeing in her troubled eyes a vulnerability that was striking and completely surprising.

“I truly don't know,” he said softly. “Maybe people want to believe there are heroes …”

“We're … not … heroes,” she said, biting the words off. “Wouldn't you do anything in your power to save Jamie's life? That's not heroic. It's just doing what anyone would do in the same circumstance.”

He shook his head briefly, his lips curling into a smile. “I know that's how you feel, Ryan, but it's not reality. Very few people could have held onto that car … and that's if they were gently placed upon it. Very few people would have willingly climbed into a moving car bearing two gun-wielding men like Jamie did — no matter who was inside. I know this makes you uncomfortable, but your actions were very heroic.”

Ryan nodded to show that she heard him, but she didn't agree. “When you love someone, you don't think of yourself first, Jim.”

Her bright blue eyes glowed from the light that entered the window, and he could feel the determination radiating from their depths. In a rare flash of self-awareness, he was struck by the sacrifice this young woman had been willing to make for his daughter. A stab of regret lodged in his chest when he considered his actions of the previous months, finally forced to acknowledge that he had fabricated every worry, every fear that he had ever expressed about Ryan. His shame was so great that he was unable to speak. Standing up, he approached the young woman tentatively, then leaned over and kissed her on the top of the head, ruffling her hair lightly before he turned and walked down the hall.

Ryan stayed right where she was, shaking her head at the thoughts that rolled through her mind. She was so intent that she almost missed the soft tread coming down the hall. Flicking her head briefly, she saw Catherine, in a satin nightgown and robe, walking down the hall … presumably towards Jim's room. The older woman didn't seem to notice her, and for that Ryan was glad. Oh boy! she groaned inwardly. Why am I the one who always sees him with women he shouldn't be with?

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Her soft knock was met with an immediate, “Come in.” Catherine cracked the door open, and poked her head into her husband's room. “Am I disturbing you?” she asked quietly.

“No, no, I just came up.” He smiled a little and said, “I've had so much cognac, I can't understand how I'm still standing, but I can't seem to relax.”

She entered the room and walked over to the dresser, leaning against it as she said, “It must be contagious. I can't even keep my eyes closed.”

His eyes took on a shy glint as he asked, “Want some company?”

She nodded, feeling embarrassed, but overwhelmingly needy. Not having had a drink all day made her feel raw and bruised — her feelings much too close to the surface for her comfort. Not wanting to be rude, but determined that he not get the wrong idea, she said, “Just company, Jim. Do you understand that?”

He nodded, and extended his hand. She walked towards him and let him envelop her in a warm hug. “I could use some company, too,” he said. “It's lonely in this big room.”

She removed her robe and slid into bed, waiting for him to strip down to his boxers and T-shirt. He climbed in and held his arm out, smiling when she cuddled up against him in a long-familiar embrace. “This is nice,” he said, his voice very soft. “It feels right.”

She didn't comment, knowing he was referring to more than the closeness. Even though her heart knew it was dangerous to share this intimacy, her wounded psyche needed the comfort so badly that she allowed her body to relax and drift off to sleep in a matter of moments, feeling safe for the first time in two days.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When Jamie went downstairs on Christmas morning, she was pleased to find Ryan entertaining Marta while the cook iced a tray of her famous cinnamon rolls. When the older woman saw Jamie, she wiped her hands and dashed across the room, enveloping her in a bruising embrace. “I am so thankful you are safe, Cariña. I have never been so worried in my life.”

“We're fine, Marta,” Jamie said, holding on tight. As the older woman released her, Jamie shook her head a little. “I don't know how we're fine — but we're fine.”

“God protected you,” Marta said, the answer obvious to the woman who held such a fervent belief in an omnipotent being.

“I suppose that's true,” Jamie said, not having any reason to dispute Marta's contention. She crossed the room and gave Ryan a kiss on the forehead, asking, “And when did you get up? Your side of the bed was cold when I woke.”

“A while ago,” Ryan said, not wanting to tell her partner that she'd barely slept a wink. “I could smell Marta's cooking, and I had to come down so I wouldn't miss anything.”

“She's been up for hours,” Marta said, busting Ryan completely. “I don't think she slept, Jamie. Look at the circles under her eyes.” The cook was giving Ryan a concerned look, but she shrugged it off.

“I'm fine,” she said. “We've just had a tough couple of days. I'm sure I'll be back to normal as soon as we get out of this fishbowl.”

“Are they still here?” Jamie asked, not having checked on her way downstairs.

“Yeah,” Ryan said, her smile fading. “I know they won't stay forever, but this is a slow news week, so we're probably still the biggest local story.”

“Lucky us,” Jamie said, smiling thinly.

Jim came into the kitchen as they were discussing the matter, and he obviously overheard the last part of their conversation. “Morning, girls, Marta,” he said, appearing very businesslike. “I had an idea.”

“What's that, Daddy?”

“I'm considering going to federal court to ask for a temporary restraining order to keep the wolves from our door.”

Jamie's eyebrows shot up as she stared at her father. “Can you do that?”

“Well, the courts don't like to limit press access, as you know, but given that I'm a senator, I thought I could use an argument about my personal safety. It wouldn't take much ingenuity to figure out where our house is … any crackpot could come to Hillsborough and drive around until they saw the news vans.”

“Well — who feels better?” Jamie asked with false brightness. “Now we get to worry about lunatics picking us off with high-powered rifles!”

Jim looked nonplussed for a moment, then his self-assured demeanor returned and he conceded, “It might be a little ambitious to expect to make much headway with the federal courts on Christmas Day. I don't know about you two, but it's the helicopters that are making me crazy.”

“Count me in,” Ryan said. “They're why I couldn't sleep.”

Pursing his lips in thought, he said, “I'm going to make a few calls. I might not be able to force them to stop, but I think I have enough influence to convince them to stop voluntarily.”

Ryan knew that her version of voluntarily and Jim's version differed markedly, but for once, she didn't mind if he used strong-arm tactics to accomplish his goal.

“What about the nuts out there who have already seen an aerial view of our house?” Jamie asked, finding herself slightly panicked at the thought.

“I'm going to hire someone to guard the house,” Jim said. “Obviously, no one could get past the news vans to threaten us today, but I don't want your mother and Marta here alone after we all leave.”

“Where don't you want me?” Catherine asked as she walked into the kitchen, fully dressed and ready for the day.

“I'm going to hire security to watch the house for a few weeks until this dies down.”

“If you think it's necessary, go right ahead, Jim, but I'm leaving for Italy tomorrow, and I was going to see if Marta wanted to go stay with her sister until I get back. Would Helena have somewhere to go if she didn't stay here, Marta?”

“Yes, her son has an apartment in San Jose. She could stay there.”

“Would you like to leave?” Jim asked, turning to Marta.

“Yes, yes, I would,” she said quietly. “It is frightening to have those people outside.”

Jim nodded, then looked at his wife for a long minute. “How long will you be gone?”

“Not very. Just a couple of weeks.”

He nodded again, looking like he wanted to say more, but obviously choosing not to.

Jamie spoke up, “I don't think it's worth it to try to force the press to leave, Daddy. We're leaving after dinner, so most of them will follow us.” She shivered involuntarily as she considered that scenario.

“I think I'll call home and see how bad it is there,” Ryan said. She picked up the nearby phone and dialed her home, where Kevin picked up on the first ring. “Hey, Kev, Merry Christmas.”

“Hi, Ryan, Merry Christmas to you, too. How's it going?”

“Good. I just wanted to see if the press was there. There's a boatload of the bast … jerks down here,” she said, catching her profanity before it got all the way out.

“Yeah, there are a few guys outside here, too. Not many, though. They're gathered over in front of the Necessaries, drinking coffee. My mother wanted to make them some breakfast,” he said. “I don't think she understands that they're like stray dogs … if you feed 'em they're yours forever!”

“She can't help her good heart,” Ryan said. “Are she and my da over there?”

“Not now. They came for breakfast, and then they went to Tommy's. You can catch them there if you need them.”

“No, I'll talk to them later. Just checking to see if things are still crazy.”

“No crazier than normal,” he said. “Be careful coming home, Ryan. Call us when you're close, and we'll come down to keep the reporters away from you.”

“Will do, Kevin. Love you.”

“I love you too, Ryan. See you tonight.”

She hung up and shrugged her shoulders. “It doesn't sound like it's too bad there. I guess that means they'll follow us tonight.”

“God, I wish we could prevent that,” Jamie said, sighing as she sank into a chair.

Her father stood and announced with a determined look in his eye, “No one will follow you tonight. I don't know how we'll do it, but we're getting you out of here — sight unseen.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan needed a little alone time after breakfast, so they went outside into the garden. They sat upon a wooden bench placed under a substantial arbor, the structure and the foliage shielding them from one pesky helicopter that had obviously spotted them when they walked outside. Ryan looked at her partner, her eyes a little watery. “We haven't even wished each other a Merry Christmas yet. This is just so weird, Jamie. It doesn't seem like Christmas at all.” Grunting softly, she said, “Actually, it doesn't seem like we're in our own lives.”

Leaning forward, Jamie placed a tender kiss on her lips. “Merry Christmas, honey.” She wrapped her in a hug and held on for a long while, still able to feel the tension flowing from her lover's body. “How did it seem at your house and at church last night? Was that familiar?”

“Yeah, that was better,” she said. “I guess it's just weird because I'm used to my Christmas routine. Leaving home has me a little mixed up.”

“Are you unhappy we came?” the blonde asked, gripping her hand.

“No, not at all. It would have been weird at home, too. It can't help but be weird when there are news vans and helicopters hovering over your head. It's unavoidable.”

Jamie snuggled close and said, “You know what I want to do?”

“What's that?”

“I want to fantasize a little. It's what I always did when I was little and things started to bother me.”

“Fantasize?” Ryan asked slowly, not really getting the point.

“Yeah. I want to talk about what it will be like when we have our family. How will we celebrate Christmas?”

Ryan's wide smile indicated that Jamie had hit upon a very appealing topic. “Ooo … that's a nice thought,” she said. “You know, I don't often think about the future in specific terms.”

“Specific terms?”

“Yeah, like I don't think of how many kids we'll have, or what sex they'll be, or things like that.”

“I just think about one,” Jamie said, “and she looks just like you.” She tilted her head and kissed Ryan softly. “Jet-black hair and sky blue eyes, and big for her age. Long, long arms and legs, and a smile that could melt a glacier.”

Ryan hugged her close and said, “I want to have a baby who looks like you. Those pictures of you when you were little are so precious. I love those pretty green eyes, that adorable little smile, those pink cheeks. I'd really love to give birth to a tiny little copy of you.”

“Probably won't happen, will it, sport?”

Patting her belly, Ryan shook her head. “I don't think I have any blonde-haired genes in my arsenal, and dark hair is clearly dominant. I might be able to come up with some green eyes, though,” she said. “That would be sweet.”

“I just want to raise a child with you, Ryan. It doesn't matter who he or she looks like. It's just fun to fantasize.”

“It is,” Ryan said. “It reminds me that one day this will all fade, and we'll be back to normal, too.”

“So, how do you want to celebrate Christmas when we have our family? Any ideas?”

“Well, I know that I was very happy with the way my family did it. I'd be willing to copy the whole shebang. But we need to incorporate your traditions. What's important to you?”

“Was Santa Claus big in your family?” Jamie asked.

“No, not really. I don't remember ever believing, although I guess I did. How about you?”

“Oh, yeah,” she said. “I'd still believe today if I could get away with it.”

“Really?” Ryan said. “I didn't know that about you.”

“Yeah, oh yeah. I loved myths and fables. I'm sure I knew Santa was an allegory or a symbol from early on …”

“And knowing you, that's exactly the verbiage you used when you thought about it,” Ryan said, giving her a playful tickle.

Jamie sniffed at her. “Not quite, but you aren't far from wrong.” She patted her on the thigh, and continued, “Anyway, I loved to allow myself to believe. I hope our kids have the ability to conjure up a belief in something like that — something that represents hope and generosity, and the kindness of human beings.”

“Well, the Irish are well known for their belief in fables and imaginary creatures,” Ryan said. “I read once where something like 30% of the country believed in fairies.”

“Cool,” Jamie said. “With your fairy-believing genes, and my imagination, our kids will be completely ungrounded in reality.”

“That's not a bad place to be,” Ryan said, wishing she had the ability to transport herself to the land that had no reporters.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Charles arrived around noon, looking frazzled from the media crush. “This has gotten so ridiculously out of control,” he said, his face flushed with anger. “Can't anything be done, Jim?”

“I've done all that I know how to do, Dad,” the younger man said, shrugging his shoulders helplessly.

“They've made a mockery of the First Amendment,” he grumbled.

The unhappy five-some sat in the living room, speaking little until Catherine spoke up. “Look, we can either sit here and feel violated, or we can just ignore them. They can't come into the house … and we're not going out there … so let's celebrate a little. The girls made it through an unbelievable ordeal … they're safe and whole … Isn't that a cause for celebration?”

“It most certainly is,” Charles said. “Catherine's absolutely right. Let's not let the vultures ruin our day. Actually, it's so nice outside, let's have our dinner outdoors. We might feel less cooped up that way.”

“Great idea, Charles,” Catherine said. “I don't know how Jim did it, but the helicopters have miraculously disappeared.” She gave him a look that was a mixture of gentle disapproval, and fond regard. “I'll ask Helena to set the outdoor table.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“How about a walk in the garden while Helena and Marta get set up?” Charles asked Jamie.

“Sure, Poppa. I can't guarantee that we won't be strafed while we're out there, though. I don't hear anything now, but …”

“I can handle it,” he said, draping his arm around her shoulders, “as long as they won't bother you.”

“No, I'm all right with it. It's a little nerve jangling, but they don't bother me that much.” They walked outside, leaving Ryan to help Marta in the kitchen, which seemed to calm the frazzled woman a little.

Blessedly, the helicopters were nowhere in sight, causing Jamie to let out a sigh of relief. “Thank God,” she said, lifting her eyes heavenward. “Ryan might be able to calm down a little.”

“She doesn't look well,” Charles said. “Frankly, that surprises me. I view Ryan as being utterly resilient.”

“Normally she is,” Jamie said. “But something about the incident is really terrorizing her, Poppa, and I can't figure out what it is.”

“Well, I can think of a number of things about it that would terrorize me,” he said. “She wouldn't be human not to be very, very disturbed by the entire mess.”

“Of course,” she said. “But it's more than that, Poppa. She's more upset than I am — significantly more — and that worries me. She doesn't seem like herself.”

“I would tend to agree, sweetheart. Maybe it's time to seek some professional help.”

She rolled her eyes, saying, “I've broached the subject a few times, but she's not buying. I'm going to wait and see how she is when we return from Eleuthra, and if she's not better — I'll blindfold her and drag her to a therapist.”

“Well, now that we have Ryan's future planned, let's talk about yours,” he said, smiling warmly. “How are you feeling, honey?”

“Mmm … about like you'd expect. I'm not sleeping well, I've been having nightmares, I'm easily irritated, and I feel like buying a machine gun and moving down all of the reporters who followed us down here. But other than that, I feel pretty good,” she said, smiling back at him.

“For what you went through, I'm pretty amazed by how well you seem to be handling it. I've been worried that you were repressing all of your feelings, but it doesn't seem like you are.”

“No, I'm really not,” she said. “What happened was horrible, Poppa, but I feel good about what I did in response. Does that make sense?”

“I think so,” he said, nodding. “Tell me more.”

She took in a breath, pausing before a stately pink camellia bush that she had always admired. “I think I handled myself very well, Poppa,” she said quietly. “I did something that was very brave, and I feel good about myself for doing it.”

He wrapped his arm around her and gave her a very gentle hug, remembering that her ribs were sore. “As I told you last night, honey, I'm enormously proud of you. You were only concerned with Caitlin and Ryan's safety, and that's a terrifically selfless act.”

“It was,” she said, “and I take solace in the fact that I did everything possible to protect both of them. If I'd frozen and let them take Caitlin I don't think I'd be in very good shape, no matter how it turned out in the end. I was put through a crucible, Poppa, and I feel like I did very well. Knowing that has helped me get through the last two days. I don't have any regrets — all I have to deal with is the trauma of what other people did to me.”

“I understand,” he said. “Knowing that you did everything possible to save yourself and those you love has to be very reassuring.”

“It is. I think the knowledge that I can trust my instincts will get me through a lot of tough times, Poppa. I feel like I've grown up a little in the past few days — like I'm more of an adult now.”

“You've been an adult for a while, Jamie,” he said. “The last few days have merely underscored what a competent adult you are.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When the table was set, the group moved outdoors. The warm sun and moderate temperatures helped everyone relax, and soon they'd nearly forgotten about the pack of reporters still baying at the front gate. Jamie decided that she should put in a call to her father's sisters, and brought out her new cell phone to do so, then realized that she didn't have either of them programmed into her directory. Jim didn't have the numbers memorized, but Charles had his small address book in his suit jacket and he provided them.

Ryan listened as her partner spoke to the women, neither of whom she knew much about. Jamie had received Christmas cards from both of them, and when Ryan handed them to her she had commented that she didn't recognize either of the names or the addresses. A flash of guilt had struck Jamie when she realized that she knew Ryan's uncles and aunts, and even some of the aunts' extended families, while Ryan had never even heard her mention her own aunts' names.

It wasn't that Jamie didn't care for her family; she just hadn't been around either of her aunts much, and knew very little about them. Her aunt Barbara was four years older than Jim, and she lived in Kansas, where she taught high school English. She had never married, but Jamie knew she had a long-term boyfriend. Barbara traveled during her summer vacations, but she had never managed to stop in San Francisco during her frequent travels. In fact, Jamie had seen her aunt approximately three times in her entire life, and she wasn't sure she could pick her out in a crowd.

Jim's eldest sister, Jean, was seven years older than he, and lived in Chicago. She and her husband, Robert Spencer, had two sons, Mark and Chris, both of whom were older than Jamie. She had met the family several times, the last occasion when Chris got married two years earlier, but they had never been close, either.

After Jamie spoke to each of the women, Jim got on the phone to wish them each a Merry Christmas.

While Jim was speaking, Catherine said to Jamie, “I heard from nearly all of the members of the Dunlop clan yesterday, honey. They were all appropriately horrified about the carjacking and send their regards.”

“That's a pithy summary,” the younger woman said, chuckling.

“I'd be happy to go into an extended recital of their comments,” Catherine said. “But I can't imagine that you'd like to hear it.”

“No, thanks,” Jamie said. “I can only imagine that you got a long lecture on the evils of the lower class.”

“Something like that,” Catherine said. “You uncle David thinks you're mad to drive yourself anywhere, so he in particular thinks you were asking for trouble merely by being in a car without an armed driver.”

Jamie turned to her partner, her mouth curled into a grin. “What do you think, honey? Should we hire a full-time driver?”

“Sure. I've already shown I can hang onto the roof of a car, and I'll need to when you and the driver take up both seats in the Boxster.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After some persuasion, Catherine had agreed not to buy gifts for the girls, but Jim wasn't a party to that pact, so after he got off the phone he brought out a few boxes, neatly wrapped.

Jamie ran into the house and brought out the few small things she had purchased for her father and grandfather, and they opened their gifts, sitting by the pool with the warm December sun shining down on them.

Ryan was surprised and pleased to open her box to find a set of stainless-steel chef's knives. She removed one of the beautifully balanced blades and stared at it for a long time.

“Wow, that's gorgeous,” Jamie said, giving her father a smile.

“When I was at your house for dinner I noticed that Ryan was left handed, and I know that most knives are made for righties,” he said. “I checked around, and found a Japanese company named Global that makes some of their professional knives in a left-handed model. If you're going to cook, you need to have the right tools,” he said.

Ryan gave him a broad smile and said, “As nice as these are, the bigger gift is that you noticed I was left handed, and tried to buy me something to make my life a little easier. I really appreciate that, Jim.”

He blushed a little under her praise, but managed to maintain his near-casual air. “Oh, it wasn't a big deal, Ryan. I just hope you enjoy them.”

“I will,” she said. She got up and went over to his chair, leaned over and kissed him lightly, smiling at the slightly stunned look on his face. “Thank you.”

“Y … You're welcome,” he said, his face now bordering on crimson.

Taking pity on her husband, Catherine said, “Your turn, Jamie. Maybe you have a matching set for right-handers.”

“Oh, I don't need knives,” she said, wrinkling her nose at her partner. “Ryan's doing all of the cooking from now on.”

Jamie opened her gift, discovering a complex-looking digital camera — made for underwater photography. She looked at it in wonder for a moment before her father said, “I thought you'd enjoy being able to take some pictures while you're in the Bahamas. I can't imagine you two won't be snorkeling every chance you get.”

“Oh, Daddy, this is so thoughtful!” Jamie said. “Thanks for remembering how much I love photography.”

“I can still smell the chemicals coming out of the bathroom in the pool house,” he said, recalling the darkroom his daughter had set up when she was in high school.

“I'll send you some pictures from the Bahamas if we take our computer with us,” Jamie said as she rose from her chair, and walked around the table to kiss her father.

“I can't think of a better time for the two of you to get away,” Charles said, still anxious about the hovering media.

“Yeah, I'm looking forward to getting down to North Carolina,” Ryan said. “I think this is mostly local media that's been following us, so it should die down once we're gone.”

Jim was quiet during the last few minutes of their conversation, and he got a knowing look in his eye as he said, “Sitting out here has given me an idea. Let me make a phone call, girls. I may have figured out half of your problem.”

He returned a few minutes later, looking very pleased with himself. “An unmarked police car will pick you up at the rear service gate whenever you wish to leave,” he said.

“I didn't think of the back gate!” Jamie said.

“Back gate?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah … for the gardeners, and access for the tennis court and pool maintenance services. The good news is that the gate is on another road, and that road doesn't pass by the house.”

“Excellent!” Ryan said. “Now it's time for me to make a few calls.” As she got up, she surveyed Jamie's outfit and said, “For my plan to work you're going to have to change clothes.”

“Change clothes?”

“Yep. My plan involves a little fence climbing.”

She turned and walked away, leaving Jamie to roll her eyes. “I think I like your half of the plan a little better than Ryan's, Daddy.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Dinner was finished by three o'clock, and the young women decided that they should get going … hoping that the mid-afternoon timing would catch some of the reporters by surprise.

Ryan had packed their gifts in one of Jamie's backpacks, but they left everything else at the house so they would be unhindered during their adventure. They stood by the upper gate in their sweats and their running shoes as they waited for their ride. “Are you sure that you'll be all right?” Catherine asked. “I'm really very concerned about you traipsing through people's back yards.”

“I spoke to everyone involved,” Ryan said. “These are friends as well as neighbors, Catherine. They'll protect us.”

“All right,” she said, wrapping her daughter in a hug. She looked up at Ryan while she held Jamie and said, “I don't know why I worry. You're proven to be a very competent bodyguard.”

“She is that,” Jamie said, sighing deeply.

The police car pulled up, and after an emotional farewell they took off for the city, both young women dropping their heads down below the level of the windows, just in case. “I'm starting to feel like we're the lesbian version of Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky,” Ryan muttered.

“I might feel like I deserved the scrutiny if I'd been having sex with the President or taping my phone conversations with my friend,” Jamie grumbled, her voice muffled by her contorted position.

“I doubt it, but I get your point,” Ryan said.

“We're on El Camino Real now, ladies,” the officer said. “I think you can sit up." They both did so, with Ryan spending a long time stretching in her seat, the awkward position obviously hard on her muscles. “So, how are you both feeling?” he asked.

“We're fine,” Ryan said. “Happy to be going home.”

He turned around briefly and gave her a winning smile, asking, “What was it really like up on that roof, Ryan? Jesus, that was the bravest thing I ever saw a civilian do.”

She smiled thinly at him and said, “I lived it once, Officer. Once was enough.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The police officer dropped them off at a small house two streets from the O'Flaherty manse. Ryan ran up to the front door and rang the bell, smiling when an elderly man opened it. “Hi, Mr. Regan. Ready for the mad dash?”

“Come in here and let me take a look at you, Siobhán,” he said, pulling her in and giving her a hug. “I never see your pretty face around the neighborhood. I don't even see you running any more. What's become of you?”

“Well, I'm in school over in Berkeley, so I'm not home very often. I'm on the basketball team at Cal, and I do most of my exercising over there. Not much time for running any more.”

“Basketball team, eh?” he asked. “Are you ever on the television?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, our game against the University of North Carolina is on Fox this weekend. Call my father and he'll tell you what channel that is, okay?”

“Will do, Siobhán,” he said. “Now who's this shy little one?” he asked turning to Jamie.

“This is my partner, Jamie Evans,” Ryan said.

“She's your partner in taking those dirty thugs off the street,” he said, his watery blue eyes narrowing.

“That too,” Ryan said. “We'd better get going, Mr. Regan. The boys will be outside by now.”

“All right, girls,” he said, leading them through his small, cluttered house. They got to the back door, and he hugged them both. “You two take care of yourselves. And you can use my yard any time you wish.”

“Thanks, Mr. Regan,” Ryan said, and Jamie echoed her words. They scampered down his wobbly stairs and crossed the small back yard, finding a smiling Kevin standing next to the ivy choked fence, leaning against a tall ladder.

“We thought you might prefer not having to scale a fence on your way home,” he said.

“Hi, guys,” Conor's voice called from the other side of the fence.

“You two are godsends,” Jamie sighed, looking at the rickety six-foot-tall stockade fence.

Ryan climbed to the top of the ladder, then carefully stepped down the treads on the other side of the fence. Her judicious moves signaled her bother that her muscles were still complaining, and his offered hug was far gentler than normal. “Thanks for doing this, Con. I could have boosted Jamie, but we're both still a little sore.”

Playfully ruffling her hair, he said, “Anything for you, sis.”

“Hey,” she said, “here's something you can do. Mr. Regan's back steps are so bad he's gonna fall and break a hip. Will you fix them for him?”

“Sure,” he said. “You caught me in a generous moment.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Charles left Hillsborough not long after Jamie and Ryan, then Marta, and finally Helena packed their bags and took off, leaving Jim and Catherine alone with the swarm of reporters. It was just dusk, and they went into the living room to unwind. “Drink?” he asked.

“No, no, thanks,” she said, wishing that she could grab the bottle and guzzle it, but determined to keep her promise to herself to cut back to one drink a day.

“You didn't drink yesterday either,” he said. “Is that a conscious choice?”

She paused a moment, not sure of how much she felt safe revealing. Deciding that she didn't want supervision in case she didn't toe the line, she said, “I'm just not in the mood, Jim.” Taking a seat on one of the sofas, she kicked off her shoes and tucked her feet up on the cushion. “It's been a rough couple of days, hasn't it?”

“Having your daughter's life in danger gives a whole new meaning to the word rough,” he said, shivering as he recalled the incident.

“I don't think I could have gone on if we had lost her,” Catherine said, her face grimacing in pain at the mere thought. She was relaxed enough that some of the fear and the terror she had felt that night started to break through, and she began to cry. Jim moved to sit close, and wrapped his arms around her, letting her get some of her feelings out and allowing a few of his own tears to slide down his cheeks as well.

“We didn't lose her, Cat. She's fine, and safe, and well. Don't let yourself dwell on could-have-beens.”

“I've always loved her desperately,” she said, her voice almost inaudible through her tears. “But now that I've come to know her better, I feel bonded to her in a way I didn't know was possible. It would destroy me to lose that now,” she choked out in a rough, thin voice.

“I know, sweetheart,” he said, closing his eyes to fight back the tears. “I really do understand. She's given us both a second chance to be better parents. God knows I didn't deserve one, but she's such a loving person that she's even taken me back. Looking at her makes me so proud, Cat. She's the only thing in my life that I'm genuinely proud of.”

“Sometimes when I'm feeling particularly down, I think of Jamie, and remind myself that I've made a small contribution to the world by giving birth to her,” Catherine said, surprising herself by revealing something so personal to her husband.

“You make my world a better place,” he said softly, tightening his hold on her body.

She didn't comment, not wanting to ruin the moment by injecting reality into the situation. The phone rang, and she felt relieved to be able to get up and answer. Her laughing voice filled the house as she spoke to her daughter, and Jim smiled contentedly at both the sound and the obviously positive message that Catherine was receiving.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Catherine knew that bedtime was going to be a trial, but even with this knowledge, she couldn't make herself discuss their future. As expected, Jim got up and followed her upstairs when she announced that she was going to bed. When they got to the top of the stairs, he cocked his head as she said good night. “Would you like to sleep together again?” he asked, trying to sound casual. “It really helped me last night. First good night's sleep I've had since Wednesday.”

“I uhm … I don't really think that's wise, Jim.” Seeing the disappointment in his green eyes, she reminded him, “I'll be gone tomorrow, so we might as well get used to sleeping alone tonight.”

He placed his hands on her shoulders and drew her near. “We don't have to sleep alone, Catherine. Not tonight, or any other night. We can still give this another try.”

She shook her head slowly, glad that she had prepared herself for his offer. “No, we can't, Jim. Nothing has changed. We're supporting each other because of this trauma, and I've been very grateful to have you here — but now that it's over, we need to move on.”

“But, Cat, why not try again with someone who loves you … who supports you? You must trust me a little to have been so close to me the last few days. Isn't that something to build on?”

Nodding slightly, she admitted, “Yes, of course that's something. It's just not enough to build a relationship on. Especially not since we have so much emotional baggage we're carrying.”

“Cat, I know that the biggest problem is my infidelity, but I swear … I swear I'm willing to give up other women for the rest of my life if you'll only give me another chance.”

She gave him a sad smile and placed her hand on his cheek. “I know you didn't mean it this way, but the way you framed that speaks to exactly what the problem is. I didn't decide to give up other men when I married you. I stopped desiring other men. That might sound like an exercise in semantics, but it's a very, very meaningful difference for me. I don't want you to give up something you desire, just to be with me. I'm unwilling to be with a man who doesn't desire me above all others.” She fixed him with an intense gaze and asked, “Can you honestly say that you desire me sexually more than any other woman? Do you want me more than you want Kayla?”

“I haven't slept with her since the fall …” he said, but she squeezed his shoulder to interrupt him.

“That's not what I asked. I asked who you desired more.”

He was determined not to lie, even though every instinct demanded that he do so. Images flashed through his brain of the youthful vigor of his young associate. He thought of her passion for sex, her complete lack of inhibition, her willingness to try anything that he asked for — things that Catherine would likely faint from the mere suggestion of. Trying to evade the question, he equivocated. “That's not a fair question, Catherine. Being in love with someone has so many elements … sex is just one of them. It seems unfair to base our future on that one thing.”

She nodded slowly. “You may be right. It may be unfair … but it's how I feel. I may be alone for the rest of my life, but the next man who shares my bed is going to want me … and me alone.”

As was so often the case, his mouth started to speak before he considered his words. “Is that true of your lover in Italy? I'm sure his wife wouldn't like to think you were the only woman he desired.”

Giving him a cold stare she said, “You make a good point. I'll give that some thought while I'm there.” Turning abruptly, she said over her shoulder, “Good night.”

He stared after her, painfully disgusted with himself. Maybe in the next 46 years you can learn to think before you talk!

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The phone rang early on Sunday morning, and Ryan put the paper down and got up from the breakfast table to answer it. “Nollaig shona duit,” she said, her Irish accent in full force.

“Siobhán, have you gone Gaelic on us?” her father asked, laughing heartily.

“Nope. I decided to answer the phone wishing whoever was calling a Happy Christmas. Anyone who knows me will recognize my voice … anybody else can kiss my …”

“Now, now, let's not start with the profanity on the day after the Savior's birth, young lady.”

She laughed and said, “I am feeling a little feisty today. Some reporter called earlier, and I said, 'Go n-ithe an cat thú is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat,' before I hung up on him.”

“What does that mean, love?”

“That's one of Granny's favorites, Da. May the cat eat you, and may the cat be eaten by the devil.”

“A lovely wish for the holiday season,” he said with amusement. “Your aunt and I were heading off to Mass. Will you go with us?”

“I don't think so, Da. I'm not up to having flashbulbs popping in my face today.”

“How bad is it?”

“Not too,” she admitted. “But only because they think we're still in Hillsborough. I don't know what they'll do when Jim and Catherine leave today.”

“It's a bloody crime,” he grumbled. “You risk your lives to save a child, and now you're hunted like a fox. It makes no sense.”

“I know,” she said. “I think you can come over here through the front door, Da, but we've got an escape route through the neighbors' back yards. We're not leaving the house in the traditional way until this is over.”

“We'll come by on the way to church. I miss you,” he said.

“I miss you too, Da, but I think we're going to stay in Berkeley after my practice today. It's just too much hassle getting back and forth.”

“I understand,” he said, “but we'll miss you for dinner. How will you get to Berkeley? Didn't you leave the car in Hillsborough?”

“Yeah, we did, but Jim's bringing it back over here. We're going to figure out a way to meet up without detection.”

“Let me drive you over there,” Martin said.

“I don't even know where we're going to meet, Da. Besides, the reporters know your car by now. Jim's gonna call us when he gets to the city, and we'll decide what to do.” She sighed and said, “This is really a bitch, Da.”

“I share your feelings, darlin'. Not your words, of course, but I share your feelings.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When he reached the city, Jim called from his cell phone. “Where should we meet?” he asked.

They negotiated for a few minutes, and finally decided to meet at the Noe Tennis Courts, located just off Diamond and 24th. After traipsing through the neighbors' yards again, Jamie and Ryan managed to make it to the park. Jim was right where he said he'd be, but he wasn't in the Range Rover.

Ryan opened the rear door of the big, black BMW, and said, “Nice wheels ya got here. I noticed this the other night, but it was too chaotic to comment then. Is it new?”

“Yes. My lease on my other car was expired, and I decided to go with a little extra horsepower this time. Like it?”

“Very sweet,” Ryan said as she sank into the black leather seat.

“Really nice, Daddy,” Jamie said, “but how will we get to the Range Rover?”

“I want you to drive this car,” Jim said. “It will take you anywhere you want to go … a lot quicker than the Range Rover will.”

“I don't know, Jim,” Ryan said as she scooted around in the unbelievably comfortable rear seat. “This is a little rich for my blood.”

“Nice back seat, isn't it?” he asked, looking in the rear-view mirror. “Forty one inches of leg room.”

“That's just about what I need,” she said. “But I hate to take your brand new car.”

“It's got … let's see … 90 miles on it, Ryan,” he said at his glanced at the odometer. “I'm almost ready to trade it in.” He shot her another glance and said, “I'd feel better if you girls took this one. This is the 750 iL Protection model. Bulletproof glass, run-flat tires, light body armor. I don't think you'll need any of that, but this big V-12 will leave anybody who's following you in the dust.” He gave Jamie a grin and said, “Ask the idiots in the news van that tried to follow me to the airport to drop your mother off. I lost them before we hit the freeway.”

Ryan reached over the seat and patted his shoulder. “I don't think I'll be taking any evasive maneuvers in your car, Jim. What about you, honey? Feel like drag-racing any reporters?”

“Unh-uh. No way.”

“So, it's settled, girls? You can leave the car at the airport when you go on your trip.”

“We'll drive it until we leave,” Ryan said. “But Jamie will have to go the airport alone. I have to ride the bleeping bus with my teammates to get there. I'm sure Coach won't cut me a break just because of our little incident.”

“Would you like me to …?”

“No,” Ryan said immediately, not sure what Jim was going to offer, but quite sure that she wanted no part of it.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“It sure would've been nice if I'd ever taken the time to get to know my neighbors, wouldn't it?” Jamie asked wryly as they sat at the end of their block, mentally counting the cars double parked in front of the house.

“Well, do you want to go to practice with me? Maybe we'll get a bright idea while we're there.”

“Not many other options,” she said with a shrug.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan trotted across the court, finding Coach Hayes chatting with Lynette. Lynette immediately wrapped Ryan in a hug, and the coach even patted her on the shoulder, displaying a rare degree of warmth. “Good to see you're all right, Ryan. Tough break. How are you -- physically?”

“Not great. I'm as stiff as a board, and I'm still taking muscle relaxants, but I should be okay by the time we're ready to play in North Carolina.” She twitched her head towards the door of the gym and asked, “Is it all right for Jamie to stay and watch practice while she waits for me?”

The coach narrowed her eyes, seeming to give the matter her consideration. “I don't think so, Ryan. It's important to keep the practices for players only. She can walk over to Telegraph and do a little window shopping while she waits for you.”

It took Ryan a minute to let the message reach her brain, and just a moment longer for her to control her mouth. Saying what was on her mind would clearly get her suspended, and she didn't want to leave the team just when they had started to play better. Lynette gave her a sympathetic look, but she couldn't offer much more than that. Practically dragging her feet across the floor, Ryan poked her head out of the door and said, “You won't believe this, but she won't allow you to watch. Do you mind just hanging out on Telegraph?”

“Don't worry about me. I'll wait in the car. It'll take me two hours to get all of the radio stations programmed.” She gave Ryan a bright smile, even though every muscle twitched to go kick Mary Hayes' ass all over the court.

Lily and Ella entered the gym just then, squeezing past Jamie and offering a nod to Ryan.

She nodded back, and then continued her rant. “Do me a favor, will you? Remind me never to join a team if the coach is a complete asshole, okay?”

Ryan's voice was tight with anger, and her volume was quite a bit louder than normal. Jamie's eyes widened as she looked up to see the coaches walking back to the locker room, clearly within earshot. Looking sick, she muttered, “I think she heard you.”

Surprising the heck out of her partner, Ryan shrugged her broad shoulders and said, “I don't give a flying fuck.” With that, she placed a gentle kiss on Jamie's cheek, and marched into the locker room.

Maybe it was because Jamie was being so gracious, maybe it was because the coach had been so curt and unfeeling, maybe it was just because Ryan was at the end of her emotional rope — but whatever it was, by the time she reached the locker room, she was even angrier than she had been moments earlier. She walked up to the two coaches and stuck her chin out defiantly. “Coach, you told us that if we win both games in North Carolina, I can go directly to the Bahamas.”

“That's right,” she said.

“Whether or not we win those games, Jamie and I are going to the Bahamas,” Ryan said. “We're not coming back here first.” Her arms were crossed, and she stood at her full height, daring the coach to try to make her back down.

The other players were all trying to get as close as possible, without being too obvious about it. There wasn't a sound in the normally bustling place — every ear tuned to the showdown.

“We have a team rule about returning as a group, Ryan. I know you're aware of it.”

“I am,” she said. “I'm telling you in advance that I'm going to break that rule if we don't win both games. I need a break, and flying back and forth across the country isn't the way to get one.”

“You're the one who set it up this way, Ryan. You could have chosen a vacation on this side of the country. People do it all the time.”

“That's not what we chose to do,” Ryan said. “So what's the verdict?”

“The usual. If you miss the plane, it's 25 laps. You can do them after our next practice.” She looked unconcerned, and Ryan actually thought that the confrontation had gone well. Lynette shot her a relieved glance, and after another moment, the rest of the team gathered around as the coach called them to order.

“Okay, we've got a lot on our agenda for today. But first, I have a small addition to our team rules. From here on in, we'll be conducting bed checks. Every player will sleep in her assigned room — with her assigned roommate. Violation of this rule will result in an indefinite suspension.” She looked around at the puzzled faces, finally landing on one face that was not puzzled in the least. Ryan's dark, glowering visage was burning two laser-like holes through her, but she merely gave her a half smile and cocked her head. “Understood?”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

As soon as practice was over, Lynette followed the coach into her office. She opened her mouth to speak, but the coach beat her to it. “I know, I know … Ryan didn't really deserve that.” She sat down in her chair, shaking her head. “I swear I don't understand that woman. She's the best practice player I've ever seen … she has more talent than any two women I've ever coached … but she continues to break the simplest rules! What confuses the hell out of me is that most of the time she doesn't seem like a prima donna. Why in the hell does she jerk me around like that?”

“Well,” Lynette said, “most of the rules she's broken were right at the beginning of the season. She wasn't aware of most of the ones she broke, Mary. I think she just got a bee in her bonnet after being called on the carpet a few times. Ryan's a very proud woman — as well as a little thin-skinned.”

“I really like the kid,” Mary said. “She could be the leader this team has been crying for — but she won't lead by being a good example. The other seniors don't trust her — Wendy and Janet have made that clear. Standing up to me today was the worst thing she could have done.” She shook her head and said, “I hate to crack down on the kid right after she gets car-jacked, but what was I supposed to do--just let her defy rules and call me out with no repercussions?” She ran her hands over her face in a gesture of frustration. “Damn, Lynette, the team's fragmented enough without letting them think that open rebellion will be tolerated! I had to do something!”

Lynette sighed, and let her head drop back. “I don't know what the answer is, Mary. I see your point, but I also know that Ryan's the only chance we've got to keep our jobs. If we have another dismal year, you know our contracts won't be renewed.”

“I know that,” she grumbled. “My mortgage knows it, my car payment knows it, my babysitter knows it. But I got this job by coaching my way. I'd rather go out doing what I think is right, than have some spoiled kid force me to change my principles just to keep her happy. The only chance we have is if we can make the team coalesce, Lynette. I can't kowtow to any individual.”

Lynette sat in the chair for a few minutes, agreeing with Mary in principle, but knowing that they were on the verge of losing the one player that could turn their fortunes around.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Instead of leaving right after practice, Ryan stood under a hot shower for so long her skin wrinkled. She knew that she couldn't show Jamie how justifiably upset she was, mainly because they just didn't need the additional stress right now, but also because the intensity of her anger was frightening her a little. Once she calmed down, she got into her warm-ups and shuffled back to the car, regrettably finding that she had parked right next to Coach Hayes' battered Dodge Caravan. As her luck was holding at “pretty bad,” the coach was just 50 feet behind her as she hit the lot.

As Ryan came into view, Jamie couldn't help but play with one of the gadgets she had found. She hit the button on the public address speaker and said, “Will the tall, gorgeous brunette please get into the car and pucker up?” Her voice carried across the deserted lot, plainly heard by anyone within a block.

Ryan slid in, shaking her head at her lover's playfulness. The unbelievably lush stereo was playing loudly, the sunroof and both front windows open, letting the music blanket the parking lot. Ryan got in and pulled her partner to her, partly to help calm her ragged nerves, and partly to be rude to the coach who was just about to reach her car.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

As they drove along the cross street by their house, Ryan looked at the teeming mass of reporters, shook her head and said, “I'm not up to this. I have to have some peace tonight. I'm about ready to pull onto a quiet street and sleep in the car.”

“Let's go to the Claremont,” Jamie said. “I'm sure they can squeeze us in.”

“Okay.” Ryan turned the car and drove to the hotel without a complaint, showing Jamie just how much the entire situation was bothering her.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When they reached their room, Ryan looked around and said, “Uhm … I wasn't this stressed.”

“Regular price, since this was all they had left. Nice, huh?”

They were housed in a small, but nicely appointed room, with a canopy bed, pullout sleeper sofa, worktable, and a spacious bath with a spa tub.

“Maybe my luck is turning,” Ryan sighed as she stretched out on the bed.

Jamie climbed up next to her and said, “Tell me what's wrong. I know something is.”

“Yeah. Something is,” she said. “I have to make a decision, Jamie. I think I might decide to quit the team.”

The blonde sat up so abruptly that she frightened her partner. “You what? Where did that come from?”

“Coach dislikes me personally, and she's decided to be more obvious about it. Today she announced that I can't sleep with you on road trips any longer. If I do, I'm suspended indefinitely.”

Jamie flopped down onto the bed, amazed and puzzled by the strange woman's even stranger behavior. “This just makes no sense! Why would you want to piss off your best player?”

“Don't know. Don't wanna find out. Don't fucking care.” Ryan was really in bad shape, judging by her inability to muster the strength to speak in complete sentences.

The tall woman rolled off the bed and turned on the television, catching the end of 'Meet the Press.' She stared in amazement as she saw her own and her partner's face in a cut out above the moderator's head, and heard him say, “How do we, as members of the media, balance the public's right to know with the right of the individual to be left alone? From every indication, these two women are intensely private individuals. Not one close friend or family member has revealed one word about either of them. And yet, the public's thirst for information about these young heroes has grown in direct proportion to their refusal to speak. Does there come a point at which our needs as a people override their needs as individuals?”

No! There does not!” Ryan shouted, flinging the first thing she could get her hands on at the television. Luckily, it was just her warm-up jacket, because the force she used would have shattered the appliance if she had grabbed a more substantial object.

“Honey, honey,” Jamie said, wrapping her arms tightly around her waist. Ryan's body was coiled so rigidly that she felt more like a bundle of wire than the powerful, yet soft woman that she was. “You have to calm down.”

“I can't,” she moaned, sinking to the floor. She dropped her head onto her bent knees and whispered, “I just can't.”

“Tell me what's going on,” Jamie said. “Why are you so upset?”

“I feel like I have to take a stand! I can't let her push me around like this! The problem is, I'm just not up to a confrontation right now … do you know what I mean? I feel like quitting — but I've never quit anything in my life, and I don't think I'd feel very good about myself if I did. I'm so fucking confused!”

“Baby, baby, baby,” Jamie said as she rocked her partner in her arms. “It's gonna be okay. You don't have to decide anything now. It's really okay.” She got up and pulled Ryan up with her. “Let's lie down, and you can tell me all about it.”

Ryan nodded, and docilely followed her partner to the bed, lying down and unburdening herself of every anxiety. It took a long time, and Jamie was astounded by all of the things that were going through her partner's fertile mind, but after a half hour she finally felt like she had a good handle on how to help.

“Okay, here's the deal,” Jamie said. “I say we enjoy our night here in this fine hotel. I thought we could have Mia and Jordan come over and bring everything you need for your trip. It's Mia's birthday, remember … it might be nice to order a good meal, and have a couple of bottles of champagne to celebrate.”

“Okay. That would cheer me up, too,” Ryan said. “What else?”

“I think you have two viable options. One is to ask for a leave of absence until you feel better.”

Ryan's head was shaking before she finished the sentence. “I won't do that,” she said, sticking her chin out in a small indication of her intractability. “I'm not going to ask to be coddled just because I'm upset.”

“Well, that's a matter of semantics,” the blonde said. “I don't think it's being coddled to ask for some time to recover from almost dying and being forced to shoot a man, but then, I'm a weenie.”

Ryan blew out an audible breath in a suggestion of a laugh.

“Wanna hear my other suggestion?”

“Sure.”

“I think you should go to North Carolina alone.” Ryan flinched at that, and Jamie hurried to explain. “I want to go … and I'd go just to see you for ten minutes if I thought it would help you — but I don't think it will. I think it would burn and grate at you to know that I was in your hotel, and that we couldn't be together. I don't want to do that to you — even though I'll hate to be apart from you.”

“Fuck 'em,” Ryan said quietly. “Just fuck 'em. I'm not leaving you behind. You're my fucking spouse! She wouldn't do this if you were my husband.”

“You might be right, honey, but there's no way to know that.” She kissed her cheek and said, “Easy on the 'fucking spouse' thing, okay? It's not my preferred title.” She was trying her best to tease her partner, knowing that she usually responded better to tense situations when there was some levity thrown in, but nothing was working today. Ryan just nodded once, and then stared at her.

Looking into her troubled eyes, Jamie knew that one tiny shove would push Ryan into quitting, and she wanted that outcome more than words could say. She hated everything about the basketball team, and what it was doing to her partner — but she knew that Ryan would be very disappointed in herself if she quit just because she was being picked on. “Honey, I urge you to think about it for a few days. If you still want to after you consider it, then by all means, go ahead and quit. But with all of the stress you've been under, I just don't think it's wise to quit right now. Please let it settle for a bit. Think this through thoroughly … when you're not so angry.”

Ryan rolled over onto her stomach and beat at the pillow for a few minutes, her fists flying. Finally, she let out a sigh and dropped her head into the defeated down and said, “Okay. You're right. I'll decide after our trip.”

“Good girl. Now I'll call Mia and see about getting them over here without detection.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jordan's flight back to Colorado Springs was not until nine, leaving them plenty of time to share the afternoon and evening with their friends. Jamie instructed Mia carefully, detailing a long list of items that Ryan needed for her trip, along with their toothbrushes and a change of clothes for Jamie.

When the pair arrived, Jamie and Ryan put on their happiest smiles and wished their friend a very happy birthday.

“It's happier now that I get to see you two,” Mia said. “I was afraid you'd take off without us being able to hook up.”

“Nah, no way, babe,” Jamie said. “I'd never ignore your birthday.”

“So, what did you guys do to celebrate?” Ryan asked. Before Jordan could say a word, she said, “Leave out the X-rated parts, okay?”

Mia answered for her partner. “Well then, I guess we didn't do anything to speak of.”

“Hey,” Jordan said, “I took you out for a very nice dinner last night. Doesn't that count?”

“Of course it does,” Mia said, giving her a kiss. “I'm just yanking Ryan around. It's one of my favorite hobbies.”

Ryan tucked an arm around her waist and said, “Nobody yanks me better than you do, Mia.”

“Hey!” Jamie said. “That sounds like the kind of thing I should be doing for you.”

“You both yank me,” Ryan said, “just in different ways.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Since the reluctant heroes, as the newspaper had dubbed them, were loath to leave the building, Jordan and Mia took Jamie's ATM card and loaded up on cash, then made a trip to one of Berkeley's gourmet markets and bought provisions for the evening. Even though they complained of the largesse, they followed orders, and bought the champagne that Jamie specified, along with a variety of cheeses, some sliced ham and salami, and some crusty French bread that the Acme Bakery truck had just delivered.

The foursome ate their repast while sprawled out on the king-sized bed, each pair entwined comfortably. The Forty-Niners were playing football, and they had the television on in the background — their attention only sporadically drawn to the game. “This is just like being at home, but the food's a lot better, and my brothers aren't giving me grief for being wrapped around Jamie,” Ryan said.

“It seems like you feel better,” Jamie said. “Do you?”

“Yeah. I'm much calmer.”

They had told their friends all about the disturbing events of the day, and Mia said, “James, if you want to go down to North Carolina, I'll go with you to keep you company. I know the last thing you two want is to be separated right now.”

Patting her nearby foot, Jamie smiled and said, “I appreciate the offer, buddy, but I think this will work out all right. You and I will just go down to Miami and meet up with our women there.”

“I truly think your coach is a psychopath,” Jordan grumbled. “She's ruined this season for her team — and nothing makes me madder than a coach that won't let her team members play to the best of their abilities!”

“I read you, loud and clear,” Ryan said. “I'm not sure we would have won many more games so far, but it sure would have been a more pleasant experience if Lynette had been running the team.”

“You'd be a better team if you still had Janae — and Janae wouldn't have been hurt if she hadn't been on the court during garbage time. You've gotta have a screw loose to play an irreplaceable player when the game's as good as over. She sucks,” Jordan grumbled, her ire still rising.

“I agree, Jordan,” Ryan said, “but I don't have much control — so I'm gonna try to just go along and see what happens. I'll make up my mind about staying or going when we get back from the Bahamas.”

“Ooo … the Bahamas,” Mia said. “I've never had a better birthday present in my whole life.”

“Me either … and it's not my birthday,” Jordan said.

“That was your Christmas present,” Jamie corrected her friend. “This is your birthday present.” She pulled an envelope from her backpack and handed it to Mia.

“James! You don't need to buy me anything for my birthday! Jesus! Isn't a trip to the Bahamas enough?”

“Nope,” the blonde said. “You shouldn't be punished just because your birthday is the day after Christmas. Go on … open it.”

Giving her friend a grin, Mia tore into the envelope. Inside a colorful birthday card was a first class round-trip ticket from San Francisco to Sydney, as well as a calling card with an enormous number of minutes. “I wasn't sure what to get you, but Ryan reminded me that there's only one thing that seems to be on your mind any more.”

“Hey!” Jordan said, her eyes wide. “Isn't this a little premature? I haven't even made the team yet.”

Jamie patted Jordan's thigh, giving her an indulgent smile. “Ryan's been telling me how well you're doing, Jordan. There's not a doubt in my mind that you'll be the star of the team.”

“Uhh … I don't think that's gonna happen, Jamie. I'll just be happy to sit on the bench – as long as the bench is in Sydney. There's really a chance that I'll get cut.”

“Don't stress about it, Jordan,” Ryan said. “If you don't make the team, you and Mia can turn this ticket in for two tickets to some place warm where you can lick your wounds.”

“She'll make it,” Mia said, looking at her partner with unshed tears making her eyes glisten. “I have complete confidence in her.”

Jamie kissed Mia's cheek, and said, “I know you're having trouble saving enough money to pay for the ticket. And it's such a long flight I want you to sit with us so we can yak the whole time.”

“I didn't realize that was part of the deal,” Ryan said. “Maybe I'll sit in coach.”

Mia popped Ryan in the belly while leaning over to kiss Jamie. “Thanks, James,” she whispered. “You're the best friend I could ever imagine having.”

“The same goes for me,” Jamie said. “Now let's break out that champagne. We've got a birthday to celebrate!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After yet another lingering, tearful goodbye, Mia and Jordan left for the airport at 7:30. Ryan was still full of nervous energy, so they decided to go to the pool and let her work off some stress. Jamie chose to hang out in the spa, and after a very long while, Ryan emerged, winded and fatigued, but seemingly calmer. “I'm cooked!” Jamie said. “I thought you were never going to come out.”

“I decided to stay until I was tired. Took a while,” Ryan said, looking a little sheepish.

“You'd better save some energy. You've got two games to win in North Carolina.”

“That's the last thing I want to think about. I'd like to focus all of my energies on you for the rest of the night.”

“Now you're talking, Tiger.”


*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Part 3

Struggling towards wakefulness, Jamie puzzled over which sensation had been the first to invade her sleep-clouded mind. It might have been the soft, warm lips on the back of her neck, the moist, tender touch as gentle as a whisper. Perhaps it was the sensation of large, strong hands gliding teasingly over her thighs, causing the downy hairs to rise in answer. Of course, it might have been the springy black curls that tickled her backside when the dark woman nestling up against her seductively ground her pelvis into her. Whichever touch did the trick, the blonde was slowly pulled from her light sleep to the delectably sensual feel of her partner tenderly caressing nearly every part of her body simultaneously.

“Somebody needs seconds, huh?” Her voice was slightly rough, but it held a gentle, welcoming tone. Stealing a quick glance at the clock she said, “It's only been a few minutes since you knocked me out the first time, hot stuff.” Her hand slowly drifted back to rub the baby-soft skin of her partner's hip, eliciting a physical response to her question.

Ryan's powerful body began to move more freely, writhing sinuously against Jamie -- some warm, soft body part seemingly touching every part of her simultaneously. The dark head that nuzzled Jamie's neck nodded a few times, adding a low growl just to make sure her point was understood.

“What would you like …?” Jamie's question was cut off by a warm, moist mouth that covered hers insistently, the owner obviously feeling more oral than verbal.

Before Jamie could blink, Ryan's coiled power was unleashed in a flurry of activity. All at once, the smaller woman was on her back, her arms and legs entwined with the powerful limbs of her partner, Ryan's mouth claiming her forcefully. For just a second, a part of Jamie wanted to push the voracious woman away — to struggle against the feeling of being absolutely consumed. But there was something so appealing about the force of her partner's need, that a bigger, more compelling part of her felt absolutely obliged to not only accept, but to welcome the touch.

Opening her mouth to Ryan's hot, wet tongue, Jamie moaned aloud when she felt the darting muscle touch every part of her mouth — stroking and probing. Unconsciously, her mouth opened even wider as her legs spread simultaneously, drawing a groan from Ryan as the lust-filled woman nestled her hips into the space that Jamie had created for her.

The dark woman pulled Jamie's tongue into her own mouth, sucking forcefully in tandem with her thrusting hips. One rough push, and their positions were reversed, Jamie now lying in the warm, moist embrace of Ryan's spread legs.

“I need you,” the dark woman begged, her breathing heavy and ragged as it warmed Jamie's cheek.

“I need you too, Ryan. So much.” She wrapped her arms around her lover's torso and squeezed her tightly, trying to show by the ferocity of her embrace what she felt in her heart.

They kissed … again and again, with a deep, hungry intensity that was quite rare in their lovemaking. Ryan was much more forceful — much more decisive and assertive than normal … pushing Jamie a little further than she was used to.

“Come inside me,” Ryan said, her voice high and tight with emotion. Responding immediately, Jamie slid into her, her way eased by the slick lubrication that had obviously been building for quite a while. “More,” Ryan whispered. “I need more.” Another finger slid in to join the first, and Ryan sighed heavily as she felt her flesh stretch slightly to accommodate her lover. “Fill me up,” Ryan said quietly, her need unquenched. “Let me feel you touch me deep inside. Stretch me wide open.”

Jamie drew in a shaky breath and slipped a third finger into her ravenous partner, desperately wanting to satisfy her desire, while fighting concern about hurting her. Ryan clearly did not share her unease, as her body stilled momentarily, her legs splayed wide open, her lips parted, eyes closed tightly. “More,” she whispered, her breathing shallow and rough as she waited expectantly for her partner to meet her need.

The blood pounded in Jamie's head as she swallowed hard and tried to follow Ryan's instructions. Never had her partner expressed a desire to be penetrated so fully, and the mere fervor of her request was an incredible turn on for the smaller woman. There was something completely appealing about the vulnerability that Ryan revealed, but at the same time, Jamie felt a little out of her depth, uncertain about how far to push, feeling the need to protect Ryan from her own desire.

Ryan growled deep in her chest, slightly frustrated. Thinking quickly, the smaller woman withdrew completely, causing the dark beauty to utter a pitiful moan. But her moans quickly turned to groans of pleasure as Jamie entered her with both thumbs, using the dexterous digits to offer a deep internal massage of her partner's very essence. Her thumbs slid across the sizzling hot skin, their way made ready by a liberal coating of moisture from an inexhaustible source deep within.

“Yesssssss,” Ryan hissed, grasping Jamie's shoulders so firmly that the blonde could feel the skin start to bruise. “Just … like … that!”

Concentrating fully, Jamie scooted down the bed, allowing herself the delicious pleasure of watching her hands take possession of her lover's most private place. She used her thumbs to stroke and press against every inch of Ryan's slick walls, feeling the spongy tissue plump and swell under her ministrations. Sliding her digits in deeply, she slowly pressed outward, giving Ryan the sensation of intense fullness that she craved.

“Oh my God!” Ryan moaned throatily, pulling her legs up to her chest to allow for a better angle. “That's it … fill me up, baby … unh! So good!”

Trying to make the experience last, Jamie backed off a little, letting the tissues contract slightly. Her thumbs never stopped moving, however, gliding softly in every direction at once.

Ryan's breath began to come in great, heaving gasps, and Jamie saw that she was close to the edge. Dipping her head, she sucked the rigid nub of sensitized flesh into her mouth, swirling her tongue around the bundle of nerves as her thumbs continued stroking and probing.

The powerful hands groped blindly, grabbing fistfuls of sheet, then latching onto Jamie's head, tugging on the blonde hair as she let out a howl, her body shivering and spasming wildly. It was nearly impossible to stay with her, but she did her best to ride out the storm, while remaining locked together in their erotic embrace.

When the spasms slowed and then stilled, Jamie lifted her head to gaze into her partner's eyes, stunned when she saw a steady stream of tears flowing down Ryan's face. “Sweetheart! What's wrong?” Instantly she was at Ryan's side, grasping her in a fierce hug. “Did I hurt you?”

“No, no, of course not,” Ryan murmured, her words garbled through her sobs. “It just … you just … I needed …” She sighed heavily, trying to control herself while Jamie clutched her partner against her chest.

“Tell me,” the smaller woman said. “Why are you crying?”

“Because I … I feel so much, Jamie. I just feel so much.” She continued to nuzzle her face into her lover's chest, unable to be close enough.

“Ryan, what's going through your mind?” Her voice was soft and gentle, and she trailed her hand through Ryan's mussed hair, smoothing it back into place.

“I … I woke up a little while ago, and I had this need ... ” Jamie could feel her shrug her broad shoulders helplessly, but Ryan's explanation had not been very elucidating.

“What need?” she whispered, rocking Ryan slowly in her arms.

“I needed … I needed to have you … inside of me,” the dark woman revealed, not really understanding the feeling well enough to explain it. “I feel so empty when you're away from me, Jamie. I keep thinking about leaving you tomorrow, and it just makes me ache. When I think of being down in North Carolina it makes me feel so empty and alone. I needed you … I needed you to fill me up again so I had the strength to leave.” Shimmering eyes blinked up at Jamie, her expression heartbreakingly vulnerable. “Was it too much?”

“Oh, Ryan,” she sighed. “I could never have too much of you. I have an inexhaustible need for you, and I always will,” Jamie said, lowering her head so that Ryan could look directly into her eyes. They were nearly nose-to-nose, and Jamie couldn't resist the urge to kiss Ryan's still trembling lips. “Don't ever be afraid to show me how you feel. That's why we make love, Ryan. It's the best way to open our hearts to each other.”

“I know,” the dark-haired woman murmured. “This just caught me by surprise. It felt so intense. Scary intense.” Her head shook slowly, causing her hair to tumble around her shoulders in a wild cascade.

“It was intense,” Jamie said. “But our feelings are intense now, so our lovemaking will be too. That's how it should be. Please don't be embarrassed or ashamed to show me your heart.”

Ryan's blue eyes glittered in the moonlight as she blinked them slowly. “I'll try, baby. It's not always easy, but I'll always try.”

“I'll try, too,” Jamie promised. She looked at her lover with a slight tilt to her head. “Wanna see what's in my heart now?”

Giving her an emotion-laden kiss, Ryan sighed, “Without question.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The next morning, Jamie dropped Ryan off at a parking lot near Haas Auditorium. The bus was waiting, and both women looked at it like it was the embodiment of evil. “I don't wanna go,” Ryan muttered.

“I don't want you to go,” Jamie said quietly. Touching Ryan lightly on the arm, she said, “I feel like I talked you into this, baby, and after last night I'm not sure it's the right thing for you. I laid awake worrying for hours after we made love, but I'm still not sure of what's right.”

The dark head shook slowly. “I don't know what's right anymore either, Jamie. I'm only going through the motions at this point. It feels like I might as well go — just because I can't bear to do anything else.”

“I understand,” the blonde whispered. “But I want you to know that it's perfectly all right with me if you go tell Coach Hayes you quit. I only want you to go on this trip if you're certain it's what you want.”

“It's not,” Ryan said, shrugging her shoulders, “but I want the other options even less.”

“Oh, honey, I'm so sorry things are turning out this way, but in just a few days we'll be in the Bahamas — just resting.”

“I'd quit now if I didn't have that to look forward to,” Ryan said. “It's like the Holy Grail.”

“Remember how much I love you, Ryan. I'll be thinking about you every minute.”

“Me too,” Ryan said. “I've got to go, or I'll start crying again, and I don't want to give everybody a show.” She gave Jamie a tender, lingering kiss, then sighed heavily and got out of the car, grabbing her bag from the back seat. Without another word, she strode towards the bus, Jamie staring after her as the few photographers present snapped away.

Damn! I feel so guilty I could cry. I know she's going because of what I said, but now I'm not sure it's right for her. She was so unbelievably fragile last night — I'm not sure she can take care of herself. The only positive thing about the whole mess is that there will be less media attention focused on her. God knows this can't be as big a story in North Carolina as it is here.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

As soon as she got on the bus, Ryan marched up to the intern from the sports information director's office and said, “I saw my picture on the news yesterday.”

Vicky Palacios looked up at her, blinking a little, trying to understand the point of the comment. “Yeah? And?”

“It was the photo taken for the basketball team,” Ryan said. “Did you authorize a release of that photo?”

“No!” she said, her eyes wide. “It's against our policy to release anything like that, Ryan. I swear I didn't.”

Shaking her head slightly, Ryan patted her shoulder and said, “You don't have to swear, Vicky. I'm just very sensitive about things like that right now. I'm trying to get a little peace.”

Reaching up to grasp Ryan's hand she gave it a squeeze. “It's okay, Ryan. I'm really proud of you for what you did. You're … something else.”

“Yeah … that's accurate,” Ryan said. “I don't know what … but I'm something else.”

After passing down the aisle with little comment, she found a seat in the back of the bus,. All of the teammates she got along with had called her at home and then fussed over her at practice the previous day, and the ones that didn't care for her probably wished she had fallen off the car on the first hill.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“I feel better,” Ryan said when she reached her partner by phone. Jamie had gone back to the O'Flaherty house, feeling safer with Conor, Rory and Kevin around.

“That's the best news I've heard all day,” Jamie said. “I've been worried sick about you, baby.”

“You don't have to, really. I'm rooming with Franny, and she's afraid to speak at all, so I don't have to put up with any questions. Plus, I haven't seen a reporter since we landed. Life is sweet.”

“Well, we got a sweet offer today, but I don't think you'll like it.”

“What?”

“The Bay Area BMW dealers want to give us a new X5 SUV.”

Ryan paused to let that sink in and asked, “They what?”

“They want to give us an X5.”

“I'm waiting for the catch. I know there is one.”

“Of course there is. There's always a catch. They want to do an ad campaign showing you on the roof of the Lexus saying, “If she did this for a Lexus, imagine what she'd do to hold on to her X5.”

There was a pause, and then Ryan started to laugh. The sound grew louder and louder until she was collapsed onto her back, her muscles too weak to hold her up any longer. Jamie knew that Ryan was just slaphappy, but she delighted in hearing her laughter nonetheless. “That's so fuckin' funny,” she gasped out. “I mean, the mere fact that they had the balls to even propose that is hilarious!”

“Brendan is handling all of the calls now, because Conor had started blowing a whistle into the phone,” Jamie said. “He was laughing at this one, too.”

Ryan paused for a minute and said, “I want the goddamned car.”

“Pardon?”

“I want that damned X5,” she said. “That car is so totally cool. I really want it, Jamie.”

“Honey, if that's what you want, I'll buy you one. You don't have to prostitute yourself to get it.”

Ryan waited a beat, and then told the truth. “I want it because they're gonna give it to us … for something that we did. It feels like we earned it. Does that make any sense?”

Jamie had to think about that for a minute, but she finally had to admit that she saw some logic in the thinking if she really stretched. “Okay, let's say you do want it. You certainly won't let them use your picture like that!”

“No, of course not. See if Brendan thinks there's a way to get this done on my terms. Tell him I really want the car … with every damned option known to man! I even want BMW floor mats and a cool key ring!” she said. “They can't use our picture, or our names, of course, and I don't want them to refer to the incident specifically, but if they can meet those terms — we've got a deal.”

“You know what I like about you?” Jamie asked, shaking her head fondly.

“What's that?”

“I can hardly ever guess what your response will be to any given situation. You are a wealth of contradictions.”

“All part of my charm,” Ryan said, feeling perky for the first time in days.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After the team dinner, Ryan asked Lynette if they could speak in private, and they went back to Lynette's room to do so. “Look,” Ryan said when they were alone. “I'm not into idle gossip, but I've got to figure out what's going on between the coach and me. I'm on the verge of quitting, but I hate to do that right when we're starting to play better.”

Lynette nodded her head and said, “I can understand why you want to quit, Ryan. Really, I can. I know you got off on a bad foot with Mary, but I also know that wasn't your fault. As you've gathered, she's a real stickler for following rules, and from the beginning it just seemed as though you were intent upon breaking them.” Ryan started to defend herself, but Lynette interrupted. “I know it wasn't intentional, Ryan. But, in a way, that doesn't matter. Mary got an impression of you that just hasn't faded. Honestly, I think you two just have a personality conflict that gets in the way.”

“Personality conflict?” Ryan asked slowly. “I don't have a conflict with her, Lynette. If she'd just leave me alone, and let me play to the best of my ability, I wouldn't have a problem in the world!”

Nodding once again, Lynette said, “That's the conflict, Ryan. Mary will let you play to the limit of you talent — but only if you follow the rules. I know that seems screwed up to you — but that's how she is.” She looked at Ryan for a long moment, and said, “Can I trust you to keep what I tell you confidential?”

“Sure, you can trust me, Lynette.”

“Mary would deny this, but I honestly think that she's let her personal feelings about you and your lifestyle get in the way.”

The younger woman sank into a chair and said, “Shit. I thought you said she wasn't a homophobe.”

“She's not,” Lynette said with conviction. “It's not that, Ryan. It seems odd, but I've really given this a lot of thought, and I think I know what the problem is. I think it bugs the hell out of her that you have things she's never had, and will probably never get.”

“Like what?” Ryan asked, entirely puzzled.

“I honestly think she's jealous of your talent, you relationship, and your money.”

“Pardon me?”

Lynette stood up and walked around the room for a few minutes. “Mary was married up until four years ago, Ryan. She has three kids … all of them pretty young. Her husband left her unexpectedly, just after he agreed to make this move to the Bay Area. He had money — lots of it — but it was family money, and when they divorced she didn't get a thing. As a matter of fact, since he couldn't find a job once they got here, he sued her for alimony! She was in court for two years, and just got that settled recently. Granted, she makes a good salary, but with three kids in private school, and a live-in nanny, she's not doing very well. She's not living the life she thought she'd have, Ryan; and ever since this happened, she's had a bug up her ass for people with money. She seems to assume they're going to be attention freaks like her husband was, or that they'll demand special treatment.

“I think she had a visceral reaction to seeing a great-looking young woman with her whole life ahead of her … lots of money … lots of talent … and a great relationship with a loving, supportive partner. Mary's gonna be forty this year, Ryan, and this job is all she has to support her family. I think she overreacts and makes a lot of poor choices, because the damned job means so much. It's sad, but true … I think her need for the job might take it from her.”

“You think she'll be fired?” Ryan asked quietly.

“No, the school doesn't want to pay her off. But she's on a four-year contract, and this is the end of it. If we don't finish better than we did last year — I'm sure she, and I, and everybody else -- is gone.”

“That sucks,” Ryan mumbled, thinking how hard it would be to depend on a bunch of college kids to insure your job security.

“Yeah. It's not too hard to find another assistant's job, but head coaching jobs at the Division I level are not so easy to come by. Especially when half of them are held by men,” she grumbled.

Ryan smiled sadly and said, “That wouldn't be so bad if women held half of the men's basketball jobs.”

“Yeah. That's gonna happen,” she said. “Anyway — I think I'm right about this. I think she just misjudged you, and hasn't let herself see the truth.”

“So, you think I'm wasting my time, huh?” Ryan asked.

“No, no, I don't, Ryan. Even though she keeps her eye on you more than she should, she really does like you.” Lynette smiled broadly and said, “You're pretty hard not to like.”

“She sure has a funny way of showing that she likes me,” Ryan grumbled. “Barring Jamie from practice was bad enough, but to stop her from sleeping with me was just chicken-shit.”

Lynette placed a hand on Ryan's shoulder and said, “You're not gonna like this, Ryan, but in this instance, I can really see why Mary did what she did.”

“What!”

“You heard me,” she said softly. “You know she has a firm rule about keeping practice closed.”

“Our house was surrounded by reporters! I couldn't let Jamie wade through that flock of vultures by herself!”

“Did you explain that?” the older woman asked.

“I thought I …” Ryan looked confused for a moment, then said, “I don't remember.”

Lynette shook her head briefly. “You didn't explain your situation at all, Ryan. You just asked if Jamie could stay for practice. Coach replied automatically, like she always does. If you had made it clear that you had a very good reason for asking, she would have listened to you.”

“I've yet to see that,” Ryan sniffed.

“Ryan, the situation hasn't come up,” she said. “You two are always in the middle of a conflict before you start talking. Now, I know you're a very mature woman, but you've got to admit that it wasn't very mature to call her an asshole — especially in front of other players.”

Staring at the floor, Ryan said, “She was acting like an asshole.”

“Fine,” Lynette said, taking a seat on the corner of her bed. “If you're the type of player who thinks it's okay to call the coach an asshole, then you'd better quit.”

After taking a moment to collect her thoughts, Ryan gave her a sheepish grin and admitted, “I don't think it's okay. I'm just pissed.”

“I understand that, Ryan,” she said. “Now, I don't know what your plans are, but I really think we're on the verge of turning this thing around — through winning. That's the easiest way to make people start to love each other.”

Ryan nodded and said, “I still don't know what I'll do, but I'll give it my all as long as I'm with the squad.”

“I would expect nothing less,” Lynette said.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The next day, when the bus pulled up to the arena, Ryan scratched her head and said to Vicky, “I thought the next game was televised. Is this one, too?”

“Those are local trucks,” Vicky said. “Maybe it's on in this market. I'm certain it's not going to be on in the Bay area.”

They filed into the building, and got ready in their usual manner; but when they left the locker room, Ryan felt like one of the early Christians being thrown to the lions. There were at least six television cameras trained on her, and flashbulbs too numerous to count flashed with an unbearably irritating frequency. Tearing her eyes from the glare, she looked over to see at least forty reporters huddled around the press table, packed in so tightly that some of them shared a chair.

She knew that she looked like a rat in a trap, and she had an overwhelming urge to run … just as far and as fast as she could … direction and destination immaterial. A young woman in a business suit, accompanied by an older man, also in a suit, approached her, with Vicky following right behind. “Ted Dickens, Athletic Information Officer. This is Maria Colavetti, my assistant. We'd like to arrange for a post-game interview session with you, Ryan.”

“Thanks,” she said, her smile pencil-thin. “I'm not doing any interviews. With anyone. Ever.” She folded her arms defiantly, then shuddered when she heard flashes popping continually.

“What about to talk about the game?” the man asked. “Will you comment on the game?” He looked at Vicky and said, “It's in our contract that your players will be made available for post-game interviews, you know.”

“Fine,” Ryan said, precluding Vicky from answering. “If my play merits it, I'll talk about the game. Only. With that, she turned on her heel and peeled off her warm-ups, a very large part of her hoping that she stunk up the gym with her abysmal play.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The team played well, and she had to admit that she had made a big contribution, so Ryan docilely went with the information officers to a hastily set-up interview room. Every chair was filled, and as soon as she entered, the flashes started popping. For a moment she considered holding her jacket over her head like the mobsters used to do, but she thought that her father wouldn't care for it, so she behaved. She sat down, and was surprised to see Coach Hayes sit down next to her. Ted Dickens introduced first Coach Hayes, and then Ryan, opening up the floor to questions.

The reporters started yelling them out, fast and furiously:

“Why the silence, Ryan? What have you got to hide?”

“America wants to know who you really are. Are you related to Senator Evans? If not, why did you spend Christmas Eve at his home?”

“Was that your baby in the car? We don't even know her name. Where is she now? She hasn't been seen since the incident.”

“Where is Jamie now? Why are you both registered as owners of the car?”

She ground her teeth together and leaned down until her mouth hovered over the microphone. The room stilled, every reporter waiting to finally hear her voice. In a completely flat, emotionless monotone, she made her statement. She spoke so quickly, and with so little inflection, that it actually sounded like a single sentence, but she managed to cover every point she thought was germane. “We played well tonight because we stuck to our game plan. Wake Forest is a very tough opponent, and they play a style that matches up very well against us. Coach Hayes came up with an aggressive attack-style of offense which we managed to execute well. I think the key to our play tonight was our freshman guard, Franny Sumitomo's crisp passes. Her play let me drift outside and can a few treys. Even though I mention her specifically — everyone on the team contributed to this win.” She took a breath, cleared her throat and looked up guardedly. “Any more questions about the game?”

They started firing them out again, and she sat impassively, not making eye contact with anyone in the room. Her hands were folded on the table, and she gazed at nothing further than the tips of her fingers, seemingly oblivious to the cacophony of sound and light.

Coach Hayes finally moved the microphone in front of her own mouth and said, “We're here to talk about the game, people. Only the game.”

She was shouted down immediately, and after another moment, placed her hand on Ryan's shoulder and jerked her head towards the door, indicating that it was time to leave. Just as they stood, a reporter came running into the room. He was seriously out of breath, and his panting attracted as much attention as his dramatic call for Ryan's ear. “Ryan!” he shouted, his voice much louder, despite his short-windedness, than any of the other reporters. “What is your reaction to the report, just off the wire service, that Wendell Delp, one of your attackers, has died as a result of the gunshot wound he sustained?”

The room grew still in the blink of an eye. It seemed that all of the air had been sucked out of the space, but that sensation only lasted for a millisecond. In the next instant, every flash fired, every shutter snapped, every eye focused intently on Ryan.

It took a few seconds for the news to reach her brain, and as it did, her legs gave way, and she found herself sprawled upon the chair that Coach Hayes had occupied. The room they were in was not very large, and as the seconds ticked away it became, in Ryan's distorted view, substantially smaller. The walls actually seemed to be closing in on her, and she found herself unable to reassure herself that it was an optical illusion. The sound of the snapping shutters grew louder as the walls drew closer, and she started to be able to feel her heart pounding rapidly in her chest.

Another voice, that echoed strangely, called out, “Did you intend to kill him, Ryan?”

A swooshing sound filled her ears, and her head dropped to the table, bouncing a little as she lost control of her muscles. Her defenses destroyed, she felt as though she had been stripped bare. She began to cry helplessly, her entire body shaking. She vaguely felt a hand on her shoulder, then another, then had the sensation of arms trying to lift her -- to no avail.

The voices she detected sounded as though they were underwater, but she could just make out a tone that sounded like Coach Hayes. Something about clearing the room, Ryan thought, but she couldn't be sure. Actually, she didn't care enough to be sure. All she knew, and she knew this with absolute certainly, was that things would never be the same again.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After a long while, her surroundings started to come back into focus. Ryan knew she was still in the room, she knew she was being held and rocked, and she knew that it was a woman holding her, since she was nestled against a warm breast. Lifting her head, she was surprised to see the brown and silver strands of Mary Hayes' hair brushing against her cheek. She started to pull away, horribly confused, but Coach Hayes held on tight, patting her back, and whispering soothing words right into her ear. “Easy now, Ryan. Just take it easy. They're gone now … It's just us.”

Wiping her eyes and taking in a very shaky breath, Ryan sat up. Her fingers were horribly cramped, and she realized that was because they were digging into her coach's flesh. She released her frantic grip and stared at the woman in amazement. “What happened?” she asked dully.

“You … you kinda lost it,” the coach informed her, tenderly brushing her bangs from her eyes. “I think you had a panic attack.”

Ryan nodded slowly. “I've had them before … but not since I was a child.”

With a voice filled with compassion, Mary quietly asked, “Why did you have them then?”

Looking at the coach, and seeing her genuine interest, Ryan said, “My mom was ill when I was little. She was in and out of the hospital during most of my formative years. She died when I was seven,” she said. “It took me a long time to get over it, and I had quite a few panic attacks during the years after her death.”

“My mom died when I was in college,” Mary said. “I'm still not over it.”

Ryan gave her a watery smile and said, “Thanks for helping me out, Coach. I think the jackals would have eaten me alive if you hadn't been here.”

She just nodded and squeezed Ryan's shoulder. “Don't mention it. Now we have to decide what to do next.”

“Next?”

“Yeah. I'll pay for you to leave town as soon as we can get you on a plane, Ryan. You can go home, or you can leave for your vacation early. Whatever you want.”

Ryan considered for a few moments. “Can I have Jamie come here?”

“Of course. I'm really sorry for singling you out, Ryan. That was a stupid way to try to make a point. Lynette told me why you wanted her to stay at practice the other day.” She shook her head and said, “I'm very sorry for being so rigid about it. I'll rescind the rule about bed checks at breakfast tomorrow.”

Nodding slightly, Ryan said, “I'm not able to make up my mind about anything right now. I'll be able to think after I talk to Jamie.”

“No problem,” the coach said. She helped Ryan to her feet and tucked an arm around her waist. “I'm going to have Shelly move you into a single room. I'm sure you'll be on the phone for a long time, and you won't want your roommate eavesdropping on you.”

“Thanks,” Ryan said. “I appreciate everything that you've done, Coach.” She looked down at the floor briefly, then met the older woman's steady gaze. “I'm sorry I called you an asshole the other day. That was really uncalled for.”

“Don't worry about that,” Coach Hayes said. “It's all forgotten.”

Ryan's clear blue eyes shifted and she gazed at the coach for a moment, then her lower lip started to tremble. “Is it true?” she asked softly. “Did I … did I … kill that man?”

“I don't know,” the coach said. “Let me go check with a reliable source.”

Shaking her head, Ryan said, “That's okay. Jamie will know.” She nodded again, then said, “She'll know.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

By the time Ryan was settled in her new room, she was feeling slightly better. Lynette came by to check on her, and she brought two sleeping pills that the home team's doctor had provided. “Thanks,” Ryan said. “I might take them after I talk to Jamie.”

“Just take one, Ryan. He gave you two in case you need one tomorrow night, too. Promise you'll call me if you need anything,” Lynette said. She wrote her room number down in large letters and placed it right next to the phone. “Even if you just want to talk, please call, okay?”

“I will,” Ryan said. “I'm gonna use the phone, and I'll probably run up a whopper of a bill, but I'll pay for it myself.”

“Don't worry about those little things,” Lynette said. “Just try to feel better.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan knew that she had caused a scene, and she knew that her family would eventually hear about it. But being naïve in the ways of international gossip, it had not dawned on her that her family would know about the incident while it was still occurring. For the previous hour, while waiting to hear from the stricken woman, the combined resources of the Evans-O'Flaherty clan had been frantically trying to find a way to get Jamie to North Carolina.

When Ryan dialed the phone, her father answered. “Yes?” he said curtly.

“Da?”

“Siobhán!” he cried. “Sweetheart! How are you?” He partially covered the receiver and shouted, “Jamie! It's Siobhán!”

“Daaaaa,” she said slowly, “what's going on?”

“We all saw what happened,” Martin said. “We're worried sick about you.”

“Oh, crap,” she said. “I'll be fine, Da. Really. I just had a panic attack when they told me about … well … you know. Uhm … is it true?”

“Yes,” he said, sending her stomach into a mad spin. “It's true that he's dead, but you didn't kill him, sweetheart, not really.”

“That's pretty cryptic, Da …” she said, but he interrupted her.

“I'll let you talk to Jamie, love. She's about to pry the phone from my hands.”

Ryan smiled softly at that, knowing that her father wasn't exaggerating in the least.

“Sweetheart, I've got my father working on getting me a flight down there. At this point, it looks like I'm gonna have to charter a private jet, but I'll be there as soon as I possibly can.”

“Whoa … whoa! Just hold on a minute. Can we just talk for a second?”

“Oh, honey, I'm sorry. It's just … we've been absolutely frantic, and it's hard for me to switch gears.” She took in a breath and tried again. “How are you, baby? Are you feeling a little better?”

“Yeah,” Ryan said. “I really am.”

“Okay, now that that's settled, let me get back on the phone with my father. I have to see that you're better with my own eyes.”

“No, no, Jamie, please. I'll be all right. I just … I just felt claustrophobic when that guy told me what had happened. It got too close in there, and I started to feel panicked. I'll be fine.”

“Give me your number,” Jamie said. “I'm going to go down to our room and call you back. I can hardly hear myself think up here.”

Ryan provided the requested information, and a few minutes later Jamie called back from a much quieter place. “That's better,” she said when she heard Ryan's voice. “Now what do you know about what happened?”

“Only that I killed a man,” Ryan said, her voice strangely flat and emotionless.

“I had a feeling that's what you believed,” Jamie said. “But nothing could be further from the truth, honey. Daddy made a few calls, and he got the whole story. Now, most of this will never be made public, but Daddy swears it's the truth.”

Ryan sat up and stared at the phone, unable to imagine what her partner would say.

“The guys' names were Wendell and Elmore Delp,” Jamie said.

“Perfect names for psychopaths,” Ryan muttered.

“My thoughts exactly. Now, Wendell was a real piece of work. He was the one who wanted to rape you while he was strangling you with his bare hands,” she said, revealing this detail to Ryan for the first time.

“Fuck.”

“And he's the one who wanted to kill Caitlin,” Jamie said, just to give her partner a complete picture of their assailant's evil nature.

Ryan didn't say a word, but Jamie could hear her breathing faster, and she knew her partner was beginning to understand just what these men were. “Wendell apparently raped women frequently, at least according to Elmore,” Jamie said. “He was, by the way, HIV positive, and had been diagnosed with AIDS almost ten years ago. Apparently, his treatment had been failing, and he was starting to get sick again. He knew he didn't have a lot of time left, and he decided that he was going to start taking whatever he wanted — consequences be damned.

“His brother claims that he loved Lexuses, and he decided he was going to take the next one he saw. That just happened to be yours,” Jamie said.

Ryan blew out a breath and said, “They sound like the lowest of the low, but I still fell like crap for killing one of them.”

“But you didn't,” Jamie said. “I told you the background just so you'd understand, honey. The bullet that you fired went into Elmore's shoulder, then passed through Wendell's left arm. It was no big deal. I think he got something like ten stitches to close the wound. Elmore's wound was a little worse, but after a night in the hospital they were both doing well, and were sent to the county jail to await arraignment.

“Apparently, Wendell developed a fever later that day. Elmore says the staff at the infirmary ignored Wendell, but there's no record that he complained of a fever, and the medical staff claims that they didn't know he was sick until he went into convulsions late that night. Obviously, they started to treat him then, but he didn't respond. They finally sent him to UCSF, but by then it was too late. His immune system was so compromised, that the bacteria that had gotten into his body through his wound just overwhelmed him, and he died of the infection.”

“Wow,” Ryan said quietly. “Are you sure that's all true, Jamie?”

“Well, some of the info comes from Elmore, and he probably twisted it to make it seem like this is all the jail's fault, but Daddy claims the medical details are all true. He spoke with the chief of police to get the information. They don't want the full story to come out because they're afraid of being sued by the family, but the chief says it's the truth.”

“Damn,” Ryan muttered. “What a friggin' chain of events.”

“It is,” Jamie said. “But the bottom line is that he was dying anyway. The Bay water just helped him along.”

Ryan sighed heavily, and Jamie could just see her dark head shaking. “I played a part, too.”

“Yes, you did,” Jamie said, desperately trying to think of a way to frame her belief. “The way I see it, Wendell is about 99 percent responsible for his own death, and the bacteria in the Bay is responsible for about a half of a percent. That leaves a big, fat one half of one percent that you can feel guilty about,” she said. “But since I think you should have shot them both in the head, you know how I feel about that.”

Ryan felt her stomach rebel at her partner's wish that she had shot them in the head, but she recalled Rory's words and she tried to push that element out of her brain. Finally, she spoke, and Jamie could feel the love in her voice. “Only you could make me feel better about something so awful.”

“You have nothing … nothing to feel bad about, Ryan. You did the most heroic things I could have ever imagined, and you tried your best not to kill those assholes. The fact that he was already sick was a little quirk that you had no control over.”

“I was far from heroic, and I had plenty of control,” she grumbled, her statement puzzling Jamie. “I have plenty to feel bad about.”

“Pardon? What does that mean?”

“Never mind,” Ryan said, not having any desire to get into her guilt feelings then, or ever. “I've got too many things running through my mind to be making any sense at all.”

“Are you sure you're going to be all right? I'm really struggling with being so far away from you, baby.”

“Yeah, I am. I think I'm in a little bit of shock,” she said. “That asshole reporter tried to freak me out, just so he could get my reaction.”

“I know,” Jamie said quietly. “I saw it on TV.”

“Oh, crap! It was on TV?”

“Yes, honey. That's how we knew about it. They just used a snippet on CNN, but locally they showed his question, your reaction, and the coach screaming at everyone to get out and leave you alone.”

“I missed most of that,” Ryan said. “The last thing I remember is hearing him tell me the guy died.”

“I had a feeling you were out of it,” Jamie said. “Wait a sec, okay? My cell is ringing.”

She was gone for a few minutes, then came back on. “Daddy found a charter company that can leave in an hour,” she said. “I'll be there by dawn.”

“Jamie,” Ryan said softly. “I don't want you flying on some small plane to get here a few hours earlier. I'd be worried about you the whole time. It's okay with me if you change your reservations to come here instead of Miami, but you really don't have to take such extraordinary measures.”

“But I want to be with you,” she said. “It broke my heart to see you so upset. I feel so powerless, Ryan.”

“Honey, you can hear that I'm better now. Please, please, don't leave tonight. It would really make it worse for me.”

She waited a second, trying to decide if she should push Ryan to give in. “Okay. You know what will make you feel the best. Hold on a sec.” She spent a few more minutes talking to her father, then came back on the line. “Since I can't be with you, can we stay on the phone for a while?”

“Sure. Let me get ready for bed. The doctor gave me a sleeping pill. I think I'll take it,” she said.

“Okay. I'll go tell your family that you're much better, so they can all go home. Then I'll get ready for bed, and call you back.”

“Deal,” Ryan said. “One more thing, babe. Have Da or Aunt Maeve call my aunt and my Granny. Even in Ireland, they'll see this crap on CNN and be worried all over again.”

“Consider it done.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie called the airline and changed her ticket, dismayed that she wouldn't arrive until 6 o'clock the following evening. She dialed Ryan's number, and wasn't surprised in the least when the low voice already sounded slow and sleepy. “You took the pill, huh?” she asked.

“Yeah. It's already working.

“You'd have the cheapest drug addiction in the world,” Jamie said. “You're so susceptible to everything you take.”

“Fast metabolism,” Ryan said through a yawn.

“I love your fast metabolism,” Jamie said. “Now you go to sleep, honey, and call me the minute you wake up. I want to hear your sweet little voice as soon as possible.”

“Okay. Love you, Jamie.”

“I love you, too, Ryan. More than words can say.”

“I know. Me too.” She hung up quietly, and Jamie did her best to soothe her jangled nerves by imagining the gentle beauty of her partner as she slept.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The next morning, Jamie ran around the house getting ready for her flight. She was thinking of Ryan every minute, anxiously waiting for her call, but was slightly cheered that her partner was at least sleeping well. But as time ticked by she began to worry, debating over whether or not to call and wake her. Her indecision lasted until she was waiting near the gate for her flight. With just a few minutes to spare, she dialed the hotel and asked to be connected to Ryan's room. The phone rang and rang, and finally the operator came back on. “There's no answer,” she said.

“Please try it again, and let it ring,” Jamie said. “I know she's there.”

“All right, ma'am. I'll try again.”

Her heart was pounding heavily as she tried to figure out who to call if she couldn't rouse her partner, but finally the receiver was picked up. “Ryan?”

“Yeah.” Her voice was thick and slurred, sounding like she'd been pulled from a very deep sleep.

“Oh, honey, I'm so sorry for waking you wake up. I just needed to talk to you before I left.”

“Huh.” Ryan's voice was slow and muddled, and Jamie could tell she was still not firing on all cylinders. “Left what?”

“Left San Francisco, honey. I'm getting on my plane. I'll be there by this evening.”

There was a silence that lasted longer than Jamie was comfortable with. “Am I staying here or are we going on vacation now?” Ryan asked.

“What do you mean by that?” Jamie asked, her eyes wide.

“Coach said I could leave … I think.”

“Uhm … they're calling final boarding for me, Ryan. It's a little late to have this discussion right now.”

“Oh.” There was a moment of silence, then Ryan said, “The team's going to Chapel Hill on a bus. Should I go with?”

“Ryan,” she said, “you're starting to worry me. Of course you should go. I'm coming to meet you in Chapel Hill. My flight will arrive in Raleigh/Durham late this afternoon, then I'll take a cab to your hotel.”

“Do you know what hotel to go to? I forget,” Ryan said, thoroughly puzzled.

“Yes, sweetheart. I have your itinerary.” She waited a beat and said, “Can I speak with your roommate?”

“Don't have one. They moved me to a single so I could be alone. Why do you want to do that?”

“Because you don't seem right, honey. I've never heard you sound so out of it. I want to make sure someone keeps an eye on you today.”

“I'll be fine,” Ryan said. “Just tired. I'm gonna take a nap now.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Jamie said, her worry increasing. “You get some rest, baby, and I'll see you tonight. I love you, Ryan.”

“Love you.”

Jamie shoved her phone into her pocket and ran for the gate, managing to slip past the attendant just as he was closing the door. As soon as she sat down she got on the phone again, and managed to track down Coach Hayes. “Hello,” she said, “this is Jamie Evans, Ryan's partner.”

“Oh, hi, Jamie,” the coach said. “What can I do for you?”

“I just spoke to Ryan, and she seems very out of it. I'm terribly worried about her, Coach Hayes. Will you make sure that someone keeps an eye on her?”

“Sure, Jamie, I'll make sure she's all right. We're just about to leave for Chapel Hill, so I've got to go.”

“About to leave? She was just going to go back to sleep!”

“Oh, shit! Thanks for calling, Jamie. Gotta go!”

The blonde hung up, then leaned back in her seat, her stomach so upset that she was afraid she'd have to use a barf bag before the plane even took off.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie didn't get to Chapel Hill until almost eight o'clock that evening. She'd called Ryan from the road, and was profoundly relieved when her partner sounded completely lucid. Jamie told her she'd be arriving in just a few minutes, and when the cab pulled into the drive, Ryan dashed out the door that the friendly doorman held for her. She had her arms thrown around her partner and was hugging the stuffing out of her, while Jamie was still paying the cabbie. “My sister,” Jamie said to the stunned man, who had been speaking to her in a genteel Southern accent. “She's very affectionate.”

Ryan yanked the bag from the back seat, and gave her partner the most inappropriately sisterly kiss since Sappho was a girl. The shocked driver actually leaned his head out the window while his car moved very slowly down the driveway, unable to reconcile the brazen woman locked in a passionate lesbian kiss, with the demure young lady with whom he had spent the last half hour conversing.

“You're scaring the livestock,” Jamie murmured, her lips curling into a grin as she relaxed into Ryan's embrace. They were right in front of the entrance to the hotel, and the few people entering and exiting the building were openly gawking at them.

“Fuck 'em,” Ryan said, leaning in for another kiss.

“Honey, as soon as all of this turmoil calms down, could you go back to your former way of expressing yourself? I feel like I'm married to a merchant marine.”

“Aye, aye,” Ryan said, placing one last tender kiss upon Jamie's lips, then leading her past the stunned doorman to the safety of their room.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After a long time spent just holding each other, they ventured from the room to get Jamie a snack. There was a coffee shop in the hotel, and the blonde decided to order breakfast, thinking that her stomach couldn't handle anything heavier than a waffle. “How are you feeling?” she asked after their server left.

Ryan nodded. “Better. I uhm … we … spoke today, didn't we?”

Raising an eyebrow, Jamie said, “Yes … we spoke right after you woke up.”

“Huh. I thought Coach Hayes woke me up.”

“She did … after I called her to tell her I was worried about you.”

“Oh. I uhm … guess I was pretty out of it.”

There was something about her partner's demeanor that Jamie didn't like, and she was determined to find out what was behind the troubled blue eyes. Reaching across the table, she grasped Ryan's hand and said, “You're not telling me something.” Ryan's eyes didn't meet hers, and Jamie said, “Holding something back from me is the same as lying, Ryan, and I don't want to be lied to.” She tugged on Ryan's hand, then brought it to her lips and kissed it. “Please don't lie to me, honey.”

Ryan slumped back into the booth and linked her fingers with her partner's. “I uhm … had a tough night. The sleeping pill knocked me out, but I woke up again not 10 minutes after I fell asleep.”

Jamie didn't say anything, just gave Ryan's hand a squeeze to encourage her to continue.

“I don't remember doing it, but I must have gotten up and taken another sleeping pill.”

“Why did you have two?” Jamie asked, her eyes wide.

“Lynette got me one for last night and one for tonight.”

“God! No wonder you were so out of it! Do you know what you took?”

“No, she didn't say.”

Jamie was getting more agitated by the minute, and after shooting several irritated glances off to the counter area, she crooked her finger at someone who Ryan couldn't see from her vantage point. Their server came over and Jamie jutted her chin out and glared at her. “I can't believe we're the first lesbians to ever visit this fine establishment, but even if we are, I think you and your pals have giggled and stared at us long enough.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a fifty-dollar bill, slamming it onto the table. “Here's your tip,” she said, venom dripping from her voice. “If you keep your beady eyes off of us, I'll leave it there. But one more snarky look, and you get stiffed. Your choice.” She turned back to Ryan, her face remarkably composed, “You were saying, sweetheart?”

The server stormed away without a word, and Ryan wasn't able to manage one either. After staring at Jamie with wide eyes she finally said, “You're really stressed, aren't you?”

“Hell, yes, I'm stressed! Something is going on with you, and it's like pulling teeth to find out what it is!”

“Okay, okay,” Ryan said. Just then, Jamie's waffle was delivered by a young man who she guessed was a bus boy. She was a little leery about eating it, but after inspecting it for foul play she took a bite, even though she wasn't particularly hungry. She knew that her stomach misbehaved when it was empty for too long, and she was determined not to vomit — at least in public.

Ryan waited for a minute, letting her partner get some of her waffle down, then said, “I must have gotten up again some time during the night. I swear I don't remember this, Jamie, but I got into the mini bar and drank a few of those little bottles of liquor.”

Placing her fork quietly on the table, Jamie folded her hands together and stared at the table for a moment. Finally, she lifted her eyes and looked at her partner. “You could have killed yourself. Alcohol and sleeping pills can be a fatal combination.”

“I know, I know,” Ryan said. “I'm sorry, sweetheart … it wasn't intentional. I just … I was about to go mad from the thoughts racing through my head. I just … I needed them to stop.”

“I want to go home,” Jamie said, looking at her partner with pain filled eyes. “I want to go home and get you to a psychiatrist. You've got to talk to someone, Ryan, and I think it should be someone who can prescribe medication.”

Ryan's eyes grew wide, and her head started to shake. “I don't need that!”

“Yes, you do!” Jamie's green eyes were blazing, and her voice had risen enough so that all of the other patrons looked her way.

Indicating the waffle, Ryan asked, “Are you going to finish that?”

“No.”

“Let's go to our room,” she said, taking ten dollars out of her pocket and tossing it to the table.

Jamie nodded and got to her feet. After a moment's indecision, she left the fifty, since their original server had assiduously avoided eye contact once she had called her on it. “Sixty fucking dollars for a God damned waffle,” she grumbled, walking behind Ryan as they exited.

Ryan snaked an arm around her and said, “Your language has gotten a little colorful lately, too, babe. Should we go to Curseaholics Anonymous?”

“Best fucking idea I've heard all God damned day,” the blonde said, a hint of a smile settling onto her face.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Once in their room, Jamie started to undress, then stopped and stared at her partner. “Are we allowed to sleep together?”

“Yeah,” Ryan said. “Coach apologized for making the stupid rule, as a matter of fact. She rescinded it yesterday. She's actually been really nice to me, babe. I didn't even get in trouble for sleeping in.”

Jamie said little as she got ready for bed. Her body believed it was barely dinnertime, but the dark circles under Ryan's eyes indicated it was already past her bedtime. She wanted to make sure Ryan got some rest, but she was not ready to table their earlier discussion. Sitting up against the headboard, she patted the mattress, and Ryan gamely joined her. “Lie down and put your head in my lap,” she said, “I need to rub some of the bad thoughts out of that troubled little mind.”

“I'll be all right,” Ryan said. “It was just too much yesterday. It was hard to be away from home, and the reporters and photographers really got to me. I felt like a lab rat.”

“It was hard to tell how bad it was,” Jamie said. “The announcers said there was a big crowd of reporters, but they never showed them.”

“It was bad,” Ryan said. “Luckily, I was able to use the distractions to concentrate even harder.” She shook her head and said, “That is such a gift.”

“It is,” the blonde said, “but I think it makes it worse for you when you come out of your fog. It must have been horrible to be in that little interview room and have all of those jerks firing questions at you.”

“That was pretty bad,” Ryan agreed. “But I was doing fine until that jerkoff had to tell me the guy died.” She reached up and grasped Jamie's hand and placed it on her cheek. “I kept having nightmares about him and me in the water. He was fighting for air, and I kept putting my hand on his head, pushing him under. He finally stopped struggling, and I felt an enormous amount of satisfaction when his lifeless body bobbed to the surface.” She shivered violently and admitted, “It was like a never ending nightmare … I had to make it stop, Jamers.”

“I understand that, sweetheart, but you can't do that with substances. You'll be just as bad off as you are now, but with a drug habit!”

“It was just one night,” Ryan said. “I've never done anything like that before, and I won't do it again. I was just so fucking frightened,” she said, her tears starting to flow.

Jamie scooted down and held her tightly. “I'm so sorry I talked you into coming here alone,” she said, her own tears mixing with her lover's. “I'm so, so sorry, baby.”

“It's not your fault,” Ryan said. “You did what you thought would help me.”

“But it's turned out so badly.”

“It'll be okay,” Ryan said. “We're together now, and we're staying together. I don't care if we quit school at this point. All that matters is that I'm with you.”

“What are we going to do for the near term? I checked when I was at the airport, and we can't get a flight to Miami before our scheduled one. Holiday travel is really heavy.”

Ryan sighed and said, “I think I should stay and play.”

“What?” Jamie sat bold upright and stared at her. “Play?”

“Yeah. I think it would be best.”

“But, Ryan …”

“I think your advice to come to North Carolina was good,” she said. “Keeping things as normal as possible seems like the right move. I'm feeling so damned shaky, that I think I'd feel better if I just stayed with the team and played my heart out tomorrow night. That's what I had decided to do — so I should do it.”

“All right,” Jamie said. “If you're sure.”

“I am. I don't want to go back to California yet. I need to go on that vacation, baby. I know that will help me as much as seeing a shrink would. It's all arranged, and I don't want to cancel on Mia and Jordan. Following through with our plans really feels right.”

Jamie gazed deeply into her eyes and said, “Here's the deal. We can stay and follow through with our plans, but no more abusing alcohol and no more sleeping pills. If you're too stressed to get through this without help I'm going to make sure you have the help you need, and it's not going to be by self-medicating. If you need sleeping pills, you're going to get them from a doctor who closely supervises you.”

“Deal,” Ryan said. “My best medicine is to lie in your arms. You heal me.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie woke relatively early, having gone to sleep at 7 o'clock Pacific time, making her very well rested by 8 a.m. Ryan was still deeply asleep, and after trying to just lie in bed and be close to her, Jamie finally had to get up. She used the facilities and then pulled in the paper and sat down at the small table to read. The national paper held little interest for her, since she wasn't particularly mesmerized by colorful graphs and pie charts, and she quickly pushed it away. Idly looking at the items on the desk she found a copy of the bill for Ryan's room in Winston/Salem. Attached to it was a note from the student manager.

Ryan, I'm not sure how I'm going to hide the extra charges, but I'll do my best. Coach said not to bother you with this, but there's a chance that someone in the accounting department at school will kick this back. So, if anyone says anything to you, just let me know and I'll take care of it. Shelly

That was nice of her, Jamie thought. Looking at the bill, her eyes nearly popped out of her head. Neatly itemized were the following charges from the mini bar:

        One Crown Royal        $05.00
        One Tullamore Dew        $05.00
        One Seagram's        $05.00
        One Canadian Club        $05.00
        One Budweiser        $04.00
        Liquor total                $24.00

The blonde dropped her head to the table and started to cry. My poor, poor, tortured baby.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan had managed to sleep for nearly 10 hours, and when she woke she was in better spirits. They had breakfast together, but the taller woman was still not very vocal, seeming as if she was considering something. “You know, there's a part of me that wants to have a press conference.”

“What? I know that I told you I like your unpredictability, but this is too much!”

“I want to clear something up,” Ryan said, nodding her head.

“Honey, what could you possible want to clear up?”

Ryan gazed at her for a moment, then reached out to grasp her hand, running her thumb across her palm. “It's bugging the shit out of me that everyone seems so focused on what I did during the … thing. People act like it was just me and the bad guys, and that's such a misrepresentation of the truth.”

“Okay … that might be what's happened, but why should that bother you?”

“Because it diminishes your contribution,” she said, blinking at her. “The truth is that we're both alive because of you, Jamie.” She shook her head and said, “Well, all three of us are alive because of you. I guess we would have been fine if we'd let them take Caitlin.”

Raising one blonde eyebrow, Jamie gave her a smirk and said, “I'd give my life 10 times over for that child. And so would you.”

“I know that, sweetheart, I know that. But the general public doesn't seem to get that, and it's driving me nuts! People think I'm the big hero because I hung on to the roof of a car, but the heroic thing was you getting into the car in the first place. And I'm not sure how you did it, but I know you kept them from killing all of us, one by one.”

“I'm not sure I can take credit for that,” Jamie said. “Their own stupidity and lack of impulse control made them run out of ammo before they could do it.”

“No way, babe. If you hadn't warned me about the driver getting out to kill me — he would have. You risked your life to do that, Jamie. There was a very good chance that he would have been so pissed at you that you would have won the 'who do I hate more' contest.”

She gave Ryan a soft smile and said, “That didn't occur to me. All that mattered was your safety.”

“That's what makes you such a hero,” Ryan said, squeezing her hand. “You did what you knew was right — ignoring the consequences. You lived your convictions.” She looked away, muttering, “Most people don't do that.”

“Hey,” Jamie said, troubled by the look in Ryan's eyes. “What does that mean? Are you implying that you didn't do that?”

Ryan merely shrugged, saying, “I could have done better.”

“Sweetheart …” Jamie said, but Ryan hushed her.

“I don't want to talk about me right now. I really would like to make it clear that I believe that you were the key to our survival. I think a press conference might be the way to do it.”

“No thanks,” Jamie said, shaking her head decisively. “I don't need a bunch of strangers to think I'm a hero. That wouldn't mean a thing to me.” She got up and pushed Ryan's chair back, climbing onto her lap. “It means a lot to me that you think so, though. You're all that matters to me.”

“You're my hero,” Ryan sighed as she rested her head against Jamie's chest, meaning the sentiment with every bit of her heart.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Just knowing that Jamie was close by improved Ryan's mood dramatically, and she was whistling a happy tune when the bus pulled up to the arena that afternoon. Her tune stopped abruptly when she saw a couple of college-aged men trying to keep a band of reporters from the door of the bus. “Fuck me,” she mumbled under her breath, preparing for another onslaught.

Jaleesa, the back-up center, gave Ryan a determined look and said, “Follow me.”

As they filed out of the bus, the cameras came dangerously close to their heads, and Ryan saw Jaleesa's elbows start flying. The young woman looked like a female version of Shaquille O'Neal as she started pushing people from their path, and in a few minutes they were safely inside the players' entrance. Mary Hayes turned to Jaleesa and said, “Let's see those elbows during the game, huh?”

The large woman just gave her the usual lazy smile she seemed to reserve for the coach alone. Ryan guessed it meant, “Screw you,” but it was impossible for the casual observer to know what was on the quiet woman's mind.

As soon as they hit the locker room, Coach Hayes was on the phone, angrily demanding to see the athletic director. The players stood around in uncomfortable silence, never having seen the woman lose her temper. A few minutes later a man in a rumpled gray suit arrived, and the coach pulled him right into the locker room, away from any prying reporters.

“Listen,” she growled, poking him in the chest with her index finger, “I spoke to the NCAA today, and I told them that if we were subjected to the kind of disturbing scene that we got at Wake Forest, I was pulling my team off the court! There were flashes popping all night — and sports photographers know not to do that. They did a crappy job of policing the media, and if you do the same — we're out of here! Usually, I know you wouldn't care if Cal walked out on you, but tonight it will be the top story nationwide. Is that what you want the country to see?”

“No, no, of course not,” he said, trying to smooth her feathers. “I'll personally see to it that no one uses a flash. The sports photographers are all hooked up to our electronic synching system. The problem comes from a few independents who are looking for a fast buck. They're obviously not trying to take shots of the game,” he said, not mentioning who they were taking shots of.

“Handle it,” Mary said, glaring at him menacingly.

“I will, I most certainly will,” he said. “Now, when can you have Ms. O'Flaherty ready for a post-game interview? We've had requests from everybody in the South to get in on this.”

“She'll be ready …” she paused for effect, “when hell freezes over. Nobody on earth is going to force me to subject her to that kind of torture again.”

“But Coach, it's in the contract! Your players must be made available for post-game interviews.”

“Sue me,” she growled, turning her back and stalking away.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The game was tight, with the lead switching back and forth between the teams for the first three quarters. Cal was hanging tough against a much better opponent, and late in the fourth quarter Ryan had finally figured out a move to lose her defender. For the fifth time in a row she head faked her, once, twice, then executed a neat little dribble-drive, leaving the other woman's feet planted firmly on the floor. As Ryan elevated, someone right behind the basket shot off a powerful flash, temporarily blinding her just as the ball left her fingertips. The shot was good, but the flash prevented her from seeing the center, who rushed to cover for the forward that Ryan had ditched. Ryan had no idea the large woman was underneath her, and she started to drop, only to have the defender push her roughly as she started to descend upon her. Unable to see, Ryan could not protect herself, and she fell to the floor from her elevated position … dropping like a rock to land flat on her back.

It was impossible to tell if she hit her head or not, but there was a very loud crack when she landed … sending the gym into stunned silence. The only sound for several seconds was the soft whirring of cameras as their auto-winders took hundreds of photos of the prone woman; then the frantic clicking of Mary and Lynette's heels as they rushed across the hardwood to tend to her, and the determined footsteps of one terrified blonde woman, who was rushing down the steep concrete steps of the arena at an astonishing pace.

Jamie reached an impasse when she arrived at the lowest level. The section was reserved for VIP's, and the entrance was guarded by several security people. “That's my partner on the floor,” she shouted, trying to make the guards let her go without having to resort to bloodshed, which she was perfectly willing to commit if need be.

She received a blank look, so she pulled out her trump card. “We're the ones from TV,” she said. “She was on the roof of the car … I was inside with the nuts with the guns …”

“Oh! I did see your picture,” the head guard said. “Is that uhm … Ryan on the floor now? I wasn't really watching the game,” he said. “Is she hurt?”

“How can I know that when I'm talking to you?” she asked, trying to be patient enough so he would allow her in, but determined enough so that he didn't try to wave her off.

“Let me take you down to the locker room,” he said. “To get to her from here you'd have to climb over the press table. I can't imagine you want to do that, do ya, ma'am?”

“No, of course not,” she said. “Just get me there in a hurry. She has a history of head trauma.”

“Don't doubt it, ma'am,” he said in his lazy drawl, thinking of the antics he had seen her perform to stay attached to the car. “Don't doubt it at all.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When Coach Hayes and Lynette slid up to Ryan, they were both relieved to see that her eyes were open and focused. She was holding her gut and gasping for breath, but as Mary leaned over her, the groaning woman wheezed out, “Air!” and the coach was confident that her center would be fine.

The trainer was now part of the huddle, and as Mary leaned over again she whispered, “Stay down until you feel totally fine, Ryan. We need you in the game, and if they hustle you off the court until you get your breath back, the game will be over.”

Even with the pain that radiated in waves from her midsection, Ryan managed to nod, showing she understood. Lynette stood a few feet from Ryan, trying to block the view of the assembled photographers. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a blonde tornado burst through the doors of the locker room, and she ran to head her off, catching her just a few feet past the door. “She's fine,” the large woman said immediately. “Just got the wind knocked out of her.”

“But her head!”

“Didn't hit it. I'm sure, Jamie. I saw her fall. She curled up like a possum on the way down. Weirdest thing I ever saw. That's why she's so out of breath. Her entire body weight landed on just the flat of her back.”

“Are you sure?” the smaller woman demanded, her green eyes sparking fire.

“Yes. I'm positive. Coach wants her to stay down until she feels fine. Look,” she said, pointing in Ryan's direction. “She's got her knees up so she can catch her breath, and they wouldn't let her do that if they were worried about her spine or her head.” She tried to urge Jamie back into the locker room, but found that the much smaller woman was hard to move against her will. “Come on, Jamie. If the press sees you, it's gonna be a zoo.”

She nodded, finally reassured when she saw Ryan's left foot tapping on the floor, indicating that she was tired of lying down. “Tell her I love her,” Jamie demanded, scowling at Lynette until the older woman promised that she would.

By the time Lynette got back to the huddle, Ryan was up, shaking off attempts to assist her to the bench. The North Carolina team doctor came over and insisted on looking at her pupils and making sure she was aware of her surroundings. “What's your name?” he asked as he leaned over and shone a bright penlight in each eye.

“On the verge of kicking North Carolina's ass,” Ryan grumbled, “if their team doctor gets out of my damned way.”

“She's fine,” he said, as he stood and nodded to Coach Hayes.

The cameras had not stopped during this entire interlude, but Ryan barely noticed them any longer. With unerring accuracy, she let her senses speak to her, and somehow felt Jamie's eyes boring into her. She lifted her head the second the doctor left, and immediately fell into the warm regard of her partner, who was standing against the partially hidden wall that led to the locker room. She kissed her hand, closed her eyes and blew the kiss, not pointing it in Jamie's direction, due to fear that the press would spot her little hiding place. Even though the kiss wasn't delivered to the exact address, it was very welcome, and Jamie blew several in return that Ryan noticed out of the corner of her eye.

She had obviously been fouled on the shot, and the referee came over to see if she was able to continue. “Hell, yes,” she said, scowling as she brushed by him.

Walking calmly towards the free throw line, she concentrated for a long moment, letting the photographers have their fun, then she made the little X over her heart that she used to show Jamie she was thinking of her, and let the ball fly, scoring another much needed point.

She didn't score for the remainder of the game, but that was good news indeed. North Carolina smothered her with two defenders at all times, and that left someone open on every possession. Drizslava canned a couple of jumpers, Franny launched a three that went to the heart of the basket, and just like that — it was over. Cal had prevailed 81-79, and every player on the team knew that they had stepped up a level in class by beating one of the premier squads in the nation — on their home court.

Jamie was inside the locker room waiting for her, and even though Ryan knew that was an act that would probably merit the death penalty, she had to spend just a moment reassuring the frantic-looking woman. “Did you hit your head?” Jamie asked before Ryan could utter a word.

“Nope. I promise. I barely ruffled my hair. I landed full on my back.”

“Is your back all right?”

“Yeah. I feel fine, really. Just got the wind knocked out of me.”

Jamie placed both hands on Ryan's sweaty chest and looked up into her eyes. “Swear?”

“I swear. I'm fine.”

The look of pure worry gave way to an equally bright smile. “Great game!” the smaller woman cried, giving her a big hug. “You kicked butt, baby!”

“Thanks, honey,” Ryan said. “Now scoot! Grab a cab and meet me back at the hotel. I'll let you kiss all of my bruises for me.”

“That's the best offer I've had all day.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan walked into the room and tossed her key on the dresser. Jamie was lying on the bed, watching television, and when Ryan saw what was on, she flopped onto the bed next to her. “This is so weird,” she said, watching the image of her own body lying on the floor of the gym. “I don't know how famous people ever get used to this.”

“At first, they seek it,” Jamie said.

Ryan shivered as she said, “That's beyond my ken. Why anyone would want to see their private lives served up for the world's enjoyment is beyond my ability to understand.”

“Oh!” Jamie jumped from the bed and grabbed a piece of paper. “Call this number!”

Ryan took the offered cell phone, and the paper, and started to dial. “You gonna tell me who I'm calling?”

“Nope. It'll be obvious.”

Smiling at her partner, the number connected and Ryan waited until an ecstatic sounding woman said, “Hello?”

“Uhm … hello?”

“Ryan?”

“Yeah.”

“I made it! I made it! I made it! I made it! I made it!” Jordan cried.

“Wee ha!” Ryan shouted, enormously happy for her friend. “When did you find out?”

“About two hours ago,” she said. “I called Mia first, and then you. You don't mind being second, do you?”

“As it should be,” Ryan said. “I am so tremendously happy for you, Jordan,” she said in a serious tone of voice. “To work so hard for something, and finally have it happen is something that few people get to experience. I'm thrilled that you're one of them.”

“Thanks, Ryan. I spoke to Jamie earlier, so I know you're okay, but I was pretty freaked out when I turned on the news tonight.”

“News? Don't tell me they still have us on the news in Colorado! Jesus, the incident was a week ago!”

“No, no, they had a long teaser at the start of the newscast, showing you on the floor, looking like you were dead! The announcer said, 'You know her as a hero. Tonight Ryan O'Flaherty, the reluctant hero, lies on a gymnasium floor, fighting for her life once again.' Freaked me out, pal.”

There was a momentary pause, before Ryan could gather herself enough to shout, “They said that?

“Yep. They didn't tell the whole story until fifteen minutes into the newscast. They just try to jerk the viewer around.”

“Jordan, I've gotta go,” Ryan said. “It's almost eight o'clock at home, and my father always watches the eight o'clock early news. If they show that footage, he'll freak!”

“Okay, Ryan. See you guys tomorrow.”

“We love you, Jordan, and congratulations again, pal.”

Ryan rolled her eyes, saying to Jamie, “Did Jordan tell you about the news in Colorado?”

“No, what happened?”

“What happened is that Da's gonna have a heart attack if I don't get him before the news starts.”

“I called him from my cell as soon as I was sure you were okay,” Jamie said. “The whole family was watching the game together. It was on Fox, remember?”

“Oh, right.” She was making a sour face as she dialed, and Jamie watched her do so, her stomach clenching with tension as she considered that the incident had taken place a week ago, and was still managing to be just as newsworthy as it had been then. “Thanks, honey,” she said, forcing a smile as she waited for someone to pick up.

After Ryan was finished calming her family down, Jamie got on the phone and worked on her side of the family for a while. After she finished talking to her father, grandfather and Mia, she looked at her watch and saw that it was nearly midnight. “It's early in Italy, but I'm gonna call my mom,” she said. “She'll see this on CNN if she tunes in and I don't want her to freak.”

“I'm gonna go soak in the tub,” Ryan said. “Come join me when you're finished. Oh, and be sure to tell your mom I love her.”

“I always do,” Jamie said.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Early the next morning, Jamie sat on the edge of the tub and once again dialed her mother's number. “Buon giorno,” she said in greeting.

“Hello, sweetheart,” Catherine said. “Did you sleep well?”

“Better, but still not great. Being with Ryan helps a lot. I know you're worried about her, so I thought I'd let you know that she got a decent nights rest, too.”

“I'm worried about both of you,” Catherine said. “I'm still not sure I did the right thing coming over here.”

“You can be home in a day if we need you, Mom. Being in Italy soothes your soul. I think you need that right now.”

“I do,” she admitted, “but being away from you is hard.”

“It's hard for me, too, but I'd be worried about you if you were down in Hillsborough. The reporters would really drive you mad.”

“Oh, Jamie, surely they've given up by now!”

“No, apparently they haven't. I called Marta last night to tell her that Ryan was okay, and she said that she drove by yesterday. She said they're all around the front entrance. I told her to not even think about going back until they're all gone.”

“Thank you for that, honey. There's nothing for her to do, anyway, other than take in the mail.”

“The mailman will hold it if there's too much. Don't worry about it.”

“Oh, I don't,” Catherine said. “The last week has taught me a lesson, Jamie. Those petty concerns of life are truly meaningless. All that matters is the people that you love.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Their flight to Miami was close to the time that the team flight left for San Francisco, so Ryan graciously accepted Coach Hayes' offer to ride with the group to the airport. Once they were in their seats, Jamie giggled, “I feel like I've been let into the inner sanctum.”

“Near as I can tell, you're the first person who's not affiliated with the team to ever ride on the bus,” Ryan said. “I hope you feel appropriately special.”

Coach Hayes came ambling down the aisle, and she stretched out in the seat just in front of the pair, giving them a surprisingly warm smile. “Are you feeling okay, Ryan? That was some tumble you took last night.”

“Yeah, I'm fine,” she said. “Luckily, I had time to curl myself up into a little ball to avoid hitting my head. That would have been nasty.”

“Everything okay upstairs?” she asked, tapping her own head.

The coach shot a quick glance at Jamie, and Ryan said, “I told her what happened after the Wake Forest game.”

“I'm worried about you,” the coach said quietly. “Do you often use alcohol to cope?”

“No, no, I don't,” Ryan said. “The sleeping pills just whacked me out, Coach. I'm very susceptible to things like that. I never should have taken them.”

“I uhm … feel like the world's biggest asshole for even asking this,” the coach said, “but I'd really like it if you'd come to the rest of our away games, Jamie. I don't think Ryan should be alone more than she has to be.”

“We're stuck like glue,” the blonde replied. “She's not getting out of my sight.”

Rolling her eyes, Ryan said, “I'll be fine once the hoopla has died down. With any luck, things will be normal by the time we get home. Once I can focus again, I'm sure I'll feel just fine.”

“I hope you two enjoy yourselves,” the coach said. “I can't think of anyone who needs a vacation more than you do.”

“Thanks,” Ryan said, smiling as the woman made her way back to her seat.

“Weird,” Jamie said. “Who's the real Mary Hayes? That one's positively sweet!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Part 4

“Ryan, if you don't take your nose away from the window, you'll break it if we have a bumpy landing.” Jamie was peering at her partner from the seat behind Ryan's, the narrow plane necessitating that they sit single file.

“Don't you love tiny planes?” the dark-haired woman asked, her voice nearly giddy. “It's like you're really flying!”

“We are flying, love,” Jamie gently said.

“No, no,” Ryan said, trying to make her point understood. “It's like you're flying … rather than a plane flying you.”

“I guess I can see your point,” she said. “You do feel a lot more in one of these little guys.”

“This is one thing I'd love to learn how to do,” Ryan said, her excitement nearly bubbling over.

“We can't afford it,” Jamie said to the back of her head, uttering that phrase for the first time in their relationship.

“WHOA!” Ryan's face was plastered against the glass as the plane made a steep, banked turn. But she wasn't commenting on the turn … she was commenting on the beautiful island that had just come into view. “Oh, baby!”

“Looks pretty nice,” Jamie said, peering out the window.

“I can't see!” Mia said.

“Shoulda picked the right side of the plane,” Ryan said. “You got first choice.”

“You'll see plenty when we land,” Jordan said. “I won't let you miss a thing.”

“Who am I kidding? You're the only thing I want to see,” Mia turned and smiled at the slight blush that colored Jordan's pale cheeks. “You've been inside so much you lost all of your tan. I hope you don't burn this weekend.”

“Not to worry. I generally don't burn, but I brought a lot of sun block, just in case. You can put it on me,” she said, her voice dropping to send a tingle down Mia's spine.

After a few good bounces, the small plane finally skidded to a halt, and the excited tourists climbed down the stairs and into a very warm, salt-infused breeze. “Thank you, Jesus!” Ryan cried as soon as the tropical air hit her lungs.

“What are you crying about, Boomer?” Jordan asked. “I've been ass-deep in snow for a month!”

“True, but I've been ass-deep in reporters. I'll take the snow any day.”

“I think we're safe here,” Jamie said tentatively, looking around the small airport terminal. “I don't see a news van or a satellite dish anywhere.”

“Jamers, I've said it before, but I'll say it again … you and your mother have the best ideas in the whole world!” As they walked out to hail a taxi, Ryan could feel some of the tension and stress she had been carrying begin to float away. She conjured up the mental image of letting the stress rise from her body and float up to the ceiling of the terminal, then turned and gave the ceiling a stern look, growling under her breath, “And stay there!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“For such a short distance, we sure have been in a lot of vehicles!” Ryan said as they got into their third. The first phase of their trip was in a cab from the airport to the ferry. From there, the short ferry ride placed them on Harbor Island, and now they were in their last conveyance — a cab headed for their hotel.

“I haven't been here before, so this is new to me, too,” Jamie said.

“We're gonna have a blast, aren't we, Jordy?” Mia declared, smiling at her partner.

“Jordy?” Ryan asked, grinning wickedly. “Did you say Jordy?”

Mia pinched the pale cheek of her lover, beaming a smile at her. “Doesn't she look like a Jordy?”

“She does indeed,” Ryan said, always happy to have another weapon in her teasing arsenal. “She's just a little Jordy-Poo.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Wow.” Ryan was on her fourth tour of their two-bedroom cottage, and so far that was the only word that had come out of her mouth.

“Honey, you've wowed your way around the whole place. Is that all you've got to say?”

“Wow.” The dark-haired woman walked out onto their teak deck, the wind off the ocean blowing her hair straight back off her forehead. She stood at the railing, the spa bubbling quietly next to her, and looked across the wide pink sand beach, into the crystal clear waters of the ocean.

When Jamie came up next to her, Ryan's arm encircled her shoulders. “I have never been so happy to be anywhere in my life,” she said, letting out a heavy sigh. As she filled her lungs with salt-air, her eyes grew wide and she hastily amended, “Except for Pebble Beach, of course.”

“That's a given,” Jamie said, patting her side.

“I've never felt as stressed as I have this past week,” Ryan said softly, her voice barely audible as it competed with the snapping of the fabric on the beach umbrellas on their private deck. “I hate to think of what would have happened if we'd had to go back home after that debacle in North Carolina. Knowing we were coming here was the only thing that got me through that last game.”

“It's just bad luck that this all happened during your season. Having to give those vultures the opportunity to get at you is just sickening.”

“Yeah. Thank God you're not playing your golf season now. You'd be shooting scores up in my range!”

“Well, we're here now, and we're not moving for three whole nights. And since you've had the harder time lately, you get to choose what we do. I'll go along with anything … surfing, snorkeling, rock climbing, horseback riding, deep sea fishing, sailing, kayaking …”

Ryan placed her fingertips on her lips and said, “You … me … a tropical drink … two beach chairs … that's it.”

“That's all you want to do for three days?” Jamie was certain that her partner was kidding. Ryan had an insatiable curiosity for places she had never been, and the smaller woman figured she would want to explore every inch of the small island.

“I would prefer to just stay on this deck, but I'm going to extend myself and go all the way down there,” Ryan said, pointing to the ocean … not 500 yards away.

“You're the boss. If you want to lie on a lounge chair for three days, I'm your woman.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

They went into the cottage where Jordan and Mia were already lying on their bed, their bodies fully entwined. Ryan reached in to close their door, quietly saying, “We're going to the beach. Enjoy!”

She smirked at her partner as she headed into their room. “Were we all over each other when we were first together?”

“Some observers would say we're all over each other now. Is your memory that poor?”

“No. It just seems like we've been together forever, you know? Seeing people just starting out reminds me of how much we've grown in the last few months.”

“Just over six months,” Jamie said. “We're gonna have to have a big celebration for our anniversary.”

“Sounds good to me. A celebration with you always includes good food, a lot of kissing and a lot of bare skin. Who's gonna argue?”

“Speaking of bare skin, here's a little present I bought for you.” Jamie tossed her partner two pieces of fabric, and Ryan caught them defensively when Jamie's aim was a little high.

“A new suit?”

“Yeah. I thought you'd look cute in that color.”

“It's nice,” Ryan said.

“It's called raspberry. The top covers your tummy,” she said. “I know you don't burn much, but your cute little tummy hasn't seen the sun since September, and I don't want you to hurt your precious skin.”

Ryan wrestled herself into the new suit and modeled for her partner. The tone on tone print -- in a color very reminiscent of the berry — becomingly flattered Ryan's body. The camisole-style top sported a deep v-neckline and sturdy spaghetti straps, designed to stay up even while surfing. The bottoms, which the manufacturer called “surf riders,” featured square cut legs with a one-inch inseam. The suit was made by a company that specialized in surfing gear for women, and Ryan decided that the ensemble would fill the bill very nicely.

“Those bottoms are for when you're active, like surfing or snorkeling,” Jamie informed her. “They're long enough so they won't ride up on you — since I know that's your pet peeve.”

“Indeed it is,” Ryan said. “Bottoms that ride up are pure evil.”

Jamie stuck her hand back into her suitcase and held out another pair of bottoms and dangled them in front of Ryan. “Can we play little dress-up games on the beach?” she asked tauntingly, a sexy smile affixed to her face.

“I suppose so,” Ryan said. She held up the bottoms, her eyes widening when she saw how little fabric there was. “Oh my! Will you protect my virtue when I'm out in public in this?”

“I'll protect yours if you'll protect mine,” Jamie said. She started to put her own new suit on, but was almost forced to stop by a very interested pair of hands.

“Oh, Jamie,” Ryan moaned, “I've never seen so much of you put on display … I can't guarantee that I won't get into a fight with the first guy who leers at you.”

“Do you like it?” the blonde asked. “That's all that matters.”

Ryan started to walk around her slowly, her head swiveling up and down to assess her partner's look from every angle. The suit was also a print … at least Ryan assumed it was. There was so little of it that the pattern barely had space to repeat, but she assumed that it was, indeed, a pattern. The background was somewhere between melon and peach, and that contrasted beautifully with the second color--a sunny yellow.

Every time Ryan tried to walk around her partner, she had to stop as soon as she saw her from the back. Four thin bands of material were all that covered Jamie's … assets. One band looped around her neck, and another mid-back, working together to hold up the top. A third came just above the swell of her cheeks, and the fourth bisected the lush mounds, making Ryan's mouth begin to water. That was the full extent of coverage, and Ryan decided that from that day forward, all other clothing was really superfluous. If Jamie could wear this and not be arrested, why on earth would she ever choose to wear more?

Blinking slowly, Ryan finally made a complete circle, pausing to gaze at her from the front for a long time. The suit consisted of two tiny swatches of the print fabric, just barely covering her perky nipples and a portion of her breast, and another little triangle that made the suit vaguely decent.

“Honey, you honestly look like you're gonna drool,” the blonde said. “Do you like it that much, or have you had a stroke?”

“Both, I think,” Ryan murmured, unable to keep her hands to herself. “Are you just trying to cut down on foreplay? 'Cause ya have,” she said. “I'm good to go.”

“It's a little early for that, because I have big plans for you for later tonight. You just slip into those tiny little bottoms, and we'll have a nice afternoon … simmering in the sun.”

“Oh, I'm simmering already,” Ryan growled.

“Easy, Tiger,” her partner said. “We've got a long day, and a longer night, ahead of us.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Jamie?” Ryan said as she batted her big blue eyes at her partner.

“Yes, love?”

“Will you go get me some more conch chowder?”

“Sure. There's a waiter right over there. I'll call him.”

“No,” she said, “I'd like it better if you went.” She was trying to look innocent, but her act always backfired, making her look especially decadent.

“You just want to watch me walk over there, Ryan. I'm on to your tricks.” She leaned over and kissed her partner lightly and said, “I love every one of them, too.” She got up, giving Ryan an additional hip thrust for good measure, and walked back to the small carry-out restaurant that the hotel maintained right on the beach.

When she returned, Ryan thanked her profusely, her devilish grin unstoppable. The dark-haired woman ate her soup with profound pleasure, having decided that conch should be one of the four basic food groups. When she finished, she smiled over at Jamie and said, “One more plate of those chicken skewers with mango and ginger, and I'll be satisfied.”

“Ryan,” Jamie's uncharacteristically deep voice asked, “did you know that you wanted the chicken when you sent me for the soup?”

“Uh-huh.” Big blue eyes danced merrily, giving the woman the appearance of a mischievous twelve-year-old.

“And you think that's funny, don't you?” Jamie asked sternly.

“No, it's not funny,” Ryan said. Now her blue eyes darkened, and she took on the appearance of a woman … a woman who had romance on her mind. Their chairs were touching along their lengths, and as Ryan spoke she leaned over so far that she was more on Jamie's chaise than her own. “When you walk across that deep sand, you have to sway your hips more than usual. Watching your body move when you walk that way is one of the most erotic things I've ever seen. The first time you walked over there, it was all I could do to not slip my fingers into this tiny suit and bring myself off,” she growled.

Jamie rolled onto her side, her face just inches from Ryan's. She traced her features with a finger, smiling when Ryan's eyes fluttered closed. “What about the second time?” she asked softly.

In response, Ryan grinned rakishly and averred, “I refuse to answer on the grounds that my answer might tend to incriminate me.”

Jamie blinked and asked, “Ryan! You didn't touch yourself in public!”

“No, I didn't,” she said. “But you made me so hot I almost had one of those rare spontaneous combustions.”

“You are randy today,” the blonde said. “Just the way I like you.” She got up again and said, “Luckily, I love you enough to walk back and forth across this sand all afternoon if it pleases you.”

“Ooo, it pleases me … Yes, indeed, it pleases me,” Ryan said as she rolled onto her stomach and placed her head on her braced arms to watch the show.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When Jamie returned, her partner was just as she had left her, and her dark sunglasses could not hide the decided leer that had settled on her face. “I honestly don't know if I like you better coming or going.”

An impish smile flickered across the blonde's features and she said, “I know I prefer to be coming …”

“When I'm through with you, you won't know whether you're coming or going,” Ryan said, waggling eyebrows punctuating her point.

“Sit up and eat your snack,” Jamie said. “You're gonna need your strength.”

Ryan propped up her chair and took a big cube of chicken into her mouth. “Boy, this is good!” she said, munching happily. “Can we move here? I think this place suits my personality perfectly.”

“Try the drink I brought you,” Jamie said. “It's the local specialty.”

Ryan shrugged and took a big sip, pausing reflectively while she let the liquid roll around in her mouth for a moment. “It's like coconut, but it also tastes like milk. A lot of sweetness, but the gin cuts that pretty effectively.” She smacked her lips together a few times and said, “I like it. A lot!”

“Then I guess we can move here,” she said. “I got a soft drink called Switcher … It's made locally, I think.” She took a sip and smiled broadly as she said, “This is good, too. Try it.”

Ryan did so, and decided that she liked it as well. She finished off her skewers quickly, and her coconut milk drink, then lowered her chair again and said, “I'm fed and watered. Time for my nap.”

“You do have simple needs, don't ya?”

“Yep. I just have four. I'm either hungry, horny, thirsty or sleepy. Cover those and you've solved the riddle of Ryan.”

“You're really not very complex,” Jamie said, “but I think you're a little more complex than that.”

“Maybe just a little,” Ryan said, “but it is time for my nap.”

“Let me put some extra sun block on your paler parts,” Jamie said. “I refuse to have those pink cheeks burned.”

“But I'm lying on my tummy.”

“Those aren't the cheeks I meant,” Jamie said. “You're not used to having this pair of cheeks exposed.”

“No, but I kinda like it,” Ryan said. “One step closer to nudity … my ultimate goal.”

Jamie sat on the edge of her chair, and started to rub the SPF 45 into Ryan's soft skin. She performed the job rather clinically, but Ryan's motor was running and she murmured, “ 'I'm horny' is just about to overtake 'I'm sleepy'.”

“Behave!” Slathering some of the lotion on the small of her back and down her thighs, Jamie said, “We really will be up late. You need a good long nap.”

“Okay,” the dark woman grumbled, a tiny smile threatening to overtake her fake frown. “You know what?”

“What?”

“I couldn't be happier. Lying under a nice palm tree on a pink sand beach, with clear blue water lapping against the shore, my best girl by my side, our best friends … somewhere around here, my tummy full.” She sighed and let out a satisfied purr. “Thanks so much for arranging for this.” She sat up a little and said, “I'm not sure why, but I really feel like I'm on vacation.”

“We are on vacation, silly,” Jamie said.

“No, no,” Ryan said. “I feel like I'm on vacation up here, too. I feel like I can turn off my movie for the first time since Thursday.”

“Best news I've heard in days. Now close those baby blues and sleep for a good, long time. I'll be right here beside you when you wake up.”

“ 'Kay,” she said, her voice already sleepy. Jamie lightly rubbed her back, watching her eyes as they stilled momentarily, and then began to dart about behind her lids.

That was quick, she said. Her tank was just about empty. Thank God we could get away for a few days. She needed this even more than she admits.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan stretched and twitched for a few minutes, trying to wake up slowly. Turning her head to the side she saw her partner, sound asleep, lying on her side. Oh, my, that's a nice sight to wake to. The tiny top that barely covered Jamie's breasts while she was sitting up did not do the trick when her partner lay on her side, and the dark pink edge of one adorable little nipple peeked out at Ryan. A nice woman would just lie here and wait for her to wake up, she said. Yeah, and who ever said you were a nice woman? Good point, she answered herself. Hmm … how best to wake her? There's no ice left in her glass so that's out … nothing around here but sand … Oh! What do we have here? A bamboo skewer … with a nice, sharp point. I can do all kinds of tricks with this.

She knew that Jamie was a tough one to wake in almost all circumstances, so she decided to indulge her desires and give that cute little nipple a poke to make it stand up and take notice. With a fiendish look on her face, she reached across the chair to take her first tentative tickle, not sure how much pressure she could apply while she entertained herself.

With reflexes faster than a cat, Jamie ripped the stick from her hand and broke it in half, all without the green eyes even blinking.

“What if that had been my finger?” Ryan gaped. “That crack would have been my bone!”

“That's the risk you take when you mess me with, cowboy.”

She couldn't stop the grin from showing, and Ryan asked, “How long have you been awake, you little faker?”

“Just a few minutes. You still looked like you were out, so I closed my eyes again. You caught me in a rare moment of lucidity.”

“Just my luck. I was all excited about torturing you for a good long while.”

“You are such an adolescent boy some times,” Jamie said, shaking her head at the silly grin her partner wore.

“You like my inner adolescent boy, and you know it,” Ryan said. “Remember, behind every adolescent boy is a furious libido just waiting to get out.”

“That randy libido can come out and play any old time it wants,” Jamie said, meaning every word.

“Great name!” Ryan said. “I think I'll keep that one.”

“Okay,” Jamie said. “If you ever become a porn star, your name will be Randy Libido.” She cocked her head and said, “It fits!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When they returned to the room, their roommates had emerged from their bedroom. Now they were ensconced in the spa, their mouths still attached to one another, their bodies completely bare. Glancing outside to the hot tub, Ryan commented dryly, “I don't think we're gonna see much of those two.”

“I'm actually seeing a little more of them than I wish to see,” Jamie said, rolling her eyes a bit.

Ryan shot her a look and said, “I'll speak to them if it bothers you.”

Jamie shook her head and said, “No, I'm joking. If they want to make love on the deck, it's okay with me. I wanted them to come because I really think they need some time alone.” She came over and pushed Ryan into a chair, climbing onto her lap and snuggling in. “Besides, when they're busy, I don't have to share you.”

“Oh … feeling jealous?” Ryan rubbed her face into Jamie's neck, delighting in the scent of her tanning lotion mixed with the tang of salt.

“Always. I want to hoard you like a precious metal.” They kissed, softly and slowly, taking their time with each other … letting the emotion build at a glacial pace. The tender kisses went on and on, and soon Ryan lost track of where they were and the fact that their friends were just outside. She reached down and took Jamie's hand, then placed it on her own breast and squeezed firmly, letting out a little grunt.

Vaguely becoming aware of a rustling sound and a flurry of motion in her peripheral vision, Ryan slowly came to her senses. “Do you two ever give it a rest?” Mia asked, her pink body wrapped in a towel.

Lifting her head just long enough to utter the word, “No,” Ryan returned to her partner, continuing to nibble on her lips.

“Uhm … do you wanna have dinner together?” Mia continued hesitantly, unused to her friends playing intimately in her presence.

“Mmm,” Ryan purred sexily, mumbling around Jamie's mouth and tightening her embrace, not giving any indication of stopping her exploration.

“Uhm … okay. Uhm … talk to you later?” the curly-haired woman said, as she started for her bedroom.

Ryan started chuckling, and soon Jamie joined her, both of them laughing harder every time they looked at each other. “Mia, come back here. You have to forgive Ryan's atrocious manners,” she said. “She's very bratty today.”

“I'm not bratty,” Ryan said. “I'm playful. Big difference.”

“Okay, Ryan's playful today. Whatever you call it, watch out.”

“I like it when Ryan's a little wild,” Mia said. She was standing by the pair, and she ran her hand through Ryan's messy hair, settling it a little. “You haven't been very goofy in a while, Ryan,” she said, her concern evident. “I hope you can relax down here.”

“Doing my best, Mia. I had a nice lunch, a nice nap … even a nice coconut milk drink this afternoon. Just what the doctor ordered.”

Jordan had slipped on some running shorts and a mesh tank top, and she came into the living room and sat on the sofa. She adopted one of her favorite poses, sitting with her feet pulled up on the cushion, the soles of them touching.

“I will never understand how you can get into that position,” Ryan said.

“Yoga,” she said. “I've been slacking off for a while, but I'm concentrating on it again now that I'm not in school. You should try it, Ryan. It's great for your balance and posture.”

“I think the last thing I need right now is another thing to do,” Ryan said, “but I may look into it when the season's over. I know a bit, and I was on the verge of really getting into it, but I uhm … lost my motivation.”

“Was your motivation by any chance a yoga instructor?” Jamie asked, recognizing the look her partner had on her face.

“Yup. She was one flexible woman,” Ryan said, grinning at the memory.

“Goodness, I have a lot to compete against,” Jamie said. “Body builders, yoga instructors, what else don't I know about?”

“You don't have to compete with anyone,” Ryan said. “You've won the contest … hands down.”

“Awww … that's so sweet,” Jamie said. “You deserve a kiss for that.”

As she leaned in to give her partner her reward, Mia advised, “Let us know about dinner … if you come up for air by then.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

They came up for air quickly, and Jamie suggested a dip in the spa. Ryan was stripping as she walked, unconcerned as usual about her nudity. Jamie decided to shed her inhibitions as well, and given that her suit was nearly invisible, she didn't have many to shed. It felt strangely decadent to be sitting on their private deck, the warm sun and even warmer water caressing their nude bodies.

“Yo, Jordan!” Ryan called toward the open door to their roommates' bedroom.

“You rang?” The blonde head poked out of the room. Ryan was pleased to see that her friend was still clothed, and she didn't look like she'd been in bed for a change.

“Could you go into the mini bar and get me a beer?”

“Sure. Jamie? One for you?”

“No. I'll have some of Ryan's.”

Jordan went into the bar and called back out, “Kalik okay?”

“Sure. I love all things Bahamian,” Ryan said.

“Mind if I join you?” Jordan asked, bearing two bottles.

“Please do,” Ryan said. “Keep us company.”

The dark-haired woman took a long swallow, then leaned her head back against the edge of the tub. “I swear I'm Bahamian at heart. I love everything about this place.” She looked up at Jordan and asked, “Can't you see me running a little surf shop down here? Surf early in the morning, work for a few hours, eat a little conch for lunch, work a little more, then go snorkeling for a bit … maybe a nice ride across the beach on my horse, play my steel drum while my baby makes dinner, have a couple of Kaliks while we watch the sun set.” She gave her partner a devilish look and said, “Make love on the beach with the moonlight playing across Jamie's body. What could be better?”

“I can see it,” Jordan said. “I think it suits you.”

They were all quiet for a while, thinking of how peaceful it all sounded. The realistic part of Ryan knew that it would never happen — that she could never be away from her family — but the fantasy was like a balm for her spirit, given the tumult of the previous week.

“So, tell us all about life at the training facility,” Jamie asked. “I know you talk to Ryan on the phone, but she never tells me a thing.” She playfully poked her partner in the ribs.

“Okay.” Jordan leaned her head back and thought for a moment, then said, “It's kinda like being in college, only you don't have to go to class. They have dorms and a big cafeteria, and fabulous training facilities, but most of the women on the team don't live in the dorms. It's sort of a college atmosphere in the dorms, and they allow high school kids to stay there when they come to the facility for a short time. It's not a very relaxing atmosphere.”

“Sounds like it,” Jamie said.

“As soon as I go back, I'm moving into an apartment with three of the players. I can live in the dorm for free, but I don't think I'd be happy there long term. We practice so much that when I don't have to be there I want some normalcy in my life.”

“Tell Jamie how much you practice, Jordan,” Ryan said. “She thinks I have a tough schedule.”

“It depends on the day, but with skills drills, plyometrics, weight training, scrimmages and matches, we usually work around 8 hours a day — with weekends off, of course.”

“8 hours a day! How can you do that? And what is a plyo … what?”

“Plyometrics,” Jordan said. “That's the training we do to make us jump and leap with more power. And yeah, 8 hours a day is a lot, but we usually only stick with one drill for an hour or so. There's enough variety that you don't mind it so much.”

“Do you like it?” Jamie asked, having been unable to get a read on Jordan's enthusiasm.

“Yeah, I like it well enough. I've been to a lot of intensive camps and training programs in my life, and this one is about the same. The quality of the athletes is better, of course, but other than that it's about the same as all the rest. It's a lot of work, some time to rest, and then you go to bed early.” She shrugged her shoulders and said, “There's really not much to report. I like the women well enough, but not many of them took the time to get to know the college women — since only a couple of us were going to hang around. I assume we'll get to be friendlier as time passes.”

“Do you go out and do anything?” Jamie asked.

“Mmm … not really. Making the team was all that mattered, Jamie, so we all worked our asses off. When we get back to Colorado, they're supposed to have a big party at one of the local bars to celebrate the new team members. That should be fun.”

“But you're happy you made it, right?” Jamie asked, still not seeing much emotion.

“Oh, yeah,” Jordan said, giving one of her full, warm smiles. “It's been tremendously rewarding, Jamie. It's a life-long dream come true. Not many people get to live their dreams.”

“Not many people even have them,” Jamie said. “Most people just muddle along and let life take them where it may.”

“I'm not one of those people,” Jordan said.

“No, I'd say not,” Jamie said.

Mia came out, fresh from a shower, and she sat next to Jordan as the pair shared a beer. “Ryan wants to move here,” Jordan said.

“I'm in,” the smaller woman said. She looked up at her partner for a moment and asked, “Can you imagine how gorgeous this one would be after a few months down here? All of that tanned skin, with her hair just getting lighter and lighter. I'd never let you wear more than a bikini top and a sarong.”

Jordan looked at Mia with a fond expression and said, “Oh, you wouldn't, would you?”

“Nope. Just a sarong, worn really, really low on your hips. Of course, some part of me would be under that sarong most of the time,” she said. “You wouldn't have a moment's peace.”

“I don't need a moment's peace,” Jordan said quietly, looking like she was about to cry. “I just need you.”

Jamie shot Ryan a look, and they decided to give their friends a little alone time. They got out of the spa quietly, sparing a quick glance at Mia, who looked like she was on the verge of revealing her feelings for the tall woman. It was all Jamie could do not to say, “Go for it, girl!” but she just took Ryan's hand, and went back into the cottage to shower and get ready for dinner.

As soon as they were gone, Jordan took Mia by the hand and lay down on one of the chaises, cuddling the smaller woman tightly against her body. “It just hit me that I probably won't have any time off until the end of September,” she said, her voice quavering with emotion. “I can't stand to think of not seeing you for that long, Mia. The team doesn't pay me much, but I can get some modeling jobs to get some extra cash. Will you come see me if I pay for your ticket?” she asked, her eyes filled with a mixture of hope and despair.

“Of course I'll come see you,” Mia said. “How could you even ask that?” She kissed her softly, spending a moment experiencing the incredible softness of the full, warm lips. “You don't have to pay for me to come see you, Jordan. I get a very decent allowance. I just don't always manage it well. But I'll save every penny if I get to see you in the bargain.”

“You are so good to me,” Jordan sighed, looking into Mia's warm brown eyes with wonder.

“You deserve to be treated well, Jordan. You're a very special woman.”

“When I'm with you I feel special,” she said softly, a faint blush coloring her cheeks. Jordan's eyes fluttered closed as she whispered, “I … I love … I love … how you treat me, Mia.” Her whole body was shaking, and Mia held her close, wishing she could get her hands on Jordan's parents and kick their butts for making this wonderful woman feel like she deserved so little.

“I care for you, Jordan. I care very, very much,” she said, rocking her slowly as she held her close and placed a wealth of delicate kisses on her brow.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        
“Honey,” Jamie said as Ryan was getting out of the shower. “Mia and I are going to walk down to the liquor store.”

“Let me go too,” she said. “I'll just be a sec.”

“No, you stay here and dry your hair. We'll be right back.”

“I don't dry my hair in the tropics,” Ryan sniffed. “I'm free and wild down here.” She tossed her dark head, hitting her partner with a scattering of water droplets.

Giving her partner a silly grin, Jamie said, “Okay … then, how about I tell the truth? I want to spend a few minutes with Mia alone. She looks a little upset.”

“Coulda started there,” Ryan said. “Saved me from speaking a few needless sentences.”

“You relax with Jordan for a bit. I'm sure she's got some things on her mind, too.”

“Sensitive chat time, huh?”

“Not sure,” Jamie said. “I just feel like something's up.”

“You're rarely wrong, hon. You two be careful, okay? You have a propensity for getting into trouble.”

Jamie gave her a smile and said, “Look who's talking. Trouble is your middle name.”

Ryan had finished drying off and was looking around for something to put on. Jamie handed her one of the terry cloth robes the hotel provided, and as she shrugged into it she said, “I don't know why that's true. Especially when my personal motto is, 'Is fear rith maith ná drochsheasamh'.”

“Which means?” Jamie asked, cocking her head a little.

“A good run is better than a bad stand,” Ryan said, adding a rakish wink.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan sat on the deck, her long legs propped up on the railing. The sun had just set, and as she watched the small waves breaking on the shore she allowed herself to enjoy the deep sense of tranquility that enveloped her.

Jordan came out and sat next to her, reaching over to grasp her dangling hand. The blonde brought it to her lips and kissed the knuckles, smiling at Ryan when she lazily turned in her direction. “Thanks so much for this, Boom. It's gonna be a long nine months, and being able to remember this weekend will get me through some lonely nights.”

“I'm glad you're both here,” Ryan said. “It wouldn't seem like New Year's without our friends here with us.”

“This is slightly preferable to last year,” the blonde said. “I went on a blind date with some guy who got stinking drunk and grabbed me so many times that I actually had bruises. He was one of those tonsil ticklers, too.” She shivered from the memory and said, “I think that was my last date until Mia.”

Ryan gave her a smile and said, “Mine wasn't bad, but I had a few bruises myself.” She shook her head as she recalled, “Thanks to Jamie's urgings, I'd finally decided to find a steady girlfriend.”

“Jamie's urgings?”

“Yep. I'm not sure what her real motivation was … she probably doesn't know either … but she thought I would be happier if I let someone get close.” She gave Jordan a smile and said, “I am happier, by the way, so I can't fault her reasoning.”

“Who was the woman?” Jordan asked.

“A woman from school. Nice person … met her in the same psych class where I met Jamie. Anyway, I decided to do things differently with her and not sleep with her until I knew her well. She was generally cool with that, but she got a little drunk on New Year's Eve, and she tried her best to get me to give it up.” She shook her head in memory and related, “I was close … but I kept thinking of Jamie, and that she would be disappointed in me if I didn't follow through like I said I would.” Glancing at Jordan she said, “I think both Jamie and I knew there was something going on between us, but we just couldn't admit it. I think that's why I didn't sleep with my date that night. She just wasn't Jamie.”

Jordan nodded somberly and slowly tilted her head back until she was gazing up at the faint stars, barely visible against the pale blue background of the sky. “Speaking of admitting something, I almost told Mia I loved her this afternoon.”

“You know,” Ryan said, “I don't know why, but it seemed like you were both headed there. That's why we left. It seemed like there was a lot of emotion whirling around out here.”

“Yeah, there was,” she said. “I lost my nerve right in the middle of it, of course. I told her I love … how she treats me.”

“Ouch,” Ryan said, wincing. “Well, look at the bright side … you can always do it later. Some poor woman told me that she loved me once. I gave her this totally stupid look and said, “That's nice.” She slapped herself in the head and grumbled, “Think I was stuck on myself enough?”

“Aw … don't be so hard on yourself. What else can you say when someone tosses that at you when you're not ready for it?”

“Is that what you're worried about, Jordan? Are you afraid Mia doesn't feel the same?”

The blonde hair brushed against Jordan's shoulders as she shook her head. “No, not any more. I mean … she talks about us like we're a couple, Ryan. Did you hear her talking about living down here? I think she really wants us to be together for a long time … I think she does love me, Ryan.”

She said this with so much regret in her voice that Ryan was completely puzzled. “Is that a bad thing?” she asked.

“No, no, it's a good thing. It's a very good thing … but only in some ways.” She looked up at Ryan and said, “What do I do, Ryan? I can't have her just hang around and wait for me to quit playing my little game. I'm gonna be all over the world this year … we play in Asia, and Europe and South America. That's not the way to start a relationship, Ryan. I just don't know that it's fair to her.”

“You have to let her determine what's fair for her, Jordan. She's a big girl, and she can make her own decisions. Be honest with her and let her decide … You owe her that much.”

She nodded, acknowledging that Ryan had a point. “I'll see if the time is right. I'm thinking about asking her to stay in Florida for a few days to watch our tournament. Would she have any trouble switching her tickets?”

“No, they're fully refundable. She can change them as many times as she wants.”

“Maybe I'll talk to her at the end of the tournament and see if she thinks we should commit to each other. Then she'll know what it's like to be around the team, and if she can see herself fitting in.”

“She's not trying out for the team, Jordan. It doesn't matter if she doesn't like the other women.”

“Well, in a way it does, Ryan. I'm gonna share an apartment with three of them. It would be a long year if Mia hated 'em.”

“Are they nice women?”

She shrugged and said, “Two are. They're a couple, so they're gonna share a room — which will give me a single. But the other woman is kinda … oh, I don't know. She seems to have a thing for me … makes me a little uncomfortable.”

“You don't have a lot of experience with this yet, pal. You'll figure out how to say no without being rude.”

“Yeah, I know. Hey!” she said. “If I bring Mia to Florida that will give my teammate the message.”

“Her and everyone else you encounter,” Ryan said.

Jordan blinked at her and said, “I don't know why I was so freaked about anyone finding out about me. The whole team is totally cool with the lesbians, and the coaching staff is as well. I'm gonna poke my head out of the closet and see how the world looks.”

“I think you'll like the view,” Ryan said. “Just make sure that Mia wants her head poked out as well.”

Jordan rolled her eyes and said, “If it's not one thing, it's another! Damn, sometimes I envy straight people. All they have to work on is the relationship. They don't have to spend time worrying about what society will think of them.”

“Yeah, but they don't get to have a parade,” Ryan said, her eyes crinkling up in a grin.

“Well, that makes it all even out,” Jordan said, slapping Ryan playfully.

They relaxed for a few more minutes, just listening to the distant sound of the waves hitting the shore. Jordan reached over, and placed a hand on Ryan's shoulder and asked, “It's been over a week now, buddy, how are you?”

“Really?” Ryan asked. “Sure you want to know?”

“Of course!” Jordan said. “Damn, Ryan, I've shown you the darkest corners of my psyche. Of course I want to hear how you're dealing with this. That's what friends are for.”

“You're right,” she said. She spent a moment thinking of her current emotional state, then said, “It's a little hard to describe … the only way I can think of it is in terms of weather.”

“Weather?”

“Yeah. It feels like it's one of those nice, warm, breezy days in the middle of summer. It looks just perfect out, but there's something — some indefinable feeling — that gives you the sense that things aren't what they seem. Without warning, the weather changes dramatically, and you get a horrible thunderstorm — with rain, and hail and maybe even a tornado. In retrospect, you knew something bad was going to happen, but you just couldn't put your finger on it.” She shrugged her shoulders and said, “That's how I feel. I know something bad, and dark and devastating is right under the surface — but I'm in this wonderful place with the woman I love, and our best friends. I'm trying my best to really enjoy this — but it's hard to relax, because I know it won't last long.” She shivered from head to toe and added, “It's hard for me to talk about this. Can we stop?”

Jordan got out of her chair, and crouched down in front of her friend. “Sure, we don't have to talk about it. But if you change your mind, I'm never more than a phone call away. I've been through some tough times, too, Ryan, and I want to help you through this if I can.”

Leaning forward, Ryan kissed the silky blonde hair and said, “Thanks. I know you'll be there for me. I'm just trying to keep a lid on for a few days, buddy. I'm trying to hold reality off for as long as possible.”

Jordan wasn't at all sure that was the best idea, but she knew that Ryan wasn't easily dissuaded when her mind was made up, so she just gave her a hug and stood up. “Another beer?” she asked.

“Yeah. I'd love one,” she said, giving her friend as relaxed a smile as she could fashion.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Walking down the shop-filled streets of Eleuthra, Mia patted her friend's shoulder and asked, “How are things, babe? You both seem remarkably sane, given what you've been through in the last week.”

“I'm afraid that 'seem' is the operative word,” Jamie said. “We're both really shaky, Ryan more so than I am.”

“She doesn't seem shaky. Is she good at hiding things like that?”

“Yeah, she is,” Jamie said. “She seems to think that she can just stuff her feelings down, and they'll eventually go away. She's balking at going to therapy with me, which scares me. I'm afraid it's really going to be a struggle.”

“Is she antagonistic to therapy?”

“No, she's very supportive of my being in therapy, and she's benefited from it herself when she was younger.”

“Why the change?” Mia asked. “If it helped her before, it seems kinda odd that she's resisting now.”

“I can only assume that she's never been this frightened and this angry,” Jamie said. “I think the intensity of her feelings really scares her. In the past, she's mostly been dealing with grief — this is so much more than that. She's angry, she's frightened, she feels guilty about contributing to that guy's death … It's so much for her to deal with.”

“If you ever want to talk about it, you'll let me know, right, James?”

“You're first on my list, Mia. Well, the emergency number for my therapist is technically first — but you're the first one that I call when I'm not on the clock!”

“I don't mind being second to a professional,” Mia said. “I just want you to remember that both of you were involved, hon. This isn't all about Ryan, you know.”

“I know, Mia,” Jamie said. “I have my issues, too. It's just easier for me to focus on Ryan right now. As soon as we get back, I'm going to be sitting on Anna's doorstep when she arrives every morning. She'll yank me out of focusing on Ryan,” she said.

They walked along, looking into shop windows, and Mia pulled to a stop in front of an elegant jewelry store. Wistfully, she asked, “Do lesbians get engaged?”

“Uhm … I guess so,” Jamie said. “I mean, I've never known any who have, but I don't see why you couldn't.” She tucked an arm around Mia's waist and said, “You're really hooked, aren't ya?”

“Oh, God, it's awful! I desperately want to quit school and go back to Colorado with her.” Looking at the rings, she said, “I used to pass by jewelry stores and pick out the ring that I thought would look best on me. Now I try to find the one that would show off those long, elegant fingers.” She gave Jamie a racy grin and asked, “Have you ever looked at her hands? I swear, she has the longest fingers I've ever seen!”

“Is that a good thing?” Jamie asked.

“Now that I've taught her how to use them, it is,” Mia said, giggling. She took Jamie's hand and they started to walk again. “I've got to tell her how I feel, James. It's just not fair to hold it in any longer.”

“You'll do it as soon as you think the time is right,” Jamie said. “Be honest with her, honey. That's always the best option.”

“But I have so much training in deceit,” the curly haired brunette said. “I'm ill prepared for this honesty stuff.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“I had a feeling that you couldn't resist a little shopping,” Ryan said as she watched her partner and Mia struggle up to the cottage.

“They had the coolest stuff!” Mia said. “I'm gonna dress my sweetie like a Bahamian princess!”

“I'm game,” Jordan said as she stood to help her friends bring their loot in. “I'm a little bummed I didn't get to go with you, though, I love to shop.”

“You are the perfect woman,” Mia sighed, standing on her tiptoes to offer a kiss. “Gorgeous, sexy, fun-loving, athletic … and you like to shop. It's like being with a gay man!”

“A gay man has one asset I lack,” Jordan said playfully.

“Not really,” Mia said. “He might have one, but I couldn't make it work right, so why bother? Besides,” she said, flicking a finger across Jordan's breast, “You have two assets that a guy doesn't have, and I've discovered that I'm remarkably fond of them.”

Jamie said, “You know, this is Ryan's one weakness. She dislikes shopping so much, it's almost like being with a guy — a straight guy, that is.”

“Hey! I resent that!” the dark beauty cried.

“Do you dispute it?” Jamie asked.

“No, but I still resent it,” she said. “You know I'll shop with you if you ask me to.”

Jamie rolled her eyes at her friends and said, “She just doesn't get it. Shopping is no fun if your companion accompanies you just because you ask her to.” She shook her head regretfully, and said, “She just doesn't have the gene.”

“Let me show you what I got for you,” Mia said to Jordan, her excitement building. “You're gonna look soooooo sexy.”

“Just put it on, guys. Take it off each other later,” Ryan said. “I want to have dinner soon.”

“We'll be ready in a flash,” Mia said. “Where are we going?”

“Dinner is included with the room,” Jamie advised. “Do you want to go to the restaurant, or have dinner delivered here?” She shot Ryan a look and said, “I already know your vote.”

“Here's fine with me,” Jordan said. “We can turn on the radio and dance on our deck.”

“That works for me,” Mia said.

“I'm surrounded by agoraphobics,” Jamie said, but she dutifully went to phone in their order.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Are you in a blue mood, a red mood, or a pink mood?” Jamie asked when they reached their room.

“I'm not in any particular mood,” Ryan said. “You may dress me up like your little doll.”

“Okay,” Jamie said, a happy smile on her face. “I think I'll dress you in the outfit I brought for you from home.”

“You brought me something from home?”

“Yeah. I got a few things when I bought your new suit. I knew you hadn't packed hardly anything, and I was not going to have you wearing your warm-ups all weekend.”

“So, let me see what I'm wearing,” Ryan said, as she doffed her robe. “What kind of underwear do I need?”

“None,” Jamie said, batting her eyes. “I've taken care of everything.”

She handed Ryan a pair of satin panties in a pure white. “Ooo, a thong,” Ryan said. Stepping into the panties, she slid them up her powerful thighs and smoothed them into place, adding a sexy hip shake to keep her partner interested.

Smacking her dry lips together, Jamie handed her a long strip of dark blue and white print fabric. Ryan accepted it and gazed at her partner in question. “It's a bandeau top. Let me help you put it on.” Ryan smiled at her, and stole a few kisses as Jamie urged her to bend over so she could more easily reach her. She slipped the material around Ryan's back and cradled her breasts into the fabric, then she tied the ends together, a neat little knot nestling between Ryan's full breasts. “Stand up, and let me make sure you're covered.” Ryan did so, and Jamie fussed with the fabric for a moment until she was satisfied with the look. “Perfect,” she said, bending to place a gentle kiss on each breast.

“Do I get more, or am I finished?” Ryan said.

“I've got a little more for you,” Jamie said. She handed her a pair of slacks—unstructured, with a drawstring waist. The casual nature of the slacks was offset by the luxurious fabric -- a pure silk, white as the moon.

“These are gorgeous,” Ryan murmured, stepping into them. Jamie adjusted them so they hung down low, just past her navel, which the smaller woman tickled for good measure.

“One more tiny item,” Jamie said, handing Ryan a blouse made out of the finest, most translucent fabric she had ever seen.

“What is this?” Ryan gaped, holding the fabric up to the light.

“It's gossamer,” she replied. Jamie settled it on her shoulders, then buttoned the two buttons and tied the tail off just under Ryan's breasts. She stood back to take her partner in, but decided that she needed to see her under the moonlight. Taking her by the hand, they walked through the open doors of their room and stood on the deck, the brilliant light of the moon shining down on them. “You are an absolute vision of beauty,” the smaller woman murmured, her eyes unable to stop raking up and down her partner's body.

“I feel beautiful when I see how your eyes sparkle when you look at me,” Ryan said softly, her blush visible even in the moonlight. “Not many people have made me feel beautiful. It's a very nice feeling.” She bent and kissed Jamie softly, letting her emotion spill out through the kiss. “Now let me revel in your beauty,” she whispered.

Smiling up at her, Jamie took her hand and went back into their room. “One more thing,” the smaller woman said. She took out a thin band of the blue and white print and tied it around Ryan's hair as a headband, keeping the untamed, slightly wavy locks back from her face. “Okay, you can go outside now,” she said.

“I don't get to watch you get dressed?”

“Nope. Go make us a drink. I bought everything to make your favorite new concoction.”

“All right,” Ryan grumbled, her shoulders drooping a little in disappointment.

Jamie patted her on the butt and chided, “Don't pout, now. I like to fuss a little, and that's hard to do when you watch me.”

“Well, given that I always enjoy the finished product, I guess I shouldn't complain.”

“That's the spirit. Now scoot.”

Ryan walked into the living room and started to concentrate on re-creating the rich local drink, throwing out her first three attempts. Tasting her fourth try she mused, Hmm … a little more coconut water and I'm there.

A pair of warm arms encircled her waist and she lost track of what she had been doing as her body reacted automatically, her hips unconsciously swaying against her partner. Placing her drink on the bar, she turned in Jamie's embrace and immediately let out a low whistle. “Good God,” she whispered. “Are you sure I didn't die when I fell on the court in North Carolina? There's no way that a creature as beautiful as you are can be a mere human.”

“I bet you say that to all the angels,” Jamie said, leaning back in her embrace to regard her lovingly.

“No, I don't,” Ryan said. “I'm a one woman woman … here in heaven as well as on earth.”

“Is that true, Ryan?” Jamie asked softly. “Would you choose me over every other person on earth as well as in heaven?”

“In this world … in the next. No matter what form we're in … if it's possible to be with you for all eternity, that is my choice. You're the only woman in my life,” the dark-haired beauty whispered. “Forever and ever.”

“I love you, Ryan.” She stood tall and let her partner come to her. Their lips met gently, just tasting each other for a few moments, knowing they had plenty of time to savor each other later in the evening.

Ryan pulled back a little and murmured, “I haven't had a chance to fully appreciate your dress. Will you model for me?”

“Sure.” Giving her partner a sexy grin, Jamie stepped back and did a slow turn, twitching her hips a little as she did so. Ryan took in the grass-green and sunny yellow print, marveling at the fine, intricate pattern of the material. The dress was sleeveless and nearly backless, obviously held up by some temporary suspension of the laws of nature. The bodice fit like a second skin, and then the dress flared just enough to allow Jamie to move freely. It was short … just about the perfect length in Ryan's educated opinion…with a slit in the back that allowed the cool blue eyes to get an occasional glimpse of creamy white thigh.

“That is the perfect dress,” Ryan said. “I don't know how you do it, but you've once again managed to highlight every one of your many glorious assets. Just spectacular, Jamie.”

“Aren't you glad one of us likes to shop?” she asked rhetorically as she took her partner's hand and led her onto the deck.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jordan and Mia had just emerged from their room at the opposite end of the cottage. Their outfits were tailor made for each woman's individual style, highlighting her distinctive coloring. Jordan wore a sky blue bandeau top covered with a print of bright white hibiscus flowers. A low-slung sarong hung on her hips, the fabric the mirror opposite of her top — pure white with sky blue hibiscus dotting it.

Mia wore something she described as a pareo dress. A long swath of fabric draped over one shoulder, then covered her chest and wrapped around her waist, covering everything required and not much more. The background was a deep tan, almost the color of café con leche, with a bright white over-print.

“Very nice, girls,” Ryan said, enormously glad they had decided to stay in. There were a large number of single men on the island — mostly college guys from the States—in Eleuthra for a little warm-water surfing. She knew that they'd be fending guys off all night, given their alluring styles of dress — and the last thing she wanted was any more stress.

“Who knew such a beautiful woman lurked under those big T-shirts and jeans?” Jordan said, drawing a slight flush from her tall friend.

“I might surprise you, but surely Jamie doesn't,” Ryan said, trying to get the spotlight off herself. “She's gorgeous in everything she wears.”

“This is true,” Jordan said. “You look fabulous, Jamie,” she said, her eyes reflecting the sincerity of her compliment.

They heard a sharp knock on the front door, and Jamie went to answer. Two young men delivered four trays, with a cornucopia of delectable scents bursting from beneath their metal coverings. They efficiently set the outdoor table with linen, then arranged the meals, adding a bottle of wine in a chilled bucket. Jamie signed for the meal, then said, “Oops! We forgot to set the candles out, Mia!” She ran into their room and brought out eight large candles, each covered with a hurricane-style glass cover.

She and Mia arranged them along the deck railing and got them all lit. The candles provided a warm glow to the table, and a flattering golden blush to their faces.

The restaurant featured four different entrees, and Jamie had ordered one of each. They looked at the choices, and each woman gravitated to the one that most appealed to her, luckily, each drawn to a different one. “I thought you'd pick the tenderloin of beef,” Jamie said to her partner.

“Do they raise cattle in the Bahamas?” Ryan asked, continuing her quest for all things authentic.

“No, dear, they do not,” Jamie said.

“Then it is not for me,” she said, planting herself in front of the mahi-mahi.

Given the contented look on Ryan's face, Jamie decided it was not the time to tell her that mahi-mahi was a Hawaiian fish.

The food tasted even better than it looked, which was tough to accomplish. “What is the name of this soup again?” Ryan asked, looking like she was going to eat the bowl.

“That's a tiger shrimp bisque with a dash of cognac,” Jamie said. “You seem a little fond of it,” she added.

“I knew I loved soup, but between this and that conch chowder, I honestly think I could live on it.”

“Try mine,” Jamie said. Ryan took a sip and rolled her eyes in pleasure. “Leek and potato with a little smoked mahi-mahi.”

Ryan batted her eyes and begged, “Can you make that at home, honey? I'll love you forever.”

“Sure. I think I could get close to it,” she said.

“I miss our dinners,” Jordan sighed. “Wasn't it nice to come home from volleyball practice and have Jamie and Mia waiting for us, dinner just about on the table? That's the most normal family dining experience I'd ever had,” the blonde murmured.

Mia reached over and grasped her hand, saying, “We'll have that again, I promise you.”

Jordan blinked at her, her eyes growing wide as she let the dream settle in her brain. Her eyes fluttered closed as she said, “Thanks, Mia, that means a lot. It'll give me something to look forward to.”

“Yeah, and while Jordan's perfecting her volleyball skills, you can perfect your cooking skills,” Ryan said.

Mia smiled sweetly and said, “I was promising that one day we'd live with you two again. Don't get carried away, Boomer.”

“I misspoke,” Ryan said, giving Mia a fond glance. “We'd love to have both of our dependents back.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When they finally finished their leisurely meal, they covered the demolished platters with the metal domes as Jordan went in to find some acceptable music. She tuned to a local station that featured a slow, sexy reggae beat, hoping that the song wasn't an anomaly, then stayed in front of the stereo for a few minutes, pleased when the next song carried the same theme. The announcer, in his clipped, British-accented English, proclaimed that it was a night for love … and Jordan knew she had found the correct station.

“Nice choice,” Ryan said when she came back onto the deck.

Jamie approached, extending her arms towards her partner, who immediately wrapped her in a light embrace as they began to sway to the music. Jordan and Mia did the same, and within a few minutes each couple felt like they were all alone on their deserted island of peace.

“I will never be able to thank your mother enough for suggesting this, and making it happen,” Ryan murmured.

“I hope she's having a good time,” the smaller woman said. “I worry about her being in Italy all alone.”

“I don't think she's alone,” Ryan said.

“Ryan,” Jamie said, looking directly into her eyes, “what would make you feel more lonely? Being alone, or being here in the Bahamas while I was here with my husband? Even if I could spare several afternoons to be with you and make love, wouldn't you feel completely alone?”

Ryan nodded slowly, forced to look at the reality of Catherine's situation. “I don't like to think about it,” she admitted quietly. “I try to convince myself that she has this set up the way she wants it.” She shook her head as she acknowledged, “Nobody really wants it that way, do they?”

“Giacomo might,” Jamie said, “but he'd probably rather have someone that satisfied him completely, too.”

“She can have that,” Ryan said. “She just has to decide that she won't settle for less.”

“She's settled for so long that I think it's second nature to her now,” Jamie said. “I hope it's not too late for her to wake up and demand more.”

“It's not,” Ryan said, her eyes showing her confidence. “We'll help her get her self-esteem back. That's all she needs … a view of herself like we see her.”

“I love that you say 'we',” Jamie whispered. “It makes me feel so good to know that you love her, too.”

“I do,” Ryan said. “I love her, and I want the best for her. We just have to support her until she wants the best for herself. She'll get there; I know it in my heart.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“May I?” Mia asked after tapping Jamie on the shoulder.

“Sure,” Jamie said. “May I dance with your girlfriend?”

“Yep. Don't wear her out though, I've got big plans for her,” she said.

“Like I don't?” Jamie asked. She placed Ryan's hand in Mia's significantly smaller one, and patted them both on the back.

Mia placed her arms around Ryan's bare waist and leaned in close. “I'm so glad we're here with you,” the smaller woman said.

“It is idyllic,” Ryan said.

“No, even though the place is wonderful, I'm talking about how nice it is to be with you and Jamie.” They swayed to the music for a few minutes, just relishing the warm, salt-tinged air. “You know, I was afraid she was never going to get the love she deserved, Ryan.” Her big brown eyes looked up at the tall woman and she said, “She has it with you.”

“That's nice of you to say,” Ryan said, giving her a squeeze. “I feel the same about the place you hold in Jordan's life, you know. You're just the woman I would have picked for her.”

“Really?” Mia's face was lit up by a wide grin as she looked up at her friend.

“Yes, really. You bring out all of her hidden attributes, Mia. She's not just a competitive jock when she's with you. She's vulnerable and open, and she really risks. That's very hard for her to do — but you make her feel safe.”

“Thank, Ryan,” she said softly. “I care for her a lot.”

“It shows, Mia. You treat her like you care.”

“You know,” the curly-haired brunette said, “I knew you looked marvelous, but I didn't notice how beautiful those pants were. Are they silk?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Ryan said.

“They feel wonderful,” Mia said. “The fabric is exquisite.”

“Uhm … could you feel the fabric somewhere other than my ass cheeks?”

“Oh, Ryan, you're such a prude,” the smaller woman said, giggling as she slipped her hands up to rest on her waist.

Ryan blinked at her, shaking her head as she laughed, “You're the first person in my entire life to call me that!” She leaned over and kissed the smaller woman gently, just brushing her lips against Mia's. “You're definitely gonna keep old Jordan busy.”

“That's my goal,” Mia said. “By the time she gets bored with me, we'll be ready for the retirement home.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“It's nearly eleven o'clock,” Jamie whispered into her partner's ear after they had been dancing for hours.

“Mmm-hmm,” Ryan replied, not seeing what the time had to do with anything.

“How about going for a walk on the beach? I'd love to see the New Year in walking along the surf with you.”

“Sounds good,” Ryan said. “Course, staying right here and dancing sounds awfully good, too.”

“I have never seen you so laid back,” the smaller woman said. “You're practically inert!”

“Yep. When we move here and I open my surf shop, you'll barely recognize me.”

“Come on, lazy bones. I want to be all alone with you at midnight.”

“Should we bring a glass of wine or something to toast with?” Ryan asked.

“Nah. I only need your sweet lips.”

“You've got 'em.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Part 5

Jordan shot Mia a grin as their friends walked towards the beach. “Alone at last. I thought they'd never leave.”

“Who's that?” Mia asked as she leaned back in Jordan's embrace, her hands laced behind her lover's neck.

“Ryan and Jamie,” the blonde said, realizing that Mia was playing with her.

“Oh, are they here?” the smaller woman asked idly. “I hadn't noticed. All I see is a pair of crystal blue eyes, some dazzling white teeth, and some of the prettiest golden hair I've ever seen in my life.”

“Don't forget the warm, pink tongue,” Jordan said, delivering the evidence directly into Mia's mouth for inspection.

“How could I ever forget that?” she asked long moments later. “It's one of my favorite things on earth.”

“Really?” the blonde asked, strangely shy about believing compliments.

“Oh, yeah,” Mia said. “It's quite extraordinary you know. The first night — when you kissed me — I remember thinking, 'Oh, that is a delightful tongue. I can't wait to have it explore my body'.”

Jordan's head cocked as she asked, “Did you really?”

“Of course I did,” Mia said. “I was a goner by the time the sun rose, Jordan. I moped around for days when you didn't call me.”

The blonde blushed, the high color evident even in the moonlight. “I was too shy,” she said. “I didn't think you'd be interested in me when you found out I was so inexperienced.”

“Not so,” Mia said. “I was a little worried, but I was very interested.”

“Worried? Why were you worried?”

Mia took her by the hand and led her over to pair of chaises sitting side by side. Sitting on one, she urged Jordan into the other. They held hands while they watched the waves breaking, a few minutes passing before Mia continued. “I was afraid that you might get upset by the feelings that going further would bring up. Frankly, I was most afraid that you'd find that being with a woman wasn't right for you.” Looking over at the blonde she said quietly, “That would have been very hard for me.”

“I'm glad you hung in there with me,” Jordan said softly. “I'd been so worried about … being with someone … and you took all of my fears away. That was such a gift, Mia,” she said.

“Oh, Jordy, I'm sorry this was so hard for you, but in another way I'm thankful that you've not been with anyone else. It makes me feel very special that you waited to share your sexuality with me.”

“I shouldn't get credit for being a chicken,” Jordan said. “I would have been working my way through every available woman in the Bay area if I hadn't been such a coward.”

“Well, we'll never know for sure, but something makes me doubt that. I think you're just careful.”

“Eh … maybe,” Jordan said. “I guess we'll never know.” She looked over at her partner, her blue eyes sparkling. “So, am I making progress? I know I was horrid at first, but I feel like I'm getting my sea legs now.”

“You were never horrid, sweetheart, just nervous. The first time we were together, you touched my heart so deeply …” Mia sighed heavily, shaking her head. “By the time we had finished making love that first night, I was mad about you.”

“Really?” Jordan asked shyly. “I was pretty crazy about you, too. I did cartwheels all the way to school that morning,” she said. “Ryan thought I'd lost my mind.”

“We were pretty silly,” Mia said. “We tried really hard not to show each other how excited we were about being together.”

“Probably because I made such a big deal about not letting this get out of hand and not falling in love,” Jordan said quietly. Mia was lying on her side, and when Jordan said this she rolled onto her back and looked away, not wanting her partner to see the look in her eyes. Jordan rolled onto her side and grasped Mia's chin, turning it until they were nose to nose. “I didn't follow my own rules,” she said softly. “I couldn't help myself, Mia. You're such a wonderful woman…” She took a deep breath and finally spoke the truth. “I swear I was already in love with you the first time we made love.”

“You love me?” Mia's soft voice asked, her eyes wide and filled with wonder.

“Yes, I love you,” Jordan said, her voice surprisingly strong and confident. “I love you very, very much, Mia. You're all I think about, you're all I dream about. You're with me every part of every day … from the time I wake from my early morning dreams of you, until I fall asleep picturing your face. I love you.”

Practically throwing herself onto Jordan's chaise, Mia wrapped her in a rough embrace and kissed her with a rabid passion. Pulling back just slightly she whispered, “I love you, too, Jordan. I've loved you from the first time I touched you.”

Jordan beamed a smile at her and declared, “I have to go to the ocean. I want to strip off every bit of my clothing and run naked into the water. I need to bay at the moon!”

Taking her hand, Mia followed her lover down the stairs and across the sand, laughing hysterically at the wild enthusiasm that the taller woman was exhibiting.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie tugged Ryan along when she determined that her partner was moving too slowly. “You're on the verge of being too relaxed for my tastes,” the blonde said.

“Okay, I'll try to add a little tension to my demeanor,” Ryan promised, giving her partner a remarkably slow smile.

“Nah, you can dawdle if you want,” Jamie said. “I've just never seen you like this — it's going to take some getting used to.”

Ryan smiled down at her and admitted, “I sometimes deplete my resources to dangerously low levels. When I do that and then get a chance to just relax, I tend to sink into a near-vegetative state. I think I need to somehow find a happy medium -- one where I'm not frazzled or comatose.”

“That will take some work,” Jamie said, “but I think it's a good idea. I think you'd be happier if you weren't so stressed, either.”

“Yeah. As soon as this media assault is over, I'm going to try to be a little more moderate.”

“New Year's resolution?”

“No. Just a plan I'm going to attempt — with your help, of course.”

They had reached the beach, and as they padded along the firm-packed sand Jamie suggested, “Let's go over to that little outcropping of boulders, okay?”

“Sure, if you want to,” Ryan said. She took her hand and cut back across the fluffy sand, her bare feet kicking up little pink clouds as they walked. When they grew close, she spared a wry glance at her partner and said, “Hey, look! Somebody left us a couple of blankets, some candles and a bottle of champagne. Boy, are we lucky or what?”

“Planning is everything,” Jamie said, sharing a grin with her partner.

They settled down against the boulder after Jamie took pains to cover the rough surface with one of the blankets. Ryan sat against the stone, with her partner cuddled up between her legs. The smaller woman opened the bottle of champagne and poured a little into each of the glasses she'd brought. “Okay, at the risk of repeating myself, now I can't be any happier,” Ryan said. “Sitting on the beach with my beloved, sipping an exceptional bottle of champagne, listening to the quiet lapping of the waves … this is the height of pleasure.”

Jamie snuggled a little closer and drew circles on Ryan's knee with her fingertip. “You really don't think I can give you any more pleasure?”

Knowing that the question was rhetorical, Ryan teased her, saying, “Nope, I really don't think so. I think this is the apex of your powers.”

Checking the faint glow of her watch dial, Jamie's mouth curled into a gentle smile as she said, “Wanna bet?”

Her mouth curling into a grin, Ryan nodded. “Yeah, I'll take you on. I think you're bluffing.”

Crawling into position, Jamie settled herself just so, making sure that Ryan was right where she wanted her. Counting down the time, she leaned in close, then whispered, “Keep those sweet blue eyes open.” Her head dipped, and she captured Ryan's soft, moist lips, placing tender kisses upon them. With a massive boom! the first barrage of fireworks exploded right over their heads, the burst of sound followed by a rapture of color. Vivid red, blue, green and gold streamers shrieking across the inky black sky.

“Happy New Year, sweetheart,” Jamie whispered between kisses.

“Happy New Year to you, Jamie. I know this year will be a happy one for me, because I'll have you right by my side for the entire year.”

“Wow,” Jamie said slowly, as if something momentous had just dawned on her. “We've only been together a little over 6 months. How much happier will we be with a whole year to work with?”

“I can't wait to find out,” Ryan said, colorful streaks of fire glinting off her expressive eyes.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Joyous voices echoed against the boulders that the lovers rested against. Ryan shifted slightly, turning her head just enough to look over her shoulder. “I have a feeling someone told someone else she loved her,” Ryan said, chuckling deep in her chest.

“Why do you think so?” Jamie asked.

“ 'Cause Jordan's doing cartwheels down the beach … and she's just answered the question of what a woman wears under her sarong,” she said dryly.

“And the answer is?”

“Nothing at all,” Ryan informed her. “Ahh, I could have waited for a second and gotten that answer the easy way,” she said. “She just stripped off all of her clothes … now Mia's done the same … yep, it's skinny dipping time.”

“Ooo … skinny dipping,” Jamie said, her interest piqued. “I've never been skinny dipping in the ocean.”

Ryan was on her feet in an instant, her silk pants hitting the ground a moment later. “No time like the present. Besides, I don't like the thought of the two of them out there alone. If we're there, we can keep an eye on each other.”

“Here I go,” Jamie said, shimmying out of her dress, an impish look on her face.

Ryan was nude in seconds, and she waited impatiently for Jamie to lose her underwear. “Let's boogie!” the blonde cried when she was naked. She grabbed Ryan's hand and ran as fast as her legs would carry her, feet pounding against the warm sand. She was yelling the whole time, Ryan laughing helplessly as she was dragged along behind her. They hit the water and just kept going, running until they were in up to their necks. “My God! This is fabulous!” Jamie cried. “Why have I never done this?”

Jordan and Mia came floating over, their joyous expressions dead give-aways. “Jordan loves me!” Mia cried, throwing her arms around Ryan's neck. She released her and offered the same embrace to Jamie, then Jordan waded over and did the same.

“That's wonderful, you two!” Jamie cried.

Mia put her hands on her lover's shoulders and jumped up, wrapping her legs around her waist. “She's loved me for months. She's loved me as long as I've loved her! How stupid were we, not to tell each other sooner?”

“You told each other now,” Ryan said. “That's all that matters.”

Mia looked so happy getting to go for a ride that Jamie jumped onto her partner's hips as well. They played in the warm water for a long while, enjoying the fireworks that continued to shoot across the sky.

“Hey,” Ryan said. “One of the benefits of water is the relative weightlessness. Jordan and I should get to ride, too.”

Jamie slid from her hips and said, “I can take you, hot stuff. Climb on.” She braced herself as Ryan wrapped her long legs around her waist. “Your legs are long enough to loop them around twice,” she said.

“I'm gonna ignore that,” Ryan said, “and resume telling you how positively marvelous I feel. You've made me a very happy woman tonight, Jamers.”

“I hate to be a spoil sport, but it's getting late,” Jamie said. “We should go in soon.”

“I really like being outside,” Ryan said. “Any chance we could stay out here to continue our party?”

The smaller woman smiled and said, “I think this is one of those 'sounds better than it is' things. I think we'd need a shower first. I know I have sand in some very private places.”

“There's an outdoor shower right by the beachside restaurant …” The look in Ryan's eyes was one of hopeful playfulness. Jamie knew that she would be mildly disappointed if she chose not to comply with the request, but she also knew that Ryan would hold no hard feelings. Considering the matter for just a moment, she turned to their companions and asked, “You guys aren't ready to go back in, are you?”

“Hell, no!” Mia cried. “I wanna watch the sun come up!”

“Would you consider being lookouts for us? We wanna go … be close … over by the rocks, and we don't want any surprise visitors. Would you keep an eye out?”

“Sure, girls,” Mia said. “Have any champagne left?”

“Yep. Almost a whole bottle,” Ryan said. “But if you drink it, promise you'll stay near the shore. I don't want to lose either one of you tonight.”

“Deal. We'll sit in the surf and talk. That's one of our favorite dates,” she said, beaming up at her partner.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie screwed up her courage and scampered across the sand, her nakedness slowly receding from her consciousness. The shower was warm and efficient, with the hotel-provided banana-scented shower gel removing every irritating trace of sand from her body. “All clean?” Ryan asked, her eyes already twinkling.

“Yeah … but when I walk across the sand I'll be all dirty again,” Jamie said, placing her hands on her hips, daring her partner to solve that conundrum.

“Simple solution to a complex problem,” Ryan said, bending down to sweep her into her arms.

“Honey, you'll hurt yourself carrying me that far!”

“Oh, please! You're as light as a feather! I could carry you all over this island.”

“Are you sure? I don't want you complaining of a bad back tomorrow.”

“I'm positive,” Ryan said. “I do want to be complaining about certain parts being overstressed, but my back won't be one of them.”

“Such a focus you have,” Jamie said as they made their way back to their lair.

Jordan and Mia had taken the champagne bottle, but they had thoughtfully left the glasses, and each now contained a few ounces of the golden liquid. Ryan lit the candles, then covered each with the hurricane glass to keep the wind from blowing them out. She propped herself up against the biggest boulder and took a sip of her wine, letting the tiny bubbles tickle her throat. Jamie scooted between her legs, resting her torso against Ryan's. “We fit together so nicely,” she said, as she idly played with the water droplets coating her partner's thighs.

“I know,” Ryan murmured. “There are so many positions we just seem drawn to. You wouldn't think that would be so, since I'm almost nine inches taller than you are, but I've honestly never felt more physically comfortable with anyone.” She tugged her partner even closer, thrilling to the feel of her warm skin touching her own cooled flesh. “How do you feel about being outside? I don't want you to be uncomfortable.”

“I feel good,” Jamie said. “Having Mia and Jordan look out for us took away my concerns. I just didn't want to be surprised by any uninvited visitors.”

“It seems like most people wanted to be at parties tonight,” Ryan said. “I haven't seen another soul since we came down here. This is such a fantastic place,” she sighed, her contentment evident. “I love the fact that there's practically nothing to do here … and that everyone from the hotel seems to have gone onto Eleuthra for some fun.”

“Mom's travel agent is fabulous,” Jamie said, “but this is working out better than I had hoped. This was just what we needed.”

“It is,” Ryan sighed. “And the longer we're here, the more obvious it is how much we needed this. I'm really starting to feel like myself again.”

“I can tell,” Jamie murmured. “Your playful self seems like she's back again.” She paused for a moment and said, “I've missed her.”

“I've missed her, too,” Ryan said. “I've got to concentrate on staying child-like. It's one of the keys to my sanity.”

“It's doing little things out of the ordinary like this that make me feel young,” Jamie said. “Things like staying outside tonight.”

Ryan dropped her head and nuzzled her partner's still-damp neck. “Doing this doesn't make me feel young,” she demurred. “It makes me feel hot. I absolutely love holding your warm naked body … just a candle and your luscious curves to guide my touch … the sound of the waves lapping against the shore … and that fantastic scent of jasmine and hibiscus that sweetens the air. Every one of my senses is saying, 'Thank you!'”

“Mmm … mine too,” Jamie murmured. “This is heavenly.”

“No, this is heavenly,” Ryan said, putting her arm out at a right angle and lowering Jamie onto it. When she had her in the proper position, she dipped her head and began to kiss her … the tender, emotion-filled touch warming both of their hearts.

They continued to nuzzle and cuddle for a very long time, neither of them compelled to progress. Just this simple meeting of their lips, their breath filling each other's lungs, was enough to completely satisfy them. “I never dreamed this would be the year I fell in love,” Ryan said, her voice soft and warm. Between each word she planted kisses on her lover's face … on her delicate eyelids … on the smooth curve of her neck. “I'm so happy that it was with you, Jamie.”

Feeling the emotion well up in her chest, the smaller woman caressed Ryan's lips with her own. “I'm so happy that you chose me,” she whispered.

A deep laugh bubbled up from the dark woman, and she gently reminded her partner, “You … chose … me. Remember?”

“How could I forget that?” she giggled warmly. “Best choice I've ever made.” She ran her hand down Ryan's shoulder, continuing down her arm until she could see goose bumps form on her flesh. “I make that choice every single day, Ryan, and I will for the rest of my life.”

“I look forward to a lifetime of saying yes,” her partner replied, her voice husky with emotion.

As she leaned into her again, Jamie's lips tingled with the sweet intensity of their kisses. Desire began to pulse through and between their bodies, each beat of their hearts increasing their need for one another.

Ryan shifted her powerful body, effortlessly moving her partner onto her back. As the large form hovered over her, Jamie soothed her by slowly running her hands up and down the strong back, welcoming her soft, warm tongue into her mouth. She felt delicious, familiar tingles fly up and down her spine as the darting tongue slid into the recesses of her mouth, seemingly determined to leave no part of her untouched.

Unaware that she had moved, Jamie felt her legs lock around her lover's pelvis, pulling her down hard against her need. A low, satisfied growl passed her lips as Ryan dipped her head once again, her kiss now more demanding, more compelling.

Just as her body started to grind against Jamie, Ryan lifted her head, forcing her eyes to focus. Gasping for breath she said, “This isn't how I want to love you tonight. I want to touch you gently and softly, to show you how much you mean to me.”

Smiling serenely, the smaller woman ran her fingers through her partner's hair, pushing the dark locks from her eyes. “We can make love any way that your heart desires. Show me what's in your heart, Ryan. Open yourself up to me.”

The deep blue eyes fluttered closed, and a shiver chased down Ryan's spine as she tried to gather herself enough to show her partner all of the love she possessed. Blinking slowly, the dark-haired woman gazed deeply into her lover's eyes, trusting her with every tender emotion that she held in her heart. She was staring so intently that Jamie automatically returned her gaze, not even blinking as Ryan started to glide her hands up and down her body.

Their eyes locked on each other, Ryan kept her touch soft and slow and very, very gentle. Her eyes would trail to the skin she was caressing, her gaze so tender and filled with love that Jamie's heart ached from the intensity of her feelings. Seconds after dropping her gaze, Ryan's eyes would once again return to her partner's, the strength of their connection so fierce that it was nearly visible.

The strong, warm hands moved unerringly, slowly but inexorably drawing the smaller woman along a path that they had traveled many times. Ryan lowered her body so that she lay right next to her lover, their eyes still fixed on one another. As the long, elegant fingers slipped into her, Jamie fought to maintain her connection with her partner, forcing her eyes to remain open.

A tiny smile tugged at one corner of Ryan's lips, and she leaned in and kissed her partner, delighting in the small gasp that filled her mouth when her fingers touched a particularly sensitive spot.

Once again she pulled back and stared into Jamie's eyes, feeling the intimate connection reach every part of herself that had been closed off or hidden during their tumultuous last week.

Ryan could see the pulse pounding against her partner's throat, could see her struggling to maintain her gaze, even as her eyes lost their focus. Leaning just above Jamie's lips, her desire throbbed through her body as she heard the breath catch in her lover's chest. Her lips were captured by Jamie's hungry mouth just as the first spasms raced through her body. The smaller woman struggled for breath, but she needed Ryan's warm mouth covering her own more than air. Her arms were locked around her partner's neck, holding on for dear life as Ryan's fingers picked up the beat again, gliding against her slickness with the same rhythm as her rapidly beating heart.

Jamie couldn't let go — couldn't loosen her hold one bit. She clutched Ryan to her breast so tightly that both sets of lungs were unable to fully expand — but neither woman regretted the sacrifice. Feeling her lover's need to merge with her was deeply thrilling for Ryan, and she gladly accepted the bruises that were sure to follow.

As the second wash of sensation pulsed through her body, Jamie's mouth opened to cry out, but Ryan covered her tender lips once again, needing to capture the explosion of feeling in her own body. The smaller woman didn't disappoint — gasping out a strangled cry that was devoured by Ryan's hungry mouth. Soft moans and deep sighs continued to spring from her lips for long moments -- every sound, every breath greedily consumed by the dark woman.

Finally, needing to fill her lungs, Jamie regretfully pulled away just enough to be able to breathe. Ryan was so close that the smaller woman could have counted every one of her long, dark lashes, and she gave every indication that she would remain right where she was for as long as Jamie could tolerate the closeness.

Once she was able to take in a normal breath, the blonde gazed at her partner with loving eyes and gently teased, “Why are you so far away?”

Ryan immediately closed the scant distance and spent a few moments kissing her with a passionate intensity. Finally lifting her head just an inch she whispered, “I never want to be farther than this from your sweet lips.”

Smiling broadly, Jamie murmured, “My plans for the future match yours exactly.”

“Let the future begin,” Ryan said, capturing her prize once again.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Two bodies came running across the sand, their exuberant cries nearly swallowed by the sounds of the surf. Splashing through the waves, they found their friends, as promised, lying on the hard-packed sand just at the edge of the water.

“All loved out?” Mia asked lazily, looking up from where her head was pillowed on Jordan's chest.

“I am perfectly well loved,” Ryan said. “Can't speak for my partner here, but I'm just about at my capacity for bliss.”

“Count me in,” Jamie said. “Thanks for watching out for us, guys. I could never have relaxed if you hadn't been playing lookout.”

“Don't you think one good turn deserves another?” Jordan asked, her eyes glittering in the bright moonlight.

“That's only fair,” Ryan said. “We'll play in the surf while you two take over our little love nest.”

“If you get cold, you don't have to stay,” Mia said as she got to her feet. “No one's been out here all night, and I doubt anyone will come by this late.”

“No, we'll stay,” Ryan said, her cautious side emerging. “You never know who might come by, and seeing a couple of beautiful women making love on the beach might be more than even a rational person could resist. And given that most people out at this time of night are blind drunk …”

“Okay, okay,” Jordan said. “We promise not to fall asleep and leave you out here all night.” Looking at her partner she said, “Even though that won't be easy. I call Mia my little sandman.”

“Get going, you two,” Jamie said. “I think you'll find the accommodations quite lovely.”

It was getting a little cool, so rather than lie in the surf, the pair decided to walk up and down the beach for a while. It was still entirely deserted, and as the wind freshened, Ryan felt a chill go down her partner's body. “We should have taken one of the blankets,” the taller woman said.

“I am getting chilled,” Jamie said. “I hope they don't take too long.”

“Why don't you run up to the cottage and get some clothes? I can watch you from here.”

“You don't mind?”

“Of course not. Bring me some sweats while you're at it, okay?”

“Will do,” Jamie said as she scampered off, the white flesh of her ass flashing in the moonlight, much to Ryan's pleasure.

She returned a few minutes later, clad in her warmest sweats. Ryan reached for her own, but Jamie urged her to wait for a moment. “Can I take your picture?” she asked.

“Like this?” Ryan asked, holding her arms out to indicate her nakedness.

“Yep. I want to have a picture of you on our first New Year's together. Do you mind?”

“Nope,” Ryan said. “If you can get the pictures developed, I'll do whatever pleases you.”

“It's a digital, silly. We can be as risqué as we like.” Jamie situated her in a few memorable poses, then doffed her own clothes and fiddled with the camera for a moment, set it on a rock and took a few of the two of them embracing. “I want to show these to the people at the retirement home in about seventy years,” she said. “I want to be able to back up my contention that you were the hottest looking 24-year-old in the world.”

“You plan for everything, don't you,” Ryan said. When they were both dressed, Ryan looked at her watch and said, “It's been a long while. Think they're still making love?”

Jamie glanced at her watch and saw that it was 4 a.m. “Doubtful,” she said. “Let's get a little closer and see if we hear anything.”

They did so, walking across the sand, hand in hand. As they drew near, it was clear that their friends were sound asleep, and Jamie took the opportunity to snap a few photos of them, their bodies completely entangled. They were so sound asleep that neither woke until the third picture, the flash finally penetrating their slumber. “Oh-oh,” Jordan mumbled drowsily. “I think we fell asleep.”

“I think you did,” Ryan said. “We're going in to bed. Wanna join us?”

“I wanna see the sun rise,” Mia said, her voice still heavy with sleep.

Ryan and Jamie exchanged looks, and Ryan said, “Take our sweats if you're gonna stay out here. I don't want you two lying out here naked.”

“You sure?” Jordan asked.

“Yep.” Ryan struggled out of her clothes and tossed them to Jordan, then slipped her original slacks and snippet of a blouse on.

“Ooo, warm,” Jordan sighed, getting into the toasty clothes. Mia did the same with Jamie's, while the smaller blonde put her dress back on.

“Goodnight, love birds,” Ryan said, giving them a little wave.

“Keep my camera and take some pictures of the sunrise,” Jamie said.

“Okay,” Mia said. “See you guys later.”

They walked along in the bright moonlight, their hands linked, Jamie's head resting upon Ryan's shoulder.

“You've set a pretty high standard for the first day of the new year,” Ryan said. “We've only experienced four and a half hours of the year 2000, and I've felt more joy than most people get in a lifetime.”

“We do have our work cut out for us,” Jamie said. “But I know you like to set goals for yourself, so we can make it our New Year's resolution to have every day be filled with as much joy as we've felt tonight. It's a tough job, but you're the woman I want on my team.”

“We're permanent teammates,” Ryan said.

When they reached their room, Jamie's sure, warm hands started to undress her partner, letting her hands glide across her cool skin. “Ready for bed, love?”

“Yeah,” Ryan said, her voice low and a little hoarse. “No better way to see the New Year in than wrapped in your embrace.”

“You're gonna see an awful lot of New Years in just that way. Sure you're up to it?”

“If we're together until the third millennium, that won't be enough for me,” Ryan said, meaning every word.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan tried to ignore the giggling that pulled her from sleep. Nuzzling her face against Jamie's neck, she tugged her partner closer, trying to hide her face to avoid showing her wakefulness.

“Come on, sleepyheads,” Mia said. “Pose for your picture.”

“G'way,” Ryan growled, drawing the sheet up to cover their naked bodies.

“It's payback time, Boomer,” Jordan crooned, giggling as she grabbed the bottom of the sheet and ripped it from Ryan's grasp.

“C'mon,” the dark woman moaned, “let us sleep. Have a heart, guys.”

“I bet you don't have any pictures of how cute you look when you sleep together,” Jordan said. “We're just rounding out your photo album.” The shutter snapped again, and rather than trying to retrieve the sheet, Ryan just shifted a little so that she was mostly lying on top of Jamie to provide some cover. “How can she sleep through this?” the tall blonde marveled.

“Forget that,” Mia said. “How can she sleep with Ryan on top of her like that? You weigh a ton, big girl!”

“Again, thanks for sharing,” Ryan responded dryly. “More later, okay?”

“Come play with us,” Mia begged. She slid into bed next to Jamie, leaned over and pushed her eyelids open with her thumbs, gazing into the green orbs as they began to focus. “Wanna get up and play with us?” she asked, her bright visage just inches from her friend's face.

“Who's on top of me?” Jamie mumbled. “Jordan or Ryan?”

Ryan's hand slid down her body and gave her a little tickle on the back of her thigh, right at the swell of her ass.

“Ahh, that's my Ryan,” she sighed, knowing that only her partner would be able to find a sensitive spot so adroitly.

“Do you often wake up with Jordan on top of you?” Ryan's deep voice burred against her ear.

“No. But I usually don't wake up with Mia tugging on my eyelids either. Who knows what else might be going on.”

“Come on, guys,” Mia said. “The Rose Parade is on TV. Don't you want to watch it with us?”

Ryan sighed and rolled onto her back. “I'm game. I love the parade.”

“Me too,” Jamie said, taking a deep breath as her partner's weight lifted from her body. “Thanks for waking us up, Mia.” She rolled over onto her friend, straddling her body as she twitched her fingers under her tank top and got in a good bout of tickling. “Just remember that I know where some of your sensitive spots are, buddy, so don't make a habit of waking me up like that.”

Mia was howling with laughter as her hands flailed wildly, trying to get her friend to stop the torture. “Promise! Promise!” she cried.

Sliding off her waist, Jamie blew on her index fingers as though they were smoking pistols. “Better not forget your promise, pal. These babies are always loaded.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After they ate a delightful breakfast while watching the parade, they decided to go to the beach, lie in the sun, and sleep. Following lavish applications of sun-tan lotion to the yards of exposed skin, they all nodded off quickly, managing to sleep soundly even though the beach was quite a bit more crowded than it had been the day before.

Around noon, Ryan's empty stomach woke her, and she stretched and growled for a few minutes. Jordan was right behind her in waking, and both women got up and continued to stretch, to the delighted pleasure of the young men closest to them. “Wanna go get lunch?” Ryan asked. “They've got some conch chowder at the restaurant that is killer.”

“Sure. Should we ask what our women want?”

“Nah. Jamie's easy to please. I know what she likes. How about Mia?”

“Yeah, I think I've got her number,” Jordan said, grinning toothily.

“I just bet you do,” Ryan replied with a matching smile, as she slung her arm around her friend's shoulders and led her to the restaurant.

As if she could sense her partner's absence, Jamie woke just minutes after Ryan and Jordan left. She looked around idly and saw the pair trudging through the pink sand, little clouds billowing up as their feet shuffled along. Mia woke up when she heard Jamie moving around, and she sat up, running her hands through her curls. “I'm hungry,” she pouted, sounding more like a five-year-old than an adult.

“I think our women went to provide for us,” Jamie said.

Mia got up to stretch the kinks out, saying loudly, “I don't care what they bring, as long as it's chocolate.”

“Ooo, chocolate,” Jamie purred. “I'm seriously chocolate deprived.”

The young men sunning close to them overheard this bit of conversation, and one of them hopped to his feet, bringing with him a paper plate filled with gooey, chocolate chip-laden brownies. “Heard you girls talking, and thought I'd be neighborly,” he said, his handsome face sporting a wide smile.

“Oh, no thanks,” Jamie said. “We're getting lunch soon.”

Mia shot her a puzzled look and reached for one of the treats. “Suit yourself, babe, but these look fantastic.” She gave the young man a long look and asked, “Just being neighborly, right? 'Cause we're not looking for dates.”

He looked mildly offended as his eyes widened. “Just being friendly, ma'am,” he said. “A little New Year's treat for y'all.”

Jamie gave Mia a look, and saw her friend take a bite of the brownie. Mia's nose crinkled up as she asked, “Who made these … you?”

“Yep. How'd I do?”

“You're quite the cook,” she said. “Did you use cannabutter?”

“Uh-huh,” he said. “They're good, aren't they?”

“The best I've ever had,” she said. “Boy, they're really loaded, aren't they?”

Now Jamie's interest was piqued, and her mouth started to water. “Can I have a bite?” she asked, taking half of Mia's square and popping it into her mouth before the brunette could blink. She smacked her lips reflectively, detecting an odd aftertaste. “What kind of butter did you use?” she asked, repeating Mia's query. “Is it something local?”

“Yep,” he said. “It's all native.”

“Do they graze cows or yaks around here?” she asked, her nose wrinkling in distaste.

The young man found her question to be wildly funny, but he offered no further hints. She was still trying to place the unique flavor when she spotted her partner out of the corner of her eye.

“Hey, who's having dessert first?”

“We were just sharing some brownies with our neighbor here,” Jamie said, trying to give her partner the 'these are odd, don't even think of taking a bite' sign. But Ryan was never one to deprive herself of a treat, and she lifted the last bite from Mia's hand and popped it into her mouth.

Mia's eyes grew wide and she said, “Ryan, don't!”

Her quick reflexes allowed her to spit it onto the sand before she had even managed to taste it. “What's in it?” she asked, her eyes flashing.

“Uhm … they're magic brownies,” she said, knowing that Ryan was not one to partake in mind-altering substances.

“You ate some?” Ryan asked, glaring at her partner.

“Y … yeah, I did,” Jamie said weakly. “Just half of a brownie, though.”

“She didn't eat much, Ryan,” Mia said.

Looking at both of the women, Ryan narrowed her eyes and asked, “Did you know there was grass in those brownies?”

“Uhm … yeah,” Mia gulped, while Jamie shook her head.

Now Jordan was staring at her partner, her expression betraying her dismay. “Mia! You knew that you were eating loaded brownies, and you didn't try to stop Jamie?”

“Stop her? She broke off half of my brownie and had it in her mouth before I could say a word! What's the big deal, anyway? We've gotten high together plenty of times,” the smaller woman said. She looked to Jamie for support, but saw her friend rolling her eyes, looking a little sick. “Uhm, well, not plenty of times,” she said, trying to extricate herself from the corner she had painted both of them into. “Hardly ever … uhm … maybe I'm thinking of someone else …”

Ryan leveled her gaze at Mia and said, “Jamie obviously doesn't mind having substances put into her body without her permission, but if you ever try something like that with me …” She stopped herself from uttering the threat that was on the tip of her tongue, deciding that the atmosphere was tense enough without wishing harm to her friend.

The dark-haired woman turned and strode towards their cottage, not getting five feet before Jamie was beside her. “Honey?”

“Later,” Ryan said. “I'm not in the mood.”

Smarting from the brush-off, Jamie sat on steps of their deck for a few minutes, not quite knowing how to approach her partner. She felt blameless about the incident, but she knew that Mia wasn't really to blame either, having gotten the impression through the years that Jamie was usually willing to have a few hits off a joint during a party.

After a long while, Jamie realized that Ryan was not going to come out, so she steeled her nerve and went in. The taller woman was sitting in one of the chairs in the living room, and she made no move for several minutes. “I uhm … I don't have any right to pry into your life before we were together,” Ryan said softly, “but I would like to know if you and Mia currently get high together.”

Jamie came over to her chair, and sank to the ground next to her. “No, of course we don't,” she said. “I wouldn't have done it today either, but I had no idea there was anything in that brownie. I honestly thought it was just badly made, and I was trying to be polite. I have no interest in ever getting high again, honey. Really,” she said, her eyes searching Ryan's, which had turned a steel gray.

Her brow knit and her gaze sharpened. “Are you saying Mia tricked you into eating it?”

“No, not at all. I honestly took it from her, just like you did,” she said. “But since she knows I've smoked with her before, she obviously didn't think she had to warn me off. It's not her fault, honey.”

The dark head shook, her lips pursed together. “I'm sorry, too,” she said. “I know I overreacted a little ...” She paused at Jamie's raised eyebrow glance. “Okay, maybe a lot. But even if you didn't know there was grass in it, that was incredibly naïve, Jamie. Accepting food or drink from strange guys is just … well, it's stupid,” she said, knowing the term was harsh, but believing it was apt.

“You started to eat a bite,” the blonde said quietly, looking down at the floor.

Ryan shook her head and said, “I didn't know the whole story. I saw you two eating something that looked good, so I grabbed a bite. You didn't tell me that a complete stranger had given it to you. Yes, you said you were sharing brownies with those guys, but for all I knew you had bought them at the store when you went out yesterday, or had bought them at the restaurant when I was asleep.”

“You're right,” the smaller woman said, resting her head on Ryan's knee. “You're disappointed in me, aren't you,” she said.

“No, I'm not disappointed in you,” Ryan said as she ran her hand through Jamie's hair. “I've done far stupider things.”

“I was afraid to tell you that I've smoked grass before,” Jamie said softly. “I knew it would bother you.”

Ryan was quiet for a moment, but finally said, “Drug use is just a hot button for me, baby, you know that. It brings back so many bad memories …”

“I understand. Let's just close that little chapter, okay? Today was the last time I'll use grass. Promise,” she said.

Ryan shook her head, saying, “It's not my place to tell you what you can and can't do, Jamie. If you want to smoke grass, that's your choice. I'm sorry for being so controlling. I'd just prefer that you don't do it in front of me.”

“It's all right, baby. I don't want to get high any more. Besides, if I really wanted to smoke grass again, I'd say so. I don't like to be controlled — as you know.”

“Well, whether or not you want to, you're still gonna get high today,” Ryan said. “Ingesting it is much more efficient, but slower acting.”

“Great. You'll not only be disappointed in me, you'll get to see me acting as dumb as a stump.”

“I promise that I'm not disappointed in you,” Ryan said. “I meant it when I said I've done many, many things that were more unwise than smoking a little grass. I'm actually more upset that you took food from those guys. That was beyond naïve.” Giving Jamie a puzzled look she continued, “Why do you think they wanted to talk to you and share their drugs with you, anyway? That's akin to accepting a drink from a guy at a bar. They don't do that because you look thirsty, ya know.” She shook her head and said, “For two sporadically straight girls, you two seem pretty clueless about guys.”

“Okay, I get your point,” Jamie said, rolling her eyes. “No more taking candy from strangers.”

“I'm lecturing you, aren't I?” Ryan asked.

Holding her thumb a scant distance from her index finger, Jamie allowed, “A little.”

“I apologize,” the dark-haired woman said. “I don't want to supervise you, Jamie. I'll back off.”

“You're not supervising me,” Jamie said, “you're caring for me. Big difference.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Hey,” Ryan said as they reclaimed their chairs, “I apologize for flying off the handle. I'm still pretty short-tempered, I guess. I uhm … snap at people over the smallest things.”

“I'm really, really sorry, Ryan,” the curly-haired woman said.

“You don't owe me an apology, Mia. You warned me before I ate it. Now, Jamie's a different matter,” she drawled, looking at her partner.

Mia got up and sat next to her friend, sharing the edge of the chaise. “Jamie, I'm really sorry if I let you get high when you didn't want to. I thought you knew what I meant when I asked if he used cannabutter.”

“Mia, I've smoked grass about six times in my life. I had no idea what you were talking about. What in the heck were you talking about, anyway?”

“Oh, that's a way to make things that get you high without tasting terrible. You cook up some grass with water and butter, and strain it and cool it, and then you skim the butter off. It leaves an aftertaste, but nothing like trying to cook with it by just putting chopped up grass in brownies. Those taste like they were made with a combination of sand and hay.” She grimaced and shook her head. “Nasty stuff.”

Jamie reached over and wrapped her friend in a hug. “I'm not mad at you. And I did grab a bite before you had much time to warn me. But I don't want to do this again, okay?”

“Gotcha,” she said. “I'll go run for more lunch. We uhm … kinda ate yours.”

“Darned good idea,” Ryan said.

Jamie and Mia went off together, leaving a pensively silent Jordan and Ryan behind. “You look pissed,” Ryan said.

The blonde head shook as she said, “No, not pissed.” Leaning back with her hands laced around her knee she said, “I know that Mia smokes grass once in a while … among other things.” She let out a low chuckle, acknowledging that her lover was a very free spirit. “I uhm … I'd have to say that I'm more bothered by her taking the stuff from those guys.” She twitched her head in the direction of the six young men who were seated close to them.

“That's what bothered me too,” Ryan said. “I'm surprised that Jamie was that naïve. You just don't take food from strange guys out on the beach.” She shook her head and continued, “You never know when an innocent looking guy might be a real predator. They could have had those things laced with anything!”

“No, it's not the food thing. It's that she was interacting with the guys like that. She's just such a natural flirt, Ryan. I know that she's just that way … it's an elemental part of her personality. But guys don't see it that way.” She shook her head quickly, trying to dispel the image of Mia flirting with the men from her imagination. “I'm worried about her.” She let out a plaintive sigh and said, “I told you a month ago that this was one of my biggest fears about getting involved with her. I don't think she slutty, but she's … very friendly. I worry that she's gonna flirt with someone who flirts back and …” She trailed off, obviously uncomfortable with where her mental image led her.

“Of course that's possible,” Ryan said, “but it seems unlikely to me. I still flirt, Jordan. I don't really try to, but it's … who I am, too. But just because I flirt doesn't mean I'd ever do anything about it. I notice other women, but I only love Jamie, and I'll always be completely faithful to her. I think Mia really loves you, Jordan. I don't think she's playing, and I don't think she'll betray you.”

“I hope not, Ryan,” she said softly, staring at the pink sand that covered her toes. “I don't think I could handle it if she breaks my heart.”

“I know just how you feel,” Ryan said. “It's scary to be this vulnerable with another person.”

“Scary is the word,” the blonde said, flopping back onto her chaise to wait for their partners.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan looked up from the last few bites of her chowder to see a pair of vivid green eyes staring at her soup. “Want something?” she asked, sucking on the spoon tauntingly.

“I'm still hungry,” Jamie said, her gaze never leaving the bowl.

Ryan rolled her eyes and asked, “Does somebody have the munchies?”

The blonde head nodded slowly. “I'm already a little high,” she said, not even trying to suppress the giggle that had been trying to escape. “I get a little silly,” she said, her nose crinkling up in the grin that Ryan was powerless to resist.

“I love you, no matter how silly you are, Jamers,” Ryan said. “Let's go get you a little more food.”

“Oh, God,” she moaned, “I'm so hungry that I was looking to take a bite out of your tasty looking calf.” Ryan rolled her eyes as her partner started to giggle again, and they headed back to the restaurant for the third time in the last hour.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Depositing her plate onto the sand, Jamie eyed her partner speculatively and said, “Now I need dessert.” Her eyes raked up and down the long body, and Ryan immediately got the message that she was the proposed snack.

“Let's go, stoner,” the amused woman said, extending her hand to give her a boost.

“I want some of that dessert, too,” Mia said, giving Jordan the same hungry look that Ryan had just received.

Jordan rolled her eyes and stood, helping her partner to her feet to trail behind their friends.

When they arrived at the cottage, Ryan surprised them all by turning on the TV and flopping down at the end of the sofa. “Come over here and keep me company while I watch a little of the Rose Bowl,” she said, patting her lap. “Stanford's playing, you know. You promised your dad you'd watch.”

Jamie stood with her hands on her hips, her face betraying her incredulity. “You'd rather watch football than … me?”

“Football's only on for another quarter,” Ryan said. “You're here all day.” She spared a charming grin at her lover, hoping that was enough to get her to comply. “Now that we've been together for six months I have to start taking you for granted. It's in the rule book,” she said.

“I knew it,” the blonde said. “I knew you were just bode … bid … biding your time until you could start ignoring me.” She looked very pleased with herself for being able to remember the word she had been searching for, and Ryan couldn't help but smile at her.

Jamie lay down on her back with her head resting on Ryan's thigh, and stared vacantly at the ceiling, trying to count the number of times that the slow moving ceiling fan revolved. Ryan placed one hand on her head and began a slow, gentle head rub, while her other hand made matching patterns on her bare belly. In seconds the smaller woman was sound asleep, not even noticing when Jordan asked loudly, “Want something to drink, Boomer?”

“Sure,” Ryan said, now able to talk in her normal tone of voice. “Got any sparkling water?”

Jordan tossed her a bottle and sat down on the couch that rested perpendicular to Ryan's. Mia came in from the kitchen, munching on a bag of M & M's that she and Jamie had purchased from the liquor store the day before. “You too?” she asked, giving Jordan a cross look.

“Just a few minutes, honey,” she said. “The game's really close.”

Giving her a scowl, Mia took up a position identical to Jamie's, and after just a few minutes, had joined her in sleep. Jordan tilted her head slightly and gently pulled on her chin, checking to make sure she didn't have any more candy in her mouth. “She conked out so fast I wasn't sure she had time to swallow,” she said to Ryan. “I'm amazed that they got high from one brownie. What would they be like if they'd eaten a couple of them?”

“People don't realize how stoned they're getting when they ingest grass,” Ryan said, shaking her head. “Have I told you about my cousin? The one who died of AIDS?”

“Yeah. I know that you were really close,” she said.

“We were.” Ryan looked down at her partner, continuing to play with her hair. “His lungs were too trashed to allow him to smoke grass, but eating magic brownies helped give him an appetite, and it killed his pain a little,” she said. “I'd guess that marijuana kept him alive for at least a year longer than he would have lived if he'd relied only on legal drugs.” Her face grew dark as she said, “He had some good doctors, but they dropped the ball when it came to pain relief. They were totally freaked about him becoming addicted to painkillers. Grass really helped,” she said.

“You seemed awfully pissed when you realized Jamie had taken some,” Jordan said. “I thought you were just really anti-drugs.”

“No, not really,” Ryan said. “Ignoring the fact that it's illegal, I don't think grass is any worse than alcohol if you use it in moderation. My bigger issue is with anything that changes your mood or your personality.” She looked at Jordan with eyes full of pain as she said, “The last year of Michael's life, he was too sick and disoriented to even know where he was. But the year before that, he was stoned much of the time. He had to be,” she said quietly. “I'm happy that he got some relief, and I'm happy that he was able to eat, but that wasn't Michael. It was nearly impossible to have a lucid conversation with him when he was high, and his wit and his observant style were completely gone. He was alive, but he wasn't … there. Do you know what I mean?” she asked.

“Yeah, yeah I do,” the blonde said softly. “It seems like there's a point at which you're extending life … but is it really your life that you're extending?”

“Exactly,” Ryan said. “You really get this, Jordan.”

“Yeah, I do,” she said. “My grandfather died last year. Prostate cancer.” She looked over at her friend and said, “He was the one worthwhile member of the whole group, and he was dead before he hit sixty-five.”

“I'm sorry,” Ryan said.

“Yeah, it was hard. He was being kept alive, too; and just like your cousin, he wasn't really there any more. I was glad for him when he had a massive heart attack and died before they could try to save him.”

Ryan looked very contemplative as she said, “It seems like we're here such a short time. Why try to dull your senses and your perceptions?”

Jordan shrugged and said, “People have been trying to alter their consciousness since we lived in caves. I think it's part of the human condition. I know that I'd be a mess without the high I get from endorphins.”

Ryan smiled at her and said, “Yeah, I've got a lot of nerve to complain about Jamie getting high. Hell, I alter my consciousness constantly. With sex, with food, with thrills, with danger seeking, with physical activity. My father says that when I was an infant, I would rock in my crib until I was in a trance. The boys used to bring their friends over to look at me like a little sideshow exhibit,” she said. “Da says I wouldn't even blink when they put their hands in my face and snapped their fingers.”

“Yeah, but those states are something you can slip out of immediately,” Jordan said. “The thing I hate about drugs and alcohol is that you can't change your mind once you're high. I despise being altered under some arbitrary time line. Couldn't do it,” she said.

“Have you ever smoked grass?” Ryan asked.

“No. No interest, really. You?”

“Huh-uh. Some of my cousins do, and my brothers have, but I couldn't do it, either. Lord, I couldn't do it just because of the munchies!” she said, laughing. “I'd burst!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When Jamie woke, her partner and Jordan were chatting softly, neither watching the television, which was now showing some syndicated show from the U.S. “Where's the football game?” she asked slowly, smacking her dry lips together.

“Over. Wisconsin won, by the way.” Ryan checked her watch and said, “You've been out for more than an hour.”

“Really?” Jamie sat up and stretched, moaning a little as she said, “I feel hung over.”

“I'll get you something to drink,” Ryan said. “That'll help.”

She came back with a pitcher of fresh lemonade, with just a hint of the fragrant local limes in it for bite. “Ooo, this is goooood,” Jamie sighed.

“What's good?” a rough voice demanded from across the room.

“Lemonade,” Jamie said, getting up and walking over to her friend to hand her a glass. “We did good buying those lemons and limes yesterday.”

“God, this is good,” Mia said, sitting up just enough to greedily gulp it down. Sitting up all the way, she gave Jordan a puzzled look. “We didn't make love, did we?”

“God no!” she cried. “Do I make that small an impression on you?”

“Of course not,” Mia said softly, gently patting her leg. “Every time with you rocks my world.” She leaned over and kissed her, saying, “I just don't have a real clear memory of the afternoon.”

“That's why we didn't make love,” Jordan said. “I want you to be fully present when we touch each other.”

“Me too,” she said, snuggling up into her warm embrace. Her head cocked, and she gave her a sexy grin as she informed her, “I'm present now.”

“I guess you are,” the larger woman said. “Don't worry, we'll get right on that little item.”

“Do you guys want to have dinner together?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah, sure,” Mia said, and Jordan nodded too. “It's okay with me if we just eat here again. I really enjoyed last night.”

“Mmm,” Ryan said, “it was magical, wasn't it?”

“It was,” Jamie said. “That works for me. I'll have them deliver dinner again.” She looked over at her partner and said, “It astounds me that you're keeping your vow. I really think you'd be happy not to leave our room except to lie on the beach.”

“I wasn't kidding. I need the solitude.”

“So, you're not interested in going to the main island and participating in the body shot contest?” Mia asked. “I thought Jamie was going to talk you into it.”

“Oh, you were, were you?” Ryan asked, looking at her partner.

“I've never seen anybody do body shots before,” she said. “But Mia said she bet you'd be good at it.”

“Mia knows me too well,” Ryan said, grinning rakishly.

“Show me … show me,” Jamie begged.

“All right. You know I can't say no to you. But no alcohol. I'm not in the mood to get buzzed.”

“Do you know how to do this, Jordan?” Jamie asked.

“Yeah, I've seen navel shots,” she said. “But I've never done them.”

“You can practice on me,” Mia purred, giving her a very sexy grin.

“Okay,” she said, her voice a little higher than normal. “Let me watch the master first.”

Ryan shrugged, deciding that it wasn't a bad idea to have a little racy fun. She went into the kitchen and cut a lime up into eighths, then took two shot glasses from the bar. Grabbing the saltshaker on her way out of the kitchen, she placed everything down on the coffee table. “Okay, class, the most G-rated body shot is the navel shot. Luckily, we have an adorable navel here,” she tickled Jamie's exposed visual aid, “to serve as our model.” She placed a hand on her shoulder and pushed gently. “Lie down, please.” Turning to her friends she said, “In a bar, you would usually do this by having the victim … I mean model … lie down across a couple of bar stools. For our purposes I choose the sofa. I happen to know that the model is very delicate and used to gentle treatment.”

“Funny,” Jamie said, sticking her tongue out.

While grabbing the pink organ and giving it a tug, Ryan said, “Okay, you usually use tequila, but I'm choosing lemonade. For the traditional method, you rub a lime around whatever piece of skin you want to lick, then sprinkle it with a little salt. I think I'll choose the one stop meal,” she said. Taking a wedge of lime she squeezed it a little and rubbed the flesh around Jamie's sensitive navel, making sure she had it coated well. Jamie, of course, giggled throughout, making the application a little more difficult. Ryan then sprinkled just a few grains of salt onto the wet skin and poured a tiny bit of lemonade directly into the little depression.

The smaller woman twitched and shivered, trying to stop herself from pushing her partner away. Ryan's grin grew wider as she leaned close — so close that Jamie could feel her warm breath on her skin. “Now you lick the salt and the lime, then slurp up the shot.” Twitching her eyebrows in Jamie's direction, she did just that, letting her soft tongue caress the sensitive skin until her lover's toes curled and her hands balled into tight fists. A few noisy sucks drew almost all of the lemonade out of the tiny human shot-glass, but Ryan was always careful to clean up after herself, and her tongue made sure there wasn't a drop left.

When she started to pull her head away, she realized that two hands were laced through her hair and that neither one wanted to let go. Her chin rotated so that she could gaze at her partner, and saw that Jamie's eyes were tightly closed and her nipples were so hard that they were plainly visible through the thin fabric of her bikini top. “Like that?” Ryan asked, her voice having dropped into a dangerously low register.

“Ungh,” the smaller woman grunted, unable to speak at the moment.

“Your turn, Jordan,” they heard Mia say. Neither Jamie nor Ryan had remembered that their friends were in the room with them, but they did their best to sit up and focus.

Jordan blushed a little, but she hung in gamely and rubbed the lime all over Mia's navel, one of her most sensitive spots. Dripping a little lemonade into the depression, she grasped her hips and held her down while she retrieved it. Mia was excessively ticklish around her navel, and Jordan knew the process would be like wrestling a bobcat, but she rather liked to wrestle with this particular bobcat, so she held on tight, and didn't relinquish her hold until all of the lemonade was whisked away by her agile tongue. She finished with a flourish, snapping her teeth onto the gold hoop that pierced the sensitive skin and giving it a good tug, making Mia scream with delight.

“Well!” Ryan sat back against the sofa, her eyes wide and a little glassy, her partner exhibiting a similar expression. “Body shot or foreplay? You be the judge!”

“Foreplay,” Mia growled, throwing her feet to the floor and grabbing Jordan's hand. Before Jordan could echo her decision, the door to their room was firmly closed.

“Well, that was hot,” Ryan said, fanning herself quickly.

“Ha! You think that's hot,” the blonde purred, “just wait until I get my hot little hands on you.”

“But, honey, my lesson isn't over yet,” Ryan said. “Don't you want to see the whole gamut of body shots?”

Jamie paused for a minute, looking at the big blue eyes that gazed at her so lovingly. “Who would say no to that?” she asked. “Instruct me, hot stuff ... in the bedroom.”

Ryan followed her compliantly. “I love a willing student,” she said. “I think I'll show you the crotch shot next. Any objections?”

“Duh … huh?” Jamie asked. “You make me lose my rational mind when you look at me so hungrily.”

“Rationality is highly overrated,” Ryan said. “For this one you have to stand … can you?”

“Barely,” she muttered.

Jamie stood on her wobbly legs while Ryan took one of the shot glasses and filled it half full of lemonade. “Okay, this one is a little tricky,” she informed her. “You've got to hold this one with your legs. Here goes,” she said, and pressed the glass into the smooth flesh at the very top of her lover's thighs. “Perfect,” she breathed. “Now just a little more lime.” Oddly, she rubbed the lime onto her lover's hips, just above and below the tiny ties that held up the strip of fabric that was masquerading as a swimsuit. Jamie gave her a puzzled glance, but Ryan just got to her knees and proceeded to worry the little ties with her tongue, licking and sucking all of the juice from her flesh at the same time her white teeth nipped at the tie and pulled the little bow.

“An ulterior motive,” Jamie chided gently, running her hand through Ryan's dark hair as the determined woman worked at the second tie. When both were loose, the fabric draped over the shot glass, and Jamie wondered how Ryan was going to drink from it. She found out seconds later as her partner crawled behind her and tugged at the single millimeter-wide strip of fabric that separated her cheeks. The dark woman yanked and pulled, her white teeth gaining purchase of more and more of the fabric as it slid across her partner's vulva. With one final yank, the thong was in her mouth, her grin rivaling Duffy's when he won a game of tug-of-war.

Crawling back to the front of Jamie's body, she looked up at her with bright eyes, the fabric hanging from her mouth like the prize that it was. Her mouth opened and she dropped it into her hand, then extended it to her partner. “I believe you dropped this,” she said, blinking up at her. “Now I need a little drink to cool my dry tongue.”

Jamie's mouth was dry, too, but that was just about the only part of her body she could make that claim about. Ryan scooted closer, her head just level with the glass that had managed to stay right where she had placed it. Bright blue eyes looked up at Jamie, giving her a heartbreakingly sexy smile as her hands trailed up her body to hold her hips. Her determined tongue peeked out of her mouth and started to push at the bottom of the glass, managing to eventually tip the contents right into her mouth, grinning up at Jamie the entire time. “Like that one?” she asked, the room redolent with the scent of their commingled arousal.

“Yeah,” the smaller woman muttered, now monosyllabic. “Good.”

“One to go,” Ryan said, smiling at the wide-eyed response the information engendered. “You'll like this one.”

“I liked the other ones, too. A lot.”

“Yeah, but you get to drive this time.”

Ryan whipped off her top, leaving her pouty breasts exposed to her lover's intent gaze. After pouring the shot glass full, she wedged it between her ample breasts, saying, “Any old place you want to put the lime is fine with me.”

“I like this,” Jamie said weakly, her mind reeling with possibilities.

“I know my girl,” Ryan said, blowing her a kiss.

As expected, Jamie squeezed the lime onto Ryan's erect nipples, watching them perk into even stiffer peaks. She grasped her partner by the waist and proceeded to lave the hard points, raking them with her teeth and sucking gently. Ryan's hands were splayed across her breasts, holding the shot glass as still as possible against difficult odds.

When all of the lime had been thoroughly removed, Jamie dropped the wedge into the glass and leaned in close. She used Ryan's technique of pulling the glass down with her tongue, and when it was tilted a few degrees in her direction she sucked the lime out, biting down with her even teeth before discarding it. Now she leaned in hard and nuzzled the perfect flesh with abandon, making quite a mess as the lemonade splashed out of the glass, and dribbled down the supple breasts. That was all in Jamie's plan however, and she tilted her head to lap up every spilled drop, running her tongue frantically across nearly every inch of skin.

The rough nuzzling and voracious suckling quickly rendered the glass nearly empty, and she lightly grasped it with her teeth, tossing her head back to drain the final recalcitrant drop. She removed the shot glass and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “I love lemonade,” she growled, pulling her partner close for the first of many mind-altering kisses.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Have a nice nap?” Ryan asked as she gently trailed her fingers through her partner's hair. The smaller woman was sprawled across her body in exactly the same position in which she had fallen, after the last of a series of deeply satisfying climaxes.

“Uhm … that wasn't a nap. I was unconscious.” She blinked her eyes into focus and rolled onto her back, scrubbing at her face with her fists. “Goodness! My throat hurts from moaning.” Clearing her throat, she flipped onto her side and caught the self-satisfied expression on her partner's face. “You love making me beg for mercy, don't you?”

“Mmm,” Ryan said thoughtfully. “I'd have to answer in the affirmative. Every artist loves to hear feedback on her work.” She shared a warm smile with her partner and tenderly brushed her mussed hair from her forehead. “I love you, Jamie.” Dipping her head, she placed several gentle kisses on the coral-tinted lips.

“I love you too, Ryan,” the smaller woman said. “I do so love being here with you. It's wonderful to see the old Ryan back.”

Stretching languidly, Ryan acknowledged the truth to the statement. “I feel better … lighter … freer, than I have since basketball season started. I feel like me.”

Jamie started to play with her hair, and in seconds Ryan's dark head was resting on her chest, turning slightly every few minutes so the head rub could reach every inch. “You surprised me a little by being so mischievous in front of Mia and Jordan,” she said.

“Good surprise, or bad surprise?” the dark woman asked.

“Good. I like losing some of my inhibitions and being more light-hearted. I'm glad they left when they did, but up until that point it was just fun.”

“Yeah,” Ryan said. “It's different for me, since I haven't had many friends in the past that I felt comfortable letting my guard down with.”

“Really?” Jamie asked. “That surprises me.”

“I mean friends that I was never intimate with,” Ryan said. “It's funny. I feel sexual tension when we're with them, but it isn't directed at them. It's more of a charged atmosphere … probably because we're all newly in love. It's very different for me, but I really enjoy it.”

“I enjoy it too,” Jamie said. “I don't want to flaunt our sex life in front of them, but I feel comfortable being kinda frisky with you while they're around.”

“Yeah, that about sums it up,” Ryan said. “I'm beginning to feel more comfortable just being ourselves. It's nice.” She looked up at the ceiling and said, “I really miss Jordan. I know that being on the Olympic team is her life goal, but it's gonna be hard having her gone for so long.”

“Being with her for a few days makes it that much harder to let her go again, doesn't it.”

“Yeah, it does. You know how I hate to be away from family.”

“The ever-expanding O'Flaherty clan,” Jamie said. “We're gonna have to buy Bill Gates' house to hold everyone.”

“Small price to pay,” Ryan said. “You can never have too many people that you love.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The next morning Jamie woke with the sun peeking in through the open sliding glass doors. The salt-laced breeze was warm and humid, and felt divine against her bare skin. Mmm, Ryan's already up. She felt the bed, noting that it was cool to the touch. The little scamp's been up for a while. I wonder what she's up to?

She put on one of her partner's T-shirts and went to look for her, finding a note on the coffee table. Went to explore a little. I guess two days is my maximum vegetation period. I'll be back for breakfast. It was signed with a bold R and a series of small X's. Bringing the paper to her lips, she fondly kissed the signature, feeling just a little silly as she did so. God, could you be any more in love?

There was nothing of interest in the refrigerator, so she went out onto the deck to wait for her partner. In just a few minutes she saw her in the distance, her unmistakable form eating up the space between them. Ryan had the ability to look graceful and smooth even when walking through ankle deep sand, and Jamie watched her, absolutely mesmerized by her easy, rolling gait. As soon as the tall woman got close enough to make out shapes, she waved, as though she knew Jamie would be outside waiting for her.

Unable to wait the two minutes it would take her to cross the sand, Jamie dashed down the stairs and ran to greet her, her face beaming a grin as she did so. “Miss me?” Ryan asked, water still rolling off her bronzed skin. She was holding a mask, snorkel and flippers, and wore a satisfied, deeply contented smile.

“Of course. I couldn't sleep without you.”

“Uh-huh,” Ryan said, knowing that wasn't true. “How long have you been up, love?”

“About ten minutes,” she said.

“I've been gone for two hours,” Ryan said. “Something doesn't compute here.”

“Well, I was technically asleep, but I'm sure it was poor quality sleep since you weren't there.”

“Ahh, that makes sense,” the dark woman said. “Wanna go out with me again? Honestly, Jamie, I just had one of the most amazing experiences of my whole life, and I'm dying to share it with you.”

“Tell me,” Jamie said, grasping her partner's cool hand.

“I got in the water just before sunrise,” Ryan said, her eyes sparkling. “I was over by a little grouping of rocks, and the sun started to stream through the water, lighting up more and more of the most amazing variety of sea creatures that you can imagine! I swear I would have stayed there all day, but I knew you'd be worried about me if I didn't come back soon.”

“I would have been very worried about you if I knew you were snorkeling alone,” Jamie chided gently. “That's not very smart, love.”

Ryan just grinned widely. “I told you that I do lots of dumb stuff, too,” she said.

“I guess you did, didn't you?” she said, patting her chilled tummy as she smiled up at her. “I'd love to go with you. Let's eat a little snack and head back out.”

“Honey, I loved it so much it hasn't crossed my mind to eat! Let's go!”

Looking up at her, Jamie saw a hint of something in the cool, blue eyes. Instead of the calm, relaxed look of a moment before, now Ryan looked like she needed to get back into the water. “Ryan,” she said softly, “why the rush?”

“Uhm …” Ryan moved from one foot to another, looking a little embarrassed. “I uhm … I felt free when I was there, Jamie. I didn't have any upsetting thoughts get in … I was safe.”

Putting her arms around her waist, Jamie held on tight. “You're safe, honey; you're safe here.”

“I know,” she said, “but I felt much better underwater. I don't know why, but I need to go back out there. I keep thinking about leaving tomorrow and I … I …”

“Okay, love. We'll go right now.” She took Ryan's hand and led her back to the cottage so she could put her suit on.

Tapping her foot anxiously, Ryan said, “Bring your new camera. This is something I'll want to remember for the rest of our lives.”

“I'll remember this weekend without photos,” Jamie said, smiling broadly. “But it'll be nice to share the pictures with the rest of the family.”

“Yeah,” Ryan sighed. “Then maybe they'll understand why I'm going to move here.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When Mia woke, she turned slightly to find two very bright blue eyes gazing at her. “Hi, gorgeous,” she said, drawing a very faint blush from Jordan.

“Hi. Sleep well?”

“Oh, yeah.” Mia purred throatily, rolling all around the big bed while she stretched. “I haven't slept this well since you left for Colorado.” She rolled over and enfolded Jordan in a warm embrace. “Everything's better when you're here,” she sighed. “The food tastes better, the air's fresher and cleaner, the sun's even brighter.”

“Honey, the food is better, the air is fresher and cleaner, and the sun is probably brighter too,” Jordan said, smiling warmly.

“Okay, smarty-pants, then explain why I'm sleeping so much better. This bed isn't as nice as the one I have at home.”

“Well, that's probably because of me,” Jordan said, grinning widely. “You know,” she said, “I've been thinking, and as hard as I wrack my brain, I can't recall ever enjoying two days as much as I've enjoyed the two we've had here.”

Mia tightened her embrace, and nuzzled her head into Jordan's chest. “I feel the same way,” she murmured. “I've enjoyed every minute with you.” Nuzzling harder, unable to be close enough, Mia said, “I keep trying to focus on enjoying today, but I keep thinking about leaving you tomorrow, and it makes my stomach ache.”

“Uhm … I don't know what your plans are … but you could come with me to the tournament in Florida. That would give us a few extra days together.”

Mia sat up, her eyes saucering a little. “Come with you?”

“Yeah. I'll have to practice in the morning, and play in the evening, but we'd have a few hours together in the afternoon.”

“Uhm … where would I stay?” Mia asked.

Jordan blinked at her, puzzled as to why Mia didn't seem to understand her point. “With me, of course. We'll probably have to rent our own room, but that shouldn't be too expensive. I can swing it if you're low on funds.”

Staring at her partner in amazement, Mia asked again, “You'd stay with me? What if people see us together?”

Looking mildly frustrated, Jordan tried again. “Look, Mia, the whole point would be so that people will see us together. I want you to meet my teammates, and the women I'm going to share an apartment with. I want the coaching staff to meet you. Heck, you should get to know the traveling secretary — she might have some leads on how to get bargain hotel rooms in Australia.”

Sitting up and staring, Mia asked, “What am I missing? You were adamant about making sure that no one knew you were gay! Now you want everyone to know?”

“Yes, yes,” Jordan said. “I want everyone to know. I was being paranoid, Mia. Now that I know there isn't a problem with the team, I'm ready to come out — to everyone.”

“I … I had no idea,” Mia said, still stunned.

Jordan pulled her back down, and cuddled her close. “Now the only issue is how you feel about it.”

“Me?”

“Yeah, you. I know you don't claim the lesbian label, Mia, and having me introduce you as my lover kinda puts the tag on you. How do you feel about that?”

“Jordy, there are two people who I don't want to know about our relationship. Those two are my mother and father.” She paused for a second and said, “I'd better add my grandparents to that list, too. They'd have a stroke.” Shivering roughly she took a breath and said, “I'll tell them all, but I'm not ready just yet. Other than that, I don't give a damn what people think about me. You're the only person that matters to me, baby.”

“So … you'll come?”

“I'd like to meet the person who could stop me,” she said.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The next morning, two anxious women scanned the beach, looking in vain for their friends. “If we don't leave in ten minutes, we'll never make the flight,” Jordan said. “I don't want to ditch them, but I can't be late for practice!”

“If they're not here soon, you go ahead. I'll meet up with you in Ft. Lauderdale.”

Taking another anxious look, Jordan asked, “Is that them?”

Mia looked where she pointed, and saw two figures who looked to be running across the sand. The taller one was clearly in the lead, and Mia sighed as she said, “Yep. That's them. Jesus, could they cut it a little closer?”

Jordan went and grabbed their suitcases, getting everything into the waiting cab while their friends were running across the deck, stripping as they went. Mia threw them each a towel, and they ran naked into their room, throwing on the clothes they had left out. The curly-haired woman grabbed their wet, sandy suits and put them in a plastic bag and shoved them into her backpack. “Let's go!”

“Okay, okay,” Ryan said, hopping on one foot as she tried to wipe the sand off the other. They all flew down the front steps and got into the cab with a collective exhale. “Nice day for snorkeling,” Ryan said when she caught her breath.

“You two have been in that water so long I thought you'd get the bends!” Jordan said. “You were out there until it was nearly dark last night, and then you disappeared before we even got up today.”

“I'm just glad she didn't discover it until we'd been here two days,” Jamie said, fondly patting her partner's leg. “The fish would have seen more of her than we would have!”

“You know how I've been anxious to go to Ireland to see my family?” Ryan asked, her eyes twinkling.

“Yes.”

“Scrap that,” she said with a chuckle. “Every vacation from now on is gonna be somewhere that I can snorkel. The Irish Sea just doesn't cut it!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Once on the plane heading for home, Jamie snuggled up next to her partner and said, “I kinda envy Mia, getting to stay and watch Jordan compete in a tournament.”

“Envy? Why?”

“Mmm, mainly because it feels so peaceful and calm down here. We don't know anyone, and no one knows us. It feels like a little sanctuary.”

“That's a nice term,” Ryan said, finding a comfortable position as she felt her body begin to relax. “We needed a sanctuary. Regrettably, it's back to reality in about oh … four hours.”

Jamie sighed and cuddled close, chuckling softly as she said, “You smell like the ocean.”

“Hmm … snorkeling for three hours, not taking a shower … I wonder why?”

“That wasn't a complaint,” Jamie said. “I like it … reminds me of snorkeling. I'm going to dream about the pretty fish all the way home.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Part Six

“This is a pretty nice place,” Mia said as they arrived at their hotel. The team was scheduled to play in the Pan-Am tournament starting the next day, and the hotel was located within walking distance of the arena where the games would be played.

“Yeah,” Jordan said. “I sure lucked out. I thought we'd have to rent a separate room.”

“It's nice to have an odd number of players, isn't it?” the curly-haired woman said. She walked over to Jordan and said, “I was really impressed that you told them you had your partner with you. Was that hard for you?”

The blonde shook her head, smiling gently. “No, it wasn't for some reason.” She bent and kissed Mia, lingering for a moment to enjoy the taste of her lips. “That was the first time I've ever come out to anyone,” she said. “Other than Ryan, of course.”

“It'll get easier every time you do it. Jamie comes out to people on the street now,” she said. “If she can feel that comfortable that quickly, so can you.”

“It's easier with support from the people I love,” Jordan said, giving her another kiss. “It's nice to have open-minded straight people — like you — in my life.”

“I'll give you a straight person,” the laughing woman said, pushing Jordan onto the bed.

“Now, now, I have to get to practice,” Jordan said, giggling while Mia's fingers found all of her ticklish spots. “I can't let you have your straight girl way with me.”

“I'll go easy on you now, but as soon as practice is over you're gonna be mine.”

“I'm yours anyway,” Jordan said, placing a gentle kiss on her lips before she hopped up to get ready for practice.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Quicker than either woman was prepared for, they were thrust back into reality when they arrived back in Berkeley from the airport. Ryan was running late and didn't have time to stop at home first, so she directed the driver to drop her off at the gym. She kissed Jamie quickly and hopped out, muttering, “I've still got sand in some very sensitive places. Sweating while I run up and down that court is not going to be fun.”

“Sorry, Tiger,” Jamie said, waving goodbye as her cranky lover trotted away.

She was nearly at the door of the gym when she saw them. Regrettably, they saw her at the same time, and descended upon her like a school of piranhas. “Ryan! What do you have to say about the article printed in today's National Inquisitor? Is what they say about you true, Ryan? You have to comment sometime! Where's Jamie? Are you still together, or has the publicity caused you to break up?”

Staring at the ground, she tried to brush past the small but determined crowd. As microphone after microphone was thrust into her face, she raised her arms and clasped her hands together, her sharp elbows poised to jab anyone who got in her way. The school had posted a guard at the players' entrance, and as she drew near he opened the door to let her pass, throwing his substantial bulk across the opening to stop the crowd from following her.

She was nearly in tears by the time she made it into the locker room, feeling the pressure once again tightening in her chest. It was hard for her to breathe, and she knew that she was in no shape to play basketball at the moment. Since she was a little late, the rest of the players were already on the court, and she hurried to struggle out of her clothes, while pawing through her locker to find some clean practice shorts. Coach Hayes approached and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay?” she asked gently.

Ryan looked at her with a mixture of panic and revulsion. “Yeah. Yeah. I will be. I'm just having a hard time catching my breath. What in the hell were the idiots talking about?” she asked, her face contorted in stark confusion. “They were asking about Jamie and me.”

Mary blinked at her for a moment, then asked, “Uhm … don't you know the latest?”

“What latest? I don't know a damned thing. I just got out of a cab from the airport.”

“Uhm … I'm not sure exactly what's going on, but the tabloids are now digging into your personal life,” Mary said, feeling sick to her stomach at the heartbreakingly shocked look on the young woman's face.

“My … my personal life?”

“Yeah. Uhm … someone close to you is obviously talking to the tabloids, Ryan. I … I … I don't know why anyone would say what he or she has been saying unless …”

Glaring at the woman, Ryan snapped, “No one close to me would do that. No one! The tabloids just make shit up.”

“Well … they've been printing some pretty specific details about you and Jamie. All sorts of things about how you first got together. They're fascinated with the fact that you and Jamie are lovers.” Stroking her back, the coach asked, “Your family knows about you, don't they?”

“Of course. We live with them on the weekends. We're not in the closet, Coach. It's just … it's personal!” With a strangled groan, she got to her feet and kicked one of the lockers … then another … then another … lashing out against the inanimate objects with a fury that shocked the startled coach. The out-of-control young woman started to grab anything that she could reach, taking out her rage on the towel cart, the Gatorade cart, and everything else that wasn't nailed down. Mary was sure she was going to hurt herself, so she got behind her and grabbed onto her waist, holding on for dear life as Ryan flailed away, screaming curse words at the top of her lungs.

Lynette came running in just as Mary yanked with all of her might to stop Ryan from dragging her into the bathroom enclosure. Her desperate grab caused Ryan to lose her balance, and both of them wound up on the floor, their limbs tangled together. “Jesus Christ!” Lynette cried, running to separate them. “What the fuck has gotten into you, Ryan!” Turning her head to the door, she yelled, “Somebody call the campus police!”

“No! For God's sake, don't do that!” Mary pried herself away from Ryan, who was now babbling incoherently, curled up in the fetal position on the wet tile floor. “She didn't try to hurt me, Lynette. She just flipped out, and I tried to stop her from hurting herself. She's so damned strong, I was afraid she'd rip the sinks off the wall!”

Mary crawled over to Ryan and tugged on her until her head and shoulders were resting on her lap. Soothingly, she stroked her, murmuring to her as she did so. Looking up, she saw most of the members of the team standing in the doorway, their eyes nearly popping from their heads. Turning to Lynette, she said, “Get rid of everyone, and see if you can get Jamie on the phone.”

When Lynette left, Mary continued to try to soothe her troubled player, rocking her like she did her own children when one of them threw a tantrum. Slowly, Ryan recovered, and she rolled onto her back, gazing up at her coach with a confused look on her tear-streaked face. “Fuck,” she muttered. “I don't know what the hell just happened.”

Mary didn't say a thing, she just helped Ryan to sit up, then she got to her knees and stood. Extending a hand, she helped pull the sturdy young woman up, then put an arm around her waist and led her down the halls to her office. Once inside, she handed her some tissues and said, “We've been trying to get hold of Jamie, or your family.”

“No, no, that will just worry her,” she said. “I'm fine now. I uhm … don't think I should practice today, though.”

The coach looked at her player until Ryan raised her eyes and met her gaze. “You're in no shape to play basketball, Ryan. You need to get some help.”

“I'm fine,” she said, her voice rising in agitation. “I need to keep going! If I keep everything as normal as possible, I'll be all right.”

“No.” Mary shook her head slowly. “In the last week, you've had a panic attack, you accidentally took an overdose of sleeping pills and liquor, and now you practically tear the locker room apart. You're not all right, Ryan, and until you get some help, I can't let you play.”

“You're kicking me off the team?” she asked, looking like she'd been struck.

“No. You're physically unable to perform, Ryan. I want you to see a psychologist or a psychiatrist to help you through this. You can't play until your doctor says you're able.”

“Fine.” She got up and left the office, striding down the hallway to get her things from the locker room. Mary was right on her heels, and she grasped her sleeve as Ryan entered the room. The younger woman whirled and glared at her coach. “You don't know what's best for me! I'll be fine if I can just go about my normal activities!”

“You can't, Ryan,” the woman said. “Things have changed. There are reporters following you, and they're going to be at all of our practices, all of our games. You can't be normal, because they won't let you. I have to know that you can handle the stress!”

“I've handled more stress than you can imagine,” Ryan growled. “I can handle this, too.”

“No, you can't. Not while I'm in charge. I'm sorry Ryan, but I care for you too much to let you harm yourself.”

The young woman crossed her arms over her chest and asked, “Are you going to call my family and tell them this?”

“No. You're old enough to make your own decisions. I just hope you make the right one.” She looked at her for another moment, then her expression gentled and she said, “I care about you, Ryan, more than I care about winning and losing.” She patted her on the back and left the room, leaving the younger woman alone.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

She didn't have her cell phone, and she had no money on her, since her things were in the cab with Jamie. Having very few options, she walked towards the players' entrance, but stopped before she reached it. I'm not going through that again, she said. She began to prowl around the building, finding herself in the bowels of the new auditorium. She came upon some workmen unloading supplies from trucks, and realized that she was at the loading dock. Without announcing her presence, she sat down on the edge of the dock, then jumped, hitting the ground fairly hard. “Hey! You can't leave the building that way!” one of the men yelled at her.

“Says who?” she growled, not bothering to look back.

Nearly a block from her home, she saw the news trucks double-parked on her normally quiet street. Suddenly, the place didn't even feel like her home any more. The reporters had defiled the very ground that the building rested on, and she couldn't bear the thought of going inside. All she wanted was to grab one of the cars and drive until she managed to elude the wolves. But both Jim's BMW and the Boxster were in the driveway, neither doing her much good. While she stood on the sidewalk, looking as confused as she felt, a woman approached. “Hey, aren't you …?” she started to ask.

“Yeah, I am,” she said. “Do you live here?” Ryan indicated the house that the woman stood in front of.

“Yes, I do.”

“Could I please use your phone? I can't get into my house, and I've got to see if my girlfriend is okay.”

“Sure, come on in,” she said immediately. “Is Jamie all right?”

Ryan blinked at her and said, “It's so odd, hearing you talk about her like you know her.”

The woman blushed and said, “Well, I feel like I do. You two could have your own channel, you're on TV so much.”

Ryan just shook her head and made for the phone, relieved when her partner answered. “Where are you, honey?” she asked, hearing noise in the background.

“I'm still in the cab,” she grumbled. “We're close to the gym. I'm gonna brave the crowds to pull you out of there when practice is over.”

“It's over,” Ryan said. “Can you come get me? I'm a block north of our house.”

“Be right there,” Jamie said, instructing the driver.

They escaped their neighborhood without further incident, but just stared at each other when the driver asked where they wanted to go. “I have to go home,” Ryan said, her voice breaking. “I have to see my family.”

Jamie immediately gave the driver directions, glad beyond words that he didn't seem to recognize them, or think their behavior odd. Jamie reached Martin on her cell, and he instructed them to go to Niall's house, since the media had not encroached upon his house in Sunset.

They had the driver stop at a Bank of America so Jamie could get enough cash to pay the exorbitant fare, and he dropped them off at around five o'clock. It was dark, but Martin wasn't taking any chances. He whisked the young women into the house, then went back for their bags, and to settle up with the cabbie after Jamie thrust $200 at him.

Ryan stood in the hallway, tears streaming down her face, her partner holding on to her body tightly. Martin came back inside and wrapped them both in a fierce hug, holding on until his daughter's sobs had calmed. He led them over to the redwood table and benches, the only furniture in the house. Ryan looked around, a desolate expression on her face. “I can't stay here,” she moaned, her voice rising in panic. “It's like a prison cell!”

“Sshhh, sshhh,” Martin soothed. “I don't want you to stay here, love. I just wanted to get your things into a safe place. The reporters are covering our house, too, sweetheart, so we have to get you in surreptitiously, and I didn't want to chance it until after dark. But don't you worry, Siobhán, I'll take you home with me, and come back and get your things later.”

“Our house or your house?” she asked, her lower lip quivering.

“Wherever you'll feel better,” he said, wrapping her in another embrace. “My poor, poor baby.” He sat down on one of the benches and held her tight, cradling her like he had when she was a young child. Jamie sat on her other side and patted her thigh soothingly, just trying to stay connected.

“What have we done to be hounded like this?” she asked.

“Nothing, darlin'. You've done nothing to deserve this. They're a pack of jackals,” he spat, his anger rising precipitously.

Jamie stood and went to her purse, extracting her cell phone. “I want to call my father and let him know we're back.”

“He's called the house every day that you've been gone,” Martin said. “He's very worried about you both.”

She nodded and waited as the speed dial connected to his apartment. He wasn't home, so she tried his cell, and he answered quickly. “Daddy?”

“Oh, Jamie, thank God,” he sighed. “I was afraid you'd gone into hiding.”

“No,” she said with a ghost of a laugh. “Although that's very appealing.”

“Where are you, honey?”

“We just got back to San Francisco. We're at Ryan's cousin's house in Sunset.”

“Let me come get you,” he said. “I can have a limo pick you up — and I'm quite sure the police department will stop the reporters from following you.”

Jamie took one look at her partner, her dark head cradled against Martin's chest. “We need to stay here, Dad. I think it'll be okay once we get settled.”

“Jamie, I'm so sorry about everything that's come out,” he said, sounding heartbroken.

“What is it, Daddy? I've been in a cab for hours. I don't know what you're talking about.”

“Someone who knows you spoke to the press. I'm not certain, but I think it was Cassie Martin.”

“Oh, God.” She sank onto the bench, and leaned heavily against Ryan. “Why do you think that?”

“The things that were printed are the kinds of things that only Mia or Cassie or Jack would know, honey. I know Mia wouldn't do that to you, and Jack is far too honorable to betray you like that. I don't think Cassie has the same moral code as Mia and Jack do.”

Sighing, Jamie asked, “Okay, give it to me. What did she say?”

Jim paused for a moment, trying to think of the best way to present the things he had read. “She had two main points. One, that Ryan uses women for what she can get out of them — casting them aside when she's finished; and two, that she set out on a path to destroy your relationship with Jack. The implication was that she's using you like she's used the others — and that once she has taken as much of your money as she can get her hands on — she'll leave you for a real lesbian.”

“I am suddenly so damned tired,” she said, “I don't even have the strength to get angry.”

“I understand, honey,” Jim said, “but it's clear that you can't continue to ignore this. It's not going to go away on its own. You have to have a spokesperson. I understand that you don't want to talk, but I think you need an expert to guide you through this morass.”

“Fine,” she said wearily. “We'll be at …” She looked at Martin, who mouthed, “My house.” “We'll be at Martin's,” she informed her father, giving him the telephone number and the address. “Oh, and Daddy, make sure this person knows that the house is surrounded. He or she will be harassed just trying to get in.”

“Public relations people are used to that, honey. It's how they earn their living.”

When Jamie hung up, she gazed at her partner for a moment, then said, “Given how upset you are, I have a feeling that you know about the tabloids.”

Ryan's dark head nodded, but she didn't say a word.

“Do you know who sold us out, honey?”

With her eyes blinking slowly, Ryan said, “I didn't before, but I do now. I hope that she's made her peace with God — 'cause she's gonna meet him soon — as soon as I get my hands on her.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Hearing that the girls were back in the neighborhood, Conor was dispatched to the Necessaries, and stood in front of the magazine rack, reading the entire article from the tabloid. When he was finished, he approached the owner of the store. “Hey, Mr. Kim? How much money do you get for selling one of these?” He held the magazine up by the corner, touching it with only his thumb and index finger to avoid having it taint him.

“Oh … about twenty-five cents,” he said.

“If you don't sell them, can you return them?”

“Oh, sure, sure.”

Conor counted the supply and made an offer. “I'll give you thirty cents for each one if you return them all.”

The man nodded for a moment, then asked, “Do these hurt Ryan?”

“They do.”

“Then I send back. No need to pay, Conor. I make plenty from reporters drinking coffee, anyway.”

Conor gave the man a warm smile and said, “Thanks, Mr. Kim. I can't have my sister walk in here and see these.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

While pushing her food around her plate, Ryan gave a brief, emotionless account of Coach Hayes' asking her to leave the team temporarily, leaving out a few important details — such as her emotional meltdown.

Jamie could tell that Martin was steamed, but he wisely said little, trying not to work his daughter into even more of a state. “This will all be over soon, Siobhán. Then you can go back and finish out the year in peace.”

“Right,” she said tersely, giving no indication that she believed one word of his statement.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

For the rest of the night, Ryan sat in front of the television, flipping between CNN, MSNBC, and all of the local news outlets, seemingly transfixed by the coverage. No one had anything of substance to say, of course, but that didn't stop the drone of talk. Jamie couldn't stomach the coverage, so she went to Kevin's old room and wrote in her journal, trying to relieve her stress.

A gentle knock on the door just before nine o'clock brought Martin to his feet and caused Ryan to look up like a trapped animal. “Who is it?” he asked.

“Leslie King,” a female voice said. “Senator Evans asked me to come. I'm with Rosenberg, Kelly and Martini.” Martin had no idea what that meant, but Ryan got to her feet and opened the door.

“Ryan O'Flaherty,” she said, extending one hand, while the other shielded her eyes from the glare of the lights trained upon the door.

The woman slipped past her, then spent a moment smoothing her hair back into place. “Quiet a gauntlet out there,” she said.

“We had to come in through the back,” Ryan said. “It pays to live in a neighborhood for thirty years. The neighbors don't try to shoot you when you traipse through their back yards.”

“Well,” Leslie said. “It's good to meet you, Ryan, even though the circumstances aren't ideal. I'm here to see if we can't help get you and Jamie a little peace.”

“Anything you can do will be much appreciated,” Ryan sighed, heading back into the living room. “Honey?” she called up the stairs.

Jamie came down, and after introductions were made, Leslie got down to business. “Senator Evans tells me that you're both unwilling to make any type of statement,” she began

“Correct,” Ryan said, her eyes blazing with determination. “At this point, it's a test of wills.”

Looking up into those slate blue eyes, Leslie decided that this resolute young woman probably didn't lose many such tests.

“Okay, I can see that's a dead issue,” she said. “That wouldn't be my recommendation, but I can understand it.”

“What is your recommendation, Leslie?” Jamie asked, feeling her lover tense noticeably.

“I think this would die down if you just made a statement saying that you won't address the incident, or your personal lives. If they could see you, and let America hear you, I think it would go away.”

“Think, or know?” the blonde asked.

“Well, I have 20 years of experience in the field, and I can assure you that the one thing the press loves is a recluse. You two have been wonderful for them. If you had just made a statement the first night, this would have been over immediately.”

“Too bad,” Ryan said, jutting her jaw out defiantly. “I'm not going to talk, because it's no one's business.

“Of course it isn't,” the woman said. “But sometimes you have to be pragmatic.”

“No, I don't,” Ryan said, her eyes burning hot.

“Okay,” Leslie said. “Pragmatism is out.”

“I don't mean to be rigid,” Ryan said, “but I will be very upset with myself if I let the press make me do things that I don't think are right. It might take the immediate problem away, but it will create a bigger internal problem for me.”

“I can understand that,” the older woman said, lightly patting Ryan's arm, seeing the young woman jerk noticeably. “So the question remains, what do we do now?”

“Not a clue,” Jamie said.

“What about having another family member make the statement?” Leslie asked.

“No,” Ryan said, her eyes not blinking.

“Okay, then I guess it's up to me. I'll write up a speech, and you two can approve it, of course. I'll call a press conference, and try to get all of the media outlets to send someone.”

“What do you plan on saying?” Ryan asked, her eyes narrowing.

“Nothing,” she said. “Absolutely nothing. I want every person who leaves that room to be cursing my name. I want to give them plenty of nothing, Ryan. After a while, they'll realize that they're wasting their time.”

“That I can live with,” Ryan said for the first time since they left the plane.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        

As soon as Leslie left, Jamie got on the phone with her father. “Thanks so much for sending a pro to help us out, Dad. I'm not sure her plan will work, but at least it's a step.''

“We discussed what she was going to suggest,” he said. “Are you going to let her make a statement?”

“Yeah, we are, but we want her to make it. We're just not up to it, Daddy.”

“Is there any way we can see each other, honey? I have to leave for Washington tomorrow, you know.”

“No, I didn't know,” she sighed. “I want to see you, too, Dad, but we don't have a lot of options. Either you come over here, or I sneak out. Are you being followed?”

“Like a fox at the hunt,” he growled. “But I won't let that stop me, Jamie. If you want to get together, I'll be there.”

“It's up to you, Dad. If you don't mind braving the hordes, I'd love to see you.”

“I'll be there in fifteen minutes, honey,” he said.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jim proved to be accurate in his prediction, and a cab dropped him off not long after they had finished speaking. Soon after he arrived, Martin and Maeve went to their room, to give Jamie and Ryan some time alone with him. Ryan was grumpy and irritable, so Jamie excused her after just a few minutes.

Father and daughter stared at each other for a few minutes, then Jim reached across the kitchen table and grasped his child's hand. “I'll do anything … anything to make your life more comfortable, Jamie. I'm more than happy to hire a driver for you, so they can't see you get into cars; I'll get a security team to clear the area for you before you leave a place — anything.”

“I really do appreciate that, Daddy, but I don't think that would help. I think going through that kind of thing every time we leave the house will drive Ryan mad.”

He gazed at her for a moment, then asked, “I'm not criticizing you, Jamie, but so far every decision you've mentioned has been made by Ryan and for Ryan. Is that how you want it to be?”

She started to defend her partner, then paused and realized that her father had a valid concern. “I have let her take the lead, Daddy, but for a good reason.” She sighed and said, “Being the focus of attention is driving her mad. It's not that bad for me, for some reason. I'd just go to the Berkeley house and ignore them — but she's not able to. Since she's having such a hard time, I'm trying to let her make the decisions. I'm just trying to support her,” she said quietly.

“You're being a very good … uhm …”

“Partner,” she said, giving him a wry smile.

“Right,” he said, nodding. “You're being a very good partner, honey. But are you sure that your needs are being met?”

“Yes, they are. My biggest need right now is making sure that Ryan gets through this. Once I'm sure she's okay, everything will be fine.”

“Okay,” he said, letting the issue drop. “I just want you to know that I'll get as involved as you want me to. I'll do anything to fix this for you.”

“Daddy,” she said softly, placing a hand on his tensed arm, “sometimes you can't fix things. This will go away in time, and I really don't think there's much you can do to make it stop. I appreciate that you want to try, but I think you need to just go back to Washington, and let this die out on its own.”

He looked down at the table, “I don't know if I can do that, honey. I can't stand to feel that powerless.”

“This time we are powerless, Dad. We need to calm down and wait until it blows over.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


After her father left, Jamie went into the living room and spent a few moments watching her partner. She seemed to have been hypnotized by the television and remained oblivious to Jamie's presence. “Can I convince you to come to bed?”

“Ehh … I don't know,” Ryan said. “I think I'm too keyed up to relax.”

“This isn't helping, Ryan. It's just making you angrier. I can tell by your face.”

“Yeah … angry … that's about it,” she snapped. “I honestly don't think I've ever been this angry.” She let out a humorless laugh and said, “I keep saying that, and then some bastard makes me hit a new high.”

Jamie came around the front of the sofa to take a better look at her partner. The tall woman's hands were curled into fists, and every muscle looked like it was coiled to strike. Jamie placed her hands on her belly, and just as she thought, the muscles were rigid with tension. “Honey, please turn it off. It's making you crazy.”

“I want vengeance,” Ryan said quietly, her flashing eyes glowing in the blue light of the television.

“Oh, honey,” Jamie sighed. She sat down next to her and tried to draw her attention away from the television. “Ryan, that's not like you. Come on, now. You've got to put this in perspective.”

The dark head finally turned towards her, Ryan's face showing a mixture of incredulity and indignation. “Perspective? I'll give you perspective! One of your former friends, a woman who sponged off your generosity for three years, a woman whose mother was your mother's best friend for 15 years, decides, out of nothing but spite and vindictiveness, to throw us to the wolves. I've seen our faces plastered on every news show, with the skuzzy ones asking if I'm the hero I'm purported to be, or just an opportunist who's taking advantage of my wealthy, inexperienced lover. Even the shows that claim to take the high ground are covering the story in nearly the same way — they just use the subterfuge of talking about how wrong it is to know all of these nasty things, and how little privacy we all have.” Her eyes burned in their intensity as she growled, “There's your perspective!”

Jamie didn't respond, knowing there was nothing she could say at this point to soothe her partner. Looking into troubled blue eyes she made a decision and said, “We're leaving tomorrow. I'm taking you someplace warm … where we can snorkel to our heart's content.” Narrowing her eyes, she said, “Don't even think about arguing with me. I will not allow this to torture you, Ryan, and the only solution I can think of is to leave until it's over.”

In the blink of an eye, Ryan's expression changed from rage to wide-eyed worry. “What if it's never over?”

“Every news story has a life-cycle. When something else happens, we'll fade back into anonymity.”

“Is this really the best idea, Jamie? Is it really wise to just run away?” She pursed her lips together and said, “I've never run from anything in my life.”

Jamie stroked her face with the tips of her fingers. “I don't see any other way. We'll be trapped here as long as the press is in front of both of our homes. It will eat you alive to be trapped here in the house. We have options. Let's use them.”

Ryan cocked her head and asked, “How about Pebble Beach? We could hide out there and not be that bothered if the press was outside the gates. You can't see a darned thing from the street.”

“That's an option,” she said. “I just thought you'd prefer to be in Mexico or Belize. I'm sure we'd be completely anonymous there.”

“Yeah, we would,” Ryan said. “But if we went to Pebble Beach, we could have my family come down for the weekend. That would really help. I need them close.”

“You've got a deal,” Jamie said, smoothing the hair from her forehead. “We just have to figure out a way to get the Boxster out of the garage.”

“That's impossible,” Ryan said, shaking her head. “We'll either have to rent a car or borrow Rory's.”

“Let's rent,” Jamie said. “I don't want the parasites to know our license number.”

Ryan looked over at her partner. “Now all we have to do is get some clothes smuggled out.”

“Nope. We're traveling with the clothes on our backs,” Jamie said. “We can stop and buy a few things on the way down. I don't want to alert anyone that we're taking off again.”

“Are you sure this isn't an elaborate scheme to be able to buy me clothes?” Ryan asked, her face gentling into a surprisingly warm smile.

“No, but it's a nice side benefit.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Hey, Con,” Ryan said when her brother picked up the phone.

“Yeah?” he asked sleepily. In just a moment he was wide awake, asking, “What's wrong?”

“Nothing. We just decided we have to get out of here. The walls are closing in on me, bro,” she said with a shaky voice.

“I can lend you a mask,” he said, trying to be helpful. Maeve had entertained the young women earlier in the evening with her story of Conor's exploits with the press. Always creative, he had paid a visit to a costume shop and purchased several rubber masks of former presidents, bloody ghouls and even a Monica Lewinski mask. Maeve claimed that seeing the huge man walk to his truck wearing that mask with a big cigar stuck in his mouth was the funniest thing she'd ever seen in her life.

“No, we thought we'd go down to Pebble Beach. We just have one problem,” she said. “We'd really like to take Jamie's dad's BMW, but it's in Berkeley. Interested in a reconnaissance mission?”

“Sure,” he said, sounding brighter by the minute. “Now?”

“Yeah, if you don't mind. Are you being followed?”

“No. They perk up when I leave, but they don't even take my picture any longer. Want me to swing by and pick you up?”

“No, meet me at 24th and Noe. Can you leave soon?”

“Yep. Gimme five.”

A few minutes later the siblings were headed to Berkeley. Ryan had prevailed upon her partner to stay home, and after a half-hearted argument, the exhausted woman agreed. Conor hatched the plan on the way over. “It's late enough that they're gonna be inattentive,” he said. “Drop me off a block away. I'll just stroll down the street, and make a run for the car. I should be able to evade them, since I assume I'll catch them unawares.”

“What if they catch you?” Ryan asked. “I don't want you to do anything too risky.”

“If they catch me, they catch me. It's still worth a try.”

“Okay,” Ryan said. “Now remember to leave it by Mr. Regan's house. Just leave the keys under the mat.”

“Will do.”

“Well, let's give it a go. If it doesn't work, we'll just rent a car.”

“Oh, it'll work,” he said, his blue eyes flashing with excitement.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan parked just far enough away to be able to watch her brother lope down the street, one of her Cal caps on his head to disguise his appearance. It looked as though the press was caught napping, because he reached the car and took off before anyone could scramble to his car or van. As the BMW flew past the truck, Ryan could hear Conor's demonic laugh, broadcast to all over the car's public address system. He's having altogether too much fun with this, she thought as a fond grin settled onto her face.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan slept very little, her newly developed claustrophobia kicking in with a vengeance. Knowing that the reporters were right outside of her father's house felt like another invasion, and her imagination began to work overtime. Unable to shake the feeling of being trapped, she finally got up and put on her warm-ups. She hunted around in Kevin's old room and found a bandana, then tied it around her head, hiding her distinctive mane. Leaving a note upon her pillow for Jamie, she snuck out of the back door, crossing through every yard that she knew didn't house a dog.

She circled around the block and peered down at the reporters, the crowd now dwindled to a pair. They were obviously chilled, as the night was cold and foggy, and she took some solace in that fact, hoping they were as uncomfortable as she.

Feeling a bit better now that she was outdoors, she walked the two blocks to her own home, just to see what was going on. A small pack of men was standing on the street corner, also looking chilled and bored. They were drinking coffee, and she smiled when she realized that all of the decent coffee shops in the neighborhood were long-closed. I hope you choke on the swill, she thought, with venom filling her heart.

Bored, anxious, and filled with rage, she made the only choice available to her. She started to walk, then when her muscles limbered up, she broke into a slow jog, then a quicker one. It didn't take too long, and just after 3 a.m. she walked up to the front counter of Castro Fitness. Luckily, the person at the front desk knew her, and after a few minutes of murmuring sympathetic words for her plight, he waved her in.

Her bandana changed her look just enough so that hardly anyone recognized her. There were only six people working out at that early hour, and the one sharp-eyed man who did manage to place her just walked by and muttered, “Don't let the bastards get you down, girl.”

She smiled at him and nodded, “I'm trying not to.”

Deciding that what she most needed was a focus for her anger, she slipped on some lightweight hand-protectors and started to work on the speed bag, getting a nice rhythm going, imagining that the bag bore the image of a certain blonde traitor that she was certain to wreak disaster upon.

After working the speed bag until her arms were heavy, Ryan had the trainer on duty lace her hands into a pair of boxing gloves, and she gave the heavy bag such a workout that the sturdy hooks holding it into the ceiling groaned. By the time she was finished, every person in the gym was casting curious glances at her — but this time it wasn't because they recognized her. Every person there was actually glad that they didn't know her — and relieved that they weren't the ones that the darkly beautiful woman was cursing under her breath while she whaled upon the leather of the innocent bag.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Tiptoeing into the bedroom, Ryan shucked her clothing as quickly as possible. She didn't have a change of clothes, so she had been forced to run home just to keep from freezing once the cold night air hit her sodden warm-ups.

They had left their suitcases at Niall's, since they had to sneak into the house, so she didn't have another thing to put on. Wrapping herself in a sheet, she took her wet clothing and put it in the dryer so she could wear it until she could send someone to her house for a fresh supply. She dropped the sheet and slipped into bed, her body a dichotomy of ice cold and steaming hot. Regrettably, Jamie automatically cuddled up to her as soon as she slipped beneath the covers, and her nice warm thighs pressed against the freezing cold flesh of Ryan's butt.

“Mmm …” she mumbled, then blinked her eyes open. Ryan turned over and looked at her, and when Jamie focused on the alert, haunted blue eyes staring at her, she knew something was awry. “Why are you so wide awake?” Her warm hands touched various parts of Ryan's body, then she sat up. Reaching up to touch Ryan's hair she said, “You're dripping wet and freezing cold. Were you outside? Is it raining?”

“I was outside. I was going nuts,” Ryan said softly. “I couldn't stand to be trapped in here another minute. I finally went to the gym and tortured some of the equipment. I guess I didn't realize how much I was sweating. I couldn't find a hair dryer …”

Jamie yawned noisily, and immediately made an offer. “This is silly. Let's get up and go right now. You're obviously not going to sleep.”

“Really?” Ryan asked, her hopeful, fragile expression nearly breaking Jamie's heart.

“Of course,” she said, giving her a firm squeeze. “I might need to crawl in the back seat and sleep, but I think you'll feel better once we're out of here.”

“I will,” she said, her voice hoarse with emotion. “I'm sure I will.”

“Come on then. We can grab breakfast on the road, and shower when we get there. Let's get out of here before the reporters wake up.”

When he heard them stirring, Martin came into the living room. “What are you two up to?” he asked. “It's not 5 a.m.!”

“We're going down to Pebble Beach, Da,” Ryan said. “I can't take another minute of this.”

He nodded, understanding that his daughter was one of the last people in the world who could tolerate forced confinement. “How long will you be gone?”

“As long as we have to be. I'm sure we'll be there on the weekend,” she said. “Any chance of a visit?”

“You don't have to ask twice,” he said. “We'll be there.”

“Bring everybody. Come down on Saturday morning and stay over, okay?”

“We'll come on Friday,” he said. “And we'll stay the whole weekend. Will you be all right, sweetheart?” he asked, cupping her cheek with his hand.

She just nodded her head.

“Call me when you get there, okay?”

“I will,” she said, another few tears leaking out. “Don't worry about me, Da, I'm sure I'll be fine as soon as I don't feel like a rat caught in a trap.”

Her wrapped her in his arms and held her tight, rocking her soothingly for a few moments. “I know that it upset you, darlin', but I think your coach did you a great favor by asking you not to play basketball for a while. You and Jamie can relax and just focus on building your strength back up. I've been worried about you ever since you had the flu, and this stress is just making matters worse.” Patting her at various spots, he said, “Why are your clothes wet?”

“Long story. I went over to the gym to work out and I don't have anything to change into. This stuff dries quickly, though. It'll be fine by the time we get to the beach.”

He shook his head, sharing a knowing look with Jamie.

“I'm going to focus on putting some weight back on her, and making her sleep twelve hours a day,” Jamie said, patting her lover's concave stomach when Martin released her. “I'm looking at this as a blessing in disguise.”

“Now who's the optimist?” Ryan challenged.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan drove slowly down the streets of Carmel, looking about anxiously as she tried to determine if anyone was watching them.

Noticing her darting eyes, Jamie placed a hand on her thigh and soothed, “We weren't followed. No one knows we're here.”

“They will as soon as we get out of the car. Someone will spot us and call the tabloids.”

“Eh … I don't think that's necessarily true … Carmel is pretty laid back, and people are very used to celebrities. There are practically no tourists this time of year, and I think the locals will ignore us completely.”

“I hope so,” Ryan said, the small furrow between her eyes threatening to become a permanent fixture.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

They had breakfast without event, and Ryan started to relax just a little when she began to see that Jamie's prediction was holding true. No one gave them a second glance at the restaurant, and when they stood on the sidewalk after their meal, the passersby blithely ignored them.

The weather was damp and cold, the brisk wind whipping through their light clothes — Ryan's T-shirt still damp from her early-morning workout. “Time to go shopping,” Jamie said. “Is there anything you need?”

“Need? No,” she said immediately. “But there are some things that I'd like to have.”

“Name it,” Jamie said.

“Well, I could use a new ski jacket. Mine's pretty thrashed, and I know the duct tape that holds it together bothers you. And I like those fleece pullovers you have. They look really soft. Maybe some fleece pants, too. Do they make those?”

“Sure,” the blonde said. Cocking her head at her partner, she realized that Ryan was seeking warmth and comfort in any form she could manage, and she decided that her partner would be cuddled in softness the whole time they were in Pebble Beach.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When they entered the first store, Jamie noted that Ryan was fidgeting within three minutes. “Make you a deal. I'll shop for underwear, pajamas, socks and shirts. You go down the street to the ski and surf shop and buy yourself a new jacket and some sweats. By the time you get back here, we'll get you a pair of slacks and some shoes and be done.”

“I don't need slacks,” Ryan said. “Besides, they won't have any that fit me.”

“You've told me you can wear men's slacks if they're pleated and cut slim. I want to be able to take you out to dinner, so just humor me, okay?”

“Okay. Be back in a few.”

Take your time so I can buy some things without being supervised! Jamie thought, but wisely didn't give voice to her wish.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan returned with an attractive jacket; a nice spruce green with a little bit of black detailing around the slash pockets. She had also purchased a pair of snug-fitting black fleece pants with a matching vest; a pair of fleece overalls in a green color very similar to her jacket; two turtleneck sweaters; and a pair of running shoes. “How'd I do?” she asked as Jamie poked her head into the bags.

“Very well! I was afraid every purchase would be a fight.”

“Nope. I'm planning on being very compliant while we're here. I have enough things to worry about without arguing about money.”

Jamie's eyes brightened and she said, “Then let's make one last stop. I've got something all picked out for you.”

Ryan gamely went along, allowing herself to be talked into a form-fitting, black knit polo sweater, a pair of men's Italian-made pleated slacks in a slate gray, and a pair of shiny black leather shoes. “Done?” the dark-haired woman asked hopefully.

“Done,” Jamie said.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“I don't think you could look any cuter,” Jamie said as she regarded her partner who was modeling in front of a cozy fire in the kitchen.

Looking at the tall woman, Jamie practically teared up at the adorable, childlike grin on her face. “I feel like I'm three years old,” she said, giggling. “I've always been a little miffed that they didn't make rompers and onesies for adults. Now I've got one.”

Ryan was attired in her fleece overalls, along with a bright gold turtleneck. Jamie knew that her partner would neglect to purchase anything to keep her feet warm indoors, so she had bought matching pairs of Uggs—fleece-lined shearling boots that would keep them both toasty warm.

“You do look like a little kid,” Jamie said. “It's a very flattering look on you. Your whole mood seems brighter.”

“I feel like I can breathe again,” Ryan said. “I've never been as happy as I was when we pulled in here without a news truck or a pack of reporters nipping at our heels.”

“We're safe here. They can't get onto the property, and I doubt they'll even be allowed in the compound.” She looked thoughtful and said, “I'm going to call security and warn them that we're here — just so they're prepared.”

Ryan's eyes grew wide at that idea. “But … but … they'll tell someone!”

“No, they won't. I'll talk to the head of the security force. He's a nice guy, and I'm sure he'll do whatever he can to make sure we're safe. I think it's wise to let him make some plans before we're tracked down.”

Ryan swallowed, looking a little sick. “You think they'll find us, huh?”

“That's a possibility,” Jamie said. “But if it happens, we'll just stay on the property. We have plenty of room to run around here, and we can have the service stock the refrigerator with anything we want. We really don't have to leave.”

Ryan nodded, not very happy with the thought, but resigned to their fate. “Okay. Give him a call,” she said glumly.

Jamie urged her to take a seat, then crawled onto her lap, snuggling close for a moment. “It will be fine, Ryan. I promise you that we're safe here. We can swim, we can play tennis … there's even enough land to run if you want. We won't feel trapped — even if we have to stay on the property.”

Ryan nodded, acknowledging that the statement was probably accurate. “I'm just twitchy,” she said softly. “My startle-response is off the scale.”

“I know, love. Why don't you go make some phone calls,” she said as she patted her gently. “Call your father at work, then call your aunt. I know they want to hear that we're okay.”

“All right,” she said, her face brightening a little. “I'll page Conor, too, to let him know that we got the car without any problem. Then, I'll check in with Rory, I know he's worried …”

Jamie got up and watched her lover go to the phone, seeing her step actually grow lighter as she went to connect with her family.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Sneaking upstairs, Jamie stuck her head in the office and saw that Ryan was sitting at the desk, staring at her computer, obviously concentrating fiercely on something. Creeping back downstairs, she took the portable phone and called Anna, leaving her number on her machine. She took the phone and went out onto her favorite patio, the one with the glass wall and the incredible view of the ocean. She wrote in her journal for a long time, and when the phone rang she had to flex her fingers for a moment to get the circulation back into them.

“Jamie? It's Anna Fleming.”

“Hi, Anna. Do you have time to talk now?”

“Yes. Is the way we've set this up all right for you?”

“Yeah, I think it'll work. If I don't have to, I'd rather not be tied to a set time to speak with you. I'm sure some days I'll need to speak with you a couple of times, and I'd really like the flexibility.”

“I think this will work, if you don't mind having to wait for me to call you back when I can carve out some time.”

“I don't mind waiting, Anna. I have a feeling I'm going to be housebound while we're down here.”

“Oh, dear, have the reporters found you already?”

“No, actually they haven't. I just think it's best for Ryan to hide out for a while. She seems to feel safer if she's certain she's protected.”

“That's understandable,” Anna said. “But that doesn't tell me how you feel about it.”

“Well, this wouldn't have been my choice, Anna. I wanted to go to Central America and lie on a beach until this all calmed down. I'm sure we would have been safe in Belize or Venezuela, and being outside in the warm sunshine was very, very appealing.”

“So, how did you wind up in Pebble Beach?”

“It's what Ryan needed. She couldn't stand to be that far from her family, Anna. They'll be able to come down and visit on the weekend, and I know that will help her a lot.”

“But, Jamie, you have needs, too, and you can't afford to ignore them.”

“I'm not; really I'm not, Anna. But Ryan's about ready to snap! I've never seen her like this, and it frightens me half to death. Her needs have to come first right now.”

“I can understand that there are times in every relationship where one partner's needs predominate, but you have to find other ways to tend to yourself, Jamie. Why don't you tell me why you didn't want to visit Pebble Beach.”

“Well, it's certainly not a bad place to be captive, but I feel a little like a bird in a gilded cage — it's still a cage. I don't need to hide like Ryan does right now. What I need is to interact with people — that calms me down. I'd like to spend time with my grandfather, and my mother when she gets back from Italy. I want to be outside, Anna, and not just here on the grounds.”

“Then you're going to have to find a way to do that, Jamie. You say you're confident that you're safe there. Why can't you leave Ryan for a while and go out on your own?”

“Oh, I don't think I could do that,” she said. “She couldn't stand to be here alone.”

“How long do you have before school starts, Jamie?”

“Uhm … two weeks. Why?”

“Can you tolerate being cooped up there for two weeks?”

“Oh, God, I don't think I can,” she said, her voice filled with worry.

“Look, Jamie, I know how much you love Ryan, but driving yourself crazy to help keep her sane seems like a bad trade-off. I also doubt that she'd like it if she knew that you wanted to go out but didn't, because of her.”

“No, she'd hate that. But, Anna, you should see the look in her eyes when she gets frightened. It breaks my heart!”

“I understand that, Jamie, but you have needs, too, and you can't afford to ignore them. You're coping well so far, but that could change quickly if you begin to feel trapped.”

Sighing, she nodded and said, “You're right. I'm already struggling with nightmares, and these dreadful thoughts that keep bombarding me. Feeling like a prisoner will make it worse.”

“You don't have to be gone for hours and hours. Keep it short at first, and slowly increase the time you're gone. That will let both of you adjust.”

“Okay,” Jamie said, sounding very unhappy. “I suppose I don't have much choice at this point.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Late that afternoon, Jamie found her partner diligently working at the computer up in Catherine's office. “Hi. You've been awfully busy this afternoon. Whatcha been doing?”

“Mmm,” Ryan moaned as she stretched languidly. “I answered all of my mail, e-mailed my cousin, wrote real letters to my aunt and my grandparents, then started to sketch out my plans for my independent study.” She gave her a sheepish look and added, “I'm doing everything possible to avoid working on my grad school applications.”

Jamie sat down close to the desk and said, “I don't think there's a person in the world who likes to fill those out. Is there any way I can help?”

Ryan sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “No, I don't think so. I actually finished most of them before the … you know.”

Nodding slightly, Jamie picked up one of the unfinished packets and idly leafed through it. “You're nearly done, honey. Why not just finish this one up?”

Taking it from her hand, Ryan went to the part of the application she was having trouble with. “I can't fill this in,” she said, her frustration obvious.

Jamie looked to where she was pointing and nodded, “That's a pretty important part, honey. Maybe you should consider if your reticence means something.”

Rolling her eyes dramatically, Ryan said, “Out with it. Say what's on your mind.”

Reminding herself that Ryan was understandably short-tempered, Jamie ignored her curtness. “If you can't express why you want to go to medical school, maybe you don't want to go.”

Looking as though she was trying to curb her anger, Ryan said, “I told you that — in so many words, Jamie. I don't want to go to medical school. I don't want to be a physician. But if I want to do genetics research that involves clinical trials, I either have to be a medical doctor, or do my work under the supervision of a medical doctor. I have no intention of having someone else looking over my shoulder through my entire career!”

Having a feeling that Ryan was overstating the onerous nature of this requirement, Jamie wisely decided not to voice that thought. Instead, she gentled her voice and said, “Do you want to get your Ph.D.?”

Ryan nodded briefly. “I do.”

“Then why not get your Ph.D. first? You could go to med school after you worked a year or two and got a feeling for how bad it would be to work under the direction of a physician.”

Obviously feeling more than a little intractable, Ryan crossed her arms and shook her head firmly. “No. I know I'd hate having someone supervise me. I've talked to plenty of researchers, Jamie, and it's a common complaint.”

“Well,” the blonde said, trying to find an acceptable alternative, “you could get your Ph.D. first, and then go to med school, couldn't you? That way you'd get to have a couple of years doing something you liked.”

Again, the dark head shook. “I don't want to waste any more time than is absolutely necessary. Doing a joint M.D./Ph.D. program will save me from having to take quite a few courses. It's the smarter way to do it.”

Furrowing her brow, Jamie asked, “I've never heard you say you want to do work in a setting that would involve clinical trials. I thought you wanted to do basic genetics research.”

“That's what I think today,” she said. “But I might change my mind later on. I want to have a degree that will let me do anything that interests me. It will be a hell of a lot easier to get the credentials now than when we have a bunch of kids.”

Jamie stood and looked at her partner, seeing that the woman was not going to budge from her beliefs — no matter how irrational they seemed to Jamie. “Okay,” she sighed. “Then you'd better think of a way to make your reasons for going to med school sound a whole lot more earnest and noble. I don't think you'll win many friends on the admissions committee if you say you want to be a doctor just so you don't have to work for a doctor.”

Surprisingly, Ryan found this funny, and her genuine laugh seemed like music to Jamie's ears. “That's what I've been struggling with. I'm just not in an ass-kissing mood these days.”

“You'll get there,” Jamie said. “You're one of the best ass-kissers I've ever met.”

“All depends on the ass,” Ryan said. “Now tell me about your day. I haven't seen much of you.”

“I was on the phone,” Jamie said as she lay down on the chaise and stretched out. “I spoke with the head of security, then I called my mom — we talked for a long time. Then I spoke with my father, and I called Leslie at the public relations firm.”

“How's your mom?” Ryan asked, getting to the call she considered the most important.

“Good,” she said thoughtfully. “At least, I think she's good. She seemed a little down, but it's hard to tell if it's because of her own mood, or if she's just worried about us. I did have to spend quite a while trying to talk her out of coming home early. She's really upset about all of this.”

“Any thoughts on why she might be down, other than this stuff?”

The blonde head shook gently and Jamie said, “No, not really. She said things are going well. She's seen her … uhm … I don't know what to call him,” she said. Nodding her head once she made her decision. “I think I'll call him by his name. She's spent time with Giacomo, and she's seen her cousins a couple of times. Stephanie and Trey are due to be released from the drug rehab facility this week, but she didn't sound very hopeful.” She shrugged her shoulders and added, “I guess being around that group could affect your mood.”

“It would mine,” Ryan said. “But it's obvious that my mood's all over the place anyway.”

She looked a little sheepish, and Jamie gave her a gentle smile. “We're both tense, honey. You wouldn't be human if your mood wasn't a little volatile.”

Ryan gazed at her reflectively for a moment. “Why do you think the press bothers me so much more than it does you?”

“Hmm … I was thinking about that when I talked to my mom,” Jamie said. “I'm not sure. Maybe I'm just used to feeling like I'm under a microscope, but whatever the reason, it really doesn't bother me much, to be honest.” She looked at her partner and added, “I'm sure I'd feel differently if I had to play golf with them hovering over me. I think those incidents in North Carolina really spooked you.”

“Maybe,” Ryan said. “I think you're just tougher than I am.”

Jamie laughed, knowing that she was teasing, but she acknowledged the grain of truth in her partner's statement. “There are things I handle better, and things you handle better. I think it's nice that we balance each other out a little bit.”

“We do that,” Ryan said. “I'd be much more freaked out about this if you weren't calm. You're really helping me to keep a lid on it. Thanks for that.”

Jamie got up and stood next to Ryan. Absently playing with the fastener for the strap of Ryan's overalls, she said, “I don't think it's a good idea to keep a lid on it, honey. I spoke with Anna this afternoon, and she gave me a referral for a doctor down here. I uhm … made you an appointment for this afternoon.”

“Me? I thought you wanted to see someone to do some crisis counseling. I assumed we'd talk to someone together.”

“I don't think that's a good idea,” Jamie said. “Our experiences were very different, and I don't think it's a good idea to commingle them.” Looking at Ryan carefully she said, “You've been talking and crying in your sleep at night. It breaks my heart to hear you moaning and whimpering, honey. You have to talk to someone to get those feelings out. I know that we each experienced our own version of hell that night — and I don't think it's good to visit each other's.”

“You do it, too,” Ryan said quietly. “Last night you started to moan and then you sat straight up and screamed Caitlin's name.” She shivered and said, “I couldn't get back to sleep after that.”

“We're going to drive each other mad,” Jamie said. “We both need help, Ryan, and the sooner we get it, the sooner we'll get back to normal.”

“I don't want to talk about it,” the dark woman said quietly. “It's like re-living it, Jamie, and I don't ever want to do that.”

Jamie held her close and whispered into her ear. “You're a very, very brave woman, Ryan, and I know you can do this.” She pulled away and kissed her partner's pink cheeks. “This is the only way, honey. You either talk about it now, or let it torture you at night.”

“Okay,” she sighed. “Are you sure this is the only way?”

“Yes, baby. You need a professional.” She kissed the top of her head and said, “I'm going to go into Carmel when you do. I want to do a little more shopping.”

“You don't have to drive me,” Ryan said.

“Uhm … I'm going to take one of Daddy's cars, honey. You go ahead and take the BMW.”

“But why …? Does that mean you might not be home when I get back?”

“Uhm … maybe,” she said. “I need to get out for a little bit. No big deal. I want to shop, maybe stop for a cup of cocoa. I need to feel like I can go about my business.”

“But, why won't you be home when I am?” the dark woman asked, her eyes wide. “How long will that take you?”

Jamie wrapped her arms around her and said, “I need to be outside for a while, honey. I promise that I'll be fine — and that you'll be fine. I'll bring something home for dinner, and I swear I'll be home by six, okay?”

“Okay,” Ryan said, her voice sounding as frightened as a small child after a nightmare.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

At 2 o'clock, the tall, dark, recalcitrant woman was shown into the therapist's offices. “Hi,” Ryan said, extending her hand. “I'm Ryan O'Flaherty.”

“Amanda Johns,” the motherly, slightly rotund woman said. She led Ryan into the spacious, tastefully decorated office and then stood just inside the door. “I usually sit in the brown recliner,” she said. “Take your pick of any of the other seats.”

Ryan chose the chair that was the greatest distance from the woman, and sat, stretching her long legs out in front of her. The doctor took her seat as well, and gazed at Ryan for a moment. “I think I know why you're here, Ryan,” she said, “but I'd like to hear what specifically brings you to me.”

“My girlfriend and a gun to my head,” she said, trying to smile, but failing rather dramatically. She scowled a bit and asked, “What would you like me to call you?”

“Whatever you like. I'm a medical doctor, so you can call me Doctor Johns, or even Amanda if that pleases you.”

Ryan nodded, then said, “I'll decide later.” She shifted in her seat, and briefly wished she'd chosen the more comfortable looking sofa. “Uhm … what did you ask?”

“I asked you to tell me why you decided to come see me. That is, assuming that your original answer was a joke,” she said, her eyes twinkling.

“It was … but only partially,” Ryan said. “I don't want to be here, and I'm only doing it because my lover thinks I should. I don't want to upset her any more than she already is, so I came.”

“You're from San Francisco, right?” the doctor asked.

“Uh-huh. We're seniors at Cal. I'm on the basketball team, and Jamie's on the golf team — we can't afford to be gone for too long.”

“Hmm … so, you're just here for a short while?”

“I assume so. I have every intention of being at school in two weeks when the next term starts.”

“Well then, we'd better get busy, hadn't we?” Amanda leaned back, and the footstool rose. “You don't mind if I get comfortable, do you?”

“No.”

“Are you comfortable, Ryan?”

“No.”

“Do you want to change seats?”

“I guess.” She got up and tried the sofa, maneuvering around until she looked a bit more relaxed. “This is better. That other chair's too low for me.”

“You're a little taller than my average client,” the doctor said, giving her another small smile.

“I do tend to skew a curve,” she said.

Amanda gazed at her for another moment, then said, “There could be many reasons for you to be here, Ryan, but I assume you're having some trouble because of the carjacking. Is that right?”

“Yeah. The carjacking, killing a guy, being hunted like prey … those little things,” she said with more sarcasm than was polite.

“Like most people, I'm aware of what happened to you and your partner,” the doctor said, “but I didn't see it on television. So, while I know the broad overview, I'm very weak on the details. Would you mind telling me what happened?”

She sighed and sank further down in her seat. Looking bored, she said, “We were carjacked by two brothers. My little cousin was in the backseat of our car, and when they took over, they threw both Jamie and me out. Jamie climbed back into the backseat, and I jumped onto the roof right as they took off. We drove around for a while, then I got a gun away from one of them and eventually I leaned over and shot the driver. The bullet wounded both of them, and shortly after that we drove into the bay. We all made it out of the car, and later, the one with the more minor wound got an infection and died.” She shrugged her shoulders and said, “That's it.”

The doctor nodded, and said, “I knew that much from the papers, Ryan.” She leaned forward and the footrest snapped shut. She rested her forearms on her knees, now bringing her fairly close to her client. “My guess is that you're having trouble sleeping; you're irritable and anxious; probably a little paranoid; most likely forgetful; and …” She narrowed her eyes as she thought, “Also probably worried about your own health and/or your partner's.” She sat up taller and said, “And, if you're like most people, you probably feel some level of guilt about something that you did, or didn't do during the ordeal.” Leaning back against her chair again, she asked, “How did I do?”

The surprised look on Ryan's face gave testimony to her accuracy. “How do you know that?”

“I work with a lot of people who've been traumatized, Ryan. Those are very, very common reactions. You wouldn't be human if you didn't have some of them.”

“I must be one major human,” the tall woman grumbled, “'cause I have all of 'em.”

“Then we have our work cut out for us, don't we?” Amanda asked, giving Ryan another smile. “Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but when you're awake at 3 a.m. I bet you don't think of the ordeal in the cool, dispassionate tone that you used when you recounted it to me.”

“No, I don't,” Ryan said.

“Okay. Then let's do it again, but this time, I'd really like for you to start at the beginning and tell me not only what happened, but how you felt as the events unfolded.”

The tall woman sat upright, her body stiff. “I don't wanna do that.”

“Tell me why,” the doctor asked softly.

Ryan got to her feet and went to the window, the muscles in her back so tight that they were visible through her knit shirt. “I lived it once. Once was too many times.”

“You have panic attacks, don't you, Ryan?”

“I just had one … bad one,” she said.

“Are you afraid of having another?”

The dark head nodded briefly.

“Are you afraid of having one in front of me?”

Again, Ryan nodded, not saying a word.

“That's understandable,” the doctor said. “I've been with a lot of people who have them, Ryan, and they're nothing to be ashamed of. It's just the way your body reacts to extreme levels of stress. It's really very common.”

“They scare me,” she said quietly.

“Of course they do,” Amanda said. “Why don't you sit down and tell me how you've been dealing with the stress so far?”

Ryan did so, sticking her feet out in front of herself, looking like a sullen teenager. “I went berserk and nearly trashed the women's locker room at the new gym at Cal; I took some sleeping pills and drank everything I could get my hands on in my mini bar when we were on a road trip; and of course, I had a panic attack on national television. They're unconventional strategies, but they've been effective.”

The doctor nodded. “I rather doubt that. With a little work, we can get you past your fears, Ryan, but you've got to be willing to work hard. I know you don't want to talk about how you feel, but that's the only way to reduce the hold these fears have over you. I promise you that it's the only way.”

“I don't want to,” she repeated, sounding more intractable by the minute.

“How about this?” Amanda said. “Would it help you to write down your thoughts, rather than speak them?”

The young woman shrugged her shoulders, still looking sullen and withdrawn.

“Are you willing to try?”

“I guess.”

Amanda looked at her watch and said, “Our time is up, Ryan, but I don't want you to leave yet. It's really important that you get a little of this out today, and I'd like you to be here in the office when you do. I have another small room, where my secretary sits. She's not here today, so you can use her computer. I'd like you to take the next hour and try to express some of your feelings about what happened when you were carjacked. Take your time, do it slowly, and if you start to feel tense, just take a break. Walk around, take some deep breaths; just don't let yourself be overwhelmed. I'll come and get you in an hour. If you want to, we can talk some more. But if not, you can go home. Okay?”

“All right.” Ryan got up and followed the doctor into a small, but cheery office. She looked the computer over and said, “I'm a Mac person, but I know how to use Word. This will be fine.”

Patting her on the back, Amanda said, “I'll be back in an hour. Remember, don't try to go outside of your comfort zone. It's important to get this out, but you don't have to do it all in a day.”

“Right. See you then.” She sat down and adjusted the office chair, then got to work, her fingers flying over the keys by the time Amanda closed the door.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When the doctor opened the door an hour later, Ryan was bent at the waist, head lying atop the desk on her crossed arms. She lifted her head when she heard Amanda, and the doctor nearly gasped at the sight. Her eyes were red and swollen, and her long bangs clung to her sweat dampened face. Her skin was pale and clammy looking, and she shook noticeably when she tried to sit up.

Going to her, Amanda placed a hand on her shoulder and stroked her gently. “Got carried away, huh?”

“You said it was important to get it out,” she said. “I don't like to give in to my fears.”

“Do you want to stay and talk about this, or have you had enough?” the doctor asked.

“Uhm … I really get to choose?”

“Of course you do, Ryan. I want to help you. If you really don't want to be here, you're wasting your money.”

She looked up at her, her expression childlike, and hopeful. “Don't you want to see what I wrote?”

“Sure. Why don't you print it out,” the doctor said. “Then delete it so no one else can read it.”

Ryan did so, then handed her the impressive stack of paper. “Do you want to read it, or should I read it to you?”

“That depends on what you want. I'm happy to read it myself; either with you here or not. I'd also be happy to have you read it to me.”

Extending the papers, Ryan said, “I've never been so tired. Would you mind just reading it?”

“No, not at all.” The doctor took the papers and said, “Will you come back?”

“Yeah. I have to,” she said glumly.

“You certainly seem like the type of woman who doesn't mind working hard — once she puts her mind to it,” Amanda said. “I can see you at 10 and at 2 tomorrow.”

“Twice?” Ryan asked, eyes wide.

“At first, I think we should,” Amanda said. “Just until you're not feeling so panicky.”

“Will this last long?” Ryan asked tentatively.

“It doesn't have to,” Amanda said. “We'll get through this. We'll work together, and get through this.” Looking at her for a moment, she said, “As you know, I can prescribe medication to help you cope, Ryan. Some of the selective seratonin re-uptake inhibitors have shown good results in people prone to panic attacks. Would you like to consider that avenue?”

“No,” Ryan said, her eyes wide. “I don't want to depend on drugs to get me through this.”

“Medication can be a tool that helps you get over the rough spots, Ryan. But it won't do the work for you.”

“I'd really rather not,” she said, shaking her dark head. “I feel broken enough as it is. Having to take drugs would make me feel worse.”

“Okay,” Amanda said. “But if you change your mind, I'm confident there is a drug that can help with the panic attacks.”

“I'll keep that in mind,” Ryan said, giving the doctor a look that indicated a complete lack of receptivity.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When she got home, the street was still free of reporters, and she heaved a sigh of relief, unable to bear the thought of being harassed further. Sticking her head in the house, she called out for her partner, then her stomach flipped when she realized that Jamie wasn't home.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

A little before six, Jamie pulled into the garage, and looked up in surprise when she turned off the car and heard music blaring. Getting out, she realized that the sound was coming from the second floor gym. She climbed the stairs and found Ryan vigorously pumping iron, her chest muscles gleaming with sweat as she did a set of dumbbell curls. “Honey, I'm home,” she shouted over the pounding beat.

Ryan looked up and gave her a relieved smile. Trotting over to the stereo, she turned the volume down. Jamie looked up and noticed that the television was on, too, her partner obviously trying to fill the room with noise. “Hi. I uhm … needed to work off some energy.”

“Are you all right, baby?”

“Yeah. I'll come down when I'm finished, okay? I need to do a few more things.”

“All right, sweetheart. I'll start dinner.”

As soon as Jamie left the room, the volume rose again. Ryan was gone for another half hour, and when she entered the house, she was a sweaty mess. “I'll go shower and come back and help, okay?”

“Sure, love. I'm just about finished.”

Even though Jamie had enjoyed going out, she was a little shaky, as well. After dinner they sat together in front of a warm fire in the kitchen, sipping on a nice bottle of deep red cabernet. Ryan had given off clear signals that she wasn't in the mood for any physical contact, so they maintained a respectful distance from each other. “Are you sure therapy is going to help?” Ryan asked, her voice thin and filled with worry.

“Yes, yes,” Jamie said. “I know it's painful, but we have to suck it up and do it.”

“I was afraid you were going to say that,” Ryan said, still unable to stop the lurid video that was rolling in her mind — locked on replay.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

A terrified scream woke Jamie not twenty minutes after she had fallen asleep. Her stomach in knots, the groggy blonde enveloped Ryan in a warm embrace and tried to soothe her through her nightmare, forsaking her own sleep, which she desperately needed.

A little over an hour later, Jamie returned the favor, waking Ryan with her inarticulate mumbling which slowly turned into groaning and rapid breathing. Ryan tried to calm her, and slowly succeeded. But her own rest was ruined, and she eventually got up and sat on the window seat, watching and listening to the waves crashing against the shore — feeling that the roiling of her own soul could rival the tumultuous surf.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

By the end of her first session the next day, Ryan felt like she'd been beaten with sticks. Amanda had slowly urged her to open her protective shell and talk about the things that were interfering with her sleep. Trying to stall for time, Ryan asked, “Can you explain something to me?”

“Sure, if I can.”

“Why did we both do so well when we were on vacation? We didn't have one nightmare, we didn't have this crap breaking into every third thought, and we really enjoyed being together. Now I can hardly stand to be in the same room with Jamie! I don't feel like having sex, and that's one of the things that usually keeps me calm,” she said. “Even kissing her reminds me of the thing.” She was once again unable to refer to the carjacking by any but the most obscure reference, and had settled on “thing”. “I hide out in her mom's office, and work on school work all day — and that's just not like me!”

Amanda nodded, then said, “That's not surprising, Ryan. Right now, seeing Jamie only reminds you of the 'thing'. Being vulnerable, and open, and sexual with her is just not something that's going to come easily for a while.”

“That's why I think coming here is a bad idea!” Ryan cried. “I should feel better —but I'm feeling worse!”

“You will feel better… I assure you that you will. Look, Ryan, what happened to you in the Bahamas is not unexpected. You had a horrific, life-threatening event occur, and a few days later you were able to leave everything behind. The weather was different, you didn't have to see any of your family members, no one brought the incident up — you were truly on a vacation. Your emotions were on vacation, too, Ryan. But you can't stay on vacation forever. At some point, you have to buckle down and face your real life. You real life is pretty tough right now, and I realize that your instinct is to run from it. But you can only run so far and so fast. Your emotions have to be dealt with, and I assure you that this is the right place to deal with them. I guarantee you that you can make some progress here, and be able to rely on Jamie once again for your emotional support.”

“I miss her,” Ryan sighed, a few tears escaping. “It reminds me of how close I came to losing her …” She dropped her head in her hands and started to cry again, letting out some of the feelings that had been choking her.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

During her three-hour break, Ryan did nothing more than walk aimlessly down the streets of Carmel, finally finding herself by the ocean. She sat down and let the cold breeze and colder sea-spray hit her body, feeling more alive and more connected to the earth when she was being buffeted by nature. When it was time to go, she stood and forced herself back to Amanda's office, hoping that the woman had, during the break, decided to quit practicing psychiatry completely.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

As soon as Ryan left the house that morning, Jamie got into the Acura NSX and drove into Carmel. She really didn't have anything on her agenda, but she desperately needed to be around other people. Choosing a crowded diner, she sat at the counter, reading the paper while absently listening to the people around her converse. “Hi,” said an elderly woman. “What can I get for ya?”

Jamie looked up and said, “I'd like a bagel and some orange juice.”

The woman stared at her for a moment, then said, “You're … that girl from TV.”

“That's me,” she said. She shook her head and let out a mirthless laugh. “It's hard to think of myself as a celebrity, even though I guess I am. I feel much more like a frightened crime victim.”

The woman's motherly instincts immediately emerged, and she said, “Well, of course you do, you poor little thing. Did you come down here for a little vacation?”

“Not really. My parents have a place down here, and we came to avoid being hounded. I hope it doesn't start up here, too.”

“You're safe here, sweetie. It's Jamie … isn't it?”

“Uh-huh,” she said. “What's your name?”

“I'm Helen,” she said. “You'll be safe here, Jamie. I'll see to that.”

Giving her a warm smile, Jamie asked, “And just how will you accomplish that, Helen?”

“This is my place,” she said proudly, “and I'll fire anyone who rats you out. I don't put up with any nonsense around here.”

“I guess I should just stay in the house, but I've been feeling like a prisoner,” she said. “I really have to get out a little.”

“I promise you that you won't be bothered here,” the woman said. “And forget the bagel. You need to put on a little weight, Jamie. How about some of the best blueberry pancakes you've ever had?”

“Who can say no to blueberry pancakes?” she asked, giving the woman a warm smile. “Bring 'em on, Helen.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After enjoying both the food and a long chat with Helen, Jamie was just about at her car when her cell rang. “Hello?”

“Hi, Jamie. It's Jack.”

“Oh, hi. Sorry I didn't return your call, but I've just been overwhelmed. I hope you understand.”

“Sure I do,” he said. “And if you don't want to talk now, we don't have to. I'm just worried about you, and I wanted to hear your voice.”

“We're okay,” she said. “Neither of us was hurt badly. We just have to get a little peace and quiet so we can heal emotionally.”

“I can't imagine that Ryan isn't pretty banged up. What she did was … wow.”

“Yeah, she's a wow kinda woman.”

“Uhm … can I ask you a question? And I'd really like you to be honest with me.”

“Sure. I'll try.”

“I ahh … kinda want to stay in touch with you. Not to be best friends or anything, but just to … you know.”

“No, I don't think I do know,” she said.

“I don't want it to be over. I know you don't love me anymore, and I'm really happy with Natalie, but I want to have at least some connection to you.”

She paused and thought about it for a long time. Finally, she made up her mind. “You know, I really wish I were the kind of person who could be friends with my ex, but I'm not. I love you, Jack, but our relationship is over. I'm sorry, but it doesn't work for me to maintain contact.”

He was quiet for a moment, then asked, “Is it Ryan? Does it bother her?”

Jamie barked out a wry laugh. “She wouldn't complain if I had you move in with us. No, Jack, she's not like that. She thinks it's great to maintain relationships with former lovers. This is my decision. I care about you, and I very much want you to have a fulfilling life. I'd just rather hear about it from people who know us both.”

“Okay,” he said quietly. “I'm just having a hard time letting go.”

“Uhm … how would Natalie feel if she knew that?”

“I … I have no idea …”

“Oh, please. Think about it for a minute, Jack. Natalie would be somewhere between very uncomfortable and livid about us staying in touch. You'd know that if you'd let yourself admit it.”

“Yeah … yeah … you're right.” He sighed deeply and said, “I just have trouble closing the door.”

“I know that about you, Jack. Uhm … speaking of letting go, why did you let go of your plans to clerk for a federal judge this year? I'm surprised you're even in town.”

“Well, Natalie got a job here in town, and we just decided that it wasn't good for our relationship to be that far away from each other.”

“You know … it sounds like you two have some good instincts. I urge you to follow them. Concentrate on her like I concentrate on Ryan, and you'll have a happy marriage. What you and I had will always be special, Jack, but it's over now.”

“All right.” There was an uncomfortable silence, then he said, “Take care of yourself, Jamie. I'll … I'll always love you.”

“Thank you, Jack,” she said quietly. “Have a very nice life.”

She hung up and sat in the NSX for a long time, feeling the sadness that came over her every time they spoke. If I really worked at it, I could get over my discomfort and be able to talk to him without feeling down. But that's not where I want to put my energies. My life is messy enough without asking for complications. It's time to let go, Jack. I have.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *


Part 7

When she returned home, Ryan kissed Jamie's cheek and went upstairs without a word. The dark woman looked so wrung-out that Jamie assumed she'd head straight to bed. An hour later, the blonde went up to check on her, and was surprised to find their bed empty. Making her way into the office, she found Ryan sitting at the desk with her chin on her stacked fists, looking glum.

“What's up?” Jamie asked quietly, so as not to startle her.

“If I don't get this piece of shit in the mail by tomorrow morning, I'll miss the fucking deadline.”

Knowing just which piece of shit she was referring to, Jamie perched on the edge of the desk and started to run her fingers through Ryan's hair. Immediately, Ryan sat up, withdrawing her head from Jamie's grasp. The blonde knew the action was intentional, and she tried to keep herself from feeling hurt by the rejection. “I have another suggestion,” she said quietly.

Ryan sighed, but stopped herself from biting off a smart retort. “Yes?”

“I think you should take every one of those applications and throw them in the trash.”

Giving her a wry look, Ryan said, “I've done that three times. Have anything new?”

“I think you should throw them in the trash and leave them there. I don't think you're in any state to make up your mind about this, Ryan. With all of the stress we've been through this year, I think we should put all of our energies into graduating. Once we're finished with school, I think we should take an extended vacation. We could go see your grandparents, I could take you to Italy … Heck, we could stay in Australia for a few weeks after the Olympics and go snorkeling off the Great Barrier Reef. Doesn't that sound divine?” she asked softly, seeing that Ryan's eyes were beginning to lose their sharp focus. The dark head nodded slowly, and Jamie knew she had set the hook. “We could spend a whole year just getting our strength back. We wouldn't have to do anything but rest, relax, eat well, and try to keep as much stress out of our lives as possible. What do you say?”

Ryan gazed up at her with a look of stark longing mixed with regret. “I can't do it,” she sighed. “Doing this joint program and finishing my residency will take me more than 10 years. I'll be in my mid to late thirties by then. I can't afford to wait yet another year to start our family.”

Seeing that despite her words she still looked receptive, Jamie put a hand on each of Ryan's shoulders and looked at her with an intent gaze. “It doesn't make sense to make decisions today based on what you think you want in ten years. We have many, many options, Ryan. I could have the first child, we might decide to adopt our first, we might find that one of us is infertile and can't have children … There are so many things that can happen, honey. Don't let this arbitrary time-line prevent you from making a choice now.”

With a look that appeared more confused than Jamie had ever seen, Ryan lay her head on the blonde's thigh. “I don't know what to do,” she murmured. “I feel like I have to keep going, like it's wrong to waste a year.”

“How can you possibly say that spending a year on you — on us — is a waste? You tell me that there isn't anything more important than our relationship,” Jamie said. “Well, your words don't match your actions, Ryan. Forcing yourself to enter medical school this fall will hurt us as a couple.”

“This summer,” Ryan mumbled.

“What?”

“School starts on July the first at both Stanford and U.C.S.F.”

“So you'd only have what … four weeks off after graduation? With one of those dedicated to the AIDS Ride?”

“About that,” Ryan said.

“What about the Olympics?” Jamie asked. “Were you just going to skip them?”

“I uhm … I thought I could go for a long weekend,” she admitted quietly. “Just so I got to see Jordan play.

“Uh-huh.” Jamie patted Ryan's head and said, “You do what you have to do, honey. I promise I won't hold this over your head if you decide to go to medical school. But I don't want there to be a doubt in your mind about how I feel about this.” She paused for a moment, waiting until Ryan's eyes met hers. “I don't want you to go to school next year. I want you to take care of yourself, and pamper yourself, and love yourself as much as I love you.”

Slowly lifting her head, Ryan gazed at her partner for a few moments, then nodded briefly. “I understand,” she said. Standing, she stretched and said, “I'm gonna go for a long walk. Don't worry about me, okay? I might be gone for a while.”

“Bundle up,” Jamie directed. “And make sure you take your cell phone.”

Ryan nodded again, and left the room. Jamie sat down and started to look through the applications, smiling to herself when she read the list of accomplishments that her partner had included. I had no idea that she was a member of the National Biology Honor Society ... or the one for math… Yikes! She went to one of those science and math camps when she was a kid! I'm married to a complete nerd! Feeling intimidated by Ryan's academic prowess, she quickly closed the applications and went downstairs to start dinner, thinking wryly, No matter what, I'll always be the better cook.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Two hours later, Ryan walked in through the back door. Her cheeks were bright pink from the cold wind, the drizzle had plastered her hair to her head, and her nose was running. She barely nodded at Jamie, who was sitting before a cozy fire in the kitchen, reading a novel. Five minutes later, she returned, dressed in her warm fleece outfit, her hair combed straight back. She sat down next to Jamie and, one by one, tossed page after page of her applications into the fire. Neither woman said a word. They sat quietly and watched the orange/gold flames licking at the paper until just a few pieces of charred black material remained.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Amanda urged Ryan to start to do some of the things that normally gave her pleasure, so on Thursday morning, she woke early, drenched in sweat from a lurid nightmare as usual, and decided she might as well get up and go for a run.

Her mood grew a little brighter when she got into her running clothes and did a few stretches. Just acting like things were normal felt better than she had imagined, and she found herself whistling as she ran down the drive. The good mood was short-lived however, for when she got to the gate, she saw the flashing lights of three police cars. Turning immediately, she ran back into the house, turned both locks, and hugged the door desperately. She stayed right there, resting her cheek against the cool wood, until her heart slowed to a more normal pace. Finally, she trudged up the stairs to one of the guest rooms, kicked off her shoes, and crawled between the cool sheets, determined to stay in bed until she had to leave for therapy. Suddenly she shot up, panicked. I can't leave for therapy! I can't go out there! Her heart began to race again, and she lay in bed repeating the mantra that Amanda had given her. This will pass. The reporters can't hurt me. They only want to take my picture.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan would not brave the reporters camped outside, even when Jamie offered to drive her to therapy. So she spoke to Amanda on the phone, actually preferring the experience to an in-person visit. She sat in Catherine's office, staring at the sea, her attention not diverted by having to physically interact with another person. By the end of the session, Amanda was convinced that Ryan was the type of person who could benefit from phone sessions, so they agreed that the terrified woman would stay at home for the remainder of their time together.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie called Maeve later that morning, just to give her an update. “Ryan's not doing well, Maeve. I know she said she wanted to have a big party this weekend, but I really don't think that's wise.”

“Is she still having the nightmares?” Maeve asked.

“Yes. Therapy's really hard for her,” Jamie said. “She just feels so much — do you know what I mean?”

“I do,” Maeve said. “She's always taken the weight of the world on her small shoulders.”

“That's about it,” Jamie said. “I think she'd do better this weekend if just you and Martin came down. Is that okay?”

“Of course it is, sweetheart. As much as she loves the rest of the family, there is a part of her that thinks she has to put up a strong front for the others.”

“That's it exactly,” Jamie said. “She can be herself with her da and you, Maeve, and she needs to just be herself for a while. If there's anything you can think of to help her feel more like herself, please bring it!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie found her partner sitting in Catherine's office, curled up on the chaise lounge, watching the surf pound against the rocks. “Ryan?”

Her head turned and she noticed that Jamie was wearing a turtleneck, a heavy wool sweater and a pair of pleated slacks. “Are you going somewhere?” she asked, her eyes wide.

“Yes,” Jamie said, wincing when she saw the terrified look on Ryan's face. “I'm going to go over to the club and work at the practice range for a while. I have to spend some time on my game, Ryan. I owe it to my team.”

“You could hit balls here. I'll go fetch them for you!”

“Oh, honey, I know you don't want me to go out, but I have to. I need to be around people.”

Running her hands through her hair, Ryan nodded. “Fine. Go ahead. I'll be all right.” She started to turn away, then leapt to her feet, her face turning ghostly pale. “They're out there! You can't go out!”

“Yes, I can,” Jamie said. “I don't care if they follow me, Ryan. If they get their kicks out of taking pictures of me hitting a golf ball, more power to 'em.”

“But what if they run you off the road! Look what they did to Princess Diana!”

“Sweetie, this is hardly the same situation. Now, you're just letting your imagination get the best of you. I'll be fine.”

“Will you call me?” Ryan asked, her whole body shaking.

“I'll do better than that. I'll take the NSX. There's a built-in hands-free phone in it. I'll call you as soon as I leave the driveway and chat with you while I drive. How's that?”

“All right,” she said quietly. Shaking her head, she wrapped Jamie in a hug, and the smaller woman could feel the sweat dribbling down her back. “I'm sorry I'm so needy,” she whispered.

“You're not needy,” Jamie said. “You're justifiably terrified. Now stop denigrating yourself, okay?”

“Okay.” She got up and went to their room to change. “I'm gonna work out while you're gone.”

“Again? You nearly killed yourself yesterday, honey. Why not go for a nice swim?”

“No. I feel safer in the gym. Working out clears my mind.”

“All right, love. You know what works best. I'll call you as soon as I pull out, okay?”

“See you soon, baby. Please, please, be safe.”

“I will. I promise you that I will.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie worked for an hour, feeling her muscles react to the strain after more than a week of inactivity. She wasn't ready to go home yet, mainly since she hadn't spoken to anyone at the course. Feeling conversation deprived, she decided to head over to the diner again, smiling when Helen greeted her warmly. “Hey, Jamie, how goes it?”

“Not great,” she said, sitting at the counter. “I went to play golf and got followed by nearly a dozen reporters. They took my picture so many times I felt like Cindy Crawford.”

“Oh, you're cuter than she is,” Helen said. As she spoke, an intrepid member of the press entered and snapped a flash photo of Jamie. “Out!” Helen yelled, physically pushing him out the door.

“You can't do that!” he yelled. “This is a public place!”

“Not any more it's not,” she growled, slapping the lock in place.

She lowered the blinds that covered the windows and said to the remaining patrons, “Let me know when y'all want to leave.”

“Helen! You can't just shut down because of me!”

“Sure I can. Hell, it's nearly time to close anyway. I told you that you'd be safe here, kiddo, and I meant it. Now what'll it be? How about a nice, thick, chocolate malt?”

“You read my mind,” Jamie said, enormously pleased that she had made a friend.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie was lying in bed that night when Ryan came out of the bathroom. She was dressed in a pair of the flannel pajamas that Jamie had bought her, wearing both the top and the bottoms — a rare occurrence for the normally warm-blooded woman. She sat on the edge of the bed, looking surprisingly uncomfortable. “Jamie,” she said softly, her eyes darting all about the room. “This isn't going well. We're keeping each other up half the night, and I know that part of my irritability is because I'm so damned tired.”

“Honey,” Jamie said, reaching out to touch Ryan's cold hands, “since you're under a doctor's care now, it's all right if you want to ask her for something to make you sleep.”

Ryan shook her head. “I don't want to take drugs. Amanda and I have been through this discussion already, and I'm very, very uncomfortable with the idea. I've got to get through this on my own.”

“How can I help?” Jamie asked. “You know I'll do anything.”

“I do.” Ryan gave her a sad smile and patted her shoulder. “I think it would be best if we … slept apart for a little while. My nightmares are keeping you up, and yours scare the crap out of me. It's … it's … too hard.”

Jamie was using every bit of her willpower to keep from letting her dismay show. If this was truly what Ryan needed, she wanted to avoid making her feel bad for asking for it. “Uhm … do you really think that will help? I uhm … thought that sleeping with me helped calm you down.” Her voice was a little shaky, but her face was as composed as she could make it.

Chafing the smaller hands in her own, Ryan said, “It does, sweetheart. Normally, it does. It's just that right now … for just a little while … I need all of the rest that I can get, and I think you do, too.”

“Of course I do, honey. I'd love to sleep the whole night through. But …”

Ryan stood, her hand brushing the bangs from Jamie's forehead. “Let's give it a try and see how it goes, okay?” She bent and kissed the top of her partner's head. “Sleep tight, Jamie. I'll see you in the morning.” She walked across the room and paused at the door. “I love you.”

“I love you, too, Ryan,” the smaller woman said, trying to keep the tears from her eyes.

As Ryan walked out the door, Jamie curled up in a ball and let the tears come. She cried for a very long time, letting all of the sadness and loss flow over her. Nearly an hour passed, and she realized that she wasn't going to sleep for a long while, if at all. The night was clear, so she put on her robe and sat on the window seat to gaze at the ocean, feeling like she'd lost a part of herself. Suddenly, an idea dawned on her, and she got up and took her cell phone off the dresser. Choosing a number from the memory and hitting the button, she paused a moment, then smiled warmly and said, “Mom? Damn, it's good to hear your voice.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

A half hour later, Jamie slipped into the guest room, only to hear Ryan's quiet, but wide-awake voice ask, “What's wrong?”

The smaller woman took off her robe and placed it over a chair, then climbed into bed. “We don't have to cuddle. We don't even have to touch. But we do have to sleep together, Ryan. Yes, our sleep is important — but it's not more important than our relationship. Part of what keeps us connected is sleeping together. You're the only person I love or trust enough to share this with, Ryan. I can't let go of that. It means too much to me, and I think it means as much to you.”

Ryan was quiet for a long time, then said, “Okay. You're probably right. We'll get through our nightmares together.”

“That's how we'll get through everything that life throws at us, Ryan. Together.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

On Friday morning, Jamie got out of bed when Ryan did, even though neither of them slept well at all. Ryan's schedule was to call Amanda at 7 a.m. and again at 6 p.m., so she tried to get up by 6:30, so she was coherent. “You don't have to get up,” she said. “No sense in both of us walking around like zombies.”

Clearing her throat, Jamie rubbed her eyes and said, “I made a tee time for 7:30. I've got to get up and warm up a little first.”

Ryan stood as still as a statue and stared at her partner. “You're gonna play a whole round?”

“Yes.” Jamie looked up at her and said, “I have to, Ryan. I need the practice, and I need to feel like the reporters don't control me.” She stood and wrapped her arms around her partner, but Ryan's body was stiff, and she didn't return the hug. Pulling back, Jamie looked at her and said, “I know this is hard for you, and I swear I wouldn't do it if I didn't have to. But I have to.”

“I understand,” Ryan said briskly. “I'll go make some coffee. Go ahead and take your shower.”

Watching her leave, Jamie closed her eyes. I'd give anything to be able to stay here and take care of you, but I have to take care of myself, too.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan stood at the back door, sending Jamie off with a quick wave. The blonde once again felt herself overcome with admiration for her stoic partner. She knew that Ryan was terrified to be alone, and even more terrified to have her out in the world, but she stood erect, head held high, neither her posture nor her expression revealing the tiniest hint of her distress.

As expected, most of the reporters leapt into their cars when Jamie pulled out in the NSX, and in seconds they were in a queue, headed for the golf course.

She parked, and ignored the shutters as they snapped, ignoring as well the inane questions that were hurled at her. When she reached the pro shop she smiled at the starter and said, “I've got a 7:30 tee time. I'm sure that no one will want to play with me once he or she learns that we'll be followed by reporters and photographers.”

“Don't worry about that, Jamie,” the man said. “Your playing partner's waiting for you on the driving range.

She gave him a curious smile, but on her way down to the range the identity of her partner dawned on her. Her suspicions proved correct when she saw her old pal Chip sitting in a golf cart, giving her a tiny wave.

He hopped out and gave her a robust hug, not pulling back when she said, “We're gonna be in the papers tonight.”

“Oh, like that would be such a bad thing for me,” he said, releasing her. “Having the prettiest girl in Monterey give me a hug can only enhance my reputation.”

She gave him an odd look, and he immediately apologized. “Oh, damn, I hope those pictures won't cause you any trouble, Jamie. Shit! You probably have a new boyfriend by now, and he might not like to see that on the evening news.”

“No, no, I don't have a boyfriend,” she said quickly. Suddenly, she felt decidedly uncomfortable. She had come out to dozens of people over the past months, but had told very few people who knew her before Ryan. With a start, she realized that she didn't like the feeling very much, and felt her discomfort grow.

“Aw, come on,” he said. “Surely the guys in Berkeley haven't failed to notice you.”

“I've been noticed,” she said, trying to figure out a way to let the matter drop.

He looked at her for a moment, then said, “I don't mean to butt into your business, Jamie, but maybe you hang out with Ryan too much. Guys don't know what to make of it when they see a woman who's always hanging around with another girl. She's a pretty intimidating woman, and after I saw what she did to those assholes, it's obviously not just an act. She's fierce!”

Immediately, her qualms disappeared and she looked him in the eye and said, “She's also mine.”

“P … pardon?”

“She's mine. I'm hers. We're lovers … spouses … life mates. Call it what you will, Chip, but she's my woman. And yes, she's as fierce as a mountain lion.”

“But … Jamie!”

“Yes?” she asked, leaning forward and cocking her head.

“I had no idea you were …”

“Well, I am. And luckily, so is she. We're very happy together, Chip, so thanks for the advice, but I'm gonna keep her very close to me.”

He stared at her for a moment, then shook his head to clear it. Giving her a perturbed look, he said, “You know, you set me up.”

“What?”

“I asked you if you had a new boyfriend, and you acted like you were totally unattached. I wouldn't have sounded like such an oaf if you'd been straight up with me.”

She was poised to snap off a quick retort, but bit her tongue, considering her answer. “You're right. You caught me by surprise.” Chuckling softly, she said, “I'm certainly not ashamed of loving Ryan, but I haven't come out to many people who knew me before. I guess I just need some practice.”

“That's okay,” he said, his smile returning. “Damn, you're a nice girl! Most women would bust my chops, even if they were totally in the wrong. Are you really sure you're a lesbian?”

“All signs point to it,” she said, laughing softly. “I took to it like a duck to water.” Giving him a wry smirk, she asked, “The mere fact that you didn't know about me and Ryan caught me by surprise, you know. Don't you read the papers? Little tidbits about our relationship have been in the tabloids for almost a week.”

He gave her a sheepish grin and said, “I eat every meal here or at a restaurant. All I have in my refrigerator is a couple of bottles of wine and some condiments that I bought when I first moved in. I don't think I've been to a grocery store in a year.” Giving her a puzzled look, he asked, “Isn't that where you see the tabloids?”

“Yeah, but it's been in the newspaper, too.”

Shrugging his shoulders helplessly, he asked, “In the sports page?”

She rolled her eyes, saying, “I wish more people were as disconnected from the media as you are, Chip. Our lives would be a heck of a lot easier.”

Looking uncertain for a moment, he thrust his hands into his pockets. “Are you happy, Jamie?”

“I am. Not so much lately, but that certainly isn't Ryan's fault. It's been a tough month.”

“I almost fainted when I saw you guys on the news that night,” he said, shaking his head. “I was watching the Warriors play, and they broke in to cover the car chase,” he added, cementing his credentials as a news-avoidant. “Are you doing all right?”

“Yes, mostly. It's just hard to get back to normal when we're constantly harassed.”

He looked up and saw the photographers, none of them currently snapping, but all waiting with bated breath. “I forgot they were here,” he said.

“It's harder to forget when they're outside of your house, with a couple of big generators and a few helicopters whirring overhead.”

“I really feel for you, Jamie. I don't know how you two made it, but I'm really glad that you did.”

“Me, too, Chip. Me too.”

“Well, are we gonna play, or just have our pictures taken?”

“You don't mind?”

“No, I'd love to play with you, Jamie. I really like you, even when I'm not hitting on you.”

“Funny boy,” she said. “Okay. Let's see how you do when shutters are snapping on your backswing.”

“Oh, no,” he said. “First time that happens, I'll call the marshal to run 'em. I'm all for freedom of the press, but I've got a reputation to maintain!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie got home just before noon and found Ryan still in the gym. “Don't tell me you were working out this entire time!”

“Okay,” Ryan said, wiping her face with a towel. “I won't tell you.”

“Ryan, I've been gone for 5 hours!”

“I didn't work out the entire time. I spoke with Amanda for an hour, then I had a little breakfast. No big deal.”

“Honey, it is a big deal. You can't work out for 3 or 4 hours at a time.”

“Jamie,” she said, giving her a very serious look, “you do what you have to do to maintain your sanity. I do what I have to. Now, how about some lunch?”

“I had lunch,” she said, looking guilty. “I'm sorry, honey, but you're usually up in the office, so I didn't think you'd mind …”

“I don't. I would have liked a phone call, but I certainly don't mind.” She wiped her face again, the sweat still running into her eyes. “Look, I'm just irritable. I'm really worried about Da and Aunt Maeve coming down today.”

“Uhm … honey, this might make you more irritable, but I played golf with Chip today.”

Ryan stiffened, then cocked her head. “Chip? Was this something you planned?”

“No, of course not!”

“Then why would I be irritated?” she asked, her blue eyes boring into Jamie.

“Uhm … because there's probably gonna be a picture of me hugging him. Well, technically it's him hugging me, but nonetheless …”

She shrugged her shoulders, her skin glowing in the warm halogen light. “You're friends. No big deal.” Turning for the door, she said, “I'm gonna get some lunch. Want anything?”

“No, no thanks,” she said, watching the taciturn woman dash down the stairs without another word.

I think I screwed up, she thought worriedly. I know I didn't handle that properly, but I don't want to bring it up again if it really didn't bother her. Damn it, we sure as hell don't need another problem cropping up right now.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan paced around the house all afternoon, peppering Jamie with so many questions that the smaller woman was about to go mad. Trying her best to maintain her patience, she assured her for the umpteenth time, “They won't have any trouble getting into the gate, honey. The security camera will activate as soon as they drive up. All we have to do is press a button and the gate will open.”

“But … but … what if someone comes in with them?” Ryan's eyes were wild with worry, and Jamie wondered if she should call Amanda and beg for a prescription for tranquilizers for her partner.

“Ryan, that's not going to happen. I called the guard station, and they're going to escort them to the gate. The security force has been very competent so far, haven't they?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding slightly, “but this is different. This is more complex than anything we've asked them to do.”

“I'll call down there again, honey. I'll talk to the security chief, and ask to talk to the guard station. I promise this will not be a problem.”

Ryan nodded and went to take up her position again—pacing across the crushed gravel that covered the parking area.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The security guard called a little after seven to say that Martin and Maeve were in the compound. Jamie turned to tell her partner they had arrived, and was dismayed to see Ryan sitting in a chair, her head between her knees as she struggled for breath.

Kneeling down beside her, Jamie wrapped an arm around her, feeling the sweat that had already managed to soak her turtleneck. Ryan's body was coiled with tension, and her breathing was horribly labored. Not having any idea how to help calm her, Jamie just held on tight and tried to soothe her, silently cursing the fact that the house was several miles down the road from the guard station. Finally, the alarm sounded, and she got up to press the entry button. She watched carefully, and saw that the security vehicle was right behind Maeve's car; and after the little import cleared the gate, it closed quickly. The guard waited a moment, then pulled away. “They're here, honey,” Jamie said, hoping her lover could hear her. “The guard waited until they were inside. No one got in with them.” Getting no response, she approached her again and said, “You just sit here until you feel better. I'll keep them outside for a few minutes until you feel like coming out, okay?'

“Okay,” Ryan managed to gasp, sweat running down her strained face.

“I love you,” Jamie whispered fiercely before running outside to greet their guests.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie walked the couple around the property, showing them some of the winter blooming flowers that dressed up the area around the drive. The older couple knew something was awry, but Jamie didn't want to worry them, so she just stalled for time. Finally, Ryan emerged, a clean shirt on and her face freshly washed. She was still very flushed and looked completely wrung-out, but she put up a good front, amazing her partner with her resilience.

“Hi there,” she said, giving both her father and aunt a warm hug. “Did you have a nice drive?”

“Just fine, love,” Martin said. “No problems at all.”

Shooting nervous looks all around the property, Ryan said, “It's awfully chilly. Let's go inside.”

Conor called not long after they arrived, and Ryan spent a few minutes on the phone with her brother. “She doesn't look well,” Martin whispered, with Maeve adding an anxious nod.

“She's not well,” Jamie said. “She really needs some love this weekend. If she can tolerate it, will you both give her as much physical affection as you can spare?”

Martin gave her a perplexed look — not used to having an opportunity to get past Jamie to hug his child very often — but he quickly nodded.

When Ryan came back into the kitchen, he draped an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned into him like he was the key to life. Father and daughter were no farther than a foot from each other the entire night, and by the time they went to bed, Ryan seemed more relaxed than she had been since they had arrived in Pebble Beach.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The next morning, Martin called Ryan out to the car. “I've got a few things for you, sweetheart, but I didn't know where you'd want them.”

“What did you bring?” she asked, once again anxiously looking around the property.

He opened the trunk to reveal her seldom played drum set. “I know you haven't really gotten the chance to even break it in yet,” he said. “I thought your little vacation was just the time to do it.”

She smiled at him and offered a hug. “Let's take it up to the gym. I tend to sing along when I play, and I don't want to disturb Jamie.” They lugged the set up the stairs, then spent a few minutes quietly assembling it. “Thanks, Da. This will come in handy.”

They walked back downstairs and he pulled out a box. Inside, were a few tall candles; a large, thick, floor pillow; a well-read copy of the Bible, another of the psalms, and a few heavy tomes from St. Ignatius and St. Augustine. “You brought my prayer space!”

“I thought you might need it. I know you don't use it much anymore, but this seems like a good time to get back into the habit of setting some time aside every day for reflection.”

She tossed her arms around him and hugged him tightly. “Thank you, Da. This is just what I needed.”

He looked at her curiously and asked, “Tell me what's going on in that pretty head, Siobhán. I can see how very troubled you are.”

Once again, she looked around the property, admitting, “I keep thinking they're taking my picture.”

“Let's go to the pool house and talk. It's nice in there.”

They walked the short distance in silence, Ryan's posture tense and wary. They sat down and Ryan said nothing for a few minutes, then she sighed deeply and began, “I don't really have a lot to say, Da. I'm seeing — well, speaking — to a psychiatrist twice a day. She's helping me, but I've got a lot to deal with.”

“Does it help to talk about it, honey?”

“Not really. I mean, I talk to Amanda, and that's really enough. When I'm not talking to her, I'd just like to take it easy and try to forget about it. But that's so hard to do, knowing that the vultures are right outside the gate.”

“I know it's rough,” he sympathized. “But they'll leave you alone at some point. They have to!”

“Logically, that's true, but I don't see much logic in this whole mess. I feel like they'll never leave us alone.”

“Now, don't think like that, darlin'. This will end soon, and you and Jamie can go right on living your lives the way you want to.”

“I sure hope that's true, Da. But I've seen no sign of it.” She sighed and looked at him with a grim expression on her face. “I don't feel like I'm in hell, but I can just about see the flames from where I sit.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

That afternoon, they all sat in the game room, watching the NFL playoffs. Ryan was lying on the long, leather sofa, her head in Maeve's lap, trying to remain awake while her aunt ran her fingers through the long, black hair.

Martin caught a look of abject sorrow on Jamie's face as she watched the tender moment, and after a while he asked her to go into the kitchen with him to prepare some snacks. Not mentioning what he had seen, he wrapped her in a hug, not letting go until he heard her start to cry softly. “You need some hugs too, darlin',” he whispered.

“I know,” she said, her voice shaky. “She's just … we're not … we just aren't able to comfort each other, Martin.”

“I understand, sweetheart.” He held her again, trying to give her all of the comfort he could. “When Siobhán's mother died, she wasn't able to accept my affection for several months. Moira stayed with us for a few weeks, and when she left, Maeve came over every night to rock Siobhán to sleep.” His voice filled with emotion as he said, “It was so hard on me, Jamie. I needed to comfort my child, and to get some solace from holding her — but she had grown to trust her mother's sisters and rely on them. I think she felt betrayed that I had to leave her for two or three days a week, and she just closed herself off to me.” He shook his head and said, “That was a wound that took a long time to heal.”

“I can't imagine,” she sighed. “God, I hope it doesn't take months for us to be close again. I don't know how I could bear it.”

“It won't,” he said. “You'll work through this, Jamie, and then you'll be there for each other again. I promise you that.”

“I hope you're right, Martin. I truly hope you're right. I need her so badly.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Mia sat by the pool at their hotel, relaxing while she waited for her lover. The team had won their game the night before, and now was scheduled to face Canada that evening in the championship match. Jordan had played a lot of minutes in the previous evening's game, mainly because of a minor injury to one of the starters.

The team had practiced in the morning, as usual, and Jordan was apparently due back at any time, given that some of the other players had started to wander down to the pool. Mia had met all of Jordan's friends, but so far that only encompassed three of the other women. Jordan had said that the more experienced players seemed pretty cliquish and standoffish, but it didn't seem to bother her much.

As Mia considered her lover, she realized that the lanky blonde was really quite a loner. She didn't have many close friends, seemingly preferring to have a lot of casual acquaintances. Mia recalled walking around campus with her just before finals. Jordan said hello constantly, giving everyone a warm smile, but when they'd go to her apartment, there was never a message on her machine, and she never called anyone from Mia's either. She didn't own a cell phone or a pager, and never suggested doing anything with any of her friends.

I suppose that's part of her focus, she reasoned. She seems to be so single-minded that she's obviously not spent her time cultivating and maintaining friendships. I think Ryan and I are the only people she's close to.

As she was considering this, two women that she had not been introduced to sat on chaises close to hers. She recognized one as the starting outside hitter, the one who was too injured to play the night before. “Think you'll be able to play tonight, Jill?” the other woman asked.

“Mmm … not sure. The trainer's gonna look at my wrist later on. It's a pretty mild sprain, but there's no sense in rushing it.”

“Especially given how Jordan played in your place,” the other woman said. “She might take your spot!”

Jill gave her friend a long look, her mouth curling up into a sly grin. “She can take a spot, all right. She can take the spot next to me in my bed. Given that she's moving in with me when we get back, that won't be a long trip,” she added, winking at her friend.

Mia nearly cried out at this wish, and she tried to still her heart from beating loud enough for the other women to hear.

“She is gorgeous,” the other woman said, “but I heard she had a girlfriend.”

“Uh-huh, so I've heard,” Jill said dryly. “You've been with the team for what … three years now? You and Mark are the only couple who've been able to keep a relationship going, Toni. What makes you think she'll be any different? Sooner or later she'll be single … and old Jill will be there to comfort her.”

Toni sighed and laid back on her chaise. “This sport does make staying committed hard. If Mark wasn't able to travel with us a lot, I don't know that we'd still be married.”

“You were smart to marry a writer,” Jill said. “Given that Jordan's girlfriend never showed up in Colorado Springs, I'm assuming she has something to keep her in San Francisco … if that's where she lives.”

“You wouldn't try to break them up, would you?” Toni asked hesitantly.

“No, I don't do that,” Jill said. “Of course, I've never had to,” she said. “Every woman I've had a crush on has eventually been single. Not all of them accepted my offer, but I had a chance with every one I've ever wanted. I can't see why Jordan will be different.”

“Has she shown any interest? Does she flirt with you or anything?”

Mia felt her heart clench in her throat as the tall, rangy woman considered the question. She wanted to stick her fingers in her ears and babble some nonsense just so she couldn't hear, but she was also too curious to walk away. “No, she's not the flirty type. She's too cool and aloof for that. But I just bet that she's a tiger once you get past that façade, and I'm determined to find out for myself if I'm right.”

Unable to stomach another moment of the conjecture, Mia gathered her things and started back for their room, running into Jordan who was just coming down in the elevator. “Hi, honey,” the blonde she said brightly. “Coming in so soon?”

“Uh-huh,” Mia said, trying hard not to show how upset she was.

“Hey … what's wrong?” the perceptive woman asked immediately. “You look like you're about to cry.”

“I am,” she said with a slight sniff, getting into the elevator as soon as the door opened.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jordan was right on her heels, following her down the hall to their room, taking the key-card out of Mia's shaking hands to open the door. She grasped her in a hug and rubbed her body with her hands, doing her best to calm her down. “Tell me what's wrong? You're not angry with me, are you?”

“No,” the smaller woman said, her voice muffled against Jordan's T-shirt.

“Come on, sweetheart, tell me what's got you so upset.”

She pulled back and decided to be honest, revealing, “Some women out by the pool were talking about you,” she said softly.

“Oh, Mia, don't listen to what people say. I'm sure I'm not well liked yet, but it doesn't bother me — don't let it bother you.”

Mia's curly hair tossed as she shook her head. “It's not that. One of them likes you … a lot.”

Jordan cocked her head and looked at her with a puzzled smile. “You're upset because somebody what … thinks I'm cute?”

“Oh, please,” she said. “Anybody with eyes thinks you're cute. She's just determined to get you into bed, and she's really confident she can do it.”

“Aw … baby … unless she's a lot bigger, and a lot stronger, she's gonna have a hell of a time getting me into her bed. And even if she did, I'd jump out the second she let me go.” She was obviously trying to use humor to pull Mia out of her mood, but it wasn't working well.

“She's not going to force you,” the smaller woman said, missing the joke completely. “She's going to wait you out. She said no one on the team has been able to sustain a long term relationship.”

Jordan sat down on the bed and rested her hands on her knees. “Who was this, Mia? I need to have a little talk with her.”

The determined curly head shook decisively as Mia said, “No, I'm not going to tell you. I don't want you to feel funny about your teammates. Besides, it's not her that upset me — it's the thought that she might be right.” She looked down at Jordan with a heartbreakingly sad look on her face and asked, “Do you think she's right? Do you think it's impossible for us to stay together?”

Jordan let out a sigh, and patted the bed beside her. When Mia sat down, she looked at her seriously and said, “We're the only ones who have power over that. I've told you that it's going to be hard, and I'm sure it will be. But we don't have to let the distance destroy what we have. If you want to stay together … then we'll stay together.”

“If I want?” Mia asked, confused by the statement.

“Yes … if you want to stay together, we will. I will never grow tired of you, Mia. You can count on me.” Her clear blue eyes were fixed intently on the smaller woman, and Mia could nearly see the conviction she felt reflected in them.

She leaned in close, and let Jordan wrap a long arm around her. “I want to stay together,” she said softly. “I know it will be hard to have you gone for almost nine months, but we can get through this.”

Jordan nodded, feeling some of the anxiety leave her body at Mia's reassurance. “Once the Olympics are over, we can be together again,” she said softly. “Actually, we could be together as soon as you graduate.”

“Huh?”

“Well, you could come to Colorado Springs as soon as you graduate. The team won't pay for you to travel with us, but I'll work at any modeling job I can get to save enough to pay for you.”

“That's so sweet,” Mia sighed. “I just don't know if that makes sense, though. If you're going to be traveling all summer, I might as well wait until you come home. I assume Jamie and Ryan will leave and sell the house, so we can get an apartment together.”

Jordan stiffened noticeably, her eyes growing wide with shock. “I uhm … I can't afford that, Mia. It will take most of what I make to afford my apartment in Colorado Springs. I kinda thought you'd come to be with me,” she said confusedly. “Isn't that what you meant when you said we'd be together after the Olympics?”

Mia jumped to her feet and looked at her carefully. “You mean you're not done with this once the Olympics are over?”

Her big blue eyes were nearly round with surprise. “Of course not, Mia. This is a long-term commitment. I'll stay as long as they'll have me.”

The smaller woman crossed the room and dropped into a chair. Her head fell into her hands as she moaned, “I had no idea. I thought this was a one-shot deal.”

Jordan was on her feet and kneeling beside her in moments. “I just assumed you understood. You kept saying we'd be together, and I just thought you meant you'd come to Colorado.”

Mia patted the strong shoulder, unable to look into those earnest blue eyes while she collected herself. “We'll figure this out, Jordy. It won't be easy, but we'll figure this out.”

Jordan's head dropped into Mia's lap, and she let the gentle touch calm her racing heart. She amazed herself when she felt her head raise and she stared into the warm brown eyes that she had come to love. “I've worked for this goal since I was a child,” she said softly. “I've geared everything towards this, Mia. I've given up most of my free time, sacrificed every summer vacation, spent most holidays away from home, and run away from every possible attraction I've ever had for another person — just so I could keep my focus.” Her gaze narrowed and the fire in her eyes flared as she said, “I'd give it up for you in a heartbeat. If you can bear with me until the Olympics, I'll quit and come home. Don't give up on me, Mia,” she begged, tears starting to roll down her flushed cheeks.

Mia felt her love for her partner fill her soul, and she sank to the ground next to her, holding her tightly enough to bruise her. “I won't give up on you … or on us, Jordan. We'll figure this out. Trust me, baby. We'll figure it out.”

“I love you, Mia,” she murmured, the tears continuing to fall freely.

“I love you too, Jordan,” the smaller woman said, her own tears mingling with her lover's while she kissed her possessively.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

By the time Martin and Maeve left, late on Sunday afternoon, both Jamie and Ryan felt substantially better. They had each soaked up as much affection and love as they could handle, and had both slept substantially better as a result. Ryan had a hard time watching them leave, but she greedily accepted the hug that Jamie offered as the older couple pulled away, giving the smaller woman a spark of hope that things would eventually return to normal.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

As soon as she reached Hillsborough on Sunday evening, Catherine called her daughter. “Jamie? How are you, sweetheart?”

“Better, now that you're back in the country,” the younger blonde said. “We've both really missed you, Mom.”

“No more than I missed you both. How are things going, dear?”

“Still not very well,” Jamie said. “We've got so much to deal with, Mom, but talking to you the other night really helped. We worked that issue out — thanks to you. I know it won't solve our problems, but at least we won't be making them worse by shutting each other out of the bedroom.”

“My pleasure, honey. Having you ask for my advice means more to me than I can say.”

“You were the only person I considered calling, Mom. I knew you'd be there for me. Tonight, Ryan's the one who needs you, though. Up for another challenge?”

“Of course. What's up?”

“She's worried about Jennie tonight. Can you help out with her while we're down here?”

“Of course. I was hoping I'd get to be involved.”

“What we really need is for you to take Jen to school, and then pick her up at night. Is that too much to ask?”

“Of course not! I'll call her right now to arrange to pick her up.”

“Actually, if you want to, you could stay at our house for a few days. Mia's coming home tomorrow, and I know she'd love the company.”

“That's not a bad idea, dear. It will take me a while to figure out how much time to allow at that time of day, and staying at your house will cut an hour from my trip.”

“It's not gonna be fun, Mom,” Jamie said. “Traffic's a real bear. One other thing you could do is find a car service that will take her and pick her up. I would do it, but I want to talk to the driver personally, and I can't do that from down here.”

“Consider it done. Anything else?”

“No, I don't think so. Conor took her for a haircut yesterday, and he gave her money to buy a decent pair of shoes, so she should be set.”

“What about spending money, dear? I'm sure she needs some.”

“Oh, right! Uhm … I don't know how much is acceptable, Mom. Uhm …”

“I'll talk to Sister Mary Magdalene,” Catherine said. “I want to go see how the lights look anyway, as well as remind her of how important Jennie is to all of us.”

“Good idea,” Jamie said. “I think she's gotten the idea, but it can't hurt to remind her.”

“I'll call you tomorrow after I drop her off,” Catherine said. “Tell Ryan I love her, Jamie, and tell her not to worry about a thing. Jennie's in good hands.”

“Once she knows you're on the job, I'm sure she'll be able to relax.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan was able to relax a little once Jamie assured her that Catherine was fully up to speed on Jennie's needs. After putting in her daily call to her father, Jamie convinced her partner to go to bed early, and for a change, Ryan didn't toss and turn for too long. She still had a nightmare or two, but neither one woke her, and neither caused her to cry out during the night — allowing both her and Jamie to get a night of uninterrupted sleep.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Amanda had suggested some desensitization techniques, and on Monday morning Ryan went outside and tried to make herself approach the front gate, getting closer and closer until she realized there was no one there. She opened the small gate next to the mechanized one, and saw that the reporters were still in place; the security force had just moved them away from the main gate. Now the small group stood about fifty feet away, and when one of them spotted her dark head, he yelled, “It's her! She is here!”

Her heart in her throat, Ryan ran for the house, panting wildly while she tried to keep herself from lapsing into another panic attack. She leaned against the door, then slowly sank to the floor, her legs too rubbery to hold her. Her body curled up into a little ball, the cold air seeping under the door chilling her sweat-drenched skin. “Jamie!” she cried out. “Come home! Please, come home!” But she knew her pleas were in vain. Jamie had left early that morning to play golf, and Ryan had to get through the next few hours on her own.

It took a long time, but the deep breathing exercises and calming mantra finally began to have an effect, and she slowly started to feel a little calmer. She still wasn't able to move, though, somehow feeling safer with her body blocking the door. Hours later, she heard Jamie drive into the compound, and forced herself to get up and go upstairs. Her body was so stiff she could hardly move, but her iron will compelled her legs to carry her. If she knows I'm this bad off, she'll never leave the house. And she obviously has to get out. She got into the shower again, letting the warm water ease her stiff joints, and when she emerged she didn't leave the office until it was fully dark — refusing to even go down to the kitchen to have lunch with Jamie. She felt safe in the office for some reason, and she decided that she needed to do whatever made her feel safe — no matter how odd her habits seemed.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Mary Hayes paced in front of her team, her hands clasped behind her back, eyes half closed. “I've been coaching since I was 23 years old,” she said, taking in a deep breath. “I've had a lot of highs and a lot of lows, but this is the lowest point of my entire career. Wins and losses are important — I know that sometimes I've made them far too important — but nothing — nothing is more important than loyalty. Loyalty to the sport … to the team … to your teammates. At least one of you doesn't understand what it means to be a member of a team — and when I find out who you are, you won't be a member of this team any longer.

“Ryan O'Flaherty has been through one of the most harrowing experiences a woman can go through. But her pain didn't end when the carjacking was over. Someone …someone from her team … went to the tabloids and revealed that Ryan had an emotional breakdown when she returned from the Bahamas.

“That incident had to be one of the most humiliating experiences of that young woman's entire life. Any of you who'd taken a moment to get to know her would have known that. But that didn't stop you from selling the details of her struggle to a sleazy tabloid. I'd say that you should be ashamed of yourself — but if you had any shame, you never would have done this — so that's a waste of my breath.

“I just want you to know that I'm going to do my best to find out who did this — and when I do, I'm throwing you off the team. I'm also going to try to force you to pay back as much of your scholarship as possible.

“You,” she said as she walked down the line, looking every young woman in the eye, “are a traitor, and when I find out who you are, you're going to regret what you did. You obviously have no pride — we'll just see how you handle being humiliated. My guess is that you won't deal with it with as much class as Ryan has shown.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Welcome home, Mia,” Jamie said when she reached her friend on Monday evening.

“James! I miss you. When are you coming home?”

“It's gonna be a while,” Jamie sighed. “Things aren't going well, buddy.”

Mia's jovial tone changed immediately. 'What's wrong?”

“We're both having a hard time, but Ryan's really troubled. Things are just … well, they're really hard right now.”

“Tell me, James,” she said. “What's happened? You both seemed so good down in the Bahamas.”

“We were good when we were there,” she said. “But as soon as we got back, things got really intense. The reporters started to drive us mad, and Ryan was asked to leave the basketball team — everything just fell apart.”

“Oh, Jamie, is there anything I can do? Do you want me to come down there and take care of you two? I could cook for you — if you tell me how,” she said earnestly, making Jamie laugh for the first time in days.

“I appreciate the offer, honey, but we just need to be alone for a while. The reality of what happened has really hit us, Mia, and we're both struggling. I'm talking to my therapist once or twice a day, and Ryan's seeing someone down here, too. She was just getting into a good groove with her therapist when the reporters showed up down here, and now she's afraid to leave the property.”

There was a moment of silence, then Mia said softly, “Ryan's not afraid of anything. I've never met anyone so brave.”

Sighing heavily, Jamie said, “I agree with you, Mia. She's a very brave woman. But she's also very, very vulnerable right now. She's been having panic attacks, like the one she had in North Carolina, and now she's more afraid of the panic than she is of the actual events that are happening. It's just horrible to see her like this,” she whispered, starting to cry again.

“I'm so sorry, James,” Mia said. “Thank God you've got each other. You'll get each other through this.”

“That's part of the problem,” Jamie said. “I've never felt so distant from her. We're both really closed off, Mia. We don't talk about the carjacking with each other, but that's all that either of us thinks about. We really only open up to our therapists.”

“Can you comfort each other physically?” Mia asked.

“No.” Jamie said this with such finality that Mia couldn't even form a response. “I shouldn't say it like that,” Jamie said. “I know we'll be comfortable with each other again, but we can't even consider it right now. A few perfunctory kisses are all we can handle.” She took in a deep breath and said, “We don't even hold each other when we sleep, Mia. You never realize how much something like that means until you don't have it anymore.”

“Jesus, when I think of how you were just a few days ago… I've never seen you so close.”

“I know. It's like we're in a nightmare now, or that was a dream. I'm not even sure which is the real us.”

“Oh, James, I feel so bad for you both. Isn't there anything I can do?”

“Do? No, I'm afraid not, Mia. We just need time. Nothing will get us through this but time and tears.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Once it was dark, and she was sure no one could see her, Ryan turned off the outside lights and went over to the gym. She normally went to work out as soon as Jamie left the house, but today's panic attack had ruined that plan.

A solid hour of work on the speed bag and heavy bag left her physically drained, but emotionally energized, then she sat at her drum set and whaled on the pads with every bit of strength left in her body. She sang so loudly that Jamie could hear her from inside the house. Eventually, the blonde put on a coat and went outside, trying to get a feeling for what was going through Ryan's mind. But the songs that Ryan was beating out were so filled with angst and pain, the smaller woman couldn't bear to listen. It sounded as if Ryan's very soul were bleeding, and after just a few minutes of listening to her, Jamie went inside and cried for a solid hour, feeling her heart break for her tortured lover.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan woke on Tuesday nearly a half hour before the sunrise. Even though it was early, she felt fairly rested, not even able to recall if she had experienced nightmares or not. She started to consider going for a run, then reality hit her and she remembered that she was a captive until the frenzy died down.

She was just about to pull the covers over her head and stay in bed until she had to call Amanda, when suddenly, in a stunning flash of clarity, she saw the situation as it truly was, not as she had imagined it to be. I've been allowing a bunch of nameless idiots to keep me from experiencing every bit of joy that I normally feel. I'm not able to be intimate with Jamie; I can't go back to Berkeley; hell, I don't even enjoy food any more. The mere thought of sex makes my palms sweat, and I don't even pray in the morning. Every single thing that keeps me happy and calm has fallen by the wayside, and I've participated in this bullshit!

Her feet hit the floor with a determined thump, and at that moment she made up her mind that it was going to stop.

It was cold and drizzly out, so she dressed warmly. Her body was much colder than normal, but she knew that was mostly from fear. Her heart was beating rapidly as she laced up her shoes and took a breath to steel her courage. Jamie woke at just that moment, looked at her curiously, then sat straight up in bed, immediately alert. “Do you want me to go with you?”

Ryan went back over to the bed and smoothed the tousled blonde hair. She wanted nothing in the world more than to have her partner get up and hold her hand through this ordeal, but she knew that wasn't the right thing for her. “No, but thanks for asking. I have to do this on my own.”

Throwing her arms around Ryan's shaking body, Jamie whispered, “I'm proud of you for even trying. I'm sure you can do this, baby. If not today, then tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” Ryan said, her voice strained and tight. She got up and left the room, and as soon as she cleared the doorway, Jamie was on her feet, going to the other end of the house to look through the windows closer to the gate — to watch her lover struggle with her demons.

As Ryan approached the gate, every instinct told her to go back to the house, lock the doors and stay there. Standing there in the driveway, her heart beating so hard that she feared it would burst from her chest, she actually considered dropping out of school for a term if this didn't end soon; but as she heard her inner voice offer this suggestion, something snapped. I didn't try out for the Olympic team because I didn't want to drop out of school! And now I'm gonna let these idiots force me to drop out? I don't think so! Her anger supporting her shaky confidence, she walked to the gate and tossed it open, nodding to the police officers who were engaged in a spirited discussion with the drivers of two news vans.

“It's her!” someone cried. “Get the hand-held camera on her! Chuck! You've got to follow her!”

She shook her head, never making eye contact with any of the reporters. With a toss of her hair, she started to run, ignoring the pounding feet of the lumbering man trying to keep up with her, as well as the pounding of her own racing heart. Inexplicably, she began to see the humor in all of this nonsense, and for the first time since it began, she felt her anxiety lessen during a confrontation with the media. “Ryan!” the reporter gasped, the distance between them growing. “Gimme a break, will ya? I'm just trying to earn a living here!”

Smirking to herself, she put it in overdrive, pulling away from the man as though he were standing still. Surprising herself, she found that her heart rate began to calm even more the farther she ran. The pressure that she felt in her chest every time the media was near was completely absent. Amazingly, she also wasn't running through gloom and doom scenarios as she had been every other time she was confronted by them. They can't hurt me! she said to herself, marveling at her startling discovery, even though it was an exact recitation of the mantra Amanda had suggested the previous week. They can't do a thing in the world to me, other than shove a microphone and a camera in my face. I'm the one who's giving them power by letting them force me to change my habits. Well, it's over as of today! she pledged. I'm doing what I want … when I want to do it. If those jerks want to follow me, let 'em! I will never talk to them … I will never look into their cameras. They can't touch me!

By the time she returned home, she was completely resolved— she was through running from the press. If they wanted to follow her for the rest of her life — that was their choice. But no matter how many of them there were, no matter how invasive their questions, she was not going to change her habits, or allow them to hound her. She would no longer participate in her own victimization.

After pushing through the front gate, she ran through the kitchen door, grabbed Jamie in a rough embrace, and twirled her around the room. “I did it! I did it, Jamie!”

The smaller woman held her just as fiercely, her tears falling freely. “I'm so very, very proud of you!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After gulping down a breakfast, that actually tasted like food for the first time in over a week, Ryan changed into dry clothes and got on the phone, reaching all of her brothers before they went to work. “We're having a big party that's gonna last all weekend, and on Sunday night we're coming home. I'm taking my life back from the vultures,” she said. “The old Ryan O'Flaherty is back with a vengeance!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Amanda was very pleased for Ryan, and she enthused over her progress. She reminded her that the press was just one facet of her troubles, however, and warned that the “thing” itself would still be difficult for Ryan to deal with. Ryan unhappily acknowledged the truth of her comment. “I know there's still a lot to work on,” she said. “So far we've spent a lot of time talking about my fears.” Clearing her throat she said, “I think it's time we started talking about my anger. It's about to eat me alive.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Later that day, Jamie was working on her journal when she heard a strange sound. It sounded as though it was coming from outdoors, so she got up to investigate, worried that a rogue reporter might have scaled the fence. What she saw made her smile; a full, warm smile that had been missing from her face for many days.

Ryan was in the driveway, playing some form of game between herself and a basketball. After watching in silence for a few minutes, the smaller woman was finally able to determine that the object of the game was to dribble the ball in as many odd positions as possible without stopping. Given Ryan's creative nature, now slowly waking from slumber, she was able to conjure up many, many innovative positions, and Jamie found herself captivated by the display.

The blonde ran downstairs and quietly exited through the back door. She was about to speak, when Ryan started to dribble the ball down the drive — with her knees. Jamie had never seen such a thing, and she stood staring at her partner as she skipped down the long drive, the ball bouncing at a perfect 90 degree angle off the middle of each now-dirty kneecap.

Coming back up the drive, Ryan launched into soccer mode—bouncing the ball off her shoulders, then her head, then her knees again, coming up next to Jamie and saying, “Wanna play?”

“You are awesome,” the blonde said.

“Nah. I could really dazzle you if I had the right balls. Two women's sized outdoor balls, and you'd swoon.”

“I'm swooning already,” Jamie said “I'd ask how you do that, but I'm sure I'd get the usual answer.”

“Yep,” Ryan said. “Start when you're about three, spend a few thousand hours at it, and anyone can do it!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

That night, a long, warm body slid into bed and curled around the occupant, who was nearly asleep. After more than a week of strained distance in bed, the blonde blinked in surprise, but tried to hide her shock at the warm embrace, commenting casually, “How can I be so tired, when we don't do anything all day?”

“Stress takes more out of me than running a marathon. I can only assume that's true for you, too.”

“Yeah, I guess you're right.” She looked into Ryan's surprisingly bright eyes and said, “You're looking very much like your normal self. Do you feel as good as you look?”

“I do,” Ryan said, sighing deeply. “I could taste food for the first time in a week today. I really think I'm over the worst of this, babe.”

Jamie snuggled close and hugged her fiercely. “I'm so glad to hear that. I feel a lot better today, too. Having you go for that run really gave me hope that we're getting better.”

“We are,” Ryan whispered.

Seeing the receptivity in her posture, Jamie gently stroked her back, letting her fingers get used to the sensation once again. She was practically humming with pleasure, allowing herself to acknowledge just how much she'd missed simply holding Ryan. Fully content to hold and gently stroke her back, Jamie was once again surprised to feel Ryan shift slightly to make her touch travel a little lower. There was just a pause — no more than a second—then Jamie's hand started to move again. They were both very quiet, their breathing even quieter than normal, while each tried to read the signals that the other was sending out. Slowly, but determinedly, Jamie's hand expanded the territory it covered, slipping under the waistband of Ryan's pajamas to slide over the smooth, creamy-white skin of her ass.

Hips started to twitch, heart rates picked up, rib cages expanded, legs shifted slowly open; every sign pointing to the re-awakening of their somnolent desire. Ryan grasped the small hand and placed it under her T-shirt, gliding it along her chest until it reached her breast. When the fingers closed around the nipple, Ryan moaned softly and pressed her pelvis against Jamie's thigh.

With a lazy smile covering her face, Ryan felt the first tingling rush of sensation in her groin. “Oh, yeah,” she purred when Jamie's tentative fingers gave the nipple another squeeze. Grinding her vulva against the muscular thigh, Ryan felt a surge of moisture between her legs, and she reveled in the sensation, tossing her head back as she tried to savor each waking nerve-ending.

She opened her eyes, and stared deeply into Jamie's vivid green orbs, opening herself up fully to her partner. Suddenly, completely without warning, her heart started to race, and she felt her emotional barriers slam into place again. “NO!” she shouted, more to herself than to Jamie. Wrenching her body away, she sat up and put her feet on the floor, trying to ground herself. Jamie's hand touched her back, and it was all Ryan could do not to swat it away. Sweat was trickling down her back and sides, and she knew she was on the verge of a full panic attack.

Getting to her feet, she lunged for the window seat and reached out for the wall. Feeling the cool plaster helped calm her, and she was able to start her breathing exercises. The panic will pass soon. It won't harm meit just scares me. The panic will pass soon … Repeating the new mantra, the exercises slowly had an effect, and she started to bring herself down.

Her tunnel vision cleared, and she saw the stark panic on Jamie's face. “I'm sorry,” Ryan whispered, feeling as weak and powerless as a kitten.

Coming to her side, Jamie tentatively reached out, but Ryan shrank from her touch. Swallowing her hurt, the smaller woman squatted down in front of her, so their eyes met. Making her voice as gentle as she could, she murmured, “You have nothing to apologize for. We're both struggling here, baby, and we've still got a lot of work to do. This will pass, I promise you.”

“I hope to God you're right.” Ryan stood on her still-rubbery legs and extended a hand, pulling Jamie to her feet. Patting her on the shoulder, she said, “I need a quick shower. You go on to bed.”

The smaller woman nodded, sparing a worried look as Ryan turned to head for the bathroom.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Amanda waited until Ryan had vented all of her frustrations, then calmly said, “Whether it seems like it or not, you are making progress. This was the first time in over a week that you had even a glimmer of desire. You just went a little past your safety zone this time. Next time you'll go a little further, and a little further still each time. Being completely vulnerable with Jamie is going to take a little longer — that's all.”

“But she means so much to me,” Ryan moaned. “It would help so much to feel her touch. But it honestly felt like she was going to suck the life right out of me! How can that be? How can someone who I love more than life itself feel so alien and frightening!”

Amanda paused for a moment, then offered, “It makes perfect sense, Ryan. The fact that you were both victims makes it even harder than it would be if you had been alone. Making yourself completely open tears open a scab that's just started to form. You're learning to put up some very effective barriers to keep the reporters from getting to you. Doesn't it make sense that it would be hard to put up one barrier, while trying to take another down?”

After allowing herself to consider that question, Ryan finally asked, “Are you sure I'll be able to take the barrier down someday?” With a sorrow-filled sigh, she said, “Jamie's my life, Amanda. Touching her and letting her touch me is life sustaining.”

“You'll be able to take the barrier down, Ryan. I'm certain of it. We'll just keep working, and over time you'll welcome each other back to that intimate place. It will come.”

“What do I do until it comes?” she asked, desolation filling her soul.

“Small steps, Ryan, small steps. Holding hands, gentle kissing, maybe a backrub … anything that makes both of you feel a little connection. Just don't push yourself. When you feel any discomfort — back off, and try again later.”

“Okay,” she said softly. “I guess we don't have many options.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Strangely, even though she felt very shaky about her inability to be sexual, Ryan was ready to push herself a little where the reporters were concerned. Deciding that she would do well to force herself to drive, she got into the Mustang to drive to her afternoon appointment. A van followed her the whole way, but she repeated her mantra time and again, and by the time she reached the building, her heart rate was barely elevated. She parked in the adjacent lot, and took deep, even breaths as she got out of the car. A man ran alongside her, his voice insistent, but not overly loud. “If you just talk to me for three minutes I can make $100,000!” he said. “Do you have any idea how much that would mean to my family? You don't even have to say anything important! Just let me take your picture and feed me a line of crap! How does that hurt you?”

She continued to take her deep breaths until she got to the doctor's office. He was right next to her, yapping away, until she went inside and shut the door in his face, throwing the bolt in place.

Her breathing was considerably faster than it had been when she got out of the car, but she managed to press the buzzer, indicating that she had arrived. Amanda came out and smiled at her, but her smile froze when she saw the look on her client's face. “I was followed,” Ryan said, her voice tremulous. “There's a guy right outside the door.”

Amanda noted the locked door, and urged Ryan to go inside. They walked in together, then Amanda called the security firm that policed the small building. She explained the situation, and they agreed to send a guard over to clear the hallway.

She sat down and gazed at Ryan with her normal warm regard. “How are you?” she asked softly. “You look pretty good — considering.”

“I'm okay,” Ryan said, just slightly out of breath. “It was a lot harder in my dreams,” she said.

“It always is,” Amanda said.

“You know, it's funny,” Ryan said. “He tried to guilt-trip me, and for just a second, I started to see the situation through his eyes.”

“And …?”

“That's a good thing,” she said. “It let me see the guys who've been hounding me as people. They're not some version of evil incarnate. They're just average people who make their living by taking pictures and getting interviews from newsworthy people. The free-lance guys, in particular, just go where the hot story is. I shouldn't hate them for that.”

“Does that realization make you feel differently about talking to them?” Amanda asked.

“Hell no!” Ryan shook her head and laughed, allowing Amanda to hear the gentle, lilting tone for the first time. “We all make choices in this life. Those guys decided to make their living chasing down people — some of whom would prefer not to be caught. I'm not gonna be caught. Those are the breaks,” she said.

Amanda gave her a wide smile. “I'd put my money on you in that little horse race, Ryan.”

When she left, Amanda walked her all the way to the elevator, mostly to insure that the elevator lobby was free of reporters. She patted her on the back and said, “To the swift goes the race, Ryan. They can't catch you if you don't want to be caught.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

She got back into the compound without incident, even though she did have to brush off the same reporter when he tried to stop her from getting into her car. Luckily, the security guard was close by, and his impressive bulk convinced the man that he should try again later.

Hopping out of the Mustang, her face broke into a delighted grin when she saw what was waiting for her on the back steps. Two brand news basketballs, both women's sized and made for outdoor use. Jamie came home not long afterward, and she and Ryan spent the rest of the afternoon working on their dribbling skills, and by the end of the day, Jamie was just about 2,997 hours short of Ryan's proficiency.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        

Lying in bed that night, Ryan's stomach was coiled in a ball of tension. Finally forcing herself to bring up the upsetting topic, she asked, “Did you talk to Anna about what happened last night?”

“Yeah,” Jamie said. They were lying next to each other, but not an inch of clothing or skin touched. “Not because it upset me,” she added quickly. “I just wanted to know if there was any way I could help you get through this.”

“You're not hurt, or mad at me?” Ryan asked softly, her voice wavering.

Jamie's hand closed the few inches than separated it from Ryan's. Threading her fingers between the long, cool digits, she gave the hand a squeeze. “Never,” she whispered. “We'll be okay, Ryan. I promise we'll get back to where we were. It's just gonna take a while. You know, I felt pretty shaky last night, too. I'm not at all sure I could have kept going.”

“Really?” There was a full minute of silence, then Ryan said, “That amazes me. You seem pretty much like your normal self.”

Squeezing the hand again, she said, “I have a lifetime of practice in how not to show what I'm really feeling, honey. I haven't had that shield up with you for a long time, but it's up now. I've got nearly as much troubling me as you do. We've both got our plates full.”

Ryan sighed, both relieved and dismayed that Jamie was as troubled as she. “Amanda thinks we should take it really slow, and not push each other.”

“I think that's a good idea,” Jamie said. “Anna suggested we each ask for what we need, and see how it feels to the other person.”

Giving her a painfully sad smile, Ryan nodded. “I can't believe that we could go from being as open as we were in the Bahamas, to needing to ask permission for a kiss.” Sighing heavily, she said, “I guess there aren't many options, though. I'm willing to try it that way.”

Squeezing her fingers, Jamie said, “I could use a hug. How about you?”

“Yeah. I could use a few thousand myself.” Stretching out her left arm, Jamie placed her hand on Ryan's back and pulled her close. Automatically, their bodies molded together, until they were pressing against each other all down their lengths. “Is this too close?” Ryan asked.

“Not nearly close enough,” Jamie said with a sigh. Ryan gently stroked her back, and soon Jamie fell into a deep sleep. Wiping a few tears from her eyes, Ryan disentangled herself and eased her partner onto her side. Kissing her cheek, she scooted to the other edge of the bed and wrapped her arms tightly around herself, curling up in a fetal position as she watched the hours tick away on the bedside clock.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Part 8

The next day they got a little more adventurous and decided to play golf at Pebble Beach, their first venture out together since the reporters had descended upon their sanctuary. Since they were both in the car, every reporter followed them, and when they pulled into the parking lot, a long line of SUV's and vans pulled in right behind them.

Getting out of the car, Ryan stared at the ground, refusing to make eye contact with anyone, no matter how much they begged. She had on a baseball cap, bill facing forward, and it was pulled down as low as she could get it.

The club was open to non-members, and to their dismay, two of the intrepid reporters managed to procure and pay for a round of their own. Normally, the wait for a tee-time was months long, but the day was cool and drizzly — and many vacationers had chosen not to brave the wicked course on a rainy day.

Jamie wasn't about to let the reporters ruin their day, so she spoke to the starter, and he agreed to send a marshal out with them to keep an eye on things and make sure the men behaved. By the second hole, the marshal decided that the reporters were following too closely, so he moved another group between them, ignoring the outraged squawks from the men.

Standing on the third tee, Ryan looked around, asking, “Where's Chip? I assumed he'd be playing with us today.” She said this with a definite edge to her voice, and Jamie waited a moment to answer, not wanting to further aggravate her partner.

“I don't know, honey. I assume he's doing his job.”

“And that's … what?” she asked, the edge still in place.

“He's a golf pro,” she said, knowing that Ryan knew exactly what he did for a living. “He's probably giving someone a lesson.”

“I'll just bet he is,” she grumbled, turning to address her ball.

Watching her from behind, Jamie decided to let the matter drop. She knew Ryan was looking for a fight, but she had no desire to give her one. Every time she looked up, Ryan was staring at her, but still she refused to rise to the bait.

Normally, Ryan's little bouts of pique were short lived, and ended as soon as she realized she was being childish. But she had a lot of staying power today, and she continued to glare at Jamie for nearly an hour. On the eighth hole, the larger woman couldn't take Jamie's refusal to engage any more. She stood in front of her, blocking her from being able to get out of the golf cart. “How many times have you seen him since we've been here?”

Jamie took a deep breath, trying to decide if she should even answer. She knew this interaction would come to no good end, but she didn't have many options, so she told the truth. “Twice. I played a round with him that first day, and he watched me on the driving range yesterday.” She reached out and grasped the waistband of her lover's slacks, holding on so Ryan didn't storm away like she had a tendency to do. “I know you're having a hard time keeping things in perspective, but it hurts my feelings when you question me like this. I have no romantic interest in Chip, or any other human being. You're the person I love, Ryan, and you can trust me implicitly.”

“I can't trust him,” she growled. “It's obvious he has a crush on you.” She narrowed her eyes and lowered her voice. “And he probably thinks he can get you.”

“What does that mean?” Jamie knew she was being pulled into an argument, but she couldn't stop herself.

“Nothing.” Ryan took a club at random and hacked at the ball, sending it shooting along the ground no more than 100 feet. “Fuck you!” she yelled, glowering at the innocent white orb. She strode down the fairway, the wind carrying most of her invective-laced commentary away so that Jamie couldn't hear it.

The blonde decided to skip the hole, since the group behind them had caught up to them and she didn't want to allow them to eavesdrop. She drove by her partner and demanded, “Get in. We're going to 9.”

Ryan looked like she wanted to argue, but after a pregnant pause she walked around to the passenger side and climbed in. They rode in silence to the 8
th green, noting that the group ahead of them was just finishing putting out. As soon as the foursome left the green Jamie decided to putt a few balls just to waste time. She dropped three onto the surface and forced herself to concentrate, managing to two-putt each of them over the long, curving, undulating green. Ryan stayed in the cart, looking sullen and withdrawn. When Jamie finished, she drove over to the ninth tee, then turned and stared at Ryan until the dark head finally turned her way. “I have no interest in Chip, Ryan, and whether or not he has a crush on me is immaterial. There are dozens of women who have crushes on you, and I don't try to prohibit you from seeing them. As a matter of fact, two of the women from your past openly admit that they're in love with you.” Her eyes sparked with fire as she added, “And I've never … ever … tried to make you feel bad about that. I never would — because I'd be doing so only to hurt your feelings. I'd appreciate the same consideration.”

She got out of the cart, went to the tee, and hit a surprisingly good shot, despite the anger that coursed through her veins. Crossing her arms over her chest, she waited patiently, finally realizing that Ryan was not coming. Turning, she saw her sitting with her feet up on the edge of the cart, head buried between her raised knees. She was obviously crying, and Jamie sighed deeply, feeling like she'd reached her limit of emotionally draining experiences. Wanting nothing more than to pick up her bag and play the round alone, just to avoid another scene, she nevertheless walked over to her partner and sat next to her in the cart. “Do you want to leave?” she asked softly.

“Yes, but they'll see me crying. I don't want to see my picture in the tabloids looking like this.”

Jamie looked around, noting that the reporters were more than a hole behind them. “Hold on,” she commanded, and took off, driving the electric cart as fast as she could. She maneuvered them around the course, going backwards down some holes, and cutting across a fairway or two. They approached a small building somewhere on the back 9, the structure well hidden by trees and shrubs.

“Where are we?” Ryan asked, looking around confusedly.

“This is one of the cart barns. No one will be around here until the end of the day when they store the excess carts here.” She got out, then took her wallet from her bag and stuck it into her pocket. “Come on. Let's go for a walk.”

“A walk?”

“Yeah. We can cut across right over there and be by the shore. Let's go.”

“But your clubs …”

Putting her hands on her hips, Jamie stared at her partner for a minute. “Take a guess what's more important to me. You or those fucking sticks? Now, come on.”

She started off, with Ryan having to run to catch up with her. “Jamie, it's okay. I'm better now. I'm really sorry for what I said …”

“We're going for a walk,” she repeated, scowling.

“Okay, okay.” Ryan shoved her hands in her pockets and walked alongside her partner. They crossed a fairway or two, lurked behind a tree as a cart sped by, then took off again, making it to the shore unmolested. They found a spot that the passing golfers would likely not see, and sat down on the springy, longish grass, both of them silent for a while.

“With all of the things that have happened, I understand that you're on edge,” Jamie said. “I promise to support you, no matter what, but it wounds me to have you doubt my fidelity.”

“I don't,” Ryan said, giving her a pathetically sad look. “I really don't, Jamie.”

“Then what is it, Ryan? What else should I think when you're obviously upset that I played golf with a guy I know?”

“It's stupid and childish and doesn't even merit talking about,” she mumbled. “Can't we just forget it?”

“No.” Jamie put her hand on her leg and said, “I want to know what's going on in your head.”

“No, you don't,” Ryan said, shaking her dark head firmly. “It's a bad place to be right now.”

“You know what I mean. Tell me why you're upset about Chip.”

She wrapped her arms around her knees and gazed out at the surf for a few moments, collecting her thoughts. “I felt like you'd rather be with him than with me,” she said quietly. “He's not a psycho.”

“Ryan, I don't know how many times I've tried to convince you that you're not a psycho. I'm out of ways to reassure you, honey. You've had enough stress to drive the healthiest person mad, but you're getting through it. You've made tremendous progress, and soon you'll be completely back to normal. But you're not there yet, babe. That doesn't make you psycho; that makes you human.”

Her chin rested on her raised knees, and Ryan stared out at the sea, unable to meet her partner's eyes. “I had this image of you laughing and joking and having fun with him, and then thought of what it must be like for you at the house — with me moping around, barely speaking. I don't blame you for wanting to get out and be around more interesting people — but it makes me jealous … and sad … and lonely.”

Shaking her head, Jamie said, “The thought of Chip being more interesting than you is too laughable to address. And I rather doubt he had the time of his life, baby. All I did was talk about you and how much I love you.”

“What? You … you came out to him?”

Giving her a completely puzzled look, Jamie said, “Of course I did! Ryan, I know he has a crush on me, so I made it clear that he doesn't have a chance. Honey, I'd never spend time with a guy and let him think I was single. I'm not,” she said, her voice growing soft and gentle. She slipped off her golf glove to expose her ring. “I'm yours.”

“I worry,” Ryan said, her face etched with tension. “I worry that you'll lose patience with me and wish you could get away from me.”

Reaching over, Jamie took her hand. “When you get this way, you seem to forget everything that you know about me. I'm not that kind of person, and you know it, Ryan O'Flaherty. In the first place, things aren't that bad between us. And secondly, if they were, I still wouldn't want to get away from you. I want to get closer to you, Ryan, and that will always be my goal. For better or worse, baby. That's not just an expression, that's how I live my life.”

“Hug?” the larger woman asked tentatively.

“As many as you can stand.” Jamie scooted closer and wrapped her arms around her partner, holding her tight while they watched the waves crash against the shore, oblivious to everything else in the world.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Maneuvering around the course, Jamie decided to go right back to where they had left off. It took a little while until they could sneak back on, but eventually the tee on 8 was clear and she couldn't spot the group on 7. They played the round in companionable silence, Jamie concentrating deeply. At the end of the round they saw the poor souls who had paid their fees to follow them. All each reporter was left with was a $375 bill for greens fees and cart rental, as well as a growing realization that these two young women were not going to give in any time soon.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After golf, they took a long nap, then ventured out again, going to dinner at a delightful northern Italian place in Carmel. Amanda had urged Ryan to continue to slowly stretch her comfort level, and she felt that she did well at the crowded eatery. When most people recognized them and heads slowly turned their way as they made their way to the table, Jamie just smiled at her partner and said, “I told you those new pants looked fabulous on you! See how much everyone likes them?”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When they got home, Jamie started to get ready for bed, but Ryan seemed anxious and irritable. She paced around the large house, going through the routine she had developed. Methodically, she checked every window, every door, and then stood and stared out the kitchen window; obviously looking for some sign of activity in the large expanse of grass.

She stood there for a long while, flinching dramatically when Jamie came up behind her and lightly touched her back. “Oh, I'm sorry, honey. I thought you heard me.”

“No.” She moved away from the touch and said, “I'm gonna go play my drums. You don't have to wait up.”

Jamie nodded, but Ryan didn't see her response. She was out the door without another glance, leaving her partner feeling rejected and shut out once again — the slight progress they'd made that afternoon evaporated.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The night was warm, although damp, so Jamie went to the coat closet and found a fleece jacket that belonged to her father. She put it on and went outside to sit in the garden next to the garage. Ryan had opened the window in the gym, and her frenetic drumming easily carried down to the blonde. Usually, the dark woman wore headphones, so that the only sound was the slapping of her sticks against the pads. But tonight she had hooked the set up to the massive speakers for the stereo in the gym, and the entire building nearly rocked. Jamie was sure the noise would give her partner a massive headache, or damage her hearing, but she didn't intrude — knowing her interference would not be appreciated.

She had no idea what demons were torturing her partner tonight, but she couldn't rest until Ryan was a little calmer, and she vowed to stay right where she was until Ryan was ready for bed.

When the din finally ceased, Jamie checked her watch and saw that it was nearly 11 o'clock. She pulled her jacket tighter and waited for Ryan to exit the building, but the minutes ticked by with no sign of her. Finally, at 11:30, she had to find out what her partner was doing. Ryan had promised that she wouldn't drink to excess, but Jamie kept thinking of the well-stocked refrigerator in the gym, knowing there was always a bottle of vodka chilling. She hated to doubt her partner, but she knew that Ryan would do just about anything to stop the demons — and if her drumming hadn't calmed her down …

Stealthily, Jamie entered the garage and climbed the stairs to the second floor. The door to the gym was open, but she couldn't hear a sound coming from the space. As quietly as she could, she poked her head in, and nearly let out a gasp of surprise when she spotted her partner. Ryan was stark naked, her wet body glowing in the dim light of a few large candles. She was seated on a large, square pillow, her body in a traditional yoga pose. Her hands rested, palms upturned, upon her knees; and her eyes were closed. In Jamie's best estimation, she was sitting in front of a makeshift altar. A weight bench was covered with a white lace cloth, and atop it stood a Celtic cross — finely rendered in a gold finish — and three large votive candles. Ryan's lips were moving slowly, but not a whisper of sound emerged. Soundlessly, Jamie went back downstairs, confident that Ryan was at least trying to calm herself down. Going back into the house, she made herself a cup of cocoa, needing the caffeine to keep herself awake, which she was determined to do.

The cocoa helped, allowing her to stay awake for another half hour. But by the time Ryan came back in, she was sound asleep, her face resting on the hard, wooden table.

What am I doing to her? Ryan asked herself, her heart gripping in pain for her partner. Squatting down beside her, Ryan gave her a gentle kiss, then tucked a hand under her knees and another behind her shoulders. Grunting from the effort, she lifted her and nestled her lover against her chest. She'd only traveled a few feet when Jamie's sleepy voice traveled up to her. “Do you still love me?” she asked, in a heartbreakingly sorrowful tone.

She was so taken aback by the question that Ryan nearly stumbled. Placing her partner on one of the sofas in the living room, she got to her knees in front of her and whispered, “Of course I love you! How can you doubt that?”

“I don't, I don't,” Jamie whispered, starting to cry. “I was having a nightmare … and I got confused. I didn't know if it was real or if you were real …”

“Oh, Jamie,” Ryan sighed, holding her tightly. “I'm so sorry.”

“I dreamed that we never got back to where we were … and one day you told me that you didn't feel the same way you used to feel. You said … you said you thought it would be best if we just started over … with someone else.” She was crying heavily now, and Ryan just held her, unable to say a thing to ease her pain. “You said it was too painful to see me and be reminded of … stuff,” she sobbed. She wrapped her arms around Ryan so tightly that she bruised her. “Please don't let that happen. Please!”

“It won't!” Ryan whispered fiercely. “I swear it won't!”

“Hold me. Hold me and tell me everything will be all right.” Ryan climbed onto the sofa, then tugged on Jamie until she was lying atop her. Her clothes were wet from sweat, but the smaller woman was oblivious to everything but her lover's heartbeat and the strong arms that held her. “I know it's hard for you to be close, but please, please hold me tonight.”

“I will,” Ryan said, already feeling her heart start to race from the intimate contact. “I promise.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

It took Jamie a long time to understand why she was lying on the sofa in the living room. She was covered with a warm blanket, and when she sat up she found a neatly typed note lying on the table in front of her.

Hi, sweetheart,

I had to leave for therapy, and you were sleeping too soundly for me to have the heart to wake you.

I spent a little time this morning trying to get my thoughts down. I know it's awfully late to be telling you these things now, but I'm working as quickly as I can, and this was honestly the first time I've felt able to do this.

First things first: You and I are together until death parts us. I think I clearly showed how I react to a stranger trying to separate us. I'm sure not going to do something like that myself. You're stuck with me, sweetheart. So even though I know I drive you mad sometimes … okay, frequently … there is no option to return this particular purchase.

Now, for the hard part. Four big things are bothering me, and no matter how hard I try, I can't get past them. Here goes:

  1. I'm wracked by guilt because I couldn't make myself do what I thought was right. As soon as I got the gun in my hands, I knew I should kill the driver. I was confident that I could kill him with a single shot to the head, and I thought I had a good chance of being able to steer the car once I pushed his body out of the way. If the passenger didn't behave, I knew I could take him out, too. Obviously, this was a gamble, but I thought it through thoroughly, and I was confident that it was the right move. Here's the problem I couldn't make myself shoot him. Even though he was trying to kill us all, I wasn't able to shoot him. I go over the scenario in my headdozens of times a day. Every time I let it play out, I come to the same decision: I should have killed him. But I was too afraid. I let my fear stop me from doing what I knew in my heart was rightand knowing that about myself makes me question who I am. I doubt everything about myself, Jamie, and that's never happened to me before. I thought I knew myself wellbut I obviously don't. I'm a coward. That's incredibly hard to admit, but that's what I am.

I doubt that I'll ever forgive myself for giving his life the same value as yours. I just hope that you don't loathe me half as much as I loathe myself for what I was unable to do. Letting him live nearly cost your life. I don't even have words for the terror I feel every time I allow myself to consider that thought. I think I have a little insight into why so many military veterans lose their minds. It's not so much what you do in times like these
it's what you fail to do that drives you mad.
        
  1. Failing to kill the driver was the biggest mistake I've ever made. The second biggest was saving both of their lives. I risked your life and I risked my own by doing that, and I'll never be able to apologize sufficiently for that. I know it was just a reaction, and I know that I didn't think it throughbut that's no excuse. I promised you once that I'd be very careful to take care of myself so that you and I would be together for a very long time. I broke that promise, and I will never be able to find words to express how sorry I am.

  1. I'm also unable to get over feeling responsible for killing another human. No matter who he was, or what he did, he was a child of God, and my soul aches for contributing to his death. The worst part is that I'm glad he's dead, and I hope that an even worse fate awaits his brother. I have fantasies about becoming a prison guard, just so I can kill him with my bare hands, taking out all of my rage on him as the life drains from his worthless body. I hate those men with every breath I take, but my hatred fills me with a darkness that threatens to consume me.

  1. As angry as I am with them, what they did wasn't personal. They just wanted the car, and they were too stupid to get it without trying to kill us. But someone we know has intentionally tried to make our lives substantially worse during this terrible time. I can't speak or even write her name, and I worry that I'll finally gain my nerve and be able to kill someone if I see her on campus. She haunts my dreams, Jamie, and the things I imagine doing to her terrify me. I'm not that kind of person, but, like I said, I feel like I don't know myself any longer. I'm worriedvery worried.

Those are the big four, sweetheart. Guilt, fear, self-loathing, and hatred are the only emotions I seem able to feel any more. To be honest, I haven't made much progress with any of them. I still have nightmares every night, and I still have intrusive thoughts that torment me all day. But Amanda has really helped with the reporters. I'm okay with them now, so I think it's best to go back to Berkeley. I'm afraid I'm going to be struggling with this for a long time, babe, but we can't hide out here forever.

I truly wish I could be more open with you, and let you help me through this, but it's just not possible at this point. I desperately want to be close to you, Jamie, but I start to panic when we get too close. My mind starts to race and I remember how you looked on that examining table in the ER when you were nearly blue with cold. Images of your lifeless body fill my head and I feel like I'll die from fright. The panic is as terrifying as the fear, so it becomes a vicious circle. Please, believe me when I say that I'm trying the best that I can, but it's too soon for me to be fully open with you. Amanda assures me that we'll get back to where we were, and she's not lied to me yet
so I'm gonna choose to believe her. Please believe in meand in us, Jamie. I do. I swear that I do.

Love always,

Ryan

Jamie sat staring at the note for a very long time. She read it over and over again, finally lying down to let it all sink in. So many thoughts, so much guilt in that sweet, sweet woman's heart. I'd do anything to purge her of itbut I can't. All I can do is support her, and love her as best as I'm able. Dear God, please let it be enough.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Later that morning, when Ryan stood to leave Amanda's office for their last in-person visit, she reached for the hand the older woman extended. But Ryan couldn't repress her physical nature, and she took the offered hand and pulled the woman in for a robust hug. “Thank you so much,” she whispered. “It's going to be odd just talking to you on the phone. Hell, it's gonna be odd not talking to you tonight. But my family will be here late this afternoon, and I don't want to have to be on the phone for an hour.”

“I think it was a wise choice to only see each other once today,” Amanda said. “And I'd much prefer to see you in person, too, but I'm willing to see how it goes speaking on the phone. We made it work once before — I see no reason that it won't work once again.”

“I'm not sure I'm ready to go,” Ryan worried, “but I know I'll be furious with myself if I don't graduate. School starts on Monday, and I've got to be there.”

“You'll be fine. Just remember, if you want to find someone in Berkeley, I won't mind a bit. I want you to do whatever feels right, Ryan.”

“No, I'm not much for change,” she said. “I know you, and I trust you, and I don't want to have to build that trust up again.”

“You let me know when you think you want to return to your team, okay?”

“Yeah, I will. I'm not there yet, though. I need to ease back into things slowly.”

“I couldn't agree more, Ryan. You're not ready yet, but when you are, I'll be happy to talk to your coach.”

“Okay. I'll let you know.”

Amanda smiled at her and said, “Have a very good time with your family this weekend, Ryan. I'll speak to you on Monday — same as always.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan poked her head in the back door of the house and looked around the room, expecting to find her partner nearby. After her therapy session, she'd gone for a long walk along the cliffs, then bought a newspaper and whiled away another hour in a coffee shop. She knew she was being a big chicken, but she was afraid to see Jamie after delivering her note, and she debated whether to make a run for it before she was spotted. But she finally steeled her courage and started looking around the house. “Jamie?” she called a few times, receiving no answer. When she reached the second floor she didn't call out, thinking her partner might be back in bed. It was just noon, but their sleep patterns were so screwed up that either of them could be asleep at any hour of the day or night.

She found her in Catherine's sunny office, staring out at the ocean, oblivious to Ryan's presence. “Hi,” the dark-haired woman said quietly.

“Oh, hi,” she said, turning to give her a warm smile. She was sitting on one of the long chaises, and she patted the cushion. “C'mere.”

Ryan did so, standing awkwardly next to the piece. “Yeah?”

Jamie grasped her hand and said, “I'd like to pull you down here and hug the stuffing out of you, but I don't want to make you uncomfortable. Are you in the mood to be cuddled?”

Gratefully, Ryan clambered onto the chaise, managing to fit her entire, long body onto the remaining cushion. Jamie wrapped her arms around her and held her so tightly her own arms ached. After a long while, she said, “I know you're uncomfortable talking about things right now. I think writing down your thoughts was a very wise thing to do. So, let's do that for a while, okay? It might be safer for both of us.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really. I can organize my thoughts better when I write them down, and it makes things less emotional. Actually, Anna suggested that I write down how I'm feeling every night before I go to bed. I've been doing that for a few days now, and it's really helped.”

“You haven't woken me up with a nightmare in a couple of days,” Ryan said. “It must be working.”

“It lets me put a lid on things,” she said. “You might want to try it tonight.”

“Okay,” she said. “But I think having the family here will help a lot.”

“I do, too,” Jamie agreed.

Ryan shifted a little to take some of her weight off her partner. “Are we okay, Jamie?”

“We're very okay, honey. I appreciate that you told me what's going on in your head. We don't have to talk about it at all, but I wanted to let you know that it was very, very helpful to hear it.”

“Okay,” she said briefly. “I don't want to talk about it, but I'm glad I could let you in just a little bit.” She shifted her body again, finally getting slightly more comfortable. “What did you do all morning?”

“Oh, I played golf, then I had a snack. I've only been up here for about a half hour.”

Realizing that something other than Jamie was jabbing her in the back, Ryan reached down and removed a book from the cushion. “What are you reading?”

“Oh. I wasn't really reading,” she said. “I was praying.”

Ryan looked at the book, and saw that it was a beautifully illustrated copy of the Book of Psalms. Opening it, she saw how well worn the pages were. “This has seen a lot of use.”

“Oh, yeah. My grandfather gave that to me, not long after I learned how to read. For years, I just looked at the pictures, but over time I really began to enjoy it. I particularly like it because it's the King James Version. The language is absolutely beautiful.”

“I've been trying to get into a prayer space,” Ryan said. “It's been really hard for me. Da brought the things from my prayer corner at home, but it's been like pulling teeth.”

“How does it normally work for you?” Jamie asked, surprised that they'd never had this discussion before.

“Mmm … I seek silence. I try to quiet my mind and just … be. If I'm really quiet, and really reflective, I can sometimes reach a totally serene place. That's when I feel I'm really with God.” She shook her head and said, “I don't know why I can't manage it any more, but I used to be able to spend a half hour or an hour doing that every day. I've really been slacking off.”

“Yeah. That's you,” Jamie scoffed. “A born slacker.”

“No, really, Jamie. It's something I've got to make time for. I have to do it in good times and bad. It's one of the keys to my mental health.”

“Well, maybe you'll be back in the habit by the time we get home.”

“It's not working,” she said. “I can't clear my mind at all. I find myself just saying formal prayers. I can't go the next step, no matter how hard I try.”

“You've got to start someplace, Ryan. Praying effectively is like any other exercise. You've got to start out slow and build up.”

“You're right. I'm expecting too much.” Cocking her head, she asked, “How do you pray?”

“Mmm … I usually start with a scripture reading. That puts me in the right mood. Then, I spend time reflecting on what I've read. Sometimes I continue to think about the text that I read, other times I go off on a completely different tangent. I talk to myself, but I feel like I'm having a conversation with my Creator. Do you know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I do. That's not how it works for me most of the time, but that sounds just like how you'd do it. You're more of a language person.”

“I am. I know you're not, but I'd like to try something anyway,” Jamie said. “Why don't you lie down and let me read some of the psalms to you. Maybe just hearing my voice will help quiet your mind.”

“Okay. I'd like that.” She snuggled down and let her long legs dangle off the edge of the chaise. Gently, Jamie began to run her fingers through the dark hair, then she began to speak. For the next half hour, she softly recited the words to the songs and prayers that had been spoken and sung for millennia, and as her voice floated over Ryan, some of the turmoil started to lift from her tormented psyche. Despite the calming touch, soft voice and quiet breaking of the waves in the distance, Ryan stayed awake the whole time, taking in Jamie's words like droplets of water onto a dry sponge. When she finally finished, Ryan turned and gazed up at her for a full minute. “That was wonderful. Can we do that again?”

“Sure. We can make it a daily ritual if you want.”

“I want to … I need to,” she said. “I haven't felt this peaceful since the day it happened.”

“Anything you need, baby. Anything at all.” Jamie patted her chest and said, “Scoot up here a little bit. I need to be closer — just for a minute or two, honey.”

Ryan gave her the vaguely haunted look that had regretfully become one of her most frequent expressions, but she gamely complied. Moving up the chaise, she rested her head on Jamie's chest, as the blonde indicated. “When I was saying those words, I kept thinking of a song that they play at Mass. I don't know why, but I have an overpowering urge to sing it for you.”

Murmuring softly, Ryan said, “I'd like that. I love it when you sing to me.”

“Just close your sweet, blue eyes and try to relax, sweetheart.” She bent her head and kissed the glossy, black hair. “This is my wish for you.”

Clearing her throat, she started to sing in the soft, confident tone that Ryan deeply loved.

You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in His shadow for life.
Say to the Lord, “My Refuge, my Rock, in whom I trust.”

And He will raise you up on eagle's wings, bear you on the breath of dawn
Make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of His hand.

Her musical urges rose to the surface, and Ryan started to hum the harmony, just to provide background for her partner's soothing words.

For to His angels He's given the command, to guard you in all of your days.
Upon their hands, they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.

And He will raise you up on eagle's wings, bear you on the breath of dawn.
Make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of His hand.
And hold you … hold you … in the palm of His hand.

“God is holding you in the palm of His hand, sweetheart,” she whispered. “And so am I.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Ready for lunch, precious one?” Ryan had been dozing in Jamie's warm embrace, but the smaller woman's stomach was starting to make its needs known.

“Oh.” The blue eyes blinked open and she looked up at Jamie sleepily. “Uhm … sure. What would you like?”

“I'd like a patty melt and a chocolate malt,” Jamie said without hesitation.

“Really? You never eat stuff like that,” Ryan said, now fully awake. “Do you have PMS?”

“Nope. I just like Helen's patty melts. I think you will, too. Let's go.”

“Who's Helen, and why are you eating patty melts with her?”

“Come on, Tiger. It's time for you to meet my new girlfriend.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan pestered Jamie all the way to the restaurant, but the blonde wasn't talking. It was obvious that Jamie was teasing her, but Ryan was unable to get a clue. Finally, they entered the small diner, and a round, friendly face topped by snow white, curly hair called out, “Jamie! You finally managed to bring her over for a decent meal!” Eyes nearly popping from her head, Ryan was enveloped in a warm, robust hug, then Jamie was given the same treatment. “I never thought I was gonna get to meet you, Ryan!”

“I … I'm surprised, too,” she said, looking to Jamie to save her.

“We're heading home on Sunday, so this is our last visit,” the blonde said. “Fix Ryan up with your specialty, Helen. She needs to put some weight back on, and I can't think of a better way to do it than with your delicious food. Oh, bring out the pictures of your grandkids, will you? Little Heather reminds me of Ryan when she was a little girl.”

“Will do,” she said, ruffling the short, blonde hair. “Do you like onions, Ryan?”

“Uhm … sure.”

“That's my girl,” Helen said, a broad smile on her face. “Be right back.”

As she went into the tiny kitchen, Ryan gaped at her partner. “Is she some distant relative I don't know about?”

“Huh-uh. I met her the first day we were here. She's kinda adopted me.”

Quirking a grin, Ryan shook her head, saying, “You are such a lovable little cuss, Jamie Evans. Women of all ages succumb to your charms.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

To Ryan's amazement, her father and aunt, all of her brothers, Maggie, Kevin, Tommy, Annie and Caitlin, and every one of her cousins showed up later that night. All of the cousins brought sleeping bags, since there weren't nearly enough beds for the whole crew, but they didn't seem to mind camping out in such a luxurious campground.

She and Jamie set about getting everyone organized, putting Tommy and Annie, and Brendan and Maggie in the two apartments off the pool; getting Martin and Maeve settled in a guest room in the house, then waiting for all of the single men to cut cards to determine who got the other rooms. Ryan pulled Jamie aside and said, “Should we sleep in your mother's room, and let someone have ours?”

“No, I don't think Mom would like that, honey. Do the boys really mind sleeping on the floor?”

“No, not at all,” Ryan said. “I just thought it would be nice.” Jamie's reticence puzzled her, but she figured that Catherine might just not be the type who liked to share her private space.

Ryan spent some time taking the group on an extended tour. It was very dark out, but the grounds were well lit, and they managed to get a flavor for the estate. As expected, the cousins were most impressed with the cars in the garage and the exercise room, and Ryan left most of them there to examine the toys.

Caitlin, Tommy and Annie were, as expected, required to be in the pool, so a few more cousins, along with Brendan and Maggie, joined that crowd. Conor, Dermot, Declan and Rory were playing pool in the game room, while Jamie and Maeve made up platters of snacks for all of the various groups.

Ryan looked around the warm, bright kitchen, watching while her father made a fire in the fireplace. She sighed to herself, feeling whole and safe and protected in the embrace of her family.

The back door opened, and she cried out a greeting when Catherine poked her head in, followed by a wide-eyed, but wildly happy Jennie.

“You little scamp,” Ryan muttered, dashing by her partner to give her a slap on the butt. “Your mother wouldn't want us in her room!”

“Well, she wouldn't,” Jamie said. “She's small, but she's not small enough to have us in there with her and Jennie!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan, Jamie, Martin, Maeve, Brendan, Maggie, Conor, Rory, Kevin, Jennie and Catherine all sat out on the outdoor patio — able to hear the waves crashing, but unable to see them, the moon being largely absent. Jamie had fired up the heaters, and the space was quite comfortable, even though the night was quite chilly and damp.

They all questioned Catherine about her trip, then Ryan and Jamie spoke of their stay in the Bahamas. Finally, Jennie filled everyone in on her first week of school.

By the time all of the players had spoken, Jamie looked at her watch and said, “10 o'clock, honey. Time for bed.”

“But … but … we've got company!”

“Nonsense, Siobhán,” Martin said. “We're not company — we're family. Jamie's concerned about you, love. Don't argue with the lass.”

“I should have known he'd be on your side,” Ryan said, nevertheless getting to her feet.

Jamie took her hand and said, “We've got to try to get into normal sleep patterns, honey. We've got to be at school bright and early on Monday.” Turning to the crowd, she said, “Stay up as late as you like, everyone. We can't hear a thing upstairs, so have a ball.”

Conor piped up and said, “If you go running in the morning, knock on my door, okay?”

“Will do,” Ryan said, making her way around the room to offer goodnight kisses to all. “We can taunt the reporters. It's fun to slow down until they can almost focus their cameras, and then take off as fast as you can. Drives 'em nuts!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan knocked lightly on Conor's door early the next morning, but didn't receive a response. Opening the door, she saw that the bed was empty, so she went downstairs to search for him. He was in the kitchen, drinking directly out of the orange juice container. When he spied her, he adopted a guilty look, but she reassured him. “I do it all the time. Drives Jamie mad.”

“I figure it saves washing a glass,” he said reasonably. “Sleep well?”

“Great,” she said. “Best night I've had. Having you all here really made a difference.”

“I'd have a hard time going back home if I were you, sis. I think I could be pretty happy hanging out down here — driving the cars — playing golf.”

“Eh … it's a nice place to visit …” Ryan's voice trailed off. “I just need normalcy in my life … and this is far from normal.”

“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “Besides, we couldn't stand to have you this far away. Ready?”

“Yep. Now, let me warn ya. They're gonna be right outside. The police won't let them have their news trucks there, and they can't park their cars overnight, but that doesn't stop 'em from gathering on foot. Just try not to let them bother you, okay?”

“They won't bother me,” he said. “I'm just worried about you.”

“Don't be,” she said clearly. “I'm doing fine with it now, and the last thing I want is for you to get into a confrontation with them. Just don't speak or make eye contact, and you'll make me happy.”

They got through the small knot of reporters without incident, although two of them came prepared, wearing running shoes and shorts. They gave a creditable chase, but the added weight of their cameras slowed them down enough so that the siblings had dusted them within a quarter mile. After that short sprint, they settled down to a comfortable pace, not speaking for a long time, both enjoying the early morning sounds of the sea.

After about three miles Conor asked, “So tell me more about your vacation. Was it really great?”

“It sure was,” she said dreamily. “I have no desire to live in Pebble Beach, but I could live on Eleuthra. You would have loved it, Con. It would be right up your alley.”

“Did Jordan and Mia have a good time, too?” he asked, trying to sound casual.

“Of course,” she said. “After we left, Mia stayed in Florida to go to Jordan's first tournament. They won every match, and beat Canada for the Pan-Am championship last Sunday.”

“Wow,” he said slowly. “She stayed, huh?”

“Yes, Conor,” Ryan said. “They're very close.”

She could see the scowl building as his shoulders slumped a bit. “I played that hand very badly,” he said.

“How so?”

“I did what no guy in his right mind would do,” he said. “First off — I told the complete truth, and that's always fatal.”

She smirked at him, having a different worldview, but realizing the she wasn't going to change his. “Yes, Con, honestly is a horrible thing to inject into a relationship.”

“You're telling me,” he said somberly. “Second — I did to her what guys hate to have done to them. I gave her the 'how serious about me are you' speech. That's insane! As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I'd shot myself!”

“Why do you think you did that?” Ryan asked, a little puzzled by his behavior.

“Mmm … probably because I was thinking out loud,” he said. “I'd never given a thought to getting serious with her, but when she told me there had been a chance that she was pregnant, it just dawned on me that wouldn't have been such a horrible thing … for me, at least.”

“That makes sense,” she said. “And as much as I am a proponent of honesty — that was a little abrupt for a second date.”

“You're telling me? I could have pled temporary insanity, but her mind was already made up.” He kicked a tree branch that was lying in the road, and grumbled, “What really pisses me off is that she was willing to get serious. She just didn't know it.”

Ryan nodded, admitting, “I guess you're right. She's pretty serious about Jordan.”

“No signs this is just a fling, huh?” he asked, pressing for information.

“Hmm … you know I don't like to talk about my friends behind their backs,” she said, “but I think it's safe to say that you shouldn't hold your breath waiting for her to be available.”

“So close! I was so close, and I let my big trap ruin it for me.”

“You don't know that, Conor. You never know when you're going to click with someone.”

“I clicked with her,” he said decisively. “I just hope that one day she clicks with me.”

“Again … don't hold your breath,” Ryan said, thinking that her friends were a long way from breaking up.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Later that afternoon, Ryan wandered down to the pool and found Jennie playing with the baby, both blondes having the time of their lives. “I've got to get the munchkin down for her nap, but it's gonna be tough,” Annie said when she caught Ryan's eye.

“Well, I guess you have to decide when you want her to scream,” Ryan said. “Either now, or later, when she's cranky because she didn't have a nap.”

“I suppose now would be best,” Annie said.

“Let me take her up to our room. I haven't heard her scream bloody murder in weeks. I'm due.”

“Oh, Ryan, you don't have to do that …”

“I know. But I'd like to. I miss her, Annie.” She gave her a wry grin and said, “If she gives me a hard time, I'll be sick of her and then I won't miss her so much.”

“How could I turn down such a heartfelt plea?” she said.

“Come on, Jen,” Ryan said. “Grab the baby and hand her over. It's time for her nap.”

“Uhm … can I come and help?” she asked.

“Do you really want to?”

“Yeah. I've never put a baby to bed before. You can show me how.”

“Okay. Dry off and join us.”

Once they were in Ryan's room, Caitlin started to look around suspiciously, slowly coming to the realization that they were getting into nap mode. As soon as the thought hit her, she started to scream, wailing pathetically and clutching at Jennie. “She doesn't associate you with the conspiracy,” Ryan said loudly to be heard over the din.

“Boy, she's loud!” Jennie yelled back.

Ryan swooped her up and held her snugly, walking around the room with her as she jiggled her over her shoulder. “Having a baby isn't all glamour,” she said. “Even one as nice as this one.”

It took a while, and Ryan's head was throbbing, but Caitlin finally calmed down enough to drink her bottle. “Why don't you feed her?” Ryan asked.

“Me? I've never fed a baby before!”

“Then it's time you learned how,” Ryan said. “Come over here and sit in the chair … That's it. Now, just cradle her however she seems comfortable. You don't have to support her much. She usually gets herself into position.” The baby fussed and kicked, then settled down, with her head resting against Jennie's chest. “Now, take the bottle and angle it like … this,” Ryan said, showing her the proper way. “That's great. Now all you have to do is let her suck. She'll either fall asleep, or let you know when she's done.”

Jennie looked down at the nursing child, a warm grin on her face. “It's hard to imagine being this little, isn't it?”

“For me it sure is,” Ryan said. “I think I was that size in utero.”

“I was real little,” Jennie said softly. “I had to stay in the hospital for a while, 'cause I was so tiny.”

“Were you premature?”

“Uh-huh. I don't know how much, but I think I only weighed 4 pounds.”

“That is small,” Ryan said. “I think I had 4 pounds of hair when I was born.” Jennie looked up at her, on the verge of making a joke, but her face scrunched up, and before Ryan could blink she was crying soundlessly. “Hey, hey, what's wrong?” the older woman asked, squatting down next to her.

“I've … I've been so worried about you,” she said.

“Oh, Jen, I'm fine. You saw that for yourself on Christmas, didn't you?”

“But you're not home … and you didn't come back to take me to sch … sch … school. I know you, Ryan, and you'd only miss that if something was really wrong.” She was sobbing hard now, and Ryan took the nearly sleeping baby into her own arms so that Jen didn't wake her.

“I'm all right, sweetheart,” she said, stroking Jennie's shaking body with her free hand. “Things have been hard for Jamie and me, but we'll get through it. I promise you that, Jen.”

“You're not gonna break up, are you?”

What? Of course not! Whatever gave you an idea like that?”

“I don't know,” she mumbled, “but whenever adults keep stuff secret, they wind up getting divorced.”

“Jennie, we're not keeping anything secret.” She reached out and touched her chin, making her face her. “I'll tell you the entire truth. Ready?”

“Uh-huh,” she said, looking terribly frightened.

“I've been afraid, Jen. The reporters and photographers scare me when they're right outside my house. Sometimes they scare me so much that I start to panic. Did you see what happened to me when I was down in North Carolina?”

“Yeah,” she said, looking embarrassed for her friend.

“Well, that's what happens. I needed to get away for a while, so I could learn how to handle it, and I think I've done that. I've been seeing a psychiatrist, and she's helped me get much more comfortable with having my picture taken constantly. I'm ready to come home now, buddy.”

“Are you sure? I don't want you to have any more of those attacks. That scared me so bad, Ryan.”

“I don't want to, either,” Ryan said. “I can't guarantee that I'll never have one, but even if I do, I think I know how to deal with them better. I feel pretty good, Jen. I really think I'm ready to go home.” Running a hand through the girl's short hair she asked, “How about you? Tell me how this has affected you.”

“I have nightmares,” she said. “I had one … a bad one … last night. I was sleeping on the window seat in Mrs. Evans' room, and I woke her up.”

“I'm sure she didn't mind,” Ryan said.

Jennie looked up at her with a vaguely puzzled expression. “She didn't,” she said quietly. “She got up and sat with me, Ryan. She put my head in her lap and rubbed it until I went back to sleep.” With a look filled with wonder, she added, “No one's ever done that for me.”

“Everyone deserves to have their head rubbed,” Ryan said. “I'm glad Catherine showed you how nice it can be.” She shifted the sleeping baby in her arms and placed her back on Jennie's lap. “Caitlin needs a little more cuddling. Do you mind? My arms are getting tired.”

“No, I don't mind,” she said, accepting the heavy bundle. “She's so sweet.” She cuddled her against her chest and stroked her wispy blonde hair.

“So are you,” Ryan whispered, bending to kiss Jennie's head. “I'm gonna go get us a snack. You are hungry, aren't you?”

“Always.”

“Glad to know I haven't forgotten what it's like to be young,” Ryan said. “Be right back.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

By late afternoon, the party was in full swing. The entire family was gathered around the pool, by Caitlin's decree, and everyone took turns playing with her. Jamie and Ryan had spent most of the day in the kitchen, but both insisted that was their preference, so they were allowed to do as they wished.

“How does it feel to have everyone here?” Jamie asked during one of their frequent alone times.

“Good,” Ryan said decisively. “I need a break every half hour or so, but it's going pretty well. How about you?”

“I'm good,” Jamie said. “I feel so much better having my mom in town, and spending time with her is just what the doctor ordered.”

“I feel the same about my parents,” Ryan sighed. “They're pure comfort for me.”

“It's a little harder with the boys though, huh?”

“Not much,” Ryan said. “They're a little boisterous, and that gets on my nerves a bit, but that will calm down soon.”

“That's the attitude. It will all calm down soon.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The next afternoon, Jamie and Ryan saw everyone off, then did a final inspection of the house before they packed up as well. They were ready to go by 5 p.m., but Ryan seemed reticent to actually get into the car and leave.

Coming up behind her, Jamie snaked her arms around Ryan's waist and hugged her close. “Having trouble leaving?”

“Yeah,” she said, her voice low and soft. “I'm worried about what awaits us back in the real world.”

Jamie turned her around and gazed into her eyes. “I don't know about you, but the most frightening thing for me is facing what's in here.” She tapped her temple with her index finger. “Those guys out there are nothing compared to the monsters I have in here.”

Ryan smiled gently, and nodded. “I've got a few creepy creatures in my head, too. I guess you're right, we take them with us wherever we are.”

“Yeah … but they're getting less creepy all the time.”

“They are,” Ryan said. She wrapped her partner in a tight embrace. “You've been so wonderful to me, Jamie. I know it's been hard for you, and I just hope you know how much I appreciate that you've been able to let me go at my own pace.”

“Hey, you're not the only one moving at a glacial pace,” Jamie said. “I'm very tentative, too, Ryan, and you've been very understanding of my needs, also.”

“We'll get there, baby,” the taller woman whispered. “It's taking longer than I have patience for, but we'll get there.”

“I know we will,” Jamie sighed. “I have confidence in us.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Well, it didn't take them long to guess where we were going,” Ryan said as they drove by the O'Flaherty home and saw the large assemblage of reporters. “They must have radioed ahead for reinforcements.”

“You feeling okay?” Jamie asked, just a little worried.

“Yeah. I'm going to give this my best shot,” she said. They found a parking spot about two blocks up Noe, and by the time they were out of the car, several reporters had raced up the street. They started to shout their questions, but Ryan ignored them completely, acting as though they were invisible. “Would you rather carry the suitcases, or clear the way?” she asked her partner, a small smile firmly fixed upon her face.

“Let's each carry one, and each use an arm to push our way through,” Jamie said, greatly relieved to have her partner acting so normally. They did just that, neither woman seeming to pay the slightest attention to the questions, or the thrusting microphones. Shooting a glance at her partner, Jamie was both pleased and amazed to see that there wasn't a flicker of anxiety or tension on Ryan's face. She looked like she was walking down the street all alone, save for the raised arm with the sharp elbow pointed menacingly at all who dared to come too close.

They reached the house without serious incident, and as they hit the door, Ryan opened it wide, allowing Duffy to fly out. He jumped frantically, licking both Ryan and Jamie, then ran for the pack of reporters who had daringly climbed the stairs after them. He was so exuberant that he practically knocked them down the stairs backwards, just as Ryan had hoped. She stood in the doorway, smiling benignly at the scrambling men, all trying to keep their balance as they walked backwards, slowly descending the stairs to get away from the frantic pink tongue. As they departed, she went to the deck railing, a deeply satisfied look on her face. “Our pestilent infestation of reporters is being exterminated in a very efficient manner,” she intoned, sparing a glance at her partner. As soon as the dog neared the sidewalk, she called to him, and he turned and flew back up, his tail wagging fiercely.

The dog ran into the house after them, squealing with delight. “I think he missed us,” Jamie observed dryly, as the dog caught Ryan flatfooted and knocked her onto her butt. He was licking her so frantically that Ryan was completely unable to defend herself, and Jamie made the ultimate sacrifice and joined her on the floor, letting Duffy spread his love between them equally.

“You do love me,” Ryan said, as Duffy started to work on her ear.

“Yep, I do,” Jamie said. “I'll gladly sacrifice myself to keep you safe.”

Ryan reached out and grabbed her, wrapping her in the protective cocoon of her long arms and legs, effectively blocking Duffy from reaching her. “And I'll do the same for you,” she sighed heavily, thoroughly relieved to be back home.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

They were still on the floor when Conor, Rory and Kevin came in a few minutes later, and Duffy immediately relinquished his attentions on the girls to take off after the men of the family. “Are you sure your Uncle Patrick took Duffy to his house?” Jamie asked. “ The dog acts like he's been locked in the closet for three days.”

“Well,” Ryan said, getting to her feet and pulling her partner with her, “he's got food and water, and there's a message in Uncle Patrick's hand saying he brought him home at 8 o'clock.” She slapped her hand with the paper and said, “I guess it could be an elaborate ruse. Duffy, were you in the closet?” The big dog just stared at her, ears up, pink tongue hanging out. “He won't talk, as usual,” Ryan said. “The darned dog's as hard headed as I am.”

“Oh, surely not!” Jamie cried, flinging herself at her partner, knocking her onto the sofa.

Ryan rolled over and straddled her waist, pinning her arms at the same time. “You're starting to take after Duffy!” she cried. “What's gotten into you?”

“He must have gotten me wired up,” the smaller woman said. “Plus, running the gauntlet of reporters got my blood pumping, too.”

“You did great,” Ryan said.

“You're the one who did great,” Jamie said. “You acted like you couldn't even hear them!”

“I couldn't. I just decided they weren't there, and I focused all of my energies on getting down the street. I was staring at the ground so intently that I could almost see the individual molecules of sand, cement and aggregate that made up the concrete.”

“Lord, I wish I could concentrate like that! I heard every stupid question, but I stayed calm because you were calm.”

“That's how we balance each other out,” Ryan said. “If I was freaked, you would have been calm. It's what we do,” she said softly, a gentle smile on her face.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

They hadn't been home for ten minutes when Jamie's cell phone rang. “When are you coming home?” Mia asked crossly. “I'm lonesome!”

“Hi, sweetie! We'll be home in the morning. Can't wait to see you. I was really sorry you couldn't come down to the beach this weekend.”

“I was too, but I had to go see my parents. I missed 'em, but seeing all of their pictures of Rome made me glad I didn't go with. I swear, they were at some church or another the whole time! For a fallen-away Catholic, my mom's sure a church nut!”

“The churches in Rome are as architecturally and artistically interesting as they are religious,” Jamie said.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Mia said. “And this eye doesn't like to behold churches!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

It felt odd to be back in their bed, and Jamie had to struggle to avoid feeling jealous of Duffy. The happy dog was being cuddled fiercely by his mistress, and Jamie longed for just a tenth of the affection Ryan was lavishing on him. But she reminded herself that Ryan was doing her very best, and tried to be grateful that the dark woman had some means of getting the physical attention that she needed.

Once they were all comfortable, Jamie took out her book and started to read the psalms to Ryan. Much to her pleasure, the blue eyes fluttered closed after just a few minutes, and soon all three inhabitants of the bed were sound asleep.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The next morning, Ryan spent a good fifteen minutes talking Conor out of taking the day off to go to school with her. “I'm fine,” she said. “Really, Con. I have some techniques to deal with the stress now. I'm sure I'll be fine.”

“But I took you to school the last time you were scared,” he said.

“Conor, that was my first day of kindergarten,” she said. “I've matured a little since I was four.”

“Are you sure you don't want me to go with you? I really don't mind.”

“Yes, I'm sure, bro. It's gonna be a little rough, but I'll be fine. And if anyone gives me a hard time, I'll just tell them that my big brother's gonna come and beat 'em up!”

“I will, Ryan,” he said, giving her a completely serious look. “I don't take kindly to people causing trouble for my little sister.”

“I know,” she said, ruffling his hair affectionately. “You go on to work. If I need you, I'll page you.”

“Okay.” He finally relented, leaving just as Jamie came upstairs. “I'll beat up anyone who gives you a hard time, too, Jamie,” he called out as he departed.

“That was an odd greeting,” the blonde said. “Have you talked to Amanda yet?”

“Nope.” Ryan looked at her watch. “I'm talking to her at seven a.m. and six p.m., every day this week. If the week goes well, we're gonna cut it down by a few sessions next week. How about you?”

“I'm gonna see Anna every day, too. We'll probably cut down a bit next week, as well.” She looked at her partner and said, “You pay close attention to make sure you're getting what you need over the phone, okay? We can find you someone local if it isn't working for you.”

“I know. Amanda said the same thing. She's really looking out for my best interests, honey.”

“That's why I like her,” Jamie said. “I've got to get going now. You don't mind taking your motorcycle, do you?”

“No. I'll be able to use the carpool lane, so leaving late won't be so bad.” She wrapped her arms around her partner and said, “Are you okay with going alone? I could talk to Amanda on my cell phone if you need me to be with you.”

“I'm fine, sweetheart. I know you'll worry, so walk me down to the car, okay?”

“Like you could stop me,” Ryan said. “Duffy! Come on, boy. Time for a little walk.” The big dog came scampering over, wagging his tail enthusiastically. Ryan reached down and patted his head, saying, “Now don't be shy about saying hello to all of the nice men outside. They particularly like it when you jump up on them — really hard — at about groin level.” Smiling at Jamie, she reported, “Your escort is ready!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When she entered the Berkeley house, Ryan's mouth gaped open in surprise. The table by the front door was piled a foot high with mail, Jamie's penchant for shopping via catalog finally catching up with her. When she pushed the mail to one side, she saw sticky notes lining the entire table — no less than fifty of the 2 x 3 inch notes covering the surface. The early ones bore Mia's somewhat sloppy cursive writing detailing the caller and their message, but the ones received last night bore pithy comments like, “Some asshole reporter called — 1 a. fucking m.” Oh-oh, Mia's reached her limit.

Heading into the kitchen, Ryan spotted the grumpy woman eating a bowl of cereal. Her curly head tilted up and she said, “Good thing for you that I love you two. The fucking phone is about to drive me mad.” She gave Ryan a half smile and got up, giving her a big hug. “I missed you.”

“I missed you, too,” Ryan said, holding on to her for a long time. “We'll pay your cell phone bill for the month, so go ahead and use it exclusively. Until this dies down, we just won't answer the main number.” She took the handset off the wall phone and tossed it into the trash. “Good riddance.”

“How are you feeling about being back at school, buddy? You okay?”

“Well, to be honest, I'm a little freaked out. I wish Jamie had been able to be with me this morning so we could walk to school together. I'm doing better — but I'm still a little afraid that I'll deck someone.” She shook her head and said, “I'm honestly afraid that I'll break Cassie's head open if I see her. I hope to God she's got the sense to run if she catches sight of me.”

“Uhm … are you guys still trying to avoid looking at the news?”

“Yeah. We're totally out of the loop. Why?”

“Well, something happened while you were gone that you should know about.”

“Now what?”

“Well … someone from your team talked to the tabloids, Ryan. They said you had some kind of a meltdown when you returned from the Bahamas …”

“Oh, fuck.” Ryan sat down, looking like she was going to be sick. “Those dirty motherfuckers!”

“Uhm … your coach called right after it happened, and I talked to her for a long time. She seemed strangely … nice,” she said.

“Yeah, she's not so bad. What did she have to say?”

“She said that she was going to try to find out who ratted you out, and then kick them off the team. She sounded very upset about the whole thing, Ryan. She seemed to really care about you.”

“Yeah … I think she does.” Ryan shook her dark head and said, “I think I know who talked — and I have a feeling that she was in cahoots with a certain soon-to-be-deceased former roommate of yours.”

Mia stood up and walked over to give Ryan a hug. “I'm going to walk you over to school, babe. There are too many people on your shit list for you to wander around unescorted.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan gathered the phone messages and read through them as she and Mia walked along. Noting that a reporter from the Daily Californian had called repeatedly, she asked, “Gee, I wonder what he wants? Does this guy really think I'm gonna turn down big bucks from the tabloids to give him an exclusive story? You know damn well that the school would sell the rights to the story to the highest bidder. They must think I just crawled out of the potato patch.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

By the time Jamie got to the practice range from her car, she had been hugged and squeezed so many times, she was certain she'd have bruises. All of her teammates had called after the ordeal, and a few had even sent personal notes, making her feel more like a member of the team than ever before. While she limbered up, Scott came over and said, “Just take it slow, Jamie. I'm sure you weren't able to practice over break, but don't let that worry you.”

“I was able to practice,” she said. “We went down to my parents' home near Carmel, and I was able to play nearly every day. I'm actually feeling pretty good about my game.”

“How's Ryan?” he asked quietly. “I saw what happened when she was down south for that game …”

“She's better now,” Jamie said, smiling. “It's been tough for both of us, but we'll get through it.”

“Well, if you need anything, like time off from practice, just let me know. I don't want golf to add to your stress.”

“It doesn't,” she said. “Playing golf is a very welcome diversion for me, Scott. It got me through some tough days over the last weeks.”

“That's good to hear. Just remember that we're all behind you, Jamie,” he said. “Let us know if there's anything you need.”

Juliet approached as Scott left. “Hi,” she said. “Are you doing okay?”

“Yeah, I am,” Jamie said confidently. “Did you have a good break?”

“Yeah. Sure.” She shrugged and added, “I just played golf. Are we still on for a round tomorrow?”

“I am. Two o'clock, right?”

“That's it. I'll check with the other girls to make sure everyone remembers.”

Juliet sauntered off, stopping to chat with several of the other players. Well, that's the first time some of the freshmen have heard her voice, the blonde thought. Maybe Juliet is coming out of her shell.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Several times during the day, Ryan wished she had accepted Conor's offer of protection. She always drew a fair amount of attention on campus — her impressive height, distinctive good looks, and having played two varsity sports making her stand out. But today, she was drawing more attention than she was comfortable with. She had been followed from home, a small pack of reporters jogging along behind her and Mia. Of course, she would not speak, or even make eye contact, but the same could not be said for her classmates. When Ryan left her first class, a reporter was interviewing some joker who Ryan had never seen before in her life. She heard the young man voicing an opinion about her, nonetheless, commenting that he had always found her to be aloof and standoffish. She was on the verge of grabbing him by the shirt and showing him that he might prefer her being standoffish, when Mia bounded back up to her and gave her a hug and a kiss. The flashes popped as the photographers stopping focusing on the young man and switched to Mia. “What the fuck?” she said, shielding her eyes with a raised hand.

“You don't mind being in the tabloids as the new woman I'm having my evil way with, do you?”

“Well, I think I'd better warn my parents, but other than that, I think it's an honor,” she said. “I just ran over to ask if you want to have lunch with Jamie and her mom. You don't have your cell phone turned on.”

“Oops ... can't afford to do that,” Ryan said, and quickly switched the device on. “I've got to scoot, Mia, will you call Jamie and tell her I can't make it? I'm going to meet with my independent study advisor during lunch. Tell her I love her, though, okay?”

“You love her more than you love me?” Mia said loudly, feigning outrage, then began to laugh heartily when the reporters scrambled for their notepads. “This is fun!” she said, chuckling as she departed.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie and Catherine sat on matching Adirondack chairs under the shade of a massive magnolia tree, eating the delightful lunch that Marta had prepared for them. By exiting through the back of her classroom, Jamie had been able to elude the sole reporter who had decided to tag along with her, and she was relaxed and happy, although very chilly, during their meal.

“I'm simply amazed at how well you're taking all of this, honey,” Catherine said.

“Well, there are a lot of things about the ordeal that are still bothering me,” Jamie said, “but the reporters don't upset me. They really haven't had much impact on me from the start. It doesn't seem like a big deal, for some reason.”

“But Ryan doesn't feel that way, does she?”

“No. They bother her a lot, but much less now than they did at first. She's a very private person, Mom, and she hates to have to censor her behavior in public.”

“I can certainly understand that,” Catherine said. “I'm glad to hear that it's getting a little easier for her.”

“That part is,” Jamie said. “But she's still very, very shaky. She's still talking to her therapist twice a day, and I think that's going to have to continue for a while. Her sleep is still very spotty, and her appetite's not really returned, either. Things are a long way from normal for us.” Her head shook slowly as she gazed at her lunch with a resigned look on her face.

“Tell me what else is bothering you, honey,” Catherine said, “I know something is.”

“Uhm … I don't think this is the kind of thing you want to hear about,” Jamie muttered. “It's ah … kinda personal.”

“I don't mind. If you need to talk, I'm very willing to hear you out.”

“I don't know if it helps to talk about it or not,” she said. “It's just … we're not … uhm … Ryan and I are having trouble being … close, and it's really wearing on me.”

“Close like … sexually close?” Catherine asked gently.

Chuckling softly, Jamie said, “Oh, we're a long, long way from being sexual. We're just at the point now where I can hold her for a short while each day. The rest of our physical relationship is just a dream for now. She even changes clothes in her room and showers alone.”

Catherine reached out and grasped her hand, “Oh, Jamie, I'm so sorry to hear that. I know how much it means to you both to express your love. I thought that things would start becoming more normal if you slept together. I thought your bodies would just naturally move together during the night.”

“No, that hasn't happened,” she sighed. “I know that we'll get it back, Mom; I'm confident of that. I just worry that it's going to be really, really difficult for Ryan. I'm afraid that it will take a very long time, and I don't want her to get too frustrated if it does.”

“It sounds like Ryan's got more of an issue than you do,” Catherine opined. “Is that so?”

“A bit, yeah, I'd say that's true,” Jamie said. “I've been thinking about this a lot, and I think we're having different reactions because we approach sex so differently.”

Catherine just cocked her head, encouraging Jamie to continue if she wished.

“You know how intense Ryan is, right?” Jamie asked.

“Yes, dear, I've seen her in action. She is the soul of intensity.”

“Right,” Jamie said. “Well, she's very, very intense when we make love.” Giving her mother a quizzical look, Jamie asked, “Are you sure it's okay to talk about this?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Catherine said. “After our talks in Rhode Island, I've become shock resistant.”

Jamie smirked at her and continued. “Ryan's whole thing is to show me as much of herself as she can possibly reveal. She consciously tries to take down every barrier. Every time we make love, she tries to show me what's in her heart.” She smiled wistfully. “She bares her soul to me, Mom.”

Catherine smiled wistfully and said, “That sounds wonderful.”

“Oh, it is,” Jamie said. “It's such a gift. But when she's feeling wounded and frightened like she is now — she's unable to be close at all. It's like she's either fully revealed or fully shielded. There's no middle ground with her — do you know what I mean?”

“Yes, I think so,” Catherine said. “I take it that you're not the same way Ryan is.”

“No, not at all,” Jamie said. “Like I said, Ryan tries to be 100% present when we're being intimate. She keeps those big, blue eyes locked onto me like we're sharing the same DNA. I, on the other hand, lose myself completely when we're close. My brain shuts off, and I just let the sensations take over. I mean,” she said, “I know that it's Ryan making love to me, but I don't really experience her very much — I experience the sensations.

“So while Ryan is being so painfully intimate, and risking so much — I'm just floating along on this sensual cloud — hardly aware of what's going on around me.” She laughed briefly, then continued. “Sometimes I can really be connected, and allow myself to be as vulnerable as she is.” She sighed. “Our lovemaking is incredibly moving when that happens, but usually we're almost on different planes. Thankfully, it works quite well for us. It's just when we're having trouble — like now — that the difference in our styles is so obvious. I could easily get carried away if Ryan started to touch me … but she can't risk being touched or touching me, because she feels too vulnerable.”

“Does she realize this, Jamie? Do you talk about this?”

“Not much,” she said. “I don't want to bring it up at this point — at least not in any detail. She feels really broken, Mom, and I don't want to make it worse. She's so very fragile right now.” She shook her head and fought to hold back the tears. “I just want to support her.”

“Jamie,” Catherine said, “I can see how hard this is right now, but it's so obvious how much you love each other. I'm sure that getting through this will make your relationship just that much stronger.”

Her cell phone rang, and Jamie answered quickly. “Hello?”

“Hi. I got finished with my meeting early. Are you still having lunch?”

“Yeah. Come on over. We've got plenty left.”

“Will do. Are you in our usual picnic spot?”

“Noooo …” she said. “I'd play hide and seek, but you'd never find us.”

“Do tell,” Ryan said.

“We're in the back yard of University House,” Jamie said, and waited for her partner's reaction.

“Uhm … honey …? Why are you in the Chancellor's back yard?”

“I'll tell you when you get here. Hurry up, Tiger.”

Jamie smiled at her mom and said, “She's coming over to join us.”

“Seeing how your face lights up when you hear her voice says volumes about your bond, Jamie. This will all work out in the end.”

“I hope so, Mom. I miss her.” She gave her mother a small smile and said, “I didn't see her get dressed today, but if she's in her normal winter attire, you're going to think she's gone mad.”

“Why's that, honey?”

“Well, she hates the fact that most of the classrooms are heated. She's antagonistic to artificial heat. Heck, she doesn't even like to have the furnace on unless you can see your breath in the house. Ryan's a firm believer that a cool house is a very good thing. Anyway, she'd rather be cold than hot, so she dresses so she's comfortable in the heated classroom. In my opinion she looks more than a little odd …”

Catherine twitched her head as she caught sight of a mass of dark hair flying in the breeze as Ryan scampered along the path, panting slightly. “Did you run the whole way?” Catherine asked when the pink-cheeked woman gave her a kiss and sat next to Jamie.

“Yep,” she said, kicking her feet out. Ryan had on a snug, short-sleeved, navy blue knit shirt and a pair of khaki-colored cargo shorts — an outfit that would have been perfectly suited for a 70 degree day. But it was around 50 degrees, heavily overcast, and breezy, with a decided threat of rain. To provide a little more warmth to her extremities, she also had on her bright yellow sleeveless fleece vest, a navy blue knit cap, heavy socks, and a pair of hiking boots.

Patting her exposed knee, Catherine said, “You look like you're getting ready to hike up in the Alps on a warm spring day. Aren't you cold?”

“Nah. Running over here will have heated me up enough to last through lunch.”

“Are you pressed for time?” Catherine asked. “Or do you just like to run everywhere you go?”

“No, not really. I was just trying to ditch the reporter that's been on my … that's been following me. I lost him in the geology building. I hope he trips on a geode, and breaks his neck.”

“You don't seem to have warmed up to the fellows much,” Catherine said.

“Nope. They're vermin. The legitimate press is long gone. Now we're stuck with the bottom-feeders.” She looked around the massive, beautifully tended garden that gracefully followed the slope of a gentle hill. “Okay, I showed up. Now who wants to tell me why we're here?”

“I had a meeting with the Chancellor this morning. I told him that I'd brought a picnic lunch, and he suggested that we use his yard. Nice, isn't it?”

“It is,” Ryan said. “But your explanation is less than fully revealing. I didn't know you had a relationship with the U.C. I thought you were Stanford all the way.”

“I have been, up until now,” Catherine said. “I just thought it was time to meet the Chancellor.”

Ryan narrowed her gaze and crossed her arms over her chest. “Spill it, Catherine. That Mona Lisa smile isn't gonna cut it.”

Patting her leg, Catherine said, “It's no big deal, Ryan. I wanted to make sure the university was prepared to deal with any security issues that might arise. I wanted the Chancellor to know that if we didn't like the way things were going, we would hire our own security people.”

“Well, what did he say?” she asked.

“He said he'd work with us to make sure you two were protected.” She looked at both young women and asked, “How is it going, so far? Are the reporters bothering you?”

“Not much,” Ryan said. “They seem to be concentrating on getting my erstwhile classmates to talk about me, since I won't speak. Oh, I took our phone off the hook, Jamie. There were so many people calling that Mia was starting to lose her sense of humor, and that's always dangerous.”

“No problem,” she said. “I only want to talk to people who know my cell number, anyway.”

“I think things will be all right, Catherine,” Ryan said. “I don't think you need to call the dogs out.”

“All right, dear, but you just let me know if it starts to bother you. We have options.”

“Will do.”

Catherine watched as Ryan took just a few bites of her lunch, then put her fork down and ignored the tasty meal. Jamie had been watching her as well, and she picked the fork back up and poked around on the plate idly, looking like she was merely playing. Ryan was concentrating on telling Catherine about her independent study, and when the fork traveled near her mouth, she opened and let Jamie put the morsel in. Her response was automatic, and she hardly seemed to notice it was happening. While they chatted, Jamie continued to feed her, with Ryan compliantly opening her mouth and chewing every little bite until the plate was clean.

The concern and care that radiated from the smaller woman was obvious, and Catherine smiled repeatedly at the scene. She was unable to ignore that something was different, however. She had actually seen Jamie feed Ryan bits of food on many occasions, and there was always a teasing, sexual undertone to the habit. She often looked away when they were doing it — finding the practice just a little too intimate for her own comfort. But that element was entirely absent today. Now Jamie seemed more like a nurse trying to unobtrusively get her ailing patient to take in sufficient nutrients. Instead of the easy comfort they normally evinced there now seemed to be an invisible barrier between them — even though they smiled warmly at each other, and teased each other gently. There was just something missing — and she fervently hoped that the two young lovers would soon rekindle the spark. I know only too well how easy it is to let a problem fester until it's impossible to be close again.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Part 9

When Ryan came home from school, she went upstairs and found Jamie sitting at her computer. “Homework already?” she asked, squeezing her shoulder.

“No, not much. I'm just working on my schedule. I've got a lot going on this term. I've really got to manage my time.”

Ryan nodded, then sat on the edge of the bed, looking a bit uncomfortable. “I uhm … have a couple of things to talk with you about.”

Turning in her chair, Jamie gave her full attention to her partner. “What is it, baby?”

“Uhm … Mia told me that another tabloid story came out. This one has your ex-roommate's nasty fingerprints on it, too, but it sounds like she's working with one or two of my very best friends from the basketball team.”

“Oh, God,” Jamie groaned. “Now what?”

“Well … this is the part that I'm embarrassed about.”

“Embarrassed? What do you have to be embarrassed about?”

“I'm embarrassed because I didn't tell you something that happened when we returned from our vacation. Something kinda important.”

Swiveling slightly in her chair, Jamie gazed at her partner and nodded. “Go on. Tell me now.”

“I had kind of a meltdown on the day we came back from the Bahamas.”

Blonde eyebrows rose dramatically, but Jamie didn't say a word.

“Coach Hayes told me about the tabloids, and I … flipped out. I started kicking and punching the lockers, and throwing stuff around.” She looked down at the floor and said, “I've never been that angry in my life. I scared myself, baby, and I think I scared the crap out of Coach Hayes, too. I'm not sure what I did, because I had some sort of a blackout, but I wound up on the floor with Coach wrapped around me.”

Again, Jamie didn't speak, but she got off her chair and sat next to Ryan, wrapping her arms around her partner tightly. “What happened, then?” she asked softly.

“She told me that I couldn't come back until a doctor cleared me to play again. I think she was afraid that I was losing my mind,” Ryan said, her voice nearly inaudible.

Pulling back, Jamie cradled Ryan's face in her hands and lifted it until their eyes met. “You were never in danger of that, sweetheart. With all of the stress you've been under, a little incident like that is perfectly understandable.”

“It scared me, and it humiliated me,” Ryan said quietly. “The other players all saw it, and now the whole fucking world knows about it.”

“Oh, Ryan, I'm so sorry that came out. That's just horrible for you.”

“You're not mad at me for not telling you when it happened?” Ryan asked, her eyes a little watery.

“Of course not. That was a horrible time. You had so much going on in your sweet little head, I don't blame you for not wanting to talk about it.”

“Thanks, Jamie,” she said softly. “I really try to be completely honest with you, but sometimes … I just can't make myself talk about certain things.”

“I understand. I really do. Please, don't worry about this. We're fine, love. We're just fine.” She stroked her head for a few more moments, then asked the question that she was a little wary of bringing up. “How are you dealing with your feelings about the people who are behind these stories, Ryan?”

The larger woman took in a shaky breath. “Not well. Amanda's doing her best to help me get past my rage, but it's honestly not going very well. Mia made a joke out of walking me to school today, but I was really glad she did. I need to have a cool head nearby in case I see any of those traitors. I don't trust my reaction.”

“Ryan,” Jamie said looking into her eyes. “I want you to promise me that you won't assault any of them if you see them. I don't mind paying off a lawsuit, but you couldn't stand the stress right now, honey. Please, please try to control yourself — for your own good.”

“I'll try,” she murmured. “I promise I'll try.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

On Tuesday afternoon, Jamie waited by the starter's window at Tilden Golf Course, the main public course for the City of Berkeley. It was a nice enough course, well laid out and quite picturesque. But like nearly all public courses, it was crowded at almost every hour of the day, and play was often grindingly slow.

She and Juliet had been able to convince 6 other women to join them, and the starter looked at his waiting list, while shaking his head. “If your group's not here on time, I can't guarantee how long you'll have to wait, honey.”

She gave him a tight smile, not really liking to be called honey by a stranger. However, he was an elderly stranger, and she generally tried to make allowances for the elderly, figuring that the world had been a very different place when they were growing up. “They should be here soon,” she said. “You know how it is with students.”

“Oh, right, you're the girls from the golf team at Cal. Well, I'll figure out a way to get you on, even if they're late. Maybe I can sneak you onto the tenth hole.”

“We'd appreciate that,” she said sincerely. “It's very tough to find the time to play a round with the days so short.”

She heard the clacking of golf cleats coming down the path at a very brisk pace. Turning, she dramatically pointed to her watch and said, “We're up, guys. Move it!”

Her teammates were really hustling, and each woman signed in quickly. “We had to get the shuttle to drive us,” Juliet panted. “I'm the only one with a car.”

“We had a better set-up at my high school,” Jamie grumbled. Her grumpy mood only lasted a moment, though, when she saw two pairs of eyes looking up at her. She mentally cringed when she reminded herself that the whole point of this exercise was to reach out and try to make this group into a team. “Sorry,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “PMS.”

The group trudged over to the first tee, each of them choosing to carry their bags. They were allowed to have caddies for their tournaments, but Jamie found that carrying her own bag helped make a round of golf at least approach exercise.

The eight-some was made up of her, Juliet, the two freshman — Lauren Takuta and Samantha Naylor, and four juniors — Annalina Nilsson, Jaclyn Stamp, Crystal Bolwig, Valerie Monroe and Christie Harwood. Jamie had spent almost no time with any of the women, and since the point was to get to know them, she assumed that Juliet would play with one foursome, and she would play with the other. But Juliet obviously didn't share that idea. She pointed at each of the juniors and said, “Why don't you guys go ahead? You look ready.”

They nodded agreeably and teed off, taking off down the fairway after each of them had hit. Juliet waited a respectable amount of time, tugged her visor down so that only her nose was visible, and gave her ball a long ride, grunting slightly with the effort. “Nice,” Jamie said. But Juliet couldn't see her smile, and it was clear that she was already in her zone. She merely nodded and went to stand by her bag, arms crossed over her chest, her tee clutched between her teeth.

Lauren and Samantha were nearly as reluctant to speak as Juliet was, but their issue seemed to be nervousness more than their need to concentrate. Even though Jamie was only 3 years older than the young women, she felt old enough to be their mother, since both of them seemed very young for their age, and painfully shy.

Jamie tried her best, but she was unable to spark the slightest bit of spontaneous conversation within the group. They all gave a polite review of each shot, usually along the lines of “nice one,” “good shot,” or “tough break,” but beyond that, conversation was nil.

That changed dramatically when Jamie missed badly with her tee shot on the 8
th hole. The ball landed in a small stand of pine trees, most of them relatively short — about 12 to 15 feet tall, with one substantially larger one — which Jamie had a bad feeling she was right behind. She started to trudge over to see how much trouble she was in, but before she got there Juliet was trotting up alongside of her. “You blocked that one badly,” she said.

“I thought so,” Jamie agreed. “I don't do that a lot, but I didn't end up in my normal finishing position, so I figured I'd blocked it.”

“Let's see what you've got,” Juliet said, her voice showing definite signs of excitement.

They approached the ball, and Jamie tried to see the green from her position. “I might have to just knock it back onto the fairway,” she said.

“Not so fast. You've got some options here.”

“I do? Like what?”

“Well, if you can get it up in a hurry, you can go over that tree right there.”

“That tree's huge, and it's not 20 feet away! I'd have to hit a pitching wedge, and then I couldn't carry the green anyway.”

“No, no, use a 7 wood. Choke up on it and open the face a little. You can do it.”

“I don't carry a 7 wood,” Jamie said with a frown.

“Here. Use mine. Lauren and Samantha won't mind bending the rules a little, since we're just practicing.”

“I don't know, Juliet, breaking the 14 club limit's a pretty big crime.” She was smiling warmly, knowing that the stringent rules of golf were not followed strictly during a practice round.

Juliet extended the club, then watched as Jamie took a practice swing. “No, that's not the right swing. Mind if I show you?”

Jamie tried to give the club back, but Juliet said, “No, let me show you.” She stood behind the slightly smaller woman and put her arms around her. Jamie stiffened, feeling just a twinge of unease. Relax, she chided herself. You've done this dozens of times with lots of other players. Her mind wandered to the first time she'd taken Ryan to play golf. Thinking of how her whole body had tingled when she'd wrapped her arms around her, she felt her discomfort start to flare again. Juliet was holding her as much as she was holding the club, and her breasts were pressed into Jamie's back more firmly than she felt they had to be. Juliet's arms were substantially longer than Jamie's, and she could see that the taller woman wasn't straining to reach the club — so she could have backed up an inch or two. Juliet's lips were nearly touching her ear, and she nestled up even closer and asked quietly, “How's that?”

“Good,” Jamie said, nodding quickly. She moved away and took a few practice swings, just to calm her racing heart. Striding to her ball, she slowed her heart and took a smooth swing, managing to fly it over the tree and just reach the fringe of the green. Dashing out to the fairway, she watched the shot land, her discomfort forgotten. Each woman making a fist, she and Juliet tapped their clenched hands together. “Thanks! That's a very handy shot!”

“Now, don't try to use it if the ground is too hard. This works best if you're on something springy, like pine needles, or fluffy grass.”

“Got it,” Jamie said. “You'd better go hit. Lauren and Samantha are waiting for you.”

Juliet rolled her eyes and muttered, “Freshmen!” then took off to jog over to her ball.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

That night, Ryan was working at her computer when Jamie came out of the bath, ready for bed. “Hey, honey?”

“Hmm?”

“How can you tell if a woman's being inappropriate with you?”

Ryan's chair turned slowly, then she took off the round, wire-rimmed glasses she wore when she worked at her computer for a long time. Her dark head cocked and she asked, “Repeat that, please.”

“You heard me,” Jamie said. “It's no big deal, but I felt like Juliet went out of her way to rub up against me today. It reminded me of junior high, when boys would invent excuses to rub up against the girls. Weird.”

Ryan had a pen in her hand, and she tapped her chin with it studiously. “Go on, I sense there's more.”

“No, not really.” She looked down for a moment, then shrugged, “Oh, all right. It reminded me of the time I took you to play golf for the first time. I got a real tingle when I was showing you how to swing. I didn't want to ever let go, and I was hoping Juliet wasn't feeling the same way.”

“What's her orientation?” Ryan asked. “Is she a lesbian?”

“I have no earthly idea,” Jamie said. “All I know is that she gets mildly excited by trouble shots. I don't think that's a sexual orientation, though.”

Ryan was scowling as she swiveled a little in her chair. “She knows you're gay, right?”

“Blind and deaf cloistered nuns know I'm gay,” Jamie said dryly, raising an eyebrow. “You'd have to have been living under a rock not to have seen any of the tabloids. A barista at Starbucks winked at me yesterday, and I don't think it was because she liked the way I placed my order.”

“I'm gonna have to start following you,” Ryan said. “I don't like to have other women hitting on my girl.”

“Oh, please,” Jamie said. “If I got upset every time someone flirted with you, I'd wear myself out. I get 1 wink for every 20 you get, hot stuff.”

“I don't get that many winks,” Ryan said. “A lot of women just have eye problems. The weather is very dry here, you know.”

Jamie gave her an aggrieved look, then said, “Back to my question. What do I do about Juliet? Just assume she's a physical person?”

Ryan gave her a narrowed glance and said, “I'm coming to your practice tomorrow. I want to meet this Juliet character.”

“You most certainly will not!”

“Huh? Why not? I've never been to a practice, and now that I don't have to study for my math test, I have time to do it.”

“No way, Ryan. You've had plenty of opportunities to watch practice, but you haven't done so. I will not let you show up the first time I suspect that someone's tried to cop a feel.”

“Cop a feel! I thought she just brushed up against you!”

“She was showing me how to hit a particular shot, honey. She had her arms around me, and she was pressed up against me more than she needed to be. That's all. She didn't grab my ass or anything. I was exaggerating — really.”

Ryan stood and came over in front of her partner, then turned around. “Show me,” she said.

“Oh, Ryan, it was no big deal …”

“Show me.” She enunciated very clearly, making Jamie realize that she wasn't kidding in the least.

With a sigh, Jamie wrapped her arms around Ryan, bending over her in as close a recreation of the event as she could manage. Then, just because she was feeling feisty, she pressed her pelvis against her partner's ass, grabbed her hips and pulled her back against herself, sliding her hand down between her legs to give her a good squeeze.

“Jesus!” Ryan whirled around and stared at her partner, her mouth gaping open.

Just as she did so, Jamie added, “Exactly! And when I whirled around, she did this!” She reached out and gave each of Ryan's breasts a tweak, then ran from the room yelling, “Kidding!”

When Ryan scampered down the stairs and caught partner in the kitchen, she gave her a scowl that quickly turned into an aggrieved smile. “Look, Jamie, this is too weird. Why can't I come check this woman out?”

“Because I don't need supervision.”

“Me? You think I'm trying to supervise you? I don't do that!”

“You'd be stuck to me like glue, and you know it.” Jamie wrapped her arms around Ryan's waist, giving her such a warm smile that the larger woman couldn't maintain her grumpy mood.

“Well …” Ryan said, smiling slyly, “you're a very precious commodity, and I do like to safeguard my investments.”

“This investment is self-regulating. I'll call you when I need to bring in the muscle.”

“I know you can take care of yourself, babe, I just don't trust other women. I know how alluring you are, Jamie. You can't blame the poor fools.”

“Thank you, Ryan,” she said. “You've stroked my ego enough for one night. Coming to bed?”

“In a few. I'm just trying to figure out one little thing.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, having heard that excuse before. “Kiss me when you come to bed, okay?”

“You've got it, babe. Love you.”

“I love you, too, Ryan. Don't stay up too late, okay?”

“Do my best,” she said, promising nothing.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

On Thursday morning, Jim called Jamie, catching her just as she was returning from golf practice. “Honey, I have a proposal,” he said gravely. “I'd appreciate if you hear me out before you respond. All right?”

“Uhm … sure, Daddy. What is it?”

“I know you and Ryan don't want to speak publicly, but the statement the public relations firm put out didn't help a bit. The situation has gotten out of hand, Jamie. Every day there's something new, and I'm afraid this will continue until they've dug up every piece of dirt they can.”

“You know,” she said, “we've stopped watching TV or listening to local radio, so I honestly don't know what's going on. We decided as a family to have a news blockade. No one is watching — so we're really not very affected by it.”

“Hmm … I uhm … don't know if you want to know this, but I'm sure Ryan will find out,” he said, with just a touch of hesitation in his voice.

“Go ahead,” she said wearily. “What now?”

“It seems that Jennie's mother has sold out, honey. There's a big story in the National Inquisitor detailing her concerns about the influence Ryan has on her daughter, and how she didn't know about Ryan's tainted background.” He pulled the phone from his ear as his child let loose a string of profanities that actually made him blush. “Have you served a stint in the Navy that I didn't know about?” he finally asked, his head still reeling.

“I'm sorry, Daddy, I'm just on my last nerve here. We've got to do something!”

“That's why I called, honey. I have an idea …”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan sat in the kitchen, her face composed and alert. She let Jamie talk, not interrupting until she was sure she was finished, then slowly nodded her head. “It's okay with me,” she said decisively.

“Really?” She had been almost certain that Ryan would not approve of her father's plan, and her surprise at her partner's ready acceptance of the idea was obvious.

“Yes. I'm out of ideas, and now that the tabloids are involved, people will continue to come out of the woodwork to grab their filthy lucre.”

“Okay,” Jamie said, still amazed. “I'll call Daddy.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Later that afternoon, just before Ryan had to leave for her last class, they went into Mia's room and turned on C-SPAN to watch Jim in action. As he took his place before the microphone, Jamie turned to her partner and said, “He looks cute, doesn't he?”

Ryan gave her a warm smile and said, “That's just what I was thinking.”

“Were not,” Jamie said.

“Maybe not,” Ryan said, “but he looks a lot like you, so he's plenty cute in my book.”

“Shhh! He's talking!”

He looked up from his notes and at the rostrum, directing his remarks to the front of the room — even though the chamber was empty. He was making his statement during a time in the senate schedule known as “members' remarks”. Senators who wanted to have their comments entered into the record could either submit them in writing, or stand up and make a speech. Not coincidentally, since the advent of C-SPAN broadcasting the affairs of the senate, most members chose to have their comments broadcast. The camera always focused just on the senator, keeping the shot tight so it wasn't obvious that they were either alone, or had just a few aides running around bringing them notes.

Jim began, “Recently, members of my family have been involved in an event that has captured the attention of the nation. The incident was very upsetting for my family and the other families involved, and everyone connected to what happened has chosen not to speak to the press about the matter. Their decision has not wavered, nor will it. No one involved will speak to the press now, or later, and that has been made clear through every possible avenue. I will not go against that decision today, or any time in the future, but I do have something to say about the entire experience.

“Without going into detail, let me just say that my family members were thrust into the spotlight through no choice of their own. They were involved in an incident in which they were blameless — not seeking the spotlight or renown in any way, even though they could have exploited the situation for a great deal of money and fame if they had chosen to do so.

“Neither their innocence nor their fierce desire for privacy has stopped the media from hounding these people to distraction. Now, as a Democrat and a fervent proponent of the First Amendment, I am, and will remain, a staunch supporter of a free press. I could propose laws and regulations that would give people in this situation some zone of safety. But I don't intend to do that. What I am asking for … no … what I am begging for … is for the press to behave in a responsible manner.

“These people are not criminals … rather, they are heroes, in my estimation. But they are not being treated like heroes. They have been held up to more scrutiny … more suspicion than a hardened criminal would be. We have gone astray here, in my opinion, when we torture people just because they maintain their right to privacy. That is the only crime these people have committed — they demanded to be left alone. Now every small-minded, publicity-seeking mercenary with any connection to them whatsoever is crawling out of the woodwork, trying to earn a few dollars of blood money — at their expense. How is that representative of a free press?

“I ask for the press to call a halt to this harassment, and I ask the public to write and call your local media outlet and demand that they stop the constant persecution of innocent people, just to fill a time slot on the evening news. I ask this not just for the members of my family, but for every person who finds themself in such a situation. This type of thing happens with startling frequency, and in my opinion, the only way to stop it is to convince our local and national media that we will not tolerate it.

“I beg you, don't allow the media to destroy the lives and reputations of innocent people. Where will this country be if no one is willing to step up and help others, just because they know they will be hounded by the press once they do so? I see that as a real threat, and I stress that the only viable way to thwart that threat is to let the media know that we will not stand for it any longer. Make the world a safe place for heroes once again!”

He looked right into the camera, snapped his notes sharply on the podium, and walked off. Jamie stared at her partner and said, “God, he did a great job.”

Ryan smiled at her and said, “He did indeed.”

Jamie looked at her partner quizzically, and said, “Your huge smile says you're happy about more than his speech.”

“He called me a member of his family,” Ryan said, her nose wrinkling up in pleasure. “That's cool!”

Jamie smiled at her fondly, pushing the long hair from her eyes. “I swear, Ryan O'Flaherty, you could be the poster child for family values.” She leaned in and kissed her soundly, adding, “I love that about you.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Hello, Jim,” Catherine said when her husband answered the phone in his office.

“Hi,” he replied, and she could actually visualize the expression on his face. It was a cross between boyish shyness and pride in doing what he knew was a very good thing.

“You did very well today, Jim,” she said softly. “I know it meant a lot to Jamie and to Ryan, as well as to me. I know it wasn't easy to speak about Ryan as a member of your family, but it was the right thing to do.”

“I know that,” he said. “It was a little hard to pull off, but as I began to speak, I started to believe my own words,” he said quietly. “She is a member of our family … whether I chose to invite her or not. Jamie's chosen her, and from all indications, their relationship is going to last a while.”

“Quite a while,” she amended.

“Okay, quite a while.” He was quiet for a moment, then screwed up his courage and asked the question that had been on his mind nearly constantly. “What about ours, Cat? How long will our relationship last?”

She sighed heavily and admitted the truth. “Not very long, I'm afraid, Jim. I haven't changed my mind. In fact, being in Italy has made it even clearer to me. I'm afraid it's over between us.”

He bit his lip to keep from crying, and forced himself to say, “You've fallen in love with that man in Italy, haven't you?”

She was quiet for a moment, trying to decide how much to reveal to him. Finally she admitted the truth, “I do love him, Jim. I wouldn't have slept with him if I didn't.” She paused again, and said, “I've slept with two men in forty-one years. It's not something I do on a whim.” She knew that was a little harsh, but now that they were being honest with each other she felt her animosity bubble up occasionally, and she was powerless to stop it.

“I know that, Cat,” he said softly. “You've always understood the distinction between love and sex.”

“Yes,” she said, “I have. Even though I love Giacomo, I know that I need more than he's able to give me. I decided that I'm going to stop seeing him, Jim. I need a full-time lover.”

“I can be that,” he piped up immediately. “Let me try again, Cat. Please!”

“No, Jim,” she said, her voice sad, and full of regret. “I wish I could, but I learned something from the incident when I saw you with that girl. I just don't trust you enough to be vulnerable with you … and if I can't be totally vulnerable, there's nothing for us to base a relationship on.”

“There's no possibility that you'll change your mind?” he asked quietly.

“No. I've filed the papers, Jim, and they've been accepted by the court. As you know, there's a six-month waiting period until the divorce is final; but for all intents and purposes, it's over now.” She could hear the air leaving his lungs, and she felt genuinely sorry for him … and for herself.

“I never … I never thought it would happen to us,” he said, his voice breaking. “I love you, Catherine. I'll always love you.”

“That might be true,” she said softly, “but you didn't love me enough, Jim. You didn't love me enough to say no to the other women.”

“I know you don't understand this — but that was never because I didn't love you. I just needed sex, Cat. I needed the variety. It's a very different thing.”

“Not for me, Jim. It's exactly the same thing. I need a man who understands that.”

“I'm sorry, Catherine,” he said, his voice wavering again. “I wish I could have been the man you deserved.”

She sighed, “I must not have been the woman you needed, Jim. If I had been everything you wanted, I can't imagine that you would have cheated on me.”

He cleared his throat, “That's not true, Catherine, but I don't have the ability to explain what motivated me to seek out other women. I'm sure I don't understand it. It's … it's just a compulsion.”

“It doesn't matter any more, Jim,” she said. “For your own good, it might be wise to figure out why you have such a hard time remaining faithful, but it doesn't matter between us any longer. We need to move on now. I'm going to try to do so, and I urge you to, also.”

“Move on?” he said, laughing bitterly. “How do you move on when you've lost your heart?”

“You can love again, Jim,” she said. “It's perfectly all right with me if you want to try again with that young woman. You seemed very fond of her,” she said, feeling a little sick when she thought of the two of them on the couch in his apartment.

“She's a nice woman,” he said, “but she's just a girl, Catherine. She doesn't have your depth.”

“Well, there are plenty of other forty-something women who would love to snare a handsome, powerful man like you, Jim. You don't have to date girls.”

He sighed, “This is depressing me too much, Catherine. I'll talk to you soon, okay?”

“All right,” she said. “I'd like to keep in touch, Jim. I think it's important to maintain a good relationship … It will be nice for Jamie.”

“Of course,” he said quickly, just wanting to hang up and have a drink. “Goodbye, Cat.”

“Goodbye, Jim,” she said as she quietly placed the receiver in the cradle. She stared at the phone for a long time, fighting the urge to call him back. The first place her eyes landed was the bar in the living room. With a determined shake of her head, she went to the hall table, picked up her keys and her purse, and drove to San Mateo, finding a multi-plex theatre that she had driven Jamie to when she was young. She bought a ticket for the next movie that was going to be shown, not even noticing the title. Taking a seat in the back, she stared at the screen blankly, her tears obscuring the flickering images.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Jordan? Ryan,” she announced when she reached her friend that evening.

“Hey, Boomer! I just got home from going out to dinner, and saw the clips on the news about Jamie's dad's speech. He did a great job, huh?”

“Yeah, I was really impressed,” Ryan said. “I don't know how effective it'll be, but at least he's trying his best.”

“I think the O'Flaherty charm has finally won him over,” Jordan said. “He referred to you as a member of his family!”

“I know … We've really made some progress, haven't we?”

“You sure as heck have. Damn, I remember the first time you told me about him. You acted like you were afraid he was going to have a contract put out on you!”

“Oh, he's not so bad,” Ryan said, not willing to admit how much Jim really had frightened her. “He just likes to be in control.”

“I guess that's why he fits into the Senate so well, huh?”

Ryan chuckled lightly, “I'm sure he's not the only one in that learned body who's a control freak.” She paused for a moment and said, “You know, deep down, he's not a bad guy. I honestly think he loves Jamie very much, and I also think he really believed I was out to use her in some way. Once it finally got through his head that I loved her too, he's been pretty darned nice.”

“But how can you stand to be around him?” Jordan asked quietly. “Aren't you afraid he'll turn on you again?”

“Mmm … no. To be honest, I'm not. One of the best and bravest things Jamie ever did was to show him clearly that when he hurts me — he hurts her. He really got the message, Jordan.” She laughed softly and said, “I guess Jamie's the one I have to be careful with now. She could sic him on me again.”

“How are things between you two?” Jordan asked. “You sure sounded like hell when I spoke to you in Pebble Beach.”

“Things are still hellish,” Ryan said, “but not nearly so bad as they were then.” She sighed and said, “It's just tough not to be able to rely on each other. Usually, when one of us is having a tough time, the other one is able to be strong and help her through it. But this time, we're both equally wounded — though in slightly different ways. It really sucks, pal. We're still not comfortable being intimate — Hell, I haven't been this uninterested in sex since I was gay bashed.”

“Can you at least hold each other when things are tough?” Jordan asked.

“Sometimes, yeah,” Ryan said. “But other times, being close feels like she's a black widow spider and I'm just a helpless little fly. It feels like she's going to consume me, Jordan. It's just a horrible feeling.”

“Damn,” she sighed. “You've told me about how hard it was for you to get back into the mood after you were bashed. How did you take the leap that time?”

Ryan chuckled, “I let a complete stranger pick me up in a used clothing store. She flirted with me a little, and I took her into the back room and went down on her before she knew what hit her.” She paused and said, “I don't think I ought to try that scheme again.”

“Well, you could try the same kinda thing — but with Jamie, of course.”

“No, I don't think so, pal. It was the fact that I'd never seen the woman before, and would likely never see her again, that let me feel free enough to even make a move. It's the intimacy that I'm afraid of. I just can't stand to feel that vulnerable.” Sighing heavily she added, “I ran from true intimacy with women up until I met Jamie. Losing that with her is just horrible, Jordan. It's as upsetting as being car-jacked.”

“You haven't lost it, Ryan. It's just sleeping for a while. You two will work through this, and you'll be even closer because of it,” she said. “I'm sure of it.”

“My therapist says the same thing. It's just hard to believe when it seems so elusive. We don't even feel comfortable being naked around each other anymore — and that's just not like me.”

“It will come back, Ryan. Just trust that your love is stronger than your fears.”

A wide smile settled onto Ryan's face as she mulled the words over in her head. “I like that, Jordan, I really like that. Our love is stronger than our fears.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Kinda cool to both have Fridays off, huh?” Jamie asked brightly when she returned from playing a round of golf the next morning. “Wanna do anything special, or just leave for Noe now?”

Ryan cocked her head and thought for a moment, then a smile settled onto her face as she said, “Let's go see your mom. We haven't had much time with her.”

Jamie crossed the room and took her partner's face in her hands, giving her a fervent kiss. “You are the most wonderful partner a woman could ever wish for.”

“Does that mean you want to go?”

“It does indeed, Tiger.”

“Should we call first?” Ryan asked.

“No, I spoke with her last night. She said she has nothing planned today. Let's surprise her.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When they arrived, Catherine was both surprised and very glad to see them. She was dressed in a pair of navy blue wool slacks; very slim fitting and perfectly tailored, and a cream-colored cashmere turtleneck, with a matching cardigan over the top. Her hair was perfectly arranged, and she wore a tasteful amount of makeup, along with a touch of jewelry decorating her throat and ears. “When you unexpectedly came to my house in the morning you saw me in old sweats and a T-shirt,” Ryan said. “I was hoping for some of the same.”

“Mother doesn't own sweats.”

“No, I don't think I've ever had a pair,” Catherine said. “This is about as casual as I get, Ryan.”

“I'm not complaining,” she said. “You look great, as a matter of fact.” But even as Ryan said this, she could see the dark circles under her mother-in-law's eyes, and the lines of stress that seemed to have been carved into the normally smooth face.

“I think I've had better days,” Catherine said. “Let's go into the kitchen and tell Marta that we'll be three for lunch.”

The cook busied herself making a small snack for Ryan, since lunch was not for another hour. The dark woman ate it gamely, while protesting, “I really don't have to be fed every ten minutes.”

“You're too thin,” Marta said, reaching over to grab the flesh around Ryan's waist that refused to budge. “See?” she said triumphantly.

“You tell her, Marta,” Jamie said. “I've been trying to fatten her up for two weeks now.”

“You have a long way to go, Jamie,” the cook said appraisingly. “I'll do my best with the lunch.”

Ryan and Catherine went out to sit in the sun, even though it was thin and watery in the winter sky. Jamie lingered in the kitchen for a moment, making some cocoa to ward off the chill. Ryan reached over and grasped Catherine's hand, looking her directly in the eye as she did so. “How are you, really, Catherine? I don't see much sparkle in those brown eyes today.”

She smiled fondly at her daughter-in-law and nodded her head slightly. “I had a bad night, Ryan. I found out yesterday that the judge accepted my divorce petition. I had to call Jim last night to tell him.”

“Is it final?” Ryan said with a gulp. “Are you divorced?”

“Not technically. There's a six-month waiting period. But it's the same thing to me,” she said. “I told Jim that he's free to start dating again, and I'm going to try to do the same.”

“Whew,” she said, leaning back in her chair.

Jamie came out just then and asked, “What's the whew for?”

Ryan looked to Catherine for permission, and quickly gave Jamie the synopsis. “Whew,” she said, getting up to hug her mother tenderly. “I'm sorry it had to come to this, Mom, but I know you tried your best.”

“I think I did,” Catherine said. She shook her head and added, “Well, I did the best I could at the time. That's all that I can do.”

Jamie took her own seat and sipped at her cocoa for a moment. “I take it that Daddy didn't take the news well.”

“No, he didn't,” Catherine said. “He thinks I've chosen Giacomo over him, but nothing could be further from the truth.” She looked at her daughter and said, “I'm going to break up with Giacomo, Jamie. I'm not the kind of person who can be satisfied by having an affair with a married man.” She shook her head briskly and said, “I don't know what came over me to even attempt it.”

“But you said that his wife was all right with it,” Jamie said.

Catherine shook her head again, giving her daughter a sad smile. “It's not his wife who's the problem,” she said. “I deserve more than that, Jamie. I deserve a man's full attention. Accepting Giacomo's divided interest was the same as being married to your father. I'm sick and tired of settling for crumbs!”

Ryan got out of her chair and squatted in front of her mother-in-law. “That is the most hopeful, positive thing I've ever heard you say. I'm proud of you, Catherine.” She wrapped her in a hug, gently patting her back when the older woman started to cry. Ryan met Jamie's eyes, and her partner scooted closer and rubbed her mother's back at the same time Ryan did. Marta came out to call them to lunch, but went back inside when she saw the tender scene. Lunch can wait, she decided. That poor woman needs all the love she can get.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Catherine was back in control in just a few minutes, and Marta called them to lunch. During the meal, Catherine commented, “I've been hearing from a large assortment of relatives, honey. Do you have any interest in hearing about it?”

She gave her mother a wry smirk and said, “Well, since none of them have written to me, I can only assume they're unhappy with me.”

“Only a few of them,” Catherine said. “I'd bet that you can guess which ones. The others are unsure of what to say.”

“Yeah, Hallmark doesn't have a card for, 'Sorry to hear about your being carjacked'. Much less the 'With deepest sympathies over having the tabloids 'out' you and your lover'.”

“The way the tabloids are, that might be a profitable new line for Hallmark,” Catherine said. “Outing people does seem to be the current rage, doesn't it?”

Jamie nodded, then said, “I'm going to guess that Uncle David, Aunt Patsy, Uncle Oliver and Aunt Louise are the most upset of the group, right?”

“Yes, they're … puzzled to say the least. But that doesn't surprise me. My mother's generation was always very prudish about the sexual arena. At least they're being consistent.”

“Something's bothering you,” Jamie said. “I can tell.”

“Oh, it's nothing important,” Catherine said. She shook her head, then decided not to hold anything back from her daughter. “I got a call from Skip the other day and, while not saying so pointedly, he implied that you and Trey were in roughly similar situations.”

“Pardon?” Jamie asked, not getting the reference.

“He seems to think that Trey's drug usage and your lesbianism are equivalent,” she said, her eyes narrowed.

“That's a stretch.”

“I'm guessing that you set him straight,” Ryan said, seeing the fire in Catherine's eyes.

“I don't think it's possible to do that, Ryan,” she said. “He's still in complete denial about Trey's problems. Trey was supposed to be at the facility for 90 days, then it became 120, and now they're delaying his release again. I can't think they're keeping him because he's everyone's favorite! And yet, his father has the nerve to say that he understands what it's like to be humiliated in front of the family.”

Jamie got up and sat on the arm of her mother's chair. “Has that thought ever gone through your head — for even the briefest moment?” she asked softly. “Have I ever humiliated you, Mom?”

“No! Not once, Jamie. I'm proud of you, sweetheart, and no matter what our narrow-minded relatives think, you're the best thing to come out of the Dunlop line in generations!”

“Atta girl, Catherine,” Ryan said. “Give 'em hell!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When they arrived at the O'Flaherty house, Ryan noticed that she'd had her cell phone turned off again. She switched it back on and saw that she had a number of messages. The first one was from a stumbling, stuttering Heather. “Uhm … Ryan? Hi, it's a … it's Heather … from the volleyball team?” Ryan smiled at Jamie and motioned for her to come closer so she could hear the message. “Uhm … we saw that you're not playing basketball, and Ashley and I … Ashley Bond … from the volleyball team? Uhm … we thought you might like to work out with us … you know … just to stay in shape? Call me … if you want to … you don't have to if you don't … uhm … well, bye.”

Ryan was now smirking at the phone, and she waited for the second call to play. “Uhm … my number is 555-1832.” There was a pause, and she added, “Uhm … it's Heather … from the volleyball team. Bye.”

“One of these days,” Ryan said, “one of these days that girl is going to get over her nervousness around me.”

“Uh-huh,” Jamie said, always having been confident that Heather's discomfort with her partner had more to do with a serious crush than mere nervousness.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Hey, guess what?” Ryan asked brightly after having returned her phone calls.

“What, love?”

“Heather and Ashley are going to help tutor Jennie. They understand how busy I am, and how much worse it will be if I play ball again, and they're going to help out. Cool, huh?”

“Indeed,” Jamie said. “What will they do, come to the house?”

“We haven't worked out the details yet, but it can all be arranged. I'm really proud of those two. They've turned out to be great teammates.”

“What about your current erstwhile teammates?” Jamie asked, bringing up a sore subject. “I noticed that for the first time you said 'if' you play again. That's a switch.”

“Yeah, it is,” she said. “Amanda says that she'll talk to coach if I want to go back. She thinks I can handle the stress at this point. But I don't think I'm going to do it. I think I'm going to quit.”

“Just quit?” Jamie asked, amazed that her partner would even suggest such a thing — especially after all she'd gone through to hang in this long.

“Yeah … just quit. First time for everything,” she said, shrugging.

“Oh, honey, maybe you should wait a week or two. You've held out this long — what's the rush?”

“Mmm … there's a little something I might prefer to do,” she said, a ghost of an impish grin settling on her face.

“What's up, Tiger? Something is.”

Ryan's big blue eyes glittered a bit as she said, “Well … it seems my friend Heather is considering playing softball, and she asked the coach if he'd work me out to see if he might want me for the team.”

What?

“I don't know that I'd want to do it, but I hate to have my experience with the basketball team be my last collegiate sports memory.”

Trying to stop herself from rolling her eyes, Jamie asked, “Ryan, isn't getting ready for the AIDS Ride enough for one women?”

“Not this woman,” Ryan said, just a hint of her mischievous smile in place.

“Honey, why is it so important to stress yourself like this?”

“Jamie,” Ryan said, her expression sober, “if the opportunity was just right, and I was sure I could have a positive experience, I might like to do this. But I won't even think about making a decision until you and I have talked it over thoroughly. Okay?”

“Okay,” Jamie said. She let her mind wander to the possibility of having Ryan join yet another team, then her eyes brightened as she considered one benefit of Ryan competing. “Do they wear shorts?”

“Uhm … yes, as a matter of fact, on warm days they do. I think you'd like the outfits, honey. They're not as good as the ones for volleyball, but they beat the hell out of basketball.”

“Honey, those orange jumpsuits that they wear in San Quentin beat those basketball uniforms. That's no contest at all!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Hey, Ryan, it's Ally,” Ally Webster announced when she called Ryan later that afternoon.

“Hi, there. What's up?”

“Not much. I just thought I'd check in again. I haven't spoken to you for a week, and you can get into an awful lot of trouble in that length of time.”

“You've got my number, pal,” Ryan said. “Things have been pretty calm here, actually. The media crush has died down a bit, and the tabloids aren't due out for three days, so we're having a little respite.”

Ally's joking tone ceased, and she said, “I know you're not in the mood to hear my righteous anger on your behalf, Ryan, but I just have to say again that out of all of the people I've known, you're the one least deserving of this crap. I'd do anything to get rid of this for you.”

“I know you would,” Ryan said, feeling her emotional control waver a bit. “Enough about me,” she said. “How are things with you?”

“Good,” Ally said. “I've been out with Sara a couple of times, and I really like her, Ryan. She has a really sweet soul, hasn't she?”

“Oh, yeah,” Ryan said. “She's got a very good heart. She's got a lot of great qualities, Ally. I honestly think you two could be very good together. I hope it works out.”

“Well, I'm going to dinner at her house tonight. Wish me luck.”

Ryan chuckled softly. “You'll need it,” she said. “Sara can't cook worth a damn!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Hi.” Sara Andrews smiled warmly as she opened the door of her apartment to greet her guest.

“Hello,” Ally said, in her soft Southern drawl. She brushed past Sara on her way into the apartment, and the smaller woman felt her mouth go dry at the sensation.

“You didn't have too much trouble parking, did you?”

“Trouble parking in the Marina on a Saturday night?” Ally asked, cocking her head quizzically. “Is that usually a problem?”

“Where did you have to park?” Sara asked, rolling her eyes and bracing herself for the worst.

“I'm not exactly sure,” Ally said, “but I won't say no if you offer me a ride back to my car. If I'd known it would be this bad, I would have walked!”

“There was a certain beauty to Palo Alto,” Sara said. “I got used to being able to park a block or two away from my destination.”

“How do you like being back in the city?” Ally asked as she took a seat upon a stool that was resting under a counter that served as a pass-through into the small kitchen.

“It's very nice for work,” Sara said. “And there's a lot to do, of course, but it's awfully congested over here. I guess I'd grown used to the more open, greener feeling of Palo Alto. But I'm certainly not going to drive into the city from there every day. I value my sanity!”

“I miss North Carolina for that same reason,” Ally said, a faraway look in her eyes. “I love San Francisco, and I can't ever see myself leaving, but sometimes I long for the wide open spaces.”

“Do you ever go back and visit?” Sara asked.

“No. Haven't been back since the day I left,” she said softly. “I left on bad terms, Sara. I wouldn't be welcomed back.”

Feeling her heart clutch in sympathy, Sara said, “I'm not welcome in my house right now because my father's upset about my being gay. Is that it for you, too?”

Ally looked decidedly uncomfortable, and Sara came over to stand next to her. She placed a hand on her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “You don't have to answer if I'm prying. I just want to get to know you better.” Twitching her head towards the kitchen she asked, “Can I get you something to drink?”

“Yeah,” she said quickly, nodding her head. “Sparkling water?”

“Sure.” Sara poured her a glass of water, passing it through to her. “Uhm … do you mind if I have some wine? I know you don't drink, and I …”

“No, it's fine,” Ally said. “Thanks for asking, though. I've been sober for quite a few years, and I'm rarely tempted. I can even go to bars now and not feel the urge.”

Sara gazed at her for a minute and said, “If there's ever a time that you feel a little tempted, just let me know, and I won't drink around you, okay?”

“It's a deal,” the larger woman said, charmed by Sara's attempts to be sensitive to her issues. “Do you need any help with dinner?” she asked, noticing something that smelled good, but not seeing anything on the stove.

“No, I've had all the help a woman can have. Are you ready to eat?”

“Yeah, I am,” Ally said.

Sara opened the oven, and pulled out an aluminum tray of cannelloni with tomato sauce. She had to use folded dishtowels to extract the tray, since she apparently didn't own hot pads. Ally helped her get it to the table, then Sara took out two different salads from the refrigerator, both in take-out containers. “Have you gotten the impression that I don't entertain often?” she asked, setting the containers on the table. “I don't have any cookware or serving ware yet, and I think the Pottery Barn price tags might still be on these place mats.”

She was obviously a little flustered, and Ally slid a long, strong arm around her shoulders and gave her a little squeeze. “I appreciate that you invited me,” she said softly. “My culinary skills lie in opening cans and ordering take-out food, so this seems very adventurous to me.”

“Thanks,” Sara said, looking up into her eyes. They stood just like that for nearly a minute, with Sara feeling like she could remain in that exact position for a very long time. She blinked slowly as Ally dipped her head and kissed her gently, holding onto her for another moment. As Sara pulled away, her eyes were a little wide and she felt like fanning herself. Ally had kissed her after their last 2 meetings, but both had been friendly 'thanks for spending time with me' kind of kisses that you might give to a good friend. This one, however, was a 'I'd like to kiss you longer and harder, but we're about to sit down to dinner' kind of kiss, and Sara fervently hoped that dinner would be over quickly so she could find out if Ally had intended to send the message she had picked up.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ally held Sara's chair, gently pushing it under the smaller woman, then giving her shoulder a squeeze. “Everything looks great, Sara,” she said as she took her own seat.

“Help yourself. I know you don't eat much meat, so I bought the meatless tomato sauce; and I know you're trying to keep fat from your diet, so I got the nonfat cannelloni. Is that okay?”

Ally gave her a warm smile and nodded. “I really appreciate that you tried to provide something I can eat. I can't have much of the cannelloni, just because of the pasta, but I'll certainly have a little.” She took one tube and put a big bite into her mouth. “Mmm … I'd like to have this again after my competition. Where did you buy this?”

“Lucca Deli,” she said. “I'm on a first name basis with the guys behind the counter. How about the salads?” Sara asked. “I made sure the dressing was on the side.”

Ally reached across the table and took Sara's hand in hers. “You are such a thoughtful woman. This is just perfect.” One of the salads was a traditional three-bean concoction, and Ally added just a dash of Balsamic vinegar to hers. But she ate a very healthy portion, reassuring Sara that she wouldn't go away hungry. The second salad consisted of various lettuces, along with a few fresh vegetables. Ally managed a good-sized portion, although she ate it completely dry.

Sara tried to follow her friend's habits, but she had to put a little dressing on her green salad. “So, tell me about the event on Sunday,” she said. “How long have you been training?”

“Since I was seventeen,” the larger woman said. “I'm joking, of course, but bodybuilding is a constant pursuit. I work out anywhere from an hour to three hours a day, depending on what I'm working on. The training's pretty constant. The really hard part is dieting. I start about eight weeks before the competition, slowly removing oil and fat and sugar from my diet. For two or three weeks beforehand I'm down to zero.” She gave Sara a thin smile and said, “It's really unhealthy, to be honest. You make your body start to cannibalize itself so you can get that ridiculously cut look. It's honestly a stupid thing to do. My hair loses its shine, my skin is pasty, I bruise really easily. It's very artificial, and I don't like to be artificial any more.”

Sara spent a moment looking at her friend, noticing things that weren't so obvious at first. “Now that you mention it, you don't look like yourself. You look almost gaunt. If I didn't know better, I'd think you'd been sick.” Cocking her head, she asked, “Is that really the look they want?”

“Well, I'll look better after I put my tanning lotion on. Then I'll look like a woman who's been on a desert island, starving for a few months with no clothes and no sun-block.”

“Sounds nice,” she said, thinking it sounded anything but. “I'm not familiar with what happens during the competition,” Sara said. “Do you lift weights?”

“Yeah, but we do that backstage, just to pump up our muscles. On stage, we pose. It's pretty technical, but the goal is to highlight your best parts and minimize your worst parts. It's really very draining to pose in the way we have to, and when the competition is over, I'm really wiped.”

“Where is it being held?”

“Right down the block. It's in the exhibition hall at the Palace of Fine Arts. It's a nice hall, but they don't have showers, which makes it kinda rough. I'm a sweaty mess when I'm finished.”

“Oh! Well, why don't you come over here when it's over. I hate to think of you having to go home all sweaty. You'll catch a chill.”

Ally gave her a slow smile and said, “That's very kind of you, but I might not be the best company. I'm usually pretty out of it.”

“That doesn't matter. Come by and shower, and we'll see how you feel then.”

“Okay, it's a deal.” Ally took another bite of her salad, chewing thoughtfully. “I spoke with Ryan briefly this afternoon.”

Sara's eyes closed and she took in a deep breath. “I'm so angry over the way they've been treated. I'm not a violent person, but if I ever meet the person who spoke to the tabloids about Ryan …”

“I know,” Ally said. “Two nicer people don't exist — and yet, people will still sell them out for a few bucks. It's just not right.”

“How did Ryan seem? She was in bad shape on Christmas Eve. I've been worried sick about her, but I've been afraid to call.”

“She wasn't very gabby,” Ally said. “She didn't really seem like herself. I can only hope that this will pass soon.”

“I do, too,” Sara sighed. “Ryan's had so much pain in her life. It just isn't fair.”

“No, it never is,” Ally said, giving Sara's hand a gentle squeeze.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After dinner, Sara got up to clear the dishes, and she commented, “You know, for someone your size you certainly don't eat much.”

“No, I don't eat much,” Ally said. “But I do eat often, usually five or six meals a day. I had a meal about this size at four o'clock today.”

“Hmm … does that work for you?” Sara looked at her closely, letting her eyes linger on the rock-solid body and said, “That was a stupid question. It obviously works for you.”

“I need to eat often to keep my energy level up. I switched from three meals a day to six about three years ago, and I feel a lot better.”

“Well, you certainly look good,” she repeated, letting her brown eyes rake slowly over the body once again.

Ally had been involved in this little dance far too often to not recognize the signs of seduction. Deciding that it was now or never, she walked into the living room and took a seat, waiting for Sara to join her on the couch. “I uhm … I'm ready to answer the question you asked me before dinner,” she said, locking her eyes with the smaller woman's.

“Okay,” Sara said, remembering that the question still hung out there. “If you want to.”

“I don't really,” Ally said honestly. “But if you want to know me, you have to know about my life.” She took a breath and said, “I have an older brother who raped me when I was a child.”

Sara reached out immediately and grasped her hand, chafing it gently between her own. She didn't say another word, silently urging Ally to continue.

“He was the favorite of both of my parents,” she said softly. “My family was pretty screwed up generally, but he was pure evil. He threatened me, and convinced me that our parents would never believe me if I told them. I'm sure he was right about that,” she said bitterly. “Anyway, this continued sporadically until he left home to marry.” She shivered visibly as she said, “I kept my mouth shut until he and his wife had a child. I couldn't bear the thought of him hurting his daughter, so I told his wife.” She looked at Sara, and with a small note of triumph in her voice, said, “She believed me. Apparently she was unhappy in the marriage, and this was the final straw. He fought her tooth and nail, and of course it came out in court that he had raped me for years. My parents, of course, blamed me.”

Sara gasped in shock, but Ally used her free hand to pat her knee. “It's okay. I'm used to talking about this now. Not long after this all happened, another brother caught me making out with a girl in my room. He was an evil little cuss, too,” she said wryly, “and he told my parents. My father made my life a living hell, mainly saying that I was the screwed up one, and how much shame I had caused my family … blah … blah … blah. As soon as I graduated from high school I took off, and haven't been back since. I see my sister, Emily, and that's it.”

Sara closed her eyes, feeling an impotent rage welling up for her friend. But one thought kept invading her consciousness, and she finally asked, “How many years did it go on?”

“Four years,” Ally said softly.

“And in all that time, you never felt like you could tell anyone … not a teacher, or a minister?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head slowly. “He swore that if I told, he'd go after Emily.” Her eyes grew fierce and determined as she said, “I would never let him get his filthy hands on her.”

Impulsively, Sara threw her arms around Ally's shoulders and hugged her tightly. “You were so brave,” she whispered into her ear.

Ally's arms curled around Sara's body, and they hugged each other for a few minutes, neither speaking. She finally released her, and Sara wiped at her eyes for a moment.

“I don't generally tell people about all of that, but I'd like to get to know you better, Sara. I want you to know all about me before we get any closer.”

“I understand,” she said, nodding her head. “I really appreciate that, Ally. Really, I do.”

“That's not all,” the larger woman said. “I uhm … have a lot of issues that I'm still dealing with, Sara. There are things that get in the way sometimes.”

“That makes perfect sense,” Sara said. “You were horribly traumatized.”

“Yes, yes, I was,” Ally said. “But I'm trying to work through the past so I can live fully in the present. I'm consciously trying to change some of the ways I relate to women sexually. It's going to be a long process, Sara, and it's not always going to be easy for me. I just want you to know that I've got a lot of things to work out.”

“We all do,” Sara said. “If you'll let me, I'd like to be part of your team, Ally.” Smiling up at her, she said, “I'm a very good listener, and I'm also as patient as the day is long. Wanna risk it?”

The larger woman nodded her head, her eyes locked upon Sara's as a gentle smile tugged at her lips. “I do indeed,” she said, her voice sounding like pure honey.

Sara gazed at her for a long time, finding herself somehow soothed just by looking into Ally's eyes. Slowly, feeling like she was being drawn in by an irresistible force, she leaned in and kissed her, holding her gently in her arms as she pressed against her. She pulled away after a moment, and tilted her head just a tiny bit, looking at Ally curiously. “Something just occurred to me,” she said.

“Huh?” Ally looked like neither thought nor speech was very high on her list of priorities at the moment.

“Does it bother you to kiss me when I've had some alcohol? It just dawned on me that it might be unpleasant for you to taste it.”

Ally smiled gently and placed her large, warm hand against Sara's cheek. “You're so considerate.”

“You didn't answer me,” Sara said.

“Okay.” Ally took a breath and said, “If I had my druthers, I'd prefer to kiss people who didn't smoke or drink. I used to do both to excess, and it's a little more pleasant for me if I'm not reminded of the experience. Every once in a while I get a flashback to my drinking days, and I have to shut down a little.”

“Thank you,” Sara said softly. She gave her friend's shoulder a squeeze and excused herself. “Be right back.”

A few minutes later, Sara came back and sat right next to Ally. Sliding an arm around her shoulders, she brought her face right next to her friend's and said, “See if this helps a little.” Ally gave her a lazy half-smile and let herself be pulled close. Sara tilted her head and kissed her again, this time Ally noticing only the clean, fresh flavor of toothpaste.

The larger woman pulled away this time, and murmured, “Very nice. It means a lot to me that you care so much for my comfort.”

“I do,” she whispered, her lips just inches from Ally's. “I want you to be very comfortable with me.” She kissed her again, the heat of the caress rising precipitously. “Are you comfortable kissing me?”

“Entirely,” Ally drawled, her smile tugging at one corner of her mouth. “Maybe we should check to see if the inverse is also true.”

Sara started to say what a good idea that was, but before she could form a word, Ally had swept her into her arms, pinning her firmly to the sofa. One hand slid into her hair, holding the dark chestnut strands almost too firmly, while the other rested on her cheek in a remarkably gentle fashion. The dichotomy of the touches was so great that Sara's brain struggled to process them. A maelstrom of feelings swept over her when Ally leaned in and kissed her — the kisses she offered a confluence of two poles. A delicious mix of rough, raw desire, bracketed by two of the softest, gentlest kisses that Sara had ever experienced. Simultaneously, she felt treasured, coddled, and completely and utterly dominated.

Her whole body shivered, and her heart started to race as she struggled to focus, seeing the desire reflected in Ally's eyes, now turned a dark, steel gray. “More,” she whispered, lifting a hand to slip behind Ally's head to try and pull her forward for more of those mind-numbing kisses.

But the larger woman clearly didn't react well to coercion. Despite the pressure from Sara's hand, the head didn't move an inch. All that happened was that a tiny smile bloomed on Ally's face, and it remained until Sara got the hint and stopped pulling. “That's better,” Ally purred. “I like to be in charge,” she said, even though her message had come through loud and clear without a word. Flicking at Sara's bottom lip with her finger, she purred, “Do you like me to take control?”

“Yes.” Sara's head nodded quickly. “I like it very much. I just … I just need more of those kisses,” she begged, her need embarrassing her deeply.

“Just because I like to be in charge doesn't mean I'm only concerned with my own pleasure,” Ally whispered, her breath hot against Sara's cheek. “I want to please you, too.” She leaned forward again, pressing Sara even harder against the back of the sofa. Both strong arms enveloped her in a snug embrace, effectively rendering the smaller woman's arms useless. When she was positioned just like Ally wanted her, she started to kiss her in earnest, thrilling her to the core as lips and tongue and teeth caressed, and tickled and nipped at her mouth — the amalgam of sensations nearly driving her mad. The fact that she was utterly powerless added to her arousal, making her throb with desire as she struggled weakly, not to get away — but to throw Ally onto her back and ravage her thoroughly.

The larger woman sensed her intent, and she started to move against her, pressing her breasts hard against Sara's as she kissed her roughly.

“More,” the brunette gasped, “I need more!”

“Mmm …” Ally started to pull away, easing off from the ferocity of her kisses. Each one was now a little softer, and much more gentle. “I'll give you more … all that you want … but not now.” With one last, incredibly sensual kiss, she sat up and gazed into Sara's still-burning eyes. “Remember what we said about going slow?”

“No,” Sara said thickly. “All I know is that I have to kiss you again.”

Dipping her head, Ally gave her a soft, tender kiss, refusing to open her mouth to Sara's darting tongue, despite the smaller woman's frustrated moan. “I want to kiss you, too,” the sandy-haired woman whispered, “for a long, long while. But we both agreed to go slow, Sara, and this doesn't feel slow to me.”

Gazing at Ally with heavy-lidded eyes, Sara murmured, “Why were we gonna go slow? I forget.”

Giving her a warm, indulgent smile, Ally reminded her of their previous discussion. “I have some things I have to work on before I can feel comfortable being really open with you. And I want to make sure we are both looking for the same thing. I'm not looking for a fling, Sara. I've had enough casual sex to last two lifetimes.”

Running a hand along the back of Ally's neck and tickling the short fuzz at her hairline, Sara smiled and said, “I've only had enough casual sex for one lifetime, but even at that, I'm sick of it. I'm looking for a relationship, Ally. For my first relationship.” Giving her a wry grin she added, “I obviously have a few things to work on, too.”

“Sounds like we're both a little gun shy,” Ally said, her fingers trailing all over Sara's features, finding herself unable to stop touching the lovely woman.

“Yes, I certainly am,” Sara said, “but there's only one way to get over it.”

“Yeah. Just one way,” Ally said, finding herself drawn to the moist, open lips again. After indulging herself for just a moment, she shivered violently and got to her feet, running her hands through her hair as she tried to collect her thoughts. “I have to go,” she said. “I'm on the verge of losing control, and I refuse to have sex be the engine that runs this relationship.”

Sara smiled up at her with a look that mingled innocence and outright seduction. “You do want to make sex an element of the relationship, though, don't you?” She stood as she said this, and locked her arms loosely around Ally's waist.

“Yes,” the larger woman said, her mouth incredibly dry. “I do. A big part,” she said as she grinned shyly.

“Then we're on the same page so far,” Sara said. She reached as far as she could, standing on her tiptoes to place one last kiss on Ally's quivering lips. “We'll go slow,” she said. “But not too slow, okay?”

“Do my best, ma'am,” Ally said in her best Southern drawl.

“Let me give you a lift to your car,” Sara said, taking her hand.

“Nah. I could really use the walk,” she said. “I need to cool off.” She pulled Sara close and gave her a tiny kiss. “Walk me to my car, and I'll give you a lift home.”

They set off, the cold, damp breeze effectively cooling both of them off. “So, will I see you at the competition on Sunday, or will we just meet up here?” Ally asked.

“Of course I'll be there. I wouldn't miss it.”

“I'm in the last weight class, so I have to stay until it's nearly over. I'm sure I won't make the finals, so I'll come find you.”

“Okay. I'll be waiting.”

“We can go out for ice cream afterwards,” Ally said. She lifted her knit shirt and patted her belly, Sara's eyes going wide when she saw the deeply etched abdominal muscles. “I'm dying for sugar and fat.”

“Is this really your last competition?” Sara asked as they continued to walk.

“Yeah, I'm sure of it,” Ally said.

“And your body will never look like this again?” the brunette said.

“Nope. I'll never be this cut again.” She cocked her head and asked, “Why?”

Sara shrugged off the question and smiled up at her. “Just curious,” she said, “No special reason.”

Ally took her hand again, and they continued their walk, both of them in silent contemplation.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

On Saturday, Ryan drove the BMW to Cal for the tryout at Levine-Fricke Field. She wore the same outfit she had worn to play softball with her family, a pair of black, double-knit nylon shorts, and a red softball jersey from her old high school; and to Jamie's educated eye, she looked absolutely adorable.

They approached a balding, overweight, beer-bellied, middle-aged man who was pacing around behind the backstop. "Coach Roberts?" Ryan asked as they neared him.

"Yeah. O'Flaherty?"

"Yes. Pleased to meet you," she said as she stuck out her hand.

"Yeah. Let's get going," he said as he shook the proffered hand.

Having had quite enough of standoffish coaches, Ryan stood right where she was and waited for him to look at her. "This is Jamie Evans, Coach Roberts," she said evenly.

"Oh, hi," he said, as he stuck out his hand again. "Why are you here?"

Ryan was a bit irked at his manners, so she decided to give him a little test. "Jamie is my lover, Coach," she said with a smile. "She accompanies me whenever I'm doing something important."

"Oh, great," he said dramatically as he rolled his eyes.

"Do you have a problem with that?" Ryan asked.

"Yeah, I do," he started to say, but when he saw the look on Ryan's face he corrected himself. "Oh, no, not like you think," he said. "I don't like any of my girls to have romantic attachments. Takes your mind off the game. There's enough distractions without bringing love into it," he said in a tone that equated love with the chicken pox.

Just then a young woman came running across the field, dragging a winded young man with her. "See what I mean?" he moaned as they kissed goodbye on the pitcher's mound. "Chapman! I said to be here at ten!"

"Yes, Coach," she said. As soon as he turned to look at Ryan again, Chapman caught Jamie's eye and gave her a wink.

When Ryan declared that first base was her best position, the coach directed Chapman to play second while he hit grounders to Ryan. She was to field the ball, throw to second and then return to the bag to catch the return throw to get the runner out. "Hey, girlfriend," he called to Jamie.

"Yes?"

"Can you run?"

"Like the wind."

"Then come over here, and get halfway between me and the bag. When I hit the ball, run like hell."

She looked to Ryan for her approval, but was met with only a raised eyebrow and a shoulder shrug. Luckily, she was wearing running shoes, Lycra shorts and a T-shirt, as they were planning on going to the gym afterward. So, she put her bag down on the bench, and gamely took her position.

Ryan got down in a crouch, and waited for the ball. A sharply hit grounder pulled her towards second, but she snagged the ball and tossed it with a quick underhand motion to the second baseman. Her momentum caused her to do a somersault, but she regained her feet quickly, and ran back towards first. Jamie easily beat her to the bag, but she clearly would not have if she had been running from home. As she turned around to run back to her spot, she patted Ryan on the butt. "Good job, Tiger," she said with a wink.

After 20 minutes of constant activity, Jamie began to inch closer and closer to first base. When they had finished this part of the workout she was practically standing on the bag, much to Ryan's amusement. The coach called the fielders in and told Jamie to sit down. As Ryan approached, he said loudly, "She's a frail little thing, isn't she?"

Ryan turned to see the glare in those green eyes, and she warned him, "Don't play with fire, Coach. Looks are deceiving."

The next element of her try-out was to assess her hitting skills. Coach Roberts led Ryan over to an enclosed batting cage, and set up a pitching machine. She put on the batting gloves that she had stashed in her pocket, chose one of the garishly decorated aluminum bats, then spent a few minutes taking practice swings, just to loosen up.

She got serious as soon as she entered the batting cage. The coach started the machine out slow, but in a few minutes he had the ball blazing in on her. Jamie had the enviable position of sitting on a bench behind her, and she was treated to the sight of her lover's butt twitching back and forth before each pitch was delivered. This little show was over much too early for her taste, but after more than 100 pitches, Ryan looked like she could use a break.

"Can you play any other positions?" Coach Roberts asked.

Ryan wiped the sweat from her brow and nodded. "Yeah. I've played center field and right field. When I play with my family I play second. And I can play short and third, but I haven't played there since grammar school. And I can pitch, of course," she added as if that should be obvious.

He smirked at her confidence, but had to admit to himself that the lanky young woman's actions had thus far backed up her words. "What, you're too good to catch?” She shrugged, barely hiding a little smile. “Head on out to center field, All Star, and I'll hit you some fly balls."

Jamie knew quite a bit about baseball since she had attended many Giants games with her father, so she had a good deal of appreciation for the gracefulness that Ryan displayed when she ran for the ball. Even though the day was a little windy, she had no difficulty in gauging the speed and the distance of the balls that the coach hit. She would lazily trot under the ball and be awaiting its descent with her weight balanced on the balls of her feet, then cradle it into her glove, with her other hand hovering over the top of the glove, in case the ball had the temerity to try to escape.

After a few minutes of this exercise, the coach instructed her to catch the ball and fire it in to the cut-off man, in this case, Chapman. Ryan had a gun, and the ball buzzed through the air as it whacked into the glove time and again.

He waved her in and stood with his hands on his hips, staring at her for a few minutes. "So … what's the catch?" he asked.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Drugs, booze, what?"

Ryan laughed a bit as she shook her head. "I don't know what you're getting at Coach," she said.

"You're way too good to walk on, and you don't look like you're 18, so where have you been — prison?"

"No," she said. "I was at U.S.F. for my first two years. As you know, they don't offer softball as a varsity sport. Last year I couldn't play since I was a transfer, but my financial situation has changed, and I'm able to play, so here I am."

"Does blondie have anything to do with that?" he asked as he nodded toward Jamie.

Ryan had to laugh at this new nickname. "Yeah," she said easily, matching his style. "She's loaded."

"Well, maybe it's not always a bad idea to have a girlfriend," he said with a bark of a laugh. "Heck, I'd be gay if some good looking guy would support me."

"I don't think you'd get many offers, Coach," Ryan said, giving him a long appraising look.

He spat out another hearty laugh and slapped her on the back, "Good one, O'Flaherty. I think I like you."

"I might like to play if you can use me,” she said. “But I'm currently committed to the basketball team.”

He narrowed his eyes and said, “Oh, shit! Now I know who you are! What in the hell is going on with that basketball team? Is Coach Hayes insane?”

“Huh?”

“I don't come to the games, so I didn't recognize you, and I suck with names, but I read the box scores after every game. You're the only player on that team worth a squat.” He looked at her suspiciously and said, “I saw a mention in the paper that you'd left the team. You're not academically ineligible, are you?”

“Hardly,” she said, insulted that he would even insinuate such a thing. “I uhm … had some uhm … publicity that was getting in the way … and …”

“Publicity?” he asked, scratching his head. “What in the hell are you talking about, O'Flaherty?”

Jamie was standing nearby at this point, and she piped up, “Don't you read the paper, or watch the news?”

“Yeah, of course I do. I read the sports page and watch Sportscenter. What else does a guy need?”

“Not a thing,” Ryan said. “I guarantee that my record is clean, Coach. Feel free to talk to Coach Hayes or Coach Placer.”

“You played for Rich?” he asked suspiciously.

“Yep. Sure did,” she said.

“I've gotta check you out, O'Flaherty. You sound like an interesting character.”

“Oh, she is that,” Jamie said proudly, beaming a smile at her partner.

“Well, I'm planning on quitting the basketball team, but I haven't done so yet. So please don't talk to Coach Hayes for a couple of days, okay?”

“No problem. I trust Rich's opinion more than hers anyway. She's screwed that team up so bad I wouldn't believe her if she said the sky was blue.”

Ryan shook his hand and said, “Let me talk to Jamie, and make a decision about whether we think we can handle the softball schedule, and I'll give you a call.”

“Good deal,” he said. “I'm gonna call Rich as soon as I get to my office.”

As they walked over to their car, Chapman walked along with them. "I'm Michelle," she said as she shook Ryan's hand. “Coach doesn't know anything that isn't in the sports page, but I saw you guys on TV. That was so freaky!”

“You're telling me,” Ryan said.

"What's with the coach, anyway?” Jamie piped up. “Is he as grouchy as he seems?"

"Oh no,” Michelle said. “He's all bark and no bite. The girls really love him, Ryan. I guarantee you'll like playing for him."

“What about team chemistry?” Ryan asked. “Do you guys like each other?”

“Oh, yeah,” Michelle said. “We hang out together all the time.”

"Do you think the other players would have a hard time with me being an open lesbian?" Ryan asked, not wanting that to be an issue either.

"No. I'm a senior this year, and we've had at least a couple of lesbians each year. It's never been a problem, unless they started dating each other."

"That seems to be a common theme," Jamie said wryly, recalling that Coach Hayes had said the same thing during the basketball workout.

"That won't be a problem for me," Ryan said. "I'm kept on a very short leash.” Her quick reflexes allowed her to barely dodge the flying elbow that her lover threw.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Later that night, they decided to take Duffy for a nice long walk. It was only around ten o'clock, and they gravitated down to 24
th Street and strolled along with the constant parade of pedestrians on the main shopping avenue in the neighborhood. Ryan's face brightened when she spied her father and her aunt walking towards them. “What's up with you two?” she asked.

“We just came down to the newsstand to buy the Irish Times,” Maeve said. “Been out long?”

“No, we just started. Wanna join us?”

“Surely,” Maeve said, and Martin also agreed.

While they walked, Jamie commented on their evening, and Ryan grew quiet as they continued to walk. Martin noticed her uncharacteristic silence and asked, “Something bothering you, love?”

“Uhm … not really. I'm just thinking about something that I've got to do on Monday. I'm a little preoccupied.”

“What's that, love?” Martin asked.

“I'm going to quit the basketball team,” she said, gazing directly into his eyes.

“I see,” he said quietly. Jamie noticed that Maeve grasped his hand and gave it a squeeze.

“It's not working for me, Da, and if I'm honest with myself I have to acknowledge that they probably don't want me back.”

“Why wouldn't they want you? You could make that into a decent team!”

“Maybe,” she said. “Look, Da, I know it's a selfish decision, but it's just not worth it to me at this point. They're playing as well as they did when I was with them, and there's no chance of making the NCAA's, so it's just not worth my time.”

He gave her a speculative look and asked, “Have you made up your mind?”

“I have,” she said, squeezing back when Jamie pressed her hand tightly.

Nodding briefly, he placed a hand on her shoulder and patted her. “Time to move on with your life then. I'm very sorry this turned out so poorly for you, Siobhán.”

“Me too,” she said.

“You did your best,” Maeve said. “Sometimes things just don't work out.”

“This was one of those times,” Jamie said, seeing that Ryan still looked a little unsettled, but knowing it would take her a while to feel confident in her decision.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When they returned, Jamie could tell that her partner was a little down. It was time for bed, and when Ryan started to walk across the room to join her, Jamie asked, “Any chance we could kiss a little before we go to sleep?”

Ryan stopped in her tracks, and looked like she wanted to turn and run in the other direction.

“Not a big deal,” Jamie said softly. “Just a few kisses.”

“Uhm … okay,” Ryan said, stiffly slipping into bed and taking a moment to straighten her clothes.

Deciding that she didn't want to be the aggressor, Jamie lay down and said, “I don't want to make out or anything, honey. I just want to keep our lips in shape, okay?”

A small smile broke through, and Jamie knew she had her. Ryan placed a gentle hand on her cheek and asked, “Just for exercise, huh?”

“Yep. Nothing worse than flabby lips.”

Once the mood was playful, Ryan felt her breathing even out, and she leaned over her partner and placed a few tender kisses upon her lips. Jamie didn't touch her lover, letting her control every aspect of their brief encounter. Once she was certain that she was fully in charge, Ryan let herself go a little bit, allowing her senses to open up and experience the simple joy of savoring her partner's lips. They didn't move beyond the playful stage, but that was fine with both of them. Just the gentle merging of their mouths seemed like a milestone, and, a few minutes later, when they cuddled together, both felt asleep quickly — each cheered by the tender reconnection.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Part 10

After Sunday Mass, Martin and Maeve came over for breakfast. As soon as the meal was finished Kevin, Rory and Conor left to help Niall on a project, leaving just Jamie, Ryan, Martin and Maeve to sit at the table and chat.

Ryan had been putting off telling her father about her decision to delay graduate school for a year, but she knew she had to tell him eventually, so she sucked up her courage and launched into it. “Jamie and I have finally decided what we're going to do next year,” she began.

“What's that, love?” Martin asked, looking at her with interest.

“We've decided to take a year off and apply next year at this time.”

“Oh,” he said, his head cocked slightly. When she didn't elaborate he asked, “What will you do instead? Will you go back to your job at the gym?”

“No, I don't think so,” she said.

“Is there another job you're interested in, Siobhán?”

“No, I wasn't planning on working, Da,” she said. “We're going to relax a bit.”

“For a whole year?” His eyes had saucered, and his gaze darted from Jamie to his daughter. “You'll do nothing at all?”

“Now, Marty,” Maeve said, “I'm sure the girls have thought this through. Let the child explain herself.”

For some reason her aunt's comments struck Ryan the wrong way. She was on the verge of telling her to mind her own business when she realized what she was about to do. Forcing her mouth shut, she stared down at the table, looking like she was torn between lashing out and crying.

Jamie reached over and grasped her clenched fist, saying, “We have thought it through, Maeve. And I'm sure we'll do something to keep busy — we just haven't discussed what that might be. All I know is that Ryan's been under more stress this year than most people have in their whole lives, and she just can't handle any more.”

The dark-haired woman rolled her eyes in disgust and got up from the table, letting her chair bang hard against the wall as she did so. Without a word, she made for the front door, Duffy scrambling after her.

“What in the holy name of God was that about?” Martin asked, his expression one of complete bafflement.

Jamie looked at him and quietly said, “She needs your support, Martin. She absolutely hates to admit how fragile she is right now.” She shook her head remorsefully and said, “I never should have commented about her stress. She absolutely hates that.”

“Is she close to a breakdown?” he asked, his eyes wide.

“No, no, not at all. She'll be fine, Martin. I really pushed her to take a year off — she didn't want to. I know it's the best thing for her, but it was incredibly hard for her to do. Deciding not to go to graduate school right away was a very, very big concession to how poorly she's feeling, and having you question her judgment …” She shook her head in frustration and added, “You always complain about how thin she is, and how tired she looks. Isn't it obvious that enrolling in medical school so soon after graduation would just wear her down even more?”

He dropped his head into his hands and mumbled, “I'm sorry, Jamie. I let my big mouth spout off without thinking.” Standing, he said, “I'll go find her and apologize.”

Maeve gripped his sleeve and tugged on it. “Marty, please sit down and think through what you're going to say to her before you do that.”

Giving her a puzzled look, he sat, but said, “What is there to think about?”

“Don't make her feel worse than she already does,” Maeve said. “She hates to have people believe she can't handle something, love. You know how proud she is. Please try not to focus on how poorly she's doing, all right?”

“Okay,” he said. Looking at Jamie, he asked, “Any advice?”

She smiled at him and suggested, “She craves your respect, Martin. As long as she knows she has that, she'll be fine.”

He nodded, looking very embarrassed. “I could kick myself. There's no harder working girl than my Siobhán.” Looking a little confused, he asked, “You said medical school, Jamie. I thought she wanted to get a Ph.D.?”

“That's part of the problem,” Jamie said. “She thinks she should go into a joint M.D./Ph.D. program. I want her to just get her Ph.D., but she's pretty adamant about the other program. The problem is that she doesn't want to be a physician, and it's hard for her to commit to four years of med school and a few years of a residency program for something she doesn't want to do.”

“Then why do it?”

“It's complicated,” she said, knowing they could be there all day talking about the various programs and how they would impact Ryan's future career plans. “But it has to do with how much autonomy she would have as a researcher. She really wants to do genetics research, you know.”

“No, I didn't know,” he said quietly. “She never talks about her goals with me.”

Jamie smiled at him and revealed, “What she really wants is to be a firefighter — just like her father.”

He stared at her with his mouth open. “She does?”

“Desperately. She told me she's wanted to do that since she was a little girl. She looks up to you so much, Martin. If I hadn't begged her not to do it, she'd be applying for the firefighters academy right now.” She shook her head and added, “That's why this decision is so hard for her, to be honest. She's picking between a number of inferior choices. Her first choice is to follow in your footsteps.”

He stood again, mumbling to himself, “For the love o' Mike! Just when I think I have her figured out …”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan was sitting in a chaise on the deck, Duffy stretched out in front of her, his big, black head on her lap. “Hi,” she said quietly when her father pulled up a chair and sat next to her.

“Jamie's been telling us some interesting things … ”

“Yeah? What, that I'm on the waiting list for the loony bin?”

“No, not at all. She doesn't feel that way, Siobhán, and you shouldn't either. There's no shame in listening to your body, sweetheart. I'm just glad you've got Jamie in your life to remind you — and me, of that.”

She grunted softly. “She's all about reminding me of that.”

“The lass needs to, love. This is one part of myself that I wish you hadn't inherited,” he said. “You and I both hate like the devil to admit any weakness, darlin', but it's not good for either of us to be that way.” He reached over and grasped her hand and added, “She told me something else.”

Looking at him warily, she asked, “What's that?”

“She told me that you're so tremendously gifted that you're having a very hard time deciding which graduate program you want to attend. Jamie says that the one you think you want will give you both an M.D. and a Ph.D.” He shook his head briefly and said, “Thank God you take after your mother's family in the brains department.”

Chuckling mildly, Ryan said, “I don't know about that, Da.”

“I do,” he said soberly, drawing her attention to him. “You're a very gifted woman, Siobhán, and you're going to make a significant contribution to the world. I'm very, very proud of you.” He brought her hand to his lips and placed a soft kiss upon it. “You have a lot to give, darlin', and the world can wait a year or two to have you start.”

Ryan nodded, saying nothing. She just squeezed her father's hand and leaned back against her chair, closing her eyes when the sun broke through the thin fog to warm her face.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

As soon as Martin left the room, Maeve looked at Jamie and sighed, “They're a pair, aren't they?”

“They are indeed. Like two peas in a pod.”

“Lucky for us that their redeeming qualities are so plentiful,” Maeve said.

“Yeah,” Jamie said. “The good qualities far outnumber the ones that make you want to strangle them.”

Maeve's laughter quieted, and she grew contemplative. “Why do you think Ryan wants to be a firefighter?”

Jamie shrugged and said, “I don't know. Probably to be like her father, maybe a little because of the thrill of working in a dangerous profession. I'm sure she also would get a lot of satisfaction out of saving lives.”

The older woman nodded, her expression still pensive. “That's probably right.”

Jamie observed the thoughtful expression on the older woman's face. “You think it's something more, don't you?”

“Mmm … I think I do,” she said. “I think she's afraid of standing out in the crowd.”

“The crowd?”

“The O'Flaherty crowd,” Maeve said. “Being a firefighter would give her a nice, acceptable, blue-collar profession — just like the rest of the family. She'd never have to show how special she really is.”

Jamie nodded slowly, seeing exactly what Maeve was getting at. “Few things mean more to her than fitting in with the boys,” she said.

“And her father. My Marty is a bright man, as you know, Jamie, but Ryan's intellect is profound. She has so much to give, but I think she's frightened to make the commitment to give it. I think she's terrified of surpassing her father's accomplishments.”

“But Martin's accomplishment's are huge!” Jamie cried. “My God, just raising his children alone these last 17 years is a tremendous feat!”

“I know that, Jamie,” Maeve said. “But to the outside world, Ryan will be a medical doctor with a PH.D., while her father will always be a firefighter. The world values professional accomplishments much more than it does familial ones.”

The younger woman chuckled mirthlessly, “I know that to be true.” She didn't make the comment aloud, but she thought of the difference between her own father and Martin, knowing that her father failed miserably in the comparison, but that the world saw her father as the successful one.

“I think Ryan will be able to make the choice to use all of her gifts, but it will take her some time to get used to it. This year off might help her get comfortable with it.”

Jamie cocked her head. “Do you think that's why Ryan never talks to her father about her goals?”

“Yes, I do,” Maeve said. “She doesn't want to highlight the differences between them. Over time, we can help her get past that, Jamie. She needs to use her talents. Being a firefighter would be the worst choice she could make.” She smiled and added, “Besides, she doesn't have the temperament for it. She's far too brash, and she acts on her instincts too readily.”

“I think she proved that recently,” Jamie said, shaking her head. “If she risks her life to save the guys who tried to kill her, can you imagine what she'd do to save a helpless, innocent person?” She shivered and said, “My heart couldn't take it.”

“Nor could mine,” Maeve said. “My Tommy has the ideal temperament to be a firefighter, and even still, I worry about him every day that he's on duty. I don't want that for you.”

Jamie smiled and said, “Even though she looks adorable in the outfit, I'd much prefer to see her in a nice, boring lab coat.”

“Knowing her, it will be tie-dyed,” Maeve said.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

On Sunday afternoon, Sara sat in the exhibition hall at the Palace of Fine Arts, waiting for Ally's group to begin. The meet began at 2, but she had some work to finish, and didn't arrive until 3:30. The group before Ally's was just leaving the stage when she got there, so she didn't know what to expect. Her eyes nearly popped out of her head when the group of 10 women strutted across the stage a few minutes later.

She was sure one of them was Ally, but if it hadn't been for her short hair, she never would have picked her out. Sara hadn't read many comic books, but the women on stage looked more like the stylized representation of muscular women that she'd seen on the covers of the fantasy magazines, than actual human beings.

Ally hadn't specified what type of competition this was, but for some reason, Sara had assumed that it would be a gay and lesbian meet. Looking at the women posing, and the men hooting and hollering, she quickly changed her assessment.

It actually took her mind a few minutes to fully take in the group, and before she had done so they exited the stage again, to be replaced by the individual women posing. The first woman was unbelievably muscular, in a way that was actually distasteful to Sara. Her muscles were very large, and very bulky and heavy looking. She was quite dark skinned, but the hue was the result of an astonishingly dark suntan that also looked less than attractive. The woman wore a bikini that barely covered her obviously surgically enhanced breasts, the massive mounds not moving an inch when she posed.

She had long, bleached blonde hair, styled in a way that Sara had seen in movies from the 1950's, but never on a modern day Bay Area woman. Layers upon layers of stiff, teased blonde cotton candy tresses floated about her head, made all the more incongruous by the massive bulk of her muscles. She looked like someone had taken a Barbie doll's head and breasts and had merged them with a G.I. Joe — and then had stuffed Joe into a tiny bikini.

She went through her entire routine, and by the end of it, Sara's face was curled into a look of complete distaste. Everything about the woman looked artificial and brittle and hard, and her heart began to beat heavily in her chest — wondering if Ally's look would be as much of a turn off.

The next 5 competitors didn't appeal to her either, and she was near panic when they announced that Ally was next. Peeking through the fingers of the hand that covered her eyes, Sara paused a second, then her mouth curled into a grin which continued to grow.

The differences between Ally's body and that of the other women were rather stark, Sara determined. While Ally looked very powerful and well defined, she didn't have the heavy, masculine look of the competitors that received the most applause. Her skin was nearly as dark as the other women's had been though, and it glowed from the application of some sort of oil.

Even though Sara didn't care for the artificial color of her skin, the skin that was revealed was wholly pleasing to the smaller woman. Ally didn't wear a teeny bikini like most of the women did. Rather, hers was a bright red, combination bikini top/thong bottom suit that showed off her unbelievably rounded ass to perfection.

Her mouth went dry as Ally began to work through her routine, her eyes barely leaving the glowing cheeks of that delectable ass.

Finally, her 3 minutes were up, and the next competitor took the stage, allowing Sara to catch her breath. When all had finished, the judges made the first cut, narrowing the competitors to 5. Ally made the cut, and each of the women posed again, this time for only two minutes. When the winners were announced, Ally wasn't among them, the grand prize going to the woman with the most outrageous muscles and largest breasts.

Sara waited in her chair, assuming that Ally would find her eventually. It took about 15 minutes for the very drained-looking woman to catch up to her, and when she did, she sank heavily into the chair next to Sara. “I feel like I just ran a marathon,” she sighed. “On my hands.”

Giving her a gentle hug, Sara said, “Congratulations on making the cut. That was good, wasn't it?”

“Yeah,” Ally said. “Some of the judges like a more moderate look, but others like the women to be as big as the men. There's no way to do that without juice … uhm … steroids, but what the hell.” She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I'm done.”

“How are you feeling about your decision?”

“Good. Well, as good as I feel about anything,” she said. “I'm on the verge of hallucinating.” She lifted her sports bottle to her lips and took a long gulp. “To really look cut you have to be dehydrated. This is the first thing I've had to drink since yesterday morning.”

“My God!” Sara cried. “That's terrible! You must feel awful.”

“That's about it,” Ally said. “I have to be really careful not to overdo it, though. I have to let my body hydrate slowly.”

“Let's go to my house,” Sara said. “You can take a shower and have something to drink.”

With big doe eyes, Ally leaned against her, asking, “Do you have any cookies?”

“I bought cookies and ice cream … just in case.”

“The woman of my dreams,” Ally sighed, getting to her wobbly feet and holding onto Sara's offered hand.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Luckily, Sara lived just three blocks away, so they walked the short distance. As soon as they got into the apartment, Ally went to shower while Sara sat in the living room and watched the start of the second half of the Warriors basketball game. The bathroom door opened, and Ally emerged in a cloud of vapor. “Well, I'm clean,” she announced, “but now I'm even weaker.”

“Come here,” Sara said, and when Ally walked over to her, she patted her legs. “Stretch out and take a little nap.”

“Really? You don't mind?”

“No, of course not. I'd like you to stay for a while, and you're obviously too tired to interact right now. Rest for a while, and maybe you'll feel better.”

“Okay,” Ally said, smiling wanly. Sara took the loose pillows from the back of the sofa and piled them up at the far end, so Ally had some support for her long legs which extended past the arm of the six foot long couch. It took a little maneuvering, but she got comfortable, lying on her side, with her head pillowed on Sara's legs. “Are you comfy?” she asked, her voice already slow and sleepy.

“Perfect. Mind if I rub your head?”

“Oh, yeah,” Ally said lazily. “That would be torture …”

Sara's fingers started to trail through the short, sandy hair, and by the time she had made two passes, Ally was sound asleep.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Across town, in Noe Valley, Ryan was lounging on her bed, studying for a quiz, when Maggie came down, surprising her a bit. “Hi,” the attorney said. “Did Brendan mention that he asked me to get involved in the negotiations with the Bay Area BMW dealers for you?”

Ryan blinked, having forgotten all about her hasty, impetuous decision. “N … no, he didn't, Maggie. I'm not sure I was in my right mind when I told him to pursue it, though. After all that's happened, it's obviously ridiculous to encourage any form of publicity.”

“I agree, Ryan,” she said, her voice becoming more businesslike. “Seeing how you've handled this entire matter gave me a clear indication that you couldn't handle any more exposure.”

“Thanks, Maggie,” she said, relieved not to have to worry about another thing. “We'll just buy a car with the insurance proceeds. No problem.”

“Let me tell you what I've negotiated, Ryan. You might still be interested.”

“Uhm … okay … shoot.”

“As you can imagine, the dealers wish is to have you and Jamie standing in front of BMW regional headquarters, with dozens of photographers, and all of the media outlets in attendance. They want a big press conference, with you making a speech about how great BMW is.”

“Oh, that'll happen,” Ryan said dryly.

“Right,” Maggie said. “I know that what you want is to have them drop off a car at a secret location, and never tell anyone they gave it to you.”

“You read my mind,” Ryan said. “Did they go for it?”

“Not hardly,” Maggie said. “But my proposal is closer to your wish than theirs.”

“Let's hear it.”

“Brendan told me that you were considering consenting to the ceremony they wanted to have for you two at City Hall.”

“Well … we discussed it,” Ryan said, “but …

“Well, I have some contacts over there, and we've got a proposal from the city to start a new program urging people to get involved when they see someone in trouble. They want to call it, 'Be a hero — San Francisco'. It would be an ongoing program, and BMW would be one of the corporate sponsors. Once a year, they'd pick the citizens who went out of their way to help other people in need, and they'd have a ceremony honoring the nominees. Some committee would chose the most deserving person, and they'd get a new BMW. There would be some cash awards to people, too, and some other corporate sponsors will probably want to jump on the bandwagon. The thing I liked about this was that BMW would definitely be in the background. It wouldn't be like you were doing an ad for them.”

“Wow,” Ryan said slowly. “That's a pretty cool idea. So this would be ongoing, huh?”

“Yeah,” Maggie said. “There would be a publicity campaign urging people to get involved when they saw someone who needed help, and then there would be the awards at City Hall once a year.”

“Hmm … what do you think, Maggie? Will this be dignified and understated? I can't be involved in another media circus.”

“Here's the best news,” she said. “Because of all the hype, they're more than willing to do the presentation without you guys even being there. Mayor Brown is very sympathetic about how you've been harassed, and he thinks it would make a powerful statement that you two couldn't even be present to get your awards.”

“I knew that I liked that guy,” Ryan said. “Now if I could just get him to get out of bed with all of the pro-growth people, I'd be happy!”

“Different issue,” Maggie said. “So what do you think?”

“I'll have to talk to Jamie, of course, but I think it's a great deal, Maggie. I really appreciate that you've worked on this for us.”

“It was fun, Ryan. I just want a ride in your new car.”

“You've got it,” she said. “Now I just have to find Jamie, and see if she thinks it's as good an idea as I do.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

As expected, Jamie agreed with the plan, and Ryan immediately got on her motorcycle and rode over to the BMW dealer on Van Ness to get a brochure on the car. She spend the rest of the afternoon trying to decide on color and options, after Maggie told her that BMW was amenable to ordering her any car, with all of the options she might wish.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The loud ticking of a clock woke her, and Ally looked around confusedly, finally meeting Sara's eyes. “A clock?” she asked, fuzzily.

“Sixty Minutes just came on,” Sara said, running her fingers across the furrow in her friend's brow.

“Wow, how long was I out?”

“A couple of hours. You must have been exhausted.”

“Mmm … I was,” she said. She struggled a little to sit up, then took a few long pulls off her sports bottle. “Mmm … better.”

“How about some dinner? You must be starved.”

“I am, but I have to be careful there, too. I have to ease back into eating normally or my system gets all screwed up.”

“What could you handle?”

“Oh, a salad would be good.”

“I can make a salad,” Sara said. She got up and went into the kitchen. “You can have dressing now, right?”

“Indeed I can,” Ally said. She sat on a kitchen stool and watched her friend work, commenting, “You look like you know your way around a kitchen.”

“Only for simple things, like salads and sandwiches. Nothing too fancy.”

Ally was obviously not very verbal, and she sat with her chin on her hand, watching Sara with a vaguely dopey looking smile. She continued to drink from her bottle, and when she drained it, she refilled it with plain water. Passing by Sara on her way back to her chair, she put an arm around her waist and gave her a squeeze, placing a soft kiss on the side of her neck. “Dinner's ready,” Sara said, pulling Ally's arm tightly against her body. “Hungry?”

“I've been hungry for eight weeks,” she said, releasing her hold.

They sat in the living room, munching on their salads, Ally nearly swooning over the simple Italian dressing. She continued to hydrate herself, and when she finished dinner she patted her stomach and said, “By tomorrow I'll have lost ten percent of my definition.”

Sara's eyes widened and she gasped, “That much! That fast?”

“Uh-huh.” Ally got up to put her bowl in the kitchen, then refilled her water bottle. “How about a cookie?” she asked.

Walking into the kitchen, Sara took a bag of chocolate chunk, macadamia nut cookies out of the cabinet. “These were the most decadent ones I could find,” she said, tauntingly holding the bag over Ally's head. In keeping with her usual laidback style, Ally just cocked her head and rotated her eyes, giving Sara a sexy half smile, her eyes crinkling a little as she did so. “Want one?” Sara asked, lowering the bag to eye level.

“Uh-huh,” Ally drawled, her accent thickening slightly. “One of these will knock another ten percent off me.”

Hiding the bag behind her back, Sara said, “Then I don't think I want you to have one. I know we're taking it slow, and I agree that we should. But if this was your last competition I'll never get to … fully … experience that cut body. Maybe you should stay in training for a while,” she said.

Ally moved a little closer, and her voice dropped to a low, sexy drawl. “You know, that's about the third time you've alluded to my current body. Does it really … interest you?” By the time she finished her question she was inches from Sara, and the smaller woman could smell the clean scent of her own shower gel on the muscular body.

“Yeah,” Sara said softly, lifting her hand to slide it across Ally's chest and down her arm. “It fascinates me. I've never been out with a really strong woman, and I don't have a clue what a sculpted body feels like.”

“It sounds like your interest is almost academic,” Ally purred, coming even closer and pinning Sara against the kitchen counter. She placed one hand on either side of the slim hips and hovered over her, giving her a slow, sexy smile.

“Yeah … just academic,” she said, swallowing audibly. “Kind of an anthropological study.”

“I'm all for the pursuit of knowledge,” Ally murmured, bending just enough to be able to place tiny kisses along Sara's jaw. “Give me your hands.”

Blinking up at her, Sara extended her hands and Ally took them and ran her thumbs across the palms. Then she took one slightly trembling hand and slipped it under her roomy sweatshirt. Sara's eyes closed, and her mouth twitched into a grin as Ally guided her fingers along the ripped muscles of her abdomen. “Ooo … sweet,” the brunette sighed.

The larger woman slid the other hand under her shirt as well, then pushed them up until they trailed across her sports bra and came to rest atop her shoulders. When Sara's hands were in place, Ally struck a pose, flexing her deltoids and her pectoral muscles rhythmically. “Good God,” Sara murmured, her eyes still tightly closed.

“Like that?” Ally's honeyed voice purred.

“Love it … it's definitely love,” Sara said.

“Slide your hands down my arms a little,” the body builder instructed.

Doing so, Sara growled with delight when the biceps flexed and released repeatedly. “So nice,” she moaned softly.

“Now feel my back,” Ally said, tilting her head just enough to place a gentle, tender kiss on Sara's slightly parted lips.

Sara's soft, warm hands slid across the larger woman's ribs, then slipped up her powerful back. Ally moved and stretched and flexed her muscles, while Sara allowed her fingers to trace every dip, every curve, every contour of the perfectly sculpted expanse. Her breathing was becoming audible, but rather than easing off, Ally bent her head and started to kiss her, increasing the passion as Sara's fingers began to dig into the powerful muscles. The large hands went to Sara's hips and pressed her hard against the counter, as Ally's mouth claimed her completely.

Unable to stop herself, and unwilling to even try, Sara's hands trailed down the strong back and slipped under the waistband of Ally's sweat pants. Her hands grasped the twin mounds of her ass through a thin covering of silk as she gasped in delight. “My, God, you're perfect.”

Suddenly, Ally's hands were around Sara's waist, and she effortlessly lifted her to the counter. Long legs hooked around Ally's midsection, drawing her in close as their lips met once again in a searingly hot kiss. Sara's hands were everywhere — caressing every firm, starkly defined muscle, while Ally braced her forearms against the upper cabinet and leaned in to lavish her captive with warm, wet kisses.

Unable to keep her hands from exploring, Sara continued to lean into Ally as her hands dipped lower and lower. The larger woman moved back just a few inches, but in her weakened state she lost her firm hold on Sara and the brunette started to slide off the counter. Ally wrapped her arms around her, but gravity won, and they slowly collapsed onto the floor.

Sara was panting softly, her eyes hooded and slightly unfocused. She maneuvered Ally onto her back and grasped her sweatpants, pulling them down to her knees. Dark blue print silk boxers modestly covered the prone woman, and Sara left them in place, entirely focused on exploring the muscular legs and ass that she hadn't yet been able to experience.

The short break and altitude change gave Ally time to collect her thoughts, and she reached out and put her hands on Sara's shoulders. “What happened to going slow?”

“Slow?” she asked hazily. “Oh!” She looked down, seemingly just then realizing what was happening. “I … just … had to …” Her warm brown eyes rotated back to Ally, and she shrugged her shoulders. “I don't know what happened.”

“We got carried away,” Ally said, caressing Sara's flushed cheek. “I guess our libidos are tired of waiting.”

Sara dropped her head onto Ally's chest, hearing her heart pounding away furiously. “Mine's been waiting a long time. I haven't been with anyone for months — I guess it caught up with me.”

“I want to be with you,” Ally said softly, “but I don't want it to be rushed like this. Can you be patient, Sara? It really means a lot to me.”

She looked into Ally's eyes, their color a soft gray in the dim light. Nodding her head, she said, “Yes, Ally. You take as much time as you need. I'll do my best to behave.” Leaning forward, she kissed her gently. “But it won't be easy,” she said, laughing softly. “I'm so attracted to you that I'm about to combust!”

Reaching down, Ally tugged on her friend, then settled her against her side. “Is it my body?”

“Yes, but only partly so. I've never dated anyone who looks like you, and I'm finding that I'm incredibly turned on by your muscles. But it's not just that,” she said. “There's a dichotomy between your easygoing personality and your powerful body that's a real turn on. And underneath that slow, easy, laid-back style there's a very determined, very forceful woman,” she added, her lips curling into a sexy smile. “I looooove that part.” She placed a gentle kiss on her lips and said, “That's been a surprise, too.”

“A nice surprise?” Ally asked, her slow smile melting Sara's heart.

“A very, very nice surprise,” she sighed. She kissed Ally tenderly, teasing her lips with the tip of her tongue. “It's deeply thrilling to be with a woman who knows what she wants … and isn't afraid to get it.”

“I do know what I want,” Ally said, “I just need to wait to get it.” She patted Sara gently, indicating that she wanted to get up. She rose to her feet, her journey a little ungainly because of her pants still around her knees. Sara looked up at her and started to rise also, but Ally put a restraining hand on her shoulder. “Just because I want to wait, doesn't mean you have to.” She kicked off her sweatpants, then pulled her shirt off and stood in front of Sara, revealing her body to the wide, but appreciative eyes. “This is more than I had on earlier today,” she said. Their eyes met again, and Ally said, “I want both of us to get what we need. I'm not ready to have sex, but I want you to have your pleasure. Feel free to explore.”

Immediately complying with the invitation, Sara sat on her heels, her eyes fixed on the powerful, sharply defined thighs just a few inches from her. “Incredible,” she said, running her fingertips over the taut skin.

“My legs are my best feature,” Ally said, smiling down at the look of rapture on the mesmerized woman's face.

“No, no, no,” Sara murmured. “Your ass is … a work of art.”

“Mmm … the judges don't like it, because you can't actually see the glutes. They like a really hard, taut look.”

“I'm not a judge,” Sara murmured, “just a fan.” Crawling around to the back, she ran her thumbs just under the swell of Ally's ass, shivers rolling down her spine as she did so. Unable to resist, she wrapped her arms around her and nuzzled her face against the firm mounds, her breath growing ragged as Ally reached behind and stroked her hair. “Ungh … I've got to stop,” Sara said thickly. “I'm gonna start begging and that's just unseemly.”

Laughing softly, Ally said, “I'd stick with bodybuilding if the judges were half as interested in me as you are.”

Sara put her hands around Ally's waist and pulled herself up. Her eyes landed on her abdomen and she said, “Just one more little spot?”

“Sure. Go ahead,” Ally said, standing tall and tensing her abs.

Moving to stand behind her, Sara pressed her cheek against Ally's shoulder and reached around, letting her fingers play with the tight bands of muscle. “Not ticklish, are you?”

“Not at the moment,” she murmured. “It comes and goes … depending on the mood.”

Sara started to kiss Ally's neck, closing her eyes as her lips met the soft, slightly damp skin. Now both hands played across her belly, with one daring hand moving under the waistband of her shorts. “Perfect,” she sighed, her cool fingers probing lower and lower into the rock hard muscle, finally brushing against soft curls.

Ally's hand covered hers, and she turned to kiss Sara's cheek. “That's about as much as I can take,” she whispered. “You're bordering on an erogenous zone that has a mind of her own.”

“Note to self … tickle Ally's belly the first chance you get.”

Pulling the warm hand from her shorts, Ally turned and locked her arms around Sara, intentionally holding on with every bit of force she could muster. Sara's arms were pinned tightly at her sides, and she could not have moved an inch of her own volition had she wanted to, which she most decidedly did not. Ally gazed down at the serene look on her face and kissed her firmly. “We're gonna get along just fine, counselor,” she murmured. “I think we're a perfect fit.” I just hope it's not too perfect a fit, she thought, slightly worried.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Late that night, as Jamie cuddled up to her partner, the taller woman jerked awake and looked at her with wide eyes. “I think I want blue!”

“Shh …” Jamie said softly, rubbing her back to relax her. “You don't have to make up your mind right now. Your little brochure will be there when you wake up.”

“Do you like blue?” she asked sleepily as she started to drift off once again.

“Of course I do,” Jamie said. “It's my favorite color since I met you and got to look into those beautiful blue eyes every day.”

Ryan was nearly asleep when she once again jerked awake and said, “Maybe green! Then I'd think of your eyes.”

“Sleep now,” Jamie said, rubbing her back comfortingly, “color choice tomorrow.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When Jamie woke the next morning, Ryan was lying on her back, eyes wide open. “Nightmare?” the blonde asked softly, running a hand over the soft cotton that covered Ryan's belly.

“No, I'm just lying here trying to convince myself that it's okay to quit the basketball team.”

Now wide-awake, Jamie sat up and looked at her. “I thought you'd decided …”

“I have,” Ryan said, nodding. “But there's a difference between deciding and getting up the nerve to actually do it.”

“Tell me what's going through your mind,” Jamie said.

“Well, I guess the bottom line is that even with all that's happened, I still keep coming back to the one thing I can't get around. In essence, when I joined the team, I gave my word. Quitting because I'm unhappy with the way things went just cheapens my reputation.” She paused for a few minutes, then said reflectively, “I've never quit anything before, Jamie. This is really hard for me to do.”

“I understand,” the smaller woman said. “But you and I have slightly different perspectives. I think the bottom line is whether you think you're worth it. Do you think that you deserve a little peace?”

“That's not how I was raised, Jamie, and it's really hard to go against that conditioning. Following through on your obligations is paramount in my family. I worry … I worry that Da will be disappointed in me if I quit, even though he says he won't. I saw the look in his eyes when I told him that I was quitting. He looked like he wanted to give me a lecture.”

“He might have been,” she said honestly. “Over time it's impossible not to occasionally disappoint the people that we love. But the fact remains, Ryan, if this is the right decision — for you — you have to make it … even if it might disappoint others.”

“What about you, honey? How will you feel about me if I quit?” She asked this in a very quiet voice, and Jamie ached for her partner, knowing how fragile and vulnerable she felt at the moment.

“Every day that you don't have to wear that monstrosity of a uniform is a good day in my book,” she joked. When Ryan tugged playfully on a lock of her hair, she gave her a more serious answer. “It doesn't really matter to me. You're either going to be playing basketball or softball. You'll still be gone for a few hours every afternoon, and you'll still have to travel for away games. I really don't have an opinion. All I know is that I'm confident that you'll make the right choice — even if it's not the most popular one.”

“I'm glad one of us is sure of that,” Ryan grumbled quietly.

“I have enough confidence in you for both of us,” Jamie said.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After her morning class, Ryan knocked lightly on Mary Hayes' door. The coach looked up, and favored her with a warm smile. “Ryan! It's great to see you again. Come on in.”

Ryan sat down and said, “How ya doin, Coach?”

“I'm good, how about you?”

“Better,” she said, smiling tentatively. “Uhm … I wanted to talk to you about my place with the team.”

“Are you considering coming back, Ryan?”

The way she framed the question gave Ryan pause, and she asked, “Do you think I should?”

The coach avoided replying directly, saying, “Ryan, if you want to come back, we'll figure out a way to make it happen.”

Ryan cocked her head and asked, “That wasn't a ringing endorsement, Coach. Level with me, will you?”

Folding her hands on her desk, she said, “The school is very concerned, Ryan. The athletic director was very, very upset about what happened in North Carolina. If you come back, we're going to have to come up with procedures to ensure that unauthorized photographers can't get into the arena. And some of the schools have already expressed their concern about you being hurt in their gyms. Nothing that's insurmountable, but it's something we're going to have to look into.”

Ryan shook her head, finally letting out a short laugh. “Has anything gone right this season?”

“Not a whole hell of a lot,” Mary said.

“I think I'll just bow out gracefully,” Ryan said. “It really doesn't seem worth the trouble at this point.” Mary nodded, seeming like she had expected the decision. “Only one thing bothers me,” Ryan said.

“What's that?”

“I know this is the end of your contract. If my staying could help you land a new deal, I'd do it.”

Mary smiled at the earnest young woman and shook her head slowly. “You know, Ryan, I don't think I've ever misjudged a person as badly as I misjudged you. I'm not even sure what it was, but I didn't trust you from the moment you joined the team.”

“Glad to know I'm not just paranoid,” Ryan said.

“No, you aren't,” she said. “Over time, I've come to see how wrong I was about you, but it's really too late now to do much good. I'm really sorry, Ryan. If I hadn't let my first impressions get in the way, we could have had a fantastic year, and you would have had a much better experience with us.” Shaking her head, she commented, “Hell, if I hadn't switched our practice schedule around, you wouldn't have been carjacked. You would have been sweating your butt off right here in the gym.”

Ryan chuckled wryly and recalled, “As my grandfather says, 'If if's and but's were candied nuts, we'd all have a hell of a Christmas.'”

Mary gave her a puzzled look, and Ryan clarified. “You can't look at it like that. Going through 'what if' scenarios just makes you crazy. I should know,” she added ruefully.

“I really appreciate your willingness to stick around to help me out, Ryan, but much to my surprise, they're giving me a one year extension. The fact that we've done as well as we have with so many injuries and so much turmoil has apparently impressed the athletic director.”

“Good for you!” Ryan said. “I hope it goes well for you next year.”

“You know, Ryan, I've got to be honest,” the coach said. “You're the least spoiled rich kid I've ever met. Your parents did a wonderful job with you.”

Ryan tossed her head back and laughed heartily. “Coach, my dad's a cook for the fire department. We're blue collar all the way.”

“But … you …”

“Jamie's the one with the dough,” Ryan said, still laughing. “And, by the way, she's not very spoiled either.”

The coach shared her laugh, and asked, “How's a woman supposed to get by if she can't stereotype people, Ryan? Is nothing sacred?”

Ryan stood to leave, and extended her hand. “It's been interesting, Coach.”

“Yeah … it's been that. I still haven't been able to find out who spoke to the tabloids about you, Ryan. I'm sorry I wasn't able to find her and kick her ass off the team.”

“I have my suspicions, Coach, but I'd rather not get into it. I've just started to calm down, and I don't need any more stress in my life. I just want to move on and get back to the things that keep me happy.”

“I hope you get there, Ryan. You're a special woman, and I'm sincerely sorry that things didn't work out with us.”

“I am too,” she said. “But it's only January, Coach. I've got five months left of my college career. You might not have seen the last of me.”

“Meaning?”

“I think I might play softball for Hank Roberts.”

“Softball? At your height?”

Smiling wryly, Ryan said, “This is the only height I have. It'll have to do.”

“Wow,” the older woman said. “That's an excellent team, Ryan, you must be pretty damned good to be able to walk on.”

Fixing her with her intense blue eyes, Ryan said, “I am good. I could have easily snared a softball scholarship, but it's not my favorite sport.”

“That was soccer, wasn't it?” Mary asked, giving Ryan a sad smile.

“Yeah. Soccer, field hockey, volleyball, basketball and softball — in that order.”

Leaning back in her chair, Mary gazed at Ryan for a moment and said, “An athlete like you comes along once in a coach's career — if she's very, very lucky. I sure did blow my chance.”

“You know — you really did,” Ryan said, giving her a crooked grin. “But that's a moot point now. I think I'm going to join the softball team — just to go out on an up note.”

“I wish you all the best, Ryan,” Mary said.

“Just one thing,” Ryan said. “Coach Roberts might ask you for a recommendation. Will you give me one?”

“That depends,” Mary said. She got up and walked around to the edge of her desk and sat down. Looking into Ryan's eyes, she asked, “How are you — mentally. Did you see someone?”

“I did,” Ryan said. “It's been helping quite a bit, Coach. I'm doing well, and I know my doctor would clear me to play — if she were asked. I'd prefer that she not be asked, though.”

“Are you sure you're well? Are you sure you can put up with the crowds? The photographers?”

“I am. I still have issues, Coach, and I will for a long while, but I'm not going to melt down again. I can handle things better now.”

Mary Hayes reached up and placed her hand on Ryan's shoulder. “I sincerely hope that's true. You don't deserve any of the things that have happened to you this year, Ryan.”

With a warm, full smile, Ryan said, “I hope I deserve Jamie. She and I just got together this year.”

“Yeah, you deserve Jamie,” the older woman said, smiling warmly. “How does she feel about your playing softball?”

“Mmm … it wouldn't be her choice. She thinks I extend myself too much.”

“Well, at least one of you has a good head on her shoulders,” Mary said. “If Hank calls, I'll sing your praises, Ryan. That's the least I can do.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie rode her bike home for lunch and was pleased to find her partner in the kitchen making an impressively large vegetable salad. “Is that all for you?” the smaller woman teased as she got a good look at the serving-bowl sized meal.

“Yeah. Want one?” Ryan turned to give Jamie a hug, and said, “I thought there was a chance you'd come home for lunch. I think there's enough here for two.”

“You're such a good provider,” Jamie sighed as she sat down at the table. “How'd your morning go?”

“It was interesting,” Ryan said slowly.

“Interesting and you are often a dangerous combination,” Jamie said. “Was it good interesting or bad interesting?”

“Mmm … neutral,” Ryan said. “I quit the team, but not before Coach Hayes let me know that it would be a big hassle for the school if I returned.”

“Huh?”

“They're all paranoid about lawsuits if I or some other player got injured because of the press. Even though it's died down, some of the other schools are worried about it. We just kinda agreed that it was best to part ways.”

“Weird,” Jamie sighed. “Everything about this season was just plain weird.”

“Can't disagree with you on that one, babe. Oh, I ran into Janae when I was over at Haas. She's back at school, and she seems to be feeling pretty good.”

“That's a relief,” Jamie sighed.

“Yeah. She's even able to work out a little, but she's definitely not going to return to the team.”

“I don't blame her a bit. Does Coach Hayes know?”

“Yep. Janae said she seemed relieved.” Ryan shook her head and said, “I'll never understand Mary Hayes if I live to be 100. But I feel better now that it's all resolved. I'm ready to move on.”

Jamie laid her head on her companion's shoulder and sighed deeply. “Can I stay here? I was lonely today at school. I got used to having you all to myself during break.”

“Sure, you can stay here. We can come home every day for lunch, and you can sit on my lap to eat.”

Jamie speared a crisp baby carrot and eased it into Ryan's mouth, alternating bites until they had made a substantial dent in the meal. “So, when do you start softball practice?” she asked lightly. “Today?”

“Nope. I'm not going into this blindly. I pulled the schedule off the Internet, and it's a little more aggressive than I'm used to, to be honest. I uhm … I thought they'd play a couple of games a week, but it's a lot more than that.”

“How many more?” Jamie asked warily.

“A lot more.” Ryan gave her an adorably sheepish look and said, “They uhm … play 70 games this season,” she said, gulping slightly.

“70 games!” Jamie gasped. “In how many weeks?”

“Mmm … 15,” Ryan said.

“That's … that's a game almost every day!” she cried.

Ryan gave her an indulgent smile and said, “No it's not, silly. It's only four and two thirds games a week.”

Slapping at her shoulder, Jamie said, “Like that's a lot better? Ryan, you can't afford to play four and five times a week … you'll never get your studying in.”

“No, no, I didn't make myself clear. The team doesn't play a lot of single games. They play double or triple-headers quite often, so most weeks they just play two or three days. But they play every weekend … and I do mean every weekend,” she said for emphasis. “Usually all three days of the weekend.”

“Is there a lot of travel, too?” the blonde asked hesitantly.

“More than I'd like,” Ryan said. “The problem is that they play a lot of tournaments in the beginning part of the season, and they're all over the place. Florida, Las Vegas, New Mexico …”

Jamie sighed heavily, and got up from her human chair. She walked over to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of water, opening it and leaning her head back to chug most of it. Coming back to the table, she stood behind her partner and began to run her hands through the long, black hair, letting the calming action soothe her so that she could think clearly. After a few long minutes of rhythmic stroking she said, “You wouldn't even propose this if it wasn't important to you. If you think you'll get a lot of enjoyment out of this, and you're sure it won't be too stressful — I want you to do it.”

Ryan reached behind herself and grasped Jamie's arm, giving her a gentle tug until she was back on her lap. She nuzzled her head into her chest for a moment and finally said, “You're not happy about this, are you?”

Jamie chuckled mildly and said, “Given that I'm one semester from graduation and still kicking around the idea of switching to a math major just to have extra time with you, no. Having you fly all over the country without me isn't my idea of fun.”

Ryan looked up and gazed into green eyes as she said, “Then I won't do it. Case closed.” She patted Jamie on the butt to indicate she wanted to get up, but the smaller woman stayed right where she was.

“Nope. The case is not closed,” Jamie said. “My season is starting at the end of February, and I'm going to be traveling a lot. Is that something that makes you happy?”

“Well, no, of course not,” Ryan said. “But you've gone through this for both volleyball and basketball with me. It's your turn now, Jamie, and I should have realized that before I even brought this up. I was just being selfish,” she said dismissively.

Jamie placed her hands on her partner's cheeks and gently tilted her head up so that they gazed into each other's eyes. “If I could get you to be more selfish, I'd be happy. Competition means a great deal to you, Ryan, and when you do the things that make you happy — you're a better partner.”

Ryan gave her a slightly puzzled frown, but Jamie sought to reassure her. “You're a marvelous partner no matter what, but I fully believe that the best way for us to each be happy is to fully be who we are. You're an athlete, Ryan. That's who you are in your heart. There's a joy within you when you play a sport … a joy that you don't have many other ways to achieve.”

“You bring me joy,” Ryan said softly.

“Yes, we bring each other joy,” Jamie said. “But this is a different kind of joy. I can hardly explain it … but I see it on your face. The smile you gave me after the first Stanford volleyball game will be imprinted on my brain for the rest of my life,” she said. “I'd never seen it before, but I saw it several more times. I saw a little glimpse of it every time you and your teammates did something extraordinary.” She dipped her head and kissed her partner softly, trying to express herself through her caresses. “It's worth the sacrifices we have to make for me to see that look, Ryan.”

“It feels unbelievably wonderful to be so thoroughly loved,” Ryan whispered as she pulled her lover close to bestow a flurry of kisses on her soft lips.

“I do love you, Ryan,” the smaller woman said. “I want you to do this if you think it will bring you joy. Besides, I'll get to have you all to myself next year. I don't mind sharing you a bit now, as long as I can look forward to that.”

The dark woman nodded, and said. “I'm going to do a little more investigative work,” she said. “If I'm satisfied with the answers, can I talk to Coach Roberts and accept?”

“Yes,” Jamie said decisively. “I'm ready to let you go. I've had a nice long time to savor you — now it's time to share you with your jock muse.”

“I think you've just coined another expression,” Ryan said. “A strange one, to be sure, but I think it's unique.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When Jamie got home that night, Ryan was sitting on the front porch, a big smile on her face. An even bigger first baseman's mitt was on her right hand, and she was methodically snapping a softball into the pocket.

“Been at practice?” the blonde asked, assuming that Ryan would dive in as soon as possible.

“Nope,” she said. “I surprised myself, to tell you the truth. I approached this in a methodical way.”

“Wow,” Jamie said, rolling her eyes. “You … methodical … go figure.”

Giving her a pinch on the side, Ryan explained the decision process. “First I called Heather and asked her how she was leaning. She said that she'd play if I played.”

Jamie smiled, thinking that development didn't surprise her in the least, given the crush she knew the freshman had on her partner.

“So I went over and talked to Coach Roberts and asked him to clarify a few things.”

“What things?”

“I told him some of the things that had happened on the basketball team,” Ryan said, surprising Jamie thoroughly. “I tried not to bitch too much, but I wanted to make sure that you could travel with us … that we could sleep together … that I could go to a game separately if necessary.”

“What did he say?” Jamie asked.

“He said he didn't care if I went on a three-day drunk and rolled up to the stadium stinking of gin,” Ryan said. “He said he learned a long time ago that what matters is performance, and as long as I can perform, he doesn't care about the details.”

“Smart man,” Jamie said.

“Yeah,” Ryan said thoughtfully. “He said that he realized I was older, and hopefully more mature than some of the other players. He realizes that we're, in essence, married. He said that he understood that our schedules would be tough to coordinate, and that he would cut me as much slack as he could.”

“That sounds really good. What else?”

“Well, I told him about the fears the athletic director had about my playing basketball. While I sat there, he called the A.D.'s office, and told him I was thinking about playing softball. They had a long talk, and both agreed that the situation was not nearly as worrisome for softball as it was for basketball.”

“Why, honey?”

“Mmm … couple of reasons. One, having photographers around isn't very distracting. We play almost all day games, so there wouldn't be flashes going off. Two, the fields we would play at are small, so the crowds aren't very big. Heck, the photographers could lie down on the benches at most of the fields, and snap away as long as they liked. No one would even notice.”

“That makes sense,” Jamie said. “So the athletic director wasn't opposed to your playing?”

“He gave the all-clear,” Ryan said.

“Well, I can see why you accepted,” Jamie said.

“Not so fast there, Jamers,” Ryan said. “I'm not done yet. I went over to the field a half hour before practice, and introduced myself to the players as they came in to change. I liked the vibes,” she said thoughtfully. “The players acted like they were buddies. Everyone was pleasant, and they all said they were excited about having me join them.” She gave her partner a sheepish look and said, “I think they might have seen me play basketball.”

Jamie chuckled, “I think everybody in the Bay Area watched that game down in North Carolina. The Nielsen ratings must have gone haywire that night.”

“So, after I was satisfied there, I said that I'd join the team. Here's the funny part though,” she added. “I told him I didn't want to start for another week.” She looked very proud of herself, and Jamie smiled her approval at her.

“Wow! What made you do that?”

“It was a tough call,” Ryan said. “I know I'll get along better if I'm there early, but I also know that I'm still a little off stride. I decided to do what felt right — for me!” The smile she gave her partner was luminous, and Jamie rewarded her with an enthusiastic kiss.

“I'm proud of you, sweetheart. That's very, very good news.”

“There's a season-opening tournament that first weekend,” Ryan said smugly. “I probably won't be ready to play because I'll have so little practice time. Isn't that great?”

“You're making progress,” Jamie said.

“Yep,” Ryan said. “Over time, I'll be a self-involved egotist, and it's all thanks to you!”

“Oh, I think that will take a while,” Jamie said. “I'll be happy if you begin to believe that your needs are as important as other people's. That's my goal.”

“My goal is to play a game I like, with nice people, and try not to make it the focus of my life,” Ryan said seriously. “I want that focus to remain on you.”

“Now you're talking,” Jamie said. “Just for that, you get to pick where we go to dinner tonight.”

It took Ryan less than a second to say, “Zachary's. I'm gonna try to pack a few more pounds on before I start practicing. Zachary's can always be counted on to contribute to the cause.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Where's Ryan?” Mia asked when she came home a few minutes later.

“She ran to Zachary's for a pizza. Hungry?”

“I could eat a Zachary's if I'd finished dinner three minutes ago,” Mia said. She climbed up on the counter and watched Jamie prepare a salad to accompany the pizza. “Did Ryan follow through and quit the basketball team?”

“She sure did, but as usual, she's gonna jump right back into another sport.” The blonde shook her head and said, “She's gonna join the softball team in a week.”

“That woman is something else,” Mia said. “One thing I'm sure of, Jamie — you're never gonna get bored with her.”

Jamie shared her laugh and said, “No, never bored. She may drive me mad — but she won't bore me.” She gave her friend an aggrieved look and said, “You won't believe this, but she honestly thinks that she can still participate in the AIDS ride, even though she hasn't started training yet.”

“Didn't you start in the fall last year?”

“Yep. October. Here it is, almost February, she hasn't ridden more than three miles at a time since June, and my doofus girlfriend thinks she can do it with no problem.”

“Well, she is pretty phenomenal. Maybe just being in good shape is enough.”

Jamie was shaking her head while Mia was still talking. “No way. Getting used to being on the seat for hours at a time, and stressing your legs from hill work are really critical, Mia. I'm worried that she'll hurt herself if she tries to do this without putting in the prep time.”

“So, what are you going to do? She sure as hell doesn't take well to being told what to do.”

“There's an understatement,” Jamie said. “I'm not sure, yet, but I'm gonna try to penetrate that very hard head.”

Ryan came in as they were speaking, and waved the pizza box under Mia's nose. “Hungry?”

“Starved! Let's just stand here and eat it out of the box.”

“Now, now, let's at least try to act civilized,” Ryan said. She put the pizza on a platter and carried it into the dining room, where Jamie had already set out the salad.

They dug in, and in no time, a sizeable dent had been made in the large pie. Ryan commented, “I'm gonna work on my training schedule tonight. The one I made up when we were down in Hillsborough won't work with my softball schedule.”

“Congratulations on making the team,” Mia said. “That's pretty cool, Ryan. Are the uniforms more attractive than those horrible basketball ones?”

“You Hillsborough girls,” Ryan said. “All you care about is fashion.” She thought for a moment and said, “I think the uniforms are pretty cute.”

“Why don't you bring your schedule down, and I'll help you work on it,” Jamie said. “I know you'll sit here and pick at the pizza until it's gone — we might as well have something to do between bites.”

“Ha ha,” Ryan said, but she nevertheless got up and went to her room to gather her things. When she returned, she handed Jamie the softball schedule, and she took her eraser and removed most of her proposed training rides from her organizer. “Okay, the challenge is going to be squeezing the rides in without using many weekends.”

“That will be a challenge,” Jamie said. “Where do you want to start, honey?”

“Well, I'm not going to start softball until next week, so I can ride a lot this week, just to kick-off my training.” She made a few notes and commented, “I can probably get in 100 miles this week.”

“That's a lot!” Mia said around a massive bite of pizza.

“No, it's really not,” Ryan said absently. “I should be doing 150 miles a week by February. I'm really behind already.”

They started going through the schedule, week by week. It rapidly became clear that Ryan was going to have to start riding before dawn most days to get her saddle time in. “This doesn't look good,” the dark woman said. “I guess I'm just going to have to do what I can, and hope for the best. Maybe I'll take the two weeks before the ride and really grind a lot of miles out.”

Jamie tapped at the softball schedule, and said, “Not if you make the playoffs. The final game of the College World Series is less than a week before the ride starts.”

Ryan dropped her head onto the table, and groaned, “Then I'll have to just do my best. I'll ride in the damn SAG van if I have to.”

“You know as well as I do that you'd walk the whole way before you'd get in that van,” Jamie said.

“Yeah, well, I might just have to re-think some of my notions about the ride,” Ryan said. “It's important to me to participate — even if I can't do it as well as I have in the past. It's going to be very odd for me,” she said. “I mean, for one thing, I won't be able to lead training rides this year. That was always one of my favorite things about the ride, you know.”

“Yeah,” Jamie said, echoing her partner's tone. “That's one of the ways you stayed connected to your fellow riders, wasn't it?”

“Exactly,” Ryan said. “Training people made me feel like I was part of the whole. I'm afraid that I won't have that same feeling this year. I'm going to have to just concentrate on myself.”

Mia interrupted to ask, “Aren't you going to do the ride, Jamie? I thought it was going to be an annual thing for you two.”

Shrugging her shoulders, Jamie said, “There's no way I can train enough to even consider it, Mia. I'd have to ride in the SAG van half the time — and that just seems silly.”

“Wow,” the curly-haired woman said, “I thought that doing this together was a really big thing for you.”

“It is,” Ryan said soberly. “It's a very big deal to me.”

“This is just one more little challenge,” Jamie sighed, giving Ryan a hug. “It'll work out, baby.”

“Yeah, I guess it will,” Ryan said, gazing at her partner with sad blue eyes.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie was ready for bed when Ryan came out of the bathroom, and the taller woman approached her from behind to see what she was working on. She was sitting at her desk, and it looked like her calendar was up on her computer. As Ryan got closer, she became fascinated by the top Jamie had on.

It had been cold recently, and they'd both been sleeping in T-shirts. But tonight, the house was quite warm, and Jamie had on just a camisole. It was an ivory-colored knit, and it fit very close, following her curves like a second skin. The bodice was trimmed with a satin appliqué that was significantly stiffer than the rest of the material, and that was the detail that caught Ryan's attention.

An appliquéd flower was covering the top of Jamie's left breast, and it gapped a bit, revealing a firm, pink nipple. Ryan felt her mouth go dry, her eyes unable to tear themselves away from the sight. Her hand reached out to touch her partner, but she stilled in mid-motion. They had expressly agreed to ask permission before touching each other, and she wasn't about to break that agreement — but at the same time, she was afraid to ask for what she wanted.

Standing there, unable to decide what she should do, Jamie reached back and patted her leg absently, silently indicating that she knew Ryan was there.

Ryan sat down on the bed, trying to make up her mind. The first tendrils of desire had already faded, and she cursed herself for her indecision. She tried to remind herself of what Amanda had told her. That at first, things would seem awkward and fairly stilted. Amanda had urged her to struggle through those awkward moments, promising that once they got past them, things would open up and begin to feel normal again.

Jamie was just about finished, and she started to shut her system down. When she was done, she began to stand, but Ryan impulsively said. “Stay there for a moment.”

The smaller woman complied, something in Ryan's voice giving her pause. “What is it, honey?” She started to turn her chair around, but Ryan reached out and grasped the chair back, pulling it close.

Swallowing, Ryan quietly asked, “Can I touch your breasts?” She felt like a very formal thirteen-year-old boy, but she didn't know how else to ask, and she wanted to make sure that her request was framed properly.

Jamie started to turn again, but Ryan held the chair in place. She didn't want to see the look on her face — knowing it must reflect puzzlement at the very least. “Sure,” she said softly, “I'd like that.”

Rubbing her hands together nervously, Ryan leaned over and cupped both of her partner's breasts in her hands. She could feel a little bit of sweat start to gather on the back of her neck, but her breathing was fairly even — and she didn't think she was going to have a panic attack. Jamie was still — consciously trying to allow Ryan to explore — without comment or suggestion.

It felt much more clinical than erotic, but Ryan kept at it, letting her hands grow used to the tactile sensations once again. Jamie's breasts felt just as glorious as she remembered them, the firm flesh yielding to her touch. But even though the physical sensations were the same, Ryan felt a definite barrier between her body and her libido. A barrier as real as the fabric that kept her fingers from feeling her partner's warm skin. The two parts of her seemed to have severed communications — her libido completely unaware that it was supposed to be enjoying itself at the moment.

To Ryan's dismay, Jamie's body didn't seem to be having the same communication breakdown as her own did. The blonde shifted in her chair and sighed deeply, then placed a hand over Ryan's and pressed down. “Nice,” she purred sexily. Her nipples grew firm, and Ryan could feel the mauve flesh around the peaks start to pebble. She could feel her partner's breathing start to pick up, but she knew she couldn't go any further without having a stroke, so she leaned over and kissed her cheek. “Thanks,” she whispered. “They looked too luscious to pass up.”

With a question in her eyes, Jamie swiveled around in her chair and gazed at her partner. Immediately, she saw a hint of regret in the sad, blue eyes, and she intentionally tried to make light of the situation. “We're making progress, baby,” she said. “You just keep asking anytime you want to touch a little.” Standing, she grasped Ryan's hand and took her over to her side of the bed. Tucking her in, she leaned over and kissed her gently, then placed the hand upon her breast once again and squeezed Ryan's hand under her own. “We'll get there, Ryan, I promise you.”

For some reason, having Jamie leaning over her like that gave Ryan a little bit of a jolt, and she felt greatly reassured when she felt a familiar tingle between her legs. A warm smile bloomed, and she said. “I know we will. Thanks for being patient with me.”

“We're being patient with each other,” Jamie said. “I haven't been making many moves on you either, sport.” She released Ryan's hand and stood up, then impetuously crawled over the long body to her own side of the bed, making Ryan giggle.

Getting under the covers, they cuddled together for a few minutes and Ryan got up the nerve to ask the question that Jamie's comment had sparked. “Do you ever want to touch me?”

“Yeah,” she quietly said. “It's always when it's impossible, though.” She was silent for a moment, then added, “I think of you a lot when I'm in class. And sometimes just seeing a certain curve will remind me of some part of your body.” She chuckled softly, and said, “I must confess that I've really turned into an ass-woman. Most of my images are of your perfect butt.”

“Wanna feel it?” Ryan asked tentatively. “I uhm … if you're not …”

Before she could complete her sentence, Jamie's hand was palming her cheek through her thin flannel pants, an impish look on her face. “Just like I remember,” she sighed. “Maybe a little leaner.”

“Yeah, I lost a little weight at the beach.”

“My hard-won gains,” Jamie said. “I'd just started to see some progress, and then you stopped eating again.”

“My appetite's getting better,” Ryan said. “I think I'll start gaining again.”

“You'd better,” the blonde decreed. She leaned over Ryan and rubbed noses. “When I grab your ass, I want two handfuls. And I do mean hand 'fulls'!”

“Yes, ma'am,” Ryan said. “I'll make every effort to pump up the booty.”

Giving the butt another squeeze, Jamie slid her hand up and tucked it around Ryan's waist, smoothing her T-shirt into place. “G'night, honey,” she said. “I love you.”

“I love you, too, Jamie.” Ryan tightened her embrace and whispered, “More than ever.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The next morning, Ryan got up and put on her running clothes. As she opened the front door she was rewarded with the sight of … no one. There was not a reporter, nor a news van, nor a photographer in sight. She poked her head out cautiously, then started to creep out of the door, making slow but steady progress. Finally, she hit the sidewalk, where she stared in every direction, finally standing still and scratching her head for a minute. No one? Who are the poor, miserable wretches whose turmoil is more newsworthy than mine? May God have mercy on their souls!

As she ran along the quiet streets, she considered that Jim had really had a hand in quelling the feeding frenzy. There had only been one lone guy with a camera in Noe this past weekend, and it was obvious that he was a free-lancer, and now this. She was still observing a news blackout, but Jamie was back to her normal habits, and she had informed Ryan that the media dialogue had now switched to an outraged recitation of the sins of the media in hounded the poor, innocent heroes … by the very same media that had committed the sins, of course.

Ryan didn't much care how the discussion morphed at this point. She was just immensely glad that the focus had shifted from her and Jamie. We should call Jim this evening to give him an update, and thank him for his efforts, she reminded herself.

Thinking of one more task to accomplish, she varied her route, swinging by the group home where Jennie lived. She was pleased to find her young friend sitting on the front steps, neatly dressed in her uniform, massive book bag at her feet.

“Hey!” Ryan called out, startling the young woman from her reverie.

“Oh … hi, Ryan,” Jennie said, looking everywhere but into her eyes. “What are you doing over here?”

“I was out running, and I decided to see if you were around. I figured your ride would be here soon,” she said as she performed a few gentle quad stretches to keep her legs warm. “You look like something's bothering you, sport. Everything okay?”

“Yeah,” she said, still looking at the ground. “I'm sorry, Ryan,” she said softly. “I've been trying to figure out all week how to make it up to you, but I can't think of a thing.” Ryan saw the girl's lower lip start to tremble, and then the tears started to flow.

“How about a sweaty hug?” Ryan asked gently, placing her hand on Jennie's shoulder.

“You're not mad at me?” she said, her expression so heart-rendingly sad that Ryan nearly started to cry, without even knowing why.

“Of course not, Jen. Why would I be mad at you?” She wrapped her in a hug, trying not to transfer too much of her perspiration onto the neatly ironed uniform.

“ 'Cause of what my mom did,” she said, looking up at Ryan like the older woman must be missing something.

“Jen. You're not responsible for your mom. You're only responsible for yourself. Your mom's got some problems, and she's not one of my favorite people right now, but nothing she does will ever impact how I feel about you.” She grasped the young woman by the shoulders and held her out at arm's length. “That is the absolute truth, Jennie. You and I are friends. There's nothing anyone can do to change that.”

She tumbled into Ryan's arms again, sobbing pitifully. “I … I … I was afraid you'd never talk to me again. I thought I'd have to quit sch … sch … school.”

“Oh, Jennie, I know it's hard to trust that I won't abandon you, but I won't. I swear I won't. I'm so sorry that I didn't call you after your mom's comments came out. I … I just let myself get too busy, and I didn't stop to think how that would affect you.” Tilting her chin up with her fingers, Ryan looked into her eyes and asked, “Forgive me?”

“Sure,” the young woman said, wrapping her arms around Ryan so tightly that she let out a soft grunt.

A Lincoln Town Car pulled into the drive as they were hugging, and Ryan took a quick look at her friend's face. “You'd better go inside and get a tissue.”

“Oh, that's okay,” she said. “Robert has some in the car. He's nice, Ryan. Wanna meet him?”

“I'd love to,” Ryan said, walking the short distance with Jennie's arm snugged around her waist.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When she came home from her run, Jamie had already left for golf practice. Ryan puttered around the kitchen for a bit, making herself an English muffin with some peanut butter on it, and then eating a nice, ripe pear. Her hunger partially sated, she went upstairs to get ready for school.

A shower was the first order of business, and as she cleaned her body, she felt a familiar, but long absent, sensation. A fluttering of desire began to bloom, and as she made the water a little cooler, she trained the hand-held showerhead upon her vulva and let it work its magic. In moments, she felt fully aroused, and spread her legs wider to increase the sensation. Bracing one hand against the wall, she relaxed into the experience and let her body respond — feeling an overwhelming sense of relief at how quickly everything fell into place. Just like old times, she angled the showerhead just so, letting it thrum right onto her clitoris.

Moments later, she felt the pulsing start in her uterus and radiate out, leaving her weak-kneed and fully sated. Good Lord, that felt fine, she sighed. Too bad Jamie wasn't still home. But even as the thought still rumbled around in her head, the truth hit her. She would not have felt that wave of desire if Jamie were still home. It was the fact that she was gone — that Ryan was sure she wasn't coming back for hours — that let her relax enough to get aroused. Her libido wanted to come out and play, but it wanted to play alone — and that thought filled her with dread.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

She checked and double-checked to make sure that Jamie knew she was about to call Amanda for their evening session. “Ryan, go make your phone call,” the blonde finally insisted. “I won't disturb you, and I won't pick up the phone by mistake. Now shoo!”

Feeling guiltier than she had since she was in grade school, Ryan made the call, unable to think of even one topic to waste time and delay having to admit what she had done. Getting to the point, she said, “I feel like crap, Amanda. I finally got sexually excited today, and instead of holding off until Jamie came home, I masturbated.” She said this with a voice full of self-loathing, certain that her actions signaled a very deep and lasting problem between her and Jamie.

“And … you're upset by this?” Amanda asked.

Ryan wished that she could see the woman, knowing there was at least a hint of censure showing on her face. “Yes, of course! I haven't masturbated just to please myself since we've been together. I don't do that any longer, Amanda. My sexuality is for Jamie and me to share.”

“Oh, I see,” Amanda said. “Well, if that's how you feel comfortable, I'm sure that you'll go back to that habit once things are back to normal.”

“You act like this isn't a big deal!” Ryan cried, her voice rising much higher than she wished.

“It's not,” the therapist said. “Look, Ryan, your sexual response has been shut down for weeks now. When it starts to wake up again, it's going to do so slowly. It makes perfect sense to me that it would feel safe to touch yourself for a while, then you can risk a little more and allow Jamie to touch you. Your body is just trying to keep you safe, Ryan. Listen to it.”

The young woman was fairly stunned by this advice. “You really think my body is talking to me?”

“Of course it is,” Amanda said. “Just listen to the signals it gives you, Ryan. It knows what your mind needs. Let it guide you.”

Ryan nodded slowly, starting to see Amanda's point. “Okay, I'll try that,” she said. “I just hope my body wants Jamie soon, 'cause my heart needs her desperately.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The next day, when Jamie returned from school, Ryan was lying in bed on her back, her legs elevated, one ankle crossed over a knee. Her hands were laced behind her head, and she bore a contemplative look on her handsome features. “Thinking?” Jamie asked quietly, careful not to disturb her partner when she was focused on something.

“Yeah,” Ryan said, “but not about anything too deep.” She patted the bed and said, “C'mere for a minute.”

Jamie kicked off her shoes and climbed up next to her, sighing deeply when Ryan wrapped an arm around her.

“You always do that,” Ryan said softly.

“What?”

“Let out a breath when I first put my arms around you. It always makes me smile.”

Leaning over to kiss her, Jamie said, “It feels like I'm home. Like I'm safe and protected, and nothing can hurt me.”

“It feels like that to me, too,” Ryan said. She nuzzled her face into her partner's sweet-smelling hair, and said, “No place on earth is as welcoming as your arms.”

“That will always be true, Ryan,” the blonde said. “Always.” She rolled onto her side, and started to trail her fingers down Ryan's arm, watching a smile slowly form on her lover's features. “Feel good?”

“Uh-huh,” Ryan whispered.

Her hand moved slightly, and she let her fingers explore a little, moving over Ryan's ribs, along her side, then across her shoulder. Tracing a collarbone with her index finger, she asked softly, “Can I touch your breast?”

Ryan swallowed audibly, then nodded. Jamie could feel her take in and hold a breath, so she kept her touch brief, and light. She knew that over time they'd get past this discomfort, and she knew that the only way was to work slowly — but it broke her heart every time she saw how Ryan struggled with the tentative intimacies. Ryan was the most emotionally vulnerable person she had ever met — and to have their blissfully intimate connection taken from them had taken a massive toll on her.

Even though it was hard on Jamie, she pushed on — knowing that they had to get through this awkward time. Using just her fingernail, she scraped along the soft cotton of Ryan's shirt — running all around her breast. Then she let all of her short nails rake across the rapidly firming flesh, tweaking the nipple gently. “Does that feel good?” she asked softly.

Ryan nodded, not saying a word. She was breathing regularly, but just then Jamie noted a quickening of her respiration, that didn't seem like arousal. “Go on,” the larger woman whispered. “Do that some more.”

Complying immediately, Jamie continued to tease her lover through her clothing. After a minute, she slipped her hand down between Ryan's slightly spread legs and asked, “Can I touch you here? Just for a moment,” she qualified, when Ryan hesitated.

Another nod, and Jamie touched her in much the same way, using her short nails to rake up and down the seam of her jeans. Ryan's eyes were closed, and her body was stiff, but she allowed the touch, which cheered Jamie greatly. Patting Ryan's belly, she said, “That's enough for today. I just wanted to have a little visit to some of my favorite places.”

Ryan wrapped her in a bruising embrace and whispered, “I love you so very much. It means so much to me that you're so patient and gentle with me.”

“Sweetheart,” Jamie sighed. “We're going to be together for seventy or eighty years. Spending a few weeks getting comfortable with each other again is nothing in the scheme of things. Our sex life is tremendously important to me, Ryan. I promise to treat it like the precious gift that it is.”

“It is precious,” Ryan whispered. Hugging Jamie tight once again, she asked, “Are you sure we'll get back to where we used to be?”

“We'll get back all that we had, and then we'll just keep going, baby. There's not a doubt in my mind. We'll take as long as we need, no rush at all.”

“Thank you,” Ryan murmured. “Thank you for trusting in us.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Part 11 (conclusion)

Since both women had arranged their schedules to provide for Fridays off, they were able to go to Noe when the mood struck them. Jamie played golf in the morning, while Ryan worked on her independent study, and just after noon they headed over, then spent most of the afternoon working on their respective homework. Ryan's watch alarm went off at 4, and she stood as she shut it off. “I'm gonna go out for a little bit.”

“Want company?” Jamie asked, stretching a bit. “I could use a break.”

“Uhm … no. I have something I have to take care of. I won't be too long.” She gave Jamie a quick kiss and said, “We can take Duffy out for a long walk tonight.”

“You're not taking Duff with you now?”

“Huh-uh. I'm going alone.” She went into the bath and combed her hair, then gave Jamie a little wave and took off.

Now what's she up to?

Duffy was disappointed, as he always was when his company was refused. But Ryan wasn't able to take him with, so she promised a long walk later in the day. Walking down the quiet streets of her neighborhood, she considered her plan. Look, you've tried every other avenue. He's been very helpful at times. What can it hurt to give him a chance? A few minutes later, she spotted him going into the side door of the church.

“Hi, Father Pender,” she called out.

“Siobhán! How are you?”

“Not great,” she said. “Thanks for calling me over in Berkeley. That was sweet of you to look me up.”

“Well, I would have gone by the house that first night, but I didn't think I'd be welcome,” he said. “It's hard to know how much to press my luck.”

“I don't agree with my father's decision to cut you out of our lives, Father, but he's not the easiest fellow to talk out of things.”

“No,” he said, “he's a man of strong convictions — as am I. That's not a good combination, love.”

“Maybe someday,” she sighed. “I'd like us to be able to acknowledge our differences, and just move on from there.”

“That would be nice,” he said. “I hope you know that I have nothing but warm feelings for you and your friend, Jamie.”

“I do,” she said.

“Are you just passing by, Siobhán? I've got to get inside to hear confessions, even though I usually just sit and read. Not many people avail themselves of the sacrament any longer.”

“That's why I'm here,” she said, surprising him thoroughly.

“You are? I haven't seen you in the confessional for years.”

She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Better late than never, Father. I'm having a hell of a time, and I'm looking for peace anywhere I can find it.”

“They don't call our Lord the Prince of Peace for nothing, Siobhán. Let's go talk.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

A few minutes before 6, Ryan came sauntering into the house, a surprising spring to her step. Martin, Maeve, Jamie, Kevin, Rory and Conor were just getting settled at the dinner table, and everyone looked up when she entered. She stopped at Jamie's spot first, offering a quick kiss.

The blonde narrowed her gaze and asked, “Have you been drinking?”

“Just a pint,” she said. “A little before dinner drink.” She greeted every other member of the family, then took her seat. “What?” she asked, seeing every set of eyes on her.

“It's not like you to be drinking in the afternoon,” Martin said. “Are you quite all right?”

“I ran into someone I know. No big deal.” Unfolding her napkin, she said, “If I were trying to hide my drinking habit, I'd drink vodka. You can smell Guinness on my breath from across the room.”

“Well, I suppose you're old enough to have a wee pint when you want one,” Martin said, seeing his daughter's ire start to rise.

“Thank you,” she said. “So, what's for dinner?”

“Risotto,” Martin announced proudly, pronouncing the word in such a way as to make an Italian grimace.

Raising an eyebrow at her partner, Ryan asked in the same Irish accent, “And where did you get the recipe for this risotto?”

“Young Jamie showed me how to make use of everything I had in the ice box,” he announced.

“Well, good for young Jamie,” Ryan said, wondering if her father's family actually ever owned the icebox he continually referred to.

“This would be perfect with a nice steak,” Conor said.

“Mind your manners, boy. You need to eat more vegetables.”

“Yes, Da,” he said, hiding a smirk. “Ryan needs to drink less, and I need more vegetables. Got it!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie was given a dispensation from cleaning, since she'd participated in dinner preparation. So after the remaining children finished cleaning the kitchen Ryan went downstairs to find her partner on the phone. “No, that will be great, Daddy. I think she might like to come, but if not, I'll see if Mia wants to play. Sure, I'd love to have brunch first. Let's meet at 10. That will give us time to go to 8 o'clock Mass. I look forward to it, too. See you then.”

She hung up and smiled at her partner. “That was my dad. He's in town until Monday, so we're going to get together on Sunday. He specifically asked if you'd be able to join us.”

“That's nice. I think I've finally made some progress with him, Jamers.”

“I think you have, too. So, do you want to play golf?”

“Mmm … no, I don't want to. But if you want me to go with you, I will.”

“No, this is voluntary. If you're not into it, you don't have to. I'll see if Mia wants to go. Maybe she and her dad can join us.”

“I think I'd enjoy helping out over at Niall's this weekend. Some physical labor sounds like just the ticket.”

“Do you uhm … want to talk about your afternoon? I don't want to pry, but …”

“I went to confession,” Ryan said, sitting down on the bed and gazing at her partner with an unreadable expression on her face.

“Confession? Have you ever done that … I mean since we've been together?”

“No. I used to go every week, but I got out of the habit when I started having sex. It seemed silly to go confess a sin that you had every intention of committing again, the first chance you got,” she said.

“What made you go today?”

“I'm looking for solace, babe. I'm trying every possible avenue.”

Sitting next to her on the bed, Jamie asked, “Did it help, sweetie?”

Ryan laughed gently and said, “You know, it really did. Father Pender reminded me that God would forgive me if I'd killed the guy in cold blood — so long as I was truly sorry for my actions. It seems silly, but he really reassured me, Jamie. He put his hands on my head and prayed over me.” She gave her partner a shy, childlike grin and said, “I feel lighter somehow.”

“I'm so glad,” Jamie sighed.

“We had a nice time together,” Ryan said. “I was the only person to show up for confession, so we talked for the entire hour. He wasn't able to help much at getting me to let go of my anger at the unnamed traitors, but it was a start. He locked up when we were finished, and we went over to The Dubliner for a pint. Just like old times.”

“You were afraid to tell your Da, huh?”

“Mmm … not afraid, but I didn't want to bring up a sore subject. He doesn't want to have a relationship with Father Pender, but I do. We don't have to agree on everything.”

“I'm glad you got what you needed from talking to him. Now, how about that walk. Duffy tells me you promised him one.”

“That dog never could keep a secret,” Ryan said, taking her partner's hand.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Kisses?” Jamie asked, drawing her arms around Ryan's warm body when the larger woman crawled into bed that night.

“Sure,” she said. “Kisses are just the thing to help me sleep.”

Ryan rolled onto her back and cuddled Jamie to her chest. “Kiss away, sweet lips.”

“Okay … I think I can live up to that title.” She snuggled close and started to kiss Ryan gently, putting just a little heat into her caress. For the first time since they had returned from the Bahamas, Ryan's mouth slowly opened during the kiss, and Jamie slipped her tongue inside. A tiny, soft moan escaped from the pink lips, and Jamie went a little further, and let her breasts press firmly against her partner's.

They continued to kiss and suck on each other's tongues, slowly increasing the passion until Jamie's breathing became erratic. Panting softly, Ryan pulled away, and lay her head down on her pillow. Not wanting to lose the connection, Jamie rested her head upon her partner's breast, pleased to feel the rapid heartbeat. “I can still make your heart race,” the blonde sighed, very pleased by her lover's reaction to her kisses.

“Sure can,” Ryan said, relieved that they'd stopped when they had. She knew that some of her excitement was desire, but that another element was fear. She kissed the top of Jamie's head, and they both relaxed together for a long while. When Jamie was just about asleep, she rolled onto her side, and Ryan followed her, pressing her body against her back.

In moments, Jamie's breathing evened out, and she fell into her usual state of near-unconsciousness. But Ryan wasn't able to relax, even with her partner's soothing presence so close to her. The heat of their kisses had turned her on more than she was willing to admit to Jamie, and now the insistent throbbing between her legs was keeping her from relaxing.

Fighting the guilt that lurked just under the surface, she slipped her hand between her legs and touched herself, the reassuring feel of her own fingers soothing her wounded psyche. Thoroughly relieved that Jamie was such a sound sleeper, she explored herself in painstaking detail, letting her experienced fingers glide over all of her most sensitive spots. As much as she loved her partner's touch, there was something wonderfully reassuring and familiar about touching herself, and she did her best to allow her body to fully relax and enjoy the sensation. She held off for as long as she could, trying to wring the most pleasure possible out of the experience. Gasping sharply, she came unexpectedly, her toes curling as the rush hit her. She felt so sated and calm that she started to nod off immediately, her wrinkling fingers pressed into her still-pulsing tissues.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

On Saturday morning Jamie came upstairs to find Ryan and Conor at the breakfast table. “What are you two up to today?” she asked.

“I'd like to play golf,” Conor said. “Any interest, Jamie?”

“Mmm … I'm always up for a round. Ryan?”

“If I have to,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.

“It's not a sentence, it's a game,” Jamie said. “What would you rather do?”

“Ride my bike. I need to get some miles in today.”

“Okay, Conor. You're on. Let me call the club and see when they can fit us in.”

She went to the phone and dialed the number, while Conor looked at his sister. “You're really gonna do the AIDS Ride, huh?”

“Yep.”

“Is that a wise thing to do, Ryan?”

“Nope.” She stood up and cleared the table, placing the dishes in the sink. Without another word she went down to her room to put her biking clothes on.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Just on the other side of Colma, Ryan got on her cell and called her mother-in-law. “Hey, Catherine,” she said in greeting. “Would you like to have lunch today?”

“Of course, dear. I don't have any plans for the afternoon. Where would you like to go?”

“Uhm … your house. I'm out riding my bike, and I'd like to have a break. My butt is killing me!”

“Oh, Ryan, that's such a long way to come. Let me come to you.”

“No, no, I can make it. I'll see you in an hour … or two. I've forgotten how long it takes to get down there. Wish me luck.”

“Good luck, honey, and be safe!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan arrived just after 1, her body covered with sweat, a bit of road grime on her flushed cheeks. “Damn! Have they moved Hillsborough a few dozen miles down the 101?”

“You look exhausted, dear! Come on in and cool off.” Ryan entered, then immediately took off her shoes so she didn't scuff the floors. Catherine took a long look at her and asked, “You didn't bring any other clothes, did you?”

“Nope. I really didn't think I'd get this wet. It's warmer than I thought it would be.”

“Go in the kitchen and get a drink, honey. I'll get you something to put on. Jamie will never forgive me if I let you catch a cold.”

Ryan gave her a slightly aggrieved look, then obediently went into the kitchen, where Marta gave her a tall drink and a long lecture. Catherine returned, holding a light blue dress shirt and a pair of navy blue boxer shorts. “Nothing of mine will fit you, honey, so I brought one of Jim's shirts. I bought some boxers for him when I was in Italy, but I haven't seen him to give them to him. This is the only kind he'll wear, and they don't do mail order, so I always stock up for him when I visit.”

She handed Ryan the shorts, and the dark woman gave her a broad smile. “Silk? These are the softest things I've ever felt.”

“It's a silk and cotton blend, so they're machine washable. I know you and Jamie like to wear boxers around the house, so you just keep those.”

“No argument,” Ryan said. She went into the nearby bath to put on the clothes, and emerged a few minutes later. Marta snatched her biking clothes out of her hand so quickly that she didn't have a moment to react. “Marta! Those clothes are disgusting! I can just toss 'em in the dryer for a few minutes.”

“No, no, no. The sweat will irritate your skin. I'll wash them for you.” She was reading the laundry care tag in the shorts as she walked away, leaving Ryan to shrug her shoulders and take a seat at the table.

“Would you like to take a shower, honey? I'm sure your muscles are stiff.”

“No, I'll be fine. It's going to take me a little longer than I had planned to get back into riding shape. I've never gone this long without logging some saddle time.”

“This is terribly important to you, isn't it, dear?”

“Yeah. I won't miss the ride, Catherine. I can't.”

“Oh, I wasn't trying to talk you out of doing it, Ryan. Far be it from me to attempt that.”

She smiled slightly and said, “I hate to be so hard-headed about things. I know this isn't wise, but it means more to me than I can put into words. It gives me a full week to think of my cousin and remember all of the good times we had together. He deserves at least a week of my time, Catherine. He meant so much to me.”

“I know, sweetheart,” she sighed. “I only wish that you didn't have to torture yourself to get in shape to do the ride. That's going to tax you severely, and you don't have many reserves.”

“I know. But I can't worry about that. I'm going to do my best to get ready, and then do the ride as best I can. Jamie doesn't believe that I'll ride in the support van if I need to, but I will,” she said, looking into Catherine's eyes. “I've learned that it doesn't matter how you overcome obstacles, the mere fact that you overcome them is enough.”

“That's the spirit, Ryan,” the older woman said.

Marta came back into the room, bent over and kissed Ryan's dark head. “What can I make to tempt you, Ryan?”

“Oh, just about anything, Marta. I'm not very picky.”

Catherine recalled the lunch she'd had with the girls recently, and wondered if she was going to have to feed the lanky young woman just like her daughter had. Shrugging her shoulders, she decided that she was up to the task, if duty called.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After lunch, which Ryan managed to eat all on her own, they went out to the patio and sat by the pool. “Could I prevail upon you for a bit of advice, Ryan?”

“Sure.” She sat up a little and looked at Catherine attentively.

“I received a letter from Jamie's former nanny the other day. I don't like to keep things from Jamie, but I know that she'd be hurt by it, and I hate to do that.”

Ryan scowled and said, “Given what she's told me about Elizabeth, I can only imagine the content.”

“She's very old fashioned,” Catherine said. “Flexibility isn't part of her makeup. She's antagonistic to nearly every bit of progress since the Second World War.”

“Sounds like my granny,” Ryan said. “So, what did this missive say?”

“It was quite odd, to be honest. I started to think that Elizabeth might be going a little senile, but other parts of the letter made her seem just as sharp as ever.” She sighed and said, “She wrote to apologize for any role she might have played in Jamie's downfall.” Shaking her head she continued, “She theorized that faulty genes might have played a role, but she was quite adamant that environment had to be at least partially responsible. She didn't seem quite sure of what she should have done differently, but she mentioned that she should have probably used corporal punishment on her. Her reasoning seems to be that Jamie was brought up in such a permissive way that she feels free to indulge in her darker urges.”

“If you add a few references to Jesus dying for our sins, my grandmother could have written that,” Ryan said, shaking her head in dismay. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I agree that it will hurt Jamie's feelings to read that, but she really hates it when things are kept from her. Why don't you tell her you got it and briefly synopsize it. Just tell her that, as expected, Elizabeth was unhappy to read that Jamie was a lesbian.”

“That's a good idea, dear,” Catherine said. “I'll burn the damn thing so she can't read it even if she asks to.”

“It hurts me when my grandmother is so judgmental,” Ryan said. “I know it's just her upbringing, but it still hurts.”

“I can imagine that it does.” She patted Ryan's hand and asked, “But you still love her, don't you.”

“Of course. She's had a tough life, Catherine. She grew up dirt poor, with an abusive father. The Church was the inviolate authority when she was growing up, and it provided a vision of eternal happiness so long as one toed the line. I can only imagine how appealing that was for a woman like my granny. She only made it through sixth grade, so she didn't ever have the opportunity to really examine the teachings of the Church on her own from an intellectual standpoint. She never learned critical thinking skills. She followed the law to the letter, but given her situation it makes perfect sense.”

“I suppose it does,” Catherine said.

“She also believed that punishing a child could take some of the evil out of her. I suffered more than my share of beatings, but Granny still thought I had too much starch in my sails.”

“Oh, Ryan, I didn't know,” Catherine said, reaching out to cover her hand. “I … I'm speechless …”

“It's okay,” she said softly. “I went through a short period where I thought that I deserved to be beaten, but it didn't last too long.” She pursed her lips and said, “Kid's minds are very funny. You can't understand that your elders are acting irrationally, so you have to believe that you're the problem. I used to feel kinda … purged, when she'd spank me — like she'd taken some of the evil out.”

Catherine closed her eyes, looking like she was on the verge of tears.

“Really, Catherine, it's okay,” Ryan said. “My aunt Moira found out what was happening, and she got involved. It was a good lesson in a funny way. It made me realize that adults make mistakes, too, and that there are some people in your life who you can always depend on.” She smiled gently and said, “Aunt Moira's never let me down.”

“Have you heard from your grandparents since the carjacking?” Catherine asked, not sure if Ryan had revealed her lesbianism to the elderly couple.

“Yeah. I think she was proud of me for what I did, but she reminded me that if I hadn't led such a sinful life there wouldn't be anything scandalous for the newspapers to print.” She gave Catherine a sly grin and added, “Jamie got the condensed version of that one, too.”

“Good Lord!”

“Yeah, she never misses an opportunity to point out the error of everyone else's ways. Jamie really wants to go visit Ireland this summer, but I know the experience will be mixed, at best. I'd hate to have my little protector deck my Granny.”

“You can return the favor,” Catherine said. “Jamie would never be that close to England and fail to visit Elizabeth.”

“Oh, boy! An elder abuse tour!”

Catherine laughed heartily, then patted Ryan's shoulder. “You'll get through it. You two have been through worse.”

“Now, that's the truth,” Ryan said. “And I should be able to use that line for years to come.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

They whiled away most of the afternoon, and at 3 o'clock Catherine said, “Why don't you let me give you a ride home, sweetheart? I'm afraid it will be dark by the time you reach San Francisco.”

Ryan scrunched up her face and thought for a moment, then she nodded decisively. “My instinct is to ride home,” she said, “but I'm going to deny my instinct this time. I'm tired, my butt hurts, and it probably will be dark by the time I get home.” Her expression turned a little sad when she said, “I have to be more careful. The carjacking showed me just how fragile life is. I have to remind myself every day how much Jamie loves me and how much she needs me. I can't afford to be so cavalier about how I behave.”

“That's a hard lesson to learn, isn't it, honey?” Catherine asked gently.

“It is,” she said, “but it's a very valuable one. I've told Jamie before that I'd be much more careful, but it obviously didn't sink in. I hope this time it does.”

“I do, too,” Catherine said. “Do you want to go now?”

“Sure. Stay for dinner?”

“Oh, I wish I could, but I have an event tonight.”

“Let me have Conor come pick me up then. You don't want to spend your afternoon driving me around.”

“Yes I do. Besides, I want to see my girl for a few minutes. I want to spend every minute with her that I can.”

“You and I think alike, Catherine. Let's rock.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Walking home from church on Sunday morning, Ryan held Jamie's hand snugly in her own. “I'm gonna miss you today,” she said, giving her a shy smile.

“Are you disappointed that I'm going without you?”

“No, not disappointed. I'm sure I'll have a better time hanging with the boys. Construction work suits me so much better than playing golf. I just wish you were going to be with me.”

Jamie smiled up at her and reached around to hold onto her arm tightly. “This is one small area of our lives that I think we have to agree to disagree on. I don't mind helping once in a while, but it doesn't bring me joy.”

“You're entitled to a few flaws,” Ryan said. “The fact that you like to stay clean is a quirk that I've learned to live with.” She leaned over and kissed the top of her head. “I just hope our children don't inherit your clean gene.”

“Watch it, dirt devil. We clean people have our pride, ya know.”

“Your dad won't be offended that I didn't want to come, will he?”

“No. He knows you're not a golf nut. He doesn't understand it,” she said, “but he knows it.”

“Come by Niall's when you're finished, okay? Maybe you can bring us some snacks or something.”

“Yes, dear,” Jamie said, rolling her eyes. “I'll bring snacks. I've got to remember to take my ATM card, though — you guys could clean out an entire 7-11!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jim stopped by to pick Jamie up, and when they were finished, Mia offered to drop her off at Niall's. After a trip to the store, they pulled into Niall's driveway — which the other's had thoughtfully refrained from using so Jamie would have a convenient place to park. “God, Jamie, we've never bought this much for a week at home!”

“I guarantee it will all be gone within an hour,” Jamie said. “Well, technically it won't all be gone. They always leave one chip in the bag and one cube of cheese on the tray. No one likes to eat the very last piece for some reason.”

The door was open, as usual, and they immediately went out to the back yard, their arms laden with snacks. “What in the hell are you doing?” Jamie cried when she saw the awful mess.

“Break in the main sewer line,” Niall said, wiping his face with the hem of his shirt. We've got to dig the whole thing out. There's no water in the house, by the way.” He gave her a grin and said, “It's good to see you two, even if you hadn't brought food.”

“You guys can't eat this stuff! You're filthy!”

“We filled up a couple of buckets with water before we turned it off,” Ryan called out. “We thought ahead so we could wash our hands.”

Walking over to the trench that the workers were digging, Jamie stood above her lover, with her hands on her hips. “You are absolutely filthy, Ryan O'Flaherty! You'll catch a disease if you eat with those hands!”

“Then you'll just have to feed me,” she said, giving her a cheeky grin.

Jamie rolled her eyes and looked at the other members of the group. “Only six of you? Where is everyone?”

“People got busy once they heard we were hand digging a trench through the entire back yard,” Niall said. “Wimps.”

The group was made up of only Rory and Ryan, Niall, Kieran, Colm and Donal, and each one looked like they'd done the work of three. “The drain wouldn't have been so bad, but someone, and I'm not saying who, got a little enthusiastic with a pick and poked a hole in the water line. That's why we had to shut it off, as well as why it's so damned muddy.”

“I'm a tile setter,” Colm mumbled. “If you wanted a plumber, you should have hired one.”

“I didn't say your name,” Niall said. “You could have spared yourself the humiliation. You should just be thankful that the two lines are right next to each other. If we'd had to dig a separate trench, we wouldn't be quite so jovial.”

“Don't worry about it, Colm,” Jamie said. “I know Ryan loves to play in the mud. I guarantee she's happy you broke the water line.”

He gave her a grin, then looked at his brothers smugly.

“We'll go in the house and get the snacks ready. Are you ready for a break?”

“We were ready for a break at 11 a.m.,” Niall said. “We're starving now!”

“Just hold on,” Jamie said. “We'll call you when it's ready.”

She and Mia went inside and started to unload the groceries, then Jamie remembered that she had a container of baby wipes in the car, and she ran out to get them. “We can at least clean our hands with these,” she said.

“I have to pee,” Mia said. “Does the toilet work?”

“Let me ask,” Jamie said. “I doubt it, though.”

“Hey, guys, does the toilet work?” she called out the back door.

“Nope. We've been using the sink,” Niall said, grinning boyishly.

Jamie's hands went to her hips once again, and she scowled at the chuckling men. “Ryan? You'd better not have been sticking your butt in the sink.”

She twitched her head, indicating the side of the house. “They tried to convince me to go over there, but the neighbor's windows were open. I walked down the street and went to the little burger joint on Sloat. I was so filthy, they didn't want to let me in, but I bought some burgers so they relented.”

Mia was listening to the interchange and she said, “Cover me, Jamie. I'll never make it to the corner.” She scampered out to the side of the house, much to the amusement of the work crew. “Why is the urge to go always so insistent when you know there's nowhere to do it?” she moaned. Luckily, she was wearing a short skirt, so she accomplished her goal rather easily. “Damn, this feels good,” she said.

“I'm certain it does,” Jamie said, rolling her eyes once again. “Never a dull moment with the O'Flahertys.”

When Mia was finished, they went back inside, and after she followed Jamie's instructions to use two baby wipes on her hands, they started to make the snacks. Niall had almost nothing in the kitchen, but he had managed to procure a few big, plastic bowls and a pair of plastic platters. He also had a few knives and a couple of spoons and forks. “Coming over here is like going camping,” Jamie said. “You have to pee outside, the rooms are entirely empty, and the only furniture is a picnic table and benches.”

“I think it's fun,” Mia said. “No one in my family would ever be this casual.”

“Oh, they're casual, all right,” the blonde said. “Will you just look at them? I've never seen people that dirty.”

“Or that hot,” Mia gave Jamie a bump with her hip.

“Hot?”

The curly-haired woman paused, then stared at her friend. “Don't tell me