I Found My Heart in San Francisco

Book 12: Lifeline

by S X Meagher

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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.”


“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.


“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.


“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?”


“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?”



“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!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Continued in Part 4
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