I Found My Heart in San Francisco

Book 12: Lifeline

by S X Meagher

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.


“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.”


“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.”


“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.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Continued in Part 8

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