I Found My Heart in San Francisco

Book 12: Lifeline

by S X Meagher

Part 8

The next day they got a little more adventurous and decided to play golf at Pebble Beach, their first venture out together since the reporters had descended upon their sanctuary. Since they were both in the car, every reporter followed them, and when they pulled into the parking lot, a long line of SUV's and vans pulled in right behind them.

Getting out of the car, Ryan stared at the ground, refusing to make eye contact with anyone, no matter how much they begged. She had on a baseball cap, bill facing forward, and it was pulled down as low as she could get it.

The club was open to non-members, and to their dismay, two of the intrepid reporters managed to procure and pay for a round of their own. Normally, the wait for a tee-time was months long, but the day was cool and drizzly — and many vacationers had chosen not to brave the wicked course on a rainy day.

Jamie wasn't about to let the reporters ruin their day, so she spoke to the starter, and he agreed to send a marshal out with them to keep an eye on things and make sure the men behaved. By the second hole, the marshal decided that the reporters were following too closely, so he moved another group between them, ignoring the outraged squawks from the men.

Standing on the third tee, Ryan looked around, asking, “Where's Chip? I assumed he'd be playing with us today.” She said this with a definite edge to her voice, and Jamie waited a moment to answer, not wanting to further aggravate her partner.

“I don't know, honey. I assume he's doing his job.”

“And that's … what?” she asked, the edge still in place.

“He's a golf pro,” she said, knowing that Ryan knew exactly what he did for a living. “He's probably giving someone a lesson.”

“I'll just bet he is,” she grumbled, turning to address her ball.

Watching her from behind, Jamie decided to let the matter drop. She knew Ryan was looking for a fight, but she had no desire to give her one. Every time she looked up, Ryan was staring at her, but still she refused to rise to the bait.

Normally, Ryan's little bouts of pique were short lived, and ended as soon as she realized she was being childish. But she had a lot of staying power today, and she continued to glare at Jamie for nearly an hour. On the eighth hole, the larger woman couldn't take Jamie's refusal to engage any more. She stood in front of her, blocking her from being able to get out of the golf cart. “How many times have you seen him since we've been here?”

Jamie took a deep breath, trying to decide if she should even answer. She knew this interaction would come to no good end, but she didn't have many options, so she told the truth. “Twice. I played a round with him that first day, and he watched me on the driving range yesterday.” She reached out and grasped the waistband of her lover's slacks, holding on so Ryan didn't storm away like she had a tendency to do. “I know you're having a hard time keeping things in perspective, but it hurts my feelings when you question me like this. I have no romantic interest in Chip, or any other human being. You're the person I love, Ryan, and you can trust me implicitly.”

“I can't trust him,” she growled. “It's obvious he has a crush on you.” She narrowed her eyes and lowered her voice. “And he probably thinks he can get you.”

“What does that mean?” Jamie knew she was being pulled into an argument, but she couldn't stop herself.

“Nothing.” Ryan took a club at random and hacked at the ball, sending it shooting along the ground no more than 100 feet. “Fuck you!” she yelled, glowering at the innocent white orb. She strode down the fairway, the wind carrying most of her invective-laced commentary away so that Jamie couldn't hear it.

The blonde decided to skip the hole, since the group behind them had caught up to them and she didn't want to allow them to eavesdrop. She drove by her partner and demanded, “Get in. We're going to 9.”

Ryan looked like she wanted to argue, but after a pregnant pause she walked around to the passenger side and climbed in. They rode in silence to the 8
th green, noting that the group ahead of them was just finishing putting out. As soon as the foursome left the green Jamie decided to putt a few balls just to waste time. She dropped three onto the surface and forced herself to concentrate, managing to two-putt each of them over the long, curving, undulating green. Ryan stayed in the cart, looking sullen and withdrawn. When Jamie finished, she drove over to the ninth tee, then turned and stared at Ryan until the dark head finally turned her way. “I have no interest in Chip, Ryan, and whether or not he has a crush on me is immaterial. There are dozens of women who have crushes on you, and I don't try to prohibit you from seeing them. As a matter of fact, two of the women from your past openly admit that they're in love with you.” Her eyes sparked with fire as she added, “And I've never … ever … tried to make you feel bad about that. I never would — because I'd be doing so only to hurt your feelings. I'd appreciate the same consideration.”

She got out of the cart, went to the tee, and hit a surprisingly good shot, despite the anger that coursed through her veins. Crossing her arms over her chest, she waited patiently, finally realizing that Ryan was not coming. Turning, she saw her sitting with her feet up on the edge of the cart, head buried between her raised knees. She was obviously crying, and Jamie sighed deeply, feeling like she'd reached her limit of emotionally draining experiences. Wanting nothing more than to pick up her bag and play the round alone, just to avoid another scene, she nevertheless walked over to her partner and sat next to her in the cart. “Do you want to leave?” she asked softly.

“Yes, but they'll see me crying. I don't want to see my picture in the tabloids looking like this.”

Jamie looked around, noting that the reporters were more than a hole behind them. “Hold on,” she commanded, and took off, driving the electric cart as fast as she could. She maneuvered them around the course, going backwards down some holes, and cutting across a fairway or two. They approached a small building somewhere on the back 9, the structure well hidden by trees and shrubs.

“Where are we?” Ryan asked, looking around confusedly.

“This is one of the cart barns. No one will be around here until the end of the day when they store the excess carts here.” She got out, then took her wallet from her bag and stuck it into her pocket. “Come on. Let's go for a walk.”

“A walk?”

“Yeah. We can cut across right over there and be by the shore. Let's go.”

“But your clubs …”

Putting her hands on her hips, Jamie stared at her partner for a minute. “Take a guess what's more important to me. You or those fucking sticks? Now, come on.”

She started off, with Ryan having to run to catch up with her. “Jamie, it's okay. I'm better now. I'm really sorry for what I said …”

“We're going for a walk,” she repeated, scowling.

“Okay, okay.” Ryan shoved her hands in her pockets and walked alongside her partner. They crossed a fairway or two, lurked behind a tree as a cart sped by, then took off again, making it to the shore unmolested. They found a spot that the passing golfers would likely not see, and sat down on the springy, longish grass, both of them silent for a while.

“With all of the things that have happened, I understand that you're on edge,” Jamie said. “I promise to support you, no matter what, but it wounds me to have you doubt my fidelity.”

“I don't,” Ryan said, giving her a pathetically sad look. “I really don't, Jamie.”

“Then what is it, Ryan? What else should I think when you're obviously upset that I played golf with a guy I know?”

“It's stupid and childish and doesn't even merit talking about,” she mumbled. “Can't we just forget it?”

“No.” Jamie put her hand on her leg and said, “I want to know what's going on in your head.”

“No, you don't,” Ryan said, shaking her dark head firmly. “It's a bad place to be right now.”

“You know what I mean. Tell me why you're upset about Chip.”

She wrapped her arms around her knees and gazed out at the surf for a few moments, collecting her thoughts. “I felt like you'd rather be with him than with me,” she said quietly. “He's not a psycho.”

“Ryan, I don't know how many times I've tried to convince you that you're not a psycho. I'm out of ways to reassure you, honey. You've had enough stress to drive the healthiest person mad, but you're getting through it. You've made tremendous progress, and soon you'll be completely back to normal. But you're not there yet, babe. That doesn't make you psycho; that makes you human.”

Her chin rested on her raised knees, and Ryan stared out at the sea, unable to meet her partner's eyes. “I had this image of you laughing and joking and having fun with him, and then thought of what it must be like for you at the house — with me moping around, barely speaking. I don't blame you for wanting to get out and be around more interesting people — but it makes me jealous … and sad … and lonely.”

Shaking her head, Jamie said, “The thought of Chip being more interesting than you is too laughable to address. And I rather doubt he had the time of his life, baby. All I did was talk about you and how much I love you.”

“What? You … you came out to him?”

Giving her a completely puzzled look, Jamie said, “Of course I did! Ryan, I know he has a crush on me, so I made it clear that he doesn't have a chance. Honey, I'd never spend time with a guy and let him think I was single. I'm not,” she said, her voice growing soft and gentle. She slipped off her golf glove to expose her ring. “I'm yours.”

“I worry,” Ryan said, her face etched with tension. “I worry that you'll lose patience with me and wish you could get away from me.”

Reaching over, Jamie took her hand. “When you get this way, you seem to forget everything that you know about me. I'm not that kind of person, and you know it, Ryan O'Flaherty. In the first place, things aren't that bad between us. And secondly, if they were, I still wouldn't want to get away from you. I want to get closer to you, Ryan, and that will always be my goal. For better or worse, baby. That's not just an expression, that's how I live my life.”

“Hug?” the larger woman asked tentatively.

“As many as you can stand.” Jamie scooted closer and wrapped her arms around her partner, holding her tight while they watched the waves crash against the shore, oblivious to everything else in the world.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Maneuvering around the course, Jamie decided to go right back to where they had left off. It took a little while until they could sneak back on, but eventually the tee on 8 was clear and she couldn't spot the group on 7. They played the round in companionable silence, Jamie concentrating deeply. At the end of the round they saw the poor souls who had paid their fees to follow them. All each reporter was left with was a $375 bill for greens fees and cart rental, as well as a growing realization that these two young women were not going to give in any time soon.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After golf, they took a long nap, then ventured out again, going to dinner at a delightful northern Italian place in Carmel. Amanda had urged Ryan to continue to slowly stretch her comfort level, and she felt that she did well at the crowded eatery. When most people recognized them and heads slowly turned their way as they made their way to the table, Jamie just smiled at her partner and said, “I told you those new pants looked fabulous on you! See how much everyone likes them?”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When they got home, Jamie started to get ready for bed, but Ryan seemed anxious and irritable. She paced around the large house, going through the routine she had developed. Methodically, she checked every window, every door, and then stood and stared out the kitchen window; obviously looking for some sign of activity in the large expanse of grass.

She stood there for a long while, flinching dramatically when Jamie came up behind her and lightly touched her back. “Oh, I'm sorry, honey. I thought you heard me.”

“No.” She moved away from the touch and said, “I'm gonna go play my drums. You don't have to wait up.”

Jamie nodded, but Ryan didn't see her response. She was out the door without another glance, leaving her partner feeling rejected and shut out once again — the slight progress they'd made that afternoon evaporated.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The night was warm, although damp, so Jamie went to the coat closet and found a fleece jacket that belonged to her father. She put it on and went outside to sit in the garden next to the garage. Ryan had opened the window in the gym, and her frenetic drumming easily carried down to the blonde. Usually, the dark woman wore headphones, so that the only sound was the slapping of her sticks against the pads. But tonight she had hooked the set up to the massive speakers for the stereo in the gym, and the entire building nearly rocked. Jamie was sure the noise would give her partner a massive headache, or damage her hearing, but she didn't intrude — knowing her interference would not be appreciated.

She had no idea what demons were torturing her partner tonight, but she couldn't rest until Ryan was a little calmer, and she vowed to stay right where she was until Ryan was ready for bed.

When the din finally ceased, Jamie checked her watch and saw that it was nearly 11 o'clock. She pulled her jacket tighter and waited for Ryan to exit the building, but the minutes ticked by with no sign of her. Finally, at 11:30, she had to find out what her partner was doing. Ryan had promised that she wouldn't drink to excess, but Jamie kept thinking of the well-stocked refrigerator in the gym, knowing there was always a bottle of vodka chilling. She hated to doubt her partner, but she knew that Ryan would do just about anything to stop the demons — and if her drumming hadn't calmed her down …

Stealthily, Jamie entered the garage and climbed the stairs to the second floor. The door to the gym was open, but she couldn't hear a sound coming from the space. As quietly as she could, she poked her head in, and nearly let out a gasp of surprise when she spotted her partner. Ryan was stark naked, her wet body glowing in the dim light of a few large candles. She was seated on a large, square pillow, her body in a traditional yoga pose. Her hands rested, palms upturned, upon her knees; and her eyes were closed. In Jamie's best estimation, she was sitting in front of a makeshift altar. A weight bench was covered with a white lace cloth, and atop it stood a Celtic cross — finely rendered in a gold finish — and three large votive candles. Ryan's lips were moving slowly, but not a whisper of sound emerged. Soundlessly, Jamie went back downstairs, confident that Ryan was at least trying to calm herself down. Going back into the house, she made herself a cup of cocoa, needing the caffeine to keep herself awake, which she was determined to do.

The cocoa helped, allowing her to stay awake for another half hour. But by the time Ryan came back in, she was sound asleep, her face resting on the hard, wooden table.

What am I doing to her? Ryan asked herself, her heart gripping in pain for her partner. Squatting down beside her, Ryan gave her a gentle kiss, then tucked a hand under her knees and another behind her shoulders. Grunting from the effort, she lifted her and nestled her lover against her chest. She'd only traveled a few feet when Jamie's sleepy voice traveled up to her. “Do you still love me?” she asked, in a heartbreakingly sorrowful tone.

She was so taken aback by the question that Ryan nearly stumbled. Placing her partner on one of the sofas in the living room, she got to her knees in front of her and whispered, “Of course I love you! How can you doubt that?”

“I don't, I don't,” Jamie whispered, starting to cry. “I was having a nightmare … and I got confused. I didn't know if it was real or if you were real …”

“Oh, Jamie,” Ryan sighed, holding her tightly. “I'm so sorry.”

“I dreamed that we never got back to where we were … and one day you told me that you didn't feel the same way you used to feel. You said … you said you thought it would be best if we just started over … with someone else.” She was crying heavily now, and Ryan just held her, unable to say a thing to ease her pain. “You said it was too painful to see me and be reminded of … stuff,” she sobbed. She wrapped her arms around Ryan so tightly that she bruised her. “Please don't let that happen. Please!”

“It won't!” Ryan whispered fiercely. “I swear it won't!”

“Hold me. Hold me and tell me everything will be all right.” Ryan climbed onto the sofa, then tugged on Jamie until she was lying atop her. Her clothes were wet from sweat, but the smaller woman was oblivious to everything but her lover's heartbeat and the strong arms that held her. “I know it's hard for you to be close, but please, please hold me tonight.”

“I will,” Ryan said, already feeling her heart start to race from the intimate contact. “I promise.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

It took Jamie a long time to understand why she was lying on the sofa in the living room. She was covered with a warm blanket, and when she sat up she found a neatly typed note lying on the table in front of her.

Hi, sweetheart,

I had to leave for therapy, and you were sleeping too soundly for me to have the heart to wake you.

I spent a little time this morning trying to get my thoughts down. I know it's awfully late to be telling you these things now, but I'm working as quickly as I can, and this was honestly the first time I've felt able to do this.

First things first: You and I are together until death parts us. I think I clearly showed how I react to a stranger trying to separate us. I'm sure not going to do something like that myself. You're stuck with me, sweetheart. So even though I know I drive you mad sometimes … okay, frequently … there is no option to return this particular purchase.

Now, for the hard part. Four big things are bothering me, and no matter how hard I try, I can't get past them. Here goes:

  1. I'm wracked by guilt because I couldn't make myself do what I thought was right. As soon as I got the gun in my hands, I knew I should kill the driver. I was confident that I could kill him with a single shot to the head, and I thought I had a good chance of being able to steer the car once I pushed his body out of the way. If the passenger didn't behave, I knew I could take him out, too. Obviously, this was a gamble, but I thought it through thoroughly, and I was confident that it was the right move. Here's the problem I couldn't make myself shoot him. Even though he was trying to kill us all, I wasn't able to shoot him. I go over the scenario in my headdozens of times a day. Every time I let it play out, I come to the same decision: I should have killed him. But I was too afraid. I let my fear stop me from doing what I knew in my heart was rightand knowing that about myself makes me question who I am. I doubt everything about myself, Jamie, and that's never happened to me before. I thought I knew myself wellbut I obviously don't. I'm a coward. That's incredibly hard to admit, but that's what I am.

I doubt that I'll ever forgive myself for giving his life the same value as yours. I just hope that you don't loathe me half as much as I loathe myself for what I was unable to do. Letting him live nearly cost your life. I don't even have words for the terror I feel every time I allow myself to consider that thought. I think I have a little insight into why so many military veterans lose their minds. It's not so much what you do in times like these
it's what you fail to do that drives you mad.
  1. Failing to kill the driver was the biggest mistake I've ever made. The second biggest was saving both of their lives. I risked your life and I risked my own by doing that, and I'll never be able to apologize sufficiently for that. I know it was just a reaction, and I know that I didn't think it throughbut that's no excuse. I promised you once that I'd be very careful to take care of myself so that you and I would be together for a very long time. I broke that promise, and I will never be able to find words to express how sorry I am.

  1. I'm also unable to get over feeling responsible for killing another human. No matter who he was, or what he did, he was a child of God, and my soul aches for contributing to his death. The worst part is that I'm glad he's dead, and I hope that an even worse fate awaits his brother. I have fantasies about becoming a prison guard, just so I can kill him with my bare hands, taking out all of my rage on him as the life drains from his worthless body. I hate those men with every breath I take, but my hatred fills me with a darkness that threatens to consume me.

  1. As angry as I am with them, what they did wasn't personal. They just wanted the car, and they were too stupid to get it without trying to kill us. But someone we know has intentionally tried to make our lives substantially worse during this terrible time. I can't speak or even write her name, and I worry that I'll finally gain my nerve and be able to kill someone if I see her on campus. She haunts my dreams, Jamie, and the things I imagine doing to her terrify me. I'm not that kind of person, but, like I said, I feel like I don't know myself any longer. I'm worriedvery worried.

Those are the big four, sweetheart. Guilt, fear, self-loathing, and hatred are the only emotions I seem able to feel any more. To be honest, I haven't made much progress with any of them. I still have nightmares every night, and I still have intrusive thoughts that torment me all day. But Amanda has really helped with the reporters. I'm okay with them now, so I think it's best to go back to Berkeley. I'm afraid I'm going to be struggling with this for a long time, babe, but we can't hide out here forever.

I truly wish I could be more open with you, and let you help me through this, but it's just not possible at this point. I desperately want to be close to you, Jamie, but I start to panic when we get too close. My mind starts to race and I remember how you looked on that examining table in the ER when you were nearly blue with cold. Images of your lifeless body fill my head and I feel like I'll die from fright. The panic is as terrifying as the fear, so it becomes a vicious circle. Please, believe me when I say that I'm trying the best that I can, but it's too soon for me to be fully open with you. Amanda assures me that we'll get back to where we were, and she's not lied to me yet
so I'm gonna choose to believe her. Please believe in meand in us, Jamie. I do. I swear that I do.

Love always,


Jamie sat staring at the note for a very long time. She read it over and over again, finally lying down to let it all sink in. So many thoughts, so much guilt in that sweet, sweet woman's heart. I'd do anything to purge her of itbut I can't. All I can do is support her, and love her as best as I'm able. Dear God, please let it be enough.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Later that morning, when Ryan stood to leave Amanda's office for their last in-person visit, she reached for the hand the older woman extended. But Ryan couldn't repress her physical nature, and she took the offered hand and pulled the woman in for a robust hug. “Thank you so much,” she whispered. “It's going to be odd just talking to you on the phone. Hell, it's gonna be odd not talking to you tonight. But my family will be here late this afternoon, and I don't want to have to be on the phone for an hour.”

“I think it was a wise choice to only see each other once today,” Amanda said. “And I'd much prefer to see you in person, too, but I'm willing to see how it goes speaking on the phone. We made it work once before — I see no reason that it won't work once again.”

“I'm not sure I'm ready to go,” Ryan worried, “but I know I'll be furious with myself if I don't graduate. School starts on Monday, and I've got to be there.”

“You'll be fine. Just remember, if you want to find someone in Berkeley, I won't mind a bit. I want you to do whatever feels right, Ryan.”

“No, I'm not much for change,” she said. “I know you, and I trust you, and I don't want to have to build that trust up again.”

“You let me know when you think you want to return to your team, okay?”

“Yeah, I will. I'm not there yet, though. I need to ease back into things slowly.”

“I couldn't agree more, Ryan. You're not ready yet, but when you are, I'll be happy to talk to your coach.”

“Okay. I'll let you know.”

Amanda smiled at her and said, “Have a very good time with your family this weekend, Ryan. I'll speak to you on Monday — same as always.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan poked her head in the back door of the house and looked around the room, expecting to find her partner nearby. After her therapy session, she'd gone for a long walk along the cliffs, then bought a newspaper and whiled away another hour in a coffee shop. She knew she was being a big chicken, but she was afraid to see Jamie after delivering her note, and she debated whether to make a run for it before she was spotted. But she finally steeled her courage and started looking around the house. “Jamie?” she called a few times, receiving no answer. When she reached the second floor she didn't call out, thinking her partner might be back in bed. It was just noon, but their sleep patterns were so screwed up that either of them could be asleep at any hour of the day or night.

She found her in Catherine's sunny office, staring out at the ocean, oblivious to Ryan's presence. “Hi,” the dark-haired woman said quietly.

“Oh, hi,” she said, turning to give her a warm smile. She was sitting on one of the long chaises, and she patted the cushion. “C'mere.”

Ryan did so, standing awkwardly next to the piece. “Yeah?”

Jamie grasped her hand and said, “I'd like to pull you down here and hug the stuffing out of you, but I don't want to make you uncomfortable. Are you in the mood to be cuddled?”

Gratefully, Ryan clambered onto the chaise, managing to fit her entire, long body onto the remaining cushion. Jamie wrapped her arms around her and held her so tightly her own arms ached. After a long while, she said, “I know you're uncomfortable talking about things right now. I think writing down your thoughts was a very wise thing to do. So, let's do that for a while, okay? It might be safer for both of us.”


“Yeah, really. I can organize my thoughts better when I write them down, and it makes things less emotional. Actually, Anna suggested that I write down how I'm feeling every night before I go to bed. I've been doing that for a few days now, and it's really helped.”

“You haven't woken me up with a nightmare in a couple of days,” Ryan said. “It must be working.”

“It lets me put a lid on things,” she said. “You might want to try it tonight.”

“Okay,” she said. “But I think having the family here will help a lot.”

“I do, too,” Jamie agreed.

Ryan shifted a little to take some of her weight off her partner. “Are we okay, Jamie?”

“We're very okay, honey. I appreciate that you told me what's going on in your head. We don't have to talk about it at all, but I wanted to let you know that it was very, very helpful to hear it.”

“Okay,” she said briefly. “I don't want to talk about it, but I'm glad I could let you in just a little bit.” She shifted her body again, finally getting slightly more comfortable. “What did you do all morning?”

“Oh, I played golf, then I had a snack. I've only been up here for about a half hour.”

Realizing that something other than Jamie was jabbing her in the back, Ryan reached down and removed a book from the cushion. “What are you reading?”

“Oh. I wasn't really reading,” she said. “I was praying.”

Ryan looked at the book, and saw that it was a beautifully illustrated copy of the Book of Psalms. Opening it, she saw how well worn the pages were. “This has seen a lot of use.”

“Oh, yeah. My grandfather gave that to me, not long after I learned how to read. For years, I just looked at the pictures, but over time I really began to enjoy it. I particularly like it because it's the King James Version. The language is absolutely beautiful.”

“I've been trying to get into a prayer space,” Ryan said. “It's been really hard for me. Da brought the things from my prayer corner at home, but it's been like pulling teeth.”

“How does it normally work for you?” Jamie asked, surprised that they'd never had this discussion before.

“Mmm … I seek silence. I try to quiet my mind and just … be. If I'm really quiet, and really reflective, I can sometimes reach a totally serene place. That's when I feel I'm really with God.” She shook her head and said, “I don't know why I can't manage it any more, but I used to be able to spend a half hour or an hour doing that every day. I've really been slacking off.”

“Yeah. That's you,” Jamie scoffed. “A born slacker.”

“No, really, Jamie. It's something I've got to make time for. I have to do it in good times and bad. It's one of the keys to my mental health.”

“Well, maybe you'll be back in the habit by the time we get home.”

“It's not working,” she said. “I can't clear my mind at all. I find myself just saying formal prayers. I can't go the next step, no matter how hard I try.”

“You've got to start someplace, Ryan. Praying effectively is like any other exercise. You've got to start out slow and build up.”

“You're right. I'm expecting too much.” Cocking her head, she asked, “How do you pray?”

“Mmm … I usually start with a scripture reading. That puts me in the right mood. Then, I spend time reflecting on what I've read. Sometimes I continue to think about the text that I read, other times I go off on a completely different tangent. I talk to myself, but I feel like I'm having a conversation with my Creator. Do you know what I mean?”

“Yeah, I do. That's not how it works for me most of the time, but that sounds just like how you'd do it. You're more of a language person.”

“I am. I know you're not, but I'd like to try something anyway,” Jamie said. “Why don't you lie down and let me read some of the psalms to you. Maybe just hearing my voice will help quiet your mind.”

“Okay. I'd like that.” She snuggled down and let her long legs dangle off the edge of the chaise. Gently, Jamie began to run her fingers through the dark hair, then she began to speak. For the next half hour, she softly recited the words to the songs and prayers that had been spoken and sung for millennia, and as her voice floated over Ryan, some of the turmoil started to lift from her tormented psyche. Despite the calming touch, soft voice and quiet breaking of the waves in the distance, Ryan stayed awake the whole time, taking in Jamie's words like droplets of water onto a dry sponge. When she finally finished, Ryan turned and gazed up at her for a full minute. “That was wonderful. Can we do that again?”

“Sure. We can make it a daily ritual if you want.”

“I want to … I need to,” she said. “I haven't felt this peaceful since the day it happened.”

“Anything you need, baby. Anything at all.” Jamie patted her chest and said, “Scoot up here a little bit. I need to be closer — just for a minute or two, honey.”

Ryan gave her the vaguely haunted look that had regretfully become one of her most frequent expressions, but she gamely complied. Moving up the chaise, she rested her head on Jamie's chest, as the blonde indicated. “When I was saying those words, I kept thinking of a song that they play at Mass. I don't know why, but I have an overpowering urge to sing it for you.”

Murmuring softly, Ryan said, “I'd like that. I love it when you sing to me.”

“Just close your sweet, blue eyes and try to relax, sweetheart.” She bent her head and kissed the glossy, black hair. “This is my wish for you.”

Clearing her throat, she started to sing in the soft, confident tone that Ryan deeply loved.

You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in His shadow for life.
Say to the Lord, “My Refuge, my Rock, in whom I trust.”

And He will raise you up on eagle's wings, bear you on the breath of dawn
Make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of His hand.

Her musical urges rose to the surface, and Ryan started to hum the harmony, just to provide background for her partner's soothing words.

For to His angels He's given the command, to guard you in all of your days.
Upon their hands, they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.

And He will raise you up on eagle's wings, bear you on the breath of dawn.
Make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of His hand.
And hold you … hold you … in the palm of His hand.

“God is holding you in the palm of His hand, sweetheart,” she whispered. “And so am I.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Ready for lunch, precious one?” Ryan had been dozing in Jamie's warm embrace, but the smaller woman's stomach was starting to make its needs known.

“Oh.” The blue eyes blinked open and she looked up at Jamie sleepily. “Uhm … sure. What would you like?”

“I'd like a patty melt and a chocolate malt,” Jamie said without hesitation.

“Really? You never eat stuff like that,” Ryan said, now fully awake. “Do you have PMS?”

“Nope. I just like Helen's patty melts. I think you will, too. Let's go.”

“Who's Helen, and why are you eating patty melts with her?”

“Come on, Tiger. It's time for you to meet my new girlfriend.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan pestered Jamie all the way to the restaurant, but the blonde wasn't talking. It was obvious that Jamie was teasing her, but Ryan was unable to get a clue. Finally, they entered the small diner, and a round, friendly face topped by snow white, curly hair called out, “Jamie! You finally managed to bring her over for a decent meal!” Eyes nearly popping from her head, Ryan was enveloped in a warm, robust hug, then Jamie was given the same treatment. “I never thought I was gonna get to meet you, Ryan!”

“I … I'm surprised, too,” she said, looking to Jamie to save her.

“We're heading home on Sunday, so this is our last visit,” the blonde said. “Fix Ryan up with your specialty, Helen. She needs to put some weight back on, and I can't think of a better way to do it than with your delicious food. Oh, bring out the pictures of your grandkids, will you? Little Heather reminds me of Ryan when she was a little girl.”

“Will do,” she said, ruffling the short, blonde hair. “Do you like onions, Ryan?”

“Uhm … sure.”

“That's my girl,” Helen said, a broad smile on her face. “Be right back.”

As she went into the tiny kitchen, Ryan gaped at her partner. “Is she some distant relative I don't know about?”

“Huh-uh. I met her the first day we were here. She's kinda adopted me.”

Quirking a grin, Ryan shook her head, saying, “You are such a lovable little cuss, Jamie Evans. Women of all ages succumb to your charms.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

To Ryan's amazement, her father and aunt, all of her brothers, Maggie, Kevin, Tommy, Annie and Caitlin, and every one of her cousins showed up later that night. All of the cousins brought sleeping bags, since there weren't nearly enough beds for the whole crew, but they didn't seem to mind camping out in such a luxurious campground.

She and Jamie set about getting everyone organized, putting Tommy and Annie, and Brendan and Maggie in the two apartments off the pool; getting Martin and Maeve settled in a guest room in the house, then waiting for all of the single men to cut cards to determine who got the other rooms. Ryan pulled Jamie aside and said, “Should we sleep in your mother's room, and let someone have ours?”

“No, I don't think Mom would like that, honey. Do the boys really mind sleeping on the floor?”

“No, not at all,” Ryan said. “I just thought it would be nice.” Jamie's reticence puzzled her, but she figured that Catherine might just not be the type who liked to share her private space.

Ryan spent some time taking the group on an extended tour. It was very dark out, but the grounds were well lit, and they managed to get a flavor for the estate. As expected, the cousins were most impressed with the cars in the garage and the exercise room, and Ryan left most of them there to examine the toys.

Caitlin, Tommy and Annie were, as expected, required to be in the pool, so a few more cousins, along with Brendan and Maggie, joined that crowd. Conor, Dermot, Declan and Rory were playing pool in the game room, while Jamie and Maeve made up platters of snacks for all of the various groups.

Ryan looked around the warm, bright kitchen, watching while her father made a fire in the fireplace. She sighed to herself, feeling whole and safe and protected in the embrace of her family.

The back door opened, and she cried out a greeting when Catherine poked her head in, followed by a wide-eyed, but wildly happy Jennie.

“You little scamp,” Ryan muttered, dashing by her partner to give her a slap on the butt. “Your mother wouldn't want us in her room!”

“Well, she wouldn't,” Jamie said. “She's small, but she's not small enough to have us in there with her and Jennie!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan, Jamie, Martin, Maeve, Brendan, Maggie, Conor, Rory, Kevin, Jennie and Catherine all sat out on the outdoor patio — able to hear the waves crashing, but unable to see them, the moon being largely absent. Jamie had fired up the heaters, and the space was quite comfortable, even though the night was quite chilly and damp.

They all questioned Catherine about her trip, then Ryan and Jamie spoke of their stay in the Bahamas. Finally, Jennie filled everyone in on her first week of school.

By the time all of the players had spoken, Jamie looked at her watch and said, “10 o'clock, honey. Time for bed.”

“But … but … we've got company!”

“Nonsense, Siobhán,” Martin said. “We're not company — we're family. Jamie's concerned about you, love. Don't argue with the lass.”

“I should have known he'd be on your side,” Ryan said, nevertheless getting to her feet.

Jamie took her hand and said, “We've got to try to get into normal sleep patterns, honey. We've got to be at school bright and early on Monday.” Turning to the crowd, she said, “Stay up as late as you like, everyone. We can't hear a thing upstairs, so have a ball.”

Conor piped up and said, “If you go running in the morning, knock on my door, okay?”

“Will do,” Ryan said, making her way around the room to offer goodnight kisses to all. “We can taunt the reporters. It's fun to slow down until they can almost focus their cameras, and then take off as fast as you can. Drives 'em nuts!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan knocked lightly on Conor's door early the next morning, but didn't receive a response. Opening the door, she saw that the bed was empty, so she went downstairs to search for him. He was in the kitchen, drinking directly out of the orange juice container. When he spied her, he adopted a guilty look, but she reassured him. “I do it all the time. Drives Jamie mad.”

“I figure it saves washing a glass,” he said reasonably. “Sleep well?”

“Great,” she said. “Best night I've had. Having you all here really made a difference.”

“I'd have a hard time going back home if I were you, sis. I think I could be pretty happy hanging out down here — driving the cars — playing golf.”

“Eh … it's a nice place to visit …” Ryan's voice trailed off. “I just need normalcy in my life … and this is far from normal.”

“Yeah, I guess,” he said. “Besides, we couldn't stand to have you this far away. Ready?”

“Yep. Now, let me warn ya. They're gonna be right outside. The police won't let them have their news trucks there, and they can't park their cars overnight, but that doesn't stop 'em from gathering on foot. Just try not to let them bother you, okay?”

“They won't bother me,” he said. “I'm just worried about you.”

“Don't be,” she said clearly. “I'm doing fine with it now, and the last thing I want is for you to get into a confrontation with them. Just don't speak or make eye contact, and you'll make me happy.”

They got through the small knot of reporters without incident, although two of them came prepared, wearing running shoes and shorts. They gave a creditable chase, but the added weight of their cameras slowed them down enough so that the siblings had dusted them within a quarter mile. After that short sprint, they settled down to a comfortable pace, not speaking for a long time, both enjoying the early morning sounds of the sea.

After about three miles Conor asked, “So tell me more about your vacation. Was it really great?”

“It sure was,” she said dreamily. “I have no desire to live in Pebble Beach, but I could live on Eleuthra. You would have loved it, Con. It would be right up your alley.”

“Did Jordan and Mia have a good time, too?” he asked, trying to sound casual.

“Of course,” she said. “After we left, Mia stayed in Florida to go to Jordan's first tournament. They won every match, and beat Canada for the Pan-Am championship last Sunday.”

“Wow,” he said slowly. “She stayed, huh?”

“Yes, Conor,” Ryan said. “They're very close.”

She could see the scowl building as his shoulders slumped a bit. “I played that hand very badly,” he said.

“How so?”

“I did what no guy in his right mind would do,” he said. “First off — I told the complete truth, and that's always fatal.”

She smirked at him, having a different worldview, but realizing the she wasn't going to change his. “Yes, Con, honestly is a horrible thing to inject into a relationship.”

“You're telling me,” he said somberly. “Second — I did to her what guys hate to have done to them. I gave her the 'how serious about me are you' speech. That's insane! As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I'd shot myself!”

“Why do you think you did that?” Ryan asked, a little puzzled by his behavior.

“Mmm … probably because I was thinking out loud,” he said. “I'd never given a thought to getting serious with her, but when she told me there had been a chance that she was pregnant, it just dawned on me that wouldn't have been such a horrible thing … for me, at least.”

“That makes sense,” she said. “And as much as I am a proponent of honesty — that was a little abrupt for a second date.”

“You're telling me? I could have pled temporary insanity, but her mind was already made up.” He kicked a tree branch that was lying in the road, and grumbled, “What really pisses me off is that she was willing to get serious. She just didn't know it.”

Ryan nodded, admitting, “I guess you're right. She's pretty serious about Jordan.”

“No signs this is just a fling, huh?” he asked, pressing for information.

“Hmm … you know I don't like to talk about my friends behind their backs,” she said, “but I think it's safe to say that you shouldn't hold your breath waiting for her to be available.”

“So close! I was so close, and I let my big trap ruin it for me.”

“You don't know that, Conor. You never know when you're going to click with someone.”

“I clicked with her,” he said decisively. “I just hope that one day she clicks with me.”

“Again … don't hold your breath,” Ryan said, thinking that her friends were a long way from breaking up.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Later that afternoon, Ryan wandered down to the pool and found Jennie playing with the baby, both blondes having the time of their lives. “I've got to get the munchkin down for her nap, but it's gonna be tough,” Annie said when she caught Ryan's eye.

“Well, I guess you have to decide when you want her to scream,” Ryan said. “Either now, or later, when she's cranky because she didn't have a nap.”

“I suppose now would be best,” Annie said.

“Let me take her up to our room. I haven't heard her scream bloody murder in weeks. I'm due.”

“Oh, Ryan, you don't have to do that …”

“I know. But I'd like to. I miss her, Annie.” She gave her a wry grin and said, “If she gives me a hard time, I'll be sick of her and then I won't miss her so much.”

“How could I turn down such a heartfelt plea?” she said.

“Come on, Jen,” Ryan said. “Grab the baby and hand her over. It's time for her nap.”

“Uhm … can I come and help?” she asked.

“Do you really want to?”

“Yeah. I've never put a baby to bed before. You can show me how.”

“Okay. Dry off and join us.”

Once they were in Ryan's room, Caitlin started to look around suspiciously, slowly coming to the realization that they were getting into nap mode. As soon as the thought hit her, she started to scream, wailing pathetically and clutching at Jennie. “She doesn't associate you with the conspiracy,” Ryan said loudly to be heard over the din.

“Boy, she's loud!” Jennie yelled back.

Ryan swooped her up and held her snugly, walking around the room with her as she jiggled her over her shoulder. “Having a baby isn't all glamour,” she said. “Even one as nice as this one.”

It took a while, and Ryan's head was throbbing, but Caitlin finally calmed down enough to drink her bottle. “Why don't you feed her?” Ryan asked.

“Me? I've never fed a baby before!”

“Then it's time you learned how,” Ryan said. “Come over here and sit in the chair … That's it. Now, just cradle her however she seems comfortable. You don't have to support her much. She usually gets herself into position.” The baby fussed and kicked, then settled down, with her head resting against Jennie's chest. “Now, take the bottle and angle it like … this,” Ryan said, showing her the proper way. “That's great. Now all you have to do is let her suck. She'll either fall asleep, or let you know when she's done.”

Jennie looked down at the nursing child, a warm grin on her face. “It's hard to imagine being this little, isn't it?”

“For me it sure is,” Ryan said. “I think I was that size in utero.”

“I was real little,” Jennie said softly. “I had to stay in the hospital for a while, 'cause I was so tiny.”

“Were you premature?”

“Uh-huh. I don't know how much, but I think I only weighed 4 pounds.”

“That is small,” Ryan said. “I think I had 4 pounds of hair when I was born.” Jennie looked up at her, on the verge of making a joke, but her face scrunched up, and before Ryan could blink she was crying soundlessly. “Hey, hey, what's wrong?” the older woman asked, squatting down next to her.

“I've … I've been so worried about you,” she said.

“Oh, Jen, I'm fine. You saw that for yourself on Christmas, didn't you?”

“But you're not home … and you didn't come back to take me to sch … sch … school. I know you, Ryan, and you'd only miss that if something was really wrong.” She was sobbing hard now, and Ryan took the nearly sleeping baby into her own arms so that Jen didn't wake her.

“I'm all right, sweetheart,” she said, stroking Jennie's shaking body with her free hand. “Things have been hard for Jamie and me, but we'll get through it. I promise you that, Jen.”

“You're not gonna break up, are you?”

What? Of course not! Whatever gave you an idea like that?”

“I don't know,” she mumbled, “but whenever adults keep stuff secret, they wind up getting divorced.”

“Jennie, we're not keeping anything secret.” She reached out and touched her chin, making her face her. “I'll tell you the entire truth. Ready?”

“Uh-huh,” she said, looking terribly frightened.

“I've been afraid, Jen. The reporters and photographers scare me when they're right outside my house. Sometimes they scare me so much that I start to panic. Did you see what happened to me when I was down in North Carolina?”

“Yeah,” she said, looking embarrassed for her friend.

“Well, that's what happens. I needed to get away for a while, so I could learn how to handle it, and I think I've done that. I've been seeing a psychiatrist, and she's helped me get much more comfortable with having my picture taken constantly. I'm ready to come home now, buddy.”

“Are you sure? I don't want you to have any more of those attacks. That scared me so bad, Ryan.”

“I don't want to, either,” Ryan said. “I can't guarantee that I'll never have one, but even if I do, I think I know how to deal with them better. I feel pretty good, Jen. I really think I'm ready to go home.” Running a hand through the girl's short hair she asked, “How about you? Tell me how this has affected you.”

“I have nightmares,” she said. “I had one … a bad one … last night. I was sleeping on the window seat in Mrs. Evans' room, and I woke her up.”

“I'm sure she didn't mind,” Ryan said.

Jennie looked up at her with a vaguely puzzled expression. “She didn't,” she said quietly. “She got up and sat with me, Ryan. She put my head in her lap and rubbed it until I went back to sleep.” With a look filled with wonder, she added, “No one's ever done that for me.”

“Everyone deserves to have their head rubbed,” Ryan said. “I'm glad Catherine showed you how nice it can be.” She shifted the sleeping baby in her arms and placed her back on Jennie's lap. “Caitlin needs a little more cuddling. Do you mind? My arms are getting tired.”

“No, I don't mind,” she said, accepting the heavy bundle. “She's so sweet.” She cuddled her against her chest and stroked her wispy blonde hair.

“So are you,” Ryan whispered, bending to kiss Jennie's head. “I'm gonna go get us a snack. You are hungry, aren't you?”


“Glad to know I haven't forgotten what it's like to be young,” Ryan said. “Be right back.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

By late afternoon, the party was in full swing. The entire family was gathered around the pool, by Caitlin's decree, and everyone took turns playing with her. Jamie and Ryan had spent most of the day in the kitchen, but both insisted that was their preference, so they were allowed to do as they wished.

“How does it feel to have everyone here?” Jamie asked during one of their frequent alone times.

“Good,” Ryan said decisively. “I need a break every half hour or so, but it's going pretty well. How about you?”

“I'm good,” Jamie said. “I feel so much better having my mom in town, and spending time with her is just what the doctor ordered.”

“I feel the same about my parents,” Ryan sighed. “They're pure comfort for me.”

“It's a little harder with the boys though, huh?”

“Not much,” Ryan said. “They're a little boisterous, and that gets on my nerves a bit, but that will calm down soon.”

“That's the attitude. It will all calm down soon.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The next afternoon, Jamie and Ryan saw everyone off, then did a final inspection of the house before they packed up as well. They were ready to go by 5 p.m., but Ryan seemed reticent to actually get into the car and leave.

Coming up behind her, Jamie snaked her arms around Ryan's waist and hugged her close. “Having trouble leaving?”

“Yeah,” she said, her voice low and soft. “I'm worried about what awaits us back in the real world.”

Jamie turned her around and gazed into her eyes. “I don't know about you, but the most frightening thing for me is facing what's in here.” She tapped her temple with her index finger. “Those guys out there are nothing compared to the monsters I have in here.”

Ryan smiled gently, and nodded. “I've got a few creepy creatures in my head, too. I guess you're right, we take them with us wherever we are.”

“Yeah … but they're getting less creepy all the time.”

“They are,” Ryan said. She wrapped her partner in a tight embrace. “You've been so wonderful to me, Jamie. I know it's been hard for you, and I just hope you know how much I appreciate that you've been able to let me go at my own pace.”

“Hey, you're not the only one moving at a glacial pace,” Jamie said. “I'm very tentative, too, Ryan, and you've been very understanding of my needs, also.”

“We'll get there, baby,” the taller woman whispered. “It's taking longer than I have patience for, but we'll get there.”

“I know we will,” Jamie sighed. “I have confidence in us.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Well, it didn't take them long to guess where we were going,” Ryan said as they drove by the O'Flaherty home and saw the large assemblage of reporters. “They must have radioed ahead for reinforcements.”

“You feeling okay?” Jamie asked, just a little worried.

“Yeah. I'm going to give this my best shot,” she said. They found a parking spot about two blocks up Noe, and by the time they were out of the car, several reporters had raced up the street. They started to shout their questions, but Ryan ignored them completely, acting as though they were invisible. “Would you rather carry the suitcases, or clear the way?” she asked her partner, a small smile firmly fixed upon her face.

“Let's each carry one, and each use an arm to push our way through,” Jamie said, greatly relieved to have her partner acting so normally. They did just that, neither woman seeming to pay the slightest attention to the questions, or the thrusting microphones. Shooting a glance at her partner, Jamie was both pleased and amazed to see that there wasn't a flicker of anxiety or tension on Ryan's face. She looked like she was walking down the street all alone, save for the raised arm with the sharp elbow pointed menacingly at all who dared to come too close.

They reached the house without serious incident, and as they hit the door, Ryan opened it wide, allowing Duffy to fly out. He jumped frantically, licking both Ryan and Jamie, then ran for the pack of reporters who had daringly climbed the stairs after them. He was so exuberant that he practically knocked them down the stairs backwards, just as Ryan had hoped. She stood in the doorway, smiling benignly at the scrambling men, all trying to keep their balance as they walked backwards, slowly descending the stairs to get away from the frantic pink tongue. As they departed, she went to the deck railing, a deeply satisfied look on her face. “Our pestilent infestation of reporters is being exterminated in a very efficient manner,” she intoned, sparing a glance at her partner. As soon as the dog neared the sidewalk, she called to him, and he turned and flew back up, his tail wagging fiercely.

The dog ran into the house after them, squealing with delight. “I think he missed us,” Jamie observed dryly, as the dog caught Ryan flatfooted and knocked her onto her butt. He was licking her so frantically that Ryan was completely unable to defend herself, and Jamie made the ultimate sacrifice and joined her on the floor, letting Duffy spread his love between them equally.

“You do love me,” Ryan said, as Duffy started to work on her ear.

“Yep, I do,” Jamie said. “I'll gladly sacrifice myself to keep you safe.”

Ryan reached out and grabbed her, wrapping her in the protective cocoon of her long arms and legs, effectively blocking Duffy from reaching her. “And I'll do the same for you,” she sighed heavily, thoroughly relieved to be back home.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

They were still on the floor when Conor, Rory and Kevin came in a few minutes later, and Duffy immediately relinquished his attentions on the girls to take off after the men of the family. “Are you sure your Uncle Patrick took Duffy to his house?” Jamie asked. “ The dog acts like he's been locked in the closet for three days.”

“Well,” Ryan said, getting to her feet and pulling her partner with her, “he's got food and water, and there's a message in Uncle Patrick's hand saying he brought him home at 8 o'clock.” She slapped her hand with the paper and said, “I guess it could be an elaborate ruse. Duffy, were you in the closet?” The big dog just stared at her, ears up, pink tongue hanging out. “He won't talk, as usual,” Ryan said. “The darned dog's as hard headed as I am.”

“Oh, surely not!” Jamie cried, flinging herself at her partner, knocking her onto the sofa.

Ryan rolled over and straddled her waist, pinning her arms at the same time. “You're starting to take after Duffy!” she cried. “What's gotten into you?”

“He must have gotten me wired up,” the smaller woman said. “Plus, running the gauntlet of reporters got my blood pumping, too.”

“You did great,” Ryan said.

“You're the one who did great,” Jamie said. “You acted like you couldn't even hear them!”

“I couldn't. I just decided they weren't there, and I focused all of my energies on getting down the street. I was staring at the ground so intently that I could almost see the individual molecules of sand, cement and aggregate that made up the concrete.”

“Lord, I wish I could concentrate like that! I heard every stupid question, but I stayed calm because you were calm.”

“That's how we balance each other out,” Ryan said. “If I was freaked, you would have been calm. It's what we do,” she said softly, a gentle smile on her face.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

They hadn't been home for ten minutes when Jamie's cell phone rang. “When are you coming home?” Mia asked crossly. “I'm lonesome!”

“Hi, sweetie! We'll be home in the morning. Can't wait to see you. I was really sorry you couldn't come down to the beach this weekend.”

“I was too, but I had to go see my parents. I missed 'em, but seeing all of their pictures of Rome made me glad I didn't go with. I swear, they were at some church or another the whole time! For a fallen-away Catholic, my mom's sure a church nut!”

“The churches in Rome are as architecturally and artistically interesting as they are religious,” Jamie said.

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Mia said. “And this eye doesn't like to behold churches!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

It felt odd to be back in their bed, and Jamie had to struggle to avoid feeling jealous of Duffy. The happy dog was being cuddled fiercely by his mistress, and Jamie longed for just a tenth of the affection Ryan was lavishing on him. But she reminded herself that Ryan was doing her very best, and tried to be grateful that the dark woman had some means of getting the physical attention that she needed.

Once they were all comfortable, Jamie took out her book and started to read the psalms to Ryan. Much to her pleasure, the blue eyes fluttered closed after just a few minutes, and soon all three inhabitants of the bed were sound asleep.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

The next morning, Ryan spent a good fifteen minutes talking Conor out of taking the day off to go to school with her. “I'm fine,” she said. “Really, Con. I have some techniques to deal with the stress now. I'm sure I'll be fine.”

“But I took you to school the last time you were scared,” he said.

“Conor, that was my first day of kindergarten,” she said. “I've matured a little since I was four.”

“Are you sure you don't want me to go with you? I really don't mind.”

“Yes, I'm sure, bro. It's gonna be a little rough, but I'll be fine. And if anyone gives me a hard time, I'll just tell them that my big brother's gonna come and beat 'em up!”

“I will, Ryan,” he said, giving her a completely serious look. “I don't take kindly to people causing trouble for my little sister.”

“I know,” she said, ruffling his hair affectionately. “You go on to work. If I need you, I'll page you.”

“Okay.” He finally relented, leaving just as Jamie came upstairs. “I'll beat up anyone who gives you a hard time, too, Jamie,” he called out as he departed.

“That was an odd greeting,” the blonde said. “Have you talked to Amanda yet?”

“Nope.” Ryan looked at her watch. “I'm talking to her at seven a.m. and six p.m., every day this week. If the week goes well, we're gonna cut it down by a few sessions next week. How about you?”

“I'm gonna see Anna every day, too. We'll probably cut down a bit next week, as well.” She looked at her partner and said, “You pay close attention to make sure you're getting what you need over the phone, okay? We can find you someone local if it isn't working for you.”

“I know. Amanda said the same thing. She's really looking out for my best interests, honey.”

“That's why I like her,” Jamie said. “I've got to get going now. You don't mind taking your motorcycle, do you?”

“No. I'll be able to use the carpool lane, so leaving late won't be so bad.” She wrapped her arms around her partner and said, “Are you okay with going alone? I could talk to Amanda on my cell phone if you need me to be with you.”

“I'm fine, sweetheart. I know you'll worry, so walk me down to the car, okay?”

“Like you could stop me,” Ryan said. “Duffy! Come on, boy. Time for a little walk.” The big dog came scampering over, wagging his tail enthusiastically. Ryan reached down and patted his head, saying, “Now don't be shy about saying hello to all of the nice men outside. They particularly like it when you jump up on them — really hard — at about groin level.” Smiling at Jamie, she reported, “Your escort is ready!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When she entered the Berkeley house, Ryan's mouth gaped open in surprise. The table by the front door was piled a foot high with mail, Jamie's penchant for shopping via catalog finally catching up with her. When she pushed the mail to one side, she saw sticky notes lining the entire table — no less than fifty of the 2 x 3 inch notes covering the surface. The early ones bore Mia's somewhat sloppy cursive writing detailing the caller and their message, but the ones received last night bore pithy comments like, “Some asshole reporter called — 1 a. fucking m.” Oh-oh, Mia's reached her limit.

Heading into the kitchen, Ryan spotted the grumpy woman eating a bowl of cereal. Her curly head tilted up and she said, “Good thing for you that I love you two. The fucking phone is about to drive me mad.” She gave Ryan a half smile and got up, giving her a big hug. “I missed you.”

“I missed you, too,” Ryan said, holding on to her for a long time. “We'll pay your cell phone bill for the month, so go ahead and use it exclusively. Until this dies down, we just won't answer the main number.” She took the handset off the wall phone and tossed it into the trash. “Good riddance.”

“How are you feeling about being back at school, buddy? You okay?”

“Well, to be honest, I'm a little freaked out. I wish Jamie had been able to be with me this morning so we could walk to school together. I'm doing better — but I'm still a little afraid that I'll deck someone.” She shook her head and said, “I'm honestly afraid that I'll break Cassie's head open if I see her. I hope to God she's got the sense to run if she catches sight of me.”

“Uhm … are you guys still trying to avoid looking at the news?”

“Yeah. We're totally out of the loop. Why?”

“Well, something happened while you were gone that you should know about.”

“Now what?”

“Well … someone from your team talked to the tabloids, Ryan. They said you had some kind of a meltdown when you returned from the Bahamas …”

“Oh, fuck.” Ryan sat down, looking like she was going to be sick. “Those dirty motherfuckers!”

“Uhm … your coach called right after it happened, and I talked to her for a long time. She seemed strangely … nice,” she said.

“Yeah, she's not so bad. What did she have to say?”

“She said that she was going to try to find out who ratted you out, and then kick them off the team. She sounded very upset about the whole thing, Ryan. She seemed to really care about you.”

“Yeah … I think she does.” Ryan shook her dark head and said, “I think I know who talked — and I have a feeling that she was in cahoots with a certain soon-to-be-deceased former roommate of yours.”

Mia stood up and walked over to give Ryan a hug. “I'm going to walk you over to school, babe. There are too many people on your shit list for you to wander around unescorted.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan gathered the phone messages and read through them as she and Mia walked along. Noting that a reporter from the Daily Californian had called repeatedly, she asked, “Gee, I wonder what he wants? Does this guy really think I'm gonna turn down big bucks from the tabloids to give him an exclusive story? You know damn well that the school would sell the rights to the story to the highest bidder. They must think I just crawled out of the potato patch.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

By the time Jamie got to the practice range from her car, she had been hugged and squeezed so many times, she was certain she'd have bruises. All of her teammates had called after the ordeal, and a few had even sent personal notes, making her feel more like a member of the team than ever before. While she limbered up, Scott came over and said, “Just take it slow, Jamie. I'm sure you weren't able to practice over break, but don't let that worry you.”

“I was able to practice,” she said. “We went down to my parents' home near Carmel, and I was able to play nearly every day. I'm actually feeling pretty good about my game.”

“How's Ryan?” he asked quietly. “I saw what happened when she was down south for that game …”

“She's better now,” Jamie said, smiling. “It's been tough for both of us, but we'll get through it.”

“Well, if you need anything, like time off from practice, just let me know. I don't want golf to add to your stress.”

“It doesn't,” she said. “Playing golf is a very welcome diversion for me, Scott. It got me through some tough days over the last weeks.”

“That's good to hear. Just remember that we're all behind you, Jamie,” he said. “Let us know if there's anything you need.”

Juliet approached as Scott left. “Hi,” she said. “Are you doing okay?”

“Yeah, I am,” Jamie said confidently. “Did you have a good break?”

“Yeah. Sure.” She shrugged and added, “I just played golf. Are we still on for a round tomorrow?”

“I am. Two o'clock, right?”

“That's it. I'll check with the other girls to make sure everyone remembers.”

Juliet sauntered off, stopping to chat with several of the other players. Well, that's the first time some of the freshmen have heard her voice, the blonde thought. Maybe Juliet is coming out of her shell.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Several times during the day, Ryan wished she had accepted Conor's offer of protection. She always drew a fair amount of attention on campus — her impressive height, distinctive good looks, and having played two varsity sports making her stand out. But today, she was drawing more attention than she was comfortable with. She had been followed from home, a small pack of reporters jogging along behind her and Mia. Of course, she would not speak, or even make eye contact, but the same could not be said for her classmates. When Ryan left her first class, a reporter was interviewing some joker who Ryan had never seen before in her life. She heard the young man voicing an opinion about her, nonetheless, commenting that he had always found her to be aloof and standoffish. She was on the verge of grabbing him by the shirt and showing him that he might prefer her being standoffish, when Mia bounded back up to her and gave her a hug and a kiss. The flashes popped as the photographers stopping focusing on the young man and switched to Mia. “What the fuck?” she said, shielding her eyes with a raised hand.

“You don't mind being in the tabloids as the new woman I'm having my evil way with, do you?”

“Well, I think I'd better warn my parents, but other than that, I think it's an honor,” she said. “I just ran over to ask if you want to have lunch with Jamie and her mom. You don't have your cell phone turned on.”

“Oops ... can't afford to do that,” Ryan said, and quickly switched the device on. “I've got to scoot, Mia, will you call Jamie and tell her I can't make it? I'm going to meet with my independent study advisor during lunch. Tell her I love her, though, okay?”

“You love her more than you love me?” Mia said loudly, feigning outrage, then began to laugh heartily when the reporters scrambled for their notepads. “This is fun!” she said, chuckling as she departed.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Jamie and Catherine sat on matching Adirondack chairs under the shade of a massive magnolia tree, eating the delightful lunch that Marta had prepared for them. By exiting through the back of her classroom, Jamie had been able to elude the sole reporter who had decided to tag along with her, and she was relaxed and happy, although very chilly, during their meal.

“I'm simply amazed at how well you're taking all of this, honey,” Catherine said.

“Well, there are a lot of things about the ordeal that are still bothering me,” Jamie said, “but the reporters don't upset me. They really haven't had much impact on me from the start. It doesn't seem like a big deal, for some reason.”

“But Ryan doesn't feel that way, does she?”

“No. They bother her a lot, but much less now than they did at first. She's a very private person, Mom, and she hates to have to censor her behavior in public.”

“I can certainly understand that,” Catherine said. “I'm glad to hear that it's getting a little easier for her.”

“That part is,” Jamie said. “But she's still very, very shaky. She's still talking to her therapist twice a day, and I think that's going to have to continue for a while. Her sleep is still very spotty, and her appetite's not really returned, either. Things are a long way from normal for us.” Her head shook slowly as she gazed at her lunch with a resigned look on her face.

“Tell me what else is bothering you, honey,” Catherine said, “I know something is.”

“Uhm … I don't think this is the kind of thing you want to hear about,” Jamie muttered. “It's ah … kinda personal.”

“I don't mind. If you need to talk, I'm very willing to hear you out.”

“I don't know if it helps to talk about it or not,” she said. “It's just … we're not … uhm … Ryan and I are having trouble being … close, and it's really wearing on me.”

“Close like … sexually close?” Catherine asked gently.

Chuckling softly, Jamie said, “Oh, we're a long, long way from being sexual. We're just at the point now where I can hold her for a short while each day. The rest of our physical relationship is just a dream for now. She even changes clothes in her room and showers alone.”

Catherine reached out and grasped her hand, “Oh, Jamie, I'm so sorry to hear that. I know how much it means to you both to express your love. I thought that things would start becoming more normal if you slept together. I thought your bodies would just naturally move together during the night.”

“No, that hasn't happened,” she sighed. “I know that we'll get it back, Mom; I'm confident of that. I just worry that it's going to be really, really difficult for Ryan. I'm afraid that it will take a very long time, and I don't want her to get too frustrated if it does.”

“It sounds like Ryan's got more of an issue than you do,” Catherine opined. “Is that so?”

“A bit, yeah, I'd say that's true,” Jamie said. “I've been thinking about this a lot, and I think we're having different reactions because we approach sex so differently.”

Catherine just cocked her head, encouraging Jamie to continue if she wished.

“You know how intense Ryan is, right?” Jamie asked.

“Yes, dear, I've seen her in action. She is the soul of intensity.”

“Right,” Jamie said. “Well, she's very, very intense when we make love.” Giving her mother a quizzical look, Jamie asked, “Are you sure it's okay to talk about this?”

“Yes, absolutely,” Catherine said. “After our talks in Rhode Island, I've become shock resistant.”

Jamie smirked at her and continued. “Ryan's whole thing is to show me as much of herself as she can possibly reveal. She consciously tries to take down every barrier. Every time we make love, she tries to show me what's in her heart.” She smiled wistfully. “She bares her soul to me, Mom.”

Catherine smiled wistfully and said, “That sounds wonderful.”

“Oh, it is,” Jamie said. “It's such a gift. But when she's feeling wounded and frightened like she is now — she's unable to be close at all. It's like she's either fully revealed or fully shielded. There's no middle ground with her — do you know what I mean?”

“Yes, I think so,” Catherine said. “I take it that you're not the same way Ryan is.”

“No, not at all,” Jamie said. “Like I said, Ryan tries to be 100% present when we're being intimate. She keeps those big, blue eyes locked onto me like we're sharing the same DNA. I, on the other hand, lose myself completely when we're close. My brain shuts off, and I just let the sensations take over. I mean,” she said, “I know that it's Ryan making love to me, but I don't really experience her very much — I experience the sensations.

“So while Ryan is being so painfully intimate, and risking so much — I'm just floating along on this sensual cloud — hardly aware of what's going on around me.” She laughed briefly, then continued. “Sometimes I can really be connected, and allow myself to be as vulnerable as she is.” She sighed. “Our lovemaking is incredibly moving when that happens, but usually we're almost on different planes. Thankfully, it works quite well for us. It's just when we're having trouble — like now — that the difference in our styles is so obvious. I could easily get carried away if Ryan started to touch me … but she can't risk being touched or touching me, because she feels too vulnerable.”

“Does she realize this, Jamie? Do you talk about this?”

“Not much,” she said. “I don't want to bring it up at this point — at least not in any detail. She feels really broken, Mom, and I don't want to make it worse. She's so very fragile right now.” She shook her head and fought to hold back the tears. “I just want to support her.”

“Jamie,” Catherine said, “I can see how hard this is right now, but it's so obvious how much you love each other. I'm sure that getting through this will make your relationship just that much stronger.”

Her cell phone rang, and Jamie answered quickly. “Hello?”

“Hi. I got finished with my meeting early. Are you still having lunch?”

“Yeah. Come on over. We've got plenty left.”

“Will do. Are you in our usual picnic spot?”

“Noooo …” she said. “I'd play hide and seek, but you'd never find us.”

“Do tell,” Ryan said.

“We're in the back yard of University House,” Jamie said, and waited for her partner's reaction.

“Uhm … honey …? Why are you in the Chancellor's back yard?”

“I'll tell you when you get here. Hurry up, Tiger.”

Jamie smiled at her mom and said, “She's coming over to join us.”

“Seeing how your face lights up when you hear her voice says volumes about your bond, Jamie. This will all work out in the end.”

“I hope so, Mom. I miss her.” She gave her mother a small smile and said, “I didn't see her get dressed today, but if she's in her normal winter attire, you're going to think she's gone mad.”

“Why's that, honey?”

“Well, she hates the fact that most of the classrooms are heated. She's antagonistic to artificial heat. Heck, she doesn't even like to have the furnace on unless you can see your breath in the house. Ryan's a firm believer that a cool house is a very good thing. Anyway, she'd rather be cold than hot, so she dresses so she's comfortable in the heated classroom. In my opinion she looks more than a little odd …”

Catherine twitched her head as she caught sight of a mass of dark hair flying in the breeze as Ryan scampered along the path, panting slightly. “Did you run the whole way?” Catherine asked when the pink-cheeked woman gave her a kiss and sat next to Jamie.

“Yep,” she said, kicking her feet out. Ryan had on a snug, short-sleeved, navy blue knit shirt and a pair of khaki-colored cargo shorts — an outfit that would have been perfectly suited for a 70 degree day. But it was around 50 degrees, heavily overcast, and breezy, with a decided threat of rain. To provide a little more warmth to her extremities, she also had on her bright yellow sleeveless fleece vest, a navy blue knit cap, heavy socks, and a pair of hiking boots.

Patting her exposed knee, Catherine said, “You look like you're getting ready to hike up in the Alps on a warm spring day. Aren't you cold?”

“Nah. Running over here will have heated me up enough to last through lunch.”

“Are you pressed for time?” Catherine asked. “Or do you just like to run everywhere you go?”

“No, not really. I was just trying to ditch the reporter that's been on my … that's been following me. I lost him in the geology building. I hope he trips on a geode, and breaks his neck.”

“You don't seem to have warmed up to the fellows much,” Catherine said.

“Nope. They're vermin. The legitimate press is long gone. Now we're stuck with the bottom-feeders.” She looked around the massive, beautifully tended garden that gracefully followed the slope of a gentle hill. “Okay, I showed up. Now who wants to tell me why we're here?”

“I had a meeting with the Chancellor this morning. I told him that I'd brought a picnic lunch, and he suggested that we use his yard. Nice, isn't it?”

“It is,” Ryan said. “But your explanation is less than fully revealing. I didn't know you had a relationship with the U.C. I thought you were Stanford all the way.”

“I have been, up until now,” Catherine said. “I just thought it was time to meet the Chancellor.”

Ryan narrowed her gaze and crossed her arms over her chest. “Spill it, Catherine. That Mona Lisa smile isn't gonna cut it.”

Patting her leg, Catherine said, “It's no big deal, Ryan. I wanted to make sure the university was prepared to deal with any security issues that might arise. I wanted the Chancellor to know that if we didn't like the way things were going, we would hire our own security people.”

“Well, what did he say?” she asked.

“He said he'd work with us to make sure you two were protected.” She looked at both young women and asked, “How is it going, so far? Are the reporters bothering you?”

“Not much,” Ryan said. “They seem to be concentrating on getting my erstwhile classmates to talk about me, since I won't speak. Oh, I took our phone off the hook, Jamie. There were so many people calling that Mia was starting to lose her sense of humor, and that's always dangerous.”

“No problem,” she said. “I only want to talk to people who know my cell number, anyway.”

“I think things will be all right, Catherine,” Ryan said. “I don't think you need to call the dogs out.”

“All right, dear, but you just let me know if it starts to bother you. We have options.”

“Will do.”

Catherine watched as Ryan took just a few bites of her lunch, then put her fork down and ignored the tasty meal. Jamie had been watching her as well, and she picked the fork back up and poked around on the plate idly, looking like she was merely playing. Ryan was concentrating on telling Catherine about her independent study, and when the fork traveled near her mouth, she opened and let Jamie put the morsel in. Her response was automatic, and she hardly seemed to notice it was happening. While they chatted, Jamie continued to feed her, with Ryan compliantly opening her mouth and chewing every little bite until the plate was clean.

The concern and care that radiated from the smaller woman was obvious, and Catherine smiled repeatedly at the scene. She was unable to ignore that something was different, however. She had actually seen Jamie feed Ryan bits of food on many occasions, and there was always a teasing, sexual undertone to the habit. She often looked away when they were doing it — finding the practice just a little too intimate for her own comfort. But that element was entirely absent today. Now Jamie seemed more like a nurse trying to unobtrusively get her ailing patient to take in sufficient nutrients. Instead of the easy comfort they normally evinced there now seemed to be an invisible barrier between them — even though they smiled warmly at each other, and teased each other gently. There was just something missing — and she fervently hoped that the two young lovers would soon rekindle the spark. I know only too well how easy it is to let a problem fester until it's impossible to be close again.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Continued in Part 9

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