I Found My Heart in San Francisco

Book 12: Lifeline

by S X Meagher

Part 9

When Ryan came home from school, she went upstairs and found Jamie sitting at her computer. “Homework already?” she asked, squeezing her shoulder.

“No, not much. I'm just working on my schedule. I've got a lot going on this term. I've really got to manage my time.”

Ryan nodded, then sat on the edge of the bed, looking a bit uncomfortable. “I uhm … have a couple of things to talk with you about.”

Turning in her chair, Jamie gave her full attention to her partner. “What is it, baby?”

“Uhm … Mia told me that another tabloid story came out. This one has your ex-roommate's nasty fingerprints on it, too, but it sounds like she's working with one or two of my very best friends from the basketball team.”

“Oh, God,” Jamie groaned. “Now what?”

“Well … this is the part that I'm embarrassed about.”

“Embarrassed? What do you have to be embarrassed about?”

“I'm embarrassed because I didn't tell you something that happened when we returned from our vacation. Something kinda important.”

Swiveling slightly in her chair, Jamie gazed at her partner and nodded. “Go on. Tell me now.”

“I had kind of a meltdown on the day we came back from the Bahamas.”

Blonde eyebrows rose dramatically, but Jamie didn't say a word.

“Coach Hayes told me about the tabloids, and I … flipped out. I started kicking and punching the lockers, and throwing stuff around.” She looked down at the floor and said, “I've never been that angry in my life. I scared myself, baby, and I think I scared the crap out of Coach Hayes, too. I'm not sure what I did, because I had some sort of a blackout, but I wound up on the floor with Coach wrapped around me.”

Again, Jamie didn't speak, but she got off her chair and sat next to Ryan, wrapping her arms around her partner tightly. “What happened, then?” she asked softly.

“She told me that I couldn't come back until a doctor cleared me to play again. I think she was afraid that I was losing my mind,” Ryan said, her voice nearly inaudible.

Pulling back, Jamie cradled Ryan's face in her hands and lifted it until their eyes met. “You were never in danger of that, sweetheart. With all of the stress you've been under, a little incident like that is perfectly understandable.”

“It scared me, and it humiliated me,” Ryan said quietly. “The other players all saw it, and now the whole fucking world knows about it.”

“Oh, Ryan, I'm so sorry that came out. That's just horrible for you.”

“You're not mad at me for not telling you when it happened?” Ryan asked, her eyes a little watery.

“Of course not. That was a horrible time. You had so much going on in your sweet little head, I don't blame you for not wanting to talk about it.”

“Thanks, Jamie,” she said softly. “I really try to be completely honest with you, but sometimes … I just can't make myself talk about certain things.”

“I understand. I really do. Please, don't worry about this. We're fine, love. We're just fine.” She stroked her head for a few more moments, then asked the question that she was a little wary of bringing up. “How are you dealing with your feelings about the people who are behind these stories, Ryan?”

The larger woman took in a shaky breath. “Not well. Amanda's doing her best to help me get past my rage, but it's honestly not going very well. Mia made a joke out of walking me to school today, but I was really glad she did. I need to have a cool head nearby in case I see any of those traitors. I don't trust my reaction.”

“Ryan,” Jamie said looking into her eyes. “I want you to promise me that you won't assault any of them if you see them. I don't mind paying off a lawsuit, but you couldn't stand the stress right now, honey. Please, please try to control yourself — for your own good.”

“I'll try,” she murmured. “I promise I'll try.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

On Tuesday afternoon, Jamie waited by the starter's window at Tilden Golf Course, the main public course for the City of Berkeley. It was a nice enough course, well laid out and quite picturesque. But like nearly all public courses, it was crowded at almost every hour of the day, and play was often grindingly slow.

She and Juliet had been able to convince 6 other women to join them, and the starter looked at his waiting list, while shaking his head. “If your group's not here on time, I can't guarantee how long you'll have to wait, honey.”

She gave him a tight smile, not really liking to be called honey by a stranger. However, he was an elderly stranger, and she generally tried to make allowances for the elderly, figuring that the world had been a very different place when they were growing up. “They should be here soon,” she said. “You know how it is with students.”

“Oh, right, you're the girls from the golf team at Cal. Well, I'll figure out a way to get you on, even if they're late. Maybe I can sneak you onto the tenth hole.”

“We'd appreciate that,” she said sincerely. “It's very tough to find the time to play a round with the days so short.”

She heard the clacking of golf cleats coming down the path at a very brisk pace. Turning, she dramatically pointed to her watch and said, “We're up, guys. Move it!”

Her teammates were really hustling, and each woman signed in quickly. “We had to get the shuttle to drive us,” Juliet panted. “I'm the only one with a car.”

“We had a better set-up at my high school,” Jamie grumbled. Her grumpy mood only lasted a moment, though, when she saw two pairs of eyes looking up at her. She mentally cringed when she reminded herself that the whole point of this exercise was to reach out and try to make this group into a team. “Sorry,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “PMS.”

The group trudged over to the first tee, each of them choosing to carry their bags. They were allowed to have caddies for their tournaments, but Jamie found that carrying her own bag helped make a round of golf at least approach exercise.

The eight-some was made up of her, Juliet, the two freshman — Lauren Takuta and Samantha Naylor, and four juniors — Annalina Nilsson, Jaclyn Stamp, Crystal Bolwig, Valerie Monroe and Christie Harwood. Jamie had spent almost no time with any of the women, and since the point was to get to know them, she assumed that Juliet would play with one foursome, and she would play with the other. But Juliet obviously didn't share that idea. She pointed at each of the juniors and said, “Why don't you guys go ahead? You look ready.”

They nodded agreeably and teed off, taking off down the fairway after each of them had hit. Juliet waited a respectable amount of time, tugged her visor down so that only her nose was visible, and gave her ball a long ride, grunting slightly with the effort. “Nice,” Jamie said. But Juliet couldn't see her smile, and it was clear that she was already in her zone. She merely nodded and went to stand by her bag, arms crossed over her chest, her tee clutched between her teeth.

Lauren and Samantha were nearly as reluctant to speak as Juliet was, but their issue seemed to be nervousness more than their need to concentrate. Even though Jamie was only 3 years older than the young women, she felt old enough to be their mother, since both of them seemed very young for their age, and painfully shy.

Jamie tried her best, but she was unable to spark the slightest bit of spontaneous conversation within the group. They all gave a polite review of each shot, usually along the lines of “nice one,” “good shot,” or “tough break,” but beyond that, conversation was nil.

That changed dramatically when Jamie missed badly with her tee shot on the 8
th hole. The ball landed in a small stand of pine trees, most of them relatively short — about 12 to 15 feet tall, with one substantially larger one — which Jamie had a bad feeling she was right behind. She started to trudge over to see how much trouble she was in, but before she got there Juliet was trotting up alongside of her. “You blocked that one badly,” she said.

“I thought so,” Jamie agreed. “I don't do that a lot, but I didn't end up in my normal finishing position, so I figured I'd blocked it.”

“Let's see what you've got,” Juliet said, her voice showing definite signs of excitement.

They approached the ball, and Jamie tried to see the green from her position. “I might have to just knock it back onto the fairway,” she said.

“Not so fast. You've got some options here.”

“I do? Like what?”

“Well, if you can get it up in a hurry, you can go over that tree right there.”

“That tree's huge, and it's not 20 feet away! I'd have to hit a pitching wedge, and then I couldn't carry the green anyway.”

“No, no, use a 7 wood. Choke up on it and open the face a little. You can do it.”

“I don't carry a 7 wood,” Jamie said with a frown.

“Here. Use mine. Lauren and Samantha won't mind bending the rules a little, since we're just practicing.”

“I don't know, Juliet, breaking the 14 club limit's a pretty big crime.” She was smiling warmly, knowing that the stringent rules of golf were not followed strictly during a practice round.

Juliet extended the club, then watched as Jamie took a practice swing. “No, that's not the right swing. Mind if I show you?”

Jamie tried to give the club back, but Juliet said, “No, let me show you.” She stood behind the slightly smaller woman and put her arms around her. Jamie stiffened, feeling just a twinge of unease. Relax, she chided herself. You've done this dozens of times with lots of other players. Her mind wandered to the first time she'd taken Ryan to play golf. Thinking of how her whole body had tingled when she'd wrapped her arms around her, she felt her discomfort start to flare again. Juliet was holding her as much as she was holding the club, and her breasts were pressed into Jamie's back more firmly than she felt they had to be. Juliet's arms were substantially longer than Jamie's, and she could see that the taller woman wasn't straining to reach the club — so she could have backed up an inch or two. Juliet's lips were nearly touching her ear, and she nestled up even closer and asked quietly, “How's that?”

“Good,” Jamie said, nodding quickly. She moved away and took a few practice swings, just to calm her racing heart. Striding to her ball, she slowed her heart and took a smooth swing, managing to fly it over the tree and just reach the fringe of the green. Dashing out to the fairway, she watched the shot land, her discomfort forgotten. Each woman making a fist, she and Juliet tapped their clenched hands together. “Thanks! That's a very handy shot!”

“Now, don't try to use it if the ground is too hard. This works best if you're on something springy, like pine needles, or fluffy grass.”

“Got it,” Jamie said. “You'd better go hit. Lauren and Samantha are waiting for you.”

Juliet rolled her eyes and muttered, “Freshmen!” then took off to jog over to her ball.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

That night, Ryan was working at her computer when Jamie came out of the bath, ready for bed. “Hey, honey?”


“How can you tell if a woman's being inappropriate with you?”

Ryan's chair turned slowly, then she took off the round, wire-rimmed glasses she wore when she worked at her computer for a long time. Her dark head cocked and she asked, “Repeat that, please.”

“You heard me,” Jamie said. “It's no big deal, but I felt like Juliet went out of her way to rub up against me today. It reminded me of junior high, when boys would invent excuses to rub up against the girls. Weird.”

Ryan had a pen in her hand, and she tapped her chin with it studiously. “Go on, I sense there's more.”

“No, not really.” She looked down for a moment, then shrugged, “Oh, all right. It reminded me of the time I took you to play golf for the first time. I got a real tingle when I was showing you how to swing. I didn't want to ever let go, and I was hoping Juliet wasn't feeling the same way.”

“What's her orientation?” Ryan asked. “Is she a lesbian?”

“I have no earthly idea,” Jamie said. “All I know is that she gets mildly excited by trouble shots. I don't think that's a sexual orientation, though.”

Ryan was scowling as she swiveled a little in her chair. “She knows you're gay, right?”

“Blind and deaf cloistered nuns know I'm gay,” Jamie said dryly, raising an eyebrow. “You'd have to have been living under a rock not to have seen any of the tabloids. A barista at Starbucks winked at me yesterday, and I don't think it was because she liked the way I placed my order.”

“I'm gonna have to start following you,” Ryan said. “I don't like to have other women hitting on my girl.”

“Oh, please,” Jamie said. “If I got upset every time someone flirted with you, I'd wear myself out. I get 1 wink for every 20 you get, hot stuff.”

“I don't get that many winks,” Ryan said. “A lot of women just have eye problems. The weather is very dry here, you know.”

Jamie gave her an aggrieved look, then said, “Back to my question. What do I do about Juliet? Just assume she's a physical person?”

Ryan gave her a narrowed glance and said, “I'm coming to your practice tomorrow. I want to meet this Juliet character.”

“You most certainly will not!”

“Huh? Why not? I've never been to a practice, and now that I don't have to study for my math test, I have time to do it.”

“No way, Ryan. You've had plenty of opportunities to watch practice, but you haven't done so. I will not let you show up the first time I suspect that someone's tried to cop a feel.”

“Cop a feel! I thought she just brushed up against you!”

“She was showing me how to hit a particular shot, honey. She had her arms around me, and she was pressed up against me more than she needed to be. That's all. She didn't grab my ass or anything. I was exaggerating — really.”

Ryan stood and came over in front of her partner, then turned around. “Show me,” she said.

“Oh, Ryan, it was no big deal …”

“Show me.” She enunciated very clearly, making Jamie realize that she wasn't kidding in the least.

With a sigh, Jamie wrapped her arms around Ryan, bending over her in as close a recreation of the event as she could manage. Then, just because she was feeling feisty, she pressed her pelvis against her partner's ass, grabbed her hips and pulled her back against herself, sliding her hand down between her legs to give her a good squeeze.

“Jesus!” Ryan whirled around and stared at her partner, her mouth gaping open.

Just as she did so, Jamie added, “Exactly! And when I whirled around, she did this!” She reached out and gave each of Ryan's breasts a tweak, then ran from the room yelling, “Kidding!”

When Ryan scampered down the stairs and caught partner in the kitchen, she gave her a scowl that quickly turned into an aggrieved smile. “Look, Jamie, this is too weird. Why can't I come check this woman out?”

“Because I don't need supervision.”

“Me? You think I'm trying to supervise you? I don't do that!”

“You'd be stuck to me like glue, and you know it.” Jamie wrapped her arms around Ryan's waist, giving her such a warm smile that the larger woman couldn't maintain her grumpy mood.

“Well …” Ryan said, smiling slyly, “you're a very precious commodity, and I do like to safeguard my investments.”

“This investment is self-regulating. I'll call you when I need to bring in the muscle.”

“I know you can take care of yourself, babe, I just don't trust other women. I know how alluring you are, Jamie. You can't blame the poor fools.”

“Thank you, Ryan,” she said. “You've stroked my ego enough for one night. Coming to bed?”

“In a few. I'm just trying to figure out one little thing.”

“Uh-huh,” she said, having heard that excuse before. “Kiss me when you come to bed, okay?”

“You've got it, babe. Love you.”

“I love you, too, Ryan. Don't stay up too late, okay?”

“Do my best,” she said, promising nothing.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

On Thursday morning, Jim called Jamie, catching her just as she was returning from golf practice. “Honey, I have a proposal,” he said gravely. “I'd appreciate if you hear me out before you respond. All right?”

“Uhm … sure, Daddy. What is it?”

“I know you and Ryan don't want to speak publicly, but the statement the public relations firm put out didn't help a bit. The situation has gotten out of hand, Jamie. Every day there's something new, and I'm afraid this will continue until they've dug up every piece of dirt they can.”

“You know,” she said, “we've stopped watching TV or listening to local radio, so I honestly don't know what's going on. We decided as a family to have a news blockade. No one is watching — so we're really not very affected by it.”

“Hmm … I uhm … don't know if you want to know this, but I'm sure Ryan will find out,” he said, with just a touch of hesitation in his voice.

“Go ahead,” she said wearily. “What now?”

“It seems that Jennie's mother has sold out, honey. There's a big story in the National Inquisitor detailing her concerns about the influence Ryan has on her daughter, and how she didn't know about Ryan's tainted background.” He pulled the phone from his ear as his child let loose a string of profanities that actually made him blush. “Have you served a stint in the Navy that I didn't know about?” he finally asked, his head still reeling.

“I'm sorry, Daddy, I'm just on my last nerve here. We've got to do something!”

“That's why I called, honey. I have an idea …”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ryan sat in the kitchen, her face composed and alert. She let Jamie talk, not interrupting until she was sure she was finished, then slowly nodded her head. “It's okay with me,” she said decisively.

“Really?” She had been almost certain that Ryan would not approve of her father's plan, and her surprise at her partner's ready acceptance of the idea was obvious.

“Yes. I'm out of ideas, and now that the tabloids are involved, people will continue to come out of the woodwork to grab their filthy lucre.”

“Okay,” Jamie said, still amazed. “I'll call Daddy.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Later that afternoon, just before Ryan had to leave for her last class, they went into Mia's room and turned on C-SPAN to watch Jim in action. As he took his place before the microphone, Jamie turned to her partner and said, “He looks cute, doesn't he?”

Ryan gave her a warm smile and said, “That's just what I was thinking.”

“Were not,” Jamie said.

“Maybe not,” Ryan said, “but he looks a lot like you, so he's plenty cute in my book.”

“Shhh! He's talking!”

He looked up from his notes and at the rostrum, directing his remarks to the front of the room — even though the chamber was empty. He was making his statement during a time in the senate schedule known as “members' remarks”. Senators who wanted to have their comments entered into the record could either submit them in writing, or stand up and make a speech. Not coincidentally, since the advent of C-SPAN broadcasting the affairs of the senate, most members chose to have their comments broadcast. The camera always focused just on the senator, keeping the shot tight so it wasn't obvious that they were either alone, or had just a few aides running around bringing them notes.

Jim began, “Recently, members of my family have been involved in an event that has captured the attention of the nation. The incident was very upsetting for my family and the other families involved, and everyone connected to what happened has chosen not to speak to the press about the matter. Their decision has not wavered, nor will it. No one involved will speak to the press now, or later, and that has been made clear through every possible avenue. I will not go against that decision today, or any time in the future, but I do have something to say about the entire experience.

“Without going into detail, let me just say that my family members were thrust into the spotlight through no choice of their own. They were involved in an incident in which they were blameless — not seeking the spotlight or renown in any way, even though they could have exploited the situation for a great deal of money and fame if they had chosen to do so.

“Neither their innocence nor their fierce desire for privacy has stopped the media from hounding these people to distraction. Now, as a Democrat and a fervent proponent of the First Amendment, I am, and will remain, a staunch supporter of a free press. I could propose laws and regulations that would give people in this situation some zone of safety. But I don't intend to do that. What I am asking for … no … what I am begging for … is for the press to behave in a responsible manner.

“These people are not criminals … rather, they are heroes, in my estimation. But they are not being treated like heroes. They have been held up to more scrutiny … more suspicion than a hardened criminal would be. We have gone astray here, in my opinion, when we torture people just because they maintain their right to privacy. That is the only crime these people have committed — they demanded to be left alone. Now every small-minded, publicity-seeking mercenary with any connection to them whatsoever is crawling out of the woodwork, trying to earn a few dollars of blood money — at their expense. How is that representative of a free press?

“I ask for the press to call a halt to this harassment, and I ask the public to write and call your local media outlet and demand that they stop the constant persecution of innocent people, just to fill a time slot on the evening news. I ask this not just for the members of my family, but for every person who finds themself in such a situation. This type of thing happens with startling frequency, and in my opinion, the only way to stop it is to convince our local and national media that we will not tolerate it.

“I beg you, don't allow the media to destroy the lives and reputations of innocent people. Where will this country be if no one is willing to step up and help others, just because they know they will be hounded by the press once they do so? I see that as a real threat, and I stress that the only viable way to thwart that threat is to let the media know that we will not stand for it any longer. Make the world a safe place for heroes once again!”

He looked right into the camera, snapped his notes sharply on the podium, and walked off. Jamie stared at her partner and said, “God, he did a great job.”

Ryan smiled at her and said, “He did indeed.”

Jamie looked at her partner quizzically, and said, “Your huge smile says you're happy about more than his speech.”

“He called me a member of his family,” Ryan said, her nose wrinkling up in pleasure. “That's cool!”

Jamie smiled at her fondly, pushing the long hair from her eyes. “I swear, Ryan O'Flaherty, you could be the poster child for family values.” She leaned in and kissed her soundly, adding, “I love that about you.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Hello, Jim,” Catherine said when her husband answered the phone in his office.

“Hi,” he replied, and she could actually visualize the expression on his face. It was a cross between boyish shyness and pride in doing what he knew was a very good thing.

“You did very well today, Jim,” she said softly. “I know it meant a lot to Jamie and to Ryan, as well as to me. I know it wasn't easy to speak about Ryan as a member of your family, but it was the right thing to do.”

“I know that,” he said. “It was a little hard to pull off, but as I began to speak, I started to believe my own words,” he said quietly. “She is a member of our family … whether I chose to invite her or not. Jamie's chosen her, and from all indications, their relationship is going to last a while.”

“Quite a while,” she amended.

“Okay, quite a while.” He was quiet for a moment, then screwed up his courage and asked the question that had been on his mind nearly constantly. “What about ours, Cat? How long will our relationship last?”

She sighed heavily and admitted the truth. “Not very long, I'm afraid, Jim. I haven't changed my mind. In fact, being in Italy has made it even clearer to me. I'm afraid it's over between us.”

He bit his lip to keep from crying, and forced himself to say, “You've fallen in love with that man in Italy, haven't you?”

She was quiet for a moment, trying to decide how much to reveal to him. Finally she admitted the truth, “I do love him, Jim. I wouldn't have slept with him if I didn't.” She paused again, and said, “I've slept with two men in forty-one years. It's not something I do on a whim.” She knew that was a little harsh, but now that they were being honest with each other she felt her animosity bubble up occasionally, and she was powerless to stop it.

“I know that, Cat,” he said softly. “You've always understood the distinction between love and sex.”

“Yes,” she said, “I have. Even though I love Giacomo, I know that I need more than he's able to give me. I decided that I'm going to stop seeing him, Jim. I need a full-time lover.”

“I can be that,” he piped up immediately. “Let me try again, Cat. Please!”

“No, Jim,” she said, her voice sad, and full of regret. “I wish I could, but I learned something from the incident when I saw you with that girl. I just don't trust you enough to be vulnerable with you … and if I can't be totally vulnerable, there's nothing for us to base a relationship on.”

“There's no possibility that you'll change your mind?” he asked quietly.

“No. I've filed the papers, Jim, and they've been accepted by the court. As you know, there's a six-month waiting period until the divorce is final; but for all intents and purposes, it's over now.” She could hear the air leaving his lungs, and she felt genuinely sorry for him … and for herself.

“I never … I never thought it would happen to us,” he said, his voice breaking. “I love you, Catherine. I'll always love you.”

“That might be true,” she said softly, “but you didn't love me enough, Jim. You didn't love me enough to say no to the other women.”

“I know you don't understand this — but that was never because I didn't love you. I just needed sex, Cat. I needed the variety. It's a very different thing.”

“Not for me, Jim. It's exactly the same thing. I need a man who understands that.”

“I'm sorry, Catherine,” he said, his voice wavering again. “I wish I could have been the man you deserved.”

She sighed, “I must not have been the woman you needed, Jim. If I had been everything you wanted, I can't imagine that you would have cheated on me.”

He cleared his throat, “That's not true, Catherine, but I don't have the ability to explain what motivated me to seek out other women. I'm sure I don't understand it. It's … it's just a compulsion.”

“It doesn't matter any more, Jim,” she said. “For your own good, it might be wise to figure out why you have such a hard time remaining faithful, but it doesn't matter between us any longer. We need to move on now. I'm going to try to do so, and I urge you to, also.”

“Move on?” he said, laughing bitterly. “How do you move on when you've lost your heart?”

“You can love again, Jim,” she said. “It's perfectly all right with me if you want to try again with that young woman. You seemed very fond of her,” she said, feeling a little sick when she thought of the two of them on the couch in his apartment.

“She's a nice woman,” he said, “but she's just a girl, Catherine. She doesn't have your depth.”

“Well, there are plenty of other forty-something women who would love to snare a handsome, powerful man like you, Jim. You don't have to date girls.”

He sighed, “This is depressing me too much, Catherine. I'll talk to you soon, okay?”

“All right,” she said. “I'd like to keep in touch, Jim. I think it's important to maintain a good relationship … It will be nice for Jamie.”

“Of course,” he said quickly, just wanting to hang up and have a drink. “Goodbye, Cat.”

“Goodbye, Jim,” she said as she quietly placed the receiver in the cradle. She stared at the phone for a long time, fighting the urge to call him back. The first place her eyes landed was the bar in the living room. With a determined shake of her head, she went to the hall table, picked up her keys and her purse, and drove to San Mateo, finding a multi-plex theatre that she had driven Jamie to when she was young. She bought a ticket for the next movie that was going to be shown, not even noticing the title. Taking a seat in the back, she stared at the screen blankly, her tears obscuring the flickering images.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Jordan? Ryan,” she announced when she reached her friend that evening.

“Hey, Boomer! I just got home from going out to dinner, and saw the clips on the news about Jamie's dad's speech. He did a great job, huh?”

“Yeah, I was really impressed,” Ryan said. “I don't know how effective it'll be, but at least he's trying his best.”

“I think the O'Flaherty charm has finally won him over,” Jordan said. “He referred to you as a member of his family!”

“I know … We've really made some progress, haven't we?”

“You sure as heck have. Damn, I remember the first time you told me about him. You acted like you were afraid he was going to have a contract put out on you!”

“Oh, he's not so bad,” Ryan said, not willing to admit how much Jim really had frightened her. “He just likes to be in control.”

“I guess that's why he fits into the Senate so well, huh?”

Ryan chuckled lightly, “I'm sure he's not the only one in that learned body who's a control freak.” She paused for a moment and said, “You know, deep down, he's not a bad guy. I honestly think he loves Jamie very much, and I also think he really believed I was out to use her in some way. Once it finally got through his head that I loved her too, he's been pretty darned nice.”

“But how can you stand to be around him?” Jordan asked quietly. “Aren't you afraid he'll turn on you again?”

“Mmm … no. To be honest, I'm not. One of the best and bravest things Jamie ever did was to show him clearly that when he hurts me — he hurts her. He really got the message, Jordan.” She laughed softly and said, “I guess Jamie's the one I have to be careful with now. She could sic him on me again.”

“How are things between you two?” Jordan asked. “You sure sounded like hell when I spoke to you in Pebble Beach.”

“Things are still hellish,” Ryan said, “but not nearly so bad as they were then.” She sighed and said, “It's just tough not to be able to rely on each other. Usually, when one of us is having a tough time, the other one is able to be strong and help her through it. But this time, we're both equally wounded — though in slightly different ways. It really sucks, pal. We're still not comfortable being intimate — Hell, I haven't been this uninterested in sex since I was gay bashed.”

“Can you at least hold each other when things are tough?” Jordan asked.

“Sometimes, yeah,” Ryan said. “But other times, being close feels like she's a black widow spider and I'm just a helpless little fly. It feels like she's going to consume me, Jordan. It's just a horrible feeling.”

“Damn,” she sighed. “You've told me about how hard it was for you to get back into the mood after you were bashed. How did you take the leap that time?”

Ryan chuckled, “I let a complete stranger pick me up in a used clothing store. She flirted with me a little, and I took her into the back room and went down on her before she knew what hit her.” She paused and said, “I don't think I ought to try that scheme again.”

“Well, you could try the same kinda thing — but with Jamie, of course.”

“No, I don't think so, pal. It was the fact that I'd never seen the woman before, and would likely never see her again, that let me feel free enough to even make a move. It's the intimacy that I'm afraid of. I just can't stand to feel that vulnerable.” Sighing heavily she added, “I ran from true intimacy with women up until I met Jamie. Losing that with her is just horrible, Jordan. It's as upsetting as being car-jacked.”

“You haven't lost it, Ryan. It's just sleeping for a while. You two will work through this, and you'll be even closer because of it,” she said. “I'm sure of it.”

“My therapist says the same thing. It's just hard to believe when it seems so elusive. We don't even feel comfortable being naked around each other anymore — and that's just not like me.”

“It will come back, Ryan. Just trust that your love is stronger than your fears.”

A wide smile settled onto Ryan's face as she mulled the words over in her head. “I like that, Jordan, I really like that. Our love is stronger than our fears.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Kinda cool to both have Fridays off, huh?” Jamie asked brightly when she returned from playing a round of golf the next morning. “Wanna do anything special, or just leave for Noe now?”

Ryan cocked her head and thought for a moment, then a smile settled onto her face as she said, “Let's go see your mom. We haven't had much time with her.”

Jamie crossed the room and took her partner's face in her hands, giving her a fervent kiss. “You are the most wonderful partner a woman could ever wish for.”

“Does that mean you want to go?”

“It does indeed, Tiger.”

“Should we call first?” Ryan asked.

“No, I spoke with her last night. She said she has nothing planned today. Let's surprise her.”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When they arrived, Catherine was both surprised and very glad to see them. She was dressed in a pair of navy blue wool slacks; very slim fitting and perfectly tailored, and a cream-colored cashmere turtleneck, with a matching cardigan over the top. Her hair was perfectly arranged, and she wore a tasteful amount of makeup, along with a touch of jewelry decorating her throat and ears. “When you unexpectedly came to my house in the morning you saw me in old sweats and a T-shirt,” Ryan said. “I was hoping for some of the same.”

“Mother doesn't own sweats.”

“No, I don't think I've ever had a pair,” Catherine said. “This is about as casual as I get, Ryan.”

“I'm not complaining,” she said. “You look great, as a matter of fact.” But even as Ryan said this, she could see the dark circles under her mother-in-law's eyes, and the lines of stress that seemed to have been carved into the normally smooth face.

“I think I've had better days,” Catherine said. “Let's go into the kitchen and tell Marta that we'll be three for lunch.”

The cook busied herself making a small snack for Ryan, since lunch was not for another hour. The dark woman ate it gamely, while protesting, “I really don't have to be fed every ten minutes.”

“You're too thin,” Marta said, reaching over to grab the flesh around Ryan's waist that refused to budge. “See?” she said triumphantly.

“You tell her, Marta,” Jamie said. “I've been trying to fatten her up for two weeks now.”

“You have a long way to go, Jamie,” the cook said appraisingly. “I'll do my best with the lunch.”

Ryan and Catherine went out to sit in the sun, even though it was thin and watery in the winter sky. Jamie lingered in the kitchen for a moment, making some cocoa to ward off the chill. Ryan reached over and grasped Catherine's hand, looking her directly in the eye as she did so. “How are you, really, Catherine? I don't see much sparkle in those brown eyes today.”

She smiled fondly at her daughter-in-law and nodded her head slightly. “I had a bad night, Ryan. I found out yesterday that the judge accepted my divorce petition. I had to call Jim last night to tell him.”

“Is it final?” Ryan said with a gulp. “Are you divorced?”

“Not technically. There's a six-month waiting period. But it's the same thing to me,” she said. “I told Jim that he's free to start dating again, and I'm going to try to do the same.”

“Whew,” she said, leaning back in her chair.

Jamie came out just then and asked, “What's the whew for?”

Ryan looked to Catherine for permission, and quickly gave Jamie the synopsis. “Whew,” she said, getting up to hug her mother tenderly. “I'm sorry it had to come to this, Mom, but I know you tried your best.”

“I think I did,” Catherine said. She shook her head and added, “Well, I did the best I could at the time. That's all that I can do.”

Jamie took her own seat and sipped at her cocoa for a moment. “I take it that Daddy didn't take the news well.”

“No, he didn't,” Catherine said. “He thinks I've chosen Giacomo over him, but nothing could be further from the truth.” She looked at her daughter and said, “I'm going to break up with Giacomo, Jamie. I'm not the kind of person who can be satisfied by having an affair with a married man.” She shook her head briskly and said, “I don't know what came over me to even attempt it.”

“But you said that his wife was all right with it,” Jamie said.

Catherine shook her head again, giving her daughter a sad smile. “It's not his wife who's the problem,” she said. “I deserve more than that, Jamie. I deserve a man's full attention. Accepting Giacomo's divided interest was the same as being married to your father. I'm sick and tired of settling for crumbs!”

Ryan got out of her chair and squatted in front of her mother-in-law. “That is the most hopeful, positive thing I've ever heard you say. I'm proud of you, Catherine.” She wrapped her in a hug, gently patting her back when the older woman started to cry. Ryan met Jamie's eyes, and her partner scooted closer and rubbed her mother's back at the same time Ryan did. Marta came out to call them to lunch, but went back inside when she saw the tender scene. Lunch can wait, she decided. That poor woman needs all the love she can get.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Catherine was back in control in just a few minutes, and Marta called them to lunch. During the meal, Catherine commented, “I've been hearing from a large assortment of relatives, honey. Do you have any interest in hearing about it?”

She gave her mother a wry smirk and said, “Well, since none of them have written to me, I can only assume they're unhappy with me.”

“Only a few of them,” Catherine said. “I'd bet that you can guess which ones. The others are unsure of what to say.”

“Yeah, Hallmark doesn't have a card for, 'Sorry to hear about your being carjacked'. Much less the 'With deepest sympathies over having the tabloids 'out' you and your lover'.”

“The way the tabloids are, that might be a profitable new line for Hallmark,” Catherine said. “Outing people does seem to be the current rage, doesn't it?”

Jamie nodded, then said, “I'm going to guess that Uncle David, Aunt Patsy, Uncle Oliver and Aunt Louise are the most upset of the group, right?”

“Yes, they're … puzzled to say the least. But that doesn't surprise me. My mother's generation was always very prudish about the sexual arena. At least they're being consistent.”

“Something's bothering you,” Jamie said. “I can tell.”

“Oh, it's nothing important,” Catherine said. She shook her head, then decided not to hold anything back from her daughter. “I got a call from Skip the other day and, while not saying so pointedly, he implied that you and Trey were in roughly similar situations.”

“Pardon?” Jamie asked, not getting the reference.

“He seems to think that Trey's drug usage and your lesbianism are equivalent,” she said, her eyes narrowed.

“That's a stretch.”

“I'm guessing that you set him straight,” Ryan said, seeing the fire in Catherine's eyes.

“I don't think it's possible to do that, Ryan,” she said. “He's still in complete denial about Trey's problems. Trey was supposed to be at the facility for 90 days, then it became 120, and now they're delaying his release again. I can't think they're keeping him because he's everyone's favorite! And yet, his father has the nerve to say that he understands what it's like to be humiliated in front of the family.”

Jamie got up and sat on the arm of her mother's chair. “Has that thought ever gone through your head — for even the briefest moment?” she asked softly. “Have I ever humiliated you, Mom?”

“No! Not once, Jamie. I'm proud of you, sweetheart, and no matter what our narrow-minded relatives think, you're the best thing to come out of the Dunlop line in generations!”

“Atta girl, Catherine,” Ryan said. “Give 'em hell!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When they arrived at the O'Flaherty house, Ryan noticed that she'd had her cell phone turned off again. She switched it back on and saw that she had a number of messages. The first one was from a stumbling, stuttering Heather. “Uhm … Ryan? Hi, it's a … it's Heather … from the volleyball team?” Ryan smiled at Jamie and motioned for her to come closer so she could hear the message. “Uhm … we saw that you're not playing basketball, and Ashley and I … Ashley Bond … from the volleyball team? Uhm … we thought you might like to work out with us … you know … just to stay in shape? Call me … if you want to … you don't have to if you don't … uhm … well, bye.”

Ryan was now smirking at the phone, and she waited for the second call to play. “Uhm … my number is 555-1832.” There was a pause, and she added, “Uhm … it's Heather … from the volleyball team. Bye.”

“One of these days,” Ryan said, “one of these days that girl is going to get over her nervousness around me.”

“Uh-huh,” Jamie said, always having been confident that Heather's discomfort with her partner had more to do with a serious crush than mere nervousness.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Hey, guess what?” Ryan asked brightly after having returned her phone calls.

“What, love?”

“Heather and Ashley are going to help tutor Jennie. They understand how busy I am, and how much worse it will be if I play ball again, and they're going to help out. Cool, huh?”

“Indeed,” Jamie said. “What will they do, come to the house?”

“We haven't worked out the details yet, but it can all be arranged. I'm really proud of those two. They've turned out to be great teammates.”

“What about your current erstwhile teammates?” Jamie asked, bringing up a sore subject. “I noticed that for the first time you said 'if' you play again. That's a switch.”

“Yeah, it is,” she said. “Amanda says that she'll talk to coach if I want to go back. She thinks I can handle the stress at this point. But I don't think I'm going to do it. I think I'm going to quit.”

“Just quit?” Jamie asked, amazed that her partner would even suggest such a thing — especially after all she'd gone through to hang in this long.

“Yeah … just quit. First time for everything,” she said, shrugging.

“Oh, honey, maybe you should wait a week or two. You've held out this long — what's the rush?”

“Mmm … there's a little something I might prefer to do,” she said, a ghost of an impish grin settling on her face.

“What's up, Tiger? Something is.”

Ryan's big blue eyes glittered a bit as she said, “Well … it seems my friend Heather is considering playing softball, and she asked the coach if he'd work me out to see if he might want me for the team.”


“I don't know that I'd want to do it, but I hate to have my experience with the basketball team be my last collegiate sports memory.”

Trying to stop herself from rolling her eyes, Jamie asked, “Ryan, isn't getting ready for the AIDS Ride enough for one women?”

“Not this woman,” Ryan said, just a hint of her mischievous smile in place.

“Honey, why is it so important to stress yourself like this?”

“Jamie,” Ryan said, her expression sober, “if the opportunity was just right, and I was sure I could have a positive experience, I might like to do this. But I won't even think about making a decision until you and I have talked it over thoroughly. Okay?”

“Okay,” Jamie said. She let her mind wander to the possibility of having Ryan join yet another team, then her eyes brightened as she considered one benefit of Ryan competing. “Do they wear shorts?”

“Uhm … yes, as a matter of fact, on warm days they do. I think you'd like the outfits, honey. They're not as good as the ones for volleyball, but they beat the hell out of basketball.”

“Honey, those orange jumpsuits that they wear in San Quentin beat those basketball uniforms. That's no contest at all!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Hey, Ryan, it's Ally,” Ally Webster announced when she called Ryan later that afternoon.

“Hi, there. What's up?”

“Not much. I just thought I'd check in again. I haven't spoken to you for a week, and you can get into an awful lot of trouble in that length of time.”

“You've got my number, pal,” Ryan said. “Things have been pretty calm here, actually. The media crush has died down a bit, and the tabloids aren't due out for three days, so we're having a little respite.”

Ally's joking tone ceased, and she said, “I know you're not in the mood to hear my righteous anger on your behalf, Ryan, but I just have to say again that out of all of the people I've known, you're the one least deserving of this crap. I'd do anything to get rid of this for you.”

“I know you would,” Ryan said, feeling her emotional control waver a bit. “Enough about me,” she said. “How are things with you?”

“Good,” Ally said. “I've been out with Sara a couple of times, and I really like her, Ryan. She has a really sweet soul, hasn't she?”

“Oh, yeah,” Ryan said. “She's got a very good heart. She's got a lot of great qualities, Ally. I honestly think you two could be very good together. I hope it works out.”

“Well, I'm going to dinner at her house tonight. Wish me luck.”

Ryan chuckled softly. “You'll need it,” she said. “Sara can't cook worth a damn!”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

“Hi.” Sara Andrews smiled warmly as she opened the door of her apartment to greet her guest.

“Hello,” Ally said, in her soft Southern drawl. She brushed past Sara on her way into the apartment, and the smaller woman felt her mouth go dry at the sensation.

“You didn't have too much trouble parking, did you?”

“Trouble parking in the Marina on a Saturday night?” Ally asked, cocking her head quizzically. “Is that usually a problem?”

“Where did you have to park?” Sara asked, rolling her eyes and bracing herself for the worst.

“I'm not exactly sure,” Ally said, “but I won't say no if you offer me a ride back to my car. If I'd known it would be this bad, I would have walked!”

“There was a certain beauty to Palo Alto,” Sara said. “I got used to being able to park a block or two away from my destination.”

“How do you like being back in the city?” Ally asked as she took a seat upon a stool that was resting under a counter that served as a pass-through into the small kitchen.

“It's very nice for work,” Sara said. “And there's a lot to do, of course, but it's awfully congested over here. I guess I'd grown used to the more open, greener feeling of Palo Alto. But I'm certainly not going to drive into the city from there every day. I value my sanity!”

“I miss North Carolina for that same reason,” Ally said, a faraway look in her eyes. “I love San Francisco, and I can't ever see myself leaving, but sometimes I long for the wide open spaces.”

“Do you ever go back and visit?” Sara asked.

“No. Haven't been back since the day I left,” she said softly. “I left on bad terms, Sara. I wouldn't be welcomed back.”

Feeling her heart clutch in sympathy, Sara said, “I'm not welcome in my house right now because my father's upset about my being gay. Is that it for you, too?”

Ally looked decidedly uncomfortable, and Sara came over to stand next to her. She placed a hand on her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “You don't have to answer if I'm prying. I just want to get to know you better.” Twitching her head towards the kitchen she asked, “Can I get you something to drink?”

“Yeah,” she said quickly, nodding her head. “Sparkling water?”

“Sure.” Sara poured her a glass of water, passing it through to her. “Uhm … do you mind if I have some wine? I know you don't drink, and I …”

“No, it's fine,” Ally said. “Thanks for asking, though. I've been sober for quite a few years, and I'm rarely tempted. I can even go to bars now and not feel the urge.”

Sara gazed at her for a minute and said, “If there's ever a time that you feel a little tempted, just let me know, and I won't drink around you, okay?”

“It's a deal,” the larger woman said, charmed by Sara's attempts to be sensitive to her issues. “Do you need any help with dinner?” she asked, noticing something that smelled good, but not seeing anything on the stove.

“No, I've had all the help a woman can have. Are you ready to eat?”

“Yeah, I am,” Ally said.

Sara opened the oven, and pulled out an aluminum tray of cannelloni with tomato sauce. She had to use folded dishtowels to extract the tray, since she apparently didn't own hot pads. Ally helped her get it to the table, then Sara took out two different salads from the refrigerator, both in take-out containers. “Have you gotten the impression that I don't entertain often?” she asked, setting the containers on the table. “I don't have any cookware or serving ware yet, and I think the Pottery Barn price tags might still be on these place mats.”

She was obviously a little flustered, and Ally slid a long, strong arm around her shoulders and gave her a little squeeze. “I appreciate that you invited me,” she said softly. “My culinary skills lie in opening cans and ordering take-out food, so this seems very adventurous to me.”

“Thanks,” Sara said, looking up into her eyes. They stood just like that for nearly a minute, with Sara feeling like she could remain in that exact position for a very long time. She blinked slowly as Ally dipped her head and kissed her gently, holding onto her for another moment. As Sara pulled away, her eyes were a little wide and she felt like fanning herself. Ally had kissed her after their last 2 meetings, but both had been friendly 'thanks for spending time with me' kind of kisses that you might give to a good friend. This one, however, was a 'I'd like to kiss you longer and harder, but we're about to sit down to dinner' kind of kiss, and Sara fervently hoped that dinner would be over quickly so she could find out if Ally had intended to send the message she had picked up.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Ally held Sara's chair, gently pushing it under the smaller woman, then giving her shoulder a squeeze. “Everything looks great, Sara,” she said as she took her own seat.

“Help yourself. I know you don't eat much meat, so I bought the meatless tomato sauce; and I know you're trying to keep fat from your diet, so I got the nonfat cannelloni. Is that okay?”

Ally gave her a warm smile and nodded. “I really appreciate that you tried to provide something I can eat. I can't have much of the cannelloni, just because of the pasta, but I'll certainly have a little.” She took one tube and put a big bite into her mouth. “Mmm … I'd like to have this again after my competition. Where did you buy this?”

“Lucca Deli,” she said. “I'm on a first name basis with the guys behind the counter. How about the salads?” Sara asked. “I made sure the dressing was on the side.”

Ally reached across the table and took Sara's hand in hers. “You are such a thoughtful woman. This is just perfect.” One of the salads was a traditional three-bean concoction, and Ally added just a dash of Balsamic vinegar to hers. But she ate a very healthy portion, reassuring Sara that she wouldn't go away hungry. The second salad consisted of various lettuces, along with a few fresh vegetables. Ally managed a good-sized portion, although she ate it completely dry.

Sara tried to follow her friend's habits, but she had to put a little dressing on her green salad. “So, tell me about the event on Sunday,” she said. “How long have you been training?”

“Since I was seventeen,” the larger woman said. “I'm joking, of course, but bodybuilding is a constant pursuit. I work out anywhere from an hour to three hours a day, depending on what I'm working on. The training's pretty constant. The really hard part is dieting. I start about eight weeks before the competition, slowly removing oil and fat and sugar from my diet. For two or three weeks beforehand I'm down to zero.” She gave Sara a thin smile and said, “It's really unhealthy, to be honest. You make your body start to cannibalize itself so you can get that ridiculously cut look. It's honestly a stupid thing to do. My hair loses its shine, my skin is pasty, I bruise really easily. It's very artificial, and I don't like to be artificial any more.”

Sara spent a moment looking at her friend, noticing things that weren't so obvious at first. “Now that you mention it, you don't look like yourself. You look almost gaunt. If I didn't know better, I'd think you'd been sick.” Cocking her head, she asked, “Is that really the look they want?”

“Well, I'll look better after I put my tanning lotion on. Then I'll look like a woman who's been on a desert island, starving for a few months with no clothes and no sun-block.”

“Sounds nice,” she said, thinking it sounded anything but. “I'm not familiar with what happens during the competition,” Sara said. “Do you lift weights?”

“Yeah, but we do that backstage, just to pump up our muscles. On stage, we pose. It's pretty technical, but the goal is to highlight your best parts and minimize your worst parts. It's really very draining to pose in the way we have to, and when the competition is over, I'm really wiped.”

“Where is it being held?”

“Right down the block. It's in the exhibition hall at the Palace of Fine Arts. It's a nice hall, but they don't have showers, which makes it kinda rough. I'm a sweaty mess when I'm finished.”

“Oh! Well, why don't you come over here when it's over. I hate to think of you having to go home all sweaty. You'll catch a chill.”

Ally gave her a slow smile and said, “That's very kind of you, but I might not be the best company. I'm usually pretty out of it.”

“That doesn't matter. Come by and shower, and we'll see how you feel then.”

“Okay, it's a deal.” Ally took another bite of her salad, chewing thoughtfully. “I spoke with Ryan briefly this afternoon.”

Sara's eyes closed and she took in a deep breath. “I'm so angry over the way they've been treated. I'm not a violent person, but if I ever meet the person who spoke to the tabloids about Ryan …”

“I know,” Ally said. “Two nicer people don't exist — and yet, people will still sell them out for a few bucks. It's just not right.”

“How did Ryan seem? She was in bad shape on Christmas Eve. I've been worried sick about her, but I've been afraid to call.”

“She wasn't very gabby,” Ally said. “She didn't really seem like herself. I can only hope that this will pass soon.”

“I do, too,” Sara sighed. “Ryan's had so much pain in her life. It just isn't fair.”

“No, it never is,” Ally said, giving Sara's hand a gentle squeeze.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

After dinner, Sara got up to clear the dishes, and she commented, “You know, for someone your size you certainly don't eat much.”

“No, I don't eat much,” Ally said. “But I do eat often, usually five or six meals a day. I had a meal about this size at four o'clock today.”

“Hmm … does that work for you?” Sara looked at her closely, letting her eyes linger on the rock-solid body and said, “That was a stupid question. It obviously works for you.”

“I need to eat often to keep my energy level up. I switched from three meals a day to six about three years ago, and I feel a lot better.”

“Well, you certainly look good,” she repeated, letting her brown eyes rake slowly over the body once again.

Ally had been involved in this little dance far too often to not recognize the signs of seduction. Deciding that it was now or never, she walked into the living room and took a seat, waiting for Sara to join her on the couch. “I uhm … I'm ready to answer the question you asked me before dinner,” she said, locking her eyes with the smaller woman's.

“Okay,” Sara said, remembering that the question still hung out there. “If you want to.”

“I don't really,” Ally said honestly. “But if you want to know me, you have to know about my life.” She took a breath and said, “I have an older brother who raped me when I was a child.”

Sara reached out immediately and grasped her hand, chafing it gently between her own. She didn't say another word, silently urging Ally to continue.

“He was the favorite of both of my parents,” she said softly. “My family was pretty screwed up generally, but he was pure evil. He threatened me, and convinced me that our parents would never believe me if I told them. I'm sure he was right about that,” she said bitterly. “Anyway, this continued sporadically until he left home to marry.” She shivered visibly as she said, “I kept my mouth shut until he and his wife had a child. I couldn't bear the thought of him hurting his daughter, so I told his wife.” She looked at Sara, and with a small note of triumph in her voice, said, “She believed me. Apparently she was unhappy in the marriage, and this was the final straw. He fought her tooth and nail, and of course it came out in court that he had raped me for years. My parents, of course, blamed me.”

Sara gasped in shock, but Ally used her free hand to pat her knee. “It's okay. I'm used to talking about this now. Not long after this all happened, another brother caught me making out with a girl in my room. He was an evil little cuss, too,” she said wryly, “and he told my parents. My father made my life a living hell, mainly saying that I was the screwed up one, and how much shame I had caused my family … blah … blah … blah. As soon as I graduated from high school I took off, and haven't been back since. I see my sister, Emily, and that's it.”

Sara closed her eyes, feeling an impotent rage welling up for her friend. But one thought kept invading her consciousness, and she finally asked, “How many years did it go on?”

“Four years,” Ally said softly.

“And in all that time, you never felt like you could tell anyone … not a teacher, or a minister?”

“No,” she said, shaking her head slowly. “He swore that if I told, he'd go after Emily.” Her eyes grew fierce and determined as she said, “I would never let him get his filthy hands on her.”

Impulsively, Sara threw her arms around Ally's shoulders and hugged her tightly. “You were so brave,” she whispered into her ear.

Ally's arms curled around Sara's body, and they hugged each other for a few minutes, neither speaking. She finally released her, and Sara wiped at her eyes for a moment.

“I don't generally tell people about all of that, but I'd like to get to know you better, Sara. I want you to know all about me before we get any closer.”

“I understand,” she said, nodding her head. “I really appreciate that, Ally. Really, I do.”

“That's not all,” the larger woman said. “I uhm … have a lot of issues that I'm still dealing with, Sara. There are things that get in the way sometimes.”

“That makes perfect sense,” Sara said. “You were horribly traumatized.”

“Yes, yes, I was,” Ally said. “But I'm trying to work through the past so I can live fully in the present. I'm consciously trying to change some of the ways I relate to women sexually. It's going to be a long process, Sara, and it's not always going to be easy for me. I just want you to know that I've got a lot of things to work out.”

“We all do,” Sara said. “If you'll let me, I'd like to be part of your team, Ally.” Smiling up at her, she said, “I'm a very good listener, and I'm also as patient as the day is long. Wanna risk it?”

The larger woman nodded her head, her eyes locked upon Sara's as a gentle smile tugged at her lips. “I do indeed,” she said, her voice sounding like pure honey.

Sara gazed at her for a long time, finding herself somehow soothed just by looking into Ally's eyes. Slowly, feeling like she was being drawn in by an irresistible force, she leaned in and kissed her, holding her gently in her arms as she pressed against her. She pulled away after a moment, and tilted her head just a tiny bit, looking at Ally curiously. “Something just occurred to me,” she said.

“Huh?” Ally looked like neither thought nor speech was very high on her list of priorities at the moment.

“Does it bother you to kiss me when I've had some alcohol? It just dawned on me that it might be unpleasant for you to taste it.”

Ally smiled gently and placed her large, warm hand against Sara's cheek. “You're so considerate.”

“You didn't answer me,” Sara said.

“Okay.” Ally took a breath and said, “If I had my druthers, I'd prefer to kiss people who didn't smoke or drink. I used to do both to excess, and it's a little more pleasant for me if I'm not reminded of the experience. Every once in a while I get a flashback to my drinking days, and I have to shut down a little.”

“Thank you,” Sara said softly. She gave her friend's shoulder a squeeze and excused herself. “Be right back.”

A few minutes later, Sara came back and sat right next to Ally. Sliding an arm around her shoulders, she brought her face right next to her friend's and said, “See if this helps a little.” Ally gave her a lazy half-smile and let herself be pulled close. Sara tilted her head and kissed her again, this time Ally noticing only the clean, fresh flavor of toothpaste.

The larger woman pulled away this time, and murmured, “Very nice. It means a lot to me that you care so much for my comfort.”

“I do,” she whispered, her lips just inches from Ally's. “I want you to be very comfortable with me.” She kissed her again, the heat of the caress rising precipitously. “Are you comfortable kissing me?”

“Entirely,” Ally drawled, her smile tugging at one corner of her mouth. “Maybe we should check to see if the inverse is also true.”

Sara started to say what a good idea that was, but before she could form a word, Ally had swept her into her arms, pinning her firmly to the sofa. One hand slid into her hair, holding the dark chestnut strands almost too firmly, while the other rested on her cheek in a remarkably gentle fashion. The dichotomy of the touches was so great that Sara's brain struggled to process them. A maelstrom of feelings swept over her when Ally leaned in and kissed her — the kisses she offered a confluence of two poles. A delicious mix of rough, raw desire, bracketed by two of the softest, gentlest kisses that Sara had ever experienced. Simultaneously, she felt treasured, coddled, and completely and utterly dominated.

Her whole body shivered, and her heart started to race as she struggled to focus, seeing the desire reflected in Ally's eyes, now turned a dark, steel gray. “More,” she whispered, lifting a hand to slip behind Ally's head to try and pull her forward for more of those mind-numbing kisses.

But the larger woman clearly didn't react well to coercion. Despite the pressure from Sara's hand, the head didn't move an inch. All that happened was that a tiny smile bloomed on Ally's face, and it remained until Sara got the hint and stopped pulling. “That's better,” Ally purred. “I like to be in charge,” she said, even though her message had come through loud and clear without a word. Flicking at Sara's bottom lip with her finger, she purred, “Do you like me to take control?”

“Yes.” Sara's head nodded quickly. “I like it very much. I just … I just need more of those kisses,” she begged, her need embarrassing her deeply.

“Just because I like to be in charge doesn't mean I'm only concerned with my own pleasure,” Ally whispered, her breath hot against Sara's cheek. “I want to please you, too.” She leaned forward again, pressing Sara even harder against the back of the sofa. Both strong arms enveloped her in a snug embrace, effectively rendering the smaller woman's arms useless. When she was positioned just like Ally wanted her, she started to kiss her in earnest, thrilling her to the core as lips and tongue and teeth caressed, and tickled and nipped at her mouth — the amalgam of sensations nearly driving her mad. The fact that she was utterly powerless added to her arousal, making her throb with desire as she struggled weakly, not to get away — but to throw Ally onto her back and ravage her thoroughly.

The larger woman sensed her intent, and she started to move against her, pressing her breasts hard against Sara's as she kissed her roughly.

“More,” the brunette gasped, “I need more!”

“Mmm …” Ally started to pull away, easing off from the ferocity of her kisses. Each one was now a little softer, and much more gentle. “I'll give you more … all that you want … but not now.” With one last, incredibly sensual kiss, she sat up and gazed into Sara's still-burning eyes. “Remember what we said about going slow?”

“No,” Sara said thickly. “All I know is that I have to kiss you again.”

Dipping her head, Ally gave her a soft, tender kiss, refusing to open her mouth to Sara's darting tongue, despite the smaller woman's frustrated moan. “I want to kiss you, too,” the sandy-haired woman whispered, “for a long, long while. But we both agreed to go slow, Sara, and this doesn't feel slow to me.”

Gazing at Ally with heavy-lidded eyes, Sara murmured, “Why were we gonna go slow? I forget.”

Giving her a warm, indulgent smile, Ally reminded her of their previous discussion. “I have some things I have to work on before I can feel comfortable being really open with you. And I want to make sure we are both looking for the same thing. I'm not looking for a fling, Sara. I've had enough casual sex to last two lifetimes.”

Running a hand along the back of Ally's neck and tickling the short fuzz at her hairline, Sara smiled and said, “I've only had enough casual sex for one lifetime, but even at that, I'm sick of it. I'm looking for a relationship, Ally. For my first relationship.” Giving her a wry grin she added, “I obviously have a few things to work on, too.”

“Sounds like we're both a little gun shy,” Ally said, her fingers trailing all over Sara's features, finding herself unable to stop touching the lovely woman.

“Yes, I certainly am,” Sara said, “but there's only one way to get over it.”

“Yeah. Just one way,” Ally said, finding herself drawn to the moist, open lips again. After indulging herself for just a moment, she shivered violently and got to her feet, running her hands through her hair as she tried to collect her thoughts. “I have to go,” she said. “I'm on the verge of losing control, and I refuse to have sex be the engine that runs this relationship.”

Sara smiled up at her with a look that mingled innocence and outright seduction. “You do want to make sex an element of the relationship, though, don't you?” She stood as she said this, and locked her arms loosely around Ally's waist.

“Yes,” the larger woman said, her mouth incredibly dry. “I do. A big part,” she said as she grinned shyly.

“Then we're on the same page so far,” Sara said. She reached as far as she could, standing on her tiptoes to place one last kiss on Ally's quivering lips. “We'll go slow,” she said. “But not too slow, okay?”

“Do my best, ma'am,” Ally said in her best Southern drawl.

“Let me give you a lift to your car,” Sara said, taking her hand.

“Nah. I could really use the walk,” she said. “I need to cool off.” She pulled Sara close and gave her a tiny kiss. “Walk me to my car, and I'll give you a lift home.”

They set off, the cold, damp breeze effectively cooling both of them off. “So, will I see you at the competition on Sunday, or will we just meet up here?” Ally asked.

“Of course I'll be there. I wouldn't miss it.”

“I'm in the last weight class, so I have to stay until it's nearly over. I'm sure I won't make the finals, so I'll come find you.”

“Okay. I'll be waiting.”

“We can go out for ice cream afterwards,” Ally said. She lifted her knit shirt and patted her belly, Sara's eyes going wide when she saw the deeply etched abdominal muscles. “I'm dying for sugar and fat.”

“Is this really your last competition?” Sara asked as they continued to walk.

“Yeah, I'm sure of it,” Ally said.

“And your body will never look like this again?” the brunette said.

“Nope. I'll never be this cut again.” She cocked her head and asked, “Why?”

Sara shrugged off the question and smiled up at her. “Just curious,” she said, “No special reason.”

Ally took her hand again, and they continued their walk, both of them in silent contemplation.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

On Saturday, Ryan drove the BMW to Cal for the tryout at Levine-Fricke Field. She wore the same outfit she had worn to play softball with her family, a pair of black, double-knit nylon shorts, and a red softball jersey from her old high school; and to Jamie's educated eye, she looked absolutely adorable.

They approached a balding, overweight, beer-bellied, middle-aged man who was pacing around behind the backstop. "Coach Roberts?" Ryan asked as they neared him.

"Yeah. O'Flaherty?"

"Yes. Pleased to meet you," she said as she stuck out her hand.

"Yeah. Let's get going," he said as he shook the proffered hand.

Having had quite enough of standoffish coaches, Ryan stood right where she was and waited for him to look at her. "This is Jamie Evans, Coach Roberts," she said evenly.

"Oh, hi," he said, as he stuck out his hand again. "Why are you here?"

Ryan was a bit irked at his manners, so she decided to give him a little test. "Jamie is my lover, Coach," she said with a smile. "She accompanies me whenever I'm doing something important."

"Oh, great," he said dramatically as he rolled his eyes.

"Do you have a problem with that?" Ryan asked.

"Yeah, I do," he started to say, but when he saw the look on Ryan's face he corrected himself. "Oh, no, not like you think," he said. "I don't like any of my girls to have romantic attachments. Takes your mind off the game. There's enough distractions without bringing love into it," he said in a tone that equated love with the chicken pox.

Just then a young woman came running across the field, dragging a winded young man with her. "See what I mean?" he moaned as they kissed goodbye on the pitcher's mound. "Chapman! I said to be here at ten!"

"Yes, Coach," she said. As soon as he turned to look at Ryan again, Chapman caught Jamie's eye and gave her a wink.

When Ryan declared that first base was her best position, the coach directed Chapman to play second while he hit grounders to Ryan. She was to field the ball, throw to second and then return to the bag to catch the return throw to get the runner out. "Hey, girlfriend," he called to Jamie.


"Can you run?"

"Like the wind."

"Then come over here, and get halfway between me and the bag. When I hit the ball, run like hell."

She looked to Ryan for her approval, but was met with only a raised eyebrow and a shoulder shrug. Luckily, she was wearing running shoes, Lycra shorts and a T-shirt, as they were planning on going to the gym afterward. So, she put her bag down on the bench, and gamely took her position.

Ryan got down in a crouch, and waited for the ball. A sharply hit grounder pulled her towards second, but she snagged the ball and tossed it with a quick underhand motion to the second baseman. Her momentum caused her to do a somersault, but she regained her feet quickly, and ran back towards first. Jamie easily beat her to the bag, but she clearly would not have if she had been running from home. As she turned around to run back to her spot, she patted Ryan on the butt. "Good job, Tiger," she said with a wink.

After 20 minutes of constant activity, Jamie began to inch closer and closer to first base. When they had finished this part of the workout she was practically standing on the bag, much to Ryan's amusement. The coach called the fielders in and told Jamie to sit down. As Ryan approached, he said loudly, "She's a frail little thing, isn't she?"

Ryan turned to see the glare in those green eyes, and she warned him, "Don't play with fire, Coach. Looks are deceiving."

The next element of her try-out was to assess her hitting skills. Coach Roberts led Ryan over to an enclosed batting cage, and set up a pitching machine. She put on the batting gloves that she had stashed in her pocket, chose one of the garishly decorated aluminum bats, then spent a few minutes taking practice swings, just to loosen up.

She got serious as soon as she entered the batting cage. The coach started the machine out slow, but in a few minutes he had the ball blazing in on her. Jamie had the enviable position of sitting on a bench behind her, and she was treated to the sight of her lover's butt twitching back and forth before each pitch was delivered. This little show was over much too early for her taste, but after more than 100 pitches, Ryan looked like she could use a break.

"Can you play any other positions?" Coach Roberts asked.

Ryan wiped the sweat from her brow and nodded. "Yeah. I've played center field and right field. When I play with my family I play second. And I can play short and third, but I haven't played there since grammar school. And I can pitch, of course," she added as if that should be obvious.

He smirked at her confidence, but had to admit to himself that the lanky young woman's actions had thus far backed up her words. "What, you're too good to catch?” She shrugged, barely hiding a little smile. “Head on out to center field, All Star, and I'll hit you some fly balls."

Jamie knew quite a bit about baseball since she had attended many Giants games with her father, so she had a good deal of appreciation for the gracefulness that Ryan displayed when she ran for the ball. Even though the day was a little windy, she had no difficulty in gauging the speed and the distance of the balls that the coach hit. She would lazily trot under the ball and be awaiting its descent with her weight balanced on the balls of her feet, then cradle it into her glove, with her other hand hovering over the top of the glove, in case the ball had the temerity to try to escape.

After a few minutes of this exercise, the coach instructed her to catch the ball and fire it in to the cut-off man, in this case, Chapman. Ryan had a gun, and the ball buzzed through the air as it whacked into the glove time and again.

He waved her in and stood with his hands on his hips, staring at her for a few minutes. "So … what's the catch?" he asked.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Drugs, booze, what?"

Ryan laughed a bit as she shook her head. "I don't know what you're getting at Coach," she said.

"You're way too good to walk on, and you don't look like you're 18, so where have you been — prison?"

"No," she said. "I was at U.S.F. for my first two years. As you know, they don't offer softball as a varsity sport. Last year I couldn't play since I was a transfer, but my financial situation has changed, and I'm able to play, so here I am."

"Does blondie have anything to do with that?" he asked as he nodded toward Jamie.

Ryan had to laugh at this new nickname. "Yeah," she said easily, matching his style. "She's loaded."

"Well, maybe it's not always a bad idea to have a girlfriend," he said with a bark of a laugh. "Heck, I'd be gay if some good looking guy would support me."

"I don't think you'd get many offers, Coach," Ryan said, giving him a long appraising look.

He spat out another hearty laugh and slapped her on the back, "Good one, O'Flaherty. I think I like you."

"I might like to play if you can use me,” she said. “But I'm currently committed to the basketball team.”

He narrowed his eyes and said, “Oh, shit! Now I know who you are! What in the hell is going on with that basketball team? Is Coach Hayes insane?”


“I don't come to the games, so I didn't recognize you, and I suck with names, but I read the box scores after every game. You're the only player on that team worth a squat.” He looked at her suspiciously and said, “I saw a mention in the paper that you'd left the team. You're not academically ineligible, are you?”

“Hardly,” she said, insulted that he would even insinuate such a thing. “I uhm … had some uhm … publicity that was getting in the way … and …”

“Publicity?” he asked, scratching his head. “What in the hell are you talking about, O'Flaherty?”

Jamie was standing nearby at this point, and she piped up, “Don't you read the paper, or watch the news?”

“Yeah, of course I do. I read the sports page and watch Sportscenter. What else does a guy need?”

“Not a thing,” Ryan said. “I guarantee that my record is clean, Coach. Feel free to talk to Coach Hayes or Coach Placer.”

“You played for Rich?” he asked suspiciously.

“Yep. Sure did,” she said.

“I've gotta check you out, O'Flaherty. You sound like an interesting character.”

“Oh, she is that,” Jamie said proudly, beaming a smile at her partner.

“Well, I'm planning on quitting the basketball team, but I haven't done so yet. So please don't talk to Coach Hayes for a couple of days, okay?”

“No problem. I trust Rich's opinion more than hers anyway. She's screwed that team up so bad I wouldn't believe her if she said the sky was blue.”

Ryan shook his hand and said, “Let me talk to Jamie, and make a decision about whether we think we can handle the softball schedule, and I'll give you a call.”

“Good deal,” he said. “I'm gonna call Rich as soon as I get to my office.”

As they walked over to their car, Chapman walked along with them. "I'm Michelle," she said as she shook Ryan's hand. “Coach doesn't know anything that isn't in the sports page, but I saw you guys on TV. That was so freaky!”

“You're telling me,” Ryan said.

"What's with the coach, anyway?” Jamie piped up. “Is he as grouchy as he seems?"

"Oh no,” Michelle said. “He's all bark and no bite. The girls really love him, Ryan. I guarantee you'll like playing for him."

“What about team chemistry?” Ryan asked. “Do you guys like each other?”

“Oh, yeah,” Michelle said. “We hang out together all the time.”

"Do you think the other players would have a hard time with me being an open lesbian?" Ryan asked, not wanting that to be an issue either.

"No. I'm a senior this year, and we've had at least a couple of lesbians each year. It's never been a problem, unless they started dating each other."

"That seems to be a common theme," Jamie said wryly, recalling that Coach Hayes had said the same thing during the basketball workout.

"That won't be a problem for me," Ryan said. "I'm kept on a very short leash.” Her quick reflexes allowed her to barely dodge the flying elbow that her lover threw.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Later that night, they decided to take Duffy for a nice long walk. It was only around ten o'clock, and they gravitated down to 24
th Street and strolled along with the constant parade of pedestrians on the main shopping avenue in the neighborhood. Ryan's face brightened when she spied her father and her aunt walking towards them. “What's up with you two?” she asked.

“We just came down to the newsstand to buy the Irish Times,” Maeve said. “Been out long?”

“No, we just started. Wanna join us?”

“Surely,” Maeve said, and Martin also agreed.

While they walked, Jamie commented on their evening, and Ryan grew quiet as they continued to walk. Martin noticed her uncharacteristic silence and asked, “Something bothering you, love?”

“Uhm … not really. I'm just thinking about something that I've got to do on Monday. I'm a little preoccupied.”

“What's that, love?” Martin asked.

“I'm going to quit the basketball team,” she said, gazing directly into his eyes.

“I see,” he said quietly. Jamie noticed that Maeve grasped his hand and gave it a squeeze.

“It's not working for me, Da, and if I'm honest with myself I have to acknowledge that they probably don't want me back.”

“Why wouldn't they want you? You could make that into a decent team!”

“Maybe,” she said. “Look, Da, I know it's a selfish decision, but it's just not worth it to me at this point. They're playing as well as they did when I was with them, and there's no chance of making the NCAA's, so it's just not worth my time.”

He gave her a speculative look and asked, “Have you made up your mind?”

“I have,” she said, squeezing back when Jamie pressed her hand tightly.

Nodding briefly, he placed a hand on her shoulder and patted her. “Time to move on with your life then. I'm very sorry this turned out so poorly for you, Siobhán.”

“Me too,” she said.

“You did your best,” Maeve said. “Sometimes things just don't work out.”

“This was one of those times,” Jamie said, seeing that Ryan still looked a little unsettled, but knowing it would take her a while to feel confident in her decision.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When they returned, Jamie could tell that her partner was a little down. It was time for bed, and when Ryan started to walk across the room to join her, Jamie asked, “Any chance we could kiss a little before we go to sleep?”

Ryan stopped in her tracks, and looked like she wanted to turn and run in the other direction.

“Not a big deal,” Jamie said softly. “Just a few kisses.”

“Uhm … okay,” Ryan said, stiffly slipping into bed and taking a moment to straighten her clothes.

Deciding that she didn't want to be the aggressor, Jamie lay down and said, “I don't want to make out or anything, honey. I just want to keep our lips in shape, okay?”

A small smile broke through, and Jamie knew she had her. Ryan placed a gentle hand on her cheek and asked, “Just for exercise, huh?”

“Yep. Nothing worse than flabby lips.”

Once the mood was playful, Ryan felt her breathing even out, and she leaned over her partner and placed a few tender kisses upon her lips. Jamie didn't touch her lover, letting her control every aspect of their brief encounter. Once she was certain that she was fully in charge, Ryan let herself go a little bit, allowing her senses to open up and experience the simple joy of savoring her partner's lips. They didn't move beyond the playful stage, but that was fine with both of them. Just the gentle merging of their mouths seemed like a milestone, and, a few minutes later, when they cuddled together, both felt asleep quickly — each cheered by the tender reconnection.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Continued in Part 10

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