Disclaimers: None. All of the characters are mine (although two of them may bear uncanny physical resemblances to two others you might recognize).
Violence/Sex: Some (brief) violence. There is, ultimately, after YEARS of dedicated reading, consensual sex between two people who may bear uncanny resemblances to two… well… you get the point.
Warning: This story does involve a consensual loving and sexual relationship between two adult women. If this offends you, is illegal where you live, or if you are underage—please consider another story selection.
Dedication : To all of you who are brave enough (and persistent enough) to read this, my first work of fiction. Bear with me and forgive me for any significant grammatical or literary transgressions— Jericho and I are both works in progress.
Special Thanks : To my best pal, writing dominatrix (she looks really cute in that meter maid costume, but can never make change), and Beta-reader—the FAMOUS JLynn (who told me it didn't suck). So if you think it does , please tell her instead of me. You will find her works of fiction posted at this site, too.
If you decide that you like it, however, write me— I'd like to know what you think. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Copyright Ann McMan, November 2010. All rights reserved. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced without the prior express permission of the author, except for the purpose of personal enjoyment, provided that all disclaimers remain intact.
Jericho is complete, but will be posted in ten parts.
Jericho Part VII
The rest of the week passed uneventfully for Syd, except for the quiet revolution that was systematically transforming the internal landscape of her life. She thought over and over about all those mean-spirited Helen Keller jokes her brother used to tell her when they were kids, consigned to the back seat of the car on long family trips. “How did Helen Keller's parents punish her? Rearrange the furniture!” But that's exactly how she felt right now—like she was blindly fumbling across terrain that ought to be familiar, but wasn't any more. Something had reached down inside her tidy and organized existence and shifted everything around—and it was going to take her some time to get her bearings, and feel her way though the surprising new arrangement.
But Michael had been right about one thing—she did still feel like herself. She knew that at some point, she needed to face up to the complex set of realities that loomed ahead of her. She needed to talk with her parents. And she needed to decide what, if any, impact this nascent relationship with Maddie would have on her immediate future—because she couldn't continue to forestall making plans for her life after Jericho.
She had seen Maddie only twice since Monday—the night when everything between them changed. Syd had been saddled with back-to-back evening commitments at the library, and on the third night, Maddie had a patient emergency that kept her tied up at the hospital for most of the evening. But they had talked a lot on the phone, and they had made the most of their brief opportunities to be together.
On Tuesday, they met for a quick lunch at Freemantle's market, and they sat in awkward silence at their tiny, plastic-topped table—struggling with their physical proximity in surroundings that made any kind of intimate contact impossible. Most of their conversation was non-verbal—quiet smiles and casual touches that were anything but casual. Syd laughed when she recalled how Maddie bought a small bag of crunchy Cheetos at the checkout counter—then winked as she handed them to her outside in the parking lot. “You might need these later on,” she said, smiling. “You promise?” Syd replied, as she snatched the bag and stuffed it into her purse.
On Wednesday night, Syd played host to the regular, monthly meeting of the Tri-County Library Board—and Maddie attended the meeting, in tandem with four other board members. It was abject torture for Syd to have to sit across the large oak table from Maddie while she attempted to give a coherent presentation about her recent trip to Richmond—and described likely cutbacks in state funding. She hadn't been one hundred percent certain that Maddie would even attend the meeting, and she felt her heart rate speed up when she saw the tall woman enter the library with Phoebe Jenkins—another board member. Maddie was wearing a tailored gray suit that hugged her long body, and her dark hair fell loose around her shoulders like a thick wave. Syd found it difficult to breathe when she looked at her, so she tried to avoid making eye contact, and she hoped that Maddie would intuit the reasons why.
During a break for refreshments, Syd walked back to her small office to retrieve some funding proposals she had prepared, and heard her cell phone beeping from its nest in her purse. Drawing it out, she was surprised to see that she had a text message—from Maddie.
8:33 p.m. Text message from Stevenson, M.H.
This is killing me.
She looked around the corner of her office door to see Maddie, standing alone near a shelf of periodicals. She had her cell phone in her hand. Syd quickly sent a reply.
8:34 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
I know. I can't even look at u.
8:35 p.m. Text message from Stevenson, M.H.
8:35 p.m. Text message from Murphy, S.
Because I want 2 kiss u.
She looked around the corner again and saw Maddie's eyes fixed on her doorway. Blushing, she ducked back inside and tried to compose herself. Her phone beeped again.
8:36 Text message from Stevenson, M.H.
Meet me in the restroom?
Syd's heart began to pound again. She knew they were flirting with disaster, but she decided to risk it. Taking a deep breath, she walked out of her office and deposited her documents on the meeting table. Maddie was nowhere in sight. As casually as she could, Syd waked toward the restroom, noting that Phoebe, the only other woman in attendance at the meeting, was standing next to the coffee pot, engaged in earnest conversation with Tom Greene. She pushed open the door to the ladies room and quickly felt a warm hand wrap itself around her wrist. Maddie pulled her inside and backed her up against the door. She had only a split second to notice how well the dark blue silk blouse Maddie wore brought out the color of her eyes before she was rendered incapable of any rational thought. Maddie was kissing her hungrily and Syd felt like her knees were going to give out as she stood there, tightly wedged between the door and Maddie's warm body. She wound her arms around Maddie's back, pulling her even closer as they continued to kiss. When she felt Maddie's tongue graze her own, she knew they were getting out of hand, but she didn't want to stop. There was something wonderfully illicit about this clandestine encounter—and it added to the heady excitement she was now used to feeling whenever she was this close to the doctor.
The sound of laughter from outside finally caused them to break apart. They stood with their foreheads touching, each taking deep breaths. Maddie ran her hands slowly up and down Syd's arms, rubbing and squeezing them.
“God,” she whispered. “I can't stand this.”
“Me either.” Syd leaned back and met her blue eyes. “Can you stay after the meeting is over?”
Maddie sighed. “No. Phoebe rode with me—I have to take her home.”
Syd raised a hand and caressed the side of her face. “Can you come back?”
Maddie kissed her palm. “I can—but I don't think I should.”
Syd nodded. “Probably not.” She raised her other hand so she could stroke the wide planes of Maddie's face. “I suppose we should get back out there?”
Maddie nodded. “Yeah. This would be kind of hard to explain.”
“Sooner or later, we'll have to, won't we?”
“That's up to you.”
Syd leaned forward and brushed her lips against Maddie's. “No—it's up to us .”
Maddie pulled Syd away from the door and gave her another incendiary kiss. Then she backed away and straightened her jacket. “I'll call you,” she whispered as she pulled the door open and walked back out into the library.
Later that night, when they talked on the phone, they agreed that it was time for them to tell David and Michael about the change in their relationship. Maddie suggested that they invite them to her place for dinner on Friday night, and drop the bombshell there. Syd agreed. She was anxious to tell Michael, and to release him from his pledge of confidentiality. She hoped that once their confidence was revealed, David wouldn't hold it against him—or her.
After they discussed possible menu options, Syd shifted gears and decided to tease Maddie.
“So...Friday night. Should I pack my jammies?”
There was momentary silence on the other end of the line. “You're joking, right?”
“Why would you think I'm joking?”
“Because,” Maddie's voice dropped an octave, “the next time you spend the night at my place, you won't need any jammies.”
Syd's breath caught in her throat. She decided not to tease Maddie any more. “You don't play fair,” she said.
Maddie laughed. “I play to win.”
“You've already won.”
More silence. “Now who's not playing fair?”
Syd sighed. “We're hopeless, aren't we?”
“Well, then—I guess I should drag my hopeless butt off to bed. See you on Friday?”
“If not before. Come early.”
“And often?” Syd drawled.
Maddie chuckled. “That goes without saying.”
“It sure does now.”
Maddie groaned. “You really need to behave.”
“But it's so much more fun to be bad .”
“One day, I'll find out what you mean by that.”
“Yes, you will.” Syd sighed. “I guess this is goodnight, then?”
Maddie exhaled. “Yeah. Goodnight, honey.”
Syd felt a thrill race up and down her body. “Sweet talker. Goodnight.”
She hung up and went to bed, musing about all the possible ways David might react to the news. However it went, it was sure to be one for the record books.
Syd arrived at Maddie's farm half an hour before the men were due. They decided to keep the meal simple—grilled pork tenderloin, salad, and a curried cold rice concoction with nuts and currants that Syd swore was exotic enough to please Michael.
Pete met her in the driveway and happily danced around her legs as she made her way to the porch. Maddie stood, leaning against one of the massive support posts, watching her approach. She was casually dressed in faded blue jeans and an oversized man's black sweater that probably had belonged to her father. Syd thought she looked amazing. But, then, Syd always thought she looked amazing—even when she wore rumpled blue hospital scrubs.
When she reached the porch, Maddie extended her hands to take the large, stoneware bowl from her—then smiled as she leaned forward to kiss her. Syd felt an immediate surge of adrenalin at the contact. Yep. Zero to turned-on in 1.2 seconds. That's gotta be some kind of record .
“Do me a favor?” she asked, after Maddie pulled back.
“Okaaaayy.” Maddie narrowed her eyes.
“Put that down on the table and come stand right here .” She pointed to one of the lower steps that led up to the porch.
Maddie complied and dutifully set the bowl down on the large pine table near the door. Then she turned and walked back to stand on the step Syd had indicated. Turning around, she held her hands out to the sides as if to suggest, “Now what?”
Syd walked over and draped her arms around the taller woman's shoulders. Their eyes were now on the same level.
“Perfect,” she muttered as she leaned in and kissed her again—longer this time.
Maddie wrapped her arms around her waist and tugged her closer. When they finally broke apart to breathe, she grinned at her. “Trying to level the playing field?”
“I learned a long time ago that when life doesn't fit, you make adjustments.”
“Hmmmm. You should go far with that philosophy.”
Syd kissed her on the tip of her nose. “Oh, I plan to.”
Maddie pulled her into a full body hug. “God, I missed you.”
“Me, too.” Syd relaxed into the embrace and kissed her on the ear, smiling when she heard Maddie moan.
Pulling back, she took the doctor's hand and tugged her toward the door. “We'd better take this inside or we'll get busted right here in the yard.”
“About that,” Maddie said as they walked together toward the door. “I had some thoughts about how we might share these— developments —with David.”
“Oh?” Syd said, picking up the bowl. “Do tell.”
Maddie held the door open and they entered the house, walking together down the hallway toward the kitchen. “Yeah. If we're—the way we are—with them when they get here, it's going to take David all of two seconds to figure everything out.”
“So—I was thinking that this might be a golden opportunity to have some fun at his expense. That's if you're game.”
Syd gave her an appraising look. “This is something new. I never realized you had such a devious streak.”
“Paybacks honey. Paybacks.”
Syd set the bowl down on the center island and leaned into her. “God, I just melt when you call me that.”
Maddie wrapped her long arms around her and kissed her on the head. “Well then, I'll have to refrain from calling you that until later on.”
Syd gave her a squeeze and then stood back. “What's the plan?”
“Just try to behave normally and take your cues from me. If I know David, it shouldn't take too long.
The men arrived shortly after 6:00, and the four friends relaxed around Maddie's large kitchen table with glasses of wine while they got caught up on events of the last week.
David reached for another handful of Cheetos from the large bowl in the center of the table. “Not that I'm complaining or anything—but what's with the pre-teen treats? Are you still suffering from terminal sexual frustration?”
Maddie smiled sweetly at him. “No. I've just been craving them lately.”
Across the table from her, Syd choked on her wine.
David looked back and forth between the two of them. “What gives? You two seem frightfully plucky. Did something happen in Richmond that you need to share with our studio audience?”
“Drop it, David.” Michael's voice was cautionary.
“No way.” David sat forward in his chair and stared into Maddie's eyes. “She's hiding something—I can tell .”
Maddie looked back at him impassively. “It's comforting to see that you're as delusional as ever.”
“In a word—yes.”
He sat back. “I simply cannot believe that the two of you spent THREE whole nights together in the same hotel room and nothing happened.” He shook his head in disbelief. “You really ought to consider donating your libido to science.”
Maddie chewed the inside of her cheek, but didn't reply. When David looked over at Syd, he noticed a slow blush creeping up her neck. Michael noticed it, too, and tried to intercede.
“David, I thought we agreed that you were going to drop this ridiculous pipe dream of yours.” He shot Syd a sympathetic look. “Can't you see that you're just embarrassing Syd?”
David refused to be deterred. “I never agreed to drop anything …well…except for that trial subscription to Butt magazine. I was appalled by all the Photoshop work on those models—it was totally lacking in journalistic integrity.”
Michael stared at him in disgust, then turned to face Maddie. “I give up. You're on your own with this one.”
Maddie sighed deeply and leaned forward, resting both of her hands flat against the top of the table. Her face was less than a foot away from David's. “You're never going to drop this, are you?” Her tone was menacing, and her blue eyes were fixed on him like twin laser beams.
He was unmoved. “Nuh uh.” He casually extended a hand toward the snack bowl, and popped another couple of Cheetos into his mouth, dramatically crunching them in her face.
“Fine.” Her voice was hard. “Have it your way.” She shoved her chair back roughly and got to her feet. David looked up at her in surprise as she walked around the table and stood next to Syd. Grabbing the smaller woman by the arm, she hauled her to her feet and turned her body so they were facing each other. “Sorry about this, Syd—it's bigger than both of us.” Without ceremony, she dipped her dramatically and kissed her—hard and full on the mouth. After a few seconds, Syd raised her arms to grasp Maddie by the shoulders, and energetically kissed her back—both of them moaning into the embrace.
In the background, Michael began to chuckle as David coughed and sprayed half-eaten Cheetos across the table. Maddie and Syd started laughing as they playfully continued to nip and peck at each other—before standing upright and facing David with their arms still tightly wrapped around each other.
David dabbed at his mouth and the front of his polo shirt with a napkin. He was incredulous. “You have got to be kidding me with this! You two totally suck —you know that?”
Maddie raised an eyebrow. “Well, technically, we haven't started any sucking yet—but it probably won't be long.”
“You got that right,” Syd chimed-in, kissing her soundly on the cheek.
David shook his head back and forth in stunned disbelief. “I can't believe I fell for that. Jesus.” He sighed as he stared back at them. “How long has this been going on?”
Syd looked dreamily up at Maddie. “Only since Monday.”
“ Monday? ” David climbed to his feet in agitation. “You've been doing— this… ” he waved his hands to encompass their intertwined bodies, “since Monday, and this is the first I hear about it?”
Maddie pretended to consider his question. “Monday? Um—yeah…that's right. Since Monday.”
He raised a hand to his forehead. “I need a drink .”
“You already have a drink,” Michael said, indicating his glass of wine.
“Well then, I need another drink.” He looked back at Maddie and Syd, who were now sweetly staring at one another. Against his will, he smiled and shook his head. “You know, I totally saw this coming.”
Syd looked back at him. “You did?”
He scoffed. “Hell yes, I did.” He shifted his brown eyes to Maddie. “Didn't I Sawbones?” He looked back at Syd and tipped his head to indicate Maddie. “She's been hopelessly in love with you for months now.”
Maddie's blue eyes grew wide before she closed them in mortification. Syd turned to face her. “You have?” she asked, in a small voice.
“Jesus, David,” Michael hissed.
Before Maddie could speak, her phone began to ring. Eager for any distraction, she turned to Michael. “Grab that for me, will you?”
“Sure,” he said, fixing David with a look of disgust before walking over to the wall phone next to the fridge. “Dr. Stevenson's residence.” He stood there for a moment, and then turned to face Maddie with a concerned expression. “Hang on, she's right here.” He held the phone out to her. “You need to take this, sweetie—it's a Dr. Kramer from UCLA.”
Gently disengaging herself from Syd, Maddie walked over to him and took the receiver. “This is Dr. Stevenson.” They all watched as she listened to the voice on the other end of the line. The color slowly drained from her face. “When did this happen?” Maddie raised her free hand to her forehead. “Where is she now?” she asked, as her long frame sagged against the kitchen counter. “How are her vitals?” She nodded slowly. “Who is her attending?” She looked at her watch. “I'll be on the first flight I can get—but it's probably going to take me at least ten or twelve hours to get there. I'll text you all my contact information.” She listened intently for another minute. “Thanks, Dr. Kramer. I'll do that. I'll call you with my flight details.” She hung up and turned toward them. Her face was ashen.
“That was Laszlow Kramer—a colleague of my mother's. There was an explosion in Celine's laboratory about an hour ago—a centrifuge.” She looked dazed. “Her lab assistant was killed—and she was badly injured.” She paused. “She's in surgery now. It—it's pretty serious. She lost a lot of blood.” She looked at Syd. “I have to go, now—I need…I need….” Her voice trailed off.
Syd crossed the room and wrapped her arms around her. “Oh, my god. Oh, honey….”
Michael already had his cell phone out. “Charlotte to LAX?” he asked? Maddie nodded. “Let's see what we can do—you go get packed.”
Maddie dumbly gestured toward the back porch, where her purse hung on a hook by the door. “My credit card….”
“Got it,” David said—go get packed. We'll have the car ready.”
She nodded and looked down at Syd, who was still clinging to her. “Help me get ready?”
“Of course.” Her eyes were wide with concern. She bit her lower lip. “Let's go. I'll help you.”
“Okay.” Maddie steered her toward the back stairs. “I don't know what to pack.” Her voice was vacant.
Syd kept an arm securely wrapped around her waist. “You let me worry about that—just show me where things are.”
They slowly ascended the stairs together. Michael and David eyed each other from opposite sides of the room. Then Michael perked up and spoke into his phone. “Yes, hello. I need to know what flights you have from Charlotte to LAX that leave tonight —it's an emergency.”
On the long ride to Charlotte-Douglas Airport, Maddie asked Syd if she would consider staying at the farm while she was away so she could look after Pete. Syd consented immediately. The two of them sat close together on the back seat of Michael's Range Rover, holding hands. David and Michael insisted on driving her to the airport, and Maddie didn't refuse. She knew she was in no position to drive herself, and she didn't want Syd making the trip back to Jericho alone. She had already called Lizzy Mayes and Peggy Hawkes to let them know what had happened, and to relay instructions about how they should manage the clinic and her hospitalized patients during her absence.
Michael succeeded at booking Maddie the last available seat on an American Airlines flight that left Charlotte at 8:55 p.m. They were able to check her straight through to her gate, so she could avoid the obligatory one-hour-before-departure arrival. Her flight was nonstop, but she wouldn't land in L.A. until 1:52 a.m. Pacific time. Dr. Kramer was adamant about meeting her at the airport, insisting that he would be waiting at the hospital all night, anyway. He told Maddie that he would keep her apprised of her mother's condition via text messages as soon as details became available. She knew now that Celine had suffered a penetrating neck injury, a broken arm, and a ruptured spleen. Her condition was listed as critical.
They had little time for goodbyes when they reached the airport—not even stopping to park. Maddie's flight was already at the gate, so they dropped her at a curbside entrance with her single bag, so she could rush through security. Syd climbed out and stood back while Maddie hugged David and Michael, and thanked them for making the whirlwind trek to Charlotte. She promised to call them as soon as she knew anything definitive about Celine. When she turned to face Syd, her eyes were glassy. Wordlessly, they stepped toward each other and embraced. When Maddie pulled back, she took Syd's face between both of her hands and kissed her lightly on the lips.
“I love you,” she whispered, without thinking.
Syd felt her eyes well with tears. “I love you, too.”
Maddie gave her a crooked smile and squeezed her hand before turning around and striding toward the large glass door that led to the American Airlines concourses. Syd stood there and watched her retreating back until she lost sight of her as she rounded the bend near the TSA screening area.
It was going to be a long and desolate ride back to Virginia.
Jericho, Part IV • Los Angeles
On Saturday morning, Syd sat upstairs with Pete in the small sitting area adjacent to Maddie's bedroom. She had wandered around the big farmhouse for most of the morning, feeling unsettled and anxious—trying hard to distract herself from excessive clock-watching as she waited for Maddie's next phone call.
She received a text message from her at 5:30 a.m., to let her know that she had arrived in L.A. and was en route to the hospital. Celine was out of surgery, and her condition was listed as critical. Maddie called her shortly after 8:00 a.m., to let her know that she'd seen her mother and talked with her surgeon. Celine had sustained a tear in her carotid artery and had been intubated at the scene. She'd also suffered a broken arm—and a perforation to her spleen, which had been removed. She now was in ICU, and was still unconscious.
Maddie sounded exhausted, not having slept much on the eight-hour trip. She had managed to book a room at the nearby Beverly Hills Wilshire Plaza Hotel, but was certain to stay at the hospital for as long as Celine remained in critical condition. She promised to call Syd with updates, as her condition warranted. She thanked her again for her willingness to stay on the farm and care for Pete.
“It helps me to know you're there,” she said.
“It helps me to be here, too—especially since I'm not there with you.”
There was quiet on the line for a moment. “Thanks for helping me pack. I'm embarrassed that I fell apart like that—I'm usually more in control.”
“I know. It's understandable.” She wanted to say more, but wasn't sure what words to use. “Did you get anything to eat?”
“I made myself eat a snack on the plane—I found the protein bar you stuck in my bag.” Syd could hear the smile behind Maddie's voice.
“Here comes Dr. Kramer—I'd better go. I'll call you later, okay?”
“Okay.” She hesitated. “I…you know.”
“I know—me, too. Bye.”
They hung up.
That was two hours ago. Syd glanced at the clock over the bedroom fireplace. Not even 10:00. She was going to go crazy at this rate. She needed to distract herself.
She pushed the sleeves up on the enormous black sweater that hung off her body, and reached for the laptop computer that sat in front of her on a small table. Maddie had tossed the sweater on the bed with the rest of her clothes last night, after she had changed for her flight. When Syd had walked up the back stairs later that evening with Pete in tow, she stopped in the doctor's bedroom long enough to fold the discarded garments before making her way down the hall to the guest room. A trace of Maddie's perfume wafted out of the sweater when Syd picked it up, and she held it to her face, trying not to cry. Oh, what the hell? She had put it on, and had been wearing it ever since.
Maddie's laptop was already plugged-in and booted up, so she was able to access its Internet browser easily. She navigated to the Los Angeles Times web site, and checked to see if there was any local news coverage of Celine's accident. It didn't take her long to find a series of stories and breaking news alerts—the most recent article having been posted only an hour earlier.
DETAILS EMERGE IN UCLA LAB EXPLOSION
Fatality/serious injury reported when CHS centrifuge explodes
By Lynn Hayes
A source at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine states that a malfunctioning centrifuge was the cause of yesterday's laboratory explosion. The toxicology research lab was located on the fourth floor of the Center for Health Sciences (CHS) Building adjacent to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Westwood.
Medical Center personnel confirmed that Diego Vaz Peña, a 24 year-old laboratory assistant from Santa Monica, was pronounced dead at the scene. Dr. Celine Heller, Schering Professor of Molecular Toxicology and Associate Dean of the Geffen School of Medicine, was seriously injured, and transported to the Reagan Medical Center complex for treatment. According to sources at the medical center, her condition continues to be listed as critical.
Dr. Laszlow Kramer, a research associate of Dr. Heller's and professor of pathology, reported that the toxicology lab centrifuge was a Beckman L2 that had been slated for replacement over two years ago, but was still in use due to funding limitations. It was housed in an alcove adjacent to Heller's main lab, and was mid-cycle when it experienced massive rotor failure. The unit's safety shielding did not contain the blast, and the explosion hurled metal fragments across the lab, breaking chemical containers and lodging into walls and ceiling tiles. Shock waves from the explosion shattered all of the windows on the southwest side of the fourth floor.
Heller and Vaz Peña were the only occupants of the lab at the time of the explosion.
Vaz Peña was killed instantly. Metal and glass fragments from the blast struck Heller in various locations on her neck and lower back, and the force of the blast hurled her behind an ultra-cold freezer unit, which likely shielded her from sustaining more extensive injuries. EMTs reported that she was unconscious at the scene.
The Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center houses a Level I trauma center, acute care hospital, ambulatory care facilities, neuropsychiatric hospital, and schools of medicine, dentistry, nursing and public health. The $3.1 billion complex opened in 2006, and was the largest building project ever undertaken by the University of California.
Cal/OSHA has cited the university numerous times for safety violations, most recently for violations of workplace safety laws in the fatal burning of a staff research assistant in a Dec. 29 chemistry department lab fire.
Copyright © 2009, The Los Angeles Times
Syd sat the laptop back down on the table and tried to compose herself. In a strange way, reading such a detached and almost clinical account of Celine's accident made the events seem more real, and yet more surreal at the same time. The enormity of the circumstances and their implications for Maddie slammed into her with fresh urgency. She looked around the room at the many indicators of the quiet life Maddie lived within these walls. She couldn't help but think about the dinner they'd had with Celine in Richmond just one week ago. It had been her idea for them to pretend to be a couple—a clumsy attempt on her part to trick Celine into revealing her real reason for traveling to Virginia.
From the get-go, she had been persuaded that Celine was not as indifferent to her daughter as Maddie seemed to suggest. Their tête a tête when Maddie left the table to handle a patient emergency proved that she was right. And it proved something more, too. Celine seemed to see right through her veneer and expose all of the real emotion that hid behind her pretensions. Never before had she felt such razor-sharp scrutiny.
Well, her scheme had worked—but not in the way she thought it would. The clarity she gained that evening was more about her own feelings for Maddie than Celine's. And it was equally confounding that Celine didn't seem at all displeased by the reality of what she glimpsed between the two of them. Even Maddie teased her about that later, when they spent the night at Art's loft in Charlottesville.
And now? Now they really were a couple. Weren't they?
She looked down at a notepad on the table that was covered with Maddie's illegible handwriting. Beside it was an assortment of pencils and a fat fountain pen. She sighed.
What were they, exactly? “I love you.” They'd each said it at the airport. Syd had been surprised by Maddie's admission—and her own. On the long drive back, she replayed the sound of Maddie's voice saying the words over and over—almost as if they were being whispered again into her ear. And each time, it felt like a warm hand had wrapped itself around her heart.
Was that admission too soon? Could it be too soon if it were true? Did it even matter?
David said that Maddie had been in love with her for months. Normally, she would have dismissed a remark like that from him as just another example of his serial teasing. But Maddie looked embarrassed—even mortified by his comment. And then later, Maddie had said the words herself.
And so had she.
Now, Maddie was on the other side of the country, waiting for her mother to regain consciousness—and Syd was here in her bedroom, waiting to regain her equilibrium.
Wanting to keep her cell phone line free in case Maddie called again, she picked up the cordless phone from the table next to her chair, and dialed a familiar number. A voice answered on the third ring.
She could hear the surprise in her father's voice. “Hey, baby—this is a treat. What are you up to?”
She gave a nervous laugh. “Well, that's exactly what I called to tell you—but I think you need to sit down first.”
He was immediately concerned. “What's wrong, baby?”
“Is mom there?”
“Not right now—she ran out to the store. But she'll be back in just a few minutes.” He paused. “Did you need to talk with her, honey?”
“No. Yes.” She sighed. “I need to talk with both of you.”
“What is it, sweetheart? Did something happen? Are you okay?”
“I'm okay. But, yes—I guess you could say something happened.”
He was silent for a moment. “Is this about Maddie?”
Syd was stunned. “Why would you ask me that?”
He laughed. “Because it's 9:45 on a Saturday morning and you're calling me from her house.”
Syd closed her eyes and sank back against the chair. “How do you know that?”
“I'd like to say I'm psychic, but it's really a lot simpler. Ever heard of Caller I.D.?”
“Shit.” She was mortified.
“Uh huh. Care to tell your old man what's going on?”
Syd's heart began to pound. “I, uh—it's um—I need to tell you something.” She stopped. The words wouldn't come. She felt ridiculous—like a teenager struggling to confess to a misdeed. But this was bigger than a broken a window or a dent in the bumper of the family car. Lots bigger. She just needed to say it.
“Baby,” her father's voice was gentle. “Are you calling to tell me that you're in love with Maddie?”
Syd was speechless. After a moment, her father spoke again.
“Are you still there, sweetheart?”
“Yeah.” She was incredulous. “I'm here. How, uh—how on earth did you come up with that?”
He chuckled. “Are you saying that I'm wrong ?”
She deliberated about her answer for only a moment. “No—you're not wrong.”
“I didn't think so.”
Her amazement continued to increase. “You don't sound surprised—or upset.”
“Good. I'm not.”
“ Why not?”
He sighed. “Honey, it took your mother and I all of about ten minutes to figure it out after we saw the two of you together at Thanksgiving.” He laughed. “Well, it only took your mother about ten minutes—I was a bit slower on the uptake. Any lingering doubts I had were taken care of over Christmas.”
Syd raised a hand to her forehead. “Oh, my god. I can't believe this.”
“It's okay, honey. We all knew that Jeff wasn't right for you.”
“But, dad—Maddie is a woman .”
“Noticed that, too, did you?” His laughter was infectious. “Yeah—she's quite the specimen. I had about resolved that if you didn't soon make a move on her, I was going to have to have a serious sit-down with Tom. I wanted to make sure that somebody in this family ended up with her—she's too good a catch to toss back.”
Syd sat listening to him in stunned silence. He could have been speaking in an alien tongue.
“So—you're not bothered by the fact that I'm—that I appear to be, um….”
“Gay?” her father supplied.
She exhaled. “Yeah.” Gay . She realized that she had never really said it yet to anyone. “I'm gay.”
“Are you bothered by it?”
Was she? “No. Not any more.”
“Then I'm not, either. It's all okay, baby. Your mother and I just want you to be happy. And you seem happier with Maddie than we've ever seen you. How can that be bad?”
Syd felt her eyes welling with tears. “It's not bad. I love you, dad.”
“I love you, too, honey. Is this why you called me? Is Maddie there with you?” He sounded hopeful.
She wiped a hand across her eyes. “Yes—partly. But to answer your other question, no—Maddie isn't here. There was a horrible accident in California yesterday, and her mother was seriously injured. Maddie flew out there last night. Her mother is still in critical condition—we don't know yet if she'll pull through.”
“Oh, my god. What happened?”
“Her mother is a member of the research faculty at the UCLA Medical School. A centrifuge in her lab exploded, and she was hit with shrapnel—her lab assistant was killed.”
“Holy shit.” His voice conveyed the depth of his concern. “How is Maddie holding up?”
“I think she's in shock. I heard from her early this morning—but not since then. I'm staying here at her farm with Pete—but I'm really about half crazy with worry.”
“Oh.” He was silent a moment. “Are you going to go out there to be with her?”
Syd sank back against her chair. “I don't see how I can. I'd have to close the library—and I really can't afford the last-minute fare. Besides,” she continued, “Maddie may not want the distraction.”
“Has she said that?” he asked.
“No, but she wouldn't.”
“Do you want to go?”
She sighed. “Of course I do.”
Her frustration level was growing. “I can't, dad.”
“Syd,” her father's voice was determined. “From where I sit, there is only one thing you can't do, and that's deny your heart.”
“Your mother and I will take care of your ticket—consider it an early Christmas present.”
“Dad—I can't let you do that…it's too much.”
“Then Merry Christmas and happy birthday.”
She shook her head as tears filled her eyes again. “What am I going to do with you?”
He laughed. “Yesterday, I would have said, ‘make me a grandfather.' But I can see that we'll have to be a bit more creative about what we wish for.”
She smiled at his sweetness. “Don't give up hope, dad—you never know…she is a doctor.”
“Noticed that, too?” He chuckled. “Your mother will be beside herself.” In the background, she could hear the sound of a door opening and closing. “And here she is now—right on cue.” He dropped his voice to a near whisper. “Ready to meet your fate?”
Syd closed her eyes in resignation. “I guess.”
“Okay, honey—you take care of things on your end, and just let me know the numbers. Call us when you get there and keep us updated. Be sure to tell Maddie how concerned we are—and how happy we are, too.”
In the background, she could hear her mother's voice asking him to explain what he was talking about.
“Okay, baby—here's your mother. I love you.”
“I love you, too, daddy—thank you for everything.”
She could hear him handing the phone to her mother.
“Margaret? What's going on?”
She took a deep breath. “Sit down, mother.”
Maddie arrived at the hospital exactly 14 hours after her mother was brought up to ICU from the surgical ward. Celine's condition had continued to deteriorate throughout the rest of that night. Her already overtaxed system fought to resist a pernicious blood infection that had taken root after the laryngeal tear caused by metal shrapnel had been repaired. The damage to her carotid artery was confined to an anterior thrombosis that the vascular surgeon had successfully repaired. Her perforated spleen had also been removed.
A day later, she continued to run a high fever, and she had not regained consciousness since being brought in nearly 36 hours ago. She was being treated with massive infusions of antibiotics.
Maddie was exhausted. Her emotions were like frayed wires that finally snapped once Celine woke up. She had been sitting in a chair next to her bed, quietly holding her hand and listening to the gentle strains of a Mendelssohn Piano Trio playing from the iPod dock she had placed on a table in the corner of the tiny ICU room. Her own eyes were closed, but they flew open when she felt the slight pressure on her hand as Celine's fingers moved within hers. Celine had been intubated when she first arrived in the ER, but the breathing tube had been removed in the recovery room following her multiple surgeries. Her throat was heavily bandaged.
Keeping hold of her hand, Maddie quickly stood up and leaned over her mother. Celine's blue eyes were open, but they looked dull and hazy. “Hi there. Glad to see you decided to make an appearance.”
Celine blinked and moved her lips, but no sound came out.
Maddie squeezed her hand. “No, no—don't try to talk. You've been extubated—but you sustained some pretty heavy-duty PNIs, and talking won't be an option for a day or so.” She smiled at her. “I suppose I should take advantage of this while I can.” She felt Celine's fingers weakly squeeze her hand in response.
“I suppose I also should tell you that you weigh a tad less than you did when you arrived here. You suffered a splenic perforation from a piece of rotor shrapnel, and they removed your spleen while you were on the table getting the carotid thrombectomy.” She paused and smiled at her mother. “All in all, a typical day for the over-achieving Dr. Heller.”
The corners of Celine's mouth twitched.
“Try to rest now. I'll be here when you wake up.”
Celine blinked her eyes, before slowly closing them.
Maddie stood over her for another full minute before sinking back down onto the bedside chair. She felt an onslaught of hot tears sting her eyes. Wiping her free hand across her face, she blinked rapidly to clear them away.
As the day wore on, it was clear that Celine had turned a corner. Her fever had abated and she was exhibiting less respiratory distress. She woke up two additional times, and Maddie was at her side on each occasion. By early evening, she was resting comfortably, and the attending vascular surgeon convinced Maddie that she should go on to her hotel and get a good night's sleep. Reluctantly, she consented.
Once she was back in her room at the Beverly Hills Plaza, Maddie phoned room service and ordered a club sandwich—and a large Cognac from the bar. After showering and changing into a clean pair of scrubs, she sat down on the bed with damp hair and pulled out her cell phone to call Syd. She was disappointed when the call rolled immediately to Syd's voice mail.
“ Hi, you've reached Syd Murphy. Sorry I'm unavailable right now. Leave a message, and I'll call you back.”
“Howdy, stranger. It's me. I wanted to let you know that Celine has come around. Her fever is down and she's breathing easier. She woke up a couple of times this afternoon, and was alert and responsive. She's resting now. I'm—very relieved—and very tired. I'm back in my hotel room now. Give me a call later—or whenever you can. I miss you.” She hesitated. “I love you.” She pushed the end button abruptly and closed the phone, sinking back against the headboard of the bed.
The hours that had elapsed since she first got the call about the laboratory explosion had been a whirlwind. She felt vaguely like a bug in amber—lifted out of time, and frozen in place. She was unable to do anything but stand by, passively, and observe what happened to Celine. Her position of helplessness was anathema to her. It left her feeling dull and vapid—drained of all normal and reasonable sensibility. She closed her eyes as, once again, her emotions threatened to overtake her.
She was startled when her phone rang. She picked it up and glanced at the readout. It was Syd. She flipped it open. “Hi there.”
“Maddie? Oh, god—I'm so glad about Celine!”
Maddie smiled at the sound of her voice. “Me, too. It was really touch-and-go there for a while.”
“I know. I've been frantic—worrying about both of you. Is she really going to be all right?”
“Yeah. It looks like it. She's a tough old broad. But then—we already knew that, didn't we?”
Syd laughed. “That makes two of you.” She paused. “How are you holding up?”
Maddie sighed. “Want the truth?”
“Of course I do.”
“Not too well. I nearly lost it in her room today when she finally regained consciousness. I wasn't really prepared for my reaction—it must be some kind of cosmic triple-whammy from stress, sleeplessness, and jet lag.”
There was a brief silence on the other end of the line. Syd's voice was gentle. “It could also be a perfectly human response to finding out that your mother is going to survive this. Why wouldn't you break down?”
Maddie's jaw quivered slightly. “I'm—I….” She put her hand to her forehead as she sat there holding the phone to her ear. “Yeah. Maybe.” Her voice caught. “God. I almost lost her, Syd.”
“I know, honey.”
Maddie took a deep breath. “I wish you were here,” she said, quietly.
There was a knock at the door of Maddie's room. Shaking her head to clear it, Maddie addressed Syd again. “Hang on—I think room service is here with my dinner.”
“Go ahead—I'll be right here.”
Maddie got up and crossed quickly to the door, opening it without preamble. Standing in the hallway with her cell phone still pressed to her ear was a shyly smiling Syd. A small roller bag stood on the carpet next to her.
Maddie's jaw dropped and the hand holding her cell phone fell limply to her side. She stood there mutely, with a stunned expression on her face.
Syd lowered her phone and tilted her head to the side as she gazed at her. “If you aren't going to ask me in, then I've definitely overplayed this hand.”
Snapping out of her stupor, Maddie stepped forward and grabbed the smaller woman. They stood there without speaking, tightly wrapped-up in each other's arms. Syd could feel Maddie shaking.
“Oh my god,” she said into her hair. “I can't believe you did this—I can't believe you're here. ”
“How could I not be here? It was killing me to be so far away when I knew what you were going through.” She lifted her head from Maddie's chest and looked up at her face. The blue hospital scrubs she wore made her eyes look electric. “I had to come.”
Maddie pulled her close again and kissed her, heedless of the fact that they were standing in the middle of the hallway outside her room. When they separated, her eyes were welling with tears. “Thank you.”
Releasing her, she hastily wiped at her eyes as she stepped forward to retrieve her roller bag. Turning, she ushered her into the room and closed the door behind them.
Once they were inside, an uneasy silence enveloped them. Maddie seemed embarrassed by her tears, and Syd was aware of just how tenuous a hold she plainly had on her overtaxed emotions. She dropped her shoulder bag on a chair and looked around the room.
“So—you mentioned room service. Think it's too late to tag something onto your order for me? I haven't eaten since Charlotte,” she glanced at her watch, “eight and a half hours ago.”
Maddie brightened up at once. “Absolutely. I called them about 15 minutes ago—there still should be time to change the order.” She picked up a leather-bound hotel directory and handed it to Syd. “See if there's anything that sounds appealing.” She smiled at her crookedly. “Frankly, I'm more interested in my bar order than I am in the food.”
“I don't doubt that a bit.” Syd leafed through the menu offerings. “What did you order?”
“Club sandwich with a side of fruit salad—and a ginormous brandy.”
Syd snapped the folder closed. “Perfect.”
Maddie walked to the bedside table and picked up the phone. “Go get comfy, and I'll change the order.”
Maddie had, indeed, changed the order. When it arrived 30 minutes later, the club sandwiches had morphed into two Cobb salads, and the brandy was accompanied by a bottle of MacMurray Pinot Noir. There also were a couple of tiny chocolate cookies, sitting on a glass plate that had been dusted with powdered sugar.
The two women sat down together on the bed with the food spread out between them. Syd had changed into sweatpants and a faded UNC t-shirt, and sat propped against the headboard with her knees drawn up in front of her. She held a half-full wineglass between her hands. “God…I needed this.”
Maddie looked at her with affection, and reached across the food scattered between them to rest a warm hand on her knee. “I needed this .”
Syd reached down to cover Maddie's hand with one of her own. “I did, too.”
They leaned toward each other and shared a soft, slow kiss.
Sitting back and setting her wine glass down on the bedside table, Syd angled her body around to face Maddie. “So tell me more about Celine,” she said, picking up one of the salads. “What will her recovery be like? Do you have any idea how long she'll have to remain in the hospital?”
Maddie picked up her own salad. “No idea, really. It could be as long as two weeks—but given the amazing way she seemed to rebound this afternoon—I wouldn't put it past her to be out of there in four or five days.”
“That's incredible. It's hard now to believe how tenuous her condition was just yesterday.”
Maddie nodded thoughtfully. “You can say that again. I'm still pretty much in shock—I don't think the reality of her turnaround has fully sunk-in yet.”
“You're exhausted. I'm amazed that you're even capable of coherent thought.”
“Well, I don't know how coherent I've been. I think I've pretty much spent the last two days communicating in monosyllables.” She took a sip of wine. “Celine's surgeon probably thinks I went to med school in Grenada.”
Maddie looked embarrassed. “Did I actually say that out loud? God.”
“I'll forgive you. And I'll even go out on a limb and say it's likely that Celine's little girl has deported herself just fine. I'm sure your mother will be proud of how well you've handled all of this.”
Maddie sat back against the headboard. “You know, at this point, I'd settle for her most articulate expression of dis pleasure.” She closed her eyes. “I can't begin to tell you what it was like to sit there by her bedside, hour after hour, and see her so completely unresponsive. It was frightening—surreal.”
Syd slowly shook her head. “I can't imagine. Thank god that's behind you now.”
Maddie set her salad aside. “I want you to come with me tomorrow to see her.”
Syd looked surprised. “Will they let me see her? Isn't she still in ICU?”
“Yes…but rank has its privileges.” She smiled. “I think Celine would like it—and I'd venture a guess that she'd be pleased to know you're here,” she winked at her, “offering me comfort in my hour of need.”
Syd rolled her eyes. “Boy…you rebound pretty quickly for someone who was about to crawl under a rock 45-minutes ago.”
Maddie's smile was smug. “Forty-five-minutes ago, I was alone and desolate.”
“Now, I'm not alone.” She raised an eyebrow. “And I'm certainly not desolate.”
By 9:00, both women were fighting to stay awake. In tandem, they turned down the covers on opposite sides of the big bed and climbed in. Aware of the challenge that their physical proximity now presented, they lay side-by side in forced and rigid silence. After a few tortuous minutes, Maddie turned to face Syd and extended her right arm. “Get over here.”
Without argument, Syd scooted over and happily wrapped herself around the taller woman. Maddie sighed with contentment and tightened her arms around her. “Thank you for being here.”
Syd lifted her head from Maddie's shoulder and softly kissed her on the collarbone. “You don't need to thank me. I was miserable at home without you.”
They were quiet for another minute. Maddie was sure that Syd could feel the hammering of her heart. “I suppose that's something else we need to talk about?”
“Probably,” Syd yawned. “Especially the part where I called my father and told him about us.” She felt Maddie's sudden intake of breath, and quickly rested her warm right hand against the side of her face. “But not tonight—we can talk about everything tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” Maddie turned her head and gently kissed her palm, exhaustion finally overtaking her. “Tomorrow.”
When Syd woke up six and a half hours later, they were still wrapped-up together in exactly the same position.
Maddie called the hospital first thing in the morning to check on Celine, and learned that she'd had a good night, and was still resting comfortably. Dr. Kramer had been there early to check on her, and he gave Maddie a positive assessment of her progress. Her condition had already been upgraded from serious to stable, and they had moved her out of ICU and into a private room. Kramer assured Maddie that she could take her time, and get a good meal before heading back to the hospital. Maddie agreed to call him with her own report after she had a chance to see Celine and meet with her attending physician.
By 8:00, both women had showered and dressed and were seated over juice and a basket of croissants in Le Petit Café , the hotel's dining room. Maddie quickly downed her second cup of coffee and flagged a passing server, who seamlessly approached their table and refilled her cup.
Syd sat back and watched her with concern. “How much of that have you been drinking?”
Maddie eyed her over the rim of her cup. “You don't want to know.”
“Oh, but I do. No secrets—remember?”
Maddie nodded. “I remember.”
“I want you to eat something, Maddie. You barely touched your salad last night.”
Maddie shrugged. “I don't have much of an appetite.”
“I know. But you won't be any help to Celine if you let yourself get run down.”
Maddie let out a long, slow breath. “Okay. You wanna order something for me? I promise to eat whatever it is.”
Syd smiled at her as she picked up the flat menu card. “I think I can handle that. I know your tastes pretty well by now.”
She looked up in surprise to see a slight twinkle in Maddie's tired eyes. They gazed at each other in silence for a moment.
“I love you for being here,” Maddie said quietly.
Syd blushed. “I can't get used to hearing that.”
“Does it bother you?”
“Bother me?” She smiled at her shyly. “It makes me go all soft and squishy inside. No—it doesn't bother me.”
“It goes both ways, you know.”
“ This does. I wasn't sure about it until I had to say goodbye to you at the airport on Friday night. But then it hit me like a ton of bricks—and I realized that it had been there all along.” She slid her hand across the top of the table until their fingertips were touching. “I don't care if it's too soon—I love you, too.”
Maddie looked like she was dangerously close to tears, so Syd quickly changed the subject.
“Are you at all curious about where Pete is?”
Maddie smiled at her. “I assumed that you sent him to the Inn?” When Syd nodded, Maddie shook her head. “That's fine, but I want you to know that you're going to be the one who has to walk the extra five pounds he's going to gain off his blonde butt. Michael doesn't understand the concept of moderation.”
“No worries—I'll pony up. Now, if memory serves, I promised to tell you about my conversation with my parents.”
“You did,” Maddie said, as she picked up her water glass. “How did that come about?”
Syd looked past her toward their approaching server. He stopped at their table and regarded them both with a smile. “Have you decided what you'd like to order?”
Syd nodded as she handed him their menus. “Yes. Could you bring us each a slice of the breakfast frittata with fresh fruit on the side?”
He nodded. “My pleasure. He eyed Maddie's empty cup. “Would you like more coffee, ma'am?”
Maddie looked at Syd before answering. “Uh—no. Thank you. Maybe just some more water?”
“Sure thing. I'll have your food out in a jiffy.” He turned on his heel and headed back toward the kitchen.
Maddie plucked a croissant out of the basket on their table and dutifully tore off a hunk. “So—you were saying?”
“Yeah. I was wandering around your house all morning yesterday—going crazy—worrying about Celine. Worrying about you .” She paused. “Missing you. I knew I had to do something—so I decided that it was time to talk with my parents.” She smiled. “I got lucky when dad answered the phone—he made it all so easy for me.”
Maddie was intrigued. “How so?”
“I didn't even have to tell him anything—he just guessed.”
“He did?” Maddie was shocked.
Syd smiled. “It didn't hurt that the caller I.D. tipped him off that I was at your place at an unseemly hour on a Saturday morning. But he told me that he and my mother had already pretty much pieced it all together.” She shook her head in wonder as she met Maddie's eyes. “You must know that my father is still one of your biggest fans. He actually said that if I didn't somehow manage to end up with you, he was determined to have Tom try and stake a claim.”
Maddie laughed out loud at that—and the silvery sound warmed Syd's insides more than the hot coffee she was drinking.
“I'm glad you find that so amusing,” Syd said, once the doctor composed herself.
“Well, can you blame me? I never realized I was such a hot commodity.”
Syd's gaze was openly assessing. “You certainly have the ‘hot' part right.”
“Flatterer.” Maddie sounded surprised and pleased by her directness.
“Get used to it.”
They stared at each other in a moment of quiet intimacy.
“So,” Maddie continued. “I guess that means your parents are…okay with—everything?”
“More or less,” Syd replied.
“Or less?” Maddie sounded concerned.
“Yeah—dad still wants grandchildren. He hopes you can find a work-around for that.”
Maddie's jaw dropped, and Syd laughed at her shell-shocked expression.
“What's the matter, Stretch? Not one of your many skills ?”
“Um. Not the last time I checked.” She shook her head. “Is this as surreal for you as it is for me?”
Syd snorted. “Which part?”
“I don't know—a week ago, we were both still fumbling around, trying to avoid or ignore our feelings. And today, we're sitting here at a restaurant in Los Angeles, talking about having kids.”
“Kinda goes against you're whole not-so-fast mantra, doesn't it?”
“You might say that.”
Syd realized suddenly that she probably had gone too far with her teasing. The last thing she wanted to do was add to Maddie's already over-extended stress level.
“I'm sorry,” she said, leaning slightly toward her. “Tell me what you need for us to do.”
Maddie looked back at her with an even gaze. “I don't know…adopt?”
It was Syd's turn to sit in stunned silence. Maddie winked at her as their server approached, carrying their breakfast plates.
Celine was awake when they arrived at the hospital. She had been moved into a private room early that morning after her condition had been upgraded to stable. Her attending physician confirmed for Maddie that she probably was experiencing more discomfort from the splenectomy and broken arm than from the surgery to repair her PNI. He stated that her color had improved, and went on to tell Maddie that the dressing on her throat had been replaced with a more modest bandage. She was still on IV fluids, but her breathing seemed clear and free from obstruction. If she continued to progress at the present rate, he said, she could be looking at discharge in three to four days. It was an amazing turnaround. For now, she just needed rest—and lots of it. They were keeping her fairly well sedated to facilitate her recovery.
Celine was alert, but visibly confused when she saw Syd enter the room behind Maddie. Her eyes widened and she looked at Maddie with surprise.
Maddie took hold of her mother's hand and bent over to look more closely at her dressing.
“Good morning to you. May I say that you're certainly looking better today?” She stood upright and gestured at Syd. “I'm booked at a great hotel, Celine—look what room service sent up.”
Syd stepped forward shyly. “Hello Dr. Heller. I'm so happy to see that you're doing better.”
“Celine.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “Call me Celine.”
Syd smiled warmly at her. “Celine. I hope it's alright that I came here with Maddie today.”
Celine gave her a faint smile. “Glad you're here. Her eyes tracked up to Maddie. “Did you rest?”
Maddie smiled at her. “Yes. I had a good night's sleep. Dr. Kramer tells me that you did, too.”
She gave a small nod.
“How are you feeling?” Maddie perched on the arm of a bedside chair.
“Okay. Sore throat. Abdominal tenderness. Back ache. Not too bad, considering.”
“I'll say. You had us all pretty worried for a while there.”
“Sorry for that.” Her voice was husky. “Laszlow told me about Diego.” Her eyes welled with tears. “Will you call his family for me?”
“Of course.” Maddie squeezed her hand, as it lay motionless atop the bed. “I'm so sorry, Celine.”
Celine met her eyes. “I am, too.”
For just a moment, it seemed to Syd that they were talking about something else. She felt a lump in her own throat as she watched the two of them struggling with this level of enforced intimacy.
Maddie's eyes noticed the small iPod dock on the bedside table. Thankfully, they had moved this, too, when they brought Celine up from ICU. It had been the one thing she'd had the presence of mind to pack the night she left Virginia. She knew how much the music would mean to her mother.
“Would you like to hear a little background noise that isn't mechanical?”
Celine smiled at her.
“Let's see what we can do, then.” Maddie stood up and bent over the unit. “I'm pretty sure I have something you'll like on this.”
While Maddie fussed with the iPod, Celine looked over at Syd. “Sit down—please.” When Syd complied, Celine continued to regard her. “How is your library?”
Syd smiled at her. “Thank you for even asking. It's just fine.” A thought occurred to her. “And I need to tell you that my uncle Marsh sends his best regards—he was beside himself when my mother told him that I met you in Richmond. He spoke very highly of you.”
Celine smiled. “Tell him it's too late for extra credit.”
Syd laughed, and heard Maddie snickering, too. Strains of Bach began playing softly in the background.
Celine closed her eyes. “Glenn Gould?” she asked.
“Who else?” Maddie replied, sitting back down.
Celine looked up at her daughter. “How long will you stay?”
“That depends on you,” Maddie replied. “I at least want to see you set-up and able to manage when you leave the hospital.”
Syd thought that Celine looked relieved. “What about your practice?”
“Oh that's the best part, Celine. I didn't get to tell you in Richmond about my new nurse practitioner. I'm in high cotton these days—I'm even thinking about going on one of those golf junkets through Scotland.”
Celine rolled her eyes and looked over at Syd.
Syd shrugged. “Don't ask me—I keep telling her the wardrobe won't do a thing for her.
She looked back at Maddie. “Go to the house. Don't stay in a hotel.” Her gaze shifted to Syd. “You, too.”
“I don't want to do that—I want to be closer to the hospital.” Maddie's voice was gentle.
“I'm fine now—go to the house. Take my car.” She gestured toward the tiny closet in her room. “Laszlow brought my bag from the office—the keys are in it.” Her blue eyes met Maddie's. “Please.”
Maddie relented. “All right.”
Celine seemed pleased. “Remember how to get there?” Even though it was barely above a whisper, her voice still sounded teasing.
“Oh, I think so.” Maddie reached out and tentatively pushed some hair back from her mother's face. She had a nasty-looking contusion on the left side of her head. “Got any headache?”
Celine slowly shook her head. “Not that I'm aware of.” Her eyes were starting to droop a little. “Laszlow can help you find the car.”
Maddie continued to gently stroke the top of her head. “Okay. You get some sleep now. We'll go check out of the hotel and be back by to see you after lunch.”
Celine smiled at her. “Good. I'm glad you're here.” She looked over at Syd. “Both of you.” Her eyes slowly drifted shut, and the only sounds in the room came from the rhythmic clicking and beeping of the various monitors she was connected to, and the unassuming sarabands of Bach's Goldberg Variations .
Laszlow Kramer was able to direct Maddie and Syd to the area of the staff parking lot that contained Celine's car. From there, it was a short drive back to the hotel where they retrieved their bags and checked-out. They stashed their suitcases in the trunk of Celine's black Lexus, and made their way back to the medical center to grab lunch, and to spend as much of the afternoon as they could with Celine. Maddie wanted to have another opportunity to talk with her attending physician, and she needed to visit Celine's office so she could get contact information for the family of Diego Vaz Peña. She had a short, poignant conversation with Mariel Peña, Diego's mother, and conveyed Celine's deepest regrets about her son's untimely death. Mrs. Peña was very gracious, and said they were all very concerned for Celine—and had prayed that she would make a complete recovery. Maddie resolved to represent her mother at the funeral service for Diego in Santa Monica on Thursday.
By 5:00 that afternoon, Celine was adamant that they leave the hospital for the day, and head on to her house in Brentwood so they could relax and get a good night's sleep. Rush-hour traffic was in full swing, and they crawled along Wilshire Boulevard for nearly twenty minutes before finally heading west on San Vicente.
It was after 6:00 p.m. when they finally arrived at Celine's house in Crestwood Hills. The Brentwood neighborhood was a community of textbook mid-century Modern homes, ringed by undeveloped greenbelt tracts that functioned as mini-parks. Celine's house was a sprawling, post and beam creation designed by architect Frederick Emmons in 1956. She bought the house shortly after relocating to Los Angeles from Baltimore, and had lived there ever since.
Although Maddie lived in the affluent neighborhood with her mother for over six years, she never truly regarded California as “home.” She attended local public schools in and around Brentwood before transferring to the prestigious California Academy of Mathematics and Science in the eighth grade. Her tenure there was brief, since she gained early admittance to Stanford University at age 16. She never lived with Celine again.
She did, however, return to Brentwood for holidays and summer breaks—dividing her time fairly evenly between her estranged parents and their respective coasts.
Maddie pulled Celine's car into the garage and led Syd through a glass-enclosed breezeway into the house. The interior space was bright, with high-ceilings and an open floor plan. Large window panels ran all along the back wall of the house, overlooking a spacious patio and well-landscaped lawn. The décor of the house was clean and artfully spare. Celine's tastes were straightforward, but elegant—and the simplicity and functionality of her home was a perfect complement to her no-nonsense approach to life. The only personal touches were the many books and potted plants that punctuated the interior. The house was decorated in all neutral tones—the only observable traces of color derived from several pieces of original Bauhaus art—including a Paul Klee that Maddie said she remembered hanging in the New York apartment of her grandparents. The rest of the main living space was dominated by an enormous piano that sat at a right angle to the patio wall, and faced into the room. Syd noticed it immediately, and hypnotically crossed over to it.
“This is an incredible instrument.” She stood next to the six-foot, Steinway Parlor Grand in awe. She ran her hand over its smooth, ebony finish. She bent over the keyboard and played a sequence of chords that resonated throughout the room with perfect pitch. “It's in tune. She must be playing this.” She stood back and opened the upholstered top of the deep bench seat to reveal an impressive stack of sheet music and several hardbound scores. She lifted out some of the pages.
Maddie walked over to stand beside her and shook her head in amazement. “I don't know what to say. I didn't even know she had this. It wasn't here the last time I was visited.” She paused. “Of course, that was about seven years ago.”
“Well, it's pretty obvious that she's using it—and judging by the caliber of this music, I'd say she's using it well.” Syd continued to leaf through the pages of compositions by Debussy, Schumann, and Prokofiev. “My god. She's no amateur, is she?”
Maddie laughed. “Nuh uh. She's a pro—or at least, she could have been a pro. She started out in piano performance at Columbia before switching to premed. She ended up having to leave home over that decision.”
Syd looked confused. “Why?”
“Her parents were both career musicians. My grandmother, Madeleine Heller, was assistant concertmaster at the Metropolitan Opera—and my grandfather, Josef Heller, was on the faculty at Juilliard.”
Syd's eyes grew wide. “Holy shit. Now I know what Phoebe meant when she told me that your mother was the best musician who'd ever lived in Jericho.”
“What do you think made her change her mind about a career in music?”
Maddie sighed. “I honestly don't know. According to my father, Celine was good enough to gain admission to any top-tier music school. She must have known when she started out in the Columbia/Juilliard joint degree program that music wasn't the path she wanted to follow. I think already being a student at Columbia made her transition to premed less complicated.” She smiled. “Even in those days, Celine always had a plan.”
Syd carefully put the music back into the bench and closed its lid.
“The more I learn about your family, the less I seem to understand it.”
Maddie chuckled. “What's the matter? Sorry now that you decided to go wading in this part of the gene pool?”
Syd glared at her. “I'll admit that the air is a bit—thinner—around you. It's harder and harder for me to keep my bearings.”
Maddie gave her an appraising look. “Oh, I dunno about that. You're short—but I think you're tall enough for this ride.”
Syd rolled her eyes. “You know—you're all show and no go.”
“I can prove it.”
Maddie crossed her arms over her chest. “Then what are you waiting for? Let's have it.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” she looked at Maddie with an exaggerated, sultry expression. “Is your mother's living room really the place you want to explore this?”
Maddie raised an intrigued eyebrow. “Oh please—don't let our location stop you. We have an entire house at our disposal.” She waved her hand dramatically. “Carve out any little piece of real estate you'd like.”
Syd stood there regarding her, wondering just how far they should take this verbal sparring match. She knew how far she wanted to take it. Maddie's eyes were glowing with something more than her usual, harmless challenge. She knew she should probably just back off and change the subject—beat a hasty retreat to safer ground. But, for once, she didn't want to. And judging by the look in Maddie's eyes as their standoff continued, she wasn't ready to wave a white flag, either.
Syd felt her pulse drumming in her ears, but she kept her voice steady as she decided to up the ante.
“Okay, wise guy—where's your bedroom.”
Maddie suddenly looked like someone had fired a gun next to her head.
“My what? ” She looked so stunned that Syd burst out laughing.
Maddie threw her head back and sighed loudly as she stared at the beamed ceiling. “You suck—you know that?”
Syd composed herself and touched the doctor on her arm. “Why don't we sit down? We probably should talk about a few things.”
Maddie eyed her suspiciously. “Am I gonna like this or hate it?”
“Even money on that one.”
“Oh, great —you know how much I love sensitive chats.” She turned toward the kitchen. “Why don't I find us something to drink and we can go out and sit on the patio?”
“Works for me. Where should I drop my things?”
Maddie stopped and gestured to a doorway behind Syd. “Down that hallway—first door on the left. It used to be my room—so, please…remove your shoes before you enter.”
Syd crossed over to the breezeway and picked up her suitcase. “I'll be sure to genuflect before I approach the shrine.”
“Oh really?” Maddie smiled sweetly at her. “You got that far in your religious education before getting bounced?”
Syd bit the inside of her cheek. “You know, there's really nothing wrong with you that a life-sized condom wouldn't fix.”
“You're just saying that because I have an infectious personality.”
“Oh, good god.” Syd grabbed the handle of her suitcase and headed toward the bedroom. “I hope to hell that Celine has alcohol in this place.”
Ten minutes later, they were seated outside on Celine's flagstone patio. Maddie had uncovered a cold bottle of Russian River Pinot Gris in the refrigerator, and she carried it outside with glasses and a corkscrew. They sat on upholstered chairs under a large market umbrella, and faced each other as they sipped the spicy, oak-aged wine.
“So. Against my better judgment—you wanted to talk about something?” Maddie set her wine glass down on the table in front of her and regarded Syd—feeling slightly wary.
Syd seemed vaguely uncomfortable, but determined.
“Well—I've been doing a little bit of research.”
Maddie was intrigued. “On?”
She began to color. “On lesbian…well….” She waved her index finger back and forth between them.”
Maddie drew her brows together as she looked at her, then recognition dawned. “ Sex? ” Syd nodded. “You've been researching lesbian sex?” Syd nodded again. She was bright red now. “Well, I sure hope you didn't use one of the library computers—those web cookies are pernicious.”
Syd seemed to recover some of her composure as she met her gaze. “Oh, don't worry—I have better sense than that . I used yours.”
“ Mine? ”
“Yeah. I had to have something to do while I waited for you to call.”
“So.” Maddie tapped the fingers of her right hand against the glass top of the table. “What did you learn?”
“Um. Well—it all seems pretty intuitive.”
Maddie nodded. “I wouldn't disagree with that.”
“And none of it was particularly scary. Well…maybe one thing—but that looked pretty advanced.”
Maddie narrowed her eyes. “Just what kind of ‘research' were you doing?”
Syd gave her placating look. “What kind do you think?”
Maddie's eyes grew wide. “You were looking at porn? ”
Syd exhaled. “You know—it's a been an experience discovering how much of a prude you really are.”
Maddie was aghast. “I am so not a prude.”
“Could've fooled me.”
“Having a healthy respect for restraint does not make me a prude.”
Syd took a sip of her wine. “And that's exactly what I wanted to discuss—restraint.” She set her glass back down. “Explain the value of this concept to me again, please.”
Maddie sighed as she looked at her. “I thought we agreed that we were going to take things slow—give you time to be sure about what you really wanted before we went too far.”
“That's all true,” Syd agreed. “But since then, I've made some other discoveries that now demand greater exploration.”
“Such as?” Maddie asked.
Syd sighed. “It's more of a show than tell kind of thing.”
Maddie felt her pulse rate begin to pick up. She knew they were playing with fire. “Really?” She tried to keep her tone neutral.
“Oh, yeah.” Syd pushed her chair back from the table and stood up. “I can see that I'll have to demonstrate.” She extended a hand, and when Maddie took hold of it, Syd pulled her to her feet so they stood facing one another. Syd looked left, and then right, before meeting Maddie's eyes. “Great back yard—nice and private . She stepped forward and looped her arms around Maddie's neck. “Put your hands on my hips, please.” When Maddie slowly complied, Syd closed her eyes. “Okay. That part appears to be working right.”
Maddie was finding it hard to concentrate. “What part?”
Syd pulled her closer until their bodies were touching. “ This part.” Her breath was hot against Maddie's mouth, but she didn't kiss her. She felt Syd's hands moving into her hair, tipping her head back as her mouth traveled an invisible path along her chin and down her neck—gliding, but not quite touching—still managing to singe her with the heat of its exploration. Her nose brushed against the skin at the base of her v-neck t-shirt—the heat of her breath penetrating the thin fabric. Maddie began to tremble as Syd's hands started to run up and down her arms, gently stroking and squeezing. She felt a tentative lick against the skin at the base of her neck. Syd's warm palms were still in motion, gliding up over her waist and along the base of her ribcage. Her mouth was moving against the underside of her jaw now, leaving a damp trail as it continued on its provocative journey.
White lights danced behind her closed eyes as she pulled her closer, bending her head to meet her open mouth. They kissed deeply—their mouths sliding together in a frenzy of emotion. Their tongues touched, probed, and twisted together. She felt Syd's open hands moving against the sides of her breasts in slow, insistent circles. Every touch was electric. Maddie was light-headed. She felt charged and alive in ways she'd never experienced before. She knew they had to slow down or there would be no stopping. She tore her mouth away and pushed herself back. Syd's lips were wet and open. Her green eyes were shining like pieces of sea glass. She was breathing heavily. They both were. Through the dense haze of her desire, she understood that they would never have another moment like this one—and that what they did now would shape the course of the rest of their relationship. She knew her own heart, but she wanted Syd to be sure.
“Wait. Wait a minute.” Maddie husked. “We need to slow down.”
Syd's chest was still heaving. “We do?” She raised a shaking hand and ran her index finger across Maddie's collarbone—then along her lower lip. Closing her eyes, Maddie moaned and involuntarily parted her lips. Syd surged forward and kissed her way up Maddie's neck, stopping to suck and nip at her jaw before feasting on her lips again. Their open mouths drifted back and forth—tongues in constant motion. Maddie slid her hands down to grasp Syd's firm bottom and lifted her up off the flagstones. Syd wrapped her legs around her waist and tightened her arms around her neck—her fingers tangling in her hair as they twined even closer together. They staggered backwards against the patio door, the jolt finally making them break apart.
“Jesus. We have to stop. We have to slow down.” Maddie's voice was ragged. She slowly lowered Syd to the ground. She was breathing heavily. “Let's go inside. I feel like I'm gonna pass out.”
Trying to get her own breathing under control, Syd nodded mutely, and stepped back. She stumbled slightly as she tried to stand on her own, and Maddie quickly grabbed her by the elbow to steady her.
“Come on.” Maddie slid open the patio door behind them, and they walked into the house. She crossed to the sofa and dropped down onto it, pulling Syd down to sit next to her. They sat there in silence while they waited for their breathing to return to normal.
When Maddie finally spoke, her voice was filled with wonder. “I can't take this in.” She slowly shook her head. “I've been in love with you for so long. I thought it was hopeless—that I was hopeless.”
Syd reached out a tentative hand to touch her on the arm. “How long? How long have you known?”
“I don't know.” Maddie's blue gaze was hypnotic. “Since your birthday? Maybe even before that.” She smiled at her shyly. “Forever.” She angled her body to face her. “You have to believe that as much as I want this—I never tried to make it happen. I never wanted to confuse you or complicate your life.” She paused. “I still don't.”
“I know that.” Syd slid her hand down Maddie's arm and linked their fingers together. “I'm not confused—not any more. And the only way you could complicate my life now, would be if you walked away from me.” She leaned forward and kissed Maddie softly on the corner of her mouth. “I love you. I'm sure of it. I know this is what I want—you are who I want.”
Tears filled Maddie's eyes. Syd reached up and gently wiped them away, then kissed her eyelids. “Tell me you love me,” she whispered.
“I love you.”
Syd crawled over her and straddled her lap, stroking the chiseled planes of her face. “Tell me you want me.”
“I want you.”
She snaked her arms around Maddie's shoulders and brushed a slow line of kisses along the side of her neck and up into her hairline. Twisting her hands into Maddie's hair, she ran her tongue around the outside of an ear, kissing it softly. When she spoke, her breath was hot against the side of her face. “Show me how much.”
Fresh out of questions, and now in possession of the only answer that really mattered, Maddie stood up, lifting Syd with her. Without speaking, she carried her past the piano and down the hall toward her old bedroom.
She didn't remove her shoes until they got inside.
Maddie was sprawled facedown across the lower half of the double bed, her head resting on Syd's bare abdomen. The steady rise and fall of her back indicated that she had fallen asleep. Her dark hair fanned out across her naked shoulders in random patterns. Syd shifted some the silky strands back and forth between the fingers of her left hand as she lay awake and looked around the room—Maddie's old bedroom.
For all practical purposes, the woman asleep on top of her had still been a child when she last lived here. Syd found it interesting that Celine had clearly left the room unchanged. She marveled at the differences between this room and what had been Maddie's room in her father's house back in Virginia. This room seemed less personal—it had fewer clues about the life and character of the person who lived in it. There were a couple of framed photographs on the wall—one of a teenaged Maddie standing in front of a red biplane with her father and a man who, from a distance, looked like a younger Arthur Leavitt. Several other vintage aircraft were visible in the background of the picture. Another photo showed Maddie in a high school track uniform, holding up a trophy with three other uniformed classmates. There was a large bookcase filled with what appeared to be math and science textbooks—but Syd smiled to herself when she noticed one prominently placed copy of David Copperfield . There was a small Dune poster on a bulletin board over the corner desk, surrounded by numerous award certificates. A Stanford pennant hung from hooks by the large window that looked out into the back yard. Otherwise, the room was unremarkable—decorated much like the rest of the house in a neutral, no-nonsense style.
A Stickley rocking chair with a leather-upholstered seat stood near the bed—and it was there that they had hastily thrown their clothing. Syd felt a slow blush creep up her neck as she thought back over her actions. She had been like a woman possessed when they entered the bedroom—practically tearing Maddie's clothes from her body. She wanted to consume her—to touch, taste, and discover every part of her. She had never felt this way before—and she had certainly never behaved this way with other partners. The reality of being with Maddie—of finally being able to intimately touch and explore her—was overwhelming to Syd. None of her research about the act of making love to another woman prepared her for the reality of being with this woman. In her fast and furious exploration, she needed a dozen hands—not two. She wanted to be everyplace at once—her mouth, her shoulders, her beautiful breasts, her long shapely legs and thighs. But then Maddie checked her haste—stilled her shaking hands and calmed her frenzy with a single word. “Easy,” she'd whispered against her lips. “ Easy. ”
She stood back then, and tried to compose herself as Maddie slowly undressed her. Her blouse, her bra, and her pants soon joined the other articles of clothing piled on the oak rocking chair. Maddie's full lips and warm hands softly moved over every newly exposed area, painting her naked body with sensuous touches and whispered words of passion. Syd was drifting on a sea of raw desire—helpless to do anything but respond to Maddie's increasingly intimate attentions with answering gasps of pleasure. When Maddie gently pushed her down on the bed and moved on top of her, Syd thought she might lose consciousness. The touch and feel of her naked body—the heat and weight of her luxuriously long frame as it slid across hers—was nearly enough to send her over the edge. She clutched at her in desperation, pushing and pulling at her shoulders, her hips, her head—at any part of her she could reach—wanting more, wanting anything, wanting all that Maddie could give her. Maddie's lips seemed to be everywhere at once, continuing on a deliberate and methodical journey down her throat, over her chest—then stopping to linger, endlessly, at her breasts before descending lower—to slowly kiss across her abdomen. Syd was impatient for her to continue, and began to writhe and push at her head. “Please,” she'd muttered—her voice sounding hoarse and desperate. “Please , baby.” But Maddie took her time—made her wait while she kissed and licked along the muscles of her legs and up the insides of her thighs. Finally, with interminable precision, she hooked a finger beneath the waistband of her panties and began to tug them down over her hips.
By now, Syd was beside herself, begging Maddie to take her—to possess her in ways no one else ever had. Maddie languorously drew her panties off, and then slid sensuously back up her body so they were face to face—her blue eyes shining with passion. Dark hair fell about both of their faces like a curtain as she lowered her head to lick and tease her mouth. As they kissed, she shifted her weight and ran a hand up the inside of her thigh—gently trailing her long fingers through the wetness she found there. When Syd was certain she'd go mad from the exquisite torture, Maddie shifted her attentions again—gliding back down over the aching terrain of her body, and not stopping until she reached the wellspring of her passion.
Syd thought she might die from the contact—Maddie's touch more intimate than anything she'd ever experienced. Acute waves of pleasure rolled over her again and again, submerging her in pure sensation. This feeling—all encompassing and perfect in its heady mix of love and passion, pushed her beyond endurance to the brink of complete arousal. When, finally, she lifted her head from its dazed position on the rumpled bedspread and saw the naked intensity of Maddie's blue eyes, gazing back at her from the heated source of her pleasure—she went over the edge. Willingly. Effortlessly. Endlessly. And soft beneath her, like a musical refrain, she felt more than head the timbre of Maddie's low voice whispering, “I love you.”
Not long after that, as they lay quietly together, her own preconceived fears and inhibitions dissipated as she ventured forth across the sensuous landscape of Maddie's body on her own voyage of discovery. Less patient than her partner, she was on, around, and inside Maddie all at once, in a fast and seamless joining that blinded her to anything but the rush of love and pure physical yearning that had taken her hostage. Appearing overwhelmed by the force and sheer magnitude of her passionate onslaught, Maddie quickly surrendered—throwing back her head, and clutching at the bedclothes as she howled out her pleasure.
Then, when Syd climbed back up her glorious, long body, they did it all over again—slower and more deliberate this time—with soft, gentle touches and whispered words of longing.
Looking down at her sleeping partner now, Syd knew that what had happened to her made no sense within the normal context of her life experience. She had always believed that naming something she feared robbed it of its power and made it smaller and more manageable than it seemed. But in this case, finally owning up to her feelings had the opposite effect. Once she dared to make the frightening admission to herself—once she named what she suspected was happening—the emotions just got bigger and more overwhelming. She understood that facing up to her attraction for another woman was one kind of milestone—and that acting on that attraction was another. But nothing could prepare her for the expanse of uncharted terrain that opened up in front of her once she owned up to the glaring truth that she was in love with Maddie.
Maddie raised her tousled head from its resting place on Syd's bare abdomen. She had been dozing, but was startled into wakefulness when a loud gurgling noise rolled and pitched beneath her ear. She pushed herself up on her elbows and met Syd's thoughtful gaze. “My god…what's going on in there? It sounds like Mt. St. Helen's is about to erupt.”
Syd stilled the hand that idly had been stroking the doctor's silky hair. She smiled at her. “I think my body wants you to satisfy one of its other appetites.” As if on cue, her stomach growled again.
Maddie smiled and bent her head to lightly kiss and lick Syd's tummy. Feeling the smaller woman shiver, she continued her lazy progress up the center of her body, stopping to feast on every piece of real estate she encountered on her maddeningly slow journey. Syd's hands moved into her hair, impatiently urging her forward. Maddie paused when she was fully stretched out on top of her, suspended on her forearms—their faces were centimeters apart. “I love you,” she whispered.
Syd's response was to pull her into a hungry embrace. Maddie sighed happily and relaxed her arms, sinking down onto her as they continued to kiss. Their tongues touched and teased each other in already familiar ways. Syd traced the outside of Maddie's ear with an index finger as Maddie gently began to nip and suck on her lower lip. When they drew apart, she sighed deeply. “God, you're good at that.”
Maddie smiled at her crookedly. “You're no slouch yourself.”
Syd gazed into her shining blue eyes and brought her hands up to stroke the wide planes of her face. “When I was twelve, my parents took us on a family vacation to Steel Pier in Atlantic City. I remember it all so vividly. I had always heard the stories about the legendary diving horses—and even though they had stopped that practice decades earlier, I still couldn't wait to go.” She traced Maddie's dark eyebrows with the tips of her fingers. “Tom convinced me to go up with him into one of those Drop Towers—the carnival ride where the floor drops out from under you and you plunge about a million feet in a free fall.” She closed her eyes. “God. I had never experienced anything like that before—that simultaneous rush of fear and exhilaration.” She opened her eyes and looked at Maddie—slowly drawing her face closer. “When you kissed me outside Celine's hotel in Richmond—it felt exactly like that.” She brushed their lips together softly. “Exactly.”
Maddie sighed and touched their foreheads together. “I know.”
After a moment, she pulled back and kissed Syd's temple. “Are you okay? Is this okay? Do we need to talk about—anything?”
Syd smiled at her. “Like what?” Her tone was teasing.
Maddie rolled her eyes. “Oh, I dunno…effective deforestation methods, long term care plans, the best mutual funds. You know—pillow talk.” She lowered her head and fixed Syd with a level gaze. “C'mon. How are you…really?”
“How am I really? ” Syd looked into her fathomless blue eyes. “I'm happy. Overwhelmed. Satiated.” Her stomach growled again. She smiled. “Hungry.”
Maddie laughed. “I guess we should try and do something about that.”
“Do you think Celine has any eggs?”
“There's only one way to find out.”
Syd tightened her arms around her. “Does it involve getting up?”
Syd frowned and tugged her closer. “On the other hand—we could just stay here a little longer and…um….”
“Eat each other?” Maddie suggested.
Syd's jaw dropped. “I can't believe you just said that.”
“I can't believe you just did that.”
Syd was stupefied. “You really have no shame, have you?”
Maddie lifted the sheet and looked down the length of their naked bodies. “Nope. Must have left it in my other suit.”
Syd yanked the sheet back up in feigned outrage. “Oh my god!”
Maddie smirked. “Seems like I've heard that before—and quite recently, too.”
Syd dropped her head back onto the pillow and rolled her eyes. “What was I thinking?”
“I dunno.” Maddie slowly began to kiss her neck. “Maybe I could jog your memory?”
Syd's breathing soon became irregular as Maddie's lips continued to travel across her throat.
“Okay…I think it's coming back to me.”
Maddie smiled against her skin. “I thought it might.”
“I love you so much.” Syd whispered.
“I love you, too.” They gazed at one another.
“Think we'll always feel this way?”
Maddie kissed her softly. “Oh, yeah. I think this kind of thing rolls around once in a lifetime—if you're lucky enough to recognize it, and brave enough to let yourself have it.”
Syd smiled at her. “We have a lot to figure out, don't we?”
“Yeah. But we have lots and lots of time to do it.”
“Thank god for that—I may not even have a job next year.”
“I've actually been thinking about that.” Maddie's gaze was thoughtful. “How flexible are you?”
Syd smiled wryly. “I thought we just established that.”
Maddie groaned. “I suppose I asked for that.”
“Actually—you didn't ask for it,” Syd reflected. “I think I improvised….”
“Hey…let's agree on a division of labor here— I'm supposed to be the smartass.”
“Sorry, Doctor. I'm in a weakened state due to hunger and exhaustion. I can't be held accountable for my behavior.”
Maddie drew back. “Oh, really? Does this disclaimer encompass all of your recent activities?”
Syd nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, yes indeed—all of it. You betcha.” She sighed. “Who can say what kind of stamina I might have on a full stomach?”
Maddie snorted. “My god! If you had any more stamina than you've already demonstrated—I'd need a B-12 shot just to remain conscious.”
Syd gave her a sultry look. “Care to test that hypothesis?” She sat up. “Let's raid Celine's kitchen and see what other discoveries we can make.”
Maddie raised an eyebrow. “I told you once that I rarely turned anything down.” She sat up, too. “Here's my chance to prove it.”
Syd found it difficult to scramble eggs with any degree of competence while Maddie's arms were wrapped around her waist, and her lips were in constant motion against the side her neck.
“I've never had this much fun in the kitchen,” Maddie muttered, licking her ear. “Maybe I should give this cooking thing another try.” Her hands moved up under Syd's shirt as she pulled her more snugly against her body.
Syd moaned as she tried to stay focused. The sooner they ate, the sooner they could resume their explorations. In the background, the toaster popped. Against her will, she stopped Maddie's wandering hands. “That's your cue, Stretch—get over there and start buttering something.”
“I thought I was doing that already.” Maddie's hand slid dangerously lower.
Ohmygod. Syd's head lolled back against her shoulder for a moment before she forced herself to stand upright and turn around. Maddie's eyes were teasing. She had an unmistakable smirk on her beautiful face.
Syd waved the spatula in front of her. “I'd threaten to spank you if you don't knock it off—but something tells me that you'd probably just enjoy that.”
Maddie snorted. “An interesting suggestion. Wanna try it out later?” Her blue eyes looked hopeful.
Syd raised an imperious eyebrow. “Toast?”
Maddie sighed. “Toast. Okay…I'll make the toast .” She kissed her on the forehead before releasing her and walking across the kitchen to retrieve the butter from the refrigerator.
“Hey…did we leave that wine outside?” She looked over toward the living room and the glass doors that led to the patio.
Syd was dividing the eggs between their two plates. “I think so. But I confess that my mind was a little bit fuzzy at the time.”
“Oh yeah? Mine, too. Must be contagious.” She set the butter down on Celine's small kitchen table and walked toward the living room. “I'll go out and get it.”
“You might want to put on some pants, first,” Syd quipped.
Maddie chuckled. “Nah—we're in California, remember? Clothing is optional here.”
After they had finished eating, they sat at the table, drinking the rest of the warm white wine.
“You know that I need to go back on Wednesday,” Syd said quietly. “I can't keep the library closed any longer.”
“I know,” Maddie reached across the table to take her hand. “I've been trying not to think about it.” They laced their fingers together.
“How long do you think you'll need to stay here with Celine?”
“I don't know—at least a day or two after she's settled-in here. Laszlow will be available to help out with meals and any transportation issues that might arise until she can drive herself.”
Syd gave her a knowing look. “He certainly seems to be a special friend, doesn't he?”
Maddie smiled. “Yeah—I noticed that, too.” She chuckled. “Who knew the old girl had it in her? Maybe she's still got a heart lurking in there someplace.”
Syd squeezed her hand. “Maddie, she loves you—I'm sure of it. It was all over her face when she looked at you today.” She hesitated. “Yours, too.”
Maddie shrugged. “Maybe this whole owning-up-to-your-feelings thing is contagious, too.”
“Maybe so.” She stifled a yawn.
Syd nodded, and then gave her a suggestive look. “But not that tired.”
Maddie shook her head. “What am I gonna do with you?”
“I have a few ideas.”
“I just bet you do. More gleanings from your research?”
“Wanna find out?”
Maddie narrowed her eyes. “I'm not sure…does any of it require a 220 line?”
Syd looked at her archly. “Not just yet—but all bets are off once we get back home.”
Maddie smiled at her. “I like the sound of that.”
“You do?” Syd was surprised.
“ Home ,” Maddie clarified. “I like hearing you talk about ‘home.'”
“Oh.” She smiled at her shyly. “Me, too.”
“And while we're on the subject,” Maddie pushed her chair back, and tugged at Syd's hand until she stood up—then pulled her over to sit on her lap. “Would you be willing to go back to my place and stay there until I get home?”
Syd worked her fingers into Maddie's thick dark hair. “I dunno…what's in it for me?”
“Let's see.” Maddie leaned forward and began to nibble at her throat. “I can offer room service.”
Syd tugged her closer. “Tempting—but I can get that at any hotel.”
“Not the kind of service I have in mind.” Maddie kissed her, and ran her hands up under her shirt. Her palms were warm as they moved over her abdomen and covered her breasts.
Syd gasped and arched her back. “God— sold. ”
Maddie lowered her lips to Syd's open neckline, and began to kiss her way down her chest. Her hands remained in motion, and soon, the cotton shirt was open to her waist. Syd endured the sweet torture for as long as could before she forced Maddie's head back up, and kissed her hungrily.
“I'm feeling awfully naked,” she muttered against her lips.
“Really?” Maddie ran her hands up over her bare breasts again, rubbing and caressing the soft skin. “There's nothing awful about it from where I'm sitting.”
Syd strained forward, pushing herself against her hands. She was starting to lose focus. She began to lick and peck at Maddie's lips. “Maybe you need to make a more thorough examination, Doctor.”
Maddie moaned against her mouth. “You think?” They were kissing deeply now.
“Oh, I think so.” Syd lips left her mouth and kissed along the side of her face. She sucked an earlobe into her mouth. “I think I should lie down to make it easier for you,” she whispered. Her own hands began to travel.
Maddie tipped her head back as Syd continued to feast on her neck. When she spoke, her voice was husky. “I'll need some kind of co-pay first.”
Syd smiled against her neck. “Okay—will this do?” She quickly found a creative way to demonstrate her good faith. When Maddie was gasping and moaning against her shoulder, she backed off and slowly withdrew her hand. Maddie lifted her head and looked up at her with a glazed expression.
“Why'd you stop?”
“Stop?” Syd kissed her gently. “I've barely gotten started .” She slid off her lap and stood up, pulling Maddie along with her. “Think you can make it to the bedroom?” She tugged at the sides of her open shirt and pulled it off. “Great will be your reward,” she said, turning and trailing the garment behind her as she walked out of the room.
Maddie nodded without speaking, and meekly followed her out of the kitchen.
An hour later, they got up and showered. Syd tidied the kitchen while Maddie called the hospital to check on Celine. Then they remade the bed, and climbed back under the covers, snuggling together in a happy state of exhaustion.
Syd burrowed her nose into Maddie's neck. “I love you.”
Maddie chuckled. “I'd say ‘prove it,' but you probably would, and it just might kill me.”
Syd smiled and tightened her arms around her. “How is Celine?”
Maddie yawned. “She's fine. Actually ate a little bit of solid food. She's asleep now. They're talking about discharging her on Thursday.”
“Wow. That's wonderful news.”
“It is. I'll still go to the service for Diego in Santa Monica that morning, then head back to the hospital to get her and bring her here.”
“Do you want me to stay? I can try to work something out. Maybe Roma Jean—” Maddie stopped her by laying a finger against her lips.
“Honey—no. Go back on Wednesday like you planned. I'll be just fine. I don't want you to disrupt your work life any more than you have already.” She smiled at her. “I'll be back before you know it, and then we can really start complicating things.”
“Count on it.”
Syd sighed. “How are we going to handle this?”
“Probably no differently than we've handled our friendship up to this point.” She chuckled. “Well…with one minor alteration.”
Syd slid her hand down from its resting place on Maddie's shoulder and snaked it inside her shirt to stroke a bare breast. “Minor?”
Maddie stifled a gasp. Even in her exhausted state, she felt an unmistakable prick of arousal. “Okay—maybe not minor .”
Syd stilled her hand, but did not remove it. Maddie's pulse began to return to normal. “I think our biggest hurdle will be finding ways to manage—um—sleepovers.”
Syd lifted her head. “Sleepovers?”
Maddie looked at her shyly. “Yeah—you know? Your place…my place—the logistics of all of that. Finding ways to be together without compromising your virtue or giving poor Roma Jean a brain hemorrhage.”
Syd laughed. “We can save discussions about my ‘virtue' for another day—but are you telling me that you finally got a clue about poor Roma Jean?”
“Well it was kind of hard not to figure out that something was going on with her after the first ten or twelve times she fell down right in front of me.”
“Oh, so you noticed that?” Syd began absently running her fingers back and forth across Maddie's breast again.
“I notice many things,” Maddie replied with a strained voice. “For example, if you keep doing what you're doing with your right hand, we're never going to get any sleep tonight.”
Syd nuzzled the skin at the base of her neck and slowly moved her hand down to rest on safer territory. “Okay, Doctor. But you're mine tomorrow night.”
Maddie kissed her on the forehead. “Tomorrow night, and every night after that.”
Syd snuggled closer and closed her eyes. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, sweetheart. Goodnight.”
Maddie could feel Syd's breathing deepen and even out as she quickly drifted off into sleep. In the final moments before she joined her in slumber, she marveled at the sequence of events that had led her to be here—in her old bedroom at Celine's house in California—wrapped in the sweet cocoon of a love she never thought she would have.
Continued in Part VIII
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