Tie Break

By Bonnie

 

For disclaimers see Part 1

Author's note: I know it's been a long while since the last update and I just wanted you to know that I'm still working on the story. It will be finished it's just that RL has been trying - quite successfully, I might add - to put huge obstacles in my way over the last six months or so, and I'm still trying to get around them. Okay, so far for this Public Service Announcement. Go, have fun reading now!

 

 

 

Part 24

Chapter 34

"Okay," Carol said as she closed her cell phone and turned to face Anne.

"What did he say?"

"Dave said he'd check his files. He's going to call me back when he comes up with something." Carol stopped and nibbled on her lower lip.

"So," Anne asked, "what else did he say that's making you nervous?"

Carol shook her head as if to ask for more time to think and stared into the fireplace. Then she looked at Anne. "It wasn't anything specific. He only mentioned that he hadn't heard much about Carlos in the past few weeks, and, believe me, he does keep his eyes and ears open."

"What does that mean?"

"That means that he either has stopped doing whatever he's usually doing, or that he's gone into hiding."

"But?" Anne asked when Carol's tone alluded to something more.

"But " Carol thought for another second. "But Dave also said that one of his informants mentioned that he had seen Carlos around these parts. If that is true, he might be much closer than we thought." The sheriff took a deep breath. "It might also mean that I have to apologize to Shana for my behavior yesterday because it might very well be that Carlos is behind the accident."

"Apologize? Oh, because you accused her of being too stupid to drive instead of believing her?" she asked with barely veiled sarcasm. "Don't worry, Carol. Shea took it for what it was jealousy."

"That might be, but I need to talk to her anyway. And I need to call my deputy, although I doubt that the lab results have come back yet."

Suddenly, Anne thought of something. "If Carlos is in the area, and if he was behind the accident, wouldn't that mean that Shana is in danger?" She began to pace between the fireplace and the loveseat.

"I don't know, Anne," the sheriff replied, "but with the weather the way it is and with you and me here, she should be pretty safe." And then she added something she would have never thought possible. "I won't let anything happen to her. Please, believe me."

Anne looked at her, surprised at the sincerity in the blonde woman's voice. "I believe you," she said before she could stop herself. And she did, somehow.

Hmm, I might get the hang of this friendship thing after all, Carol thought and gave Anne a reassuring smile. She glanced at the still-pacing brunette before her and sensed that she definitely needed a distraction. Carol searched her mind for something to talk about when the obvious solution came to her. Ahh

"So," she began in her most conversational tone as she let herself fall backwards onto the loveseat, "what's the story about you and Blondie anyway?"

Just as planned, Anne whirled around and shot Carol a dirty look. "Her name is Shana "

" not Blondie, I know," Carol interrupted her with a grin. "God, Anne, you're so easy to tease." Maybe this being friends isn't as difficult as I thought. Her smile got broader. "Why don't you sit down and tell me about the two of you."

Anne plopped down gracelessly next to her and stretched out her legs. "Didn't Carlos tell you everything about me and Shea?"

"No." Carol shook her head, "I only know the bare bones, and knowing Carlos, only a quarter of what he told me is true."

"More like a tenth," Anne corrected. She closed her eyes and thought of Shana, thought about what to say. There was so much to tell, and yet there was only one thing of importance. I love her and she loves me. Carol knew she had gotten her dark-haired friend to where she wanted her when a wistful smile crept up on the tanned face.

"I love her, Carol," Anne finally said very quietly. "I've loved her for as long as I can remember."

"Really?" the sheriff teased, putting a hand on Anne's arm when she felt the brunette tense at the comment. "Relax, Anne. I know that you love each other." She waited until blue eyes met her own before she continued. "I think that's the main reason why I behaved like such a lowlife yesterday. I saw you two and the love that just surrounds you." A sad smile appeared on her face. "I've always wanted you to look at me the way you look at Shana." She sighed.

"Carol, I'm "

"Shh, Anne, I know." Carol held up her hand to stop Anne from speaking. "There's nothing you or I can do about it, but I'd love to try and be your friend, if you think that is possible. And Shana's, of course."

Anne looked at her, doubt clearly readable in her eyes. "As much as I want to trust you, Carol, I still wonder why you're so eager to be our friend now." She held up her hand to stop Carol from interrupting. "Yesterday, you were ready to push Shana aside without so much as a thought out of some unresolved feelings for me. Today, you want to be our friend. Excuse me if I find that not so easy to believe."

Carol waited until she was sure that Anne was truly finished. Then she began with a remorseful smile. "I know that you must find it difficult to trust me and to believe that I want to be your friend." She looked up into Anne's expectant face. "Last night I thought a lot about you and me and about our history together. I've always blamed you for everything bad that happened to me, but last night after seeing you with Shana and as the person that you are around her, I realized that I really only tried to make things easier for me."

"What do you mean?" Anne asked with a wary expression.

"I mean that I ran away from my own life by holding onto the past, by not letting this infatuation I felt for you all those years ago go. I was never free to be the real me, and now that I'm faced with reality, I'm really sick of the person I became whenever I was around you." The sheriff took a deep breath. "I'm not like that, Anne, not really. If you ask around, you'll hear that I'm actually quite a nice person." She gave the brunette a half-grin. "I only want a chance to prove that to you. I can't be true to myself and to my job if I keep acting the way that I did yesterday."

Anne mulled the words over in her head, weighing her knowledge of the tempestuous blonde she had known years ago against the sincerity she could hear in her voice. She knew she really had no reason to believe in the blonde, but something inside told her that she should give her a chance.

"Please, Anne," Carol repeated, "I'd like to try and be your friend."

Anne came to a decision, hoping she was doing the right thing. "I'd like that," she replied, "and I bet Shana would, too." She felt a small knot in her throat at the hurt that she had caused the blonde woman next to her, and she vowed that if Carol proved to be true to her word she'd try to be her friend in the future.

"However," Carol said in an attempt to break the intensity, "you wanted to tell me everything about you and Shana and I do mean everything."

Anne laughed. "How much time do you have?" And then she started to talk.

Mission accomplished, was all her new friend thought with a private grin.

*******************

Mike woke up in his favorite place, in the arms of his lover, his head cushioned on a broad shoulder. He listened to the rhythm of Kevin's breathing for a few moments before determining that his very comfortable pillow was awake as well. Moving his head slowly, he looked up into open blue eyes, and, almost involuntarily, a smile blossomed on his face.

"G'morning, big guy," he mumbled with a small pat on Kevin's chest.

"Well, hello there, buddy," Kevin answered good-naturedly. "Nice to see you've finally joined the land of the living. I thought you'd slipped into a coma during the night."

He chuckled at the contrite look on his lover's face. Mike firmly believed in sleeping as late as possible, and was often grumpy when he had to get up early. Kevin usually was up a couple of hours before him, but this morning he was content just holding the smaller man in his arms while thinking about life in general and their situation in particular.

He had been completely shocked by the idea that Shana's parents could be working with Carlos, could in fact be trying to hurt their daughter, actively and with purpose. He had only met the Wilsons a couple of times at social functions, but they had never struck him as monsters. Heartless, soulless businesspeople with no regard for their daughter's feelings maybe, but not ruthless criminals who would work with Carlos to get their daughter hurt. The problem was, deep down in his gut, he knew that Carlos was behind Shana's accident. He was absolutely certain. He was also just as convinced that Shana's parents had at least known about Carlos' "slavery ring". But that, he thought, is not something I want to ever confirm to Shana's face.

"Hey, Kev," Mike asked with concern, "where did you disappear to?"

Kevin kissed the top of his lover's head, glad that at least for them life was mostly normal and good. "Sorry 'bout that. I was just thinking ..." He trailed off, his mind already occupying itself with another problem. We need to find a solution for Mishka, too.

"About?" Mike asked.

"Huh?"

"You said you were thinking ... what about?" Mike studied the faraway look in Kevin's eyes. "Hey, are you okay?" Come on, big guy, talk to me.

Kevin realized that his partner was getting worried and tried to concentrate on alleviating Mike's concerns for his mental well-being. "Ah, I was just thinking about all the problems here, our situation and all that." He shrugged, unsure of what else to say.

"So, what's your take on things?"

"I think that we should try to find a solution for the Mishka situation first. It seems the most resolvable of all." The blond man spoke haltingly and in a manner that told his lover that he was thinking about a solution as he was speaking.

"Oh yeah?" Mike was always interested when his lover's mind was at work. "Did you come up with something yet?"

Kevin grinned affectionately at the smaller man who lay so comfortably sprawled over his right side and the bed. "Do you really think I can just come up with an easy solution to any problem?" His question was teasing, but there was also a lot of truth behind it. Mike had absolute trust in the capabilities of his lover, and he often relied on Kevin to come up with something.

Mike simply smiled up at his tall friend's face. "Yes," was all he had to say about what he figured was essentially a rhetoric question.

Kevin relented and grinned broadly at the trust in Mike's voice. "You're right, of course," he said with a smile in his voice. He often grumbled about the fact that he was usually left to figure things out and take care of almost everything in their day-to-day life, but he also was honest enough to acknowledge that he loved the absolute trust Mike's behavior showed. Still, he thought, most of it is probably plain laziness. But I love you anyway, buddy.

"So? What are we going to do?"

At least you're always following where I'm going. "I thought we could start by calling some people and see what their experience with asking for political asylum and all that stuff is. Do we have our little black book with us?"

"We sure do." They never left the house without it, in fact. They both cherished the old-fashioned book although it was close to falling apart from years of continuous usage.

"Want me to get it?" he asked, already moving to disentangle himself from his lover and the covers.

"I'd really appreciate that," Kevin replied formally in answer to the totally redundant question.

Mike shot him a look, but said nothing as he walked across the room to where they had stored their bags. Kevin followed the compact body with his eyes, loving the well-proportioned muscles that covered the physiotherapist's body, which was only clad in boxers. Hmm, nice ...

Kevin tried to wipe his grin off his face before Mike made his way back over to him, but judging by the knowing look in the shorter man's eyes, he wasn't successful. "Okay, okay, I admit I like looking at you," he growled playfully. "Now give me the book." He made a grab for the item in question and landed squarely on Mike's body, effectively pinning him to the bed.

"Oof," Mike let go of an explosive breath. "Get off me, Cyclops." And then he bit down on a conveniently placed earlobe.

"Yeow!"

Kevin's body shot up, more out of surprise than pain, which allowed Mike to take a deep breath. He held out the little black book, which Kevin took with one hand while the other covered his bright red ear. "Jesus," he muttered, but it was followed by a loving grin. I love playing like that ../. He raised an eyebrow. Very early on in their relationship Mike, who loved Greek mythology, had called him "Cyclops" once when they were playing a little rougher than usual. Kevin had been clueless as to what that meant, but hadn't asked. Later, he had done some research and the next time that happened, he had called his lover "Apollo", the one who brought the Cyclops down. He still smiled every single time he thought about the reward his diligence got him. The names had become pet names and, more often than not, a signal that one of them wanted their sex to be a little rougher. What a pity we don't really have the time now ...

Kevin shook his head to try and concentrate on the problem at hand. He opened the address book and scanned the names inside. With a broad fingertip under one name, he held it up under Mike's nose. "Any idea what the time is over there?"

Mike did some mental calculations. "I think it's an okay time to call," he mumbled, not knowing exactly what time it was.

"If you say so." Kevin started dialing the long number.

On the fourth ring, a woman answered. "Hello?"

"Hello. Hana, is that you? This is Kevin Delaney."

"Hi, Kevin," the woman answered. "It's Jana. Hana is outside playing tennis. Do you want me to call her or can I help you?" The longer she spoke, the easier it was to detect her Eastern European accent.

"Hi, Jana. Good to hear your voice," Kevin greeted the former tennis player enthusiastically. "There's no need to call Hana, I think. I have a problem that you might help me with just as well as she could, probably."

"What is it?" Friendly interest came through the line.

"Have you heard what happened to Mikhail Rostov?"

"Mishka? Sure I heard about him ..." Jana sounded puzzled. "What do you have to do with it?"

Kevin launched into the story, explaining everything that was important, especially that Mishka couldn't marry Shana any longer to stay in the States. He tried not to out Shana, but Jana figured out that part of the story with two astute questions about Shana and Anne.

He ended his report with a question. "So, do you have any idea how to help Mishka without Shana having to marry him?"

"Hmm," Jana stalled, "I think there are at least several possibilities you could think about. You could always try to find another woman for him to marry, which would be the easiest way, I guess. Or you could talk to the police or the immigration people and see whether they could help you to get him into the country legally. Maybe he should come up with another reason for seeking asylum."

She heard Kevin's intake of breath at the other end of the line and continued quickly. "I know, I know, that was easier when we still had the iron curtain." She laughed. "One other thing that I know from other countries is that you could give a guarantee for him, and get him inside that way."

"Thanks, Jana," Kevin said, not yet sure whether the call had really helped them.

"You know, Kevin," Jana said, "it shouldn't really be such a big problem as long as he can prove he has enough money to sustain himself. It's not like he's taking away any jobs or needs help from the state. Maybe you should see it from that angle." She paused. "Anyway, I'll talk to Hana about it and ask some friends. Maybe we can come up with some more ideas. Where can we reach you?"

Kevin gave her their numbers and thanked her before hanging up.

"Well, that didn't sound so bad," Mike said with a smile. "Maybe we didn't see the forest for the trees there." He had a feeling they hadn't thought about the problem enough.

"Yeah," his lover replied with a frown, "but it's not ... it's not ..."

"It's not the easy way out you wanted to have," Mike finished for him. He gave the tall man a pat on his chest and a tweak to one nipple, forcing a reluctant grin to the handsome face. "Isn't there anybody else we could call?"

Kevin smiled. "Actually, there is." He smacked his forehead. "I should have called her first." He skimmed through the address book until he found the number and dialed quickly.

"Hello, Martina. This is Kevin Delaney ... Fine, thanks. And you? ... Well, I've got a problem. Have you heard what happened to Mikhail Rostov?"

*******************

Irene looked over to where Shana sat at the table, absent-mindedly stirring sugar in her tea. She could see that the younger woman was bothered by something, and in a way she was glad since it offered her an opportunity to not think about her own past any longer. Worrying about her second daughter wasn't much better, but at least she might have a chance to help with whatever the problem right now was.

"Honey," she said mildly as she walked over to the blonde woman, "if you want some more tea to wet the heap of sugar in your cup, just let me know." She put a hand on Shana's shoulder and jumped back when the younger woman almost shot out of her chair.

"Hey," Irene whispered soothingly, "what's got you so spooked, sweetling?" She pushed the tennis player back down on the chair and pulled out the chair right next to it. Not taking her hand off Shana's shoulder, she sat down and moved over to take the other woman into her arms.

"I'm sorry, Mom," Shana mumbled around several deep breaths, "I was just thinking "

"About?" The gray-haired woman took the cup and spoon from the blonde's hands, only hesitating for a second. I should just let her drop it, she thought with a glance at the Empire State Building and King Kong in neon colors that graced the mug. She shuddered, an instinctive reaction she always had to that particularly ugly design. How did Shana manage to grab that thing? She must have really been miles away.

Shana stared out of the window, not really seeing past the thoughts that were twirling behind her eyes. Just when Irene believed she wouldn't get an answer, the blonde shook her head and turned to look at her lover's mother. "I think my mind is just now starting to work through everything, Mom. I feel like we're all on a tennis court, and I'm the ball. You know what I mean?"

Irene gave her the gentlest smile she could produce and nodded. "I know exactly what you mean." She closed her eyes for a moment, remembering how she had felt after killing George. "Sometimes life just gives us a lot to think about, but I'm sure it's never too much. You'll get through this. We'll all get through this just fine. I'm sure of that."

She stroked Shana's arm, letting her know by touch that she would never be alone through all of it. "Maybe you should talk about all this. Have you told Anne how you feel?"

The younger woman shook her head and swallowed.

Ah, I see. "She's one of the things that have you thinking," she stated. Wonder what that is about

Shana nodded, unable to press words out of her constricted throat. Suddenly, her eyes were filling with tears as everything that had happened to her in the last two days came crashing down on her. Wordlessly, she slumped into the older woman's arms and sobbed.

Irene gathered the small woman into a warm hug, wishing her daughter were there to do it for her. Not that she minded hugging and comforting the woman she considered her daughter, but she was sure that she wasn't exactly the right person to do it. Nonetheless, she tightened her hold on Shana and made comforting sounds. She had a feeling her daughter was behind the sudden tears. What in the hell has Anne done now? I can't believe those two. Just when I thought I finally had them together

After a while Shana calmed down and straightened in her chair. "Sorry 'bout that," she mumbled, looking slightly embarrassed.

"There's nothing to be sorry for, honey," Irene quietly reassured her. "That's what moms are there for." She received a grateful look from wet green eyes, and a nod. "Now, how about you tell me what Anne did to you to make you cry."

Shana looked a little startled. "Anne? She did nothing " Then a small smile started pulling up the corners of her mouth when she reconsidered the question and realized that that was a lie. Should I? I bet Anne will forgive me

"That's not exactly true," she continued. "She asked me to marry her."

"Whoohoo!" A sound of pure joy erupted from the older woman before she pulled her future daughter-in-law into the biggest hug she could manage in their respective positions. After a prolonged hug, she remembered that Shana was sad and bothered about something, and she sobered quickly. "And that's a problem?" she asked, audibly puzzled.

"No! Not at all!" Shana hastily reassured the older woman. Damn, gave her the wrong impression there. No wonder she looks so worried. "Irene, I love Anne more than I can say, and the thought of being committed to her forever makes me totally giddy with happiness." She fell quiet, not sure how to continue.

Irene had the feeling there was more to it. She could practically hear the doubt in Shana's voice. "But?" she asked gently.

Shana remained quiet for a while, debating with herself. Is Irene really the person I should talk to? Shouldn't I talk to Anne first? I should talk to Anne but maybe Irene will have an idea of how to go about that. She nodded to herself when her decision was made, and turned her eyes to the patiently waiting older woman.

"But," she began hesitatingly, "but you do realize that I'm pregnant, don't you?" That needed to be cleared first.

Irene nodded, but said nothing, feeling that the younger woman had never really doubted that.

"I don't know how Anne will be able to cope with the baby." She snorted. "Hell, I don't even know how to cope with the baby and " She fell quiet, realizing that Irene didn't know how the baby had been conceived. "Anyway, everything is so new with us now, and I don't know if the baby isn't too much too soon for Anne and for our relationship."

Irene let her pragmatic streak come to the surface. "Did you tell Anne about the baby?"

"Yes," the blonde nodded.

"And? What did she say?"

"She was pretty shocked as you can imagine but we really didn't talk about it that much." Shana felt a tear of confusion run down her cheek. "I don't know how she feels what she really thinks." Then she remembered the way Anne had made love to her so very gently in the morning, so absolutely careful about the baby. The usually self-assured woman had been nervous and afraid of hurting the unborn child. She can't hate it if she's so mindful of it, can she?

"Perhaps it's just my own damn insecurity, Mom." An image of Anne's bruised hand flickered across her mind as it tenderly stroked her stomach in the afterglow of their lovemaking. She had felt so good then, so light. Why am I getting all confused and insecure now? Anne's shown me how she feels.

Irene smiled to herself despite the situation. She knew that everything would be all right in the end, but she also realized that Shana needed to be reassured. Just not by her. "I still think you should talk to Anne about your fears, honey." She patted Shana's hand. "She's the only one who can tell you how she feels about the baby." Your mind is on her anyway, and whatever I'm telling you now won't have much impact if it reaches you at all.

Still, she wondered what the story behind the baby was, and for a moment she thought about asking the blonde woman. Then she looked at the tear-streaked face and decided that whatever it was, was probably not easy to stomach, for Shana or for Anne, but would have to wait. She felt that now was not the right time for probing questions.

Except for one. Okay, time for a change of topic here

Irene raised her hands and stroked away Shana's tears with her thumbs, cupping the blonde's face tenderly. "You do realize," she said quietly, "that you can't marry Mishka now, do you?"

Shana's eyes met her with a look that was equal parts insecurity, confusion, and indecision, but she didn't reply instantly.

Bingo. Irene mentally patted herself on the head for hitting another sore point. I knew she was working that through as well. She needs to learn how to talk about things with the right people. I bet Anne just asked her to marry her, but totally forgot about Mishka. Understandable, but

She hugged the younger woman to her and continued. "Look, I know things are a bit difficult right now, but we're going to find another solution for Mishka." She gave Shana a reassuring smile. "It can't be that hard to find a way for such a nice young man to stay here. It's not like he can't feed himself now, can he?" She grinned, and even Shana smiled a little bit at that. "Hell, if push comes to shove I'll just adopt him. That ought to do it!"

Shana's smile grew even wider at that thought, and Irene knew without a doubt that she would make good on that offer if it turned out to be the only solution for her two daughters to be happy. Hey, he's a nice boy, and some motherly love couldn't hurt him. And what's one more patch in this quilt of a family anyway? Irene was really warming up to the idea. After breakfast I'm going to grab that little boy and have a nice long talk with him

The older woman squeezed Shana's shoulders once again, glad that the tears were gone and that a small smile had edged its way on the younger woman's face. "We'll find a way for him, sweetling," Irene repeated, more seriously now. "It's just that " She hesitated, unsure of whether it was the right thing to say at this point. She decided just to get on with it. "It's just that I think Anne couldn't live with that, you know? All she ever wanted was to be happy with you. She couldn't share you, even if it was just on paper. You know she's not as tough as she tries to be."

Shana looked at her and Irene could see the determination in the green eyes. "Irene, I know that. That's why everything is so confusing right now. I feel like I've been using Mishka just to get Anne to finally say something. And now that I've got what I always wanted, I'm pushing him away, robbing him of his chance to be safe here." She took a deep breath. "I know Anne would never say anything if I married Mishka, but but she would probably --"

"Die inside, at least a bit," a very familiar voice continued from the door.

Shana's head flew around, meeting the understanding gaze of her lover. "Anne, we just "

Anne slowly walked over. "You just needed to talk, I know." She smiled at her mother. "And that old lady there is very good for that." She shot her mother a loving grin that was returned with a shake of a gray head.

When Anne reached the table she simply pulled Shana up from the chair and, with one fluid motion, right into her arms for a heartfelt hug that both women seemed to need. Irene silently got up and moved over to the kitchen counter, deciding that she didn't need to be that close to the young lovers at the moment. They look as if they need to be alone right now.

Irene's thought was indeed mirrored by both women, and when voices in the hall indicated that more people were on their way to the kitchen for breakfast, Anne whispered into Shana's ear. "I need to talk to you in private. Wanna come with me?"

After the meaning of the words had fought its way through the shivers and had registered on her brain, the blonde woman simply nodded, not trusting her voice. That whisper needs to be filed as a lethal weapon. Thank God she didn't do anything else but whisper. At that moment she felt a fleeting kiss and short nip on her earlobe, and her knees threatened to give out. Oh boy.

Anne stepped back from their close embrace and tugged on Shana's hand, pulling her towards the door. Just as they were about to leave the kitchen, they met Kevin, Mike and Carol.

"Morning," Anne and Shana mumbled as one before they walked past them and down the hall, leaving Kevin and Mike to stare after them.

"Close your mouths, boys," Irene cheerfully commented. "Those two have something to talk about."

"Talk?" both men asked. "Is that what they call it now?"

Carol simply grinned and watched as Anne and Shana rounded the corner that led to their room, only barely avoiding a collision with the Hinkels and Mishka, who were talking animatedly in what seemed to be Russian.

Irene shook her head and murmured, "Just another morning at the Patakis residence." Then she started to make breakfast for all of them.

Chapter 35

Anne pulled her lover towards their room, anxious to be alone with her. Ever since the talk with Carol and the looming threat of a nearby Carlos, she had only wanted to be close to Shana to make sure she was okay. The need had become so great during her talk with Carol that she had more or less just stormed out in search of her lover, with only a vaguely apologizing shrug of her shoulders.

When she hadn't found Shana in their room she had gone to the kitchen, instinctively certain that that would be where she would find both her lover and her mother. She knew that a lot of things were bothering her lover, just had to be bothering her, and that in all probability the blonde had gone in search of a friendly ear and a motherly shoulder to cry on.

She didn't know if she was feeling relieved or saddened by the fact that her mother was the one her lover went to with her doubts and problems. Not knowing what went on inside of Shana's head and heart worried her, but she also was mature enough to realize that she wasn't the easiest person to talk to. Especially right now when her instincts were driving her to ignore all their problems and just be close to Shana. The thing is that Shea isn't like you, she admonished herself, so suck it up and let her talk to whomever she needs to feel better. You know she has to talk about things.

If only

If only there wasn't this tiny voice inside her head that persisted that she should be the one her lover confided in. But what if Shea has doubts about you? What if she can't talk to you because you're the problem?

Anne had entered the kitchen totally torn, her need to protect Shana pulling her into the room, while her need to shield herself from heartache was urging her to run in the other direction.

The truth was, she was just plain sick of being in the middle of problems.

Then she had heard parts of the conversation, heard Shana say that she had been in love with her just as long as she had been in love with the blonde. God, how blind were we really? The feeling of gentle happiness that spread out from her heart made her miss most of what her mother was telling Shana, but in the end she caught enough to realize that she and Shana would always be able to count on Irene.

When she couldn't resist the pull of her heart any longer, she interrupted the two women, needing to be alone with her lover.

Now.

They entered their room in silence and as soon as the door closed behind them, Anne burned Shana's lips with a kiss that was equal parts passion and love, giving and taking.

It took Shana a fraction of a second to get over her surprise, but after that she responded with ardor. She tangled her hands in the thick black hair in the need for an anchor that grounded her in reality, because the kiss was definitely making her feel as if she could fly.

When they finally needed to end the kiss, Shana held Anne's face between her hands and looked into the very wild eyes of her lover. Never had she seen them burning with that kind of intensity, not on any tennis court in the world nor during their love-making up to now. Not that I could have seen her eyes then since mine were closed most of the time, she chided herself for her lack of observational skills during the height of passion.

The blue fire that was blazing a constant trail between her eyes and her lips made her feel extremely self-conscious. In a deep-seated need to break the palpable tension in the room she cleared her throat, gently at first, then a bit louder. When that didn't change anything, she tenderly rubbed her thumbs across the taller woman's cheeks. "Anne," she panted quietly, "hey, what is it, honey?"

Good question, Anne thought. I'm scared. I'm totally scared shitless of the fact that something or someone could take you away from me, now that I've finally got you. The dark-haired woman decided in a split-second that this was something she would not tell her lover. But the thought alone made her cling tighter to the smaller frame in her arms, holding onto her for dear life. And then there's also the hunger I feel for you, her mind wryly added.

"Anne," the blonde squeaked out, "honey, I can't breathe."

"Oh, sorry," were the first words that came out of the brunette's mouth since leaving the kitchen. She loosened her hold at once and restrained herself to circling her lover's waist with her arms.

"I didn't mean didn't want to " Damn, she probably still hurts from the accident and I squeeze her to death. She gave her lover a sheepish grin as substitute for an apology.

Shana was getting worried now. Anne's behavior in the kitchen, the hallway and for the first few minutes in their room had led her to believe that her lover needed to be alone with her, wanted to kiss her, wanted to make love to her. Looking at the tall woman now, however, made it very clear to her that there was much more going on behind the vivid blue eyes.

Before she could say anything, however, Anne continued. "It's just that I need to feel you close to me need to know you're there and safe," she murmured, her eyes tracing the not so intricate texture of the hardwood floor as if it would reveal the secrets of life and love any time now.

The room was quiet for a few seconds then, with Anne slightly embarrassed at her expression of need and Shana unsure of what to answer to the love and need she had heard in her lover's voice. Then, a pair of sighs broke the silence and the tension as both women looked at each other and broke into startled laughter at the long-suffering sounds that came out of each other's mouths.

Shana gave her lover a frank grin and pulled the dark head down to place a fleeting kiss on the tip of Anne's nose. "I love you," she simply said, "I need you and it's very nice to know you need me, too."

"Oh, God, I do!" Anne blurted and pulled the smaller woman into another hug, although she was careful not to crush her this time. They pulled back at the same time and looked into each other's eyes, seeing love and devotion and understanding. With another sigh, this time a happier sound, Anne kissed her lover's forehead.

"Now," Shana mumbled into Anne's shirt in an attempt to change the subject, "why don't you tell me how the talk with Carol went."

*******************

Irene looked at the kitchen clock and sighed. Only 9.30. How is it possible for the day to still be so young when I feel as if so much has already happened? She watched as the last drops of coffee dripped through the filter into the industrial-sized coffee pot. I guess getting up at 4.30 will do that to you, she thought wryly and chuckled slightly.

The talk with Shana had brought back much of her equilibrium and she was feeling a lot less depressed and morose than she had only an hour before. Now, she had something else and someone else beside herself to concentrate on, something she sorely needed.

She turned around and watched the motley crowd that inhabited her kitchen now, most of them still standing around the huge table, quietly talking. Only the sheriff was standing close to the back door, eyes focused on something probably only she could see. What a strange woman, Irene mused.

She still had mixed feelings about the sheriff, and the longer she watched the woman, the more certain she was that the jury was still out on her character. She trusted her daughter's judgment, at least most of the time, and she knew from Shana that Anne and Carol had talked about their past, but still there was something in the brown eyes that she just didn't like. Maybe it was just the way she looked at Anne all the time when her daughter was near.

Then again, maybe not.

There was something about the way she kept to herself and kept watching the grounds that made Irene nervous, and that was a feeling she really didn't care for.

Behind her the percolator coughed up the last drops of coffee. She grabbed the enormous pot and carried it over to the table, where an array of multi-colored mugs was already waiting to be filled. Instead of handing them out to each of her guests, however, Irene played her favorite little game.

She had placed several mugs - more mugs than people - and watched who grabbed which. She had privately made her own predictions and chosen some of the mugs on the table accordingly. She was convinced a person's choice of coffee mug revealed a lot about their character. Of course, the way they went about it was often telling as well.

The Hinkels, for instance, were waiting patiently in the background, softly talking to Mishka in a language she didn't understand and assumed, just from the sound of it, to be Russian rather than German.

In complete contrast, Kevin and Mike dove for the mugs with gusto, both choosing friendly colors and motifs. Kevin went for the green and purple Wimbledon mug, smiling at it in pleasant memories. Good choice, Irene thought, as she had put the mug there for him specifically. Mike chose a happy looking mug that Anne had bought at the Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao. It was painted in small squares in blue, orange, yellow, and red, and was, in Irene's eyes, the perfect choice for a dark winter day. It also fit Mike's usually friendly personality.

When the Hinkels and Mike realized that they had to take a mug themselves, they inched towards the table, carefully surveying the mugs that were left. As she had predicted, both Hinkels took more sedate colors, one going more for a forest-green design, the other heading straight for the mug that sported large royal blue polka dots.

Mishka went for another comic design, lifting the Garfield mug with a frank grin and a sparkle in his eyes. He really does remind me of Pete in some ways, Irene mused with a surprising sense of pleasure at the thought.

She decided to have a nice long talk with the young man after breakfast. The more she thought about her idea of solving the problem, the better she liked it. What this boy needed was another mother, not a wife, especially not her daughter's future wife. Somehow she knew that a marriage between Shana and Mishka would impact a lot of lives, including her own, and probably not in a positive way.

That left the sheriff to choose a mug since Anne and Shana hadn't yet returned from their little talk. Irene glanced over to the tall blonde just in time to catch the speculative look in her eyes. When their eyes met, a smile crept over the sheriff's face.

A smile that could only be called challenging.

Not breaking their eye contact, Carol pushed herself away from the back door and sauntered over to the table with a little swagger to her walk. She circled the table so that she could look Irene into the eyes without having to turn her head, and let her right hand wander over the rest of the mugs on the table.

Irene realized that the woman was playing with her. Irene's eyes fell on the table to survey the mugs still there. And just as the slender hand stopped over a particularly bright and garish mug, the older woman realized she had made a mistake.

Her favorite mug, the one that Pete had made for her, was still among the mugs on the table.

She hadn't thought about putting it there since everyone in her family knew not to take it, and she seldom had other people in her kitchen for breakfast. This was definitely an exception to her rule to keep her private life, and private rooms, from her guests. Surely, the sheriff didn't know what the coffee mug meant to her, did she?

The sheriff's hand slowly moved down towards the mug, and Irene caught the brown eyes again. She knew her eyes expressed her thoughts, knew that the sheriff knew exactly what she was doing, but she couldn't help herself.

Carol gave her another smile and cocked her head as if pondering her choice. In reflex, Irene closed her eyes.

When she opened them again a moment later, Carol was pouring coffee into the Roman Coliseum with a huge grin and a twinkle in her chocolate-colored eyes.

*******************

Shana cuddled back into Anne's arms with a satisfied grunt. Her dark lover had promised her to tell her all about her talk with the sheriff, but only on the condition that they get comfortable while talking.

Shana was feeling really comfortable now. Anne had her back against the headboard, and Shana was lying between her long legs, her shoulders pressed tightly against Anne's breasts. The blonde had a lot of fun in this position, every once in a while leaning deeper into the embrace and rubbing her back against the sensitive nipples, receiving a hard swallow or barely stifled gasp every single time.

Anne had talked about her conversation with Carol, even mentioning her fears that Carlos might be very near, although that had taken some prodding and pushing on Shana's part. The blonde woman had realized that Anne was trying not to say something, but her tense body had betrayed that.

Another advantage to this position, Shana thought with a smile. By all rights she should be extremely worried, thinking about Carlos and their situation much more than about the warm body snuggled up with her in the middle of the huge and comfortable bed.

But somehow somehow, Carlos and everything lost a lot of their importance here in their haven, and all she wanted was to stay here forever, talking, kissing and cuddling with the woman she loved.

She turned her head to look up into the blue eyes she knew so well, and received a gentle brushing of lips as a reward. The kiss deepened after only a few moments, and Shana was again pleasantly convinced that Anne had to be the best kisser in the whole wide world. Well, no wonder with all her experience, a small voice inside her piped up just as their lips parted.

"Anne?" her mouth said, almost against her will. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure," a deep voice burred right into her very sensitive ear.

Shana sat up slightly, not wanting to be distracted now that she had unwillingly started that conversation. She received a puzzled look from her lover, the slight hurt in Anne's eyes not hidden carefully enough. "Hey, it's nothing bad," she reassured her lover.

"Then why are you moving away?" came the reasonable question.

Shana didn't know what to say. She wasn't used to Anne expressing her feelings as unguardedly as that, and she realized that she was instead very used to the older woman keeping a lot inside. She sat up completely and turned around so that she knelt between her lover's legs now. She cupped Anne's face, and moved forward to press a light kiss on the pouting lips. I hope a touch says more than words.

Anne accepted the kiss, but was still puzzled. She didn't have a clue as to what Shana wanted to know from her or why she had to move away from her to ask her question. She kicked herself mentally. Just wait and see. She wouldn't kiss you if it were bad.

"Okay," she said as casually as possible, "what do you want to know?"

"Uh okay," Shana stalled, then took a deep breath. "Have you really slept with all those women? I mean, how many women are we talking about here?" She pressed the words out as fast as possible before she could stop herself again. Then she looked at the bedspread in apparent interest.

Missing the wide-eyed look Anne gave her before the chuckling from the tall woman's chest made her look up.

"What's so funny?" She was a little angry at the reaction, although she couldn't have said why.

"That's what you want to know?" Anne asked between chuckles. "God, I was so worried." She shook her head with a grin. "You're entitled to wonder, darling. I might not name all the names, but you're always allowed to ask." She paused. "Besides, I think you know most of them anyway. Remember? You never let any woman I slept with beat you ever again." She laughed and leaned over to give her lover a tender kiss on her cheek.

"That's true," Shana replied. And it was. Whenever she had heard a rumor about Anne and one of their fellow players on tour she made it her mission not to let them beat her on the court. It was bad enough that they had been allowed to touch Anne, she wouldn't give them the satisfaction of beating her in tennis as well.

In hindsight, she'd probably have to say that Anne's philandering ways had been very good for her career, giving her an added incentive to always win. She said so, making Anne laugh out loud.

"Why did that happen anyway?" Anne asked when her laughter had died down. "What was going on inside your head then?"

She had always hoped that Shana was so determined out of her unresolved feelings for Anne, but she had never been sure. Maybe she had just been pissed off by Anne's behavior. Who knew?

Shana blushed and looked away. "I was so I don't really know. I guess, I was angry at them for being able to touch something I couldn't." She looked at Anne. "Knowing they could have you and I couldn't really, really hurt." A tear trailed down her cheek just from a faint memory of the feelings. "I think I just wanted to turn that into something positive."

She pressed her cheek into the large hand that was suddenly cupping her face with the gentlest of touches. "I always thought that they were laughing about me behind my back because because I thought that everyone could see through me, could see how I felt about you."

"Oh, Shea, I'm so sorry for putting you through that," Anne said, feeling very helpless. "Had I known " She let her words trail off, not knowing what she would have done had she known that the blonde woman loved her as much as she did.

"What would you have done, Anne?" Shana asked, her voice a strange mixture of sarcasm and compassion. "You didn't know what I was feeling for you, and, frankly, I think in that phase of your life I don't know whether I'd have been any good for you."

Anne was flustered. "Why do you say that? If I had known that you loved me then, I'd never have touched another woman."

"Are you sure?" The blonde's voice turned gentle. "Honey, try to remember the black hole you were in then. I had just left you, making you believe your advances were unwelcome. Your brother had killed himself and you blamed yourself for leaving him in the clutches of your father." She stroked the dark head with her fingertips. "Do you really believe things could have worked out between us then?"

Anne let herself fall back into her memories, reliving the pain of being abandoned by the woman she loved and abandoning everyone she loved in return. She had stopped caring and had started drinking herself into forgetfulness, stopped loving and started taking what was offered just to make herself forget what she needed. Nameless and not so nameless faces flickered through her mind, used and discarded, often humiliated and taunted, even long after the usually very short-lived affairs had ended. Once or twice, she remembered, she had even taunted her conquests by outright telling them that they were not woman enough to be worthy of her. Nor were they strong enough to ever beat Shana Wilson again. With a self-deprecating grin she realized that none of them had understood what she meant until they had faced the blonde woman with the cold green eyes over a net.

"No," she mumbled finally, "it probably wouldn't have been a good idea." She swallowed hard, debating with herself over the next thought. "I was as close to hating you as I could ever get. I felt so alone when you left me there in my room after the kiss we had shared. Do you know that the ring you're wearing now was in my pocket that night?"

Shana gave her a shocked look. "What?"

"Yes, I wanted to propose to you that night, wanted to ask you to spend the rest of your life with me, your family be damned. I knew then as much as I know now that I could never really live without you in my life, and the years we spent apart, not talking, not touching " Her voice turned more raspy with every syllable and broke on the last word. Clearing her throat, she continued. "I was not living then. I was barely existing."

"Oh my God, Anne, I'm so sorry," Shana cried and flung herself at her dark-haired lover. "We lost so many years. So many years."

Anne tightened her grip, then pulled out of the embrace to look into Shana's eyes. "Don't be sorry, Shea, please. We have to shed the past. Didn't you tell me that we have to bury the past to be able to go on freely? Let's do that. We finally found each other and I don't ever want to lose you. And especially not to the past."

Then she leaned forward and touched her lips to her lover's mouth, gently exploring. Her touch intensified and soon they were sharing hungry kisses that expressed every emotion that floated between them, mingling past, present and future. When they finally broke apart, they were kneeling in front of each other on the bed, two pairs of hands exploring naked skin under shirts and over bras.

"Whoa," Shana finally breathed, and promptly lost herself in her lover's blue gaze again.

"Hmm," Anne dreamily agreed. "What were we talking about?"

"Can't remember." All Shana could think of were Anne's lips on hers. "We talked about kisses, I think. Your kisses. You're the best kisser in the world."

"My kisses?" Anne sounded unconvinced.

"Yeah, kisses, past lovers, history, the whole megillah, you know." She kissed Anne again, trying to drive all conscious thought away for good. There'll be another time to talk about that, was the last insistent thought that clung to the brain cells slowly draining out her ears.

Anne didn't mind at all, glad that Shana's questions about past lovers hadn't been too insistent. Good thing she talked about women all the time. I don't really want to explain that other time to her. Some things are best buried in the past.

Then she gave herself over to the passion her lover so easily created in her and forgot all about it.

To be continued in Part 25

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