PECONIC HAVEN

By Capt_Esq capt_esq11@yahoo.com

Disclaimers: None really other than don't use without asking first.

Chapter One

Niamh saw the quirky woman for several days, walking past her window every two hours or so. Something about her struck an interest with Niamh. Why, she didn't know. Every time the woman passed by, her head would be down, buried in a book, apparently neither watching nor caring where she was going, or what was around her.

After several occurrences of the peculiar woman sweeping past her storefront, Niamh's thoughts and curiosity began to wander. "How could anybody read and walk down the sidewalk without bumping into things?" She asked herself. She admired the apparently innate coordination of the woman. What was she reading that involved her mind to such a degree? Niamh began to time the sightings and noticed they came with a general regularity. Her walk was almost a military regimen. Niamh could set her watch by when the woman passed the window. Every hour and forty-five minutes the woman strolled by, absorbed in whatever interesting information the pages held for her . Niamh knew this was exactly the amount of time it took to walk from one end of the main street to the other. When Niamh opened her shop in the morning, the woman was already pacing the curb. When she went home at night, she was still out there.

Niamh didn't think she was homeless. Every day the stranger had on a different set of clothes, appeared clean, yet carried nothing but the book. However, she did look like she could use an extra few meals. Niamh didn't know if she ever ate. At no time did she stop. She did not stop to eat at the local diner, pick up a sandwich, or a bite at one of the takeout places. No, she simply walked and read.

Niamh would have been more worried if it wasn't spring. The weather was mild and warm, perfect for walking and perfect for reading…but the two together…it was odd.

One night in particular, as the sun glazed the horizon with hues of burnt orange and purple against a sea of blue, Niamh saw the subject of her musings still out on the streets. She considered the fact that she saw the stranger throughout the day and evening. "Does she just keep going? What does she do at night?" She asked herself. "Certainly she must sleep at some point. Get the chance to clean up? And more importantly, what is she trying to get away from, or get to?"

Often, Niamh found herself standing at the window, her slender figure poised in anticipation, hoping to see the woman pass by. Out of nervous habit Niamh would twist her long dark hair around her pinky finger, watching…waiting. The sun would pass through the window and over her ivory skin, illuminating her intense brown eyes. This time of year was slow in the small bookshop. The summer tourists had yet to arrive and the locals tended to come in the late afternoon or evening. The rest of her staff didn't work until then. So there Niamh found herself alone-her gaze fixated, searching for the silhouette that would soon pass her doorstep.

Today was one of those beautiful spring days. With summer coming on, the days and nights were comfortably warm. Niamh shuffled about her business not enjoying it the way she usually did. She hadn't paid much attention to the on goings outside. However she soon realized the familiar shadow was long overdue. The observation settled on her, and she decided to watch. From her stance near the front bookshelves she restlessly glanced at her watch. She soon realized that it had been two and a half hours since the woman's last pass. Feeling like she was stood up for a lunch date, Niamh impatiently went to the window.

Looking out and down the street, Niamh saw the familiar blonde sitting on the bench in front of the deli. The woman's book was open on her lap but her gaze remained fixed on the library across the street. Niamh observed for several moments, thinking the woman would begin her trek any minute or even go into the library in search of new material. But she didn't; she merely sat and continued to stare, never moving.

Niamh was intrigued by the fact that the woman was now only sitting there, like a statue, staring at nothing. An hour crept by unnoticed while Niamh watched and waited, expecting the woman to begin her trek again any minute. But she didn't.

Curiosity eventually got the best of her. Niamh came up with a plan, not a very good plan, but a plan nonetheless.

Putting up the "out to lunch" sign, Niamh walked two stores over to the deli, glancing at the woman's back as she passed behind her.

"Hi, Niamh!" Steve greeted her jovially from behind the high counter display case as she came inside.

"Hi, Steve. How's Taylor? I haven't talked to her since last week." Steve, Taylor, and Niamh had all gone to high school together. Steve and Taylor got married right after graduation, staying in town so Steve could take over his father's deli.

"Taylor's good. She was hoping you would come by and visit. She feels cooped up in that house with simply the baby for conversation."

"Actually, I was planning on stopping by tomorrow. I made some extra pies on Sunday and thought I'd drop one off for you guys."

"Oh, man, tell me one of them was strawberry rhubarb."

"I think I might have seen one of those kicking around. How about I box it up and drop it off?"

"You know I could never pass on one of your pies, Niamh. Thanks."

"Sure, no problem. I haven't seen the little pipsqueak for a whole two weeks. I bet he's already grown some."

"Yeah, he's a regular weed," he said, reflecting on how much his little boy had changed in such a short time. Customers coming in for lunch forced him back to work. "So what can I get you today?"

"Can I get a large Italian hero and two cans of Pepsi?" Niamh requested.

Once the hero and drink were in her hands, Niamh called out to Steve, "Thanks for the lunch big guy."

The bell jingled as the deli door pulled shut behind her. Niamh found the woman who so intrigued her sitting where she had left her. Outside, in the sunshine, Niahm gazed at the blonde woman. Her back was to Niamh, so Niahm couldn't get a very good view of her. Blonde hair was accented with dark highlights, illuminated by the bright yellow rays pouring over her head through the leaves of the tree she sat under. The woman did seem in good need of a haircut, as it appeared that whatever style there had been grew out some time ago. What was left was now uneven in places, coming down to the back of her neck, as well as past her eyes. Niamh had noticed the woman tended to run her hands through it to get it out of her face.

After standing behind her for a moment, Niamh gathered up her courage, stepping up along side the bench she cleared her throat with a tiny cough hoping to get the woman's attention. When that failed she tried a more direct manner, "Hi, is this seat taken?"

Waiting for a response, Niamh was a little surprised that none was forthcoming, but she sat down anyway. She placed the sandwich on the bench between them. Niamh sat sideways slightly facing the blonde and began eating her lunch. The woman's focus stayed where it was, staring across the street as though unaware of Niamh's presence.

This finally afforded Niamh an unobstructed view of the woman's profile. She had angular features, high cheekbones with a long sharp jaw line and straight nose, her face showing a healthy tan from her hours outside. Niamh was impressed with her beauty. It reminded her of a movie she saw once with Audrey Hepburn, "Sabrina", right before Hepburn's character goes off to Paris; a hidden beauty under a cover of simplicity.

Munching on half the sandwich Niamh tried to get a surreptitious look at the women's eyes. From what she could see they were a deep cerulean blue. Though at first glance they appeared to stare ahead blankly, Niamh noticed that in fact they were constantly moving, in almost all directions at once. Niamh thought it was as if the woman was trying to take in everything in front of her at once. Niamh also discerned a slight tremor in the hand holding the closed book. The blonde's leg had a slight jiggle to it, in a rhythm of some imagined beat. It seemed to Niamh as if it was taking all of the woman's concentration to just sit for this little bit of time. But Niamh sensed her focus was waning. It was likened to seeing a caged animal pace in hopes that, if it paced hard enough, the cage would suddenly disappear. The similarity saddened Niamh greatly.

Taking a deep breath for courage, Niamh asked, "Excuse me?"

The woman turned to Niamh as if she hadn't realized someone had been sitting there. Niamh could see her jaw muscles clench and thought she saw a flash of fear in the blonde's eyes. Niamh waited a moment for a response. Except for the tightening of the jaw muscles, there was none. The woman quickly turned back around, but before she did Niamh saw a sign of pleading pass over the woman's eyes. It was so quick Niamh almost missed it. The blue eyes held an expression of a man adrift thinking he sees some far off ship, hoping it would notice him in the vastness of the ocean. It quickly passed and was replaced again with fear.

Because of that Niamh tried to keep her own initial reaction to being ignored under control. Niamh was known for her quick temper though it usually appeared fast, and disappeared nearly as quickly.

"I was hoping you could help me. I know this will sound stupid, but I seem to have been less hungry than I thought I was and can't finish this," Niamh offered gently, pointing to the remaining half of her sub. "Well, I hate to think of wasting food, so I was hoping I could talk you into finishing it for me. Pulling out the extra can of soda, Niamh continued, "I'll even throw in a soda to sweeten the deal."

The woman turned silently towards Niamh. Now Niamh was almost certain her first thought was right. This woman looked scared. Whether scared of Niamh, something, or someone else, Niamh had no way of knowing. Before she could venture a guess the woman shifted in her seat, shyly turned her face down, and then resumed her watchful gaze.

"Please," Niamh pleaded, "it would make me feel better than throwing it away." Pointing to her store, Niamh said, "I work over there and I promise I'm not some kind of weird serial poisoner roaming the streets trying to kill people with sandwiches."

The woman appeared to give a diminutive smile, the corners of her mouth twitching slightly, but she refused to make eye contact. Niamh waited several moments, hoping for an answer. Finally, when none came, she stood up, leaving the soda and sandwich on the bench.

"Well, if you want it, it's right here. I hope you enjoy it." Niamh surrendered as she stood and left to return to the shop.

As she marched back to the storefront, she couldn't help but feel a little disappointed that she had gotten nowhere with the woman. The door jingled as it slammed shut behind Niamh. Curiosity beckoned her attention through the window, out into the busy street, and she finally gave in.

The stranger sat, staring ahead, but once in a while she would turn and look at the meal. Niamh observed for nearly ten minutes when, finally, the woman turned and picked up the hero, eating it faster than Niamh had ever seen someone eat before, as the woman ravaged her lunch in three large bites. Upon finishing the sandwich and soda, the blonde stood and began her walk again, opening her book.

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

For the next two days Niamh looked for the woman on the bench again. She was not disappointed as every day the blonde continued her pacing.

Niamh had taken up the habit of buying an extra hero and soda, leaving them on the bench when she finished her lunch. As the blonde passed the bench she would stop, look at the food for a minute or two, tuck her book under her arm, and greedily accept the meal, walking as she ate.

"You still feeding the stray?" Melissa asked, looking over Niamh's shoulder and out the front window of the bookstore. "You know, because you feed them doesn't mean you can keep them. I'm not taking care of it if you bring it home, and I bet she sheds." Feeling frustrated at Niamh's lack of response, Melissa ran her fingers through her own thick mane of blonde curls.

"Have you seen how fast she eats those sandwiches?" Niamh finally asked, her attention still preoccupied by the woman. "I wonder if she even eats anything else. She looks like a rail. I'd swear she lost fifteen pounds since she showed up here."

"Yeah, well, she is getting a lot of exercise doing all that walking."

"I suppose," Niamh said distractedly.

"So are you going to stand here all day, or help me empty the new shipment of books?"

"No, I'm coming. Did we get the delivery from Bold Strokes Books?"

"Yeah, they came in, including the new book by Ali Vali."

"Good, Rita was asking for it." Melissa's demeanor perked up at the mention of Rita's name.

Melissa had worked for Niamh since she opened the store six years ago. She was a local woman who lived with her girlfriend, Rita, in Jamesport. Melissa met Rita soon after she started working at the bookstore. Rita's father managed one of the local wineries, a pastime that brought the two together. Melissa had taken a tour of the winery conducted by Rita. Melissa flirted heavily throughout the tour while amply sampling the local wine. At the end of the day, Rita, who was all of five foot one inch, loaded the nearly six foot Melissa into her car for a ride home. Barely sober enough to recite her address, Melissa walked herself into the house with Rita's aid. When she woke up the next morning, coffee was brewing and a note on the carafe gave Rita's phone number.

The Wordsmith was the largest bookstore on the Northfork proper. There was a Borders in Riverhead, off the Long Island Expressway, but it was too far to travel for people on the Northfork. The Wordsmith boasted a large selection of books, including a fiction and non-fiction section, religion, history, travel, children's books, and a gay and lesbian section. There were several chairs amongst the stacks for reading. Niamh made a deal with the coffeehouse next-door to cut a takeout window in the wall between the two stores. Together the stores accommodated every type of customer, from those interested in sipping on a mocha latte while reading the latest arrival, to the customer briefly stopping by between errands.

The Northfork had a large lesbian community. Greenport was to lesbians what Fire Island was to gay men, only without so much flash and drinking. Greenport was low key, typical of the Northfork area itself.

The hustling crowds dwindled yet again; the afternoon rush began to die down. It gave Niamh the opportunity to divert her attention back to what it hunted most: the mystery woman. While she didn't know why she was so interested in her, something pulled at Niamh's heartstrings. Maybe it was the lost look in her countenance, or the sense of loneliness that bled from her. The haziness covering the woman's eyes afflicted Niamh's thoughts. The next few hours brought customers into the store, keeping Niamh and Melissa busy through the late afternoon. Still, during all this activity, Niamh would stop every once in a while to peek out the front window. Niamh kept telling herself she was simply appreciating the view of the town outside along with the great weather, but if she really admitted it to herself, she would know her frequent glances sought the blonde stranger.

At six PM, Niamh found Melissa at the register ringing up a sale for a customer. "Hey, Melissa, I'm going to get going for the night. Stan is in the back helping a customer, so you two should be okay to close."

"Okay, Niamh. Have a good evening."

Niamh went down the alleyway behind the store to retrieve her car. As she approached the Volvo P1800 classic, she noticed a piece of paper sticking out from under the windshield wiper. Niamh pulled out the folded piece of paper and haphazardly scanned it, thinking it was an advertisement for something or other. Unfolding the paper, she read it. It contained one word: HI! The writing was obviously shaky, based on the skewed lines of the letters. Quite frankly, it looked like it was written in the unsure hand of a child. Niamh smiled, thinking it must be from one of the children who frequented the store, and placed it in her attaché case.

From the shadows, eyes watched Niamh with overwhelming fascination. Unblinking, the owner yearned to reach out and take what they wanted, but knew that it wasn't possible. At least not yet.

Chapter Two

Tuesday evening Niamh found the same note on her car. She began thinking that maybe it wasn't one of the children. Niamh couldn't imagine one of them focusing so long on one subject. But the notes were all in the same simple handwriting. They had Niamh's mind churning for answers. If it wasn't a child, then who could it be? The notes seemed harmless, so Niamh decided to simply accept them in the friendly manner she felt they seemed to be given in.

Niamh decided to concentrate on the other new mystery in her life, the tall eccentric woman. Every time Niamh watched her eat the sandwiches and other items she left Niamh felt a sense of warmth that appeared to settle on her soul. As she pondered the sensation she put her hand over her heart as if she only now noticed it beating.

Niamh began to think the woman and the notes could be connected. However, once she gave it serious thought her doubt grew. Niamh couldn't see someone who read so much and seemed in all other ways "normal", leaving such bizarre notes. The childlike scrawl simply didn't fit the image Niamh had in her head.

As Wednesday came it began raining at first light and continued on into the afternoon. However, it seemed as if the blonde didn't even notice the change in weather. She continued her trek while raindrops soaked not only her but the pages of her book as well. The woman struggled to turn the saturated pages without ripping them. She stopped right down from The Wordsmith, carefully peeled the page back, and then continued walking until she had to flip the page again. Unable to stand watching anymore, Niamh grabbed an item from under the register counter and left her post. She nervously advanced toward the woman, blocking her way before the blonde had a chance to pass.

"Hi," Niamh greeted, hoping for an answer, but not surprised when none came. The woman didn't look up from her book, but made no move to get around her either. The woman stood, trembling. Niamh wasn't sure if it was from the cold, or something else.

"Remember me?' Again left with no response Niamh went on. "I was wondering if you'd like to come in and warm up for a bit. You look pretty wet. I could get you some hot coffee, of chocolate if you prefer," Niamh continued, hoping she didn't sound as eager as she thought she did.

The woman glanced sideways toward the store, then her eyes returned to look down at her feet; still she said nothing. Niamh waited a moment.

"Well, if I can't convince you to step in out of the rain, then at least take this," she said shortly. Niamh thrust an umbrella at the woman, having lost her patience with the woman's stubbornness. "Don't worry about giving it back. I pulled it from the lost and found," Niamh said, this time with a little more gentleness realizing her tone had possibly gone to far as the stranger took a step back.

Without looking up, the woman tentatively reached out and took the umbrella from Niamh's hand. Briefly their fingers touched. Niamh felt coldness in the tips of the woman's fingers; however, she also sensed warmness where they lingered…as if the woman's hand was trying to gather warmth from hers. Quickly the woman drew her hand back as if shocked, clutching the umbrella to her chest.

Getting over the initial surprise of the feeling, Niamh told the woman, "Please, try and get dry." With that she stepped out of the woman's way.

The woman stood a moment, and then walked away.

Niamh watched for her the next time she walked by. Niamh was relived to see her carrying the open umbrella, as well as her book.

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

As the week passed the storeowner often wondered where the woman went once it got dark. The eccentric woman had been out front for three days now for lunch with Niamh. There were no real streetlights to speak of on the Northfork, with only the occasional glow from homes and stores to illuminate the road as cars drove along Main Road; it was certainly not enough to read by. On the two nights she worked past dark, Niamh noticed that the woman vanished once daylight crept beyond the horizon and dusk gave up is struggle to the night. It was as if the blonde was some ethereal being fading into the shadows of darkness, unable to be seen without the radiance of sunlight. Niamh hoped that at night the woman found some rest, some respite from whatever it was she was going to, or from. Niamh was certain she looked like someone desperate to get somewhere but hopelessly lost.

Friday evening arrived quickly, and Niamh began packing up her paperwork, ready to call it a night. The paper work and bookkeeping felt like an endless quagmire this time around. Clearing the last vestiges of paper off her desk she walked out of her office and into the front of the store. The place was fairly crowded, as it usually was on Friday and Saturday nights.

Off to the left of the register was an open space free of bookshelves and books. Niamh had the area set up to host live entertainment on the weekends. Oftentimes it was a local musician playing acoustic music, providing a soothing backdrop to the coffeehouse setting. On other occasions someone would perform readings. This was popular with many different groups, depending on the type of reading being done that night. The college and high school kids especially liked when she had the classics, because they looked forward to getting out of reading books for class. Most of the older folks liked the poetry and popular fiction and non-fiction titles. Meanwhile, the computer types geared toward sci-fi. Sometimes she would have specialty readings, such as Edwardian Poets Day, or C. S. Lewis Day for the kids. Last summer they had Harry Potter Day and it was a huge hit with all age groups. For each event the staff would dress in costumes befitting the reading. On Harry Potter Day all the customers came dressed as their favorite character.

Tonight, though, was a music night and Naomi, a flutist who majored in music up at Stonybrook University, was playing classical pieces. Her nimble fingers ran up and down the keys in a flurry, but sending a soft melody into the audience. Naomi was known for taking requests, and her charming personality came out in her music, serious one moment, but then fun and silly at the slightest whim. Wearing her mood in her music when she played, the music fit whatever her temperament, from sultry Latin music to the abandoned freedom of Zydego and into the deep thought of a Concerto.

Today Niamh sensed a carefree attitude from the young woman. Her long black hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail with a thin leather tie. A blue, silk camisole shirt matched her eyes, along with a pair of black jeans and black cowboy boots. Niamh waved at Naomi as she approached the counter. Naomi winked at her and nodded her flute in recognition of the gesture, but continued to play.

"Hi, Stan," Niamh said, noting the growing crowd. "How are things going up here tonight?"

"Pretty busy, actually," Stan replied between customers. "Melissa is helping one of the high school kids find a copy of Poe's short stories for his term paper. Nothing like leaving it until the last minute, man." Stan noted. "Melissa said we might have some critique books that might help him. Is it okay to lend that one out to him? Melissa asked me what you might think. It's for Brendon Johnsenberg. Is that alright?"

"Sure, if he basically needs the critique for the paper we can lend it to him. He will have to buy the short stories and put a deposit down on the borrowed book, though," Niamh responded. "Everyone should own a Poe," Niamh said with a slight smile. Stan laughed in agreement. Brendon Johnsenberg came from an old resident family that could claim a history in the area. Niamh liked the young man who seemed eager to do well and make a good impression with Niamh. However, on more than one occasion she had to remind him of his age. Brendon had made several not so subtle passes at her. After each rebuff his attitude would be cold towards her for a while. Lately he seemed to come on even stronger than the last. Niamh felt he was feeling less inclined to accept her rebuffs. However, she had known the boy since he was in grade school and thus more willing to let it pass. If it got harder to handle she would have a talk with his father. She knew Kenny to be a fair man when it came to his children.

For a moment Niamh wondered at the possible relation between the notes on her car and the timing of her last turn down of Brendon. On the latest incident this past Saturday night he had cornered her in the back hallway by her office. He had grabbed her by the wrist, not tightly, but with enough force to get her attention. Leaning down close to her ear in a gentle whisper he said, "I won't wait forever you know. Eventually, you'll come to your senses Niamh." He brought her hand to his lips and placed a gentle kiss upon her knuckles.

It took Niamh a moment to gather her wits enough to react. Pulling her hand free she pushed against his chest to gain some room. "Brendon, I've told you on numerous occasions that the answer is no and will remain no. I'm asking you to please move on to some one more receptive to your charm. It's not working here and you continue to waste your time and mine. Keep it up and I'll be forced to talk to your parents about this."

"You think they can stop me from what I want," he laughed. "I'll back off for know because you asked and it looks like you need space to think. But don't think I forget that easily.

Since then Niamh hadn't heard from him or had direct contact with Brendon. When he came into the store she usually found something to keep her occupied in a separate area or in her office. Niamh figured with time he would come to realize the error in his thinking and find some nice girl his own age to date.

Unlike Brendon, Stan was one of her key workers. He was an indispensable part to her operations, a close second to Melissa. He was one of the local college kids. Stan had been working for Niamh since his senior year in high school. He worked most nights so Niamh let him study behind the counter when it was slow. That way he could work more nights, which was good for Niamh. She liked having a male presence around to help close up the store and walk with the rest of the staff to their cars. Being twenty years old, 6' 4" tall, and revealing a solid build beneath form-fitting t-shirts, if you met up with him in a dark alley, his dark skin and black eyes would probably make you scream like a girl. However, once you looked into the gentle soul behind those eyes, you knew a big softy resided within.

Stan lived over at the River Pointe apartment complex in Riverhead Town. It was a predominantly African-American complex. For the most part it was free of serious troubles, but it was low income.

Proving to be a responsible, hard worker, Niamh supported him by helping with his schoolwork when she could. She had done it since first hiring him three years ago when Stan came into the store seeking an after school job. Talking to him Niamh discovered Stan wanted to go to college to study English. Niamh realized Stan's love for the written word and hired him with the understanding that he would maintain his grade point average and apply to college. Now Stan was finishing his sophomore year at St. Joseph's on a partial scholarship. Niamh was proud, extremely proud of him.

"Who's working with you tonight, Stan?"

"Melissa is working until six-thirty; Laura and Denise are working till closing," Stan answered.

"Okay, I'm going to be heading out now myself. I'll just say bye to Melissa." Glancing around Niamh asked, "Is she still in the Classics section?" Since Stan could see over the lower stacks and she couldn't Niamh had to rely on his eyes.

Stan looked around The Wordsmith and eagerly pointed over to the non-fiction section where the new books were. "There she is!" he exclaimed.

"I'll see you later," she said, pushing through a small throng that clung near the register. "Hey, why don't you get Laura up here to help you out for awhile?"

"Sounds like a plan, thanks. I'll see you on Monday."

"Oh, by the way, when do you hear about your final grades?" Niamh asked turning back around.

"Should be Thursday at the latest; I'm worried about the math, though," he said with concern in his voice.

"I'm sure you did fine. Didn't Mindy tutor you?" Niamh asked, already knowing the answer.

"Yeah she did," Stan answered with a blush and small smile.

Mindy Rodgers was a beautiful dark skinned woman who stood all of 5'1" and could intimidate the bejeesus out of Stan with only a glare, since he was so smitten with her. Niamh also knew that the feelings were reciprocated. The last time she saw Mindy, she had asked Niamh what Stan's usual days off were. Apparently she planned to ask him to the movies at the Cinema this week.

"Well, then I am sure you have nothing to worry about," Niamh reassured him with a confident smile.

"Thanks, Niamh."

"You're welcome," she added with a slight wave, "I'll see you Monday."

As Niamh turned to go look for Melissa, out of the corner of her eye she saw a blonde figure walk by the front of the store. Niamh found Melissa loading a stack of biographies on the shelves. "Hi, Melissa, I came over to say good night."

"Okay, I guess I'll see you on Monday then," Melissa said as she stood up, stretching out her back at the same time.

"Oh, that's right, you're working tomorrow," Niamh stated, knowing Melissa usually did not work on Monday.

"Yeah, I'm working Saturday and Sunday this week," Melissa said, "Thanks for giving me Friday and Saturday off next week. Brian wants to go up to Connecticut Thursday night. I think we're taking the Ferry, then going up to Mystic Seaport. We'll be spending a nice romantic night staying over at a bed and breakfast up the coast."

"Sounds nice. I hope you have a good time."

"Well, if nothing else, it should be relaxing I hope," Melissa said.

"I'm sure it will be. Listen, I have a favor to ask," Niamh said, trying not to sound eager.

"Sure, what is it?"

Niamh pulled a couple of bills out of her pocketbook, "Could you use this to buy lunch for my friend out there while I'm off? I don't like the idea of her not eating for two days."

"You know, it is possible that the woman can take care of herself," Melissa commented.

"I'm not so sure about that," Niamh said. "Besides, it would make me feel better. Otherwise, I'll end up spending my time worrying about it."

"Okay, no problem. Anything in particular I should get?" Melissa asked with a knowing smirk.

"Yeah, I think she likes the roast beef and provolone, and make sure you get mayonnaise on it. Oh, and don't forget the lettuce and tomato, and put it on a roll, not bread."

"Anything else?" Melissa asked, forcing a full blown smile into submission at Niamh's obvious enthusiasm. She could laugh at how seriously Niamh took this, but didn't want to tamper her friend's eagerness. It had been some time since Melissa saw her so excited about someone. Even if it was someone she didn't even know.

"Yeah. I think on Sunday you should get her the meatloaf special that Steve makes. I'd like to know she ate a good balanced meal at least once this weekend," Niamh continued.

"Okay, Niamh. No problem, I'll take care of it for you. Don't worry about a thing; I know it's important to you." Melissa recognized the look of concern that cross over the bookseller's countenance. Niamh's compassion was evident in her actions, as it usually was.

"Okay, well I think that's everything. If I think of anything else, I'll call you," Niamh finally declared as she looked in her purse for her keys. "I'll see you Monday, have a nice night, and if you need me over the weekend I'll have my cell phone."

Leaving the store out the front door, Niamh waved at Stan and Naomi, continuing around to the parking lot. There it was, like all the others before it. Flapping in the cool breeze was a piece of paper under her windshield. She pulled it out and got in the car. Opening the paper, Niamh was surprised to find it was not the typical note. It was still in the same handwriting, but this time it was more than the usual "Hi." Much more. As she read the note her watery eyes began to blur the words:

"From childhood's hour I have not been

As others were; I have not seen

As others saw; I could not bring

My passions from a common spring.

From the same source I have not taken

My sorrow; I could not awaken

My heart to joy at the same tone;

And all I loved, I loved alone."

Overcome with a profound sense of sadness, her body trembled as she gently folded the paper. She knew that whoever wrote this felt alone in the world. The question is why is this person reaching out to me. Do I even know them? Who is it? Niamh scanned all around the parking lot; whether dreading or hoping to find the person, she wasn't sure.

Chapter Three

Niamh spent the first part of her weekend as planned. Saturday brought clear skies and warm sunshine along with the smell of hyacinth that grew all around town. Niamh got halfway through her book, taking liberal naps in the hammock every once in a while under the welcoming, late spring sun, and throwing Artemis' toys. Artemis was a mutt who had adopted Niamh about a year and a half ago. One day the dog simply showed up on her deck and sat outside her sliding glass door in the middle of winter. The dog virtually parked herself out there for two whole days, only disappearing for short periods of time. The poor thing looked completely pathetic in the freezing cold, until Niamh couldn't stand it anymore and let her in the house. After five hundred dollars in vet bills for vaccinations, blood tests, and spaying, the dog attached herself to Niamh and hadn't left her side since. On occasion Artemis was brought to the store for a day of fun as the customers fawned over her, especially the children.

All through the day Niamh's mind kept returning back to the note on her car. She, of course, recognized the portion of the poem. It was almost chilling in its coincidence, as she had been talking about the author right before she found it. The author was Edgar Allen Poe. Thinking back on it Niamh recalled Brendon getting into his car across the parking lot as she walked out of the store. Niamh had the sense of someone watching her as she walked. Glancing around she saw Brandon looking in her direction over the roof of his car. As soon as Niamh noticed him Brendon got in, pulling away from the curb quickly. At the time she thought nothing of it and pushed the incident to the back of her mind as insignificant.

The title of the poem was "Alone". Niamh again wondered about its meaning. Alone. I get the feeling that is exactly what this person thinks they are. I don't understand why, but I know this person is reaching out to me. The notes seem to be a desperate attempt for human contact. Why else would a person rely on such a tenuous touch with another person? That was what it was, right? I guess the real question should be, what do they want? Do they want someone to connect with, do they want me in particular, and more importantly, what are their intentions?

For now, Niamh was content to think that it was only one lonely soul yearning for another. She was willing to admit to herself that she occasionally got lonely. For the most part she kept her days busy with the store, her friends, and on the weekends or holidays, her family. But at night it came down to she and Artie. Most nights that was fine with Niamh. Artie was good company and Niamh tended to be solitary by nature, so it all worked out in the end. Only on occasion did she let her mind dwell on what it would be like to come home to something more, something fulfilling. On those occasions she would take Artemis on a walk along the beach at night, admiring the stars that reminded her how small life really was in the universe and how treasured it should be, therefore, no matter how her life was going, it was a treasure she held dear, along with the people in it.

After dusk started to turn the air cooler, Niamh and her furry companion moved into the house. Turning to close the sliding glass door behind her Niamh looked out into the wooded field behind the house taking a moment to admire the hues of the sky as the sun set over the tree tops. Feeling a shiver she crossed her arms hugging herself tight to ward off the sense of cold she suddenly felt. An instant of remembrance brought a deep sigh from well within her. Looking out one last time she turned and walked away.

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

"Aunt Niamh!" her nephew Jack greeted her, running up and hugging her leg.

"Hi, Jack, how's my best buddy today?" Niamh asked, bending down to give him a kiss on his auburn head.

"I'm okay, Aunt Niamh. Emma and me got to level three at swimming," Jack answered excitedly.

"That's great, Jack. I'm so proud of you." She picked up the five-year-old handful and lifted him up onto her shoulder, out of reach of Artemis' licking tongue.

"Mom and Dad took us to Friendly's to celebrate," Jack giggled as Niamh bounced him up into the air while walking into the backyard, where she unceremoniously dropped him on his back into the lawn.

Emma, Jack's twin sister, greeted Niamh with equal enthusiasm jumping up and down. "Aunt Niamh, we made it to level three!"

Jack rolled his eyes, "I already told her, Emma."

Laughing, Niamh squeezed Emma in a hug, "That's okay, Em. I'm still happy to hear it, and very proud of you both. So where are Mom and Dad?"

"Mom's out back getting our stuff ready for the beach," Emma answered. "Dad's inside working on the sandwiches."

"Is Dad coming with us?" Niamh asked.

"Yeah, he's going to let us jump out off the rubber dinghy!" Jack exclaimed, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he walked backwards in front of Niamh.

Niamh saw her sister over by the shed loading the kids' wagon with all the beach paraphernalia. Based on the large pile of plastic toys, it was going to take a little while to get it all loaded up. "Hi, Janet," Niamh greeted her older sister.

Janet was six years older than Niamh and, growing up, they were not exactly close. However, since they'd become adults, the two had fast become indispensable to each other. They became friends as well as each other's confidants.

"Hi, Niamh." Janet flashed a wide grin at her sister. "I should be ready in a bit."

"Well, how about I take the kids down now?" Niamh offered.

"Okay, I'll be down in a little while."

Turning her attention back to the little munchkins glued to her side she announced, "Alright, kids, grab your bikes; let's get going."

They arrived at the beach right down the road with the kids parking their bikes off to the side. Walking down the stairs they searched for an open spot where the kids could play freely in the limited space. Luckily it wasn't crowded today. Upon finding the perfect location, the kids tossed their towels down and bombarded themselves into the waves. Joining them Niamh splashed the kids with the warm salty bay water. The three played until Janet and David arrived. The two sisters set the kids up with their toys while David put the boat in the water. With a sigh of relaxation Janet and Niamh sat down on the beach chairs to watch the kids and David play in the water.

"Nice to see someone else keeping them entertained," Janet noted with a laugh. "So, how are things down at the store?"

"Things are going well. Now that summer is here business is picking up. The parents want books to read at the beach, plus the children have their summer reading lists. I was thinking of adding a new part-time person on the weekends. We have been getting pretty busy with the weekenders and day-trippers. How are things going here? I've already heard about the kids' big news."

"Well, the kids have been pretty good lately. I am still amazed, though, that they haven't hugged the new guinea pigs to death. Why I thought they needed a pet, I will never know. Other than that, things have been okay at work. The new partnership with Stonybrook hospital hasn't resulted in any big changes at work. I don't think it will. The expansion of the ER will really keep us working quite a bit."

After a moment of silence Janet added, "Anything new going on socially?" Janet asked, raising an eyebrow.

"No, Janet, and no I am not looking," Niamh answered.

She was tired of being cornered into defending her choices. It had been several years since Niamh had thought of dating seriously and Janet knew that. She had gone out on the occasional date, but not more than two or three times with the same woman. In all, Niamh could count the number of woman on both hands. Her heart wasn't in it. She knew it never would be and why.

Unbidden, the memories came back of that day…the police officer at her door, the feeling of fear of what she knew he had to say, and desperation that it not be true. But, it was true. Tina was gone. In a split second a reckless driver had smashed into her car on the Expressway and pushed Tina's vehicle until it plowed into the back of a semi-truck. At that moment she felt her own life end as well.

Tina and Niamh met in college. After being friends through freshman year, and finding they had more in common than they thought, the two began dating. The couple had been together for twelve years when it all ended in the fiery blaze. Niamh still had occasional nightmares thinking about Tina's last moments, alone in the car, and the loss of their future together. She knew deep in her heart that there would never be another able to replace Tina. They had planned to grow old together; but now, over the last three years, Niamh resigned herself to simply growing old. She was content to be satisfied with work and her family. Niamh was intent on being the best aunt and sister she could be. Nothing more, nothing less.

"So, has anything interesting happened to you lately, Niamh?" Janet inquired.

"Actually, I did meet someone interesting the other day, outside the store. She was very fascinating," Niamh explained with a touch of excitement in her voice.

"Oh, really?" Janet sat up, leaning forward in order to catch every last detail.

"No, it was nothing like that, Janet. She was merely some woman I ran into." The bland reply was intended to deflate Janet's excitement. Though a twinge of exhilaration swept over Niamh at the thought of the mystifying woman, there truly was nothing to tell.

"Oh, okay. Is she from around here?"

"I don't know," Niamh answered, with the corner of her mouth moving downward.

"What does she do?"

"I don't know." Niamh countered, rolling her eyes at the inquisition.

"What's her name?" Though Janet's questions were typical questions one would ask, it left Niamh feeling more discouraged than ever. She knew nothing about the woman that besieged her thoughts.

"I don't know," Niamh answered, exasperated.

"Well, what did you talk about?" Janet asked, frustration mounting.

"Nothing, really. I went to the deli, bought her lunch, then sat on a bench with her," she explained, hoping it would satisfy Janet's curiosity.

"So, then, what did she say to you while you were there?" The dissatisfaction at Niamh's ambiguity rose to the forefront as Janet threw her hands up.

"Nothing! She didn't say anything; she simply sat there." Niamh answered tersely with a grimace, trying to hide her realization of the ridiculousness of her answers.

Janet grinned. "So, let me see if I have this right; you met a woman on the street. You don't know who she is, where she is from, what she does, and you have never talked to her, but you bought her lunch. Is that right?"

"Yes, and I did talk to her, Ms. Smartypants. Only she didn't talk back," Niamh retorted with a smirk.

"Was she at least cute?" Janet asked, hoping for at least one answer other than I don't know.

"Gorgeous," Niamh answered absently, with a thoughtful look in her eye.

"Good, I'm glad," Janet told her sincerely, leaning back in her chair again.

"She has been hanging around town for a while. I started to give her something to eat everyday. I was a little worried about her. God, Janet, if you could see her-she looks so lost sometimes. I want to do nothing but go up to her and give her a hug, and tell her that everything is going to be okay. I don't know what else to do for her, so I figured the least I can do is make sure she is fed." Picturing the woman sitting on the bench brought heaviness on Niamh's heart. The one day Niamh had forgotten to supply it the woman actually stopped and looked in the window for a moment or two, several times. If only Niamh could find out her story, she simply wanted to know who she was, and why she wandered so aimlessly.

Niamh spent the rest of the day enjoying the weather and the company. She enjoyed playing with the kids at the beach and later they had a good water fight with the hose in the backyard. David grilled steaks for dinner while Janet made the vegetables and salad with her selection of purchases from Schmidt's Farmstand.

Once dinner was over, and everything cleaned up, Janet and Niamh sat down at the picnic table to talk.

"Janet?"

"Yeah," Janet responded.

"I wanted to get your opinion on something. I found this on my car the other day." Niamh pulled the folded note out of her purse. "What do you think about this?"

Janet clasped the paper Niamh handed her and unfolded it. She read it several times before looking up at Niamh with a questioning look. "Do you know who left it?"

"I have no idea. I've been getting notes on my car for about a week now, but this is the first one that said anything other than 'Hi', or 'Thank You.' She continued after a moment. "I found this one and I do not know what to make of it. The writer sounds so lonely; so desperately sad for something."

"Yeah, I kind of got that feeling too," Janet agreed. "I definitely feel the loneliness. But why send it to you? Do you have any idea who it might be?"

"No, at first I thought it was one of the kids in town, but now I don't think so. I think it is an adult. However, I can't imagine who, or more importantly, why. I wish I knew. I want to help them somehow; give them the contact it sounds like they crave," Niamh said thoughtfully, feeling a strange connection to the unknown writer. Somehow she got the feeling that the person had picked Poe for a reason. As if they'd identified with the man whose life was so tragic. Poe had lost the love of his life and with it, some felt, the will to live. He did not commit suicide, but he no longer lived life with any sense of happiness; at least not in his writing.

"Well, I don't know what to make of it, but be careful, Niamh. You don't know anything about this person. I've seen too much in the ER not to be a little worried about this," Janet said, hoping Niamh would listen.

"I know, Janet. Don't worry. I think this person merely wants someone to talk to," Niamh reassured.

At ten o'clock Niamh pulled into her driveway with Artemis asleep in the passenger seat. As she walked up the steps to the front door, she noticed a note hanging on the door. With a slight feeling of anxiety, she reached for it. It was stuck to the glass of the door with a large piece of tape, as if the person who placed it there was worried it would be lost. Niamh pulled the note off and stepped into the house with Artemis running past her legs to get in. Putting her purse down, she looked at the note and read it:

"Lying, thinking

Last night

How to find my soul a home

Where water is not thirsty

And bread loaf is not stone

I came up with one thing

And I don't believe I'm wrong

That nobody,

But nobody

Can make it out here alone.

Without YOU."

Again, she recognized the words. It was from another poem entitled "Alone," this one by Edna St. Vincent Millay. However, the last two words were not part of the original poem. The mystery writer had added that. Now Niamh was worried, as the person now appeared to see her as some form of salvation. The focus seemed to rest truly on her now.

Trying to regain her senses Niamh went into the kitchen to start the electric kettle for tea. Niamh re-read the note, searching for some clue as to its meaning. What does he mean, Without YOU? He doesn't even know me, at least not that I know of. Maybe he thinks I'm somehow his answer; that I'm the home he is looking for. Maybe Janet is right; maybe I should be worried about this. I mean, God, he left this at my home. He knows where I live. Did he know I wouldn't be home tonight, or did he expect me to be here?

Niamh jumped with a start when the timer on the kettle went off. "I think we need to do something about this Artie." She said looking down at her pet. Niamh made her tea, still feeling nervous about the note. Deciding to go to bed, she figured she'd worry about it tomorrow in the light of day. Unlike previous nights when she'd jump right into bed, tonight she went around the house and made sure the house was locked up, going so far as to check the windows, which were never locked. This required some effort on her part, as some of the locks had been painted over. Once she was sure that all was secure, she went upstairs to bed with Artemis tagging along behind.

Chapter Four

Monday morning found Niamh opening the shop at nine o'clock as usual, with her battered briefcase in one hand, along with a cup of coffee from Steve's. She didn't mind opening the store alone most mornings as that was normally the slowest time of the day. It gave her time to think over things that needed to get done and catch up on paperwork. When Niamh unlocked and opened the glass and mahogany door, a small piece of paper fell out from the door jamb. Niamh wasn't really surprised by the paper itself. Over the last week she had come to expect them, but that it was left in the store was something new. Curious about the change in routine, Niamh stepped into the store and put her stuff down. Walking back to the door, she picked the note up off the floor opening it apprehensively. It said:

"A place in thy memory, dearest,

Is all that I claim;

To pause and look back when thou hearest

The sound of my name".

Niamh didn't recognize the poem this time. Maybe it was something the mystery note leaver wrote himself. "No I don't think so," she said to the empty room.

No matter what the answer was, the note dismayed her. For someone to feel so insignificant in life that their greatest hope is that someone would at least remember they existed was heartbreaking to Niamh.

She put the note in the pocket of her black slacks where Niamh knew she could feel it every time her hand reached in. Though it wouldn't help the writer, it promised to bring a sense of connection to Niamh.

As she leaned with her back on the waist-high, cherry wood counter drinking her coffee, the bell on the door rang, signaling a customer. Niamh looked up and stopped, her cup halfway to her mouth, which was now hanging open. Standing inside the doorway was the blonde stranger. Niamh was stunned.

Wearing dark blue jeans, a faded red polo shirt, and sneakers the blonde looked very neat, except she still needed that haircut. Her hair was shaggy, hanging down around the bottom of her ears and the back of her neck while the bangs tended to fall over her eyes. It was not unappealing, but gave her a waif-like appearance. The woman stood very still for a moment, scrutinizing the wooden floor of the store. The light wood stain and polished finish appeared to reflect the light from the window over her.

As if preparing for battle, the blonde squared her shoulders, resolutely walked in, and went over to the far wall. Never once looking at her surroundings, the woman began studying the titles on the wall-high, cherry wood stacks lining the outer walls of the store. The central area of the store was made up of aisles with lower shelves about five feet high. This allowed customers to roam around freely feeling an open space. The woman was in the literature section. She perused each book, going left to right on the shelf, then moving down to the next shelf. When she got to the bottom of the shelves, the blonde moved onto the next set. The stranger never looked around the store; she never even looked away from the books. It was if the world outside the bound covers didn't exist.

Niamh stood and watched for several minutes as the woman performed her browsing ritual. She could see the woman's brow furrowed in concentration. Her hands clenched and unclenched in the pockets of her pants ostensibly showing the determination she was putting into being inside. Niamh's admiration for the woman grew a little at that realization.

Niamh got the sense that the woman did not want to make any conversation, so she left her alone. Instead Niamh went to go pull down books that customers called in, or special ordered. She would label them and leave them behind the counter on the set of shelves for people to stop in and pick up later.

Niamh had been working for well over two hours when she went into the pet section to pull out a training book for Mary Johnson, who had gotten a new dog she had picked out at the pound last week. Coming around the corner of the stacks that made up the inner part of the store, she saw her stranger crouched down on the floor reading the titles on the bottom shelf. Niamh stood watching her for a moment, noticing how intensely she studied the books. The store was lit by a series of low overhanging lights in tiffany style shades, which let off bright natural lighting, so her focus wasn't from any need to see better.

The woman stood up, moving on to the next shelf. Niamh noticed she had a pen in between her fingers, tapping it against her jean-clad leg in a rapid beat. Her hands had long, tapered fingers. They were what Niamh's grandmother would have called pianist fingers. The woman had several small books under one arm and two larger books on the floor at her feet. The woman was fixedly studying the back of a book Niamh recognized as being about caring for a cat. Should I, or shouldn't I? Niamh considered. Well, it's always said, nothing lost, nothing gained. After a moment's hesitation, Niamh decided to risk it all

"Hi, I'm Niamh Fitzpatrick. Can I help you find something?" She asked as she stepped behind the woman.

The blonde jumped, throwing the pen behind her and over at least two rows of stacks behind them. Niamh and the woman both watched as the pen took off over the stacks, listening to it hit the wooden floor several rows over. Niamh slowly turned her head watching the blondes profile hoping to see her reaction. Suddenly, the taller woman turned as well. For what seemed a long moment, they stared into each other's eyes. Niamh looked deep into the bluest eyes she had ever seen and felt herself falling into them. However, what she found in those eyes was confusing. There was warmth and depth, but there was also an unmistakable fear. So fast that Niamh wasn't sure she'd really seen it, the emotions were gone. It was as if a wall had appeared between them, hiding what she had seen. What Shakespeare called a soul bruised with adversity, that's what I see before me, she thought. The women looked away and then back to the book in her hand, but the feelings had been there; Niamh was sure of it. She also realized that the woman was as beautiful as she first thought. Her willowy figure, high cheekbones, strong jaw, and straight nose made her a classic beauty.

"I'm sorry," Niamh quickly apologized as she reached out to touch the woman's forearm, but stopped recalling, the woman's initial reaction. "I didn't mean to startle you. I only thought that you might need help looking for something in particular." But she knew the real truth was Niamh had suddenly felt the need to reach out to this stranger. To maybe give her some connection to the present time and place.

The blonde seemed to struggle with herself emotionally. "It's okay," she said in a soft, rich voice close to a murmur. Still, the woman made no attempt to make eye contact. Instead eyes focused intently on the cover of the book she held in her left hand.

"So, do you have a cat?" Niamh asked, trying to engage the woman in some form of conversation, hoping to draw her out into the light metaphorically.

The woman's jaw clenched tightly in response and a second or two passed before the woman answered in another whispered tone "No."

"Okay, are you getting a cat?" Niamh tried again, hoping to go slowly.

"No," the blonde said as her eyes seemed to look everywhere for some way to escape the conversation, or the situation. Niamh noticed the woman's shirt had become untucked somewhere during her travels around the store, giving her a tousled look that now matched her hairstyle.

Niamh smiled, trying to reassure her, remembering how hard she had to work with Artemis when the dog showed on her doorstep. "Are you thinking of getting a cat?" She asked in a quiet, reassuring voice. "Maybe I can help you find the right book for that," her voice remaining calm and level.

"No!" The woman answered forcefully, apparently feeling more than a little irritated by Niamh's questions. The woman appeared not to understand why this person was talking to her. From what Niamh could see it was as if the blonde was suddenly feeling claustrophobic with this saleswoman standing here talking to her. Niamh noticed a slight tremble appearing in the woman, as if she was ready to jump out of her skin. That it used all her self control to merely keep from irrationally lashing out at this person. Her hands were clenched by her side, looking to abate the shaking she must have felt deep in the muscles of her arms based on the tension Niamh saw there.

She looked towards Niamh who stood about five feet away, at the end of the row of shelves, but it felt too close for the woman. Niahm could tell almost instinctively that the stranger needed to get away; she needed to breathe. But she knew if she left the store she would never come back.

Niamh thought the reaction was a little unfounded for the situation, as the woman hurried away leaving Niamh alone among the books. In actuality she was shocked and confused by the reaction.

Niamh went over and got the book she had originally come for and put it on the cart, pushing the wooden cart back to the front counter. She spent the next half hour labeling and marking books for a later pick-up by the customers. Niamh turned around when she heard the sound of books being placed on the counter. The blonde stranger pushed her pile towards Niamh while her eyes never left the countertop. Niamh was a bit shocked since she thought the woman had snuck out of the store some time ago.

Examining every inch of the woman curiously, Niamh noticed she had tucked her shirt in and seemed to have tried combing her hair a little. She no longer looked as desperate as she did before. Taking another risk Niamh spoke up, "I'm glad you came in today. It was nice talking to you. I hope you feel you can drop in anytime." As an afterthought she added, "You're safe in here." Niamh had no idea why she suddenly felt it important for the woman to want that, but her own heart wanted it.

Niamh took the pile of books and counted seven in the pile. Knowing her chances of a response were slim to none, Niamh decided talk, even if only to herself. "So, did you find everything you wanted?" she asked as she began ringing up the first book. Niamh noted it was the book on cat care. Looking at the other titles she noted, "You have quite a selection here." The books covered a wide range of unconnected topics. They were books on animals of the arctic, poetry for reading aloud, Tao meditation, a biography on Eleanor Roosevelt, and a fantasy novel. She saw no rhyme or reason to her selections. It's almost like she simply picked stuff off the shelf and didn't care what it was.

"Well, these should keep you busy for a while," she absentmindedly commented to the woman, who suddenly looked up and out the front window. Her face was guilt-stricken or embarrassed, Niamh couldn't tell which, as her face flushed. Niamh knew the woman must have realized she had seen her on her daily walks since she had been leaving her food each day. Not knowing why she wanted to so badly, she attempted to put the woman's mind at ease. "It's nice to see someone enjoy books so much. I know I get lost in my own world oftentimes when I read. Hours could pass before I'd notice. That will be one hundred and two dollars and eighty-five cents," Niamh calculated.

The woman reached in her pocket and pulled out a crumpled ball of bills. Going through the money, she gave Niamh five wrinkled twenties and a balled up five dollar bill. Not wanting to embarrass the woman any further, Niamh didn't straighten out the money and merely gave the blonde her change. "I hope you enjoy them. Come back again anytime; it's usually nice and quiet in the mornings." Niamh said, hoping to reassure the woman and draw her back.

In a voice so low and small, Niamh almost didn't hear it; the blond looked Niamh in the eyes and said, "Samantha, my name is Samantha." She then turned, walking out of the store with her bundle.

Niamh felt as if she had been bestowed a wonderful gift, one which she knew she would treasure. She had been given a brief glimpse into the woman's world, a world of a gentle, but tumultuous nature. She is eccentric, I will give her that, but those eyes tell me that she has a gentle soul. A soul that, though troubled, Niamh felt was worth getting closer to. She believed the woman was more afraid of people than she was a threat to them. Letting out a sigh Niamh turned back to her work.

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

That afternoon Melissa came into the store to start her shift. She found Niamh standing behind the counter staring at the pile of books on it. "Hi, Niamh. How was your weekend?"

Niamh jumped. "Oh, Melissa! Do not sneak up on me like that!" Niamh exclaimed as she clutched her hand to her chest.

"Sneak? How did I sneak? There's a bell on the door for crying out loud!" Melissa stated in her own defense, letting out a slight laugh at the woman's reaction.

"Yeah, well, just don't do it again."

Melissa came around the counter to put her purse away. "So what are you doing?"

"I'm getting an order together that a customer called in for yesterday. Why? What does it look like I am doing?" Niamh suddenly felt uncomfortable with Melissa here watching her. It felt different from when Samantha had been in the store. She no longer got the sense of comfort she had knowing the woman was in the store somewhere. It is as if the peacefulness has been broken. When Samantha was here, it felt safe somehow.

"I don't know, but it looked like you were a million miles away while you were working on it."

"No, only thinking," Niamh said. She wasn't sure why, but she didn't want to share her news about Samantha with Melissa. It seemed too private to disclose to her friend. She sensed Samantha was keeping herself apart from the world and that she had a reason for doing it. She was determined to respect that, but she was also eager to find a way to get closer to Samantha. Something about the woman made Niamh want to protect her. I've seen frightened animals who looked less scared than she did. I guess that like any stray animal I'll just have to gain her trust and go slowly. I miss her already. She brought warmth to the store, and to me.

Chapter Five

At dusk Niamh sat on the last step of her deck tossing the ball for Artemis to chase. She sat with her legs stretched comfortably out in front of her, ankles crossed. She had changed from her slightly dressy work slacks and shirt, in favor of wearing her favorite faded jeans, along with her favorite plaid shirt. The jeans were the most comfortable ones she owned. She'd gotten them years ago from the local thrift shop and now they were worn in all the right places. The shirt reminded her of camping with Tina. Every summer they would go up to Vermont for a week of camping at Diamond Lake State Park. Since then as soon as the weather started turning warm she would pull out one of her plaid shirts. While summer was on the horizon, the nights were still a little chilly, but exercising Artemis was good for keeping warm.

The dog came back to her and dropped the tennis ball at Niamh's feet. Mindlessly, she picked up the ball, throwing it into the woods behind her house, letting it get lost among the scrub pine and oak trees for Artemis to find. Although she usually enjoyed her time with the dog, either playing or walking in the woods, her mind was elsewhere tonight. She was thinking about Samantha, the strange woman who had actually spoken to her today. She was still in shock that the woman had actually said something, and that it was something as personal as her name. It appeared to have taken Samantha such determination and strength to give up even that small part of herself. She admired the woman's courage and resolve. Understanding what a huge step forward this was for the woman, Niamh could only hope that it was the first of many steps.

Niamh had so many questions about Samantha. Looking down at Artemis she contemplated to the dog, "I wonder where she's from. She paid with cash, meaning she isn't a vagrant, so why does she look like she hasn't eaten a good meal in weeks? Apparently, she doesn't eat from having a lack of money, so I wonder why she doesn't. Why does she seem to survive only on the food I leave for her? I wonder where she is staying. The only place near town is the Bay Cove motel, though I suppose she could be staying outside town, or renting one of beach houses. Is she running or hiding from something, or possibly someone? What could make someone so afraid of the outside world? Looking into those eyes, she didn't seem to be the type to cause trouble. Her eyes seemed too gentle and too scared for her to be someone dangerous. The question is, what could she be so afraid of?" Lost in her thoughts, Niamh continued to sit and play with Artemis.

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

In the waning light, the stranger watched the woman and her dog playing. Studying the woman with chestnut hair, the stranger took in her appearance as she threw the ball into the trees. From this distance, the stranger couldn't see her eyes, but knew them to be a rich, chocolate color, with gold flecks showing around the edges. She was only about five feet, four inches tall. Her face was angelic, square, with high cheekbones and a wide, strong jaw. It denoted strength of character to the stranger. This was a woman who could stand up to the ravages of life. The stranger had seen her courage, had seen her stand up to the unknown without fear.

She is a woman I could be worthy of. One who would help make me into who I really am. She is perfect. A perfect soul. She is the one who could help save me from this torment that I am being forced to live in, if only I could make her see; make her see that she is the person I need. If I could only be close to her, able to touch her and make her be in my life, everything would be fine. My life could return and the darkness would be gone, the quietness would be restored.

The stranger sat and watched, making plans for the future. Plans on how to get to Niamh. It would take courage to get close to her, courage the stranger wasn't sure of having. Once we are close, how do we make this relationship work? How would Niamh react to getting to know me-the real me? Will she like me? Why would she? I'll have to prove to her that I am someone she can trust and depend on. Will she accept me? What will I do if she pushes me away? How can I make a future with Niamh Fitzpatrick? There's got to be a way. How can I make this work?

The stranger sat and observed the woman as she threw the ball; it hit a tree and rebounded, landing very near the stranger's hiding spot. Artemis came running over for it, but stopped short upon seeing the stranger. The stranger sat, not moving, in hopes that the dog would simply take the ball and leave. The dog was large, looking to be part German Shepard. Suddenly, a low growl came from the dog, which then progressed to a threatening series of barks. "Nice, doggie. Why don't you walk away and no one gets hurt," the stranger whispered, begging the dog. "I really don't want to hurt you; please, just go. I don't want to hurt anyone."

"Artemis, you'd better not be chasing those raccoons again," Niamh called out in exasperation, as she placed a hand on her hip. "Furthermore, if you do happen to catch one, you'd better not give it to me! Don't think I haven't forgotten the rabbit I found on the doorstep."

As the dog and the stranger stared at each other, the dog growled again. Then, as suddenly as the noise started, it stopped. Artemis cocked her head to the side, looking the stranger in the eye. She walked over to the stranger slowly. The stranger held out a hand for the dog to sniff, having had run-ins with dogs. Cautiously, Artemis sniffed the offered hand, then moved closer, pushing her head into the stranger's chest, knocking the stranger backwards. The person didn't move. Not wanting to risk the dog's fury, the stranger barely took a breath. Quickly the dog turned, running back to Niamh, as she continued calling her name.

What happened? Still laying on the ground shaking from the encounter, the stranger then gathered up some semblance of calm and got together the items brought for this sojourn, watching quietly as the woman and her dog moved back into the house through the sliding glass door. The stranger caught a glimpse of Niamh gently rubbing the dog on the head behind her ear as they entered.

After standing vigil for several hours, the watcher saw the lights in the house began to turn off one by one. As each light went out, the stranger felt the connection to the beautiful woman lessen, causing loneliness so powerful as to be physically painful. It went deep into the core of the stranger's soul and heart. The stranger's breathing became shallow, hoping to relieve the pain, but the pain remained.

The stranger could see Niamh through the glass as she locked the back door. Finally the downstairs light went off and a few minutes later the light upstairs came on. The stranger knew this to be the light in the woman's bedroom. The stranger moved out of the woods and into the shadows of the yard, watching. After twenty minutes had passed, that light went out as well.

The stranger stood in full view and looked up at the window, no longer afraid of being seen; no neighbors were close enough to see the area. What do you look like when you sleep, Niamh? Do you look as peaceful as a child? What do you dream of? Are they peaceful dreams, dreams of tranquility, love and friendship? Someday I want to know the answer to those questions and, if I have my way, it will be soon. I will have you in my life, Niamh Fitzpatrick, someday.

The individual stood outside, under the second floor window, until the darkness of night began to turn gray. Feeling closeness to the woman would somehow keep the darkness at bay. Looking up one more time the stranger saw Artemis looking out at her. The stranger stood still, breath held in suspense, waiting for the dog to give its owner a warning. But the dog simply stared out the window, watching the stranger. The two eyed each other until the stranger gave a slight nod to Artemis, turned, and left.

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

On Wednesday Niamh began opening the store as usual, her briefcase in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. As she unlocked the door, she noticed an envelope on the other side that had obviously been pushed in from underneath. Entering the store and going to the counter to put her tea down, Niamh went back to the door, picking up the manila envelope. It was a plain manila envelope with no address or return address; it looked new. Written on the front in the handwriting she had become familiar with was:

"Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth

A Youth, to Fortune and to Fame unknown;

Fair Science frown'd not on his humble birth,

And Melancholy mark'd him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere;

Heaven did a recompense as largely send:

He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,

He gain'd from Heaven, 'twas all he wish'd, a friend".

Niamh put her hand to her chest as a single tear escaped from her eye. The absolute sadness and loneliness was overwhelming, "'twas all he wish'd a friend." The poem described a life of utter loneliness and desolation. It seemed obvious to her now that the writer was seeking her out. The question was did he seek friendship or something more sinister.

The handwriting was not as shaky as it had been in the past. It was more uniform than before. This made her think the person writing the notes was probably an older person, maybe even an adult. However, based on this last letter, Niamh was inclined to believe it was a lonely teenager from the school. Her mind floated back to think of Brendon Johnsenberg. She recalled the looks he had given her that night in the parking lot. Perhaps her teenager was not so much of a teenager.

Niamh reached into the envelope to pull out the contents. A chill ran through up her spine at what was inside: a pile of photos. Not merely any pictures, but they were all taken of Niamh. Niamh with Jack and Emma at the beach. Niamh talking to Janet in their backyard. There were photos of her opening the store in the morning and playing with Artemis the other evening in the backyard. She stood frozen, clutching the snapshots, when she realized her hands were violently shaking. "Oh, my God, what is going on? This person is following me. Geez, what if it is Brendon? What am I going to do?" She said as her heart began to pound heavily in her chest.

Reflexively, Niamh moved behind the counter, placing a barrier between herself and the world. She looked out the front window of the store. Seeing no one around, she relaxed a little, taking a deep breath in the attempt. I don't remember seeing anybody weird or out of place at the beach. I'd think that on a private beach someone strange would've stood out. At home I'm surprised that with Artemis running around she didn't see anything. On the verge of a full-fledged anxiety attack, she inhaled a deep breath to try and calm herself down and think about what it all meant. Lost in thought, Niamh jumped with a gasp when the bell over the door sounded. Looking up, Niamh saw Samantha standing directly inside the entryway, wearing her jeans, sneakers, and a blue long sleeved polo shirt.

Niamh was surprised to see her. On Tuesday the woman seemed to vanish for the day. She had been nowhere in sight from the front of the stores. There was no sign of her on the streets that morning, even though the weather was warm and sunny, perfect for being outside. When lunchtime came, she never showed up to pick up her meal.

It wasn't that she was angry for wasting the food and money, but she was worried about the woman. She didn't know enough about her not to. She had no idea where she could be, no way to track her down or call her. Niamh wouldn't know if she was okay or not. Without even thinking about it, every time she was at the front desk, she looked out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Samantha.

However, her concern subsided a little since Samantha's visit to the shop; at least the woman had money with her. She also seemed to have clean clothes and somewhere to stay. Niamh surmised the last from the fact that the woman did not look as unkempt as she imagined she would if she were living on the streets.

Samantha walked further into the store and saw Niamh behind the counter holding a package, looking upset. Samantha stood rooted in her spot, struggling with what to do. Should she leave an obviously upset Niamh, stay and simply leave her alone, or try and help? As she thought it over, the more nervous and anxious Samantha became. She began shifting from foot to foot, clenching and unclenching her hands in her pockets. Finally, after deciding to leave, Samantha turned and took a step.

"Oh, hi, Samantha. I'm glad you stopped in today," Samantha stopped. Niamh hoped her voice sounded upbeat so as to keep the woman from leaving. Unsure if the façade was working or not, Samantha's response gave her some hope.

Samantha gave her usual response: none. She stared at the brunette. Niamh saw her sapphire eyes clouded with distraction. After a moment, she appeared to come to some internal decision and slowly walked over, putting her hands on the counter clenched together with the fingers interlaced. She stood up straight, not leaning against the counter, as if somehow that would protect her from the unknown. Now her eyes looked everywhere except at Niamh, she opened her mouth, as if to say something, then closed it, then opened it again. Finally, she spoke.

"Hi, uhm," Samantha said quietly, her hands clenched together so tight the knuckles turned white, "are you okay? You look upset."

"Oh," Niamh fumbled, realizing she was still holding the envelope and pictures. "No, I'm fine," she lied, and forced a smile. Quickly, she pushed the materials under the counter and into the plastic trashcan kept underneath. She began unlocking the register, prepping it for the day by making sure there were bills and change, and ensuring that it had been zeroed out the night before. Mostly it was only to give her hands and mind something to do to forget the idea of someone following her.

"So, how are you today? I noticed you weren't around yesterday," Niamh said, hoping to bring some information out of the closed woman. "I missed you," she said, knowing that on every level she meant it. She missed seeing the woman, having some connection to her.

"Uh, I slept most of the day. I think I was tired," was all the woman offered, still averting her eyes, but removing her hands from the counter and putting them in her pockets. After a few seconds, she took them back out again but kept them tight at her side.

"Oh, well you look well rested. I guess it did you some good," she added with genuine concern. That's the most I've heard her talk yet. Maybe she is becoming a little more comfortable here. Though Samantha held her hands at her sides, clenched, they were not shaking or fidgeting nearly as much as Niamh had seen in the past. Overall, she seemed tense, but more at ease, if that made any sense.

"Thank you," Samantha murmured, locking onto Niamh's rich brown eyes. What is it about this woman that makes me feel more at peace? Is it this place, with its quiet atmosphere, or her? Samantha's brows furrowed a little as she tried to find an answer.

The two stared into each other's eyes for what seemed like minutes, but was in fact only a moment. Niamh saw again the gentle soul she had seen the first time, but this time she also saw a calmness that had not been there before. Hoping that maybe the woman had come to terms with whatever was haunting her, Niamh was so happy for the woman that she smiled a broad, sincere smile. She was amazed, even further, when Samantha smiled back-a smile reaching all the way to her deep blue eyes. Then as quickly as it came, the smile retreated and the gaze broke contact.

"Well, I was just going to look around some, if that's okay with you?" Samantha said.

"Oh, sure, no problem," Niamh responded, still distracted by the intense feelings she got from the woman's eyes. The envelope and its disturbing contents easily forgotten for the moment, she watched Samantha walk away into the stacks. Niamh got back to work when the bell signaled a new arrival.

Niamh spent the rest of the morning helping some customers find specific items, ringing up their purchases, straightening books, and dusting shelves. During this time she was constantly aware of Samantha's presence in the shop, but had not seen her around. She often could not see her and did not know where or what she was doing, but Niamh sensed her. "It's like knowing there is a fire in the fireplace, warm and comforting, whether you are in the room or not," Niamh considered once she thought about it.

Around noon the store traffic slowed enough to allow Niamh time to think about lunch. Niamh went in search of Samantha, finding her in the science fiction section. She stood and watched the blonde for a few minutes as she occasionally removed a book from the shelf and put it in a new spot. Her brow was furrowed in concentration as she did her browsing. Curious about what she was up to, Niamh finally asked, "What are you doing, Samantha?"

Samantha flinched a little, but did not react as she did the first time Niamh snuck up on her. "These were out of order. I was simply fixing them. Is that okay?" She sounded unsure as she looked at Niamh, meeting her eyes again.

"Yeah, that's fine," Niamh responded, giving the woman an indulgent grin.

"Thanks, I'm almost done with this section, and I already did the fiction and history parts," she said, looking around the store, pointing to the various sections. Several of the sections took up large portions of the store's wall-high shelves. The upper shelves were only accessible by using the library ladder that ran on the railing along the top.

Niamh was surprised by the woman's industriousness, since the three sections would normally take one person most of the day to straighten out. "Well, thanks for the help. I came over to see if you wanted lunch. I was thinking of getting some pizza. You want some?"

"You don't have to do that. Thanks, though," Samantha answered.

Then, they both heard the bell over the door. They turned and watched Stan enter for his shift. Niamh turned around to ask what kind of pizza the blonde wanted when she noticed Samantha's demeanor change. She had suddenly become fidgety, clenching and unclenching her hands, trying to control the shake in them again. Niamh wondered, what has changed? One minute she is fine, the next she is back to where we started. She seemed okay when the customers were here.

"Actually, I'm not that hungry today, Niamh. I had a big breakfast. I need to get going now," she resolved as she eased towards the exit, avoiding Stan on her way out.

Stan came over to Niamh. "Wasn't that your mystery woman?"

"Samantha-her name is Samantha. She only came in to look around." She played down the significance of the event, hoping Stan would accept the brief answer. For some reason Nimah still felt the need to keep Samantha's secrets. She also wondered at the blond's unease around some people.

"Well, from what I saw, she certainly is beautiful," Stan commented.

"Yes, she is," was all she said, distracted by her sudden disappearance. But somehow Niamh, hardly knowing Samantha, knew the truth of the words applied to the inside as well as the outside.

Chapter Six

Niamh came out from around the building to open the door entering from the alleyway. She stopped short, frightened when she saw a lone figure lurking around the back entrance. The events from the previous day were still fresh in her mind.

The figure heard her approach and turned. Not knowing what to do Niamh frantically began searching for an escape. When the figure turned, she realized it was Samantha. Regaining her composure, Niamh heaved a sigh of relief and continued towards the door, pulling her keys out of her leather purse.

"Hi, Samantha. What brings you out so early today?" She asked, smiling brightly at the woman.

Today Samantha wore an unadorned pair of pressed khaki pants with a blue button-down Oxford shirt, which accented her eyes. The shirt was in need of ironing, but appeared a rather expensive brand. Niamh was struck by how out of place the shirt looked on Samantha. She imagined she must have gotten it from the thrift store in town. Her hair was disheveled, hanging over her eyes, but Niamh found the look adorable. Samantha possessed the rumpledness of a child who had been out playing. Niamh had the sudden urge to reach up and brush the blonde strands back. It was a habit she had picked up from living with Tina, whose hair habitually fell into her face. She stood transfixed for a moment, staring at Sam. The impulse to reach out and straighten the hair frightened Niamh; she hadn't felt the need to do that to anyone in the time Tina had been gone. She hardly knew this woman.

Acutely aware of Niamh's sudden change in expression, Samantha began to worry. Why did she look at me so scared? Is she frightened of me, or is there something else? The thought of her being the cause for Niamh's fear made her heart ache. "Um, I ran out of books. I thought I would come and look for some more to read. Um, I hope you don't mind me being here so early, but I didn't have anything else to do." Unsure of what to say, she feared that Niamh would send her away.

Niamh's features softened. "No, that's fine. I hope you haven't been waiting out here too long." The last thing she wanted was for Samantha to leave. After the sleepless night she had had, Samantha's company would provide a comfortable blanket of security. "I thought the ones you bought the other day would have tided you over for quite a while, though. Are you telling me you finished the ones you bought the other day?" She loved the way the woman devoured the written word.

Samantha nodded in agreement.

"I am surprised you finished them all; I can't believe you finished them that fast."

"Yeah, I'm sort of a fast reader." Embarrassment spread across her cheeks, flushing them to a soft shade of pink. Her eyes turned upwards, catching a momentary glimpse of Niamh's.

The reaction intrigued Niamh. Though she relived the moment in the bookstore when their eyes held one another's, since then she was given no liberty to gaze into the deep blueness of them for more than a second. "I hope this means I'll be seeing you around more. I want you to feel comfortable around here Samantha and I hope you can count me as a friend soon." She unlocked the doors, relieved to see that no notes or packages had been left at the door this morning. "Come on in, I'll get you some coffee."

"Actually, uh, I don't drink coffee. I prefer tea, but thanks anyway," Samantha mumbled more to the floor than to Niamh.

"Really, it's no problem. I drink it myself. Do you want regular or herbal?" She offered, bending her head to catch Sam's eyes.

"Regular, please," she answered in a quiet tone, lifting her head back up with a slight smile. "I don't drink herbal. Black teas are my favorite," she answered with a little more confidence…more confidence than she was really feeling.

Surprised that Samantha was offering up some information about herself, Niamh quickly responded, trying to keep the woman at ease, "Well, then you are in luck, my friend, because I happen to have some very nice British blends." Niamh caught herself; she used the word "friend" so easily when thinking of Samantha. Pondering this, she put water on for tea. "How about a nice Breakfast Blend?"

"That would be great. Thanks for going to the trouble."

"Like I said, it's no trouble. I was going to be making a pot for myself in a little while anyway. It's nice to have someone to share a good cup of tea with in the morning." Again she reminisced about mornings spent with Tina, overlooking the backyard from the kitchen, drinking their tea together. She didn't understand why Sam always seemed to make her think about Tina. "Anytime you want to stop in and share one, just come over and put the electric kettle on."

"Thanks." Samantha said, this time meeting Niamh's eyes.

Niamh didn't know why, but whenever their eyes met she felt an instant connection to the woman, as if looking in those blue eyes really did open a window to her soul. Niamh finished making the tea and the two women made their way over to the front counter.

Following behind, Samantha looked admiringly at Niamh in her light blue slacks and white silk short-sleeved shirt. They drank their tea in companionable silence, both enjoying the delight of their new emerging friendship. "Did you really mean it when you called me your friend, Niamh. I mean after all you hardly know me."

"Of course I meant it Samantha, for some reason I feel I can truly consider you a friend."

"Oh, okay," Samantha said in a low voice. "I guess it's not something I'm used to. I would like to be able to have a friend."

"Well you do," Niamh said, as she handed over the mug, her fingers touching Samantha's.

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

As the two walked towards the counter up front, Sam knew that somehow they had crossed a line within the last two days and reveled in what that meant. For her it meant the possibility at attaining a friendship. Friendship was something Sam was not familiar with; it had been so long since she had someone to call a friend.

"I don't mean to intrude, but can I ask what seemed to have you so scared this morning?" Samantha asked as she studied the shimmering black surface of her tea. The water rippled in its confinement, bumping against the edges of her mug. "You looked a little frightened before you recognized me."

"No, that's okay Samantha," Niamh replied.

"Actually, never mind; it's none of my business. I've gone too far. I overstepped my bounds, I'm sorry." Sam said.

Niamh paused before continuing. "No, Samantha, it's okay, really."

"Call me Sam; my friends call me Sam," she interrupted. With her, one look in those eyes and I feel like she can see into my very soul. I feel at peace here. Maybe this is where I need to be to find the quietness I need so badly

"Alright, Sam. Well, it's really nothing. I don't even know why I'm telling you this, but I've been getting some notes for the last two weeks or so. They have me a little on edge."

Sam looked at Niamh with raised eyebrows. "Why? Are they threatening?" She asked, curiously feeling defensive for her.

"No, not threatening per se; they are just a little disturbing. They started out friendly. At first I thought it was just one of the local kids. The notes were simple 'Hi's' and 'Thank You's.'"

"So what happened to change your mind about them?" Something's bothering her. I saw it in her face when she first saw me this morning.

"Well, only, they've taken on a darker tone lately," Niamh replied with a frown, her eyebrows furrowed, staring into the bottom of her cup.

"How are they darker? Are they talking about hurting anyone…you?" Sam's concerned tone pulled Niamh away from the bottom of her mug and into her inviting eyes.

"No, nothing like that," Niamh replied. "As I said, I first got the impression that it was simply one of the local kids. Then I thought it was someone older, because of the fact that it contained some very creative poetry. The tone of the messages was loneliness and friendship. They struck me as sad, mostly. The idea that someone out there felt the way he described in the notes made me want to reach out and give him some support. To let him know that someone out there cared. You know what I mean?" She looked away, as if towards a distant point. " Thinking about them now I don't understand what made him change the way he did, but they got more serious."

"You are so amazing being concerned about someone like that. So what makes you so nervous about them now?" Sam's voice broke into Niamh's haze.

"Well, yesterday, I found a package that had another poem attached to it. The poem was much darker than the others, and it seemed as if at the end he was asking me to be his friend. However, in the envelope there were pictures of me. At home and at my sister Janet's; this person is following me and that scares me!" Niamh admitted, her voice rising as her emotions grew, tears coming to her eyes, but refusing to fall. "I don't want to admit to myself how really petrified I am knowing that someone could be watching me at anytime…even now. The fact that I didn't know someone was at my house…or at the beach…or at my sister's." Taking a deep breathe she continued, "What if I find more pictures tomorrow? I don't want to jeopardize your safety or friendship, Samantha. I would hate for you to be involved in this." She placed her hands together on the counter, clasping them, as if trying to keep them warm.

"And you have no idea who it could be?" Sam asked.

"No, but…"

"But what, Niamh."

"I've noticed this kid Brendon hanging around. It's probably merely my imagination, but he truly seems to fit." Niamh said. "I've been seeing him a lot more often lately. He doesn't have any real friends in the area that I've heard about. The teachers I know from the high school often commented on his isolation from the other students. Not much has changed since he graduated."

Sam didn't know what to say. She was concerned for Niamh being so upset. The thought that she was so afraid grieved her. She could not stand to see the desperate look in her eyes. "I don't know what to tell you Nimah, I only want to help. Maybe…maybe, you should go to the police," she finally suggested.

"No, I thought of that last night, but I don't think they can do anything since, like I said, the notes aren't threatening. I think I just have to be more alert."

"That sounds like a good plan. People say you should be aware of your surroundings." Sam said, hoping to help relieve her fears in some small way. She wanted to prove to Niamh that she had nothing to fear. Without thinking, Sam reached out and placed her hand over Niamh's, gently stroking her thumb along the back of it. "It will be all right. I promise." She meant it with every fiber of her being; she wanted to protect her new friendship from any harm.

Niamh looked down at their joined hands as Sam's fingers caressed the back of her hand. "You know it may sound strange, but with you here I feel safer than I have in several years. You're doing a lot right now simply by keeping me calm like this."

Not really listening to Niamh's words, Sam focused on her hand as she suddenly realized what her hand was doing, almost of its own volition. She jerked it back, stuffing it quickly in her pocket; a swarm of flustered emotions hit her at once. Oh, my God, oh, my God, oh my God! What have I done, what have I done? She's going to hate me; I know it. She'll hate me and never let me come back…then what will I do? I ruined it, exactly like I ruined everything else.

Reacting, Niamh smiled and leaned over the counter, placing her hand on Sam's arm. "Hey, it is alright. I appreciate the concern. You know, you are the first person I have even mentioned this to; I haven't known what to do about it. I did not want to alarm my sister, Janet, about it; she tends to worry about me. It is nice to be able to share this with a friend, and that is exactly how I see you. I know that seems strange after we've only known each other a short time, but I think it's the truth. I feel close enough to you to share this burden. I don't know why it is but I do know it feels right."

Her friend. She called me her friend, Sam thought, Could she really have meant it? Probably not; she's only being that nice a person, trying to make someone feel better. That's the kind of person she is. I know I have messed this up. Maybe I should just leave. Yeah, that's what I should do-just go and not come back. I could go somewhere new, somewhere far away. Panic penetrated her body. The thought of leaving this place, this woman, was too much for her to consider. The idea caused a physical ache in her heart.

Seeing Sam begin to tremble to the point her whole body was in motion Niamh asked, "Sam are you okay? You look pale, do you need to lie down?"

A light sheen of sweat appeared on Sam's forehead and upper lip. Concern quickly came to Niamh's eyes as she raced from around the counter. She took hold of Sam by the arms, gently squeezing them hard enough that it might be felt through the tension Sam exuded. "Sam, Sam, are you okay? Why don't you come with me and sit down?"

What am I going to do? I have to get out of here! I have to get out of here! Now, now! But, Sam felt something holding her in place. A force kept her from running; she wanted to force it back, make it let go. Quickly, she reached out to grab it to push it out of the way. This irritating power that held her where she knew she could no longer be. She had destroyed her safe haven and needed to escape.

Before she could react, Niamh felt Sam grab at her shoulders. The force behind the grip was enough to bruise her. Sam tried to push her aside, but Niamh held on tighter, reciprocating the motion as Sam dragged her towards the door. "Sam, stop, you're hurting me!" Niamh looked into her eyes and what she saw was unadulterated fear; fear so strong it resembled terror. Niamh drew Sam closer to her, wrapping her arms around the quaking woman. The muscles immediately tensed up at her touch. "Sam, it's okay; everything is going to be okay. You are fine here, you are safe, nothing is going to happen, and nobody is going to hurt you." She stroked her back gently, in a calming motion.

Suddenly, Sam let go, wrapping her hands around Niamh. She laid her head on Niamh's shoulder, and for a moment remained there. What have I done to deserve this gentle woman's touch? Why does she have such an effect on my mind? She draws back the racing thoughts and brings calmness to me. Why can't I deserve this? Because…look, at me; I've already hurt her.

Niamh felt the tense muscles begin to relax. Unexpectedly, a heart-wrenching sob, muffled by Niamh's shirt, broke the silence. "You're breaking my heart Sam. How do I help you?" Tears soon began running down Niamh's face as well, as she merely held the other woman that much tighter. "The pain you must be in, Sam. What are you fighting? Why do you always feel the need to run?"

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it, I didn't mean it!" Sam exclaimed through her tears.

"Why are you doing this to yourself, Sam?" Niamh said softly to the woman in her arms. "I told you there was nothing to be sorry about." Niamh continued running her hands over the woman's back and then caressed the blonde strands of hair with her fingertips, brushing it away from Sam's face. "So thick and silky. So unlike Tina's hair," Niamh said quietly and absently.

She continued to murmur softly to the woman, nonsense things which a person says to a crying person.

Shortly Sam appeared to pull herself together. The sobbing had stopped, though she still rested her head on Niamh's shoulder. She turned her head, nestling her face in the crook of her neck, taking deep breathes. Niamh still held her snugly, continuing to rub her back, now whispering softly to her, "Everything is going to be okay. You're fine here, Sam. Nothing is going to happen. Calm down, take deep breaths, you'll be safe."

Sam did as she was told, slowly stopping the crying. But she knew nothing would be okay. It never was. If only I could have someone like you in my life, Niamh Fitzpatrick. Someone who could bring me the rest I need so badly. In your arms I feel safe and protected again, for the first time in so long. "I don't deserve you," she mumbled into Niamh's neck. It was barely a whisper, so fine Niamh didn't truly hear it. Once she felt under control, Sam stood up and stepped away, immediately feeling the loss of the warmth Niamh provided. She stood shifting her weight from foot to foot, looking down at the floor. "I should go," she finally spoke.

"No, I don't think you should, Sam. But if you need to, at least let me take you home," Niamh said. "I only want to make sure you're okay, and this way we can spend a little more time together."

"Okay," Sam agreed her shoulders slumping.

"Fine, let me just put up the 'closed' sign and I'll drive you back to your place. Where are you staying?"

"At the Bay Cove Motel, right at the end of town, down by the Mini-Mart."

"I'll take care of you," Niamh promised as she grabbed her purse from behind the counter.

She took Sam's hand and led her to the door. Sam looked at their joined hands amazed that Niamh was even willing to touch her at this point.

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

The ride to the motel was quiet. Niamh glanced over at Sam occasionally, but noticed that Sam spent the ride looking out the side window, seeming to watch the scenery go by. She noted the decided slump of her posture and decided she needed to do something to fix the situation. "Are you sure you're alright Sam. You seemed to change so fast, what happened? One minute you appeared happy and the next you looked like you had a panic attack."

Nimah got no response from the blonde sitting next to her.

"I'm really glad you stopped by today. You really helped me out with my problem." Niamh still got no answer from Sam, who was engrossed in the passing panorama. "You know, I was thinking, it's been really nice having you around the store lately, and that work you have been doing has really been helpful. So, I was thinking that maybe you could come by in the mornings and hang around the store. You could do whatever you feel like, either look around for something to read, or help me out doing stuff. What do you think?" Niamh thought she had her now, since she'd asked a direct question.

Sam continued to look out the window for a few more seconds and then turned around to look out the front window. "That's okay, Niamh. I know that after today you really don't want me there. You're being nice. I understand. That's the type of person you are. You are one of the nice, kind souls."

"Sam, one of the things you need to know about me is I rarely say things I don't mean. I really do want you to come back to the store. I truly like your company there, and the free help is nice, too," Niamh said with sincerity. She looked over at Sam to see if she was getting through to her.

Finally they arrived at the motel. It was like many of the motels on the Northfork; a small strip of rooms that fronted a parking lot. It was a white building with fifteen rooms making up the motel itself, with a room for the manager's office. Each room had parking spots in front of it. The doors of the rooms were painted coral pink, and the windows were covered in a typical hotel pattern curtain of tacky block squares.

"That's mine over there," Sam said, pointing to the room marked "11". Niamh noticed the dark blue BMW Z3 parked close to the room leaving her to think it belonged to her friend

Once the car pulled into the open spot in front of Sam's room, Sam retreated quickly. Before she could close the door, Niamh asked expectantly, "So, I'll see you tomorrow? I'll even throw in free pastry from Junda's," she added with a smile that reached her eyes, hoping that she would see Sam again rather than loose her. "Come on Sam you can't deny me that pleasure."

Sam paused, looking over the roof of the car, her brows coming slightly together in thought. "No, no I can't. Sure, I'll see you tomorrow," Sam answered, leaning back into the car, smiling, the fears of the day seeming to vanish for both of them.

The smile was bright and shone in her eyes, giving Niamh reason to smile back. Happy that she gained the promise, she sat and watched as Sam closed the car door and went to her room, unlocking the door and disappearing inside. Only then did she start backing out of the parking space. Tomorrow. She already anticipated tomorrow.

Chapter Seven

Niamh approached the front of the store. She was disappointed to not see Sam there. Sam didn't seem like the type to break promises easily. "I guess yesterday's incident was too much for her to deal with. Maybe I'll stop by later and check up on her now that I know where she's living. I just hope she doesn't think I'm intruding."

As Niamh came up to the door she saw a slip of paper sticking out of the doorjamb. Niamh with a bit of eagerness grabbed it hoping to see it was from Sam. Instead a chill ran up her back as she recognized the handwriting on the note. Niamh knew instantly whom it was from. It was in the same handwriting as on the package with the photos the other day. Niamh didn't understand why this person was so focused on her and the idea of being followed terrified her. The note said

"Doth perfect beauty stand in need of praise at all?

Nay; no more than law, no more than truth,

no more than loving kindness, nor than modesty."

Niamh observed a change in the tone of the note immediately. The ideas of loneliness and despair were gone. In its place was this lyric piece of poetry regarding beauty.

Niamh put the note in her pocket and unlocked the doors, looking about as she did. Opening the door, her mind for a split moment considered the timing of the note. For all its eeriness it seemed to truly describe Sam. From all that she had seen and learned about her she was, Niamh felt a beauty. It was a shame such a beauty was so isolated.

She went inside and began opening the store for the day. A dusty glow penetrated the windows, creeping along the hard wood floors. Bookshelf after bookshelf lined the walls, full of books about life and love and sorrow and pain. Each person's experience documented for the world to read. Wondering what Sam's story would tell, she imagined her leafing through each book, picking out random selections. An unexpected solitude fell over the room and left Niamh feeling empty, unlike yesterday when Sam had been there. The warmth and comfort she so often found among the various tomes were gone. It was lost to her. Because of the stalker or her friend's absence Niamh didn't know.

After getting everything up front ready for the day, Niamh returned to the back room to start carrying out the boxes of new books that needed shelving. As she did the mindless work her thoughts went back to thinking over the notes. As she tried to place them on a timeline Niamh couldn't really think of any relation. They appeared random. She did note they started just after Sam came into her life. But in consideration of Sam's protectiveness yesterday Niamh didn't think on it any further. What did come to mind was Brendon's change in attitude towards her.

Niamh had just finished coming out with the last box when the bell over the door rang. Niamh looked up over the box she was still carrying. Sam stood inside the doorway. Sunshine poured over her silhouette, giving her an angelic appearance as she paused in the entrance. Niamh again noted how the person in the poem was like Sam. Simple beauty.

Sam looked around the large store and saw Niamh holding the box. Niamh was standing over by the travel section, which went at about halfway along the shelving on the far wall. Sam began walking over to her. "Hi, Niamh. How are you today?"

Surprised, it took Niamh a moment to notice something different about the woman. Sam approached her with confident strides. Her head was held high and Sam made direct eye contact for what seemed the first time to Niamh. Niamh marveled briefly at the new image before answering, absorbing this new persona. "Hi, Sam. I'm good. I was just getting some stuff ready to put out. I'm glad you came by." Niamh smiled her approval at Sam trying to hide her earlier worries.

"Here, let me take that for you. Where do you want me to put it?"

"Oh, just put it over there," Niamh said, pointing to the spot she wanted the box to go, near the section on European travel. "You look really good today. What has you in such a good mood?"

"Nothing special; it's just that I feel really good today. And why not? It's a nice day out and I get to spend time with a good friend," Sam replied with a bright smile, putting the box down where Niamh said. However, Niamh noticed what appeared to be confusion in Sam's countenance, but since it didn't match her mood, Niamh decided not to dwell on it.

"Well, I don't know what brought this on, but you look really good," Niamh repeated. "You deserve to be happy."

"Thanks, I feel good today. I woke up and just felt lighter. Probably just got a nice night's rest. I fell asleep early and woke up late. Did you want some help with these?" she asked, putting her hand on the box in front of her.

"You don't have to do that, Sam. You could just sit and read if you want to. I can handle this," Niamh said, pulling the utility knife out of her pocket to open the box.

"Thanks, but you said I could help out if I wanted to and I want to. This way I get to see the new books first," she said, grinning at Niamh in a conspiratorial manner. "I still need to refill my book supply." Sam said, referring to her aborted trip to the store yesterday.

"Well, first why don't you help yourself to some of the tea and pastry I promised. I got some fresh jelly donuts." Niamh told her, leading her over to the coffee center. She pulled out a small delicatessen box from under the counter. Opening it, she proffered the tasty goods, waving it under Sam's nose. "Here, take one. They are the best in the area."

"Mmmm, my favorite, they look great. Have you been spying on me?" Sam asked with a smirk.

Niamh suddenly went still, losing the smile on her face. Her jaw clenched tightly and her brows furrowed.

Sam noticed the change in her demeanor. It took her a second before she realized what she'd said. "Oh! Niamh, I'm so sorry, I should never have said that. It was completely unfeeling of me. I'm sorry."

The desperately pleading look on Sam's face was a shock to Niamh, bringing her out of her own inner thoughts. Niamh gave her a weak smile, "No, that's okay. I know it was just an innocent comment. You meant nothing by it," she said, giving Sam a slightly fuller smile. "It's just that I found another note this morning. It has me a little on edge, I guess."

"Was it another package?"

"No, it was just a brief note. I'm probably overreacting. It was nothing really; it just makes me a little scared to think of myself as the subject of such attention," Niamh said looking down to the floor, as if she might find some answers there.

Sam walked over and put her hand on Niamh's shoulder, giving it a light squeeze. "Hey, it'll be okay. I bet in no time at all this will all be over with and a distant memory."

Niamh barely heard what Sam was saying; her eyes and mind were more focused on the hand resting on her shoulder. She was amazed and a little confused by Sam's sudden change of temperament. Gone it appeared was the unsure timidity, replaced by a deeply caring and consoling force. "Maybe you're right, Sam. I hope so," Niamh answered with a grateful smile "But it worries me that he's becoming so fixated on me. This last note was so personal."

"Personal…how?"

Niamh guardedly pulled the note out of her pocket, handing it over to Sam. "Here's the one I found this morning when I arrived."

Sam read the note and looked up at Niamh with a small grin. "Well, if nothing else, I would have to say I agree with him." She looked up and saw Niamh's look of confusion and worry on her face at the seemingly inappropriate comment. "You are beautiful. But I can understand how this would make you feel awkward. It seems to be meant on a much more personal level than a secret admirer or something. Maybe this person is hoping for a deeper connection."

Niamh was shocked. "Did you just say I was beautiful? I have to admit it is flattering. What am I saying? A stalker left it! Not some love-struck kid or lover. Though coming from you, Sam, it sounds so different." Did I just compare you to a lover?

"Maybe you should rethink the idea of going to the police if it scares you that much," Sam continued. Sam gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze and then let her hand drop to her side.

"No, I still don't think they could do anything, and I'd just feel embarrassed showing them this note," Niamh answered with an earnest look in her eyes.

"Okay, if that is what you want to do I won't push." Sam knew she was fighting a losing battle of wills with the woman. "I get the feeling when you set your mind to something it's set in stone." She said as a grin formed on her face without thought. "And with your beauty I don't think you get much argument." She said. "I know I wouldn't fight you." Sam then added under her breath.

"I think it will be fine," Niamh conceded, though she didn't sound so sure of herself to Sam. "The store is open, so people come in all the time. I can start having Melissa come in earlier in the day, if I need to and have Stan hang around the nights I close. That should help."

"If you think so. I would feel better if someone was here full-time with you though." Sam said. Looking down at the floor for the first time she continued sound shy and unsure again, "You know, I don't do anything most of the day. I could just as easily hang out here rather than outside, and I'd find it more preferable in here making sure you're okay."

"Are you sure?" Niamh asked, recalling the last few days with the woman. Sensing Sam's skittishness return Niamh told her, "I couldn't ask that much of you, but I appreciate the offer."

Niamh wondered how a woman who could barely stand the confines of the store yesterday could make such a tremendous offer.

"Hey, it's no problem," Sam said with a confidence Niamh had not seen before. "I can just hang out, read, and help you out with a few things if you need me to."

"Okay, if you think it isn't too much," she said, looking into Sam's eyes for any sign of doubt. Seeing none she continued with smile, "Then I would welcome the company."

"Great, I'll start by making some tea. I haven't had my first cup of the day yet, and it makes me a bear," Sam said, walking over to the sink area.

"Oh, I know how that is. Tina was the same way." Before she could retract the words, they slipped out with a tone somewhere between regret and bitterness.

Sam pulled the kettle out from under the water, holding it still for a moment; she then continued to fill it with water. Without turning to look at Niamh Sam asked, "Who's Tina?" Sam's hands began to shake as she asked with her jaw clenched.

A look of sadness came over Niamh, and her lips drew into a thin line. "Tina was my partner."

"You had a business partner? Did you have a falling out?" Sam asked.

"No, she was my life partner." Niamh said, and then held a second to see Sam's reaction to this revelation. When none came she continued, "She died a few years ago in a car accident." Tears surfaced at the edges of her eyelids, but she refused to let them fall. "It still feels like I lost part of myself when she died. I sometimes wonder where we would be in our lives today if it never happened…"

"I'm sorry," Sam apologized as she stood facing the sink, her shoulders slumping at Niamh's confession. "So I take it you still love her. You haven't been able to find anyone else in your life?"

"No, I haven't. But then, I never really looked either. Tina and I were college sweethearts. We were together for many years. I just expected to grow old with her. In a way, I think I still do." A note of loss sunk into her words, inflicting a sharp pain in the back of throat as she remembered. Remembered the accident, remembered their love, remembered every moment as if it was being played in front of her…a slow motion movie of every laugh, teardrop, and embrace. She swallowed the chokehold that pressed against her vocal chords. "I've dated some in the past, but nothing was ever serious. I don't think it ever will be. I haven't met anyone who could touch my heart the way Tina could."

Sam stood at the sink with her back still towards Niamh, her head bent down. "It sounds like Tina was a wonderful person. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to meet her," she said in a quiet voice.

"I am too. You two probably would have gotten along great."

Sam straightened up and turned towards Niamh. "I am sure we would have," she replied with a smile, which didn't reflect in her eyes. "Well, the kettle is on. Why don't you do the honors while I go start opening those boxes for you?" Sam quickly moved off towards the boxes.

Finishing the drinks, Niamh went in search of Sam. She found her in the hobby section sitting on one of the unopened boxes. Sam had her head in her hands and she looked as if she'd lost her best friend. "Hey, you okay?" Niamh asked.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Sam said, lifting up her head with a slight smile. "I guess I just didn't get as much sleep as I thought."

"Well, here, maybe this will help." Niamh extended a mug of tea.

"Thanks, I'm sure it will," Sam said, accepting the cup with both hands and sipping the hot beverage.

"Sam, can I ask you a personal question?" Niamh asked, as she leaned against the stacks.

"Sure, what do you want to know?" Sam answered, her eyebrows furrowed in suspicion.

"How did you come to be here?" Her curiosity finally got the better of her.

"Here in Mattituck, or here in the store?" she answered with a grin.

"Both, I guess," Niamh answered, shifting her feet, wondering if she was pushing Sam too far.

"Well, how I got to Mattituck is an easy question I guess." Sam pulled a book off the shelf and held it fondly, looking over its back cover. "I lived and worked near Springfield, Illinois. I was an attorney there practicing matrimonial law…you know, divorces, child custody and support; that kind of stuff. I'd been working on a big case; some mother wanted custody of her children back and it was my job to make it happen. I wouldn't let that woman look after a dog. For two days I had been up trying to get her to come across as a fit mother before we went to trial. Then on the morning of the third day I decided that I just couldn't do it anymore. I walked into my partner's office and told him I quit. He could arrange to buy me out, but I was leaving.

"I went home, packed up a few things, got in my car, and left. I got on I-50, and when I got the choice to go east or west, I chose east. I don't know why; I just got a feeling it was the way I needed to go. I felt like I had to go and be somewhere.

"Anyway, I just started driving. I kept heading east. When I got to New Jersey, I got on I-95, which lead me east to I-495, and just followed it. By the time dawn came around I had hit the end. The road ended. I sat for a while on the side of the pavement thinking how strange it was to actually have driven to the end of the Interstate. After some time, I took the off ramp, drove along Rt. 58 and ended up on Main Rd. As the sun finally all the way up I saw the sign for the Bay Cove Motel. It was the first place I saw to stop around here, so I did." She returned the book to its position on the shelf, letting out a deep sigh. "There isn't much more to it than that really."

Niamh was amazed. Doing the math she guessed the woman was awake for over seventy-two hours at that point. "Didn't you stop along the way?" she asked with a look of disbelief on her face. Sam made what she did sound so matter of fact.

"No, not really. I stopped for bathroom breaks once in a while, but I wasn't tired or hungry much of the way," Sam answered. "When I got to the motel and checked in I slept for a few hours, but that was about it."

"Sam, why were you out on the streets all that time?" Niamh frowned with concern unconsciously placing a hand on Sam's shoulder.

Sam looked at her hand and then looked at Niamh. "To be honest, I don't know." She said, looking deeply into Niamh's eyes. "I woke up in the motel. I was feeling restless. I couldn't sit still. I felt like I had to be moving. As if I had to be doing something constantly. I tried reading some of the books I brought with me. But I couldn't. Finally I decided to go for a walk. I grabbed a book and left. I started walking through town. I noticed it helped. I felt better when I was walking. It relieved the restlessness. The reading let me get lost. It helped me become invisible; I needed that. I needed to be nobody for a while. I don't know why. I just did. Once I got here, I think I came to love things about this town. So I decided to stay."

"Why did you decide to come in here Sam?" Niamh asked. She didn't want to push Sam but needed that one question answered.

Sam looked at her, looked right into her eyes and into her soul, and said, "That's easy. Because you're here. You're my only friend. I know that." Sam stood up and put her empty mug on the top of the book stack. "Come on. Let's get these books out. They won't get themselves on the shelf," she said with a broad smile, her earlier mood seeming to have lifted.

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

Melissa walked into the store later that afternoon to start her shift. She saw Niamh at the front counter ringing up a sale, but what caught her eye was the tall blonde woman in the gardening section going through what was on the shelves. Puzzled she walked over behind the counter, putting her purse under it. "Niamh, what is she doing here?" She asked, looking over at woman she had only seen through the front window.

"Oh, she's helping Mrs. Gabrielsen find a book. I think she was looking for one on rose pruning and care," Niamh distractedly answered as she gave the woman at the counter her change.

Sam came up to the counter with Mrs. Gabrielsen, who was about seventy years old, with two books in hand. "Here, Niamh. We decided on The Art of Pruning and the new David Eddings' book." Turning back to her new acquaintance Sam smiled and told her, "You should really like that one, Mrs. Gabrielsen. It's much better than his last one," handing the books to Niamh.

"Thank you, Sam. You have been just so helpful. I never would have picked out that last book, but you made it sound so exciting," Mrs. Gabrielsen said, putting her hand on Sam's arm as she thanked her with a smile.

"Now I can have something to talk to my grandson about. I don't think he's read this one."

"It was my pleasure, and have fun reading them. Maybe you could bring me in one of your famous roses one day," Sam added with a wink.

Sam turned her attention to Melissa. Holding out her hand, she said with a smile, "Hi, I'm Sam. It's nice to meet you."

Melissa examined the hand with a bemused look on her face for a moment, and then clasped it. She noted the firm and confident grip. "Hi, I'm Melissa. Nice to meet you too," she responded her voice sounding unsure of her answer.

Sam turned to Niamh. "So, I finished emptying the boxes in the back. I thought I would start on the ones in the front." She jogged off to find the next box to empty before Melissa had a chance to say anything.

Melissa looked as the woman ran off. After a moment she turned to Niamh and questioned her, "What is going on, Niamh? And don't say nothing; I'm not buying it. That woman has been outside for weeks not making any contact with anyone that we know of. Now in a matter of two days, she is not only in here, but appears to be working here as well," she accused without taking a breath. "So, what is the deal?"

Niamh looked at her with a smug grin on her face. "Well, she came in once or twice in the mornings. Then yesterday she came in and we talked some. I drove her back to the motel, where she's staying," she explained, "and this morning she came back. Sam decided she liked it in here, so I'm letting her help out if she wants to."

"Oh, no! There's got to be more to it than that. Someone doesn't just change like that. Not without an ulterior reason," Melissa retorted.

Niamh appeared to ponder the question, her eyes taking on a distant look. Finally she answered, "You're partially right; there is a little more to it, but that is basically what happened. I don't know why she's changed the way she has, but she has. I've found her to be a wonderful person. I like her." A smile peeked out of the corners of her mouth at the thought of her new friend. "A lot," she added quietly, almost to herself. Niamh's face turned serious when she continued. "The other reason is because she's sort of keeping an eye on the place."

"Why would you need someone to do that? We don't have a big shoplifting problem here. It's Jamesport. I don't think I even have a key for my front door let alone lock it!"

"No, it's more than that." Taking a deep breath Niamh admitted to her friend what she had been trying to hide. "I have been receiving some notes lately. For the most part they've been harmless, but lately they point toward that fact that someone may be following me."

"You should go to the police! How does that involve this Sam woman?" Melissa asked, aggravation smothering her voice as she glanced over in Sam's direction.

"No, I can't go to them; I have nothing to show them. I didn't keep the notes. Besides, like I said, up until now they were harmless, not ominous. But, Sam was here when I got a package with pictures of me in it. That's how she found out about them. When I told her I wouldn't go to the police, she offered to hang out here to keep an eye on me and the store." Niamh was near tears by this time, the stress of the last few days trying to catch up to her.

Melissa saw the tears starting to form. "I'm sorry, Niamh. I shouldn't have shot off my mouth. It's up to you how you want to handle this. I just worry for you. I would hate to see anything happen," she said with a sympathetic smile and pulling her friend in for a quick but comforting hug. "If having Sam here makes you feel more comfortable, then that's okay with me. Not that you need my permission."

"Thank you, Melissa, for understanding," Niamh replied, wiping her eyes.

Melissa looked over to where Sam was working on emptying out the boxes. "I must admit, she's like a whole new person, almost. A few days ago, I swear if you said 'boo' to her she would have hit the ceiling."

"Yeah, she does, but I think she just worked through whatever was bothering her. I believe Sam is enjoying the new freedom that brings." Niamh followed Melissa's gaze and welcomed the site of Sam busying herself with the books.

As if she knew they were talking about her, Sam glanced up, catching the two women looking at her. Niamh flashed a smile in her direction, which Sam responded to with one of her own.

"Hey, Melissa," she called out. "Would you like to help me clean up the children's section? It's a real mess over there."

Melissa looked at her for a moment as if she were some strange entity. "Umm, sure, I guess so."

Niamh smiled again as she thought of her old friend and her new friend working together.

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

Melissa spent most of her time in the store that day watching Sam. Despite what she said to Niamh, something about the woman still made her cautious. Niamh might not be willing to admit it, but Melissa thought it strange that this woman came into the Wordsmith just as Niamh needed someone to lean on. Unlike Niamh, she wasn't so willing to trust this stranger, for when push came to shove that was exactly what Sam was around here.

Melissa stood in the self-help section of the store shelving books. It just so happened that this afforded her a perfect view of the back of Sam's head as she sat reading in one of the chairs. At this particular moment she was looking at Sam trying to see some clue as to who the woman was and what she wanted here.

She had watched her wander around the store, sorting books and on occasion helping some customers. Sam seemed to go out of her way to be helpful, though she didn't seek people out. For an unknown reason some of the customers just seemed drawn to her.

"You know staring at me won't make me disappear." A voice said from the chair.

Surprised that she had been caught, Melissa tried to answer innocently, "What makes you think I want you to go?"

"Because your Niamh's best friend, and if it were me in your shoes I'd want me gone too."

"You're right I am her best friend and I don't know you from Adam."

"Well then maybe we should introduce ourselves," Sam said as she finally stood up from the chair. "I'm Sam," She said holding out her hand.

Melissa looked at the offered hand for a moment and then looked Sam in the eyes. Seeing nothing deceitful in them she took the hand and said, "Hi, I'm Melissa and if you do anything to hurt Niamh I'm going to have to kill you. Okay, maybe not me personally, but I know people."

"Okay, I'll keep that in mind," Sam said with a grin. "Honestly Melissa, the last thing I want to do is hurt Niamh. She means the world to me. She's offered me something that I never thought I would have…friendship."

"Be careful of that friendship Sam, it's not something Niamh gives away easily since Tina." Melissa went wide-eyed when she realized what she had revealed.

Sam saw her worry and reassured her, "It's okay Melissa, Niamh told me all about Tina. I could tell how much pain she is still in over it. I'd never dream of adding to that burden."

"Oh, alright, as long as we have that straight," Melissa said, looking into the woman's eyes and seeing only an honorable person looking back at her. Deciding to give the woman a chance she asked with curiosity "So, what are you reading?"

"The Civil War narrative by Shelby Foote."

"Oh I love history, though I've never read that one. Isn't it like three or four volumes?"

"Yeah, three actually. I'm up to the end of the first one."

Melissa looked at the book in Sam's hand impressed at its size. She guessed the volume to be a least a thousand pages long.

"I haven't decided if I'm going to read the other two or move on to something else yet."

"Well enjoy it and let me know what you think about it." With that Melissa turned away, going back to her work.

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

At the end of her day, Niamh stepped out to the street and stopped on the sidewalk just outside the door of the store. She lifted her face up to soak the heat in enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon sun on her skin.

Walking down the street and bypassing the alley next to The Wordsmith Niamh was startled to hear a voice coming out of the shadows.

"What are you doing?" a female voice called out to her.

Niamh turned around with fright, her hand going to her chest, she immediately calmed down as she saw Sam step out of the dimness. Niamh smiled as she saw the full features of her friend come into view. The sunlight played with the color and textures of Sam's hair giving it an angelic halo effect.

"I'm going home for the day. My shift is over."

Samantha looked back behind her towards the alley with a look of confusion, "But your car?" She asked turning back to look at Niamh.

"Well it's going to be such a nice sunset I thought I'd walk home. Janet can pick me up in the morning."

"Oh."

"Why is there something you wanted?"

Looking a little unsure Sam replied, "No."

"Oh, well okay, then I guess I'll see you tomorrow." Niamh said beginning to turn away from her.

Niamh immediately felt a hand at her elbow preventing her from leaving. Niamh looked down and saw Sam's hand firmly holding on. "Samantha?" She questioned, looking back up into the blonde's eyes.

"Uh, I just thought you might like some company on your walk. Considering what happened today do you think it's a good idea to be walking alone?"

"Oh my god, I never even thought of it. You're right."

"So, I could walk with you. I mean if you wanted me to." Sam shifted nervously on her feet. "I've got nothing else to do, and it'll be too dark for me to stay out here much longer anyway."

Nimah enjoyed the cute manner in which Samantha was asking to come along. "Sure I always like to have a good companion walking along."

Samantha beamed at the compliment. "I can do that," she said. As they began walking Sam felt Niamh take hold of her arm. As Niamh began talking Sam realized that the brunette appeared to be unaware of her own action. It was almost as if she did it naturally, or habit. Either way Sam soaked up the sensation causing a broad smile.

Neither woman noticed the cold stare coming from the young man across the street as he leaned against his car. A look of disgust was easily read on his face as he watched the two women being physically familiar with each other.

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

The two women began to walk to Niamh's house, which lay just outside downtown near the bay. Shortly after starting out, the two found themselves walking in a comfortable silence, quietly taking in the scenery around them, and watching the other people on the street.

As the came to the silent back roads, Niamh began to feel the need to start some conversation. "So what did you spend your time doing today, besides rearranging my shelves?"

"I hope you don't mind, but apparently some people that came in thought I worked there."

"I don't mind, unless you gave them free books." She said with a chuckle.

"No, no, I would never do that." Samantha said worried about what Niamh thought of her.

"I know that Samantha. I trust you." Niamh told Sam as she gave her arm a gentle squeeze.

"You do?" Sam asked with a surprised look on her face. "Why, you don't even know me."

"But I think I actually do."

"How?"

"Well, for example, I saw you with a lot of those people today. You talked to them and made them feel welcome into the store. You made each person you talked to feel special. I saw it in their smiles when they left. That tells me a lot about you."

Samantha walked silently along for a few minutes. "What does it tell you?"

Niamh noticed Samantha looked apprehensive about the response she might give so she thought carefully before answering. "I know you are kind, patient, intelligent, and brave, all qualities to be admired in people nowadays."

Samantha looked at her curiously, "How do you see all that? Even I don't."

"I saw it in the way you handled those people today. With the children you were patient, taking the time to show them where to look and what they would find interesting. When the teenager came in, stressed over her English assignment, you showed the ability to educate her while making the work fun for her. You displayed a good deal of knowledge about the subject she was looking into and took time to talk to her about it. The way you talked to Mrs. Gabrielsen made her feel excited and I could swear she felt younger at heart."

"It was Walt Whitman." When she noticed Niamh's confused look Sam explained, "the teenager, I was just trying to be helpful."

"That's just it, you were being helpful. Ready to lend a hand to someone you didn't know and it probably took a lot of strength for you to talk to her."

"I was a little scared."

"A little, I know you well enough now to see you were more than a little but you overcame it and talked to her anyway. You knew things about Whitman's life to make it fascinating and enjoyable for her. That takes real courage and intellect."

Samantha blushed at the compliment, "I don't see that."

"You don't have to. I see just fine for both of us. I can tell by your actions that you are probably a normally outgoing, confident person. You just have to get comfortable around here."

"Maybe," Samantha answered.

"Give it time. I'm sure it will prove me right. You're not scared now are you?"

"No, never around you."

"Good, I'm glad."

The two walked on in silence again. Samantha walked so close to her that their arms brushed every once in a while. When their hands met as they walked, Niahm unexpectedly took Samantha's in her's. "Your hands are cold, and they're shaking. Are you chilly?"

"A bit," Samantha lied.

"Well, we're here, so why don't you come in for some tea? That should warm you up."

After looking at the front door for a long moment Sam returned her glance to Niamh. "No, I should get going. It'll be dark soon." She said nervously, extricating her hand from Niamh's.

Niamh looked up at the setting sun, "You're right. I don't want you out walking about in it." She said, letting her concern for the tall blonde come through in her voice.

"It'll be fine, go ahead. I'll watch you 'til you get inside."

Niamh was suddenly reminded of the reason for her escort and looked around, "You don't think we were followed do you?"

"No, I'm sure we weren't."

"Okay, I believe you. But be careful walking home."

"I will don't worry."

"I'll try not to, but this whole thing has me a little spooked."

"You'll be safe I promise."

Gazing into her friend's eyes Niamh replied, "For some reason I truly believe you, Samantha."

"Good. Now get inside before you get cold."

"Sure thing, mom" Niamh said, before turning to go.

Samantha stood and watched her enter the house. Several moments later all the outside lights had been turned on and Sam turned, walking into the coming night.

Chapter Eight

For the next few days, Sam spent almost all her time in the store helping out with the day-to-day work. She'd go around the store, assisting customers in finding books, even recommending some, or pitching in up at the counter. Sam would also spend a lot of time reading books she bought at the store. When she wasn't doing work, Niamh could usually find her squirreled away in some corner of the store sitting in one of the comfy armchairs with her nose in a book. It took Niamh two days to realize that Sam was picking books from various sections, almost as if she was unable to decide on a topic of interest. She would read travel guides, cookbooks, science fiction, and history. Niamh thought she even saw her reading one or two lesbian fiction novels. Sam seemed to read almost anything, so she didn't know what to make of that new development. Though it raised her curiosity Niamh knew she wouldn't pursue it, as much as she wanted to, her memories of Tina were too strong to ignore.

Today Niamh continued her work at the counter letting her thoughts about Tina and Sam travel to the back of her mind but not letting them go entirely. She pushed the feelings away, hoping to ignore them. However, they continued to move to the forefront of her thinking, like a cold shower, the shock of them bringing her to full alertness again.

It was early Friday evening, one of the busier times of the week for the store. Niamh was excited about the weekend. She was taking off most of Saturday to spend with her sister and her family. She would come in early to open the store, but once Stan finally arrived for his early shift she planned to take off as soon as she could. She already had her mind focused on after work. Melissa, along with two of the college kids Niamh had working for her, was going to work the later shift. This freed up her entire weekend. She wouldn't have to come back in until Monday. It was definitely something to smile about, and she was.

Janet had planned a small family get-together for the twins' birthdays. Next weekend they would have the party with all their friends, but this weekend was the family's turn. Niamh expected it would be a lot of fun though their side of the family was small. She would be there, of course, along with her mother, but that was the extent of it. Her parents were divorced now for over fifteen years, and her father was currently living in California with his second wife and family. Besides receiving the odd card or gift, Niamh and Janet didn't have any real relationship with their father, but their relationship with their mother was very close and loving. Niamh's mother was a gregarious woman, always cheerful, and she had a pip of a sense of humor.

Niamh loved these kinds of family get-togethers as they included David's family as well. David's sister, together with David's parents, would be there. Her mom, Katie, would likely make her usual side dishes of macaroni salad and tomato salad, while David's mom would bring along the cold corn salad, and some delicious desserts. Everyone on both sides of the family got along well. Niamh's mother and David's mom had become fast friends ever since David and Janet began dating. David's father was always happy to help her mother when things needed fixing around the house. On most Saturday nights, you could find the three of them down at the church playing bingo together and raising a ruckus.

Niamh had already bought the twins' presents over a month ago. Two complete Jedi uniforms with light sabers that made a humming noise when you turned them on. The kids were crazy about Star Wars after watching the movies with their dad. She couldn't wait to see their faces when they opened the wrapping. Niamh was energized merely thinking about their reactions.

As Niamh thought about this, she caught sight of Sam sitting in one of the chairs reading a book. A sadness came over her as she realized she wouldn't be seeing her new friend over the weekend.

Sam had made several new acquaintances at the store, and was fast becoming friends with Melissa and even Stan, so Niamh knew Sam wouldn't lack for company while she was gone. However, the thought of being away from her for that long evoked a great sense of loneliness. While Niamh stood confused by her thoughts, she didn't notice Sam approach the counter. "Hey, Niamh. Hey, Melissa. How's it going up here?"

"Hey, Sam. Things have slowed down a little, what with people going home for dinner right now. It should start to get busy again by about seven o'clock." Niamh said as she found her eyes admiring the beautiful woman.

"Great! Can I lend a hand up here later if you need it?" Sam asked with a huge grin and a hopeful look in her eyes. "I promise not to play with the paper for wrapping books, even though I just read this neat book on Origami," Sam said, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "I could make you a nice rose, Melissa. On the other hand, how about a beautiful swan?" she said, flapping out her arms like a bird doing a pirouette. "Or better yet, a fierce dragon for Niamh, to protect you from the evil world outside your doors." She said this in a low voice, trying to hide below the counter. Standing back up, she drew a pretend sword out of her belt to defend the women with. She exclaimed, "Oh! I could make us all little Napoleon hats. How about a bear?" She accompanied the offer with a growling noise. "The Navajo believe the bear represents strength and power; it is considered one of the most important and sacred of animals. Did you know that some bears can hibernate up to seven months, while some don't hibernate at all?"

Melissa and Niamh both had a look on their face for Sam that involved a grin and a twinkle in their eyes-one usually reserved for listening to children try to tell a story. Niamh had a great tendency to be indulgent of Sam and her little eccentricities. Melissa, meanwhile, got a kick out of the way Sam could go from topic to topic at the drop of a hat. It was like a random stream of thought, and the fun was in trying to keep up with it as she spoke a thousand miles a minute.

Sam was so caught up in her conversation that she didn't see the confused and worried look that crossed Niamh's face. What made Sam think she needed protecting from the outside world? Niamh wondered if it was her who actually made Sam feel safer. But she refused to look any deeper into what that might mean other than as a sign of the friendship that was blossoming between the two women.

She treasured that closeness. Over the last few days the two spent a good deal of time together. Sam didn't offer any information about who she was before she arrived in Mattituck-if she had any family or friends who would be missing her-and Niamh didn't want to push her away with a lot of questions. So Niamh was happy learning what she could about the woman she now thought of as a close friend. However, the idea of Sam having no one back home saddened Niamh.

Watching Sam interact with the other people in the store and talking to her, she was able to see and experience that Sam was a gentle, caring soul with an inner strength that impressed Niamh. She realized how hard it was for Sam to come in off the streets. She remembered how only a week ago the woman was like a small, frightened animal, afraid, it seemed, of any true human contact. She knew how much effort it must have taken for Sam to actually come into the store and the internal battle she must have had to get there. Niamh was appreciative and happy over the gift Sam's progress had given her.

The day before, Niamh had been looking for Sam and found her in the children's section sitting in one of the armchairs with a small brown haired girl in her lap. The girl was four or five, and crying in little hiccups. Niamh overheard the quiet conversation between the two.

"So, little princess, are you going to tell me, why the tears? Didn't you know that such pretty little girls should never need to cry?" Sam asked, as she smiled reassuringly at the girl. She pulled a tissue out of her pocket and used it to dry the little girl's tears.

"I got lost," the little girl said in a small voice, looking up at Sam with pleading eyes, as if begging Sam to fix it.

"Well, that is serious." Sam gazed upon the girl with softness in her eyes. "But it is something we can fix. I happen to be very good at saving princesses in trouble."

The girl looked at Sam with a look of wonder, as if expecting her to make her mother magically appear. "Can you help me?"

"Well, I will certainly try. Now the key to being lost is to stay where you are. That way when your mom comes here to find you, you will be here, see?"

Tears started to fall down the girl's face again. "I don't want to stay here all alone," she said with a quiver in her voice.

"Well, that's a good thing," Sam said, drying the new tears with her fingers. "Because I was hoping I could stay while you wait, if that's okay?"

The girl nodded her head enthusiastically. "Yes, please," the girl responded, settling closer into Sam's lap and chest.

Niamh watched the girl with an envious look as she snuggled into Sam's lap. For a moment, Niamh felt guilty for her feelings, as if she were betraying Tina in some way. Knowing she would never ask for that kind of comfort from Sam she brushed her feelings aside.

Niamh was drawn out of her thoughts when she heard Sam's voice grow louder. "So then the baby bear said, 'Someone's been eating my porridge and they ate it all up.' Now the bears were growing quite angry at that someone who had been in their home." Sam used the cutest voice Niamh had ever heard to make the sound of the baby bear.

Niamh smiled and let out a slight giggle at the picture the two made. Sam looked up at the sound. "Oh, Niamh, just the sort of person we needed." she said with a big grin on her face and a quick tickle to the small girl on her lap. "It seems that my friend here has misplaced her mom. Could you help us find her?" Sam turned to the little girl. "See, I told you if we stayed someone would find us, and they did."

Niamh stepped closer to the two, leaning her hip against the arm of the chair and looking down into Sam's eyes. A shiver traveled down her spine; to her it looked like Sam was baring her soul to Niamh in that one look. Niamh glanced away, overpowered by intensity of the moment.

"Niamh, are you okay?" Sam intruded into her abyss of thought.

"Oh, yeah. Sorry; I was only thinking on how best to handle the situation with your little princess here," Niamh said. "How about we get her name and then I can make an announcement for her?"

"Now that is why they pay you the big bucks, Niamh. You come up with the best ideas," Sam pointed out with a grin on her face. "Actually, I don't know why I didn't think of that." Sam turned to the little girl in her lap. "So, tell me, princess, what is your name?"

The girl looked up at Sam and Niamh, proudly announcing to them, "My name is Annabelle Ballard."

"Well, Annabelle, let's see if we can find your mom," Sam said. With that, Sam stood up with Annabelle in her arms. Annabelle giggled and held on to Sam by the neck and off they went to the front of the store.

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

Niamh pulled herself back to the present and tried to pick up on what Sam was talking about. She hadn't missed much as Sam continued with her wealth of newfound knowledge. "Did you know that polar bears are the largest land predators? The biggest warm-blooded predator is the killer whale. And dragons; Chinese dragons are believed to be divine protectors and are the most vigilant. Hey, Melissa, how was your day so far?" Sam asked, not realizing no one was really listening to her anymore.

It took Melissa a second or two to realize Sam had asked her a question. Apparently, she had gotten a few steps behind. "Oh, pretty good. Brian and I spent the morning having breakfast in the park in Greenport. We picked up some sandwiches and sat out behind the carousel. The weather was great for it!" She said with a big smile on her face and a light bounce. "That reminds me, though; I was wondering if you were busy on Saturday? I was hoping you could join Brian and me for a barbeque. My cousin Allison will be there. You met her the other day when she stopped in. I'm sure she would be happy to see you again."

Niamh started listening more intently to the conversation. She knew for a fact that Allison was gay. "Melissa are you actually trying to fix Sam up? She asked her dear friend.

"Maybe, I don't know. I do know that Allison asked me to see if you could come, Sam."

This brought an emotion to Niamh that felt a little like jealousy at the thought of Sam being with someone like Allison.

"Gee, I don't know Melissa."

Niamh could see the doubt and fear in Sam's eyes at the prospect of meeting someone from the outside.

Before she knew what she was doing she interjected, "Actually, Sam, I was wondering if you wanted to come with me to my sister's this weekend. She is having a little family get-together for the kids Saturday. It's their sixth birthday. It won't be much; only the kids, my parents, and David's family." Niamh had a look of surprise on her face for a moment as she realized she had basically asked Sam out on a sort of "date".

"Wow, really, Niamh? Are you sure?" Sam asked, looking at her with wonder and expectation. She looked as if someone was offering a great gift.

Still unsure why she decided to do it, Niamh assured her, "Yes, I really mean it. I would love for you to come and meet them all. Janet will probably take the kids down to the beach around noon. So, how about I pick you up at the motel around half-past eleven?"

"Yeah, that would be great. I would love to meet them." Sam could barely contain her enthusiasm and astonishment. Turning to Melissa she said, "Can I get a rain check on the barbeque?"

"Sure Sam, maybe next weekend"

Suddenly Sam stood up. "Well, if I am going tomorrow, then I have to run some errands. I have some things to do tonight. I'll see you tomorrow then, Niamh; eleven-thirty sharp, right?"

"Yeah, half-past eleven," Niamh replied still in a bit of awe at what she had done. She stood and watched as Sam left the store. She saw her look both ways outside, as if trying to decide where to go first. Then Sam took off at a fast walk towards the motel.

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

Niamh pulled up to the door outside Sam's room. Before she even had time to turn off the engine, Sam was outside and ready to go. Niamh noticed she was carrying a big box wrapped in wrapping paper and a tall trash bag. She got out of the car to help her, trying to think where they were going to put all the packages. "Hey, Sam. What is all this?" she asked curiously.

"Well, I had to get the kids something. It's not polite to show up empty-handed."

"Okay," Niamh said, a little leery about what could be in the packages and Sam's reasoning. "Uhm, I guess we can try and fit the bag in the trunk with my stuff, but I think you're going to have to hold the box on your lap." She helped Sam get the bag in the trunk and held the door for her as she tried to squeeze herself, along with the package, into the classic little Volvo sportster.

On the drive over to Janet's house Niamh gave Sam the rundown of who would be there.

"So," Sam said, with a look of utter concentration on her face, "Katie is your mother. She works as a doctor at the local hospital and Janet, your sister, works at the same hospital as an emergency room nurse. Her husband David is a lawyer, who works in real estate law. David's sister is Tracey. She works with David at the law firm as a paralegal. David's parents are Susan and Harry. Susan is a teacher at Mattituck elementary school and Harry is a builder. Right?" she asked proudly.

"Right, that's all of them. But of course the twins will be there, too." Niamh responded with the same smile she always expressed when she thought of the kids.

"Oh, of course, Jack and Emma, they're going to be six. I remember that," Sam said, looking out the window as Niamh pulled up in front of an old, two story home. Like many in the area, it was not overly big, it was not very wide from the front, but it was actually very long along the sides. The yard was fenced off in the front with the traditional picket fence, but a high privacy fence separated the back.

Niamh was little worried about how Sam would react to meeting her family. They could be a little overwhelming at times, especially the children. "Now my sister has a tendency to ask a lot of questions. If she bothers you at all simply tell her to back off or tell me, and I'll do it for you." However, looking over at Sam, Niamh thought she actually looked unconcerned at that prospect, which surprised Niamh considering Sam had barely even given Niamh any details for her life outside of Long Island.

"Sam, I don't want you to let my family get to you. They can be a bit much sometimes. If you feel like they are getting to be too trying, let me know and we can leave. I know my sister and mother can be a little overzealous with questions at times, but don't let them push you," Niamh warned, a look of concern on her face as she worried how the woman would react to such an family affair. Before now it was merely the bookstore, with anonymous people coming and going. Sam could talk to people one on one if she chose to, but it was always her choice, and her choice to walk away. Today was another story.

"It's okay, Niamh, I'm sure I'll be fine. What's the worst they can do to me?" Sam asked with a big grin on her face. "Honest, it will be fine." She placed her hand over Niamh's as it rested on the gearshift.

Sam had her head tilted down so she could look into Niamh's eyes, which were staring at their joined hands. Niamh looked over at Sam and she was completely caught up in her eyes as if only now realizing the blue depth of them. She felt a tingle in her hand where they connected. Looking at Sam, Niamh could almost feel the silky strands of hair as they fell through her fingers as she closed her eyes at the thought. Niamh sighed though, knowing it was something she would never, could never, bring herself to do. Instead she felt only resignation at knowing it was something denied to her by fate and circumstance, and her own heart.

Niamh was broken out of her thoughts by the sound of little fists tapping on her car window. "Aunt Niamh, aren't you coming out?" Emma asked through the window. "Mommy says we can't start without you. Hurry up!"

"Yeah, hurry up, Aunt Niamh!" Jack added as he stood by his sister.

Niamh felt the loss as Sam pulled her hand away. "I guess we'd better hurry up then." Sam said, smiling back at Niamh, which implied that Sam knew what she had been thinking.

Sam turned and got out of the car before Niamh could even think of a response. Instead she simply blushed.

Sam smiled at her and raised an eyebrow. As she bent down into the car again she asked, "So, are you coming?"

Niamh came out of her thoughts with a startled look. "Oh, yeah, of course. Let me get the stuff out of the trunk." Niamh went over and pulled all the bags and boxes out of the trunk. "Here, you guys can carry these," she said, handing the two boxes she wrapped over to Jack and Emma. "Now, no peeking. Take them straight over to the pile of other presents."

"Okay, we promise." Emma said with a huge smile, which made Niamh wonder how sincere that promise really was.

Niamh took out Sam's bag, handing it to her. "So, are you going to tell me what's in this huge thing or not?"

"Not!" Sam gave with a laugh. "You'll have to wait like everyone else," she laughed

Sam and Niamh walked into the backyard and Janet walked over quickly over to greet them. Janet had blonde hair like the twins and stood about an inch or two shorter than Niamh, with deep hazel eyes. "The kids said you had a guest." She looked over to Sam and held out her hand. "Hi, I'm Janet Shelley, Niamh's sister. Welcome to the party. I'm so glad Niamh brought you." She eyed Sam from head to toe, making her feel like she was being sized up to see if she measured up to being Niamh's friend.

Taking a deep breath Sam returned the welcome. "Hi, Janet, I'm Sam; Samantha Bailey," she said taking Janet's hand in a firm handshake. "It's a pleasure to meet you."

Niamh stood by stunned. In all the time she had known Sam she had never told her what her last name was. Niamh proudly gazed at Sam and the apparent new confidence she was finding. Janet watched her with a smirk and a slightly raised eyebrow. Janet had heard some stories about Sam from Melissa. Based on the smile Niamh had on Janet found Sam worth keeping so far; but the afternoon was young and Niamh intended to keep her fingers crossed.

"Why don't you guys come over and sit with us at the picnic table? Mom is here, along with Laurie, and we're still waiting on Susan and Harry to get here. They should be along any minute though," she told them. "So, Sam, have a seat here next to me." Janet directed her, pulling out the only other free chair on that side of the table, which of course put Sam between Janet and her mother. Niamh was left across from Sam next to Tracey.

"Sam, my mother, Mrs. Katie Fitzpatrick, and David's sister, Tracey. Guys, this is my friend Samantha Bali," Niamh introduced each but never really taking her eyes off Sam.

"Bailey," Sam corrected in a quiet tone as she shook Tracey's offered hand.

"It feels sort of strange to have a complete name to call her by," Niamh said to Janet in a quiet whisper. "She was such a lost waif when she turned up, but she seems to be gaining a lot of confidence these last few days."

Niamh finished in a tone of voice Janet couldn't truly place. It was something between exposed and dejected. Janet glanced at her with a sense of concern, however, what Janet noticed in Niamh was a need. Perhaps a need to love someone, if Sam were lucky.

Niamh and Janet sat by as Sam shook hands with their mother.

Katie was a combination of Janet and Niamh. She had Niamh's hair and high cheekbones, but she also had Janet's hazel eyes and button nose.

Tracey was a beautiful woman. With classic features, standing at about five foot seven inches, she had a curvaceous feminine physique, which most women would be jealous of, along with a seemingly permanent natural tan. As Niamh saw them shake hands she felt a pang of resentment at how long Tracey insisted on holding onto Sam's hand.

"Tell me, Sam, how did you meet our Niamh?" Katie asked, sharing a sly look with Janet.

"Oh, we sort of ran into each other outside the store one day. Then we had lunch together," Sam answered, knowing that was a bit of a stretch on the truth.

"What do you do for a living?" Janet asked, trying to piece out what this woman's relationship to Niamh was.

"Well, right now I guess you would say I am between jobs. I'm an attorney. I left my previous job and haven't begun looking for a new one yet," Sam replied warmly.

"Well, actually, she is helping out down at the store for me. She is a big help with the customers," Niamh answered hurriedly trying to come to Sam's aid.

At this point Tracey piped in, "So, you're working at the store. How long have you been working there?" She asked leaning closer into Sam's personal space.

"Oh, only for a week or so. Before that I was mostly just an avid reader." Sam gave Niamh a conspiratorial smile. I really want them to accept me. I need them to. Without them how can I hope to gain what I want from Niamh?

"So, you like to read! Well, you have that in common," Tracey said.

"Yeah, I could read practically all day given the chance."

"Uhm, why did you leave your last job, Sam?" Katie asked with a little concern in her voice.

"Well, I became unhappy with the work I was doing." Sam suddenly felt a little uncomfortable.

"Oh, why is that?" Katie inquired further.

"I was a divorce attorney; the last case I worked on didn't end well, so I decided to stop." Sam again had her hands clenched on the table.

Janet looked at Sam's hands. They were clenched so tight the whites of her knuckles were showing. "What happened to your case?" She asked, keeping her eyes on Sam's hands.

Sam's hands were clasped so hard her short nails began to bite into the skin. Taking a deep breath she let it out slowly and quietly as she purposefully unclenched her hands and put them on the table.

"Well, the mother I defended in a custody case was not someone I would want to have children, but my job forced me to overlook her unfitness and fight for her. She was a drunk and addicted to prescription medications. I couldn't prove that she was abusing the kids in any way, but they were all emotional basket cases," Sam explained as her tension grew.

Janet glanced down and saw Sam's fingers rhythmically tapping on the tabletop. Running the fingers of one hand up and down, going faster and faster the more into the story Sam got.

"The parents were so busy fighting over the kids that no one seemed to notice how troubled they all were. Simply looking at them you could tell they had been through hell. The oldest one was only ten and he looked shell-shocked. I spent two days and nights working that case right before trial. When I suddenly realized she would win the case, I couldn't take it. So, I quit."

As Sam finished her story, she looked down at her hand in mid motion and quickly pulled them under the table. She gazed up and caught the curious look in Janet's eyes. In that moment Sam could see that Janet was aware of something.

"It's such a sad story," Katie remarked with an empathetic look. "Those poor children."

"I could see how those kinds of cases could turn you off to law. Do you ever plan on practicing again?" Tracey asked with curiosity.

"I don't know. I haven't decided yet. It's one of the reasons I took off," Sam answered.

"What do you mean 'took off,' Sam?" Janet asked caught by the strange way for a grown person to describe it.

"Uhm, well I came from Illinois, to here." Sam said with a hesitated frown. "I guess I sort of took a road trip to try and quiet my mind. That didn't work out very well, though. However, working at the store has done wonders for me. It has really given me a place to safely think things out." She finished with a smile towards Niamh. "I'm really grateful for Niamh letting me hang out in the store and helping out now and then. Being able to be there has really saved me." Sam looked into Niamh eyes and Niamh saw all the gratitude Sam held.

Niamh realized for the first time what their friendship could possibly mean to Sam. How truly important it was. It was as if Sam saw it as a salvation of sorts. It was almost overwhelming and at the same time it made Niamh feel closer to Sam, nearly as close as she had felt to Tina. Niamh suddenly came to that unexpected realization and it scared her. Scared her to think more existed between the two of them than basic friendship. Could she possibly hold the same feelings for Sam as she had for Tina? Niamh shook her head slightly to draw the thoughts away, for now.

"What about your family-won't they miss you?" Katie asked.

"I don't have any family. My parents died in a car accident a few years ago and I have no siblings, so it's only me," she responded in a matter-of-fact tone.

"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that," Katie said. "But I hope you can find a family here in our little town."

"I'm sure I could," Sam said with a far off look in her eyes. After a moment her eyes turned to Niamh.

"How long are you planning on staying, Sam?" Tracey asked, bringing Sam back.

Sam looked over at Niamh again and a small smile came to her face. "Well, I don't know. It depends on certain things whether I decide to settle down here or not."

Niamh ignored the ache that came to her stomach as Tracey's question made her think for the first time, of Sam leaving, possibly forever.

"I'm sure we can find a good enough reason for you to stay." Niamh smiled back.

"Then I guess I may be staying on," Sam supposed.

"That would be wonderful." Naimh said. "However, I never really ever thought of you leaving, really. A bit presumptuous and naïve on my part I guess. I mean you have a whole life somewhere else, friends, people who must care where you are?

Looking at Niamh with a soul-bearing look Sam answered, "No, no one is there. At least not anyone I need to go back to."

Hearing that Sam had no one waiting for her caused a lump in Nimah's throat and a pain in her chest, but her feeling sorry for Sam didn't cause it, it was the idea that Sam was available to stay and to stay with her. Niamh hadn't before recognized the depth of emotion in her feelings, or what they could possibly mean to her, but she was starting to.

Jack and Emma running up to the table broke Niamh from her reverie.

"Can we open our presents now?!" they pleaded, jumping up and down while holding onto Janet's arm, tilting her to one side.

"Not yet. We are still waiting for Grandma Susan and Grandpa Harry. When they get here then you can open your presents," Janet scolded them.

The two children looked up at Sam. She smiled down at them as they looked at her with curiosity. "Did you bring us presents?" Jack asked, looking at her curiously since he had never seen her before today, however, the potential that she brought gifts overrode his usual shyness.

"Of course I did. I wouldn't dream of coming to a party without gifts for the birthday boy and girl. But like your mom said, we'll have to wait and see."

At that moment the back gate opened letting in an older couple.

The woman was about as tall as Tracey, and had Tracey's sophisticated good looks and appeared to be in her early sixties. Her blonde hair was fighting a battle with gray, and her skin was showing signs of wrinkles, but overall she was still beautiful.

The man was a mountain, with salt and pepper hair and a thick beard. He had rugged features that made him look as if he would be at home on the sea or in a mountain cabin.

As the couple came into the backyard, a man came out of the house carrying a plateful of uncooked hamburgers and hot dogs. He was as tall as the older man was, but took after the woman's looks. Anyone would know he was related to the two new arrivals.

"Grandma, Grandpa!" the kids yelled as they went racing over to welcome their grandparents. The twins dragged the couple by their hands over to the table.

"Look, Mom, they're here. Now can we open presents?" Emma demanded, pleading with her whole body.

"In a minute, honey. Let everyone get settled first." Janet admonished her with an indulgent smile.

Once everyone was around the table, Janet made the introductions, "Sam I would like to introduce you to my Husband David, my father Harry, and my wonderful and indispensable mother, Susan.

"Don't be a wise ass," Susan said hitting Janet playfully on her shoulder.

With the introductions over and drinks handed out everyone got comfortable around the table. "Okay, now you can open the presents." Janet announced.

The children went at it full force. Opening one present after another, they barely looked to see what was in the packages. Wrapping paper went every which way. When all the boxes were opened the kids took the time to see what booty they had received. They were ecstatic over Niamh's gift, which went well with the Light Saber swords Tracey had gotten them. Apparently this was a Star Wars birthday. Each of the adults had gotten the kids something related to the show. There were Star War Lego sets, Tie-fighters and X-wing fighters, action figures and other paraphernalia.

Finally, the kids came to the big bag that Sam had brought, along with its box. "Can we open it?" Jack asked cautiously, since he didn't really know this woman and didn't expect her to know it was their birthday.

"Sure, bring it over here and let me get it open for you," Sam answered him with a big smile.

Jack and Emma dragged the bag over to Sam, eager to see what was inside the huge bag. Sam opened the bag and pulled out two large boxes wrapped in paper. She gave one to Jack and one to Emma. The two immediately ripped off the paper and began yelling when they saw the contents. Each box contained a Razor A2 scooter.

"Yes!" Jack yelled as he began pumping his arm up and down.

Sam looked at David. "You can take them back to the store and they will put them together for you there. I checked. Oh, and there is one other thing. It was too big to fit in the car, so I got a tag for it at the store. You just have to go pick it up," Sam told him with a smile. She handed over the ticket to Janet. It was for a John Deere Farm Tractor Ride On.

"Oh, Sam, this is too much. All this must have cost you a fortune!" Janet exclaimed in disbelief.

"No, I wanted to, Janet. It was my pleasure. It's been a long time since I got to go into a toy store," Sam said, as if that explained it all.

"I'm amazed Sam." Janet responded as she looked at the numerous toys. "Though I don't know why you would go to so much trouble. It's enough that you wanted to come, truly, since you've never really met the little rugrats."

"And I have one more gift. But this is for the hostess." Sam reached for the box she had been carrying and handed it over to Janet.

Janet unwrapped the box and looked at the label on it. It said "Lenox." She didn't have a good feeling about the contents, based on the size of the box, which was huge. "What have you done, Sam?" She asked with a wary tone. Opening the box Janet let out a gasp; she pulled an eleven-inch vase made of china. A repeating leaf pattern came up the sides; the top and bottom were gilded in gold and small pearls with a pierced fleur-de-lis motif running around the top. Janet had seen the vase the last time she had been to the outlet mall and knew it cost over one hundred dollars. "Sam, this is way over the top. I can't take this; it's more than I can accept."

Sam tilted her head, not understanding the problem. "Of course you can. It's simply a little something I saw over at the Outlet Center and thought you might like. It looked so beautiful; I thought you would love it!"

"I do love it and it is beautiful, but really it is too much," Janet argued.

"Well, you have to take it, because it is bad luck to refuse a gift," Sam countered, believing she had won the argument. And she had.

"Okay, I will keep it," Janet accepted with a resigned sigh. "But no more gifts; you have done too much between the kids and this."

"Okay, I promise. But you take all the fun out of it," Sam agreed with a laugh.

The group spent the rest of the day talking and getting to know each other. Janet kept a close eye on Sam. She spent time observing Sam. Janet noticed Sam had begun talking faster and faster as the day went on. The twins had become noisier and noisier as they ran around playing with all their new toys and Janet noticed that as the noise progressed so did Sam's speech pattern and the tendency of her hands to shake. "Something about her isn't quite right. I can't put my finger on it, but I can see it. I have hardly met anyone who talks so fast," she muttered to herself, and it was true.

Towards the end of the day, Janet was finally able to get some time alone with Niamh. Sitting at the kitchen table Janet asked her, "Niamh, is Sam the person you told me about that you had met outside the store that day?"

"Yes, we've gotten to know each other and have become good friends," Niamh answered.

"How would you describe her overall personality?" Janet asked in such a serious manner that it took Niamh by surprise.

"Why do you want to know?" she asked in return, as she eyed her sister with a wary glance.

"Well, I am curious about the first person you have shown interest in enough to bring her here."

"Sam is gentle, caring, sweet, protective, and loyal. God, I sound like I'm describing a dog. But she is all that and so much more than I could even tell you. You just have to get to know her to get true idea of who she is," Niamh responded, a smile lighting up her eyes.

"What was she like when you first met her? I remember you saying you had a hard time getting to talk to her."

"In the beginning she was very quiet. She spent most of her time walking around town and reading, not doing anything else," Niamh replied, trying to make it sound innocuous. "She was very shy and reserved. It took a lot of effort to get her to come into the store and talk to me. However, now she is a great help in the store. She talks to everyone and has made friends with Melissa and Stan, as well as some of the customers." She was proud of all that Sam had achieved.

"Wow, she sounds like a remarkable person."

"She is. She's doing really well. The customers seem to really love her. She's very helpful and energetic around the shop."

"Have you had any concerns with her. I mean you've only known her a short time."

"No, none. I mean, yeah, she was a little skittish at first and she's been a little over enthusiastic at times, but I really think everything is basically new to her.

"Something simply doesn't feel right about the whole situation."

"What do you mean? Everything is fine."

"I don't know. Maybe it's just me being over protective of my little sister." Janet said, placing her arm around Niamh's shoulder. "Speaking of protective, whatever happened to the notes you were receiving?"

"Oh, I haven't received one in about a week or so," Niamh responded almost dismissively, with a slight frown in her features. "I had almost forgotten about them since Sam started working at the store. They stopped, that's all." Pausing, she wondered at the fact. "Anyway, I haven't gotten another one, so I am going to assume that whoever it was is done and moved on." She frowned in defiance of any such future intrusions.

"Well, that is great news, sweetie. Yeah, hopefully, whoever it was is gone for good. I really hope that's the case, for your sake Niamh."

Niamh rose and took the last of the dishes over to the sink. Looking out the picture window that unveiled the backyard, she saw Sam running around chasing the kids. She was so glad that Sam seemed to get on so well with them. The twins took an instant shine to the blonde stranger. They had been playing together most of the day, except when the kids went down to the beach with their grandparents. Then, Niamh noticed, she seemed to withdraw a little bit. She became quiet again for a short time. A little later she seemed to recover and became a central figure in the conversations again. Niamh was happy that her family approved of Sam, and her anxiety waned as the day wore on.

"Well, Sam and I should be heading on home. I think your kids have worn her out enough for one day," she laughed.

Laughing at the scene of Sam playing with the kids, Niamh turned and headed out the back door into the yard to collect her popular friend. Janet watched Niamh disappear behind the corner, reflecting on Niamh's last words. It would be very nice for her sister to have a home, and someone in it.

Sam and Niamh said their goodbyes. Everyone was in good spirits, giving Sam a hug or a pat on the back as they parted. The two waved to them all as the pulled out of the driveway.

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

Sam was quiet for most of the car ride. She was thinking on how well the meeting with Niamh's family had gone. Wow, she took me to meet the family. I wonder if this means what I think it does. Does she share my feelings for her? I believe I did really well. They seemed to really like me. I know I liked them. I knew I did well with the gifts. That was a good idea. The children were great. Had to work on keeping myself under control for a bit. I don't think anyone noticed. I could simply put it off as nerves. I just wish I could get into Niamh's thoughts. See what she's thinking right now. I mean, she did take me there. She wouldn't do that with merely anyone. I guess there is only one way to find out. But, I'm sure she does.

As they pulled into the parking lot of the motel, Sam left her thoughts where they were. She turned to Niamh with a gracious grin and a definite sparkle lit up her eyes.

Niamh got out of the car and came around to Sam's side as Sam was getting out of the car. Sam leaned on the open door.

"I had a wonderful time. I'm glad you agreed to go. I know you made quite the impression on everyone. Including me," Niamh admitted. Sam sensed Niamh wanted to say more, but that was all she said.

Sam thought as she stared into Niamh's eyes how right it felt to be with this woman. To have her in her life, at this time, here.

Niamh seemed caught by the emotions playing in Sam's eyes. Before either realized what Niamh was doing she leaned in towards Sam.

Sam immediately realized what Niamh was doing and saw the same passion radiating from her eyes that Sam was sure were in her own. Slowly she leaned in, giving Niamh the chance to back out at the last moment. Then their lips met. At first it was a gentle caress. But then it became so much more. Sam put more pressure into the kiss, letting the love she felt be conveyed in that single instant. Sam's tongue begged entry, and Niamh gave it. Sam felt her hand gravitating to the back of Niamh's neck of its own volition, drawing her deeper into the kiss. Both women moaned under the enveloping bliss.

The noise seemed to awaken something in Niamh. Suddenly, she broke away, pushing Sam back with her hands on Sam's chest. "I can't do this!" she cried out. "I'm sorry, I just can't. Tina…"

She didn't need to finish the thought; Sam knew exactly what Niamh meant. In that moment, Sam knew that there was nothing she could do to win Niamh's heart away from her past. With all the control and calm she could muster as her own heart broke, Sam tried to console her. "It's okay, Niamh, I understand. Obviously I overstepped my place. It won't happen again." Her heart was breaking, but she refused to let it show. "Let's put it down as a momentary mistake and leave it at that."

"I'm sorry, Sam." Niamh declared. "I never meant to hurt you by letting you think there could be more than our friendship. That's all I'm capable of. I truthfully wish it could be more but I can't think how it can. I can barely think at all right now."

"No, that's alright. It was my mistake." Sam confessed as she let out a deep sigh. "I guess I read more into it than was there," Sam said with faked calmness. "I only hope we can remain friends." She nervously shifted from foot to foot, hoping against hope not to hear the words she knew were coming, the words any potential lover didn't want to hear.

"Of course we can." Niamh assured her with a weak smile. "I hope we can always be friends."

With those words, Sam felt her heart torn out. "Well then, I will see you around again."

"Sure, I'll see you at the store." Niamh said in reassurance to Sam.

Sam turned and unlocked the door to her room. She entered it and turned to Niamh, holding onto the door like it was a lifeline. "Yeah, I'll see you around." With that she moved back and closed the door, leaving Niamh alone in the parking lot.

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

That night the stranger stood outside Niamh's house spying up at the window to her bedroom. The light was on, despite the lateness of the hour. The stranger felt no need to hide in the woods. The stranger stood in the shadows of the yard. The vigil would be kept, as it had been for weeks, with no fear of being found, there was no hope for gaining their greatest desire. All hope of that was lost. But this tenuous bond could be kept. It was what the stranger would hold onto; without it, all things known would be lost, set adrift with no anchor. Niamh was needed to act as the North Star for her guidance and protection.

Finally, the light to the room went out. But, she would remain until the coming of the dawn, when the light of day made it too dangerous to remain.

Chapter Nine

Niamh arrived at her usual time to open the store. She hadn't been scheduled to work, but after yesterday's incident she called Melissa and told her to come in later today. This morning she wanted to be here for Sam. She was surprised that Sam was nowhere in sight. Usually the woman was there waiting for her. A feeling of dread came over Niamh. She worried that what happened the day before would keep Sam away from the store. Niamh felt a warm tickle spread through her stomach as she thought back to the kiss. No kiss has felt like that one did, not since Tina at least. Who am I kidding, that was better than anything Tina and I shared. With that nerve-wracking thought Niamh opened the doors to the store.

It was then that Niamh noticed the paper taped to the door. She was too distracted by her thoughts to even notice it at first. She had grown accustomed to not seeing them anymore. The fact that Sam wasn't with her this morning made Niamh anxious as she reached for the intimidating paper flipping in the morning breeze.

Pulling the note off the door she read it:

"Curse thee, Life, I will live with thee no more!

Thou hast mocked me, starved me, beat my body sore!

And all for a pledge that was not pledged by me,

I have kissed thy crust and eaten sparingly

That I might eat again, and met thy sneers

With deprecations, and thy blows with tears,--

Aye, from thy glutted lash, glad, crawled away,

As if spent passion were a holiday!

And now I go. Nor threat, nor easy vow

Of tardy kindness can avail thee now

With me, whence fear and faith alike are flown;

Lonely I came, and I depart alone,

And know not where nor unto whom I go;

But that thou canst not follow me I know".

Niamh recognized the writer. It was Edna St. Vincent Millay, but she couldn't remember the title. Something in the back of her mind needled at her about that fact, as if it was somehow of great importance.

Folding up the note, she put it in the pocket of her slacks. She wanted to look at it again later and try to find the title. Maybe Sam would help her find it. "Sam, geez what am I going to do there? I hope I didn't mess it all up yesterday."

To take her mind off that subject Niamh turned back to the note and its writer. The words were so hostile and held such a senses of finality to them.

"Maybe the person is merely thinking of running away, or coming to the realization that their life isn't going to be what they thought it would be," she voiced to herself. But deep down she had an inkling that it was more, and suddenly, Niamh was very worried. She had no idea who had left the notes.

She thought it might have been Brendon, "But I don't think he would go this far. Plus he's too self-centered to take it out on himself. He's more the type to cause damage, not take it."

If this was someone in trouble, she wanted to be able to help. Unfortunately, there was nothing she could do about it.

Niamh moved over to the teapot and began the process of putting on the kettle. As she was putting the water in she let out a yell of frustration, "Arrrghh! She threw the pot in the sink, "I feel so helpless. If there was only something I could do, anything, I would at least be doing something."

"This has gone too damn far! I spend half my day wondering if people I meet are this person. This person who knows me well but whom I can't even reach out to in some sign of empathy," she said, picking up the kettle again. As the water filled it she mused, "I know this person, I'm sure of it."

Knowing deep down in her heart there was nothing she could do about it Niamh went back to the task of getting the tea and coffee started, and then opening the store.

As the morning wore on, there was still no sign of Sam. Niamh began to worry as the clock inched forward, ticking the minutes away, with no clue as to her whereabouts. She remembered that Sam said she would see her at the store, but made no promise as to when. Niamh just assumed she would be here this morning. Niamh still couldn't believe it had happened. That she and Sam kissed! Now she hoped she hadn't ruined everything by pushing her away. Niamh thought back to the evening before, when she had dropped Sam off at the motel. Why did I react the way I did? Why did I push her away? "I wanted it. I wanted it as much as anything. Even as much as I could see her need."

With that settled, Niamh began unpacking some new boxes that had come in. Stan had put them out last night before he'd left. Niamh was able to spend the first morning hours putting the books away. It was busy work for the most part, though it allotted her plenty of time to absorb her mind with Sam.

The other parts were often spent on the note she'd received. The poem had her more concerned than anything. Knowing a little about the poem Niamh considered, "It sounded as if whoever wrote it was feeling relief by giving up the fight. The question is, how are they giving up, are they giving up for now or forever? And in what sense?"

Curiosity finally got the better of Niamh and she went over to the literature section. She picked up an anthology of Millay's works and browsed through the index. Finally finding the opening line, she turned to the page indicated. There was the title of the poem: Suicide. Before she was truly frustrated and a bit scared, now Niamh was far more distressed.

At that moment the bell over the door rang. Niamh jumped in surprise and looked up, hoping it was Sam so they could go sit in the back and think of some course of action together. She knew Sam would help calm her nerves and help her sort something out. Anything had to be better than doing nothing at all. She wanted to feel like she was able to find something, anything, she could do to help this person. Instead, Niamh saw the face of her sister.

Janet came into the store and went to meet Niamh over by the counter. She saw the worried look on Niamh's face. As she approached, she saw her sister biting her lower lip. "Niamh, what is it? Are you okay?" Janet asked, her forehead creasing with a troubled look. "And don't say 'nothing'." Janet told her. "You're biting your lip and you only do that when you're nervous. It isn't about Sam is it?"

"I don't know, Janet. I just don't know what to do!" She exclaimed in an almost frantic rush. She had taken the note out of her pocket and held it crinkled in her hand.

"Okay, well calm down and tell me what happened, then we can try and work it out."

Niamh began relaying what had transpired that morning. "Well, I came to work this morning and found one of those notes again! I hadn't really thought about them. I haven't gotten one in so long. At least not since Sam started opening with me and walking me out at night. Anyway, here it is!" Quickly, Niamh handed the crushed note over to Janet. "I was hoping Sam might have an idea of what to do. I don't have a clue what to do anymore!"

Janet read the note her concern growing as she read. "Niamh, this is serious!" She looked around the store and immediately noticed something missing. "Niamh, where is Sam? Shouldn't she be here with you?"

"Yes, but she wasn't here this morning when I opened up. I thought she would show up later, but she never did. I think she's still upset about last night," she answered a bit confused, not understanding what the possible connection could be.

"Did something happen after you left my place? I thought things had gone really well yesterday. Why would Sam be upset?"

"Well, when we went back to the motel, she kissed me," Niamh said looking down at the counter with a look of guilt. Shame once more rushed over her, but then it recoiled when she remembered the feeling of Sam. How Sam's lips felt against her own and her hair felt as it ran through her fingers. Niamh found it easier to send the dark feelings away as she focused on Sam.

"She kissed you? And did you kiss her too?"

"Yes, no, I don't know. I stopped her after a few moments, once I realized what I was doing. It wasn't something I'd-" she paused, looking at her feet, "planned. I didn't continue," Niamh stuttered, flustered and confused by the recollection.

"Did you enjoy it?"

Niamh thought about it for a moment. "It was amazing! I think that is what scared me so much. I didn't know what to do. I was kissing her and then I suddenly thought of Tina. I was overwhelmed and confused. So, I pulled back. Now I think I was wrong. Maybe I should have let it happen. As much as I hate to face it, Tina is gone. I need to start accepting that fact."

Janet saw how Sam felt about Niamh. She had seen it in only one afternoon. She noticed the way Sam's eyes followed her every move, as if she were her lifeline. How she hung on her every word like they were wondrous sonnets. They were all the signs of adoration, affection…love. To have that denied could be crushing. Especially to someone like Sam.

"What did you say to her? How did she react?"

"I told her that it couldn't be that way between us. That I hoped we could remain friends. She seemed a little stiff and uncomfortable, but she agreed to forget it. When we said goodbye, she said she would be here. So I assumed she was okay. Perhaps I was wrong." Ashamed for how she'd treated Sam, Niamh believed she'd almost deserved to never see her again. Niamh hoped at the least she would have the opportunity to apologize, to take it all back.

"This is not good" Janet muttered to herself.

"What?" Niamh asked.

Looking Niamh in the eyes, trying to offer some sympathy, Janet told her, "Niamh, from what I've seen of Sam, I think its possible she took it a bit harder than you think." After a moment of pause Janet asked, "What room is she staying in at the motel?"

"Eleven…why do you want to know? Are you going over there?"

"Yeah, I figured since you were stuck here, I would go check on her. You know, make sure everything's okay. I know you're probably a little worried about how she is since she's not here and all. I guessed it would put your mind at ease over at least one thing today. I'll just pretend you had a momentary lapse of stupidity and offer her a shoulder." Janet tried to be nonchalant.

"It would at that." Niamh laughed. "Thanks for thinking of it, but I think I'll go with you. If any fences need mending, I want to be there to do it," Niamh said, putting on a stubborn front to prevent any argument.

"Okay," Janet surrendered seeing the determination on Niamh's face

As Niamh went to grab her coat, Janet mused, "Geez, how will this whole situation turn out?" Years of working in the ER had taught her to read people like Sam. What she saw in her was someone who was possibly on an emotional edge.

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

The two pulled up to the motel in Janet's minivan, stopping in front of Sam's room. Getting out, the two noticed that the room was dark and the curtains were drawn.

Niamh knocked repeatedly on the door, but got no answer. "Maybe she's sleeping or in the shower," she to herself as much as to Janet. She pounded louder. Still there was no answer. "Sam, it's Niamh. Can I talk to you?" she called through the door as she knocked one last time. "Sam, it's important. Please come to the door!"

"Could she have left, or checked out?"

"No, I don't think so. I'm pretty sure that's her car," Niamh said, pointing to the sports car next to the Janet's minivan.

Janet peeked through the small opening in the curtain trying to see what she could inside. "There may be some movement there. I think I see something or someone at least. I'm going to go and ask the manager if we can get in there," she resolved. "You stay here in case she shows up or answers the door."

"If she's in there, why isn't she answering the door? Maybe she's too mad to talk to me. Yeah, but Sam would at least have the courtesy of coming to the door."

Her sister shook her head as she walked away. "I should've told her what I thought, or thought I knew, was going on with Sam last night. Now I can only hope to talk to Sam first."

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

Janet jogged across the parking lot to the motel office to find the manager. He sat behind the counter, feet propped on his desk, watching a soap opera on the television. "Excuse me, can you help me?"

The man stood up from his chair, his gut hanging down over his belt. "What can I do for you, miss?" the man offered gruffly, circling around the counter. Once Janet got a closer look, it appeared he hadn't shaved in several days and his dark brown hair could use a wash.

"I'm looking for the manager, or someone who can help me get into one of your rooms."

"Well, I'm the manager. What room do you need to get into and why?" he asked in a skeptical tone.

"A friend of mine is in room eleven. She isn't answering the door. I think she may be sick. I'm a nurse and I simply want to make sure she's okay," Janet pleaded with the man.

"How do I know that you really are her friend and not some stranger trying to get access to one of my guests?" he asked, his eyes giving Janet the once over.

"Your guest in room eleven is Samantha Bailey; blonde, blue eyes, about five ten, or five eleven, usually has a book in her hands." The last part Janet guessed at, but she figured it was probably likely.

"Yeah, that's her," he said, "but that still doesn't get you in the room. I don't just let people into guests' rooms. If she wanted you in there she would let you in."

"Look, sir, I know this is unusual, but I really believe my friend may be in trouble. She wasn't feeling well when she was dropped off yesterday and now she isn't coming to the door. I merely want to check on her. You can stay and watch if you want to make sure everything is okay."

The manager looked Janet over, appearing to be trying to judge her sincerity. When it looked like he had decided to trust her he said, "Let me get the key and we can go take a look." He reached under the counter and pulled out a giant set of keys. Janet assumed there must be a copy for each room.

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

As the two walked across the parking lot, Janet saw Niamh banging on the door to the room calling for Sam. When Niamh got no answer at the door, she went back to peek through the shades.

"Niamh, I've got the manager; he's going to let us in." Janet told her, hoping to calm her down a bit.

The man walked up to the door and started looking for the right key. "I can't thank you enough for this, sir," Niamh said, a sound of real anxiety in her voice that Janet quickly picked up on.

"Dennis, Dennis Fowler," the man introduced himself, still looking for the key. Finally, having decided on what he felt was the right one, he put it in the lock and turned. The door opened.

Niamh went to go in when Janet abruptly held her back by the arm. "Wait!"

"Wait? Wait for what? Sam could be in there sick or hurt!" she exclaimed. "You're the one who got us started on this, why wait?"

"No, Niamh, really, please…just wait out here for a minute or two while I go check on her. If she is sick, she probably doesn't want you to see her at this point, and if she is hurt, I need someone out here to call for help. Okay? I'm sure she's fine, but I want to have a look first, okay?"

"Alright, but only for a few minutes," Niamh agreed, crossing her arms over her chest in what Janet knew was Niamh's attempt to calm herself, her hands tucked in tight under her arms.

"Okay." Janet said, laying a hand on her shoulder and giving it a squeeze.

Janet walked to the doorway and let out a sigh. She was afraid of what she would find. Under her breath she pleaded, "If I am right, please, God, give Niamh and Sam the strength to handle this together." She recalled how the two behaved with each other the day before. All day long Niamh had given Sam small intimate touches. It seemed whenever they were near each other, Niamh found a reason to touch her, laying a hand on Sam's shoulder, arm, or hand. And in exchange Sam bestowed upon her the most loving looks.

Going further into the dark room, Janet noticed that the television had been overturned, and the bedding was all over the room, the mattress laying half off the frame and half on the floor. In contrast, books were piled neatly in the corners and along the walls. The stacks were as tall as Janet's waist, and she guessed there must be at least a two hundred books. What really caught her attention, though, were the photographs taped to the wall over the bed. They were pictures of Niamh! All of them! Janet didn't have time to examine them closely but she got the idea. Sam had been secretly photographing Niamh. "Well, that answers one mystery," she said with no sense of satisfaction or even irony. Janet realized she should be disturbed by what she found, but her professional mind took over. She had only one concern at this point and that was Sam.

"Now for the next mystery, where is Sam?" Janet tried to turn on the light using the switch by the door, but nothing happened, the darkness remained. She couldn't get to the curtains because of the mattress and books. So, using only the light from the open door Janet searched the shadows. Over on the other side of the bed she heard a small keening noise; like an injured animal.

Walking over, Janet peered over the bed. Sam was curled up on the floor, her hands covering her ears, making the noise that Janet heard. "Not a good sign," she said, trying to relive some of her own tension.

Trying to move slowly Janet walked around the edge of the bed. "Sam," she said in a hushed voice not wanting to startle her. "Sam. Sam, it's Janet, Sam." She said louder now hoping to get some reaction from the woman. Going over to Sam she bent down and laid a gentle hand on the woman's back, rubbing it in gentle circles, like she did with the twins after a nightmare. Sam didn't shy away, but kept up the noise and continued to cover her ears as so tight the back of her hands were turning white. "Sam, do you want to tell me what happened?" Janet asked, trying to get her to answer.

Sam stopped making the keening sound and looked up at Janet with eyes filled with tears and a pleading sound to her voice. "Can you make the TV shut off? I've tried everything but the sound won't turn off! Can you make it stop, please?" she begged.

Janet's fears were realized. Sam was in a delusional state. She knelt down next to the woman in the quiet room. "Sure, honey, we can make it stop." Not wanting to voice her concern's in front of Sam she thought to herself, this is worse than I thought. "Is the TV talking to you, Sam?" Please say no, Sam, please.

"No, just make it stop! I just want to go to sleep. I can't with all the noise. I tried, Janet, honest I tried!" she beseeched Janet to believe her.

This was a good sign at this point. At least she wasn't interacting with what she was hearing. "Sam, when was the last time you slept?"

"I don't remember, the day before yesterday or maybe before that. I can't think, everything is so fast in my mind," Sam responded in a defeated, frustrated voice.

"Okay, honey, we're going to help you get some sleep," Janet told her, "but you have to come with me, sweetie. We have to go outside. If we go outside I can help you. I can take you somewhere where we can make the noise stop. I promise."

At this, Sam jumped up against the wall, knocking over several piles of books. "No, I won't go! I don't want to leave here, everything I need is here." Sam said, raising her voice and pointing to the books. "Only make the noise stop and everything will be fine! I swear, I won't do it again," she said pointing to the wall over the bed before putting her hands back over her ears. Trying to block out the imagined noise.

Janet tried to approach her again, "Sam, I can't do that here. We need to go somewhere else."

Sam pinned herself against the wall, pulling a razorblade off the nightstand. "I told you Janet, I don't need to go. Just fix the fucking TV!" she screamed. "Please!" She implored one last time, in a voice reminiscent of a child, earnest of its mother to make the nightmares end.

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

Niamh stood outside the motel room waiting with Mr. Fowler. While she lingered she thought about what could possibly be going on inside the room. She paced back and forth in front of the motel. "What does Janet think she is going to find in there that Sam wouldn't want me to see? If she were sick, I would think she would want my help, especially then," Niamh said aloud waving her hands about as she did. For a moment Mr. Fowler thought she was talking to him. Niamh looked at the darkened room. She couldn't see anything going on inside and tried to peer into the darkness more. When nothing appeared Niamh stood waiting for something to happen, anything.

Niamh stepped away from the window, with a deep sigh, the frustration obvious on her face.

Moving about the lot she ended up leaning her back against the side of the mini-van. "After last night, I wouldn't blame her if she didn't. I can't imagine that she is that mad at me over it, though. She wouldn't be that…that, geez I can't even think of a word for it. She seemed so okay with it when I left. I know it was the coward's way out, but I had to leave."

Mr. Fowler watched silently, not sure what to make of the situation. Running his hand though his sparse hair to try and relieve some of his own stress.

After a moment of silence she began playing with the rear view mirror, flipping it back and forth. "I simply wasn't strong enough to stay. I hadn't been kissed like that since Tina died. It was amazing. Too amazing. It scared me. Because I felt so at home there in Sam's arms, and my soul felt at peace when we kissed."

Hearing the comment Mr. Fowler gasped. He had no problem with such things; he just never had to hear about it.

Using more force with each admission, Niamh thought aloud to the surrounding air. "The situation was so overwhelming. I was shocked that I felt things that deeply for someone again; I did the only thing I knew how to do. I ignored it and pretended it never happened. But, it did happen, and now Sam is in there. She could be angry, hurt, or sick over what I did to her, and I wouldn't blame her. I only want the opportunity to make it up to her. To let her know how she made me feel last night, for the first time in a very long time, I felt something. Something other than the loneliness and emptiness I have grown to accept in my life. Love."

With that final admission Niamh pushed the mirror closed with significant force, enough to sound across the lot to the motel owner.

Niamh pushed off the car and headed back towards the room as she confronted what her statement meant. "Did I say love? I can't love her. I've only known her a few weeks… how could I possibly even think I love her? Could it be? I haven't felt this way about anyone in so long. She makes me feel the way Tina did, and last night it seemed even more." Niamh stopped her short trek, "Oh, my God, what am I going to do?"

The longer Niamh stood outside the more worried she became about Sam and about her own confusing feelings. What seemed like hours had only been a few minutes though. That was when she heard Sam scream out.

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

Niamh rushed into the room. She saw Sam standing by the wall. She was so focused on Sam, not even seeing the room around her. She saw Sam pressed up against the wall, looking like a frightened child. "Sam, you're okay, we came by to find you," she said, making a move to step closer.

Janet grabbed Niamh by the shoulder, stopping her from going any further. "Niamh, wait, Sam isn't well right now. Why don't you step outside with me and we can get Sam some help, Niamh, please?"

It was then that Niamh took a closer look at Sam. She saw wildness in her eyes. As if she barely recognized them. Her eyes traveled down Sam's body looking for some sort of explanation, settling on the razorblade in her hand. "Janet? Sam? What's going on?" she demanded, looking between one and the other, a look of confusion and shock on her face. Shock over what she was seeing and confusion over how it could even be possible. How could Sam have become this stranger in front of her? Gone was the strong, confident person she had seen yesterday, now replaced with this frightened, wild being. Niamh looked between Janet and Sam, hoping one of them would answer her.

"Let's step outside, sweetie, and I'll explain everything, but right now I want to let Sam calm down." Janet took Niamh by the arm again; she let herself be led, looking back over her shoulder at Sam as they left, still not understanding anything.

Once Janet and Niamh were outside, Sam looked at where Niamh had been staring at her, and saw the razorblade. She threw it away as if it burned her. Sam shook her head and covered her ears as if the noise was making it hard for her to think. She looked up and eyed the room around her. Her gaze going from the bed, to the books, the TV, and finally the blade she had held, now lying on the floor. A look of complete perplexity coming to her blue eyes .

Niamh stood by as Janet made a call on her cell phone. What is going on here? What could possibly be wrong with her? She looked crazed. Could it be drugs, or alcohol?

Before, she could think about anymore, Janet finished with her phone call. "I called an ambulance, Niamh. I want to take Sam to the hospital; she needs medical attention," Janet said in her professional voice. It did nothing to reassure her sister.

"What is wrong with her, Janet?" she asked frightfully, "She looked like she barely recognized us!"

"She did, Niamh…she knew you were there, you have to believe that. If anything, believe that."

"Don't tell me that bullshit Janet! She looked crazed for god sake. What is it drugs, alcohol?"

"No, it's not that Niamh. I'm sorry but we're going to have to wait to find out what's truly going on."

Niamh was not happy with the answer but gave in to her sister's professional demeanor.

After waiting for a short time, an ambulance pulled up. Janet went over and talked to the two attendants. Niamh overheard part of the conversation.

"I think I can coax her out, but I would advise you guys to be ready, just in case." Janet instructed.

Niamh realized that if she couldn't get Sam out of the room there was a chance she would be treated as a criminal or worse.

Before anyone could stop her, Niamh went running back into the motel room. Coming to a stop inside the door, she looked for Sam.

Sam was curled up against the wall where she had been standing before, as if it had become too much effort to stand. Her head was resting in her hands, which she'd propped up on her knees. Niamh walked over and stood in front of her. "Sam, it's me. I want you to come outside with me."

Sam looked up at her with bloodshot eyes. "Go away, Niamh, you can't do anything here now. It's too late. The damage is done. Can't you see that? Can't you see what I've become?" she said with a sound of defeat in her voice. She laid her face in her hands again, but not before Niamh saw the tears streaming down her cheeks.

"I can't, Sam. You mean too much to me. We can work through this, whatever it is, together! Please, Sam, for me, walk outside with me," Niamh pleaded, holding out her hand to her.

Through her muddled mind Sam heard the plea. Talking to herself, as if Niamh wasn't there she said, "Can I deny her this one last thing? After today I will never see her again, I'm sure of it."

With that Sam looked up at her vision of Niamh. "She is as beautiful as ever. I will always remember the way she looked, the way she felt in my arms, how sweet her lips tasted.

"Of course I will Sam. I'll always be here for you, giving you whatever strength you need. I promise."

Sam slowly stood up, using the wall to support herself. She refused to look Niamh in the eyes, afraid of the disappointment and hatred she might find there.

Niamh held out her hand again to the desperate woman. "Come on, Sam, it'll be okay. You'll see."

Sam took her hand, "to feel its softness one last time." She let herself be led from the confined room into the open parking lot.

As they walked outside, Sam squinted against the brightness of the daylight. Her eyes adjusted to the view of Janet and two ambulance attendants. They had a gurney out waiting for her. Her steps faltered at the sight.

Niamh looked over at her, squeezing her hand in reassurance. "It's okay, Sam; it's the way they have to do it. It's going to be fine," she said in a soft reassuring voice.

Sam looked up at her and saw the look of what she imagined was love and concern in Niamh's eyes. Gathering up her strength from within herself and from Niamh, Sam approached the small group. "I'm ready."

Janet's face showed her amazement that Niamh was able to talk the woman into the ambulance with no argument. "Now I am sure I was right about these two. There is a very deep connection between them."

Overhearing her comment, the attendant looked over at Niamh and Sam and then back to Janet with a smile, "I think you're right."

Sam lay down on the gurney.

Janet came over to her. "Sam, do you think you can stay calm for a while?" she asked in a quiet tone.

"I think so." Looking up at Niamh, Sam said hesitantly. "Can you stay with me?"

Niamh sensed her fear and came up to her, taking her hand at once. The corner of her eye caught Janet shaking her head slightly. "It's going to be okay, Sam," she said with as big a smile as she could muster. "Janet is going to ride with you. Right, Janet?"

"Right." Janet reassured her.

"And I'll be right behind you in the car. I promise," she said, giving the hand in hers one final squeeze before letting go, as the men loaded her in the ambulance.

Janet climbed in after them, taking a seat next to Sam. Niamh could see her talking to Sam when the doors closed behind them. As the ambulance drove off, Niamh stood in the parking lot, watching it drive off. The white van shrunk in the distance, with it carrying any remaining strength. Her vigil was broken by the sound of clearing their throat. It was Mr. Fowler.

"I'm sorry about your friend, miss, but what am I supposed to do about the room? It's paid for till the end of the month, but there is a lot to clean up here," he said

"Don't worry, Mr. Fowler, I'll cover any cleanup costs. Just send me the bill over at the bookstore; the name is Niamh Fitzpatrick," she answered distractedly, still staring at where the ambulance had disappeared around the corner.

With that Niamh returned to the room. She looked around at the destruction, amazed that Sam could brood with so much hate and turmoil. As she turned to leave, her eyes caught images on the wall. She walked over to get a better look in the enveloping blackness. There, on the wall, were the pictures of her. Some had been taken in front of the bookstore. More shots were taken by looking through the windows at her house. There were some of her in the backyard playing with Artemis, and on the beach with Janet and the kids. Suddenly Niamh felt weak in the knees. She grabbed the nearby dresser for support as the realization hit her. Sam was her stalker. All the notes, all the pictures-everything was from Sam.

Chapter Ten

Niamh was dazed. She drove to the hospital on automatic pilot voicing her turmoil. "How could Sam be the stalker? How could I not have noticed anything? There must have been signs. How could I have been so stupid?" Niamh berated herself. "Falling for all the lies she told me, only so she could get close to me. But how do I know they are lies? The lies seemed so real, so sincere-how could you do this to us, Sam? When I looked in your eyes or felt your touch it didn't feel untrue, it felt honest. More honest than anything I have felt in such a long time. How can I stand to be with you? How can I stand not to? I'm so fucking confused," she exclaimed, pounding the steering wheel in frustration.

Niamh arrived at the hospital's emergency room. She right away asked for Sam at the front desk, only to be told that she would have to wait. Since she wasn't family, Niamh knew she couldn't force her way in to her. Niamh was a bit relieved about this. She knew seeing Sam right now would only make her anger rise again, causing the fear and frustration of the last several weeks coming to her mind. But why did she do it? I truly don't understand. Why? What did she want from me?

Niamh spent the next two hours thinking about Sam, what she had done, why she did it. She walked around most of the first floor of the hospital simply following the lines on the floor. But mostly she thought about how Sam was doing right now. How were they treating her? Was she all alone in some cold impersonal room or was Janet keeping Sam company? As she walked she began to mutter herself, "Why do I care so much about what they are doing to her? I don't know why I am even here. After everything she has put me through the last few weeks I am the last person who should be here," she thought angrily. But no matter her rationalization for leaving, Niamh stayed, every few minutes ending up passing through the ER and asking if there was any word yet.

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

Niamh jumped up when she finally saw Janet come through the doors to the emergency room. Janet advanced with a serious, professional expression. Niamh became nervous. She was still not sure why she even cared, but her concern won out.

Janet came over, motioning for Niamh to sit back down, taking a seat next to her.

Niamh wrung her hands, hardly able to contain herself. After a moment of silence passed, she jumped up demanding answers. "What's going on, Janet? Can I see her? I really need to talk to her. I want to know why. You know what she did; you saw that room too."

Janet sympathetically looked up at her sister. Sadness passed over her eyes. "No, you can't see her right now, Niamh. I'm sorry. They only let me in with her because she asked them to and I work here."

"Janet, what's wrong with her? She was acting so bizarre. It scared me to see her like that. And then there were all the pictures. What was she doing following me like that? I thought she was my friend. She didn't need to do that to me. What kind of friend would do that? For that matter, what kind of person would do this type of thing?"

Janet looked away for a moment, trying to gather herself. At last, she looked up at Niamh. "I'm sorry, honey, but I can't tell you that."

Niamh was confused for a moment. "You don't know what is wrong with her? Janet, you must have some idea. Please tell me," she pleaded.

"Please sit down, sweetie." Janet watched as her sister slowly sat back down. "I can't tell you Niamh, I'm not allowed to. The only one who can do that is Sam, herself. I'm sorry."

Niamh understood; it was the only thing she did understand today. Janet couldn't tell her because of patient privilege. However, it didn't make her feel any better. "Why, Janet, why would she do it?"

"I wish I could tell you that, Niamh. I really do. I will tell you that if it were me, I'd wait to talk to her before I made any judgments," she said, looking Niamh purposefully in the eye.

"I don't understand. Someone let me know what to do, because a large part of me wants to go in there screaming at her, telling her I'm going to the police!" Niamh said. "However, another part of me wants to understand why she did it and beg her for some reasonable explanation that will make this all better," hope coming into her voice. "But right now, I think the screaming part is too strong to be reasonable. At this moment I don't know if I can forgive her for this. Right now I don't think I'm capable of deciding what to do."

The two women sat in the waiting room in silence. Minutes passed by, leaving each of them lost in their own private thoughts. Finally, looking at the wall in front of her and not at Janet, Niamh asked her, "Is she going to be okay? I mean, it's nothing life threatening or anything, right?" She spoke softly, as if she'd already accepted defeat.

"No, she'll be fine. She may have to stay in the hospital for a short period, depending on what the specialist says, but I am positive she can beat this. I have faith that Sam is made of stronger stuff than you or I could imagine."

At this last statement, Niamh looked up at Janet's eyes, seeing the sincerity of the statement. Niamh looked into those eyes hoping to see the answer she sought. There were none. Frustrated she ran her hands through her thick hair; with each sentence her voice rose. "It's only that I don't know what to do, Janet. I'm confused and hurt right now. I feel betrayed! She was my friend! Was that all a lie? Was it only a means to get closer to me? Tell me what I should believe!"

"I wish I could, Niamh, but the only one who can explain the reasons Sam did what she did is Sam herself. They are answers you will need to wait for. I'm sorry." Janet said with a tone of remorse. They both knew Janet's job wouldn't let her.

"You're my sister, Niamh, my flesh and blood. I care deeply for you, you know that. But it isn't up to me to tell you. Sam will have to be the one to come clean with you. To give you the answers you need so badly.

"Why don't you go home, Niamh? Get some rest. You've been here all day and you look emotionally drained."

"Are you sure I can't see her?" Niamh asked one more time.

"Yeah, she is going to be a while longer, and even then I can't promise that she will be able to see you today."

As mad as she felt Niamh still asked, "But she will see me when she can, right?"

"I don't know, Niamh. I pray that she does."

"I guess I'll go home then. I could probably use a good night's sleep. Maybe tomorrow this will all begin to make sense to me and I can decide what to do." Niamh stood up to leave and took a few steps away. Looking back at Janet she said, "If you see her, can you tell her that I lo-that I hope she feels better." Niamh couldn't bring herself to voice what she really felt. Not after today. With that, Niamh turned and walked away.

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

Still in her street clothes, Sam laid on the bed in the ER. When she had first come in the nurse had given her a shot of what the doctor said was Haldol. What it was, she didn't know, but it made the noises and voices go away for a while. Whether they would come back she didn't know. But she hoped not. Keeping the voices in check simply made her even more worn out.

Right now Sam was exhausted as she lay there. She had been lying restrained on the gurney for hours, with nurses coming in and out occasionally to check on her. The restraints were connected to the metal rails. They weren't uncomfortable, as they were lined, but they were having a definite effect on her mood. It seemed like every five minutes they came in to check on her…perhaps they thought she might do something to herself. But Sam didn't have the energy to do anything at this point.

Sam had spent a lot of energy today and was feeling nothing but defeat. Being restrained for so long was beginning to wear on her already frazzled thoughts. Finally the frustration built to a point where she tried to squeeze her hands free. At one point she found the wherewithal to thrash about trying to get the shackles off. But in the end it did nothing but make one of the nurses come back into the cubical to check that the ties were still holding Sam in.

All Sam wanted was to go home and sleep. Sleep would be able to save her from having to think about Niamh. "How could I ever explain what I did to her? She must know by now what I did. I know I'll never see her again, but it would have been nice to at least get the chance to say goodbye," Sam told herself in a wistful tone. Sam vaguely remembered seeing Janet around the room when she had first come in. "Maybe I can get Janet to relay a message to her. To let her know how sorry I am. Though I know that nothing I say can make up for all the pain and stress I've put Niamh through."

While Sam was spellbound by her thoughts, she didn't notice the man entering the room. The ER doctor, who had treated her when she'd first arrived, entered the room, holding her chart.

"Hello Miss Bailey. How are you feeling now?" he asked her, never looking up from the notes on the chart. "I see that aside from being agitated when you came in, you were also hearing voices, and had at one time, during an altercation, pulled a knife," he said in a disinterested manner.

"It was a razor, not a knife. And I didn't 'pull it' on anyone. It was only that I happened to have it in my hand at the time, and the 'altercation' wasn't much either," Sam said, a little annoyed at the guy's attitude. Though she hoped that by playing the whole thing down it would help her get her out of there. She was fine now.

The doctor looked at her as if he really didn't believe that answer. "Nurse Shelly said you picked up the razor during her attempt to talk to you. She also said you had written a disturbing note this morning."

"It wasn't a 'disturbing note.' It was a bit of poetry I copied from a book. That's all it was." Sam hoped she could talk her way home. The doctor seemed to be making a lot more out of it than there was.

The doctor's face didn't indicate he believed that answer anymore than he did the first response.

"And what about the voices?" he asked with a raised eyebrow, looking directly at Sam, incredulity written on his face, as if he already knew this answer would be similar to the others.

"They weren't voices. I think it was a TV or radio, maybe from one of the rooms next door." Sam said, looking the doctor directly in the eyes, her face having a look of determination on it, defying him to question her explanation.

The doctor seemed doubtful, with both eyebrows raised. "Right. When you came in you seemed a little agitated, can you tell me what that was about?" He scribbled notes on the chart.

"It was nothing. I had a disagreement with a friend of mine. I hadn't had any sleep. I got a little upset. Nothing more." Each new inquiry brought more aggravation with it. "Look I don't know what you want from me. Why can't I simply go home? I only need to get some sleep. That's all I need. Get some sleep and maybe talk to my friend and I'll be fine." But Niamh won't talk. Not after what I did today. Not after everything I've done.

"From what Nurse Shelley said, you got a little more than upset in your motel room," the doctor replied, shattering Sam's self-diagnosis.

"Look, if it is a matter of paying the damages, I am sure I can work out something with the manager. I was a little angry. I threw a few things. Nothing serious happened! I can fix it. I'm sure I can fix it. Nothing happened which can't be fixed." She didn't need any additional complications, but the doctor was pushing her buttons. Deciding to take a break from his inquisition, she turned away and faced the pale blue wall to her right, trying to get lost in the pattern of the tiles. She sniffled back her runny nose and tears escaped from her eyes. Except for Niamh. I can never fix that. I just wish…if I could only explain. To see her. Sam let out a deep sigh, knowing it would never happen. She gave one more pull to the restraints, rapidly feeling trapped again.

As the doctor looked on at her action, he stated, "Well, be that as it may, I would like to see you stay for a little while, so we can see what caused your agitated state and how you respond to the medication we will be giving you. We would like to put you on a prescription, but would like to be aware of any adverse reactions you may have to it."

"For how long?" Sam asked, sounding a little dejected, with an added tone of exasperation, at the thought of staying overnight.

"Two, maybe three, weeks," he said matter-of-factly, never even looking up from her chart.

Sam's mouth dropped open. "Two to three weeks?! No way! I have to get out of here. Now!" She yelled at him in desperation.

Ignoring her upset tones, he calmly continued, "Yes, from what I understand you are here alone in town, so I would like you to stay until we can be sure this won't happen again." He looked up from the chart with a serious, but reassuring, look on his face, as if that would make the news easier to take.

"It won't happen again! I told you that!" She feebly attempted to sit up, but she was held down by the restraints around her wrists once more. She angrily lay back down and pulled against the restraints. Looking angrily at the doctor, she demanded, "Are these things really necessary?"

He looked at her sympathetically, his eyes softening for the first time since he came in, "Yes, I am afraid that is hospital procedure. It's for your own protection. Once we get you admitted into a room we can take them off."

"Well, you can take them off now because I'm not staying!"

"Miss Bailey, let me be honest with you about this," the doctor said, finally taking a seat on the metal stool next to Sam's gurney his dark blue scrubs contrasting the thin white sheet she lay on. "There really is no choice here for you at this point. You can either check yourself into the hospital tonight, or we can do it for you. Based on the details of the incident this morning we have the right to admit you without your consent, either as a threat to yourself or to others. If we do that, you'll have to remain here until we decide it's okay for you to leave. However, if you check yourself in you will have the ability to check yourself out. It will look better for you if you do this voluntarily, Miss Bailey. Honestly."

"I don't understand any of this. How can you keep me here against my will? It was simply a misunderstanding!" Sam knew enough to know that it would only take two doctors to sign a form to keep her there indefinitely. "Look, what if I do outpatient? I could come by and check in every day. You could do what you need and then I could go home. I promise to show up!" Sam begged, a look of true despair and pleading in her eyes.

"I'm sorry, Miss Bailey, but without anyone outside the hospital to take care of you this is the only alternative we can offer. There is no way around this. One way or the other, we will be admitting you. The choice of how we do it and how you are able to leave are entirely up to you." The doctor spoke with a soothing but firm tone. She wasn't getting out of this choice.

Sam didn't know what to think. Her mind was still fuzzy from the drugs they had given her. Trying to clear her mind, she thought about it slowly. Sam knew she could fight it legally, but that would take time. The promise of being able to leave when she wanted was the only enticement. I could stay a few days, maybe figure out what to do next.

Sam seemed to study the striped curtain hanging in front of her as she thought about her predicament. Slowly, she turned her head back to the doctor. She looked him over with a critical eye, trying to gauge whether or not he really would keep her there. What she found in his eyes gave her little hope. She looked at him with a little wariness. "So I can leave anytime I want?"

"Yes," he tried to assure her, "anytime after the first forty-eight hours."

"Okay, since it looks like I have little choice. I suppose I could take the lesser of two evils and leave when I'm ready to go," she resigned, turning her head away again.

"Alright," the doctor said, standing up. "I will need you to sign these papers." He placed a pen in her fingers, holding the chart for her to sign a set of papers. "Tell me when to turn the page. I need you to just sign on the bottom of the second page after you read it through."

Sam looked at him and said, "Turn the damn thing and let me get this whole damn thing over with." After the doctor flipped up the top page, she quickly signed without even bothering to read it. It's not like anyone will notice I'm gone, or miss me. Not anymore, at least. She felt the pen taken out of her hand as Sam stared up at the ceiling, barely hearing the doctor as he said someone would be in soon to take her upstairs to her room.

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

Sam was taken up to her floor by an orderly after spending several hours in the emergency room. The nurse greeted them at the door to the ward. Sam didn't get more than a glimpse as the woman walked behind the orderly. The two staff members exchanged greetings and began to get into a personal conversation. The orderly was on the outs with his girlfriend, again.

Fear began to set in when Sam heard the second set of solid doors click and lock behind them. Here she was tied to a gurney with no way of getting out, not sure if anyone even knew where she was. What if they don't let me leave? Panic entered her mind the further into the ward they went. This is the psych ward! Sam thought in horror, not wanting her panic to show. The realization of where she was, and what she had agreed to, set in.

They went into one of the rooms down thelong corridor. The rooms and walls were painted white on the bottom with the top half being done in a sky blue. From her position on the gurney Sam couldn't see much around her, but heard several voices coming from down the hallway and out of the rooms.

The room they took her into was completely tiled, reminding Sam of a gym locker room. Inside the room was a set of open showers. A tile wall about five feet high separated the showers. There was nothing else in the room except a medical supply cabinet and hooks on the walls between the shower stalls.

The nurse untied Sam from the gurney. "Hi, my name is Mrs. Fogarty."

Instinctively Sam rubbed at her wrists where the ties had been. "Thanks, I was beginning to feel like they would never come off again"

The nurse was an older woman with salt and pepper hair. Sam guessed her to be around age fifty. The woman was about five foot six and looked to be in good shape for her age. She had a friendly smile on her face and warm eyes when she looked at Sam.

"I know. It can be a bit much. Okay, dear, I need you to strip out of your clothes. We need to check you out and then you can take a nice shower," Mrs. Fogarty said, the expression on her face showing understanding and concern, her hazel eyes softening.

"Check me out? You mean a physical? Isn't that what being downstairs was about?" Sam asked, her brows furrowed in confusion, not really understanding why she would want to do a physical in the shower room.

"Well, we will take your vitals and weigh you when you're done with your shower. But before that we have to do a body search. I'm sorry, but it is procedure. We have had people try and sneak things onto the floor before." The nurse gave Sam a sympathetic look, giving Sam a sense of understanding how the request would affect Sam.

"Is that really necessary?" Sam exclaimed. "I promise I don't have anything on me. They took all my personal effects downstairs."

"I am sorry, sweetie, but it is required of all new patients here. I will make this as fast and easy as I can for you. Please relax, cooperate and it will be over before you know it," Mrs. Fogarty promised. "Otherwise I will have to sedate you and do it. I don't think either of us wants to have that happen."

Sam quickly understood that this was inevitable. No matter what she wanted. No matter how degrading, she knew it would happen. Sam was startled out of her thoughts by the sound of a latex glove being put on. She turned her head to see Nurse Fogarty putting some Vaseline on her fingers. She stiffened up in anticipation of what was to come next. But then her thoughts turned to Niamh again. "Maybe I can still prove to her that I am worthy of at least being her friend. If I can show her that I am not only some crazy stalker," Sam muttered as the nurse was turned away.

With that thought, Sam began taking off her clothes. She took each piece and carefully hung it on the hooks on the shower stall wall next to her. She took a second to realize the tiles were the same hue as the blue walls in the corridor and the ER. She didn't know why that seemed worth noticing, but she did.

Sam tried to relax a little as the nurse came over to her. "Okay, dear, let's get the worst of this over with first, and then it will all be easy after that. Sam tried to shut down her mind as she felt the fingers begin their invasion. "Just relax and it will be over in a moment." The nurse placed a comforting hand on Sam's back, actually rubbing it a bit, but maintained a pure business tone. Sam tried to think of something calming and soothing; immediately she pictured Niamh's face. Niamh was laughing with a sparkle in her chocolate colored eyes. Sam relaxed and absorbed the feelings of joy that exuded from Niamh's face. She drank it in as if she were in a desert.

So lost in the feelings, Sam didn't even notice when the nurse had finished. Suddenly, she was standing in front of her. "Okay, the last part is I need you to open your mouth so I can check inside." Sam did as ordered while the nurse pulled out a penlight and looked in her mouth. "Lift your tongue," she asked, not changing her professional tone. Sam did as asked. "That's fine. Why don't you go ahead and take your shower. I'm sure you could use it. We have plenty of hot water, so try and relax." Nurse Fogarty handed Sam a towel and toiletries, giving her a full smile. "I'll have something for you to put on when you're done."

Sam stood looking at the shower and then turned back to look at Mrs. Fogarty, waiting for her to leave. When the woman made no move to go, unsure of herself, Sam looked at her and arched an eyebrow in question. The nurse seemed to sense Sam's reluctance and uncertainty, as if she had been through this enough times to know what Sam was wondering. "I'm sorry, honey, but I have to stay. At least for the first time you have to be supervised."

"Supervised…why? Do you people think I'm going to drown myself in a shower, for crying out loud? Look, all I want to do is take a shower. Nothing else. I'm fine. Really," she said, trying to convince the nurse, and, to some extent, herself as well. It was all she wanted. She was merely trying to show herself that she really was okay.

"I'm sorry, but it is hospital policy. There is nothing I can do about it." Mrs. Fogarty said in an apologetic tone before turning and taking a seat along the wall near the door. This gave her an unobstructed view of all the stalls in the shower room.

Sam let out a sigh as she bent her head in defeat. She was too tired to fight it anymore. They were going to do what they wanted to her, no matter what she said.

She went into the nearest stall and turned on the shower as she talked to herself below the sound of the water, "How did everything get so messed up? All I wanted was for Niamh to see me. To know how I felt about her. To know that after only spending a few brief moments with her I knew I loved her. Now I've ruined it all. I guess this is no less than what I deserve for what I have put her through." She stepped under the spray and let the hot water wash away her feelings for the time being, leaving her exhausted. "Now I only want to sleep and maybe when I wake up this whole nightmare will be over. I suppose I can use this time in here to relax and get some rest. Not have to do anything or talk to anybody. That's all I need." Sam stood under the shower feeling better than she had in days. Looking forward to the rest she would finally be able to receive, she let the steaming water run over her.

Overhearing the comments Mrs. Fogarty looked relieved to hear Sam trying to calm down. Accepting the situation would do Sam well.

After taking her vitals and weighing her, the nurse finally led her to her room. The door was solid steel with laminated wood panels, with a small window on the top half. The nurse opened the door and stood aside for Sam to enter. Sam walked in and quickly looked around, her eyes going wide in shock. The room was bare except for a lone mattress on the floor. The walls were all covered in thick quilted padding. A small bulb from a ceiling lamp provided the only light. It was bright and lit up the whole room, not allowing any shadows to form in the corners. Sam turned around in a full circle taking in the room again, as if she couldn't believe what she had seen the first time. "Oh, my God! I don't think I can do this! I can't do this. I need to get out of here!"

As she followed Sam into the room, Mrs. Fogarty immediately took in the increase in Sam's breathing along with the look of fear in her eyes. "It's alright, Sam. It will be only for tonight. Tomorrow morning we will move you to a regular room. This is just one more part of the procedure set up by the hospital. It protects you from doing any harm to yourself, until we can start you on the right medication. I'll be checking on you through the night to make sure you're okay. We'll give you a little something to help you sleep. You won't even know you're in here until you wake up in the morning. It will be okay, I promise."

Sam looked in the nurse's hazel eyes and saw sincerity and concern there. She could only hope the concern was for her well-being and not because of what the nurse thought she might do. She looked at the mattress on the floor and the walls again. Pulling on her inner strength she took a deep breath. I can do this. "Okay," Sam spoke with a confidence she barely felt, giving her a small reassuring smile.

"I'll be right back with your medicine," she said before stepping out of the door, leaving Sam alone in the room. Sam eyed the bed when she heard the lock on the door click shut. It caused her to jump. "Shit!" She exclaimed, realizing she was locked in the room. All at once feeling lost and alone, she walked over to the bed and sat down with her legs crossed under her.

She sat like that for several minutes before she heard a key turn in the door. Mrs. Fogarty slowly entered the room, trying no to startle Sam. "Hi, I have something that should help you sleep through the night. Here take this," she ordered, offering Sam two paper cups. Sam looked at them seeing one held a pill, while the other had some water. Quickly, before she could think of what it could be, she swallowed the pill and washed it down with the water. Sleep. I don't even remember the last time I really slept. Sam didn't even wait for the nurse to leave before sneaking under the covers and wrapping herself in a fetal position, waiting for a refreshing sleep to come.

Chapter Eleven

Janet exited the elevator on the second floor carrying her bundle. She hit the buzzer on the wall next to the door and waved at the nurse sitting at the desk on the other side. The door lock clicked. Janet walked onto the floor of the psychiatric ward of the hospital she worked in. Walking up to the nurse's station, she greeted the woman sitting at the rounded desk. "Hi, Beverly, how are you doing today?" she said with a friendly voice.

The young woman looked up from the charts she was reviewing and smiled at her. "Hi, Janet, what brings you up our way? ER getting too boring for you?" The woman was in her late twenties and had been working on the ward for just over a year. Before that she'd worked with Janet downstairs in the emergency room. Janet always liked the petite redhead, she always had a positive demeanor with the patients.

"No, nothing like that. I just came to see one of your new patients. Sam Bailey; she would have been admitted late yesterday evening."

"Let me check on that for you," Beverly offered. She rummaged through the rack of charts that were next to the computers on the station's desk. "You said Samantha Bailey?"

"Yes." She shifted from foot to foot, waiting a little impatiently and trying not to peer over the desk.

"Oh, here's the chart. According to this she was just moved into a semi-private room. Why do you want to see her? Usually you guys are done with them once we get a hold of them. Any special reason you have to follow up on this one?" Beverly asked curiously. "The last thing I need is to have an upset patient, so why the big interest? You know I can't let you in without cause Janet."

"No, it's personal. She's a friend," Janet replied, holding up the package in her hand. "I brought her some clothes and stuff." Janet handed over the bag so Beverly could look through it. "I wanted to check to see how she was settling in and if there was anything she needed."

"Oh, okay. She's in room 213. Will you do me a favor and try to get her up if you can? There's a note here saying she skipped breakfast. She's scheduled for her first therapy appointment later this morning, and the doctor will need to speak with her this afternoon. It's always so hard on the family and friends in this type of situation. But I know you can handle it, Janet. Sam is lucky to have you around."

"Thanks, Beverly, I really appreciate it."

"As you know, she really needs to keep to the schedule we set up for her, so see what you can do with her. As a nurse you know how hard it is on new patients, but I have faith in you since you've handled this type of thing before with your other friend."

"I'll see what I can do," Janet said, as she walked by on her way to Sam's room. "But no promises." she called with a laugh over her shoulder.

Janet found Sam's room and knocked on the door. She wasn't surprised when there was no answer. Taking a deep breath she opened the door and stepped in. The room was dark, except for what light came in through the windows. The nurse on duty would have opened them first thing in the morning, since it was going on ten o'clock. Sam was lying on the bed, curled up, facing away from the door and towards the wall. Her legs were pulled to her, and the white hospital covers were wrapped tightly under her chin.

Janet could tell by her breathing that she was awake. "Good morning, Sam. How are you doing today?" Janet received no answer or movement from the woman in the bed. She walked around the bed to stand in front of Sam. Ignoring the lack of response, she kept talking to her. "I brought you some clothes. I figured it would be better than walking around in that hospital gown. I guessed you to be a flannel type person. So, we have three pairs of flannel pants and shirts. That should hold you over." There was still no reaction, so Janet took out the pajamas and placed them on the foot of the bed. Also, I brought you some books. One is an anthology of classic poetry. I personally don't like the modern stuff too much. So you'll just have to live with it." At this Janet gave the woman a positive look. She was trying to find something that would get Sam to talk to her, but it was difficult. She could hardly expect Sam to react to as a family member or old friend, since in truth they had only met recently. "I also got you some mysteries and lesbian fiction. I figured you'd like those. Well, I thought you would, anyway," Janet laughed nervously. "I don't know if you like crosswords, but I put two books of those in there, along with a crossword puzzle dictionary." Janet looked down at Sam and saw she was still being ignored.

Placing the rest of the items on the chair next to the bed, Janet sat down on the bed next to Sam. Reaching out, she affectionately rubbed her back in a soothing motion. "Honey, I know you're scared right now, and a bit upset with yourself, but you have to get up. Nothing's going to get better by staying here in bed hiding within yourself. Please let these people here help you?" Not having known her too long it was hard for Janet to truly tell if Sam was simply feeling overwhelmed or if she was pissed.

"Oh, sweetie, what are we going to do with you? I can't let you sit in here beating yourself up over this, or being too afraid to do anything to help yourself."

"You know Niamh doesn't know this, but I wanted to tell you something. I don't want you to think I'm doing this just for Niamh. I'm here for you Sam. What Niamh isn't aware of is that I've been in this situation before. When I was in high school I had a friend named Gloria. We were pretty much best friends. After school we both went away to different schools, but we stayed in touch over the years. A few years back she came home. She moved back in with her folks. I assumed it was just for a little while as she got over her divorce. We didn't talk much once she got back though. Gloria seemed to want to distance herself, and I let her. My life was busy with the kids, David, and work. Looking back I can see why she did it."

"One night I was working downstairs when her parents brought her in. Gloria was in about the same shape as you if not more so. I came to visit her while she was being admitted. It was then that Gloria looked at me as if I was some apparition, she asked me for my help. I spent the next several months giving her just that. It was the least I could do for her after so many years. Part of it was guilt for letting her push me away, but most of it was just trying to get back the person I knew growing up. I want to help you find the person you were Sam, the person you are. You deserve that just as much as anyone."

Getting no response Janet moved ahead. "Maybe if I tell you some of what you can expect while you're here it will help." Janet adjusted her position along the bed so she could see Sam's face better without moving the hand on her back. "The doctor, nurses, and social workers will put you on a schedule. They want you to get up and eat at a certain time. Then they will have you go to group therapy and maybe some individual therapy. You'll see the doctor this afternoon and probably have your first meeting with the social worker and your group for therapy. They have TV and activities for you to do. Not much in the way of activities, but they try and do something every few days."

Janet looked at Sam to see if there was any reaction. There was only a little movement in her eyes to indicate that she was even listening, appearing to look at Janet out of the corner of her eye. "The doctor will talk to you for little while. He's going to try and see if he can determine what is going on with you. This can be fixed, Sam. It's just going to take some time, honey. He'll likely give you some medication and see how that helps. It will make a difference, Sam, I promise. Just don't get discouraged, please," she pleaded with the woman. "You're safer here, more so than if you weren't. I honestly believe that." Janet hoped Sam was hearing what she had to say. It would make a big difference in her recovery if she cooperated with the staff.

Janet immediately thought of something that might draw the woman out of her shell, and smiled as she thought about it. "Oh, and Sam, Niamh was here yesterday. She was really worried and asked about you. She stayed as long as she could." Janet knew that last statement was a bit of a stretch, but she was looking to give Sam something to focus on for now. She knew Niamh wouldn't mind.

Sam finally spoke at this revelation. "She hates me," she said with firmness in her voice, like a small child reprimanded by a loving parent.

"No she doesn't, sweetie. She's a bit hurt and a little angry, but she doesn't hate you. I don't think she could ever hate you," Janet said. "I'm sure as soon as you start to feel better she will be in to see you, so you two can talk." Janet hoped this thought would give Sam some much-needed strength. Janet knew how hard the next few weeks would be for the now fragile woman.

Sam stretched out and rolled over onto her back to look in Janet's eyes. "Do you really think Niamh would come? After what happened, do you really think she would even want to talk to me?" She studied Janet, searching to see the truth of her answer.

"I won't tell you it will be easy, Sam, but I will tell you that I know in my heart that Niamh doesn't hate you. If you can beat this and get it under control, then I'm sure she'll be in to see you. And I'm sure she'll be willing to talk to you about what happened," Janet said with a sincerity that showed in her eyes, as she gazed down at Sam. "Then you'll have a chance to explain everything to her and I'm sure Niamh will be prepared to listen."

"I wish I could, Janet," Sam said as she turned her head to look at the wall. "But I don't understand it myself! I don't know why I did the things I did. All I can say is that it made so much sense to me at the time. I just wanted her to know me, to be my friend. I figured the best way to do that was to be close to her. Anyway I could. It's all so stupid!" she cried.

Janet watched as tears began falling down Sam's face, landing on the pillow. Her heart broke for the woman Janet thought was so strong. She knew Sam had to be to make it through what she had been through and to keep functioning. Janet was well aware of the burden mental illness played on a person. How hard it was to get by, sometimes even minute-by-minute. Janet also understood that Sam was now at her most vulnerable. A good deal of her recovery would be determined by being in the hospital and how she handled it. Janet leaned down, giving her a heartfelt hug. As soon as Sam felt the arms around her, she tightened up. Then, all of the sudden, she relaxed, crying harder than before. After a few minutes, she seemed to get herself together, pulling away from Janet and wiping away the remaining tears. She sniffled, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her hospital gown.

"I'm sorry about that," Sam said with a frown. She took a deep breath and seemed to dig deep to put on a face of determination. Another sigh and Janet was almost convinced Sam was better, but Janet had been working in the hospital long enough to know it was just a front, a facade people put on when they were scared.

"Sam, can I ask you a favor?"

"Sure, Janet. You're the only one who seems to be caring. What can I do for you?" Sam replied hesitantly, offering up a shy look that Janet noticed reached her eyes telling of her true uncertainty.

"Can you let your doctor know it's okay to talk to me about what is going on with you? It will make me feel better about how you're doing; that you're getting what you need. That way if you have any concerns or questions, I can help you with them. Would that be alright with you?" Janet asked, bending her head to look into Sam's eyes. Sam seemed distracted by her hands. "And I know Niamh is concerned about you. It might make her understand everything better if I could explain it all to her."

Sam simply looked out the window, appearing to stare off into the distance. After a few moments, seeming to have made up her mind, she said flatly, "Sure, I'll do that, Janet." Without another word she continued to stare at the outside world.

"It will be okay, Sam. I promise. Just do what they tell you and you'll see, things will get easier." Janet stood, leaning over Sam and placing a gentle motherly kiss on the top of her blonde head. "I'll check in with you after my shift is over, okay?"

Janet turned to leave the room but stopped, looking back at Sam.

Sam returned her gaze. "Sure, I'll be here," Sam said softly, the similar unsure look in her eyes.

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

Late that afternoon Janet again found herself on the psychiatric floor. She had gotten a call from the nurse saying Sam wanted her to come to upstairs. Janet saw the nurse at the station was the same one that had been there that morning. "Hi, Beverly," she greeted her again. "They got you working hard?" she asked with a cheerful tone.

"Seems harder every day, Janet," Beverly responded with exasperated tone. "But I would rather be here than in the trenches of the ER. I get enough action for my taste," Beverly added with a small chuckle. Changing the subject, she asked, "I take it you're here to see Sam?"

"Yeah, she asked me to come up. Is she in her room?" Janet asked, pointing down the hall towards Sam's room.

"No, she is in the conference room. It's down the hall on the right. They're waiting for you."

"They?"

"Yeah, she's in with the doctor, her duty nurse, and the social worker. They wanted to have a meeting with Sam and her family. Sam asked that you be there."

"Okay, well, let me get down there so I don't keep them waiting." With that Janet turned and walked down the corridor to the conference room. Once she got there she stood outside the door and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. She knew that what happened in there was going to decide Sam's future. Janet had an instinct that it was not going to be good news for Sam. But she was determined to help her through this, for Sam and Niamh. What she could see they had together was too special not to fight for. Until they were both ready to do it for themselves, she would carry on the fight for them, because she saw in them the same chemistry she knew she and David shared. Finally, she opened the door and stepped inside.

She recognized most of the people in the room. The woman doctor had been down to the ER for a psych consult on occasion. Though the doctor was sitting, Janet remembered her as being somewhat tall. She had long blonde hair that came to her mid-back and, like it was now, she usually kept out of her face by a clip. She was always immaculately dressed in tailored outfits with styles reminiscent of the 30's and 40's. Janet had watched her in the ER and found her to be one of the better doctors. Janet saw she always took the time to talk to the patient and was not so quick to rush through an exam.

The nurse she knew from working on the pediatrics ward when she first started at the hospital. They were both assigned to the same floor. Her name was Michele Blake. Janet remembered her as being a very compassionate nurse. She always took extra time with her patients, when the time allowed. She was a red head with a temper to match it, especially when she thought one of her patients wasn't being treated right. Janet assumed the other person to be the social worker. He was a young looking man; she guessed him to be in his late twenties. He wore thin wire glasses and read the file in front of him, which Janet assumed was Sam's. He had short dark brown hair cut close to his neck. He dressed casual in a polo shirt and tan khakis.

As Janet entered the room, everyone looked up, including Sam. Janet took this as a good sign, since it was a change from her demeanor that morning. "Hi, sorry if I kept you all waiting," she said, giving a small wince of apology. The room was not that big. It held a couch and a medium sized round wooden table and chairs.

"That's okay; most of us were just going over our notes." The doctor stood up and shook Janet's hand. "I'm glad you could make it. We like to go over these things with both the patient and family. I understand that Sam has no family in the area. But she asked that you be included in this. I'm Dr. Julia Winski; I am Sam's psychiatrist." The woman introduced herself. She had a sparkle in her eye that told Janet she probably had a cheerful demeanor. Pointing to Michele, she said, "This is Michele Blake; she is Sam's primary nurse."

"Sure, I know Michele, thank you. We used to work together years ago," Janet said to her. "Hi, Michele, how are you?" Janet held her hand out, reaching across the table.

"I'm doing well, Janet. How's the family?" Michele asked her old friend.

"They're all fine, thanks."

Dr. Winski pointed over towards the man. "And this is Joseph Rosenthal; he's the main social worker on the ward and will be taking Sam's case on."

Joe stood up and extended his hand to Janet. "Yes, Janet and I have worked together on occasion. It will be nice to have you on the team, Janet."

"Thanks Joe."

He had a jovial manner about him that Janet had always found appealing. As she shook his hand, Janet decided she truly liked him. His handshake bespoke of confidence, and Janet liked that about him. She interpreted it as a belief that he thought he could really make a difference here.

"Well, now that we have all been introduced why don't you take a seat and we'll get started." Dr. Winski sat down and waited while Janet pulled up a seat next to Sam. As she sat, Sam looked at her and gave a weak smile. "You look a little better than this morning," she whispered to Sam as she took a seat next to her, though in truth Sam still looked scared to her core. Janet could easily understand that, as Sam sat waiting to learn her fate. With that thought, Janet reached over and took hold of one of Sam's hands, which was resting on the table. She noticed a slight tremor when she held onto it. Janet gave Sam's hand a reassuring squeeze, which Sam returned. They both turned and looked at the doctor when she began speaking to Sam.

"So, Sam, how are you feeling? I know this has been at tough day on you." Dr. Winski asked as she sat patiently, waiting for Sam to answer.

Sam looked at Janet, who gave her a slight nod. "Uhm, okay I guess. I didn't sleep well last night, but I got up late this morning. Went and looked around a bit. The nurses had me go for lunch with everyone else. I can tell you I'm not crazy about the food here." Everyone smiled at Sam's attempt to lighten her mood. "Oh, and they had me go meet with Joe. We talked for awhile. Then I just sat in my room for a time reading," Sam said rather quickly. "Oh, and I met with you for an hour." Sam appeared to think to herself for a moment and then added, "Yeah, I think that's all I did today." Sam looked at the doctor with a proud grin, as if confident of herself for remembering it all.

"It's not a test Sam you can relax, take a deep breath." Janet told her quietly so no one else could hear.

"That's good, Sam," Dr. Winski reassured her. "I'd like to go over with you and Janet what we have concluded since you have been here. Now this is based on what happened before you got here, and what we have observed and talked about since then. Okay?"

"Okay," Sam answered, not sounding so sure of her answer.

"One of the things we did today was talk about what was going on with you before you got here. You remember the questionnaire I had you fill out?" She asked as Sam shook her head vigorously to show she remembered. "Based on that and the talks you and Joe had, we have agreed on a diagnosis."

Janet gripped Sam's hand a little harder, hoping to give the woman some strength to hear this.

"The diagnosis is Bi-Polar NOS," Dr. Winski said with a professional tone and serious expression, her eyes looking to Sam for a reaction.

Sam looked at her with a confused expression, a frown coming to her face. "I don't get it," she finally spoke. "What the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Bi-polar disorder is more commonly known as manic-depression, Sam. You might know it that way. The NOS stands for Not Otherwise Specified. The disorder has two main types: One and two. Anything that doesn't seem to fit those criteria we call NOS. That is where you fall." The doctor looked at Sam to see how she was taking the news. Her tone of voice was still professional, but soothing and comforting at the same time.

Sam again looked towards Janet, this time she got a small smile, which gave her a little courage to go on. "I don't understand. I know I told you I got depressed a lot, but nothing ever happened like this before. How could I be manic? When did this happen?"

Joe raised his hand and everyone looked over at him. He looked over at Sam, giving her a reassuring glance, said, "Based on what you told me today, and what you told Dr. Winski, you most likely had it since early adulthood."

"But I don't get it. You can't be right. I've never been like this before," Sam protested.

At this Dr. Winski stood up and moved towards the Dry-erase Board. Pulling a marker off the sill, she drew two parallel lines about an inch apart running horizontally across the board. "Sam, look at this. This is the normal range of high and low emotions for most people. Manic depressive people have different ranges." She picked up another color marker and drew a line from the bottom line down at an angle, about three inches long. "This would be how a person with bi-polar disorder felt a low or depressive state. Then instead of going back to the normal high range they would go past it." Using a third color, she drew another line at an upward angle, about three inches above the highest line. Now you most likely don't go that high. Instead, you would be what we call hypomanic, or a little less than full blown manic." Dr. Winski drew a line that went only about an inch above the top original line. "You probably barely noticed the highs, except for feeling really happy at times and full on energy." She said, as she looked over at Sam. Sam gave a tiny nod. "The problem is that as these episodes occur they become more frequent in period, longer in duration, and increase in strength. They can also be affected by stress." She looked at both Sam and Janet. "You told us that you had been under a great deal of stress at work before you came here."

"Yeah, but it wasn't any more than usual," Sam replied, trying to defend herself against what she didn't know, looking to Janet for support in her argument.

"Sam, you said yourself that this case was much different than the others. That you had reached your breaking point," Janet said with a supportive glance, still holding on to Sam's hand, and then taking the other one in too.

Sam looked Janet in the eyes seeming to look for some sign.

"Come on Sam you can do this, I know you're strong enough."

Sam looked at the table top, appearing to think a minute or two, and then said to the room, "Okay, supposing I have this bi-polar thing, what are you going to do to help me?"

"Well, Sam, that is where all of us come in." Dr. Winski returned to the table and sat down. "I will be prescribing you some medications. It will likely take us some time to find the right combination, but we'll get you there. I'll see you for a little while every other day during your stay here. Joe will be in charge of your group and individual therapy."

"You'll see me every day, or maybe twice a day sometimes," Joe said, his confident grin ever present.

"Right," Dr. Winski agreed with a similar look of her own. "Michele will be keeping tabs on you during the day. She will help set up a schedule for you to follow. We would like you to follow it, as it's best for you to keep a routine."

"How are you going to cure me? What treatment is there?"

"I'm sorry, Sam, but there is no real cure. This is a lifetime thing. But we can help you get stable. You will find a day when you can make this all just a minor part of your life," the doctor assured her.

The doctor looked at Sam. She raised her hands a bit and then laid them flat on the table again. "Well, Sam," she asked in her gentle tone, "do you have any other questions?"

"No, not really. I mean, I just don't understand this all, really."

"That's okay. It can be overwhelming at first. Why don't you go back to your room with Janet? If you have any other questions you can ask Michele or Joe. If you need me, they can get a hold of me and if need be I'll come talk to you."

"Okay, that sounds good," Sam said, still unsure of her answer.

"Alright, in the meantime I am going to prescribe you some Lithium and Abilify and see how you do on them. We'll also give you something to help you sleep if you need it. The Lithium is a mood stabilizer and should even you out. The Abilify will help get rid of the noise that is bothering you." With that Dr. Winski stood. "So why don't you go back to your room and rest a little. I know this is a lot to take in. But I promise, Sam, we can make this better. It's just going to take a little while, and I need you to try."

"Okay," Sam said, a look of dazed confusion now marring her face, as she stood to leave. Janet took her arm and walked with her out of the room.

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

Janet had left Sam in her room and under the care of the staff while she went back to work. When she came back after her shift, she found her sitting in a chair. She looked more alert than she had that morning. Janet took it as a good sign that she seemed to be working on one of the crossword books she had brought. "Hi, Sam. How are you doing? You look a little better this evening." Janet greeted her.

"Hi, Janet! I'm doing a lot better. They gave me more of those medications they talked about. I even went to dinner with some people I met in group therapy. Some people here, it turns out, have the same type of thing I do. I get to go to therapy again with Joe tomorrow. In the meantime I'm working on this," she said with an excited voice, holding up the book of crossword puzzles. "Oh, and I got a roommate. She seems nice enough, but doesn't talk much. Seems she's in for depression. Mostly she just mopes around, or lies on her bed. I think she's out watching the TV right now. Otherwise I'd introduce you."

Janet was happy to see her friend so cheerful and animated, thinking, this really was the place Sam needed to be right now. She came over and sat on the bed opposite Sam. "I'm glad to hear you're doing so well. I stopped by before I go home. I wanted to see how you were settling in. Also, I bought you some candy bars from downstairs," she said with a conspiratorial leer, handing over two bars. "That should hold you till morning. Just don't let the nurses see them."

Sam winked as she took the candy from Janet. "Thanks, they have vending machines in the TV room, but I didn't have any money for it."

"Oh, in that case I'll make sure to bring you in some cash tomorrow. I know it's hard to survive on the small meals they serve in hospitals," Janet said with a chuckle.

"Thanks, Janet. You've been really great to try and get me through this."

The unshed tears in Sam's eyes bespoke her sincerity. "Hey, it's no problem. I want to help you deal with this. I know you can overcome it."

"Janet," Sam asked with a little uncertainty in her voice. She sounded like a small child about to confess to breaking something. "Can I ask you some questions about everything?"

"Sure, sweetie, you can ask me anything. I'll try to answer them, if I can." Janet had expected this. Though she knew a bit about it from her years in the ER, she asked one of the nurses for some literature on the disorder. She had gotten several pamphlets and articles on the subject and read them over her dinner break.

"How long will I have to be here…I mean, how long will this treatment last?" she asked, looking up beseechingly, hoping for the answer she wanted to hear.

"You won't have to stay here too long Sam, but I'm afraid the treatment is a lifetime thing," Janet said, giving her a small reassuring grin in support, knowing how hard this was to take in. "They can get you stabilized, but to stay that way you will need to take your meds every day."

"Oh." Disappointment was apparent in her voice and in her eyes. "What will happen to me after I get out of here? How will I stay that way?" As she had that morning, she sounded a little scared.

"Well, I imagine we will get you a regular psychiatrist who will see you and help regulate and adjust your meds. You should also get yourself a therapist, just someone to talk to. This has had and will continue to impact your life. You have a lot of adjusting to do in your life right now. I think that would help you a lot in dealing with it, and learn about what your comfort zone is." Janet wanted to reassure her that everything would be taken care of.

"My comfort zone?"

"Yes, how to make your life less stressful. This disorder is often aggravated by stress, so you need to learn how to reduce that; to find out where your limits are."

"Okay, I can do all that," Sam said, "I think."

"I know you can, Sam," Janet said with enough confidence for the both of them. "I know you can."

"Will I have to stay here long?"

"It depends, honey. They put you on some meds and then have to wait to see how you do. Once they see that you are pretty okay on them they'll let you go home." The word "home" lingered between them.

"Home. I guess I don't really have one of those anymore. I can't go back to where I came from. I don't have anything there, and there is nothing there I want. I had no life there." Sam let out a deep sigh. "But I have no reason to stay here either now, I guess. I gave up everything when I did all that to Niamh." Janet saw the tears begin to form in the woman's eyes as she spoke, but they refused to fall. Janet was sure it was from pure will alone.

"No, you didn't, Sam. You still have friends. I'll stand by you, and I know Niamh will too once she understands everything. I know she will. She's just upset and confused right now. Just give her some time."

"Sure, Janet." She didn't sound the least bit convinced.

"Try and hang in there. It will get better. You just have to wait and see how tomorrow turns out. Just stick to the schedule they put you on and you'll do okay."

"What's so important about this schedule that you, the nurses, Joe, everyone keeps talking to me about and how I have to keep it up? Why?" Sam asked, her irritation coming to the forefront.

"It just is, Sam, honey. It helps take away some of the day-to-day stress by keeping to a routine. That's all." Janet was a little upset by the sudden change in Sam's tone.

"Well, why couldn't they have told me that in the beginning? You would think people would want you to know this! All I ask for is a little God damn consideration!" she yelled.

"Calm down, Sam. I'm sure it's just that people are used to explaining things when they think you're ready for them. That's all," Janet spoke softly, hoping it would relax Sam. "I'm sure somebody would have explained it in the morning."

"You're right. I'm sorry I blew up at you. It's just that it can be very frustrating here. That's the third time today I've lost my temper and I don't know why. I guess I'm a bit on edge here."

"That's okay. I hate to do this to you, but David and the kids are waiting for me at home. I really should be going."

"That must be nice," Sam said.

Janet laid her hand on Sam's arm. "I'm sorry, Sam. Really I am. But I'll come by in the morning before my shift starts. It may be before visiting hours, so I can't promise anything."

"No you can't, Janet. No one can," Sam said in a quiet voice looking down at the floor. "I'll be fine. You should go," she spoke with finality.

"I promise I'll see you tomorrow; you can count on it. I just don't know what time, okay?"

"Sure, that'll be fine."

Janet turned and walked towards the door, glancing once more at the woman she was leaving behind.

Chapter Twelve

Janet was worried. It had been two days since anyone had seen Niamh and there was no answer on her phone. Stan and Melissa told her that Niamh called them and asked if they would cover the store. It was probably by choice, then, that she was missing. Now Janet stood on Niamh's porch facing her front door. She had rung the doorbell several times, and had even knocked, but still there was no answer. So as a last resort Janet pulled a set of keys out of her purse and found the one to open the house. "What kind of state am I going to find you in, Niamh? Sam really needs you now. Will you be there for her?" Janet said to herself softly

Janet walked into the house. All the lights were off and only the morning sunlight through the windows shone in the house, even so there still wasn't much light, as many of the blinds were closed. Janet was surprised that Artemis wasn't at the door barking when she rang the doorbell, let alone when she let herself in. Usually Artemis was very excited when she came to the house.

She looked around and saw no sign of her. "Niamh! Niamh!" she called out as she walked from room to room. "Niamh, are you here?" Janet spent a few minutes looking around the ground floor of the house, when she finally saw Artemis come in looking for her. However, the dog was far from being herself it seemed. While her tail was wagging she had laid down in front of Janet rather than acting in her usual boisterous manner. Going around to the stairs, Janet decided to try the upstairs bedroom. As soon as she began climbing, Artemis pushed by and ran ahead, barking once when she reached the top step and then looking back at Janet.

"Hey, girl, where's your mommy?" Janet asked the dog. Artemis looked over towards Niamh's bedroom. "Oh, is that where she's hiding?"

Janet made her way up to Niamh's bedroom door and gently tapped on it. "Niamh, honey, it's Janet." When she received no answer, Janet tried the doorknob. Finding it unlocked she called out softly, "Niamh, I'm coming in."

When Janet entered the room, her heart broke for her sister. Niamh was curled up under the covers of the bed, only her head sticking out, facing the window. The curtains were pulled slightly back allowing in the only source of light. She walked around the bed to see if Niamh was sleeping. She was. However, Janet could see her eyes were red and puffy, with dried tear tracks marring her face. Tissues piled up in the trash pail next to the bed, and a half empty box sat on the nightstand. From what Janet could see, she suspected Niamh hadn't showered for the few days she was here alone.

"What am I going to do with you two? Sam is in the fight of her life, while you look like you're already giving up," Janet scolded, even though Niamh slept on.

"Niamh, honey, you have to get up," Janet said quietly, as she gently shook her sister by the shoulder. When there was no answer she shook a little harder. "Niamh, wake up. Come on, please."

At this Niamh began to move. She stretched her legs out and made an indistinguishable grunting sound, but not much else.

"Niamh, I need to talk to you. Get up!" she said losing her patience and using the tone she reserved for digging the kids out of bed in the morning.

Niamh opened her eyes finally and looked up at Janet. "Janet, what do you want? Go away," she said turning over and pulling the covers over her head.

"No, now get out of bed!" she said forcefully, pulling the covers all the way down to the end of the bed.

"Hey!" Niamh protested, sitting up trying to get the covers back. "What are you doing?!"

"Getting your ass out of bed and into a shower. You look like crap. Then you can come downstairs for something to eat. I bet you haven't eaten anything in a while, and, when you are done with that we are going to talk. I have today off so I'm not leaving."

Niamh stared at her sister, her eyes narrowed in anger. "What do you want from me, Janet?"

"I want you to get up and stop feeling sorry for yourself!" Janet answered with equal force. "You cannot spend the rest of your life held up here in bed."

"Fine, I'll get up, but you can't make it any better. No one can," Niamh said, her voice sounding defeated as she swung her feet to the floor.

"Come on. You'll feel better after you shower and eat. We can talk."

Niamh went off towards the bathroom while her sister collected the trashcan and headed downstairs.

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

When Niamh finally made an appearance in the kitchen, Janet was relieved to see that she looked much better than she had. Her demeanor was still clouded, but she was clean. The steam from the shower helped the puffiness in her eyes go away somewhat, though they still appeared bloodshot. She had changed into a pair of her favorite jeans, well worn and ragged, and an old t-shirt that showed a book that said, "Writers Do It with Style!" The shirt was one Janet had seen many times. Why Niamh found it so funny was always beyond her. She was sure that it was a simple fluke that Niamh picked it out today. She had combed her auburn hair, putting it up in a ponytail. Her feet were kept warm by a pair of sweat socks. While it wasn't much, Janet saw it as a big improvement.

Pointing to a chair at the small oak table Janet ordered, "Sit down. I made you some scrambled eggs and toast," in a tone reminiscent of their mother. "There's tea already on the table, help yourself." She finished, turning back to the stove.

Niamh did as ordered, knowing by her sister's attitude that there was no room for argument. Like a scolded child, she sat down at the table, waiting for her first meal in at least a day. Janet placed the food in front of her and, without a word, Niamh began eating, stopping only to take a sip of tea. While she ate neither of them spoke.

After she was done Janet took the empty plate away, putting it in the sink for later. Niamh stared at the table where her plate had been. "Have you seen her?" she asked, not looking up at her sister.

"Yeah, I've gone to see her at the hospital before and after my shifts. I'll go today once I leave here, since I have today off."

"So, she's still in the hospital?" she asked, disinterestedly, but not really pulling it off.

"She'll be there for a few weeks," Janet answered, hoping to get some kind of reaction from her. At this point any reaction would be a good one.

"Is it that serious?" Niamh asked concern came through in her voice as she asked the question.

"It is, yeah," she said vaguely, hoping to draw her into a conversation.

"Will she be alright?" The apprehension in her voice swelled with each answer, and her eyes widened with concern.

Janet waited a moment.

"Janet, will Sam be okay?" She finally demanded.

Janet was satisfied that Niamh had referred to Sam by name, thinking her sister had been avoiding it. "Ultimately, yeah, she'll be fine. It's only that it's going to be a long, difficult process getting her there."

"What kind of process? What are they going to do to her? Is it surgery?"

"No, not surgery," Janet assured her, reaching over and taking one of her sister's hands in her own, giving it a gentle, reassuring squeeze. "They are putting her on some medications that should help, but it may take a while before it works or until they find a good combination."

"What is it, Janet? What could she have that would cause her to act the way she did? Is it a brain tumor? I've heard those can affect a person's behavior." Niamh asked quickly, looking for some reasonable explanation she could grasp at.

"It's nothing like that. Sam had a sort of breakdown," she explained, looking her sister in the eyes, knowing she wouldn't understand. But at least the answers she gave successfully drew Niamh out of her hole, so she kept to them.

"A breakdown?"

"Niamh, Sam is suffering from a mental illness," Janet finally revealed.

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

Now Niamh was truly confused. Sam could be a little eccentric, but she always seemed so strong. Once she had gotten to know people she acted so self-assured. What her sister was saying made no sense to her. "What kind of illness?"

"Sam's Bi-Polar, Niamh. She said I should talk to you." Janet answered in a serious tone, looking her sister in the eyes.

"Bi-Polar? I don't understand. What does the mean for Sam?" she frantically asked, pulling her hand away from her sister.

In her professional and reassuring manner, Janet went on to explain everything Dr. Winski had revealed. "It means she has along road ahead of her Niamh. The disorder has affected her personality to some extent. She has been traveling through a gamut of emotions for some time, each episode more extreme than the others.

"And that means what?"

"It means that Sam hasn't been in control of herself or her emotions for some time. She goes from feelings of euphoria to deep depression. They can begin getting a handle on it once her new medication kicks in. In the long run they hope to be able to stabilize her. To get her emotions to remain normal." After she finished, she waited for Niamh's reaction as if all their futures rode on it.

"Oh, my God! Poor Sam! What must she be going through?" Janet didn't realize it, but Niamh's anger and self-pity were dissipating, now being filled in by uncertainty and worry. "How is she now?" The anxiety in her voice and eyes betrayed her true feelings to Janet.

"Scared mostly, and feeling alone," Janet said giving a subtle hint. "She had a setback yesterday. One of the medications they put her on, Lithium, made her manic symptoms worse, so they started her on a new drug last night. Hopefully it will help," Janet conveyed.

Deep worry set in the wrinkles above Niamh's forehead.

"Once she is stable again, she'll be back to being herself."

"Being herself," Niamh repeat to herself in a soft voice. "What does that mean Janet? If she was sick with this the whole time I've known her, do I even really understand anything about who she really is? Maybe the stalker was truly who she is. How can I be sure the person I fell in love with is still there? Wow, that is the first time I've said that out loud to anyone. Even me."

Janet tried not to let her surprise show. On some level she already knew it was the truth. "I know, it's hard to come to terms with that for you, Niamh. Especially after Tina."

As if she almost sensed where Niamh's mind was going, Janet told her. "Honey, she is still Sam. She always will be. Just some parts of her personality will be more stable than before. Most of her odd behavior will go away. But she'll always be Sam."

Niamh looked at her bewildered. "But you said this is a personality disorder. So it will change her personality. When she takes these medications it will alter who she is now, won't it?"

"Yes. No…" Janet appeared to struggle to find the right answer. "It will change some parts of her, but it won't change the core of who she is," she finally said.

"So she will still be the same outgoing, funny person she was before the other day? Or will she be the person we saw in that motel room and who stalked me for weeks?" Niamh asked, knowing she was backing her sister into a corner, but not caring. She wanted answers. Ones she could deal with.

"I don't know what to tell you, Niamh," Janet stated in a quiet tone. "I really don't."

"How can we be sure of who she is?"

"I didn't know Sam before; I only knew her once she came here," Janet admitted. "But I can tell you that she is a tough person. She can work through this, I know she can. She has shown the courage to face this and the determination not to let it beat her. That hasn't changed about her. I don't think that kind of thing can be affected by her disorder. She is still the same person."

"I want to believe you Janet."

"The only changes will be for the better. I hope that is true, for both of you. It can be if you let it, Niamh, for each of you in your own way. It can bring you closer together, show you who you are deep inside. And that could be the whole world, Niamh. You have to see that."

"What do you want me to say, Janet? That everything is fine? That none of this matters? Well, I can't, because it does!" Niamh's voice rose with each statement until she was practically shouting at her sister. "You're telling me the person I knew may or may not come out of that hospital. That the person I love may no longer exist!" Niamh yelled at her as a waterfall of tears emptied onto her cheeks, her tears quickly turning to miserable sobs.

Janet jumped out of her chair, running to her, and pulled her into her arms so Niamh could bury her face into her chest. She held her, rocking back and forth. "Sweetie that is not what I'm saying to you at all. Sam is still Sam. That will never change. It's that merely some of the more eccentric or strange behaviors will go away. She may not be as outgoing, but she'll still be the same person; the person that you love," Janet swore to her in a gentle voice.

After a few minutes Niamh tried to calm herself. She pulled away from her sister, not denying the statement of love. Grabbing a napkin off the table she swiped impatiently at her tear streaked face and runny nose. Taking several deep breaths, her crying slowed down; only a few errant tears remained falling. "But can I love Sam the way she will be?" she asked, glad to be able to finally share with her sister how she truly felt about Sam, or at least the Sam she knew before all this insanity began.

"Only you can decide, Niamh. If your love is strong enough, and I really trust in my heart that it is, then the minor changes won't make a difference," she answered her. "I believe you can do it. Talk to her, Niamh. Go see for yourself who she is. That's the only way to know for sure."

"I don't know if I can. I'm not sure my heart could take it right now if I discovered she's no longer the person I found. When she came into the Wordsmith, it was as if she discovered herself. Can you tell me that won't happen again?"

"It could happen, Niamh, I won't lie to you," Janet said speaking the truth to her. "But give her the chance to show you who she is now. I think you'll still love her no matter what you find. However, I don't believe you will see the person who was in that motel room. It will be a scared, lonely individual, who only wants your forgiveness and to have the opportunity to love you back." Taking a seat next to her, she was begging her sister.

Niamh sat and looked down at a spot on the table. Janet moved away, choosing to look away.

Niamh's forehead furrowed in thought as she began to pick at the spot on the table.

In a soft voice, she spoke to herself forgetting for a moment that Janet was even there.

"Okay, I'll go see her," she finally agreed in a firm yet quiet voice, as if she was trying to convince herself that it really was the right thing to do.

Janet looked at her, hardly able to contain her relief. "That's great. We can go this afternoon since I was going anyway."

"Wait! I don't know that I'm ready to just yet. I have a lot to get used to before then. Maybe in a day or two." Niamh was suddenly a little unsure about her decision.

"Okay, whenever you're ready we'll go. But can I tell Sam you're coming?" Janet asked. "I think it would really help her right now. Give her something to focus on and look forward to," she added, hoping it would convince her.

Niamh waited a moment before giving her answer. "Sure, you can tell her. I don't know what good it will do, since I can't say what'll happen when I do go," Niamh said.

"Simply the fact that you are coming and are willing to talk to her will help," Janet told her, a warm smile on her face.

"Alright, whatever you think. I really don't like the idea of Sam being stuck in that place all locked up."

"She's not really locked up, Niamh. She can check herself out anytime. She's been there long enough that they let her go outside each day for a small while," Janet told her, trying to make her more comfortable with the idea. "Besides, Sam's come to realize it's the best place for her right now," she explained, leaning forward to rest her arms on the table. "It's a very good environment for her. The ward routine is very basic. There is very little she has to worry about now. The hospital is a safe place for her. She can relax and not feel any pressure or stress. This'll allow her to become used to being somewhat stable before she has to deal with the real world again, and it gives the meds a chance to start working. If she feels stressed then the meds have to fight against that. So it truly is the perfect spot for her, Niamh. Honest."

"If you say so, Janet, but you said she was scared. What is she scared of then?" Niamh asked, looking her sister in the eyes.

"Mostly I think she is afraid of what you believe of her, because of what she did and what her diagnosis is," she answered.

"Well, I can't reassure her about any of those things." Niamh took a moment to think it over. "At least not yet," she said with a sad voice, sorry she couldn't give Janet, or Sam, a better answer.

"I'm sure that alone will ease her mind. Knowing that you're willing to talk should take away some of her fears."

Niamh stood up and stood in front of the sink. She looked out the window, past the yard and out into the woods. She realized after she saw the pictures on the walls that Sam must have spent a lot of time there, watching her from some secret spot. The idea of being watched still sent a chill up her back.

Without turning around, she spoke to her sister. "If you don't mind, Janet, I'm going to go outside for a while. I have a lot to think about right now. I want to do it alone."

"Sure, Niamh. I'll call you later and see how you're doing. Can I tell Sam you'll be in to see her? Is that okay? I would mean a lot to Sam," she asked.

"You can tell her. I just don't know when." Niamh turned to face her. "I can't promise anything to either of you, not yet at least. I wish I could, I really do."

"I understand. It's a lot to take in right now." Janet gave her sister a comforting hug from behind. "I'll explain it all to her. Don't worry." She kissed the top of her head and let her go.

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

While Janet left, Niamh stood looking out the window again.

After a few moments she called Artemis. The dog cane running, seemingly happy that her owner was out of bed, up and about once more. Niamh opened the sliding glass door and stepped out onto the wood deck. Artemis went scampering out before her, making a beeline for the woods. Niamh heard her barking and running around among the trees. Within a few minutes, she came back out. The dog looked around, as if confused. She would look at Niamh and then back at the woods; after a moment she began whimpering.

She quickly realized the problem. Artemis was looking for Sam. "Hmm, it's definitely at the right angle for the pictures.

Niamh sat down pondering this new information and insight. Artemis joined her side and Niamh mindlessly ran her fingers through the soft fur. "Girl you're usually so guarded when it comes to strangers around here. Why would you accept Sam so easily? Do you sense something in Sam, something that makes you think she's not a threat?"

"God! Why does it seem that everyone thinks Sam is fine but me? Is there something I'm not seeing?" Niamh exclaimed.

"Maybe I really should consider giving her a second chance? It's only that I'm so unsure about what to do! Now that I look back on it with hindsight, realistically nothing she did was really threatening," she said pensively, her eyes glued to the spot where she suspected Sam took the pictures from.

She was only vaguely aware of Artemis running off, coming back with a ball, and placing it in her lap. Niamh threw it as she continued speculating what to do. For the rest of the late morning and early afternoon she sat, played with Artemis, and thought over the whole situation. The only conclusion she could come up with was that she needed to talk to Sam.

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

Sam paced up and down the halls. She had finished all the puzzles Janet had given her, as well as many of the books. Nothing was on her schedule and she didn't feel like sitting down. Something inside wanted to move-the constant motion was a comfort to her in this place. It was the same feeling she had when she walked the streets. Sam looked up and saw Michele coming towards her with a concerned look on her face making Sam feel more nervous than usual.

As she neared her Michele instructed, "Sam, can you come with me? We have to talk for a few minutes."

With that, Sam's mind began to race. "What did I do? I haven't missed anything on my schedule. Maybe they found something else wrong."

"Let's go inside and talk."

Unsure about what was happening, she followed Michele into her empty room. Her roommate had checked out the day before and a new one hadn't replaced her yet.

Sam sat down on the bed, leaving Michele the empty chair.

After she sat down Michele looked up at Sam and said, "Sam, I'm merely a little concerned about some of your behavior. You seem a little restless. How are you feeling?"

Sam looked at her confused, unsure how to answer. "Okay I guess. It's only that I feel like moving around. I think being cooped up in here is starting to get to me a little. I finished everything Janet gave me."

"You did everything she gave you? I thought there were several books in there."

"Yeah, I finished them all. Wasn't I supposed to?" Sam asked, not knowing where this was leading.

"I only think that that was a pretty big pile to go through. The crossword puzzles alone I would think would take a week to go through," Michele answered. "Are you still hearing things?"

Sam really didn't want to answer this question so she kept quiet.

"Sam?" Michele asked her again, seeing her reluctance.

"Maybe. I don't know," Sam said honestly. "I heard some music the last few nights before I went to bed. Is it possible someone had a radio on?" Sam asked.

"No, your door is usually closed and the nurse's station is down the hall, so I can't see where it would be coming from. No one on the floor near you has a radio," Michele explained, "I'm sorry, Sam, but the only logical answer has to be that you're hallucinating it. How are you thinking? Are you able to focus well; are you having any racing thoughts?"

"My mind does seem to be acting on overdrive sometimes. It's like my brain feels the need to constantly be doing something. It just doesn't know what." Sam felt as if she had failed somehow. "I am able to focus really well, I think," she said, looking Michele in the eyes. She was somewhat glad she could answer one of the questions in what she thought was the right way.

"That's good. How focused are you?"

"Well, I read a whole book yesterday," she said a little proudly.

"How big was the book?" Michele asked.

"Uhhmm, I think it was about 300 pages or so."

"That's an awful lot to read in one day. Have you done it before?"

"Yeah, since I got to town I've been reading a lot like that."

"What about before then?"

"No, not really. I would read some, but not as much as now."

"Okay, Sam, let me mention this to Dr. Winski. I think you're still a little on the manic side, so I would like to see if we can increase the dosage on some of the meds. Maybe we will switch you to something else."

Sam's shoulders lumped dejectedly.

"Don't worry, Sam. I know it feels like it's a step back, but we will get you settled soon. I can truly feel it."

Sam found it hard to believe. "Alright, Michele, whatever you say. I'll take your word for it." Though she truly doubted every word of it. She had let everyone down, including Niamh, the only person who mattered.

As the door closed behind Michele, Sam buried her head in her pillow and cried out in frustration. After a moment she raised herself off the bed and threw the pillow across the room. "Fuck! I thought I was doing so much better. Now I'm back at square one." She said in frustration. "It's never going to be better. How can I offer Niamh anything?" Sam said. With that she sat up and picked the water pitcher off the table, hurling it against the wall, watching as the water sprayed everywhere.

At the sound one of the nurse's aides opened the door. "Is everything okay in here."

"Everything is fucking great."

Chapter Thirteen

Niamh was in the hallway outside of Sam's room. She showed up at the hospital as visiting hours were starting, but stayed downstairs working up the courage to come up here. So now she was again trying to work up the strength to open the door and face her by pacing in a circle talking to herself. "What can I possibly say to her? Hi, how are you? God that is stupid. Maybe I should simply be honest with her. Tell her about why I'm here. And why am I here? Do I even know? Maybe I should go home and work this all out ahead of time." As she was about to turn and leave she saw a nurse making a dash at her.

"Excuse me!" The woman said in a hurry, putting her hand on Niamh's arm to keep her from leaving. "Are you Niamh?"

"Yes," she said, unsure as to why this person was interested, and how she even knew about her.

"Great. Hi, I'm Michele. I'm Sam's primary nurse. Janet said you might be stopping by. And since Sam hasn't had any other visitors I took a guess it was you."

"Oh. I was here to see her, but she's not in her room. I was going to go home and try again tomorrow," she explained in a sheepish tone. Niamh didn't want to get talked into waiting for Sam to return, but out of curiosity she asked, "How is she doing here?"

"She's mostly stable."

Niamh waited for more of an explanation but none was forthcoming. After a nervous moment she asked, "Other than that how is she? Has she settled in okay? Is she taking everything well?"

"I'm sorry, I can't tell you that. You'll have to ask Sam those questions," Michele answered in a professional tone, which told Niamh she wasn't permitted to tell her anything more than that. "She should be here in a moment. She was just finishing up with her therapist when I passed the office," she said in a more cheerful voice.

As the words left Michele's mouth Niamh looked over the nurse's shoulder and saw Sam coming down the hall. She had her head bent down and her shoulders lumped over. Her body language portrayed that of a lonely, distraught woman. As Niamh stared at her, Sam looked up, saw her, and stopped where she was. Their eyes locked. She felt her heart skip, taking in a deep breath to relieve the tightness she felt in her chest as she looked into the deep blue of Sam's eyes. She noted how drawn she looked. However, Sam's eyes didn't sparkle the way they used to; they looked worn, with deep circles under them.

"I'll leave you two to catch up," Michele said before she turned and made her way back to her station.

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

Sam appeared to shake herself out of her daze and began walking towards the two women as she spoke in a muttered tone to herself. "I'm sure she hates me. I'll let her have her say and let her go. It's for the best."

Sam walked up to Niamh, giving her a smile. "Hi, Niamh. How are you?" I can't believe you came here. What are you here for? Probably to tell me to go to hell. I understand.

Niamh returned the smile with the same emotional tone. "Hi, I, uhm, came by to see how you were. Janet said you could use some visitors. I brought you some books from the store I thought you might like." She held up the canvas bag full of books she had with her, feeling like she was making inane conversation, but she couldn't seem to help herself. "Uhm, is there somewhere we could go, you know, to talk, maybe?" Niamh asked with a slight shake in her voice.

Sam thought it strange that Niamh should be so nervous. Sam was expecting nothing but anger. She had been prepared for that. But now Sam was unclear about how to take Niamh's behavior. "Sure, uhm, why don't we go into my room…there's, uhm, no one's in there…" she offered, realizing they were both equally nervous.

"Okay," Niamh agreed almost shyly, following Sam through the doorway.

"Uh-" Sam immediately realized she was about to repeat herself and stopped before she did. She covered her slight stutter by clearing her throat. "Excuse me," Sam offered instead. "Why don't you have a seat," she pointed to the lone chair in the room as she took a spot on the bed. As soon as Sam sat she began picking at the loose threads of the blanket.

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

Niamh sat in the chair next to the window. The sun shined brightly in the room, making it cheerier than she had expected it would be. Her imagination had conjured up white antiseptic walls and cold impersonal furnishings. While the room was sparse what was there gave Niamh a warm feeling. The bed wasn't made, and the pastel blue sheets were pushed down, but the room was tidy. Next to the bed was a night table, a stack of books and magazines, which were all piled neatly on top of it taking up most of its surface. This reminded Niamh about her bag. "Oh, yeah, I brought you some books to read. I figured you'd be a little bored if you ran out."

Sam took the offered bag and peered inside, "Thanks," she said with a small look of pleasure on her face.

"Janet said you had finished the ones she brought you, so picked out several long ones to help keep you busy." No longer holding the bag Niamh put her hands in her pockets and began to play with her car keys.

"I know you'd feel crazy without them." Niamh suddenly looked up, her eyes wide with the realization of what she said. "Oh my god, I didn't mean that to sound like that. Of course I don't think that would make you worse. At least I assume it wouldn't"

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

Sam spoke to her in a reassuring voice. "It's okay, I know what you meant. No offense taken." She added a humorous tenor to the comment, though Sam didn't feel there was anything to really laugh at. "So what did you bring me?"

Niamh visibly relaxed when she saw Sam's reaction. "Oh, here. You can look them over and tell me if you don't like them. I can get you others if you want."

Sam took the bag and gave the books a cursory look. "No, these will be fine. I'm sure I'll love them," she said, placing the bag on the bed next to her.

Both women looked at each other, though neither one could look the other in the eye for too long. Niamh quickly looked down at the floor, leaving Sam free to watch her, her hair appearing mahogany in the sunlight. In the barest whisper Sam said aloud, "You're so beautiful." Sam was certain Niamh didn't hear her but an awkward silence followed.

"I wanted to tell you…"

"I came by to tell you…" they both said at the same time.

"You go first."

"You go first," each said again simultaneously.

They both laughed, breaking away some of the friction. Niamh held her hand up to keep Sam from saying anything. "You go ahead, Sam."

Sam suddenly lost a bit of her nerve and looked away, thinking, I can't think when I look in those eyes. She looked instead at the floor. "I wanted to say how sorry I am for everything I did to you. You didn't deserve that, any of it. I would understand if you hate me. The things I put you through these last few weeks was beyond horrible." Her voice was full of the guilt she felt for what had transpired.

"Sam, look at me."

Sam looked up, locking her eyes with the deep chocolate eyes, feeling herself falling into them again and knowing she had lost any opportunity to have that sensation forever.

"Why did you do it? Why were you stalking me?" Niamh asked finally.

Sam took a deep breath. "I don't know how to explain it to you, Niamh. How do you explain such insanity? But you deserve an explanation. I can't reason it all to you very well," she started. "I saw you in town, and in the bookstore. You were so nice to me that first day that I had to get to know you. I wanted to know everything about you. Who you were…what you were like." She looked up and gave Niamh a look, asking her to understand, pleading with her. "I didn't know what to do. I was so messed up in my thinking. It seemed obvious to me that the best way to know you was to see you, to follow you, and see what you did." She looked back down at the floor and began mindlessly picking at the bedcover. "Once I saw that, I wanted you to know me. To see me, and you did. You were the only one in town who seemed to, who took the time to talk to me. You showed me the kind person you were. So I started sending you the notes. I figured that was the best way to show you how I was feeling. I knew you would understand it all."

Niamh took it all in as best she could. "But why the pictures, Sam? Why did you take them and send them to me?"

"I wanted you to see yourself the way I did. You were beautiful, both inside and out. When you played with Jack and Emma, or Artemis, you were so alive. You weren't the reserved image you portrayed to everyone. I saw in you someone who loved life, and I wanted to be a part of that. In any way I could."

"But I still don't understand why you did it all? Why were you following me? Why were you so focused on me?"

Sam looked at her, as if she couldn't understand why Niamh hadn't seen it. "It was because you were such a beautiful person, both in your physical being and your spiritual one." She took a breath, drawing in strength. "It was because I love you," she admitted, waiting for the rejection and revulsion she was sure would come next.

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

Niamh sat stunned. "You love me? You did all of this because you love me! What kind of person does that Sam?"

Sam appeared too ashamed to respond, instead sitting and merely looking out the window as if it would provide her a reasonable answer.

Niamh sat and thought about it all for a moment. The wandering, the notes, the photos, Sam's actions at the store and with Niamh's family, and finally it dawned on Niamh, who would do that?

Looking up Niamh saw that Sam was still looking out the window. It was as if Sam didn't look at her Niamh might forget she was there.

"Someone who isn't thinking clearly," she finally said in understanding.

"What did you say?" Sam asked, her head coming around to finally meet Niamh's eyes.

"I said 'someone who isn't thinking clearly.' I think I finally understand, Sam. Only a person who is in the throes of a mental illness would have done what you did."

"Well, I don't know that I would use throes, exactly," Sam responded in an apparent attempt to lighten the tension.

As if not hearing her, Niamh continued, "Janet tried to tell me. She told me about the obsessive behavior, and the euphoria. Thinking back on your poems and the rest of it I can see that now."

"I'm sorry," Sam said once again.

"No Sam, there's nothing to be sorry for, not anymore, not for this. I can't hold something you had no control over against you. You're being strong, and even brave now, by getting help. I can only believe that you will get well and be the person you were."

Niamh thought it over for a moment. Then she looked at Sam. "I forgive you, Sam," she stated in a soft, compassionate tone. She took her own deep breath, unsure if she should say what she was about to.

She looked into her eyes and saw the sparkle of tears forming. As if Sam was shocked at the forgiveness she received from her. It appeared she didn't think she would ever be granted forgiveness.

Niamh's heart broke, thinking Sam was feeling so insignificant that she felt undeserving of human kindness from her. Finally, she couldn't take it anymore, as the tears began to fall. "I loved you, too. I don't know when it happened or why, but somewhere along the way, Sam, I fell in love with you. I really don't know where to go from here."

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

Sam looked up in total shock. The tears starting to fall more quickly for the love she lost, the love she threw away. "I don't deserve the love of someone as kind and gentle as you Niamh. A person who can offer forgiveness to someone like me after everything I did. I'm sorry, Niamh," she finally said through her tears. "I know I've ruined any chance with you. That you forgive me is more than I can expect from anyone."

Niamh looked at her with a sad, forlorn expression, "I'm sorry, Sam. I don't know what else to tell you," she said. "I'm very confused right now. I don't know what to do, or how I feel," she admitted to both of them. "I did love you, but I don't know if I can still love you. So much has changed. You have changed," she declared through her own tears.

"But I haven't changed, Niamh. I am still the same person I was. The doctor said I would be more stable, more steady, my thinking clearer. But underneath it all I am still me," Sam pleaded for any chance.

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

Niamh sat for a moment and looked into Sam's eyes. What she saw there took her breath away. She could see Sam in those eyes. See her soul. And the soul she saw was Sam's. The one she fell in love with. Suddenly, she came to a realization. "I think I still could love you. But I feel deeply hurt by what you did. You betrayed me; I trusted you and you took advantage of that. I offered you friendship and you used that to get closer to me. To get what you wanted. But I still believe we have hope. If you can get well again, maybe we can start over. Begin again and maybe we can both get our feelings back or create new ones."

"You have a beautiful soul, Niamh. Only someone like you could forgive and offer us a second chance," Sam said. "If I can do anything to make you love me again, I will do it. I swear to you that there will never be a reason to feel betrayed again. I can make this right, Niamh, I can feel it. Can you?"

Niamh looked back at her, scanning her face and her eyes for any sign of the insanity she had witnessed before. She found none. But her soul reached into the eyes and felt at home. This was where she was meant to be. "I feel it. I feel you want it as much as I do Sam. But is it enough?" She said, her doubts coming to the surface once again.

"If we take it slow and work on it very hard, I believe it is," Sam told her. "Let me have enough faith for both of us, please," she begged.

Niamh realized she couldn't deny Sam anything. "Sure, Sam. Let's take it slow; then we can find what we lost again."

"I promise we will, Niamh," Sam swore to her. She stood up, pulling Niamh up with her, so they were standing close together. Sam lowered her head, and when her lips were a mere hair's breath away she stopped, giving a Niamh chance to stop it. But Niamh didn't. She let Sam continue. Sam felt their lips meet and she felt her essence soar. It was like coming home again after being lost at sea.

Niamh felt Sam's gentle kiss. A kiss full of promises of what the future held. She instinctively grabbed hold of it and of Sam. Her hands wrapped around her, balling the back of her shirt into her fists. Then Sam ran the tip of her tongue along Niamh's lips. In the next moment, when she felt the gentle caress of Sam's tongue against her own she let out a deep moan.

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

Sam heard Niamh moan and she was overcome by the emotion of being granted this second chance. She pulled Niamh closer to her, letting her fingers run through the soft brown hair. Trying to memorize the feel of it. Wanting to never let this woman out of her hands again. For the first time in her life, she knew what love and home were.

Finally, she couldn't stand the raw emotion of it all and pulled away. With tears in her eyes, she looked into Niamh's own and said, "I love you, Niamh Fitzpatrick."

Niamh swallowed the lump in her throat and said to her, "I love you too, Sam Bailey."

Chapter Fourteen

Sam lay quietly in her room at Janet's. She had been staying at Janet's house since she got out of the hospital a week ago, the two weeks before then having been spent at the hospital. The arrangement had been working fine until today, when the kids had gotten into a fighting match and became overly loud and whiney, and for some reason it all made Sam irritated and shaky. So, she decided to shut out the stress and hide in her room with the lights off. She didn't know what was wrong or what to do, but being in the dark seemed to help along with the little bit of quiet she gained.

She had really appreciated it when Janet made the offer to her during the last few days in the hospital. She tried to tell her that she would be fine back at the motel, but Janet insisted that Sam needed someone to look over her while she made the transition back into her normal life. Sam loathed admitting it, but she was more than a little scared about coming out of the hospital. It was as if she expected a whole new world to be out there. One she was not prepared to deal with anymore.

So here she lay in the dark on her bed in the guest room, on the verge of tears, and she had no idea why. The noise outside had quieted down, but it didn't relieve as much of the stress as Sam needed. I just need it all to go away. As Sam thought this, the door opened, shedding a stream of light onto the bed. Sam instinctively turned her head away as if the light hurt.

"Sam, are you alright, sweetie?" Janet asked in a soft voice. When she got no answer, she moved quietly into the room. She sat on the edge of the bed and placed a hand on Sam's shoulder. She felt Sam flinch under her touch. "Honey, what's the matter, do you want to tell me?"

"No!" Sam responded angrily, burying her head deeper into her pillow, pulling away from Janet's gentle touch, as if it hurt. "I'm fine, just leave me alone!"

Janet stood up off the bed and walked over to the medicine cabinet they had put up in the room for Sam's medications. Opening the cabinet, she looked at the bottles, picking one out. She poured out two tablets and got a small bottle of water from the box on top of the dresser, bringing them back over to Sam. "Here Sam, take these. It will help. I promise."

She held out the items for Sam.

Sam didn't move for a few moments. Then she rolled over and took the pills and water, downing each rather quickly with a resigned look on her face. Once Sam had finished she turned back over.

Janet sat down in the armchair by the television, leaving the door slightly ajar while she watched over Sam.

After ten minutes she thought Sam had fallen asleep. But a voice shattered the solitude when Sam asked, "Janet, can you close the door please? The light is bothering me."

"Sure, hun, and we'll talk about this tomorrow."

Sam didn't say anything she just lay on her mattress trying to avoid the light.

Janet stayed for a half-hour, and then had checked on Sam about every fifteen minutes, or so, until she was sure the pills had worked enough for Sam to relax into sleep. "We can't ignore this, as much as you want to," She said into the darkness of the room as she closed the door behind her and left.

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

Sam woke up the following morning feeling groggy. It was how she felt most mornings now. She didn't have to look at the clock to know it was after ten in the morning. Since she had been at the hospital, and they put her on her meds, that seemed to be when she woke up, unless a nurse or someone woke her up. She spent several moments trying to get her eyes to stay open and fought the urge to go back to sleep. Once Janet left for work, there was no one around to wake her up, and the temptation to sleep was overly powerful. But to stay on her routine, she knew she needed to get up.

Sam literally rolled herself out of bed, nearly landing face down on the floor. Standing on somewhat unsteady legs, she walked over to the medicine cabinet. Pulling out three bottles, she began picking one of each pill. One was a mood stabilizer, to help control her swings; one was an anti-depressant; and one was and anti-psychotic, to help with the voices and calm her down. Washing them down with some water, she left her room in search of breakfast.

Sam walked into the kitchen and headed for the tea-kettle on the stove, hoping the caffeine would help wake her up. On top of the pot was a note from Janet. Sam took it off and read it:

"Sam, please call your doctor about yesterday. I really think she should know about it."

She sat at the table after she put the water on. "Janet's right, but I just hate to call. What if she's busy? What if she thinks I'm overreacting? I don't want to be a pest or annoy her; I see her every three days anyway," Sam said out loud. "But if I don't call Janet will know." Sam sat and thought on it for several minutes. Finally, she decided she really had no choice but to make the call. "Whatever that was last night was just too scary to let happen again. I have to get a handle on this thing if I expect a future with Niamh, and the only way to make that happen is to make the call."

Maybe I should go see Niamh. She contemplated it for a moment and then dismissed the idea, deciding to wait another day or two. Maybe after she was feeling better she would stop into the store.

Since the incident at the hospital, they hadn't really seen each other. Niamh visited her while she was there and they had talked about the possibility of a future, but since getting out Sam had limited seeing each other. Part of it was Niamh being busy at the store with tourist season opening, and part of it was Sam keeping a distance from her. She felt too insecure in her new life to offer her anything right now.

Letting out a deep sigh, Sam picked up the phone and began dialing her doctor's office. After several rings, the receptionist answered, "Hello, Doctor Winski's office. How can I help you?"

"Hi, this is Sam Bailey. I wanted to talk to Dr. Winski, or better yet maybe simply leave her a message if I could," Sam asked.

"I could take a message. Is this an emergency?"

"No, I just wanted to let her know I had a bit of an episode last night. I figured she'd want to know about it."

"Sure, can you hold on a minute?"

"Yeah, fine," she agreed, wondering what was going on.

Sam waited several minutes.

"The doctor would like to know if you could come in this afternoon," the receptionist asked when she came back on the line. "Are you available at two o'clock?"

"I suppose," Sam said, hating the idea that the doctor thought it important enough for her to have to come in a day early.

"Fine, we'll see you at two then," the receptionist said in her ever cheerful voice.

"Okay, bye," Sam agreed. She hung up the phone and placed it on the table. "I hate this," she said to herself. Letting out another deep sigh, Sam stood up.

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

Sam sat in the waiting room feeling uncomfortable. She still wasn't used to atmosphere of a psychiatrist's office. The room was full, each person with their own problems. Seemingly scrutinizing one another and sizing up the abnormality of the person sitting next to them. She felt like everyone there was looking at her.

Finally, the door opened and Dr. Winski called her in. Sam was lucky that the doctor was able to take her as an outpatient. Usually a patient didn't get to see the same doctor that initially saw them in the hospital, but Dr. Winski had a small outside practice and was eager to take Sam on as she had found Sam to be a strong personality. If the Doctor could help Sam realize that and come to terms with her disorder she would be happy for her.

Sam sat on the couch in the doctor's office. It was cliché but comfortable. She crossed her legs and waited looking around while the doctor got settled. The office was smaller than she expected. The windows along the two walls gave it a more open feeling. The Doctor sat at her desk, which faced the one remaining wall, allowing her to take notes, and sit close to Sam at the same time. Some personal photos of who Sam assumed were her children adorned the top of it.

The doctor examined her file. "So, what happened, Sam?" She looked at Sam with understanding.

"Uh, I don't know what happened. It seemed like everything was fine and all a sudden it wasn't." Sam admitted, not knowing how to explain what happened.

"Can you tell me how you felt?"

"Well, irritated mostly. My body started shaking. I felt fine one minute and then uncontrollable anger the next. The only thing I wanted was a dark quiet place to calm down, so I hid in my room."

A pen scrawled notes in her file.

"How did you feel physically?"

"My heart felt like it was racing and my whole body felt like it was shuddering from trying to control myself," Sam admitted, her voice sounding worried.

"And how do you feel now?"

"Better; the irritation is gone and I don't feel so much like I want hide." She had overcome it; that was good, wasn't it?

"Physically, are you still feeling agitated, maybe like you want to jump out of your skin, or restless?" Dr. Winski watched her.

Several moments passed before Sam gave an answer. Looking down at her shoe crossed over her leg, she said, "Maybe a little."

"I noticed you haven't stopped jiggling your leg since you sat down. Have you been doing that a lot today?"

Sam looked at her legs and realized for the first time that she was in fact shaking the one that she rested her hand on. The foot was in continual motion, making little circles in the air. Sam was amazed she hadn't realized it until now. "I think so; I'm not sure. I know I've been feeling like I need to be doing something all day today. I cleaned the house and did laundry and dishes most of this morning, then I sat and watched television. But now that I think about it, I was doing it while I was on the sofa. Damn! I thought I was just being productive for once in a long time." Sam felt like a complete failure. It was obvious now why she had been so busy this morning.

"Well, I think we both know what is happening…"

"Yeah, I'm manic, aren't I?" she said, a sad expression taking over.

"Yes, I think so. Do you have any idea what might have set it off?" Dr. Winski asked.

"No, I don't think so. I was hanging out with Janet and the kids when I began feeling sick. The kids were arguing about something with Janet and I was trying to watch television. Suddenly, I began feeling the irritation start up. Once I felt like I couldn't take it anymore I left," Sam said, thinking over the night before.

"What couldn't you take?"

"The arguing! It was so loud and chaotic. I just couldn't handle it." A fresh feeling of irritation grew just thinking about it again.

"Okay, well here is what I would like to do," Dr. Winski said. "I would like to increase the dosage on two of your medications. We can increase the mood stabilizer to 200 mg. and the anti-psychotic to 15 mg. I think for now we can leave the anti-depressant where it is. How are you sleeping?"

"Not so well," Sam admitted. "I seem to have a lot of trouble shutting my mind down to sleep. Then the slightest noise seems to wake me up."

"Well, I can prescribe something that should help you fall asleep a little better and help you sleep through the night," the doctor offered.

Sam felt relieved at this. "Thanks, that will help a lot. I think I get off balance when I don't get enough sleep." She watched as the doctor pulled out her prescription pad and began writing,

"Alright, here are your prescriptions. I'd like to see you again in two days." Dr. Winski handed over the pieces of paper Sam.

"Fine, I can do that," Sam agreed, taking the prescriptions and standing up to leave.

"Did you find a therapist yet?" she asked Sam before concluding the session.

"I have an appointment tomorrow with someone you recommended," Sam answered, a little proud of herself for setting up the meeting.

"Good, well you can tell me how it goes the next time I see you."

As she led Sam out of the office, Sam glanced at the prescriptions in her hand. After all the sessions, drugs, and therapy, Sam hoped that something, anything would work.

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

Niamh stood at the counter helping ring up customers. So far she had given out the wrong change three times and rung up the incorrect amount twice, among other mistakes throughout the day. Her mind just wasn't on her work today. It was on Sam, specifically, why Niamh hadn't heard from her much since Sam had gotten out of the hospital. Niamh had called her at Janet's house several times but the conversation seemed awkward, stiff almost. Niamh got the distinct sense that Sam didn't want to talk to her. The one time she had gone over to the house, Sam had begged off, claiming she was tired and needed to go lie down. Janet explained that some of the medications made her exhausted for a good part of the day. But it didn't stop Niamh from feeling she was being pushed away.

In between customers Niamh began to wonder out loud, "I don't understand why she wouldn't want to talk or see me. After we kissed in the hospital, I thought we had worked everything out."

Melissa pulled Niamh from her musings by clearing her throat next to her. The surprise caused her to jump and drop the shopping bag of books she was holding. Melissa looked at her knowingly. "Do you want to keep those books, or hand them to the customer?"

She looked up and saw the customer staring at her with a curious look on her face, waiting for her books. She quickly handed them over saying, "Thank you," as the customer turned and left.

"What is with you today?" Melissa asked. "I've never seen you this distracted before."

"It's nothing," Niamh said. "I've just had a few things on my mind."

"Yes, well, those things wouldn't involve Sam would they?" Melissa asked. "I haven't seen her around. Is she still sick?" Niamh had mentioned about Sam being the stalker, but added that they worked things out. But now Niamh didn't act as if they had.

"No, I think she is just getting some rest," she said, looking away.

"Are things okay between you guys?"

"I think so. I really haven't had a chance to talk to her since she got out of the hospital."

"Are you still mad at her? I mean, for what she did to you? That was a pretty big deal. I don't know that I could forgive someone for doing that to me," she asserted.

"No, not for that. I thought I was. But not being able to talk to her is sort of making me angry all over again. I don't know if I'm upset at her for what she's done, or just at the situation and the fact that I can't see her. I feel like she is trying to get out of being with me. The frustrating part is that without talking to her I don't know how to make her stop."

"Well why don't you give her a call? See if she's able to go out or something. That would give you guys a chance to talk."

"I don't know. It seems she's pushing me away. Maybe she just said what she did to get me to not press charges. What if she didn't really mean any of it? How can I be sure I didn't forgive her too soon? Could she have changed so much that she would lie to me and use me like that?"

Melissa heard her words and saw the look of doubt cross Niamh's face. "Are you sorry you forgave her, honey?" she asked, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

"I'm not sure about anything anymore," she finally admitted to herself out loud. "What if I shouldn't have forgiven her? Do you really think she was sorry?"

"I don't know," Melissa answered honestly. "Only you and Sam can know that for certain. Why don't you call and talk to her, Niamh?"

Niamh wasn't positive she could. She didn't know if she could handle finding out the truth. If Sam had lied to her it would devastate her-of that she was sure. If she found out it was all a lie, could she ever bring herself to trust Sam again? Or trust anyone else? Would she ever want to?

Melissa noticed the distant look in Niamh's eyes, "How about we put it up to chance?"

"What?"

"I know you; you're trying to decide what to do. So, here's the deal. You mess up with one more customer you have to call her. Invite her over for dinner or something and you guys can talk it all over. Get some answers, since you obviously need them."

"You're betting me?" Niamh said a little incredulously. "You want me to bet on my life?" she asked again, hoping she had just heard her wrong.

"Sure, why not?" Melissa said. "Niamh, you have nothing to lose. If you win, you don't have to do anything you don't want to do. But if you lose, you have to call her today and set something up with her."

"You're crazy!" Niamh proclaimed to her friend.

"Why, what does it matter? Your only choice is to talk to Sam, if you want to learn the truth. One way you do it now and get it over with, the other way you wait and struggle to decide what to do and maybe you choose to do nothing, in which case you will never have any answers." Melissa raised her arms to emphasize her point. "I know you, Niamh. You want to make the right decision. This way you take the burden off yourself."

"Okay, fine, I'll do it, but I still think this is stupid."

For the next several hours the women worked together, stacking books on the shelves, ringing up customers, and helping people find what they needed. Niamh made a conscious effort to avoid any slipups. However, her mind drifted at its own leisure between random thoughts and memories. Before long she began thinking about Sam again.

As she was totaling an order on the cash register, Melissa began placing the books in the bag. Niamh handed the change over to the gentleman. He looked at his hand and then up at the storeowner. "Miss, I gave you a twenty," he said.

"Oh, yes, you did, I'm sorry," Niamh said, "Here you go; this should be right," she told him, as she handed over a five dollar bill.

"Thank you."

"Sure, sorry for the mix up," she said.

Niamh turned to walk back to the information desk, but Melissa blocked her path. She stood in her way, holding out the cordless phone. "Call," she said.

"Call what?"

"Call Sam. You lost the bet, so here." Pushing the phone towards Niamh's hands, she shuffled her into the back room for privacy. Niamh looked at the phone in her hand as realization set in. "You want me to call her now?"

"No time like the present, and this way you have no chance to back out. So call," she demanded, pointing at the phone.

"Fine, I'll do it!" With that Niamh dialed the number for Janet's house. As she heard the phone on the other end begin to ring her heart rate picked up and her breathing became shallow. She could swear she was feeling lightheaded. Finally, there was a voice at the other end. It was Sam's.

"Hello."

Niamh was amazed at the sensations that ran through her with that one word. Her body began to calm down, replaced by a soothing tingling sensation, and her confidence once again returned. "Hi, Sam; it's Niamh."

"Hi, Niamh, nobody's home if you're looking for Janet or anybody. I can tell them you called," she said with a hint of apprehension in her voice.

"No! I called for you," Niamh replied in a rush, not wanting to give Sam the chance to hang up. "Uh, I wanted to talk to you."

"Oh."

"Yes, I wanted to know if I could interest you in dinner tomorrow night." Niamh proposed, as she tried to wave Melissa away from behind her shoulder, where she was trying to listen in on the conversation.

"Dinner? I'm not sure I'm up for that right now, Niamh."

"Please, Sam, we really need to talk. I won't take no for an answer this time. I really need to meet with you."

"I don't know…"

"No, Sam, you can't keep avoiding me. For both our sakes, just talk to me," Niamh cut in firmly.

"You're not going to take no for an answer are you?"

"No, most certainly not."

"Okay, what time should I be there?"

"Six-thirty would be fine," Niamh said, smiling, as she let out a silent breath of relief, and gave Melissa a thumbs-up.

"Alright, I'll be there. Should I bring anything?" Sam asked, resigned to the fact that she couldn't get out of this.

"No, I have it all covered." Niamh wasn't sure if she appropriately hid her excitement, but she almost began not to care. She needed to see Sam, and maybe Sam should know that.

"Fine, I'll see you then."

"Okay, night, Sam."

"Goodnight, Niamh," Sam said as she pushed the button to hang up the phone.

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

Niamh frantically ran around the kitchen trying to get everything ready. She had the steaks marinating for the grill, the new red potatoes roasting in the oven, the fresh string beans tossed in the skillet to sauté, and she was just now grating the Parmesan cheese for the Caesar salad. Sam was due any second and she wanted everything set before then.

The doorbell rang. Damn, she's on time, Niamh cursed to herself as Artemis sniffed at the bottom of the front door and released two pronounced barks. She quickly ran her hands under the water in the sink and dried them on the dishtowel before making a mad dash for the door. She worried that Sam might change her mind before she got to it.

Pushing the dog from the door, she opened it. Sam stood on the porch, looking as beautiful as she remembered. She had put on some weight since she went into the hospital, but it made her look healthier, getting rid of the gauntness that she had before. The early evening sunlight gave her hair a golden glow of highlights. Her lips were soft and firm, begging Niamh to lean up and kiss them once again. Then she noticed it. Sam's eyes no longer sparkled. Her heart almost broke not knowing if it was due to the illness or the fact that it was never real.

Artemis' commotion finally broke her from her musings. The dog jumped as high as she could to get to Sam's face and lick it. Sam bent down to allow the dog to give her proper greeting. "She missed you," Niamh remarked.

Sam looked at her curiously.

"I figured out you two have already met, several times I suspect. She's been off looking for you in the woods every chance she could get," she said, her voice giving away little emotion of how she felt.

"I'm sorry. I know I can't say that enough to make up for what I've done, but I am. Please don't blame Artemis; she is a good watchdog. I don't know why she didn't warn you about me."

Niamh was relieved that she thought she saw sincerity in Sam's eyes. But it wasn't enough to relieve all her fears.

"Why don't you come make yourself comfortable out on the deck? I just have to grill the steak, and then dinner will be ready," Niamh said, going back towards the kitchen with Sam following behind.

She showed Sam to the deck, and then went inside for the steak, coming back out to join her. Neither of them spoke while she cooked the meat on the grill. The silence was overwhelming, but neither of them wanted to begin.

Once the food was done, they sat at the outside table eating quietly. They talked about nonsense things, such as the weather, and Janet, David, and the kids. Niamh explained what had been happening at the bookstore while Sam was gone, telling her that some of the customers had been asking for her. All through dinner, Artemis laid at Sam's side. With Sam's help they cleaned up the dishes, loading them in the dishwasher. Then the two sat back down outside. Darkness had fallen and the moon was rising over the treetops. Niamh could hear the crickets and cicadas off in the woods.

How do I even do this? Niamh thought. "Where do I begin such a huge conversation? Maybe I should start in on the most important thing first," she said in a low tone as if to herself.

"Sam, do you love me?" she blurted out, looking deep into Sam's blue eyes for any sort of doubt or hesitancy to indicate she wasn't being honest.

Sam returned the look with intensity that Niamh could almost feel, "More than I could have ever imagined. I never thought I would love someone the way I do you, Niamh!" Sam looked down at the tabletop, a sad expression coming over her as she slumped her shoulders. "My whole life I didn't think I would ever find love. It just wasn't something for me. Then you came into my life and it just happened."

Niamh listened to her and heard the honesty in the proclamation, but she still needed to know more. "Sam, do you really mean that, or are you just saying that to get out of the stalking charges? I need to know the truth." Niamh felt her life hung in the balance of the answer.

"I mean it, Niamh; with all my heart it is the truth. If you still want to press charges, you can. I won't fight it. But it won't change my feelings for you," Sam assured her, looking up into her eyes which were made darker by the night. Moonlight sparkled in their watery depths.

"What I want, Sam is to know I can trust you! Ever since we had the talk in the hospital you have been distant, pushing me away, avoiding me every time I tried to talk to you or get close to you. Why?"

"I don't know why!" Sam responded, tears beginning to form in her eyes, reflecting moonbeams against the azure blue. "I just thought you deserved better. Better than someone who can't give you anything right now. Hell, I don't know if I'll ever be able to."

"I don't want anything from you, Sam, except you, your love, and for me to be able to love you back. That's all we need right now," Niamh explained, tears of her own starting to fall as her emotions came to the forefront.

"Do you hear how naïve that all sounds, Niamh? This is not something that can be ignored away by love. It is a lifelong illness that will take a long time to even get under control."

"I know that. I've talked to Janet about it and you. I realize the ramifications of it all."

"No, Niamh, I don't think you do. I can become a burden, a liability. I could even revert back to the way I was."

"I don't believe that you will, Sam."

"No, it's obvious you don't," she said with resignation. "Well, the only way I can think to explain it to you is to have you come with me to my next doctor's appointment." She was a little uneasy about the idea, but she could come up with no alternative. "Maybe when she tells you everything you'll begin to believe me. I'm too much of a burden for you right now, Niamh."

"Let me be the judge of that! I'm capable of deciding whom I want in my life on my own. I don't need you to determine this for me," Niamh said, her anger at Sam showing through a little.

"Then come with me. Let the doctor tell you what it's like to be me, to be with someone like me."

"Fine, tell me what time and where to meet you and I'll be there. But let me warn you, Sam. Nothing she says is going to scare me away. I love you and nothing is going to change that for me," she said with a determination that Sam could see in her eyes.

Chapter Fifteen

Dr. Winski let Niamh into the office. Sam was already there, sitting on the brown leather couch, bouncing her right leg in what Niamh had realized was a nervous habit. As soon as she saw her, Sam jumped up and made room for her on the couch. "Thanks for coming," she said in a quiet voice.

"Hi, Niamh. I'm Dr. Winski. I believe we met briefly at the hospital. Take a seat," the tall blonde doctor said as she offered her hand for Niamh to take.

She sat down next to Sam so their legs were touching, taking comfort in the contact, and hoping it was soothing to the other woman. She noticed Sam's leg had slowed, though it didn't completely stop.

"So, Sam was telling me that you're a friend of hers, and you wanted to know more about what was going on with her. Since Sam has consented, I'll allow you to sit in and hear what we have to say today. If you want, you can ask me any questions you might have. Right now let's start with Sam. How are you doing today, Sam?" She directed the question at Sam with a definitive shift of her body in Sam's direction.

"Better than the other day, I think. I don't feel quite as irritable or antsy." A little sensitive talking in front of Niamh, Sam quickly wiped the palms of her hands on her jeans trying to get rid of the growing clammy sensation they had.

"Did you figure out what set you off the other day?" Dr. Winski asked.

"I think it was the kids," she told the doctor. "I think when they get all noisy and out of control like that, or when I have to watch them, the noise and chaos get to me, along with the stress of having to be responsible for them and what they're doing." Sam felt ashamed of having to blame the children for her problems.

"I see…is there any way you can get away from them when they are like that? Maybe tell Janet you can't baby-sit?" she said.

"I think Janet would understand about the babysitting, but the house is so small I don't see how I can really get away from it. I can still hear it in my room pretty loudly."

"Is there someone else you can stay with? I'd rather you not live alone at this point in your treatment, so is there any hope of an alternative?" Dr. Winski asked.

"No, not really. I don't know anyone else in town," she answered dejectedly. Leaning forward, her hands loosely clasped together and her shoulders slumped over, subdued "I guess I'll just have to learn to deal with it all."

Niamh thought for a moment, trying to understand the conversation between the doctor and Sam. Niamh worried since she knew Sam had nowhere else to go. After considering it for a few moments she spoke up. "You could move in with me."

"No! I won't do it, Niamh."

"Why not? It would be nice and quiet, and you could even help keep Artemis out of trouble during the day," Niamh stated. "I don't see where there could be a problem.

"Because, I won't put you through that; you have no idea what kind of problems you're asking for by taking me in. It's not an easy thing to do Niamh, please reconsider," Sam said.

"Sam has a valid point. Janet understood the ramifications and difficulties of this disorder when she agreed to allow Sam to stay with her, plus she had medical training," Dr. Winski explained. Looking between the two women she said, "I wouldn't feel comfortable putting Sam in an unknown situation with you. Not unless you fully understood what is going on."

"Well, then explain it all to me," Niamh demanded.

"Can I ask what kind of relationship you have with Sam?" the doctor asked, looking directly at Niamh. "Is it a romantic one?"

Niamh was shocked by the question at first, but then realized it was probably a reasonable one. "Yes it is." She looked to Sam for any sign of disagreement; there was none.

Sam stared past the doctor, out the window. The day was overcast and it seemed to match the mood she was giving off. Niamh heard Sam swallowing past the unseen lump forming in her throat, as she knew how much Sam thought she had to lose if this relationship failed right here.

"Okay, well, that makes things a little better, but also more difficult at the same time," Dr. Winski said, confusing Niamh.

"I don't understand," Niamh said.

"If you have a strong relationship it will go a long way to helping you cope with the situation," she said, leaning forward in her chair, resting her forearms on her thighs with her notebook resting in her lap. "Sam, you will have someone to rely on and support you, and you can both be there for each other to help you get through the difficult times. And there will be difficult times, especially in the beginning," the doctor said.

Niamh appeared a little unsure, "What do you mean?" she asked, looking between Sam and the doctor. Sam couldn't, or wouldn't, meet her eyes.

"By that I mean that there will be issues that arise; some big, some minor. How you deal with them will depend on your commitment to each other, and to Sam's recovery," The doctor put her pen and pad on her desk to give Niamh her full attention.

"For instance, right now Sam's condition will interfere with her ability to work or hold a job. It is a stress she can't handle right now, which probably explains why she left her last job. She may not ever be able to hold that kind of job again, or any job, depending on how much stress it causes her."

Niamh turned and looked at Sam. She saw the perspiration on Sam's forehead and the pale features as Sam listened to the doctor explain things to her. Looking at Sam's hands she saw them trembling. Fighting the urge to take her hand in her own, Niamh turned her attention back to the doctor.

"Well, she could do what she was doing down at the bookstore. Just help out when she feels like it," Niamh rationalized.

Sam gave her a weak smile and looked to the doctor for approval.

"That would be fine in the future, but right now I don't think Sam is ready. She just got out of the hospital. We're still trying to get her stable. I know she had some sociability issues in the beginning, when she first arrived in town, and I think that right now any kind of large social environment isn't good for her."

"You mean I can't do anything? I have to just sit around all day and do nothing?" Sam irritably exclaimed, drawing the attention back to her.

"Well, not nothing," Dr. Winski said, "you need to spend this time learning your body and mind, Sam. You need to find out what stresses you and learn how to eliminate them or deal with them. I suggest learning meditation skills, or anything else that can help you relax."

Looking towards Niamh she continued, "The medications may also affect Sam's mental or physical activity level. Many anti-depressants, especially those effecting serotonin, can cause severe sleepiness, fatigue, and difficulty focusing. Other drugs have other side effects, which can cause problems." She held up a hand to forestall any comments, and leaned back in her chair again. "However, we have Sam on a combination that I feel will give her the least side effects. But you have to understand that sometimes a medication can stop working the way we want it to and will have to be changed, or side effects will suddenly appear."

"So what you're saying is that we may never find a good combination of medications for me?" Sam asked.

"No, I am just saying what can happen," the doctor answered. "This is a process, Sam; one without an exact science. Each person's body is different and the chemical balance is unique. We just have to find the right combination for you. That may happen with the first combination we try or it may take some time. There is no certainty. That is one of the issues that can cause you both problems."

"How?" Niamh asked.

"Until we get the right combination of meds for Sam, she will be subject to mood changes. She can be depressed or manic. Depending on her makeup, this can happen from hour to hour, or for months at a time. It is not inconceivable for her to be depressed or manic for extended time periods. If she is a rapid cycler it can be hours, days, or weeks between periods. If not, she can go for months of being depressed, manic, or stable." Niamh could see Dr. Winski was sorry to have to tell them this news, but knew they both needed to be aware of it. "I can't emphasize or even re-emphasize this enough to you both. This is not a disorder that is easy to gain or hold control over.

"Will this be forever?" Niamh asked, concerned for Sam and a bit frightened too.

"Until we get her stabilized on some combination, it will continue." The doctor looked over at Sam and smiled. "But once we get that to happen it should stop. But it is a lifelong disorder. It can manifest itself to some degree at anytime, whether she is on medication or not."

Sam gave her a sad look in return. "Explain what else there is, Dr. Winski. You know that's not all there is."

"Well, Niamh will be taking on the role of a caregiver. That alone can be tough on a relationship, especially a new one."

"How so?" Niamh asked

"There is going to be a tendency to want to treat her on a somewhat unequal level."

"I would never do that!" Niamh said, looking at Sam to set her mind at rest.

"You may not do it consciously, but it has happened before. You begin to see her as someone who needs taking care of or protecting, not as a partner," the doctor said.

"What's the best way to avoid that?"

"I would suggest that you find a support group or therapist of your own," Dr. Winski offered. "That will help you work through many of the issues and, if need be, either your therapist, or Sam's can see you as a couple to help you work out issues you may have with one another."

Niamh looked at both of them and said, "Okay, I can do that. I don't mind. What else do I need to know about?"

"I guess the only other things I can think of are commitment and sex."

"Commitment and sex-what are you talking about?" Niamh said, looking at Sam.

Sam simply blushed and then looked to the doctor to explain.

"What I mean is that most bi-polar individuals have a hard time with commitment and follow through. They will start projects but not finish them, begin jobs and then quit. Start new relationships and then end them. Things can bore bi-polar individuals easily. Sam has shown some signs of this, but nothing on a major level that should concern you. Also, if she is like most of my patients she may try and push you away to avoid being a burden," she said, waiting a moment, for a reaction from either woman Niamh supposed.

"Okay," Niamh said, confident that she and Sam could avoid that issue. "But what about the sex? How does that play a role in all this?"

"A major symptom of a manic episode is an unhealthy increase in sexual drive. Depending on how severe the episode, the need for sex becomes almost an addiction. However, during a depressive episode the desire for sex may disappear altogether. Just the same, some of the medications we give Sam may interfere with her sexual drive. But, as I said, we are trying ones with very few side effects, so hopefully that won't be a problem," she said.

Sam blushed at this.

"Sam had told me some thoughts she has had in the past and recently that make me think that you and she could run into some issues."

"What kind of issues?"

"Most of her recent behavior towards you has been an attempt to distance herself from her desires, combined with a feeling of low self image at this point. That may improve over time with work, but it may become a completely opposite situation should she become manic."

"I don't understand."

"Sam could easily fall into the idea of sexual relationship with you. Easier than it should be, because she is being driven by her illness rather than her true emotions."

"Wow, that's a lot to take in," Niamh said, feeling overwhelmed. She looked over towards Sam and saw the look of severe embarrassment.

"What you have to remember, Niamh is that this is a lifelong illness. You will both have to make adjustments in your lives if you want this relationship to work," the doctor offered. Then looking Sam directly in the eye, she added, "You also need to keep in mind the amount of strength and courage it takes for someone to learn to live with this illness. I have no doubts that once we find the right combination of meds, you and Sam will be able to adjust just fine."

Understanding her meaning, Niamh looked over at Sam and took her hand in hers, feeling how cold and clammy it was. Giving it a tight squeeze she confirmed, "Neither do I."

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

After leaving the doctor's office Niamh took Sam back to her house. Artemis had been acting sad ever since Sam left the night before, so she thought it a good idea to give the two time to play together.

Before they made it home Niamh called Janet at work and asked her to stop over on her way home. Niamh didn't know how long Janet would be, so she made lasagna. Janet could take it home to David and the twins, since Niamh wasn't sure Janet would have time to make them something by the time they were through talking. She made an extra one for her and Sam to share later.

Just as she was taking the pans out of the oven, she heard Janet call her from the front hallway. "In the kitchen!" she called.

Janet came in, still wearing her scrubs from work. "Wow, something smells good here."

"I made dinner for everyone. There's a tray here for you to take home," Niamh said, pointing to the food cooling on the stovetop.

"Have I ever told you how much I love you?" Janet said, coming up to her sister and giving her a hug with one arm.

"No, you never have," she teased back at her sister.

"Well, I do, so there," she said, sticking her tongue out at her.

Janet let her sister go and walked over to the sliding glass door. She could see Sam in the backyard playing fetch with Artemis. "She seems happier today, especially out there playing."

Niamh looked past Janet to see Sam running around laughing at the dog's antics. "Yeah, she does." She noticed she seemed to be happy here. She was playing with the dog and laughing while she did.

"She has a truly relaxed air about her, one she hasn't had for quite some time." Janet said. "I'm sure you have a lot to do with that, Niamh"

"I don't know about that, but I do know she does seem to be relieving some stress out there," Niamh said.

As if she knew she was being watched, Sam turned and saw Janet. She waved energetically at her. She threw the ball one more time into the woods, then turned and headed for the deck. Janet opened the door, stepping outside to meet her. "Hi, Sam."

"Hey, Janet. How was work today?"

"Nothing major, except a day-tripper trying to catch the ferry rear-ended a truck on Main Road," she recounted, taking a seat at the patio table and pointing to the seat across from her for Sam to take. Sam sat down heavily into the comfortable cushioned wood seat.

"So how did your meeting with the doctor go today, Sam?" Janet asked, just as Niamh came out to join them. She came up next to Sam, putting her hand on her shoulder and giving it a gentle squeeze before sitting down next to her.

Sam looked over at Niamh and gave her a warm expression that lit up her eyes. Looking back at Janet, she told her about the appointment and what they had discussed and agreed upon.

Janet sat a minute, appearing to go over in her mind what they told her. Then she said, "Are you sure you're okay with this, Sam?"

"Yeah, I think so," she said. "You know I love the twins, Janet, but they're too much stress for me to take on a constant basis. The house is just too crowded right now. The noise and activity level are too high at the moment," Sam said with an apologetic look.

"I understand. Sometimes it's even too much for me to handle and they're my own kids," she said with a chuckle.

"This is really the best solution, Janet," Niamh explained to her sister. "The doctor doesn't want her to be alone right now. It's quiet here. She can play with Artemis, or walk to town during the day, and in the evenings I'll make sure I'm home." She offered with a confident air, "I can get Melissa or Stan to cover the evenings at the store. Stan has been asking for more time now that his classes are over for the summer." She hoped the plan would allay both Sam's and her sister's reservations.

"Are you sure you can handle this, Niamh? What if Sam has an episode like she did the other day?"

"Truthfully, I don't know, Janet. I think I can do it," Niamh told her. "I won't know if, and until, it happens. I have the doctor's number in case of emergency and worst case scenario you live five minutes away if I need help."

"Well I think you can both do it. I've never seen you happier Niamh, and Sam you seem to have a real calmness here. I know you two will both be strong together," Janet said. "Okay, so when do you want to move in, Sam?"

"I think it's best to do it as soon as possible. I'd rather not have a repeat of the other night," Sam said with a slight look of fear in her eyes. "I think it scared me a little more than I was prepared for. I'm sorry."

"Sam, don't apologize for things you have no control over, please," Janet said.

Niamh saw the look and rested her hand on the woman's thigh in reassurance, as she offered, "I don't see why we can't do it tomorrow. We can grab your stuff from Janet's, then go over to the motel and get the last of your stuff from there. In fact, why don't you just stay here tonight? I have some sweats you can wear for sleeping and we can just throw your clothes in the wash before we go to bed." She hoped Sam would go along with the idea. Niamh was sure that the woman would feel better once she was away from Janet's place.

Sam looked at her, she placed her hand over Niamh's, "Are you sure, Niamh? I don't want to put you out."

"You're not putting me out. We're moving you into the guest room anyway; what's one day early?"

"I think she might be right, Sam. Why not just stay over? You can come get your things tomorrow. Honestly, I think you'll be fine here, you have nothing to truly worry about."

Sam looked at the determination on both women's faces and gave in. "Okay, I'll stay."

"Great!" proclaimed Niamh, happiness overwhelming her at the thought of finally having Sam close by where she could keep an eye on her. Hopefully it would also draw them closer together.

"Well, now that that is settled, I think I'll head home. Thanks for making dinner," she told her sister, standing up giving her a kiss on the top of her head. "It will be nice to have time for dinner with the kids and David without the hassle of having to cook around them all."

Sam jumped up and grabbed the pan. "Here, let me carry this out to the car for you, Janet," she said, heading for the front door.

Janet turned to her sister after they both watched Sam walk outside. "Niamh, you know you can call me anytime if you have any trouble or questions, or if you just want to talk to someone."

"Yeah, I know," she answered.

"Really, Niamh, don't hesitate to call, anytime day or night." She looked Niamh straight in the eyes as she said it.

"I will, I promise." Niamh leaned in and gave her older sibling a kiss on the cheek for caring so much. Janet grabbed and pulled her into a hug.

Letting go of her sister, Janet turned and went out the door.

Niamh stood in the doorway and watched Janet climb into the car as Sam held her door for her and closed it behind her.

As Janet drove away, Sam stood in the driveway looking out at the retreating car. The setting sun silhouetted her in its golden glow as it turned the skies various hues of pink, purple, and dark blue. Niamh thought to herself how much the blue matched Sam's eyes.

Niamh watched the woman she loved standing there. She recalled the visit to the doctor earlier in the day and all that she had learned. It would be a long difficult road ahead of them, but she knew deep in her heart that they would find the strength to face whatever difficulties befell them.

Sam turned and began walking towards her. Niamh's heart filled with the beauty and strength she saw before her. She held out her hand. "Come on, honey. Let's have dinner together." Waiting for Sam to join her, she realized how entwined their lives were becoming. Hopefully this is only the beginning.

Chapter Sixteen

It took them most of the day, but by early the following evening Sam and Niamh had moved most of her stuff into Niamh's house. Sam insisted on bringing most of her books, so Niamh agreed to turn her extra room into a small library for Sam to organize them in.

Sam spent the time Niamh took making dinner getting them assembled into neat piles. Niamh came in at one point and found Sam sitting on the floor going through the book titles and putting everything in some order. From what Niamh could observe, they were not alphabetical or topical. It appeared almost random to her, but it must have made some sense to Sam, for she was being so meticulous about the whole process.

Finally, when dinner was ready, they sat down to eat. The conversation all day had been polite and civil, but it was stilted just the same. The dinner conversation was no different. In fact, it was almost non-existent. For the most part, they each ate staring at their plates. On occasion one of them would ask the other to pass something, but that was the limit.

Eventually the quiet got to be too much for Niamh, "So, how do you think you're settling in?"

Sam looked up with a surprised stare. Then Sam looked over her shoulder for a split second, seeming to check that it was her Niamh was talking to. "Uhm, fine, I guess. I put my clothes in the guest room and started putting the books away in the spare room. I hope that's alright"

Niamh gave out a deep sigh, "Sam, this is your place now too. You can put your stuff wherever it makes you comfortable," she reminded her new roommate. "I want you to feel at home here."

"Oh, okay," she answered a little sheepishly.

Niamh stood and began gathering the empty plates.

"I'll do that," Sam said, standing and taking the plates from her. "It's the least I can do since you cooked dinner."

"Alright, if it makes you feel better, but how about whoever cooks the other does the dishes. Sound fair?" she asked, raising her eyebrow in question.

"Yeah," Sam answered, the way her demeanor picked up, Niamh assume she was feeling better about the arrangement.

I can have dinner ready and the dishes mostly done before she gets home from the store each night, Sam conspired to herself as she loaded the dishwasher.

"So after dinner do you want to watch some TV or a movie, or something?" Niamh asked a little awkwardly, unsure of what to do next.

"I don't know," Sam answered. "I have to take my meds soon, and that usually wipes me out pretty fast."

"Well, why don't you go take your pills and we'll pick out a movie. If you get tired you can go to bed," Niamh suggested, trying to make Sam more comfortable in her new surroundings. "I don't want you to feel like you need to lock yourself in your room, Sam. You need to make this your home, and you can't do that if you think you have to stay out of my way all the time."

"Sure," Sam said, sounding a little sheepish. "That would be great."

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

While Niamh sorted through her video collection, Sam went upstairs to the spare room. As she entered the room her nervous tension returned, feeling like the room was too small. She could feel a few beads of sweat begin to form on her upper lip. Her breathing increased, even as she tried to clam herself down. I don't understand why I'm so uncomfortable here. Could it be because I know this might end any minute? Once Niamh realizes what is involved with me being here I feel like she'll give up on us. She said she loves me and is willing to stick by me. Why can't I believe that? Why can't I have more faith in us? But for some reason she just couldn't. Her mind refused to believe what her heart was saying: that they were meant to be together.

Sam walked over to the medicine cabinet Niamh had placed in her room, and she began pulling out all her pill bottles. Lining them up she began taking pills from each one; some she took several out of, downing them all at one time with the water from the bottle next to her bed.

She spent several moments trying to get herself together, taking deep breaths, and massaging the back of her neck, which had tensed up. Finally, she felt well enough to head back down.

As she came down the stairs, she saw Niamh's profile as she looked through various video cases. She took in the beauty of the woman she loved, the woman who loved her. I still can't believe that she has forgiven me for all that I did to her. What did I ever do to deserve the love of a woman like her? Nothing, that's what, but I promise to make her happy for the rest of my life.

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

Hearing Sam come down the stairs, Niamh turned around and stood up admiring the way the light in the upstairs hallway silhouetted her, making Sam seem almost ethereal. Niamh knew Sam had doubts about them, but Niamh was willing to do almost anything to make Sam realize their destiny lay together.

Walking over to Sam, who seemed frozen in spot, unsure of what to do next, Niamh took her hand and led her over to the sofa in front of the large television. "I picked out a nice comedy, figuring we could both go for a little humor. Do you want some microwave popcorn?"

"Sure, if you want," Sam replied, wary of if her answer was the right one.

"Okay, I'll be right back. Why don't you put the movie in?"

"Alright, I can do that, I think."

Niamh went into the kitchen and thought about Sam's behavior since she agreed to move in. She's so unlike the person I knew at the store, so unsure of herself. How did she become so unlike that individual? She had her quirks, but she was so self-assured. Now she seems to question everything she does and says. I hope it's only temporary and we can get her back to being herself again.

Niamh came back into the room and took a seat in the corner of the couch. Sam sat down in the other corner pulling her feet up under her and wrapping her arms around herself as the credits started. Niamh could almost feel the sense of desolation Sam was exuding. Making a decision, she got up from her seat and moved over to the middle of the couch. Then with a gentle "come here," she pulled Sam over to lay her head on her lap. Sam immediately relaxed into the touch as Niamh trickled her fingers through Sam's hair. Sam felt her breathing and heart rate slow and the feeling of anxiety leave her body. Whether it was the drugs, or Niamh's gentle ministrations, Sam fell asleep within minutes.

Niamh let the movie play, but she sat watching Sam sleep instead of the screen. Asleep, she almost seemed angelic. The tension and anxiety were gone. Replaced by serenity that she hoped Sam would someday soon be able to feel when she was awake as well.

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

Sam woke up to the late morning light shining in her eyes. A little disoriented it took her a moment to realize that she had woken up on the couch. There was no sign of Niamh, but someone had placed a blanket over her sometime during the night.

When she was finally awake enough to get up, she wandered into the kitchen for some tea. Going directly to the electric kettle, she noticed Niamh had placed everything out for her. She turned on the kettle and put in three scoops of breakfast tea, then stood watching the pot.

"You know what they say about a watched pot," she heard a voice behind her say. Sam jumped and turned around, surprised to see Niamh standing there. "I thought you went to work," she said with her hand on her chest, hoping it would get her heart rate back down again.

"Nah, decided to go in late," she replied with an air of casualness.

"Why," Sam asked curiously. She had a feeling she was somehow the reason, and she wasn't sure how she felt about that fact.

"No real reason. Just after taking the night off yesterday I felt like being a little lazy, so I took the morning off." She wouldn't admit that the real reason was to keep an eye on Sam this morning. It had worried her a bit when she couldn't get the other woman to wake up enough to go to bed last night. The fact that Sam made no mention of it she found a bit strange, since she had been awake enough to talk to her and tell her she was fine on the couch and they had chastely kissed goodnight. "So how did you sleep?"

"Great, except I can't believe I fell asleep on you. Why didn't you wake me?"

Niamh lied and said, "I thought you looked too comfortable to move. That couch can be very cozy to sleep on. I've done it myself a time or two." Grabbing a pan off the stove, she asked her, "Would you like some eggs for breakfast?"

"Sure, scrambled would be nice, thanks."

Niamh wasn't sure if it was a leftover from one of the medications Sam took last night, or if was just that she was getting more comfortable, but today she seemed more relaxed. So far nothing she did or said had that tone of wariness she had last night. She took it as a good sign that maybe Sam was feeling more like her old self.

The two sat and ate the breakfast that Niamh prepared: eggs, toast, and tea. To Sam it tasted wonderful. It had been so long since she sat down to a home cooked meal with someone who was special to her. Not since her parents died had she felt like this. It felt like home. They each talked about what the day held for them. Sam had an appointment with her therapist, then planned to spend the day doing things around the house. Niamh tried to assure her that she didn't need to do anything other than rest, but Sam insisted, saying it would make her feel useful and needed.

Finally, it was time for Niamh to leave for work. She stood up and walked around the table to where Sam was sitting. "Okay, honey, I should be home around six-thirty." She bent down and kissed Sam on her lips. It was meant to be a chaste goodbye kiss. However, as their lips met Sam marveled at the feel of the other woman's lips on her own. She deepened the kiss instantly to one full of love and tenderness. Niamh responded to the change, meeting the kiss with a deepening of her own emotions. Taking her cue from that, Sam reached a hand around her head, pulling her deeper still. As tongues met and began caressing each other, Niamh moaned far in the back of her throat. Sam reached around with her other hand. When Sam realized she was feeling the skin under Niamh's shirt she pulled back quickly, as if burned.

"We can't do this, Niamh. Not now," Sam stated firmly, but with a touch of regret in her voice.

"I know…we can finish this later, when I get home," Niamh said, already anticipating coming home to more of this.

"No, Niamh, I mean we can't do this at all," she repeated. "It wouldn't be right, for either of us."

"What are you talking about? How can it not be right? We love each other," Niamh argued. "Tell me you truly meant it, Sam?"

"Of course! I meant every word," Sam swore. "But don't you see this is exactly why we can't? You still doubt me, who I am. Meanwhile, I have no confidence in myself, or what I have to offer you."

"No, I don't see. Together we have the power to help each other with all of that. Just give it some time and you'll see. It will work itself out," Niamh said, trying desperately to hold onto what they had. Her biggest fear was that Sam would use this as an excuse to leave. I can't let her do that. We have to hang in this together. Only then do we have the power to beat this illness, and still survive as a couple.

"I don't see, Niamh. I don't see how we can build a relationship based on mistrust and cowardice!" she stated firmly. She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself down. She could feel herself on the edge of being out of control, her palms were beginning to sweat and her anger was rising. "Look, all I am saying is let's put the physical relationship on the back burner for now. I think we both have enough to think about and worry over without adding physical intimacy into it. How can we be intimate with all these things overshadowing us?" Sam reasoned.

"How can we not be? This is when we need each other the most, when we need our love for each other to help us be strong through this."

Sam got up and pulled Niamh into a hug, wrapping her arms tightly around her. Niamh immediately put her face in the crook of her neck, breathing in the scent of her, reveling in the feeling of comfort and contentment. Sam rested her chin on the top of Niamh's head. "Sweetheart, can you honestly say, deep down in your mind, not your heart, that you really know me? That you understand me and how I think?"

Niamh took a minute to think her feelings over, to come up with an answer. Immediately her soul screamed for her to answer yes. But when she pushed that aside she had to admit to herself that Sam was right. Taking in a shuddering breath, which caused the tears she was holding back to fall out, Niamh answered in a small quiet whisper, "No."

Sam held on to her tighter as she felt the tears moisten her neck and shoulder. Her heart broke at the thought that she had once again caused Niamh harm, and a single tear of her own made its way down her cheek. "It's okay, honey, sssshhh, I promise it'll be alright. It's just for a little while. Only until we get settled. Then we can see how it goes from there. I'm sure before too long we'll be right where we both want to be right now," Sam said, laying a kiss on the top of her auburn hair.

"Do you promise?" Niamh sniffled in question.

"Yeah, I promise," Sam said, sitting back down, pulling her onto her lap and wrapping her arms tightly around her waist. Niamh proceeded to lay her head on Sam's shoulder, luxuriating in the comforting feeling. How can we doubt this? It feels too right to be a mistake. I just have to show her I trust her, and get to know her inside. With that thought Niamh's resolve was set. They would work through this.

"All I'm saying, love, is that we not let things get out of hand. We need to take it slow for awhile, until we are both comfortable in the situation."

"So we can still do this though, right?" Niamh asked pointedly, looking down at their position.

"I hoped you would feel that way. I just want to hold off on the sex aspect of our relationship until we feel on equal footing."

"Okay, I can agree with you about that. Maybe we should wait. But just know it won't change the way I feel about you, and I intend on letting that show everyday."

"Alright, deal. So long as you know that I do truly love you and cherish you," Sam assured her.

"I do," Niamh swore to her, sinking into Sam's warmth and tenderness.

Chapter Seventeen

It had been a week since Sam and Niamh had agreed to take their relationship slow. So far, it had been working out. They showed affection and tenderness to one another, but spent a lot of time just talking and getting to know each other again. For Niamh it had been wonderful discovering that the person she knew was still a part of Sam. She could also tell that Sam was becoming more comfortable in her surroundings and with herself. Sam would spend her days taking care of things around the house, going out shopping, and playing with Artemis. Niamh was beginning to suspect the dog liked Sam better because she never left the woman's side. She had even begun to sleep with her at night.

Earlier one day, as Niamh was leaving for work, Sam decided to go to the bookstore with her.

"Are you sure you're up for this, Sam? You know the doctor didn't want you to overstress yourself." Niamh asked her, concerned that Sam was overreaching herself.

"No, it'll be fine, I promise. I'll just sit around and read some. If I feel any pressure or unease I'll come right home. I can walk it from the store," Sam assured her, kissing her lightly on the lips in guarantee.

"Okay, but only since you promised so nicely," Niamh laughed.

"Well, I do promise. Really, I need to start getting out. I feel like I've been away from the world for months. Between being stuck here, at the hospital, and then Janet's-I am about at my wit's end."

"You don't really feel stuck here, do you, Sam?" Niamh asked, hurt by her choice of words.

"No, of course not!" Sam said quickly. "I just mean that I feel cooped up. I guess it is just a case of cabin fever is all. Once I get out and about I'll feel fine again. I just need some fresh air and new surroundings. Honest, Niamh, I love it here with you." To express her belief in her words, and have Niamh believe them, she pulled the woman into a deep kiss. Once they broke for much needed air, she smiled down at her. "I love you and our home."

Niamh had to swallow past the lump in her throat at hearing Sam refer to it as their home. She held more tightly to her and said, "I love that you're here with me too, and I love you more than I think you realize sometimes."

"Maybe, but either way we have to get going. The store isn't going to run itself today," Sam replied, giving one last gentle squeeze before letting her go.

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

Sam spent most of the day at the store sitting in the main area reading a book on the Civil War and helping out at the counter when she felt the need to help. Several people came up to her during the day asking about how she was and where she had gone while she had been away. Overall, she was feeling very comfortable.

Sam was reading up on the Battle of the Wilderness when she noted a shadow fall over her book. Looking up she came face to face with Michele Blake, her nurse from the hospital. She and her husband, Louis, lived in Jamesport, the next town over. Even though The Wordsmith was the only bookstore around, and Jamesport was just three miles away, Sam was still surprised to see her there.

"Hi, Sam," Michele greeted her.

Sam looked around nervously with her eyes shifting about. "Hi," she replied a little awkwardly.

"How have you been?"

"Okay, I guess, at least for the most part," she answered when she realized no one was close by.

"Oh, well, I hope everything is alright for you now."

"Yeah, it's gotten better. I moved in with that friend of mine you met at the hospital," Sam said proudly, sitting up a little in her chair at the thought of her new home.

"Ah, Niamh, I remember," she said with a knowing twinkle in her eye and a small grin on her face. "She owns the store, right?"

"Yeah, she does," Sam said, a little unsure of if she really wanted to share that fact with the nurse.

"So how are you two doing together?"

"Actually, we are getting on real well. Settling into a nice routine, though today is my first day out really," she casually admitted.

"So how are you doing? Are you having a nice time of it?"

"Yeah, so far everyone's been great," she said, a bit wondrous of the fact. She wasn't sure what she expected. Being in public for the first time, Sam felt sometimes like she had a big sign on her forehead saying "Mentally Ill Person." She wondered if that feeling would ever truly go away and was a little disconcerted by the idea that it wouldn't.

"I'm glad to hear that. I'm happy you're settling in and feeling better."

"I am, truly," she said. "Niamh and Janet have been really helpful. They've supported me through everything."

"That's great, Sam. I hope everything keeps going your way," Michele wished her with a sincere smile. "Well, I'll let you get back to your book. I just wanted to step over and say hello."

"Thanks, Michele. I'm glad I got to see you again. It's sort of nice to know you've seen me in a period of normalcy," Sam told her, looking up into the friendly face. "It was sort of awkward leaving there with people thinking about me the way I was," she added with a small grimace.

"We never thought bad of you, Sam," she reassured her. "All of us there know how these things work. No one believes you were anything other than a nice person in a bad situation over which you never had any control. In the end you proved to be a very strong person."

Sam looked down shyly, "Thanks. That means a great deal to me."

"Well, it's the truth, believe that," she told her with a look that begged Sam to have faith in what she said.

"I'll try," she promised, looking Michele in the eyes.

"Good, well, I have to get going. I'm due at work soon."

"Okay, and thanks for stopping by, and for saying what you did," Sam said with great sincerity.

"It was my pleasure, Sam. Goodbye," she said, turning and heading up to the counter to pay for her purchase.

Sam watched her leave feeling a little better about herself. As Michele put her book on the counter, Niamh looked up, surprised to see the woman there. She quickly looked over towards Sam, who gave her a brief nod acknowledging that she had seen the nurse. Michele said something to her that made Niamh smile a very broad smile. Sam could see her eyes sparkle from where she was sitting as Niamh turned and looked at her, then back o Michele, to whom she said something that made the nurse laugh. Somehow she knew she was the topic of conversation between the two women, but didn't mind. In their own way, both were special to her.

After Michele left the store, Sam watched as Niamh turned the register over to Melissa and made her way over to her. God, she's beautiful. She kept a close eye on her as the love of her life came and stood beside her chair, resting her hip against the side of Sam's armchair.

"So how did that go? Are you okay?" Niamh asked, placing her hand on Sam's shoulder and running a caressing finger over the skin exposed by her shirt where the collar was open.

"Yeah, I'm fine. It was nice seeing her like this," Sam assured her, taking hold of the wandering fingers and placing them against her cheek. "Really, it's okay. I actually sort of missed her when I got out of the hospital. She was a big part of my life in there." She pulled the hand down to place a gentle kiss on the palm before letting it go.

"Well, she comes in here once in a while, so if you want you can still talk to her. Maybe you can talk again soon." Niamh gazed into the deep blue of Sam's eyes. The two stared at each other for several moments, neither concerned about what or who was around them. Finally, Sam couldn't take it anymore and gave the hand she was holding a gentle pull, drawing Niamh to her lips. The kiss they shared was gentle and tender, but each knew the promise of passion it held. One day they would be able to express it completely.

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

(Three Months Later)

Niamh was on her way home from work. The early fall weather made it pleasant enough that she had decided to walk to work this morning, so now she was walking the two miles home. The trip home wasn't as nearly as pleasant as the walk in. Sam had joined her that morning. She still recalled the pleasantness of holding hands as they made their way to town.

She used the serenity the walk provided to reflect back on the time she and Sam had shared over the last few months. For the most part things had gone well. Sam was as stable now as she had ever been. Both of them were in therapy, and Sam had even found a support group in the area. There was some trouble early on, as Dr. Winski had predicted. Niamh had become a little overprotective of her and Sam had pushed back using anger and sullenness. But they had worked through it. Niamh had learned there was a difference between loving someone, protecting and caring for them, and being overprotective to the point of suffocating.

However, there had been some incidents in the beginning before Sam's medication was adjusted. One particularly intense event had scared Niamh:

Niamh and Sam walked into the house after a long day at the store; Sam had been coming in with her to work for the last week. Artemis, as usual, was excited to see them both, but after a cursory greeting to Niamh, she begged Sam to go outside to play for while. Niamh was excited to be home since, during the day, David had come by and installed bookcases in the spare room for Sam. While Sam went outside with the dog, Niamh went to see the results of the work.

The room was marvelous. High oak bookcases lined three of the walls. They were lightly stained to allow the natural color and grain to shine through. Niamh wanted to surprise her by having it all set up when she came in, so, rather than starting dinner, she began putting the numerous books on the shelves.

After she had been at it for almost an hour Sam came into the room. The first things she saw were the enormous bookshelves. "Wow! She said. "They are so beautiful." She then noticed Niamh rummaging around her book piles, grabbing books and looking at the covers, then placing them on the shelves. Before she even had time to think, she raced over and ripped the book Niamh was holding out of her hand, "What are you doing!" she screamed at her.

Niamh looked at her with total surprise at the reaction. "I was putting the books away. Don't you like the bookcases?" she asked, more than a little confused.

"I don't care about the damn cases; what are you doing with my books? You're ruining everything," Sam angrily demanded.

"Sam, calm down, I was just arranging them." Niamh said in what she hoped was a reassuring voice.

"No, don't you see? You messed them all up; they were already arranged!" she argued. "Now I'm going to have to spend hours going through them all because you couldn't keep your God damn hands out of my stuff!"

"Honey, I was just trying to make it nice, to surprise you with. What's the matter?"

"What's the matter is you're touching my stuff. I can't get even a little privacy around here! You're always here, always nosing around me!" Sam was becoming more and more upset with each word. By the time she had finished she was irate, her face red with anger, her body shaking.

Niamh hadn't seen her like this since the day in the motel room. She tried to remain calm, though her heartbeat raced. "I'm sorry if you feel that way, Sam. I promise I'll try to give you more space, if that's what you need," she said, holding up her hands and trying to placate the woman.

"It too fucking late for that, Niamh; you've already done the damage!" With that Sam reached out and began knocking over the remaining piles of books, throwing some across the room in her anger.

"Sam! Please stop!" Niamh pleaded.

Finally, after several minutes, Sam seemed to tire herself out. She suddenly stopped what she was doing and looked around, her breathing coming out in heavy gasps.

Niamh took a step towards her, but Sam recoiled, moving quickly in the opposite direction. "Just leave me alone," she said with irritation in her voice and something else Niamh couldn't recognize.

She started to say something to her to try and calm her down. "Sweetheart…"

"No, just leave me alone," she said in a quiet, tired voice. "Please, Niamh, just leave me alone." With that she turned and ran away.

Niamh could hear the door to Sam's room slam shut. Following her she saw that there was no light coming through the slit at the bottom of the door. Sam was inside in the dark. Coming to a decision, she quickly went downstairs, grabbed the phone off the wall, and dialed Janet's number. Her sister answered on the second ring. "Janet, it's about Sam. I think I need help," she said urgently, her eyes running back and forth as she tried to find something to do.

"Okay, take a deep breath and tell me what happened," her sister asked.

Niamh began to tell her everything that had gone on that night. "I don't know why she went off. What should I do? I can't leave her like this. She might hurt herself. If nothing else, she will beat herself up emotionally over this. I have to do something, don't I?"

"Calm down Niamh, how was she at the store? Did she seem short or irritable at all?"

"Well, she did appear to be a little reserved. She didn't talk to anybody all day."

"She may have been feeling unwell all day. So don't take what happened personally, Niamh," Janet assured her sister.

"Okay, but what do I do now?" Niamh asked almost frantically. She gripped the phone harder, turning her knuckles white.

"Call her doctor. Tell her what you told me. Can you do that?"

"Yeah, I'll do that right now," Niamh answered, glad to have some direction finally.

"Alright, I'm coming over. By then you should be hearing back from someone at the office."

"Right, I'll call as soon as I hang up with you," she promised her.

"I'll be right there, and don't worry, Niamh. We'll take care of this," she swore to her younger sister.

Niamh hung up the phone and quickly began dialing the doctor's office. She got the service, and left a message for someone to call her back. Looking for something to do while she waited, she put the electric kettle on for tea so she and Janet could have a cup when she got there. She sat and waited for something to happen. Then all of the sudden, as she heard the front door open, the phone rang. Grabbing the phone off the hook, she was relieved to hear Dr. Winski on the other end. Quickly she gave the doctor the details of the evening and what Sam had been doing during the day.

"I was afraid of this when you two decided to let Sam go back to the store. But don't worry, it is easily fixed," the doctor explained with a sense of certainty in her voice. "Do you know if Sam took her pills tonight?"

"No, she hasn't. She usually takes them before bed," she told the doctor, her mind calming down now that she had support with her.

"Fine, just see if you can get her to take her regular pills and an extra dose of the Klonopin." The doctor gave her directions on which medications Sam needed. "Call me if you need me to talk to her. I'll give you my cell phone number."

Niamh wrote down the number. "Thank you, Dr. Winski, for getting back to me so fast."

"No problem, Niamh. Just let me know if you need more help," the doctor offered, further calming the woman down. "Please call in the morning for an appointment tomorrow. I want to see and talk to both of you."

"Sure." Niamh agreed with her.

After she hung up the phone Niamh told Janet what the doctor said.

"Do you want me to take care of this?" her sister asked.

"No, I need to learn to deal with these things," she said in a voice that sounded more confident than she felt right now. "I'll go."

With that she made her way up the stairs to Sam's room. She tried the door and was grateful to find it unlocked. The room was dark, with only a slit of moonlight coming in through the window as the moon began rising. Sam was lying on the bed, her face hidden in the pillow. Niamh could tell her whole body was rigid and trembling, as if trying to contain the rage that stole all her control. Slowly, she entered the room. Going over to the medicine cabinet, she began pulling out bottles, trying to read the labels in the dim light. Finally, she found the ones she needed. She grabbed a small bottle of water and opened it. She neared the bed and sat on the edge.

"Sam?" she asked, hoping for a response.

"Go away. Please, Niamh," was the muffled answer she got.

"No, Sam, I'm not going. Here, I got these for you. Please, take them; it will make you feel better," Niamh promised her.

Sam lay there for several minutes, neither moving nor saying anything, making Niamh believe she had forgotten she was there. At last, Sam turned her head and reached out a hand for the pills. She threw them in her mouth and then took the water from her. Swallowing everything down she laid her head back down on the pillow, facing the window away from Niamh.

"You can go now, Niamh. I'll be fine. I'm just tired," she said in a quiet, defeated tone.

"That's okay. I'll just stay until you fall asleep," she offered, placing a hand on the small of Sam's back, feeling it tense at her touch.

"I'm sorry, Niamh. I ruined everything," Sam said sadly.

"You didn't ruin anything. We'll spend time tomorrow fixing everything. We can talk in the morning, and then you can spend the rest of the day arranging the books anyway you want," she said soothingly.

"Niamh, can I ask you something?"

"Sure, honey."

"Why do you love me? I have so many problems. Why do you want me around?"

Niamh could see the light from the window shining off the tears running down Sam's nose. "I want you here because I do love you," she confessed, laying down beside her and taking her into her arms.

Sam stiffened, but Niamh continued, "I love you because of the person you are. I thought for awhile I would never see that person again, but I have. Sam, you are the same wonderful person I fell in love with, even before I was ready to admit it to myself."

"But I'm not the same person; I've changed. I'm sick. I'll never be well again," Sam argued.

"You're right. You're not the same person anymore. You're so much more now; I see that and so will you. I'll show you the person you've become," Niamh swore to her, pulling her tighter to her. She began to feel Sam relax and after a few moments, she rolled over, laying her head on Niamh's shoulder, resting it beneath her chin. Niamh took the opportunity to place a gentle kiss on the blonde head. "I have seen a gentle person who cares about others. One who is outgoing and friendly to everyone she meets. Your strength is amazing. You have fought this illness at every turn, and I know you'll continue to. You have it in you to face this problem head on. I know that, because I know you, Sam, and the person I know is the person I love, with all my heart I do."

"You deserve better."

"No, I have just what I want and need. I don't deserve better because there is no one better for me," Niamh said with conviction, hoping Sam would hear it.

Niamh lay there and waited to see what Sam would do or say next. But after several minutes of silence she became concerned. Moving so she could see her face she was relieved to see that Sam was asleep. Making herself comfortable, Niamh closed her eyes and enjoyed the feel of Sam in her arms. It made her feel whole. Complete.

The next morning they found Janet asleep on the couch. After sending her home, the two discussed what had happened and then spent the afternoon arranging the books in the new library.

That was the only serious episode Sam had since moving in. Once Sam had been to see Dr. Winski, her medications had been adjusted. Since then she was as stable as any person Niamh knew.

Niamh walked into the house and was greeted by Artemis and the wondrous aroma of garlic cooking. Calling out for Sam she got no reply. The dog followed her into the kitchen where she found a pasta and ala vodka sauce cooking on the stove. Looking in the oven she found fresh garlic bread.

Still not finding Sam anywhere, she went into the dining room. Set out on the table was a white linen tablecloth with the china her mother had given her. In the center were two silver candleholders with lavender candles in them. On one of the plates was a note: "Meet me outside" it read.

Niamh stepped through the sliding glass doors onto the deck. There she found more candles lined up around the deck, throwing off a gentle light. Laying in one of the Adirondack lounge chairs was Sam.

"So what is all this?" she asked, as she took the glass of white wine Sam offered her.

Sam made a motion for Niamh to join her on the lounge. Sitting down next to her she asked, "Did you do all this?"

"Yes, though Artemis helped test the pasta and sauce, but the rest I did," Sam answered with a big grin on her face.

"Well, I am certainly impressed," Niamh told her, giving her a gentle kiss on the lips to emphasize her point.

Sam stood up and took Niamh by the hand, "Come in and enjoy it before it gets cold."

As they sat down to eat, Niamh finally asked, "So what's the special occasion?"

Sam looked at her with a broad smile, "It's our anniversary."

"Our anniversary? What anniversary?" Niamh asked, a bit confused.

"It was six months ago today that we met," Sam said confidently.

"You remember to the day exactly when we met?" Niamh was shocked, since she had trouble remembering her own birthday.

"Yes, I do. It was the most important day of my life. I still remember the cute attempt you made to get me to talk to you," Sam told her. A downcast look came over her face. "I'm sorry it didn't work sooner."

"I'm not. I'm glad everything worked out the way it did. If anything changed would we be where we are now?" Niamh asked her. "I don't know, and I don't want to take that risk," she answered for them both.

"I love you, Niamh, and I just wanted to let you know how important that is to me," Sam explained tenderly. "The fact that you came into my life saved me; I will always appreciate that."

"I love you too, Sam, more than I ever thought I would again."

"I'm glad." Reaching over and taking her hand, Sam placed a kiss on the palm. "Now eat before this gets cold," she teased.

Dinner was a romantic affair. They ate, and made quiet conversation about everyday things, but also about what they wanted in the future.

"I want to be with you for the rest of my life, Niamh; to grow old with you by my side," Sam told her finally. "I can't think of any better way to spend the rest of my days but in showing you every day how much I love you and what you mean to me." The words came from within her heart.

After dinner, Sam put the dishes in the sink and joined Niamh in the living room. Niamh had started a fire in the fireplace and placed pillows and a blanket in front of it; the soft jazz sound of Ella Fitzgerald played in the background.

Sam came up behind her as she stood in front of the fire, wrapping her arms around her lover's waist, and she whispered, "I want you, Niamh, more than I have ever wanted anything in my whole life." With that, she gently spun Niamh around and kissed her passionately. Their tongues danced around each other giving gentle caresses.

Sam felt Niamh's hand on her shoulders, then moving down to her chest, lying just above her breasts. Her own hands had made their way under the back of Niamh's shirt, running along the smooth skin of her back. Sam was amazed at the feel of Niamh's warm ivory skin. The supple tenderness of it brushing against her fingers sent stimulating chills through her body.

As they broke the kiss to get air into their lungs, Niamh began unbuttoning Sam's shirt; however, once she had the top two open Sam reached down and pulled it over her head, surprising Niamh with the fact that she had no bra on. Niamh removed her own shirt and bra, leaving them staring at each other. Finally they each broke away to take off the other's remaining clothing.

"My God, you're beautiful," Sam said as she reached out to touch her. Pulling her in, each woman gasped at the feel of their naked bodies touching. Passion pulsated through their veins, renewing their energy. As they kissed again, Niamh took Sam's breast in her hands and began kneading them gently, loving the feel of their weight in her hands. After a few moments she couldn't take it anymore, placing a pert nipple into her mouth and rasping her tongue against it. Sam groaned at the feel, placing her hand on the back of Niamh's head to encourage her more, feeling a long forgotten wetness between her legs as Niamh moved from one side to the other while gently caressing the other, sending tremors through Sam's body.

Sam's skin was on fire, burning with delight. "Niamh, I have to lie down. I can't stand anymore; I don't think I can take much more."

Niamh pulled her to the floor to lay down with her. Straddling her hips she leaned down to kiss Sam, groaning into her mouth, as Sam gave her breasts the same attention she had, making Niamh lightheaded. Their mounds ground together mixing their essences, making them each moan into the kiss and deepen it still further. As if they could share their souls by it.

Niamh broke the kiss, reaching down between them to begin stroking between Sam's legs. Sam threw her head back in ecstasy calling out, "Niamh, my God, I love you so much, please!"

Niamh's urging body couldn't take anymore; she needed to breathe. Gently, she slid two fingers deep into the silky depths. The warm moist feeling that greeted her increased her desire tenfold as she began to slide them in and out, going back in for more over and over again. Soon she had Sam begging, "Please Niamh, touch me, I need you, love."

Niamh began rubbing and stroking Sam, using her thumb to bring her to the pinnacle. Sam screamed out her release, "Niamh!" Niamh swallowed the scream with a deep kiss, rubbing herself against Sam's muscular thigh, throwing herself over the edge to join her lover.

For the rest of the evening the two lay on the floor sharing of each other. Getting to know one another in the most intimate ways only two women can. When they would rest in between bouts of lovemaking, they made love with their words, planning their future and reveling in the joy they brought each other.

When the sun came up in the morning, it found them asleep entwined in each other's arms, Niamh resting her head on Sam's shoulder, an arm wrapped around her mid-section. Sam had her arm wrapped protectively around Niamh, holding her close.

When Niamh woke up, she was disoriented until she realized she was sleeping on top of Sam, then the feelings and memories of the night before came back to her and she smiled in contentment.

She tightened her grip around Sam and smiled.

"Good morning," Sam said squeezing Niamh to her body. "Have I told you how much I love you, and how much I am looking forward to waking up every morning for the rest of my life to you?"

Niamh smiled, nestling her head further into the breast on which it laid, "No, at least not within the last few minutes." That remark earned her a pinch on her butt. "Ow! Hey," she cried out, slapping Sam on the stomach playfully.

"Well, then I have been remiss in my duty."

"You've been remiss in nothing. I know how much you love me by the fact that I can barely move," Niamh laughed. "But, you have failed to give me a proper good morning greeting." Niamh leaned up and pressed her lips against Sam's. However, what started out as a gentle caress began to deepen. Before it got any farther though she said, "Food, I need food if we are going to keep at this much longer."

"Okay, you go shower and I'll get you some breakfast," Sam said to her, kissing her tenderly.

"Alright, but remember while I'm gone that I love you beyond measure," Niamh told her.

"I will," Sam promised.

As she watched Niamh disappear up the stairs, Sam got up and began thinking out loud. "I don't think I will ever know what I did to deserve her love, but I plan on spending the rest of my life being worthy of her."

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