by Fritz

See disclaimers at Part One

Comments? I'm at



The local weatherman had predicted record heat for the end of the week, and, as she sat in the dining room of the inn, Erin mentally cursed him for being right about the heat but wrong about the timing. It was only Tuesday, and a sticky, muggy heat had already settled over Blanchard's Ferry. And it's only July. August is bound to be worse.

Fortunately, business at the inn was brisk, despite the heat. Their midweek guests consisted of four couples, two married, one either married or not, Erin was not sure, and one couple who was definitely not married, at least not in the eyes of the law. All were staying through the weekend. Reservations guaranteed that the inn would be full for the weekend, also mainly with couples. Love is in the air, she thought ruefully.

A familiar sense of despondency crept in, as it so often had in recent months. She fought an almost daily battle with it, often finding herself consumed with thoughts of what might have been with Sawyer.

The drive back home after her confrontation with Sawyer had been made in a haze. She had pulled off the road several times, first to give in to the nausea she had felt in the office and empty her stomach of its contents, then a few more times to let crying jags pass. When she arrived home, Jack was waiting in the front yard, somehow attuned to the time when his sister would arrive. As she stepped from the car, he was shocked at her haggard appearance as she walked into his strong embrace. She had expended all of the tears her body could produce on the ride home, so she quietly burrowed her face into his chest. She pulled back long enough to say, "You were right, Jack," then walked into the house.

Over the next few months, Erin told Jack nothing more of her last conversation with Sawyer, and he did not push her for an explanation. Erin retreated deep into herself, staying busy with the inn and rarely leaving home. Her friends, noticing the change, pestered Jack for an explanation, but, ever protective of his sister, he did not discuss the matter with another soul. The most difficult one for him to put off was Alison Christianson. Concerned about Erin, she made a rare midyear visit to the inn, but learned even less than Jack already knew.

Through it all, Erin remained stoic and quiet, preferring to indulge her despair in solitude. She told herself daily that she was over the woman, had put the experience behind her, had forgotten the pain, but, even in this, her thoughts were always of Sawyer.

Even thinking her name gets me depressed. I keep going over and over it, what did I do wrong? What could I have done differently? Were there signs I just ignored or . . . Jesus, stop it! Let this go, Forester.

She sipped her iced tea, forcing herself to contemplate other topics. Those thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the telephone ringing at the front desk. She sat, hoping Jack would answer it. She counted three rings, then jumped up when she remembered that he was outside cleaning the windows. She raced to the hall and answered the telephone breathlessly.

"Forest Inn," she barely managed to say. She heard nothing from the other end and, for a moment, thought that she had not reached the phone in time. As she was about to hang up the phone, she heard a rather subdued voice.


Instantly, she knew who was calling, but then she prayed she was wrong. "Yes, this is Erin."

"It's Sawyer Bennett."

Of course it's Sawyer Bennett, I was trying to think of everything under the sun but Sawyer Bennett, so naturally, Sawyer Bennett calls me. She hesitated enough for the other woman to ask, "Are you there?"

Erin mentally marshaled her forces and responded. "Yes, I'm here, Sawyer. How are you?" See, this is good, I can be polite. Why didn't I let Jack get the phone?

"I'm afraid I've got bad news, Erin."

The uneasiness Erin felt at talking with her erstwhile lover was replaced with trepidation. "What is it?"

"Alison asked me to call you and Jack, she would have herself, but she's just in shock, frankly, and, besides, she doesn't really know about . . . about . . . you know, you and me."

She does know, but she doesn't know the whole story. When Alison pressed during her visit a couple of months ago, Erin told the older woman that she and Sawyer had a falling out, but gave no details. She certainly had not told Alison that they had been lovers. Oh, God, this is bad. "Tell me, Sawyer."

"Harry had a massive coronary last night. He died this morning."

Erin nearly dropped the phone in shock. "What?"

"He's gone, it was very sudden. I'm sorry, Erin."

"How's Alison?"

"She's hanging in there, but it's tough. I'm at the office now, but I'm going back to the house in a bit."

"I'll . . . can I call her? Is she at home?"

"She's there. A few friends are there manning the phones. Make sure to give your name to whoever answers. I know she'll want to talk to you."

"Have any arrangements been made?"

"She's thinking of having the funeral on Thursday or Friday."

"Jack and I will drive to the city tomorrow."

"If you need a place to stay . . ."

No, that's the last thing I need. "That's okay, we'll work out something when we get there." I'm already dreading seeing you again. If I could avoid that, I would. "Thank you for calling us, Sawyer." With that, Erin hung up the telephone and headed outside to find her brother.

* * * * * * *

Jack drove as he and Erin made the trek to Corinth on Wednesday morning. Telling Jack about Harry's death was one of the hardest things Erin had ever done.

"A heart attack?" Jack had finished rinsing off the windows and asked that question as he walked over to turn off the faucet.

"Yes, it must have been a bad one. Sawyer said he had it last night and was gone by this morning."

"But he was always in such great shape, working out, always looking so healthy." Jack appeared utterly lost, and Erin knew what he was thinking. She had already had the same thoughts.

Before she could speak, Jack said, "He wasn't like . . ." His voice caught, and he was unable to finish the statement. Erin knew what he meant to say and finished for him.

"No, he wasn't sick like Dad."

"We can't have lost Harry, Erin. Not the same way we lost Dad. That's just too frigging much. We just found Harry." He paused, then looked his sister in the eyes. "It's not fair."

"I know, Jack." Tears were streaming down Jack's face at this point. Erin gently reached for his hand, leading him into the house. "It'll be all right, Jack, we need to go see Alison, to be there for her." He nodded, the heartbreak still evident on his face.

The rest of the day was spent talking on the phone to Alison and making arrangements to be away from the inn for a few days. That night, contrary to her usual routine, Erin left her bedroom door open and a lamp on, giving a silent cue to her brother. As she expected, he appeared in her doorway sometime after midnight.

"Erin, are you awake?"

"Yes, Jack, come in."

He walked over to sit on the bed, his head hanging down. Erin knew that he was too embarrassed to ask for what he wanted. At 8 years of age, he felt no shame on the night their father died, but simply left his bed in the room they shared and climbed into hers, spending the rest of the night crying. He was 23 when their mother died, and he did ask for permission that night, which was instantly granted. Now, he was the mature age of 29, and Erin saved him the humiliation of actually asking his sister for this favor.

"Climb in, big brother," she said as she pulled down the covers. He lay down on the bed and settled down on his side, as Erin covered him with the sheet and comforter.

"This is silly, I mean, I just wanted to check on you," Jack said.

"Uh huh." Erin rolled onto her back.

"No, really. But if you need me to stay, I will."

"I would like that a lot, thanks." She looked over to see more tears pooling in green eyes that were so like her own.

"I won't tell a soul, Jack. I promise."

Now headed to Corinth, Erin glanced over at her brother to find him a bit better settled than he had been last night. He needs that reassurance, every now and then, to know that he's not alone. Hell, I need that, too. Jack chose that moment to look away from the road at his sister. They shared a brief smile, then both faced forward again.

"Are you okay, Erin?"

"I'm hanging in there, Jack. You?"

Jack took a deep breath, then asked, "Are you worried about seeing her?"

Erin knew that the 'her' Jack meant was not Alison. He can't even say her name, she thought. "I'm not looking forward to it, but I'll get through it for Alison."

"I'm sorry, I've been so wrapped up in losing Harry that I haven't even talked to you about this."

Erin looked back at her brother. "That's how it should be. We should both be concerned about Harry and about being with Alison now. I'll deal with Sawyer when I see her. I'll be fine."

Jack reached out across the console and grasped his sister's hand. "I'm here for you, little sister. Know that, okay?"

"You always have been, Jack. You always have been."

* * * * * * *

As she and Jack met Alison in the spacious foyer of the Christianson home, it seemed to Erin as if Alison had aged at least ten years. The older woman was always particular about her appearance, but Erin noticed that her hair was mussed a bit and her makeup was less than perfect. God, I know this is hard for her.

"I'm so glad you're both here," Alison said as she hugged the younger woman.

"We had to come, Alison." Jack stood behind his sister and moved into the older woman's embrace once she released Erin.

She pulled back and clasped both of his hands. "This isn't hurting you at the inn, is it, being here?"

Erin responded. "No, the ever loyal Daphne is watching things, and she'll get a couple of people in to help with cooking and cleaning while we're away."

"I was so glad when Sawyer said she would call you. I . . . it was so hard . . . I admit I was afraid to tell you both." She started crying, and Jack pulled her to him for another hug.

Sawyer said she'd call? Erin wondered. I thought she told me Alison asked her to call.

"She's been a Godsend, I tell you," Alison said, once Jack had released her. "Where is your luggage?"

"In the car," Jack said. "We're going to find a hotel room tonight . . ."

"Nonsense," Alison interrupted. "You'll stay here with me. I would really like it if you did." Jack nodded and put his arm around Alison's shoulders as the trio walked further into the house.

Erin had visited Alison and Harry on several occasions over the last few years at their home. Set in one of Corinth's more fashionable sections, the house would technically qualify as a mansion, but Erin never found it to be overly pretentious. There were enough homespun touches, such as family photographs and knick knacks, spread around, that she felt comfortable from her first visit. As they walked down the hall, it was clear Alison was leading them to Harry's study. They entered through the double doors, and Erin grew wistful as she entered the one room in the house that would forever remind her of Harry Christianson.

"Let's sit down here. I haven't been able to step into this room since he died."

Erin took Alison's hand and led her to the leather couch, while Jack sat in the matching chair. They spoke about arrangements for the visitation and funeral service that would take place the next day. Jack started telling a humorous story involving a fishing trip he had taken with Harry that had the two women laughing. Erin was amazed at her brother's intuition. You might think she doesn't want to talk about Harry, but he knows she needs to right now. And this is the same guy who could cry like a child last night. I hope I never forget how lucky I am to have him for my brother.

About an hour later, the door opened, and Sawyer entered the study. "I'm sorry to interrupt. Evelyn told me you were in here."

Alison rose from the couch and hugged Sawyer. Looking on, Erin noted how comfortable the lawyer seemed to be with this show of affection.

"I'm glad you're here," Alison said. "I wanted to talk about Harry's will. Would it be okay to do that now?"

Sawyer walked the woman back to sit on the couch, nodding to Jack and Erin. She noticed the hostility in the brother's glare and the attempt at indifference in the sister's. "If you're up to it."

Erin stood, motioning for Jack to do the same. "We'll leave so you two can talk."

"No, no, dear," Alison said. "I want to discuss this with you and Jack."

Erin was confused but sat back down. Sawyer remained standing as Alison spoke.

"As you may know, Harry and I made new wills earlier this year, which Sawyer wrote up for us. It's all rather complicated, estate taxes and trusts and such, but the bottom line is that most everything goes to me. Am I right, Sawyer?"

"I think you like playing the daffy housewife too much, because you understand more of it than you let on. But, yes, most of it will be yours."

"I say most," Alison continued, ignoring Sawyer's comment, "because we each made provisions for a bequest to the two of you."

Erin was stunned, so it was up to Jack to respond. "Alison, you didn't have to do that."

"Yes, we did. You two have been like our children for the past few years. You filled a void that Hal's death left. Your presence in our lives was so precious to Harry and to me."

Finally able to speak, Erin said, "It wasn't one sided, Alison. You both gave so much to Jack and me, too."

"That's the way it's supposed to work, Erin. When you lose your family, you make a new one, right?"

"Right," Erin agreed.

"At any rate, it will take a while to administer the estate, which, of course, Sawyer will do. How long will it take for Erin and Jack to get their bequests, Sawyer?"

Erin was increasingly uncomfortable discussing this in front of her former lover. The emotional strain of losing Harry was hard enough, but the situation would be unbearable if she had to deal with the lawyer for several months over estate matters. And what's she getting out of this? It seems she fell into a nice situation, through my efforts, too.

"It could be done in a couple of months, once we get the will probated."

"It'll take as long as it takes, Alison, the time doesn't concern us," Jack said.

"Dear, I think you would like to get $100,000 as soon as you could."

Erin's mind reeled as it took in Alison's words. She had never fainted before in her life, but the swaying, dizzy feeling in her head made her feel as if that was exactly what she was going to do. She looked to Jack, seeing the same shock on his face.

"Go see if Evelyn can dig up some smelling salts, Sawyer," Alison said mischievously. "I think these two are going to pass out."

Jack was the first to regain his senses enough to speak. "You shouldn't have done that, Alison. We can't accept. Right, Erin?" He glanced over at his sister, expecting her to agree, and Erin nodded.

"It's already done, you must accept it," Alison said. "We would have done more, but I suspected what your reactions would be." She looked to Sawyer. "Isn't it nice to know I was right?"

The lawyer nodded and tried to think of a way to dispel the tension in the room. Realizing that the Forester siblings were and would continue to be uneasy with discussing this topic, she failed to arrive at a solution.

Erin finally grasped Alison's hand in both of hers. "Then Jack and I will try to be gracious in accepting these gifts, so long as you know that the money can never be the real gift for us. Getting to know you and Harry has been the real gift."

"You know how materialistic we are," Alison said. Jack snorted his amusement at her statement. "We wanted a clear way to show you how much the two of you mean to us."

"I think we get the message," Jack said.

"Come on, you two," Alison said as she rose. "Let's get you settled upstairs and then you can help me figure out what to wear." She slipped her hand around Erin's arm and let the younger woman lead her from the room. As Sawyer moved to follow, Jack reached out to stop her. "Hang on a second, Sawyer."

Sawyer turned to face the older Forester sibling. Jack placed his hands on his hips. His stance was indicative of the acrimony he clearly felt for the attorney.

"I just want to be clear with you on one thing."

"Yes, Jack?" Sawyer had a clue where this conversation was headed and, though she tried, she could not keep the defensive tone from her voice.

"You've hurt my sister, badly, in case you didn't know that." His eyes narrowed, and he moved closer to the lawyer. "I wish I could tell you to stay away from her altogether, but it's impossible for the next couple of days and the time it'll take to work out this bequest business." The intimidation in his voice and body language was unmistakable. "I'm not going to tell you not to hurt her again, either, 'cause I'm not going to let anything get that far."

Sawyer felt it impossible to dampen her natural defense of sarcasm. "Gee, Jack, I'm thinking you don't like me much. And here I thought we were close."

Jack came even closer, invading her much guarded personal space and knowing it. He was a few inches taller, and used his superior height to look down into Sawyer's face. "If we were anywhere but here, I swear I'd kick the shit out of you. But that would only make me feel better, and I won't do that to Alison. I'm warning you - don't have anything more to do with Erin than you have to. And when all this is over, I want you gone permanently."

Although she was not normally susceptible to intimidation, Sawyer felt a tendril of fear through her guts. In this protective big brother stance, Jack was more menacing than any opponent she had ever faced. In some part of her mind, she acknowledged that he was absolutely right in taking this position, and this exacerbated her fear. She swallowed and tried to back away a bit from him.

He moved with her, until she was backed up against the wall. "Am I clear? I want to be crystal clear with you on this, Bennett."

"Crystal, Jack. Crystal." Nodding and giving one more menacing glance, Jack stepped back and left the room.

* * * * * * *

The funeral was one of the least somber that Erin could remember attending. She and Jack were somewhat compartmentalized in the Christiansons' life, seeing them for Christmas and the occasional visit during the rest of the year. This did not indicate a lesser degree of affection between the older couple and the younger, but was more a factor of time and distance. In fact, the measure of affection was shown when Alison insisted that the Foresters stand with her at the visitation and sit with her at the service. Erin did not know the hundreds of people who came to pay their respects to Harry, and much of the time was spent with Alison making introductions. A lot of those people knew who Jack and I were, though. Several attendees had taken the time to tell Erin and Jack how often Harry spoke of them and how much they helped both Alison and Harry after their son's death.

At times, Erin glanced around the room, convincing herself that curiosity was her motivation. Her reasoning weakened as the day progressed, since her scanning would end as soon as she spotted a certain tall, dark-haired woman. Sawyer spent most of the visitation on the move, dealing with the priest who would perform the service, coordinating with the funeral home personnel, and checking on Alison. The level of responsibility that Alison had placed with Sawyer was apparent.

When the service was finally under way, Jack and Erin took their places on either side of Alison in the front of the church, with Sawyer sitting directly behind. Erin glanced back at the lawyer as she sat down and caught her eyes, but Sawyer quickly glanced away. The priest announced that many people had asked Alison if they could "say a few words about Harry." To avoid slighting everyone and still finish up before the weekend, he said Alison had chosen three people to speak. One was a man who had been Harry's friend since childhood, and another was a long time business associate and friend. The final speaker was Jack. His words were moving, as he spoke of the place in his life Harry had taken in such a short time, that of a father figure. He related some amusing anecdotes of fishing trips taken with Harry and teased his sister by telling a story about their second Christmas with the Christiansons and a practical joke he and Harry had played on her. Erin swung between laughter and tears at Jack's speech. When the crying was particularly bad, Alison moved closer and slipped her hand into Erin's.

The burial followed, and a reception was held at the Christianson house afterwards. As Erin walked through the various rooms, she judged by the size of the crowd that even more people showed up for the reception than had attended the funeral. In the sunroom, she saw Alison conversing with two men. The woman glanced up and, from the expression Alison aimed in her direction, Erin figured this was one conversation that she wanted to leave behind. Erin walked over, came up with the excuse that the caterer needed to speak with Alison, and led the woman outside through the French doors.

"Thank you, dear. I just needed a breath of fresh air."

"Who were those guys?"

"Junior executives with the company. I can't tell if they were buttering me up to keep their jobs or feeling me out about who is going to be running the show now."

"I know you attribute all of the success of the company to Harry, but you were right there with him. He always said you knew the ins and outs of the place better than he did."

"Did he say that?"

"Yes, you didn't know?"

"No, he never told me." They were walking arm in arm through the garden, and Alison stopped to sit down on a stone bench. "I'm glad you told me."

"You could run things, you know. Do you want to?"

"I'm not sure. The business was like another child to us. We built it from the ground up. I would like to stay involved. But I'm tired now. Maybe I've earned a rest. I'll think about it, discuss it with Sawyer. We need to make some decisions for the short term on running the business, but the big decisions can wait. At least until after we get back from our trip."

"Oh, God, Alison, I forgot! You and Harry were going to New Zealand in October, weren't you?"

"Yes. I checked with the travel agent, and I could get out of it if I wanted to by paying some fee." Alison waived her hand, indicating she obviously considered the amount of the fee to be a pittance. "But I really want to take this trip. I think that Harry would want me to go. And I've asked Sawyer to go with me. You know that she's always wanted to go there."

At the mention of the lawyer's name, Erin felt compelled to raise an issue she had wanted to talk over with Alison. "It seems that Sawyer has really been helpful to you, before and in this last week."

"Yes, yes, she has. I'm so grateful to you for bringing her into our lives."

"It seems to me, Alison, and I don't want to criticize, but it seems you are trusting her with an awful lot."

"Are you implying I shouldn't trust her?"

"I'm not saying that." I'm not necessarily saying that. "I'm just concerned."

"Erin, she was your friend first."

"I know, I just . . ."


Erin sighed heavily. "I wonder what her motivations are."

The older woman studied her companion's face, trying to glean Erin's motivation in questioning Sawyer's motivation. Alison was blessed with a keen insight, and she feared her first impression was the correct one.

When Alison said nothing, Erin continued. "You've hired her now, I assume she's collecting a nice fee for the work. And getting a trip to boot."

Alison looked away for a moment, then turned to face her companion. "Erin, I love you and I want to clear up this issue, so I'll discuss some things that really aren't your business. Yes, Harry and I went to Sawyer to redo our wills. We hadn't changed them since Hal died. For me, making a new will meant exactly that - I'd have to acknowledge that Hal was gone. Harry never pushed me on it, but, once we met Sawyer and became friends, he saw an opportunity to cross through that barrier, to take care of it with someone we liked and felt we could trust, not just business-wise, but emotionally as well.

"So, we went to see her. She spent quite a bit of time on the wills, meeting with us, both at her office and at the house. She was quite comprehensive, doing some estate planning, checking out life insurance, IRAs, everything. I can't even tell you the number of hours she spent on it. In a short period of time, she became a very important part of our lives, spending time with Harry at the gym, with me or with both of us. After the new wills were done, she sent us a bill. Do you want to know how much it was for?"

Erin was already mentally kicking herself for starting this conversation and really did not want to know how much the bill was.

"It was $200.00," Alison said. "And she said that she didn't want to charge us even that, but she had to get something off to satisfy her partners. They were satisfied if something was paid, and she said she didn't plan on telling them the actual number of hours worked."

"I really don't want to ask this question, but . . ."

"Go ahead, dear, I want this out of the way," Alison said defiantly.

"Did you . . . is she . . . did you and Harry leave her something, like Jack and me?"

"No, but you know what? We wanted to. That's how important she had become to us in such a short time. Sawyer said if we wanted her to handle the estate, then we should not make a bequest to her."

"Well, she will collect a fee for the work she does on the estate."

"Yes, she will. You've got me there, Erin. When we discussed what needed to be done the day after Harry died, she said that there was no way her partners would allow her not to bill for the work. She felt very bad about doing so, and insisted if she were on her own, she would not charge a fee. So I guess you've caught her, is that what you wanted?"

Erin sat with her arms on her thighs, her hands hanging down along with her head. She felt low for bringing up issues that were painful for her friend. In a quiet voice, she said, "No, it's not."

"And, as for the trip, I would have asked you, but, if you recall, I've asked you to go on trips before, and you insist, understandably so, that you can't take so much time off from the inn. I know that October is a busy time for you, and, truthfully, I didn't want to make you feel bad because you had to tell me you couldn't go. And Sawyer has wanted to go to New Zealand, she was talking about the trip almost more than Harry and I were."

"I understand."

"I think you need to tell me what's behind your concerns about Sawyer's reliability. I know you two had a disagreement, but that can't be enough."

Erin said nothing, and the older woman continued. "Let me tell you, Erin, when Harry started having chest pains, it was nearly midnight. We were already in bed. I called 911 for an ambulance and called Sawyer. She met us at the hospital and stayed with me through to the next morning when they told me . . ." Alison's voice broke, and Erin glanced up to see tears streaming down the woman's face. "She stayed with me, took me home, cared for me. I could not have gotten through this without her."

"I'm sorry, Alison."

"Is this jealousy on your part? You are not normally a jealous person, Erin. I would have called you and Jack . . ."

"No, I understand. Believe me, I'm not jealous." She paused, as a sense of self-revelation rolled over her. "Or maybe I am, but it's not envy of Sawyer spending time with you."

Erin stopped, so Alison asked, "Then what?"

"Maybe I'm jealous because you still get to spend time with her, and I don't."

Alison was amazed. While Erin was a warm and giving person, she was not normally this forthright in expressing her emotions. It was more typical to find meaning in the manner in which the young woman spoke, rather than in the words she used. Alison had never seen Erin be as blunt as she was being at this moment, and the older woman realized just how much the situation with Sawyer, whatever that situation was, had affected Erin.

The concern must have shown on her face because Erin said, "I made my own decisions here, and I'm living with them. This has no effect on our relationship. If there's one thing in life that I'm secure about, it's how solid my relationship with you is."

"It's your relationship with Sawyer you're not secure about then?"

"There really isn't a relationship with her now. She . . . she's not the type of person I want to spend time with."

Alison knew Erin had shifted back to hiding her emotions. "Erin, it is so unlike you to think badly of anyone. Normally, you see the good in everyone, and I know you push aside the bad that others see in the ones you care about. Talk to me."

"It's not right to burden you with this now."

"It is. I'm asking you to, please."

By this time, both women were in tears. Alison reached out to hold Erin's hand as the younger woman finally related the details of what had happened in February. Alison offered sympathy, but felt compelled to offer some advice as well. "I think you're right, Erin. I think that there is more to this. I believe Sawyer cares about you."

Erin's look was one of pure skepticism. "I doubt it, Alison."

"Again, Erin, this isn't you. When have you ever given up on someone so easily? Don't you think it's worth another try?"

"I have tried, I can't keep fighting a losing battle."

"Take it from me, try once more."

* * * * * * *

By the evening, almost all of the guests had left, and Erin kept busy by helping the caterers. Alison did not even try to stop the younger woman, joking that Erin never took vacations because she would not know how to stay at a hotel without telling the owners how to run the place.

As Erin walked back through the foyer checking for stray glasses, she was suddenly approached by Sawyer. Up to that point, the lawyer had methodically avoided her at the reception.

"Can I talk to you?" Her voice was short and full of anger as she took Erin by the arm, leading her to the study.

"Can I say 'no'?"

"No, you can't," Sawyer said as they went into the room. She released the iron grip she had on Erin's arm and started pacing. "What possessed you to say what you did to Alison?"

Gee, I guess Alison talked to her about our conversation, Erin thought. Before she could speak, the lawyer continued.

"I know you don't trust me, and I don't blame you, but it wasn't fair to drop that onto Alison. She's having a hard time . . ."

"Whoa, stop right there," Erin interrupted. "I know exactly how hard a time she's having." How much did Alison say to her?

Without hearing the thought, Sawyer answered the question anyway. "She told me that you questioned whether she should trust me. How could you say that to her? You have every right to think the worst of me, but it's not fair to push that onto Alison." The lawyer's venting slowed with her pacing, and she finally came to a stop. "I swear, I'm not trying to take advantage of her in any way, Erin. Alison and Harry . . . they became . . . they're very important to me."

Erin pinned Sawyer with an intense gaze. "Why should I believe you?"

Sawyer turned away, unable to look Erin in the eye. "I guess you shouldn't, you've got no reason to."

"That's the third time you've indicated I shouldn't trust you, shouldn't believe you. If what we had was just a business arrangement, why should I think badly of you? I'm the one who misunderstood the situation, right? You never had anything more in it than just a quick fuck . . ."

Sawyer turned around and held out her hand. "Stop, please stop."

Erin could not stop, finally having the opportunity to strike back at the woman who had hurt her so badly. "What? Isn't that what it was?"

"You don't have to be so graphic. It's not you."

"How would you know?!" Erin threw up her hands and started her own pacing. "You didn't stay around long enough to know what is and isn't me! And remember, that was your characterization, or close enough to it."

The lawyer was silent, so Erin continued. "Why would you expect me to think badly of you in this situation? Something's fishy with this picture, Sawyer, and I think you're the one who's holding the fish."

Her comment brought a smile to the lawyer's face. "That's a good one. Where do you get these things?"

Erin stopped pacing and returned the smile. "I think that one came from my dad." The emotional turmoil of the day caught up with her all at once, and she collapsed into the leather arm chair.

"I don't want to lose Alison," Sawyer said. "I'm afraid she'll listen to what you told her."

"I'm sorry, I swear to you it was not my intention to hurt you by talking to Alison. I don't think she believed me, Sawyer. She called me on it, figured out I was doing it because of what happened between us. I hadn't told her the whole story until today, just told her that you and I had a disagreement. I realized that she was right about my suspicions, too. It's not me, thinking the worst of someone."

"So she knows now, knows about us?"

"Yes," Erin said.

"She knows . . ."

"I'm sorry, Sawyer, God knows why, but I tried to cast you in as good a light as possible. I kind of had a hard time, given the way . . ." As she had with Alison, Erin searched for the best way to express what had happened between them. The way we broke up? No, that would mean we were together, which we really weren't. The way you treated me? No, don't want to make you the bad guy, especially when you blamed it all on me and my misunderstanding the situation. The way you broke my heart, then pulled it out of my chest, stomped on it, and cut it into little pieces, and, to top that off, expected me to thank you? Might be a bit melodramatic.

Sawyer finally provided her own ending to Erin's description. "The way I managed to fuck it up."

Erin was puzzled at Sawyer's characterization, but the lawyer continued. "So now, Alison knows about me. Knows that I'm gay."

"Well, yeah, I guess so," Erin said. Is that what's really important here?

Sawyer collapsed on the couch, utterly defeated. She hung her hands down between her legs, face toward the floor. "It's over, then."

"What's over?" The conversation had taken a sudden turn and left Erin far behind.

"She'll toss me out, just like . . ." The woman buried her face in her hands.

Erin's confusion and exasperation were growing rapidly, but somewhere in her mind, totally against her will, the idea sprouted that listening to Sawyer now might finally yield the insight that would enable her to understand this complex woman. While most of her wanted to run from the conversation and the potential of further pain, a small piece of her grabbed onto this concept and forced her to stay.

"Like who, Sawyer? Tell me," she said, standing and walking over to the couch.

"I didn't want her to know that, I didn't want anyone to know," Sawyer said.

Erin felt the stab of pain from this comment. No one? Then maybe you shouldn't have shoved your tongue down my throat, not to mention the other things you were shoving . . . Stop, Forester, give her a chance. Didn't Alison say give her one more chance?

In a very quiet voice, the blonde asked, "Are you ashamed of the fact that you're gay?"

The tall woman looked up. "No, no, I'm not." Erin could see the lie in this statement in Sawyer's eyes and turned away.

"Sawyer, I'm confused as to where you're going with this, but I want to tell you something. >From the time I first figured it out for myself, I had avoided telling people I was close to about my sexuality. Living in a small town, it's tough to stand out. When I went to college, I felt liberated. Not only did I meet other lesbians, but I met people who accepted me for what I was and didn't judge me just because I happened to enjoy having sex with women, not men. When I got back home, I decided that if someone cared about me, then he or she had to know this part of me, this important part of me. I didn't hit people over the head with it, but I didn't keep it as a big secret anymore."

Lost in her memories, Erin walked around the room. "My mom, that was tough. She had a hard time at first, but she finally came to accept it. We were able to settle things just before she died. Jack had known all along anyway, I think before I did. When I met Alison, I was concerned because I expected her to be unable to accept it, accept me."

She moved back to stand in front of the lawyer. "She could not have been more accepting. It took me a while, but I finally figured out not to try to figure out Alison. She leads with her heart. She had no problem with me. In truth, she had a problem with the fact that I thought she would have a problem."

Sawyer looked unconvinced, so Erin continued. "She cares about you, Sawyer. This won't matter to her."

The lawyer said nothing, simply staring at Erin. Afraid of pushing her luck, but hopeful of breaking the gridlock, Erin asked, "Who tossed you out, who hurt you before?"

Sawyer stood quickly, almost bumping into Erin and walking quickly across to the desk, trying to distance herself.

"I'm not leaving, Sawyer, I think you need to talk about this. I care about you . . ."

"Don't, Erin."

"Don't what? Don't care?"

The younger woman tapped her remaining source of energy and moved toward the desk. The attorney was leaning back against the desk, her arms crossed tightly across her chest and her head hanging down. "Talk to me, Sawyer."


"Think about this," Erin said. "Alison knows now, but she hasn't thrown you out. I think she's shown you how much she cares about you. Maybe Alison told you what I said to her because she wanted you to do what you haven't done since I got here, what you're doing right now. I hit you right in your vaunted honesty. Sawyer, she told you so that you would confront me, talk to me. And it worked. I told you, she's good."

A wry smile as she looked up was Sawyer's acknowledgment that Erin was right.

"Maybe she thinks that I can help you," the younger woman continued. "I want to, Sawyer, I really do."

There was no response.

Erin repeated her plea. "Please, Sawyer, please talk to me."

"It's been a long day . . ."

"Just as long as yesterday was and as long as tomorrow will be, but the length of the day won't make the problem go away. Please, Sawyer." She reached out, gently laying her hand on the other woman's arm. "I'm not going away."

Sawyer studied Erin's face for a moment and reached her decision. "We can't talk here. Let's go to my place."

"Okay, wherever you want."

"Why don't you get changed? I'll tell Alison we're going. You can tell Jack, I'm not his favorite person right now."

* * * * * * *

Jack was not thrilled with the idea of his sister leaving with the lawyer, and that was an understatement. It took several assurances that Erin would call if there was any trouble and, finally, Alison's intervention, to obtain Jack's approval. Erin had put so much effort into arriving at this spot with Sawyer, she would have gone against his wishes, but his support had always been crucial to her.

As the women walked into Sawyer's house, Erin was not surprised to find that the house was as sparsely decorated as she found the office had been so many months ago. The house was one story and not large, but, as Sawyer had said, it had more than enough space for one person. A small front hallway opened into a living room. As Erin glanced around, she wondered at the irony of only now seeing the living space of someone with whom she had been so intimate.

"Are you hungry?"

The question snapped Erin out of her haze. "No, I'm stuffed. I couldn't eat another finger sandwich or stuffed mushroom."

"Well, if you want something to drink, there's plenty of Cokes in the refrigerator. Kitchen's over there," Sawyer said, pointing at a door off to one side. "I'll go change." With that, she went down a hallway and disappeared.

Erin hoped Sawyer would change into someone who was less brusque and more talkative. She decided she was not thirsty, so she stepped into the living room and started investigating. A large couch, patterned in blue and green stripes, sat against one wall, opposite an entertainment center. Erin walked over to investigate the CDs and videos stacked on the shelves around the television and other equipment. As she expected, this area was not very organized. Jack would have all of these alphabetically arranged. Her eye caught on a framed photograph hanging on the wall on the other side of the entertainment center. She walked toward it, turning on a standing lamp to get a better view. It was obviously a picture that Sawyer or someone else had taken and enlarged, not one taken by a professional photographer. A sense of familiarity washed over her, and she realized that the scene was the clearing by the stream that she and Sawyer had visited on their horse ride last year.

She heard Sawyer return to the living room and turned from the photograph. "When did you take this?"

The lawyer had changed into the standard uniform of boxer shorts and a T-shirt. I hope this means she's relaxed a bit, Erin thought. Sawyer came half way across the room, then stopped when she realized the reference for Erin's question. "A couple of months ago. I'm sorry, Erin. I went up for a day hike. I shouldn't have done that, I guess."

The ramifications of Sawyer's confession hit hard, and Erin turned back to the photograph, unsure with that revelation if she was correct about the setting of the picture. Sure enough, it was the same clearing, the same stream, that the two of them had enjoyed that fall afternoon. Erin turned back to face her former lover. "Sawyer, the fact that you have this says a lot to me. I think you've been less than honest."

The lawyer sat on the couch. She made no motion for Erin to join her there, so the other woman sat in the chair covered with blue fabric matching the blue in the couch. Silence reigned for several minutes. Erin was mentally running through words intended to persuade Sawyer to open up to her and quickly discarding them. As she finally hit upon what she felt might work, Sawyer started to speak.

"I've never told anyone about this before. It's going to be hard, so be patient, okay?"

By a barely perceptible nod, Erin indicated her agreement.

"I grew up in a small town on the Florida coast. A very conservative small town on the Florida coast. I had a wonderful childhood, I really did. I was the oldest of three girls, and, from day one, I knew my parents loved me and my sisters. They doted on us, supported us, told us we could do anything we wanted to do, be anything we wanted to be. With all that love, I was bound to succeed. A straight A student, an excellent athlete in volleyball and softball. Every time I reached for the brass ring, I grabbed it. I could do no wrong. I look back now and realize how sheltered I was, but I didn't know it at the time."

Sawyer nervously resettled on the couch before continuing. "It never occurred to me that I got unconditional love because I did nothing bad. No drinking or staying out late, no drugs, no hanging out with the wrong crowd. My parents loved me as the ideal child because I was the ideal child. My sisters worshiped me.

"In my last year of high school, my softball coach's younger sister got involved with the team, helping us to practice. Tracy was taking a year off from college and was a couple of years older than I was. We clicked right away, got along well, were spending a lot of time together. It just seemed natural to be with her. Very comfortable, you know?"

"Yes, I know."

"Then, a couple of weeks before graduation, she told me that she was attracted to me. I was lost at first, I really had no idea what she meant. I told you, I had a sheltered upbringing. I can remember the scene so clearly. We were on the beach, it was late, and the spot was pretty isolated."

Sawyer stood up and walked toward the window, steeped in her recollections of that night. "She leaned over and kissed me. In the middle of the kiss, I felt a door open. Several doors, actually. The feelings I had about Tracy all this time suddenly made sense. I think that we would have gone all the way right there on the beach, I was ready to. But she said she wanted my first time to be special. Turns out she was quite romantic for a jock. That weekend, she set up a romantic dinner at her apartment, and we made love. It was . . . it was beautiful."

Erin could not help recalling the romantic dinner that Sawyer had arranged for her the first time they had made love.

"I had never kept anything from my mom and dad before. I told them everything. Why wouldn't I? They were always happy about how I lived my life. But I hadn't given them anything to be unhappy about. They loved me without question, I thought they would be happy for me, I was so happy with Tracy. Everybody was going to be so happy.

"About a week later, Tracy came over to the house for dinner. We had decided to tell my parents about us."

She stopped, and Erin moved to stand next to her. She noticed unshed tears in the blue eyes. "I suppose they didn't take it well."

"No, they didn't. My mom cried and screamed. My dad, he yelled at Tracy and tossed her out of the house. I mean, physically grabbed her by the shirt and threw her out the door. My sisters came running at the commotion, and Dad yelled at them to get back to their room. Then he turned around and looked at me. I remember thinking, 'that's not my dad, he doesn't look like my dad.' He was so angry."

Sawyer reached up and wiped at the tears now falling from her eyes. Erin wanted to reach out to her, but held back.

"He moved toward me and . . . he hit me. Smacked me right across the face. He'd never hit me before, never hit any of us before. I stood my ground, and I guess that pissed him off because he hit me again, got me right under the eye and left a cut. I fell down this time. I felt the blood on my face, but didn't feel any pain. And I could still hear my mother crying. Dad grabbed me by the arm and dragged me to my room. He told me to pack my things and get out. What he was saying, it didn't register, so I just stood there. He clocked me again, across the head, and yelled at me to get out of his house. I tossed some clothes and stuff into a couple of bags while he watched. Then he escorted me out of my room. I saw my sisters peeking out of their room, confused about what was happening. Mom moved into their room, never looking at me. Dad shoved some money into my hands and opened the front door. I can still hear his words like it happened yesterday. 'Get out. I won't have one of you living in my house. You are not our child. You will have nothing to do with either of us or our daughters ever again.'"

Erin's empathic nature had reached its limit, and she grasped Sawyer's hand. As Sawyer looked up, the pain etched on her face broke Erin's heart. She gave the hand she held a tug and led Sawyer to the couch. Taking a seat, she pulled the older woman down, keeping their hands clasped together.

"I never expected that reaction from them. But I realized that homosexuality was a topic we had never discussed. We didn't know anyone who was gay. I guess I know why now. But they never told me it was wrong, or at least that they thought it was wrong."

"It's not wrong, Sawyer."

"I haven't seen my father or my sisters since that day. I went to Tracy's place. I didn't have anywhere else to go. She took care of me, God bless her, and I stayed there through graduation and the summer. But we both knew it was over. It wasn't her fault, I didn't blame her, but maybe in a way I did. I was cut off completely from my family because of my relationship with her. I came to resent her. I treated her rather badly at the end. I'm not proud of that. She finally had enough, and by the end of the summer she told me to leave."

The words fairly gushed from Sawyer now. On some level, it occurred to Erin that this story had stayed inside of Sawyer for so long, it just needed to come out.

"Anyway, I was already going to college on a scholarship. I had turned 18 earlier that year, so I could be on my own legally. I was afraid my parents would mess the scholarship up, but they stayed true to their word and cut me out of their lives completely."

"And you haven't seen them since?"

"I have one cousin who keeps in touch with me when he feels like it. The others, aunts, uncles, cousins, Mom and Dad had warned all of them to stay away from me. I went from this big, warm, loving family to nobody. But this cousin, Nick, he was always kind of a rebel, doing the opposite of what you'd tell him to do, so I think he rebelled by talking to me. He lets me know where they are, how they're doing. My sisters both got married. Between them, they have five children. I have nieces and nephews I've never even met."

"Have you tried to see them?"

"Yeah, but nothing works. My cousin told me that he mentions my name every now and then, I think mostly for the reaction, but whenever the topic of me comes up, everyone is adamant, they don't want to see me. About four years ago, Nick told me that my father was in the hospital. He had cancer, and the prognosis was very bad. I thought I should go see him, try to make amends before he died. I got to the hospital and ran into Mom in the corridor. Even after everything, I was so happy to see her. But she spotted me and all I saw in her was anger. I said I wanted to see Dad. She toed the party line: he's not my dad, I'm not their daughter, I shouldn't be there, what if someone saw me, the whole nine yards. I asked if I could at least talk to my sisters and meet their kids. She panicked, said she wasn't going to expose her grandchildren to someone as perverted as me. Perverted, can you believe that? So I left. My dad died about a week later.

"The really pathetic thing is, I hadn't even dated any women since then. In college, I tried dating a few guys, but it didn't work. A couple of women showed interest, but I cut them off, not too nicely, I might add. I hadn't slept with anyone since Tracy. At least until . . ."

"Until me."

"Yeah, until you. I haven't been able to get close to anybody since then. It's been easier to be alone."

Tears were flowing freely down Sawyer's face now, and Erin's patience reached its limit. She put her arms around the other woman, pulling her into a soft embrace. Sawyer's head was cushioned on Erin's chest as the silent tears continued. As if suddenly realizing where she was, or possibly whom she was with, Sawyer pulled back abruptly. Erin kept one arm around her shoulders.

"I can't believe you're doing this, you shouldn't be comforting me."

"Why not?" Erin found herself tearing up and tried to keep her voice calm.

"You can ask why, after what I did to you?"

"You kept telling me that was my fault, I misunderstood your intentions. If that's true, it doesn't mean I can't comfort you, especially now that I understand."

Sawyer's carefully controlled emotions had not been so strained since the fateful spring night when she was discarded from her family. A break was coming, but she was not sure that she could handle it. "No, you don't understand, if you did you'd be gone. I'm meant to be alone, can't you see that?!" Sawyer was vehement in her anger over this point. "I shouldn't have let things go so far with you!"

"You regret what we did?"

"Yes, I do." Sawyer calmed a bit with this admission.

"Tell me why you regret it."

"Because . . ."

Erin patiently waited for the answer, her hand rubbing comfortingly on Sawyer's back.

"Because . . ."

You can do it, Sawyer, Erin thought. Let it go.

"Because I hurt you so badly."

"Yes, you did. But that happens sometimes, you hurt those you care about. I know I hurt you that day in your office."

"No, it's not the same."

"Why not?"

"You can't care about me, you can't."

Erin leaned closer to Sawyer. "There aren't really rules for this kind of thing, Sawyer. For me, it's not a question of can or can't. I just do. I love you . . ."

Sawyer sprang off the couch so quickly that Erin almost fell off with her. "No."

"That's the big sticking point, isn't it? There's really no question of whether you care about me, I know you do." Sawyer was prepared to dispute this point, but Erin stuck her hand up, stopping the lawyer's words. "No, you do. What we shared, how your body reacted to mine, the photograph on the wall, everything adds up to tell me that you love me. I know that, Sawyer."

The tall woman made no further protest, so Erin continued. "The problem here is that I love you."

Sawyer's entire body sagged at this statement, and Erin stood, reaching out for her. They ended up in a clumsy embrace, with the shorter woman somehow supporting the taller one.

"You can't," Sawyer mumbled.

"I do."

"I don't believe you."

"I know. Tell me why it's so hard to hear." Erin felt she was losing the tenuous grasp she had, and she guided them back to sit on the couch. Sawyer lost all pretense of wanting to be away from the other woman and lay on her back with her head in Erin's lap.

As Erin gently stroked her head, Sawyer spoke. "I can't believe that you love me, that anyone can love me. If you do . . . if you say you love me . . ."

"What? What will happen, Sawyer?"

"My parents, they loved me. My sisters, my family, everybody loved me. Tracy did, too. And they all threw me out."

"So you think I'll throw you out, too."

A slight nod was the response.

Erin continued with her analysis. "So it's easier not to believe that I love you, that anyone loves you, rather than risk being hurt."

Another nod.

"Sawyer, I love you and I think that under all of this you are a sweet, wonderful person, but this is a load of shit."

"Is this the caring, empathic side of you coming out?"

Erin smiled, relieved that some of Sawyer's sense of humor was surfacing. "It's an old story, goofy. Can't love without risking hurt or pain or disappointment. The bad often comes with the good, remember?"

Sawyer sat up and shifted away from Erin. "I don't know if I can do that. I've been hurt so badly. I'm not sure if I can risk it."

"You have already risked it! It had to be clear to you what was happening between us, if not earlier, then at the latest on that night we kissed for the first time. You could have left then, before we made love. You stayed. You were a willing, if not a leading, participant. Why?"

"I don't know."

Erin did her best to keep her voice calm and keep her exasperation in check. "Try, Sawyer, try to know."

The lawyer said nothing, but a blush crept over her face. "It felt so good to kiss you, to hold you, God, simply to spend time with you. I . . . I forgot for a while. I wanted to . . . I wanted to be with you more than anything else in the world."

The need and caring shining out from those blue eyes melted any annoyance Erin felt. With a renewed certainty, she searched her heart and let loose the last shreds of bitterness remaining in her heart over Sawyer's actions.

"And you can," Erin said quietly. "That's what I want to."

The doubt Sawyer felt at that comment was clear, so Erin took another tack. "Why did you let Alison and Harry in, get close to them?"

With a wry curve of her lips, Sawyer asked, "Have you ever been able to say 'no' to Alison, on anything?"

"No, good point. They became a big part of your life very quickly."

"I should think the role they played for me was obvious since they played the same role for you."

True enough, Erin thought. "Are you going to try to get rid of Alison, too, if she tells you that she loves you?"

A perceptible shiver ran through Sawyer's body. "Maybe, if I get scared enough. It's my pattern, my modus operandi. I've been alone for a long time. I've gotten used to it. I've gotten by so far."

"Exactly, you've gotten by. I did not imagine what we had together, Sawyer. I understand now what you were trying to do when I was in your office. You pushed me away, and I left. But I'm not leaving now. And I'm not throwing you out. You can trust me on this."

"I don't want to hurt you again."

Erin reached out for Sawyer's hand, pleased when the tall woman did not refuse. "I think you're worth the risk."

"How can you say that?"

"Replay this entire conversation. Replay every moment of those incredible days we had in February. We have something special together, Sawyer. It's worth the effort and worth the risk."

The lawyer remained silent.

"Trust me, Sawyer. If I haven't left by now, then I'm not leaving." Erin noticed more tears had formed in the blue eyes gazing at her. She put her arms out in invitation. Sawyer moved toward her, huddling up against the smaller body, as the tears became sobs. Years of pain and frustration poured out of the tall woman with those tears, and Erin did her best to provide comfort through her words and her touch. As the tears slowed, exhaustion caught up with both women, and they fell asleep, as tightly wrapped together as two people could be.

* * * * * * *

The next morning found them in much the same position, Erin halfway between sitting and lying at one end with her legs extended on the couch. Most of Sawyer's upper torso was on top of her, cuddled up against the blonde, and her long legs were folded up against Erin's shorter ones. The ringing of a telephone woke Erin first, and she reached for the cordless telephone sitting on an end table by the couch.


"Erin, is that you?"

She could hear the anxiety in her brother's voice through the phone. "Yes, Jack. What time is it?"

"It's nearly 7:00. I got worried, you said you'd call. Alison gave me the number."

I hope you didn't wake Alison before 7:00 a.m. just to give you a phone number. "No, Jack, I said I'd call if there was a problem. I'm sorry you were worried, though. Everything's fine." At that moment, Sawyer started to wake up and, realizing where she was, tried to move out of the younger woman's embrace. Erin tightened her free arm around Sawyer and continued the conversation with her brother.

"Jack, I'm sorry, we were talking and fell asleep."

"Should I come to get you now?"

Sawyer could obviously hear Jack's part of the conversation because she snickered. "Yes, save your little sister from my evil clutches," she whispered.

Erin chuckled herself and shifted the phone to her other hand and placed that arm around Sawyer. Jack said, "What was that, Erin?"

"Nothing, Jack. Sawyer and I still have some things to talk about, so I'll be a bit longer. She can bring me back to Alison's house." She gave the lawyer a 'you can do that, right?' look, to which Sawyer agreed.

"I can come and get you," Jack said.

Erin decided a firmer tone was necessary. "Jack, you're overplaying the protective big brother part. I'm fine. Please let me be an adult and work this out for myself."

"I am letting you be an adult. I'm just trying to look out for you." It was clear from his voice that Erin had hurt his feelings.

She decided she had been too firm. "I'm sorry, Jack, I know you are. I promise I'll call when we're on our way, okay? I love you."

Sawyer looked on in wonder. She knew very few siblings who were as close as the Foresters, let alone any who, as adults, vocally expressed their love for their sibling. Yet, it seemed to be an important part of Jack and Erin's relationship.

"I love you, too," Jack replied

"I love you even if you've got cooties," Erin said. Come on, Jack, I need your help here.

"I have not got cooties! I love you even if you didn't play with Barbie dolls when you were little, like all the other girls."

That's my big brother. "It was always so much more fun to go fishing or play baseball with you."

"Yeah, you were the brother I never had."

"Guess I shouldn't have been surprised that you weren't surprised when I told you I was gay," Erin joked.

"What gave it away," Jack said, laughing, "was when I was drooling over Laurie Miller in her cheerleader uniform, and I looked over to see you were drooling, too."

"I was not drooling! Why does everyone think I drool?" Jesus, I didn't know he saw that.

"At least I got farther with her than you did."

"Don't be so sure, Jack my boy."


"I'm kidding, Jack." Sawyer was showing signs of trying to get up, so Erin felt the need to end the conversation with Jack. "Gotta go. I'll call you soon." Erin disconnected the call and looked at Sawyer. "Where are you going?"

"He's not pleased about this, is he?" She decided not to tell Erin about the ultimatum Jack had delivered two days ago.

"No, he's not. He gets very protective when I get hurt, tries his best to keep it from happening again."

"This could damage your relationship with him, being with me."

Erin took a deep breath, contemplating this possibility. "I suppose it could. Again, loving someone means risking pain. But I think you're worth it. And I think that Jack will eventually deal with it." I hope Jack will deal with it.

Sawyer settled back into the comfort of Erin's body. They lay silently for a time, and Erin was grateful for every moment that the tall woman did not bolt from her arms.

"This is nice," came the mumbled voice from below her chin.

"Yes," Erin answered, "very nice."

"I want to trust you, to believe you, I do, Erin, I swear I do."

"I know."

"It's been so long since I could trust anyone."

"I know."

Sawyer seemed comfortable talking from their present position and, although Erin wanted to see her face and read the emotion there, she made no move to do so.

For a few moments, the only sound in the room was their breathing. Then, Sawyer sighed heavily. "You've been so patient with me. I appreciate that."

"No problem."

"I want to work at this, Erin."

Thank God, Erin mentally cheered, I think that's the best thing I've ever heard. "I'm glad, Sawyer. I think we should move slowly, though."

Sawyer finally lifted up, bracing her arms on either side of Erin's body. The gleam in her eyes was only mildly libidinous. "How slowly?" She leaned down, capturing Erin's lips in a kiss which she intended to be heated and passionate, but which turned tender instead. Sawyer broke off the kiss, lay her body down on Erin's and nuzzled the soft skin of the blonde's neck. "I'm sorry," she murmured.

Erin's response to the apology was automatic. "Nothing to be sorry for." She lovingly stroked the dark head.

"I want you, I mean, I really want you, right here, right now."

The response Erin's body had to those words was automatic as well. If you pushed me, even very gently, right now . . . However, she realized that making love now would be a mistake, given the fragile nature of their relationship. Even though they had seemingly progressed at a glacier's pace before their time together in February, she realized the possibility that moving too quickly then had been one of the reasons for the subsequent problems.

"I want you, too, believe me." Erin's hand moved rhythmically through the dark hair, massaging the scalp under her fingers. "But I think we should wait 'til we're on more stable ground."

"If you want to wait, you'd better stop doing that."

Both women laughed, and Erin gently extricated her fingers from the long tresses. Sawyer slowly stood up, complaining about old muscles. "I haven't slept on a couch in years."

"Why don't you get a shower while I fix breakfast? I hear showers do wonders for muscles."

"I will, but let's go out to eat." Sawyer performed a quick mental inventory of her kitchen. "I think I've got cereal, but the milk's probably gone solid by now." A sheepish grin settled on her face as Sawyer admitted, "I've kind of fallen behind in my breakfast fixing skills."

Erin nodded as Sawyer walked toward the bathroom. She stopped and turned back. "Do you want to take a shower, too? Separately, of course."

"Yeah, I'll get one after you."

"I probably have some clothes you can borrow, at least for the trip back to Alison's. Although my shorts will probably be long pants on you."

Erin was pleased to see a bit of their bantering return. "At least I can wear your stuff. If you fell asleep on my couch, you'd be hard pressed to fit into a pair of my shorts, 'pressed' being the operative word. But it sure would be nice to see."

Sawyer laughed, then turned serious. "I've missed this with you, I have." The insecurity was obvious on her face. "Where do we stand, Erin?"

"We're fine, Sawyer. You know how I feel, and I know how you feel. Life will be a bit hectic for us. This is a busy time at the inn, you've got Harry's estate to deal with, then the trip with Alison. We'll get there, I promise." I've never meant a promise more.

"And I'll do my best, Erin. I promise you that with all my heart."

"I can't ask for more, Sawyer."


Epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes, in small ways and big ways, and at all times of the day and the night. If it was somehow unusual to experience an epiphany at the cruising altitude of 32,000 feet somewhere over the Pacific Ocean while sitting in a first class seat of a Boeing 767, Sawyer did not let the location bother her.

Her thoughts at the time, as they had been so often during the two week trip with Alison, were on Erin, what they had shared and what the younger woman had brought into her life. No, that's just it. She brought me life. Before, I was . . . I was, nothing more. With her, I can . . . do, I can be, I can feel, there's no end to it. Finally finding her existence worth living, the possibility of continuing that existence without Erin was too frightening to consider.

It was all too much not to share. Sawyer felt blessed, truly blessed, to be able to share it with the woman at her side.


The older woman looked up from her book, removing her reading glasses. She noticed the single tear rolling down Sawyer's face and reached out gently to catch it, keeping her hand on the cheek.

"What is it, dear? Are you all right?"

"I'm okay . . ." Sawyer was embarrassed to hear the hitch in her voice.

Alison turned in her seat, never taking her hand from Sawyer's face. "What's wrong?"

"I love her, Alison."

The smile that followed the admission fairly shone from Sawyer's face. Alison patted her cheek, smiling herself. "Of course you do, dear." Then she put her glasses back on and returned to her book.

"No, I mean I really do."

Alison did not look up from her book. "I know you do, Sawyer. I've known it for a while now."

Sawyer laughed. "Well, I wish you'd told me."

"I couldn't, dear."

"I know, I know, it's one of those 'I have to realize it on my own' kind of things."

"Yes, yes, it is."

Sawyer continued to stare at Alison, amazed by it all. "It really doesn't bother you, Erin and me."

Alison had a clue about Sawyer's past from her conversations with Erin prior to the trip. Although Erin betrayed no confidences, as always, the young woman revealed more in what she did not say than what she said. Alison's intuition told her that Sawyer had been hurt badly in the past, simply due to her sexual orientation. Therefore, she chose her next words carefully.

"I think from the moment I first spoke to Erin on the phone, she captured me. She is such a loving, giving soul." Alison glanced up to see Sawyer smile and nod. "When she rather tactfully explained to me that she, how did she put it? Oh, yes, 'Jack and I shop on the same aisle in the love supermarket.' It did give me about a half-second's pause, but I realized that Erin is no different from me. I found all I ever hoped for in a spouse, lover, partner, best friend, in Harry. And that's all Erin's looking for." She tilted her glasses, gazing over the lenses at her companion. "Even if we're shopping on different aisles in the great supermarket of love."

Alison let those words sink in, then continued. "She believes she has found that in you, Sawyer. I care a great deal for you both. If you can make her happy, and she makes you happy, then I'm happy. We're all one big group of happy people."

Sawyer pondered the sentiment, achingly familiar but heretofore unattainable, then spoke. "I haven't been very happy."

"I know, dear. Or I guessed as much."

"I can do that, I can do happy."

"Yes, you can."

"With Erin." The tall woman's eyes welled with tears again, but Alison knew they were tears of joy.

"With Erin," Alison repeated.

* * * * * * *

As night settled over Blanchard's Ferry, Erin found herself sitting on one of the chairs out on the porch. Her mind naturally drifted to Sawyer and their first real conversation, here on this porch almost one year ago. This night was unusually warm for October, but a shiver ran through her body nonetheless.

She had not seen Sawyer since the day after Harry's funeral. Payment of the bequests from Harry's estate had been handled via the mail. Alison visited the inn in September, making a point to tell Erin how swamped Sawyer was with work. The inn was unusually busy as well. The two women did manage a few telephone conversations and e-mails. Their communications were stilted and rather formal, as would befit a period of reacquaintance. Or perhaps, it was more the fact that they were getting to know each other for the first time. Sawyer, while reserved, was more forthcoming about events in her past and about her feelings. Erin sensed her friend gently pulling away layer upon layer of the hard protective shell built over years of pain and denial. She felt a breakthrough was imminent; suddenly, though, it was October, and Sawyer left on the trip with Alison.

During the two weeks they were away, Alison called a couple of times, to let Erin and Jack know all was well. E-mails were exchanged, the first few from Alison alone, then a few where the older woman had obviously convinced Sawyer to add a couple of words. Finally one, then another, came to Erin from Sawyer alone. Two postcards had arrived at the inn, the first with notes from both women, then one from Sawyer. From the messages, it was clear that both women were enjoying the trip. Jack retrieved the mail when the second card arrived, and he handed it to Erin, shaking his head. The siblings had talked very little about Sawyer's return to Erin's life, but his sister knew Jack was disappointed.

I don't have enough energy to fix two relationships in my life at the same time, Erin thought. I think I'm getting somewhere with Sawyer, and I need her so much. I need Jack, too, but he's always been there for me. I'm just afraid that if I get Sawyer back, I'll lose Jack. She cringed, trying to push aside a thought that was too horrible to consider. I wish he and I could talk about this.

Erin heard the front door open, and as if she had willed it, Jack stepped onto the porch.

"You okay out here, Erin?"

Over the course of their life together, her big brother had, from time to time, been obnoxious, amazingly immature, annoying and painfully compulsive. But he was, and always had been, her staunchest supporter.

"I'm okay, Jack." She continued to stare out into the yard.

"She gets back from the trip today with Alison, right?"

He's also a mind reader, Erin thought. "Yes, their flight should have landed sometime this afternoon."

Jack came to stand in front of his sister, leaning back against the rail. He sighed and seemed to gather his thoughts in preparation for a speech. "I want what's best for you, Erin."

"I know, Jack, and I love you for that, but it's for me to decide what's best for me."

"I agree. I'll support whatever decision you make."

Erin looked at him with wonder. "You will?"

"Yeah," he said quietly.

"Thank you, Jack, your support means a lot to me."

"Even if I feel you're not thinking clearly . . ."

"Okay, Jack."

". . . and I think you're making a mistake . . ."

"Got it, Jack."

". . . and . . ."

"Jack, your support is meaning less and less to me."

He smiled his 'reserved for Erin' smile, and rather shyly asked, "So we're okay?"

She stood up and pulled him into a hug. "We're okay."

He bent down to kiss her cheek, then disengaged from the hug and headed back for the door. He stopped at the doorway and turned back. In a shy voice, he asked, "How far did you get with Laurie Miller?"

Talk about a conversation shift. I'll be on the way to my own funeral, and I'll still be wondering how my brother's mind works. "One kiss, Jack, that's all. Remember the field trip to Canby's Mill in 10th grade? That's why I came back soaked. She pushed me into the river after I kissed her."

"You dog! You told Mom you fell in! She was mad, 'cause you were sick for days."

"I wasn't going to tell Mom the truth. I was embarrassed enough." Erin did not tell him that she had worked up the nerve to kiss Laurie after weeks of blatant flirting by the cheerleader, nor did she tell him exactly how long and involved the one kiss was. She also did not reveal that, as the kiss ended, they heard a rustling in the bushes. Laurie, afraid one of their classmates had seen them kissing, feigned indignance and shoved Erin into the river. As it turned out, the witness in the bushes was a rabbit. Chagrined, Laurie reached out to help Erin to the bank, but Erin's ardor had already cooled, even without the chill of the water.

"Well then, I did get farther, at least a bit farther," Jack said, wisely keeping the details to himself. "But then she got all weird on me and broke it off."

Laurie, realizing her charms no longer worked on the younger Forester, had shifted her attentions to the older. Now clued in to the cheerleader's true nature, Erin convinced Laurie to fish in another gene pool, so to speak, by threatening to expose their kiss if the girl did not stop seeing Jack. This left her brother confused, but much less hurt than he would have been if the relationship had continued.

"Yeah," Erin said, "I never did figure that out." And I hope you never do.

"Don't stay out here too long," Jack warned as he entered the house.

Erin remained at the railing, watching the yard. I don't know what I'm waiting for, it's not as if she would fly half way around the world, then drive all the way up here without sleep, or food, or . . .

Those thoughts were interrupted by what had to be the sweetest sound Erin had ever heard. She had long ago memorized the distinctive sound of a Boxster engine and, unless a new customer with a taste for German cars was paying an unannounced visit, Sawyer Bennett was driving up to the inn. Erin stood at the railing, watching.

The Boxster finally emerged into the light cast from the house, hitting the edge of the drive a little too fast, Erin feared. The driver had no problems controlling the car, turning into one of the available spaces. Erin realized she was holding her breath and finally inhaled as a tall, dark-haired figure unfolded itself from the car.

"Fancy seeing you here," Sawyer called out, as she walked toward the porch.

"What are you doing here?"

"Why do you always ask me that?" The rakish grin on the tall woman's face warmed Erin's heart. As she stepped onto the porch and stood in front of the blonde, Sawyer said, "I am tired as can be, and hungry, 'cause you know I'm always hungry after a drive. And I don't even know what day it is. I think I lost a day today, or wait, maybe I got one back I'd lost before, but it wasn't exactly the same day. Is it today or tomorrow?"

"It's the day they finally take you away, goofy. You should be asleep. I can't believe you drove here. Didn't you get back this afternoon?"

The grin turned into a full-blown smile. "I'm not sure if this afternoon was this afternoon. I think it's really tomorrow. Oh, and did I tell you I had an overwhelming urge to drive on the left side of the road on the way here?"

"You have lost it. Come on inside."

Sawyer suddenly became very serious. "No, not yet. I traveled a long way to see you, Erin. I have something important to tell you. But first, I need you to tell me something."

"Tell you what?"

"Say it, Erin"

The younger woman was mystified. "Say what?"

Sawyer grasped her hands. "Say it, Erin."

A light went on, and Erin squeezed the hands holding hers. "I love you, Sawyer."

The dark head leaned back to look skyward, savoring the moment. "Say it again."

"I love you, Sawyer."

Sawyer brought her head back down and gazed deeply into the green eyes in front of her, conveying the importance of the moment. "And I believe you."

"You do?"

"Yep, and I'm sure. I believe you here," as she touched her temple, "and here," as she placed her hand on her chest over her heart, or at least as close as a lawyer who once contemplated going to medical school could get to where the organ was actually located.

"I've accomplished a lot, professionally speaking, over the last twenty years," Sawyer said. "But personally, I had nothing, no life, no home, no love. All of that was taken away long ago when my family tossed me out with the trash and my soul was shattered. And I tried, I really tried, to put the pieces back together. But I wasn't willing to risk more pain."

She paused, bringing her hands up to cup Erin's cheeks. "It took somebody stronger than I was to do it. That's you, Erin. You put the pieces of my soul back together, and they're gonna stay stuck, better than super glue. It's Erin glue!" At this, she wrapped her arms around the smaller woman, picked her up and spun the two of them on the porch.

Erin laughed. "You are beyond goofy, goofy. You're into giddy now. You helped with the glueing, you know."

"It's a wonderful thing, Erin glue," Sawyer said, gently placing Erin back on her feet. "But we'll never test in on the general public, because it's mine alone."

"Yes, it's yours alone. Thank you, Sawyer."

"For what?"

"For coming here tonight, for deciding to stay at the inn on your first trip here, for opening the door just enough for me to get through . . . for a lot of things. Mostly, for being what I've been looking my whole life for without even realizing it."

"I'm that?" Erin saw the amazement slide over Sawyer's face.

"Yes, you are."

"I love you, Erin," Sawyer said, as she leaned down to press her lips to those of the smaller woman in a gentle kiss of reaffirmation.

"I love you, too, Sawyer," Erin said as her lips were released.

"Say it again."

"This is going to be a habit with you, isn't it? I love you, goofy."

"Hey, that's become your little nickname for me, goofy, I mean."

"Well, it fits, especially today."

"Yeah, but I have a certain reputation to maintain. And part of that is foregoing cute little pet names."

A small thread of doubt slipped into Erin's heart, but she was preparing to promise not to use the nickname again when Sawyer reached up and tapped her on the nose. "At least until I figure out a cute little nickname for you." The lawyer paused, seemingly lost in thought. "Pumpkin? Peanut? Goldilocks?"

Erin almost growled, "I am not cute, so . . . hey, is 'peanut' another crack about my height?"

"You are very sensitive about being vertically challenged, you know. No, 'shrimp' would be a rather obvious crack about your height. You are not a 'shrimp.' You are cute and absolutely adorable and the best thing that has ever happened to me."

The blonde now blushed. "That feeling is very, very mutual."

The women turned, Sawyer's arm still clasped tightly around Erin's shoulders, and walked toward the front door. Sawyer asked, "Hey, have you got any Oreo cookies? I hear they go great with Irish coffee, honeycakes. No, sweetie pie. No, wait, give me time."

Erin pushed the tall woman inside, laughing all the way.


Thanks for all of the incredible feedback I've gotten for this story. That has provided an incredible boost for my ego at a time when it was sorely needed.


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