Arbor Vitae

By SX Meagher

Part One

One word came to mind when Clancy O'Connor pulled her truck up to the address she'd been searching for.

Wow.

Not normally one at a loss for words, the young woman had come upon a place which seemed to have that effect on her. She checked her clipboard again. Yep. This is the place. She hopped out of the pick-up, dusted off her spruce-green cotton shirt, and smoothed out some of the wrinkles in her khaki cargo shorts.

Maybe I should have gone home to change first. Placing her hands on her hips, she frowned. What's up with me? Since when do I care how wrinkled I am? I'm not here to impress this woman with my clothes. Casting a quick glance down, she noticed that she had chosen sedate gray socks which now peeked out of the tops of her dark brown, ankle-length, work boots. Could be worse.

Leaning over so she could see her reflection in the large side-view mirror, she bent from the waist and tried to remove some of the white dust that had settled in her hair. Probably shouldn't spend the morning at the quarry when I'm meeting a new client. Especially one that lives in a place like this! She gave herself a stern look for giving in to negative thoughts. I'm gonna impress this client with my vision - not my image. When she had herself looking as presentable as she could manage, she checked her pocket watch which conveniently hung from a stainless steel carabiner on her wide leather belt. Right on time. I may be dirty, but I'm punctual.

Her heart was beating a little quickly, and she wiped her slightly damp hands on her shorts before taking in a calming breath, then ringing the buzzer on the gate. She rocked back and forth on her heels, trying to bleed off some of her nervous energy, and jumped noticeably when the gate rasped harshly and started to open. Act like you've been to a nice house before!

When she walked through the pedestrian gate, Clancy stood stock-still for a moment, enraptured by the magnificent home. It was her favorite style, an authentic Craftsman. Clad in weather-darkened brown shingles, its exposed rafter ends and knee braces under the long, low eaves gave the home a distinctive and distinguished look. A broad, deep porch ran the width of the house, the overhanging roof supported by massive, river-rock columns. The river-rock also covered the chimney and foundation, esthetically tying the large, rambling home together.

She knew the homeowner would be waiting, so she stopped staring and started walking. Her boots crunched over the leaves littering the macadam, and the profusion of flowers and shrubs calmed her a little by occupying her thoughts as she walked up the long, curving drive. This is the last place that needs a landscape architect. Maybe this isn't the right address. She was so mesmerized by the great variety and the uniqueness of the plants that dotted the property, she nearly collided with the woman standing on the top step of the porch. Clancy stumbled backwards, her foot missed the bottom step, and she was dumped unceremoniously onto her seat.

"Are you all right?" The woman's worried gaze searched Clancy from head to toe, then a pair of strong, sure hands reached for her and slid down from her shoulders to lightly grasp her elbows.

Biting back a curse at her clumsiness, Clancy nodded and tried to get to her feet, but the strong hands held her right where she was. "Are you sure you're all right? You shouldn't move until you're certain."

Her heart was still racing from adrenaline, and Clancy consciously tried to calm herself. "I'm fine. Clumsy and distracted, but fine."

The hands left her arms, and the woman stood, revealing her impressive stature. She looked at least eight feet tall, but Clancy realized that her perspective was skewed by her still sitting on her ass. Once the landscaper was standing, their heights were significantly equalized, and Clancy realized that her prospective client was only a couple of inches taller than she.

"Abigail Graham," the client said in a smooth, confident voice. "That first step is a doozy."

"Clancy O'Connor," the younger woman answered, shaking Abigail's hand. "I wish it were the steps. It's the stepper. I was looking at your flowers and forgot where I was. Who does your landscaping?"

"Oh, I use a nice young man - Refugio Lopez."

Clancy's eyebrow shot up. "I know Refugio, and he is a nice guy, but he's a 'mow, blow and go' guy. This was done by an artist."

Abigail shrugged, looking charmingly modest. "Oh, I thought you wanted to know who cut the grass. I, uhm I suppose that I did the design."

"You did this?" Clancy turned and extended her hands, pointing at the lush garden. "And you're calling me for help with your landscape?"

With a laugh that was nearly musical, Abigail inclined her head and asked, "Do you really like it?"

"I love it! It's got everything that most landscape designs lack!"

"Such as?" the older woman asked, not so subtly begging for a compliment.

Warming even more to her subject, Clancy took a few steps and got down on her knees. She lovingly caressed a border of perennial shrubs, annual flowers, and a few bulbs - all clustered together. "Just in this one little patch you've got four seasons of color, six different shades of green, and five heights. There's enough visual interest in just this patch to attract and hold my attention for a good ten minutes! And this is just a tiny, tiny part of the border." She got up and gazed at Abigail with a wide smile. "You've got a real talent here, and I'm being completely honest when I wonder what you could possibly need me for."

Abigail beamed a smile that lit up her whole face, highlighting merrily dancing eyes. "You have no idea how much I needed that little boost today. Thank you."

Clancy cocked her head and took a long look at the woman, noting that she was quite attractive. But lurking right behind the bright eyes and wide smile, Clancy saw a pall of sadness. She was surprised when she felt an urge to boost the woman's spirits. "I do suck up to clients," she revealed, her voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, "but in this case, I don't have to."

Still grinning, Abigail said, "I'm gonna take that on faith and believe every word. Come on inside and we can talk."

Abby opened the door, and the younger woman led the way, turning to go to the kitchen when Abigail directed her to. As the landscaper walked in front of her, Abby shook her head and said to herself, She is by far the cutest little lesbian that I think I've ever seen! She let her eyes wander from the short, platinum-blonde hair with its dark roots showing, a style she'd recently noticed on the fatally hip Westside, down to the green safari shirt with the sleeves rolled up to expose tanned, muscular arms. She took in the shorts, where a pair of professional quality sheers and a fluorescent pink tape measure hung from leather holders on a wide belt. Abigail was sure the young woman was more than popular in the lesbian social scene in the San Gabriel Valley.

"I was surprised you didn't pull into the drive," Abigail commented.

Clancy took a few more steps, debating with herself. Truth? Ah, why not? She's already seen you fall on your ass. "I'm not used to working on homes this nice," she admitted, a slightly sheepish look on her face. "I've never even been to a home with a gated entrance, and I didn't know what I was supposed to do."

Abigail looked at the young woman again, charmed by her disarming honesty. "I think the gate is a little ostentatious to tell you the truth. But it does keep door-to-door salespeople from waking me up on a Saturday morning." They reached the kitchen, and she said, "Tell me all about yourself. I'd love to hear about your background."

"There's not much to tell," Clancy said, taking a stool at the breakfast bar. "I've had my license for two years, and I've been busy the whole time, but most of my jobs have been fairly small." She nodded when Abigail produced a pitcher of lemonade and watched the older woman move gracefully around the kitchen. "Honestly, I'm surprised that you found me. Where did you get my number?"

Abigail smiled and set a frosty glass in front of her. "From the Gay and Lesbian Yellow Pages."

She's gay? No way!

Abigail continued, "I make it a rule to support women professionals if I can." Her nose wrinkled in a grin as she added, "You were the only landscape architect in the book. By the way, I loved the little rainbow colored tree in your ad. That's a very cute touch."

"Thanks. I don't use it in all of my ads, since most straight people wouldn't understand the connection. That's my special gay people ad."

"Well, it really caught my eye." Abigail winked and added, "But again, you were the only architect."

Clancy barked out a laugh and said, "That's true, but there're several landscapers and garden designers listed. Did you consider them?"

"No. I wanted an architect. The job I want to have done is complex. The person I hire has to have the proper training and credentials."

Clancy looked at the woman carefully, letting her mind settle around the information she was learning about Abigail. The tall, thin woman looked fit and healthy, and Clancy guessed that she participated in some regular form of exercise. Her hair was short, and colored in an attractive salt and pepper, with pepper still winning the war. An unlined, tanned face, with a strong jaw and deep-set blue eyes made for a terrifically attractive package, and Clancy felt her heartbeat pick up again as she wondered if the woman was partnered. Deciding to go for broke, she tried to ask the question without being too obvious. "So, do you live alone?" she asked, nearly biting her tongue as the words tumbled out. You're not in a bar, you idiot! I thought you were gonna be subtle? Why don't you just ask her what her sign is and be done with it?

Another flash of pain washed across Abigail's face, and Clancy mentally kicked herself once again. The strong chin tilted down, and Abigail's eyes stared blankly towards the floor for just a moment. "Yes, I suppose I do live alone," she said quietly. She shook her head briefly, and Clancy was stunned to see a few tears slide down her cheek. Abigail wiped at them angrily, muttering, "I'm sorry. I've had a very tough weekend." She looked into Clancy's gray eyes and saw nothing but warm concern and found herself allowing some of her hurt to spill forth. "Yesterday was my birthday, and I'd been fantasizing that my daughter would come home and surprise me." She shook her head and muttered. "Silly."

"Where does she live?" Clancy asked gently.

"The poor thing is a freshman at UC Santa Cruz. She has finals soon, and I would've been upset with her if she'd spent the whole weekend traveling down here." Giving Clancy a slightly embarrassed glance, she said, "I set myself and my daughter up in a no-win situation. She wanted to come home, but I told her not to. She really pressed me, but I held firm. But then I kept imagining that she'd come anyway." She bit her lip to try to keep her emotions under control. "I've never been alone on my birthday. It was much harder than I thought it'd be."

Clancy spared a quick look at Abigail's ring finger. The left hand was bare of adornment, and the landscaper tentatively asked, "Are you single?"

With a sad smile, Abigail nodded. "My husband died five years ago this week. Every year I've focused on the fact that it will be easier the next year. I thought that I'd be free of the grief by now." She shook her head slightly and said, "I'm not."

"Were you together long?" Clancy asked, forcing herself to get over her mild disappointment that the woman obviously wasn't a lesbian.

"Twenty years. We had twenty wonderful years together, and I have two wonderful children who constantly remind me of the love we shared." She looked away again and whispered hoarsely, "Sometimes all of that just isn't enough."

"I can't imagine," Clancy said. "It must be wonderful to have loved someone so much - but so hard to go on alone."

"It is," Abigail agreed. "I wouldn't trade the years we had together for anything on earth, but the devastation is much greater than I could've imagined." She sighed deeply and leaned over to wipe her eyes with her hands. When her body shifted, Clancy saw a simple gold band on a thin gold chain fall from her yellow and blue print blouse. Abigail tucked it back in and pasted on a wan smile. "You probably think that I'm unstable, but I swear you're the first complete stranger I've ever unburdened myself to. There's something about you that makes me babble away. Do you have this effect on everyone?"

Clancy shrugged and returned the smile. "I like talking to people. Always have. I used to spend my weekends in my mom's floral shop, chatting away with the customers."

"Ah, is that where you developed your love of flowers?"

"Yeah. I suppose so. Little did I know that all of those weekends would pay off some day."

"I'd be happy to sit in the kitchen and gab all day," Abigail said, "but I'm sure you have other appointments. Shall we take a look at the project I'm thinking of?"

"Sure. I blocked out three hours, so we're doing fine on time."

Abigail shot her a warm grin and said, "You must like to talk if you block your time so generously."

"Well, the first meeting is the most important one, so I like to spend as much time as possible to get to know both the project and the client. If you like me, and we can reach an agreement on the project, that's half the battle."

"We're halfway there already," Abigail said, and Clancy grinned with genuine pleasure at the thought that this lovely woman already liked her.

O

When Abigail opened the double French doors in the rear of the kitchen, a pair of dogs raced into the room like twin bolts of lightning. Ignoring their owner, they made their way to Clancy, tails wagging so quickly they were mere blurs. Clancy immediately sank to the floor, exclaiming in delight, "What do we have here?"

"These," Abigail said, "are the result of a suggestion my grief counselor made. She thought that bringing some new life into the house would help us get through some of the rough patches. We picked them up three years ago - also this week," she added. "My counselor thought it would give us a boost to get through the anniversary of my husband's death." Speaking in an excited voice, she said, "We've got to have a celebration, girls!"

At the sound of her voice, the dogs started jumping, then spinning around in tight circles. Both women laughed at their exuberance, and when the pups heard Clancy's laugh, they set upon her with a vengeance.

"What kind of dogs are they?" Clancy asked, giggling as her face was licked in a mad frenzy.

"They're Portuguese Water Dogs," Abigail said. "I can make them stop if you mind."

"Not a bit. I love dogs." She looked at the pair and saw some vague similarity, and wondered aloud, "Are they related?"

"They're from the same litter," Abigail said. "Artemis here is a black and white parti-color with a wavy coat, and Athena is a black and white with a curly coat."

"Cute names," Clancy said. "Are you the goddess of the Amazons, puppy?" She tickled Artemis under the chin and laughed when Athena pushed her way past her sister to get some special attention.

"My daughter had a brief fascination with mythology," Abby said. "I put my foot down at Aphrodite for this one." She indicated the curlier dog. "I knew it would devolve into a nickname, and there was no way I was going to call the poor thing Aphro. Besides, I think Athena suits her better."

"They're adorable," Clancy said, sputtering as Athena gave her a wet lick right on the lips. "Friendly, too!"

"Yes," Abigail said, chuckling softly. "They're Portuguese dogs, but they love to French kiss."

"I've been out with women who weren't as skilled," Clancy said, getting to her feet with some difficulty. She heard the words come out of her mouth and visibly cringed. "Sorry," she mumbled. "That was "

"Nonsense," Abby said. "I assumed you were gay when I called you, Clancy. It certainly doesn't bother me to have you refer to being with women." She saw the dogs begin to get too rambunctious, and she said in a firm voice, "Girls leave Clancy alone for a moment. Down!" Both dogs gave her a quick look to ascertain her sincerity, and when they saw she meant business, they sat down right at Clancy's feet, waiting for permission to nibble on her again.

"Okay," Clancy said, looking slightly uncomfortable. To shift attention away from herself she bent to give each dog a pat on the head. "Well-mannered dogs."

"You have to have a firm hand with Porties, or they'll run the house. Oh I hope you don't mind if I call you Clancy," she added. "I didn't even think to ask."

"Of course not. Do you like to be called Abigail?"

"Actually, why don't you call me Abby? All of my friends do."

"Okay, Abby. Let's take a look at this project."

O

They walked outside, and Abby pointed to a steeply rising slope and the old, faded, stockade fence running along the property line. "I want to have that fence taken down and put up a stucco wall."

"Okay, that's not too big a job," the architect said. "I'll just climb up and take a look." The hill was so steep that Clancy had to hold on to a few sturdy trees to get to the top, and she walked along the property line for a few minutes, getting a feel for the space.

When she came back down, Abby looked up at the fence and said wistfully, "I'd love to be able to put up a nice, short wooden fence, just tall enough to keep the dogs in. But a young family has moved in up there, and their kids stand at the fence and drive the dogs absolutely mad. It didn't bother me too much at first, since they hear them barking more than I do, but I saw a little hand sticking through a gap in the fence the other day, feeding the dogs God-knows-what, and I decided I had to do something."

"Have you talked to the parents?"

"No," Abby said, shaking her head. "I want to have good relations with them - so I'd rather just eliminate the problem."

They spent a solid hour discussing what Abby thought she needed, and Clancy took notes the entire time, scribbling drawings and short sentences in a large, rubber-covered notepad. Clancy saw Abby's curious glance and patted the day-glo orange book. "I work in the rain a lot. This keeps everything nice and dry."

"Looking at the way you dress, and the tools you carry, makes me have confidence in you," Abby said.

Grinning broadly, Clancy said, "I take my work very seriously, Abby. I haven't had any big commissions yet, but I will. I treat each project like it's my own house - I care."

"I can see that," the older woman said, noting the sincerity in Clancy's unflinching gaze.

The architect spent the next half-hour taking careful measurements with Abby eventually offering to help by taking notes for her. When she was finished, Clancy dusted herself off and said, "I'll work up a plan and get back to you by the end of next week. Does that sound good?"

"Perfect."

The homeowner started to walk her out, and when they got to the front porch, Clancy stood and stared out at the landscape, trying to take it all in. "If I lived here, I'd never get a thing done. I'd sit right on one of these comfy-looking chairs and let the world roll by while I watched my flowers grow."

"You know," Abby said, "that's exactly what I did on my birthday. I sat here most of the day, reflecting and letting the plants remind me of the cyclical nature of living things."

"Don't you have any other family, Abby? Any friends you could have spent the day with?"

Abby smiled at the woman, touched by her concern. "Oh, sure, I have a lot of friends. And I could have spent the whole day with them. I did agree to have dinner with several of my buddies, but I wanted some time alone."

"To think?"

"Exactly," she said. "I didn't use to be so introspective, but since my husband died, I spend more time than I probably should thinking about life and death."

Giving the woman a smile, Clancy found herself saying, "It's good to spend time thinking about life 'cause we have a lot of power to make our lives better. But don't spend too much time thinking about death. It'll take care of itself."

Looking at the young woman for a few moments, Abby cocked her head and asked, "How are we doing on time?"

Taking a peek at her pocket watch, Clancy said, "I've got over an hour until my next appointment. Why?"

"How about joining me for lunch? We could sit out here and enjoy the plants."

"Lunch? Really?"

"Yeah. I'd love to spend some time with someone who appreciates the work I've done here. Most people just look at it and say, 'Nice lawn.'"

"You're on," Clancy said. "I could easily spend an hour talking about the fabulous drift of delphiniums you have on the little rise over by that beautiful ficus." She narrowed her eyes and said, "You created that rise, didn't you? Nice touch. I love to contour a flat expanse of lawn. It makes all of the difference in the world."

"You're my kinda woman," Abby said. Her face lit up in a smile that erased ten years. "Have a seat while I go make up a fruit and cheese platter." She paused and asked, "You do eat cheese, don't you?"

"Any kind, any time," Clancy said, settling down to take in the setting.

O

The hour passed far too soon, and Clancy stood and brushed some crumbs from her shirt. "That was one of the nicest lunch hours I've had since I started working. I normally stop for a taco or a hamburger - if I have time to stop at all."

"Call me the next time you're in the neighborhood," Abby said. "I'd love the company."

Laughing, Clancy said, "I'm not in the neighborhood very often, but I'd gladly go out of my way to do this again."

Abby stood and started to walk Clancy to her truck, both dogs trotting along companionably as they walked down the long drive. "Now, next time, pull up to the gate and give a honk. I've got a closed circuit camera so I can see who's waiting." As they approached the truck, the older woman chuckled slightly and said, "I think I'll be able to recognize you. You're the only person I know with a screaming yellow truck."

"She's my baby." Placing her hand lovingly on the top rail of the bed, Clancy said, "My first big purchase."

"It's lovely," Abby said, taking pleasure from the obvious pride that Clancy exhibited. She noted the neat cursive lettering on the door that read, "Clancy O'Connor Landscape Architect", and listed a phone number and website address. She felt a brief stab of longing to be young and just starting out like this young woman was, but she brushed the feelings aside and extended her hand. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Clancy. I look forward to working together."

I guess I got the job, the younger woman marveled. Unless I screw up the drawings or the quote! The pressure is on!

O

Clancy was sitting at her drafting table, chewing on the end of a drawing pencil, graph paper stuck to every horizontal surface. Her roommate, Michael, came up behind her and placed a hand on her shoulder, making her jump several inches. "Shit! I hate it when you scare me like that!"

"I swear that I don't try to sneak up on you," the man protested. "You just concentrate so hard that you don't hear me come in."

"What are you doing home this early anyway?" she asked absently, her attention already split between him and her drawings.

"It's 8:15," he said. "That's not early."

She grabbed her watch and tilted it so she could see the face. "You're shitting me!"

"Nope. What are you working on, anyway? You've been tied to that chair every night this week."

"I'm doing the plans for that woman that lives on the Arroyo," she mumbled, a little embarrassed to have spent as much time on the plans as she had.

"You're working hard enough to re-landscape the Rose Bowl," he said. "What's up with this job?"

She sighed, and rubbed her weary eyes with the back of a hand. "This is the biggest job I've ever had, Michael. This woman's obviously wealthy, and I bet she's got a lot of connections. There are a lot of people out there who'd probably love to hire me if they knew about me. I just haven't had a way to get a toehold with the movers and shakers. This woman might help me get there."

"I hope it works for you, baby," he said, ruffling his hand through her short hair.

"Thanks," she said, placing her hand atop his and giving it a pat. "I know you're my biggest fan."

"Is this mover and shaker available?" Michael asked.

"Yes kinda and she's just my type."

"Oh, Lord, don't tell me," he said, rolling his eyes. "Does she have all of her own teeth?"

She slapped at him playfully. "I don't like them old! She's mature," she sniffed.

"She's old," he decided. "Come on how old is she?"

"I'm not sure, but she's got a daughter in college." She shrugged at Michael's raised eyebrow and said, "I know you think it's a neurosis, but I happen to prefer women who've seen the world and know what they want from it."

"You," he teased, tweaking her nose, "prefer women who've seen the Second World War. But I still love you."

"I love you too, Michael. And I think Abby might have seen the Viet Nam war, but that's as far as I'll go. She might be, oh thirty-nine or forty. I'm sure she's younger than my parents."

"Oh, that's reassuring," he said, laughing. "Now take your nose out of those drawings and join me for a quick dinner."

She rubbed her empty stomach and said, "I didn't have lunch today. Good thing I've got a few spare pounds to carry me over."

He looked at her critically. "You've got a few spare muscles, but other than that, you can't afford to lose an ounce." He started to walk into the kitchen, then stopped to say, "You said she was kinda available. What's that mean?"

"She probably thinks she's straight," Clancy said, wrinkling up her nose. "But she's a widow so she's clearly available."

"Oh, God," he moaned. "Why don't you make things tough, Clance? Turning an old widow into a lesbian who's hot for you is just too easy!"

O

Clancy sat at the circular kitchen table, nervously smoothing out her plans. She had the drawings facing herself, not yet ready to share them with Abby. Clearing her throat, she began. "I've drawn a few different ideas, and I've written up an estimate for each of them. Ready to take a look?"

"I am," Abby said, her excitement obvious. "Let's see what you've got."

Clancy turned the first drawing around and showed Abby the wall just as the homeowner had envisioned it. "Here's the stucco wall," she said. "Nothing fancy, but very functional."

"This looks just fine," Abby said. "I can plant some climbing plants, and in a few years, it won't look so stark. What's the estimate?"

"I could do this for around $17,500 - painted, of course."

Raising an eyebrow, Abby paused for a moment, then nodded. "Okay, what else do you have?"

"Even though you said you wanted a plain wall, I thought a big expanse of white stucco could look awfully harsh. So I added this nice ceramic tile cap. Every ten feet, I put in a window of four glass blocks," she noted. "That way the kids and the dogs can see each other, but not touch each other. I thought it would look best to have the same ceramic tiles as the cap bracket the glass blocks, just to finish it off."

Abby was staring at the design, studying it intently. "Well, first off, let me compliment you on the drawing. It's so lifelike, I could believe it was a photograph."

Clancy shrugged and said, "I like to draw. I considered art school, but one day I realized that the only things I ever drew were trees and plants. Being a landscape architect allows me to merge all of my interests." She gave Abby an endearing grin and said, "Well, not all of them - but most of them."

Abby shook her head thinking, I can't believe how cute she is. I want to pinch that adorable little cheek!

Clancy cleared her throat and tapped her pencil on the drawing. "What do you think of the design?"

"Inspired," Abby said. "The details you've added prevent it from looking like a big monolith."

"That's the idea," Clancy said, her excitement growing. "You have a lot of property here, and this large a stucco wall could look a little fortress-like."

Abby shuddered. "That's the last thing I want. How much would this cost?"

"With all of the details, this would run you about $20,000 if you don't go crazy on the tiles." She held her breath, hoping that the price wasn't more than Abby was willing to spend.

"Are you quite sure of that, Clancy?" the older woman asked, gazing into the architect's eyes with a curious look on her face.

Oh, shit! Oh, shit! I've already got it pared down to the point where I'll be lucky to break even! "Uhm yeah, I'm pretty sure but I could look at it again and see if I can get the price down "

Abby held up a hand to stop her. "Either you're seriously underbidding, or the other architect I consulted was very overpriced. He gave me a quote of $25,000 - and that was for plain stucco - unpainted," she added.

Clancy's face flushed, and she felt herself searching for words. "I I "

"Clancy," Abby said, her voice low and quiet, "how much profit did you factor into your quote?"

Why do I insist on telling this woman the truth? "I wasn't gonna make much on the job," she admitted. Looking into Abby's eyes, she told her everything. "Making a profit isn't the most important thing to me on this job. Doing such good work that you'll tell all of your friends about me is what matters. I need more jobs like this, Abby, and I hope that you'll help me get them."

Abby nodded briefly, accepting the explanation for the moment. "Show me what else you have hidden there."

With a definite gleam in her eyes, Clancy pulled out the next design. "This one occurred to me when I spent some time considering the entire property. You didn't happen to notice me hanging out by the gate earlier in the week, did you?" she asked, grinning charmingly.

"No, but I'm miffed that you didn't tell me you were coming. I would've loved to have had lunch with you again."

"It was about 6:00 a.m., Abby. I wanted to see your yard when the dew was still on the grass. That's my favorite time of day, and it's when everything looks the softest."

"Something else we have in common," Abby said. "I usually sit on the back patio in the morning. Listening to the birds perks up my whole day."

Clancy realized she was giving the woman a very goofy grin, and she forced herself to get back to business. "I really like this design, but it's a much more expensive option." She turned the drawing around, pointing out the neat river rock pattern. "This mirrors the columns you have coming up the front stairs, and the short wall in the front yard," she said. "It ties the entire property together - and softens the line of demarcation between the front and the back."

"Nice," Abby said, trailing the tip of her finger lightly over the various elements of the drawing. "Very nice," she added, when she met Clancy's sparkling gray eyes.

"This one will almost double the price," Clancy added, wincing a little as she made the statement.

Abby nodded and grasped the edge of the paper, lifting it just an inch. "I see more under there. If you're saving it for last, it must be your favorite."

"This is a pipe dream," Clancy said, "but I couldn't resist drawing it. I was thinking about what you said about the kids and how the dogs went a little nuts with them. Then I figured that the noise of the kids alone might be more than you wanted to hear."

"I've tried to keep my 'Old Lady Graham' image well-hidden," Abby admitted, "but there're times I want to stand on the back patio and scream, 'SHUT UP, YOU LITTLE MONSTERS!'"

Clancy laughed at the image of the elegant, refined woman doing just that. "Would you have a rolling pin in your hand?"

"Or a broom," Abby decided, joining in with her laugh.

"Well, this last idea would drown out the sounds of the pitter patter of little feet," Clancy said. She unveiled the drawing, smiling when she heard a delighted purr come from Abby's lips.

"Oh, Clancy," she moaned, "this is fabulous." In the drawing, the river rock wall gave way to a number of large boulders piled atop one another. The boulders eventually leveled out to create a small pool about halfway down the hill. The overflow from the small pond cascaded down the rest of the way to pour into the swimming pool. Abby found herself mesmerized by the drawing, her eyes lingering on the stream of blue water that splashed into the pool, creating a series of ripples that skimmed across the glassy surface. "I've always wanted to live by the water," she sighed. "It never dawned on me that I could have the water come to me." She made eye contact with the young woman and said, "This is the one I want. How much will it cost me?"

Clancy swallowed and said, "The absolute best I can do is $75,000."

Abby nodded, her lower lip sticking out for a moment. "How long will it take you?"

"Hard to say. Probably most of the summer. I wouldn't count on much privacy this season."

"I wouldn't mind that, but I know that Hayley, my daughter, is planning on lying by the pool all summer. I hate to take that away from her."

"Well, if you're not in a hurry, we could really take our time," Clancy said. "We could wait until we had all of the boulders picked out and make sure we were ready to go before we broke ground."

"That could work," Abby said. "I could clear out a space on the side of the house, and we could store everything there. Then we could start work closer to the end of the summer."

"That'd be great for me," Clancy said. "I'm much busier in the summer than I am in the fall."

Abby fixed her with her steady gaze again and asked, "How much profit for you in this job?"

"None," she mumbled, staring down at the table.

"We have a deal," Abby said, "as long as you add in your usual fee for your services."

"What?"

"You heard me," Abby said. "I want you to be personally involved, and you won't be able to do that if you're scrounging for cash. I promise I'll give you as many recommendations as you can handle, but I won't be able to live with myself if you're out there working for nothing. That's my final offer."

Clancy let out a very relieved breath and extended her hand. With a smile as wide as her lips could handle, she said, "You've got a deal."

O

Part Two

Even though they weren't going to break ground for at least three months, Abby wanted to get moving on the project immediately. She and Clancy spent three more afternoons together, plotting out details, and after they had gone over everything for the fifth time, Abby sighed and said, "We're going to have to redo the pool deck. With the rustic look of the stones, the smooth concrete doesn't cut it. I think we need to finish it with large, flat stones that'll mirror the wall." Clancy gave her a worried look, but Abby shrugged it off. "I was going to re-do it next year anyway."

Clancy dragged the toe of her boot along the weathered concrete. "How long have you had this surface?"

"Since we put the pool in. That's been gosh, I guess it's been ten years."

"Really? You were pretty forward thinking to put in such a naturally shaped pool ten years ago. Quite a trend setter there, Ms. Graham."

"That's me," she said. "Actually, we had a forward-thinking pool designer. I'm glad we went with this look, though, especially now that we're going to have such a natural look with the wall."

Clancy looked up at the hill and squinted a little bit, her expression pensive. "It's gonna look great when the waterfall is finished. It'll look like a natural spring flowing down that hill and splashing into a cold blue pool."

"You can see it, can't you?" Abby asked.

The architect looked a little sheepish, then nodded. "Yeah, I can. Once I draw something - I can see it. I'm just waiting for the details to be filled in."

She was smiling so enthusiastically that Abby was caught up in her mood. "I can't wait to see it, too. When do we pick the materials for the deck?"

Clancy held up a hand. "Whoa! I don't do pools."

"Oh," Abby said, looking abashed. "Do you know someone who can do it?"

"Yeah, the same guy who's going to do the waterfall. My dad."

"Your dad?"

"Yep. I'm sub-contracting the plumbing for the waterfall to my dad. He can do the pool deck, too."

"Nepotism?" Abby asked, her tone teasing.

"Yeah, but only because he does great work and I'm sure you'll like him."

"I'm sure I will," Abby said, smiling at the earnest young woman. "Could you have him work up a quote for me?"

Clancy reached into her notebook. "I already did. I had a feeling you might want to do this."

Abby shook her head, immeasurably pleased by the young woman's thoroughness. "This looks fine," she said. "Let's add it to the job."

"You're gonna keep the whole family busy this fall," the younger woman said. "Do you need a good florist?"

"You know, I just might. You'd better give me your mom's card."

O

They spent the following Friday driving out to Irwindale to take their first look at boulders. Neither woman was impressed with the selection, so Clancy decided they'd have to head further out to find what they needed. It was a warm, smoggy afternoon, and the air conditioning in the truck was cranked as high as it could go. "Do you have anything else scheduled for today?" Abby asked.

Clancy spared a look at the clock on the dash and said, "Nothing major. I assumed we'd be here all afternoon."

"How about this evening?" Abby persisted. "Are you free for dinner?"

"Dinner?" the younger woman asked, looking a little blank. "You want to have dinner?"

Abby looked rather disconcerted and said, "It's no big deal. I thought -"

"I'd love to," Clancy interrupted. "I don't have many clients who treat me like a real person - who eats."

"You seem like a very real person," Abby assured her. "And I'd really like to pick your brain if you don't mind."

"About?"

"Well " Abby hemmed a little and finally looked at the younger woman. "Would you be averse to talking about sex?"

O

Clancy was only too happy to talk about sex - but she was sorely disappointed when she learned that Abby wanted to talk about her daughter's sex life. Still, she was very pleased that Abby trusted her enough to think of her as a confidant, rather than an employee.

They stopped at the local gourmet grocery store in South Pasadena and walked around the expansive place, trying to decide what to have. Abby insisted on buying the food, but she let Clancy purchase a nice, fruity zinfandel which she suggested would go well with the swordfish they had selected.

Back at the house, Abby fired up the grill while Clancy opened the wine and set it to chill. Then they sat on the shaded patio under the bougainvillea-covered pergola. Clancy had worked hard all week, and she felt a little stress leave her body now that the workweek was over. "Tell me about your daughter."

Abby smiled the warm, love-filled smile always present when she spoke of her children. "She's a delightful girl," she began, "and we've always been close. She didn't go through any of that adolescent rebellion that most girls torture their parents with."

Clancy grinned and said, "Don't remind my mom. She's still mad at me for things I did fifteen years ago."

Abby cast a doubtful glance at the young woman and said, "She's angry about things you did when you were, what - eight?"

"I know I look like I'm twelve, but I'm going to hit the big 'three-o' this December."

Blinking in surprise, Abby said, "I mean this as a compliment, Clancy, but you could easily pass for twenty."

"I know, I know. I still get carded."

"You'll be glad for that in a few years," Abby reminded her.

Waiting a beat, Clancy asked, "How old are you?"

"I just turned forty-five," she said. At the slight widening of Clancy's eyes, she said, "I know. I look every day of it."

"No! Not at all," Clancy insisted. "You look much younger than that. Your face doesn't have a line on it. I thought you were around forty, but that's only because you told me you had a daughter in college."

"Thanks," Abby said, running a hand through her thick hair. "I think I look my age, but I could look younger if I dyed my hair. Most women start as soon as they see the first speck of gray." She shrugged and said, "I'm not most women."

"Our loss," Clancy said, smiling warmly.

O

It was such a nice night that Abby prevailed upon Clancy to accept a suit and go for a swim. The younger woman agreed and then tried her best not to be too blatant as she kept sneaking looks at her employer. Boy, you might look forty when you're dressed, but in a swimsuit, that's a thirty-year-old body.

The pair spent a few minutes slicing through the warm water, then Abby hopped out and poured a glass of wine for each of them, padding back and extending the plastic wine glass to Clancy. "Cheers," she said, slipping back into the water.

The wine felt lovely going down, and Clancy hung onto the deck by her arms, kicking her legs languidly.

Abby smiled furtively at the dark golden tan that marked Clancy's arms, contrasted with the relatively pale skin on her shoulders and back. "Willing to give me some advice about Hayley?"

"Sure. What's the issue?"

"Well, I'm both blessed and cursed because she tells me absolutely everything," Abby said. "She's always had the normal supply of boyfriends - none of them very serious. But now that she's in college, she's starting to show a bit of a wild streak, and I'm not sure how to react to it."

"Nose rings? Full-body tattoos?"

"No," Abby said. "But you could give me advice on the tattoo front."

"I only have one," Clancy assured her, sneaking a look at the armband of needlepoint ivy that ringed her bicep.

"It's nice," Abby said. "But, no, it's nothing like that." She paused for a moment. "She told me that she thinks it's time to start having sex. I was so flustered that I didn't know how to react."

Clancy cocked her head. "I'm not sure what you mean."

Abby treaded water slowly as she tried to organize her thoughts. "This is one of the many times I miss my husband. He was so good with Hayley. He knew exactly how to reach her without her thinking he was telling her what to do."

Clancy listened attentively as Abby continued her tale. "I think I've mentioned that Will and I hade two kids. Trevor is finishing up his master's degree in urban planning at M.I.T. Hayley is a freshman at UC Santa Cruz, majoring in something different every time I talk to her. She's young to be in college. Her sixth birthday was a day or two before school started, so she was the youngest in her class. She's gifted though, and we allowed her to skip third grade because she was so bored. In retrospect, that might have been a mistake. She's always tried to be as mature as her classmates - even when she wasn't. One year doesn't seem like a lot, but it can be a big difference at some critical ages. I'm afraid that the transition to college might be one of them."

"Mmm that makes sense. I was one of the youngest in my class, too. I always felt like I had to struggle a little to keep up."

"Hayley's a great kid, as I said, but socially, she's always been a follower," Abby said. "I've done my best to try to build her self-confidence, but it's been slow to come. I'm afraid that she wants to experiment with sex because everyone else does."

Clancy eyed the older woman for a moment, an uncertain smile playing at her lips. "Isn't that why you did it?"

"No," Abby said, "not at all. I did it because I fell in love."

"Oh. Oh! I get it. You're upset because Hayley hasn't said she's in love!"

"Exactly," Abby agreed. "She's not even seeing anyone! She's simply decided that she wants to have sex, and she doesn't seem to care who she has it with! That's so unlike her, and that's what worries me."

"Yeah. I see that," Clancy said. "What did you say to her?"

"I don't think I was coherent!" Abby said, starting to laugh. "I made some noises about love and commitment, but she told me that sex wasn't like that anymore. Now it was just another thing to do like going to a movie or having dinner."

"Wow," Clancy murmured. "It was a big deal the first time I had sex. I guess things could have changed a lot since I was seventeen, but I think it's more likely that Hayley's trying to test you - you know - to see what your reaction is. I did that a lot at seventeen."

"I suppose you could be right," Abby said. "I hope that I can have a more rational talk with her before she grabs the first boy she sees and makes his day. That's not how I want her to experience sex."

"No, I'm sure it's not, but it's hard to have much control when they're out of the house, isn't it?"

"Damn, I wish she were a scientific prodigy. Then she would have wanted to go to Cal Tech, and I'd be able to watch her every move."

"I lived at home when I started having sex, Abby, and I'm sure my parents didn't know."

"Another theory down the drain," the older woman said, slipping beneath the water's surface.

O

"Where are you off to today?" Michael asked. Clancy'd gotten dressed and ready to go at 7:00 a.m. and was now anxiously looking out the window.

"Abby and I have an appointment to look at some rocks way the hell out in the City of Industry. She wanted to drive, so she's gonna come pick me up."

"She's not one of those old ladies who gets into the fast lane to go thirty-five is she?"

"You know " Clancy gazed at her long-time friend, "for that I'm going to make you stay until she gets here. I want you to take a gander at this old lady."

"Happy to," he said. "Now that I know she's straight, I can size her up for sugar mama potential."

"Oh, charming," Clancy said.

Abby's knock interrupted their banter. "Ready to go?" she asked brightly when Clancy opened the door.

"Sure am, but come in and meet my roommate first."

Abby came into the room, and Michael quickly sized her up. He was a much better judge of age than Clancy was, since he was a hairstylist and made his living trying to help women at every stage of life look their best. Hmm I can't fault Clancy for her choice this time. This one is a knockout! If I could get rid of that gray, she could pass for thirty or thirty-five.

"Michael Hamlin," he said, extending his hand. "Clancy's been raving about your project for weeks now. It's nice to finally meet you."

"Abby Graham. It's very nice to meet you, Michael. You'll have to come to the party we're going to have when we're finished."

"I'd love to. I never get to see Clancy's finished projects." He ran a hand through Clancy's close-cropped hair and said, "Don't forget, I'm gonna give you a shoe shine tonight."

When they walked down the narrow sidewalk to Abby's car, the older woman asked, "You make dates to have your friend shine your shoes?"

"Oh!" Clancy laughed heartily at the image of Michael taking a brush to her worn boots. "That's what he does to my hair," she said. "Michael's a hair stylist."

Abby glanced at the coloring she'd grown to appreciate. "Why on earth do you call it shoe shining?"

"Well, he puts a thick peroxide solution onto a long piece of cardboard and then kinda buffs my head with it. It actually looks a little like he's giving me a shoe-shine - on my head, of course."

Abby gave her a long look and said, "You know, it's a little extreme for someone my age - but I really like it on you. It gives you a certain je ne sais quoi. Blonde works really well with your skin tone."

"Thanks. But don't get any ideas. You should stay like you are. I think the silver in your hair is absolutely fantastic."

"Do you really?" Abby asked, sounding uncharacteristically tentative.

"Oh, yeah! It looks great against your tanned skin, and it's perfect with your eyes. I wouldn't change it for the world."

Abby snuck a glance at herself in the rear-view mirror when they got into the car. I don't think I will.

O

After a quick stop for coffee and scones, they set off. Clancy hadn't been sure what to expect, but the car Abby drove caught her a little by surprise. "How long have you had this beauty?"

Abby patted the dashboard of her brand-new, bright-red Lexus convertible. "I admit it," she said. "It was a mid-life crisis birthday gift. I've been feeling so stuck lately that I thought it might perk me up. I guess I was also trying to lure men by shamelessly exploiting one of their known weaknesses."

"It's a gorgeous car," Clancy agreed. "Has your plan worked?"

Abby sported a wry grin. "Not really. I'm still striking out with regularity."

Leaning back against the door in the small interior, Clancy let out a light chuckle. "I can believe a lot of things, Abby, but I can't believe that you don't have your pick of men."

Abby's tanned skin flushed a little at the unexpected compliment. "I wish I were lying." She spared a moment to look at her friend, and Clancy could see how discouraged she seemed. "I thought I felt old when I found myself a widow the same week I turned forty. But that was nothing compared to how it feels to be unable to get a second date with a decent man."

Bridging the distance between their seats, Clancy placed her hand on Abby's shoulder. "You're serious."

"Yes, I'm completely serious," she said. "It's something that I'd never considered, Clancy. I mean, I don't think I'm among the world's most beautiful women, but I'll admit to coasting through my youth on my looks. I was always popular with boys, and I fended off more men than you would believe when Will and I were first together."

"I don't doubt it," Clancy said. "And don't be too quick to take yourself out of the running for the world's most beautiful women, either."

Abby gave her a quick look, then laughed softly. "You catch me by surprise, Ms. O'Connor. I'm never quite prepared for some of your comments."

"I'm telling it like I see it."

"Well." Abby was a little embarrassed by the compliment, and she quickly glossed over it. "I guess it didn't occur to me that my success with men would evaporate. I mean - in many ways, I'm a better catch than I was when I was thirty, but that doesn't seem to matter." She blew out a frustrated breath. "Every one of my friends has already introduced me to her 'A' list of eligible men. I'd guess that I've been on twenty dates in the past year. There wasn't one man - who I liked - who has called me for a second date."

"But why?"

"My best friend finally told me the truth last night. A week ago, I went out with her favorite bachelor, and we seemed to hit it off. He didn't call - so I finally cornered her and insisted that she tell me what was going on." She gave Clancy a sad look and said, "Ellen admitted that Jeff told her he couldn't date someone who looked as old as he did."

"But you don't look old!" Clancy said. "You don't have a wrinkle on your entire face! And you act so young and vibrant! Jesus, Abby, you're such a catch, a guy would have to be insane not to want to go out with you!"

Abby patted her friend on the leg. "You're very good for my ego. Can I hire you to call me once a day and cheer me up?"

"No, but I'll do it for free," Clancy said, beaming at her.

"I really don't blame the men," Abby said. "Our culture worships youth. These are professional, power broker guys, and that quest for the best extends to women. Why choose a forty-five-year-old if you can get a twenty-five or thirty-year-old? It's the survival of the fittest in the dating game, Clancy."

"Sure it is," the younger woman agreed, "but everyone has a different notion about what qualities he finds most desirable. You haven't met a guy who's looking for quality. God, I don't like to date twenty-five-year-old women, and I'm not even thirty. I like a woman who has some depth, some experience."

"Mmm," Abby murmured. "I wish your philosophy would rub off on the men I've been dating. I'm afraid I'm going to have to start despoiling retirement homes."

Clancy's choking sounds were half laugh and half scone.

O

They drove along in silence for a while, both women lost in their thoughts. Clancy finally broke the silence when she asked, "Are you sure you're ready to start dating? Maybe you're not giving off the right vibes."

"Meaning?" Abby asked.

"Well, I don't mean to pry, but are you still grieving for your husband?"

Abby nodded slightly. "In a way, yes. I don't think I'll ever get over losing Will. But I honestly think I'm ready to love again."

"I thought that you might not be showing that you're into dating yet," Clancy said. "'Cause if you really acted interested, a quality guy wouldn't notice your hair color. Not every man wants a trophy."

"Hmm you might be onto something. I have been down lately, and maybe that comes through."

"Why are you down?" Clancy asked, barely stopping herself from stroking Abby's thigh to soothe her.

Abby's hands gripped the wheel a little tighter, and Clancy could see a well-defined muscle flex in her forearm. "I'm feeling like I might never get another chance at love. I have friends - good friends. They keep me interested and involved in life. My kids make me very happy, and they visit as often as they can. But I miss the closeness that you can only find with a lover. I miss the intimacy I miss being held at night ... and of course, I miss sex. But most of all, I miss head rubs." She sighed wistfully. "Will always stayed up later than I did, and most nights, he would read for a while. He always rubbed my head." She felt slightly embarrassed to reveal this small intimacy, but she forced herself to continue. "I don't know why, but that's the thing I miss the most. That slow, rhythmic head rub put me to sleep most nights for twenty years." Giving Clancy a quick glance, she allowed the pain to show fully in her expressive eyes. "How do you get over losing that?"

"I don't know," Clancy murmured, a little overcome by the desolation she saw in her friend's gaze. "Maybe you don't, Abby, but that's no reason not to try again. There has to be someone out there who can give a woman a nice, soothing head rub."

Abby gave her a resigned smile and said, "Thank God Will left me with enough money to live well. I could always hire someone to rub my head. Lord knows there are stranger job descriptions out there."

"You'll find someone," Clancy insisted. "Someone who can soothe all of your stress away with the touch of his hand. I'm sure of it, Abby."

"You're going to have to have enough confidence for both of us," Abby said. "Mine's just about shot."

"I can do that," Clancy assured her. "I'm all about confidence."

O

This boulder-hunting trip had been even less successful than the last, and on the way home, Clancy delivered the bad news. "We're gonna have to get more creative with the boulders. I think we're unhappy with them because the ones we've seen are so round and smooth. They almost look manufactured."

"That's it exactly," Abby agreed. "They look more like concrete than stone."

"I don't think we're gonna find anything in Southern California; we're gonna have to go to the source. How do you feel about a road trip?"

"Road trip, huh?" Abby said with a grin crinkling her mouth. "That might be the ticket for chasing the blues away. Let me know when and where."

O

"You know," Abby said as they made their way back to the freeway, "I find that I talk about myself constantly when we're together. But I really don't know much about you. Tell me about the important milestones in your life."

"Okay. What do you want to know?"

"Tell me your coming out story," Abby said.

Clancy laughed. "You know the lingo, don't ya?

"Oh, my God, was I being too forward? I only wanted -"

"Abby, I'm teasing. Really. That's the kind of thing that lesbians usually get out of the way the first time they meet, and I think it's cool that you're not afraid to ask."

"I feel very comfortable with you, Clancy, and I'm interested in learning more about you. For most of my gay friends, coming out has been a very big deal."

I think that's true for many people," Clancy agreed. "But it wasn't for me. I realized I was gay when I was in high school, but the only person I told was Michael."

"You've known him that long?"

"Oh, yeah. We met when we were freshmen in high school. He's been my best buddy ever since. Anyway, I knew in high school, but I didn't have anyone to practice with. Near as I could tell, I was the only lesbian in the entire school."

"Oh, you poor thing!"

"It was hard, as a matter of fact, but I met someone when I was working with my dad, and we had a fairly brief, but very intense affair. It was a decent way to come out."

"You worked with your father?"

"Yeah. My parents didn't have the money to send me to college, and I didn't wanna be stuck with student loans my whole life, so I worked for my dad for four years. It was hard work, but I learned a lot, and it helped me decide that I couldn't stand to work at a trade. Being a woman in construction is a constant struggle," she said. "It's so much easier now that I'm the person who hires and fires."

"I can imagine," Abby said. "So - have you had the great love of your life yet?"

"God, I hope not! I've dated some nice people, slept with a few, liked a few of them well enough. But I've never felt the way I want to feel about a woman."

"How's that?" Abby asked.

"Like we help to complete each other," Clancy decided. "Like we're better together than we would be apart."

"I had that with Will," Abby said softly. "It's worth whatever you have to do to find it."

"That goes for both of us," Clancy told her. "I need to experience it for the first time, and you need to experience it again."

"No arguments." She looked at Clancy. "How did your parents take the news that you were gay?"

"It was hard for my mom," she said thoughtfully. "Very hard, as a matter of fact. Our relationship didn't suffer, but she struggled for years to be even moderately comfortable with it. She's fine with it now, I think. I mean, it's not something we discuss very much, but she seems to want me to find a partner."

"What about your dad?" Abby asked,

Grinning, Clancy said, "My dad's one of those guys who thinks his kid can do no wrong. I really can't imagine him giving me a hard time about anything. He's very cool with it. We even check out girls together."

"It must be nice to know that your father will support you, no matter what. I don't think my kids feel that way about me," Abby mused. "But I'd have to say that Will was like that - particularly with Hayley. It was so hard for her to lose her daddy."

Clancy gave her a looked filled with empathy, and said, "If she felt anything like I do about my dad, I can't imagine how hard it was for her. My dad's like my North Star - he's a constant guiding presence in my life."

Abby wiped away the tears that had started to fall and murmured, "She was thirteen when Will died. I thank God every day that we've only gotten closer because of his death."

"What did he die of, Abby? Was it sudden?"

She nodded and shifted in her seat. Clancy saw her swallow. "I kissed him goodbye at 8:00 a.m. on April 29th. He was pronounced dead at 9:00." She met Clancy's gaze and added, "Massive coronary."

"Did he have a history of heart trouble?"

"No. He was in fantastic shape. He'd been an athlete his whole life, had low cholesterol, a very low pulse. He was mister health food," she said, some of the inflection coming back to her voice. "But he had a congenital heart defect that hadn't been detected during his medical exams. It could have been fixed if they had known about it - but they didn't," she finished quietly.

Clancy gave her friend a quick look to make sure she was okay to continue to talk about the issue. Abby looked composed and open, so she said, "I've always wondered what would be worse - to lose someone quickly or to have to see someone die slowly. My grandfather died a slow, lingering, painful death, and it was really awful to watch him fade away."

Abby gave her a look and shook her head. "I don't know which would be worse, to be honest. I've done it the quick way, and I've gotta tell you, it sucks, too."

O

They were close to home when Clancy said, "Let's not let this day be a waste. Wanna have lunch together?"

"Sure." Abby smiled. "Where would you like to go?"

"Let's stop somewhere and pick up some salads or sandwiches. I wanna dine alfresco."

O

After picking up a pair of fruit salads, they went to Clancy's favorite outdoor dining spot. "I hate to admit this," Abby said, "but I honestly don't remember the last time I visited Descanso Gardens. This was a great idea."

"Well, we're both plant junkies," Clancy reminded her. "What better place to soothe the soul a little bit?"

They found an empty picnic table and sat down to enjoy their meal. "I brought my children here when they were small," Abby recalled. "They always liked the tulips for some reason."

"Oh, I do, too," Clancy said. "I was up here at least four times in February. I guess I like them because so few people around here bother to put them into their landscapes."

"I usually put in a couple of hundred - running them down both sides of the drive," Abby said. "But I didn't do it this year. I let a lot of things slide once Hayley left for school."

"You don't seem to have let many things slide," Clancy said. "Your schedule is busier than mine, and you don't have a full-time job."

"I need to stay busy. I play golf three times a week, tennis twice, and I'm very involved in a few charities. My hobbies are what've kept me sane. The sports keep the adrenaline pumping, and the charity work helps remind me of how wonderful my life really is."

"Tell me about your charities," the younger woman said.

"Well, I have a few that I'm passionate about, but lately, one is taking up all of my time. I'm in charge of the entertainment for the Children Living With Cancer Carnival. It's our major fundraiser for the year, and every year it becomes a bigger production."

"I've heard about the carnival," Clancy said. "Isn't that the one all the Hollywood celebrities go to?"

"That's the one," Abby said. "Luckily, I'm not on the committee that secures the 'talent' to participate. I do the nitty-gritty work. Getting the booths set up, hiring the food concessionaires, the clowns and jugglers and face painters. It's very unglamorous, but I enjoy it."

"When is the carnival?" Clancy asked.

"It's next Sunday, and I'm getting to the panic stage."

"Need an assistant? I'm very good at following directions."

Abby looked at her friend for a moment. "Are you serious?"

"Completely. I know that a million things can go wrong at a big event. I'd love to help out."

"I'd be thrilled to have the help," Abby said. "It's incredibly generous of you to offer."

Making a dismissive gesture, the younger woman said, "No big deal. I'm guessing that Saturday is the worst day for you, right?"

"Yeah. Set-up is the worst. Something always goes wrong."

"I'm your woman," Clancy said. "What time do we start?"

O

Saturday morning quickly turned into Saturday afternoon, and the vendor who'd been hired to set up the booths was nowhere to be found. Abby had been calling and paging the company frantically, but they were obviously ignoring her calls. Clancy got on the phone and tried to find another vendor, but they both knew the chances of finding someone to put up fifty booths on a moment's notice was nil. Finally, at nearly three o'clock, the truck arrived. The vendor had sent only four men, and from Clancy's experienced perspective, it seemed he'd picked up the first four guys he'd seen hanging out on the corner of one of the home centers, looking for day labor.

Taking a look at Abby, who was nearly faint with worry, Clancy said, "Leave this to me. By the end of the day, the booths will all be up."

"But, Clancy -!"

"I know what I'm doing, Abby. There must be a million things you have to do. I suggest you get to them and let the master work." She gave her friend a very confident, very engaging smile, and the older woman immediately felt some of her anxiety fade.

"Are you sure you can do this, Clancy? I don't want to doubt you, but without those booths - we're in deep trouble."

"I give you my word," the younger woman said, gazing directly into Abby's eyes.

"That's good enough for me," Abby said, impulsively giving Clancy a hug. "I'll stay out of your way."

You can stay right here if you'll throw in a few more of those hugs, the landscaper thought wistfully, before she focused her attention on the massive job that lay before her.

O

Luckily, the lighting crew had finished by the time night fell, and the portable towers provided plenty of light for the construction crew to continue working into the night. At eleven o'clock, Abby found Clancy perched upon a sturdy, yellow ladder that read "O'Connor Landscaping." "Hi," the older woman said, trying to stifle a yawn. "I bet you haven't had a thing to eat, have you?"

"Nope." Clancy smiled down at her. "But I'm on number forty-nine. When I hit fifty, I'm gonna be at MacDonald's faster than you can say 'Big Mac.'"

Abby looked behind the architect and saw a large generator, then noticed that Clancy was using a nail gun. "Did you bring those things with you?" she asked.

"No. I called my guys and had them bring some tools up. I sent those useless idiots from the booth company home. Make sure you deduct a substantial amount from the bill."

"Clancy! You brought your crew up here?"

"Sure. They know what they're doing, and they're trustworthy. Why not?"

"Damn, I don't know what I would have done without you," the older woman said. "No one on my committee has any experience with this type of thing."

"Well, we're about done, so find your wallet. You owe me dinner, Ms. Graham, and I'm gonna hold out for the super size!"

O

Abby went back to the portable trailer she'd had set up as an on-site office and started to gather her things. By the time she was ready to leave, Clancy was, too. Approaching the architect from behind, Abby saw the young woman reach into her wallet and take out every bill she had. She divided her money up among the men, laughing and speaking quietly. The men all shook her hand and got back into the truck they'd come in, calling out a goodbye as they drove away.

"How much did today cost you?" Abby asked, approaching quietly.

"Oops!" The landscaper turned and shrugged her shoulders. "Not too much. I haven't been able to spare much for charity until now. But now that I'm making a little more money, I'm happy to make a donation - and give my guys a little extra money for the week."

"Let me pay you back," Abby said, "I have a budget for this, Clancy."

"No, no, I'd really like to do this for the organization. They do good work."

"Are you sure?" the older woman asked. "I've imposed on you so much already."

"You haven't imposed on me one bit," Clancy insisted. "I did this because I wanted to. I feel good about it," she said, looking around at the perfectly constructed booths.

Abby sidled up and put her arm around the blonde's shoulders, looking around with her. "I've always maintained that you get so much more than you give when you help others."

"I agree completely," Clancy said. "Now, let's get out of here so you can have the satisfaction of buying me dinner."

"It's a deal. But friends don't let friends eat fast food. We'll go someplace where we can use utensils and cloth napkins."

"You're teaching me a whole new way of life." She grinned charmingly and said, "I think I like it."

O

The event was over at six o'clock on Sunday night, and by the time the last guest had gone, both Abby and Clancy were ready for bed. The younger woman stood up and stretched, almost able to touch the ceiling of the small trailer. "Well, I guess it's time to start dismantling everything, huh?"

"God, no! We have a crew to take care of the organization's things, and the vendors are each responsible for their own takedown. They'll all send crews tomorrow. I'll come up to supervise, but it usually goes smoothly."

"We're really done for the day?" Clancy asked, her body aching from constant activity.

"Yep. Well, as soon as we have dinner, that is. How about a big pizza, a cold beer, and a hot tub?"

"That's a lesbian dream date!" Clancy said, laughing heartily.

"Then grab your things," Abby said. "'Cause you've got a date."

I wish I did, Clancy thought, her crush on the older woman growing stronger with each passing day.

O

To be continued in Part 2

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