Arbor Vitae

By SX Meagher

Chapter Twenty-eight

For the next two weeks, Clancy went to the Graham house for dinner almost every night, but Trevor was rarely present. He always had an excuse, one just good enough to pass, but Abby knew he was avoiding them. She wasn't sure if she should confront him, reasoning that Trevor would bring it up when he was ready to talk. Even though Abby's style wouldn't have worked for Clancy, the blonde was happy that Abby didn't let Trevor's disappearing act change her behavior. Almost every night they played with the dogs or took a long walk until it was nearly bedtime, then they both got into their cars and drove to Clancy's. Sleeping together every night made both of them content enough to give Trevor some time, but Abby finally decided that she had to broach the topic, even if her son wasn't ready.

On Clancy's bowling night, she invited him out to dinner, the invitation obviously taking him by surprise. But he put on a nice pair of slacks and a dress shirt and escorted her to one of the family's favorite restaurants. After they'd ordered their food, Trevor gave his mother a curious look and asked, "So, how are things going? Are you and Clancy doing okay?" He shook his head a little and said, "That's hard to say - you know?"

Abby reached across the table and covered his large hand with her own. "No, I don't really know. I've never been in your position, Trevor, so I only know what you tell me." She paused until he met her eyes. "Which hasn't been much."

He looked down, studiously avoiding her gaze. "It feels I don't know, kinda weird being at home. It feels better to go hang out with my old friends."

"I'm sure it is, honey, but you're not getting to know Clancy by doing that."

"I know," he said. His thick, dark hair had fallen forward, making him look like a contrite little boy. "I'm doing my best, Mom, but I know I'm not making much progress."

When he looked up, she gazed into his eyes. "Do you think you'll ever get comfortable with Clancy sharing our home?"

"Ever?" he asked, shifting nervously in his chair. "Ever's a long time."

"I know it is," she said. "And I think you've answered my question." He looked at her, his expression so earnest that she felt sorry for him. "I know you're trying, honey, but I don't think this is gonna work out."

"No, no, it will!" His voice rose and his cheeks were immediately flushed. "Don't give up, Mom, please!"

Startled, Abby stared at him. "Give up what?"

"Clancy!" He looked like he was on the verge of panic, and Abby was so surprised by his assumption that she was rendered speechless.

"It's been horrible to see what these last few years have done to you," he said, the words gushing out in a stream. "Even though you've always tried to put on a good front, I missed your sense of humor and your goofiness. It's so nice to see that come back, and I think Clancy is behind that. You can't give up on her just because of Hayley and me."

His sincerity and concern broke her heart, and she reached across the table again to grasp his hand. She gazed at him for a moment, her heart filled with love. "I'll never give her up. Never."

He cocked his head in confusion, waiting for her to continue.

"You're right. After your father died, I tried so hard to make it seem like I was okay, but I wasn't. Most days, it was hard for me to get up. If it hadn't been for you and Hayley " She trailed off, leaving her thought unexpressed. She gave him a smile and said, "But now I feel vibrant and enthusiastic. Clancy taught me how to laugh again, how to look forward to waking up in the morning." She squeezed his hand hard, her words filled with passion. "She's given my life back to me, and I'll never, ever let her go."

"Then what ?"

She took a breath and gave him a somewhat nervous-looking smile. "Our living arrangement has to change."

He blinked, then his eyes grew wide. Abby saw how surprised he was and for just a moment she wavered. But then she steeled her nerves and spit it out. "I want you to be happy. God knows how much that means to me. But I don't think that's gonna happen with all of us living together. And I need to live with Clancy. I'm sorry, Trevor, but I need her."

His eyes closed, and he leaned his head back. "Thank God," he breathed.

"Thank God?"

Looking at her, he finally smiled, and she could see his whole body relax. "I've been wracking my brain trying to think of a way to tell you I wanted to move out, but I didn't want you to think I was being a jerk. But you're right. It's just not gonna work out, Mom. It'd be the same if you wanted to have a man move in. I just have a hard time thinking about your being you know with anybody but Dad. Hell," he added, "I didn't really like to think about that, either, but at least I was used to him."

She threw her head back and laughed, and he joined her, mother and son laughing so hard that the diners at the surrounding tables shot glances at them. She covered her mouth with her napkin, trying to control herself. Finally, she wiped her eyes with the cloth and asked, "Now what do we do? How do we get from here to there? I know you don't have much money."

"Or a job," he said. "Although I've got a good lead. South Pas is supposed to get the money to hire an additional planner, and they want someone young and cheap," he added, smiling. "I'm both!"

"I've always thought you were cheap," Abby said, smiling at him. "When is this supposed to happen?"

"They're on a calendar year-end, so they won't have the budget until January. But they're supposed to start interviewing in November."

"That's soon," she said, giving him an encouraging smile.

"Yeah, but I've already decided that I've been sitting around too long. I'm gonna start doing something. Make coffee, be a waiter, something! It's driving me nuts to just send out resumes and wait for the mail to come."

"You could always work with Clancy," Abby said, partially kidding.

His face lit up. "Really? Do you think she needs anyone? I'd love to work outside while I wait for my dream job."

"Ask her, honey. If she needs help, I'm sure she'd love to have you. She knows what a hard worker you are."

"That's one place I know I'd get a good recommendation," he agreed, smiling brightly.

"The best," she agreed. "I sing your praises to everyone who'll listen."

He smiled at her and said, "I don't doubt that a bit." Taking her hand, he said, "Don't worry. We'll get through this. If we could get through losing Dad, this'll be a snap."

O

Clancy slept alone after bowling, and was surprised to find Michael up and already working when she was ready to leave for work. "Well, if it isn't the bird man of South Pasadena," she said when she entered the kitchen. He had newspapers spread over the kitchen table and a hand-made birdhouse resting atop them.

"Hey, blondie!" He grinned back at her. "Alone today?"

"Yeah. I went bowling last night, and it didn't make sense for Abby to come over for just a few hours. Besides, she took her son out to dinner last night, and she wanted to stay home in case they got caught up in a discussion."

He raised an eyebrow. "How's that going? Is he any better than the daughter?"

"Yeah, yeah," she said. "He's a very nice kid."

"How old is this kid?" he asked, cocking his head.

"Uhm twenty-five."

"Wow, he is a kid."

He was trying to look like he was being serious, and just to drive him crazy, she acted like she believed him. She took the paintbrush from his hand and spent a moment applying some hot pink paint to the shutters on the birdhouse. "This one's nice," she said. "You guys selling many of them?"

"As many as my dad can make," he said. "We want to have at least two dozen of them for the craft fair in Arcadia in two weeks. You and Abby should come."

"We will," she said. "Actually, I bet she'd love one of these for the yard. She loves to sit out in the back and listen to the birds in the morning."

"You two seem awfully happy, Clance. Is the reality as true as the image?"

"Sure is," she said. "I didn't know it was possible to be this happy, Michael. She's the woman for me. No doubt."

"She must feel the same way," he said. "She looks at you like she thinks you walk on water."

"The feeling's mutual."

He gave her a long look and said, "You even look better, ya know? Heck, your clothes look better." He squinted in her direction and asked, "Creases?"

"Uhm she does my laundry so I don't have to go to the laundromat. And she irons my clothes."

He leaned back on the stool he was sitting on and shook his head. "She irons your clothes. You found a gorgeous, older, wealthy woman with the most beautiful house I've ever seen, and she not only loves you - she irons your clothes."

Shrugging her shoulders once again she said, "She wants me to look nice."

He gave her a sober look and said, "If she's ironing your little dyke shorts, it must be true love. Are you ready to make this permanent?"

"Of course I am, and so is Abby, but we're kinda stuck until the kids are cool with it."

He scowled, then leaned forward to work on some of the intricate detail. "What if they never are?"

"Beats the hell out of me," Clancy said. "But they'd better come around because I'm not letting her go. Ever." She kissed him on the head, grabbed her keys, and headed out to work.

O

Clancy had a very busy day, and didn't have a moment to talk to Abby. On her drive back from Cucamonga she made up for her oversight. "Hi, I know it's late, but I was swamped today. Want to go ahead and have dinner without me?"

"No, of course not! Come over right now, honey. We can eat as soon as you get here."

"Sure? I'm dirty."

"That's one of the reasons I love you," Abby said, smiling to herself when she hung up.

O

Clancy was surprised to find Trevor sitting in the kitchen, smiling at her when she walked into the room. "Hi," she said.

He stood up and shook her hand. "Hi. Can I get you a beer?"

"Sure," she said, puzzled, but pleased to have him playing host.

He took two beers out and opened them both. "Glass?"

"Don't bother." She took the beer and sat down at the kitchen table, noting that Abby had disappeared.

Trevor sat opposite her and gave her a nervous smile. They sat there for a few moments, both uncomfortable. Finally, he spoke. "I, uhm wanted to apologize for sneaking off nearly every time you've come over for dinner."

"That's all right," Clancy said. She took a drink and put her bottle down, the sound a little loud in the silent kitchen. "I know you've got your own life."

He made a face and took a drink. "It hasn't been that so much. It's been hard for me to be around you two."

She looked at him, a little taken aback by his candor.

"I'm gonna move out as soon as I get enough money saved up."

Her eyes shot open. 'Trevor! This is your home! I don't wanna feel like I'm pushing you out!"

'No, no, really," he said. "I don't feel that way. I need to have my own place. I mean, I don't wanna see mom with a girl and I'm sure she feels the same about me." He laughed softly. "No guy wants to bring a girl home and have to introduce her to his mother in the morning."

Clancy laughed at his words and his expression. "Good point. I never thought of it from your point of view."

"It's time for me to get a job and an apartment. And it's time for you two to start your lives together. We'll all be happier."

She gave him a bright smile and clapped him on the shoulder. "You know, you're one of the nicest people I've ever met. Now I know why your mom's so proud of you."

He looked embarrassed and completely ignored her compliment. The door opened and the dogs ran for Clancy. Abby came in, beaming at both of them, and Trevor snuck a look in her direction. "Clancy and I have a lot in common, Mom. We both love the same woman."

Clancy laughed. "That's true. Sounds a little strange, but it's true."

"I think we're officially a non-traditional family," he said. "Strange is normal for us." Abby walked over to him and he got to his feet and hugged her, neither of them speaking. The connection between mother and son was so vibrant that Clancy could nearly feel it. Trevor sat back down, Abby standing behind him, her hand on his shoulder. Clancy gazed at them for a moment, thinking that things would be just perfect if Abby and Will had wanted to just have one child.

O

They'd nearly finished dinner when Trevor cleared his throat and said, "I'm not having much luck finding a job, Clancy. Could you use another hard-working guy?"

Clancy's eyes grew wide and darted between mother and son. "You're willing to do manual labor?"

"Sure! I'd love to work outside for a while. I've spent a lot of time sitting in classrooms. It'd be great to work with my hands before I have to spend the rest of my working life sitting in an office."

She leaned back in her chair, looking at him thoughtfully. "I don't have anything right now," she said. "But I'll see what I can dig up. How do you feel about heights?"

"Uhm fine. Why?'

"I decorated a few houses for Christmas last year. I was thinking about doing a lot more this year. It's fairly easy work, and it helps fill out my schedule."

"Trevor's put up our lights for the last ten years," Abby said, smiling at her son. "He's a pro."

"Like I said, I'll check a few things out and get back to you," Clancy said. "I'm sure we can find something to keep you busy."

"That's what I need," he said. "I'm so sick of sitting around, I'm about to go nuts!"

"My kinda guy," Clancy said, giving him a winning grin.

O

Later that night, lying next to each other on Clancy's futon, the blonde said, "Trevor really surprised me when he asked for work. Was that his idea?"

"Well, I mentioned it, but he was very enthusiastic. He's always loved to work outside. He cut the grass from the time he was twelve until he went to college. He did a darned good job, too."

"And you're cool with that?"

"Sure," Abby said. "Why wouldn't I be?"

"Oh, I don't know. Spending a zillion dollars on his education "

"That doesn't matter," Abby said. "All that matters is that he does something that he likes. I want him to do well at whatever it is he chooses. That's always been my fondest wish. But I don't have a doubt that my boy will be the best worker you've ever had. He's got a work ethic a mile wide."

Clancy thought for a moment, letting the words sink in. "Are you sure he and Hayley are related?"

"Funny," Abby said, pinching her partner. "One day my girl's gonna grow up, and you're gonna be amazed at what a good kid she is."

"I can't wait," Clancy said with utter sincerity.

O

The next day, Clancy had only been gone about an hour when she called Abby from her cell phone. "Hi. Against my better judgment, I'm keeping a promise to call you."

"What? I don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about," Abby said.

"I'm gonna trim a pretty big tree, and I'm following through like I said I would."

Abby gulped, her stomach doing a flip while she tried to get some moisture back into her mouth. "How big?" she finally got out.

Clancy paused, then quietly said, "It's really big, Abby. I'm not worried in the least, and I'm going to wear a safety belt, but it's big."

"Big like my live oak?" the brunette asked, hoping against hope that Clancy was overstating the size.

"Uhm no, it's twice that height. It's a really big, really old eucalyptus."

Trying to slow the rapid beating of her heart, Abby asked, "It's not a widow-maker, is it?"

"Well, I don't like to use that term, but it is a globulus."

"What are you going to do to it?" Abby asked, her voice shaking with fear. "Do you have to go all the way up?"

"Well, yeah," Clancy said, puzzled by her partner's demeanor. "People don't really want you to just trim the bottom."

"Can you wait until I get there?"

"What?"

"I want to be there," Abby said. "Please don't climb it alone."

"Honey, I'm not alone. My crew's with me."

"Why can't someone else do it?" the brunette asked.

"Because I'm better trained," Clancy said. "This tree isn't called a widow-maker because it's big. It kills people because the branches get too heavy and break off during a good storm. I've been trimming this guy for three years now, and it's in great shape. But the homeowner is waiting for me, and I've got to get to work. I can't wait for you, Abby, and given how you sound, it's not a good idea for you to watch me climb."

"I'm so worried about you, I'm sick to my stomach," Abby whispered. "Please don't do this."

"Baby, this is my job," Clancy soothed. "I don't know why you're so upset, but I have to do my job."

"Call me the second you get down," Abby begged. "The very second."

"I promise. You can trust me."

"Okay." She swallowed and said, "I love you, Clancy. More than you'll ever know."

"Honey, calm down and try to think about the facts. This is just another job for me. Don't make it sound like I'm jumping off a cliff. I'm careful, not just to make you feel better, but for myself. I like to climb, but I really hate to fall. The ground is remarkably hard."

"Please don't tease," Abby whispered. "There's nothing funny about this for me."

Grimacing, Clancy said, "I'm sorry, sweetheart. I'm not making light of this. I was just trying to Oh, I don't know what I was trying to do,but it obviously didn't work."

"Go to work," Abby said. "Let's get it over with."

"Okay. I'll be careful."

"Call me," Abby said softly, then went outside to work in the yard, just to take her mind off her anxiety.

Working in the garden didn't help a bit. She did some heavy lifting, trying to stress her body to divert some of her emotional turmoil. Using all of her control, she stopped herself from calling Clancy, knowing that she wasn't in a position to answer her phone - if she even had it on her. A half hour, then an hour passed, each minute ticking by at an evolutionary pace. At an hour and twenty minutes, she was preparing herself for the worst, knowing that the next call would be from the hospital. Her mind raced, obsessing about the call when she realized that Clancy probably didn't have her listed as a contact person on her health insurance. She was sitting by the phone in the kitchen, both dogs at her feet, knowing their owner was upset when the phone finally rang over an hour and a half after they'd last spoken. "Hello?" she said, her whole body trembling.

"Hi," Clancy said, slightly out-of-breath. "Sorry that took so long, but it was a monster." She paused, waited another beat then said, "Abby?"

"This isn't working," she said, her emotions spurting out of her. "I have to go." She blindly jammed the phone onto the cradle and went up to her room, falling face first onto the bed. She cried until she had no more tears to shed, her body limp, her mind exhausted.

As soon as Clancy was finished with supervising the crew in removing and chipping up the detritus from the big tree, she shook hands with the hyper-vigilant homeowner and got into her truck. She dialed Abby immediately, and her lover picked it up only to say, "We can't talk about this on the phone. I'm having an emotional meltdown."

"I'll come home," Clancy said firmly. "Be there as soon as I can."

"No!" The sound of her own voice surprised her, but Abby insisted, "No, I don't want you to have to come home from work to take care of me. I know I'm being ridiculous. Don't give into my lunacy."

"Abby," she said softly, "I'd do anything to help you feel better. If I can help in any way, I'd really like to come over."

"No," she said. "That'll make me feel worse. I don't want to be a burden. I'll get over this."

The younger woman sighed heavily, then said, "I love you. You know that, right?"

"I do," Abby murmured. "See you tonight." After she hung up, she stayed in bed, the dogs beside her, while she tried to collect her thoughts sufficiently to explain herself to her partner.

O

Clancy was sitting in her truck when Abby pulled into the driveway. She got out and walked through the open gate, going into the garage to meet Abby. "Where've you been?" the younger woman asked. "I've been worried about you. You didn't answer your cell."

"Oh, shit! I left it in the house when I was working in the yard. I obviously didn't put it into my purse when I went to my mom's."

"Did you just go to hang out?"

"Yeah. Sometimes I need my mom to kiss it and make it all better."

"Oh, Abby," Clancy murmured, taking her in her arms. "I'm so sorry you're having such a tough time with this."

"I am having a tough time today," she said. She walked into the house and Clancy followed, both women being greeted by their canine companions. Abby went to the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of wine. "Join me?"

"No, thanks," Clancy said. She sat down at the table and waited for Abby sit. "Trevor around?"

"No. He's with Sam. They went down to Baja to surf. He won't be home until late tomorrow night."

"I've got an idea," Clancy said. "Why don't we see if we both fit in that nice spa tub you've got in your bathroom?"

"Really? I'd like that. It might help me relax a little."

"It's a deal. I'll call for some Chinese food. We can see if we can feed each other with chopsticks in the tub."

"Sounds great," Abby said. She enveloped Clancy in a warm hug, and held on for a long time. "I'll go fill the tub."

O

They were settled in the generously sized tub, with Clancy carefully feeding Abby pieces of spicy, garlicky shrimp. "That's truly delicious," Abby said, leaning forward to kiss her partner and suck some of the sauce from the corner of her mouth. "So are you."

They'd had about all they could manage, so Clancy got up and placed the tray on the vanity, then settled back into the warm water. Abby turned on the jets, and she snuggled up between Clancy's spread legs and let the powerful pulse of the water soothe her. "I have to share something with you," she said.

Clancy felt her lover's body grow tense. "What is it, baby?"

"I haven't told you about the day Will died."

Her statement was so unexpected that Clancy almost asked her what she was talking about, but she moved her head just enough to see the soulless expression on her lover's face and she realized this was vitally important to her. She didn't say a word - she just began to run her fingertips down Abby's arms in the most calming fashion she could manage.

"He'd been out of town for over a week," Abby said, her tone relatively unanimated. "He'd been in Australia on business, and he'd had very little sleep. His body clock was all messed up, and even though we'd been in bed together all night, I don't think he slept a wink. He was really agitated - way too much coffee on the plane, I think, and when I woke up he was ready to burn off some energy." She sighed heavily, and just a hint of emotion started to return to her voice. "We made love for a very long time. We were more rambunctious than we'd been in a while - we'd missed each other - and, like I said, he was very keyed up. When we finally collapsed, I felt like I'd run the marathon, but he was hopping out of bed, ready to go."

Clancy leaned forward and kissed her neck, then tucked an arm under her breasts to hold her tightly, knowing what was to come.

"He wanted to go running, and even though I always went with him, I couldn't even think of it." She laughed softly and said, "He was pretty proud of himself when he left. He loved to drain every ounce of energy out of me." She took in another deep breath and let it out slowly. "I got up and showered, then made breakfast for us. He had a set route, and it always took him forty-five minutes," she said. "You could set your watch by him. When he wasn't home after an hour I started to worry, and after an hour and fifteen minutes I knew something was wrong. I got in the car and started for the Rose Bowl, and about halfway there, I saw an ambulance pulled over to the curb. They were putting a body on a gurney and I knew - somehow I knew - that it was Will. I flew out of the car, and just as I got there, I saw that they'd pulled the sheet up over his face." She turned and curled into a fetal position, unable to speak, crying piteously while Clancy rocked her in her arms, her own tears falling onto the salt and pepper hair.

Abby finally collected herself enough to speak again, murmuring, "Today I felt like you might need me - like I could save you - if only I were with you."

"Oh, Abby," Clancy sobbed. "You poor, poor baby." She held her tenderly, caressing her with the gentlest touch. "Do you think that you could have saved him if you'd been with him?"

"I don't know," she said. "I truly don't know if I could have. One of the doctors said that CPR might have kept him alive, another said even the machine that shocks the heart into rhythm wouldn't have helped. All I know is that I wasn't there and I should have been. At least I could have held him in my arms when he died."

"I understand," Clancy whispered. "I really understand."

Abby turned to make eye contact and said, "Do you understand why I was so frantic today? It felt like the whole nightmare was going to happen again."

"I do," she said. "I can see what happened." She wrapped Abby into an even tighter hug and quietly said, "That's why I'm not going to call you again when I climb."

"What?"

"You heard me," Clancy said. "This is a set-up. Doing it this way will make you crazy. I can't do that to you." She kissed her head and said, "I don't climb that often, and I'll ask Ramon to do more when he can, but I will occasionally have to trim a tree. I promise to be as careful as humanly possible; I'll wear a safety belt even for small trees; but I won't help you drive yourself nuts over it."

"That's what my mom said to do," Abby said quietly. "She says that what I don't know won't hurt me."

"Your mom is right. I plan on being by your side for at least fifty years, remember? There's no way I'm going to miss out on that party!"

Abby nodded slowly, then turned and gave Clancy a small kiss. "I remember. I'm holding you to that promise, you know."

"The same goes for me," Clancy said, placing a tender kiss on her lips and tucking her back into her arms. "Just for the record, it's getting too late in the year to trim most trees. So put it out of your mind until spring, okay?"

"Okay," Abby sighed. "Thanks, Clancy. For everything - but mostly for understanding."

O

After their bath, they went into the guest bedroom and settled down between the cool, soft sheets. Clancy put her arm out, and Abby nestled up next to her, resting her head on her shoulder. "You've been quiet since I talked about Will. Everything okay?"

"Uh-huh," Clancy said. "Just thinking."

Abby tilted her head so she could see her face. "Thinking about what?"

"About you and Will. Your marriage."

"What?" Abby sat up, leaning on her elbow, looking puzzled. "What about my marriage?"

Clancy shrugged, obviously not in a hurry to talk. Abby lay back down, knowing how she hated to be pressed and thinking that Clancy might feel the same. She put her hand on her lover's belly and let it rest there.

It took a long time, the minutes passing in silence, but Clancy finally started to open up. "Sometimes it's hard to be second."

"Second? Second how?"

Turning onto her side, dislodging Abby, Clancy looked at her for a moment. "Being your second love."

Abby didn't say a word, knowing that Clancy wasn't finished. She just looked into her eyes, trying to make her partner feel safe enough to share her thoughts.

"I'm so glad you loved Will," the younger woman said. "I hope you believe that."

"I do," Abby whispered.

"But sometimes it's hard to be second when the first was so awesome. I mean," she sat up and hugged her knees. "I don't really feel like I'm competing with Will, but sometimes it feels like there's a I don't know like a standard we have to meet. You know like I'm being judged."

"Judged by whom?" Abby asked after Clancy grew silent again.

The blonde turned and looked at her. "By you. By Trevor and Hayley. By your parents. By your friends. By everyone who knew you as a couple." Her whole body shook and she lay back down, looking tired.

Abby leaned over her, her face filled with concern. "Honey, I had no idea you felt like that."

"I don't," Clancy said. "I mean, I don't all of the time. Just when you talk about him and I can see how deeply you loved him. How perfect you were for each other."

Abby touched her cheek, moving her head a little so they were gazing into each other's eyes. "Is that what you think?"

"What?"

"That we were perfect for each other. That we had some sort of perfect relationship."

Clancy blinked slowly, then nodded. "Yeah. I do."

Abby dropped to the bed, her body making a loud thunk. "Oh, Clancy, I'm so sorry I've given you that impression. It's just not true, honey. Not true at all."

"What?" Now Clancy leaned over her lover, entirely puzzled. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that we were just a couple like any couple. We had as many problems as anyone else. Hell, there were times I wished I'd never met him!"

"What? Are you serious?"

"Of course I am." Abby pulled her down for a long kiss. "I'm sure there will be times I wish I'd never met you." She was smiling, but Clancy was at a complete loss.

"How can you say that?"

"I can say that because I've been deeply in love," Abby said. "The song is right, baby, it's a thin line between love and hate. There were plenty of times I wanted to hit him with a baseball bat and get as far away from him as possible!"

"But you've never ever said anything like that," Clancy insisted.

Abby didn't say anything for a while, giving the issue the thought it deserved. Finally, she turned her head and gazed at her partner. "You don't think about the bad times when your lover dies. If he was a good man, and you had a good relationship, you just think about the good parts. You don't really do it on purpose. It just happens."

Clancy lay down, her heart racing. "You don't you really don't compare us?"

"You and Will?" Abby laughed, "God, no! I told you before, you're not comparable. Being with him and being with you are two completely different experiences. I was looking for different things when I met him. I'm not sure I'd choose him if I met him today."

Dumbfounded, Clancy gasped, "How can you say that?"

"I don't wanna go into everything that happened between us," Abby said. "It's too private. But he was a very good man for me when I was nineteen. He was a very good husband and a very good father. But if I had to start all over at forty-five, I don't think I would have picked someone like him."

Clancy sat up again and looked Abby right in the eye. "You've gotta give me something. I don't wanna pry, but you've gotta tell me at least one thing that would turn you off."

Abby reached up and brushed the hair from Clancy's forehead. She looked so intent, so determined that she knew she had to answer her. She took in a breath and chose the first thing that came to mind. "He had always been the boss," she said. "That was fine. I wanted someone to be in charge when I was a kid. But after being alone for five years, I'd grown used to making my own decisions. I couldn't have picked someone who had to be the boss. And Will had to be the boss. I got to vote, but his vote counted more than mine did."

"Didn't that bother you when he was alive?" Clancy asked, unable to see Abby buckling under for anyone.

"Not a lot," she said airily. "No one gets everything she wants in a lover. I bet there were thirty things Will would have changed about me if he could have. We just made the best of each other's faults and limitations. That's what you do."

"Do I have faults and limitations?" the younger woman asked, her sincerity making Abby hide a laugh.

"Yes, honey, you do."

"You don't have any," Clancy said. "I swear!"

Abby wrapped her arms around her and pulled her down. She kissed her soundly, then nibbled on her lips as she pulled away. "I guarantee that you won't say that if I ask you in a year. It takes a while to become a realist when you fall in love for the first time."

Clancy kissed her back, pressing her body into her partner's. "If we're together for a thousand years, I won't want to change one thing about you," she said with utter sincerity.

"I love you," Abby said, smiling at her lover's earnest face. "Every delusional part of you."

O

On the first of October, Clancy called the Graham household, pleased to have Trevor answer. "Hi," she said. "It's Clancy. I've got good news and bad news."

"For me?" Trevor asked, confused.

"Not really. Bad news about another guy, and good news for you."

"Hmm," he mused, laughing softly. "I guess I should be generous and ask about the bad news."

"Just like your mom," Clancy said. "A good-hearted soul."

"But not as patient," he warned.

"Gotcha. The bad news is that one of my dad's guys got his arm caught in the rigging when they were dropping a fiberglass pool into place. Broke it in two places."

"Ow! Is he gonna be all right?"

"Yeah. But he had to have surgery. He's gonna be out at least three months."

"I'm getting the impression that I'm gonna be installing pools for a while," Trevor said. "Does it matter that I don't know a darned thing about it?"

"Nope. To be honest, what my dad needs is a guy with a strong body and the ability to follow orders."

"I'm his man!" Trevor said, obviously delighted. "When do I start?"

"How about seven a.m.?"

"Great! I'm really excited, Clancy. And I can't thank you enough for thinking of me. Where do I go?"

"They're working in Altadena. Just south of the golf course. The house is on the corner of New York Avenue and Sierra Bonita."

There was a slight pause, then Trevor said, "Got it. Give me your dad's number so I can call and see if I should bring any tools or gear."

"It's 818-555-1908. His name's John, in case you've forgotten."

"I'm good with names," Trevor said. "Your mom is Margaret, and your grandmother is Eileen."

"What's our dog's name?" she asked, laughing.

"Uhm I don't think you have a dog."

"You are good," she said.

"Thanks again, Clancy. And I'm gonna take you out to dinner as a finder's fee."

"It's a deal. Hey, don't you wanna know how much you'll be making?"

He laughed. "More than I'm making sitting on my ass."

"No, really, don't you want to know?"

"Huh-unh. I wanna be surprised when I get my first paycheck. Kinda like Christmas."

She laughed, charmed by how like his mother Trevor was. "Okay. Well, I hope you have a merry Christmas, and I'll be waiting for that dinner."

"Depending on how much I make, it'll be somewhere between the Ritz and In 'n Out," he joked.

"I've never been to the Ritz, but I love a good double-double," she said. "So I'll be happy wherever we go."

"Thanks again, Clancy. It's nice to have someone in the family who can get me a job where I can breathe fresh air."

"And plaster dust," she added.

He laughed, a little nervous about what he was getting into. "And plaster dust."

O

Clancy called Abby the next afternoon. "Hi, I'm finished for the day. Do you need me to pick anything up on my way over?"

"Yeah. How about my son?"

"Your son, huh? You didn't give the poor kid your car?"

"I played golf this morning, so I dropped him off. He looked so cute, Clancy, like a kid on his first day of school. I made lunch for him, and I nearly cried when he walked away from the car, his little lunchbox in his hand."

"He didn't have Harry Potter on his lunchbox, did he? 'Cause the other guys might have beaten him with it."

"No," Abby said, laughing. "It was a nice, plain, maroon, nylon insulated thing."

"I hope you made him a big lunch. I know he worked hard today. It was the first day on this job, and that's always a lot of manual labor."

"I made him three sandwiches and put in a couple of energy bars. That should hold him."

"No candy?"

"No, but I can stop at the store and get some. I didn't have time to prepare."

"I'll run by and get him. Need anything else?"

"No. I would go, but I'm making his favorite dish for dinner, and I can't leave in the middle of it."

"Okay. We'll be home soon."

"Give your dad a kiss for me," Abby said.

"He can kiss my mom," Clancy said, laughing.

O

Trevor was such a dirty mess that he didn't even attempt to go into the house. He went into the back yard and stripped down to his boxer shorts and T-shirt, then ran into the house, heading straight for the shower.

"My God, what happened to my baby?" Abby cried.

"He spent the whole day loading and dumping wheelbarrows full of dirt," Clancy said. "Or I guess I should say mud, since we've had so much rain lately. He's gonna be sore tomorrow."

"Oh, poor thing. He should sit in the spa for a while."

"You read my mind," Trevor said, giving his mother a kiss on the cheek. He had his swim trunks on and a towel over his shoulder. "I'm gonna soak until dinner." He opened the refrigerator and took out a beer. "Want one, Clancy?"

"Sure." She took the beer and clinked the neck of her bottle against Trevor's. "Blue-collar champagne."

He took a swig and let his head drop back. "Champagne never tasted this good."

"Did you have a good day, honey?" Abby asked.

"Yeah. It felt great to accomplish something. And when I get in, I'll tell you about the job. It's gonna be fantastic!" With a wide, satisfied smile he went outside, both dogs dutifully following him.

Abby shrugged her shoulders. "Well, it's not urban planning, but he seems happy."

"Yard planning, urban planning - same difference," Clancy said, sneaking a kiss.

O

Over dinner, Abby said, "Your birthday's in just a couple of weeks, Clancy. Are you ready to start planning the party to end all parties?"

The blonde smiled at her. "You remembered."

"Sure I remembered. It's one of the first personal things you ever told me. Shouldn't we start making up the guest list?"

Giving her a pleased smile, she asked, "Do you really wanna help?"

"Of course! I thought we'd have it here, since I have more room."

Another happy, yet bemused smile settled on the landscaper's face. "Are you serious?"

Abby reached over and took her hand. "Of course I'm serious. How often does my partner turn thirty? We're gonna blow out all the stops!"

"Cool," Clancy said, looking like a kid who'd been given an unexpected present. "How many people should we invite?"

"As many as you want. They just have to fit in the house or the yard."

Clancy's eyes lit up. "Cool really cool."

O

Much to Abby's surprise, Clancy wanted to invite Hayley. She didn't send invitations to her friends, preferring to invite everyone she ran into, but she bought some invitations for "the adults," as she called them. So, Abby's parents, Pam and Maria and Hayley all received proper invitations. A few days after they went out, Hayley called home, sounding chipper and unguarded. "Hi, Mom," she said. "I'm calling to respond to the birthday party invite."

"Are you coming?" Abby asked, caught off-guard.

"Yeah. I thought this would be a good time to bring Alexander down to meet everyone."

"Well, this must be pretty serious if he's ready to meet the family."

Hayley's voice grew thoughtful. "It is, Mom, and to be honest, it's Alexander who really wants to come. He thinks it's cool that you're in love with a woman."

"Cool, huh?" Abby asked, laughing softly.

"Yeah, he's very evolved," Hayley said dryly. "Typical Bay Area liberal."

Abby laughed harder, thinking that her daughter, despite all of her liberal tendencies, might actually be a closet conservative. "We'd love to meet him, honey. Would you like me to arrange your flight?"

"No, we're going to drive. Alexander wants to visit his brother while we're there, so we'll need a car."

"Okay, if you're sure. But I'm happy to pay for you both to come."

"No, we're fine, Mom. Uhm but we need to talk about where we'll stay."

"Do you want to stay here?"

"Yeah." The girl didn't add another word, and Abby knew she was going to have to pull information out of her. But instead of doing that, she took Hayley at her word.

"Fine. Then we'll expect you."

"Uhm I want to," she said, "but I don't think it's a good idea. I assume Clancy's there a lot."

"Uh-huh," Abby said, adding nothing more.

"We're gonna stay at a hotel."

"Really? Why not with Gramma and Gramps?"

"I don't feel right staying there if we're you know sharing a room. I don't think Gramps would like it."

"No, he wouldn't," Abby agreed. "He still thinks of you as a girl, you know. He's having a hard time recognizing that you're a woman now."

"How about you, Mom? How do you feel about my being a woman?"

Abby thought about it for a moment, then told her daughter the full truth. "There's a part of me that would like to keep you my baby forever. To always be the mom and always know what's best for you. But another part of me likes that you're on your own and that I can put my needs first sometimes. I feel like I'm starting over again with Clancy, and that feels great."

Hayley was quiet for a moment, then asked in a strangely flat tone. "I guess you'll have kids together, huh?"

"Kids? No, honey, I'm not interested in having more kids, and Clancy claims she doesn't want to give birth. We're gonna wait to be grandparents. But don't rush; we can wait."

"You can wait for Trevor," Hayley said, not a trace of humor in her voice. "I don't want kids."

"Really? You always talked about having a whole house full."

"People change, Mom. As you get older, you realize that some things aren't what you thought they'd be like. I don't think I'd like being a mother."

Knowing that Hayley would likely change her mind about the issue another dozen times, Abby wisely didn't challenge her. "You'll do what works for you, honey. As you said, people change over time. But with or without children, you can have a very rewarding life if you do something you love."

"I hope I find something," the girl said, sounding wistful and a little depressed.

"You will. Just listen to your heart. It always tells the truth."

O

Later that day, Abby called her mother. "Hi. Guess who's coming home for Clancy's birthday?"

"Really? That's quite a conciliatory move for our girl. She must be feeling better."

"She didn't sound much better. She's seeing that young man she met in Maine, and he thinks it's cool that I'm in a lesbian relationship. Hayley's coming because he wants to."

"Well, that should prove interesting. Are they staying with you?"

"No. That was her other news. They're staying in a hotel. I thought you might want to prepare Dad so he doesn't faint when he finds out."

"Ooo he's not gonna like that," Elizabeth said. "It was hard enough for him when you got serious about Will. I still think he believes you were a virgin on your wedding day."

"Who says I wasn't?" Abby asked, giggling.

"I have eyes, honey. You two couldn't keep your hands off each other. Besides, Will was too practical a man to marry a woman he wasn't sure he'd get along with sexually."

"You make a good point," Abby said. "We lucked out in that area. It was like we were made for each other."

"I just hope Hayley's as lucky as you were," Elizabeth said. "She's having such a tough time that I'd hate to see her have her heart broken."

"I'd hate for that to happen, too, Mom, but the odds are good that she will. Very few people luck out on their first time in a serious relationship."

"When your father finds out Hayley and Alexander are sleeping together, he might well put an end to the whole affair. I'd better make sure he doesn't buy a weapon."

"He's gotta let go, Mom. I know it's hard, but it's the only way she'll learn to make good decisions."

"I did my job," Elizabeth said. "Getting him to keep his mouth shut when you were with Will was hard enough. You're gonna have to control him around Hayley."

"Thanks a load, Mom," Abby said, a soft laugh escaping.

"You're welcome, dear. Now tell me how I can help with the party."

O

The day before the party, the guest list had grown to just over a hundred, but Abby didn't mind a bit. She would have gladly hosted a party for all of Pasadena if it made Clancy happy, and it certainly did seem that her partner was enjoying the entire experience.

Clancy had a light day - just a client meeting in Monrovia and a trip to Pasadena city hall to check on a building permit she was waiting on. She got to Abby's home a little after 1:00, hoping to grab some lunch and then help with final preparations for the party. She was puzzled to see a truck in front of the garage labeled "Parsagian and Sons, Fine Carpets and Rugs."

The garage door opened, and Abby started to walk two men to the truck, stopping to give Clancy a faux scowl. "I don't remember giving you permission to come over this early, sweetheart," she said.

The men both gave Clancy a look, then shot another one at Abby, trying to figure out why the young woman would need permission to enter the house. They looked at each other and rolled their eyes, having seen stranger things in the houses they visited. "Thanks so much for your help," Abby said, smiling at them. "I'm very happy with it."

"Any time," the driver said, pulling away.

Clancy tucked an arm around Abby's waist and said, "So, now I need permission to come home? What happened to the woman who used to count the hours until I was back in her arms again?"

"She's right here," Abby said. "I just have some things I'm working on that are private."

"Private, huh?" Clancy asked, as two black and white fireballs launched themselves at her. Athena jumped so high that she landed in Clancy's arms - and at fifty pounds it was all the muscular landscaper could do to keep her feet. "Good Lord!"

"They missed you," Abby said. "You don't normally come over this early, and they're quite excited about it."

"I should say so!"

When they entered the kitchen, Abby said, "Now you've got to make a decision. Your present is ready, but your birthday isn't until tomorrow. Do you want it now, or should I make you wait?"

Clancy fought her way past the giddy dogs and wrapped Abby in a tight hug, pressing her back against the counter. "Oh, you're not that cruel," she said. "Only an evil woman would tease me that way."

Smiling seductively, Abby purred, "Maybe you could make it worth my while "

"How would I do that?" Clancy asked, kissing along Abby's jaw.

"Well, there's a part of your present that could potentially involve lying next to each other. And clothing would be optional."

"Optional? No such thing. If you don't have to have clothes on, I want you naked."

"Hmm good answer. I guess that would be some compensation for letting you peek a day early." She took Clancy's hand and said, "But you'd better not disappoint me."

Impulsively, Clancy wrapped a strong arm around Abby's waist and dipped her, leaning over her to kiss her enthusiastically. "Have I ever?"

"Never," Abby sighed. "And I doubt that you ever will."

"Then we're in agreement." Grinning rakishly, she settled Abby on her feet and asked, "I don't have any idea of what this present it, but I'm ready for it. Shall we?"

Abby grabbed a cloth napkin from the counter and twirled it until it was narrow and long. She placed it over Clancy's eyes, and the blonde started to purr. "The last time I had on one of these, I had a very, very nice morning. Let's rock."

"This isn't necessarily the same thing," Abby said. "But it could be."

"I'm stumped," Clancy said.

"Then let's get going." She stood in front of her partner with her back to her and put Clancy's hands on her waist. "Follow me, but be careful not to trip."

"Trip. Where are we going that I'd trip?" the landscaper asked. They walked through the kitchen, then started to climb the stairs. "Smells like paint," Clancy said.

"Yeah. There's paint involved." Finally, they reached Abby's bedroom, their furry escorts well-behaved, seeming to know that Clancy couldn't avoid tripping over them. Abby removed the blindfold and said, "Surprise!"

Clancy blinked her eyes to find an enormous red ribbon that Abby had wrapped around the door, a big bow right in the center. "It's a room!"

"Ready?" Abby asked, her excitement at the level of a four-year-old on Christmas morning.

"I'm always ready," Clancy reminded her playfully. Abby flung the door open and Clancy took one step inside before she was struck mute. Her eyes were remarkably wide as they slowly shifted across the space, and she finally regained her ability to speak. "Holy crap!"

"Do you like it?" Abby was practically jumping up and down, but Clancy could only nod vacantly, still too stunned to speak in complete sentences.

"How where is Jesus," she muttered, still staring open-mouthed. "What is it?"

"It's our new guest room and office!"

Clancy turned and stared at her, her mouth open wide enough to indicate a serious sinus problem. "Our?" she managed to get out.

The brunette grabbed her hand and jumped up and down a few times. "Yes! Ours! This is our guest room and our office!"

Clancy was so overwhelmed by the implications of that sentence that her practical mind took over. "There's no bed. Won't people mind sleeping on a drafting table?"

"Oh, ye of little faith," she scoffed. "Don't worry, it's a guest room. But before we get to that, I have to know what you think about the feel of the room. Will you be able to work here?"

"I think this is the most beautiful space I've ever been in," she said with utter sincerity. "But I don't know why it's mine or ours or whatever."

Abby took her hands and pressed them against her heart. "For your birthday, I wanted to give you an office where you could have lots of space and storage for all of your things. I've seen how you've got your drawing supplies all over your apartment, and you don't have any place to leave your work undisturbed. So here it is!" They both looked into the room, Clancy still not able to get her bearings. "But that means you have to move in with me. Are you ready?"

"Hell, yes, I'm ready. But Trevor isn't."

"Now that he has a job, he is. He's ready to move out as soon as you move in."

"You're shitting me," Clancy said, stunned.

"Nope. I'm totally serious. "Actually half of your things are already here. Michael gave me the key to your apartment, and I had a moving company box up all of your drawing and drafting supplies this morning. Believe me, getting all of your stuff out of there and in here was no mean feat!"

"You did this all for me?" Clancy asked, amazed and dumbfounded.

"I'd do this for you twice a day if it would make you happy," Abby said. "Trevor's saved enough to move out, but he won't have a car. So I'm going to buy him a car or a small truck as a graduation present. He's set." She put her arms around Clancy and held her close. "And so are we."

Holding on for a long while, Clancy started to let everything sink in. "I can't believe this," she murmured, her warm breath caressing Abby's neck. "I can't believe how much work you went to for me."

"For us," Abby said.

"You did this for me," Clancy insisted. "You could have done this years ago if you wanted an upstairs office. But you did this for me - so I'd feel like this was my home, too. You knew I'd never feel right sleeping in your old room." Tears formed in her eyes, and she rubbed her face against Abby's shoulder, a little embarrassed to show her how touched she was. "No one has ever loved me like this. And I don't mean the amount of money you spent - even though it had to have been a shitload!"

"Charming expression," Abby said, pinching her on the waist. "I don't know how you made it to thirty without dozens of women falling for you, but I'm glad I'm the first to ever make you feel really loved."

Clancy looked into her eyes, showing how deeply touched she was. She looked so vulnerable that Abby started to kiss and touch her gently, trying to make her feel safe again. "Now look around and check the place out," she said once she could tell her lover had her equilibrium back. Clancy walked over to the wall and touched the gorgeous wall covering, looking at Abby in amazement. "This feels like dried grass."

"It's grass cloth," she said. "I wanted it to remind you of your job." The grass cloth was the color of spring shoots on a ficus, and it had a sheen that made it appear to be raw silk rather than the harsh feeling material that it really was. It covered every unbroken wall surface, and Clancy noted that one formerly unbroken wall now contained two sets of painted drawers, spaced about six feet apart.

"What's this?" she asked.

"Those are chests for the guests," Abby explained. She touched two panels that had been completely hidden by the expertly applied grass cloth, and two wide doors swung open. Smiling at her partner, Abby grasped a handle and pulled down a beautiful, new, queen-sized bed. On either side of the bed were hanging rods for clothes as well as the painted drawers that flanked the bed.

"Amazing," Clancy murmured. The wall-to-wall carpet had been taken out and replaced by a wide-planked maple floor, and in the middle of the room lay a dark, leaf-green carpet. The border of the piece was, to Clancy's amazement, a stunningly accurate representation of her ivy tattoo, the intricate pattern curling all around the border. "Where did you ever find a carpet like this?"

"I had it made," Abby said. "It's really quite simple now that carpets like this are made with computers." She grasped Clancy's arm and pushed her sleeve up a little. "Not bad, if I do say so myself."

"Abby, I'm absolutely stunned," the younger woman murmured. "I'm truly speechless!"

"Do you like this space for your drawing table?" The table was resting on far edge of the carpet, allowing Clancy's tall chair to roll on the smooth, wooden floor. It faced the center of the room with the big window behind it, securing plenty of natural light for the architect. Under the window, Abby had installed a wide window seat, flanked by deep bookshelves, one side filled with all of Clancy's books and magazines. "Michael helped by telling me what was important and what was just clutter," she revealed when Clancy gave her another stunned look. The other side was filled with Abby's books, photos and family keepsakes, much as the room had been decorated when it was a bedroom.

Opposite Clancy's desk was a small writing table that now was the home of Abby's laptop, along with a comfortable, upholstered desk chair. "I love being officemates," Clancy said, looking up into Abby's eyes.

"I'm very quiet, and I don't chew gum or make any rude noises," Abby promised.

"I'm just not sure how much work we'll get done with that cushy looking bed right there," Clancy said.

"Oh, the novelty will wear off in ten years or so."

There were a number of beautifully framed botanical prints located at intervals throughout the room, and Clancy spent a moment reflecting on each one. "Damn, Abby, I'm just amazed at how much thought you put into this room. This is a plant lover's dream room."

"It does have a very tranquil feeling, doesn't it?" she asked. "But since I love plants, too, it was certainly no sacrifice on my part. This is the office I've always wanted. Now it's someplace for us to enjoy together."

"I like the sound of that," Clancy said. "Everything is better when we do it together." She was tugging on Abby's hand, a sexy grin on her face, drawing her inexorably closer to the new bed. "There are a lot of things we do really, really well together," she purred, her voice filled with promise.

Abby placed a hand on her cheek and whispered, "Don't worry your pretty little head about that. We'll make that bed rock - as soon as you see the rest of your new room."

"There's more?" she asked blankly, her insistent libido hampering her ability to focus.

"Of course there's more," Abby said. "Do you see any place for your supplies?"

"Uhm no, but I'm sure as hell not gonna complain. I'll keep everything in shoe boxes and stack 'em under my table."

"All of them are in the closet," Abby said. "And you're gonna be very impressed with the storage solutions Michael helped me think up."

Abby was tugging her by the hand, but the landscaper didn't move. "When do we have to pick Trevor up?"

Puzzled, Abby said, "Not until 5:00 at the earliest." She looked towards the closet. "Don't you wanna see the rest?"

"We don't have time," the blonde said. "We're gonna have to rush as it is." Clancy grinned when Abby looked at her watch, seeing that it was barely 1:45.

Trailing her finger down the placket of Clancy's shirt, Abby gave her a sexy smile and asked, "Do you have plans?"

"Sure do," Clancy said. "We're gonna christen that new bed."

Abby draped her arms around her lover's neck and leaned back, smiling at her. "Oh, are we?"

"Sure are." Without warning, Clancy swept her up in her arms, walking towards the new bed, Abby giggling as they went. She gently deposited her partner, then started to remove her clothes, her fingers nearly a blur as she worked at the buttons on her shirt.

"Slow down, sweetheart. We're not in a rush." Abby reached up and grasped Clancy's hands, stilling them.

"Maybe you're not," Clancy said, "but I've just discovered that huge presents make me hot."

Abby wrapped her arms around Clancy's waist, hugging her tight. "You're so damned adorable."

"And you're so damned dressed." Clancy wriggled out of the hug and started on Abby's clothing, her brows knit together in concentration.

Stroking her tanned arm, Abby asked, "Are you really in a huge hurry?"

Clancy nodded, then slipped Abby's shirt over her head. "I think I would have come over early even if I was busy. I've been thinking about you all day, and I'm ready to rock."

Her pupils were dilated, and Abby could see them get a little bigger when Clancy slipped her callused hands around and unhooked Abby's bra, cupping her breasts in her hands. "Mmm just what I need," she said.

"Honey, slow down, let me undress you." Clancy looked down and saw that her shirt was half-unbuttoned, partially tucked into her pants, and that she was still wearing her boots.

She made a silly face and said, "I'm out of my mind. Just the thought of making love to you makes me crazy."

"Stand still, sweetheart," Abby said. She methodically undressed the younger woman, then stood up and took the rest of her own clothes off. Clancy was already lying on the new bed, looking like she'd been waiting for hours.

Abby settled in next to her, sliding across the crisp new sheets. "Now give me a nice, slow, sexy kiss," she said, pulling Clancy close.

The architect tried her best, but the kiss was hungry, filled with need and a little rough. Abby felt like she was about to be eaten alive, and she tried to squirm away, only to have Clancy grasp both of her breasts and hang on tight.

Surprised, Abby broke the kiss. "Baby, I've been working on the room all day. I need a little romance. You've gotta give me a chance to catch up."

Clancy fell back onto the bed. "Shit! I'm sorry," she said. "I was fantasizing about you the whole way home, and I'm about to burst." She shook her head roughly. "I'll try to calm down and take it easy."

"No, no, I think we can work this out. Hmm what can we do to satisfy you?" Tapping her lip with a finger, she mulled over the question for a moment, then her eyes lit up as she said, "I know." She snuggled closer and whispered into Clancy's ear, "Since you can't wait another second - why don't you start, and I'll watch? Then I can jump in when I'm ready."

Gray eyes shifted to meet Abby's, seeing the playful grin and interested expression. "Would you like that?" she drawled sexily.

Abby's head nodded slowly, her grin growing brighter. "You've never shown me how you touch yourself. I want to know." Her smile faltered just a bit as she added, "That won't bother you, will it?"

"Heck, no," Clancy said, laughing. "One condition. I'll show you how I do it, but you have to come inside when I need it. You get to all sorts of interesting spots that I can't seem to reach."

"You're on," Abby said, her eyes filled with interest.

Clancy tossed a few pillows against the headboard and scooted up against them. Clearing her throat, she extended her hands and showily stretched her fingers, like a pianist warming up. "Okay," she began, "I'm gonna act like I'm starting from ground zero, even though I am most definitely not. But I want you to have the full experience of how I sweep myself off my feet."

Laughing at her display, Abby rolled onto her stomach, resting her chin on her braced hands. "This is fun."

"I should hope so," Clancy said. "Sex has to be fun - even when you're just entertaining yourself." She stretched one more time, fluffed her pillows until they were just so, then settled down and took a few deep breaths to center herself. "I have to get into the right mood. Touching myself mood is different than being touched mood." She closed her eyes and let herself relax for a moment, trying to forget that Abby was watching her. Quickly realizing that wasn't going to work, Clancy decided to involve her partner by providing commentary.

Her eyes locked on Abby as she started to run her hands up and down her body, letting them lightly tickle across the expanse of pink and tanned flesh. "I usually touch myself all over," she said. "Just to sensitize my skin."

Even though the demonstration had only been going on for a few minutes, Abby could already feel the pulsing begin between her legs. She shifted slightly, trying to put a little pressure on her vulva, finally settling on just pressing her thighs together firmly.

Clancy didn't touch herself perfunctorily. Her hands continued to roam for many minutes, loving herself thoroughly, her eyes half-closed in pleasure. Abby's eyes were locked on her darting hands, watching the muscles and tendons flex under her tanned skin. "I always play with my breasts," she said, laughing softly. "No surprise there, huh?" Her agile fingers found her nipples, tweaking the firm points playfully, then she slipped her index finger into the ring and gave it a few strong tugs, growling when the pleasure-filled pain hit her. Then her hands cupped each breast in a surprisingly tender embrace, hefting them in her hands for a moment before she began to palpate the flesh. A low purr slid from her lips, and Abby's toes curled at the sound, the pounding between her legs growing stronger with each breath.

With one hand insistently tugging at her nipple, the other slid down her belly, her smile growing sexier with each inch of her journey. Her fingers lightly brushed against her curls, her hips swaying in tandem with her hand. Suddenly, her fingers stilled, and she removed her hand from her breast and flung her arm up. Panting lightly, forearm draped languidly over her head, she gazed at Abby with a smolderingly hot look and whispered, "It makes me so hot to touch myself with you watching. I can feel how much you want to touch me, and knowing that you're struggling against the urge just makes it hotter."

Abby didn't - couldn't - say a word. She wanted to touch her partner so badly that she could taste it - could taste her - but she controlled herself, partly because it turned Clancy on to watch her resist. The thrumming between her legs had grown to a pounding need, and all she could do to satisfy it was rub her thighs together.

Seeing her partner struggle was driving Clancy's arousal, and she mercilessly tried to drive Abby to distraction. She lifted one leg, her heady scent wafting up to make Abby's mouth water. Lightly, she began running just the tips of her fingers along the back of her thigh, occasionally tickling just the edge of her dewy curls. "This is my favorite time," she murmured throatily. "Just before I slip my fingers into my wetness." Licking her lips, she once again met Abby's gaze and said, "I know it's gonna be great. It's gonna feel so damned hot but I wait as long as I can stand it - just to make it last." Locking eyes, she pressed her fingers hard against the outside of her lips, starting at the crease of her thigh and working inward. "I've got to have some pressure against my clit, but I don't want to actually touch it yet. This helps take the edge off," she rasped, her voice sexy and raw.

Abby had no idea where her lover got the discipline to torture herself in this way - but she knew that she didn't have the same ability. Unable to hold off for another second, her hand slipped between her own legs, and she gasped as her fingers first touched the swollen folds. "Oh, yes," she hissed.

Clancy blinked at her, surprised that Abby succumbed so easily, but more than willing to help her get where she needed to go. Since her teasing had gotten Abby this far, she decided to push her a little more. "Watch," she demanded, allowing her questing fingers to find their mark, growling softly as they nearly slipped from her abundant wetness. Abby groaned deeply as she watched Clancy's fingers gather and spread her moisture all around the bright pink flesh, her own hand frantically working at her thrumming need.

Taking her fingers from herself with a regret-filled sigh, Clancy rolled onto her side and slid the slickly-coated digits right into Abby, going in deep and stretching her to her capacity. Abby's free arm wrapped around Clancy's shoulders and pulled her in tight, their lips meeting in a searing kiss, while she moaned insensibly. As soon as Clancy's fingers began to twitch inside of her, a powerful climax washed over her, her inner walls clamping down so hard on Clancy's fingers that she nearly cried out in pain. But soon the flesh began to pulse, and the contractions lessened with each beat until Clancy's fingers were gently expelled.

She gathered Abby into her arms and teased, "For a church-going woman, you sure do give into temptation easily."

"Easily!" Abby's voice was weak, but even in her debilitated state she could summon up some amount of outrage. "You were torturing me!"

"That was the point," Clancy said, chuckling softly. "Where's the fun in it if I don't torture you?"

She held Abby in her arms, rocking her gently until she was mostly recovered. With some difficulty, the still-shaking woman sat up, then pressed Clancy onto her back and hovered over her. "It's your turn to torture yourself, now. Ready?"

"I think it's a safe bet that I'm ready," Clancy said. "I was ready an hour ago."

"Come on," Abby said, "we've got a deal here."

Never one to go back on her word, Clancy leaned back against her pillows and slipped her fingers between her lips. "Ooo I didn't know it was possible to be this wet."

Unable to keep her hands to herself, Abby slipped a finger into her, just barely entering the incredibly slick orifice. "Remarkable," she breathed. "Simply remarkable."

"Uhm-hmm," Clancy agreed, her fingers starting to pick up the pace. Sliding down for a better view, Abby rested her head on a muscular thigh and settled down to see the show. In minutes, she was throbbing again, but this time she was able to resist her growing need - content to watch Clancy give herself pleasure.

The blonde was clearly enjoying herself, letting her pace pick up until her breathing grew erratic - then backing off until she was barely brushing the edge of her brown curls. She indulged herself lavishly, letting her body work itself up to a fever pitch - only to soothe it gently again and again. As Clancy once again started to climb the slope, she grasped Abby's hand and guided her fingers inside, purring sexily when they hit their mark. "That's it," she panted, her legs spreading even wider. "Nice and steady, baby. Just like that," she moaned roughly, her fingers a blur as she felt the first signs of her building climax. She consciously lightened her touch, barely brushing the flats of her fingers over her tender flesh, the motion looking like someone stroking a skittish cat's back. Her teeth latched onto Abby's shoulder, somehow managing not to break the skin as the contractions raced through her body, finally rendering her completely spent and gasping for air. Suddenly, Abby's warm, wet mouth was everywhere, kissing her insistently, finally landing on her mouth as their breathing rapidly fell into synch. Clancy slid her hands across Abby's cheeks, cradling her head in her hands. Lifting her head just enough to be able to look into her eyes, she continued to kiss her lightly, covering her entire face with the gentle touches. Smiling up at her, Clancy murmured, "I have to be honest. It's not that good when I'm alone."

Abby kissed the curled up edges of her mouth and chuckled, "You'd be the last person in the world who needed a girlfriend if it were." She continued to drop soft kisses all across Clancy's face and neck, completely unable to stop touching and tasting her.

Clancy purred softly from the sensation of the warm, wet lips that moved across her body. She rolled over slowly, giving Abby new territory to claim, feeling like she was riding on a sensual cloud. "You're gonna have to stop that in the next month or two," she murmured.

"Mmm-mmm." Abby's head shook slowly, her soft hair brushing against Clancy's tender skin. "Tastes too good."

Clancy rolled over, letting Abby reach the sensitive skin around her waist. "It feels so good to be loved by you," she sighed. "I'm thoroughly addicted."

"No desire to kick the habit?" Abby asked softly, her lips still skimming across Clancy's sated body.

"None whatsoever." Clancy shifted under her and wrapped her arms around her waist, tugging Abby fully atop her body. "You're a very healthy addiction." She paused for a minute, then smiled brightly. "Not just healthy. Life giving."

O

At 4:30 they walked down the hall, showered and dressed once again. When they reached the guest room, Clancy poked her head inside, seeing the furniture that had formally been in the master bedroom. "Go on in," Abby said. "This is our new room." Clancy took her hand, looking around. All of Abby's things were in the closet, and she pointed out a dresser that was tucked away in a corner. "I thought we could put your shorts, socks and underwear in there. I've ordered an armoire that'll look great with the rest of the furniture," Abby added. "That'll be for your hanging clothes."

"Are you really okay with this?" Clancy asked. "Is it gonna be hard to sleep in your old bed?"

Abby smiled at her concern and said, "I had them switch out the mattresses. This is the one we've been sleeping on." She pasted on a wan smile and admitted, "That would have been too much."

Clancy walked around the room and noted that Abby had not brought in any of the pictures of Will and the family. "Why'd you put all of the photos away?"

"Will's never far from my thoughts," Abby said softly. "I just don't want to be making love with you with pictures of my husband and kids in view. I know it's a little odd, but it feels like they're watching us," she said, her cheeks coloring.

Clancy hugged her tenderly, stroking her back in sympathy. "I understand that. I guess I just want there to be a place where you keep family memories."

"There are plenty of them in the office, and I put some of them in the kids' rooms. I'm not going to hide them away, Clancy. Don't worry about that."

"Okay," she murmured. "I just want to make sure you know that it won't bother me to have them up. I like seeing pictures of your family. It reminds me of what a loving, devoted partner you are."

"I'm devoted to you now," Abby said. "Eternally."

O

To be continued in Part 15

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