Arbor Vitae

By SX Meagher

Chapter Twenty-nine

On Saturday morning, everyone was busy with preparation for the party. The doorbell rang, and Abby went to answer it, stunned to see Hayley standing there with a tall, handsome young man.

"Hi!" the girl said, perky and smiling. "I thought I should ring the bell since I brought a guest."

Abby hugged her, giving her a good squeeze. "You don't ever have to ring the bell, honey. This is your home."

When Hayley pulled away, she put her arm around the young man's waist. "Alexander Brighton, this is my mom, Abby."

"Very pleased to meet you, Alexander. Hayley's spoken so glowingly about you."

He gave her a boyish grin and extended his hand. "I'm very glad to meet you, Mrs. Graham. I feel a little stunned at seeing a future version of Hayley, but at least I know I have something to look forward to."

Abby patted his shoulder and urged them inside. "Did Hayley say that you were a politician, Alexander? 'Cause you're a pretty glib fellow."

"Not really," he said. "I've been practicing. It's important to me to make a good first impression."

He looked utterly sincere, and she gave him a wide smile. "You already have. Just be yourself, and please call me Abby."

"I'll try, Abby," he said, looking slightly more comfortable.

She led them into the kitchen, where Hayley spotted Trevor working outside. "Come meet my brother," she said, dragging Alexander behind her.

Abby let them go alone, glad that she'd made that choice when the dogs nearly knocked Hayley to the ground. Clancy walked into the kitchen from the garage, asking, "What's going on? I heard some " She looked outside and said, "Ahh, the prodigal daughter returns. Should I go say hello or wait a bit?"

"Actually, I was just going to ask you to go to the liquor store. The kegs are ready and the store doesn't deliver, so you'll need the truck. Do you need Trevor to go with you?"

"Nah. It doesn't come naturally, but I can look helpless when I have to. I'll let the guys at the store load it all up."

"I think I'll ask Alexander to help Trevor. That'll give me a little time alone with Hayley. I'd like to make sure she's gonna do her best to be on her good behavior this weekend."

"No argument," Clancy said. "I'll be back in a while."

"Not before you kiss me goodbye," Abby said. She wrapped her arms around her partner and gave her a tender, lingering kiss.

Clancy stayed pressed against her, uttering a soft growl. "You always give me something to think about while I'm gone. Too bad we won't have time today."

"The birthday girl always gets her wish," Abby said. "It might be late, but you won't go to bed without as much love as you can handle."

"Like I said, you always give me something to think about." Clancy kissed her one more time, then took off on her errand.

Abby went to the door and called out, "Hayley, would you come in and help me for a while?"

The young woman jogged over to her mother. "Sure. What do you need?"

"We're gonna be swamped all day, and I thought we could spend a little while talking while I iced Clancy's cake. If he doesn't mind, Alexander can help Trevor get the outdoor tables set up."

"Oh, he doesn't mind. We came early so we could help." She turned around. "Alexander, will you help Trevor? I wanna spend a little time with my mom."

"Sure. No problem," he said, waving.

Hayley went inside and sat down on a stool. "So what do you think?"

Abby looked outside, spending a moment looking at Hayley's boyfriend. "Well, he's certainly good-looking enough," she said, laughing. "And you look good together, like you're comfortable with each other."

"We are," Hayley said. "He's one of the nicest guys I've ever met, too. He's really close to his family, and he cares a lot about other people." She looked at her mother and said, "Kinda like you."

"What a lovely compliment," Abby said. "I haven't had time to form a valid opinion about Alexander, but I trust you to pick someone good. I know you wouldn't waste your time with a jerk."

"Thanks," the girl said, smiling. "Oh!" She jumped off her chair. "I told Alex that I'd show him one of our family albums." She was racing up the stairs before Abby could say a word to stop her. "Are they still in your bedroom?"

Abby heard the footsteps stop abruptly, then felt her heart start to race. Feeling sick to her stomach, she ran right up after her daughter, finding the girl standing in the doorway of the new office, a look of shocked outrage contorting her features. "Why don't you just fucking move!" she shouted when her mother approached. "You can get rid of everything that reminds you of him!" She pushed past Abby and ran to her room, slamming the door so hard that the whole house seemed to vibrate.

Abby went after her, breathing out a silent prayer of thanks that the doors needed a key to lock them - and that the keys had been missing for years. A frighteningly loud crash rang out from Hayley's room, then another, and Abby burst through the door to find Hayley huddled on the floor in the corner, two family pictures smashed against the opposite wall.

Ignoring the lethal look the young woman gave her, Abby sank to the floor next to her and wrapped her in her arms, holding on tight even when Hayley slapped at her ineffectually.

"Let me go!" she yelled, her hysterical tears almost obscuring her words. "Let me go!"

Abby would not, tightening her grip when Hayley tried to squirm away. "I will not let you go," she vowed. "You're my precious girl, and I'm not going to let you go until we have this out."

"I'm not precious," she sobbed. "Clancy is! She's the only thing that's precious to you anymore!"

"That's not true. Clancy's my partner, but she's an adult and can take care of herself. You're still my girl. You'll always be my girl - always!"

"There is no always!" Hayley cried. "You said you'd always love Daddy and you don't! You've thrown him away, just like you're throwing me away!"

"Hayley! I am not throwing your daddy away! I love him as much today as I did when he was alive. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of him - or cry for him." She hooked her gold necklace with a finger and tugged it from her sweater. "I wear his wedding ring just so I have a little piece of him with me. He's a part of me, baby, and no matter how much I love Clancy, he always will be."

"You don't wear yours," she said, looking at Abby's bare ring finger.

"I tucked my ring into his hand on the day we buried him," she said quietly. "I needed him to have it with him forever - just like I'll always have his. Didn't you know that?"

"No," she sobbed. "You didn't tell me that."

"I was in such a state of shock, I don't know how I got through those first weeks, but I thought I'd told you that."

Hayley looked at her for a moment, then her expression hardened. "I'm surprised Clancy lets you wear his ring. She looks like the type who'd wanna protect her territory."

"That's a ridiculous thing to say," Abby said. "You don't know her well at all."

"I can still have an opinion," she grumbled.

"Of course you can," Abby said. "I'm just telling you you're wrong. Clancy doesn't tell me what to do. That's not the kind of woman she is. We have an equal partnership."

The girl was quiet for a while, but Abby could feel the tension running through her body. "Daddy was always in charge," she finally said. "I knew he could handle anything. I was never afraid of anything when he was home."

"I wasn't either," Abby said, choking up while she thought of how secure and safe the world had seemed while Will was alive.

The young woman looked at her mother for just a moment before the floodgates opened once again. "I want him back!" she cried piteously. "I want my daddy back!" She was crying so hard that Abby was sure she was going to be sick, but she kept her arms tight around her shaking body, providing as much comfort as she could. "I want him back, too," Abby whispered. "I'd give anything to have him back."

"That's not true!" the young woman cried. "You can go be a lesbian now that he's gone. You probably would have left him - left us - for Clancy or some other woman!"

Abby gripped her shoulders and held her tight, keeping her face just inches from her own. "That's not true," she said evenly. "I would never - ever - have left your father. I loved him with all of my heart. We were very happily married. I would never have known about my ability to love a woman, and that would have been just fine with me. I love Clancy, baby, but I wish to God I had never had the opportunity to fall in love with her. I wish your daddy were downstairs right now, waiting for us to make the icing so he could keep sticking his finger in the bowl to test it."

The younger woman's crying slowed noticeably, and she opened her eyes wide and looked at her mother. "How can you still love him and love her too?"

"It's easy," Abby said, a ghost of a smile on her lips. "It's just as easy as it was for your daddy and me to welcome Trevor and you into our family. I didn't love your dad any less when we had Trev, and I didn't love Trevor any less when we had you. I love you and Trevor equally. There's plenty of room in my heart for both of you, and for Daddy and for Clancy."

Her tears ebbing, Hayley's sad, resigned voice said, "It will never be the same. It will never be just us again."

Abby pressed her tightly against her chest and nodded her head. "You're right. It'll never be the same. Families change and ours is changing now, just like it'll change when you and Trevor find someone you love and when you have children."

"I'm not going to have children," she said once again.

"That doesn't matter," Abby said. "You'll still find someone to love maybe Alexander."

Immediately becoming guarded and defensive, Hayley snapped, "I don't love him!"

Surprised by the strength of her denial, Abby said, "You don't have to love him, honey. I just assumed that you were close."

"We are," she said. "We're just as close as I want to be."

There was something about the way she said that that made Abby suspicious. "What do you mean by that? Is there something about Alexander that bothers you?"

"Yes!" Hayley said, speaking before she could censor herself. "He always wants more! He wants to spend more time together, see me more often, have more sex than I want to. He's been driving me crazy!"

Puzzled, Abby asked, "Then why are you still seeing him?"

Hayley dropped her head back, letting it bang against the wall. "Because I like him so much," she moaned. "He's exactly the kind of guy I've always wanted to meet."

"Hold on," Abby said, stretching her legs out to get comfortable. "You're not making sense. He drives you crazy, but he's just what you think you want?"

She ran her hands through her hair in an exasperated gesture. "Yes! We're close," she said. "We're plenty close. Why can't he be happy with that?"

"Honey, if he's pushing you to do things you're not ready for -"

"Not like that," Hayley said dismissively. She sighed heavily. "He says he loves me, and he wants to make love. Not just have sex."

Abby was stumped, and her expression reflected her puzzlement.

"He wants to have intercourse," she said, rolling her eyes. "I don't see why it isn't enough just to get off, but he wants more."

"Oh! I thought I assumed "

"Yeah, that's what everyone assumes," Hayley said. "But I don't want to be that close."

"Why?" Abby asked. "Why don't you want to be more intimate with him?"

"Because I'll fall in love with him!" she spat out, "And I don't want to!"

"Hayley, you're not making sense. What's so bad about falling in love?"

"You can't understand," the girl said. "You're the type who can get over someone. I can't! It's been over five years since Daddy died, and I miss him as much today as I did when I lost him! If I lose Alexander " She started to cry, curling up in a ball just like she did when she was small. "Shit, who am I kidding? I am in love with him! I just knew this was gonna happen!"

"Hayley, falling in love isn't something to worry about or fear! I promise you that! Yes, it's a little frightening at first, but there aren't many things on this earth that can match the feeling of being in love. Don't try to close yourself off to it!"

"That's easy for you to say," she said. "You got over Daddy."

"You know," Abby said, calmly and evenly. "I'm sick of hearing you tell me what I feel. No one knows what's in another person's heart. Just because I've fallen in love again doesn't mean that I didn't love your father. He was my husband, and he was a terrific one. But I've let myself love again, just like he wanted me to."

"I'm sorry," Hayley said. "I know you hate it when I try to read your mind."

"That's all right. I know you're frustrated, but I think part of what's driving you crazy is that you seem to be confused about the different types of love there are. Your dad was the only father you'll ever have. No matter what happens to you in life, you've lost the man who raised you, and you can't replace him. The love you have for your parents is primal, baby. We were the people who gave you life, who protected you when you couldn't protect yourself. The bond you have with us is unbreakable."

"It feels broken," Hayley said, crying softly. "I feel so lost without him."

Feeling a deep wave of sympathy for her, Abby said, "I don't think I can ever really understand what it's like for you. I'm more than thirty years older than you were when you lost your dad, and I still have mine. It's not fair that you lost him when you were so young. But you did, and trying to keep Alexander at a distance isn't gonna bring your father back. Yes, losing someone you love is devastating, but you can go on. You have gone on. And if you're in love with Alexander, you've got to let yourself enjoy it - celebrate it! It's a gift that can't be replaced, baby, and you can't afford to shrug it off."

Hayley looked up at her mother, her expression so childlike that Abby wanted to take her in her arms and hold her. She didn't resist the impulse. Tucking her arms around her, she smiled when Hayley cuddled up even closer. The girl's breath was warm on Abby's neck, and she asked, "Do you really think it's different?"

"What, honey?"

"How I feel about losing Daddy and how you feel?"

"Of course it is. I was a young woman when I met your father. I changed and grew with him, but he wasn't the guiding force in my life; my parents were. Your father was a man I chose to love. But you carry half of his genes, Hayley. You have his ears and his hands and his laugh and his bad sense of direction and knobby knees."

The girl laughed, and gave her mother a scowl. "I do not have knobby knees!"

"They're adorable knees," Abby said, "but they're knobby!"

Hayley nuzzled her head against her mother's neck. "I love you, Mom. I'm sorry I'm so impossible sometimes."

Abby ran her hand through her daughter's long, black hair. "You know that bond you have with your parents? Well, I have an amazingly strong bond with you. No matter how much you frustrate me at times, I love you with all my heart, and I wouldn't trade you for any other daughter in the world."

"I have a tough time believing that," Hayley said. "I'm sure you wish Trevor had been twins."

"Not true," Abby insisted. "But you won't believe me until you have children of your own. If you do, that is."

"One step at a time, okay, Mom? I'll never have the opportunity to have kids if I don't ever have intercourse."

"Good point," Abby said. "I guess you were listening to our talks about sex."

"It's not funny," Hayley said. "Do you think I should have sex with Alex?"

Abby held out a hand. "I will never, ever tell you whether or not to have sex with anyone, Hayley. You're an adult, and you have to make those decisions for yourself. I will tell you one thing, though. If you have to ask someone else that's not a good sign."

"I don't have to ask anyone else when we're together," she said. "I want to be with him, and I want to love him. But I'm so afraid, Mom. I wanna know that it's gonna work out before I fall in love with him."

"God, wouldn't that be nice," Abby said wistfully. "But you have to risk to love, baby. It's the only way."

"Why does this have to be so hard?" Hayley asked. She leaned her head on her mother's shoulder and sighed heavily.

"You're making it harder than it has to be. You have to open yourself up and let your heart tell you what's right."

Hayley thought for a moment, then looked at her mother. "Is that what you did with Clancy?"

"Yes!" Abby said, laughing. "Do you think I would have fallen in love with her if I'd let my brain tell me what to do? Loving a younger woman wasn't on my to-do list, honey. Clancy captured my heart, and I'm damned glad she did."

"Are you really happy, Mom?"

"Yes. I am. I'm very, very happy. The only thing that would make me happier is if you could grow to accept Clancy into our family."

"I don't want another mother." She made a face and added, "Especially one I wanted to sleep with."

Abby chuckled softly and said, "Then you're in luck, because Clancy doesn't want to have a child. Especially an eighteen-year-old. And she really does prefer older women." She kissed her daughter on the top of her head. "She'd like to be your friend. That's all. She doesn't ever want to interfere with our relationship."

Hayley nodded and nuzzled her head against her mother's body, letting her embrace soothe her. "I'll try harder," she promised. "And, Mom? I'm really sorry I broke our pictures."

"That's all right. We'll just reframe them. Don't worry about it."

"Let me clean up the mess," Hayley said, struggling to get up. "Then we can get started. What kind of cake did you make?"

"White cake. And she likes white icing, too."

"Just like Daddy," Hayley said, misting up again. She got to her feet and offered a hand to her mother. They went out into the hall and Hayley asked, "Is your furniture in the guest room now?"

"Yes. I wanted a new room to start my new relationship."

The young woman nodded briefly, then wet her lips and said, "I wish it were the same. But I guess what I really wish is that Daddy were still with us. I know that's impossible, so it makes sense that you want to change the room, Mom. It's just a little hard for me to see it. I just I just think of being little and going into your room on Sunday mornings to get in bed with you. All four of us would snuggle together. I felt so safe and happy then." A few hot tears escaped, and she wiped at them roughly. "Do you and Clancy sleep on the bed now?"

"No, we don't. We never have. That's where you and Trevor were both conceived. I couldn't I couldn't share it with anyone else." She ran her fingers through her daughter's dark hair, then bent to kiss her forehead. "I had the mattresses sealed in plastic and put in the garage. I doubt that I'll ever use them again - but I couldn't bear to give them away."

They held each other tightly, both crying for a few minutes.

"I hardly ever cry at school," Hayley muttered. "I just feel so emotional when I'm home."

"I understand," Abby said, hugging her close. "I feel more emotional when you're home, too. It's so close," she whispered, "so close to how it used to be."

Hayley nodded, her dark hair rubbing against Abby's sweater. "It doesn't feel close for me anymore. Having Clancy around changes everything."

"I understand that, honey," Abby sighed. "I really do."

The young woman looked up at her mother with watery blue eyes and asked, "It doesn't make you mad when I say things like that, does it?"

Abby's head shook decisively. "Not at all. I want you to tell me how you feel. It's the only way we'll get through this."

"Okay," she murmured. "I promise I'll try." She kissed her mother on the cheek and said, "I love you, Mom. I want you to be happy - so I promise I'll try."

"Thank you, Hayley," Abby whispered, squeezing her tight. "That's all I ask."

O

Hayley was inside, cleaning up the shards of glass from the picture frames when Abby went outside to see Clancy chatting with Alexander. The young man was listening to the landscaper talk about the yard and the changes they'd made. "Hi," Abby said, putting her hand on Clancy's back. "How's everything going?"

"Great," Alexander said. "We got the tables set up, and Trevor just left to pick up the gas-powered heat lamps. I think we might need them tonight. It feels like it's getting a little colder."

"I wanted to thank you for convincing Hayley to come home this weekend, Alexander. I have a feeling you pushed her a bit."

He smiled. "Just a little." He paused for a moment, then said, "I don't understand her sometimes, but I guess that's normal in the beginning of a relationship. I just think she needs to be close to her family - especially when things are changing. She needs a lot of support right now, and the best place to get it is here."

"I can see why she likes you," Abby said. "You seem to know her pretty well."

"Not nearly as well as I'd like," he said, flashing a smile that was both playful and sincere.

O

Clancy, Trevor and Alexander had the kegs set up and had filled and tested the space heaters by four o'clock. It was getting a little chilly, but was still warm enough to be outside. Clancy went in to get a sweatshirt, stopping to place a kiss on Abby's neck. "Ooh! Cold lips! Has the temperature dropped that much?"

"No, it's not too bad. I was sitting with the kids, and the wind has picked up a little."

"You and the kids, huh?" Abby asked. "What are you young folks doing?"

"Just talking. Alexander and Trevor have a lot in common. It's fun listening to them talk about their plans for saving the world." She popped a cherry tomato into her mouth and twitched her head at the platters of vegetables Abby was preparing. "Can I help?"

"No, I'd rather you spent some time with the kids. How's Hayley?"

"Fine," Clancy said. "She's not talking much, but I think that's because Alex and Trevor are going on about some of the projects they've worked on. Why?"

"Oh, we had a long talk and I thought she might still be upset."

"No, she's just quiet." Clancy reached around her lover and took a few carrot sticks. "Wanna talk about it?"

"Mmm maybe later. I'm not sure we got anywhere, but she was a little more open than usual." She smiled at Clancy and shrugged her shoulders. "You can never tell with Hayley, though. Her emotions are like the tides. You need a chart to figure her out."

"Well, I'll try not to incite her. I really want to have a nice, calm party."

"So do I, sweetheart. I wanna be the only person who gets under your skin tonight."

O

At seven o'clock, the caterers were busily grilling chicken on the barbeque, the bartender was organizing his supplies, and Clancy was admiring her new clothes, another birthday gift from her partner. "I absolutely love this sweater," she said, looking at herself in their bedroom mirror.

"It loves you, too," Abby chuckled, very pleased with how the cashmere V-necked sweater caressed Clancy's womanly curves. "Are you sure you don't want to wear the turtleneck, too?"

"No way," Clancy said. "I get too hot to wear two sweaters. I'll wear that when we're gonna be spending a lot of time outside, but not tonight." She brushed a fleck of lint off her new pleated khakis and said, "If I didn't like these new pants so much, I'd wear the sweater with my shorts. That's my ideal winter outfit, you know."

"I don't doubt that a bit, you hot-blooded little thing." Abby kissed her gently and said, "It's perfectly all right with me if you wear shorts. You're the birthday girl, and you get your way all day long."

"I haven't had my way with you yet," she said, turning a wicked smile Abby's way.

"Plenty of time." Abby kissed her gently and said, "Promise."

The doorbell rang and Clancy's face lit up. "Somebody's here!" Giggling like a child, she ran for the door, trotting down the stairs with Abby running right behind her, feeling as vigorous as she had when she was Clancy's age.

O

Abby was amazed at the collection of friends that Clancy had amassed over the years - a few from high school, many from college, still more from her years in the lesbian social scene in the San Gabriel Valley. She had also invited at least a dozen people whom she worked with professionally, as well as her usual crew and their families. It was a very eclectic crowd, but Abby was reveling in the energy that pulsed through the house.

From Abby's side of the ledger, Pam, Maria, Alyssa and Abby's parents were the only representatives, but she didn't mind that she knew so few of the people filling her house. These were Clancy's friends, and she was bound and determined to get to know each and every one of them - either this night or in the future.

Luckily, the night was warm enough to allow a large number of guests to remain outside. Clancy was a very capable hostess, meandering through the house and patio frequently to make sure they all were enjoying themselves. On one trip across the patio, Julie, her ex, caught her eye, and Clancy approached her, a friendly smile on her face. Abby was surprised that Clancy had wanted to invite her, but, as Clancy explained, she didn't want to shun her - and since all of their other mutual friends were invited, it just seemed small-minded not to.

"Hi," Clancy said. "Having fun?"

"Yeah, I am." She looked around at the beautiful home and said, "This is unbelievable, Clancy. You've really got it goin' on."

"I'm happy, but it's not because of what Abby has." She looked directly into Julie's eyes and said, "It's because of what we mean to each other."

"Did I ever mean a lot to you?" Julie asked, her voice catching a little.

"Of course you did," Clancy said. "I enjoyed most of our time together, Julie. But we never clicked like Abby and I do."

"I clicked with you," Julie corrected, tears forming in the corners of her dark eyes.

Clancy just nodded, thinking that was probably true. "It has to go both ways," she said quietly. "It's been over three years, Julie. It's time for you to let go of the fantasy and move on."

"We'll never get another chance, will we?" she asked, her lower lip quivering.

"No, we won't," Clancy said firmly. "Abby and I are together permanently. No doubt about it."

"Doesn't it bother you at all that she's " Julie hesitated, trying not to offend Clancy.

"Nothing about Abby bothers me," Clancy said, saving Julie from having to finish her thought. "Nothing," she said again, gray eyes flashing.

"Hey, don't get pissed," Julie said. "You get mad so easily."

"Only when someone really pisses me off," Clancy said. "And the easiest way to do that is to criticize Abby."

"I wasn't criticizing," Julie insisted. "I just wanted to know what it's like to be with a widow. I mean, it's weird enough to turn a woman into a dyke, but to turn a widow I don't know "

Clancy glared at her ex. "I didn't turn Abby into anything. She is who she is. And I love her just like she is."

"But don't you worry about her going back to men? I mean, she was straight for what forty or fifty years?"

Ignoring the implied question, Clancy answered the direct one. "You either trust someone or you don't. Her history is only important because it shows me that she's honest and faithful. If this doesn't work out, it's gonna be because of us not her history."

"I could never trust a straight woman," Julie said, making a face.

"Then don't sleep with one," Clancy said curtly.

Julie blinked at her, seeing that she'd only managed to make Clancy angry. "I I get the picture. I won't call you anymore." Giving her a wistful and slightly tentative look, Julie said, "It really feels like goodbye this time."

"It is," Clancy said. She realized how cold that sounded and tried to back off. "I'm happy with Abby, and we're gonna be together for a long, long time."

Julie looked at her, her longing for the blonde never having waned. "Will you will you kiss me goodbye?"

"No. I, uhm don't feel comfortable doing that. You might not believe me, Julie, but I honestly did care for you. It's just been over for a long while for me. I hope you find someone who cares for you like Abby and I care for each other. I truly do."

Looking through the open French doors, Clancy scanned the crowd, her eyes landing on Abby no matter how many people surrounded her. "I think she's the most wonderful woman on earth." She caught Abby's eye and inclined her head, and Abby excused herself from the conversation she was having. Just watching her walk across the room made Clancy's eyes light up, and when she reached her, Abby gave her a questioning smile.

"Did you want something?"

"Uh-huh." Clancy turned her head to find that Julie was no longer beside her. "I needed you beside me."

"My favorite place," Abby said, putting her arm around Clancy's shoulders.

"One more thing. I want to take you out to a nice, quiet corner and kiss you senseless."

Abby laughed and said, "Well, we should stay inside and be good hostesses, but you know I can't refuse a birthday wish." Taking Clancy by the hand, she led her across the yard to stand behind the mammoth live oak. "Having a nice party?" she asked once her arms were wrapped around her lover.

"The nicest ever," Clancy sighed. "Of course, it would have been nice to split a cupcake, too. All that matters is that we're together."

"I'm having a marvelous time," Abby said. "I really do like your friends."

"They're a good group. I think they're all a little stunned by your house, but they'll get over it eventually." From their position they could see the dozen or so guests standing and sitting close to the space heaters.

"Our house," Abby said. "And we should get back in. But first I want those kisses you promised. I need my fix!"

O

Abby spent a long time tucked in a quiet corner of the living room, speaking with John, Margaret and Eileen. Clancy had been looking for her, and when she spied her, she went over and perched on the arm of Abby's chair, draping an arm around her shoulders. "Nice party, huh?" she asked, wrinkling her nose at her parents.

"A far sight better than your usual birthday party," John joked. "I never thought I'd see the day when my little girl graduated from her keg of beer and bowl of potato chips days."

"I turned thirty," she reminded him. "That's the dividing line between keggers and serious parties."

Eileen patted Abby's leg and said, "This here's the dividing line, and you know it, Bitsy. Abby's gonna make an adult out of you yet. She's even got you in long pants!"

Clancy nodded and started to agree, but Abby interrupted to say, "I think the key for us is to meet in the middle. I could use a little loosening up, and Clancy could use a little just a little, mind you formalizing."

"Isn't she sweet?" Clancy sighed, giving Abby her best lovesick look.

"You both are," Eileen said, patting them both. "You're damned lucky to have found one another."

"I'll drink to that," Clancy said, clinking her beer bottle against Abby's wine glass.

O

The patio eventually became the dance floor, and when one of Clancy's favorite songs came on, she signaled to Abby, who joined her at the door. "I don't want to make you uncomfortable," she said quietly, "but I'd really love to dance with you. Do you think that would be okay?"

Through prior agreement, they had decided to try to keep their physical affection to a minimum when the kids were around, but Abby quickly reassured her partner. "Of course," she said. "I just wanted both of us to be conscious of how intimately we touched each other. We have a tendency to forget we're around company. Dancing is perfectly acceptable." She leaned over and whispered into Clancy's ear, "Just try to keep your hands around my waist. They tend to stray a little low."

"Don't blame me," Clancy said. "You're the one with the perfect ass. I truly can't help myself."

"I'll remind you if you get too frisky," Abby said, taking Clancy's hand to lead her outdoors.

The dance floor was crowded, and Clancy noticed that Alexander and Hayley were sitting outside. She felt a little uncomfortable dancing in front of the girl, but she reasoned that a slow exposure to their physical affection was probably the right way to go. Reminding herself to keep her hands around Abby's waist, she wrapped her in her arms and held her close, their bodies gently swaying to the music. "Now my birthday is complete," Clancy sighed heavily, her warm breath sending a shiver up Abby's spine when it tickled against her neck.

"Oh, no, it's not," Abby said. "We have plenty of games to play once we get rid of all of these people."

"Ooh, like pin the tail on the donkey?" Clancy asked, grinning up at her lover impishly.

"Something like that," Abby said. "It does involve blindfolds and groping in the dark and "

"Shh!" Clancy whispered. "Hayley might hear you!"

"That's a laugh," Abby said. "She's giving Alexander the same kind of look I give you. She wouldn't notice if we were groping each other right now."

Pressing Abby closer, she whispered, "It turns me on so much to dance with you. It feels like we're making love standing up."

"That can be fun," Abby said, chuckling softly. "Tiring, but fun."

"I'll put that on my to-do list," Clancy said, then reminded herself that she was trying to keep it clean. "Just holding you makes me think sexy thoughts. How do you do it?"

"Magic," Abby whispered, placing a delicate kiss on her ear.

"Mmm we've got to get rid of these people. Can you set off the smoke alarms or something?"

"It's your birthday," Abby said. "Say the word and I'll send 'em packing."

Clancy didn't doubt her one bit, but she decided that they should stay on the polite path. "I can hold out. They'll leave soon enough."

"I don't know about that," Abby said, "but I agree that they'll leave eventually. Maybe we should close the bar."

"You are getting to know my friends," Clancy said, laughing heartily. "You've discovered the key to their collective happiness - an open bar."

O

An hour later, Clancy wandered through the still-filled house, looking for her partner. Figuring she must be upstairs showing off the new office, she went outside, taking a break from the noise and heat. She'd been outdoors for just a few minutes when Hayley joined her, sitting in a chair facing Clancy's. "Did Mom tell you about our talk?"

"Yeah, she told me that you'd talked, and that you'd promised to try harder to accept us as a couple."

The girl looked suspicious. "She didn't tell you about my meltdown?"

Surprised, Clancy blinked, then a scowl settled on her face. "No, why? You didn't hurt her, did you?"

"No! I just I just assumed she told you everything," Hayley said.

"No, she doesn't. She keeps your confidences. The only time she tells me private things is when she needs advice. Other than that, it's none of my business."

"Oh. Well, I didn't know how you two handled things," she said.

Clancy looked at her for a moment, making the younger woman squirm a little under her stare. "You don't know anything about us. But that was your choice. We could have all worked through our issues this summer, but you weren't in the mood."

"I know, I know," she said, seemingly contrite. "I I want to apologize for being an asshole to you. I know it's inexcusable, but I really am sorry."

"I don't know you, Hayley. Having you angry with me hasn't bothered me much at all. It's your mother you've hurt."

The girl nodded. "I think I see that now. I I can't really explain why this has been so hard for me, but I really am gonna try to be better."

"I hope so, for your mom's sake." Clancy wrapped her hands around her knee and rocked in her chair. "You know, I've never lost anyone as important as your father was to you. I can't imagine how it must have turned your world upside down - especially since you were so young. Your mom realizes that, too, and that's part of the reason she's been so patient with you." She smiled, an evil twinkle in her eyes. "I would have sent you packing after about a week, but your mom is a lot more patient and forgiving than I am."

"I know she is," Hayley said quietly. "Talking to my friends at school makes me see how good a mom she really is."

"She's better than you've deserved to be honest." Clancy leaned forward and gazed directly into Hayley's eyes. "I know how much you miss your dad. Try to remember that your mom won't be here forever, either. You should thank God for every day you have with her."

"I'm gonna try," she insisted. "I know I've acted like a big baby, and I really am sorry."

"It's forgotten," Clancy said. "Now you and I have to work on figuring out how to be friends."

The younger woman sat perfectly still for a moment. "I don't think we should aim that high."

Clancy gave her a bored look. "Fine. I've got plenty of friends."

"Hey, don't be an asshole. I obviously wanted to be your friend last summer, but you wouldn't even go out for a burger with me."

Rolling her eyes, Clancy said, "You didn't wanna be friends. You wanted to fuck me."

Outraged, the girl spat, "You are so fucking full of yourself!"

"No, I'm not," Clancy said. "I just have a good bullshit detector. You wanted to see if you liked doing girls, and you didn't want to do it up at Santa Cruz, even though you can't spit without hitting a dyke at UCSC."

"So what? I never met anyone I liked."

"You never met anyone who you thought you could have sex with and then walk away from if you didn't like it. I was safe and very, very far away."

"And having sex just for sex is what evil?"

"No," Clancy said. "If that's what you like, go for it. But I don't do that. Sex means something to me."

"You're so fucking superior, aren't you? You do everything right!"

"No, I don't," Clancy said patiently. "I'm just more mature than you are. One day, you're gonna look back on this year and wish you could erase it from your memory. I hope," she added.

"I was just honest," Hayley said. "There's nothing wrong with being honest."

"That's crap," Clancy said. "Pure crap. You acted like a brat, and you haven't changed one bit as near as I can see."

"Fine. Then why do you want to be friends?" Hayley's face was red, and she looked like she wanted to scream.

"As long as you like honesty, I'll be completely honest with you. I don't wanna be your friend. I don't like people who act like you do. I'm only nice to you because your mother loves you. If it were up to me I'd change the locks."

Hayley stared at her, her eyes remarkably wide. "Does my mom know how much you hate me?"

"You're exaggerating," Clancy said. "I don't hate you. I just don't like you. And no, I've never told your mother that I don't like you. I was willing to keep an open mind, but you're doing your best to convince me to close it."

"You are such an asshole!" Hayley said this louder than she should have, and several of Clancy's friends heard and tried to unobtrusively shuffle closer to hear what was going on.

Giving her an evil smile, Clancy leaned closer and said, "An asshole you wanted to fuck."

Hayley bit her bottom lip and brought her hand back. Clancy grabbed it and squeezed. Her eyes hardened, and her voice was low and filled with warning. "You got one free whack. You won't get another one."

The girl jerked her hand away and ran off in tears. Clancy let out a breath and sat still for a minute. Then she closed her eyes and let her head drop back, but not before she held up her middle finger to her obtrusive friends.

O

Abby went outdoors to cool down after being in the overly warm living room, and that's where her father found her. "You know," he said thoughtfully, "I was thinking about putting in a nice, big koi pond in the back yard. Do you think that's something Clancy could do?"

"Absolutely," Abby nodded. "She uses her father for the plumbing work, but she could design it and get it installed." She looked at him, a smile lighting up her face. "She does nice work, doesn't she?"

"She does," he said. "I was afraid this was going to look a little like a theme park - you know, where the boulders look fake and out of scale. But I'm very impressed with this. It looks amazingly natural."

"She's a pro, Dad. She really knows her stuff."

"That's always been my motto," he said. "Find an expert, and let her do her job without interference."

"You didn't follow your motto when you tried to tell me how to deal with Hayley."

She could see him bristle, but he didn't say anything for a few moments. "I'm a parent, too, Abby, and I think I did a good job of raising you."

"I do, too, Dad," she agreed. "But don't you think we'd both be better off if we stuck with our fields of expertise? You're an expert on raising me, but Hayley's my responsibility."

"I just want her to be happy," he said. "She's lost so much."

"I know that," Abby said. "So have I."

He looked at her, studying her features. "You're not the woman you were when Will was alive," he said, the realization just dawning on him. "You've changed."

"Yeah, I have," she said. "I had to, Dad. I had to get stronger and learn how to make my own decisions to deal with my life. I didn't have anyone to rely on to help me."

He nodded. "We tried to help, honey, but there was only so much we could do."

"I know that," she said. "You helped me a lot. But you wanted to step in and take Will's place every once in a while, and that's not what I needed."

He was obviously hurt. She could see that in his clear, blue eyes. "I did my best," he said, his tone curt.

She sighed, feeling like this could last all night. "Dad, I'm not complaining. I'm trying to explain myself. I had to change after Will died, and I'm not ever going to be the way I was before. You've got to let go just like I've got to let go of Hayley a little bit."

He frowned. "She's far too young to be on her own."

"Fine," she said, conceding the point for the moment. "I'm not."

He stretched, then rubbed his nose, both nervous habits. Then he turned towards her. "Point taken."

"Dad, I don't want you to stop caring. I just want you to stop trying to tell me what to do. I know you do it because you love me, but I'd really like it if you could find another way to show your love."

He let out a short laugh and smiled. "Like?"

"Honoring my wishes. Letting me deal with Hayley."

"I'll try," he said, obviously uncomfortable. "We'd better go in," he said. "Looks like Clancy's mom and grandmother have washed the glasses, so it's safe to go into the kitchen."

She chuckled softly, knowing they hadn't settled anything, but feeling like they'd made a little progress. "So, did I get my hatred of doing dishes from you?"

"You don't see your mother in there either, do you, honey?" he asked, slipping his arm around her shoulders to lead her back inside.

O

When Clancy went back into the house, she couldn't find her partner. She went upstairs on the off chance she was up there but found only Trevor, packing a duffle bag. "Hi," she said, standing in his doorway.

He smiled brightly. 'Hi! I was just gonna come downstairs to look for you." "Beat you to it," she said. "What's up?"

"I have a present for you." He reached into his pocket, took out a small box and handed it to her. "It's kind of a trade, but I think you'll like it."

She gave him a puzzled look, then opened the box, taking out a nice, silver keychain, engraved with her initials. "This is very nice, Trevor. But why are there keys on it?"

"Oh." He stood next to her. "This one is for the gate, and this one is for all of the entry doors." He held his hand out. "Now give me yours."

"What?"

"We're trading," he said. "I'm taking your apartment, and you're moving in here."

"Are you fucking kidding me?" she cried, then slapped her hand over her mouth. "Sorry about that."

"I'm twenty-five, Clancy. I've heard the word before." He poked her shoulder with his own. "You don't have to treat me like my mom does. I think we'll get along better if we act like peers."

"We are," she said, slipping her arm around him. "And we're gonna be friends, too."

"I think we already are," he said, smiling. "You got me a great job and a great apartment. And as soon as I get my next paycheck, I'll give you back your security deposit."

"Does Michael know about this?" she asked, laughing. "Or did you and your mom just dream this all up?"

"No, he knows," he said. "He said he was lonely without you, and once he learned that I can cook, he was really excited."

"He would be," she said, laughing. "Make a deal with him that he gives you free haircuts if you cook."

"Good idea," he said. "Any other tips?"

"You're welcome to my furniture if you want it. If not, just call a charity and have them pick it up."

"I like sleeping on a futon," he said. "I had one in my apartment, and I really got used to it."

"Your mom isn't a fan, but she's a good sport about it."

"She's always a good sport," Trevor said. "She's always been the kind of mom who'll try anything, ya know? Roller coasters, water slides if we wanted to do it, she'd do it with us."

"You're a lucky guy, Trevor. And the best thing is that you know it."

"I do," he said. He looked around and said, "I guess I'm set." He hoisted his duffle bag and put a hand on her back, guiding her from the room. "Enjoy your new home, Clancy. I know you'll love living here."

She stopped and gave him another hug, feeling like she might cry. "This is still your home, Trevor. I want you over here as often as you want. And both you and Michael had better start coming over on weekends to hang out, especially when we can use the pool again."

"We will," he said, giving her a squeeze. "It'll be nice to float in one after installing them all week."

"Oh, you'll be working in an office by then."

"Hey, you never know. I like my job - a lot. I might stick with it."

"As long as your mother doesn't blame me, go for it!" she said, laughing as they walked back downstairs together. "Now I have to go find Michael and knock him silly for keeping me in the dark about all of this!"

O

Trevor spotted Michael by the keg, and he walked over to him. "Hi. Did Clancy find you?"

"Yeah," the older man said, laughing. "She thunked me on the head for not telling her about your moving in."

Trevor poured a beer for himself and took a few sips. He and Michael stood together for a little while, watching the party. "Clancy's gonna be good for my mom, isn't she?" Trevor asked, catching Michael by surprise.

"Yeah, yeah, she is," Michael said. "I mean, I don't know your mom well, but Clancy's the best. Really, Trevor. She's the best."

"I just wanna make sure she's not gonna get tired of her and dump her," he said. "I know my mom's really hooked."

"She's not like that," Michael said. "If there's one thing I'm sure of, it's how serious Clance is about love. She loves your mom, Trevor. She really loves her."

"She seems like she does," Trevor agreed. "But I I worry about the whole thing."

"Well, it's gotta be weird for you," Michael said. "I couldn't handle it if my mom fell in love with a woman."

Trevor shrugged his shoulders. "You might feel different if your mom had been depressed for five years. Seeing her happy again is worth a lot to me. A whole lot."

Michael clapped him on the shoulder. "You're a good guy. I think we're gonna get along great."

Trevor smiled at him. "I know we will. And I'm really ready to be able to start dating again. Having my own place is gonna be sweet."

"Let me know if you need anything, or if I can help you move some stuff over."

"I'm fine," Trevor said. "I have to buy a futon, but other than that I don't have much to do."

Michael gave him a quizzical look. "Is Clance taking hers?"

"No," Trevor said. "But if you think I'm gonna sleep on a bed where Clancy and my mom " he trailed off, shaking his head quickly while making a face, "you're nuts!

O

Chapter Thirty

After turning off the lights downstairs, Abby slipped into the bedroom and walked into the bath, smiling at Clancy when their eyes met in the mirror. Clancy finished brushing her teeth and stretched her body a little. Unable to resist the play of muscles that danced across the younger woman's back, Abby gave her a gentle scratch, then Clancy turned to pull her into a tight hug. "I had the nicest birthday in the history of birthdays," she murmured.

"It's not over," Abby said. She leaned back in the hug, letting Clancy support her weight. They swayed together for a moment, smiling at each other. "Birthdays last until you go to sleep - and I have big plans for you."

"Plans? You have plans for me?" Clancy batted her eyes ingenuously, and Abby leaned forward and nibbled on her ear.

"Big plans. Any complaints?"

"Not a one." Clancy walked over to the stereo and put in a rather vigorous orchestral CD. She took Abby's hand and started to tug her towards the bed. "Mmm," she sighed when she slid between in. "Fresh sheets. Yet another present."

"You deserve to have everything be perfect on your birthday," Abby insisted. "I'm gonna do my best to make sure that holds true for the rest of the night."

"Oh, it will. It's always perfect when we're together."

Abby smiled at her and ran her fingers through her hair, pushing the strands from her forehead. "I love you, Clancy," she whispered, hovering above the pink lips for a moment.

Clancy felt her heart rate start to pick up as she looked up into the depths of Abby's vivid blue eyes. She could feel the emotion surging between them, and her lips hungered for contact. "Kiss me," she whispered, unable to wait another second.

With her smile growing, Abby responded, pressing her lips gently to Clancy's. They kissed tenderly, unhurriedly, letting their bodies find a comfortable pace, and allowing the pressure to build slowly. "Mmm," Clancy sighed, "I think I could live on your kisses."

Abby lifted her head and smiled at her lover. "You are honestly the most talented kisser I've ever met. You know just how to turn me on - like you're slowly cranking up the heat under a simmering kettle. You could teach a master class."

"Uhn-uh," Clancy demurred gracefully. "You're the only one who inspires me."

"We make a good pair," Abby said, planting row after row of kisses along Clancy's brow and across her jaw line. She propped herself up on an elbow and regarded her lover for a moment, a contemplative look on her face. "You make me feel confident of myself. I feel safe to ask for what I need and what I want. I'm never embarrassed with you. That's been a real gift."

"I feel the same about you," Clancy said. "I have since the first night." She shook her head and let the intensity of her smile build. "I've never felt that with anyone else. There was always some awkwardness involved. But not with you. I felt understood from the start."

Abby started to kiss a path down her body, stopping whenever a particular spot caught her attention. "You're understood you're desired you're loved," she murmured against her damp skin. "You're very, very loved."

Clancy arched her back, letting out a pleasured gasp when Abby's hungry mouth suckled against her breast. "Oh, yeah, that's it," she urged, gently holding the back of Abby's head. "Come on, just a little harder." Her legs shot straight out in reaction when Abby gladly complied. "Oh, so good," she purred, increasing the pressure against Abby's head. "You're making me throb, baby."

Sliding down the bed, Abby urged Clancy's legs apart and nuzzled her cheek against her. "I can feel you," she whispered. "I can feel your pulse beating."

Shifting her hips while guiding Abby's head, Clancy tried to obtain the relief she desperately needed. "Come on," she gently cajoled. "Just turn your head and let me feel that sweet tongue."

The soft cheek moved lightly against her, causing Clancy to pump her hips in frustration. "It's your birthday," Abby murmured, shifting up to her elbow. "We can't let you finish so quickly."

"We can't?" Clancy asked weakly. "Are you sure?"

With a warm smile, Abby nodded her head. "I'm positive. You need a nice, long, slow simmer on your birthday. Don't you want that?" She gazed up at Clancy, and the blonde realized just how powerless she was against this lovely woman.

"I want whatever you want," Clancy sighed, then flopped down against the mattress. "It may kill me, but I want it."

"No, it won't kill you. You'll love it."

"God knows I'm not complaining," Clancy murmured. "It's just that your touch is so overwhelming. I lose all control."

Crawling back up to lie next to Clancy, Abby put on a contemplative look and asked, "How can we slow you down?"

"I've got an idea," Clancy said. "I can tell you about the fight I had with Hayley."

Abby slapped herself on the forehead. "Are you serious? She promised she'd try harder!"

"We had a very nice two minute conversation," Clancy said. "But we were together for ten."

Looking tired, Abby asked, "What happened?"

"Uhm I don't really wanna tell you," Clancy said. "I think this should be between Hayley and me. I just told you about it to keep you in the loop."

"So I'm in the loop, but I don't know anything? That's not much of a loop."

She looked decidedly unhappy, but Clancy knew she couldn't make things much better. "I know that. But we have to work out our own relationship. It can't go through you, and it can't be because she's trying to please you. I think it's gonna take a while, too. I was pretty rude to her."

Hurt, Abby cocked her head, looking at her lover. "Why?"

"Because she was being a big baby. I just don't have any patience for that. I'm tired of coddling her, Abby. I have to be genuine with her."

"And being rude is genuine?"

Confidently, Clancy nodded. "Sometimes it is. Hayley was asking for it. And I have to show her that she can't get away with that with me."

Abby let out a breath. "Well, I've cooled off. Sex is the last thing on my mind."

They lay together, not touching, each woman deep in thought. After a long time, Clancy asked, "Are you mad at me?"

"No," Abby said. She reached over and took her partner's hand. "But I don't like it when you and Hayley fight. I wish you could be more adult and cut her a little slack."

Clancy sat up like a fish being reeled in. "A little? Jesus Christ! I've cut her so much slack she could wrap the rope around this house! And I am acting like an adult. An adult who's sick of babying another adult. Remember when you called that prick out at the dance? Were you being childish?"

"That was completely differ -" Abby began but stopped before she finished. "We're not talking about some jerk who I've disliked for years. We're talking about my daughter. My eighteen-year-old daughter. Someone I have to have in my life." She looked so sad that Clancy's heart clutched in sympathy. She tried to touch her partner, but Abby deftly moved just enough to show she wasn't in the mood.

Clancy collected her thoughts, trying to think of a way to explain herself. "I know how much Hayley means to you."

"No you don't," Abby said tiredly. "You can't really know what this bond is like if you haven't been a mother."

"Great," the blonde said. "So I can never have an opinion about your kids because I don't have kids of my own? Is that really how you want things to be?"

Abby shook her head and stroked Clancy rather absently. "No, that's not what I want. I just I just feel like you must not understand how much Hayley means to me. If you did you'd try harder to be patient with her."

"Uhm there's another possibility," Clancy said. "Try this one out. I know how much Hayley means to you, but I don't handle things like you do."

Abby thought about that for a moment, then reluctantly nodded. "I guess that's possible."

"Hayley will never be my child, and I'll never treat her like you will. But we're gonna have to be around each other and we can't just act polite to each other for your sake. We need to clear the air."

"Any you have to do that by being rude?" Abby's eyebrow was arched in her most disapproving mom look.

"No, I don't," Clancy said, her patience wearing thin. "I don't intend to be rude. I swear I don't. But she acts like such a baby when we're alone, and I'm not going to let her bully me. That'll never work."

"She seems like a frightened little girl when I talk to her," Abby said. "Can't you have some sympathy for her?"

"She acts like a kid who needs a good spanking when I talk to her. Is that the kind of behavior you'd have sympathy for? Is that how you want her to behave?"

Abby rolled over, facing away from her lover. She didn't say a word, and Clancy didn't try to draw her out. Instead she lay back down, hoping that Abby wouldn't sulk for long. Finally, the brunette spoke. "I hate it when you're right."

Clancy clambered over her, wrinkling her nose playfully. "I'm not like you are, babe. You have to let me be myself."

Abby grabbed her nose. "I want you to be like me. Then you'd be perfect." She rolled back onto her back and pulled Clancy close. "Kiss me you rude, child-hater."

Clancy did as she was told, kissing her partner until things started to heat up between them again. "Mad at me?"

"No. I'm a little upset, but I think it's more about the situation than you."

"Good." Clancy playfully touched Abby's lips with her finger. Tracing their outline and pulling the bottom one down, only to let it flap back into place. Feeling frisky once again, she asked, "Aren't you glad I don't wanna have kids? We'd do nothing but fight."

"Thank God," Abby said, smiling. "The last thing I want around here is more kids. Besides, they'd get in the way of my making love to you whenever wherever I want."

"How about now?" Clancy asked. "I am still the birthday girl."

"Great idea." She rolled Clancy onto her back and kissed her, breathing in her scent, feeling the softness of her lips. She was lost in the kisses, not another sensation penetrating her sensual fog. They moved slowly against each other, lips together until Abby looked into the moss green eyes and said, "I love you so much." Her warm breath tickled Clancy's sensitized lips. "I want to spend the rest of my life loving you."

"Are you proposing?" Clancy smiled up at her with such a warm, love-filled smile that Abby found herself nodding her assent.

"I am." She kissed her again, somehow managing to fill the lingering kiss with even more emotion. "I want to see your sweet face every morning for all of the days of my life."

"I want that too," Clancy whispered, surprised when a tear slipped past her temple.

Abby lifted her body up a little so that she could gaze into Clancy's eyes. "When I married Will I knew that I loved him and that I wanted to build a life with him - but I didn't really know what it meant to give myself to another person." She reached up and unclasped her gold chain, letting the chain and Will's ring pool in her hand. She stared at the gold for a moment, and then placed them on her bedside table.

Clancy was completely shocked. "What are you doing?"

"I can't wear it any more," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "I realized something when I was talking to Hayley yesterday. I can't be married to two people. Will's gone, and I have to concentrate on making a life with you."

"But but "

"No buts. I'll always love him." She took in a deep breath and said, "I don't know if I've ever said this to you, but there's a big part of me that wishes he were lying beside me right now." She was afraid to look, but she made herself meet Clancy's eyes. The gray depths were untroubled, surprising Abby. "Are you okay with that?"

"Yeah, I am," the younger woman said softly. "I love you so much that I'd glad give you up to bring him back. I'd do anything to take away the pain you all have gone through."

Abby kissed her, gently brushing lips again and again. "You're the most generous person I've ever known."

Clancy laughed a little. "It's easy to be generous with wishes that can't come true." She hugged Abby tightly. "But I'm serious. You'd be crazy to be glad he died. I understand completely."

Abby smiled at her, then touched her face, letting her fingers brush across the symmetrical features. "I'm not glad he died, but I'm so happy to have found you." She nodded towards the ring. "Will is a wonderful part of my past." She kissed Clancy soundly. "You're my future."

"Are you positive?" Clancy asked. "It doesn't bother me to have you wear it."

"I'm positive," Abby said. "It would bother me. This is something that I need to do. I want to marry you. I want to merge our lives - in every way. I want to take our differences and let them come together to create a new, even stronger, whole."

"Like a grafted tree," Clancy said, her eyes taking on a sparkle that always seemed to radiate from her when she spoke of her abiding passion.

Abby nodded tentatively, not really sure where Clancy was going with this, but anxious to hear her thoughts. "One of the first times I came over to have lunch I was listening to you talk and I started to think of you as a tree."

"As a tree," Abby parroted, not understanding the analogy.

"Yeah," the architect said. "I do that a lot. I think of what a certain person would look like as a tree."

"Like "

"Oh, like I think of my Gramma as a Dutch Elm. Sturdy, stately, old and tough. A little thing like Dutch Elm disease wouldn't dare try to infect her."

Abby laughed, thinking of the flinty older woman covered with green leaves. "Okay. Tell me about my tree."

"Well," Clancy said thoughtfully. "You were talking about Will and how hard it was to have to raise the kids all alone. There was such a almost tangible sadness about you that I started thinking of how that would look on a tree."

"Mmm you've lost me."

Surprisingly, Clancy got out of bed, and went to her briefcase, pulling out a sketchpad an a few pencils. Coming back to bed, she propped herself up with a few pillows and then placed the pad on her thighs and began to draw. "I started thinking of how your family depended on you, and on how great your loss was. I thought of this cool citrus tree I saw once. I've gotta draw it to show you."

Abby lay on her side, her head propped up on her hand and observed her, delighting in watching the intent look in Clancy's gray eyes. Just the tip of her tongue poked out occasionally, and Abby had to force herself not to scoot up the bed and kiss it.

Slowly, the drawing took shape, turning into a beautifully rendered recreation of a robust orange tree. "This is how I think of you," Clancy explained, shading in the trunk of the mature tree. "You're the sturdy, hearty host - the rootstock." She pointed to a gnarled, healed-over wound about halfway up the large trunk. "This represents Will," she said softly. "He was a nice, sweet tangerine that was grafted to you when you were just a sapling, and together you grew to make a beautiful, healthy tree." She pointed to two sturdy, but young, branches near the wound. "This particular rootstock naturally hybridized, and created a new variety of citrus. That's Trevor and Hayley," she indicated. "A little bit of orange and a little bit of tangerine. Let's call them orangerines," she decided. "Both of them are healthy young stock that are almost ready to start bearing fruit on their own."

She cast a quick glance at Abby, and bent to brush her tears from her cheeks. With a warm kiss she sat up again and pointed at the wound. "When this branch died the whole tree was in shock and it could have died. But it didn't. It took years for the wound to heal, but it kept on going. Bending for another kiss she whispered, "The host had to keep going, and she did, Abby. She kept going to insure the survival of the whole system." Clancy tapped her pencil on the bark of the trunk. "She's a survivor." She met Abby's eyes again and said, "The wound is still visible - and it always will be. But the trunk is ready to grow again. She's ready to take on another challenge."

Pointing out a large, weight-bearing branch near the healed wound she said, "This scaffold is going to have to go." She looked at Abby and said, "That branch is filled with years of sorrow and pain and longing. All of the things that you have to let go of to be able to love again. We're gonna have to cut it away to let the scion - that's me," she added, "have a good growing medium." She took an eraser and removed the weighty, gnarled branch, exposing a clean, pale surface. "Now we put a notch in the tree, here." She did so, using her eraser and her pencil. "Then we put another one in the scion, and match up their cadmium layers, so the scion can receive nourishment."

Quickly, but surely, she sketched a branch that was perfectly attached to the tree; smaller and shorter than the two offshoots she had earlier pointed out. "This is me," she said. "I think I'll be a kumquat. Now, this is a risky thing this branch is a little big to be a scion, and it has some special needs and requirements." She grinned at Abby and said, "But this big, healthy rootstock can handle them."

"Are you sure?" Abby asked, looking up at her with hope-filled eyes.

"Positive," the architect said. "But there will be problems." She tapped each of the smaller branches and said, "These two are going to have a period of shock. They're going to get a little less nurturing from the trunk since the trunk has to parse out her nutrients to make sure this big graft takes. One of the branches in particular is gonna take a very long while to adjust. But the cool thing," she said, her eyes dancing, "the really cool thing, is that once the graft takes the whole system will be stronger. The stress and the increased demands make the trunk stronger, they make the roots stronger, they increase the available nutrients to all of the branches - not just the new graft." She was bubbling with excitement as she continued to sketch in dozens of perfectly-drawn leaves. "Some day - and it'll take years - this tree will be a magnificent specimen. With oranges and orangerines, and kumquats just dripping from its branches." She leaned in and kissed Abby gently, whispering, "We'll load our families and our friends down with all of this sweet, delicious fruit."

Abby took the sketchbook from her hands and placed a gentle kiss on the drawing. "I'm gonna frame this and put this on my dresser so I can see it every morning." She wrapped Clancy in her arms and kissed her tenderly, letting her lips convey what her heart was too overwhelmed to express. "I'll do my very best to make this graft take."

"All that matters is that you're right where you belong - right next to me."

"I'll do my best, Clancy." She kissed her lover gently, running her fingers through her hair. "You made me jump the gun on asking you to marry me, you know. I was going to do that on Christmas."

Clancy blinked at her, a curious grin turning up the corners of her mouth. "Were you really? You want to have a ceremony and everything?"

"Of course I do!" Abby pulled back, her disappointment obvious. "Don't you?"

"Well, sure. I think that would be fantastic. I just didn't think you'd want to do something so public. I mean, I'm sure it would be hard for the kids "

"Clancy," the older woman murmured, "I know it'll be difficult for them, but that's no reason not to do it. I know you don't have much of a relationship with organized religion - but I do. I want to give my kids the clear message that when you really love someone, you should be sure enough about him or her to commit yourself to that person - and ask for God's blessing. I don't just want to live with you - I want to show everyone how much you mean to me - how committed I am to you."

"I will," Clancy whispered. "I'll marry you, Abby. In front of God and our families and our friends. I will."

Abby kissed her fiercely, then, surprisingly, started to get out of bed, with Clancy still seeking her lips. "Be right back," Abby said, putting on her robe and leaving the room.

She was only gone for a few minutes, and when she returned she was holding something behind her back. Clancy gave her a very curious look, her eyes wide with anticipation. "Whatcha got there, good lookin?"

"Your Christmas present. Well one of them. But I think this is the right time to give it to you."

"Cool! Christmas and birthday rolled into one."

"Mmm more like birthday and engagement rolled into one," Abby said, giving her partner a very satisfied-looking smile.

"Gimme!"

"So anxious," Abby said, grinning at her exuberant lover. She sat cross-legged on the bed, facing Clancy.

Abby brought her hand around to rest in her lap, and Clancy saw the navy blue jewelry box resting there. The landscaper briefly allowed herself to worry, Oh, God, please don't look disappointed. She doesn't know that it's dangerous to wear a ring when you're working. You can just put it on a necklace like she did. Smile and make it look sincere!

"This is a little okay, very untraditional, but so are we," Abby said, smiling warmly. "I really hope you like it, Clance, but if you don't, I hope you feel comfortable telling me so. I want this to be right."

Okay, okay, you can be honest. Tell her that you can't wear it during the day, but that you'll put it on as soon as you put the tools away. She'll be fine with that. Now reassured, Clancy held her hand out and allowed Abby to place the box there. "I love it," she said, smiling sweetly.

"You haven't opened it," Abby helpfully pointed out.

"I don't have to open it to love it. The fact that you bought it for me is all that matters."

"C'mere you romantic little devil." Abby rose to her knees and spent several moments kissing her partner. "Now, open it, for goodness sake, or it will be your Christmas present."

Grinning, Clancy lifted the lid and stared at the gift for a moment, trying to comprehend exactly what it was. Inside the satin-lined box lay two fairly substantial gold hoops - with a brilliant diamond floating at the base of each - seemingly immune from the laws of gravity.

"Do you like it?" Abby asked excitedly.

"Of course I do," Clancy said, a little furrow between her brows. "But I'm not sure I understand "

"It's a nipple ring," Abby said, giggling.

"Uhm Abby it's two nipple rings. That's a pretty expensive spare."

"Well," Abby said, "you told me that you wanted to have your other nipple pierced "

"Oh! I get it! I can have a matching pair. Wow, Abby, these are phenomenal. I've never seen anything so beautiful."

"Wrong again," Abby said, shaking her head. "You're a little slow tonight. Must be old age." She took the box from her partner and pressed her fingernail into a tiny catch at the top of one of the rings, then pulled the ring apart, the gold swinging away from the diamond. Holding it in her hand, she said, "It's your engagement ring. I talked to your parents, and your dad told me that you never wear a regular ring because of your job."

"Oh, Abby! That was so thoughtful of you!" She blinked, and said, "but why two of them?"

"One for you, and one for me," the older woman said, grinning slyly.

"You're gonna get your nipple pierced?"

"Yep. It's traditional to wear your engagement ring on your left hand, so I thought we could both have our left nipples pierced. There's something so appealing about marking my body to show my love for you - and having you be the only one to see it."

"Oh, Abby," the blonde said, throwing her arms around her partner. "You know me so well. This is exactly what I would have chosen - if I'd had the creativity to think of it."

"Well, you didn't know that I've been thinking about having my nipple pierced, so you were at a disadvantage. I see your face when I pull on your ring, and I need to experience it for myself."

After giving Abby a slow, probing kiss, the architect said, "You've made so many changes this year, Abby; falling in love with a woman. Having trouble with Hayley, losing a close friend. Are you sure you want to make another change - especially one so permanent?"

"I'm absolutely sure," the older woman said. "Our relationship is permanent, Clancy, and I want a permanent sign on my body that signifies our bond." Stroking Clancy's face with her fingers, Abby said, "I told your family that one of our strengths is our willingness to extend ourselves - to try to see the world through each other's eyes. Piercing my nipple is my way of being more like you."

Clancy grinned at her and said, "And wearing a big diamond is my way of being more like you. Classy, elegant, and incredibly resilient."

Abby kissed her again and again, murmuring as she pressed her lips against her lover's neck, "A diamond isn't just resilient, Clance, it's impervious from harm - just like our love."

"Just like our love," Clancy sighed. "Always changing, always growing, always sustaining us through our long, long life together."

Giving her lover a wistful smile that spoke volumes, Abby said, "We can't guarantee how long we'll have, sweetheart. All we can do is try to treat every day like it's precious."

"Every day with you is precious," Clancy said. "And I'm going to spend the rest of my life showing you just how precious you are to me."

"What a wonderful goal," Abby sighed.

"Mmm not a goal," Clancy murmured, "that's a promise. A promise that I'm gonna have an absolutely fantastic time keeping." Giving Abby her cockiest grin, the younger woman added, "And so are you."

THE END

This story is a work of fiction and is not intended to represent any particular individual, alive or dead. This work may not be printed or distributed for profit without the express written permission of the author.

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