Arbor Vitae

By SX Meagher

Chapter Five

Clancy was getting ready to head out to her parents' for the weekend's barbecue when Hayley called. "Uhm hi," the younger woman said tentatively. "It's Hayley Graham."

"Hey, Hayley. Having second thoughts?"

"No, not at all. I wondered if there was anything special I should have. Like clothes or tools or anything."

"Hmm do you have any work boots?"

"No, not really. Do I need them?"

"Not technically, but I prefer them. They keep some of the dirt from getting into my socks if nothing else."

"Okay. What else?"

"You'll need some well-fitted gloves. Preferably women's gloves. I noticed that your hands look pretty delicate."

"I can do that. Anything else?"

"A lot of sunblock is all I can think of. Do you know where to buy boots and gloves?"

"No, I don't think so. Maybe Target?"

"Tell you what. I've got to go to the contractor's supply store first thing in the morning. Wanna go with me?"

"Sure!" Hayley's enthusiasm was evident, and Clancy recalled what it was like to be young and filled with gusto for every new adventure.

"I'll swing by for you at 7:00." She paused for a second and asked, "That's not too early, is it?"

"Oh, no," Hayley lied. "I love to get up early."

"Me, too. So, I'll see you then, huh?"

"Okay. I'll be waiting."

O

The barbeque was winding down, and John O'Connor realized he'd have to admit defeat. He'd unobtrusively cornered his daughter at every opportunity, offered up plenty of leading questions, and even resorted to a direct one - all to no avail. He decided he had to resort to his secret source and called Michael over to the grill. "Anything going on with Clancy lately?" he asked bluntly. "She seems distant - like something's on her mind, but she won't talk about it. Her mom is under the impression that she might be seeing someone."

"Well, I can put that rumor to rest," Michael said. "She's not seeing a soul. All she's been doing is working and reworking those plans for that house in the Arroyo. That job means an awful lot to her."

"Is she worried about it?" John asked.

"Yeah, she must be," Michael said. "She's over there all the time - and she's been all over Southern California looking for the perfect materials. There's no way she's gonna make a dime on the job with all of the hours she's putting in."

"That could do it," John said. "She's always withdrawn when she's worried about something." He clapped the young man on the back. "Thanks for the info, Michael. It pays to have an insider who's not opposed to leaking secrets."

"I only leak things that are for her own good," Michael said. "I don't tell you the really sordid stuff."

John backhanded him in the gut, and the hair stylist reminded himself never to tease the brawny contractor about his precious daughter.

O

Armed, as it were, with a new pair of boots, a pair of pigskin gloves, and a bandana to keep the sun off her neck, Hayley climbed the steep hill alongside Clancy. "We'll probably build some temporary steps to avoid fatigue and make it easier to bring supplies up here, but for now, I think this is the most direct path," Clancy said.

Hayley nodded and made a mental note to go up the hill in the same way next time. They reached the top, and Clancy walked along the uneven slope like a mountain goat, her determined stride not faltering a bit. When they reached the far edge of the property, she stood with her hands on her hips and surveyed the fence line. "We're going to come out about two feet," she instructed, holding her hands out to give Hayley an idea of the distance. "We're gonna leave this ivy on most of the hill 'cause it's a good ground cover, but we have to get rid of it along the line of the new wall. This stuff can have roots that go down eighteen inches, and it can be thick enough to dull the blades on the trencher, so we have to do it by hand. What I want you to do is clear every scrap of vegetation from the fence to two feet out. If you find any significant roots, I want you to mark them with one of these little flags." She held up a foot-long piece of stiff wire with a two-inch square of red plastic attached to the end. "That way we'll know where to dig them out."

"I could do that, too," Hayley volunteered.

"You're gonna have your hands full; trust me," Clancy assured her. "Now this is a little unconventional, but it works great." She took out a dozen plastic grocery bags and handed them to Hayley. "Fill these up with the ivy that you dig up. When one is full, tie it off and throw it to the bottom of the hill. That way we can get rid of the stuff without lugging it down at the end of the day."

"Cool," Hayley agreed. "You're pretty smart."

"Trial and error," Clancy assured her. "I've made a lot of errors."

"What are you going to be doing?" Hayley asked.

"Well, I'm going to be supervising you," she teased. "Maybe I'll sit in the shade and drink lemonade." At Hayley's raised eyebrow, Clancy chuckled and said, "Your mom makes that same face."

"She stole it from me," the confident teenager insisted.

"I'm sure." Clancy looked at the list of tasks she wanted to accomplish by the end of the day and decided, "I think I'll work with you. I want you to get a feel for the easiest way to do this."

"Great! Let's get started!"

O

It was the two of them in the enclosed, private yard. Abby and Trevor had left before 7:00 to play golf with Ellen and her son, Sam, leaving the two laborers to their task. The day was really heating up, and at around 11:00, Clancy went down the hill to grab a pick-mattock. The heavy, worn tool had a sharp pick on one end and a squared-off cutting tool on the other. Clancy pulled a small diamond file from her back pocket and spent a few minutes properly sharpening the mattock. Hayley glanced at her. "What in the hell is that?"

"It's a mattock. It cuts through about anything - including feet, so stay clear of it. I decided I might as well get rid of the roots as you find 'em." She'd been standing still for a few minutes, but was still extraordinarily hot. "You don't mind if I take my shirt off, do you? I don't normally work in my sports bra, but it's scary hot today."

"No. Go right ahead. I got used to being naked around other girls at school this year."

"Mmm that's tempting in this heat, but I think the shirt is enough." Clancy shrugged out of her wet shirt and wiped her brow with it, then hung it on the stockade fence. She stood in her gray sports bra and spruce green shorts, and took a long pull off the liter bottle of water she had brought up with her. Sighing deeply when she thought of the effort she'd have to expend, she started to work, swinging the heavy tool from over her shoulder down to the roots - time and time and time again. The sweat was running off her body in rivulets - leaving a noticeable patch of mud where it landed on the ground. Her face was so flushed that it looked like she'd been burned, and after nearly a half-hour of constant work, she stopped for another drink.

Hayley was staring at her - slack-jawed. "I've never seen anyone work that hard!"

"Sure you have," Clancy said. "They're just not people you know. You see people in this neighborhood every day working this hard - or harder. You see gardeners and maids and construction workers and roofers working their butts off. They're invisible to you."

"I guess you're right," the younger woman mused. "It's different when it's someone you know."

Clancy took off her cap and doused it with the remaining water, now warm. She plopped it back onto her head and started up again, not stopping until high noon. Now her shorts were as wet as her hat, and she looked like she was about to pass out.

"You don't look so good," Hayley ventured.

"Oh, if you mean my red face, that's perfectly normal for me. It'll go away as soon as I rest for a bit."

"We get to rest?" the younger woman asked with hope-filled eyes.

"Yep. Time for lunch." Clancy strode down the hill and over to her backpack, taking out an enormous Tupperware bowl filled with fruit salad. Glancing at Hayley, she suggested, "Don't eat anything too heavy or you'll be sick."

The young woman nodded and took off for the house, removing her boots and socks before entering. She emerged a few minutes later with a bagel smothered in cream cheese. They sat together under the pergola, the sun deflected from their heads. "How long do you usually break?"

Clancy swallowed and said, "Depends. If it's raining or really cold, we like to keep going. But when it's hot like this, it's really best if we take at least an hour. Most of my guys grew up on farms in Mexico, and they're used to taking a little nap after lunch. It's really not a bad idea."

"If I slept now, I might not get up until tomorrow," Hayley moaned. "I don't know how you do this every day!"

"Well, to be honest, I don't. I usually let my guys do the installations, but they're all busy this week. I didn't want to wait to get started, so I figured I'd pitch in."

"Do you like your work, Clancy? It seems so hard."

"It is, but I love it. I was on the fence about being a regular architect or doing this - I'm really happy with my choice."

"Hey, if we're gonna take a long break, why not jump in the pool? I'm sure it'd feel great."

"Oh I don't know. I've never done anything like that on a job "

"Have you ever had the daughter of the owner on your work crew?" Hayley asked.

"Ha! No, I haven't, come to think of it. Does that give me carte blanche with the pool?"

"It does if you're with me. Come on and ditch those filthy boots. Let's cool off!" Hayley hopped to her feet and went into the house. She emerged a few minutes later, wearing a faded red swimsuit and carrying another in her hand. "I think this'll fit you," she said. "It's one of my mom's."

"I hope it's not too stretchy," Clancy said. "Your mom's longer than I am."

Hayley laughed, the sound so much like Abby's melodic laugh that Clancy couldn't help from grinning at the girl. "My dad used to call her his long drink of water. I never knew what that meant, but he said it all the time."

Clancy unlaced her boots, leaving a substantial deposit of dirt and mud on the patio. She had to nearly pry her socks off, but she doffed them and wiped as much of the dirt off her legs as she could. "Be right back," she said. She went into the bathroom by the laundry and quickly put on the long suit. She didn't care how it looked, as long as it stayed on. She was so excited about the beckoning water that she ran across the patio, dove into the deep end, and came up sputtering. "Damn! That feels great!"

"The pool has never felt so good," Hayley agreed enthusiastically.

They floated limply for a while, neither having the energy to do much else. It was tremendously refreshing, and Clancy thanked her new laborer several times for the generous offer.

A portion of the deep end was in shade and both women stayed in that section to keep the sun off their bodies as much as possible. "I like your tattoo," Hayley said, looking intently at the band of green ink.

"Oh, thanks. I had it done when I was in college. It's aged pretty well," she commented. "I was afraid it would fade."

"How long ago was that?" Hayley asked.

"Mmm I graduated in 1998," she said.

"That's about what I thought,"

"Don't try to guess my age that way," Clancy warned. "I worked for four years before I went to school." She could see the teenager trying to work the numbers and saved her the trouble. "I'll be thirty in December."

"You're kidding!"

"Nope. I'm planning on having a huge party. You're officially invited if you're still gonna be in town."

"Cool! I'd love to come." She looked at the tattoo again and asked, "Did it hurt a lot?"

"No, not really. It felt more like an irritation than real pain. It hurt the worst on the underside of my arm. The skin's pretty sensitive there."

"What hurt worse, the nipple ring or the tattoo?" Hayley asked with studied casualness.

Damn! Shoulda taken that out today! "The nipple ring," Clancy said, hoping the subject was closed.

"I was thinking of getting something pierced," Hayley said, and Clancy had a feeling she didn't mean her ears.

"Well, I don't regret it, but I was a lot older than you are when I had it done."

"I think I'm the only girl on my floor who doesn't have a tattoo or a piercing. This summer's gonna be a waste if I don't get one or the other before I go back to school."

"Is that really the best barometer?" Clancy asked. "There has to be something else that could save the summer for you - other than marking up your skin permanently."

"Why's it okay for you? I'm an adult, too."

"Hayley, you're seventeen. I'm almost thirty. That's a big difference."

"Damn! You sound like my mom! I thought you'd be cooler!"

Clancy blinked at the young woman, and Hayley noticed her startled expression.

"Oh, shit. Did that upset you?" Hayley asked, giving Clancy a very earnest look. "I didn't mean to."

"Nah. I don't get upset easily. I guess I was being a little parental. I'll try to act less like your mom and more like your boss." She gave the girl a charming smile that was immediately returned.

"Is it okay to ask the boss a personal question?"

"I guess it depends on the question," Clancy said.

"I was wondering if you were in a relationship."

"No," Clancy said, laughing. "The boss will entertain a few personal questions. I'm single right now. I've been working too hard to go out much this year, so I haven't been meeting people."

Hayley looked at her for a moment, then asked, "You're queer, right?"

Clancy gave her a crooked smile. "Yep. Doesn't bother you, does it?"

"I go to Santa Cruz!" Hayley said, as though that fact made her shock-proof.

"Right," Clancy said, nodding. "How about you? Seeing anyone?"

"No. I'm not really into that," Hayley said. "Relationships are so limiting. Casual sex makes more sense. I don't see why having sex means you have to spend all of your time with one guy."

"It doesn't mean that," Clancy agreed, "but you'll probably change your mind one day."

With a tiny furrow between her eyebrows, Hayley tilted her dark head and asked, "You think I'm a dumb kid, don't you?"

"Nah, not at all, but I think that you'll change your mind about what you want from sex a couple of dozen times by the time you're my age. When I was eighteen, I wanted to be consumed by a lover - but I learned that I need a lot of autonomy. You change your mind as you get more experience."

"Maybe," Hayley said, "but I think I'll always want my freedom. That 'till death do you part' stuff is so over."

"Not for me, Hayley. I'd love to sleep with one woman every night for the rest of my life. But I haven't found one I can stand for more than a couple of months - so I've got my work cut out for me." She inclined her head towards the hill. "Speaking of work "

"Okay, boss. Back to the rock pile."

O

Regrettably, the weather turned hotter, and by Wednesday, Clancy'd decided that she needed to start even earlier to avoid sunstroke. Abby was helping all she could - bringing them lots of water and a few small snacks throughout the day, but the only way to make the day bearable was to start at dawn's first light.

It was almost 11:00 when Hayley said, "Remember what you said about your guys taking a long nap in the middle of the day?"

"Yeah, I remember," Clancy panted, clearly exhausted from the heat.

"Why don't we do that today? The sun is off this part of the hill by 2:00. We could start up again then and work until 6:00."

Clancy wiped some of the sweat from her eyes and nodded blankly. "I don't normally do that, but I'm feeling awfully sick to my stomach. This could be dangerous."

"Great!" Hayley said with as much enthusiasm as she had left. "Let's hit the pool."

Clancy followed her down the hill, nearly salivating at the thought of swimming, when Abby stepped out onto the patio. "Ready for some lunch?"

"No thanks," Clancy said immediately. "My stomach's upset."

"She's overheated," Hayley said, and when Abby got a good look at the architect, she agreed with the assessment.

"I'll get you a swimsuit," she said decisively. "You need to cool off." She went into the house, with Clancy following after she took off her boots. The dogs happily licked the dirt, sweat and mud from her legs, while Clancy giggled hysterically. She took the proffered suit, then ran into the bath by the laundry room to change, saving herself from the flailing tongues in the process. Her tan was comical, and Abby had to force herself not to giggle when she saw it. Clancy had been using the strongest possible sunblock, but she had managed to get even darker, which drew even more attention to her pale skin. She saw Abby's expression and took a look down her body. Pasty white feet and ankles, pale skin from the edge of the navy blue suit to mid-thigh, and slightly tan shoulders, bracketed by very tan forearms and lower legs. "I'm thinking of contacting Playboy about a centerfold," she said.

"You have a great body," Abby said, giving her a long, assessing look. "Maybe you could be in the 'girls in the construction trade' issue."

"Some guys probably find farmer tans sexy," Clancy insisted. "It could be a big seller."

"No doubt. Now get out there and jump in that pool before I have to take you to the hospital."

"Aren't you going to come, too?"

"Well, I thought I'd make lunch first "

"Come on," Clancy urged. "For a little while?"

Abby flashed her a smile and gave in. "Okay. Until you two are up to eating a little."

Hayley walked barefoot into the kitchen, having wrestled off her boots and socks.

"Hurry up and change and get back outside. It's not good to go into an air-conditioned room when you're as hot as we are."

"Then get outside," Hayley said, giving her boss a faux scowl. She looked at her mother and said, "We're gonna take a long nap and then get started again at 2:00."

"Really?" Abby gave Clancy a questioning look, and the architect nodded.

"It's a little dangerous today with the heat and the smog. I was having trouble breathing. By 2:00 the hill will be in shade, and it should be safe to work then."

"Maybe we should call this off until it cools down," Abby said, worried.

"Well I've got my guys scheduled to start here the week after next," Clancy explained. "I'll have a huge hole in my schedule if we don't get going then."

"But I'm worried about you," Abby said, gazing at Clancy with round eyes.

"Part of the hazards," Clancy assured her. "A bad tan, calloused hands, and the possibility of heat stroke. You don't have to worry about us, Abby. We're used to it, and we know how to protect ourselves."

"Hayley doesn't," she insisted.

"I'm fine, Mom," the younger woman piped up. "It's Clancy who's doing the hard work."

Abby looked at her friend, her concern showing in her eyes. "I'm honestly worried about you, Clancy. You look completely exhausted."

"That nap does sound pretty good," she admitted. "I think I'll grab a raft and take a nap in the pool."

"I'm gonna take a shower and a nap," Hayley said. "Wouldn't you be more comfortable in the guest room?"

"No, I really do hate to be in air conditioning during the day. It makes it seem that much hotter when I go back outside."

"I'm willing to risk it," the girl said. She started to head for her room. "I'm willing to risk anything."

Clancy and Abby laughed at her dramatic attitude and went back outside. Clancy dove in and grabbed the nearest raft, then kicked until she was in the corner of the pool that was fully shaded. Hopping onto the soft surface, she sighed in satisfaction and paddled over to Abby. "This is gonna feel so good."

Abby smiled at her and said, "I'll go in and prepare a light snack for when you both wake up."

Clancy was asleep by the time her head finished nodding, and when Abby finished in the kitchen, she looked out to find that her friend's raft had drifted into the sun. How do I fix that? She changed into a suit and grabbed the book she'd been reading. She steadied one of the upright floating lounge chairs and got in, then kicked until she reached the landscaper. Gently pushing the raft, she maneuvered it into the shady corner, then settled down to read.

Well over an hour had passed when Trevor came home from his visit to the Federal Building to get his passport updated. He looked around the house, trying to find some sign of life. He knew his mother had to be home - he had her car. Walking into the kitchen, he glanced outside and saw his mom, her book on her lap, her foot pressing Clancy's raft into the corner. The younger woman was lying on her stomach, her head turned to the side, both arms dangling in the water. Abby's gaze had settled onto her face, and Trevor couldn't help but notice the fond affection that seemed to flow from his mother towards the younger woman.

He wasn't sure why, but something about the tableau was unsettling, and he turned away, trying to put the scene out of his mind.

O

By six o'clock, a substantial portion of the work Clancy had hoped to accomplish was finished, and she was feeling much, much better. It was still hot, but with the sun off their bodies the heat was bearable. They hadn't eaten after their nap - Clancy's stomach was still a little balky, and Hayley didn't have an appetite either, so now they were both ravenous.

Abby came out at 6:00 on the button and said, "Dinner will be ready in a half hour. That's enough time for you both to shower." Clancy gave her a puzzled look, but Abby placed her hands on her hips and stated in her most motherly voice, "I don't want any arguments out of you, Clancy O'Connor. You've used up five thousand calories today and haven't replenished them. You need a good dinner - and that's what you're going to get."

"Yes, Mom," she mumbled, drawing a snicker from Hayley.

Abby's retreating form answered. "I heard that."

O

For the rest of the week, they followed the same schedule. Clancy brought her own swimsuit and a long-sleeved, oversized T-shirt to wear over it, extra protection to keep the sun off her body while she napped. She also remembered to bring a long strip of elastic tubing, and she tied one end to an ankle and the other to a heavy chair - effectively holding her in place in the shady end of the pool.

She ate dinner with the Grahams every night and spent the remainder of each evening playing in the pool. The whole family liked to enjoy the pool during the warm evenings, and Clancy found herself eagerly joining in on the family tradition.

O

Trevor had to leave for Italy on Saturday, and like every other time since Hayley'd gotten her license, she drove him to the airport. That way Abby got to cry in private, and Trevor and Hayley got to spend a little time decompressing and critiquing the visit.

They hadn't gone very far when Trevor asked, "So, how do you think Mom's doing?"

"I think she's pretty good," Hayley said thoughtfully. "I'm glad that she hasn't had any dates since we've been home. She's been going out a lot, you know."

"Uhm I didn't know it was a lot," Trevor said, giving his sister a nervous look. "I'm not ready for this, Hayley. I can't think of her with another guy."

"Well, I don't know a heck of a lot, but from the little she's said, she's not having much luck."

"What? Mom's so cool! What guy wouldn't want to date her?"

"Make up your mind, Trev," Hayley said, laughing heartily.

"I don't know, Hayley. I mean, I want her to be happy, but "

"Don't you think she's happy?" Hayley asked. "I think she's much better than she was at spring break."

"You know, she does seem better," he said. He was really trying to get a handle on something niggling that was hovering at the edge of his brain, but he wasn't having much success.

"She's so hot for this project, Trev. You know how wild she is for the yard. Having something like this to concentrate on is probably helping her mood."

"Yeah," he said, smiling as he thought of his mother. "It must be the project."

Then, suddenly, Trevor felt his stomach lurch when he considered the shy glances that he saw Clancy give to his mother, the look on his mom's face when she was watching Clancy sleep in the pool, the way she sang to herself while making dinner - as she had when his father was alive, the constant care she lavished on the architect to make sure she wasn't working too hard. All of a sudden, it made sense to him. His mom was definitely happier than she'd been in a long while, but it wasn't the landscape that was putting a smile on her face - it was the landscaper. Thoughts flew around in his head, the image of his mother and another woman making him intensely uncomfortable. Trying to compose himself, he caught a glimpse of his sister's calm face and said, "I think you're right. The project is probably keeping her happy."

"Hey, Trev? We'll never get so old that a few boulders and a little stream will make our whole summer, will we?"

"Nah, not us, Hayley." He gave his sister a forced smile, hoping that his suspicions were only that.

O

Both of the Graham women were sad to have Trevor gone, and they picked feebly at their dinner. The silence was companionable, but Abby finally broke it. "We might as well admit how much we're gonna miss Trevor and get it over with."

Hayley looked at her for a moment, then Abby watched her daughter's face transform as her eyes closed and her lower lip started to tremble. "I hardly got to see him at all," the younger woman said. She wiped her eyes with her napkin, angry with herself for crying so easily.

Abby reached out and covered her hand, then slipped her fingers around her daughter's. "I know it's hard, honey. I feel the same way when you leave. God," she sighed, "I was a basket case when you left for school last September. Pam and Maria and Ellen each called me every day for two weeks. I think they were afraid I was gonna hang myself."

The young woman stared at her mother. "Is that true? Was it that hard for you?"

Laughing softly, Abby said, "I wasn't suicidal, honey. There's no way I'd put as much work into raising you two as I have and not stick around to see the results."

"But you were sad?"

"Of course I was sad!" Abby looked at her daughter as if she'd asked if the dogs could talk. "I cried every day for at least a month! I can't count the number of times I lay on your bed and cried - knowing you wouldn't be coming home that night. It was rough."

"Damn, Mom, why didn't you tell me?"

Abby squeezed her hand and shook her head briefly. "That's one of the pains of parenthood, baby. You don't burden your kids with your problems. I want you to have your own life, and going away to college is the best way I can think of to start. I would never want you to be worried about me. I know you had your own problems adjusting."

"I feel like such a jerk!" Hayley said. She pulled her hand away and stood to clear the table. "I was on the phone every other day complaining about some stupid little thing! I never would have done that if I'd known you were sad."

Abby got up as well and caught Hayley at the sink. She wrapped her arms around her waist and rested her chin on her shoulder. "I loved that you called me so often. It didn't matter what we talked about. I was happy that you trusted me to help you work out some of your problems."

"I do trust you, Mom. I don't think I knew how lucky I was until this year. Some of the women I've met have horror stories about their mothers that you wouldn't believe!"

"Sure I would," Abby said. "I've met some dreadful parents. Especially when you were in high school. Some of those parents should have been investigated by the state!"

"I never noticed," Hayley said. She leaned back a little and put her head on her mother's shoulder. "I wasn't aware of a lot of things in high school. I feel like I'm waking up and seeing the world now that I'm in college."

Abby tilted her head and kissed Hayley's cheek. "I hope you always know that I'm here for you, baby. No matter what, I'm on your side."

Hayley slipped from her mother's embrace and began to clear the remainder of the dishes. She made a comment that sounded like it was tossed off casually, but Abby heard the implied question. "You're not always on my side, Mom. You wouldn't like it if I started bringing guys home to stay overnight."

"No, I wouldn't like it," Abby said. She leaned against the counter and crossed her legs at the ankle, her arms crossed over her chest. "I not only wouldn't like it, I wouldn't allow it. But that doesn't mean I'm not on your side. I love you when I have to say no as well as yes."

"I like the yeses better," Hayley said, grinning slyly. "And I'm not so sure you'd stop me from bringing a date home."

"Then you'd better not try me," Abby said. "Because you'd be very embarrassed. I'm not kidding around about this, Hayley. No overnights until you're very serious about a boy, preferably engaged."

The girl stopped and stared at her mother. "That's not gonna happen, Mom. Marriage might have worked in earlier times, but it doesn't work in the twenty-first century. Haven't you read the statistics? Over half of all marriages end in divorce! People don't think of marriage as a permanent thing anymore. It's dating until you're sick of each other."

"Statistics can be misleading, Hayley. A lot of people believe in marriage. I do; your father did. All of our close friends are still with their spouses or partners."

"But you're from the previous generation," Hayley explained. "You were at the tail end of the trend."

Abby laughed, trying to force her eyes not to roll. "It's not a trend, honey. It's a way to have deep meaning in your life. There's nothing more satisfying than having someone in your life whom you trust completely, who's your friend and lover and playmate all rolled into one. Being married gave me security and a structure that I loved."

"Yeah? Where did all of that security and meaning get you? Dad's gone, and you haven't had any of that stuff for five years! Don't you miss it?"

"Is that a rhetorical question?" Abby asked. She went to the table and sat down, looking at her daughter in puzzlement. "How can you even ask that? I miss your father more than I could ever begin to tell."

"No, not Dad. I know how much you miss him," the girl said. "But you could have some of the things you had with Dad if you'd loosen up."

"Loosen up?"

"Yeah. You told me you've been dating. Where are those guys?"

Abby let out a wry laugh. "I haven't clicked with anyone. I've liked a few of them, but they didn't like me enough to call me again."

Hayley looked suspicious. "Come on that can't be true."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, honey, but it is true."

"Something's wrong here." Hayley sat down and looked at her mother for a moment, then asked, "What do you tell these guys?"

Thinking about the question for a minute, Abby said, "I tell them about your Dad, and I tell them about you and Trevor. I tell them about the things I'm involved in and the sports I like. The usual stuff." She smiled. "I don't know if you've noticed this, but on first dates, men like to do most of the talking."

"Yeah, I've noticed," Hayley said, chuckling. "But think about it, Mom, why should a guy call you again? Maybe men weren't this way when you were young, but nowadays, they like to get laid. If one of the guys you liked drove you home and you asked him in for sex, you'd at least fill some of the void."

"Void?" Abby managed to get out. "What void?"

"The void in your life since Daddy died. Wouldn't you be happier if you were having good sex?"

"Oh, Hayley." Abby rested her forehead on her open hand and tried to think of where to start. "I don't know who has convinced you that most women like no-attachments sex. It's not true, honey. It takes a while to know someone well enough to mesh with him sexually. God, what would you do on the date? Tell him what positions you like? How you like to be touched? What you will or won't do? Why not have a card printed up with your requirements?"

"That's not a bad idea, Mom. It's more honest that way. If you like him enough to go out with him, and you get along well on the date - why not have sex and see if it works?"

Abby's voice started to gain volume. "Because you'd walk away from some great guys! Sex isn't like fitting gears into a machine! It's nuanced and subtle, honey. Every time is different! When you're with someone you love, you learn how to read his signals. Sometimes you want tenderness, and sometimes you want to " She stopped and shook her head. "This is getting far too specific. I don't want to know the details of your sexual life, and I certainly don't want to talk about mine."

"That's so hypocritical!"

"How's that?" Abby asked.

"You want me to tell you things, but you won't tell me stuff that you do. That's not fair."

"Fair or not, I'm not talking about your father and my sex life. It's too personal, Hayley. Children shouldn't be subjected to that."

"I'm not a child, Mom. I know you and Dad had sex. It's no big deal."

"Yes, it is," Abby said. "It is a very big deal. It was one of the ways we communicated, Hayley. One of the ways we showed how much we loved one another. One of the things that gave us both joy. It was a very big deal, and pulling one of the guys I've been out with into my bed would never, ever come close to replicating what I had with your father."

"You don't know that," Hayley said, unwilling to give up. "You haven't tried it. How many guys did you have sex with before Daddy?"

"Seventy-eight," Abby said, gazing at her daughter calmly.

"Seventy-eight! Jesus, Mom! What the hell was going on with you?"

"Nothing," Abby said. "That was merely a little trick to show you why I won't tell you. There isn't a number I could say that wouldn't be manipulated to fit whatever point you're trying to make. I told you earlier that my sex life is my own business, honey. Before, during, and after my marriage."

"Then mine should be, too," Hayley said.

"I agree! I never have and I never would ask you specifics! You're the one who announced that you were going to stop looking for a boyfriend and start having sex for sex' sake."

"I'm sorry I brought it up," the girl said.

"I am, too, but only because it lets me see that I haven't impressed upon you how wonderful it is to be in a good relationship."

Hayley looked at her mother for a moment, then said quietly, "You're not in one now, Mom, and you haven't been in one for five years. If you wanted one, I think you'd have one by now."

Abby stared at her daughter for a moment, then got up and went outside, both dogs trailing behind her. She sat down and stared at the pool, looking at the tiny ripples that skimmed across the surface. The wind was freshening as it always did in the early evening. The cool ocean breeze had finally made it up the arroyo, and she calmed her racing thoughts as the light wind tossed a few locks of her hair about her head.

She was feeling numb, and she hated the way she and Hayley were interacting. She knew the girl was growing up and trying to find her own way, but she didn't like this new, confrontational style Hayley was developing. Knowing that Hayley was mimicking some of her friends from college, Abby reminded herself that Hayley had a very good foundation, and would probably seem more like her old self in a year or two. But that didn't make things settle well now. She'd never avoided having a talk with Hayley, but now she was almost hesitant to make time for them to be alone.

As the minutes passed, Hayley's words kept coming back, and she began to think about them in depth, eventually seeing her recent choices with a different slant. In her heart, she had to admit that she hadn't been showing her true self to the men she'd been seeing. All they saw was a once-strikingly beautiful, now very attractive middle-aged woman who spent the evening talking about her dead husband and her two kids. Why do I do that? Am I ready to have a relationship, or am I only trying to act like I am?

O

Chapter Six

Abby invited the O'Connors for a kind of working dinner, thinking she'd kill the proverbial two birds. After an enjoyable meal they made their way to the patio to continue the discussion. Abby, Clancy and John got right down to business, with John pulling out some design suggestions for the pool deck. Hayley looked at Margaret and asked, "Would you like to see the rest of the house? We didn't have time for a tour before dinner."

Relieved, the older woman agreed. "I'd love to. This technical talk goes right over my head."

They examined the house in some detail, Margaret's innate sense of design leading her to exclaim over many details of the house. She, like her daughter, was drawn to the living room, and she and Hayley sat down on the matching, leather-covered sofas to soak up some of the ambiance. The pair spent a good, long time together, chatting about nothing in particular.

"This is so nice for me," Margaret said. "I don't get to see Clancy in her work environment very often, and it's very reassuring to know she's spending her days with such nice people."

Hayley smiled and said, "It's not only her days, Mrs. O'Connor. We have dinner together almost every night."

The older woman blinked in surprise. "You do?"

"Sure. We changed our schedule around so that we take a three-hour break in the middle of the day. It's hot then, so we swim or nap, then have some lunch. We don't finish until 6:00 or 7:00 - until my mom makes us come in for dinner."

Margaret did her best not to gape. Naps? They take naps together? Dear Lord, don't tell me this girl is what's keeping Clancy so busy! Yes she's attractive, but she can't be twenty years old!. As the girl continued to speak, Margaret had to admit that except for her age, Hayley was exactly the kind of person she could picture Clancy with. She was remarkably attractive, poised, and very friendly and outgoing. Her mind seemed quick and agile, and her enthusiasm for nearly everything was contagious. I don't care if she's a good match! Clancy can't start dating a girl! It's bad enough that she wants a woman! I have to talk to John about this! He'll know how to talk some sense into her.

O

John O'Connor sat at the table, proudly watching his daughter explain her series of beautifully rendered drawings. He'd consulted with her before, but he'd never seen her interact with a client on a social level, and he was impressed. She seems so comfortable, he thought. I feel like a big lug when I'm at a client meeting, but Clancy acts like she was born into this kind of money. He snuck another look at Abby, thinking, Course, having a client like this one would sure make me wanna spend a long time meeting. She's one fine-looking woman. And she's so nice to Clance! He was pulled from his thoughts when Clancy started explaining how she was going to have the hill drain. He looked at her elevation drawing, glad to find it so well thought out. "I think you did a very smart thing to have the water collect into a French drain at the bottom of the slope." He tapped the paper, indicating the expanse of lawn next to the hill. "Good idea to loosen up this soil, too."

"Yeah," Clancy said. "In a bad storm, the French drain could be overwhelmed. I thought that putting a healthy depth of pea gravel under the lawn would take care of any overflow."

"I didn't know you were going to remove the sod," Abby said, looking concerned.

Clancy reached over and touched her hand, and the older woman looked into the reassuring gray eyes. "It's impossible to bring in the kind of equipment we're gonna need and not make a mess of your lawn. As long as we have to re-sod, we might as well do it right." She gave her a smile and said, "Don't worry. It's all included in my estimate."

Abby smiled back at her and said, "Oh, like I'd worry about that." She leaned over and nudged Clancy with her shoulder, grinning at John. "I have to force her to bill me for everything. This is the first time I've hired someone who I feel like I'm taking advantage of."

John looked from one woman to the other, wondering what in the hell was going on. He'd been in the business for a long time, and he'd never had a client touch him and tease him like Abby was doing. Not that I'd mind, he thought to himself. But there's something more than business going on here, and if I know my girl - she's got her eye on Abby!

O

As soon as they were in the car, John gave his wife his most superior smile and said, "Well, that's one mystery solved."

"Not so fast," she said, not wanting him to get the jump on her again. "I figured this one out, too."

"Oh, did you now?"

"I certainly did, John O'Connor. And I'm nearly sick over it!"

"Oh, Margaret, give the kid a break."

"Break nothing! It's not normal, and if she doesn't snap out of it, you're gonna have to do it!"

"How do we know we're talking about the same thing?"

She took out a piece of paper and jotted a few words down. Handing her husband a similar scrap, she said, "Write down what you think is going on." He smirked at her, but did it. She folded both pieces of paper, then initialed and dated his and had him do the same to hers. "I'm gonna put these away and wait for the mystery to be revealed. I'll bet you twenty bucks that I'm right."

"You're on, big spender. I can already count the money!"

O

On Friday afternoon, Clancy paid her young laborer, giving her cash so she didn't have to go to the bank. "You did a very good job clearing the hill, Hayley. If you're interested, I'll find something else for you to do."

"You're on," Hayley said. "I've gotta go - I'm going out with my friends tonight. But I'll be ready on Monday morning!" They shook hands, and the girl took off, negotiating the steep hill easily after two weeks of practice.

O

Abby got home just as Clancy was packing her truck. "Hi," the landscaper said. "Have a nice day?"

"I did not," Abby said. "My retractable roof wouldn't come up, and I had to drive home from Beverly Hills in this heat with the sun baking down on my head."

"Your new car!" Clancy walked over and took a look. "This is a pretty complex system. Having the roof slide into the trunk is no easy feat." She stuck her hand down on the side of the cowl and rooted around for a moment. With a grunt, she pulled her hand out, revealing a jewel case. "Nelly Furtado," she said. "Must be Hayley's."

Abby ground her teeth together. "Where is she?"

"Luckily for her, one of her friends picked her up a few minutes ago."

"Lucky, indeed. I have a headache that would kill a lesser woman. My dear girl also managed to make off with my sunglasses the last time she drove the car. All of the glare sure didn't help this headache."

"Damn, Abby, you'd better go put your suit on and float in the pool after you take some aspirin."

"Sounds good, but only if you'll join me."

"You're on, boss. I can't think of a better way to end the week."

O

Client and architect floated along on their rafts in a drowsy silence until Abby said, "So, tell me how my baby did during the last two weeks. Was she any help at all?"

"Oh, yeah, absolutely. She's a great kid, Abby. You should be proud of her."

"I am," she sighed. "As much as I complain, I love everything about her. She's like a little tornado around the house - but she's the cutest little tornado in the whole world."

"She's a lot of fun to be around," Clancy agreed. "We talk a lot on our breaks. It reminds me of just how young a seventeen-year-old is."

"Her birthday is in July. I'm sure she'll be happy to finally be eighteen. It sounds much older, doesn't it?"

"Yeah, I guess it does. She is in a hurry to grow up, but I guess I was, too."

The older woman slipped off her raft and said, "I need to swim a bit. Do you mind?"

"No, not at all. Have at it."

O

Clancy's idea of a swim was to lie in one spot and let the water cool her fevered body. Abby, however, meant that she wanted to exercise. She staked out her half of the pool and started to churn out laps, slicing through the water with a smooth economy of motion. She was obviously used to swimming regularly, and Clancy wondered if she'd been a competitive swimmer when she was younger. The architect lay on her raft, watching Abby's body glide through the water, her strokes never hesitating, each one identical, measured, rhythmic and smooth. Clancy had been keeping a rough count, but she eventually lost track and just watched, mesmerized - her eyes drifting time and again to Abby's round ass which just peeked out of the water as she moved.

She could tell when Abby was nearly finished because her pace slowed, and then, gradually, she stopped. Turning onto her back, Abby kicked through a pair of laps and floated over to Clancy.

"I have a feeling this isn't your first time in a pool," the landscaper said.

"No. If I'm not playing golf or running, I usually go up to the aquatics center at the Rose Bowl and peel off fifty or so laps. It clears my head."

"It keeps you in great shape, too," Clancy said, unable to keep her eyes off the sleek body that floated next to her.

"Yeah, I do all right for an old lady."

"Uh-huh. That act might work on some people, but I'm not buying it."

Abby grabbed a raft and hoisted herself onto it. She lay down, her chest moving noticeably from her exertion. She still had a small frown on her face, and Clancy said, "Headache still there?"

"No. I feel all right now. Why?"

"You look like something's bothering you. Are you mad at Hayley for screwing up your car?"

"Oh, God, no!" She laughed. "If I got mad at her every time she or her friends did something thoughtless " She slipped off her raft and started to tread water so she could stay upright and face Clancy. "I'm not angry, but I'm frustrated with her. We've talked a lot in the last two weeks, and she seems to have missed some of the most important lessons that Will and I tried to impart."

"Commitment?" Clancy asked.

"Yes, commitment is part of it, but I thought we modeled how rewarding it can be to find a partner and work on your relationship. She seems to think that sex is fulfilling with or without love - or even deep attraction! I don't know where she got that idea!"

"That's probably what she sees at school and on TV. Her peers are more influential than you are right now."

"I know, I know," Abby said, clearly frustrated. "That's been true for years. I just thought that my influence would have gotten in by now."

"Now you know how my mom felt," Clancy said, making a face.

Abby looked at her for a moment, then shook her head. "Because of your lesbianism?" Clancy nodded and Abby said, "That's not the same thing at all. I'd much rather have Hayley fall in love with a woman than have indiscriminate sex with a man."

Clancy was obviously surprised by her friend's answer. "I'm stunned," she said. "Do you really feel that way?"

"Of course. There's nothing wrong with lesbianism."

"Boy, I wish my mom felt that way. She still thinks it's unnatural."

Abby nodded. "Maybe I feel this way because I understand the attraction." She stared up at the hill while Clancy waited for her to continue. "There's something very organic about loving someone of your own sex. I mean, I don't think of my friends sexually, but I can see how easy it might be to breach the friend barrier and become lovers - given the right circumstances."

Clancy smiled at her friend, her heart beating rapidly as she considered how open Abby seemed to the idea of making love to another woman. "Wow."

"That surprises you?" Abby looked pleased.

"Yeah. Very much. The way you talk about Will "

"I loved Will with my whole heart, but if things had been different back at UCLA, I could have wound up with a woman. Circumstances can make a huge difference in a life."

Clancy nodded, still tingling all over. "I don't think I had much choice in the matter. Really my mom wasn't paying attention."

"Your mom?" Abby asked.

"Yeah. I acted like a baby dyke from the time I was a little girl. I dressed like my dad, I imitated everything he did. Heck, I had a little metal shovel when I was three! I used to go with him to job sites and dig little holes while he was excavating for a pool." She laughed, thinking back to those pleasant memories.

"I was a little tomboy myself," Abby told her. "That doesn't make you gay."

"No, of course it doesn't," Clancy agreed, "but my tomboy period never ended. I was dreaming about other little girls as early as I can remember, and I've never stopped. I wasn't very forthcoming with my thoughts, but my mom should have noticed something when I never had a boyfriend. I think she was trying to ignore the signals."

"You could be right," Abby said. "It's hard to face things about your children that make you uncomfortable."

"Hayley'll come around. I predict she goes through a lot of phases before she figures out who she is."

O

After they'd floated a while longer, Clancy saw Abby repeatedly press against her temples with her fingertips. "Now your headache's back, isn't it?"

"Yeah. Must be the glare. I think I'll take a nap - that usually helps."

Clancy looked at her friend and saw the lines of tension around her eyes and the tight, drawn set of her mouth. She wasn't sure why she offered, but something told her that Abby didn't want to be alone. "You know, Michael sometimes gets a lot of tension in his neck and shoulders. He's taught me how to give a great shoulder massage. How about it?"

A tiny sparkle flickered to life, and Clancy saw the longing in Abby's eyes. "I would be eternally grateful for that, Clancy. Are you sure you don't mind?"

"I wouldn't offer if I did."

They got out of the pool and dried off quickly. It was such a beautiful afternoon now that the sun had cleared the back of the house that Clancy suggested they stay outside. She knew that nothing filled Abby's soul as much as sitting on her patio, listening to the birds chirp, so she made a simple request. "I can't bear to put those grimy, wet clothes back on, but it might get cool soon. Could I borrow one of Hayley's T-shirts?"

"Sure. I'll get you one." Abby came back with a T-shirt for Clancy and a sky-blue tank top for herself. She also had a bottle of vanilla-scented massage lotion in her hand. "I'm ready for you," she said, smiling tentatively.

Clancy sat on one of the cushioned lounge chairs and scooted around until she was snug against the back. She dropped her feet to the sides and motioned for Abby to sit between her legs. "Come on down," she said, smiling up at her.

The older woman did, sitting rather stiffly until Clancy began to knead her shoulders. "Oh, my God," she moaned after just a few minutes. "Those hands are lethal weapons."

Clancy chuckled. "Manual labor gives you nice, strong hands. This isn't too hard, is it?"

"Ooh, right on the edge of pain," Abby sighed. "Just perfect."

They were both quiet for a few minutes, with Clancy's powerful hands digging deep into the tense muscles. After a while, Abby's head began to move with the pressure, and soon after that it began to loll back and forth. "Someone's starting to relax," Clancy murmured softly.

"I'm nearly unconscious."

Clancy stopped her massage. "Let me get up for a sec." Abby leaned forward and watched as Clancy extracted herself from the lounge chair, then brought another one to face in the opposite direction. She scooted it next to Abby's chair and then sat down, facing her friend. Stretching her legs out, she patted her thigh and urged, "Come rest your head on my lap. I've got a good nap waiting for you right here."

Abby's eyes lit up in surprise with a good measure of hesitation thrown in. "Really?"

"Sure. You really look like you need a little loving care, Abby. Let me help." She patted her lap again and gave her friend a warm smile.

Abby turned around and moved her torso onto Clancy's chair, then settled her head onto her lap. She was a little hesitant to accept such an intimate touch from her friend, but she was concurrently so ridiculously grateful to have someone soothe her that she pushed down her discomfort and tried to relax. Clancy's hands moved through her hair, making row after row of the short strands stand up straight and then fall gently. "Do you like to feel my nails?" she asked softly.

"Yes," Abby hissed, finding herself hypnotized by the sure, confident touch. "Good lord!"

"Feels nice, doesn't it?" Clancy's calm, soothing voice sounded like it was miles away, and Abby felt herself sink into the half-conscious state that a good head rub carried her to. She was awake enough to feel the strong, defined muscles in the younger woman's thighs, to detect her clean, chlorine smell, to feel the warmth of her skin against her cheek, but she was too blissful to comment on any of it. Nor was she able to thank her friend for the nicest gift she could remember receiving in quite a while.

As Abby's body relaxed further, a surprising thought came unbidden to the very edge of her conscious mind. Mmm was I lying before, or do I think of my friends in a sexual way? She snapped out of her tranquil state, unable to push the thought aside. I don't know where this is coming from, but I feel like I could jump the friendship barrier with Clancy. Something about her touch is so soothing - but so stimulating. Pressing her thighs together, Abby acknowledged, She's stimulating a lot more than my emotions, too. Damn, no one has made me throb like this in five years! She tried to control her physical response - to reassure herself that having someone, anyone, touch her in such a gentle way would arouse her. But she was unable to disabuse herself of the surprising depth of her feelings for the woman who caressed her so lovingly. Will you stop worrying? You're not a dog! You don't have to give in to every passing impulse - and that's what this is. Just relax and enjoy it. You might not get another head rub for five more years!

Clancy had a hard time telling whether Abby was awake or asleep. Her breathing was slow and rhythmic, but her eyes were still under her lids and her face bore some faint lines of tension. She kept up the gentle rub, mixing in delicate little scalp scratches, never letting her hands still. Finally, after a very long time, she heard Abby's breathing grow deeper and saw her jaw drop open just a little, and she knew she was asleep.

She spent the next two hours merely observing the sleeping woman, relishing the closeness and the feel of the head in her lap. It was more moving than thrilling - Clancy having bundled away her romantic feelings for the afternoon. She had banished all such thoughts, caring only that she could provide some comfort for a friend who needed a little support.

Even though she had her lust firmly in check, Clancy couldn't hide her love for the gentle creature that she held. Her heart swelled with affection and warmth for the lovely woman, made even lovelier by sleep. When she was fully asleep, Abby's face softened, and the years melted away. She actually looked a good ten years younger, and though part of Abby's appeal was her age, Clancy liked seeing some of the youthful charm back on the beautiful face - if only to remind her that it was still there, just waiting to be tapped.

The blue eyes, now tightly shuttered, moved quickly beneath their lids, Abby obviously deep in a dream. The sun had nearly set, and though both women were dry, the evening breeze was a little cool on Clancy's bare skin. Thinking that Abby might be cold too, she reached as far as she could and just managed to snag a dry towel. She shook it out and laid it lengthwise along Abby's long body, now curled up tight on the chair next to her. Running her hands down the cool skin of the sleeping woman's arm, Clancy let herself enjoy the sensation of being able to calm and soothe her friend, and she decided right then that if this was all they were ever able to share, she would consider herself very lucky. Abby was such a generous, loving soul that Clancy was determined to accept whatever she was able to give - and be completely grateful for it.

By the time Abby stirred, Artemis was lying on the end of her lounge chair, curled up against her legs and providing needed warmth. Athena was lying on Clancy's chair, providing the same for her. Abby let out a small groan and wiped lazily at her eyes. Her eyes shot open after a moment, and she gasped, "Why is it dark?"

"Uhm science wasn't my best subject, but I think it's because the sun's on the other side of the earth for half of every day."

Summoning up all the energy she could, Abby slapped weakly at Clancy's bare thigh. Her hand lingered there for a moment, then she rotated her head and met the architect's eyes. "You're freezing!"

"No, I'm not," Clancy assured her. "I've got your nice warm head on my lap, and Athena's nice warm body against my shins. There's about six inches of cold skin - your hand just happened to land on it."

Abby rolled over and said, "I don't really believe you, but I'm going to act like I do." She directed a grateful look at her friend and said, "Thank you for this. I haven't felt this cared for in years."

Clancy was still idly playing with the short, stiff hair at the back of Abby's head. "I'm surprised you and Hayley don't trade head rubs."

Shaking her head gently, Abby said, "No, we don't. I still rub her head or give her a backrub when she's having trouble relaxing, but I don't ever ask for one for myself." She looked at Clancy and said, "I'm always cognizant that I'm her mother - I'm here to provide for her not to ask her to do the same."

"Don't you think that changes over time?" Clancy asked. "Didn't it change with your mom?"

Abby stretched languidly, getting out the kinks that her position had created. "Yes, I suppose it started to change when I was in my thirties and has gotten much more pronounced in the last few years," she mused. "I feel more like my mother's friend now. But that comes at a price, too. I would never ask her for a head rub, even though I'm sure she would happily give me one. Our dynamic has changed, and I think we've lost that physical connection for good."

"I guess things have just started to change with my mom and me," Clancy decided. "I suppose Hayley is a little young to think of you as a friend."

"She is," Abby agreed. "She's gonna need a mom for quite a few more years." She groaned and said, "I hope she realizes that." She sat up slowly, then reached down and patted Clancy's warm, sleep-creased thigh. "Thank you again for this. It really helped."

"You're welcome. I know it can be hard being a mom, Abby. I know my mom was at the end of her rope with me many, many times."

"Really?" Abby asked, surprised. "You seem so level-headed."

"Well, I am now, but my mom and I had many tests of will."

"Like?"

"Well, my tattoo is a good example," Clancy said, reflexively rubbing her arm. "I was going to get a nice laurel wreath around my ankle, but my mother forbade me to. So, of course, I had to get a much bigger tattoo in a much more visible place. Thank God I like it, or I'd be kicking myself every time I wore a sleeveless shirt."

Abby reached out and traced one of the small ivy leaves. "I like it, too. It suits you."

Now that Abby was fully awake and exhibiting her more playful side, Clancy allowed her libido to return in full force. Her skin felt hot as the cool digit traced along it - like Abby's finger was a red-hot branding iron. She shivered from the sensation, and Abby read the shiver, but misinterpreted it. "You're getting chilled. Let's go inside."

Following meekly along, Clancy stood in the kitchen feeling a little uncomfortable. She was still in her swimsuit, and the T-shirt didn't quite cover her. The air conditioner had been on and the house was very cool, making Clancy's nipples pop out. Abby gave her a quick glance and said, "Let me get you something to put on. We can put your clothes into the washer so you can bear to put them on again."

"Are you sure?" Clancy asked. "I don't want to put you out."

"How is doing a tiny load of laundry going to put me out? Now hand 'em over."

"I just thought you might have something you'd rather do this evening," Clancy persisted.

"If you weren't here, I'd probably lie on the couch and watch TV," she said. "Having you here is very nice." She gazed at her for a second and quickly added, "But if you're ready to go home "

"No. I'd much rather stay here with you. I really enjoy your company, Abby."

"I do, too," Abby smiled warmly. "Now give me your clothes, and we can have a nice evening doing laundry together."

O

The pair watched a DVD while Clancy's clothes were in the washer. Neither woman talked much, but Clancy was hyper-alert for any more clues as to how Abby felt about her. She didn't learn much, to her displeasure, because Abby was her usual self: upbeat, witty, polite, and very hard to read.

When the clothes were in the dryer, the architect recalled that she'd forgotten to share some news with her client. "I got a good lead on some well-worn boulders and rocks not far from the Merced River," she announced. "It'll take about four hours to get there, but driving is the only way to go since it's three hours from the closest airport. Do you still want to take a road-trip?"

"What's your feeling about this? I don't mind going, but I really don't want to waste that long in the car if these aren't what we're looking for."

Giving her a long look, Clancy said, "I think we'll like them, but I can't be sure until I see 'em. Tell you what - I'll drive up this Saturday. If I like 'em, I'll take some pictures. Then you can decide."

"No, no, we decided to make this into a little getaway. I still want to do that. Would we go up and back in the same day?"

"Well, we could. How do you feel about eight hours in the car?"

"Not very good. Are there any nice places to stay?"

"Nice? I doubt it. Rustic, bucolic, pastoral - I might be able to arrange."

"Rustic, huh?" Abby asked speculatively. "Oh, what the hell. It's not like my social calendar is so full. Could we go next Saturday morning?"

"Yeah. That could work out great. I'll make the arrangements."

"Find us someplace nice if possible," Abby said. "A roaring fire, a big, redwood hot-tub. We might as well mix as much fun in as we can, right?"

Clancy almost had to pinch herself to stop her mind's eye from dwelling on an image of Abby, completely naked, playing footsie with her in a big, bubbling hot-tub, a sky full of twinkling stars forming a canopy over their heads. "Right," she said. "Fun is definitely on the agenda."

O

To be continued in Part 4

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