Arbor Vitae

By SX Meagher

Chapter Nine

When Clancy arrived at the Graham house on Monday morning, she was filled with as much apprehension as she had been the day she'd originally taken her plans over for Abby's approval. She was the first to arrive, but Ramon and his men pulled up before she'd had the chance to leave her truck. They all chatted for a moment, then started to unload their tools. Everything seemed normal, but Clancy knew that the seemingly normal atmosphere was an illusion.

Her instinct was confirmed when Hayley didn't bound out of the house as she usually did. The back doors were closed, and the shades were down - another unusual occurrence.

When they were ready to work, Ramon asked, "Is Hayley coming? I need her."

"I'm not sure," Clancy said. "I guess I'll have to fill in."

Ramon smiled, looking a little too happy to Clancy's eye. "It's gonna be a long day, jeffa. Time to mix mortar."

Grumbling to herself, Clancy got to work. She didn't mind the labor, but it meant that she couldn't inspect the work with the same care she normally did. And if anyone needed her help, she'd be leaving Ramon without the mortar he needed to set the concrete blocks in place. If she'd known Hayley wasn't going to work, she would have hired an additional man for the week, or had Armando bring his son, Jesus.

She wasn't sure, but she thought she heard voices coming from the house. At one point, a door slammed, and Ramon looked at her with a quizzical expression. Not knowing what was going on, and not wanting to tell Ramon any of the details of the previous weekend, she shrugged her shoulders.

After about half an hour, Hayley came out - obviously having been crying. Clancy was up on the hill, but she walked down and met her on the lawn. Hayley was trying to look nonchalant, but it wasn't working. She looked like a little girl who'd been punished and now had to apologize - against her will. She wouldn't look Clancy in the eye, and her voice was tense and angry. "I came to tell you I quit. I'll stay for two weeks if I have to, but I don't want to."

Clancy waited for a second, then told her the truth. "If you don't want to be here, I don't want you. This isn't the type of work you can do if you're not concentrating."

"Yeah. This is really complex stuff," the girl said, sounding bitter and spiteful.

Her attitude hit Clancy in exactly the wrong place. She stared at the girl for a moment, but Hayley never lifted her chin. "I know you're not used to interacting with working-class people, but even we idiots have feelings."

Hayley looked up and fixed Clancy with her intense blue eyes. "I have feelings, too!"

"Yeah. And when they're hurt, you blame other people. You've got a lot of growing up to do, Hayley. Do the working-class women of the world a favor - don't try to date us if we don't measure up to your normally high standards." She turned and went back up the hill, leaving Hayley standing on the lawn, looking stunned. After a moment, the girl went back into the house, slamming the sliding-glass door so hard, it almost jumped its track.

After a few minutes, Clancy saw the Lexus drive away. She wasn't sure if mother or daughter was driving, but she hoped it was Hayley, and that she was going far, far away.

O

Shortly after the Lexus left, another car pulled up to the house and honked briefly. Clancy saw Abby walk down the drive, clad in a sleeveless polo shirt and a pair of khaki shorts. She saw her turn and scan the hill just before she got into the car, and Clancy smiled when Abby saw her and gave a tentative wave.

O

It was nearly quitting time when the back door opened and Abby emerged, with both dogs straining at their leashes. She took them to the far side of the property to relieve themselves, catching Clancy's eye when they went back towards the house. Abby gestured to Clancy, and the landscaper walked down the hill.

"Can I get you something to drink? I just went to the grocery."

"Sure. I'll wait out here so I don't get the floor dirty."

Abby gave her a chiding glance and said, "Take those boots off and come in the kitchen. I miss your lips." She turned and headed in, leaving Clancy to swallow to get the moisture back into her mouth.

The dogs were overjoyed to see her, and she let them lick her on the face and mouth before she stood and reached for Abby.

"That's a very gentle soap by the sink," the older woman informed her. "I'll get you a towel."

"They're your dogs!"

"Yes, and you'll note that I don't allow them to lick my mouth. I know where those tongues have been - it's not pretty."

Clancy looked at the girls and idly thought aloud, "I've always wondered what it would be like to be able to lick " She stopped mid-sentence when Abby gave her a stern look. "Boy, you've got that mom look down!" She turned and started to wash her face and hands, then kept going when she saw how dirty her arms were. Abby handed her the towel, then placed her hands on the architect's hips while Clancy dried off.

"I don't mean to treat you like a kid, Clancy. That's not how I think of you."

"Joking." Clancy smiled, then added, "I have a feeling you had to play tough-cop mom this morning. Wanna talk about it?"

Abby sat down at the kitchen table and gestured for Clancy to do the same. "I'm so disappointed in her," she said. "Maybe this is making her crazy because she's never been turned down by anyone she was interested in, but that's no excuse. She's acting like a spoiled brat, and I have to say - that's one of my least favorite species on the planet."

Clancy let out a relieved breath. She'd been slightly worried that Abby would sympathize with Hayley over this issue and was very happy to hear that wasn't the case. "I've been wondering how this is going down for you," Clancy said. "Does it freak you out that she's interested in a woman?"

Abby looked at her for a moment, then started to laugh softly. "I'd probably feel different if I didn't have a crush on you at the same time. I've hardly given it a thought."

"You should," Clancy said, not wanting to make matters worse, but also not wanting to have it hit Abby later.

"We talked about it a little this morning," Abby said. "Nothing too intense, since we were arguing about whether or not she had to go out and talk to you."

"That must have been fun."

"Yeah. It was a blast," Abby said, her voice flat. "I went into her room this morning to wake her up, and she said she'd quit. When she admitted she hadn't told you, we started to argue. It came out that she was angry because you'd turned her down."

Clancy took Abby's hand and chafed it gently between her own. "That must have been a very weird conversation for you to have."

Smiling tentatively, Abby nodded. "Weird is a good word. She must think I'm a remarkably open-minded mother, since I barely blinked when she told me. I suppose it helps to know ahead of time."

Still stroking her hand, Clancy said, "She actually told me you're open-minded. She said you have lesbian friends, and you wouldn't care that she was interested in a woman."

Abby nodded. "That's probably true, but it would still take me a while to get used to the idea. If she's serious about this." She looked at Clancy, then a small frown settled on her face. "Do you think she's serious?"

"I have no idea. I didn't get any vibes from her at first. I think she might just be trying to " She pulled off her cap and scratched her head. "I'm clueless."

"She acted like she was telling me she was dating a boy with red hair," Abby said. "She tossed off the comment like it was nothing at all. I raised her to be open-minded, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable with her being this open-minded."

Now Clancy was frowning. "So you would be upset if she was attracted to women?"

"Just because I'm a mother, doesn't mean I'm a hypocrite," Abby said, smiling. "All I'm saying is that it would take me a little time to get used to it. And " She thought for a minute. "I'd like to think that she had to think about it, too."

"Why?"

"Why?" Abby gave her a puzzled look. "Why?"

"Yeah. Why? If you have lesbian friends, and you're attracted to a woman, why do you think Hayley has to be cautious about this?"

Abby gave her a blank look. "I'm not sure. It just doesn't seem like the kind of thing you should do on a whim."

"Because ?"

"I don't know, Clancy. It just seems like something a girl should think about before she jumps into it!"

Clancy removed her hand from Abby's, then leaned back in her chair. She took a sip of her drink, then asked, "Does talking about this upset you? You seem pretty frustrated."

Abby nodded. "Yeah, I am. I don't do well at talking about things if I'm not prepared."

"Then maybe you'd better think about this a little more," Clancy said. "Maybe you'd better think about how you feel about lesbianism. It's not just a concept anymore, Abby. This is my reality, and if you wanna be involved with me, it's gonna be your reality, too."

The older woman sat completely still for a moment, then looked at Clancy and said, "You might be right. I need to talk to Hayley a little more, then think about what I'm doing. Right now, I'm letting my sexual feelings take over."

"I love your sexual feelings," Clancy said, smiling at her, "but this is much more than sex. Like I told you on the weekend, I don't want a fling; I want love. Loving a woman is a big decision, Abby. I think we should cool things until you've thought about that."

The older woman crossed her arms over her chest and gave Clancy a look that the architect couldn't read. She didn't look angry or puzzled, but her eyes were slightly narrowed and her lips were pursed. After a moment she said, "You're right. I don't want you to be right, but you are."

Clancy got up and kissed her friend on the top of the head. "Call me if you wanna talk. I'm always available."

Abby watched the younger woman leave the house, wishing she could call her back and kiss her until everything was sorted out.

O

When Clancy got home she took off her clothes and took a long shower. After she was dry, she debated what to do with her evening. Watching television didn't interest her, and she didn't feel like reading. What she wanted to do was go to Abby's house and shake her until she starting talking. Clancy had never been with a woman who was so guarded or so reticent to talk about her emotions, and it was starting to drive her mad. But she didn't have any idea how to make the process go any quicker. She knew that she had to accept that Abby was different than she was, and learn to live with that difference - or end the relationship before it got any more involved.

Unable and unwilling to think about it any more, she went into her room and lay on her bed, deciding that she was too depressed to do anything more demanding.

X

Abby didn't call that night or the next, and just before Clancy went to bed on Tuesday, Michael stopped by her room. "Any word from Abby?"

"No, nothing. She didn't even come outside today. I don't know her well enough to know if she's thinking or ignoring me."

"Give her the benefit of the doubt," he said. "What could it hurt?"

She gave him a half-smile. "I suppose you're right. I'll try to assume she's sorting things out. But if she ignores me for long, I'm gonna hide after work until she thinks I'm gone, then jump out from behind a tree and tackle her when she lets the dogs out."

"Good idea. Glad to hear that you're thinking clearly as usual," Michael said. He blew his friend a kiss and left the room, hoping that Abby was as reliable as Clancy needed her to be.

O

On Wednesday night, Abby broke the silence by calling Clancy less than an hour after the architect had left the property. "Hi. Wanna go out for dinner?"

"Dinner? Uhm sure. I guess. Where do you wanna go?" Her heart was hammering in her chest, and she was sure her teeth were chattering audibly. But Abby sounded like she always did, and that reassured Clancy - a little.

"Someplace where we can talk privately."

"How about the Continental?"

"The Continental? I don't think I know it."

"Are you kidding me? You've lived in Pasadena all your life! Everyone knows the Continental!"

"Well, I don't. Where is it?"

"Close to you, but parking is a bitch. So I'll jump in the shower while you drive over here. One car will be easier than two."

"Deal. I'll be there in half an hour."

"Oh, Abby? We'll probably be outside, so bring a sweater."

"Great. I love to eat outside."

An hour later they arrived at the Lake Street address. There was a long line, and Abby was a little disappointed that this was obviously a regular hamburger joint. But when they got to the counter, she saw that she could order nearly anything. The menu was truly humongous. "Is this a Greek restaurant?" she asked.

"Kinda," Clancy said. "And those are my favorite things. The shish kebobs are great."

"Interesting," the older woman said.

A smiling man came up to them and embraced Clancy. "Where have you been? I haven't seen you or Michael for weeks!"

"Oh, it's nothing personal," Clancy said, smiling. "I've been working like a dog."

"Who's this?" he asked, giving Abby the once-over.

"This is my friend, Abby," Clancy said. "Abby, this is Mike, one of the owners. Michael and I have been coming here since we were in high school." "They're my best customers," Mike said, but Abby doubted him - given that Mike hugged nearly everyone in line.

"Any chance we can sit outside, Mike?" Clancy asked. "Abby and I have some business to discuss, and we need privacy."

"It is done," he said immediately. "Find Ricardo and tell him to set you up."

She smiled at him and nodded. "Will do. Thanks, Mike."

"You don't have to wait in line," he said. "Shish kebabs?"

Abby nodded mutely, and Clancy winked. "We'll go get our table."

They walked to the front of the line, and Clancy paid for two orders of shish kebab and a liter of Roditis wine. Then she took Abby by the hand and led her through rooms that seemed to have no connection to one another. They finally reached a lovely, quiet patio that was nestled up against a grocery store parking lot. The place was oddly tranquil, and Abby was very happy that they were able to be outdoors. Clancy found Ricardo, and after she'd hugged him, too, he led them to the quietest corner of the place. There was no table, but in a moment, Ricardo had one brought over. He put two chairs next to it, then draped it with a red and white checked oilcloth. A server came over and delivered their wine and some bread before they'd had a chance to sit down.

"Well," Abby said, looking around the dark, intimate nook, "I love the little Italian lights. Very cute."

"This isn't the world's finest dining," Clancy said, "but it feels like home. And it's as cheap as they come." She laughed nervously for a moment, then smiled when Abby took her hand. "I've missed you."

"I've missed you, too," Abby said. "More than I could have imagined."

Before they'd taken a sip of their wine, Mike appeared with their entrees. "Here you go," he said. "You can stay all night if you want. I told Luz to ignore you if you don't ask for help."

"Thanks, Mike. This is perfect," Clancy said. With a small bow, Mike was off.

Abby was smiling fondly at her friend. "Does everyone like you?"

Clancy blushed at the compliment. "Uhm most people do. I'm a good customer: I don't ask for much, I'm polite, I always leave a good tip, and I'm faithful."

"That's part of the reason I like you," Abby said. "Although you've never tipped me."

"Play your cards right," Clancy said, giving her friend a sexy smile.

Abby touched the corner of the younger woman's mouth. "That's another reason. You, Ms. O'Connor, are a very sexy woman."

"Sometimes," Clancy agreed. "So, what's been going on in the Graham household? Are things calming down?"

Abby took a bite of her food and nodded her approval. "A little. Hayley and I have talked about her new interest, and I'm still not sure if she's truly interested in dating women in general. She's a tough one to figure out."

"How about her mom? Is she interested?"

"I don't know if I'm interested in general," Abby said, "but I'm very interested in you."

Clancy ate some of her rice pilaf and smiled. "Interested enough to tell your family and friends? Interested enough to put up with the shit you'll get from some of the people in your life?"

"Yes, I am," Abby said. "I know it'll be hard, but I don't think I can turn back now. I'd feel like a coward."

"A coward?"

"Yeah. I'm very, very attracted to you, Clancy. It wouldn't take much for me to fall hopelessly in love with you. If I didn't act on this, it would only be because I was frightened, and that's not how I like to live my life."

Clancy's smile grew, and she took another sip of her wine, then touched Abby's glass with her own. "I love a woman with guts." She put her drink down and said, "Have you thought about why you said Hayley should give some thought to this before she went out with a woman?"

"Yes, I have," Abby said. "I think it's exactly the same way I felt when she started to date boys. I wanted her to think about it, decide what she wanted in a boy, how far she was willing to go sexually, how much of her time she wanted to devote to dating. You know - what was more important - her friends, her time with the family, or dating."

"Huh. I never spent time thinking about that," Clancy said. "Maybe because I could never get a date."

"That's changed," Abby said, smiling. "An entire household is ready to take you on."

Clancy ignored the comment and pressed Abby a little. "So you don't think that being in a lesbian relationship is a bad thing? Or that Hayley is doing something abnormal?"

Abby looked shocked. "No! Of course not! I just surprised myself the other day when I was unable to put this into words. I've told you I don't think well on my feet. That's why I was a history major. I take the long view on almost everything."

"Hmm I'm careful, but I can always explain why I do something or like something. Will that drive you crazy?"

"Not if my way doesn't drive you crazy."

"Oh, you drive me crazy all right." Clancy was staring at Abby's lips, and finally, the older woman couldn't resist her for another second. They leaned into each other and kissed, their meals forgotten once they'd tasted each other's lips.

O

The next day, Abby watched Clancy and the men put their tools away, then she made a scramble for the front door, trying to look like as if it were happenstance that she'd chosen that moment to get her mail. "Oh, hi, Clancy, Ramon."

Ramon gave her a gleaming smile, his white teeth contrasting with his sun-darkened skin. "Good evening, Mrs. Graham."

"Hi, Abby," Clancy said. "Wanna see what we've accomplished in the last few days?"

"Sure. Is now a good time?"

"Perfect. We're all packed up." She patted Ramon on the back and said, "See you tomorrow." He got into the truck and started it, the radio playing loudly as soon as the engine kicked over. When he pulled away, Clancy made a face. "I tell him he's gonna ruin his hearing, but he never listens to me."

"You're so cute," Abby said. They were standing just inside the gate, not a very private place. Abby gave the landscaper a look that was filled with longing. "I've been thinking about you all day and remembering how your mouth tasted last night. I barely remember what we had for dinner, but I'll never forget how delicious you were. I wish I could kiss you right here."

"And you're the woman who couldn't get a second date, huh?" Clancy asked, smirking a little. "The better I know you, the more certain I am that you weren't trying, Mrs. Graham. You're as hot as a cheap pistol, and you could get any man in town if you looked at him like that."

"You're the only person I want, Clancy, so only you get the look."

Forcing herself not to take Abby's hand, the younger woman asked, "Hayley home?"

"No. I dropped her off at a friend's house a little while ago. A group of her friends are going to a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, then staying overnight together. I'm all alone."

Her comment was loaded with innuendo, and Clancy gave her a racy smile. "Know what would be fun to do?"

Abby nodded, then started to run, with Clancy following in hot pursuit. They reached the front door, both dogs going wild when Clancy stopped at the door to take off her boots and socks. The women were laughing, the dogs were jumping, and the whole house seemed alive. "This is just like when the kids are both home," Abby said. Almost immediately, her smile faded and she said, "I hope that didn't sound like I think of you as a kid."

Clancy gave her a wide smile. "You don't treat me like a kid. Not ever."

"Still "

Clancy smoothed the lines from between her eyebrows with the tip of her finger. "Abby," she soothed, her voice dropping into a sexy timbre, "I don't think maternal thoughts when I do this." She slid her hands around her lover's hips and drew her close, then tilted her head to kiss her gently, teasing her lips open with her tongue.

Abby responded enthusiastically, opening her mouth to suckle on the tip of the pink, wet tongue.

With a lusty growl, Clancy backed her up against the kitchen counter and pressed her hips into her, straddling her legs. She grasped her head and kissed her hungrily, not stopping until she felt Abby's surprise give way to a keen response. They were grinding against each other furiously, with Clancy trying to get her hand between their bodies to palm Abby's breast. The older woman joined in the quest, helping her lover unbutton her shirt - her need for her irresistible. Neither heard the heavy footsteps approach the back door, and when John O'Connor peered in, he practically fainted dead away. He turned to leave, but Athena picked her head up and started to growl, causing Abby to turn her startled gaze to the door.

"Oh, shit," she muttered, pushing Clancy away. "Your father's here."

Clancy whirled and faced the thoroughly embarrassed man, then turned Abby around to hurriedly help her button her shirt and tuck it into her shorts. With as much dignity as she could gather, she strode over to shush the dogs and let him in. "Uhm hi, Dad," she said, her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. "Guess what?"

He tried to make light of the situation, giving Abby a grin as he said, "I've gotta start picking friendlier clients. Mine pay me by check."

Clancy slapped him in the gut, but found that his attempt at humor had been successful. Abby actually looked relieved, and she approached him and said, "I'm so sorry, John. We shouldn't have been doing that."

"Why not? It's your house," he said. "You're both adults, and you didn't know I was coming over. I should be the one to apologize."

Looking at him tentatively, Clancy asked, "Are you okay with this, Dad?"

"Well, I don't see any reason not to be." He gave Abby a quick look, then turned back to his child. "She certainly isn't after your money. She probably doesn't have a criminal record or a drug problem." He looked at Abby and asked, "You don't, do you?"

"No," she said. "I don't drink to excess, either."

"Well, that's actually a bad mark in my book, but I won't hold it against you." He chuckled at his own joke and shrugged his shoulders. "As long as you don't break my little girl's heart, I don't have a problem with you."

"I would never do that intentionally," Abby said softly, her eyes meeting Clancy's. "She deserves nothing but the best."

"Then we're agreed. Now does anyone care to stop smooching and take a look at some of the samples I brought with me?"

Clancy gave her father a warm hug. "Thanks," she said. "It feels great to know you're on my side."

"I am. Wouldn't place bets on your mother, though. I think you two ought to come to the house this week and make nice with her."

Giving Abby a sheepish look, Clancy asked, "Are you willing to do that?"

"Of course. Any night is just fine."

"How about Saturday?" John suggested. "Then I can have a few drinks and not have to worry about getting up early."

"Since when has that stopped you?" Clancy asked.

"Never has. I just don't like to worry about it."

O

John left at around 6:00, and as soon as he did, Clancy went in to grab a pair of beers. Abby was already sitting on the loveseat, and she patted the other cushion when Clancy came back out. "That was interesting," the older woman said, rolling her eyes. "It's been twenty-five years since Will's mother caught us groping each other. I'm out of practice."

Clancy took a long pull on her beer and leaned her head back, letting some of the tension go. "I knew people would find out - I just thought they'd find out by my telling them." She gave Abby a smile and said, "That's the first time my dad has ever seen me with a girl."

Abby blinked at her. "You mean with a girl? Or with a girl?"

"Both. Either. Your choice." Clancy gave her a long look and said, "I've never taken anyone home to meet my parents."

"In how long?"

"Twelve years," she said. "I never had anyone I cared for enough."

This news puzzled Abby thoroughly. "But I thought you said you dated someone for quite a while. I assume that was Julie."

"It was," Clancy confirmed. "I went out with her for nearly a year."

"And yet ?"

"And yet," Clancy said, "I didn't take her to meet my parents." She looked down at the ground for a minute, then stared into space as she continued. "Things were never smooth and easy between us. I say that we went out for a year, and that's technically accurate, but it took us eighteen months to be together for twelve."

"Huh?"

"In eighteen months, we weren't speaking for at least six. We'd fight - vow to never see each other again - wait a few weeks - get back together and go through the whole cycle again. I think we liked the drama as much as we liked each other."

"But if you cared enough for her to keep getting back together, why didn't you want to share her with your parents?"

"It's not just because of how I felt about Julie," Clancy admitted. "My mom wants me to be in a relationship - and if I bring someone home, that's going to send a very clear signal to her that I'm serious. I haven't wanted her to start supervising me - and watching to make sure I don't screw it up," she said.

"Oh, Clancy, I'm sorry I accepted your father's invitation. I didn't know you felt like that about it."

Clancy's eyes widened and she said, "I don't feel that way about you, Abby. I want them to know you."

"You do? Are you sure?"

"Abby," she said softly, her eyes locked onto her friend's, "I told you the other night that I was falling in love with you." She placed a soft kiss on her lips and added, "I meant it. You're not just some woman I want to sleep with."

Leaning her head on Clancy's shoulder, Abby brought her hand up to rest on her abdomen. "I'm very glad to hear that. You're not someone I'm wasting my time with, either. Every moment is precious."

"But you're not ready to think about the 'L' word, are you?"

"Uhm does that means lesbian or love?"

"Love," Clancy said. "That's the important 'L' word."

"No," Abby said, shaking her head, "I've got too many things to sort through first."

"But that doesn't mean that you won't love me someday, right?" Clancy persisted.

"No, it definitely doesn't mean that," Abby said, kissing her one more time. "Are you hungry?"

"Not starving, why?"

Abby's fingers dug between the folds of Clancy's shirt to tickle the younger woman's washboard abs. "You need to eat better. You've lost some weight that you can't afford to lose."

"We can eat later," Clancy murmured, bending to kiss Abby's neck. "Much later."

"Hey," Abby said. "It's Monday. Don't you have your dance class?"

"Oh, right! Wanna go with me? Or would you rather stay home and neck?"

"I'd rather stay home and neck, but since I was ready to have you on the floor of the kitchen, I think we'd better go out if we're gonna take this slow. You had me half undressed, Ms. O'Connor!"

Clancy blinked, then her eyes widened. "I didn't even realize what I was doing, but I had to feel your skin!" She leaned back and said, "We'd better go out!" She started to stand, then asked, "How would you have answered the question if I'd been asking if you were a lesbian?"

"I don't think I can be a lesbian, given how much I enjoyed having sex with my husband. And I think it's perfectly normal for straight women to have all sorts of fantasies. But straight women don't want to act on their lesbian fantasies," she said, wrinkling her nose. "I think that makes me a bisexual, don't you?"

"Whatever feels right for you," Clancy said. "I don't care what you call yourself as long as you want to kiss me."

O

When John O'Connor arrived home, he spent a few minutes sitting in his truck, trying to decide how much of his afternoon adventure to share with his wife. Realizing that he didn't normally have much success in keeping things from Margaret, he went and greeted her in his normal fashion. "How's the prettiest girl in Sierra Madre?" he asked, coming up behind her to kiss her neck.

"Not bad," she said, patting him gently. "How's the biggest bull thrower in town?"

"Good. Had a good day. We dropped a fiberglass pool into a yard in less than three hours."

"That's nice, honey." She was stirring something on the stove and suddenly recalled something. "Did you go by Abby's today? I'm dying to hear how Clancy's doing with her big job."

"Yeah, I dropped by," he said, as neutrally as he could manage. "It looks like they've made good progress. Clancy seems happy."

"Oh, good. I think I'll call her after dinner to wish her well. I know this is awfully important to her. If she does a good job, she's hoping that Abby will give her some recommendations, you know."

"Yeah. I know."

He went to the refrigerator to get a beer, and Margaret fixed him with a look and asked, "Was everything all right, John? You're acting a little funny."

For a moment, John thought about what had happened, then decided that Clancy likely found the whole thing to be funny. If that was the case, the odds were good that she'd tell the story on herself - and Margaret would learn that he'd been holding out on her. With a sigh, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "I think I win the bet we made, honey."

"What? How do you know?"

"Get out the papers," he said.

Margaret went to her purse and pulled out the slips of paper. She opened hers and read, "Clancy and Hayley are falling in love."

John shook his head. "Now read mine."

She opened his and read, "Clancy's got a crush on Abby." She blinked and then blinked again. "Abby? She's old enough to be Clancy's mother!"

He sipped his beer. "It's the truth, Margaret. They admitted that they're involved."

"You went over there for a meeting, and they looked at you and announced that they were dating." Her raised eyebrow and deep frown showed that she was not buying the story.

"No, it was a little more embarrassing than that." He looked at her and wrinkled his nose just like his daughter often did. "I caught them kissing."

"Oh, for goodness' sake! Don't tell me Clancy was doing that in front of her crew!"

"No, Margaret. They were in the kitchen. I saw Ramon come down the hill right when I was coming up. We stopped and chatted for a minute, and he told me Clancy was in the back with Abby. I went around to the back, and when I didn't see them, I assumed they'd gone inside, so I went to the door and looked in." He gave his wife a smile and said, "We were all embarrassed, but we got over it. I asked them over for dinner on Saturday. I think we need to get to know this woman, Margaret. I think she's gonna be around for a while."

She sat down heavily on one of the chairs that bracketed the kitchen table. "John, that woman has to be as old as I am! It's not right!"

"Margaret, Clancy's almost thirty. It's long past the time we could tell her who to date."

"Nobody knows that better than I do, John. Even when she was younger, I never got anywhere telling her what to do. I just want to make sure she's thought this through." She shook her head. "I can't imagine why she'd choose someone so much older."

"She's always been interested in older women, Margaret. Hell, when she was eighteen, she'd only turn her head for a woman over thirty."

Margaret stood and put her hands on her hips. "And how do you know that?"

Uh-oh. I had to open my big mouth. "Well we talk about things, Margaret. You know that."

"You talk about women that you find attractive?" Her wide eyes and pink face told him she was not a fan of this practice.

"She was on my crew," he explained, as if that would make it clear.

"How does that make any difference? She's your daughter! You don't ogle girls together."

"Who says we ogled?" he asked defensively. "Yes, she's my little girl, but she's also my buddy. I treat her like I treat my friends - and I've got to tell you, that's part of the reason we're so close."

"Fine," she huffed. "It's unseemly, and you know it, but I'm obviously not going to convince you otherwise." She had her arms crossed over her chest, and after a minute she looked at him curiously. "She's always been like this?"

"Always," he nodded soberly.

"But why? Doesn't that mean there's something wrong with her?"

"Wrong?"

"Yes, wrong! You know what they say about people with a mother fixation."

Her mouth was curled up into a look of pure distaste, but John put his arms around her and gave her a gentle hug. "There's nothing wrong with her, Margaret. Some people like blondes some like brunettes some like skinny girls some like girls who remind them of their mothers."

Gasping in pain, he once again reminded himself not to taunt his wife when he was in the middle of hugging her.

O

Abby was dressed in her cowgirl gear when they drove to Clancy's house. Michael was at home, and he smiled at the women when they entered. "Howdy," he said to Abby. "Hear you're takin' my spot at the hoe-down."

"As long as you don't mind," Abby said. "I don't want to step on any toes."

"I don't mind," Michael said. "I stand up all day, so it's nice to sit down and put my feet up at the end of a long day."

Clancy went to change, and Abby sat down next to Michael. There was a brief, uncomfortable silence, then he said, "I'd give up my spot anytime to see Clancy with you. She's happier than I've seen her in years."

Abby blushed slightly, feeling embarrassed to have even this relative stranger know about them. But she fought through her embarrassment to say, "She makes me happy, too, Michael. I'll do almost anything to make this work."

He nodded, letting her words sink in. Damn, I wish she hadn't added that 'almost.'

O

The women had an even better time dancing now that they weren't shy about touching each other. Clancy's heart was beating hard, and she wasn't sure if it was from the workout or how close she was holding her partner. During a timeout to have a glass of water, Abby asked, "Is it really okay with Michael to give up his dancing lesson?"

"Sure. We're buddies - we don't spend a lot of time apologizing for little things. He backs out if he has something better to do, and so do I."

"How long have you lived together?" Abby asked.

"Three years now," Clancy said. "I moved into his building when I graduated from school. We got a two bedroom in the place where he had a one bedroom."

"You were at home before that?"

"Yep. I stayed at home until I was through with school. It was the only way I could manage it financially."

"How was that for you? I'm not at all sure that my kids would want to live with me during college."

"It was fine," Clancy said, taking such a big drink of water that her hat almost fell off. "Since I went to work for my dad as soon as I graduated from high school, our roles changed a bit. I wasn't just a daughter - I was an employee and a co-worker. He and I grew closer, and my mom started to let go - more and more as time went on. After I came out to them, things changed even more. After a while, they didn't even complain when I stayed out all night. Since they treated me like an adult, I didn't mind being there."

"Maybe that's my problem," Abby decided. "Maybe I haven't made that transition yet."

"It's different in your situation," Clancy reminded her. "They're home for such a short time - it's hard to set up a system that works for all of you."

"I suppose. It's hard to think that they'll never live here again, but I guess that's the way of the world."

"What about your mother?" Clancy asked. "Has she let go of you?"

"Of me? Clancy, I'm forty-five!"

"I know that," the younger woman said. "But what about us?" She took another drink and looked around nervously. "I mean if there is an us when you're I mean, if you decide to "

Abby placed a hand on Clancy's arm and patted her reassuringly, "I want there to be an us, too. I really want that, okay?"

Clancy nodded quickly, looking chagrined. "Sorry. I know we already decided that. I just can't help wondering about the future."

"Well, let me tell you this. You'll find that my mother is a delightful woman - without a judgmental bone in her body. My dad's a little more traditional, but he's a good man and only wants me to be happy. I'm confident they won't have any long-term issues with us." She chuckled and said, "My mom's basically adopted some of my gay friends. She threw a huge party for my friend Maria's fortieth birthday - without even consulting me first!"

"Do you have many gay friends?"

"Oh, sure. My friend Ellen and I play doubles with Maria and Pam every Saturday morning. I'm their daughter Alyssa's godmother. And I told you about my friend Stephen, who I went to UCLA with, didn't I?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Oh, God," Abby said. "I can't believe I haven't told you about him! He was as close as a brother, and when he died of AIDS, it was absolutely devastating for my parents as well as me. Through him, I got involved with the AIDS Service Center here in Pasadena, and eventually, I served two terms on the board of directors. I made dozens of good friends through that. I gave my friend Spencer away when he married his boyfriend last year -"

"Damn, you've got as many gay friends as I do!" Clancy said, laughing heartily. "So - will you tell any of your friends about us if there is an us?" she added with an impish smile.

"Of course I will," Abby said, grabbing Clancy's nose and giving it a tug. "And just for the record, Ms. O'Connor, there already is an us." Running a hand up and down Clancy's arm, Abby looked at her and said, "If things don't work out between us, I'm going to be a wreck. I'll need my friends to pull me through it - so I'm going to tell them soon."

Clancy scooted her chair over until it was nestled between Abby's spread legs. "If things don't work out between us, it'll be because you can't make the commitment. I'm already in."

Abby nodded, then laced her hands behind Clancy's neck and kissed her tenderly. "I think I am too. I'm just cautious - remember?"

"Thinking is highly overrated," Clancy purred. "I'm a woman who likes to dance and kiss. Which one do you want to do first?"

Abby smiled seductively, giving Clancy a very good clue as to what her choice was.

O

Chapter Ten

The next day, Hayley came home from her overnight and took a long nap. She got up while the crew was taking its lunch break and sat in the kitchen, staring outside with a scowl on her face.

"What's going on inside that frown?" Abby asked, ruffling her hair on the way to the laundry room.

"I hate having them here. We should have waited until fall. I can't even use the pool."

"You have friends who have pools," Abby reminded her. "And you can always go to the Rose Bowl to swim."

"I don't have my own car," Hayley whined. It was her mother's least favorite tone of voice.

"You can use Trevor's old bike, and you can use my car when I don't need it, honey. You can drive me to the golf course on the mornings I play. I can get a ride home."

"I don't wanna get up at 7:00 just to give you a ride," Hayley said. "And nobody rides a bike for transportation once she's in college."

Abby realized this was one of the times that her daughter didn't want to brainstorm to figure out a solution to her problem. She wanted to gripe. And since Abby didn't like to hear griping, she started to go back upstairs to give herself a timeout. She was almost out of the kitchen when Hayley said, "I think I'll go to Maine now. There's nothing much going on for the next two weeks."

"But I already bought your ticket," Abby said. "I'm not sure we can change it."

Hayley gave her a puzzled look and said, "You can change it. You might have to pay a fee, but that's no big deal."

Abby looked at her for a moment, then cocked her head. "Why would I have to pay a fee? I didn't change my mind at the last minute."

"Oh, please!" Hayley got up and put her cereal bowl in the sink. "You can afford a couple of hundred bucks, Mom."

"Of course I can," Abby agreed, "but I'm not going to pay for you to change your ticket."

The girl turned and stared at her mother. "I thought you understood! I can't stay here with Clancy outside! A couple of hundred dollars means nothing to you! Nothing!"

"Hayley, it's not about the money; it's about being accountable for your decisions. I paid to send you to Maine when you wanted to go. If you want to change your ticket, you'll have to use your own money."

"Thanks," Hayley said, biting off the word. "Thanks for helping me out. I worked like a dog to make a little money, and now I have to spend it just to have a decent summer!" As she walked up the stairs, she was mumbling loudly enough for Abby to hear. "It wasn't about the money when I wanted a car, it wasn't about the money when I wasn't allowed to go skiing over Christmas, it wasn't about the money when I couldn't go to an out-of-state school -" Her slamming door shut off her litany of complaints.

Abby closed her eyes and counted to ten, not wanting to continue the fight. She knew she was helping Hayley out, but she also knew that it would be years, if ever, before her daughter realized it.

O

Even though Abby wasn't concerned about telling her friends or her family about her new-found affection for another woman, she was tremendously nervous about the dinner she and Clancy were to attend with the O'Connors. She changed clothes three times, tentatively deciding on a pair of cream-colored linen slacks and a sky-blue, cotton sweater vest. She answered the door a few minutes later, finding Clancy in a bright red and white Hawaiian print shirt, a pair of faded jeans, and her Birkenstocks. "Pretty dressed up for the O'Connors," she teased. Taking a look at Abby's scrunched-up brow, she asked, "Are you weirded out about this?"

"Yes! I want them to like me, Clancy. I really want to make a good impression."

"How could you not?" She put her arms around Abby's waist and hugged her close. "Anyone with a brain would like you - and my parents both have functioning brains. My gramma will be crazy about you, too, Abby. Just relax and be yourself."

"All right," she grumbled, heading for the back door to let the dogs out one last time.

O

Abby took a few calming breaths as they walked up the drive of the O'Connor home. "You're sure this is okay?" she asked again, pointing at her outfit. "I don't want to look too much older than you, but I'd feel silly going to your parents' house in jeans."

Clancy stopped. "Abby, you look lovely. This is what you're comfortable in. You don't need to put on an act. You are who you are, and I don't want you to change a thing. You believe me, don't you?"

Grasping her arm with both of her hands, Abby gave her a squeeze. "I do. I'm just so nervous."

"Let me calm you down a little," Clancy purred, slipping her arms around Abby's waist to give her a warm, soft kiss.

The front door opened, and John O'Connor stepped out, giving them a smile when he saw their embrace. "Will you two give it a rest? Gramma's got a weak heart, ya know."

Abby flushed deeply, only partially relieved when Clancy said, "Her heart's stronger than yours, Dad, and the last time she needed babying was in about 1925." When they reached the door, Clancy gave her father a hug and kissed his cheek. "You'd better be the one who starts behaving, Dad. If you scare Abby off, I'm gonna hurt ya."

"You don't scare off that easy, do you, Abby?" he asked, extending his hand for a shake.

"No, I'm pretty hardy, John. I'm not used to a lot of teasing though - so you might have to bear with me for a while."

"I can do that," he agreed. "Now come on in - I'm famished."

They walked into the modest frame bungalow and were immediately greeted by Margaret. "Getting Clancy home for a Saturday night dinner is quite a feat," she said, shaking Abby's hand. "Thanks for your help."

"It wasn't my doing," Abby said. "Clancy really wanted to come."

"Come on in and meet my mother," Margaret said. She led them into the kitchen where a small-boned, fleshy, redheaded woman stood at the sink, shucking corn. "Mom, Clancy and her friend are here."

The woman turned and gave her granddaughter a wide smile. "Turn off the damned TV so an old lady can hear, will ya, Bitsy?" Clancy did as requested and gave the elderly woman a hug and a kiss.

"Gramma, this is my friend, Abby. Abby, this is my grandmother, Eileen Donovan."

"Pleased to meet you, Ms. Donovan," Abby said, waiting patiently while Eileen dried her hands to shake.

"Call me Eileen," the older woman insisted. She looked from one woman to the other and twitched her head. "So this is your new girlfriend, eh, Bitsy?"

"Something like that, Gramma," Clancy said, slipping her arm around her grandmother's waist. "We're not engaged or anything, but I think of her as my girlfriend. Pretty, isn't she?"

Abby gave her a mostly outraged look, but Eileen agreed immediately. "Oh, she's pretty, all right. But why are you lettin' your hair turn gray, honey? Havin' color in her hair makes a gal feel young."

Deciding to play the game, Abby grasped Clancy's free hand. "Having Clancy around makes me feel young, and she likes it this way."

"I do," Clancy agreed, smiling at Abby with a toothy grin. "I think her hair and every other part of her is beautiful."

"Well, I guess that's all that matters," Eileen agreed. She gave Abby another long look, squinting in the poor fluorescent light. "What color was it when you were young?"

"Gramma!" Clancy cried. "Abby's still young!"

"That's okay," Abby said, seemingly not bothered by the older woman's bluntness. "My hair was jet black," she informed Eileen. "That's part of the reason I don't dye it. I really loved the color, but jet black hair on an older woman really looks dyed."

"Eh, who cares if it looks dyed? My hair was a mousy brown when I was a girl, and now I'm thinking about going blonde like my little bits here. People will think we're sisters." She threw her head back and laughed heartily, and Abby was struck by the similarities between Clancy and the older woman. "Time to get busy, girls. We've got chicken to barbeque. Who's gonna do it?"

"I will," John said, walking over to the sink and giving his mother-in-law a friendly pat on the back. "I've been doing the barbequing for over thirty years, Eileen. Get used to it."

"You never know," she said, shrugging her shoulders. "Things change." Giving the younger women a cheerful look, she said, "Well, you two can make a salad then. I've done my share."

Abby blinked at her, extremely unaccustomed to the ultra-casual attitude of the O'Connor/Donovan household. But when Clancy started to wash her hands before getting to work, Abby joined right in and helped her make a large green salad, including cucumbers, tomatoes and carrots from John's extensive backyard garden.

When they were finished, Margaret took over and prepared corn on the cob and some steamed broccoli, the latter also from the garden. By the time she was finished, John was coming in the back door with the chicken, a deep red sauce dripping from the succulent-looking pieces.

They ate at the kitchen table, a breeze coming in the backdoor, bringing in the sweet scent of a magnolia tree.

"Everything is absolutely delicious," Abby said, complimenting all of the various cooks. "And the vegetables are amazing, John. So fresh and sweet."

"We'll have you back when the corn comes in," he promised. "If you can get it into a pot of boiling water within five minutes of picking it, you won't recognize it as the same stuff you buy at the grocery."

Abby lifted the cob she was working on. "This seems pretty darned delicious to me."

"He's not kidding, Abby," Clancy chimed in. "Fresh-picked is a whole different experience." Looking at her father, she asked, "Middle of July, Dad?"

"Maybe even a week early," he said. "Don't worry; we won't forget you."

Eileen cocked her head after assessing Abby for a few minutes. "So, what's your story, Abby? You from around here?"

"Oh, yes. Born and raised in Pasadena. I still live there."

"In the nicest house I've ever been in," Clancy added. "A beautiful Craftsman, Gramma - you know how much I like them."

"I do," she said, smiling warmly at her granddaughter. "So what else? We want details, honey. This ain't just a social call. We're trying to figure out if we like you."

Abby was momentarily taken aback, but the sparkle in the older woman's pale, sky-blue eyes assured her that Eileen was mostly kidding.

"Okay, I'll do my best to impress. Born here, went to school here. Graduated from UCLA with a history degree -"

"Oh, when did you graduate?" Margaret asked for no apparent reason.

Abby recognized her hidden question and said, "I'm forty-five, Margaret."

"Oh! Well, that's not why I " she started to say, but a pointed look from her daughter forced her to capitulate. "Well, I did wonder "

"It's fine," Abby said. "I'm not embarrassed about my age." She cleared her throat and took a sip of iced tea. "I was married after my freshman year and was pregnant by January. I gave birth to our son and went back to school after taking a semester off. I stayed at UCLA to earn a Master's Degree in history. I didn't think I'd ever use it, but I wanted to have something to fall back on in case I ever had to support myself."

"That's a smart move," Eileen said. "You can't ever rely on anyone else to take care of you."

Abby smiled at her, liking her feistiness, which reminded her of Clancy. "My husband was an attorney at O'Reilly and Monroe, and he died of a heart attack five years ago in May."

Eileen reached out and grasped Abby's hand, startling her a bit. "I lost my husband three years ago," she said, her eyes watery. "It's horrible, isn't it?"

"It was," Abby said, seeing the frank understanding that only someone who had gone through the experience could share. "It still is - but it gets easier as the days pass. I don't think I'll ever be entirely over it, though."

Giving her a small smile, Eileen shook her head and released Abby's hand. "No, I don't think so, either. My time's just about up, but you've got your whole life ahead of you, honey. Forty-five is nothing these days. I say it's time to kick up your heels a little."

"Oh, I think I've done that," Abby said, giving Clancy a shy smile. "Let's see I told you about Trevor, who recently got his Master's Degree in urban planning at M.I.T., and there's also our second child, Hayley, who just finished her freshman year at UC Santa Cruz. I've never worked outside of the home, but I stay very busy. I play golf and tennis and I swim and I work with a few charities. My parents are both alive, and they live in Pasadena, also, although they spend their summers in Maine. Oh, and I have two dogs, both of whom love Clancy, and that's about it."

"Forgive me for asking," Margaret said, getting right to the heart of the matter, "but is this your first time with a in a lesbian "

Abby almost said that this would, indeed, be her first time in a lesbian, but she didn't think Margaret would appreciate the joke. "I've never dated a woman before, Margaret. I was very happily married, and I assumed that I'd eventually meet another man." She turned and smiled warmly at Clancy, very aware of the hand on her knee. "But I met Clancy, and something clicked between us." Turning back to the others, she asked, "Who can explain attraction?"

"That seems very I've never heard of that happening before," Margaret said tentatively.

"Well, it's not very common in my experience either," Abby admitted. "It took me completely by surprise."

"It doesn't matter if other people do it, Mom," Clancy said. "Abby feels comfortable with this, and that's all that matters."

"Oh, of course, that's true," Margaret said, still looking unsettled. "And I certainly didn't mean to question your decision, Abby. I'm just not very knowledgeable about these things."

"We have a lot of things to work out," Clancy said, her gaze sweeping across all of the members of her family. "We're just dating right now, okay?"

"No problem," John said. "We won't put your name on the Christmas card yet, Abby."

"You don't even put my name on the Christmas card," Clancy scoffed.

"I would if you chipped in for half," John said. "Nobody gets a free ride, ya know."

"Yeah, yeah," Clancy said. She got up and started to clear the table, waving Abby off when she tried to help. "What did you make for dessert, Mom?"

"How do you know I made dessert?" Margaret asked, raising an eyebrow.

"'Cause you always do when we have company. You're the best baker in the valley, and you know it." She leaned over and kissed her mother on the top of the head, and Abby smiled at the affection that Clancy showed her family.

"I don't know about the best baker title, but I did whip up a lemon meringue pie," she said. "With fresh lemons from our tree," she added for Abby's benefit.

"Ooh, my favorite," Abby said, smiling. "I could eat lemon meringue pie anytime, anywhere."

"You're in luck, because Mom makes a fabulous one," Clancy said.

Abby smiled at Margaret and said, "I'd love your secret. I've tried many times, but the meringue never sets right."

"I'll give you a few pointers," Margaret agreed, returning her smile. "It's Clancy's favorite, too, so you'd better learn how to make it." Abby felt her heart skip a beat at the multi-layered look that the slightly older woman gave her. She wasn't able to read it all, but something about her tone indicated that Margaret was giving her tacit approval to the pairing, and Abby fervently hoped she understood the signals properly - because she very much wanted these people not only to tolerate, but to approve of her.

O

"Did you have fun?" Clancy asked after they had said their goodbyes and were settled in the truck.

"Fun? Was it fun?" Abby asked, narrowing her eyes as though she were deep in thought. "Well, once dinner and the inquisition were over, I started to have fun, but before that I was a nervous wreck!"

"That's so cute!" Clancy impulsively pulled Abby close and kissed her enthusiastically. "You were absolutely charming tonight, Abby. Thanks for trying so hard."

"I know your family means a lot to you, Clancy. Of course I'd be worried about making a good impression." She batted her eyelashes shyly and asked, "Do you think they liked me?"

"Of course they did! Everyone likes you, Abby. You're one of the most likeable people I've ever met." She gave her another few kisses and said, "When Dad was giving you a tour of the garden, Gramma pulled me aside and told me that you were a keeper." Placing a kiss on the tip of Abby's nose, she added, "That's high praise."

"She's a pistol," Abby said. "I see a lot of her in you, you know."

Clancy's face grew serious and she said, "I hope that's true. She means the world to me, Abby. She's always been there for me - without question."

"Did she always live with you?"

"No. We lived with my grandparents until I was five or so. My dad was struggling to get his business started, and my parents didn't have enough money for a down payment on a house. We stayed with them until we bought our current house. Then about I'd guess it's been seven or eight years my grampa's health started to fail, and they moved in with us so we could all help care for him. So, we've lived together often, but not constantly."

"It's obvious how fond she is of you," Abby said. "I particularly like the nickname she has for you."

Clancy covered her eyes briefly and shook her head. "Bitsy is one of the better ones. You'll be amazed at how many embarrassing names she has for me."

"Well, I think it's cute. I can just imagine you as an itsy bitsy little thing."

"Better watch it there, Abby. I'm going to meet your parents some day, and I'm sure I'll learn a few embarrassing things about your youth. Tread carefully."

"Okay, Bitsy. I'll mind my manners." She snuck her hand up around Clancy's neck and pulled her closer, then went for her lips, kissing her with a rapidly rising fever.

"Being happy makes me hot," Clancy whispered, "and I'm very, very happy." She set upon Abby's lips with a vengeance, pressing the older woman against the door of the truck. Jumping when she heard a soft knock on the windshield, Clancy sat up and looked out the open driver's door window. "Oh, Jesus!"

"Your, uhm, your mom wanted you to take the rest of the pie," John said, looking slightly less embarrassed than he had the first time he'd caught them.

"We actually talk and eat and do all sorts of things together, Dad," the blonde said, scooting over to accept the pie. "We're not always making out."

"Fine with me if that's all you do," he said, chuckling. "If ya wanna build up a little nest egg, put a buck in a piggy bank every time you have sex during the first year you're together, then take a buck out every time you have sex for the rest of your lives. If ya live to be a hundred, you'll still have money left. Hell, if we'd done that, we coulda sent you to college!" He laughed heartily, then reached into the truck to give Clancy a playful punch on the shoulder. "I don't blame you a bit, Clance. She's a fine lookin' woman. Looks like she knows how to kiss, too."

"Does anyone know if it's possible to die of embarrassment?" Abby asked.

"Nah," Clancy assured her. "We'd all have been gone long ago. Embarrassing each other is the O'Connor family birthright."

O

To be continued in Part 6

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