Arbor Vitae

By SX Meagher

Chapter Eleven

Having paid the penalty fee with her own money, Hayley packed up for her vacation on Friday. She didn't have to leave for an hour, and when Abby emerged from the shower, the girl was lying across her mother's bed, idly petting the dogs who flanked her.

The older woman went to her closet, spending a moment to choose an outfit. "Communing with the dogs before you leave?" she asked. She pulled an unstructured cotton dress from her closet and slipped it over her head.

"No. I came to talk to you."

Abby walked over to the bed and sat down. She touched her child's cheek and asked, "Is something wrong?"

"Yeah." Surprisingly, Hayley scooted over and put her head in her mother's lap while she encircled her waist in a hug. She was snuggled against her so tightly that Abby was puzzled.

"What is it, baby? Tell me."

Hayley started to cry, her face morphing into a facsimile of the same expression she'd made ever since she was a little girl and had skinned her knee. "I'm sorry I was such a jerk about changing my ticket," she whimpered.

Abby stroked her face, catching the tears when they overflowed her lids. "Oh, honey, that's okay. I'm not angry with you."

"I can't … I can't go away when I know you're mad," she sobbed. "I might never see you again."

"Hayley!" Abby reached down and grasped the girl, moving her so she could look into her eyes. "What brought that on?"

"I … I think about … stuff like that when I fly or go on a trip," she said, still crying hard. "Daddy didn't know he'd never come back when he left the house that day."

Abby pulled her daughter close and hugged her with all her might. "Oh, sweetheart, you'll come home, and I'll be waiting for you. Try not to think about such sad things."

"But I do," she insisted, unable to be consoled. "I don't want your last memory of me to be my whining about some stupid ticket!"

"Hayley." Abby rubbed Hayley's warm skin, trying to calm her. "I would never let some silly thing like that color how I feel about you." She pulled back and looked into her eyes. "Your father and I had countless arguments, honey, but I don't remember any of them off the top of my head. That's not what lasts. It's the love we feel for each other that remains. I promise you that, baby." She hugged her again and asked, "Isn't that how you feel about your dad? Do you remember the fights you had with him?"

"No," Hayley admitted, her voice still shaking. "I don't remember fighting with him."

"You did," Abby said, laughing just a little. "Every child has arguments and disagreements with her parents. It's one of the ways we grow up. But they're forgotten quickly, honey. I promise you."

Hayley looked at her mother, her eyes so filled with pain that Abby's heart clenched. "Do you love me, Mom?"

Abby clutched her to her chest and whispered, "I love you and Trevor more than I'll ever be able to tell you. You mean the world to me, Hayley. I love you with all my heart."

O

The pair sat together on the bed for a long time. They didn't say much; in fact, Abby thought her daughter had fallen asleep. Hayley's head rested on Abby's lap, and the older woman had been tenderly drawing her fingertips through her daughter's long, black hair. Hayley could rarely resist the slow, soothing massage and invariably fell asleep just as she had when she was a baby and Abby would scratch her back. But this time the girl wasn't sleeping - she was thinking. She stretched and rolled onto her back, leaving her head pillowed on her mother's lap. "Would you be cool with it if I turn out to be queer?"

With her heart going from a slow, steady beat to a full-on gallop, Abby forced herself to take a slow, deep breath, trying to make her racing thoughts settle down so that she could answer. Not for the first time, she wished that her daughter would give her some vague warning before she threw a bomb at her, but she was sure that wouldn't happen in the near future.

"Do you think you are?" Abby asked, trying to find out what Hayley was really asking - and why - before she got in too deep.

"I dunno."

Great. She never makes things easy. "Why ask the question?"

"I was just thinking about it. You didn't have much reaction one way or the other when I told you about Clancy." The girl shifted a little and turned her head so she could look into her mother's eyes. "Why?"

"Why?" Because I had a warning. Clancy told me you were interested in her right after we kissed for the first time. No … that won't fly. Think of a good answer. She always knows when you're not being honest. "I guess I didn't react much because it didn't seem like a big deal."

"It was a big deal to me!" Blue eyes were blazing with indignation.

"No, no," Abby soothed, stroking Hayley's cheek. "I know you were upset with Clancy, but you didn't act like you were heartbroken. You acted like she'd hurt your feelings and embarrassed you. Not like you were so crazy about her that you couldn't go on."

Hayley's mouth slid into a small smile. "I guess that's true. She really pissed me off. She wouldn't even consider going out with me. Made me feel stupid."

"Haven't you ever turned anyone down flat?"

"Yeah … but nobody cute!" There was a momentary pause, then Hayley started to laugh, with Abby following right along.

"Pretty confident there, aren't ya?" Abby teased.

"No, not really," Hayley said. "You know what I mean, don't ya?"

"I'm not sure. Tell me."

"I don't hang around with a guy unless I'm a little interested in him. Clancy treated me like she liked me, and I know she's single. All I wanted to do was have dinner with her, but she acted like she'd rather stab herself!"

"Oh, honey, I'm sure it wasn't that."

Hayley looked right into her mother's eyes and asked, "Did she tell you about what happened?"

"Yeah, she did," Abby said, her heart beating so hard, she was sure Hayley would be able to feel the blood pounding in her thighs.

"Did she tell you why she wouldn't go out with me?"

"Uh-huh." Abby had never tried so hard to sound casual, and she found it much harder than she would have guessed. "She didn't think it was right to go out with you because of her position. It's not a good idea to go out with a member of a client's family. Clancy's very careful about things like that."

"She goes out with you," Hayley said, one of her dark eyebrows rising a bit. "You went out to dinner last night."

"Right," Abby said, wondering if Hayley knew CPR in case her heart stopped, "but I'm the client. You're my precious daughter. What if you'd gone out and you fell for her, but she didn't feel the same? She couldn't afford to have me take your side. She's a professional, honey. Not just someone you met on your own."

Hayley gave her mother one last look, which Abby couldn't read. Then she moved again and settled down with her head in her mother's lap. "I guess she was right," the girl said. "All she did was refuse a date, and I threw a fit."

"I think she was right," Abby said, "but I hate having your feelings hurt - even though Clancy did the proper thing."

"I'm over it," Hayley admitted. "Pretty much."

Scratching her scalp again, Abby asked, "Do you think you're gay?"

"I don't know," Hayley said, sighing dramatically. "I don't know what I am. I've never met a guy who really clicked - I thought I'd try a girl."

"I guess that is the other option," Abby said, trying to sound lighthearted.

"It's frustrating, Mom," the girl said. "Do you know that I've never had an orgasm with a guy? Never! I thought a woman might care enough to at least try!"

Oh, God, why does she have to tell me things like this? "Hayley, anyone who cares about you will try to satisfy you. Not all men are clueless."

"All the ones I've fooled around with have been."

"Then you need to shop better," Abby said. "I could always tell if a guy was interested in me long before we got romantic. I bet you can tell, too."

"They all seem interested in me," the girl said. "By the end of the first date, they're all over me!"

Abby tried not to laugh. "That's not how a guy shows he's interested in you as a person, honey. That's how he shows he's interested in your body. There's a huge difference!"

"What's the difference, Mom?" She'd turned her head and gazed into Abby's eyes, looking guileless and innocent.

"When a man's really interested in you, he uses the date to get to know you - not just as time to kill before he can start pawing you. If he's interested in you, and you're interested in him - you'll feel it. I promise."

"Is that how it was with Daddy?"

Abby started to shut down as she always did when Hayley asked her very personal questions. But this time she told the truth. "Yes. That's exactly how it was. By the end of our first date, I knew he was special. And I could tell he was interested in me. He called me the next day, and I think I would have gone crazy if he hadn't."

"Did you sleep with him?" Hayley asked, always pushing.

"Of course I did," Abby said, watching her daughter's eyes grow wide. "Where do you think you and Trevor came from?"

O

On the way to the airport, Abby began to feel melancholy about having her baby leave the nest once again. "I hope you have a great time in Maine," she said, "even though I'm gonna miss you like crazy."

"I doubt that," the girl said. "You're probably sick of me by now. I know I get on your nerves, Mom."

Abby gave her a stunned look. "Hayley, I'm never sick of you! Why would you ever think that?"

The younger woman stared out the window, looking at the variety of buildings on the U.S.C. campus as the car crawled through the slow traffic on the 110 freeway. Traffic was moving slowly enough for Abby to look at her daughter's profile for long moments. The young woman looked very depressed, much more than she usually did after a small disappointment. "Sweetheart, what's going on? I'm very glad that you came home, and I'm sad to see you go. If anyone seems upset about your stay, it's you."

Hayley nodded slightly. "Maybe you're right. Maybe I should have gone to Italy with Trevor. Of course, you probably wouldn't have let me go. I couldn't go last Christmas."

Abby sighed, wondering how many times that topic would be brought up. "I would have been happy to send you to Europe with Trevor, honey. I even suggested it at one point. You know very well why I wouldn't let you go at Christmas."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. We need to stay together on the holidays."

"That wasn't my main reason, and you know it. I wasn't going to let my daughter go skiing in Gstaad without any adult supervision. I know your friends have a lot of money, and they're used to having a lot of freedom - but that's not how you and Trevor were raised. My job is to protect you until I feel you're old enough to make mature decisions. And when you're with Kerry and Dana and Maya, you get carried away."

"I do not," she grumbled.

Abby was tempted to recount instances when Hayley had, in fact, gotten carried away when she was with her friends, but she thought it best to drop the matter. She reached over and caressed Hayley's hair, running her fingers through the thick, black strands. "No matter what you might think, I'm going to miss you, honey. I love you - plain and simple. And I always try to make decisions that are in your long-term best interests. Even though you think I treat you like a child, I honestly try not to."

Hayley turned and gave her mother a half-smile. "I know you love me, Mom. It's not your fault I'm having a shitty summer. Maybe things will be better by the time I get back from Maine."

"I hope so, honey. I know summers are important, especially since you only have three more before you have to start supporting yourself." She smiled at the stunned expression on her daughter's face, reminded once again how very young Hayley often seemed.

O

Abby watched the minutes tick by like hours, feeling as if Clancy would never finish for the day. When the crew finally knocked off at 6:00, the landscaper walked down to the house and knocked on the door. "Hi," she said, being casually formal since Ramon was nearby. "We've finished as much as we can do right now. Wanna take a look?"

Outside, Abby smiled at Ramon. "You've done a wonderful job so far. I'm very, very impressed."

"Thank you, Mrs. Graham," he said. "We have a good crew."

Abby went to the edge of the pool, looking up at the hill to take in the stark, concrete block structure. It's going to look great when it's finished," she said. Turning to Clancy, she said, "I need one more thing added to the project."

"Sure. We love to add things, don't we Ramon?"

"It depends on the thing," he said, his mouth curling up in a smile.

"This one is simple," Abby said. "I talked to my new neighbors and offered to paint the side of the wall that faces their property. They're going to choose the color soon. Is that okay?"

"You don't have to do that, Abby," Clancy said. "The wall is entirely on your side of the property line."

"I know I don't have to," she said, "but the gray concrete block is pretty stark. My side will look lovely, but theirs … Well, I wouldn't want to have them put up a wall that I'd have to finish off."

"You're a good neighbor," Clancy said, smiling at the older woman.

"We love to paint," Ramon said. "No heavy lifting."

"Great! I'll get their color choice and let you know."

Ramon gave her a slight bow and said, "The crew is in a hurry to get home. There's a big fϊtbol game tonight."

Abby looked puzzled, but said, "Have a good weekend, Ramon. We'll see you back here soon."

As the man walked away, Abby said, "It seems early for football."

"He's talking about soccer," Clancy said. "All of the guys are from Mexico, and there's a bar they go to in Los Feliz to watch the Mexican national team on satellite."

"That sounds like fun," Abby said. "Maybe we should join them."

Clancy gave her a hungry look and asked, "Did Hayley leave?"

The older woman removed Clancy's cap and played with her hair, acting unconcerned, "Uh-huh. We're all alone."

"Then we probably should go to Los Feliz. There won't be anything fun for just the two of us to do."

Abby grabbed onto the architect's khaki shirt and playfully tossed her around. "I have a couple of things in mind, and the first one is going for a swim. Care to join me?"

"Well, it's not soccer, but it'll have to do," Clancy said, giving her a toothy grin.

O

After a long, relaxing swim, Abby brought out plastic glasses filled with cold beer. The pair sat in the Jacuzzi and let the warm water soothe away the stress of the week. "I'm so relaxed, I could fall asleep right here," Clancy said.

"No dinner?" Abby moved closer and put her arm around Clancy.

"Well, maybe a little dinner."

Kissing a wet path up the tanned, muscular arm, Abby said, "How about a few kisses? Does that interest you enough to stay awake?"

"I guess I could stay up for a few … but then it's right to bed," Clancy said, smiling.

"Bed it is," Abby replied, making Clancy's eyes go wide when she realized what Abby had just agreed to.

She watched her friend's long, lean body as Abby went into the house to start dinner, realizing that she wasn't tired any more. In fact, she was tingling all over and couldn't wait for dinner to be finished.

O

When Clancy got to the back door, Abby handed her a towel, a T-shirt, and a pair of boxers. "I put your clothes in the washer. They looked like you'd been buried in mud!"

"This was a dirty day," Clancy agreed. "Mind if I wash my hair?"

"No, go right ahead. I'll have dinner ready by the time you're finished."

Clancy batted her eyelashes and said, "Those are the words I've longed to hear."

Giving her a pat on the seat, Abby said, "Get going now. You don't want your dinner to get cold."

Clancy walked into the bathroom, whistling a happy tune as she did.

O

The women were a little tentative with each other during dinner. As long as their conversation concerned the landscape, everything was fine. But neither was addressing the topic that Abby had hinted at - that she was ready to take their relationship to the next level.

They cleaned the kitchen together, neither saying much. Even the dogs were quiet for a change, and Clancy swore that she could hear the clock over the sink ticking.

Abby finally cleared her throat and said, "Why don't you go into the den? I'll toss your things in the dryer and be right in."

Clancy did as she was directed, but she wasn't sure how to turn the TV on, so she sat down with the dogs, all three expectantly waiting. Abby laughed when she walked into the room a few moments later. Clancy was sitting on the couch, flanked by Athena and Artemis, all three of them upright and alert. "What are you all waiting for?"

"Our favorite person," Clancy said, smiling

Abby returned her smile, but it only lasted for a moment. "I've been … I don't know how to ask this …"

"What is it?" Clancy asked. "Is something wrong?"

"No, not wrong, but …" She let out a breath and said, "I'm worried about your truck."

"My truck?" The look on Clancy's face was one of total confusion. "What about my truck?"

"If we … if you decide to … stay over …," Abby began, her voice catching on nearly every word.

Clancy stood and went to her friend. Putting a hand on her shoulder, she said, "Don't worry about that. I'll move it a few blocks away. No one will see it."

Abby closed her eyes. "I feel like a fool for worrying about this, but I know all of my neighbors, and one of Hayley's friends lives just down the street -"

"It's not a problem," Clancy insisted. "I'll move it right now."

"Let me drive behind you, so you don't have to walk."

"That's not necessary. Really. But you can make me a nice cold drink for when I get back."

"What would you like?"

"Surprise me," Clancy said. She blew Abby a kiss, then went out the back door to get her boots.

O

Clancy returned a few minutes later, smiling when Abby opened the pedestrian door in the gate. "I forgot about getting back in," she said. "I could have been out here all night!"

They walked into the house together, the dogs rejoicing at Clancy's return. In the den, there were two large glasses of lemonade sitting on the coffee table. "Mmm … I love lemonade," Clancy said. She sat down, picked up a glass and took a large drink before Abby could say a word. The older woman did hold up a hand and try to signal the landscaper, but she was too late. Clancy nearly spat the mouthful across the room. She slapped her hand over her mouth and managed to get it down, then looked at Abby like she'd tried to poison her. "What in the hell is in this?"

"I thought you might like something a little stronger than regular lemonade," she said, looking sheepish. "Trevor clued me in on this. I swear I tried to warn you …"

Clancy picked up the glass, sniffed it tentatively, took a more moderate sip, then said, "You know … it's good … now that I'm prepared for it." She smacked her lips and added, "Actually, it's very good. How do you make it?"

"It's pretty easy," Abby said. "Take a can of frozen lemonade and add a can of vodka along with two cans of water. Voila!"

"Wow," Clancy said. "This is the kind of cocktail my friends would like."

"Feel free to share," Abby said. She took a drink and relaxed into the corner of the sectional sofa. "I'm a little nervous. How about you?"

The younger woman leaned back as well, then linked her hands around a knee and rocked back and forth for a moment. "Little bit. Haven't done this in a while."

"Me either," Abby said. "A really long while. Actually … never."

"You know," Clancy said, "even though I haven't done this in a while, I have learned one thing in my dating career."

"What's that?"

Clancy took a drink, then said, "Don't rush it. You can't plan on when the right time will strike you. Doing things on a schedule guarantees a bad experience."

Looking at her with affection, Abby asked, "Have you had many bad experiences?"

"Yeah, I've had my share. Things were hard when I was young. We'd have to have sex because we had a place - rather than a burning desire."

"Mmm … makes sense. But things seem so much easier when you're young, don't they?" Abby sipped her drink as she looked at her friend contemplatively. "As you get older, you think more." She laughed softly. "Thinking gets you in trouble."

"Yeah." Clancy sipped at her lemonade, then said, "There was a simple beauty to being able to think only about the present. Gets harder every year." She smiled at Abby and said, "Now I think about today, tomorrow, next year, the rest of my life."

"Do you think of me when you think about the rest of your life?" Abby asked.

Clancy nodded. "Definitely." She put her drink down and turned so she was facing the older woman. "Every time. You're in my plans … my dreams."

Abby looked at her and said, "That makes my heart race." Her eyes fluttered closed. "It's been such a long time since someone's cared about me like that."

"I care about you," Clancy said. "Very, very much."

"I care about you, too," Abby said. "It astounds me how much."

"Still nervous?" Clancy asked.

Abby smiled wryly, "More than ever."

"Let's go sit outside. It's a lovely night."

"Okay. Will I be warm enough?"

Clancy looked at her outfit - a roomy sweatshirt the color of lime sherbet, and a pair of pink oxford-cloth boxer shorts. "You might be a little chilly, but I can help keep you warm."

They went outdoors, the dogs, as usual, following them. "It's perfect out," Abby said, "but you can still keep me warm."

Clancy sat down on the thick pad of the loveseat and put her arm around her friend. "I feel a little like a teenager at a movie," she said. "Should I have tried the fake yawn before I inconspicuously draped my arm across your shoulders?"

Abby lay her head on Clancy's shoulder. "No, I think we can skip ahead a little bit. Let's act like we're in college - at least."

"I can do that." Clancy leaned back, able to spot a few stars through the ambient light of metropolitan Los Angeles. "It's so nice out here. I can smell the magnolias and the night-blooming jasmine."

"Yeah. There's something about jasmine …"

Clancy's voice dropped into a lower register. "Mmm-hmm. Something about it smells sexy … seductive."

Abby sat up and placed her finger just below Clancy's ear. Slowly, she slid it down her neck, past her shoulder, running it all the way to her hand. A riot of goose-bumps followed in her wake, and she saw Clancy shiver. "I love it when your voice gets low and sexy."

"Something about you makes it that way," the blonde said. "When we're together, I immediately find myself wanting to hold you. It's all I can do to stop myself from hugging you when you come outside to bring water to us."

"Maybe your men would just think you were very, very thankful," Abby teased.

"No, they're a pretty savvy bunch. Ramon picked up on Hayley's crush on me before I did."

"Oh." Abby, suddenly and obviously uneasy, looked at her friend. "Do you think he knows about us?"

"If he does, he hasn't said anything," Clancy said. "He's pretty up front, so I'd expect him to ask me if he thought something was going on."

Abby shook her head, looking like she was trying to dislodge a thought. "I don't know why it bothers me. It shouldn't."

"Doesn't matter if it should or not," Clancy said. "You can't order your feelings around. If you want, I'll brush Ramon off if he asks."

"No, don't do that," Abby said, feeling like she was being silly. "We'll figure out what to do when the time comes."

Clancy sat quietly, taking in the small nights sounds of the neighborhood. An occasional car would drive by, but their privacy wasn't even disturbed by headlights any longer, now that the concrete blocks were up. The only clue that they were surrounded by other people was the muted sound of an engine straining up the steep hill. This was the quietest, most tranquil yard she'd ever been in, and merely sitting outside made her feel rejuvenated.

They sat that way longer than either realized, and Abby got up when they'd finished their drinks, bringing out refills. Clancy accepted, even though she was starting to feel the effects of the alcohol. She didn't normally drink on a work night, though she often kicked back on the weekends. This just seemed like a very good night to have a little chemical relaxation.

After another few minutes had passed, Abby cuddled up closer and put her hand on Clancy's stomach. "You have the hardest little belly I think I've ever felt," the older woman said. "Are these what they call washboard abs?"

"Yeah," Clancy said, laughing a little. "As long as I stay at around a hundred and twenty pounds, they're visible. But they're the first things to go when I put on a little weight. The muscles are still there, but you can't see 'em."

Abby was quiet for a moment, then asked, "You can see them?" Her voice sounded both sexy and curious, and Clancy decided to tease her a little.

"Uh-huh. But you've got to take my shirt off."

Abby put her hand on the dark green T-shirt she'd given her friend, tentatively stroking from her shoulder down to her elbow. "I love the way you fill out a shirt," she said. "I can feel the material straining here at the seam. I've never touched a woman who felt like you do."

Chuckling, Clancy asked, "How many women have you felt?"

"A few," the older woman said, smiling when Clancy did a little comic take.

"A few … like your daughter and her friends when you're putting sun-block on their backs? Or a few … like …" She stared at the other woman and said, "I don't even know what I'm asking."

"The latter," Abby said, nodding mysteriously.

"Care to explain? I thought you'd resisted all attempts to make you a feminist lesbian."

"I did," Abby agreed, "but I didn't know what I was resisting until I'd had a little taste. You know I'm a curious person."

Clancy turned in her seat, her head cocked at a severe angle. "Spill it. Now."

Abby laughed. "There isn't a lot to tell. I went to school during a very turbulent time. Young women were questioning everything they'd ever been taught. I didn't realize it at first, but most of my friends were starting to pair off and sleep together. I don't think most of them were exclusively lesbian, but they weren't opposed to an occasional woman lover."

"Damn, now you've got me wondering if my mom ever did that!" Clancy's voice warbled a bit in alarm, and Abby sought to comfort her.

"Did your mom go to college?"

"No. She married my dad not long after graduating from high school. Why? Do you need a degree to experiment?"

"No," Abby laughed. "But that was the right environment for being around women who were trying things like that. We had segregated dorms, lots of marijuana, four women to a room …" She smiled. "Things happened that wouldn't have happened to a young woman who still lived at home. Besides," she said, "why does it bother you so much to think of your mother having sex with another woman?"

"I'm barely comfortable with her having sex with my dad," Clancy said. "Quit freaking me out!"

Abby put an arm around her and gave her a comforting hug. "Calm down, baby, I'm sure your mother and father only had sex once. And that was probably an accident that happened while they were asleep. I'm sure neither one of them felt a thing."

Clancy poked her in the ribs and pulled away. "Think about your mom getting sweaty with another woman and see how it feels!"

"Point well taken," Abby said, smiling.

"Besides, I think you're just trying to throw me off the trail. I wanna know what you did in college, not what my mom didn't do."

"I didn't do much," Abby said. "A few kisses, some backrubs. Lots and lots of stiff muscles at U.C.L.A.," she added, chuckling.

"Tell me about these kisses," Clancy said, drawing closer. "Give me an example."

Abby looked at her, a quizzical expression on her face. "You're really interested, aren't you?"

"Hell, yes! I had no idea you'd ever kissed another woman!"

"Well, I don't know if you've ever kissed a man."

"I haven't. Now tell me about this!"

"Okay, okay," Abby soothed, giggling a little. "I didn't know a few kisses would be this big a deal."

"They are," Clancy said, staring at her intently. "Spill it."

"All right," Abby said, sitting back. She thought for a few moments, then said, "The woman I told you about - Katie - the campus leader who tried to convince me that feminism equaled lesbianism?"

Clancy nodded, then sat back, too. Even though she was sitting quietly, she was more alert than Abby had ever seen her, intent on every word. "We'd only been friends for a short time. I was a freshman and she was a senior. We met while working on a project for some cause … I don't even remember what it was. I was very impressed with her, and probably had one of those adolescent crushes on her."

"My mom didn't have crushes on girls," Clancy said, her tone making it clear that this wasn't up for discussion.

"Right. Well, we got to be friendly, and we'd go to her room to talk or smoke a joint. I thought I was pretty cool to be hanging around with a senior, and I was probably a little star struck. Katie was always giving a speech or championing some great cause." She laughed at the memory. "It all seemed very important at the time. Anyway, she started to talk to me about women loving women. I hadn't given the topic much thought before, but it didn't particularly shock me. It seemed … pretty natural."

"Natural? Were you attracted to girls when you were younger?"

"Yeah, a little bit," Abby said. "I had crushes on a couple of teachers and thought some of the older girls in my school were about the coolest things ever created. But I'd never associated sexual feelings with those crushes. I just thought they were … divine," she said, laughing again.

"So what happened with Katie?"

"Well, she rubbed my back one night while I was very stoned, and I wouldn't have minded if she'd turned me over and touched me wherever she wanted."

Abby said this like it was the most natural thing in the world, but Clancy's head was spinning. "You wouldn't have minded? Minded?"

"Yeah. It felt very sensual and erotic … but it didn't make me want to jump on her. It would have felt very natural to have her touch me, but I wasn't craving it. It's hard to explain."

Clancy blinked. "I guess it is 'cause I'm clueless!"

"It's not that big a deal. Not long after that, she was in my room one afternoon. I lived in a dorm close to where the football team practiced. It was a warm fall day, and I had the windows open. I remember hearing an occasional shout from a coach and the thud that a football makes when you kick it. I felt like such a college girl." She smiled again, thinking of herself at that age. "Katie was sitting on my bed, and the afternoon sun hit her, making all sorts of gold and red highlights in her hair. I sat down next to her, and she put her hand on my thigh. We sat there for a few minutes, looking into each other's eyes, then I put my hand on her cheek and pulled her closer. We smiled at each other, and I found myself kissing her."

"Wow," Clancy said, nearly slack-jawed. "You kissed her!"

"Yeah, I certainly did. She kissed me back, and that felt awfully good, so we started to make out."

"You said a few kisses!"

Abby smiled. "So math's not my best subject. I don't know how many kisses we shared. But it felt great, and I could easily have kept going - if my roommate hadn't come in."

Clancy slapped herself in the forehead. "Damn that roommate!"

Running her hand up and down Clancy's leg, she asked, "Why do you want me to have had sex with a woman? What difference does it make?"

"A lot!" Clancy said. "Then you'd know you liked it. I wouldn't be so nervous about your throwing me out of here in the middle of it!"

Abby put her arm around the younger woman and drew her close. When they were nose to nose she said, "I'm not going to throw you out of here. Just because Katie and I didn't have sex has no bearing on us. I'm very, very attracted to you, Clancy. And I know who I am now. I'm not afraid of this."

"Is that why you didn't have sex with Katie? Were you afraid?"

"A little. I liked it better when I was making the first move. That felt safe to me. But after that afternoon, she kept trying to talk me into it. That never works with me. I don't respond well to pressure."

"I'll keep reminding myself of that," Clancy said. "I don't wanna make Katie's mistake."

"Hey, I was eighteen at the time. I've grown up a little bit … I hope."

"You've grown up nicely," Clancy said. She put one arm around Abby's back, the other behind her knees, and slid the older woman right onto her lap. "You don't mind if I make the first move, do you?"

Giving her a delectably sexy kiss, Abby whispered, "I prefer it." She tilted her head and started to nibble on the blonde's ear, immediately able to feel a hard nipple pressing against her arm. "So responsive," she murmured, letting her hand brush over the breast that had captured her attention. She draped both arms around the architect's neck and hugged her close. "I like this," Abby said. "A lot."

"I like it, too," Clancy agreed, staring intently at her partner's lips. "Perfect for kissing."

Abby leaned in and started to kiss the full, pink lips, hearing herself moan when Clancy's mouth opened slightly. They held each other tightly, pressing their breasts into one another. They kissed until each was out of breath, then Clancy pulled back and looked into Abby's eyes, desire radiating from the blue orbs. Immediately, they fell into another embrace, kissing and sucking on each other's lips with a rapidly escalating intensity.

"I'm getting a little dizzy," Abby said, blinking slowly. "I don't know if it's from your kisses or the lemonade."

"Maybe it's both." Clancy pulled her close and kissed her with passion, making Abby moan and squirm on her lap. The next time their oxygen-starved lungs forced them to pull apart, Clancy looked at the taller woman and whispered, "I want to take you to bed. Will you sleep with me?" She was speaking directly into Abby's ear, gently nibbling on her earlobe.

"Yes." She sighed deeply. "Yes, I will."

One last time, Clancy pulled back and looked into her friend's eyes. "Are you sure? I don't want you to ever regret this."

Her head nodding, Abby kissed the younger woman and said, "I'm completely sure."

They stood, Clancy took her hand, and they walked into the kitchen together. When they reached the stairs, she stopped abruptly to ask, "What about the dogs?"

"They're fine," Abby assured her, patting her gently on the side, completely disarmed by her friend's thoughtfulness and concern. "I'll put the lemonade away so they don't knock it over." Clancy watched her move, her mouth going dry when she saw the sensual, feline grace that her friend exhibited when she was aroused. Joining Clancy on the stairs, Abby draped her arm around the smaller woman's shoulders. "They can sleep alone for one night. I choose you," she said, dropping a kiss onto the soft skin of Clancy's neck.

"Poor dogs," the younger woman said. Then her face creased into a wide grin as she added, "Lucky me."

O

They reached the top of the stairs, and Abby seemed to hesitate for a moment. Clancy's heart tripped, hoping desperately that she hadn't changed her mind. But a moment later, the brunette turned to the left and guided Clancy into an attractive but sparsely appointed room. The space surprised Clancy, mainly because the rest of the house was filled with personal mementos and photos of the family. This room, while nicely decorated, was devoid of any such adornment.

Abby hesitated just inside the door, looking to Clancy to take the lead. They were standing close to one another, and Clancy guided Abby's arms to drape around her neck, then she put her hands on her friend's hips, smiling gently when she felt the womanly curves mold under her hands. "Are you okay?"

"Yes," she said thinly. "I'm a little uncertain because this is my first time -"

"No, it's not," Clancy interrupted. "I'm sure you've made love more than I have. It's not much different from what you're used to. All that's important is that we express how we feel." She gave her a confident smile and said, "I'm sure you're an expert in how to do that."

The small pep talk reassured her significantly, and Abby grasped Clancy's hand and led her to the bed. Clancy sat and gazed up at her friend, her eyes reflecting her desire. Abby looked down at her, her hands resting on broad shoulders. She bent to kiss her, keeping her touch light and delicate while their bodies got used to this level of intimate contact.

Clancy's hands slipped from Abby's waist down to her hips, and she pulled her close. Leaning over further and further, with Clancy pulling gently, Abby found herself straddling the younger woman while she greedily sucked at her lips and tongue. Clancy felt like her head would explode, having her long-held desire finally becoming a reality. The passion was building quickly, and Clancy took a breath in surprise when Abby started to take control.

Abby sat up slightly and yanked her sweatshirt over her head, then tugged on Clancy, trying to pull her completely onto the surface of the bed. The shorter woman wasn't easily moved, but when Abby whispered, "Come up here," she scrambled onto the bed, then sat facing Abby. When she had her settled, Abby grasped her T-shirt and removed it quickly, then stopped abruptly when her eyes settled on the shining nipple ring. Having never seen one up close, she gazed at it for a moment. Her hand moved tentatively towards it, and Clancy gently reassured her, "Go on. Touch it. Any way you want."

Her eyes shifted and locked onto Clancy's, and she asked, "Doesn't it hurt?"

Clancy smiled gently and shook her head. "No, no, no. Not by a long shot. It feels great." She took Abby's hand and moved it to her breast, silently encouraging her to explore. The older woman did, quietly watching Clancy's face as she touched the ring lightly.

A small smile greeted her, and the smile grew wider as her explorations got a little more enthusiastic. She found that she could turn the heavy ring, and that Clancy's eyes started to narrow every time she did. A definite throb was beginning to pulse between her legs, and she bent and took the decorated nipple into her mouth - sucking gently while her tongue moved the ring up and down and pulled on it slightly.

"Oh, yeah," Clancy growled. "That feels so good." Her voice was rough and sexy, and Abby felt her pulse start to pound even harder. She switched her mouth to the other breast and sucked at it deeply, groaning at the sensation of having her mouth completely filled with the firm, soft flesh.

Clancy's hands were never idle while Abby explored her body. She touched the older woman everywhere she could reach, grinning in delight when her touch created a rash of goose-bumps all along the soft skin. Abby was moaning throatily with each lusty suck, and she lifted her head abruptly and locked eyes with Clancy. Without a word, she stuck her thumbs into her shorts and pushed them off, then tossed them aside and lay on her back. Clancy leaned over her with a questioning look, and Abby grabbed her and pulled her down, smiling when she felt the weight of the sturdy torso atop her. "I need …" she started to say, then decided to show Clancy rather than tell her. She grasped the landscaper's hand and guided it between her legs, sucking in a shaky breath when the supple fingers slid into her wetness. "Yes, that's it. Touch me, Clancy. Touch me … inside."

Clancy slid one arm around her shoulders and drew her close while she entered her with agonizing slowness. Abby's breathing was harsh and shaky, and when Clancy's fingers had traveled the length of her, Abby grasped the muscular arm and held her still, panting gently as she felt her flesh conform to the unaccustomed fullness. "Kiss me," she breathed, her eyes closed tightly.

Clancy dipped her head and lavished a shower of kisses on the soft, full lips. Her hand started to move slowly, and Abby's hips began to thrust to meet her. They kept up the smooth, slow, rhythmic pace, their tongues dancing against one another's the whole while.

Abby's legs spread even wider, her body trying to increase the depth of penetration. Clancy sensed her need and rotated her wrist, her fingers sliding along the floor of her lover's vagina. She let her fingers curl a bit to follow the contours of the slippery flesh, smiling through the kisses when Abby gasped in pleasure and clutched at Clancy roughly. "Oh, God," she groaned. "So good."

Holding her just a little tighter, Clancy slid another finger in and smiled broadly as Abby purred with pleasure. Their mouths joined again, Abby sucking voraciously on Clancy's tongue. Both of Abby's hands slid down and she grasped Clancy's powerful arm firmly, taking control. Slowly but steadily, she guided her - increasing the pace inexorably, urging Clancy to thrust a little harder.

Abby's mouth opened, and her jaw moved, but not a sound emerged. She gasped for air, and Clancy could feel the flesh tighten around her fingers. Gripping hard, Abby held her still, her hands wrapped tightly around Clancy's forearm, her entire body rigid - on the edge of the precipice. Keeping her fingers still, Clancy gathered a dollop of lubrication onto Abby's clit and started to gently rub her thumb over it. The wet flesh that enveloped her fingers began to pulse and throb, and she lightened her touch even more, barely skimming across the ultra-sensitive skin. Abby's grip grew stronger, and her body coiled. Her breath caught in her throat just seconds before she blew it out in a great rush as she exploded into paroxysms of sensation - washing through her body like a raging torrent of feeling. The experience was so overwhelmingly intense that she didn't - she couldn't - cry out. Barely a sound left her lips - but her body provided a stunning commentary on the pleasure that buffeted her.

Slowly, her muscles began to relax, and she loosened her grip on Clancy's arm. Her fingers were nearly cramping, as were her legs, and she whimpered slightly when she tried to stretch out. Clancy planted a few soft kisses on her face, then gently wiped at the beads of perspiration on her brow. Abby draped her arms around her neck and pulled her close once again, kissing her lazily. "How could you possibly know my body so well?" she murmured after a few minutes.

Clancy grinned rakishly. "Seen one, seen 'em all?"

"No way." She kissed her again, then spent a few moments looking into her eyes, the emotion so great she wasn't able to speak. Finally, she smiled and said, "You're a fantastic lover. That's all there is to it."

"Like I'm gonna argue with that?" Clancy started to run a hand along Abby's moist skin. "Let's say that we inspired each other." Abby gave her a curious look and Clancy said, "You showed me what you needed. It's easy to be a good lover if your partner shows you what she likes."

"So … that was okay? Guiding you like that?" she asked tentatively.

Clancy kissed her again, lingering on her particularly succulent lower lip. "Of course it was. There's nothing worse than making love to someone and having her lie there, making you guess." She shuddered and said, "I've had that experience once. And once was more than enough."

Abby brushed at the damp hair along Clancy's temple and placed a kiss there. "Have you had many lovers?" Her eyes suddenly lit up, and she immediately tried to retract her question. "I don't know why I asked that! You don't have to tell me -"

"I don't mind," Clancy said immediately. "You're my fifth." She gave the matter some thought and specified. "My first time was when I was eighteen. Then I met a woman the next year and thought we had a chance to make something happen. But she was too closeted for me. My standards are pretty high, and I had a dry spell for a couple of years," she said, chuckling. "Next I dated Julie, and you know that story. My last was three years ago. That was a very brief, very unsatisfying rebound fling that I shouldn't even count," she said. "So if I toss her out, you're number four." She rolled onto her side and gave Abby a playful grin. "I shouldn't have to count someone who didn't like plants, didn't laugh at my jokes or manage to give me an orgasm, should I?"

"How do you know that I can?" Abby asked with a slightly frightened look.

"Oh, you'll do just fine," Clancy said as she patted her side. "I was about ten seconds away when you came. If you can turn me on that much without even touching me - we won't have a bit of trouble."

Abby gave her a shy look. "Is that true? Were you really close?"

"Oh, yeah." She started to kiss Abby again, moving her lips softly along her jaw, then down her throat. "You turn me on more than anyone I've ever been with. There's something about you that I find absolutely irresistible."

"I bet you say that to all the girls," Abby teased, hoping that Clancy didn't.

"No way. I've enjoyed being with almost all of my lovers, but I never felt that elusive spark. I can't name it - all I know is that I feel it with you."

Abby looked at her carefully, then swallowed and said, "I want to make you feel it now." Her hands roamed up from the waistband of Clancy's shorts to glide over her breasts. "Will you tell me what you like?" She met her eyes and admitted, "I'm really nervous."

Enfolding her in her arms, Clancy nodded, rubbing her chin against the top of Abby's head. "I'll give you a running commentary if you want. I can be like those announcers on the golf tour, where they whisper in the background."

Abby pulled back and gazed up at her fondly. "I'll let you know if it's too much, but I'd really like it if you erred on the side of full disclosure."

"It's a deal." She hugged her tightly again and said, "There's one thing I'd really like."

"What's that?" Abby asked with a still-worried look.

"I'd like for you to spend some time getting to know my body. Don't think about orgasms. Explore and enjoy yourself. It'll help you feel more comfortable - guaranteed."

Abby nodded and explained, "You feel so different from a man. It's a little hard to get used to."

"My body's like yours," Clancy whispered conspiratorially into her ear. "I know you touch yourself."

Abby looked up at her, earlobes tinted pink. "You're very open about this, aren't you?"

"Yeah, I am. Does it bother you?"

"No, no, it'll just take some getting used to." She looked at Clancy again and found her courage. "Of course I masturbate," she said. "I could count the times on one hand during my marriage, but since then …" She shrugged. "My sex drive started to come back about three years ago - and since I didn't have any other outlets …"

Clancy rolled onto her back and spread her arms wide. "You do now," she teased gently.

"I guess I'd better take full advantage," Abby said, her expression sober. "You never know when the opportunity will arise again."

Gazing at her thoughtfully, Clancy wondered where the hell that comment had come from. But she didn't want to act like it was a foregone conclusion that they would continue their intimacies - especially if Abby didn't think they would. The last thing she wanted to do was push her, so she bit her tongue and smiled up at her, trying to send the silent message that she was hoped this was only the first of thousands of times they'd make love.

Abby sat cross-legged on the bed and regarded the younger woman. She wasn't quite sure where to start, and she felt more than a little like she was performing before an audience. She had felt so very connected to Clancy just a few minutes before, and she desperately wished for some of that magic to fill her again. Clancy sensed her discomfort and sat against the headboard, pulling Abby with her. She held her in her arms, rubbing her gently for a few minutes. "Wanna go to sleep? It's okay if you do."

"No." Her head shook quickly, the short hairs at the base of her head tickling Clancy's chest. "I've lost the mood a little, and now I feel uncomfortable. It's like the difference between returning a serve in tennis and teeing off in golf. It's much easier if you only have to react."

"Well, why didn't you say so?" Clancy asked. "As you've said, I'm a stupendous lover, so I know how to fix that."

"Uhm … I believe I said fantastic," Abby jokingly corrected.

"Either way, I've got the answer. We're gonna play follow the leader," she said, grinning when she saw the look on Abby's face. "I'm gonna show you what I like - by doing it to you." She punctuated the end of her sentence by touching Abby's nose at each word. "You'll learn what I like, and you won't be teeing off. You'll be returning my serve."

A grin settled on Abby's face. "Will this work?"

"Oh, yeah. Like a charm." Clancy smiled and said, "The first thing that you have to know is that I like a lot of kissing. A whole lot of kissing," she amended. "You can never have too much kissing." She placed a gentle, meaningful kiss on Abby's soft lips, and her eyelids fluttering closed in response. Pulling away slightly, she waited just a breath and then said, "Your turn."

Abby's smile crinkled the corners of her mouth, and she leaned in and returned the kiss with equal fervor. "Like that?"

"Perfect," Clancy sighed. "Let's do a few more so we're clear, okay?"

"Practice, practice, practice," Abby agreed.

They kissed gently, tenderly, expressing the affection they felt for one another. Clancy was softly panting when they broke apart, and she said, "You catch on quick."

"Thanks. I've taken that class before. It's the advanced placement courses that have me worried."

"You're doing great - just great," Clancy assured her. She placed Abby on her back and leaned over her. "Let's move on. Now," she said, her eyes roving all over Abby's bare body, "I love to have my lips kissed, but that's not the only place I like a good kiss. A little sucking, a little nibbling - even a gentle bite or two are all very nice." She demonstrated her point to perfection, painting a warm, wet path from Abby's chin to her toes.

As soon as the blonde paused, the larger woman pinned her to the mattress and returned the favor, making Clancy moan with pleasure.

She had to blink to focus, but Clancy gathered herself to instruct, "Don't forget the rear view." Rolling Abby over, she followed no path this time, alternating a wet, sloppy kiss to the back of her knee with a bite on the neck, a slow suckle of a little pink toe with long, luxurious licks along her spine. Abby was shivering from the sensations, unable to keep her body from twitching roughly.

When Abby took her turn, she was nearly mad with desire, moaning insensibly while her mouth and tongue and teeth marked Clancy's smooth, soft body. Panting roughly, she turned the younger woman over and gazed into Clancy's eyes with wanton desire. "I'm ready - I'm so ready, Clancy."

"So am I," she whispered, moving down Abby's body like a leopard stalking its prey. She settled down, draped one long leg over her shoulder and dipped her head between Abby's thighs. She gently spread her lips, delighting when she felt the shudder run down Abby's entire body. Keeping her eyes on her partner's, she pressed her face against Abby and gave her a deep, wet kiss, letting her tongue just peek out of her parted lips.

"Oh, God," Abby moaned, twitching her hips to increase the pressure.

"Mmm-hmm," Clancy purred, her mouth beginning to water from the burst of sensations that suffused her senses. Abby's sweet/salt taste, her delicate, musky scent, the throb of her pulse, almost visible through the swollen flesh - all combined in a delightful mιlange of pleasure. She gathered herself and tried to focus, beginning to gently nibble on the puffy outer lips, running her tongue along every inch of skin, Abby's guttural moans providing the rewarding accompaniment. Drawing a thin inner lip into her mouth, she lightly suckled it, her toes curling when she heard Abby cry out.

She was completely taken aback when she felt her whole world turn, and she found herself on her back - Abby hurriedly pulling the boxer shorts off. The blue eyes were narrowed with desire, and she panted huskily, "I can't wait to taste you."

Clancy relaxed onto the bed, spreading her legs wide at Abby's urgings. The larger woman tried to nestle into the warm space, but found that she couldn't get comfortable. Tossing a pillow onto the floor, she got onto her knees and tugged Clancy towards the edge of the bed, smiling when the younger woman immediately placed her feet on her shoulders and lay back.

Abby wasn't sure what to expect, and she dipped her head rather tentatively. Hovering above Clancy for just a moment, she felt her heart calm as she regarded her - so open and vulnerable. The gift that Clancy was offering was one she took very seriously, and Abby leaned into her and returned the passion-filled kiss that Clancy had previously graced her with.

The sensations burst upon her tongue - indescribable, unique, and yet deeply familiar, reminding her of her own scent - one that she'd tasted upon Will's lips so many times. She breathed in and let the younger woman's fragrance fill her senses, then began to explore. With her tongue and her lips, she moved over every bit of flesh both hidden and openly revealed. Clancy moaned continually, her hands clutching Abby's hair, sometimes pulling a little too firmly. Whenever the younger woman would yank hard, Abby would back off, wait a moment, then move on to another less-sensitive spot. But as soon as Clancy's body relaxed, she'd dive in again, grinning to herself when she drew another gasp from her.

Her hands were resting atop Clancy's thighs, and as she continued to nuzzle at her, Clancy reached down and directed one hand towards her opening. "Come inside me, Abby. I need to feel you."

With her mouth never ceasing its gentle sucking, Abby slid into Clancy's warmth, a small groan leaving her when she felt how deliciously slick and hot she was inside.

She was so enraptured by the experience that she almost failed to hear Clancy pant out, "Hold … still … hold still and let me move against you."

Abby stilled her tongue and her fingers, but Clancy grabbed her hand and pushed it into herself, urging Abby to continue penetrating her. Her hands went to Abby's head, and she pulled almost completely away from her touch, the older woman observing in rapt fascination. When her swollen flesh was barely touching Abby's soft tongue, she pumped her hips, letting herself glide against Abby for just a few moments. She whimpered softly, then stilled completely, and after just a heartbeat, Abby felt her begin to pulse and twitch deep inside. After a few powerful contractions, Clancy grasped her lover's head tightly and panted out through gritted teeth, "Soften your tongue and lick me everywhere. Gently … gently," she urged, her voice rising in a full-throated moan as Abby followed her instructions precisely.

Slowly, Clancy released her grip, and let her legs drop from Abby's shoulders to fall along the mattress. Abby climbed onto the bed and wrapped her arms around Clancy's trembling body, holding her gently until her wildly beating heart slowly calmed. Clancy finally summoned the energy to look at Abby, giving her a wan smile as she said, "I told ya you could do it."

O

When Clancy could string together a few coherent sentences, she nuzzled her face against Abby's breasts and said, "That was worth waiting for." She turned her head a little and pulled a perky nipple into her mouth, giving it a quick suck. "Your turn."

"Again?" Abby asked, showing her white teeth. "I get to go again?"

"You can go again and again and again," Clancy assured her. "I can keep going until you've had your fill." She waggled her eyebrows rakishly and said, "Some of the few benefits of youth - appetite and stamina."

"I might take you to your limits," Abby warned. "I've got five years of pent up desire lurking right underneath this placid surface."

"We'll see who gives out first." Clancy gave her a toothy grin and added a little growl. "Now, where were we when you zoomed ahead of me in the game?" Abby lay flat on her back and spread her legs, a shy smile covering her face. Clancy smiled back at her and said, "Ahh … that's right. I was partying right around … here." She scooted down so that her head was nestled between Abby's legs and shot her a charming grin. "That's right, isn't it?"

Abby didn't even attempt to respond. She merely ran her fingers through the short hairs at the back of Clancy's head and pushed her gently towards the target.

"Mmm," Clancy purred when she tasted Abby's essence once again. "Delightful." She settled down comfortably and nuzzled her face in close, using just the tip of her tongue to lightly trace over all of the surfaces.

Abby tried to press against her, but Clancy wasn't about to be hurried. She was going to take Abby on a nice, slow, sensual ride, and she knew exactly where she wanted to go. Pressing her hands against Abby's hips, she lightened her touch even more - giving her partner the clear message that she was in control.

After a moment of struggle, Abby's body stilled; she sighed and said, "You're the boss."

Clancy's head lifted enough to make eye contact. She winked playfully. "You've got that right," she said, then dropped her head and let her desires lead her. She decided that nothing would please her more than to simply savor the sensual delights of Abby's body. She languidly explored the sights, the sounds, the tastes and aromas that her senses virtually drowned in. She was nuzzling softly against the wet, warm flesh, determined to taste every bit of the skin that throbbed against her tongue. Abby started to moan a little louder, jerking her hips more forcefully, so Clancy eased off again, smiling when she heard Abby let out a frustrated grunt.

Clancy came up onto her elbows and breathed a stream of cool air across Abby's heated skin. "Trust me," she murmured softly. "I'll take you there. Relax and let me love you."

Reaching out blindly, Abby grasped one of Clancy's hands and brought it to her mouth, kissing across her knuckles, then pressing the warm palm against her face. "I do trust you, Clancy. I do."

O

Even though they'd only been sleeping for an hour or so, Clancy woke just after 7:00. A bright, full smile settled onto her face when she felt Abby shift in her sleep and cuddle up even tighter. The architect let her hand drift down and stroke Abby's back, soothing her in her sleep. As she caressed her, Abby's breathing deepened, and she sank into near unconsciousness. God, she's a beautiful woman, Clancy reflected. And can she ever make love! Her eyes rolled in her head as she recalled a few images of their passion-filled coupling. She'd held a sneaking suspicion that Abby would be very free and loving in bed, but the reality had exceeded her expectations - by a mile.

She heard a soft whimper and then another, and she quickly realized that it wasn't Abby making the sounds but the dogs. She gently moved Abby's head from her own chest and placed it on a pillow. "Sleep tight," she whispered, then padded across the room to find her discarded shorts and T-shirt. Putting the wrinkled clothing on, she silently opened the door and shushed the dogs, then sank to a crouch and allowed them to give her a very warm greeting. "The whole family has talented tongues," she commented to the pups as she led them downstairs.

Taking a peek into the laundry room, she pulled her shorts, panties and shirt from the dryer. Abby had obviously done her share of laundry, since Clancy's dirty red socks still sat on the floor, along with her sports bra. "Somebody's learned her lesson about red wool socks," she commented to the dogs. "And she knew that I don't like my bras put in the washer. We've already proven we're compatible."

After giving the dogs breakfast, Clancy figured out how to use the coffee maker and went outside to wait for the coffee to brew. She curled up on one of the loungers and fell asleep immediately when both dogs climbed onto the surface with her, their warm, soft bodies lulling her into a deep sleep.

O

Abby woke slowly, her body a little stiff and a little sore from the thorough loving she had received. Even though it was a completely new sensation, she felt remarkably comfortable, to her surprise, with the realization that she and Clancy had thoroughly breached the friend barrier. The scent of the young woman lingered, and she smiled, a little amazed and more than a little pleased with herself. I don't know if I surprised Clancy, she mused, but I shocked the hell out of myself. She and Will had enjoyed a very fulfilling sex life, and he had always complimented her on her willingness to experiment and express herself. But she was surprised that she had done so with a new partner - and a woman, no less. Maybe I'm not getting older, she thought with a smirk, maybe I'm getting better.

She assumed that Clancy was in the bath, but when she didn't hear a sound for a few moments, her heart started to beat rapidly. "Clancy?" she called. When she got no answer, she got up and peered out the window, but the yellow truck wasn't in its usual spot. Going to the door of the guestroom, she opened it and called out again. "Clancy?" The only response was two eager dogs, running up the stairs quickly, licking her bare body enthusiastically. Her heart sank, and she began to feel a little sick to her stomach. She left me? We made love all night long, and she got up and left? She called out again, knowing that she was wasting her time. If Clancy were anywhere in the house, the dogs would be with her. She must have left. Maybe her closing the door is what woke me.

She fell onto the bed and lay completely still for a few minutes, her heart thudding in her chest. Did this mean nothing to her? Jesus, she said she was falling in love with me! The minutes ticked by, and the dogs climbed onto the bed with her, Athena laying her head on Abby's belly.

What could have made her leave? This doesn't make sense - unless she didn't have as wonderful a time as I did. She felt sick to her stomach again, thinking of the intimacies she had shared with Clancy, and of how willingly she had offered herself to the young woman. She got up slowly, feeling more like an eighty-year-old than herself. Maybe she's not the type to stay over after she has sex. She went to the stairway and leaned on the railing, thinking of how wonderful it had felt to walk up the stairs the night before - filled with anticipation. Well, I'm not the type of woman who wants a drive-by sexual encounter. I guess I didn't know her as well as I thought I did. That's one mistake I won't make again. I swear I'll never sleep with another person unless we know each other very well and have definitely fallen in love. She shook her head as she padded into the bathroom to wash the scent of their lovemaking from her body. Things I wish I'd decided yesterday.

When Abby got into the shower, the dogs ran back downstairs to see Clancy. They were pretty sure they weren't due for a bath, but a dog could never tell, so it was safer to be on a different floor when the shower started. They leapt onto the chaise, waking the architect from a sound sleep. "Hey, give a woman a little peace, huh?" she growled at them. Even though they'd woken her before she was ready, she couldn't stay mad at them. She was nearly giddy with happiness - her dreams of being with Abby not only coming true, but coming true in such a spectacular way.

She stretched, went into the kitchen, and heard the shower running. "Hey, she's up," she commented to the dogs, then wondered why she always conversed with them, since they were never able to keep up their side of the discussion. "How should I play this, guys? Does she like to have breakfast in bed?" she asked, only to get the silent treatment again. She decided to let Abby dictate the tone for their interactions. Just in case - I won't put my real clothes back on. She might be taking a shower so she's nice and fresh for another roll in the hay.

A silly grin settled onto her face, and she started to whistle. She took out a tray and poured a cup of coffee, adding a little half-and-half just the way Abby liked it. Then she added a glass of juice and a bowl of granola, slicing a banana on the granola to make sure Abby got her vitamins. While she was preparing breakfast the phone rang, and she heard a woman leave a message on the answering machine confirming plans to play tennis at ten o'clock. Damn! It's already 9:30. She sulked mildly and groused, I guess we won't be going back to bed. She heard Abby walking around upstairs, and she grabbed a vase and filled it with water, then took some shears and went outside to cut some flowers to add to the tray.

Abby came downstairs a moment later and stopped in surprise when she saw the neatly prepared breakfast. "Clancy?" she tried one more time. The coffee was hot, so she knew the young woman was close by, and her heart started to beat faster. She poked her head out the door and found the landscaper walking across the patio in her bare feet, last night's boxers and T-shirt covering her body. They made eye contact, and before Abby knew what was happening, she had burst into tears, crying helplessly as Clancy ran the rest of the way. She nearly dropped the vase in her eagerness to set it down. Then she threw her arms around Abby.

"What's wrong?" she soothed. "Tell me."

"I … I … I thought you'd left," she gasped out. "I thought you slept with me and then walked out."

"Abby," she murmured, "I've never done that in my life." She held her at arm's length and gazed at her seriously. "You wouldn't be the woman I'd start that with."

Resting her head on Clancy's shoulder, Abby cried piteously, letting out all of the hurt and abandonment she'd felt when she'd woken up alone. "I'm sorry," she sniffled several minutes later. "This is so new for me - I don't really know how to behave."

"Hey, all you have to do is be yourself," Clancy assured her. "You can never go wrong expressing how you feel."

"I feel better now that I know you're here," she sniffed.

"I feel better now that you're up," Clancy said. She held the vase up in front of Abby and said, "I brought you flowers. Well, technically, I brought your flowers to you."

"Thank you," Abby whispered. "They're beautiful."

Clancy led her to the breakfast bar and urged her to sit. "You've got a tennis date in a few minutes. You'd better eat quickly."

Abby moaned and sat down to gulp down the food Clancy had provided for her. "I like bananas on my cereal," she said with a wan smile.

"I do, too," Clancy said, ruffling her hair gently. "Oh, thanks for not putting my socks in the washer. I forgot to tell you that they still bleed."

"No problem," Abby said, finding herself looking up shyly to meet Clancy's eyes.

Clancy went into the bathroom by the laundry to get dressed, and she came out a few minutes later, a little wrinkled but mostly clean. Abby was finishing her meal, and Clancy came up behind her and wrapped her in a hug. Abby grasped the arms that encircled her and gave them a squeeze. "I had one of the most remarkable nights of my life last night," the younger woman whispered, tickling her ear. "It meant a lot to me, Abby, and I hope it meant something to you, too. I … I don't want to press you about the future, but I wanted you to know that." She leaned around just enough to reach Abby's lips and give them a lingering kiss. "Have a nice day playing tennis with your friends," she added as she straightened.

Abby nodded and watched the young woman walk towards the front door. Abruptly, Clancy turned and scampered back into the laundry room. She picked up her unwashed bra, sheepishly tucked it into one of the pockets of her cargo shorts, and blew Abby a kiss.

Shaking her head at her lover's antics, Abby watched her leave, feeling her heart sink when Clancy closed the door. How can I miss her already?

O

Chapter Twelve

Abby called Clancy when she got home from her tennis match. The architect answered on the fourth ring, sounding a little slow. "H'llo?"

"Ohh … did I wake you?"

"Little," Clancy admitted. "I started working on some plans, then woke up to find my head on my desk. I took that as a clue that I might need a nap."

Laughing softly, Abby said, "I could use a nap, too. I'm not used to staying up so late."

"Wanna nap together?"

Clancy sounded adorably hopeful, but Abby wasn't as enthusiastic. "I'd love to, but I have a dinner to go to tonight. If I had you in my bed, I wouldn't feel like napping." Her voice was soft and sexy, and Clancy's teeth hurt just to hear it. "Do you mind?"

"Hell, yeah, I mind," Clancy said, chuckling. "I wanna be on you like aphids on roses."

"Aww … a flower simile. I want that, too, but I have to be alert tonight. I'm on the committee that puts this dinner together, and I'm going to have to run around like mad." She thought for a second, then asked, "How about coming over to meet me when I get home?"

"Sure," Clancy said. "What time?"

"Come whenever you want," Abby said. "The dogs would love to have some company. You could use the Jacuzzi, take a swim."

"I'll be there before you leave if you don't stop tempting me," Clancy said. "Hey, would it be okay if I brought Michael over?"

"Of course! There's only one rule. No glass in the pool or Jacuzzi. You know where the towels are, right?"

"We can bring our own towels, Abby. We don't have to act like we're going to a spa."

"Don't bother. Really. We have plenty, and I wash a load of towels nearly every day. It's no trouble."

"We'll see," Clancy said, making Abby laugh at her attempt at sounding like a parent. "I'll see you when you get home."

"I can't think of a better thing to make me wrap up my business as soon as possible. See you then."

O

After hanging up, Abby stood up and stared at the phone for a moment. She put her hand on it and removed it three times before she shivered slightly and walked away, hugging herself. She found herself wandering aimlessly around the house, looking for something to occupy her mind. She felt restless and twitchy, unable to fix on anything for long. But her body was fatigued … as tired as she'd felt in ages. She and Clancy had only slept for an hour or two, and three sets of tennis with her friends had served to deplete the small amount of energy she had. But her mind wasn't listening to her body.

The dogs were as restless as she, always tracking her mood. She looked at two pairs of brown eyes and said, "I'm going to go lie down, girls. Wanna join me?"

They wagged their tails excitedly, though they had no idea of where they were going. Together, they went upstairs, and the dogs ran into the master bedroom when Abby opened the door. She smiled at them, always comforted by their happy faces.

Kicking off her shoes, Abby walked slowly around the room, looking at it with new eyes. Oh, baby, I know you wouldn't like this, but I've turned our room into a museum! She touched the bronzed baby shoes, Will's first pair, then picked up the photo of him being held by his parents at his baptism. She stroked the silver frame gently, put it down, then surveyed the rest of the room. It had taken her two years, but she'd managed to give nearly all of Will's clothing to a homeless shelter. She'd taken the boxes of mementos they'd saved after his parents' death, though, and put the majority of them on display in their room.

A ragged teddy bear, a particularly adorable picture of Will on a merry-go-round, his grade school graduation picture, and a few other keepsakes from his youth dotted her dresser and the bookcases. These had joined the family pictures already adorning the walls when Will died - pictures from the time they started to date up to a few months before his death - chronicling their two decades together.

I can't leave it this way, honey. I can't. She sank to the bed, reaching out blindly to stroke the dogs, her constant allies in her fight against depression. I know you'd want me to go on, and I can't go on when I'm surrounded by all of these things … She gestured helplessly, looking at the items that cluttered her furniture. I've got to put some of these things away.

She got up and took the old, threadbare stuffed animal and dropped back onto the bed. For a long time she cried … helplessly …just as she'd cried for the first months after Will had died. It felt like another piece of him was dying now, and she was sick with grief. The dogs licked her face and her head, trying to calm her down. But they weren't able to help her today. She was losing another small piece of Will, and this time, she was doing it by her own hand.

O

Clancy and Michael played in the pool like a couple of kids. Clancy'd brought out all of the pool toys: the volleyball, the squirt guns, the Frisbees, and a big ball filled with some kind of material that made it sink like a stone. She'd caught Michael unawares when she tossed that one at him, and the weighted ball hit him smack in the chest. But for payback, he'd made her dive to the bottom to retrieve it.

Clancy was very glad that Abby didn't mind Michael's knowing about their relationship, and she'd kept him up-to-date on everything that happened. He was supportive, as always, but she could tell that he was worried things wouldn't work out for her.

"So tell me again where this daughter is?" he asked, while they were throwing the weighted ball at each other.

"She's in Maine, visiting Abby's parents. She'll be back in two weeks."

"And then what? Is Abby gonna tell her about you?"

"Ahh … I don't know," Clancy admitted. "We haven't talked a lot about the future, Michael. This whole thing is hard for her, and she gets a little freaked out when she thinks about everything that could happen."

He cradled the ball under his arm for a moment, giving the dogs - who had been chasing each throw - a rest. They swam to the steps and put their front paws on the top step, each panting while turning her head to keep an eye on the ball. "Just because she doesn't think about things doesn't stop them from happening," Michael said. "What if her daughter demands that she stop seeing you. Would she?"

Clancy had been patting the water with the flat of her hands, making tiny ripples. She didn't look up to answer the question. "I don't know. I honestly have no idea."

In a voice filled with kindness, Michael said, "Don't you think you'd better find out before you get in too deep? I can tell how crazy you are about this woman, Clance. I'd hate to see you get your heart broken."

"I … I don't think she'd do that to me," Clancy said. "I mean … I know she wouldn't do it unless she absolutely had no other choice."

He nodded, looking like he was going to say something else, but instead he looked at the dogs and said, "Break's over, girls. Time to get back to work." As soon as he launched the ball at Clancy, the dogs dove back in, swimming from one person to the other, always just a second too late.

O

Abby arrived home at around midnight, finding Michael and Clancy sitting on the love seat on the patio, each of them covered by a breathing black and white lap blanket. Michael was dressed, but Clancy was still in her suit. "This looks like a very happy group," Abby said, smiling at the foursome. The dogs sat up when they heard her voice, and both tails began to wag, but neither left her perch. "Is that the best you two can do? No kiss?"

Clancy patted Athena on the butt, and the dog reluctantly jumped to the ground. The architect walked over to Abby and gave her a quick kiss, smiling at her when she pulled away. "I have more than a kiss for you," she said. "Given how you look …" She waggled her eyebrows suggestively, making Abby giggle like a schoolgirl. "You look fantastic," she said, her expression serious. "I've never seen you in a dress before; I didn't know what I'd been missing."

Abby wanted to fold herself into Clancy's arms and have the blonde lavish her with compliments, but she minded her manners and greeted her guest. She extended her hand, and she and Michael shook. "It's good to see you again," Abby said. "Did you find everything you needed?"

"Yeah, we had a great time," Michael said, his white teeth contrasting with his dark coloring. "I haven't played in a pool in a long time."

"I love to see people enjoy the pool. You're welcome any time, Michael," Abby said.

"You might regret that invitation," he said, giving her his most charming smile.

Abby spent a moment looking at the younger man, struck by how very attractive he was. His hair was thick and black and perfectly cut, and his dark eyes were kind and playful. He had a boyish look about him, and yet he looked very mature. It was a nice disparity and added to his style. It puzzled Abby that she hadn't previously noticed how attractive he was, but then it dawned on her that she'd only had eyes for Clancy - even at the beginning. She realized it was her turn to talk, and said, "I doubt that. I love to have people over." She put her arm around Clancy and gave her a gentle hug. "One person in particular."

Clancy beamed at her, very happy that Abby was showing affection for her in front of Michael. She'd been afraid that the older woman would be uncomfortable around her friends, and was nearly giddy to see that wasn't the case.

Michael started to get up, trying to dislodge a very reluctant Aphrodite. "Don't leave yet," Abby said. "Stay and have another drink."

"Thanks, but I should get going," he said. "I worked a full day today, and it's catching up with me. I only stayed this late to keep Clance company."

"And I appreciate it," she said, putting her arms around him for a rough hug. She kissed his cheek, and he rubbed the top of her head, their affection for each other very much like that of siblings. "I'll be home some time tomorrow, okay?"

"Sure. Call if you're gonna stay over again. You know I'm in charge of you when your dad's not around."

Clancy laughed, knowing that Michael was only partially kidding. Her father had often told Michael that he was expected to keep an eye on Clancy, something he would have done anyway. "I'll call. I always do," she said.

Another hug for his roommate and a half-handshake/half-hug for Abby, and he left, both dogs whining a little at his loss.

Abby started to turn and happily discovered a pair of arms wrapped around her waist. She faced Clancy and placed a gentle kiss on her lips. "Miss me?"

"Like air," the younger woman said. "Now, let me get a good look at this dress 'cause I want you to wear it at least once a week." She stepped back and did a slow circle around her partner, nodding her approval as her eyes narrowed in thought. "That's one damn fine dress."

"I'm glad you like it," Abby said, smiling brightly. "It's really quite simple."

"Yeah," Clancy agreed. "It is. But that's what makes it so sexy." She ran her hand down her partner's side, rubbing her fingers together to feel the fabric. "Silk?"

"Yes," Abby said. "And a little something else to give it body. Probably Rayon."

Clancy circled behind her and nibbled on her neck, fully exposed by the scoop neckline. "That's what I like about it. The body." She placed her hands low on Abby's hips, running them languidly across the expanse of black fabric clinging to her shapely ass. "The body's very, very nice." She moved to the side and started to kiss a path from the strap down the bare arm and all the way to Abby's wrist, pushing aside a pair of gold bracelets with her tongue. "Have I mentioned that I like the body?" she asked, playfully looking up into Abby's eyes.

"Come up here and kiss me," the brunette demanded, pulling Clancy by the straps of her swimsuit. "You can only tease a woman so long."

"What's your limit?" the younger woman asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Whatever it is, I'm sure you'll push me past it," Abby predicted, wrapping her arms around Clancy for a hug and a long, lush kiss.

O

By the time they'd made sure the dogs had gone to the bathroom, turned off all the lights, set the alarm, and gotten ready for bed themselves, nearly half an hour had passed. Clancy walked out of the bath to find Abby half-asleep, her body clad in only a T-shirt, lying across the bed.

"Come on, baby," she cooed. "Time to get under the covers."

Abby protested weakly. "No … no … time to make love."

"We can make love tomorrow," Clancy said. "You're too tired to enjoy it tonight. Come on." She was pulling the covers down as she spoke, and Abby found herself effortlessly rolled over, then put back onto the cool sheet.

"I can wake up," she said, her eyes closed.

"I know you can, but you don't need to. We can lie in bed and play with each other all day. Doesn't that sound nice?"

"Uhm … nice," Abby agreed. She nestled her body against Clancy's, sighed heavily, and was asleep before her partner could say a word.

"G'night," Clancy murmured to the sleeping woman. "I love you."

O

Clancy woke with a start, her hand reflexively grasping her breast. Her eyes flew open, her head jerked up, and she gasped - her fight or flight response kicking in immediately. But her body relaxed a moment later, and a giddy laugh bubbled up from her chest.

One impish blue eye had rotated in her direction, a half-smile exposing even, white teeth that tugged at the steel ring hidden beneath Clancy's tank top. "You know," the blonde muttered sleepily, her hand dropping to lace through Abby's hair, "an impartial observer might say that it wouldn't be pleasurable to be awakened by someone tugging on her nipple." Her lips split into a grin as she decided, "They'd be wrong."

Abby's head lifted and she asked, "Is this … okay?"

"Yeah. It's very okay." Clancy pressed lightly on the back of her head, and Abby nipped at the ring again. Petting her gently, Clancy said, "You seem fond of it."

"Umm-hmm," Abby growled. "I'm very fond of it. It's … hot."

"It makes me hot to hear you say that," Clancy murmured. "Wanna nibble on the real thing?"

"Yeah." Abby grasped the hem of the shirt and tugged it off when Clancy raised her arms. Her mouth dropped to the shiny, heavy ring, and she poked the tip of her tongue through it.

Clancy growled, the sound rumbling through her chest. Her hips shifted as her legs spread and she wrapped them around Abby's waist. She let out a satisfied sigh and rocked her hips a few times, her eyes tightly closed. "Nice. So nice."

Abby sat up and pulled her T-shirt off, then placed her forearms on either side of Clancy's head and started to rub her breasts lightly over her partner's, catching her turgid nipple on the ring, time and again. The most adorable sounds were coming from Abby's open lips - tiny grunts, soft sighs, and sexy growls as she worked over her.

Clancy's legs dropped to the bed, then her hands drifted down to cup Abby's ass. Her hands moved all over the smoothly muscled surface, making Abby purr with pleasure. She could feel her partner's thighs compressing rhythmically, seeking satisfaction, so she guided her to straddle her leg to provide a little relief.

Abby's head tilted up, and the surprised look on her face quickly turned to one of intense satisfaction as she felt the strong thigh pressed firmly against her. Without thought, she began to pump her hips, her eyes closing tightly as she did. Clancy's hands went to Abby's breasts and began to squeeze and compress the flesh, keeping time with her rough movements.

Testing, seeking ways to increase the sensation, Abby placed her hands on Clancy's shoulders and locked her arms, gliding back and forth on the younger woman's slippery leg as her mouth dropped open, grunting out her pleasure.

Clancy strained to nip at the tempting breasts that bounced just above her face, but Abby's iron grip didn't allow for any upward movement. That didn't stop her hands from grasping them, though, and she pinched and tugged on Abby's nipples, taking the older woman just to the edge of pain.

Abby was close, her eyes glazing over as she felt the sensation building deep in her belly. The feeling was so intense that it felt like a strong cramp that began to radiate out from her abdomen, eventually growing to a warm, satisfying pulsing that eased the cramp and suffused her entire body with wave after wave of pleasure.

She wasn't aware of making a sound, but as the muscles in her arms started to shake and finally give way, she tried to speak but realized that her throat was slightly raw. "Was I shouting?" she asked dully, her mouth pressed against the pillow.

"Oh, yeah," Clancy growled, the sounds having sent her arousal spiraling out of control. "If we had close neighbors, they'd be banging on the walls." She murmured into the soft hair that tickled her chin, "It was incredibly sexy."

Abby rolled off Clancy's wet body and draped an arm over her eyes. "That was a completely unique experience."

Clancy rolled over and braced her head on her hand, intensely interested in Abby's impressions of their lovemaking. "What was?"

"I've never … done anything like that," she said.

"S'nice, isn't it?"

"Yeah. It felt instinctive," she mused. "I wonder why I never had that instinct when I was … well, before."

Clancy tugged Abby's arm away from her face and stroked her cheek gently. "It's okay to talk about Will … to talk about your life … your experiences. It's part of you that I want to get to know."

"I don't want to … I don't know … upset you, Clancy."

"Learning about you can only help us to grow closer," she said softly. "I wanna be closer - much closer."

Abby nodded and took a quick breath, forcing herself to tell the story without losing her nerve. "I was just thinking about what it would have been like to try that with Will. His legs were so hairy, I would have had friction burns. I was thinking that I was glad the desire didn't strike me until I was astride a nice, smooth thigh."

"Really, really personal question?" Clancy asked tentatively.

"Sure. We've been pretty personal recently. A question shouldn't throw me over the edge."

"I, uhm … assume I'm the first person you've been with … since Will?"

Abby nodded. "You are."

"Don't take this the wrong way, but I thought this would be harder for you," she said, searching Abby's eyes.

Blinking in surprise, Abby asked, "How much harder could this be? I don't know if I'm coming or going! We've been walking a tightrope for weeks!"

Clancy nodded energetically, her hands gesturing. "No, no, I'm talking about sex. If I found myself in bed with a man I'd be stunned, then I'd try to figure out what the hell was going on! But you don't seem like you're doing that, Abby. You're acting like you've been doing this all your life, and it stuns me!"

Abby propped herself up just enough to place a warm kiss on Clancy's lips. "I haven't done that today," she said, a girlish grin lifting a corner of her mouth. Clancy returned the favor, pressing her lips gently upon Abby's. When she pulled back, Abby gathered her thoughts and said, "I'm not explaining myself well. I'm not upset about having sex; I'm not upset about having sex with a woman. I'm only upset because it's hard for me to be sexual again - with anyone. It's been five years, Clancy, and Will was the only person I'd ever been this intimate with."

"I assume this is hard for you, babe, but you don't show it."

"I do," the older woman murmured, "but I don't talk about it much. That's not how I am, Clancy. I work things out on my own most of the time. I sit down and write during the day. I cry a lot," she said. "But I cry when I'm alone. That's how I am." She reached out and ran her thumb along Clancy's bottom lip, moaning softly when the landscaper pulled it into her mouth and sucked gently. "I can't stop touching you." She lay atop Clancy and began to kiss her, probing her warm mouth with her tongue. "This feels so right."

Clancy blew out a breath, her need for the older woman growing stronger with each kiss. "It does feel right. We can make it work, Abby. We'll take it slow so you can get comfortable with the idea of being intimate again. We'll do this right so that you feel nice and safe."

"We're doing fine," Abby said. "We don't need to change a thing. I just need time to think … and feel."

"Take as much time as you need," Clancy said. "I won't rush you. When you're ready, we'll take the next step."

"I want this to work," Abby said. "You have no idea how much."

They lay together for a long while, touching each other gently, soothingly. Clancy's thrumming body calmed down after a bit, and she was very pleased when Abby started to talk.

"Can I tell you a few things?"

"Sure. Anything."

"I told you I worked with a grief counselor." Clancy nodded. "Well, I had a lot of things to get through before I could start dating. It was hard to imagine that I'd ever want to be sexual with another man. I felt so horribly guilty - even though I knew I shouldn't." She gave Clancy a thin smile and said, "One thing helped a lot."

"What's that?" Clancy was paying rapt attention, but her eyes were fixed on the goose-bumps that her light touch was creating on Abby's skin.

"Will and I had a little joke that we'd been making since we were newlyweds," she said softly, her eyes fixed on a point near Clancy's collarbone. "Every time the topic came up, he'd make me promise that I'd start dating soon after he died."

Clancy's hand stilled, and she looked at her questioningly. "Really? Why …?"

"Will was ten years older than I was," Abby said. Clancy blinked at this information, and her lover gave her a knowing smile. "I was just like you. Always attracted to older men."

"Technically, that's not just like me," Clancy playfully reminded her.

"Right. Pronouns are important." The brunette kissed her partner and continued, "Will didn't come from a very long-lived family. I think I told you that both of his parents died before our kids had time to get to know them well. He was certain he'd die before me, and he gave me a consistent message during our entire marriage. He used to say that nothing would make him happier than to look down from heaven and see that I was taking a date to his funeral."

"Macabre, but sweet," Clancy said.

"It was a little macabre, but it was important to him," Abby stressed. "He used to tell me that I was so full of love that he couldn't bear the thought of my pining away for him. He wanted me to share my love again."

Clancy cleared her throat and looked at Abby tentatively. "How do you think he would have felt about your being with a woman?"

Abby laughed gently and said, "He would have been tremendously upset - that he wasn't able to join in. It was one of his little fantasies."

"You didn't ever …?"

"Lord, no! We had a very fulfilling, very traditional sex life. Our love for each other was plenty to keep the excitement going."

"I like traditional sex, too," Clancy grinned. Just talking about sex was making her throb, and she took Abby's hand and placed it on her breast. "As a matter of fact, I'd love some right now."

"Well, lesbian sex is a little untraditional for me, but I've always been a good student." Abby leaned over and kissed Clancy hungrily, revealing the depths of her desire. "And I think you're going to be my favorite teacher."

O

After a long, lazy day of lying in the pool, napping, kissing and kissing some more, Clancy looked at her watch and let out a regret-filled sigh. "I've gotta get to sleep. I'm gonna need all my wits tomorrow when my dad and his crew show up."

"Are you going home?" Abby asked, looking puzzled.

"I don't want to, but I can't leave my truck out front."

"No, you can't do that." Abby put her hand on Clancy's arm and stroked it gently. "I don't want you to go, but … I am worried about having someone see you. I'm sure my neighbors are already wondering why my landscape architect is here on Sunday night."

Clancy had hoped Abby would beg her to stay, but she understood her worry. Still, she was a little hurt. "We'll figure this out someday … right?"

"Oh! Of course we will! It's going to take a little time, but if I handle this right, everything will work out. Don't worry about it. Really." She lovingly stroked Clancy's cheek, gazing deeply into her eyes. "It'll work out."

"Okay," the architect said. She put on a smile and kissed Abby tenderly, turning up the heat just enough to let the older woman know what she was missing. "See you tomorrow."

Abby held onto her as long as she could, finally relinquishing the last bit of Clancy's shirttail.

O

Clancy slept surprisingly well, having been reassured by Abby's confident declaration that they would eventually work things out. But Abby put off going to bed as long as she could. She was so tired that she eventually gave in - but the bed seemed so brutally large and empty that she couldn't even close her eyes. She lay there thinking of how wonderful it had felt to sleep in Clancy's arms - how she hadn't slept that well since the day Will had died - how merely getting horizontal with the younger woman had made her feel both incredibly relaxed and stimulated at the same time.

She rolled over onto the other side of the bed and tried to find a hint of Clancy's scent on the pillow or the sheets, but nothing remained. Knowing she would never be able to relax, she went downstairs and lay on the sofa, eventually having to turn the television on to have enough background noise to ultimately drift off.

O

When Abby woke, the dogs were sitting on the floor, staring at her with what looked like outraged expressions. "What?" she mumbled, brushing the hair from her eyes. "What's wrong?" She looked at her watch, and saw that it was already 7:00. "Oh, shit! The crew's gonna be here, and I haven't let you two out yet!"

They stared at her, tails wagging, clearly saying, "That's what we just told you."

She was still wearing her sleepwear and knew she couldn't appear in the backyard like that. So she opened up the front door, letting the dogs have a little treat. The front yard was planted with so many delicate flowers that she usually didn't let the dogs use it for their bathroom, but she didn't have many options.

While the pair galloped around the large space, Abby went into the kitchen and turned on her coffee maker. She was out of sorts and headachy, partially from lack of sleep and partially from the poor quality of sleep she'd gotten on the sofa.

She heard some loud noises coming from the back yard, so she pulled up the curtain over the kitchen window and watched a different group of men scaling her hill. John O'Connor was standing on the lawn, chatting with Clancy, and just seeing the architect made Abby's spirits improve.

By the time her coffee was ready, the dogs had finished their jaunt and were ready for breakfast. They'd tracked their muddy paws through the entryway, but she knew that was entirely her fault, so she didn't complain to the culprits.

After all three had breakfast, Abby cleaned the entryway floor and went upstairs to take a shower. The dogs were puzzled once again, not having gotten their morning exercise. But their ability to complain was fairly limited, so they went back into the den and climbed onto the sofa to sleep.

By the time the brunette came back downstairs, she was feeling a little more like herself, but she was still unsettled. Spending two nights with Clancy, and then having her gone, was more than a little disturbing, and Abby was determined to figure a way out of their dilemma.

At 8:00 she went outside to see how things were going. The crew was poised to start digging the course for the waterfall, and Clancy was standing on the top of the hill, bending over to peer into what looked like a surveyor's scope. "Good morning, John," Abby said.

"Hi, there," he replied, giving her a big grin. "My girl's doing the picky work right now."

"What is she doing?"

"Oh, she's using a laser level to check elevations. She wants to make sure the water flows down the hill properly. You know - so it follows the curve of the hill and doesn't spill out."

"She looks like she knows what she's doing," Abby said. Clancy was signaling one of the men to move a little to his right and hammer in a stake with a bit of red plastic tied to the top.

"Oh, she knows what she's doing," John agreed, looking proud of his daughter. "She's a wiz at the math involved." He laughed softly. "Never was my strong point."

"How about a cup of coffee?" Abby asked.

"Thanks. That'd be great," he said. He let out a shrill whistle, and Clancy looked up. She waved at Abby, then gave her father her attention. "Going inside for a cup of coffee. Don't screw up!"

"Thanks," she said, giving him a wry grin. "Always appreciate a vote of confidence."

The dogs were happy to see John, giving him the joyous welcome they reserved for people they'd met at least once. He laughed at their antics, saying, "We never let Clancy have a dog, but a pair like this wouldn't have been so bad."

"Oh, I love them," she agreed. "They've been lifesavers for me the past few years. It's nice to have a pair of puppies who are always home when you need them, who never ask for much, and are always overjoyed when they see you."

"You sure don't get that from humans," he agreed, laughing at his own joke.

He stood at the window above the sink, watching his daughter work. "She's done a good job so far, Abby, and I'm not just saying that 'cause she's my kid. She's the best I've worked with, and I've worked with some jackasses who charge three times what she does."

"I've been very impressed," Abby said, "and I'm not just saying that because she's my -" She stopped abruptly, not knowing what term to use, and not wanting to be too graphic.

He looked her right in the eye. "What is she to you?" he asked, obviously comfortable with the direct approach.

"What is she, or what would I like her to be?" she replied, surprising herself with the question.

"Either," he said. "Well, both, but you can start with either one."

She smiled at him and said, "Right now we're … dating, I guess. We have a lot of things to work out - mostly my things. But I'd give anything to have her for my spouse."

She'd said the last words so wistfully that he felt bad for her. It was clear that Abby wasn't sure what she'd be capable of, but it was just as clear that she wasn't toying with Clancy's heart. "Sorry I asked," he said. "I can be pretty snoopy. But I hope you two can work things out. You're exactly the kind of woman she's always wanted, Abby. Exactly."

Abby beamed at him and put her hand on his arm. "I had no idea that I wanted a woman like Clancy," she admitted, "but I want her more than I can express."

John looked at the woman for a moment, seeing every quality that had attracted his daughter - Abby's obvious beauty, her gentle nature, quick mind, the way she immediately put a person at ease, and her sweet sincerity. "You two'll be fine," he said reassuringly. "I'd bet on it."

O

After he'd made sure the job was well in hand, John left for a few hours to bid on another job. Today's project was sheer manual labor, and he'd given much of that up years before. Even though her crew had moved on to another job while the plumbing was being installed, Clancy still needed to be on site, since the digging was all according to her specifications. Though she needed to be around, she wasn't terribly busy, and after a while, she started thinking about picking up a shovel and lending a hand. But she knew that wouldn't be right, so she walked around the yard, taking a good long look at the trees.

Abby must have sensed her edginess, because she walked into the yard a few moments later. "Clancy," she called, "can I see you?"

The blonde walked over to her and smiled. "Anytime," she drawled.

"I didn't really want anything, but I saw you looking at the trees. Is anything wrong with them?"

"No. They look fine. But I think you should thin out that California sycamore before the rains come. You don't want the crown to bear too much weight when it's on an incline like this. She's a beauty, and the last thing you want is to lose her."

"I've never heard anyone refer to trees in the feminine gender," Abby said. "It's cute."

Clancy swept her hat off with one hand and scratched her head with the other. "I didn't realize I did that, but they do seem feminine to me. I'm not sure why."

Abby looked at the tree in question and nodded her head. "I suppose you're right about her. I usually call Arbor Culture."

Making a face, Clancy said, "The San Gabriel Valley chainsaw killers!"

"They're bad?"

"Well, they're not the worst, but I've seen some of their crews go in and do nothing but top a tree. I'd like to personally wring the necks of everyone who's ever done that."

"But they say that they prune selectively," Abby insisted.

"That's what they say, and if you watch them, and insist that an arborist be here, they'll probably do that. But if they can get away with it, they go up top and give 'em a crew cut. It's disgusting," she said, making such a face that Abby had to laugh.

"Well, I don't want to disgust you," she said.

"Don't worry about it," Clancy said. "I'll take care of it for you."

Abby wanted to dip her head and kiss the younger woman, but she knew she couldn't. Instead she said, "You know you can come in if you want to."

"No, I'd better not. I'll let you know when I need you."

"Okay," the older woman said and went inside to catch up on some e-mail. She was working at her laptop, which she had set up on the kitchen table, when she heard a faint click. The dogs jumped up and ran to the sliding glass door, ears and tails up. Abby glanced outside, but didn't see anything, so she went back to work. After a minute, she heard another click, this one a little louder. As soon as she got up, the dogs started to bark, sure the house was under attack. She opened the door and heard, "Hey, give me a hand here, will ya?"

Abby stepped out onto the patio and saw that a massive number of small branches lay on the ground around the sycamore she and Clancy had just discussed, and as her eyes scanned up the tree, they landed on one familiar looking tree surgeon - perched upon a sturdy branch that loomed a good twenty feet above the ground.

Before she could censor herself, she shouted, "Clancy! Get down from there this instant!" Without waiting for a reply, she took off, running across the lawn to stare up at her lover.

As Abby stood next to the tree, peering up into the sun, a calm voice said, "I know you didn't mean to use that tone of voice with me."

The brunette had been too horror-struck to even think of moving, but Clancy's words allowed her to come to her senses. She looked up at the landscaper, panicked at her distance. "Clancy, you could kill yourself up there. Please, get down!"

"Abby," she said, her voice still calm and unemotional, "this is what I do for a living. I've trimmed hundreds of trees, and I know what I'm doing. Besides, I wouldn't kill myself if I fell. A broken leg or two at worst."

"That's not making me feel better," she said, her voice still shaky.

"I'm almost done. Don't make me climb down - I'll just have to climb right back up. I need you to help me. Will you?"

"All right," she said, trying to tamp down her fear. "What do you need?"

"I want you to walk around the yard and tell me if there are any branches that look out of place. You know, if something is sticking out at a funny angle or something. This tree should be open and structural looking, not too perfect and not too round. Take a good look and shout it out if you see something."

Abby looked up at her and made eye contact. "Do you promise me that you know what you're doing?"

"Yes, I do. Now scoot."

Following instructions, Abby went to a number of spots on the lawn, even climbing the hill in a couple of places to get the best view. "There's a spot to your … left," she called out. "It's sticking up higher than the neighboring branches."

"Hold on," Clancy yelled back. She moved a few feet to her left with Abby's stomach doing flips with every step. Grabbing a branch, Clancy pulled hard a few times, making it sway dramatically. "This one?"

"No. A little more to your left." Clancy finally found the correct branch and took her saw from the hook on her belt. Lopping the branch off, she asked again, "Any others?"

"No," Abby called. "It looks good - very good."

"Great. Now, come back here."

Still terrified, Abby dashed back across the yard. "What? What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Clancy said. "Nothing at all. I want to give you a demonstration."

"Of what?" Abby asked, her heart racing.

"I want to show you that I can protect myself. I'm strong and agile, and I have very good balance. And on top of that - I don't think I'm invincible, so I'm very careful. Now watch." She grabbed onto a heavy branch just above her head and pulled herself up - doing a few chin-ups to show her partner that she had the strength to break a fall if need be.

"Oh, my God! Clancy, please, please, come down!"

Shaking her head, Clancy started to descend, her sure-footed movements nearly causing Abby's heart to stop. In moments, she was on the wide, bottom branch, and she took off her saw and tossed it quite a distance from the tree. Then she jumped, bending her knees to absorb the impact as she landed.

Abby grabbed her and held onto her with a rabid ferocity. "You scared me half to death," she whispered.

"Hey, hey," Clancy soothed as she felt Abby's body shake, then shot a glance at her father's crew, knowing they'd all been staring. "What's up with this? You know I do this kind of thing."

"No, I didn't," she insisted, her eyes wide. "I had no idea you climbed trees."

"Well, I do. It's one of my favorite parts of my job as a matter of fact. I love trees, and I love being able to take proper care of them. I got certified as an arborist last year."

"But it's so dangerous!"

"It has the potential to be dangerous," Clancy said, "but it's like anything else. If you're careful and prudent and take precautions, you should be fine."

"Going up in my tree without me out here watching you wasn't prudent," Abby insisted. "That was foolish."

"No, it wasn't," Clancy said. "That sycamore isn't very big, and I wasn't using a chain saw. Climbing a little tree like that to take a few cuts is nothing, Abby. Really."

"You use a chain saw?"

"Not very often," Clancy assured her. "I don't often do tree removal 'cause my time is worth too much for that. I usually just make a few critical cuts to keep a well-cared for tree in good shape. Just like yours."

"I don't know how I'll stop worrying about you," Abby said, a painfully vulnerable look on her face.

"Hey … I never go up without someone close by. The guys on my dad's crew were right here if I needed 'em. I've been climbing trees since I was three, Abby, and over the years, I've learned how to fall. I promise you that I take all of the proper safety precautions." She put her hand on Abby's back and guided her into the house. Once they were away from the others, Clancy wrapped her arms around her lover and held her for a long time. Abby could smell the strong scent of freshly sawn wood on her body, but it only reminded her of how frightened she'd been. Clancy continued, "I've got a lot to live for, and I'm not about to have my life cut short just to trim someone's tree. Please, try not to worry."

Now that she was holding Clancy, Abby's heart started to slow its wild beat. "You always have your phone, don't you?"

"Uh-huh. Always."

"Will you promise that you'll call me before you climb any big trees, and then call me when you're finished?"

She made a face, looking dismayed. "Oh, Abby, is that really necessary? It'll just worry you."

"Please, Clancy? Just until I get used to this." She hugged her even tighter and said, "I can't bear the thought of losing you."

"Okay. I'll let you know whenever I'm going to climb. I don't want you to worry about this though, okay? I promise I won't climb without telling you - but you have to promise not to worry."

"I'll do my best," Abby vowed, doubting her ability to comply completely, but willing to try.

O

When the crew was done for the day, Clancy and John went into the house and gave Abby an update. Then John looked at his daughter and said, "I'm going home, champ. How about you?"

"I think I'll hang around," she said, walking over to Abby and sliding an arm around her waist. "I think the homeowner needs a little more of my time."

John smiled at the pair and walked out, mumbling, "Twenty-five years in the business, and I'm still waiting for a kiss."

"He's so cute," Abby said, laughing. "Just like you."

"He wishes," Clancy said. "So … what does my homeowner want? Separate bedrooms again?"

"No!" Abby looked shocked at the suggestion. "I hardly slept at all!" Waiting a beat, she asked, "Did you sleep well?"

Clancy, thinking quickly, answered, "Not as well as I do when I'm with you."

"Then we're gonna have to take a few risks. Do you mind parking your truck a couple of blocks away?"

"No, I don't. I'll move it around so no one sees me more than once."

Abby sighed heavily. "I hate to make this seem so cloak and dagger, but I can't think of a better idea. Can you?"

"It's no big deal," Clancy said. "All that matters is that we're together."

O

Late that night, Clancy was snoozing lightly, her head pillowed on Abby's thigh. A long-fingered hand was sliding through her hair, relaxing her so thoroughly that she wasn't sure if she was awake or asleep. Abby's free thigh was raised, and a biography of John Adams rested on it, the book pressing against her stomach so she could read one-handed. The pages turning quietly every few minutes, her calming massage never varying. One of the dogs hopped onto the bed, rousing Clancy, and she lifted her head to stare into sad-looking blue eyes gazing at her wistfully. Voice thick with sleep, Clancy rolled onto her back asking, "What are you thinking about?"

"You," Abby said. She trailed her fingers through the soft blonde hair and said, "I wish I had a way to keep you, and every other person I love, safe from harm."

"Life sucks sometimes, doesn't it?" Clancy asked.

"It does. I can usually relax and enjoy it - but then something happens to remind me of how fleeting it all is, and how easily it can disappear." She kissed her fingers and pressed them to Clancy's full lips. "I'll be fine. I just need to remind myself that you know what you're doing, and that there are millions of ways for you to get hurt. Focusing on one of them isn't productive."

"Abby," she soothed. "I can't promise that I'll live to be a hundred, but I'm sure gonna try. I know how hard Will's death was for you, and I promise that I'll never knowingly put myself at risk. I promise you that," she repeated. She sat up and leaned over to turn off the bedside lamp. Lying on her back she patted her thighs, urging Abby to rest her head on them. "Come on. Time for a nice head rub." Abby scooted down on the bed and rested on Clancy, purring with delight when the strong, sure fingers began to slip through her hair. "We're both whole and healthy and perfectly safe," she whispered. "We can't know what tomorrow will bring. All we can do is live every moment of today. We have today, and that's all we need."

O

To be continued in Part 7

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