Arbor Vitae

By SX Meagher

Chapter Thirteen

They were able to pull off the hidden truck trick for two days, but on Wednesday, Abby held Clancy prisoner in bed. The architect certainly didn't fight too hard to get free, but their playing made her late, and she consequently ran the risk of having someone in the neighborhood see her hiking down the street. She finally extricated herself and ran for the shower, Abby scampering in right behind her.

By the time Clancy saw her truck in the distance, it was almost eight o'clock. She heard a car behind her slow, then a voice called out, "Car trouble, jefa?"

Mentally slapping her forehead, Clancy turned to see Ramon's smirking visage. "No, I'm fine, Ramon. You'd better get going. Mrs. Markowitz doesn't like it when we're late."

"Just checking," he said. "This is a very dangerous neighborhood."

Clancy gave him a semi-perturbed look, waiting for him to get to the punch line. "I heard there's a woman who's been sneaking into homes and kissing young girls," he said, laughing at his joke.

"I'm not a young …" she started to say, then realized he thought she was dating Hayley. Stunned, she merely stood there, looking bewildered.

"No, you're not so young," he said, laughing. "You're old enough to go to jail!"

"You truly don't know what you're talking about, Ramon. But I can tell you that I have no interest in younger women. I'm here on business."

"Oh, sí," he said. "Funny business."

When she arrived back at Abby's, she went in to tell her that Ramon was wise to them - with a twist. For some reason, this bothered Abby even more. "I don't want your men to think you'd date a young girl - especially since you'd probably be doing it behind my back! I hate that!"

"It's okay. I don't care what the guys think."

"Yes, I do," she said, sulking. She sat down at the kitchen table and cradled her head in her hands. "I'm sorry I was so childish this morning. You would never have run into him if I hadn't been acting like a fool."

Clancy crouched down in front of her and gazed into her eyes. "Don't ever apologize for that. Having fun and being playful is part of what I love about being with you. I don't ever want you to change."

Abby let out a breath. "I hate to say it, but we're gonna have to sleep apart. This is making me too nervous. If Ramon saw you, I'm sure some of my neighbors have, too."

Clancy's shoulders slumped. "Could we squeeze both cars into the garage?"

"No, the house was built long before people had two cars. I suppose you could use the garage, but you couldn't take your truck out during the day …"

"No, that won't work. I have to be able to go check on my crew. We're taking down a big tree just a few blocks from here. I have to go over and see how it's going during my lunch break."

"You could use my car," Abby said.

Clancy made a face. "I don't think you'd want me to load all of my tools into your tiny trunk. Plus, my crew would wonder when I'd won the lottery."

Abby sighed in resignation. "I guess it won't work."

"No, I don't think so," Clancy said. "But we can still spend our evenings together, can't we?"

Abby smiled at her, delighted by the hopeful tone in Clancy's voice. "Of course we can."

O

The day was a particularly long one. The work went smoothly, and Clancy didn't have to involve herself much at all. But standing around watching her father's crew solder copper pipe together wasn't very stimulating. Her dad was at another site, so she needed to be present to answer questions or deal with problems. She could have gone into the house, but she knew that wasn't a great idea. The guys on the crew tended to take things into their own hands if someone in authority wasn't there, and she didn't want anything - even the smallest problem - to come up on this job. The only stimulating part of her day was the mad dash she made to the Markowitz house to check on the tree removal.

By four o'clock, she was nearly mad with longing to see Abby, but her lover wasn't home. Clancy wasn't sure where she'd gone, but she'd seen her leave right before their lunch break - making the afternoon drag even more.

She knew she should get into her truck and go home, but she didn't want to leave without having dinner together, or at least kissing Abby goodbye. So she dawdled while her father's crew packed up, then went back in through the gate the second they left. Knowing that the dogs were missing their yard, she put them on their leashes and let them drag her up the hill to see what was happening to their playground. The girls spent a long time sniffing around, getting their noses unbelievably muddy. When they came back down, the pups wanted to go for a swim, and Clancy dutifully rinsed them off first, leaving a glop of mud on the lawn. When she unhooked their leashes, they both dove into the pool, looking like a couple of especially furry members of the swim team.

All three of them heard Abby drive up. The dogs stopped their play and treaded water for a second, then put their ears back and scampered out of the pool, heading for the side gate just to make sure. They were sitting by the back door, dripping wet, when Abby entered the kitchen. "I have on nice slacks, girls. Let me put on my suit before I come outside." She waited a beat, then asked, "Does anyone else out there want a suit?"

"Sure," Clancy said. "I'm always up for a swim."

Abby emerged a few minutes later, surprisingly successful in her attempts to get the dogs to stay on the ground. "Paws," she said sternly. They whined a little, and wagged their tails in frustration, but they managed to keep all four on the floor. To reward them, Abby threw one of their floating toys, and they both flew for it, creating a great splash when they did. "How about you?" Abby asked her lover. She stood close to Clancy and kissed her delicately. "How can I make you jump for joy?"

Clancy moved a little closer, then kissed Abby's neck, staying in the neighborhood while she slowly slid one of the straps of her suit down. She moved to the other side of her neck, kissing it lightly, lowering that strap, too. She started to kiss a line from Abby's throat down between her breasts, pulling the suit down inch by inch, revealing more skin.

By this time, Abby's fingers were working at the buttons on Clancy's shirt. Their lips met while they undressed each other, Clancy waiting a few beats for Abby to catch up. Once they were both naked, the blonde took Abby's hand and pulled her along while she ran for the deep end. They both jumped into the pool, making huge splashes and compelling the dogs to race to them to make sure they were safe.

Each dog swam from Abby to Clancy and back again, forming a tiny circle of lifeguards. "Why do they do that?" Clancy laughed when Athena put her muzzle right next to her mouth.

"I'm not certain," Abby said. "But someone who knows Newfoundlands told me that water dogs can smell certain chemicals on your breath that indicate if you're exhausted or afraid. So don't look too tired 'cause I'm not sure what they'd do next!"

"Yeah, without a swimsuit, I don't think I'd want them to drag me to safety," Clancy said. "They might grab this handy ring." She put a finger through her nipple ring and made a face.

"That's mine," Abby said. She swam over to her and dunked her head under the water to playfully latch onto the ring, making Clancy giggle.

Clancy put her arms and legs around her lover, then rested her head against her neck. "I like it here," she said, smiling when she saw how furiously Abby had to tread water to keep them both afloat. "Let's stay in the pool all night long."

O

They stayed in until they were both wrinkled, but hunger finally compelled them to emerge from their aquatic playground. They had a simple dinner of French bread, some aged and fresh cheeses that Abby had picked up at the market, a bunch of sweet grapes and a little galia melon - so sweet it was intoxicating. They each had a glass of wine, and when they'd finished, their hunger for food was sated, but they were both craving another form of satisfaction.

Abby was sitting on Clancy's lap, sweet suckling sounds coming from their passion-filled kisses. It was getting dark, and Clancy knew she had to leave then - or not at all. She put her hand on the back of Abby's head and patted it gently, making the brunette lift it and gaze at her with smoky eyes. "Make love to me," Abby said, her voice thick and slow. "Right here. Right now."

"Oooh, baby, I want to, but we decided I should go home. Your neighbors …" she trailed off helplessly.

"I don't care," Abby said. She grabbed the blonde and held her so tight it hurt. "I can't let you go. I can't."

"I … I feel like I have to say no," Clancy said. "I'm worried you'll be upset tomorrow morning when my truck's here."

Abby closed her eyes and let her head drop to Clancy's shoulder. She didn't say anything for a minute, and Clancy was worried that she was angry. But she eventually asked, "Where are your keys?"

"In my shorts. Why?"

"Don't move," she ordered. "I'll be back in a few minutes." She got up and grabbed Clancy's shorts, rooted through the pockets and found the keys, dangling them for a moment to show she'd retrieved them. Clancy saw her go into the house, but couldn't tell what else was happening.

Abby grabbed a pair of shorts and a shirt, buttoning it while the garage door lifted. She pushed the button located just inside the garage and started to walk towards the opening gate. She was almost at the truck when her neighbor called out, "Hey, Abby!"

"Shit!" she muttered. "Hi, Steve." She kept walking, crossing to stand on the edge of his driveway. "How are things?"

"Good. Nothing to complain of. The bigger question is, how are things with you? We're all waiting to get back there and see what's going on in your yard."

Oh, wouldn't that be fun! "I'll invite the whole block over when we're finished."

He gave her a puzzled look and asked, "Have your plans changed? I see your architect over there all of the time."

Before Abby could reply, they both spotted a figure laboring up the road. "Oh, boy," Steve said, "here comes Marjorie. Can you fake a sudden illness?"

"I'm gonna turn tail and run," Abby said, but she hadn't gotten two steps away when the shrill tone of her downhill neighbor called out, "Oh, Abby! You're just the woman I've been looking for."

Making a face that only Steve could see, she said, "Hi, Marjorie. What's up?"

"What's up with you?" she asked. "We're all dying to know what's going on over there." She looked longingly at the open garage door. "Why don't you give us a peek?"

"No, no, now isn't a good time," Abby said, wracking her brain to think of a reason why it wasn't. "I just came out to get something for my architect. She's on the clock you know. I'm always looking to save a few dollars."

Still looking at the door, Marjorie said, "Oh, you couldn't care too much about cost. Your architect's truck is in front of your house every day. We used an architect to put up our gazebo, and I don't think we saw him twice! Are you changing your plans every other day?"

"No, not really. She's just very hands-on," Abby said, glad for the darkness so her neighbors couldn't see her blush.

"You must be spending a fortune!" Marjorie said. She lowered her voice a little and said, "If you don't mind my asking … how much is this all costing you?"

Mentally hitting Marjorie on the head with a shovel, Abby gave her a tight smile and said, "I don't have the final figure yet, but I'm sure we'll come in within budget."

"I still think you made a mistake to hire that woman," Marjorie said. "She doesn't look old enough to be out of college, much less have any experience. She's probably using your project as on-the-job-training."

"No, she's not," Abby said, her tone growing chilly. "I'm very happy with her. And she's not always working when she's here. She's a lot of fun to be around. We've become friends."

"Oh, Abby, this is the first thing you've done on your own. Don't mix business with pleasure. It's just not smart to fraternize with contractors."

Abby put her hand on the older woman's arm and fixed her with an insincere smile. "I'm pretty good at picking my friends, Marjorie. Don't spend another minute worrying about me." She turned and started to walk back to her own home, adding a wave delivered over her shoulder. "Night, all."

As soon as she crossed the threshold, she closed the gate and lowered the door, mumbling to herself as she took her clothes off and tossed them onto the laundry room floor.

Clancy had been waiting anxiously and was surprised to see Abby return, completely naked. She looked massively disappointed, and Clancy asked, "What's going on?"

"You're going home," she said, flopping down onto a chair. "My neighbors ganged up on me. I was gonna move your truck, but I couldn't! Steve from across the street called me over and asked what was going on that my landscaper was at my house so late."

Clancy put her hand over her eyes. "What did you say?"

"What could I say? He must think we're recreating the Los Angeles aqueduct system back here!"

"Ooh, that sounds uncomfortable."

"It got worse. The neighborhood gossip saw us talking and made a beeline for us. She tried to weasel her way into the garage to take a peek."

"Shit! She would have gotten an eyeful!"

"Yeah, she sure would have. And the entire neighborhood would know about us by tomorrow afternoon."

"Really? Are you sure?"

"Positive. She started a Neighborhood Watch Program just so she could have an excuse to know everyone's business. She broke up a functioning marriage when she told a man down the street that the electrician came by his house every Friday morning."

"God damn! That's hard to believe!"

"Honey, she's the reason I'm so paranoid! She's probably talked to Hayley's friend's mother once or twice already."

Clancy's eyes closed, and she sat down heavily. "Damn!" She put her head in her hands for a moment, then looked up at Abby. "But I'm kinda glad to know you had a good reason for being so paranoid."

Abby sat on her lap and touched her chin, moving her head so their eyes met. "I told you why I was being so careful. I distinctly recall telling you that one of Hayley's best friends lives just up the street."

Clancy nodded. "Yeah, I know, but I didn't think a kid would pay much attention one way or the other. I just thought that …" She trailed off, looking embarrassed.

"You thought what, honey? Tell me."

"I thought you were embarrassed," Clancy admitted. "Embarrassed to have people know we were friends."

Abby wrapped her arms around her lover and kissed her on the head. "You know a lot about me, but there are some things you're just not getting." Clancy looked up and felt herself being pulled into Abby's eyes, dark and serious in the dim light. "I will never … ever … be embarrassed of you. I only care about Hayley or Trevor finding out before I can tell them. That's my only concern." She held Clancy's chin again and repeated, "My only concern."

Clancy put her head on Abby's shoulder, able to feel her pulse beating in her throat. "I feel stupid."

"You have no reason to feel stupid. We're just getting to know each other. I'm sure there are thousands of things I don't know about you."

Gazing at her, Clancy asked, "You know how much I want to be with you, don't you?"

Abby smiled at her. "I do. And I haven't lost my need for you. Can we go to your house?"

Brightening, Clancy said, "Sure! But it's really hot, and it's supposed to stay hot all night. I don't have air conditioning."

Abby gave her a surprised look. "You don't?"

"Huh-uh. I've got a little fan, but that's it."

Making a face, the older woman said, "I can live with the heat. But I don't like to leave the dogs here alone. They get anxious when no one's home all night."

Laughing, Clancy said, "I don't think I wanna know how you found that out."

"Let me just say that I used to have a pair of leather moccasins that I loved."

"Okay," Clancy said, addressing the girls. "We're going to rough it, puppies. I'll show you how doggies in the working-class neighborhoods live."

O

Michael wasn't home, so all four of them went into Clancy's room as soon as they got to the apartment. Clancy brought a bowl of water with her and closed the door. The dogs looked confused, but they jumped up on the couch when Clancy sat down. "Do you have a bed?" Abby asked, looking around discreetly.

"Yeah. This is a futon," Clancy said. "It's not as nice as your bed, but I'm used to it." The room was hot - very hot - and she got up and turned on the pint-sized fan, then opened the window to let in some hot, dry air. "I'll open the bed, so we can take off our clothes and hope to cool down." She shooed the dogs, then lowered the back of the couch, making a simple adjustment to turn it into a full-sized bed.

"This is nice," Abby said, looking around the room. "It looks like you." There were a couple of framed pictures of flowers on the walls, both by Robert Maplethorpe, one of Abby's favorite photographers. "I love your pictures," she said. "He was so gifted."

Clancy smiled. "He knew a sexy calla lily when he saw one." She grasped Abby's hand and pulled her close. "Wanna undress each other again?"

"Yes, but let's do it quicker this time. Now it's a life-saving measure."

"Maybe we'll feel better if we act like we're in my luxurious sauna," Clancy suggested.

"Oh, a little heat shouldn't stop us," the older woman said. "We make a lot of our own."

"That's what I'm worried about." Clancy quickly helped her lover out of her clothes, noticing that Abby's chest was flushed pink. "We'll feel better when we lie down and have the fan directly on us."

Abby lay down and blew out a breath. The air that moved up and down her body was almost worse than no air at all. It was as dry as dust and smelled of pollution.

"Bad day for a Santa Ana, huh?" Clancy asked rhetorically.

"Yep. I've gotten so used to the wind blowing from the sea to the mountains that it takes me by surprise when it turns around and blows from the desert to the sea. And I'd like to complain to whomever's in charge," she said. "Santa Anas aren't supposed to happen in the summer."

"I'm with you," Clancy said. "It was a tough day today. I got a nose bleed from the air being so dry."

Abby put her hand on Clancy's belly, feeling the heat that rose from her. "Are you all right?"

"Oh, sure. My sinuses don't like dry air. I should probably live in Florida."

Abby's eyes opened wide. "Don't you dare think about moving!"

Clancy laughed. "I live exactly where I want to. Florida would be my … mmm … forty-eighth choice if I had to pick a state."

"What are forty-nine and fifty?" Abby asked.

"Arizona and Alaska," Clancy said. "Arizona's dryer than California, and the growing season's too short in Alaska."

"Florida has a long growing season," Abby reminded her.

"Yeah, it does, but I hate humidity worse than dry weather. I'd just be a little wet spot on the ground if I worked in Florida."

"I feel like that might happen tonight," Abby said. The dogs were lying on their sides, both of them on the wooden floor. They were panting heavily, but Abby knew they'd be fine. She wasn't so sure about her own body, however. "I guess I'm more used to air conditioning than I thought," she admitted.

Clancy leaned up on one elbow and gazed at her thoughtfully. "I can't give you air conditioning, but I have a temporary solution. Wait right here," she said. She was gone for no more than a minute, and when she returned, she carried a large bowl filled with ice cubes. "When I'm really hot, I cool my neck and wrists down. It helps."

Abby sat up and held her arms out. "I'll take anything you've got," she said, smiling gamely.

Clancy turned off the light, then knelt behind her partner. "The first one's gonna feel pretty cold," she warned.

Abby flinched when the cube touched her neck, but it felt absolutely marvelous. "Ohh, baby," she purred, "keep 'em coming." Clancy took the cube and ran it across her shoulders, then down her spine, watching it slip into the space between each vertebra. Abby murmured encouragement, moving her body an inch or two to get the ice in the right spot.

Something about the way she was twitching on the bed started to heat Clancy up in a particular location, and she began to get a little more creative. She popped a cube in her mouth and started to place cold, wet kisses across Abby's shoulders. Those were met with a sexy moan, as Abby pressed back against her. Soon, each hand held a piece of ice, and both were making abstract patterns on Abby's chest.

Before Clancy could blink, she was lying on her back with Abby rubbing a cube across her nipple ring, then down her belly. She let out a startled mew when Abby fiendishly slipped the ice between her legs, letting it melt as it slowly slid lower and lower.

Soon they were rolling around on the futon like a pair of kids, ice everywhere. They were both laughing so helplessly that the dogs pried themselves from the floor to take a look. But when they saw there was nothing for them to eat, and no one looked like she needed help, they flopped back down.

Abby tried to wrestle Clancy onto her back again, and she was doing well, until the architect decided she wanted to be on top. Effortlessly, she flipped the taller woman over, then pounced on top of her, purring with satisfaction when Abby wrapped her legs around her waist. With her face a mere inch from Abby's, Clancy put another ice cube in her mouth and started to kiss her. They passed the melting cube back and forth for a long while with Abby gently pressing her hips against Clancy's body while she gazed into her eyes.

It didn't take long for Clancy to yearn to move down, and she did with one of the last cubes in her mouth, an impish expression on her face. Abby mewed when Clancy's cold lips touched her, then whimpered when the ice hit her clit. She twitched and tried to shift her hips, but Clancy held her tight, forcing her to stay right where she was. In a few seconds, she didn't want to get away, and Clancy felt a pair of hands clasp the back of her head - preventing her from pulling away. But the blonde had no intention of leaving her little nest, and they spent a good, long time learning how to cool off and heat up simultaneously.

O

Abby woke up a few minutes before the dawn broke. She spent a moment trying to orient herself, knowing that Clancy's head was on her chest and a muscular thigh was holding her in place. But she couldn't figure out why she was so unbearably hot, or why the bed felt so clammy. She opened her eyes and saw that they were in Clancy's room, and the evening came back to her. Oh, you're a little devil, Ms. O'Connor, she thought, recalling the way they'd played with each other deep into the night. I had a ball, but now that the ice has melted, I'm miserable!

She gently tickled Clancy's knee, and the landscaper mumbled something and rolled over, freeing Abby. She placed a foot on the floor and started to get up - only to fall right back down - her back screaming for mercy. She pulled her knees to her chest, and the spasm started to pass. Slowly, carefully, she rolled into an upright position, then scooted over so her feet could touch the floor. It took her another three or four minutes, but she finally stood up - or as far up as she could get. Please don't wake up before I'm able to stand! she pled silently. Your gramma probably doesn't have this much trouble getting out of bed!

Bent over, and stiffer than she'd been after running the L.A. Marathon, Abby put on Clancy's T-shirt and went to the bathroom. When she returned, Clancy's eyes were just opening. "Hi," she said. "Sleep well?"

Abby smiled back. "Like a dream," she said, lying through her teeth.

O

They were in a hurry to get showered, take the dogs out and get back to Abby's before the crew got there, so they bathed together. As with most of their dual endeavors, this one involved a lot of giggling, pinching, playful slapping and kissing. Abby ran back to the bedroom clad only in a towel with Clancy chasing her. They managed to get dressed without too many more interruptions, and when they went into the kitchen, Michael was making a pot of coffee. An attractive brunette was sitting at the kitchen table, obviously wearing one of Michael's shirts. "Hi," Clancy said, stopping so abruptly that Abby nearly ran into her. "I didn't know you were home."

"We got home late," he said. "Kelly, this is my roommate, Clancy, and her friend, Abby. Abby, Clancy - Kelly."

Kelly looked very tired and underdressed, and she didn't get up. "Hi," she said, giving the other women a slightly puzzled look. The dogs ran from Michael to her, sniffing rudely. "Were you all in there together?"

"Yeah," Clancy said without elaboration. "Gotta go. See you later."

"Bye," Michael said, and Kelly waved lazily.

When they hit the walk, Clancy looked at her partner. "Sorry about that," she said, making a face.

"I think we'd better think of another way," Abby said. "It's been a long time since I had to meet strangers before breakfast, and I rather like it that way."

Clancy nodded, happy that Abby didn't seem upset. "We'll figure it out."

O

When they reached the house, Abby used her opener and opened not only the gate, but the garage. "Wait right here," she said, hopping out. She got into her car and backed it out, moving it to the small, paved pad next to the house. She motioned for Clancy to put her truck in the garage, so the landscaper did. Abby closed the garage door and walked up next to the driver's window. "You're not leaving until Hayley comes home," she said, smiling. "You can put your tools on the passenger seat and tell your crew whatever you want. They'll find out soon enough anyway."

"But I don't have any clothes!"

"You don't need any," Abby said, then turned and walked into the house.

O

Part Fourteen

Abby relented and let Clancy go home for clothes after work, but she made her take the Lexus. "I don't want to have my neighbors see your truck going in and out of my garage," she explained. "They won't even register that I'm not driving the Lexus."

"Okay, if you're sure," Clancy said.

"I am. Now hurry back here so we can have dinner and go to sleep in air-conditioned comfort."

Later that night, Clancy stayed outside and supervised the dogs as they made their final visit of the evening to the doggie bathroom. When they'd finished, the trio went upstairs, and Clancy spotted Abby emerging from the room at the end of the hall, carrying her toothbrush. She looked sheepish, and her eyes dropped a little, landing somewhere around Clancy's stomach. "I, uhm … I thought we'd be more comfortable in the guest room," she finally muttered, brushing past Clancy on her way to the room.

Following her into the room they'd slept in every time they'd been together, Clancy approached her from behind and settled her arms around her waist. "It's fine, Abby. I don't think I'd be too crazy about sleeping in the room you and Will shared, either."

Turning in her loose embrace, Abby searched Clancy's gray eyes and asked, "Are you sure you don't mind? I wouldn't hurt your feelings for the world, Clancy, but I'm afraid that I couldn't relax …"

"Come on." Clancy grasped her hand and led her back down the hallway. When they reached the door, she said, "Show me your room."

Abby nodded and opened the door, smiling when the dogs raced past her and leapt onto the bed, waiting for her to join them. "They think it's their room."

Clancy looked around the large, warm, inviting space and smiled at Abby. "Now this looks like you." She noticed the plethora of framed photos, mementos of trips, and a number of dog toys lying on the floor next to a very large, seemingly brand new, dog bed. "It's nice in here." She gazed at the pictures of Abby and Will, an abbreviated chronicle of their entire married life. One picture in particular caught her eye. A significantly darker-haired Abby had her hands laced behind Will's neck, and his hands were on her waist. They were kissing, and both were smiling widely while their lips touched. Abby was elegantly dressed in a sexy, black, sequined dress, and Will looked dashing in a well-tailored tuxedo. They looked very happy to be in each other's arms, and very comfortable with each other physically.

"That was our tenth anniversary," Abby said. "My parents threw a lovely party for us. Our twentieth would've been the next big one, but we weren't going to make a big deal out of it. We thought we'd have a real blow-out for our twenty-fifth." She let out a wistful sigh that said more than any further comment could have.

Clancy ran her finger around the edge of the frame, contemplating the picture for a few moments. "I'm so glad that you had this. It makes me feel warm all over to know that you were so in love for such a long time."

"I was," she said, her voice very soft. She stared, unblinking, at the picture that Clancy held in her hands. Clancy stood very still, watching the emotions flicker across her lover's face. Finally, Abby's eyes closed and she said, "I still am in love with him. His death didn't change my feelings. Our relationship will always be the same. And he'll always be exactly as he was the day he died." She gazed at Clancy with watery eyes and said, "I'll catch him and pass him - he'll always be forty-nine - still grousing about the big fiftieth birthday party I was planning for him." She wrapped her arms around Clancy and cried softly, her body shuddering as the smaller woman held her tightly. "I miss him so much," she murmured. "But it helps … it really helps more than you'll ever know that you let me talk about him and how I feel about him." She drew back and wiped her eyes and said, "People get tired of hearing you talk about your dead husband. If you don't suck it up and act like nothing happened, they stop inviting you places. A lot of people avoid me to this day. Seeing me reminds them of Will, and they don't want to think about the fact that he's gone."

"You don't ever have to censor yourself around me," Clancy promised. "I'm very, very interested in how you feel - how you've dealt with this - how you've managed to go on." She held her lover at arm's length and looked deeply into her eyes. "I mean that."

"Thanks." Abby shook her head and brushed her hair from her eyes. "I've been thinking about him so much these days. I'm sure that's partly because of … us," she added softly. "I'm sure it'll pass soon."

"I know it's hard for you, but don't feel like you have to bottle things up on my account. It's hard for me to see you in pain, but it's the only way to get it out."

"I know. Lord, I know. My grief counselor told me that so many times that I have it imprinted on my brain. I guess I thought that over time I'd get the feelings out, and they wouldn't jump up and bite me at the most inopportune moments."

"Give it time. This'll settle down." She looked at Abby contemplatively for a moment and said, "Why don't I keep my things in the guest room and use that bathroom? You keep your toothbrush here. That way we can both have a little space. I don't want you to change your routine."

"Okay," Abby said, sharing a wan smile with the younger woman. "That would be really nice."

Clancy tucked an arm around Abby's trim waist and said, "Let's go to bed." As they left the room, the dogs blew past them, and Clancy closed the door firmly, hoping to leave the memories behind them - for at least one night.

O

Abby sat on the bed smiling as she watched Clancy put her clothes into the empty dresser. "Do you get a discount when you buy six pairs of the same shorts?"

"These," Clancy said, shaking a pair at her, "are the world's most perfect shorts. Six pockets, wide belt loops, rubber buttons on the fly, quick drying nylon/cotton blend, roomy in the crotch. And they come in five colors."

"Clancy, those are five very slight variations on the same color," Abby said.

"No way. These are radically different colors. I've got brown, tan, green, beige and chalk."

Abby shook her head and walked over to the dresser. "You've got khaki times five. Luckily, they look adorable on you."

"I make up for my monochromatic wardrobe by having very, very colorful socks and underwear," Clancy maintained. "Wanna see?"

Abby peeked into the drawer where Clancy had neatly laid out her things. "Well, that is certainly a riot of color," she said. Clancy, indeed, had some of the most colorful panties that Abby had ever seen. No two pair were alike, and each one was louder than the next. Stripes, polka dots, plaids, zigzag, tie-dyed and animal prints vied for supremacy in the drawer. Abby's eyes moved from the panties to the wild socks, and she commented, "I'm going to have to put on my sunglasses to do your laundry."

Clancy looked up at her and gave her a gentle hug. "You don't have to do my laundry. I'm very self-sufficient."

"I want to," Abby insisted. "You work hard all day. When you're finished, I don't want you to have to worry about anything. Let me take care of you for a little while. Please?"

Clancy looked at her and said, "I would've thought you had someone doing that kind of thing for you. Why don't you have any help?"

"We never have." Abby lay down, letting out a tired sigh when her body relaxed against the mattress. "When we were newlyweds, we discussed how we wanted to spend our money. We'd already decided that I probably wouldn't work after I graduated - since we wanted to have children right away. Will sat down with his little spreadsheet and showed me how much it would cost to have someone clean the house every week. Then he projected that out over one year, two years, and so on. We decided that we'd rather save that money and use it for our vacation fund - so that both of us could enjoy it. That money took us to Europe three times," she said, smiling warmly. "Even later, when we could easily afford it, it seemed like a waste of money. It took me a while to learn how to cook and clean, but now I think of my household tasks as my job - and I like my job."

"Abby, if you want to add my grimy clothes to your job description, I'll gladly accept your offer."

"I do," she said. "I want to spoil you a little while you're here."

When Clancy had finished unpacking, she walked over to the closed door. "Do you normally let the dogs sleep with you?"

"Yes, but it won't kill them to sleep in the hall for a while."

"Can we let them back in?" Clancy asked. "I hate to throw them out of their home."

"If that would make you happy, feel free." Clancy opened the door, and the elated pair flew into the room, sliding across the bed to bang into Abby. "Come here, you," the laughing woman called, crooking a finger at Clancy.

Impetuously, Clancy ran across the room and jumped onto the bed, sliding just as the dogs had. When she banged into Abby, the older woman wrapped her arms around her and squeezed her tight. "You are the sweetest woman I've ever had the pleasure to know."

"Doggies need love, too," Clancy reminded her.

"Yes, they do. It'll be interesting to see how they react to our being … intimate."

"Well, maybe a little time in the hall won't kill 'em," Clancy said, chuckling softly. "Although tonight, I'd love to wrap my arms around you and go to sleep."

"So soon?" Abby asked. "You already want to sleep instead of make love? Which one of us is fifteen years older?"

"I've been telling you that you have more energy than I do. I wasn't kidding! But cuddling can be nice too, can't it?" Clancy lay down and opened her arms. Abby gladly snuggled into her warm embrace, laying her head upon her chest.

"This is very, very nice," Abby murmured.

"It is," Clancy said. The dogs dug and pulled at the covers for a moment, then they both settled down, Athena against Clancy's thighs, Artemis snuggled tightly against Abby's shins. "Blissful," the blonde purred as sleep captured her.

O

The soft trill of an alarm woke Abby at 6:00, and she opened her eyes just enough to try to find its source. Her eyes finally landed on the dresser, where Clancy's watch lay next to her wallet. It didn't seem like the device was going to stop on its own, so she lifted Clancy's sleep-heavy arm and leg from her body and slipped out of bed as stealthily as possible. Turning off the insistent little alarm, she turned to go back to bed for a few minutes, but when her eyes landed on Clancy's sleeping form, she stopped abruptly and gazed at her for a few long minutes.

The blonde was wearing just a goldenrod-yellow tank top, and the bright color complimented her golden skin perfectly. Her hair was attractively mussed with several of the longer strands covering her eyes. Pink lips were slightly open, revealing just the edges of her white, even teeth. Both dogs were curled up against her back, their limbs so entwined that only their coat textures differentiated them. The trio looked so sweet and peaceful in their little nest, and Abby thought rather gratefully how seamlessly Clancy was able to fit into her life. The pups are always friendly, she thought, but they only show this kind of trust and affection with really good people. There wouldn't be a problem in the world if it were just me and the dogs - but it's not. We have to make sure the kids can accept this. Shaking her head to dispel the intrusive thoughts, Abby let Clancy's peaceful countenance soothe her for a minute, letting her eyes linger on her lovely face.

Her affectionate feelings were mingled with a sexually charged magnetic pull that demanded she stop watching her lover sleep and join her. As she slid into bed, Clancy automatically molded her body to hers, drawing her leg up to drape over Abby's hip. The older woman's hand wandered down the muscular back, tracing some of the more defined muscles through the cotton, then lingering upon the bare, smooth globes of her ass. Somebody needs to wake up, she thought decisively, feeling an unmistakable throb between her legs. Her fingers tickled between Clancy's soft cheeks, and she felt her start to move against her. Slipping forward a few inches, she flicked her fingers back and forth, drawing a gentle purr from Clancy's waking body. Suddenly, a warm, wet mouth was attached to her neck, and the purr grew louder. Oh, it's gonna be a good day, Abby thought as a tingle of sensation skittered down her spine.

O

After her very pleasant wake-up call, Clancy haphazardly maneuvered Abby into the shower, banging into walls and doors as they kissed hungrily. She spent as much time washing all of Abby's nooks and crannies as she did performing her own ablutions, but she wasn't complaining in the least. She had her pressed up against the tile, Abby's cheek resting on the warm surface while Clancy rubbed up against her slick back. "I think someone is definitely a morning person," Clancy purred into her ear.

"Mmm-hmm," Abby moaned sensually. "It's my favorite time." She turned and draped her arms around Clancy's neck and said, "We got into the habit when the kids were little. We were always too tired at the end of the day to even think about being sexual - but if we got up early enough, the kids never disturbed us. Believe me, that's a requirement for good sex. Nothing ruins a mood faster than hearing, 'Mommy! Mommy!' when your partner is sucking on your nipples. Do you like mornings, too?" She dipped her head and offered Clancy a slow, probing kiss.

"Uhm … what was the question?" the younger woman asked, a confused look on her face.

"Never mind," Abby grinned, bending to suck a rigid nipple into her mouth. "You've already answered my question once, and you're about to answer it again."

O

Clancy poked her head into the house in the late afternoon to ask Abby to come out and see what they'd accomplished. "The guys are just packing up for the week. Let's go sit outside so I can impress you with all of the details of our accomplishments."

She pointed at the refrigerator, and Abby took her cue and pulled out a beer for the landscaper, smiling at Clancy's nod. After a few minutes of the detailed description of nearly every shovel of earth that had been turned, they sat down on the teak settee and enjoyed the late afternoon breeze. "So, Dad's crew is finished for the time being. My guys will come back on Monday - or as soon as the boulders are delivered. We'll get them in and fill all the soil back into the trenches. Then we can test the system. We're really moving now."

Clancy put her arm along the settee's back, and Abby wrinkled her nose and sniffed a few times. "I like the way you smell when you've been working all day."

Clancy sniffed herself ostentatiously and looked at Abby skeptically. "You're joking, right?"

"No. Not at all. I'm used to how men smell when they sweat, and I've got to tell you - you are a very welcome change. You have a definite scent, but it's earthy and musky - not unpleasant in the least."

"Well, thanks," Clancy said. "I'm very attracted to the way you smell, too. Maybe that's part of the chemistry, huh?"

"Perhaps," Abby agreed. "Did you have a good day? I mean, I'm impressed with what you've accomplished of course, but did you enjoy yourself?"

"I did. Things went well all around today." Reaching for Abby's hand, she ran her thumb all around the soft skin of her palm. "Are things settling down a little for you now? You seem pretty happy." She was looking at her tentatively, and Abby squeezed her hand and nodded.

"I'm feeling great. Really content."

"Uhm … I know you're not crazy about talking about things until they've jelled in your mind, but I keep thinking that the other shoe is about to drop, and it's scaring me."

"Other shoe?" Abby stared at her blankly. "Clancy, I don't have a clue what you're talking about."

Clancy shook her head in frustration, knowing that she wasn't expressing herself very well. "Okay. Here's the deal. When we're together - like now - things seem totally natural between us … like we've known each other for years."

Abby nodded, encouraging her to continue.

"But sometimes, I'm out here working, and I get struck by a real sense of panic." She gazed at Abby thoughtfully and said, "I'm afraid that it's going to hit you, and you're going to freak - ya know?"

"Freak?"

"Yes. Freak." Clancy was further frustrated, and her furrowed brow showed it. "About having lesbian sex ... Damn, Abby, I don't see how you can just start having lesbian sex and not have it affect you at all!"

"Well, how should I react?" she asked. "I've never been in this position before."

"That's my point! I've never slept with a straight woman, and all I've heard are horror stories. I'm really worried that you're going to have second thoughts."

"Oh. Ohh! You think that I'll wake up from my sensual haze and decide that this is wrong, wrong, wrong!"

"Well, yeah," Clancy said, her eyes searching Abby's face. "I really don't want that to happen, and if we can avoid it by talking about this -"

"Oh, Clancy," she murmured, taking the smaller woman in her arms. "Don't spend your time worrying about things like that." Pulling away, she placed soft kisses all over Clancy's face, grimacing when she pulled away. "Dirt," she said, wiping at her tongue.

"Always a hazard with me."

Abby ruffled her hair a little and said, "Small price to pay." She gave Clancy a smile that she hoped would be reassuring and said, "Let me tell you a few things - about me and about my circumstances." She took in a breath and began. "I only have so much energy. About half of my energy is dealing with my guilt."

Clancy nodded and patted her gently. "I assumed you'd have feelings like that, even though you haven't talked about them much."

"Yeah. Just because I don't talk about my feelings a lot doesn't mean I don't have 'em." She leaned over and placed a delicate kiss on Clancy's cheek. "I don't feel guilty about having sex or being sexual with a woman. My guilt is focused on the fact that I'm going on - I'm being loved and touched again - and Will's still dead. He'll never get to experience pleasure like we've been enjoying, Clancy. That makes me so sad." She wiped at the tears that seemed to always lurk just underneath the surface and smiled sadly. "I wish he were here, Clancy, but then I wouldn't have this with you." She leaned forward and kissed her tenderly. "I'm so enjoying sharing this with you."

"I am, too," Clancy murmured, adding a few kisses of her own.

"We're agreed then," Abby smiled. "Now, like I said, half of my energy is going towards dealing with those feelings. The other half is focused on worrying about how my kids will handle this - especially Hayley. They're both open-minded, but having a friend who's gay is one thing …"

Clancy saw the teasing sparkle in her eyes and tenderly kissed the soft lids. "That's probably a pretty unique circumstance," she agreed.

"So - half of my mind is on Will, and the other half is on my kids. What I've decided to do is let myself have this time - without letting either of those worries ruin this for us." She scooted around a little so she was facing Clancy. "I haven't had a hell of a lot of fun in the last few years. I deserve this - and I'm going to take it. When Hayley comes home, we're going to have our plates full trying to decide what to do about this - but until then, I want to enjoy you in every way."

"I can do that," Clancy promised. She tried to swallow her worry, but it was still evident in the lines on her face.

"I don't mean that in a selfish way," Abby insisted. "But I guess it is selfish. I want to put those worries away, and I can do that. But if you can't … I want you to tell me."

"I … I think I can."

"You don't look very certain," Abby said, trying to ease the lines that had formed between her lover's brows.

"I'm not," the younger woman admitted. "I'm worried about what's gonna happen. What'll happen if Hayley totally freaks about this?"

Abby closed her eyes and sat quietly for a few moments. "I don't know how we'll deal with that. I truly don't know." Bringing Clancy's hand to her lips, she said, "But we will deal with it. Somehow." She touched Clancy's cheek so they were looking into each other's eyes. "Does that reassure you?"

"A little. But I'm still worried that you're gonna regret this - even if your kids don't give you a hard time. It just seems like such a leap!"

"The lesbian thing?"

"Yes!" Clancy said, frustration showing again.

"Maybe you don't know me well enough," Abby said. "Let me tell you a few things. I don't want to sound like I'm boasting, but I'm a very, very open-minded person. I don't think of people by category. I really try not to lump people together based on some characteristic, you know?"

"Yeah, I know. That's one of the things I admire about you."

"Thanks. I guess what I'm trying to say is that how people categorize their sexuality doesn't affect how I feel about them - so it doesn't affect how I feel about myself very much, either. I was completely satisfied with my sexual orientation for my whole life, Clancy - I never longed for a woman's touch. But now that I've had it - I see how different it is, and how it reaches a different part of me. It's very rewarding - and very pleasing, and I'm very glad that we're sharing this."

"So, you're saying that you really don't think you'll freak?"

"No, I don't," Abby said firmly. "For one thing, I'm not that kind of person. I know what tragedy is. I know what it's like to have my whole world turned upside down. I lived through that - and I still wake up most mornings happy to be alive. Worrying about the sex of the person I'm being intimate with is such a minor issue in the scheme of things. It's really too inconsequential to bother with." She gave Clancy another lingering kiss and said, "I'm really open-minded about sex. Will and I weren't bored in the least, and that was after twenty years of monogamy. I like to experiment, and try new things. My habit was never to say no unless I'd tried it. This is another new experience - a very, very pleasurable experience, I might add."

"I like the way you think," Clancy said, wrapping her arms tightly around Abby's body. "One more good reason to have an experienced, mature lover."

"Hey, we've got to have some benefits," she said.

"You have more benefits than I can count."

"Speaking of counting," Abby said, "I can almost count your ribs. You go shower while I make dinner, then we can talk some more if you want to."

Clancy stood and stretched her body out. "Nope. I'm finished. You've allayed all of my fears - for a while at least. We'll chill until Hayley comes home."

"It's a deal," Abby said, drawing the younger woman to her and pulling her shirt from her pants. Several warm, lingering kisses along Clancy's abdomen made both of them forget their agenda; they stumbled into the living room and spent the next hour showering each other with affection.

O

Sated and happy, Abby slipped her clothes back on and sat down in the den. Dialing her parents, she waited for a moment, pleased when her daughter answered. "Hi, baby. How's everything going?"

"Hi, Mom," Hayley said brightly. "Everything's great. The weather's really warm and sunny, and I spent most of the day going on a long bike ride. Gramps has a really cool recumbent bike, and I rode the wheels off it."

"I don't even know what that is, but if your grandfather bought it, I'm sure it's very high-tech," Abby said, laughing.

"Yeah. Sometimes I forget how cool Gram and Gramps are, but then I hear people at school talking about how their moms and dads don't know how to use computers! Isn't that weird?"

"A little," Abby said, "but some people don't like change. Luckily, your grandparents aren't like that. They're never afraid to try new things."

"Yeah. Gramps has the whole house wired for Wi-Fi. I can surf from anyplace!"

"Are you having fun, honey?" Abby asked. "Keeping busy?"

"Yeah. I'm doing good. They're both working on things, so they give me some space. I've been going to the beach every day … you know … hanging out."

"Have you met anyone to hang out with?"

"Yeah. I met a guy from California who's visiting his family this week. He works for an energy-alternatives foundation in San Francisco."

"Oh. How old is this guy?"

"I think he's about twenty-five or twenty-six. He's the oldest of four, and his youngest brother is a freshman at UC San Diego. He's pretty cool, Mom. We've been hanging out with his brothers at the beach. They're a lot of fun."

"What's his name?"

"Alexander," she said, pronouncing each syllable distinctly. "Isn't that a great name? He calls himself Alex, but I think Alexander sounds cooler."

"That's a very great name," Abby said, smiling to herself. "Have you seen each other in the evening?"

"Yeah. We went out clubbing last night. His family's been coming here for years, and he knows a lot of people. It was great."

"I'm glad you're having fun, honey. Alexander sounds like a nice guy."

"Oh, he is. Really smart, funny, and sweet. And he has the most wonderful face. Strong, but sometimes he looks almost pretty." She sounded like she was talking about a Greek god, and Abby had a feeling that her little girl was smitten once again.

"Are you going to be ready to come home? I'd hate to have you miss out on the fun. I'll change your ticket for you if you want to stay longer." Abby was shocked at the words that were coming from her mouth. She realized she was trying to talk Hayley into staying away - just so she and Clancy could have more time together. She felt like hitting herself on the head with the phone, but Hayley reassured her.

"No, I'm ready. Alexander leaves on Sunday, so I'm ready to leave, too. I might stop and see him before I go back to Santa Cruz, though. If that's okay."

"We can probably work something out since we have some time to change your reservations," Abby said. "How do you feel about coming home?"

"Good. Why?"

"Why? You were more than a little upset when you left here, Hayley."

"Oh. Right. I was kind of a bitch, wasn't I?"

"I wouldn't use that word, but you weren't showing your best side."

"I'll apologize to Clancy … and mean it this time," she said. "I treated her like shit, Mom. And she didn't deserve it."

"Not many people deserve that, honey. I'm sure she'd appreciate it."

"Maybe I'll work with her again. I could use some extra money."

"Mmm … I don't think that'll work out. They've mostly finished the water feature, and I think things are pretty technical right now."

"Oh! They've done that already?"

"Uh-huh. You'll be amazed at how much is finished." She waited a beat, then asked, "If you'd like a job, I could ask around."

"I would," she said. "I know I'll only be home for a few more weeks, but I don't want to lie around and do nothing. Alexander was telling me that he doesn't have enough hours in the day to do all the things he has to do. I'm not living up to my potential, Mom."

Abby smirked to herself, wondering how long it would be before Hayley was urging her to trade in her Lexus for an electric car.

O

Part Fifteen

On Saturday morning, Abby extricated herself from Clancy's embrace and headed for her bathroom. She was scheduled to meet Ellen, Pam and Maria for a nine o'clock tennis match, and she knew she'd play poorly if she didn't have a decent breakfast.

After her shower, she tiptoed past the guestroom, hoping to allow Clancy to sleep as long as possible. Seconds later, she was met in the kitchen by a rumpled but smiling young woman who was in the middle of toasting a bagel. "What'll it be? I could make you an omelet, or eggs any style, cereal …"

"Aren't you just the sweetest thing," Abby said, giving her cook a warm kiss. "I thought you were still asleep."

"Nah. The girls and I want to see you off. We can go back to bed if the mood strikes us."

"You need to get your sleep when you work as hard as you do, Clancy. You really should catch a few more hours when I leave."

"I might. When will you be home?"

"Mmm … depends. We usually have lunch after we play, but I don't think I want to be gone that long."

"Go ahead. Really," Clancy urged. "I know you enjoy seeing your friends. Don't rush home on my account. Actually, I could spend the morning visiting a client or two. Saturdays are the best times to catch most people at home."

"All right," Abby agreed. She draped her arms around Clancy's neck and said, "I'd like a bagel with a little peanut butter and some granola. I need some protein before I play."

"Coming right up. I'll watch you eat, then take a little nap and get some work done."

Abby watched her prepare the simple meal, sipping a cup of coffee as the younger woman moved around the kitchen. "I really appreciate that you don't begrudge me my time with my friends. They mean a lot to me."

"I'm not that kind of person," Clancy said. "I need time for myself, too, so I really do understand the pull."

"We're a pretty compatible pair, Ms. O'Connor," Abby said, her lips quirking into a grin.

"Couldn't agree more," Clancy said, delivering breakfast and a sweet kiss.

O

Ellen Chenoweth wiped her face repeatedly, finally bending over the sink to splash cold water on herself. "Whose bright idea was it to switch partners?" she grumbled. "I swear you ran my legs off, Abby. Never again, sweetie! I'm on your side of the net, or I'm going home!"

"Now you see what we have to put up with," Pam said. "It's nice to get a breather."

Maria gave her lover a lethal stare, and Pam tried to extricate herself from the hole she had dug. "I didn't mean that you're an inferior player, honey; I just meant that … uhm … Abby's a little taller, and her serve comes in at a funny angle … and …"

"That's okay, Pamela," she said archly. "I know exactly what you meant - but since it's the truth, I can't really complain. Abby could kick our respective asses in singles. Hell, she could probably beat any two of us as a single!"

"Enough!" Abby didn't generally mind being complimented, and she was a far superior player, but she hated to have it brought up too frequently. "I play more than you guys do, and I've played longer than any of you - it stands to reason that I'd be sharper."

"Honey," Ellen drawled, "I could pitch a tent on that court and play every moment that I wasn't sleeping, and I still couldn't beat you. Face facts, Abby, you rock!"

"Somebody's kids are home from school," Abby teased. "You only use colloquialisms when you hear them from the boys."

"Yes, I revert to their ages when they're home," Ellen agreed. "And of course, they both need a car today, so I can't stay for lunch."

"That's okay. We'll catch you next week," Abby said.

"Oh! I almost forgot! I have a new man for you, Abby," Ellen said, bursting with enthusiasm. "He's a lawyer with the Federal Exchange Commission, and Neal says that he's a real find. He's just getting back on his feet after a nasty divorce, but luckily his ex-wife is a surgeon, so she didn't suck him dry." Smiling brightly, Ellen added, "No kids, either." Dropping her voice, Ellen said, "I think he has a low sperm count."

Be still my heart, Abby thought to herself. She shook her head briefly and said, "Keep him on hold, Ellen. I've, uhm … met someone … and I want to see where it goes before I accept any more blind dates."

"Tell me all about him," Ellen demanded, Maria and Pam looking on interestedly.

"Mmm … I don't want to jinx it," Abby said. "Give me a few weeks, and if we're still together, I'll tell all."

Ellen gave her a long, appraising look. "I wasn't going to say anything, but you've got a spring in your step that I haven't seen in years. This guy must be good for you."

"We'll see," Abby said, trying not to lie too much.

"One way or the other, we'll get you fixed up, Abby," Ellen said. "I won't stop until you're married again. You're too fabulous a woman to be alone when you don't want to be."

After a round of goodbyes, the remaining threesome left the locker room for the outdoor restaurant. They were seated under a large umbrella, idly observing a good singles match when Maria said, "Ellen's right, you know, Abby. You have a spark in you that's been absent for far too long. I know you don't want to talk about this guy, but I want you to know that we both hope this works out."

Abby gave her friends a shy smile and lowered her eyes to pick at her Cobb salad for a moment. "I uhm … would like to talk about it a little. It's kinda complicated, so I didn't want to get into it in the locker room, but if you're interested …"

"Yes, we are!" Pam said, her eyes flickering between her partner and Abby.

"Okay," Abby said slowly, trying to figure out where to start. "Uhm … like I said … it's complicated …"

"He's not married, is he?" Maria blurted out, drawing a scolding look from Pam.

"Do you do that at work, honey?" Pam asked dryly. "I can't imagine that's good for business."

"I'm perfectly well-behaved when I'm with a patient," she sniffed. "But I'm not with a patient now, so I can be as abrupt as I want, right, Abby?"

"Right, Maria. I don't mind your direct style one bit - as a friend, that is. If my psychiatrist did that, I'd fire her!"

"You neither have, nor need, a psychiatrist," Maria scoffed. "You just need to get laid with some regularity by a man who can appreciate a wonderful woman."

Abby flushed deeply and cleared her throat. "Well, that's where you're off, Doc. I've been being laid quite spectacularly - but it wasn't by a man."

Only the plop of the ball hitting the court could be heard for several moments as the women tried to get their minds around Abby's announcement. "You're sleeping with a … with a woman?" Pam asked, her voice an octave higher than normal.

"I am," Abby said soberly. "I don't know quite what I was thinking of the first time, but since then it's … she's … become quite addictive."

"What does Hayley think about this?" Maria gasped.

"Oh, I must not have mentioned that Hayley is up in Maine for her annual visit. She's going to be gone for another week. She doesn't know - and I'm not sure how, or when, to tell her."

"Well, I have an opinion," Maria said. She looked at Abby for a moment and said, "I wouldn't tell her unless you're serious about this woman. I think it's bad for Hayley to learn too much about your sex life - unless it's going to impact her in the long term. Now, if you're serious about this, and you want to have a relationship with her - then by all means you should tell Hayley and Trevor. But not until then."

Abby nodded agreeably. "That's what I thought."

"I told you that you didn't need a psychiatrist," Maria said.

"I'm gonna need one if I don't get some details!" Pam burst out. "Who is she, how did you meet her, have I ever dated her …"

Abby smiled at the teasing and told the tale. "She's the landscape architect who's been working on my house. Little did I know that you could obtain a perfectly delightful lesbian lover by home delivery," she said. "Now, I can't guarantee it, but I doubt that you've dated her, Pam. She's only been out for twelve years, and you've been with Maria for twenty. So, if you have dated her, neither Maria nor I want to know about it."

"What's her name?" Maria asked. "We must know her if she's a professional in the San Gabriel Valley."

"Clancy O'Connor," Abby said, smiling when two blank expressions greeted the name. "I've gotten the impression she doesn't do a lot of work in the lesbian community. But I'd really like her to get some contacts. She's very talented."

"Sounds like she's talented in many areas," Pam said, grinning lasciviously.

Maria slapped at her and warned, "Get your mind out of the gutter, honey. Abby doesn't want to talk about the gory details … do you, Abby?" she asked hopefully.

"Not many of them," Abby said. "But I will say that she's a wonderful person, and she's been very patient and gentle with me. She doesn't pressure me, and she's even allowed me to clam up like I normally do."

"She sounds like a prize," Maria said. "I'm really surprised we don't know her, though. I thought we knew everyone."

"Apparently not," Abby said. "One lesbian slipped under the radar."

"How are you handling the … uhm … lesbian thing," Pam asked. "This is a pretty big change for you."

"I don't know," Abby sighed. "I'm trying just to live for the day and worry about it tomorrow."

"I think that's a song," Maria said thoughtfully.

"I'm not above borrowing my life-changing decisions from songs," Abby said. "I'm just having a marvelous time. I feel loved and cared for and desired and lusted after for the first time in five years, and I'm going to do my best to make this work. I deserve love, damn it!"

"Hear, hear," Pam said, patting Abby on the hand. "You do deserve it, Abby, and as long as you're happy, we're happy for you."

They finished their meals with more questions about Clancy and the job she was doing for Abby, and eventually Abby stretched and said, "I've got to get home to Clancy."

"She's at your house?" Maria asked, eyes widening.

"Yes," Abby said, somewhat defensively. "I trust her, Maria. I'm quite sure she's not stealing the good silver."

"Oh, I didn't mean that! I'm just wondering why she's staying with you - I mean - it's so soon …"

"Aren't you the people who always ask, 'What does a lesbian do on a second date?' … 'Rent a U-haul,' I believe is the correct answer."

"Yes, but …"

"But nothing, Maria. Hayley is only going to be gone for two weeks. I decided that I wanted to keep Clancy as my love slave for the entire time Hayley was gone. She's not homeless - she's not a drug addict - she's not trying to take advantage of me, so why shouldn't I have her at my house?"

"Uhm … I can't think of a reason in the world," the psychiatrist said, smiling.

O

Abby looked antsy to leave, so they urged her to go and stayed behind to sign the check. "So, what's your diagnosis?" Pam asked.

"Hard to say," she said. "This is very impulsive behavior for Abby - but that's the only thing that worries me. It honestly doesn't surprise me that much that she'd be drawn to a woman - she's certainly not very hung up sexually. I'm just worried about the suddenness of the whole thing. That's not like her."

"No, it isn't, but she sure seemed happy. She reminded me of how she was when we first met her."

"You know, she did," Maria mused. "I wonder who this mystery woman is? Maybe she's like Abby - coming off of a long marriage or something. That would explain why she's only been out for twelve years."

"Maybe she's not very out … you know, kinda semi-closeted?"

"Yeah. That's the only reasonable explanation. If she was very out we'd know her. We need to meet this woman. Maybe we know her but don't know her name."

"Hmm … but what if she's not out? That worries me a little," Maria said. "A woman in her late forties who's still in the closet might have some issues about being a lesbian. That might be hard for Abby to deal with - you know how open she is about things."

"Well, there's one way to find out what the story is," Pam said. "Ask them over for dinner!"

O

When Abby returned to the house, she was a little surprised to see Clancy's truck in the garage, and she had to smirk at herself when her heart picked up a beat. If I start doodling COC loves ATG, I'm going to voluntarily commit myself!

The dogs didn't run out to greet her, which was also a little odd, but the whereabouts of the threesome was resolved when Abby walked into the kitchen and looked out the window. Clancy was lying on one of the pool floats, clad in just a long-sleeved T-shirt. Her arms were stretched out to the sides, each hand holding onto another float, each float occupied by a very content-looking dog. Abby started to laugh so hard that her sides ached. She slid the door open, still laughing. Three sets of eyes blinked at her, but only the gray eyes showed much enthusiasm for her arrival. "Don't just stand there, grab a float and get in here. My arms are tired!"

"How on earth did you get those beasts up on those floats? I know it wasn't easy!"

"That's an understatement," Clancy said, chuckling. "But they kept swimming out and trying to get on with me - and I didn't want those sharp claws on my bare legs. Since I got them settled, they've been blissfully happy."

Abby started to strip out of her clothing, and she surprised Clancy by diving in completely naked and swimming up to her, a beaming grin covering her face. "I wanna get on your float, too." She looked as happy as Clancy had ever seen her, and Clancy immediately tried to satisfy her request. She had to let go of the dogs, but they were so relaxed that they didn't seem to mind. Clancy tugged on her partner, and their joint efforts soon resulted in Abby lying prone atop her, the float riding very, very low in the water, but still holding them up. "Just before you came home, I was wondering if it was possible to feel any better," Clancy murmured. "There was only one thing missing before - but everything's perfect now."

"I'm happy, too," Abby said. "I came out to Pam and Maria this morning." She lifted her head and looked into Clancy's eyes. "It went very, very well."

Clancy's mouth was gaping open at a comical width. "Did you plan on that?"

"No. But Ellen said she had yet another date planned for me, and I told her that I was seeing someone. I'm not sure why, but I didn't want to tell her about us; when she left I told Maria and Pam."

"And they took it well?"

"Of course." She lifted her head again and asked, "Why wouldn't they?"

"Well, geez, Abby, I don't know. This is a very big change for you!"

"They're my friends, Clancy. I've known them for over fifteen years, and I wouldn't expect anything less from them. Don't forget that they're lesbians, and on top of that, Maria is a psychiatrist, for goodness' sake. She's required to be supportive!"

"You're okay with this?" Clancy asked warily.

"Very. It feels good to tell someone. I don't have a bit of shame over being with you, Clancy, and it feels good to show that I'm proud of what we have."

Clancy gave her a warm, wet, chlorine-infused kiss, lingering for quite a few blissful moments. "I'm proud of you," she whispered.

"I was afraid you were going to be gone when I got home," Abby murmured. "I'm really glad you weren't. I need this."

"I need this, too," Clancy said, burrowing her head into Abby's neck. "I'm glad I was a lazy bum this morning. The bad news is that I made an appointment for later."

"Ooo …" Abby looked up and gave her lover a pout. "Do you have to?"

"Yeah. Gotta pay the bills."

"Can I pay you to stay home?" Abby asked, a hopeful smile on her face.

"Nope. I'm a self-made thousand-aire. But you can let me know how much you missed me when I get home."

"Consider it done," Abby said. "I'll think of something creative."

O

Abby had obviously been thinking of ways to show Clancy that she was missed while she had been gone because she backed the architect up against the counter as soon as she entered the kitchen. The dogs were scampering through the room, barking and wagging their tails, but Clancy couldn't get away to even give them a quick pet. Busy, determined fingers worked at the buttons of her shirt, and when Abby had it undone she pushed it from Clancy's shoulders and tightened her hold on it-trapping her arms. "I've got ya now," she growled, kissing Clancy everywhere her moist lips could reach. She was pressing against the muscular young woman tightly, grinding her hips against her while she kissed her senseless.

"I've never felt more welcome," the shorter woman panted.

"You're nowhere near as welcome as you're gonna get," Abby promised, a wicked gleam in her eyes.

"I hope that was a dare," Clancy gasped. "I can never turn down a dare."

Abby twitched her shoulders, brushing her breasts against Clancy's. She stopped abruptly and cocked her head. "Did you take your ring out?"

"Mmm." Clancy thought for a moment, then nodded. "You usually can't see it under my clothes, but I switch it out when I go to see clients. Just to be safe."

"Switch it out?" Abby's fingers slid up to encircle the nipple, and her smile grew wider. "What's this?" The rigid point was nearly bursting from a tiny little ring that surrounded it. She reached behind Clancy and unhooked her bra, then let her fingers explore thoroughly. Clancy didn't say a word, she just relaxed against the counter and let Abby's searching fingers excite her all the more. Suddenly, her shirt was tossed to the floor, then her bra fell atop the shirt, and Abby's tongue was tracing the small, gold circle before Clancy could blink.

Abby's mouth went from one breast to the other, and after a moment, Clancy realized that her goal was to try to make one nipple as firm as the other. "You'll never get there, but it's okay with me if you keep trying all night," Clancy finally murmured, clutching Abby's head and drawing it closer.

Abby's eyes shifted, meeting Clancy's, and she swirled her tongue around the taut nipple a few more times, not willing to give up her goal. "Why won't it work?" she mumbled, her mouth full of the swollen flesh.

"The collar is pretty snug, and it really pumps the nipple up." Clancy's hand was in her partner's hair, urging her on, and with each particularly firm suck, she let out a little gasp, making her words hard to follow.

The dogs had been very patient with them so far, but they'd finally reached their limit. Athena marched over to the door and let out an outraged bark, glaring at both of the groping women. "Somebody's been ignored too long," Clancy decided, patting Abby's head. "Come on, let's take care of them and then go upstairs. Alone," she said, eyes twinkling.

O

Abby joined her partner in bed and cuddled up close. As usual, her hand immediately went to the jeweled nipple. "You really do like this, don't you?" Clancy asked, smiling at her.

"Yeah. I'm not even sure why. Maybe because it's so different." She shrugged her shoulders and said, "Who knows? Maybe I have a latent nipple fetish that I never knew about." She leaned over and licked both breasts like they were pink ice cream cones. "Will didn't like to have his nipples played with." She stilled abruptly and looked up at Clancy with chagrin. "I'm sorry for saying that. I'm sure you don't want to hear things like that."

Clancy grasped her chin and tilted it up. "Of course I do. I'm interested in everything about you, Abby. You know that by now, don't you?"

"Yes, I do, but …"

"But nothing. If some little thought or reflection occurs to you, and you want to share it - I want to hear it. I really love the fact that you and Will had a good sex life, and I want to know anything that you particularly liked - so I can do it, too - or didn't like - so I can avoid it."

"You really don't mind?" she asked again. "It felt a little like I was comparing you to him, and I don't want you to think that."

Clancy smiled. "I don't mind being compared - as long as I don't suffer in the comparison."

"You don't," Abby murmured. "You can hold your own against any opponent." She traced the ring with the tip of her finger and asked, "Tell me about this."

"This particular piece of jewelry? Or the piercing?"

"Yes."

"Okay," Clancy said. "I take it you wanna know why I had it done - things like that?"

"Yeah. Did you just do it because everyone else was doing it?"

"Mmm … no. That's kinda why I got the tattoo, but not the piercing. Well, that's not entirely true, since the tattoo means a lot to me - but I wouldn't have gotten it if it hadn't become popular. I mean, if the only people with tattoos were old guys who'd been in the Navy, I'm sure I wouldn't have done it."

Abby laughed at her explanation, her curious finger still circling the tiny gold ring.

"I have, as you might have noticed, very sensitive nipples," Clancy purred sexily. "I was dating Julie at the time, and she had both of hers done. It turned me on so much to see the look on her face when I played with her jewelry - that I decided to have my own done."

"Didn't it hurt horribly?" Abby's face twitched into a sympathetic grimace.

"No. I told Hayley it did, though," she said. "But that was just to put her off."

"Hayley? Why were you discussing this with Hayley?"

Clancy patted her softly, saying, "I didn't bring it up, honey. I had the heavy ring in when we went swimming. She said she was thinking of having something pierced, and she asked how much it hurt."

"Oh, God," Abby sighed. "I've got to cut her allowance." She started to chuckle, shaking her head. "Lord knows what she'll look like by the time she's through her rebellious phase."

"Hey, I wasn't in a rebellious phase," Clancy said. "Well, maybe just a tiny bit."

"Tell me about having it done," Abby said. "I can't believe it didn't hurt."

"Mmm … actually, it felt like it does when someone bites you just a little too hard. It only lasted for a second or two - not bad at all. It throbbed a bit for a day or so, and it was tender for a while - just like any healing wound. The worst part was that after about a week, I wanted to play with it, because I was really aware of it - but it wasn't healed yet. Kinda drove me nuts. It was like having an itch you couldn't scratch."

"But now you're really happy with it?"

"Very. I'm planning on having the other one done, too, but I should have had it done earlier in the year."

"Why didn't you have them both done at once?" Abby asked.

"You can't play roughly with them until they're fully healed," Clancy informed her. "That took a few months for me." She grinned at Abby for a minute, but Abby didn't understand her point. "I didn't want to have both of them out of commission," she explained. "I honestly don't know if I would enjoy sex as much if my partner couldn't play with my nipples. It was hard ignoring my little pal for all of those months." She patted her nipple fondly, cracking Abby up.

"What does it feel like now?" Abby asked, her curiosity unabated.

"Generally, I don't notice it. I mean, if I concentrate, I can feel the weight difference when I have the heavy ring in, but it's mostly not noticeable. It's during sex that I love it," she purred. "I like to have my nipples tugged on really hard, and having the heavy ring in provides an excellent handle."

"I know," Abby said. "I love your little handle. I guess I assumed it was permanent, though. I had no idea you could change it out."

"Oh, yeah. I have a lot of jewelry. Actually, nipple jewelry was the only gift that Julie ever gave me. I have quite a collection."

"I wanna see it all," Abby growled, giving the adorned bud a rough suck.

"Oh, you will. You'll see it and nibble on it all." She reached down and pressed against one side of the ring that encircled her nipple. A catch gave way, and she could lift the ring off. "This one is cool. It's really invisible - except for the fact that it makes my nipple as hard as a rock."

"I thought it was just your flesh that kept it in place," Abby said. "I didn't realize there was a little bar that went through your piercing."

"Yeah. Cool, huh?"

"Can you leave it out for tonight?" Abby asked, tweaking the ripe-looking berry with the tip of her finger. "I want you all natural."

"Anything for you."

"You like them treated roughly, huh?" the older woman asked with a gleam in her eyes.

"Very," Clancy breathed. "I like my nipples to get a real workout, but I need tender, loving care down below."

With a rakish grin, Abby bent to her task, giving Clancy a confident look just before her lips latched on. "I can do that. With pleasure."

O

They lay in a tangled mess of sheets, their moist skin forcing them to nearly have to peel apart when one of them moved. "You certainly do know how to follow instructions," Clancy said. "My nipples are throbbing!"

Abby was up on one arm immediately, searching Clancy's face. "I hurt you?"

"Good hurt," Clancy soothed, pressing a kiss to her shoulder. "Very good hurt." Abby lay back down and snuggled close. "You seemed to enjoy torturing me a little, babe."

"Mmm … I did. Maybe I've been hiding a sadistic streak, too. God knows what else I'll find out about myself."

"You okay with this?" Clancy asked softly while she ran a hand along Abby's spine.

"Yeah … yeah … It's just funny learning how to love a woman. Like I've said before, the sensations are really different - and the feelings I get are really different. Both experiences are great - they're just very, very different. It's like going out for some great sushi one night and then having some fantastic Italian dish the next. I love 'em both - but they're hardly in the same category."

"Which am I?" Clancy chuckled. "Sushi or Italian?"

Abby smiled and said, "Not to revert to a stereotype, but you're definitely the sushi. A little exotic, but clean and fresh-tasting with a delightful aftertaste." She licked her lips and let her mouth twitch into an even wider smile. "A very delightful aftertaste."

"I've never been with a man," Clancy said. She nuzzled her head between Abby's breasts and licked at the soft skin. "How's it different?"

"Well, this is a limited sample you understand. Will was my only real partner."

Clancy sat up and looked at her in surprise. "You were a virgin when you married?"

"God, no!" Abby laughed. "We had sex before we married, and I played around a lot in high school and college. I didn't have intercourse before Will - but that's the only thing I didn't do."

"Why not? Guilt? Worried about pregnancy?"

Abby shook her head. "No. Neither, actually. It was a purely selfish decision."

At Clancy's puzzled look, she explained, "As I've mentioned, I have a very cool mother. She started talking to me about sex - in great detail - when I was around eleven or twelve."

Chuckling softly, Clancy said, "I'm still waiting for that talk with my mom. Maybe she'll do it on my thirtieth birthday."

"Oh, give her a break," Abby said. "It's a hard thing to do, and many moms opt out of it."

Clancy nodded agreeably. "In her defense, I think she was waiting until I expressed an interest in boys. I think she was afraid of talking to me before I was ready."

"Well, my mom was very proactive. We talked about it really casually - just a little bit at a time, and she did it very conversationally - usually using herself as an example."

"Like how?" Clancy asked.

"Oh, she'd tell me about a boyfriend she'd had when she was young and talk about how he always pressured her to go farther than she really wanted to. Over time I got the correct impression that a lot of boys would want to have sex with me and that sex wouldn't necessarily mean the same to them as it did to me. She told me that you had to train a boy to please you - and that it took a long time. Her main point was that I shouldn't let a boy touch me just because he wanted to. She's a firm believer in women claiming their own sexual pleasure - and she believes that the only way to do that is to force men to meet your needs."

"And that made you decide to wait?"

"No," Abby smiled. "I didn't decide to wait. I'd let anyone who I was interested in touch me, but I wouldn't let him go any further if he didn't show a definite interest in pleasing me. It amazed me how many guys would stick their hands into my pants for two seconds, and then try to shove my head into their laps. No way!" She shared a laugh with Clancy and added, "Over time I saw that my mom was totally right. Most of the guys weren't interested in making love, they were interested in getting off. And there was no way I was going to merely be a semen receptacle. Not me!"

"Were these guys insane? All they had to do was spend a little time making sure you got off, and they couldn't do it?"

Abby chuckled softly. "I didn't tell them the entrance requirement, Clancy. I waited to see if they were naturally interested. I assume that older guys would have been more sensitive - but eighteen-year-old guys are totally focused on their penises - at least in my experience."

"But Will was different," Clancy guessed.

"Oh, yes. We slept together on our second date," Abby said, chuckling softly. "He was twenty-eight years old and had a lot of experience. He had me so hot on our first date that I would have done it right then, but I didn't want him to think I was too loose."

"And you liked it right from the start?"

"I did. I was a little nervous, but he was so patient and gentle with me - I told him that I'd never had intercourse, and he spent an incredibly long time making sure I was ready. I was so glad that I'd waited for a good lover," she sighed. "He was funny about sex. Well, he was just plain funny," she amended. "But he honestly thought that one of his jobs was to make me love sex as much as he did. He was a very practical guy, and he reasoned that if I liked sex, I'd want to have it often. And if we had it often, it wouldn't be hard to stay monogamous." She grinned at Clancy and said, "I think he was a little afraid that it would be hard to be with just one woman for the rest of his life." Her smile grew wider and turned a little wistful when she added, "It wasn't. I'm absolutely certain that he was always faithful to me." She laughed softly and said, "I made sure he got what he needed, so he'd never have the temptation to cheat on me."

"So … how is it different?" Clancy asked, her curiosity still piqued.

Abby thought for a minute and said, "Well, most of it is the same, really. He played with my entire body - just like you do. His whiskers irritated my skin sometimes, but generally the foreplay was the same. The main difference is intercourse. I loved to be filled up by his body - it's hard to describe, but it's such a feeling of connectedness, Clancy. You can feel a man throbbing inside of you when he comes - I really loved it."

"Is it very different from the feeling you get when my fingers are inside of you?"

"Yes, it is different. Not better or worse - just different. As I say, I loved feeling Will inside of me, but I love the way you touch me, too. Your fingers are more flexible than his penis was, and they can touch different parts of me. God, Clancy, when you put your finger just inside and rub my G-spot, I nearly see stars!"

Clancy gave her a kiss and added a tickle between her legs. "You look like you're seeing stars," she murmured. "It nearly makes me come to see the look on your face."

"That's part of the difference!" Abby said, Clancy's comments bringing another detail to mind. "Seeing the look on your lover's face when he comes while he's inside of you is part of the difference between making love to a man versus a woman. It's very bonding, very intimate. There's a built in tension there, too - you never know when the man's going to come, and sometimes you're racing the clock, trying to get there first," she said. "So it's great to feel him inside of you - great to know he's feeling such pleasure, too - but not so great when he comes a minute or two before you do - and you just lose it. That's one of the benefits of being with you - I know you're concentrating on me and that you're not going to get distracted by your own needs."

"It won't be exactly the same, but we can recreate some of those feelings of being filled up," Clancy said softly, her voice burring into Abby's ear.

Abby slid her hand between Clancy's thighs and whispered, "So, it's true what they say about lesbians? Do you have a nice big dildo just waiting for me?"

"I've got more than one," Clancy said, winking rakishly. "And I think you'd enjoy the experience."

"You know my motto," Abby reminded her. "Don't say no until you've at least tried it."

Clancy grinned toothily. "That's the best motto I think I've ever heard."

O

To be continued in Part 8

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