Arbor Vitae

By SX Meagher

Chapter Sixteen

Abby's alarm went off at 8:00, and she lay in bed for a few minutes, stroking Clancy's back. She knew her lover was partially awake, but she'd learned that Clancy liked to wake up slowly, and she'd discovered that a soft, light touch helped her greet the day gently.

Leaning over to place a kiss on her shoulder, Abby slipped out of bed, earning twin grumpy looks from the pups. "You can stay right there," she told them, and as if they understood her words, they laid their heads back down and watched her leave the room. She was blow-drying her hair when Clancy came in with a cup of coffee for her. "How did I ever get by without you here?" Abby asked, cocking her head slightly.

"Search me." Clancy shrugged and sat on the edge of the tub. "We've got to use this whirlpool some time. It looks like fun."

"It's a deal. I use it in the winter, but it never occurs to me to use it when it's warm out." She looked over at Clancy and changed the subject. "Do you want to go with me?"

"Uhm where are you going?"

"Didn't I mention last night that I go to church on Sunday?"

"Noooo you were begging some higher power for mercy at several points, but I don't recall any discussion of church."

"Funny," Abby said, reaching around to pinch her in a sensitive spot. "Well, I do go, and I'd love to have you go with me."

"Mmm what kinda church do you go to?"

"Episcopal. What about you? I assume you're Catholic?"

"Ohh going for the stereotype, huh? All Irish people are Catholic, blah, blah, blah."

"Oh, Lord, did I just say that? My apologies, Clancy. I'll rephrase. Do you have a faith?"

"Uh-huh. Catholic," she teased, sticking her tongue out. Abby tried to grab it, but Clancy evaded her grasping fingers. "Actually," she said, "I haven't been to church, except for funerals, since I was in grade school. I think my parents had me baptized just in case."

"In case?"

"In case all the stuff they learned in school was true," Clancy said. "They didn't want my little soul burning in hell because they couldn't take the time to drag me over to church and have the priest pour water over my head."

"Well, that was quite thoughtful of them," Abby said. She went into her closet and emerged with a muted, summery, plaid sundress. Clancy buttoned the dozens of small, covered buttons and smoothed it out.

"Mmm you look nice. I love the way you look in dresses."

"Thanks," Abby said, kissing her nose. "I like to wear dresses. Always have." She ran her hand down Clancy's bare body. "Sure you don't want to come? I don't have to leave for about ten minutes."

"Oh, I don't think so. I don't have anything nice to wear, and you'd look all out of place with my grubby little self next to you."

Abby placed her hands atop Clancy's shoulders. "You know me well in many ways, but there are some parts of me that you don't understand at all." Clancy gave her a puzzled glance, and Abby continued, "I'm not the kind of person who pays much attention to what others think about me or my choice of friends. Secondly, I wouldn't attend a church that wasn't filled with open-minded people. Lastly, I happen to think you look adorable in your normal attire, and I wouldn't dream of asking you to change one thing about it."

Clancy's cheeks flushed slightly, and she said, "I get a little insecure sometimes. Sorry."

"Don't be sorry," Abby said. "Just trust me. I know what's best for me, and I don't need for you to spend a moment trying to second guess me."

Clancy wrapped her arms around her partner. "This is why I always wanted an older lover," she sighed. "Self-assured women are such a turn on."

O

Clancy was in her room, rooting through a velvet bag where she kept her jewelry when Michael strolled in. He gave her a start, and she jumped noticeably when he said, "Looking for something for a special occasion?"

"Very funny." She had placed each of her nipple rings and shields in a line on her dresser, and she shrugged her shoulders and dumped everything else out of the bag. Slipping the rings back in, she sniffed and said, "Abby wants to see my collection."

"Ohh I thought that you missed me so much, you just had to come see me. Little did I know you just missed your nipple rings."

"I miss you loads," Clancy said. "As a matter of fact, Abby and I would love to have you come over. How about today? We could have brunch when she gets back from church."

"A church-goer who doesn't like to talk about her feelings? I still don't see what you two have in common!"

"There's more to life than talkin', Mikey. Lots more!"

O

Michael let himself be persuaded, and when Abby got home, he was frolicking in the pool with the dogs. Clancy had issued the challenge, and he was failing miserably in his quest to get each of them onto her own pool float, while Clancy stood in the kitchen, laughing her ass off as she cleaned some strawberries.

"This is a happy little domestic scene," Abby said when she came up behind Clancy and wrapped her in her arms. "To the casual observer, this is the handsome young professional and his beautiful, sexy, young wife, relaxing around the pool on a sunny summer day."

Clancy turned in her embrace and said, "The more interesting story is that the young wife is carrying on a steamy, torrid romance with the gorgeous, slightly older woman who just snuck in the back door. The hard part is going to be how the young wife manages to get her sexy mistress naked so she can have her way with her before the husband knows anything is up." She bent and dipped her hand under the hem of Abby's dress, letting it slide up the cool expanse of bare thigh. When her fingers grazed the silky panties, Abby purred softly and let her thighs drift apart. "Ooh maybe she doesn't have to get her naked. The mistress can stand at the sink, acting like she's cleaning strawberries, while the wife sinks to her knees and pleasures her until her legs give out." Clancy started to drop to her knees, but Abby grabbed her by the shoulders and tugged her back to her feet. "Don't even think about it, you little devil. I'm not going to have my first extended encounter with your best friend include a viewing of my private parts."

"He wouldn't mind - guaranteed," Clancy said. "I think that's half of the reason he wanted to live with me. He thought he'd get a few peeks of girl on girl action."

"He hasn't, has he?" Abby asked, suddenly feeling a little jealous to think of Clancy with another woman.

"We've been over this, sweetheart. He's never seen me kiss another woman. I'm not that kinda girl."

Abby held her index finger and thumb an inch apart. "Tiny little bit of insecurity snuck out. I'll behave." She gave Clancy a long, lingering kiss. "That's for going to the store. I appreciate it."

"I'll go every hour on the hour for a kiss like that," the younger woman breathed huskily.

O

After giving Michael a few tips that didn't help him in the least, Abby left him to his dog-wrangling and went to change into a swimsuit. She came back in casual shorts and a roomy tank top and started to help Clancy.

"No, no," she said. "I'm going to make brunch. I want you to go play with Michael and the dogs. I want you to get to know each other a little without my hovering over you."

Abby smiled and nodded, and just before she got to the door, she came back and put her hand on Clancy's cheek. "How should we act around him? Is it okay if we're just natural?"

"Within the limits of decency, yes," Clancy said. "He's family, Abby. I have almost no secrets from Michael."

"Okay. I've got my marching orders." Another sweet kiss and she was off, leaving Clancy to gaze lovingly at her departing form.

O

Late that night, while they lay in bed with a soft breeze floating into the room, Clancy reflected on their day. "I could spend every Sunday just like that."

"It was nice, wasn't it? I really like Michael. It's nice to see that you have someone you're that close to."

"We were both only children, and for some reason, we just adopted each other as family. I know we'll be friends for the rest of our lives."

"Oh, when you were outside, Maria called and asked if we'd like to go to her house for dinner on Wednesday. Any interest?"

"Our friends are coming out of the woodwork, aren't they? I assume Maria and Pam want to see if I pass inspection?"

"Maybe," Abby said. "Or they might just want to get a look at the kind of woman I'm attracted to. I'm sure they find this all quite puzzling."

"Sure. I'm happy to go if you want to."

"That wasn't a very enthusiastic response," Abby said. "Wanna skip it?"

"No. Not at all. They're your friends, Abby, and I want to meet them. I just have a feeling I'll be under a microscope, and that makes me a little uncomfortable. I mean, will I have anything in common with them?"

"One thing," she said, grinning. "They like chicks."

"That should carry us through five minutes of conversation. So, you two eat pussy, huh? It's great, isn't it?"

"Clancy! I'm certain that neither Pam nor Maria refers to it as eating pussy!" she said with a visible grimace.

"See? We don't even have vulgarity in common."

"Oh, you'll like them just fine. They're actually two of my most interesting friends."

"What do they do?"

"Maria's a psychiatrist. She works in the chemical dependency unit at Huntington Memorial. Pam's a techie. She works in the IT department at the Jet Propulsion Lab."

"Wow," Clancy said, her voice flat. "Do they have a garden? Houseplants?"

Abby took her question at face value, finally saying, "No. Neither is very domestic. They have a daughter, Alyssa, and they spend all of their spare time with her. They're really busy women, not much time for hobbies." Furrowing her brow, she said, "Oh, they do really like the theater, and they go to the opera as often as they can."

"Opera, huh?" Clancy asked. "The only opera I've ever seen was when Bugs Bunny and Sylvester did The Barber of Seville. And I've never been to a play in my life."

"Oh, Clancy, that doesn't matter. They want to get to know you, not judge you."

"I know, I know," the landscaper said. "Uhm how old is their daughter?"

"She just turned seven," Abby said. "She's a great kid. Extremely gifted though. They have their hands full trying to keep her stimulated in school. She goes to a school for gifted children, and she's already reading at the fifth grade level."

Oh, boy! Clancy groused to herself. Maybe they'll have a mentally challenged dog I can bond with.

O

Clancy poked her head into the house on Wednesday afternoon and called out, "Abby?"

"I'm in the den."

She brushed off her shoes and entered the kitchen, pausing to pet the dogs for a moment. "Hi," she said when she spotted Abby dusting the room. "I'm gonna be gone for a while. If anything comes up, just page me, okay?"

"Okay," Abby said. "Gimme a kiss goodbye."

As Clancy walked to her truck, she mused, It's great that she doesn't keep a tight watch on me. She knows I'm a professional, and she lets me go about my business without trying to get involved. Damn, I'd still be with Julie if she could have just given me a little space. She hopped into the truck and thought, I'm damned glad Julie wasn't able to be what I wanted, 'cause Abby's the real deal.

O

At 6:30 Abby went downstairs to find Clancy touching up a pair of black crepe slacks with a cool iron. "Nice," she said, fingering the fabric. "I knew you had a few pieces of dress-up clothes hidden in your closet."

No, I don't, Clancy thought, but the department store did. I just hope I got all the tags off.

"Would you like to walk?" Abby asked. "It's barely a mile away."

"Sure. I'd really like to. When do we have to be there?"

"Seven o'clock. We can make it easily if you're ready soon."

"I'm almost done," Clancy said, grabbing her slacks and heading upstairs.

Mere moments later, she was back, looking very dapper in a pale green print silk blouse, her tailored slacks, and a pair of very shiny black loafers. "You look luscious," Abby said, taking her in her arms. "I don't see it often, but that shade makes your eyes look green."

"They were green when I was younger," Clancy said. "They've slowly turned gray, but certain colors do bring a little color back to 'em."

"Such nice, shiny shoes," Abby continued. "You keep them well-polished."

"Oh. They're pretty new," she said. Three hours is pretty new, isn't it?

"Well, you look lovely," Abby said once again. "Shall we?"

"Let's do it."

They walked down the tree-lined, residential streets of Pasadena, a nice, cool breeze blowing their hair around. "This is such a wonderful neighborhood," Clancy said. "The houses are fantastic, and the lots are all so big. That makes such a difference."

"It is nice," Abby agreed. "It's a fairly friendly place, too. You get to recognize people when you walk dogs, you know."

"I'd guess that's so. Maybe we should take the girls out for walks in the evening. I know they're unhappy being cooped up in the house all day."

Abby impulsively leaned over and kissed her cheek. "I admire a lot of things about you, Clancy, but one of the sweetest things about you is your thoughtfulness. You work hard all day, but you're still willing to walk with the dogs because you think they might need it."

"Nobody likes to have her routine upset, Abby. Doggies have a schedule they try to keep, too."

Looking at the sweet, playful look on her face, Abby couldn't help but reach over and grasp Clancy's arm, placing both hands around her bicep and holding it close to her body. Clancy was pleased that Abby didn't have a problem with being affectionate in public, but a few minutes later, her whole body stiffened when an older couple, walking a dog, approached. She tried to mentally telegraph Abby to let go because she didn't want her lover to experience the shock of getting a dirty look for their public display of affection. Much to her surprise, not only did they not get a dirty look - the couple practically beamed at them. Damn, Abby lives in a very liberal neighborhood, she thought. Then reality hit her. They thought she was my mother! That's the only reason for them to give us that encouraging look! They thought it was sweet that I was helping dear old mom down the street! She cast a quick glance at Abby, who chatted away, oblivious to the thoughts running through Clancy's mind. This is going to take some getting used to - but if it gets us a free pass for PDAs, I'm pumped/!v

O

They walked down Orange Grove Avenue with Clancy waxing rhapsodic over the stately mansions and elegant apartment buildings. Abby took in the pleasant sound of Clancy's enthusiastic voice, not saying much herself - merely reveling in the state of deep satisfaction she felt from having someone she cared for holding her hand as they walked down the street. Pam and Maria lived in one of a series of town homes, tucked away down a long, mostly hidden drive. After they were buzzed in, Clancy noted with some displeasure that there was no chance for a garden, since all of the town homes were connected - with no outdoor space for grass or flowers. Alyssa came to the door and threw her arms around Abby, hugging her soundly before she stepped back to greet Clancy. "Alyssa, this is my friend, Clancy O'Connor. Clancy, this little beauty is Alyssa."

"Good to meet you, Alyssa," Clancy said.

The young girl looked at her critically for a minute and furrowed her brow, her quick mind processing all of the information that her dark eyes took in. "Are you Abby's friend or Hayley's friend?"

Mentally rolling her eyes, Clancy smiled stiffly and said, "Abby's. Definitely Abby's. I don't know Hayley well at all."

The girl made a face and scrunched her eyes up, obviously not buying it. "You look like Hayley's friend, 'cause you look like a kid."

To Clancy's surprise, Abby seemed to find this funny, and she graciously agreed with the child. "She does look like someone Hayley would pal around with, doesn't she, Alyssa? But she's all mine. Hayley has to get her own friends."

More truth there than I'm comfortable admitting, Clancy decided.

Just then one of the adults came out of the kitchen, and she stopped so abruptly upon seeing Clancy that when the other woman came out behind her, she plowed right into her. "This is Abby's friend," Alyssa announced. "She looks like Hayley's friend, but she's not."

Pam slapped her forehead, wishing once again that their child would keep her many opinions to herself, then walked into the room and gave both women a seriously sheepish look. "I'm so sorry for the always pithy commentary that our beloved Alyssa provides. I'm Pam Swenson," she said, extending her hand, "and this is my partner, Maria Messina."

"Clancy O'Connor," the younger woman replied, shaking each hand while feeling more like a fish out of water than she could ever remember.

Abby hugged each woman and waved off Alyssa's comments good-naturedly. "Alyssa's good at keeping us all honest. I think it's refreshing." She turned to the child and said, "Clancy's younger than I am, but I really like her. We've been going out with each other, and I hope that you like her, too, because I want to keep her around for a while."

Dark eyes grew even darker, and her mouth curled into a pout. "You don't go out with girls. You like boys."

"Alyssa!" Maria whispered harshly. "Knock it off!"

"What?" she asked, perplexed. "Abby was married to Will! She likes boys!"

Abby crouched down so she was on the same plane as the child. "I do like boys, Alyssa, but I'm finding out that I like girls, too. I like Clancy a lot, and I think you will, too, when you get to know her." The child looked doubtful, but she smiled when Abby tickled under her chin. "Now, show me this big science project you're working on," she said, and the little girl took her hand, tugging her towards her room.

Clancy was rocking back and forth on her heels, wishing that her new pants had pockets so she'd have something to do with her hands.

Maria reached out, clasped her shoulder and said, "I'm so sorry about that! She says whatever comes to mind."

"We're gonna get that a lot," Clancy said. "We may as well get used to it."

"Come on in and let me get you a drink," Pam offered. "Wine okay?"

I'd rather have a beer, Clancy thought, but decided to try to go with the flow. "Sure. Wine is fine."

They led her into the living room and the three of them sat down and tried to make conversation. Clancy looked around, finding it hard to make and keep eye contact. The room was beautifully decorated. So beautifully laid out that Clancy was certain the women had hired someone to do it for them. It wasn't very kid-friendly, and she decided that Alyssa must not be allowed to use the place without supervision. "Abby tells us that you're working on that big project at her house," Pam began. "We haven't been over since you started. How's it coming?"

"Good," Clancy said. "It's a big job, but it's on track."

"It sounds really interesting," Maria said. "Abby is so complimentary about your skills uhm your talent. Have you always liked working with your hands?" She heard the words leave her mouth and cringed noticeably. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her partner briefly cover her face with her hand.

Alyssa and Abby came back, saving Maria from further embarrassment, and she got up to get Abby a glass of wine. "You're a landscape architect, right?" Pam asked.

"Yeah, I am. I have my own business. I'm just starting out - but I love it."

"Will was a lawyer," Alyssa said, narrowing her eyes at Clancy yet again. "Isn't that better than being a land whatever?"

"Alyssa!" This time it was Pam who tried to keep the child in line. "Honey, you don't even remember Will. You were just two when he died. Now, come on, you're making Clancy uncomfortable."

"That's okay," Clancy said, smiling at the mortified woman. She looked at the little girl and said, "You have to go to school longer to be a lawyer, and most people would say being a lawyer is better. But I like what I do, Alyssa. And I think that's important, too."

"My moms like what they do. Mom's a doctor," she said, raising a challenging eyebrow, "and Mama's a " She looked at Pam, her face scrunched up in confusion. "Mama does computer something. It's hard," she added emphatically.

"I had a heck of a time getting through college," Clancy said. "I could never do well enough in school to be a doctor or a computer something." She looked at the child for a moment and said, "Some people do really well in school, and others don't. What's important is finding what you like and having the guts to stick with it - even if it's not what other people think is cool."

The child appeared to consider this for a minute, then looked at Clancy speculatively. "What's it called again? Land what?"

"Landscape architecture," she said. "I deal with everything outside of a house like trees and plants and walls and putting in sprinkler systems."

Alyssa nodded quickly, urging Clancy to finish her description, then asked, "Did you say plants?"

"Yeah. I know a lot about plants. Do you like plants?"

"No," she said immediately, making a face. "But I have a science project where I have to germinate seeds. Wanna see?"

"Yeah, I'd love to," Clancy said.

Alyssa walked over to Clancy and took her hand. "Let's go," she said, sounding like the conductor on a train. Clancy met Abby's encouraging look with an agreeable shrug of her shoulders, then she let the child drag her through the house.

"This is my room," she announced, walking over to a neatly laid out worktable. "This is the project." Clancy observed the well-marked terra cotta pots, showing every part of the life cycle of grass seed. "This is pretty cool, Alyssa," she said. The little girl was now sitting on her bed, staring at Clancy with those dark, penetrating eyes. "Abby likes boys. You're not a boy. Why is she going out with you?"

"Uhm maybe you'd better ask her that," Clancy said, sitting down on the pint-sized desk chair. "Does it bother you that she's dating me?"

"No," she said flatly, refusing to meet Clancy's eyes.

"Okay." She fidgeted for a moment, feeling the dark, beady eyes still glaring at her. Deciding not to let a seven-year-old get the better of her, Clancy said, "Hey, let's play a game where we pretend things, okay?"

"Okay," the child said warily.

"Let's pretend that it bothers you that Abby's dating me. If you had to make up a reason for why it upset you, what would that reason be?"

The little mouth scrunched up in a pout for just a minute before she said, "She likes boys."

"Uh-huh," Clancy said patiently. "She still likes boys. She just likes me, too."

"I like boys," she said quietly, and Clancy nodded in empathy.

"Do you think that means that you might like girls someday?"

"I don't," she said defiantly, her voice rising. "I like boys."

"That's cool," Clancy said. "I only like girls."

"Only girls?" The dark eyes narrowed.

"Yep. I only like girls. Ever since I was your age."

"My moms both liked boys when they were little," she said thoughtfully. "But they only like girls now."

"Everybody's different, Alyssa," Clancy said. "You can like whoever you like."

"Whomever," the child interrupted.

Clancy blinked, then blew out a breath. Thank God this isn't Abby's kid. I don't think I could take it. "Okay. You can like whomever you like. It doesn't matter what Abby does, or what your moms did when they were little. It only matters that you do what you like."

"Kinda like you and land stuff, huh?"

"Yep. Kinda like me and land stuff."

Nodding, Alyssa got up and went to the door. "We're done." She turned and waited patiently for Clancy to join her, then tucked her small hand into Clancy's and led her back to the party.

O

On the way home that night, Abby wrapped an arm around Clancy and said, "Alyssa's a little pistol, isn't she?"

Clancy chuckled evilly. "Little does she know that the trenches I've dug in your yard are exactly the right size for her. Her mothers would probably thank me if she mysteriously disappeared."

With an outraged squawk, Abby slapped at her sharply. "Don't even joke about that!"

Clancy grabbed her hands and playfully nuzzled into her neck. "You know I'm kidding," she said. "We got a few things ironed out when we were in her room."

"Such as?"

"It seems she was worried about your starting to like girls," Clancy said. "You were the only person who was just like she was - and then you had to go screw it up."

Abby stopped dead in her tracks. "What?"

Clancy smiled and patted her affectionately. "No big deal. It sounds like she related to you because you liked boys - consistently. She says that her moms used to like boys, but they switched and now you're switching " Clancy said, twirling her finger to indicate a pattern.

"Oh, my God! She's worried that she might be gay, too!"

"Apparently," Clancy agreed. "She seemed to like me better when I convinced her that I've always been oriented in the same way."

"Oh, I have to call Maria and tell her this," Abby sighed. "Alyssa's been having a hard time lately. It's really hitting her that she's different - because she has two moms. She's treated well at school and all, but it seems like she's struggling to work this all out in her head. She's also upset that she doesn't have a dad," Abby said. "They chose to have her via an anonymous donor, and that's a hard concept for a seven-year-old to grasp. I know they'll help her get comfortable with that over time, but she's having a tough time now." She grasped Clancy's arm tighter and said, "Thanks for helping with her. None of us got that out of her - but you did."

"I like kids," Clancy said agreeably. "Even when they don't like me."

"Oh, she liked you just fine. She didn't ask me to her room to listen to her new CD."

"Yeah. Lucky me," Clancy said. "I'm not even sure who the group was, but it's not on my list of 'must haves.'"

Abby released her arm and clasped her hand. "Thanks for putting up with so much tonight. I owe you."

"Nah. You suffered through my family's grilling. Let's call it even."

"It's a deal," Abby said, leaning over to place a soft kiss on Clancy's cheek. "I'm glad that I like girls," she whispered. "And I'm particularly glad that you're the girl I like."

O

Once Alyssa was in bed, Pam and Maria could talk without fear of being overheard. Maria had organized and purchased dinner, so Pam was in charge of cleaning up. Maria jumped up to sit on the counter, swinging her legs. "The only landscape architecture degree program around here is at Cal Poly. I looked it up when I put Alyssa to bed. Now, Clancy said she's only had her license for two years -"

Pam raised an eyebrow. "When did you question her, detective?"

Maria stuck her tongue out. "I snuck a question or two in every time I caught her attention. Abby hasn't told us shit! If she's not talking, I've got to figure things out for myself!"

"Well, we didn't ask her any direct questions, Maria. It's not like she pled the fifth."

"You know Abby plays her cards close to the vest. She wouldn't like for us to ask questions. I don't have any choice!"

Pam smiled at her partner. "Okay. What did you deduce?"

"That kid can't be more than twenty-four! Trevor's gonna be twenty-four this year! What in the hell is Abby thinking?"

Pam's eyes had grown wide. "Are you sure she's that young? Jesus!"

"She looks younger than that! I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt!"

"Good lord." Pam walked over to her lover and put her hands on her knees. "She must be I don't have any idea what she must be doing! Women don't do this!"

"I know! Women don't get trophy wives! Especially when they have to switch sexual orientation to get one!"

"I'm completely dumbstruck," Pam said. "I would never have believed Abby would do something like this. She's the most reasonable, logical, steady, predictable person I've ever known."

Maria nodded her agreement. "But she does seem happy. Happier than she's been since Will died."

Pam laughed heartily. "I'd be happy if I had a twenty-four-year-old " She stopped herself short, trying desperately to think of an acceptable ending for her sentence.

Maria reached around and slapped her on the butt. "I'm in a good mood. I'll let that one pass."

Dropping her head onto her lover's shoulder, Pam said, "I'd be happy if we had a twenty-four-year old daughter. That would mean we'd been together all of our adult lives. Wouldn't that be wonderful?"

Maria wrapped her in a hug. "Given what you had to work with, that was excellent. Truly excellent!"

O

On Saturday morning, Abby got out of bed reluctantly, gazing down at Clancy with palpable longing. Why didn't I cancel the match for today? Hayley's coming home tomorrow, and this is our last morning to be able to lie in bed and play. She sighed heavily and went into her room to get ready. Like clockwork, Clancy appeared moments after Abby emerged from the shower, coffee in hand. "Hi," she yawned sleepily.

"Hi, yourself." Abby pressed her damp body against Clancy and held her tight. She felt the emotion start to fill her chest and gave her a rough squeeze. "Don't want to get you all wet."

"I don't mind a bit," Clancy said. She sat down on the edge of the tub. "Wish you could stay home this morning."

"I was just kicking myself for not canceling," she said. "I let the week get away from me."

"It's okay. We'll have more time together when Hayley goes back to school if nothing else."

Trying to stop her stomach from doing flips at the thought of not being together for over a month, Abby patted her gently and said, "Sure we will. Now, I want you to go back to bed. You worked like a dog this week, and the weekend is the only time you have to recover."

"I did work hard. It really saps my strength when I have to help as much as I did." She grinned up at Abby and said, "I desperately want this client to be satisfied. She's really special."

"So are you." Abby kissed her lightly and ordered, "Back to bed. And don't get up until you're well rested, okay?"

"No argument," Clancy said, shuffling back in the direction of the guest room.

"Clancy?" Abby said softly.

"Yeah?"

"I'll miss you." Clancy had a feeling she didn't just mean over the next few hours. She gave her a warm smile, her sadness bleeding through it, and went back to bed.

O

When Abby came home, Clancy was still dead to the world. The dogs barely looked up when she walked past, so Abby went into her room to drop off her things and change. When she was done, she stood in the doorway of the guestroom, her heart feeling like it would explode from the feelings she was struggling with.

Clancy was lying on her back, one leg drawn up. Athena was lying between her legs, her dark head on Clancy's raised thigh. Artemis was plastered along Clancy's body, her head on a muscular shoulder, Clancy's hand resting on the dog's chest. They looked so content and peaceful that Abby was loath to join them and break the mood. But their time together was short, and she couldn't resist the pull of the always-welcoming body. As she drew closer, Athena opened one dark chocolate eye and gave her the doggie version of a scowl. God, she loves Clancy. I don't know how it happened so quickly, but she's bonded with her totally. She felt tears start to roll down her cheeks, and with a blinding flash of realization, she thought, I love her, too. I don't know why it happened. I'm not sure how it happened. I don't know when it happened, but I love her with all my heart.

With an unhappy grunt, Athena pulled away when Abby got into bed, and as soon as the dog hit the ground, Artemis was with her. They bracketed the bed, and settled down for another nap - hoping for one that the humans didn't ruin.

Instinctively, Clancy wrapped her half-sleeping body around Abby, and the older woman was struck by how much the sensation reminded her of cuddling Hayley when she was a young child. Clancy was very slow to wake, and her heavy limbs draped across Abby's body while she crawled towards sentience. The blonde head rested on her chest, and Abby gently stroked her, urging her back to sleep. She had learned exactly how much sensation woke her and how much calmed her, and she decided that she wanted to hold her in her sleep for a while. After a few minutes, Clancy's breathing evened out, and her body grew even heavier. That was exactly the sensation that Abby sought - she wanted the full, heavy weight of Clancy's body atop hers. She desperately wanted to experience the very physicality of her - to feel her bones and muscles and flesh compressing her own. She had the irrational thought that as long as they stayed just like this, Clancy would never have to leave - that they could be together without interference from anyone on earth. But even as she had the thought, she knew it was folly. Hayley would be home the next day, and Clancy would go back to her apartment - for how long, neither knew.

"I love you," Abby whispered, her eyes closing to hold back the tears. "I love you," she whispered again, this time a little louder as she kissed the blonde head. "I love you." Louder still, lips pressing against warm skin. "Clancy, I love you." Tears were rolling down her face unabated as the words poured from her mouth. "I love you I love you I love you."

Suddenly, warm, moist lips were covering hers, and her tears were being kissed away when she heard the words she'd been hoping, but afraid, to hear. "I love you, Abby. I love you, too."

In moments they were moving against each other, skin sliding against skin, aided by the wet, warm kisses that rained down from one woman to the other. "I don't want you to leave," Abby sobbed, her tears coming in waves.

"I don't want to leave," Clancy whispered fiercely. "But we'll work it out. We'll be together soon. As long as we love each other, we can get past anything or anyone in our way. I promise you."

"I can't lose you, Clancy. I can't!"

"Shh shh " Clancy soothed, kissing her face to whisk away the tears. "You won't lose me. I'm yours forever Abby. I'm yours forever."

O

It was after 6:00 when Clancy made her way down the stairs on rubbery legs, her body enervated by long hours of nearly ravenous lovemaking. She had never experienced anything that came close to the wild frenzy of sensation they had shared - the passionate joining of two women finally able to declare their love for each other. But her body voiced its demands, and she decided that she needed a form of nourishment more substantial than kisses. She grabbed the box of granola, a bowl, a spoon and a quart of milk and climbed the stairs once again.

Abby was right where she had left her - nearly comatose and spread widthwise across the bed. "Come on, baby," Clancy urged, nudging her with her hip. "Move up so I can get in."

With a tortured groan, Abby moved, slowly drawing her body towards the head of the bed.

Clancy poured the cereal, doused it with milk, and alternated bites with Abby, seeing some signs of life come back into her lover when she got a few calories into her.

"Good," Abby said after they had cleaned the bowl twice.

"More?"

"No. That's enough for now." Abby was fully awake, and she leaned against Clancy. "We should do something with the puppies. They've been so patient today."

"It's nice to know they don't try to interrupt when we make love," Clancy mused. "Do you think they know that's why we close them out sometimes? I can just hear their little doggie conversation. 'We'd better keep our paws to ourselves when the humans start with all of that mouthing and licking. I don't know what they're doing, but I think it's keeping us on the other side of this door!'"

Abby laughed gently and agreed. "They're a pretty bright pair. I saw Athena's head come up to the edge of the bed once when you were howling so pitifully that I'm sure she thought you were breathing your last."

"I thought I was too, Athena," Clancy said to the dog. "Your mommy nearly killed me!"

"Let's take them out before they kill us both," Abby decided. "We can only push them so far before they turn on us."

O

They walked up the arroyo, looking across the deep crevasse that cut along the edge of Pasadena. Neither spoke more than was necessary, concentrating on the dogs, trying to keep the leashes from tangling.

They'd gone about a mile when Clancy said, "I think we need to talk about what happened today."

Sparing a wry glance, the older woman said, "I feel like I've said everything I have to say. I love you, I need you, I don't want you to leave, I don't know how I could go on if we weren't able to be together. What else can I add?"

"Come here." Clancy opened her arms, and Abby gladly fell into her embrace. "It's okay," she soothed, feeling like she was on the verge of tears again. "Everything that you said is a given. How do we do it?"

"I don't have a clue," Abby said, sighing.

"Sure you do," Clancy insisted. "I'm sure you're going over scenarios in your mind."

"Yeah. And most of them involve Hayley storming out and vowing never to speak to me again."

"Look. That might happen," Clancy said, making Abby's eyes go wide. "But anything like that is temporary. She's seventeen, Abby, and you admit she's a drama queen. Her first reaction won't be her final reaction. You've got to trust that the love you've nurtured for all of these years will pull you through this."

"I'll try to remember that." She gave Clancy's hand a squeeze and said, "Maria said I should hide this from Hayley and Trevor until I was sure how I felt. But she also said that I should tell them once I'd made up my mind that this was right for me. I think she worries that they'll feel betrayed if the relationship goes on too long without their knowledge."

"That makes sense," Clancy said.

"I'm sure of how I feel. I love you, and I'm willing to risk a great deal to have you in my life. It won't be easy, but I'm going to tell Hayley as soon as possible. Clancy O'Connor is here to stay."

O

Chapter Seventeen

Clancy packed her clothes up and put them in the truck just after dawn on Monday. Then she took the vehicle out of the garage and parked it on the street. She sat in the truck, drinking a cup of coffee while she waited for her crew to arrive. Even though she was ten feet from Abby's gate, she felt disconnected and alone. She'd felt the same way when she'd woken, and Abby had seemed distant also. She knew they were both trying to handle Hayley's return in their own ways, but she was troubled that they'd both been unable to talk about it.

Abby left the house at 10:00, and Clancy spent a few minutes resting against the handle of her shovel. She was lost in her thoughts and didn't hear Armando ask her about the placement of one of the boulders. He finally touched her shoulder, making her jump. She forced herself to concentrate, and finally managed to block the distractions from her mind.

The crew was sitting on the hill, eating lunch, when the back door opened and Hayley came out with both dogs on leashes, to let them have a bathroom break.

Clancy caught her eye. "Have a good trip?"

"Yeah. Thanks. I did," the younger woman said. "You've done a lot up there."

"Yep. We've had a good two weeks. The majority of the plumbing work is done."

"Well, it doesn't look very good, but I'm sure it will soon," she said, showing a smile that looked strained.

Clancy didn't reply, but she returned the smile. Hayley went back in, and Clancy spent the rest of the afternoon trying to calm her roiling stomach.

Abby didn't come out when the crew finished for the day. Clancy stalled and poked around for five minutes after the others left, then she got in her truck and went home.

She made dinner, then sat on the couch with the television on. She had no idea what program was playing, but the background noise was soothing. At 7:00 the phone rang, and she leapt for it. "Hello?"

"I miss you, and I love you, and I want you sitting right here in the kitchen."

"Sounds so good," Clancy said, hearing the longing in her own voice.

"We'll get there," Abby said, her tone confident enough to make Clancy perk up a little.

"So what's going on over there?"

"We've spent the day talking," Abby said. "Hayley's very upbeat, and that awful mood she was in when she left seems to be over. She seems much more like my baby again."

"That must be a relief," Clancy said. "She seemed normal when she walked the dogs today."

"Yes, she acted like Hayley today."

"So can we see each other this week?"

"I'll try to figure out a way. I really will. I've been thinking about how to approach this, Clancy, and today I decided I should call my parents. They're both level-headed and my mom is very good at helping me come up with long-term plans." She laughed. "At least she was the last time I asked."

"How long ago was that?"

"Mmm I think the last time was when I asked for her advice about whether I should get my masters degree right after I graduated from UCLA, or wait for a few years."

"Great," Clancy said, laughing. "Maybe she's been honing her skills since then."

"Well, no matter what, I'm not going to let much time pass. I need to tell the kids so we have time to work through things before Hayley leaves for school."

"That's the best news I've heard all day," Clancy said. "The sooner we start, the sooner we'll be finished."

O

On Tuesday, Clancy spent much of the afternoon bidding on a job in Monrovia. She arrived at Abby's just before the end of the workday, and walked to the back door to see her lover. She paused at the door, smiling to herself when she looked inside. Abby was sitting at the built-in desk that was part of the kitchen counter. She'd rolled her chair back and was resting her head on her crossed arms, looking like a very bored child who couldn't go out and play until her homework was finished. Both dogs lay at her feet, obviously so used to Clancy that they didn't call out the alarm when she approached. The landscaper knocked softly and the dogs merely lifted their heads while their tails thumped furiously. Abby swiveled around and the smile that came to her lips made Clancy parrot one of equal warmth.

Walking into the house, Clancy asked, "What are you working on? You don't look like you're having fun."

"I'm a big chicken," Abby said, sticking her lip out in an adorable pout. "I don't have the guts to call my parents and tell them about us."

"Oh, you poor baby." Clancy started to hug her, then asked, "Are we alone?"

"Nobody here but us chickens," Abby said, giving her a wry smile.

They hugged, with Clancy holding on until Abby released her. "So you're what writing to them?"

"Trying to. Not having much luck."

"Want me to help?" Abby pushed the computer towards her lover. "Do it. Don't even show it to me. Say whatever you want."

Laughing, Clancy stood behind her and massaged her neck. "You can do this. Just tell the truth. Tell them everything that happened. How we met how we grew to be friends how we grew more and more attracted to each other until we well, don't tell 'em that part. They'll be able to figure that out for themselves."

Abby nodded, then rested her cheek on Clancy's hand. "If you stand behind me and rub my neck and shoulders I bet I could have this finished in ten minutes. You calm me down so well."

"Happy to." Clancy started to slide a kitchen chair over, but Abby stopped her.

"No, baby, I won't have you catering to my needs while I do this. Besides, Hayley's supposed to be home for dinner. Just give me a kiss that'll last me all night and leave me to my misery."

Clancy pulled the chair around and straddled Abby's lap. She didn't let much of her weight settle, but she wrapped her arms around her tightly. "I never want you to be miserable. But I'll do my best to give you a long-lasting kiss." She leaned into her and felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up when their lips met. In a moment, they were kissing deeply, nipping on each other's lips, tongues sliding against one another. Thankfully, the dogs jumped to their feet and scampered for the door a second before Hayley burst in. Clancy managed to be on her feet, and the girl didn't seem to notice a thing. "Hi, Mom. Clancy." She dropped her bag and petted each dog. "The beach was awesome today. I'm gonna shower down here so I don't track sand upstairs. Back in a few."

Abby smiled and made a gesture that looked a little like a wave. Hayley went into the bathroom and closed the door. As soon as Abby heard the door click she looked like she'd had her bones removed. Starting to slide down the seat of the chair, Clancy grabbed her under the arms and held her up. "It's okay, babe. She didn't notice a thing."

"I'm too old for this," Abby moaned. "I could have a stroke!"

"You'll be fine," Clancy soothed. "Now get to work and write your letter. I'll see you tomorrow." She kissed Abby on the top of the head, lingering a few moments to smell her hair. "I love you." She kissed her once more, on the cheek, then squeezed her shoulder and left for the day.

O

The next day, Abby appeared the minute the crew started to pack up for the day. When Clancy finished chatting with Ramon, she walked over and joined her under the pergola. "Hi," Clancy said, feeling a little uncomfortable.

"Hi. All finished?"

"Yeah."

"Everyone gone?"

"I think so."

"Wanna neck?" Abby's eyes were giving off an impish twinkle, and Clancy felt her unease vanish into thin air.

Letting out a relieved laugh, Clancy reached down and grasped her hand. "Is that a good idea?"

"No, of course not. But that doesn't stop me from wanting to." Leaning over just a few inches, Abby pressed her body against Clancy's shoulder and captured her earlobe in her teeth. "You have the cutest ears I think I've ever seen."

Clancy stiffened slightly and pulled away. "Abby, I don't want to chance having Hayley come home and catching us. Last night was bad enough."

Resting her head on her shoulder, Abby sighed and said, "I know. But the dogs proved how adept they are at being early warning devices."

"Still " Clancy murmured.

"No, you're right. Stranger things have happened. I'll do my best to behave until it's all out in the open."

Clancy asked the question that had been nagging at her all day. "Got any idea when that might happen?"

Abby let out a wry laugh and said, "It almost happened last night. We sat up and talked for hours, and when we went upstairs the dogs ran for the guest room and curled up at the end of the bed, thumping their tails ferociously."

"Oh-oh."

"Yeah. Hayley noticed, of course, since they've never done that before, but I tried to slough it off as odd canine behavior." She laughed. "Luckily, they act odd enough on a consistent basis to make that excuse quite believable."

"So, was that the end of it?"

"No. I went to my room, but they didn't follow. After a while, I came out and they were still on the guest bed, looking quite depressed. They missed you," she said, a sad smile settling on her face. "I did too."

"I missed you, Abby," Clancy sighed. "I woke up twenty times during the night, trying to find you."

"None of us slept well, either," Abby said. "Artemis went in with Hayley, but Athena wouldn't give up the watch. Every time I woke, her head was up. It looked like she was unable to relax until you came to bed."

"So what do you think? Do you want to wait for a while to let Hayley settle in? Or is it best to just tell her and let her have some time to deal with it?"

"I don't want to do it today," Abby said. "I wrote my letter yesterday and mailed it this morning. Now I want to talk to a couple of my good friends to get some opinions. Ellen has known Hayley since she was born, and she's my closest friend. So I have to come out to Ellen."

"The look on your face says that you're not happy about that."

Abby made a dismissive gesture. "No, that's not what the look says." She moved around a little, trying to face Clancy more directly. "I think better when I can look into your eyes," she said.

Clancy dipped her head and kissed her, the kiss short but heartfelt. "The little things you say make me fall more in love with you every day. God, I hope this feeling never stops, 'cause I'm addicted to it."

Abby ran her finger over her lover's lips, loving their form and they way they felt under her fingertip. "Things will calm down," she said. "But even though it won't feel as exciting, the feelings get so much deeper and stronger. It's a damn good trade-off for the unbridled joy of falling in love."

Nuzzling at her partner's neck, Clancy said, "Let's have both. Joy and depth."

"It's a deal," Abby said.

They sat quietly for a few minutes, then Abby reached over and held her lover's hand. Neither woman spoke, and the minutes ticked by until it was fully dark. The phone rang and Abby jumped noticeably, their reverie shattered. The dogs started to bark, sensing they should be on guard since their master had been startled. Shushing them, she went into the house and answered, her voice just soft enough for Clancy not to be able to hear. After a few minutes, Abby returned. She sat down with less grace than she usually exhibited and said, "I'm meeting Ellen for breakfast." She didn't say another word, and Clancy sensed that her partner didn't want to talk. So they held hands again and leaned gently against each other until Clancy had to leave. Kissing Abby tenderly, she said, "You'll do fine tomorrow. It went great with Pam and Maria, didn't it?"

Abby nodded, looking young and frightened.

"I know it's hard. I really do, babe, but you'll get through it. Ellen's a good friend, right?"

"Yeah. Very good."

"Good friends support you. That's what makes them friends. Try not to worry, okay?"

Abby nuzzled her face into her lover's neck, desperately seeking comfort. "I'm just not used to this kinda thing. I've never had to reveal anything like this. It scares me to death."

"I know, I know," Clancy soothed. She held Abby tightly, trying to transfuse some of her confidence into her partner. "Just get it over with, babe. It'll get easier with each person."

Abby picked up her head, looking into Clancy's soft gray eyes. "Are you sure?"

"It was for me," Clancy said. "Much easier."

They held each other for a few more minutes, then Clancy kissed Abby one more time, patted the dogs on the head, and left her partner to dwell in her own troubled thoughts.

O

The old friends met at one of their favorite haunts on Greene Street. It was early, so parking wasn't a problem, and they saw each other heading to the restaurant from opposite ends of the block. Abby's palms were damp and the butterflies were dive-bombing her stomach walls, but she tried to compose her expression into a semblance of normalcy. "Hi!" Ellen called when they were still twenty feet apart. "It seems like it's been months since we've been alone together. Where has the summer gone?"

They hugged each other, and the familiar exchange helped calm Abby down a tiny bit. "This summer has gone by faster than any I can recall," Abby said. "It seems like Hayley got home yesterday."

"I know things have been crazy for you with all of the work at your house," Ellen said. "But we both have to make time for each other. That's the only way to stay close."

Abby winced when she heard those words. She felt guilty enough about keeping her friend entirely in the dark about her new relationship, but having Ellen remind her that they were drifting apart really struck home. "I'm at fault," she admitted. "My friends are more important than my house. I'm going to concentrate on being more connected."

Ellen looked at her for a moment, obviously puzzled. "I'm not angry, Abby. Don't take me too seriously."

Abby slipped her arm under her friend's and led her into the restaurant. "I know you're not angry. I'm just reminding myself of what's important.

O

A few minutes later they were sipping cups of coffee while they waited for their order. Ellen put her forearms on the table, her usual posture when she wanted to dish. "So, what's going on? Tell me everything."

Abby laughed, but to her own ears it sounded like she'd been pinched. "Actually, a lot has been going on. A whole lot." She slipped her hand through her hair, needlessly straightening it. Then she had to fix her watch so it sat precisely in the middle of her wrist. Those essentials taken care of, she had nothing to do but look at her friend.

Ellen inclined her head, silently encouraging her to continue.

"Remember I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had been seeing someone?"

"Sure, I remember. Are you ready to unveil this mystery man? It's not one of the gubernatorial candidates, is it?"

With another yelp-like laugh Abby shook her head. "No. No. No politicians." She nodded to the server when he placed their meals in front of them, then decided she had to have a bite of her omelet before she spoke again. After chewing the small bite over fifty times she peeked up to see Ellen giving her a very concerned look. "I'm worried about your reaction to the person I'm dating," she said, drawing a little closer to the point.

"My reaction?" Ellen put her fork down and reached across the table to touch Abby's hand. "Is he married?"

"Oh! God, no!" Now her laugh was genuine. "It's nothing like that. I'd never go out with a married man. That would go against every principle I have."

"Then what ?"

"I'm making myself crazy with this cat and mouse game," Abby said. She took in a deep breath and spit it out. "Here's the truth. I'm seeing a woman."

"You're seeing a woman what do you mean?"

Abby blinked at her, not expecting that particular response. "I'm dating a woman. Rather than a man I'm dating a woman."

Her friend's fork dropped from her nerveless hand and clattered noisily against her plate. "I I Abby how " she gasped.

"It caught me by surprise, too. Actually, no one can be as surprised as I was it just happened."

"Did Maria and Pam set you up?" she asked, her eyes still wide and nearly unfocused.

"No, no, not at all," Abby said, swiftly shaking her head. "I think they're still a little bit in shock as well."

"Then how where do you go to meet a lesbian, Abby? Is it someone from church?"

"No. That's another slightly funny angle," she said. "She's the landscape architect that I hired to work on my yard."

"But that can't I distinctly remember your telling me about her. You described her as a girl surely you " Ellen looked like she was about to faint, but Abby knew she didn't have any power to make this easier.

"She's not a girl, Ellen, she's lucky to look very young for her age. Once I got to know her, I saw how mature and generous and kind she was and I just I fell in love with her."

"You're in love with her?" Her voice was really too loud for the setting, but Abby didn't ask her to keep it down.

"Yes," she said firmly, her eyes locked with Ellen's. "I'm in love with her."

"Jesus, Abby! I can't believe that Maria hasn't sat you down and given you a good talking to! Can't you see what's happening here?"

"Uhm I think I know what's happening -" she began, but her friend cut her off.

"You don't know what's happening if you think you're in love! For God's sake! There is a man out there for you! Just because you haven't met him yet is no reason to go off the deep end!"

"Ellen," she said, her voice calm and soft, "this has nothing to do with my ability to attract men. I'll admit that I was demoralized about the whole dating thing - but Clancy would have appealed to me if my phone were ringing off the hook. We just clicked."

"Clancy? How old is this woman? That sounds like a kid's name."

Abby was beginning to take umbrage to the tone that Ellen was using, but she decided to keep calm and reply to her question. "She's twenty-nine," she said, staring her right in the eye.

"Twenty-nine! Twenty-nine! Trevor's almost twenty-nine! Have you completely lost your mind? You're dating the gardener, for God's sake, and she's young enough to be your child your daughter, no less! Abby, I love you enough to tell you this to your face - you need help!"

"Help?"

"Yes! You need professional help! I know how much you've grieved for Will, but that doesn't give you the right to do something so against your nature!"

"This isn't against my nature," she said, no longer feeling nervous. "It feels entirely natural, Ellen. Completely and totally natural."

"There's nothing natural about seeking out a girl your son's age to have sex with! Nothing!"

"What are you upset about?" Abby asked. "Are you upset that I'm dating a woman or that she's younger than I am, or that she's not a professional? Because none of those are very good reasons to be angry with me."

"Abby, what would you do if I left my husband to run off and join the circus?"

Making a face, Abby said, "That's hardly analogous."

"Yes it is! You've never been a lesbian before, you've never been interested in younger men, and you've always been a member of the decidedly upper class! I've never seen you searching for hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese restaurants in Hollywood, or selling your old clothes at the flea market at the Rose Bowl. You're a wealthy woman, and you like being a wealthy woman! I guarantee you that you wouldn't date one of the boys from the supermarket! Why is it all right just because she's a woman?" Her head was beginning to throb, and she found that she could hardly keep track of the conversation. All she wanted to do was go home and have Clancy hold her. "Why is what right? What rule am I breaking?"

Ellen pursed her lips. Her forehead was wrinkled in a deep frown and her cheeks were drawn tightly against her teeth. "You're a forty-five year old widow. You have grown children. You have a name in this community. You don't ignore your husband's memory and your children's feelings and the respect of your peers to do what feels right at any given moment! Hell, I want to have the pool boy come in and show me what it's like to make love to a twenty-year-old, but I don't do it! It would hurt too many people! I care more about other people than I do myself!"

Abby spent a moment composing herself. Her face was flushed with anger, and she knew she was on the verge of unloading on Ellen. But she also knew that she could easily destroy their friendship with a few harsh words, and she was determined not to. "I can only assume that you think you're telling me all of this for my own good. But I know what's right for me, Ellen. Loving Clancy is what's right, and the fact that some people won't be happy about it can't stop me. Love is too precious to throw away."

"Are two of those people Trevor and Hayley? How do they feel about Clancy?"

"I haven't told them yet," she said. "I thought it would be easier to talk to my friends first." With hurt coloring her voice, she added, "I thought my friends would be supportive."

"You thought wrong," Ellen said flatly. "If you don't care about your kids' feelings, then I'm doubly sure that you're doing this out of some temporary bout of insanity."

Abby was unable to hold it in for another moment. Her anger began to spill out of her like a pot boiling over. "I don't care about my children? How can you have the nerve the gall to say that to me! I've given up more than you know to be there for my kids every time they need me. And that won't change because of Clancy. She knows the kids have to come first but not because they don't approve of this. They're adults now, and they can make their own decisions - and so can I!"

"So if Trevor or Hayley decide they can't tolerate this you'll let them walk away from you? Is that what you're saying?" Ellen's face was nearly purple with anger, and she was clutching her fork like a weapon.

"That won't happen," Abby said. "My children will never abandon me. Never!"

"What if they do?" Ellen asked, spitting each word out.

"Then I'll wait for them to come around." The words were out before Abby had a moment to consider them. But once she said them she knew they were the absolute truth. No one not her kids not her friends not her parents could persuade her to give Clancy up. She was desperately in love with her, and the rest of the world was going to have to learn to adapt.

O

Clancy pulled into her parking spot, only to see Abby's car taking Michael's place. She ran up the path, finding her lover sitting on her steps, looking disconsolate. "Why didn't I go to work with you?"

"What happened?"

Abby didn't reply. She just got up and waited for Clancy to open the door. As soon as they entered, Abby closed her eyes and asked, "How about a hug?"

"Always." Clancy wrapped her strong, tanned arms tightly around Abby's body and she swore that she could feel her lover's pulse slow noticeably.

Placing a kiss on Clancy's neck, Abby sat down on the sofa. "I told her." She made a face as she said, "She wasn't supportive."

"Oh, damn I'm sorry. I know she's a good friend - that must have hurt."

"Yes, it did," she said. "But it made me angry, too. I'm really disappointed in her. She said some things that make me wonder about her."

Clancy nodded and said, "Give her a little leeway. This had to be a massive shock to her."

"I know that," she said quietly, "but that's no reason to treat me like I'm out of my mind. She demanded demanded that I seek psychiatric help!"

"Ouch!" Clancy made a face and said, "Give her some time. She might come around."

With a heavy sigh Abby said, "I hope so. "We've been friends since before Will and I were married. Her husband Neil was one of Will's best friends. They were both so supportive after Will died I can't stand the thought of losing them as friends."

"Give her time, and try again when she has time to cool off. If she's who you think she is, she'll be able to accept us."

"I hope so," Abby said. "I really hope so."

O

Michael wasn't due home until 8:00 p.m., so they went into Clancy's room and held each other for hours. As usual, Abby didn't talk much, sticking to her habit of processing her feelings before she could talk about them. At around 7:00 she asked if she could use the phone.

"Of course you can." Clancy handed the receiver to her and then wrapped her body around Abby's naked form.

Smiling, the older woman called Maria and found that Ellen had already called to tell her about Abby's revelation.

"Am I that wrong about her?" Abby asked. "I always thought she was so open-minded."

"I think she is," Maria ventured.

"How can you say that?" Abby asked. "This is nothing but anti-lesbian working-class prejudice!"

Maria chuckled softly and said, "Abby, I doubt that she'd call me to complain about your being a lesbian if her rationale was homophobic. Yes, she's upset that you're in a lesbian relationship - but not because of the lesbian angle per se."

"Then what is it?" Abby demanded irritably.

"I think that she's upset because of the sea-change this is for you. I honestly don't think her reaction would be a bit different if Clancy were a thirty-year-old man. I think it's the age and the socioeconomic issues that have her most upset."

"Oh, so she's not homophobic," Abby scoffed. "She's just ageist and classist."

"Okay, I'll grant that her position doesn't put her in the best light," Maria said, "but this is a big change for you. She's afraid that you're drawn to Clancy because other things haven't worked out well for you. I also think she's a little afraid that Clancy is taking advantage of you."

"Of course!" she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Working class people are always trying to pull one over on us!"

"I know this upsets you, and I understand why, but you go back a long way with Ellen. Don't take all of her words so seriously. She's concerned about you, and she's shooting her mouth off a little - but I'm certain that she means well."

Abby sighed and made a face. "You know I'll be more civil when this settles a bit. I'm just hurt. I expected more from one of my closest friends."

"I understand. I really do. If she was spouting off at you like she did at me, I'd be upset, too. But when someone gets this angry over something that really doesn't concern her I always try to look behind the behavior and figure out why she reacted so strongly."

"Any ideas, Doc?"

"Yeah, a few, but I won't push them at you just yet. You and Ellen have known each other longer and better than I've known her. You'll figure out what's going on over time. I'm sure of it."

"You're an optimist," Abby said. "I don't know how you are given what you see at work, but you are."

"You are too," Maria reminded her. "Only an optimist would do some of the things you've done this summer."

"An optimist, or an idiot?" Abby asked, sensing that Maria wasn't saying everything that was on her mind.

"You're one of the brightest people I know," Maria said. "You've never done anything idiotic since I've known you and I've been on the lookout."

Her cavalier reply reassured Abby, and she said, "I was really shaken today, Maria. It made me consider how much my friends mean to me. I'm more grateful than you'll ever know that you and Pam have been so understanding."

"We love you, Abby. We always will. Now go have Clancy wrap you up in her arms and give you some comfort. That always helps."

"That's one bit of advice I'll act on immediately," Abby said. "Give my love to Pam and Alyssa."

"I will. Call me if you need to talk anymore. I'm always available to you, sweetie."

"The same goes for me," Abby said. "Bye." As soon as she hung up, she tucked her head into Clancy's shoulder and let out a sigh. "Hayley should be home soon. I'd better go. But I need some hugs first."

"That's what I do best," Clancy said as she proceeded to hug her partner with all of her might.

O

To be continued in Part 9

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