Arbor Vitae

By SX Meagher

Chapter Eighteen

Clancy knocked at the back door on Thursday evening, making a silly face that had Abby laughing. "Bring that cute mug in here and let me kiss it," she said.

Clancy opened the door and looked around stealthily. "Are we alone?"

"Yeah. Hayley went to Santa Barbara to surf. She won't be home until late."

"How late?" Clancy asked, her hungry look giving Abby a good idea of the reason for her interest in Hayley's schedule.

The brunette walked over to Clancy and slipped her arms around her. "They usually go out for dinner at a taco place they love. She probably won't be home until 11:00 or midnight. Why? Got something on your mind?" She nuzzled at Clancy's neck, then nipped her sensitive earlobe.

"Uh-huh. Your body." Strong arms enveloped Abby, squeezing her hard enough to force the air from her lungs. "I've been thinking about you all day. The way you feel in my arms, the way you always smell like flowers and fresh air." Her hands slipped down and cupped Abby's cheeks. "But most of all, I've been thinking about your ass. You have the most delightful ass I've ever laid eyes or hands on, and there's nothing I'd like more than to study it up close for a couple of hours."

"Clancy!" Abby blushed, enormously pleased with her lover's interest. "You sure do know how to turn a girl's head!"

"Your head is wonderful, but I'd really like to see your ass," the architect said, massaging the cheeks with fierce intensity. "See it touch it bite it kiss it "

"Whew!" Abby pulled back a little, fanning herself. "I've gotta call Maria and tell her I'm canceling!" She headed for the phone, but Clancy pulled her back.

"What are you canceling?"

The older woman draped her arms around her lover's neck. "I think Maria's holding something back, and I arranged to go over and talk to her tonight. I thought you might want to go with me."

"We can go -"

Abby kissed Clancy's lips, stopping them as they were about to form another word. "Now that you've got me thinking about asses, I don't want to go out. I wanna stay in. Inside you," she added, looking a little embarrassed at using this sort of playful banter.

Clancy ran her hand through her partner's hair, looking into her eyes. "Have you been worrying about Maria?"

Abby nodded. "Yeah. Something doesn't seem right. It makes me wonder if she's holding out on me to avoid hurting my feelings, or if I'm just projecting."

"This sounds important," Clancy said. "I think we should go. I'll still feel like having sex later."

"That goes without saying," Abby said, kissing Clancy until the blonde's knees began to shake. "I'm absolutely insatiable for you. Nothing makes me happier than touching you."

Clancy slipped her hand into Abby's shorts, then gently tickled between her legs. "Nothing?"

With a soft growl, Abby pushed her pelvis forward, pressing her mound into Clancy's hand. "Okay," she purred. "Nothing makes me happier than touching and being touched."

"That's more like it." Clancy pinched her lover's lips together, then gave them a tug, grinning when Abby's eyes closed and her nostrils flared. "You're so easy."

"Only for you, baby." They kissed for a few minutes, neither wanting to leave the house. Finally, Abby pulled away. "Stay or go?"

Lazily, Clancy replied. "Go. Damn it. Go."

"I was going to walk. Want to walk with me?"

"Uhm sure. But I have to shower and change first. I can't go like this."

Abby smiled at her dirt-streaked face, sweat-stained, rumpled shirt and mud-caked knees. "I think you look adorable. You remind me of Trevor when he was about four."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Clancy decided. "But I really do have to go shower."

"You could shower here " Abby began, but Clancy was shaking her head before the older woman could finish the sentence.

"That's asking for trouble," she said. "I know Hayley won't come home this early, but it's not worth the risk. I'll go home and then come pick you up."

"No, I'm ready to get going now. I'll walk, and you can go home and take your time. Actually, would you stop at the store and pick up something from the deli for all of us? Pam and Maria despise cooking, and they jump at the chance to avoid it."

"Sure. Any preferences?"

"For the adults, anything that strikes your fancy. But make sure you get some of their macaroni and cheese for Alyssa. She's addicted to the stuff."

"Will do. See you in a bit." She leaned in for a quick kiss and a squeeze of Abby's butt. "I couldn't resist," she said, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

O

After leaving a note for Hayley, Abby started off on her walk, reaching her friends' home a short while later. She made idle conversation with the whole family for a bit, dropping in the news that Clancy would be joining them. Eventually, she turned to Maria and said, "Could we go to your office for a few minutes? I have some things to talk to you about."

Maria looked a little surprised, but she got up and said, "Why don't you see if your mom can help you with your math homework, Alyssa? Then you'll be finished by the time we're ready for dinner."

The child gave her mother a fairly unhappy look, but she got up and took Pam's hand, compliantly heading for her bedroom.

Abby watched the pair leave, saying, "I miss the days when I could tell Hayley what to do. It feels like she's in charge of the house now."

Maria put her arm around her friend's shoulders while they walked down the hall. "It's always hard when a kid's on the verge of adulthood. And Hayley was never a pushover, Abby. Let's be honest."

Abby laughed, nodding in agreement. "You're right. She's always had a lot of spirit."

They entered the office, and they both sat on the modern, leather sofa. "What's up?" Maria asked.

Abby was suddenly shy, and spent a moment playing with the seam on the back of the sofa. "I uhm I've been getting some vibes "

After waiting for her friend to speak again, Maria said, "Come on, Abby, this is me. What's bothering you?"

Their eyes met, and Abby forced herself to spit it out. "You and Pam both say you're supportive of me, but I've had a funny feeling that you don't think this is a great idea."

"What isn't you and Clancy?"

"Yeah. And it seems odd to me that you and Pam would be uncomfortable with my being in a lesbian relationship."

Maria reached out and put her hand on her friend's knee. "Oh, Abby, that's not it," she said, her expression filled with empathy.

"Then what is it?" Abby asked, looking young and vulnerable.

Maria stood and walked to the window, looking out at the traffic gliding down the wide expanse of Orange Grove Boulevard. She knew Abby was staring at her, but she needed to compose her thoughts before she revealed them. "I haven't been entirely honest with you," Maria admitted.

Hurt, Abby blinked her eyes, trying not to cry. "Why? Don't you trust me?"

Maria went back to the sofa and sat next to her friend. She draped an arm around her back and was surprised to have Abby snuggle up next to her and rest her head on her shoulder. "Of course I trust you. I just didn't want to offer an opinion that you hadn't asked for."

"But I asked for your opinion," Abby said.

"No, you didn't, honey. You asked when I thought you should tell Trevor and Hayley. You didn't ask if I thought you should tell them."

Astounded, Abby sat up and stared at her friend. "You don't think I should tell my kids the truth about my life? I'm not ashamed of this, Maria. I have nothing to hide!"

"I know that," the doctor said, closing her eyes to avoid seeing the pain in Abby's expression. "And it's not that I think you should keep things from your kids. It's just it's just that I think you should wait and see where this winds up," she said.

"Where what winds up?"

"Where you and Clancy wind up. What if this doesn't work out, Abby? Is it worth it to go through the whole thing if you decide you're not comfortable in this relationship?"

Abby stood up and walked around the room slowly, trying to expend some energy. Finally, she stopped and perched on the edge of Maria's desk. "Say what you're thinking, Maria. Just say it."

The doctor let out a sigh, regretting that she'd opened her mouth in the first place. "I'm afraid that you and Clancy aren't going to last. And I'd hate to see you upset Trevor and Hayley for nothing."

Abby's eyebrows arched up, and she stared at her friend before she could speak. "Well, I asked for it, so I can't fault you for being blunt."

"Oh, Abby, I would never have said anything. It's not my business! But I care about you and the kids so much that I'm willing to risk hurting you now to help you avoid more hurt later."

Walking back to the sofa, Abby sat down and patted her friend on the leg. "I know you love me and the kids. That's without question." She sat there quietly for a few moments, then asked, "Why do you think we won't make it?"

"I I'm sorry to say I feel a little like Ellen does," Maria admitted. "This is such a radical move for you it just doesn't seem like something you'd do! You're the most stable, rational, conservative person I know, and I mean that in the best possible way. You're not someone to make a huge change that will affect every part of your life! I worry that you either haven't thought it through, or you're not letting the repercussions sink in. Either way, I'm very worried for you, Abby. I love you, and I want you to be happy, but I'm afraid this isn't what will make you happy."

Once more Abby got up. She wrapped her arms around herself and leaned against the window, looking out, but not seeing. "I haven't been this happy since before Will died," she said softly. "Do I have to put other people first all of the time? Haven't I done enough of that?" She turned to Maria, tears sliding down her cheeks. "I was the perfect daughter, then the perfect girlfriend, then the perfect wife, and the perfect mother. I haven't done anything for myself - only myself - since I was a teenager! When will I get my turn?"

Maria got up and went to her, holding Abby in her arms while the taller woman cried. "Oh, Abby, I'm sorry for hurting you. I'm so sorry."

"I've sacrificed willingly," Abby sniffed. "I went to college even though I wanted to travel for a year first. I got married long before I had planned, but it made sense, and it was what Will wanted. I had Trevor when I was barely twenty years old! I didn't get my Ph.D. because it would have been too hard to juggle my work with the kids. I didn't teach because I wanted to be home for them. I didn't work because I wanted to be able to go on trips with Will or attend conferences with him." She let out a big breath, looking tired and defeated. "I did everything because it made sense. It's what worked out. It made the people I loved happy. But I'm forty-five years old, and I want to live a little! I want to be carefree for the first time in my adult life. I want to swim naked in my pool and make love on the patio. I want to spend the whole day in bed with Clancy, eating pizza out of the box and drinking warm beer because we're too exhausted to go downstairs. I want all of that, and I can have it. I can have what I want. Finally, I can have it and think only of myself. Me! Just me!"

"Oh, Abby, you deserve that," Maria whispered. "You deserve it."

"Do I?" she asked tiredly. "Do I? What if you're right? What if it doesn't work out? What if my kids can't accept it?" She put her head down and cried again, her sobs breaking Maria's heart. Maria heard her friend's fragile voice ask, "Will I ever come first?"

O

Clancy arrived while Abby was in Maria's office, and her arms were laden with cartons filled with delicious-smelling items. She was a little uncomfortable to be alone with Pam and Alyssa, so she volunteered to arrange the food. "Okay," Pam agreed. "I don't imagine they'll be long. I'll just finish up with Alyssa -"

The phone rang, and Pam smiled and threw up her hands when she heard rapid and determined little footsteps heading for the phone in the hallway. After a few moments, Pam gave Clancy a smirk and said, "No one calls us any more. Since Alyssa declared herself our receptionist, people don't call because she bends their ear for an hour. It works great on sales calls, though." Raising her voice, she called, "Honey, who is it?"

"Hayley," came the reply, and both Clancy and Pam froze in place for just a moment before they both ran to the child to stare at her in horror as they heard her say, "Clancy just got here. She brought me macaroni." Her face scrunched up, and she nodded her head. "Sure I know her. She's your mom's girlfriend." She looked into Clancy's terror-struck face and asked, "Don't you know your mom likes girls now?"

Clancy leapt for the receiver, ripping it from Alyssa's hands. She fell to her knees and tucked an arm around the startled child to reassure her, while she said, "Hayley!"

A small, thin voice gasped out, "Is that true?"

"Hayley, it's it's uhm your mom and I "

"It's true!" she cried. "It's true!"

"Hayley, come on, calm down. Let us come home, and we'll all talk it out."

"Fuck you! Go fuck yourself, Clancy!" She slammed the phone down violently, and before the sound had finished reverberating in her ears, Clancy was running for the door.

"I'll be back. Tell Abby to wait for me." She wasn't even sure why she was certain that time was absolutely critical, but Clancy knew that she couldn't wait to explain to Abby what had happened. She had to stop Hayley before the girl could leave the house, and every second was precious.

Her truck was right outside, and she peeled out while still struggling with her seat belt. She raced down the streets of the quiet neighborhood, her heart thudding loudly in her chest. The only thought that kept going through her mind was that she had to stop Hayley from driving off when she was irrational. They could work through any problem with enough time and effort, but if Hayley drove off and hurt herself, Clancy was sure that that was one thing Abby could never get over.

As soon as the girl had slammed the phone down, she ran upstairs to rip off her sandy swimsuit and throw on a clean pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Luckily, that slight delay slowed her down enough for Clancy to reach the house just as Hayley was pulling out in the Lexus.

The yellow truck pulled into the drive, blocking the exit as Hayley cleared the garage. "Get the fuck out of my way!" she screamed, appearing hysterical.

Leaving the engine running, Clancy got out and approached the convertible. "Hayley, please get out and hear what I have to say."

"Are you fucking my mother?" she screamed, tears running down her face.

Clancy took a breath and said, "We're in love with each other," her eyes never leaving Hayley's.

The dark head bowed, and Hayley started slamming her head against the steering wheel, sobbing pitifully.

Going around to the side of the car, Clancy got in. Noticing that Hayley's foot was pressing the brake down, she slid the car into park and leaned over to kill the engine, tucking the keys into her shirt pocket.

"Why you?" the younger woman gasped out. "Of all people - why you?"

"I don't know," Clancy said quietly. "It just happened. All I know is that I love her. And she loves me."

"She does not!" A tear-streaked, outraged face glared at Clancy. "She does not love you!" Hayley fumbled with and finally yanked the door handle; the door opened and she started running for the street. Clancy paused a moment, then took off after her, gaining on her easily since Hayley was barefoot.

"Hayley, wait!" She grabbed her by the arm of her T-shirt, and the younger woman wrenched away from her so violently that the sleeve ripped half off.

She turned and swung hard, her fist catching Clancy right on the bone under her eye. Gasping in pain, the blonde doubled over, only to have Hayley kick her hard on the shoulder, knocking her onto her seat.

Stunned, Clancy watched as Hayley ran for the truck. The older woman got to her feet and ran as fast as she could, grabbing the passenger door handle and pulling it open just as Hayley threw it into gear. Holding onto the handle over the seat and the rail of the bed, Clancy powered herself into the seat, settled her weight and jammed her foot onto the brake, banging her head into the windshield hard enough to see stars. She wrestled with Hayley for a second, but her superior strength and bulk allowed her to overpower the girl and get the truck into park. Jerking the key from the ignition, she glared at the girl and said, "This isn't the fucking end of the world! Now stop being such a big goddamned baby and calm fucking down!"

Hayley reared back to slap her again, but Clancy reached out and roughly grabbed her hands. She shook her hard, giving her a lethal glare and saying, "I told you to calm down! I meant it!"

The younger woman slumped against the door, tears flowing freely down her cheeks. Clancy's cell phone chirped, and she got out of the truck to answer, casting a worried glance at Hayley while she punched the answer button. "Hi," she said quietly.

"Where are you?"

It sounded like Abby had been crying, and Clancy turned her back to the truck and said, "I'm at your house. Hayley's really upset, but I don't think you should come back quite yet. Give me a few more minutes with her, okay?"

"But -!"

"Abby, she's really angry. Let her vent some of her anger before you try to talk to her."

"But she's venting at you -"

"I can handle it. She's not my child. Trust me on this please?"

"Do you have the number here?" Abby asked after a moment.

"No. Page me and leave the number. I'll call you soon."

Walking back to the driver's door, Clancy knocked lightly, then swung the heavy door open. "Come on. Let's go inside."

Wordlessly, the young woman got out and stood by the truck while Clancy parked it. Once in the kitchen, they spent a few minutes calming the dogs down, both animals agitated from hearing raised voices.

Hayley went to the freezer and took out a few ice cubes, then wrapped them in a kitchen towel and handed it to Clancy. "Put that on your eye," she said, going to sit on one of the kitchen stools.

Puzzled, Clancy touched her eye, noticing for the first time that it was swollen and painful to the touch. She placed the cloth to it, flinching a bit when the cold hit her skin. "Can I have another one for my head? I banged it pretty hard."

Getting up to fetch another, Hayley brought it over, then gently ran her fingers through Clancy's hair, wincing when she felt the knot that was already forming. Pressing the cloth against the spot, she said, "I'm sorry I hit you. I've never hit anyone in my whole life."

"It's okay," Clancy said. "I've had worse."

"Bar fight?" Hayley asked, the ghost of a smile on her lips.

"Tree limb." Clancy returned her smile and asked, "What's going on? I thought this would bother you, but you act like this is the worst thing in the world. Where does that come from?"

"How would you like it if your father died and your mom fell in love with a chick?"

Clancy made a face, annoyed that she had such a visceral reaction to the mere thought. "Okay. It would be weird," Clancy admitted. "I don't know what it's like to be in your shoes. Neither does your mom. But she loves you very much, and she doesn't want to hurt you. Neither do I."

Tears started to roll down the young woman's cheeks, and she muttered, "I don't want you to be with her."

"I can see that. But I am. It's what we both want."

"So I don't even get a vote?"

"I can't speak for your mom. You'll have to ask her that. But even if you get a vote, it's still two to one."

"She'd choose you over me," Hayley sobbed, dropping the cloth and distancing herself from Clancy. She walked to the other end of the kitchen, clutching her belly with her arms.

"That's not true. Your relationship with your mom is precious! There's no outsider who can ever mess with that. And as much as I love your mother, I'm an outsider. I'll always be an outsider. You're her flesh and her blood; you're her child. No matter how old you get, no matter how many fights you have - she's your mom."

The younger woman dropped her head, then wiped her eyes with the hem of her T-shirt. "I hate this," she whispered.

"I know." Clancy walked over and stood next to her. "I know how upset you are, but I also know that your mom is worried sick. I want to go pick her up now. Will you at least try to be civil to her?"

"Yes."

Clancy had both sets of keys, but just to be sure, she decided to take Abby's car. There could be another set of keys that she didn't know about. When she reached the door, Hayley's soft voice floated over to her. "You're not going to come back with her, are you?"

"No. This is between the two of you. I'm going home."

"Good."

O

Abby was understandably beside herself with worry, and nothing Clancy could say helped in the least. "Why didn't you take me with you?" the older woman asked, her voice shaking.

"I don't know why I knew it was so important," Clancy said, "but I knew she was going to get in that car and take off. I couldn't risk her doing that and hurting herself."

Abby nodded, then patted Clancy absently and said, "Thank you. I never would have forgiven myself if she'd gotten hurt."

As soon as they pulled into the garage, Abby jumped out, but Clancy stopped her. "Abby, uhm Hayley told me some things, but I think it's best if you hear them from her. I'm gonna leave now."

"Oh. Right. Uhm " she looked towards the door, and Clancy waved her off.

"Go ahead. Just close the door after me, okay?"

Abby looked at the lost, lonely expression on her lover's face and ran around the car to hug her fiercely. "We'll get through this." A kiss on the temple and she was gone, leaving Clancy alone in the dark garage, the quiet whir of a fan in the car the only sound.

O

Abby walked into the house tentatively, expecting the worst, but Hayley didn't answer when she called. The dogs were missing, too, but the open back door led her to the pool, where the lithe young woman was churning out laps. Abby watched her for a moment, then went back into the house and put on her own suit. A few minutes later, she joined her in the pool, quietly watching her work out her frustrations. A very long time passed, and Hayley finally drew to a stop, her muscles too fatigued to manage another stroke.

The young woman looked up at her mother and asked, "Are you mad at me?"

"Mad at you? Why on earth would I be mad at you?"

"'Cause I hit Clancy," she said quietly.

"You hit ?"

She nodded. "Didn't you see her eye? It was all swollen. And she hit her head on the windshield. Uhm you'd better make sure she's okay."

"Shit!" Abby jumped out of the pool and raced for the kitchen, her hands shaking while she dialed Clancy's cell. The architect answered on the second ring. "Are you all right? Hayley told me she hit you and that you hit your head on the windshield!"

"Yeah, I'm fine," Clancy said. "Just a headache. Don't worry about me."

"I am worried about you," Abby said, her voice shaking. "You might have a concussion."

"I don't think so," the younger woman said.

"Clancy, go to the emergency room right now, or I'll come over there and take you."

Sighing, the landscaper said, "I don't want to spend the whole night in the E.R. I have to work in the morning."

"Then go back to Maria's," Abby said. "She'll know if you're hurt badly enough to need a CAT scan."

"Abby -"

"Clancy, I'm just about to rip my hair out. I can't take much more stress today. Now, please, if you love me, go see Maria!" Clancy had never heard her lover sound so thoroughly agitated. Just to calm her down, she agreed. "Fine. Give me her number so I can tell her I'm coming."

"I'll call her for you. And her number's on your pager, too. Now call me as soon as she looks at you, okay?"

"I promise. I love you."

"I love you, too. I swear I do."

Clancy closed her cell phone, a little puzzled by the emphatic way that Abby had professed her love. There was something about her tone that sounded desperate, and a gnawing worry worked at her stomach all the way to Pam and Maria's home.

O

After calling Maria, Abby walked back to the pool and slipped in, wishing she could submerge herself for a few hours until things had calmed down.

Hayley was squatting in the corner of the pool, crying. "I've never hit anybody in my life," she said. "I was just so mad "

"I'm sure Clancy will be fine," Abby soothed. "She'll forgive you."

Hayley looked at her mother for a moment and asked, "Are you in love with her?"

Without hesitation, Abby nodded her head. "Yes, I am."

The narrow shoulders slumped, and Hayley turned away from the level gaze that her mother fixed her with. "I guess I'll go back up to Santa Cruz. I have some friends who rented an apartment. I can crash with them."

"Hayley, there's no reason for you to leave! How can we work this out if you're gone?"

"I can't stay," she said quietly. "I just can't."

"But why?"

"You made your decision. Clancy's the one who matters."

"Hayley! Of course Clancy matters to me, but you're my child! You're not in competition!"

"Yes, we are. You let me tell you about my crush on her let me look like a fool and never said a word. That's when you chose her." She walked over to the edge of the pool and pushed herself up, getting to her feet. "Don't start acting like you care now." Shaking her head to get the hair from her eyes, she wrapped a towel around herself and went inside. Abby knew she should go after her, but she didn't have the strength. She went over to the hot tub and turned on the jets, trying to feel centered before she had to face her daughter once again.

O

Steeling her nerves, Clancy rang the doorbell, wondering how the night had gone so wrong so quickly. Maria answered, looking as uncomfortable as Clancy felt. "I hear you accept house calls," the landscaper said.

Maria put her hand on her shoulder and urged her into the house. "After the night you've had, waiting in the emergency room would be cruel and unusual punishment. Come into the kitchen where the light is good."

Walking down the hallway, Clancy asked, "Is Alyssa okay? I've been worried about her."

Maria took a quick look at the young woman, surprised and pleased that Clancy would think of the girl during the turbulent night. "Yeah, she'll be fine. But she's pretty upset. She thinks she caused trouble for Abby which she did," she added in a whisper.

"Would you like me to talk to her?" Clancy offered. "I think I freaked her out by yanking the phone out of her hand and then running out of the house. She might feel better if she saw me acting normally."

Maria pursed her lips, then shook her head. "You haven't looked at yourself in a mirror, have you?"

Her hand flew to her cheek. "That bad?"

"Yeah. I don't think Alyssa would feel better to know that Hayley belted you."

Making a sheepish gesture, Clancy said, "I don't have much experience with kids, but that probably wouldn't be the best idea."

Maria pointed at a chair, and Clancy sat down. The doctor took a penlight from one of the kitchen drawers and turned it on. She touched Clancy's chin and said, "Look straight ahead." She spent a few moments looking at each eye, watching it dilate. "Your eyes look fine," she said. "The pupils are the same size, and they dilate at the same rate." She sat down next to Clancy and touched the bruise under her eye. Clancy winced, but didn't move, allowing Maria to feel the bone around her eye. "Okay. Now let me ask you a few questions."

"Questions?" Clancy asked weakly. "Don't make 'em too hard. I'm wiped."

Maria smiled at her. "Simple ones. Don't worry." She felt the knot that had formed right at Clancy's hairline. "Do you remember coming over with dinner?"

"Sure. I went home, showered, and went to the store. Then I drove over here."

"What were you doing when you hit your head?"

"Wrestling with Hayley and hitting the brakes too hard. I learned that seat belts are a good idea when you're fighting to take control of a truck."

Patting her on the shoulder, Maria said, "Does anything seem fuzzy or unclear?"

"Yeah, but not because of being hit in the head." Clancy smiled at her, and the doctor found herself returning the charming grin. "I'm not used to a lot of dyke drama."

Maria got up and went to the freezer, pulling out a pair of cold packs. She handed one to Clancy for her eye and held the other to the landscaper's forehead. "Since both of your bumps are on the same side of your head, you need a little help."

"You've helped a lot," Clancy said. "I really appreciate your taking a look at me. I don't want to cause Abby any more worry." She thought for a moment, then asked, "How did she seem when you talked to her?"

"Not great," Maria admitted. "She was very worried about you."

"Oh, this is nothing," Clancy said, waving her free hand dismissively. "She's the one with problems. I just hope Hayley isn't as irrational with her as she was with me." She took in a deep breath and looked at Maria, her gray eyes filled with concern. "I hate for her to go through this alone, but I know it'd be worse if I were there."

Maria smiled at her, saying, "You really care about her, don't you?"

"God, yes!" Clancy said. "I'd do anything to help her!"

"I hope it all works out for you," Maria said, hoping fervently that it would.

O

Abby knocked on Hayley's door, but the young woman didn't ask her to enter. "I don't want to talk now, Mom," she said.

"Come on, honey; don't shut me out."

"I'm sorry. But I want to be alone. I don't feel like talking tonight. Just let me calm down."

"All right," Abby said, feeling her eyes fill with tears. Lonely and depressed, she walked down the hall to the guest room, grateful when the dogs jumped onto the bed, waiting for her. She cuddled them for a few minutes, relishing the simple, unquestioning devotion they held for her. "You don't even get mad at me when I take you to the groomer," she sighed into Athena's curly coat.

She lay down and dialed Clancy, not surprised in the least when the younger woman answered on the first ring. "Hi."

"Are you all right?" Clancy asked quickly.

"Yes. I'm so sorry that Hayley hit you. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine. Maria checked me out. But I'm worried sick about you, Abby."

"Well, it sounds like it went better for me than it did with you. She didn't try to hit me."

"She was angry," Clancy reminded her. "It was no big deal."

"Yes, it is. It's a very big deal, and I'm sorry you had to suffer because of Hayley's temper."

"Forget about it," Clancy said firmly. "Now, how are you?"

Abby sighed heavily and said, "Well, other than her telling me that she thinks I've chosen you over her, she didn't talk much. She's more guarded with her feelings than I am - if you can believe it."

"Ouch! No wonder you don't have many fights."

"Yeah, that's part of it. She's angry and hurt, but I'm sure she'll get over it. I just I think that we should back off a little - just until she's more comfortable with this."

"Back off?"

Abby cleared her throat, trying to keep her gathering emotions at bay. "Clancy, I love you. That's not going to change. But I need to spend some time with Hayley. I have to give her some space so that she feels like she can express herself. Is that okay?"

"Sure. You do what you think is best." She paused a second and asked, "Can you come to my house?"

"Let's see how it goes. I want to make sure we handle this properly so that we can move forward."

Clancy did her best to still the doubts and the worries threatening to overwhelm her. She forced herself to take a deep breath and take a leap of faith. "Okay. I'll let you decide how to handle this. I trust you."

She could almost see the smile on her lover's face. "I love you, Clancy. And I'm so happy to know that you trust my judgment. I'm sorry for how badly this all went, but we can get through it. We will get through it."

"I know we will. I love you with all my heart. G'night."

"Try to sleep, honey. You have a big day tomorrow."

"I will. You, too."

O

Chapter Nineteen

Clancy got to work early and pulled up in front of Abby's house before her crew arrived. Her cell phone rang before she could turn the truck off, and she raised the device to her ear to hear Abby say, "Meet me out back. I have to see you."

After jumping out of the truck, the blonde headed for the yard. Abby grasped her when she reached the corner of the house and wrapped her in a nearly desperate hug. "How are you?" she whispered, pulling away to gently run her fingers over Clancy's bruised face.

"I'm fine, really," she said, flinching a bit when Abby's cool fingers touched the bump on her head.

"I'm so, so sorry," Abby said, pulling her into another hug and squeezing her hard. "I can't believe how badly everything turned out."

Clancy drew back and looked into Abby's eyes. "Nothing has turned out yet, babe. We had a bad night. That's all. Things will get better as long as we're patient."

Both heads turned at the sound of a heavy truck pulling up in front of the house. "Oh, damn," Abby sighed.

Clancy patted her and gave her a hearty hug. "Don't worry so much. We'll be fine eventually."

Abby kissed her tenderly, barely brushing lips. "I won't be able to come out today, honey. I don't want to make things worse."

"That's fine," Clancy said, trying to convey her confidence. "Call me tonight. Just try to get through the day and realize that things might be bad now, but that they'll get better."

"Promise?" Abby asked, searching Clancy's gray eyes for the slightest sign of doubt.

Clancy put her hands on her shoulders and held her at arm's length. "I promise." Abby gave her another quick kiss and dashed away, just before Ramon and the rest of the crew entered the yard.

O

After an exhausting day of helping the crew with the planting design, Clancy was almost relieved to be able to leave at the end of the day. Abby stuck her head out a few times, but they didn't converse at any length, and Clancy left with a vague feeling of uneasiness, despite her assurances to Abby. Hayley pulled into the driveway just as she was leaving, and Clancy turned her head and drove off, her heart thudding heavily in her chest.

O

When Pam got home from work, Maria was in the kitchen making sandwiches for dinner. "Oh, you're cooking!" she said, a pleased smile on her face.

"We're in trouble when this constitutes cooking," Maria said. She wiped her hands on a towel and gave her lover a kiss. "Good day?"

"Yeah. Fine. How about you?"

"Not bad. I was distracted all day, though. I couldn't stop thinking about Abby."

Pam snatched a piece of turkey and stuffed it into her mouth before Maria could stop her. "Good," she said, smiling impishly. "I spent a lot of time thinking about her, too. And about Hayley. Did you hear from her?"

"Huh-uh. I'm afraid to call."

Pam kicked off her shoes and hoisted herself up onto the counter. "I'm feeling a little chicken myself. Maybe we should have Alyssa call."

Maria laughed wryly. "I think we should revisit having Alyssa answer the phone. If she even wants to after last night."

"She'll be fine. She seemed all right before she went to bed." She leaned over and grabbed a few carrot wedges and started to munch on them. "We didn't get to talk much last night since you collapsed as soon as you came to bed. How was Clancy?"

Maria took a carrot from her lover and took a bite. She looked pensive for a moment then said, "Nothing serious. I'm sure she has a headache today, and she probably has a pretty good shiner, but she'll be fine. You know," she said, taking another bite, "she's a lot more mature than I thought. She doesn't seem as young as she did when we met her."

"It's only been a week, honey. I don't think you can mature much in seven days."

"You're too funny," Maria said, her expression completely deadpan. "I know, but I don't think she was comfortable with us the night we met her. I'm not sure we saw the real Clancy. Last night she seemed I don't know. She seemed like a woman who knew what she wanted and would do what it took to get it. I I'm feeling better about the whole thing."

"Really? She seemed like a kid to me last night. She acted really uncomfortable being alone with me and Alyssa."

"Well, she is from a different generation and she's a gardener and she doesn't act like she comes from one of the old Pasadena families. Maybe she feels intimidated by us."

"Hey!" Pam started to gesture with her hands, a chronic habit when she had information to relate. "I was talking with someone at work who's having her landscape redone. She said she couldn't afford a landscape architect. Said most of 'em don't do residential work. She was really surprised when I told her that we had a friend whose architect was at her house all the time."

Maria gave her partner a concerned look. "Really? Fuck! Maybe she's not really an architect. Or maybe she's not a very good one. I don't know anything about the field. Maybe we should do some research."

Pam laughed. "Why, so we can tell Abby we checked her lover out and she's a fraud? Don't you think we did enough damage to her family yesterday?"

"We wouldn't have to tell her."

"Yeah." Pam leaned back on her hands and smirked at her lover. "You're the type to learn something bad and keep it to yourself. I think we'd better stay out of it."

Letting out a breath that made her lips flap, Maria agreed. "Okay. I won't play private detective. But if she fleeces Abby for all she's worth, you're responsible!"

"Maybe Clancy's intimidated by Abby, too. Abby's at least as imposing as we are."

Maria tapped her lover's head. "I think the intimidation factor goes down when you're physically attracted to each other. When you're in love, nothing matters."

"Huh. I've never been in love with a younger woman."

"You'd better not start!" Maria said, giving her lover a hearty, possessive squeeze.

O

At eleven o'clock, the phone rang, and Clancy reached across her futon to pick up. "Hi," she said.

"Do you miss me as much as I miss you?"

"Probably," Clancy said, feeling better just to hear Abby's voice. "I'm pretty competitive."

"Are you all right? I know this isn't what you hoped for when you fantasized about being with an older woman."

Clancy laughed. "No, I'd have to admit I never got off on thinking about jealous daughters. Luckily, you're worth it."

She said this with a great deal of confidence, and Abby started to feel some of her anxiety fade. "I think she's a little jealous," she agreed. "But she seems to feel betrayed. At least that's what I'm guessing."

"She didn't say?"

"No. I chased her around the house all day long, but all she did was lie on various pieces of furniture, listening to her iPod. She didn't say two words all day."

That would have worked for about five minutes at my house, Clancy thought, but she knew that Abby and Hayley had a different relationship than she had with her parents, and she tried not to judge Abby's style. "So, what do we do? Wait until she's ready to talk?"

"I I guess so," Abby said, sounding very unsure of herself. "I haven't thought that far ahead. I have plans to have lunch with my friend Spencer tomorrow -"

"No tennis?"

"No. Ellen and Neil are out of town. Or at least that's what she told Maria. Other than seeing Spencer, I was just gonna hang around the house and hope my mere presence annoys Hayley enough to get her to talk."

"Can't make her, huh?" Clancy asked, grimacing when she heard the question come out of her mouth.

"Make her? How can you make someone talk about her feelings?"

Abby sounded truly puzzled, and Clancy knew it was pointless to go down this path. "You're right. You can't do that. Just wishful thinking."

"I hate to be apart, but I think I need to stay home until Hayley opens up. You do understand, don't you?"

"Yeah. Sure I do. You have to do what you think is right. And no matter what, she's gotta go back to school soon."

"Not for a month," Abby said. "Damn, now I'm upset that she's gonna be home for another month. I never thought I'd feel that way! I couldn't wait for her to come home."

"This is temporary, Abby. You're going through a rough patch. Don't stress about it too much."

"I don't know if that's possible," the older woman said. "Stress is one of the cornerstones of motherhood."

O

The next morning, Abby was lying in bed, unable to sleep and unwilling to get up. She'd gotten so delightfully used to having Clancy in bed with her that she now had a hard time falling asleep, and she woke before dawn, feeling cranky and depressed. The phone rang, and she reached out to grab it, wondering who had the nerve to call at 6:00 a.m. "Hello?"

"I know it's too early to call, but I figured you're not sleeping well anyway."

"Damn, you know me too well," Abby said, turning onto her back and lying down with a smile on her face. "You aren't calling to disown me, are you?"

"No, falling in love isn't going to do it. You're going to have to try harder if you want to be disowned."

"I knew you'd understand, Mom," Abby said, feeling her mother's love and warmth even at three thousand miles.

The older woman laughed. "I didn't say that, honey. I know it's not physically possible, but it felt like my jaw hit the floor when I read your letter. Aren't you supposed to figure out if you like men or women when you're a heck of a lot younger?"

"That's what they say," Abby said. "I guess I'm a late bloomer." She waited for a second, then asked, "Is Dad as nonchalant about this as you are?"

"You have met your father, haven't you?" Elizabeth Tudor asked. "He's never been nonchalant in his life."

"You know what I mean," Abby said. "How's he taking it?"

"Well he loves you, honey, and he wants you to be happy. But he's not sure this is the right choice for you. It'll take him a while."

"Is he angry, upset? What's going on, Mom?"

"No, he's not angry, but he is upset. I didn't tell him I was calling you because I didn't want him to get on the phone and start lecturing you. I know you hate that."

"Hate's not a strong enough word," Abby said. "And I wouldn't take a lecture very well right now."

"That's what I figured. We'll just let him stew about this for a while, and you can talk to him when he's ready to listen. I told him to write to you, and I think he's going to. But don't read the letter if you don't want to have him tell you all the reasons you shouldn't do this."

"We've got a deal," Abby said. "He'd kill both of us if he knew you warned me when to throw his letters away."

"Oh, he doesn't have a mean bone in his body," Elizabeth said. "He just forgets that he can't talk to everyone like one of his students. He was a professor for far too long."

"But you're okay with this, Mom? Really okay with it?"

"Well if I had my choice, I suppose I'd rather you found another man. I think that would be easier for you and for the kids. But I can't make your decisions, honey. And I know you wouldn't fall for someone who wasn't absolutely wonderful. So I'm confident this will all work out."

"Have I told you what a wonderful mother you are?" Abby asked, her voice breaking a little.

"Yes, honey, you have. But it's easy to be your mother. You've always been a great kid." Elizabeth cleared her throat dramatically. "Speaking of kids how are you going to tell yours?"

With a sound between a gurgle and a groan, Abby said, "Hayley knows. Alyssa told her."

"Alyssa?"

"Yeah. Hard to believe that such a little girl could stir up such a mess. The poor thing was entirely innocent of course, but having Hayley find out that way has made this hellish."

"Oh, Abby, how horrible for you!"

"It's been bad," she admitted. "I wanted to have this all planned out, with all sorts of contingencies factored in. You know how I am, Mom."

"I do," Elizabeth said. "Maybe it wasn't wise for math and engineering nerds to have a child. You never stood a chance of being madcap."

"Well, the lesbian love at forty-five is pretty madcap," Abby reminded her. "But Hayley's very, very hurt, or angry, or confused or disappointed."

"Up to her old tricks, eh?"

"Yeah. She won't say a word. She just walks around the house and sighs dramatically every once in a while. I don't mean to make light of her feelings, but she's playing this like Camille."

"She has a flair for the dramatic," Elizabeth agreed, "but she's the quietest diva in the world."

Abby laughed. "That sums her up. So I don't know what to do but wait her out." She took in a heavy breath and asked, "How did I get old enough to have problems like this?"

"Don't ask me, honey. I refuse to believe I'm seventy-years-old. It's just not possible!" She laughed at her own incredulity and said, "I suppose we have to face reality, but I'm happier being in denial."

"I wish I could be in denial about this, but I have to tell Trevor now. I'm hoping he'll be more understanding than Hayley, but you never know."

"Oh, I'm sure Trevor will be all right. He'll be surprised, but he's always been a level-headed boy. He's so much like you, it isn't funny."

"That's true, Mom, but I don't know how I would have liked it if Dad had died when I was young and you showed up with a woman on your arm." "A young woman," Elizabeth said, "only five years older than Trevor."

"Don't remind me," Abby moaned. "It's not gonna be fun." She thought for a second then said, "I'm surprised you haven't had more questions about this relationship. Are you really as matter-of-fact as you seem?"

"No, of course not," Elizabeth said, "but I'm not going to grill you over the phone. I want to talk about this in person. I can't get a good read on you unless I can see your eyes."

"When are you coming home, Mom? I'd love to get some advice on all of this, and it is hard when we can't see each other."

"Advice? My little girl wants advice?" Elizabeth laughed. "When was the last time you asked for that?"

"Honestly? I think it was when I asked you whether you thought I should go for my Ph.D. or settle for a masters."

"Hmm that has been a while," Elizabeth agreed. "What did you think of my advice?"

"It was great. It helped me make up my mind."

"Wanna know a secret?"

"Sure."

"I thought you should have gone for your Ph.D."

"Mom! You told me to stop at a masters!"

"I know I did, honey. That's what you wanted me to say. I supported you."

"Sheesh! You think your mom will tell the truth!" Abby was laughing, and Elizabeth joined her.

"The truth isn't always the best thing. You had a baby, and you wanted to have another one or two. Going for a doctorate would have been stressful for all of you. I could tell you wanted support for your decision, so that's what I did."

"Thanks, Mom. That's a good reminder. You've got to know your audience."

"True. And you know yours. So get it over with and tell Trevor. By the time he gets home, Hayley should be speaking again, and you can get things settled before she goes back to school."

"Good idea. I'll write to him today."

"Don't they have telephones in Italy?"

"No, I don't think so," Abby said. "That's my story, and I'm sticking with it!"

O

Abby got up and didn't even bother to take a shower. Five minutes later, she was sitting in the kitchen, starting to compose her letter. She wasn't sure what to say, but she knew that the only way to reach Trevor was to tell him the complete, unvarnished truth. Surprisingly, as soon as she began, the words flowed from her in a stream.

Dear Trevor,

I have some good, but possibly upsetting news to share with you. Much to my surprise, I've fallen in love. I'm sure that you will have mixed feelings about my entering into a relationship with anyone, but this person might be harder than most to accept. I've fallen in love with Clancy

O

Abby waved to her friend, Spencer, and he crossed the dining room to greet her. "I don't know what you've been doing, but keep doing it!" he said enthusiastically. "You look marvelous!"

"Oh, Spencer, you're always full of compliments."

He kissed her and sat down, looking at her critically while he placed his napkin on his lap. His dark blue suit was impeccably tailored and fit his gym-hardened body like a glove, and the competing stripes of his shirt and tie made him look both fashionable and handsome in an Ivy League sort of way. He swept his dark hair from his forehead in a habitual gesture and said, "I'll admit that I throw compliments around rather generously, but I'm being entirely sincere. You look better than you have in years." He lowered his voice and asked, "Did you have work done? I promise I won't tell a soul!"

Abby was caught flat-footed by his question. She laughed hard, making several other patrons turn to look at her. "Oh, God," she said, clutching her stomach. "That's priceless!"

"Anti-depressants?" he asked, unwilling to give up.

She reached out and took his hand. "Not technically, but I am feeling wonderful. I suppose that I'm as anti-depressed as I've been since Will died."

"Tell!"

"I will, honey, that's why I called you to have lunch. I have a big, big announcement."

"You're getting re-married!" He was bouncing around in his seat like a child, and Abby couldn't stop smiling at him.

"No not yet, but I've met someone that I hope to spend the rest of my life with."

"That's fabulous!" He rose in his seat and kissed her again, then gave her a hug, dipping the end of his tie in his water glass because of the awkwardness of their positions. "Oh, God," he said, grabbing the wet fabric. "Hiroshi gave me this last week from his trip to London. He'll kill me if I ruin it!" He blotted the water with his napkin and mumbled, "I'm going to take it to the dry cleaner the minute I leave here. Thank God I keep a few spares at my office." Abby just watched him, well used to her friend's flair for the dramatic. He fixed the damage as best he could then looked up at her. "Oh, my lord! You just told me fantastic news, and all I can do is worry about my tie! Tell me everything. And I do mean everything! I wanna know age, weight, height, length and no cheating! I know how you women are!"

Abby started to laugh again, always amused by Spencer's ribald sense of humor. Playing along, she said, "Okay. Thirty years old. About five foot seven. Maybe a hundred and twenty or twenty-five pounds. And I'm not sure what length you want. Fingers?" She folded her hands under her chin and fixed him with a look of pure innocence.

He pushed her shoulder hard enough to make her chair rock. "Either you're going out with a tiny little man or you've become a daughter of Sappho!" He was squealing with delight. "I can't decide which one I'd like better! Seeing you with a thirty-year-old jockey or having you muff-dive!"

"I don't like horses, Spencer," she said with a wry smile. "I do, however, seem to like the ladies. Or, to be precise, lady. I'm not sure I'm ready to wave the lavender flag."

"I'm so excited, I could pee my pants!" He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out his cell phone. "I have to call Hiroshi!"

Abby grabbed his arm. "I'd rather you didn't announce it to the whole restaurant. I can just imagine you. 'Can you hear me now? How about now? Abby's a dyke! Yes, a big old dyke!'"

"I'm the soul of discretion!" he said, feigning indignation. Nonetheless, he put his phone back into his pocket. "Okay, on the way to the cleaners, I'll call Hiroshi. He will die, Abby. He will absolutely die!"

"God, Spencer, I thought you'd be supportive, but I didn't think I'd make your day!"

"My week at least!" he insisted. "Now you really have to tell me everything. I wanna know where you met her, what she does, what she looks like, how she is in bed everything!"

Abby smiled at him rather enigmatically. "Do you honestly think I'd talk about having sex with the woman I love?"

"Why not?" he asked cheerily. "I've told you about Hiroshi."

"Yes, love, you have, and the images are still burned into my brain. But my entire personality hasn't changed because of this. My sexual orientation just veered off its usual course by a few degrees. I'm still a proper Pasadena matron."

"Oh, please," he laughed. "Proper Pasadena matrons have never been to a leather bar. Stephen told me you used to go to beer busts at the Eagle with him!"

"I was in college! That was almost thirty years ago. I've grown up. And just for the record, Stephen was a big tattletale!"

Spencer reached over and took Abby's hand, then surprised her by bringing it to his lips and kissing it. "Stephen would have been happy for you," he said softly. "How about Will? Would he have been bothered by your being with a woman?"

Abby smiled at him and tried not to cry. "No. Will wanted me to fall in love again. He would have been mad at me for waiting so long, to be honest. And I'm sure he wouldn't have cared whom I fell for - as long as I was happy."

"Are you?" he asked, gazing deeply into her eyes.

"Yes. I'm very, very happy, and if we can work some things out she's the one, Spence. She's the one."

O

At around 6:00, Abby answered the phone, pleased to hear Pam's voice. "Hi. Can I drop by on my way home from work?"

"Work on Saturday?"

"Yeah. We're putting in a new system. I had to check some things out."

"Of course you can come by. Am I making you dinner?"

Laughing, Pam said, "I wish you were. But I have to get home. I'll only impose on you for a few minutes."

"You can stay all night if you want to."

"I'll be there in about oh four minutes," she said, hanging up with a laugh.

Abby walked outside and let the dogs accompany her for a change. Pam parked on the street and entered the pedestrian gate when Abby managed to get the dogs out of the way to open it. "Athena, Artemis. Paws!" The dogs looked at her as though she were the most heartless creature on earth. But they did as they were told and let Pam enter unmolested.

She squatted down and let them lick her face with Abby giving the threesome a resigned smirk. "You don't have to let them do that, you know."

Pam looked up at her while successfully avoiding having Athena stick her tongue in her mouth. "I know, but they act so disappointed when I don't let them kiss me."

"You've made your choice," Abby said. She hugged her friend when she stood, but refused to kiss her. "I won't kiss dog lips."

"I know, I know. But I can talk to you, and they only seem to understand physical affection."

Abby gave her a sad smile and put her arm around her waist. "I could use some physical affection, too. It's been a tough week."

Pam squeezed her waist, surprised, as always, at how small Abby felt when she hugged her. She was a tall, fit, broad-shouldered woman, but she felt very lanky and slight when Pam put her arms around her. "I came by to apologize for the other night. We all feel so bad about what happened."

"Pam, you know I don't blame Alyssa. She didn't know she wasn't supposed to say anything. A little girl doesn't understand the meaning of the word discretion."

"No, but her mothers should. We shouldn't have let her start answering the phone. I'm sure no one but Alyssa enjoys it, and it was stupid of us to let her do it just so we didn't have to listen to sales calls and charity pitches."

"You're being silly," Abby said. "If I could train the dogs to answer the phone, I'd do it in a minute. Now come sit on the porch with me. Maybe you have the secret to solving my problems."

They walked up to the porch and sat down, both of them gazing at the lawn and flowers for a few minutes. "Wanna tell me what's been going on? Last I knew, Clancy and Hayley had a fight."

Abby nodded. "That's about the last thing that happened. Since then, no real change."

"Uhm it's been two days. Something has to have happened since them."

"No, not really," Abby said. "Hayley's ignoring me, but torturing me by staying home almost every minute."

"What have you done to make her talk?"

"Make her?" Abby asked, looking a little blank. "Clancy asked the same thing, but I don't know -"

"Yes, make her! You can't walk around on pins and needles waiting for her to bring it up!"

"But that's not I don't usually "

Pam put her hand on her friend's arm. "Abby, I know you like to let the kids think things through in their own way, but this is different! She's holding you hostage!"

Abby sat for a minute, seeing the situation through Pam's eyes. "I guess you're right. She's holding both Clancy and me hostage. We're not seeing each other while Hayley's upset, and I know it's driving Clancy crazy."

"It'd drive me crazy," Pam said. "To be honest, I wouldn't let you get away with it. Clancy must be a lot more patient than I am."

Abby looked at her, considering her comment. "I don't I don't think she is very patient, to tell the truth." She put her head into her hands. "Damn, I'm so afraid I'm gonna screw this up!"

"There's no reason to screw it up," Pam insisted. "You can either break it off with Clancy, and chalk it up to a bout of temporary insanity, or tell Hayley that she needs to learn how to deal with it. There really isn't a middle ground."

Not saying a word for over a minute, Abby finally said, "You're right. There is no middle ground." With a little of the normal spark in her eyes, Abby looked at Pam and said, "I'm gonna go into that house and break the ice. Hayley's not going to make me feel like a prisoner in my own home!"

O

Abby went inside and found her daughter lying on the sofa in the den, watching some pseudo-reality show on MTV. When she walked by the set, she turned off the TV and sat down, forcing Hayley to pull her feet up to avoid having them sat on. "We have to talk about what happened. You haven't said ten words to me since you found out about Clancy and me."

The girl looked at her for a long time, her clear blue eyes assessing Abby in a way that made her feel like she was under a microscope. "I don't have anything to say."

Abby let out a sigh and just managed to keep her eyes from rolling. "Yes, you do. You're obviously angry or upset or revolted or something!"

"That doesn't mean I have anything to say. I don't want to talk about it."

"Why not?" Abby's voice grew a little louder, and she leaned closer to her child.

"Because we had an agreement," Hayley said, leaving her mother to grind her teeth in frustration.

"What agreement?"

"A couple of years ago, we had a big fight, and I said something that made you mad. You made me promise never to talk to you that way again. So since I can't guarantee I'll be nice, I'm not gonna talk about it until I'm calm."

She looked a little too pleased with herself, which irritated Abby no end. "Fine. Since you won't talk, I'm going to live my life." She stood up and said, "I'm going to ask Clancy to come over for dinner."

Before she took a step, Hayley called out, "Mom! Please don't!"

Abby turned and saw not the smug young woman who was driving her mad but a frightened girl on the verge of panic. She sank back down onto the couch and opened her arms. Hayley scrambled into her embrace and cried, sounding like her heart had been broken. "Please don't, don't make me, please momma," she mumbled, crying hard.

Stroking her hair and rubbing her back, Abby tried to get the child to open up a little. "Don't what, honey? Tell me what's upsetting you."

"Don't have Clancy come over. Please, please don't. I can't stand to see you two together."

Abby lifted Hayley's chin, gazing into her red-rimmed eyes. "Tell me why," she said softly. "Tell me how you feel."

"I can't," she gasped, struggling for air. "I can't."

"Yes, you can, honey. You can tell me anything."

Hayley wriggled out of her mother's embrace. "I'm too mad!" she said, angry tears continuing to fall. "I'm furious with you and with her!"

"Tell me," Abby said, her own voice starting to rise.

"No!" She scrambled to her feet and stood there, her balance a little off because of the emotions running through her body. "I'm so mad I wanna hit you! I wanna grab you and shake you until you stop being so fucking stupid!" She spit the last words out, yelling so loudly that the dogs ran into the room and each crawled under a table, seeking safety.

"Tell me how I'm being stupid!" Abby demanded, leaping to her feet. "Say anything you want! Call me names! Just talk!"

Hayley's body swayed a bit, her cheeks blazing red. "I could call you names for a week, and you'd still be stupid! You don't love her! She doesn't love you! You're breaking up our family for her, and you don't even care! Is sex the only thing you care about?"

Abby was stunned. She blinked her eyes, absolutely nonplussed by Hayley's question. "Sex? You think this is about sex?"

"What else could it be? The men you should be with obviously can't do it like a thirty-year-old can. You'd rather get your brains fucked out than keep our family together." She took a step, her face just a few inches from her mother's. "You lied to me! You promised you'd keep us together no matter what! Daddy would hate you!" And with that, she ran from the room, crying so hard that she stumbled on the steps and wound up crawling up the last few to get to her room and slam the door.

Abby flopped back onto the sofa, ridiculously happy when Artemis and Athena carefully stuck their heads out of their hiding places and, bodies low, stealthily climbed onto the sofa with her, licking the tears that continued to flow down her cheeks.

O

Hayley didn't come down for dinner, and after a tearful, late-night conversation with Clancy, Abby tried to sleep. She tossed and turned for what seemed like hours, waking fully when she heard a noise at her door. She flipped on the light and saw a piece of paper lying on the floor. Getting up, she picked it up and read.

Dear Mom,

I'm very sorry for the way I yelled at you today. I don't ever want to talk to you that way again, and I really wish you would have let me keep my feelings to myself.

If you want me to leave, I will. I can stay with Gretchen if you want me out of your hair. But if I stay till school starts, I have to work things out for myself. I can't talk about this until I'm ready. Like I said, I'll leave if that drives you nuts, but I won't get into another fight about this. It hurts me too much, and I'm sure it hurts you, too.

I love you even when I'm mad at you, and I hope you still love me.

Hayley

Oh, Hayley, I love you more than you'll ever know. I'm frustrated with you, but I'll never, ever stop loving you.

O

Abby slipped a card under Hayley's door the next morning, professing her love for her and agreeing to let the girl work things out on her own timetable. Abby was glad for the blow-up even though it had been painful. At least she knew that Hayley was angry, and that she wasn't just trying to punish Abby for being with Clancy.

Strangely, Hayley's venting made her a little more communicative, and to Abby's great delight, she left the house for several hours in the afternoon, making the house seem less like a silent prison.

O

Though Abby felt a little better, the situation with Clancy wasn't improving. Abby still refused to go out, and she didn't feel comfortable having Clancy over. The next few days went by like weeks, and by Wednesday, Clancy was feeling anxious and irritable. On a whim, she called her parents, and they insisted she come up for dinner. Without even bothering to go home and change, she headed up to Sierra Madre, hoping that an evening with her family might brighten her mood.

She'd previously apprised her parents of the recent developments, but this was the first time they'd seen her, and they were all dismayed at how down she was as well as by the black and blue smudge under her eye.

Her father took his usual turn at the grill, cooking some salmon steaks. Clancy sat in a chair and watched him work, allowing the familiar sights and sounds to soothe her. "Does this kid usually run the house?" John asked in his usual, direct style.

Clancy sipped at her beer and shook her head. "I don't think so, Dad, but I've gotta admit, I've only seen the whole group together a few times. I've gotten the impression that Abby and Hayley have always gotten along really well - Abby assures me that Hayley isn't a spoiled brat - even though she sure seems like one to me. I don't know either of them well enough to know if Abby doesn't know the kid's spoiled or if Hayley's really acting out of character."

"How old's the kid?"

"She's gonna be eighteen this weekend."

"Mmm tough age. Still a kid, but feels like an adult."

"Yeah." Clancy picked at some dried bits of mortar that still clung to her shins. "I guess I've got to just keep my mouth shut and hope that Abby can work this out."

"Have you seen her at all?"

She shook her head. "Just when she brings water out. I talk to her on the phone every night, though. That helps a little."

"Darned little," he grumbled.

She got up and gave him a hug, surprising him a little with her enthusiasm. "You know, I came up here because I thought you could cheer me up. But seeing that you're pissed off, too, actually helps even more. Thanks for understanding, Dad."

"Any time, baby. I'm good at pissed."

O

After dinner, Clancy went into her grandmother's room to play a little gin rummy. The older woman always beat her granddaughter like a drum, but the game allowed them to have a little diversion while they talked, so the normally competitive Clancy didn't mind that she would, inevitably, lose.

"So, Bitsy," Eileen said, "do ya feel as bad as ya look?"

The younger woman nodded, concentrating on her cards for a moment. "Yeah, I guess I do. Being in love can be hard, Gramma."

Eileen chuckled softly and said, "Hell, yeah, it can be hard. That's why God invented sex! If it wasn't for that, nobody would fall in love."

"I never looked at it that way," Clancy said, smirking at her grandmother's unique perspective.

"You do have sex with the woman, don't ya, peanut?"

"Gramma!"

"All I'm saying is that if you're not seeing her much, ya better be makin' use of the time ya do have. Makin' her want ya bad ain't a bad strategy."

Thoroughly embarrassed, the young woman said, "I think she misses me plenty, Gramma. We get along very well."

"I still can't figure out what the hell two girls can do in bed, but as long as you're happy, that's all that matters."

Patting her hand, Clancy said, "I'll give you a book if you really want to know - but what Abby and I do in bed is one thing you and I are never going to discuss."

"Be that way," Eileen said, wrinkling up her nose. "Keep an old woman in the dark." A tiny smile crept onto her face as she slapped her cards down and cried, "Gin!"

"I can't catch a break," Clancy grumbled, dropping her cards onto the pile and starting to deal again.

"So, if you don't want to talk about sex, there's just one piece of advice I can give ya, Bitsy."

"What's that, Gramma?"

"You're gonna have to be more patient with this woman than you've ever been before. Don't push her, baby, or she'll be gone faster than you can blink."

"I have been patient, Gramma. I've been very patient. I haven't even complained that we only see each other for five minutes a day - though I'm in her back yard."

"I mean more than that, honey. I'm talking about the long haul. You don't know what it's like to be a mother, Clancy, and no matter how much you try to understand - you'll never know if you don't have kids of your own."

"So, what are you saying?"

"I'm saying that you'd better never ever try to get between a mother bear and her cubs."

"I have no intention of -"

"Now, don't get your dander up. I'm just trying to give you a little piece of advice; you can ignore me if you want to. I just don't want you to have this get ruined because you didn't know any better."

"Are you saying that I have to just sit back and keep my mouth shut?" Clancy asked. "What if this goes on until Hayley goes back to school?"

"Look, honey, the only point I'm trying to make is that you have to let Abby make the choices here. If she and her girl have a serious falling out, you don't want it to be because of your buttin' in. She'll blame you for that, no matter how much she loves you."

"I guess you're right," Clancy said, looking more depressed by the minute.

"Now, I'm not saying that you have to keep your mouth shut; I know you can't do that," Eileen said fondly. "Just try to give her as much time as you can to make her own decisions. She's riskin' a hell of a lot more here than you are. Don't make her regret it."

The young woman nodded, her attention only peripherally on her cards. "I I haven't spent much time thinking of what Abby's risking here," she said. "When I look at it, though, it's pretty scary."

"Sure is," Eileen said. "She's got kids and parents and friends and relatives who are all used to her being a certain way. That's a lot of people to disappoint, Bitsy. Have a little sympathy for her."

"I do, Gramma," Clancy said. "And no matter how frustrated I get, I'll do my best to give her time. She's worth all of the time in the world."

"You really love her, don't ya, honey?"

Clancy nodded. "I do. She means the world to me, Gramma. I'll sacrifice whatever I have to in order to make her happy."

"That's my girl," Eileen said, smiling at her granddaughter. "Gin!" she added, laughing heartily.

O

To be continued in Part 10

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