I Found My Heart In San Francisco

Book 10:  Journeys

By SX Meagher


Thanks toMarina, Emilie and Melanie for suggesting the title, and Stacia and Day for their invaluable assistance in editing this piece.

Part One

The 767 left the runway, lurching heavily, while the junior senator from California sat in his seat, a contented smile curving his lips.  After a few minutes of climbing, the plane reached cruising altitude and he reclined his seatback, his eyes drifting to the window against which his right shoulder was nestled.  His thoughts were scattered, his mind flitting from the unexpectedly wonderful meeting he had just had with his daughter to the equally surprising talk with his wife the day before.

After a while, Jim Evans began to focus his musings, allowing the very warm feelings he had for both of the women in his family to come to the surface.  What in the hell have I been doing for all of these years? he thought with an uncharacteristic leveling of self-recrimination.  Why is it so damned important to always have a new woman to sleep with?  What has it actually gotten me?

He shook his head slowly, letting the reality of the cost of his habitual infidelity settle in his brain.  It's taken me to the edge of divorce…it's seriously eroded my daughter's respect…and there's little doubt that I'm well known, at least at the firm, as an aging letch.  He shuddered when he thought of the derisive comments he and his peers had made twenty years previously when they had discussed some of the more indiscreet partners and their serial affairs.

You're as bad as they were, he reminded himself.  Worse, really.  You're the managing partner, for God's sake!  How do you even know whether the women who so readily agree to your overtures are doing it because of you, or your position?

I don't, he had to admit.  The only woman in my life who ever loved me for myself was Catherine.  He sighed heavily and thought of the young woman he had met 22 years before, who was far superior to him in nearly every way imaginable way.  Catherine's family had money, power, prestige, and enough political muscle to run the city if that had interested anyone in the clan.  She didn't want him for his potential…she didn't want him for his money…she didn't need any favors from him.  No, she had just loved him-for himself.  And he had repaid her genuine trust by being unfaithful time and time again.  Each time she caught him, there would be a series of promises, each one readily broken as soon as the urge hit and the opportunity presented itself.  And it always seemed as though the opportunity presented itself quickly.  Actually, as he rose in the organization and became more visible, it seemed as if the women actually sought him out rather than the other way around.  The shifting of roles had pleased him, but when he thought about it, it did seem likely that they were using him in the same way he was using them.

His mind wandered to Kayla, and he tried to remember who had made the first overture.  It was hard to pinpoint, since things had happened so quickly that it seemed as though sparks had been flying from the outset.  When they met, she was a first year associate, barely 25, and fresh out of UCLA law school.  She was a very attractive woman-lovely, long strawberry blonde hair and pale eyes that took on the color of the clothing she wore, appearing either blue, light green, or hazel.  A little taller than Jamie, but much slighter, with a body that commanded attention.  His attention had been drawn from the first day they had met, and even then he sensed a glimmer in her eye that long years of cheating had alerted him to.  She radiated a receptivity that he was highly attuned to, and her frank, open appraisal of him had sent his libido into overdrive.

His position at the firm allowed him to propose assignments for the new associates, and he had suggested that she be assigned to his deputy as an assistant.  He was surprised and pleased that their working styles fit together so well, and for a time, he let the sexual tension die down while they concentrated on work alone.

The break had come while on a trip to Brussels the previous October.  His deputy, Kurt Wagner, was unable to make the trip, leaving Jim alone with Kayla for the first time.  Everything was very aboveboard until the meetings were concluded, late on a Friday night.  Kayla had casually mentioned that she had never been to the city, and since he was intimately familiar with it, he spontaneously asked if she would like to stay the weekend and let him play tour guide.  To his amazement, she looked him right in the eye and suggested that, as an economy measure, they could save the firm several hundred dollars a night if she gave up her room and shared his.  His response was unequivocal and enthusiastic, and that weekend launched the relationship that quickly grew to be an open secret in the firm.  He hated the fact that word had leaked out, but he had to admit that it was largely his fault.  He had a hard time suppressing his desire for the young woman, and he was sure that their peers had noticed his lingering looks and familiar touches when they were in meetings together.

Even though the affair had begun just about a year before, things were still nearly as hot as they had been then--quite an oddity for Jim, since he had rarely pursued an ongoing association with the women he bedded.  Kayla was an enthusiastic lover, skilled far beyond her years; how that education had come about never discussed between them.  But Jim knew that her skills at lovemaking were not the hook that kept him connected to her.  It was the odd feeling that she was a feminine mirror image of him at her age.  She had the same drive; the same need to impress her superiors by doing anything that needed to be done-no complaints.  He smiled as he recalled her enthusiastic suggestion that she be allowed to conduct the preliminary meetings with an important client in Japan over the Thanksgiving holidays last year.  She had insisted that she merely wanted him to be able to spend the holiday with his family, but he knew that it was just a chance for her to maneuver herself into position to gain some important experience at a time when most attorneys desperately wanted some time off.

Despite the undeniable physical attraction, Jim was fairly certain that he didn't love Kayla, and she had never expressed feelings of love for him either.  As this thought occurred to him, he jerked upright in his seat, feeling a flush come over him.  Love!  What in the hell am I doing even thinking about loving Kayla?  My God!  That's the last thing she needs…and the last thing I need.

Thinking of his last conversation with Catherine, he reminded himself, That's the woman who loves you…or did love you before you betrayed her, time and again.

A surprising thought struck him, and as it took shape in his mind he began to grow more and more excited.  I don't know why, but there was something in Catherine's voice yesterday that showed just a glimmer of affection.  I know it's crazy, but I think I might still have a ghost of a chance with her.  Good God, that would be great!  He sighed as he leaned his seat back again and gazed out at the clear, blue sky.  Everything could go back to where it was, he decided.  Jamie might even begin to respect me again if I could make it right with Catherine.  He shook his head ruefully as he forced himself to admit, Besides, I look like a fool running around with a 26-year-old woman.  I was in college when she was born!  Yes, he decided, nodding his head, I'm going to give it another try…and the only way to do that is if I sever my relationship with Kayla completely.

The rest of the flight was spent in fierce concentration as Jim made plans to end one relationship while dreaming of resuscitating another.

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

As his key slid into the lock of his hotel room, he heard a light tread scampering across the thick carpeting.  The door was not yet fully open when he found his arms full of his young lover, her voluptuous body barely covered by one of his dress shirts.  "Get in here and show me how much you missed me," she demanded, walking backwards as she pulled him along.

The door closed with a quiet whisper, and as the latch clicked, her mouth tilted up and sought his out, his determination of just hours before nowhere to be found.  The kiss went on for a long time, the young woman's ardor obviously unquenched during his five-day absence.

He finally managed to pull away and slowly regained his equilibrium while finding a little space to breathe.  "Wow, that was a surprising welcome," he said.  He had given her a key, but to his knowledge she had never used it, always waiting until he was at home to visit.  "Visit" was a little too weak a term, he had to admit, since the young woman had slept with him every night since they had arrived in Washington.  But she had her own room in the hotel, and kept most of her things in it.  Most mornings would find her struggling into running clothes, then returning to her room to shower and prepare for the day.

"Do you mind?" she asked warily.  "I uhm…wanted to give you a proper welcome."  A seductive smile crept onto her face as she lifted the front of the long shirt, revealing just a neatly groomed triangle of dark red hair.  "Am I dressed appropriately?"

He blinked a few times, always slightly amazed at Kayla's frank, sexual aggression.  "Yeah…uhm…that's a great outfit," he agreed, wishing he could exploit her luscious body one more time.  But to his surprise, even his very shaky moral code would not permit it.

Cocking her head slightly, Kayla gazed at him and asked, "Something's wrong, isn't it?"

He nodded, deciding that he had to get this over with.  "I uhm…I had some time to think this weekend, Kayla, and I think it's best if we stop sleeping together."  Well that was harder to spit out than I thought it would be, he decided, carefully watching her face and body for a reaction.

"Why?" she asked simply, using one of his tricks against him.  He had stressed the efficacy of keeping questions as simple as possible, to goad an opponent into elaborating more fully than they had planned, and he now found himself ruing the lessons he had taught her.

"This can't go on permanently, Kayla," he explained.  "It seems to me that you're wasting your time with me when there's no future for us.  You need a young man who can keep up with you," he said, giving her a fond smile.

"Don't I satisfy you anymore?" she asked, a frown darkening her eyes to a slate gray.

"Oh yes!  Of course you do!  This isn't about sex, Kayla.  I just think that we both need to focus on relationships that can be permanent.  This one can't."  There.  That's as succinct as I can make it.

Her head cocked slightly, her eyes never leaving his.  "You want to get back with your wife, don't you?"  Even though her voice rose on the final words, her tone made it sound more like a statement than a question.

Nodding slightly, embarrassed that she saw through him so easily, he said, "I don't know if that's possible, but if it is, I would like to try again."

She shook her head a few times, then looked at him again.  "Why does that mean that we can't sleep together, Jim?  You can have your relationship with her and have sex with me.  I don't want more than this…and, let's be honest, if your wife satisfied you, you wouldn't have started this or any of the other affairs you've had."

His cheeks burned from the truth of her implications, but he tried to hold firm.  "We've had problems, of course we have.  Every married couple does, Kayla.  But I want to give this a genuine try, and that can't happen if we're sleeping together.  I'm very sorry to spring this on you, but I honestly think it's best for both of us in the long run."

She shook her head briskly, her tone confident.  "I disagree, Jim, but your decision is the final one."  She stood up and started to walk towards the bedroom, and he stayed right where he was, watching the gentle sway of her hips as she moved.  Returning a minute later with her clothing, she started to dress in front of him, taxing his determination to its limits.

Letting the shirt drop to the floor, she started to slide a pair of panties over her hips.  Feeling the fire start to burn again, he swallowed and continued with the remainder of his decision.  "I uhm…I know you won't like this, Kayla, but I think it would be best if you went back to San Francisco.  I'm very happy with the work you're doing here, but I think it would just be too hard for us to work together given our history."

She felt her anger flare and was just about to fire off a few choice words, but she struggled with her emotions and regained control.  Her eyes blinked slowly; her gaze fixed on the floor.  "Okay.  It won't look good for me, but I'll do whatever makes you happy, Jim.  That's all that matters."

"You are such a wonderful woman," he said softly, watching her hips twitch as she pulled her jeans up her sleek legs.

"It's easy to be a wonderful woman when you're with a wonderful man," she said, coming over to the sofa and straddling his lap, her jeans gaping open.  "Can I kiss you good-bye?"  Her soft voice floated down to his ears as he drew in a deep breath, imprinting her alluring scent onto his brain.

He didn't have the strength to speak, just nodding his head a few times.  She settled onto his lap as her breasts crushed against his chest.  Her head tilted downward and she began to kiss him, forcing him to feel all of the passion, all of the lust that enveloped them every time they were intimate.  As the kiss continued, her hips began to gyrate, skimming across his groin as she felt him begin to respond.  "K…Ka…Kayla," he groaned, as his hands went to her hips to guide her movements.

"It's okay," she soothed.  "I promise I'll let you go.  I just need to love you one last time, Jim.  Give me this…please."

He looked up into her eyes, grown bright with desire, her hair swinging across her shoulders as she moved against him.  His last bit of willpower disintegrated, and he forced himself to stay conscious of the sensations that pummeled his body, reminding himself, You might as well enjoy this, because if Catherine takes you back this is the last time you'll have sex this hot.

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Even though it was getting late and they were both emotionally drained from the visit with Jim at the airport, Jamie insisted that she had to get a little studying done for the next day.  Ryan was in favor of falling into bed, even though it was just 8:00, but she decided that if Jamie could study, she could study.  They went to their respective quiet spots and were engrossed in their work almost immediately.

The concentrated effort Jamie was putting into her accounting class was paying off, and she felt like she was finally understanding, rather than just memorizing, the broad concepts behind the rules she had been following.  She was feeling pretty good when she started to pack up, after noticing that it was already 9:30.

As usual, her cell phone was clipped to her waistband, the habit so ingrained that she barely noticed the small device any longer.  The muted chirping caught her by surprise, and she started when she heard it.  "Hello," she said.

"Hi, Jamie."  Only two words, but she not only knew the voice, she realized that she would probably always recognize it.

"Hi, Jack," she said, feeling her heart skip a beat.  The mere sound of his voice made her a little anxious-not for any good reason that she could think of, she just uncharacteristically assumed the worst.

"Is ah…is it okay for me to call you, Jamie?  I certainly don't want to cause you any trouble."

"Trouble?" she asked, not understanding his point.

"Yeah…well, I assume that you're still with Ryan, and ah…I also assume she might not like you talking to me."

Feeling more than a little perturbed at the assumption, she said, "Ryan doesn't try to control me, Jack.  I can speak with whomever I wish."

There was a silence that went on a beat longer than expected.  "Okay…let me try that again."  She could hear him breathe out a sigh before he gave it another stab.  "I guess it's easier for me to blame her if you don't want to speak to me," he admitted, in an astounding show of self-awareness.

As usual, she felt her defenses melt when he showed his vulnerable side.  "I don't understand why you think I wouldn't want to speak to you, Jack.  I thought we parted on very good terms…didn't you?"

"Yeah," he said, letting out a breath.  "I do think so.  I guess I'm just feeling a little twitchy today.  I have a question to ask you that's really got me spooked."

"What is it?" she asked, unable to imagine what it could be.

"I uhm…I want to ask Natalie to marry me, Jamie," he said in a rush, the words colliding as they tumbled out.

She paused for just a second, consciously willing down the tiny tendril of jealousy that began to emerge.  "That's wonderful, Jack.  I wish you all the best."

"Thanks," he said softly, and she smiled as she pictured the shy blush that likely covered his features.  "I uhm…appreciate that you called, Jack," she said, even though she was more puzzled than appreciative.  "I take it that you haven't asked her yet."

"No, I was going to do it at Thanksgiving," he said, confusing her even more.

"Uhm…any particular reason that you're telling me now?" she asked, as tactfully as possible.  "I mean, I appreciate it, but if I was Natalie I don't think it would sit well with me to know that you told your ex a month before you proposed."

"Well…uhh…Jamie, of course I wanted you to know before you heard it from anyone, but that's not really why I'm calling."

Ryan entered the room, looked at the phone, and cocked her head in question.  Jamie hit the mute button and said, "Jack."

The tall woman turned and was striding out of the room before the "ack" had been fully enunciated, only to have her fleece shirt grabbed from behind.  "Stay," Jamie mouthed, tugging Ryan towards the couch.

She gave Jamie a suspicious look, but shrugged and sat down next to her, placing a warm hand on her thigh.  Jamie patted her gently, and once again focused her attention onto Jack.  "Why are you calling, then?" she asked, ready to get to the bottom line.

He cleared his throat nervously, and got to the point.  "I'm having a real battle over what to do for an engagement ring, Jamie, and I thought--of all the people I know, you're the only one that I trust to give me good advice."

"Oh," she said, completely shocked that he wanted her opinion on this question.  "Well, thanks for saying so, Jack.  What did you have in mind?"  The image of spending the day shopping with Jack for another woman's ring flashed through her mind, and was quickly dismissed into the "when hell freezes over" category.

"I uhm…want to give her my grandmother's ring," he said softly, flinching a little when he heard the small gasp she emitted.

"You want to give her the ring you gave me?" she asked in a tone that was just short of incredulous.

"Bad idea?" he asked, sounding about ten years old.

She took a deep breath and tried counting to ten.  It was his ring-that's why she had given it back to him, but the mere thought of him giving it to another woman set her teeth on edge.  "Is cost a factor here, Jack?  You don't have to spend a lot to get a nice ring…"

"No!" he said vehemently.  "This is about sentiment, Jamie!  I thought you would understand that!"

Ryan was observing her lover closely as she spoke to her former fiancé.  There was a guarded wariness to her affect that Jamie thankfully never displayed towards her.  Ryan had a suspicion that the wariness was not something that had developed after the couple broke up, recalling that she noticed a polite distance between them the few times she had seen then together.  I'm so glad that you let yourself fall in love with me, baby, she thought silently as she watched the green eyes grow dark.  You are not your best with him.  Unconsciously, Ryan tucked her arm around her partner and pulled her to her chest, smiling when she felt some of the tension leave Jamie's body.

"Look, Jack," the smaller woman said, obviously frustrated.  "I can't read your mind here.  Tell me what's up, or I can't be of any help at all."

He sighed and said in a voice filled with hurt, "I thought you'd understand what this ring meant to me…and if you did, then Natalie would too."

She let out a breath, feeling a little like he had punched her.  Of course that ring means a lot to him, she chided herself.  Jack's grandparents had been married over sixty years when his grandfather died and his grandmother had moved in with the family.  She and Jack had always been close, but they grew closer still during the last years of her life.  She had passed away just a few months before Jack had asked Jamie to marry him, and the most emotion the young woman ever recalled seeing from him was when he told her that he hoped they would have as good a marriage as his grandparents had had.

"I'm sorry, Jack," she said softly.  "That was very insensitive of me.  I do know how much the ring meant to you."  She paused for a minute, looking at the curious blue eyes that peeked over at her from under long black bangs.  She pushed Ryan gently, urging her to scoot down the sofa.  The tall woman did so, and Jamie lay down with her head in Ryan's lap.  She grasped one of the warm hands and placed it on her head, silently asking for an always-calming head rub.  As Ryan's long fingers began trailing through her hair, she sighed and continued.  "Even though I'm sure Natalie would be honored by the sentiment, I honestly think that it would always bother her to know that she wasn't the first person you gave the ring to."

His frustration was evident as he said, "But it means so much to me, Jamie!  It would be like having a piece of my grandparents with us always."

"Jack," she said, her voice even softer than it had been before, "it might also be like having a piece of me with you always.  I know that you don't want that."

"It wouldn't be like that for me," he insisted.

"You're not the one who will wear it, Jack," she reminded him.  "I know this means a lot to you, and I'm sure Natalie will wear it if she knows that.  I'm just trying to be honest with you even though it's not what you want to hear."

"Do you think I could ask her if she wanted it or if she wanted me to buy her another one?" he asked hopefully.

"Not a good idea," Jamie declared.  "If she told you to buy another, she's not good enough for you.  I mean that."

"Damn it, Jamie," he said gruffly, knowing that she was giving him her best advice, "are you sure about this?"

"No, I can't be sure, Jack.  Want another opinion?"

"Uhm…sure, I guess.  Is Mia around?"

"No.  Ryan's a woman too, Jack.  She's right here.  Hold on."  Hitting the mute button, Jamie swiveled her head until she could meet her lover's eyes.  "Would you be insulted if I gave you a family heirloom as an engagement ring if I had previously given it to Jack?"

Ryan's sparkling blue eyes smiled at Jamie as she asked, "Is this a clever ploy to ask me to marry you?"

She barked out a surprised laugh and said, "I think I could come up with something a little more romantic than this, Tiger.  No, this is really about Jack.  Would it bother you?"

"Yes and no," Ryan said thoughtfully.  "I'd like the fact that your family meant a lot to you, and that you were making me a part of that tradition.  On the other hand, it would always bug me a little that you gave it to Jack first.  It might remind me of him more than I would like."

"My feelings exactly," Jamie smiled.  Just before she hit the button she turned to Ryan and gave her a speculative look, her face twitching into an even bigger smile.  "I really should formally ask you to marry me one of these days.  It's about time I made an honest woman out of you."

Blowing Ryan a kiss, she turned back to the phone, informing Jack, "Ryan feels like I do.  Part of her would be honored to wear it, and the other part would be reminded of the other person."

"All right," he said, sounding defeated.  "I still might ask her though."

"Jack," Jamie said, her voice still soft, but more determined, "don't try to manipulate her to get your way.  That's not how to start off a marriage.  Try to think of her feelings as well as your own."

He was completely shocked by her comments and was just about to tell her off when he realized that she was right.  He was trying to back Natalie into a corner so that he could get his own way, and with a shake of his head he sighed, "Okay.  I get the message."

"I do have one idea that might work for you, Jack," she said.  "Why not give her the ring to hold until you have a child to pass it on to?  Entrusting her with something that means a lot to you would be a nice gesture."

"That's better than nothing, I suppose," he mumbled, still annoyed that she didn't see things his way.

"Look, Jack," she said, "you can coerce her into doing it your way; you can have the diamond re-set; or you can ask her to hold it for your kids.  Those are really the only options.  I'm really not invested in which one you choose, you know."

"Damn," he grumbled.  "I call to ask you for a favor, and wind up pissing you off."  He paused for a second and said, "I don't know why, but I never do that with Natalie."

She let out a wry laugh and suggested, "Maybe that's because she's the right woman for you.  Just for the record, Ryan and I don't spend much time arguing either."  At the gentle ruffling of her bangs, she looked up into the pools of blue that always made her heart beat faster.

There was a moment of silence, and then he asked, "Is Ryan still there?"

"Uhm…yeah.  Why?"

"Can I speak with her for a minute?"

Her eyebrows nearly disappearing under her hair, she said, "Uh…sure," and handed the phone to Ryan with a puzzled shrug of her shoulders.  "He wants to talk to you."

Ryan put the phone to her ear and said, "Hi, Jack."

"Hi, Ryan," he said in a friendly tone.  "Thanks for the advice.  I think you two are right-even though I'd prefer that you saw this my way."

"Oh, you're welcome.  Congratulations on your engagement," she said, as she tried to hand the phone back.

His voice caused her to put the phone to her ear again.  "You're a lucky woman, Ryan.  Jamie's one in a million."

She chuckled mildly, and corrected him immediately.  "She's one in a 38thMersenne prime, Jack."

"Huh?" he asked, not knowing if they were talking about the same thing or not.

"I'm a math major," she said, knowing that simple explanation covered a wealth of her eccentricities.  "That's a recently discovered prime number that has over two million digits."

"Ahh," he said, not really understanding what she was referring to, but unwilling to admit it. "It's nice to know that you know how special she is."

"I do indeed, Jack," she said, smiling down at her partner, "I'd say that she's the most wonderful woman in the world, but that's far too small a number to convey my full appreciation of her."

He laughed softly at this and decided, "It's probably best not to talk to you about how wonderful Jamie is when I'm about to go ring shopping for another woman, Ryan.  Take care of her for…" he bit off the "me" that had almost spilled out, and tried to cover.  "Take care of her forever, Ryan," deciding that he liked the way that sounded.

"With my last breath," she said, locking eyes with Jamie, her voice filled with confidence, as she hit the off button.  Her blue eyes searched the moss green ones that looked up at her.  "I'd say yes," she whispered.


"If you asked me to marry you, I'd say yes," she repeated, her intent gaze never leaving Jamie's.

A wave of emotion washed over the blonde, making her breath catch for a moment.  "I marry you every day," she replied, her heart bursting with feeling.  "I pledge my love to you every night when I say my prayers, and I thank God for you every morning when I wake."

"I'm thanking God for you right now," Ryan whispered as she pulled her partner into an embrace and kissed her tenderly.  "All of my prayers have been answered."

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Aloysius Pender walked into his office on Monday morning and checked his schedule.  "Betsy?" he called out to his secretary when he noticed his seven a.m. appointment.

"Yes, Father?" the woman asked as she popped her head in.

"Martin O'Flaherty called for an appointment?"

"Yes, Father.  He left a message on the machine yesterday.  Is it all right that I scheduled him?"

"Of course, of course," he said absently.  "It just surprised me, that's all."

He walked into the small kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee, checking his watch as he walked back into the office.  The front door opened at seven on the dot and he heard his old friend extend a greeting to Betsy.  Soon his large frame filled the door, and he waited to be signaled in.

"Will you come in here already?" Father Pender said with a warm smile.  "In all these years I've never known you to be the formal sort, Marty.  What's going on?"

Martin closed the door to the office and sat down in a chair that faced the desk.  "I've given it a couple of months, but it's not any better, Father," he said formally.  "I'd like to ask Father Villarreal, or perhaps someone not associated with St. Philip's, to perform the ceremony for Maeve and me."

The priest leaned back in his chair, obviously taken aback by this announcement.  "After all we've been through, Marty?  You're unable to forgive me for one mistake?"

His dark head shook, his eyes devoid of their normal warmth.  "You didn't harm me, Father Pender, you harmed my baby.  That's not something I can forgive."

"Will you stop with the Father Pender!"  He stood up and paced behind his desk, his face growing red with anger.  "For goodness sake, Marty, we've been friends for a quarter century!  You haven't called me Father Pender since Brendan was in diapers!"

"I respect you because of your position…not you yourself," he said flatly.  "I don't think you'd like the names I call you in my mind."

"I thought we settled this," he said, his voice filled with frustration.  "Siobhán is perfectly cordial to me, Marty.  I know she wants you to get over this.  She said as much when she was here with you."

"She's a better person than I am," the protective father growled, his anger flaring as badly as it had two months earlier.

"She's a fine woman," the priest said, his voice growing soft as he recalled, "She's the image of her mother."

Slightly taken aback, Martin' felt himself agreeing with the priest.  "Even though they look nothing alike, she is that."

"I'm glad she's found someone to share her life with," Father Pender said, his voice still evincing a reflective tone.  "I've been worried about her these last years, Marty.  I heard a lot of rumors about her behavior, and the things I heard didn't seem like something your daughter would have been caught up in."

"What exactly do you mean by that?" Martin asked, his hackles rising.

 "I only meant that I know you would want Siobhán to find one person to love, and it didn't seem like that's what she was doing," he offered weakly.

"That's not what you meant, and you know it," Martin spat.  "I'll tell you something, Aloysius Pender…it's the ridiculous stance of this Church and the interference of a certain blabber-mouthed priest that made the child think she had to find her pleasure in brief encounters with women she hardly knew!  She felt like an outcast!  She was so filled with self-loathing that she was afraid to talk to me, and that child has never held anything back from me.  How many more young people have to suffer the rejection of the Holy Church before you people come to your senses?"

"Martin, please," he said.  "You know that the Church's official teachings don't always square with my private beliefs, but there's only so much a parish priest can do!"

"What are your private beliefs on the subject, Father Pender?" he asked, his eyes narrowed and intense.

"I uhm…I think that we should, and I feel that we do, offer a warm welcome to homosexuals, Martin.  There is nothing inherently sinful in being gay."

"And…?" Martin asked, knowing there was more.

"And…if the homosexual person chooses to live a celibate life, they should be welcomed into every level of ministry."

"If they choose a celibate life," Martin said, the rancor dripping from his words.  "And if they don't?"

"Well, I don't think it's my job to police the members of this parish.  I would never withhold the sacraments from someone like Siobhán, even though I know she is openly breaking the Church's clear rules on this topic."

"Well, aren't you just the most open-minded person?" Martin snarled.

"That's not fair, Martin," Father Pender said.  "I don't think that Siobhán's sins are any worse than a heterosexual person who has sex outside of marriage.  Someone like Conor, for instance."

"Who's next to fall under your inquisition?  Duffy?  He's been neutered, I'll have you know!"

"Martin, I meant nothing by that.  I'm only pointing out that most people in our parish are in a state of sin about something.  I'd imagine 90% of our parish members use birth control of some sort.  Their disobedience is no better and no worse than Siobhán's."

"So, Conor's an even bigger sinner than his sister, since he obviously has sex with women, and he's never produced a child," Martin groused, his disgust evident.

"Technically, yes, Martin, but that's not the point.  The point is that we're all sinners.  Our mission isn't to point out the sin-it's to offer a path to forgiveness."

"My child is one of the purest souls to ever walk through the doors of that church, Father Pender," Martin insisted.  "She's a model of love and compassion and forgiveness.  The fact that her biology leads her to love a woman in no way affects that!"

"Of course it doesn't," the priest agreed.  "Look, Martin, I think we're getting off track here.  You came to talk about your wedding, and now we're on a discussion about Church teachings.  I think you're confusing your anger with the Church with your anger with me.  I know I made a mistake in talking about Siobhán without talking to you first.  I've apologized for it.  Siobhán has forgiven me.  Can't we move on from there?"

"No, I'm afraid we can't," Martin said with true regret.  "I appreciate all that you've done for me and my family through the years, but I can't have you ask for God's blessing on my marriage if you can't agree that my Siobhán and her Jamie have the exact same rights to sexual pleasure that Maeve and I do."

"I don't believe that, Martin," he said softly.  "I wish I could-believe me, my life would be easier if I could-but I don't.  Marriage is reserved for a man and a woman.  There's no way around the teachings."

"I appreciate your time, Father Pender," Martin said as he stood.  "I'll speak to Father Villarreal about the ceremony."  With that, he was gone, leaving the priest shaking his head in sorrow at having lost one of his oldest and dearest friends.

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

"Hello, Catherine," the clear, lightly accented voice said in greeting.  "It's Maeve Driscoll."

"Would that be the future Maeve O'Flaherty?" Catherine asked, enjoying the teasing that was part and parcel of the O'Flaherty experience.

"One and the same," the older woman laughed.  "I have good news on that very front, Catherine.  Everything is settled, I believe, and the wedding is set for November the thirteenth."

"Excellent!  That gives us plenty of time to make the few arrangements that we need."

"What needs to be done, Catherine?  I've secured the church and talked to one of my friends who is a printer about having some simple invitations done up.  Shouldn't that cover it?"

"Nearly," Catherine fibbed.  "I can handle all of the details for the reception. What type of food would you like to have?"

"Well, the lads don't care for anything too fancy-they're a meat and potatoes crowd."

"That's not a problem," Catherine assured her.  "Marta and I will work up a sample menu, and see if you and Martin agree."

"Now, you remember that we're paying for the food, Catherine," she reminded her.

"I do indeed, Maeve.  I'm a woman of my word.  Now your dress is set, but will you have attendants?"

It took Maeve a minute to realize that she hadn't even considered the issue.  "I can't believe this, Catherine, but that has slipped my mind completely."  She focused for a second and said, "I'd like my boys to give me away, and if she's willing, I'd love to have Ryan stand up for me."

"Oh, I can't imagine she wouldn't be willing," Catherine said, "but I have a feeling she doesn't have anything appropriate to wear, given what Jamie's told me about her wardrobe."

"She has a skirt," Maeve mused.  "I gave it to her for Christmas a few years ago.  She wore it once, or so she told me," she laughed softly.  "Ah well, I'm not going to worry about that.  I love her like my own, no matter what she wears."

Catherine was making notes, and she added one in bold print.  Have Jamie find a suitable outfit for Ryan.  "Well, it looks like there's just one little detail remaining," she said.  "What about a honeymoon trip?"

"Oh, I don't think we'll be able to do that, Catherine.  We have so many expenses…"

"Would you like to get away for a few days?" the younger woman persisted.

"Well, yes, I suppose every couple wants to start their lives together away from the concerns of daily life.  But we're not teenagers, Catherine.  We should just get on with it."

"I have a suggestion," Catherine said.  "It set Jamie and Ryan off on the right foot, and Tommy and Annie seemed to enjoy their time there also."

"Oh, Catherine, not your house in Pebble Beach.  We couldn't!"

Falling back on her now-familiar refrain, Catherine asked, "And why is that?"

"It's just too generous!"

"Offering my completely empty house to you for a few days is too generous?  Just how is that, Maeve?  The pool is heated every day, the lights come on at dusk, the temperature is set at 69 degrees 24 hours a day.  Your visit honestly would not cost me one cent, Maeve.  If that is being too generous, you're going to have to explain how, because I don't understand."

With her voice betraying her longing, Maeve said, "I would love to accept, but I'm afraid Martin will think we're taking advantage."

"Maeve, I suggest you accept the Pebble Beach offer.  If I have to go to work on Martin, I'm aiming higher.  For him, it's my apartment in Milan."

There was a longish silence, then Maeve's warm chuckle traveled along the line.  "I would love to see my Marty in Milan." She giggled as the image played out in her mind.  "He thinks the Italians are quite mad, you know."

"That's my final offer, Maeve," Catherine threatened.  "You go to Pebble Beach for a few days, or it's two weeks in Milan…with first-class airline tickets thrown in."

"My, but you drive a hard bargain," the older woman laughed.  "I'll get to work on my fiancé tonight, Catherine.  I think my powers of persuasion are up to the task, and if they're not, I'll ask Jamie for a crash course in Italian!"

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

To Maeve's stunned surprise, Martin was completely amenable to accepting the honeymoon gift from Catherine.  He seemed distracted during the discussion, and after they had agreed she asked, "What's on your mind, Marty?"

"Oh," he said, shaking his dark head, "I'm just thinking about my discussion with Father Villareal this morning."  He looked at Maeve and said, "I don't know if it's because he's a younger man, or because of his background, but that fellow knows how to talk to people."

"Tell me more about your talk," Maeve asked.  "You didn't have much time this morning."

"I'm not a stupid man," Martin said.  "I don't expect these priests to run their own little fiefdom here.  I fully understand that they've taken a vow to uphold the teachings of the Church in Rome.  But there are ways to enforce the rules and ways to insult and demean, and that young man understands the difference."

"Did you talk about your feelings for the sanctity of Siobhán and Jamie's union?" Maeve asked.

"I did.  He said something that impressed me, Maeve.  He said that he feels we're in a difficult period right now.  Society is changing much more quickly than the Church can or should change.  I think the way he put it was that society's going through a revolution, but the Church can only change through evolution.  And we all know how long it takes for things to change evolutionarily."

Maeve nodded and said, "I suppose that makes sense.  The Church is a very large, very old institution.  It wouldn't do for it to change every time the wind blew."

"I agree, Maeve.  I really don't want that.  All I want is for my local priest to express his private support for my daughter and her relationship before he asks God to bless you and me."

"I take it that Father Villareal supports Siobhán?"

"He does," Martin nodded.  "He said that what matters is that Siobhán has found someone to experience a deep, committed, holy connection with.  The fact that the Church wasn't able to recognize the sanctity of it doesn't mean that God doesn't."

"You seem very satisfied with this," Maeve observed.

"I am.  I feel better about the Church than I have in months.  I'd really like him to perform our ceremony, Maeve.  Is that all right with you?"

She smiled and nodded, "I hate to wound Father Pender, Marty, but I agree with you on this.  It just wouldn't be right to have him bless us while feeling that our relationship was valid and the girls' was invalid."

"I'm no theologian, Maeve," Martin admitted, "but any God who would disapprove of Siobhán and Jamie's union is a God I have no interest in meeting."

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

When Ryan opened the door on Tuesday night, she was surprised and pleased to find her aunt sitting on the sofa chatting with Jamie, companionably drinking a cup of tea.  "Now this is the kind of surprise I'd like to see every day," Ryan smiled, crossing the room to kiss her aunt.  "Why did you decide to make my day so special?"

Turning to Jamie, Maeve rolled her eyes as she asked, "Does she speak to you like this, sweetheart?"

"Constantly," Jamie agreed as Ryan came over to kiss her too.  "I don't know why everyone doesn't want a lover who has kissed the Blarney Stone a few times."

"Everyone does," Ryan decided, sitting down next to her partner.  "What's up?"

"I came to ask you to do me a great favor, Ryan, and I wanted to ask you in person."

Ryan's face took on a concerned look, even though her aunt gave no signs of distress.  "Whatever it is, my answer is yes," Ryan said, her clear blue eyes reflecting her confidence in her answer.

"It might involve getting dressed up," her aunt cautioned.

"I'd wear an evening gown with a tiara if you asked me to, Aunt Maeve.  Now give me the bad news.  Where am I going, and how dressed up do I have to be?"

"Well," Maeve smiled, "tradition requires the maid of honor to wear a gown of some sort, but I frankly wouldn't mind if you wore your volleyball uniform.  All that matters is that you're at my side when I marry your father, Ryan."  She got her entire statement out, but the last few words were a little shaky.  Her own watery eyes were soon matched by those of her niece, who went over and sat right next to her, wrapping her in a fond hug.

"Of course I'll do it.  Of course."  She held her tight for a long while, with Jamie finding herself a little teary even though Maeve had let the cat out of the bag before Ryan had returned.  "I'll happily don a dress…I'll even wear heels, Aunt Maeve, and you know how I feel about them."

"Oh, sweetheart, I hate to have you go against your principles," she laughed.  "Besides, with heels you'd be so much taller than I, we wouldn't fit in the same photos."

"I have an idea," Jamie piped up.  "Ryan, since you don't have anything dressy to wear to the symphony or out to dinner..."

"Yes, I do," Ryan interrupted.  "I have that outfit you bought for me in Pebble Beach."

"Honey, that is an unlined silk tank top and pants.  You can't wear that in San Francisco in November!  It might be fifty degrees out."

"I could wear a coat over it," she suggested.  "It's always warm inside, anyway."

Jamie ran through Ryan's inventory and decided that a casual, summer-weight outfit with a motorcycle jacket topping it was really not the type of thing for the wedding.  Not wanting to insult her partner, she allowed, "Yes, you could, but it might be just a little too casual, honey.  I'd love to buy you a nice dark suit…a pantsuit, of course.  You could wear flats with that and look absolutely perfect."

"I just don't think I'd wear it very often," Ryan sulked mildly.

"We'll get you something understated and very simple, honey.  You'd be able to wear it for years and years."

"If I say okay, will you not try to get me to buy any more nice clothes for a few years?" she asked.  "I'll have two nice outfits then, a winter and a summer."

Jamie wanted to remind her that she wasn't in the military, but decided that Ryan wouldn't appreciate that.  "It's a deal.  We'll get you something elegant and dark, and I won't bug you to buy anything new until our kids get married."

"Now you're talking!" Ryan beamed, pleased to have won a major concession in the ongoing skirmish.

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

The ringing phone had chirped five times when Mia pulled herself away from the torrid embrace that Jordan had her wrapped in.  "Be right back," she murmured, as she tried to focus enough to find the phone.  "Hello?"

"Hi, this is Brendan O'Flaherty.  Is Ryan home?"

"Hi, Brendan, it's Mia.  I thought they were home, but they didn't pick up.  Let me go check."  She straightened her shirt and slipped the bra that Jordan had just unhooked through the sleeve.  Her smirk was firmly fixed on the long, lean, blonde who relaxed on the bed, trying to look innocent.  "I thought you had to study," she whispered, shaking a finger at her lover.

"I was studying you," she blinked.

Mia shook her head at the playful woman and went into the hall.  "Ryan?" she called out.  There was no reply, and she walked down the hall and poked her head in her roommates' open door.  "Ryan?"

The tall woman was lying on the loveseat, her head on a cushion, her very long legs dangling from the knee over the opposite arm.  "Are you thinking?" she asked as she approached, familiar with her roommate's odd habits.

When Ryan didn't reply, she touched her shoulder, still getting no response.  A mild shake didn't work either, which puzzled her, since Ryan was notorious for her ability to wake at the smallest noise.  It took a rather rough shake, which Mia hated to do, to finally pull Ryan from her sleep.  "Hey," Mia said, squatting down so she was at eye level, "your brother Brendan is on the phone.  Do you want to talk to him?"

Ryan was blinking so slowly that Mia wasn't sure if she knew what she was saying.  She smacked her dry lips together a few times and nodded, mumbling something that Mia couldn't distinguish.  Tossing her legs from the furniture she got to her feet, grasping Mia's offered hand for stability.  "Tell him I'll be there in a sec," she said as she walked into the bath.

Mia picked up the phone next to the bed and relayed the message, then went into her room to hang up.  She spotted Jamie coming up the stairs and crooked a finger, inviting her into her room.  "What's up with Ryan?" she asked after hanging up the extension phone.

"I don't know.  What is up with her?"  Jamie took a seat on the bed, sharing the surface with Jordan, who had taken a book out and was idly looking at it.

"She was nearly unconscious when I went to tell her that her brother was on the phone.  I've never seen her sleep that soundly."

Jamie shook her head and said, "She just hasn't let herself recover fully from the flu.  I actually called my doctor, just to ask how long it might take for her to be normal again, and she said it might take a month or more-and that's if Ryan was really babying herself.  With the way she runs herself down, it'll probably be twice that long."

"She seems fine at practice," Jordan piped up.  "And her play in games has been phenomenal."

"Yeah, I agree," Jamie said.  "It's like she uses all of her energy to play her sport, and then collapses at the end of the day.  I'm sure she's fine, but she could use a lot more sleep."

"Doesn't help that we have our Oregon trip this week," Jordan supplied.  "That one's always a bitch because of the travel situation.  Lots of time on a bus."

"Are you going, Jamie?" Mia asked.

"Hmm…I thought about it, and I know that Ryan likes it when I go with her, but I honestly think she goes to bed earlier when I'm not there."

"I can vouch for that, Jamie," Jordan agreed.  "She normally doesn't even join us for the team meal.  She goes right to bed as soon as the game's over."

Jamie nodded. "Well, there's that, too.  I make her eat better when I'm with her.  Plus, Saturday is her birthday, and I'd really like to be with her at midnight."  She looked at her friends and shrugged her shoulders, "Silly, huh?"

"No, sweet," Mia insisted, sharing a smile with Jordan.

"But if I was with her I'm sure she'd sleep less-especially since we'd probably want to see her birthday in with a little celebration."  Her eyebrows waggled a little, making Jordan, who had never seen her version of the expression, giggle.  "I just wish I could be sure she'd eat right.  Then I wouldn't worry about her."

"Make you a deal," Jordan suggested.  "If you don't want to come, I'll go back to the room with her and make sure she eats something before she goes to bed."

"Would you really do that?" Jamie asked, smiling at their friend.

"Sure.  I care about her, Jamie, and I know that she tends to ignore her body's signals."

"It's a deal," Jamie said.  "I'll go to the store right now and buy some granola and some fresh fruit.  That's her favorite bedtime snack."

"I'll force-feed her if I have to," Jordan assured her as Jamie left the room.

"You're such a nice person," Mia said, as she brushed the fine blonde hair back from Jordan's face.  "Generosity turns me on," she whispered, climbing astride her partner's hips.

"I'll brush her teeth when she finishes her cereal," Jordan teased, smiling gently as Mia pushed her to the bed and gave her a well-deserved reward for her consideration.

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

"Hi, Bren," Ryan said after splashing some cold water on her face and giving her teeth a quick brush.

"Am I bothering you, Sis?"

"No, I just fell asleep studying.  You saved me from getting a horrible crick in my neck."

"You sure?  I can call back another time.  This isn't vital."

"I'm sure, Brendan, now what's up?"

"I wanted to talk to you about Maggie," he said, with just a note of hesitation in his voice.

"Sure.  Is everything okay?"

"Oh yeah.  Everything's great.  That's part of the reason that I think I need to make some decisions.  It's only going to get harder from this point on."

"I was tracking you until the everything's great part," she said.  "Then you lost me."

He sighed and said, "I'm a little frazzled, to tell you the truth.  I feel like we're really getting close, Ryan, closer than we were in law school.  If this continues, I'm going to ask her to marry me."

"That's great, Bren!" she exclaimed.  "I think she'd be a great partner for you."

"Yeah, I'm sure she'll fit into the family."  He paused for a second and added, "That's not that easy for some people to do, ya know."

"I know.  Tracy Stewart would be your sister-in-law if she had loved all of you guys."  She frowned at the thought that she could have missed out on the opportunity to love Jamie, and she had to force herself to concentrate on Brendan again.

His next statement shocked her right back into the conversation.  "Ryan, do you think Da would have married Mama if he knew she would die young?"

"Brendan!  Does Maggie have…cancer?"

"No!  Thank God, no!"  He shivered from head to toe just to consider the thought.  "She's not even sure that she has this, Ryan, but Huntington's disease runs in her family.  Her father has it now-he's in very bad shape."

"Oh, Brendan, that's so sad," she empathized.  She knew quite a lot about the degenerative brain disease, having studied it in one of her genetics classes.  "Has Maggie been tested to see if she carries the gene?"

"No.  That's part of the problem, Ryan.  I'd like her to get tested-I think it would help her make decisions about childbearing-and if she doesn't have it, I think it would really free her up."

"But she doesn't want to?"

"No.  Several of her siblings have been tested, and only her oldest brother has it.  She says it's thrown him into a depression that she's afraid he'll never come out of.  He broke up with his girlfriend because of it-now he says he'll never marry because he doesn't want to be a burden."

Ryan sighed, letting out a deep breath.  "I don't know, Bren.  I might feel like Maggie does.  When there's no cure…no real treatment…do you really want to know?"

"I can see that, Ryan, but there's a 50-50 chance that she doesn't carry the gene.  That seems like it's worth the risk to me."

"That's to you, Bren.  Obviously not to her."  She paused as she thought for a minute.  "How old was her father when he developed symptoms?"

"Not very old.  He's been affected most of Maggie's life.  He became bedridden just last year."  Brendan considered the timing and said, "I think that's one of the reasons she decided to come out here, to tell you the truth.  It just kills her to watch him deteriorate.  They had to put him in a nursing facility because he's unable to swallow anymore.  He has to be watched constantly, and her mom just couldn't do it."

"Wow," Ryan said quietly.  "Doesn't her family need her for support?"  She knew the question was a little impertinent, but she wanted to know what kind of person Maggie really was.

"Her mom is the one who urged her to go," Brendan revealed.  "Maggie was really close with her dad, and when he lost his ability to recognize her, she had a very, very tough time of it.  In a way, it's hard for her to be away, but in another way, it's easier to not have to be surrounded by it.  I think it was the right decision for her-even though she still has her doubts."

"How many other sibs does she have?"

"Oh, she has a full baseball team," he chuckled.  "She's the fifth of nine.  Her oldest brother and the two youngest aren't married.  The rest are-and they all live in the Chicago area.  Her mom has a lot of support."

"Wow," Ryan said again, feeling slightly overwhelmed by the information.  "This must have ruined them financially."

"Yeah.  Her dad was a cop, so he has good medical benefits, and he was able to hang in until he qualified for his pension, but they aren't very well off.  Maggie pays for all of her dad's care that insurance doesn't cover.  He's in the best facility available-I think she does that as her penance for not being there," he admitted.

"So that brings us back to your original question," Ryan reminded him.  "Would Da have married Mama if he knew?"

"Yeah.  What do you think, Ryan?"

"I can't answer for him, Bren, but I'd be with Jamie if I knew we didn't even have a year together.  If you can walk away from Maggie because of this-you should."  She knew that her words were rather harsh, but she wanted Bren to abandon his logical way of thinking and listen to his heart.

The silence carried on a little longer than she was comfortable with, and she was afraid she had deeply offended him, but he finally said, "I can't, Ryan.  I won't.  I love her-no matter what's in store for us-I love her."

She sniffed away the tears that were forming and said, "I had a feeling you'd say that, Bren.  I love you, too."

"Thanks, Ryan," he said softly.  "I guess we'll just have to work out the details as time goes on."

"Hey, Bren?"  Ryan recalled a detail from an earlier conversation, and wanted to follow up on it.  "Did this have anything to do with her previous boyfriend breaking up with her?"

He sighed and admitted.  "Yep.  It was the whole problem.  He wanted to be with her, but he didn't want to have kids together.  He refused to even consider adopting.  I think he was just scared."

"I bet you're scared, too, Bren, but you won't let that stop you."

She could hear him smiling through the phone as he said, "No, you're right, Ryan.  I won't let that stop me."

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

At 9:30 on Thursday night, two tired volleyball players relaxed on their respective beds.  The dark-haired one was methodically shoveling spoonfuls of cereal into her mouth, with the other continually trying to add a little something to the bowl.  "Let me put some more raisins in that," Jordan suggested.

"Did Jamie offer to pay you by the calorie?" Ryan smirked, knowing her partner was behind this conspiracy.

"No…although that's not a bad idea," Jordan mused.

Ryan flicked an almond at her, laughing when her quick-reflexed friend caught it in her mouth.  "Well, that's all I can get down," she said, setting the bowl on the table.

"How about another banana?" Jordan asked.  "You need the potassium."

"Okay," Ryan sighed.  "Toss me one."  Jordan did so, and Ryan started turning her bed down as she ate.  "I can't wait to sleep."  As soon as she swallowed the last bite, she brushed her teeth and hopped in.  Jordan was planning on going out with some of their teammates, but she wanted to make sure Ryan was fed and asleep before she did so.

The dark woman got into the bed and tossed and turned a bit, trying to get comfortable.  "It's hard to find a good spot without Jamie here," she mumbled, punching her pillow in frustration.

Jordan got up and went into the bath, emerging with a bottle of moisture lotion.  "Let me rub your back for a while," she suggested.

"Did Jamie put you up to this too?" Ryan asked as she tugged off her T-shirt and lay face down on the bed.

"Yeah…it was mentioned," Jordan admitted.  "She said that the best way to relax you was…I believe the term she used was a skin massage, rather than muscle massage."

"Yep.  That's the ticket," Ryan agreed.  "She just moves my skin around with her fingertips.  Lots of lotion, please."

"Have you always had a retinue of people tending to your every need, Boomer?" Jordan asked fondly as she squirted a cool trail of lotion down the center of Ryan's back.

"I hate to admit it, but I really have," Ryan chuckled.  "Being the youngest, and the only girl, and having a bunch of aunts who all had only sons really helped, I think.  They all wanted to pamper a sweet little girl."

"Well, I guess you'd do in a pinch, huh?" the blonde teased gently.

Jordan was quiet for a while as she played with the smooth skin under her fingers and Ryan asked, "You didn't have that, did you?"

"No," she said softly.  "My brother got all the pampering.  I was supposed to take care of both him and my mother.  It was a little Cinderella-like, but it wasn't a step-family…I was blood-related to the jerks."

"What about your dad?" Ryan asked, her voice growing soft as she started to relax under Jordan's gentle stroking.

"He wasn't home much when I was little," she said.  "He was just getting his career going and work took precedence.  But when he was there, he generally made over me.  As long as I was doing well at school and accomplishing something in one of my sports, he was very supportive."

Ryan turned her head around to be able to look into Jordan's eyes.  "Did you never feel loved just for being who you are?"

The blonde head shook slowly, Jordan's fine hair skimming over her shoulders.  "No.  Never."

Lying back down, Ryan reached back and patted Jordan's leg.  "I love you for who you are, Jordan.  I think you're just perfect."

Jordan leaned over and kissed Ryan on the cheek.  "I love you too, Boomer."  She ruffled the dark hair affectionately and added, "You're the best friend I've ever had."  She handed Ryan her T-shirt and ordered, "Now cover up so you don't catch cold, you tender little thing.  And don't you dare try to get out of bed before eight a.m.  Jamie's orders!"

"Will do," Ryan agreed, shrugging into her shirt and collapsing heavily onto the mattress.  "You be careful if you go out.  And if you want to sleep with me you can, okay?"

"Mmm…that wouldn't be a good idea, Boomer," Jordan chuckled.  "My hands wind up in some pretty interesting places when I sleep these days.  Besides, I haven't had a nightmare since our first road trip."

"That's good to hear," Ryan murmured sleepily.  "See you tomorrow, pal. Thanks for caring about me, Jordan."

A fond smile covered the blonde's face, even though Ryan couldn't see it.  "Night, Boomer."

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

The next morning Ryan lay in bed, her hands laced together behind her head, trying to make herself remain right where she was.  Jordan got up and stumbled into the bathroom, and when she came back she shot a sleepy-eyed glance at her roommate and said, "It's after eight, Boom, you can get up now if you want."

"Nah," Ryan yawned.  "I'm trying to get used to sleeping late.  It's the only way I'm ever going to feel better."

"Might help if you closed your eyes," the blonde mumbled as she curled up in her still-warm bed.

Ryan didn't reply, recognizing that Jordan's comment was rhetorical.  She rolled over onto her side and tried to sleep, but was largely unsuccessful.  A few minutes later she heard Jordan flopping around and she turned to look at her.  "You up?"

"Yeah.  I can't go back to sleep.  You're starting to rub off on me."

Ryan sighed and said, "Jamie can always put me to sleep."

"Hey, I rubbed your back as instructed and helped you nod off last night," the blonde reminded her.

"Yeah, but she can put me to sleep when I'm fully rested," Ryan asserted.  "That takes talent."

As Jordan rolled over to face her friend she saw the impish expression on her face.  "I have a feeling I know what her technique is," she guessed.  "I think you're gonna have to wait until you get home for that little demonstration."

"Mmm…nobody could compare, Jordan.  She's the only one for me."

There was a short silence as Jordan pondered a question.  "Is that really true, Ryan?  Is Jamie really the best sex partner you've ever had?"

Ryan gave the question its due consideration, as she always did.  "Hmm…let me answer that two ways," she said thoughtfully.  "Yes, we have the most fulfilling sex life that I could even imagine.  No comparison.  But I've been with people who were a lot more experienced and pushed me a little more than Jamie ever does, and that's fun on a different level."

"Pushed you?"  The blonde really didn't understand the reference.

"Let's see…how do I explain this?" Ryan mused.  "It's actually a little difficult to express this in words, since it's such a physical concept, but I'll try."  She rolled onto her side and supported her head with one braced hand.  "I've been with women who just played me like an instrument, Jordan.  Women who had so much experience, and loved sex so much, that they dedicated themselves to it."  She laughed gently as she said, "I'm generally pretty quiet in bed, but I've had women drive me so crazy that the neighbors were pounding on the walls to get us to shut up."

"It's not like that with Jamie?" she asked curiously.

Ryan smiled gently and colored just a little as she admitted, "Well, sometimes it is, but that's the exception, rather than the rule."

With a furrowed brow, Jordan asked, "So, it doesn't bother you to not always have wild sex?"

"No, not at all," Ryan insisted.  "Those women were using my body to make me feel something…so they would feel something, too.  But it never really worked," she said thoughtfully.  "Oh, I felt plenty physically, but very little emotionally.  It's like we had to fuck each other's brains out to feel connected."  She paused reflectively as she said, "It's never like that with Jamie.  I feel so much from the slightest touch, from the softest kiss.  If she pushed me sexually the way these women did, it would probably kill me - I honestly don't want that kind of thing with her on a routine basis."

"Hmm…I don't know if I really understand the difference, Ryan.  It seems like you'd want the woman who was the absolute best in bed if you were going to be with her for the rest of your life."

"I'm not expressing myself well," Ryan decided.  "Jamie is the best in bed-by far.  Making love is more than just the physical sensations, Jordan.  Jamie's like a volleyball player that can do it all-set, kill, pass, serve-and do it all very, very well.  Now if you compared her to the world's best passer, she might come out a little short.  Likewise the best server; but if you wanted one particular player to be on your team, you'd choose her every time, because she is the best overall.  Does that make any sense?"

"Yeah, I guess so," she agreed.  "I just wonder about these things because of Mia."

"What about her?"

"I'm trying to figure out what's going on with us, you know, how I feel about her.  I don't have anything to compare it to, and that confuses me a little."  Jordan had rolled onto her back again, making it difficult for Ryan to see her face clearly.

"I can't tell where you're going here, Jordan.  What has you confused?"

"It's a little hard for me to pin down, Ryan.  I just wonder what it all means."  She sat up and tossed her legs over the side of the bed, looking intently at Ryan as she said, "I don't really know where we're going, ya know?"

"Well, you've only been seeing each other a short time, Jordan.  That's not that odd."

"Yeah.  I guess you're right," she agreed.  "I'm just not used to not knowing where I'm going.  It feels weird."

"I know the feeling," Ryan chuckled.  "When I first realized I was falling for Jamie, I was more confused than I had been at any time in my life."

Jordan hopped to her feet and loomed over Ryan, her eyes wide.  "That's not what I'm referring to!  I'm not falling in love!  I just…I just…I was talking about sex!"

Ryan blinked up at her, a puzzled look on her face.  "Oh…sorry.  It didn't feel like you were talking about sex.  What about it?"

"Uhm…well…Mia's the only woman I've ever been with…and I wanted to know…um…how to judge the sex we've been having.  You know…is it really good, or just good because I've never had it?"

Now Ryan sat up, and gazed up at her friend speculatively.  "You want to know how to tell if the sex you're having is good?"  The tilt of her head, and the tone of her voice combined to show she doubted that the question was sincere.

"Uhm…yeah.  How do you know if it's really good?"

Ryan scratched her head and looked up again.  "Isn't that like asking how you know if you've enjoyed a meal?"

"No," Jordan said, sitting down cross-legged on the bed.  "What if I've only had fast-food my whole life, and I go to a fabulous restaurant and have all sorts of dishes I've never had.  I might want my more experienced dining companion to tell me if the escargot we just had was really good, or not.  I'm trying to educate my palate here, Ryan."

"Okay," the dark-haired woman agreed.  "I guess I see your point.  Tell me this…how do you feel when you make l…have sex with Mia?"

Jordan laughed gently and smiled at her friend.  "It's pretty awesome, Ryan, and I mean that in the true sense of the word.  Sometimes I lie there and I'm actually in awe of the feelings."

Ryan smiled back and assured her, "I've been in awe a few times myself.  What else?"

"Well, it's hard to explain, but she makes me feel really special, you know?  Like she'd rather be with me than anyone else on earth.  She makes me feel really attractive, too, and that hasn't happened to me very often."

Ryan's mouth gaped open at that comment, but Jordan was staring at some distant point and didn't take in her startled expression.  "She makes me feel aware of my body in ways I never have been before, if that makes sense.  It's funny, but sometimes I feel like she's actually worshipping me."  Her eyes moved to Ryan's, and she cocked her head slightly as she asked, "Do you know what I mean?  She lavishes so much attention on my body that I feel like a goddess sometimes."

Ryan nodded, having felt that way a time or two, also, but only with Jamie.

"Like the other night…she spent a good fifteen minutes just kissing my hands."  She looked down at her hands, which were lying palms-up on her knees.  "They didn't even feel like my hands when she was doing that.  I looked at them like they were really special, too-rather than just tools for beating the hell out of a volleyball."  Ryan laughed at her joke, and Jordan looked at her carefully.  "Does that sound like good sex?"

"Does your heart start to beat wildly when she looks at you in a certain way-and you know she wants to touch you?"

"God, yes!" Jordan cried, falling onto her back, her legs still crossed-knees pointing towards the ceiling.  "Sometimes she gives me a look, and it's all that I can do to stay on my feet!"

"Do you find yourself thinking of her when you really should be doing something else?"

"Uhm…how about match point last night?  It was really hot in the gym, and I lifted my arm to wipe my forehead.  I smelled my own sweat, and it reminded me of some of the scents we throw off when we have sex, and I almost forgot what I was doing out there!"

"Uh-huh," Ryan said, recalling seeing Jamie's face in a few glass beakers in chemistry lab.  "Is being with her the highlight of your day?"

"Yep.  Being with her is better than beating Stanford."

"When something happens, does it have more meaning once you share it with her?"

Jordan thought for a second and said, "Yeah…it does.  I felt great about beating Oregon last night, but it wasn't until I called her that it really sank in.  It's like I could feel that she was proud of me for playing well, and then it meant more to me."

Ryan nodded, having felt the same way while on her own phone call.  "I feel qualified to render my expert opinion now, Jordan," she said solemnly.

"Yeah?" the blonde woman asked, her head tilted in anticipation.

"You are most definitely having great sex.  I'd stake my reputation on it."

Jordan nodded, smiling broadly.  "That's what I thought," she said.  "Thanks for listening, Ryan.  You really are great to talk to."

As she hopped to her feet to head for the shower, Ryan smirked at her departing form.  Oooh, baby.  Are you ever in deep!

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

"Hey, Mia, it's Ryan.  Is the love of my life at home?"

"Yep.  Now that we've covered that, let me talk to my sweetie, okay?"

"Wait your turn," Ryan growled playfully.  "I want to say goodnight and hit the sack.  Then you and Jordan can stay up and giggle all night."

"Oh, all right," she pouted, "here's Jamie."  The phone was handed off amidst a muted rustle.

Jamie's sleepy sounding voice said, "Hi, sweetheart.  We were almost asleep."

"We?" Ryan asked, eyebrows shooting up.  "Are you sleeping together?"

"Uh-huh," she said, a half-captured yawn escaping.  "We were sitting in my room, listening to the game on the Internet and generally moaning about how we hated to have you two gone, and we decided to at least have a little companionship."

"Hey, thanks!"  Ryan could hear Mia's outraged squawk in the background.

"You know I love you," Jamie soothed her friend.  "I'm just not in love with you.  Big difference, as I've discovered."

"Well I should hope so," Ryan interjected.  "Are you two trustworthy?  I don't want a pair of 'Dear Jane' letters waiting for us when we return."

"We've slept together many times before now, honey."  She giggled a little as she recalled, "Of course, neither of us knew about the other's Sapphic tendencies at the time."

"You know, Jordan says she doesn't want to sleep with me any longer because her hands don't behave.  Maybe you'd better take some precautions with Mia," Ryan teased, winking at Jordan, who was having a good laugh over the suggestion.  She thought for a moment and added, "I've got some handcuffs in my bag of tricks."

"Hey, Mia, Ryan wants me to put handcuffs on you.  Do you mind?"

After a pause Jamie got back on the line and said, "She says she'll agree to a little bondage, but that she has to be the top.  She claims that she and submission are incompatible."

"I don't even have a rejoinder for that," Ryan chuckled.  She lowered her voice slightly, and Jordan took the hint, going into the bath to get ready for bed.  "I'm glad you have each other, honey.  Just don't warm your hands like you do with me."

"Hey, it's not my fault that I could melt chocolate on your breasts.  You're just a little space heater."

"You know," Ryan said reflectively, "the thought of seeing you with another person now is abhorrent for me.  But I have this image of the two of you when you were still in high school and clueless about your sexual flexibility.  It's kinda hot to think of you innocently fooling around a little bit when you were on a sleep-over."

"It never happened," Jamie insisted, her voice dropping as she added, "but I'll be happy to make up a little erotic story about that for your birthday."

"Ooo…tempting," Ryan chuckled.  "But I don't think you have to go to that much trouble to turn me on.  Just hearing your voice does it-quite well, as a matter of fact."

"Mmm…works for me too," she sighed.  "You just hold that thought until tomorrow, Hot Stuff.  I'll make steam come out of your ears."

"I'm going to sleep right now, so I'll can start dreaming of you.  I love you, Jamie."

"I love you too, Ryan.  Now put Jordan on so Mia will stop pinching me."

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Continued in Part Two

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