I Found My Heart In San Francisco

Book 10:  Journeys

By SX Meagher

 
 

Part Ten (conclusion)

Catherine arrived just a few minutes after they returned from Mass.  As Ryan went to the door to welcome her she gazed at her fondly, slightly in awe of her impeccable style.  That day's outfit consisted of an incredibly soft-looking cashmere turtleneck sweater that was just the color of French vanilla ice cream.  A delicate gold chain belt hung rather low on her hips, accentuating her small waist.  Chocolate brown suede slacks covered her legs, and darker brown suede boots finished off the look.  As usual, she wore just the right amount of perfume for Ryan's tastes, the distinctive scent only noticeable when one actually hugged her.  "You look absolutely wonderful, Catherine," she said sincerely, as she took in her delicate fragrance.

"Thank you, Ryan.  I normally wouldn't wear slacks on Thanksgiving, but I wanted to be able to chase my little pumpkin around the house without worrying about my stockings."

"You really do look lovely, Mom," Jamie agreed enthusiastically.  "I like it when you look more casual."

"I like it too," she said decisively.  "It makes me feel younger, and I need all the help I can get around you two."

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

They had to drive to Berkeley to pick up Jordan and Jennie, and Ryan noticed that her teammate was a little reserved when they picked her up.  She assumed it would be hard for Jordan to get into the spirit of the party, but she hoped that the informal nature of the day would loosen her up and let her enjoy herself.

When they arrived at the big craftsman style house where Jennie was staying, Ryan was amazed when her friend came down the stairs.  Jennie was smiling so brightly that she looked giddy.  She had on a baby blue cardigan sweater over a white turtleneck and a pair of navy blue wool slacks.  The slacks were at least one size too large, and about two inches too long, but Ryan had never seen her young friend dressed so normally.  "You look really nice, Jen," she said appreciatively.  Ryan had noticed that Jennie had not shaved her head in several weeks, and the blonde fuzz that she was sporting made her look a bit like a Chia pet, but she thought it best not to comment too much on her appearance or her style choices.  She knew that one of Jennie's favorite methods of rebellion was through her "look," and she wanted neither to encourage or discourage her in that regard.  So she made it a point to comment only if Jennie did something different, just to show that she was paying attention.

"Thanks," she blushed as Ryan gave her a hug.  "I borrowed the pants, but the sweater is really mine," she said proudly.

"Well, you look great," Ryan insisted as they walked through the living room.

Jennie stuck her head into the small den where four high-school-aged girls were watching TV.  "Bye, guys," she called out.  "Have fun today."

"You too, Jen," one of the young women replied.  The others sat up attentively when they spied Ryan in the doorway.  "Who's your friend?" one of them asked.

Jennie grasped Ryan's hand and pulled her into the room.  "This is my friend Ryan I told you guys about," she said, as she looked up at the tall woman.

"Hi," the oldest-looking girl said in a tone that Ryan recognized but no longer sought out.

"This is J.C.," Jennie said as she introduced the woman.  "And that's Maggie and Skylar."

"Why don't you two hang out for a while?" J.C. suggested in a near-sultry voice.

"Gotta go," Ryan said quickly.  "My lover's waiting in the car."

"Oh, Jamie's here too?" Jennie asked.

"Yep.  We're just waiting for you."  Ryan put her hand on Jennie's back to guide her out.  "Nice to meet you all," she said politely.

"You too," J.C. said, but she managed to make it sound like a proposition.

On the way down the sidewalk Jennie laughed as she said, "Well at least they won't think I'm a total nerd."

"Huh?  What do you mean?"

"I told them that you were coming to take me to dinner, and I said you were really gorgeous.  They didn't believe me, but I think you changed their minds," she giggled, sounding just like the 14-year-old that she was.

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

The house was bursting at the seams when they arrived, and they were all amazed at the massive display of appetizers that the aunts had prepared.  But even though Ryan was starving, she steadfastly refused all of the proffered dishes.  "I want turkey, gravy, dressing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce," she maintained.  "I refuse to surrender my appetite to any other foodstuffs."

Catherine was carrying the baby around and as they passed, Ryan gave her a pointed look and said, "Time for a change, Catherine.  Want me to do it?"

"Oh no, I can handle it," she said easily.  She found the diaper bag by Maeve, and the older woman insisted on helping her.  They took the baby down to Ryan's room and got her settled as Catherine worked on her diaper-changing skills.  "So, how are things going, Maeve?  I trust married life is treating you well."

"Oh yes," she enthused.  "It's better than I could have dreamed.  I hope Moira's working on Mam to assure her that Martin is the dream both Fionnuala and I have always said he was."

"Why is there such bad blood there, Maeve?  I can't imagine a mother wanting a better husband for her daughter."

Maeve was pensive for a moment, trying to decide how to frame her reply.  "She's never forgiven Martin for taking my sister away from home," she said sadly.  "Fionnuala was just over here on a tourist visa, you know.  I had met the O'Flaherty brothers at church while they were still brushing the Irish soil from their shoes," she said fondly.  "We had some shirt-tail relations in common, and one of their cousins was living in the town my husband was from.  We all hit it off immediately," she recalled.  "My husband actually helped Francis get into the carpenter's union.  We made as many calls as we could, and within a few weeks, Martin and Patrick had jobs too, and they could afford to send Malachy to school to learn his plumbing trade.  I took Fi to Mass with me at the end of her little visit, and she suggested we have the boys over for tea that day.  Well, by the end of the afternoon, my little sister was over the moon for Martin.  She stayed past the expiration of her visa and didn't go home until Martin asked her to marry him!  She had to go home then just so she could come in legally again, and my mother worked that poor girl over so badly she didn't know up from down!  But her mind was made up, and as soon as she got another visa--back she came."

"And your mother never warmed up to Martin?"

"No, not really.  They didn't ever really spend much time together since they couldn't all afford to travel to Ireland together, and my mother doesn't travel at all.  So Martin and Fi would save up to send her and one of the children over every year.  Martin thought it was important for the kids to know their grandparents, so it made sense to do it that way, but the result was that they've really spent very little time together.  Before we traveled there together, the last time they saw each other was when we took Fi back to Ireland to bury her," she said, with a catch in her voice.

"Well, I'm sure Moira will give a glowing recommendation," Catherine assured her.  "Anyone could see how happy you both are."

Maeve placed a hand on Catherine's shoulder and said, "I can see how sad you are today.  Do you want to talk about it?"

Before she knew what came over her, Catherine dropped her head onto Maeve's shoulder and cried her heart out, feeling like the underpinnings of her world had been ripped away.

She cried for a long time, unable to control herself when she felt the surprisingly firm embrace enfold her.  Maeve comforted her, rocking her gently until she could speak.  "It's been hard to hold this inside," she sobbed.  "My husband and I are going to divorce."

"Oh, you poor, poor, thing," Maeve sighed.  "Have you told Jamie?"

"No.  I didn't want to upset her today," Catherine explained.  "It's their first Thanksgiving together, and I want them to have happy memories of the day."

"But, Catherine÷"

"No, Maeve," she said firmly.  "She's leaving for the airport in just a few hours.  I'll tell her when she gets back from Colorado-it would be unfair to have her struggle with this while she's away."

"You know what's best, Catherine, but are you sure she won't find out?"

"No.  Jim promised not to call her until I've spoken to her.  He owes me at least that much."

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Rory was gamely showing Jennie his accordion when Ryan popped her head in to checked on them.  Rory looked up and said, "Your buddy here has some musical talent that you didn't know about."

"Really?" Ryan asked as she sat on the bed and watched Rory illustrate the proper way to play his instrument.  "What do you play?"

"Well, I don't know much," the young woman admitted.  "I started taking clarinet lessons when I was in fifth grade, but my high school doesn't have music class."

"But do you still play?" Ryan asked.

"No.  We just rented the instrument.  My mom sent it back one time when she was mad at me.  I was really getting into it too÷" she said softly with a faraway look on her face.

"Don't move a muscle," Ryan ordered as she dashed from the room.  Two minutes later, she was back with two clarinets, one of which she handed to Jennie with a flourish.  "I got this one when I was just a kid," she said fondly.  "When I got better I saved up for three years until I could afford a really nice one."  She held the better quality instrument out for Jennie to examine.  "I'll make you a deal," she said as Jennie looked up at her with barely disguised longing.  "I'll lend you my starter.  If you work hard at it, and make a lot of progress, I'll give you this one for your 15th birthday."

The stunned look that the younger woman gave her nearly made Ryan weep.  "Do you really mean that?" she asked, looking like she was afraid the instrument would be ripped from her hands if she reached for it.

"Of course I do, Jen.  I don't play much anymore, and my original will be plenty good for the rare occasion I want to pick it up.  I'd like this good quality instrument to be played.  If you'll promise to play it-it can be yours."

"I will, Ryan," she said with a smile bright enough to light up the room.  "I don't know a lot, but I'll do my best."

"Hey, you don't have to do this alone," Ryan said with a smile.  "I'll teach you."

"You÷you will?"  Years of disappointment and broken promises clouded Jennie's eyes.  "But you're so busy, Ryan÷"

"I am busy, but you're worth it," she said firmly.

"Hey, don't forget about me," Rory piped up.  "I'm not a bad teacher either."

"Would you be willing to help, Rory?" Ryan asked.

"I'd love to," he said enthusiastically.  "I've got a lot of time on my hands when we're not touring.  Ryan's more skilled with the clarinet, but I taught my little sister to read music, so I think I could manage that part of the lesson plan."

"Really?  Will you really?" Jennie asked hopefully, with her eyes terribly wide.

"Absolutely," Rory replied.  "What's your schedule like?"

"I don't have anything after school," she said.  "I'm home by three."

"How about Wednesdays?" Ryan suggested.  "I rarely have a game on Wednesday, and it's not usually a travel day."

Rory considered the logistics and suggested, "How about if I work with Jennie from five to seven at your house.  When you get home we can eat dinner together, then you can give her a short lesson and some practice exercises for the week."

"That's a great idea," Ryan agreed.  "How about it, Jen?"

"I'm in!" she gushed as she slapped Ryan's outstretched palm.

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

When Ryan came out of Rory's room, she spotted Jordan leaning over the railing of the second floor.  She had a wistful look on her face as she gazed down at the boisterous party that raged just below, and she was so deep in her reverie that she didn't notice Ryan come up next to her.  "Hey, buddy," Ryan said softly, so as to not jar her friend.

"Hi, Boom," she replied as she slipped her arm around her friend and rested her head on her shoulder.

"What's got you down?" Ryan asked, deciding to bring up the obvious.

"Oh, I don't know.  Sometimes I just feel like I'll always be outside looking in," she said softly.  "I look down on all of your relatives and see how happy and connected to each other they seem, and it feels like I'll never have that."

"I know you'll never have it from your family of origin, Jordan, but you can create your own family to sustain you."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, one way is to let someone in enough to really love you," she said softly.  "When you allow yourself to really be loved, it's not that hard to extend your love to bring in others.  Like Jamie," she said as she nodded her head at her partner down below.  "It's hard to believe now, but she felt very distant from her family when I first met her.  She was so starved for connection that she just jumped in with us like she'd been an O'Flaherty all her life.  She's chosen to be in my family, Jordan, and she's added so much to the group in a very short time.  Now her mom is one of us, too.  It can just grow and build, if you're willing to take the leap."

"So I have to start flying my lesbian flag to get the ball rolling, huh?" she asked with a smirk.

"No.  That's not required.  I choose you as my sister," she said as she wrapped her in a warm embrace.

"I couldn't pick a better one," came Jordan's mumbled reply as she nuzzled her head against Ryan's neck.

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

It was almost noon, and both barbequed turkeys were just about done.  Ryan checked her watch for the tenth time as she wondered where Sara and Ally were.  Both of the women were chronically punctual, making her think that they were going to be no-shows.  She had been up and down the stairs to the backyard so many times that she was a little overheated, so she decided to sit out on the deck for a few minutes to cool off before she began her feeding frenzy.  To her surprise, Sara and Ally were sitting on facing chairs, both looking very comfortable.

Ryan stood in the doorway, her hands on her hips, giving her friends a scowl.  "Were you two going to come in, or what?"

Sara blushed a little as she got up and made a vague gesture between Ally and herself.  "We got here at the same time, and for some reason we both confessed to being nervous about going in," she revealed.  "We sat down to chat, and we must have gotten carried away."  She glanced at her watch and said, "My God!  We've been out here an hour and a half!"

Ryan smiled at the pair and said, "You're actually here at the perfect time.  We're going to eat soon."

Ally got up and wrapped Ryan in her powerful embrace, giving her a gentle but full kiss on the lips.  Sara came up next to Ryan and, as Ally released her, gave her an awkward-looking hug.  Their mouths nearly collided as Ryan went to kiss Sara's lips, but was offered a cheek.  She pulled back quickly, and Sara tried for a mid-flight correction, but now Ryan was aiming for her cheek, managing only to hit her nose.  They finally gave up, both looking a little sheepish.

"What can I do to make you guys feel more comfortable?" Ryan asked.  "Sara, you know nearly everyone, so you don't need introductions, but Ally only knows Jamie."  She turned to her larger friend and asked, "Do you want to meet everyone, or would you like to fly under the radar for a while?"

"If you don't mind, Ryan, I'd be grateful if I could just stay in the background," Ally said in her soft Southern drawl.  "I hate to meet large groups of people."

"Stick with me," Sara offered.  "I can point out all of the relatives for you and introduce you to anyone you'd like to meet."

"Now that's the best idea I've heard all day," Ally said, her eyes flashing with interest.

Where's the girlfriend? Ryan wondered somewhat peevishly.  I thought you were going to get serious about her?  Instead of voicing her pique, Ryan pasted on a smile and led the women inside, pleased when not many eyes turned their way.

Jamie, of course, spotted them right away, and she came over immediately and offered a warm hug to each woman.  "Would you like me to introduce you to everyone?" she asked brightly.

"Already taken care of," Ryan informed her.  Looking around the room she looked to Sara and said, "The lovely woman in that corner is Jamie's mom, Catherine, and I think you know everyone else on the first floor."

"I do," she agreed, "but some of them are a lot bigger than the last time I saw them."

Ryan smiled and said, "Testosterone does a body good.  Those critical early 20's gave some of the boys new bodies."

"That's rather obvious, Ryan.  Boy, you should have asked some of your straight friends over."

"Are you÷non-straight, Sara?" Ally asked, her eyes becoming hooded.

The brunette flushed, still very uncomfortable at revealing her sexual orientation.  "I'm uh÷I'm a lesbian, Ally."

Something about her tone and her obvious discomfort let Ally know this was new territory for the woman.  She smiled rakishly and said, "Welcome to the club!  Let me know if you need a tour guide."

Oh please!  She'll never fall for that line!  Ryan screamed internally.  But to her displeasure, Sara smiled broadly at the larger woman and nodded her head slowly.  "I could use a good tour, Ally.  I've just officially joined."

"Well, I've been a member for years and years," Ally assured her.  "I'll clue you in on all the attractions."

If you even think of taking her to Good Vibrations, I'll kill you with my bare hands!

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Martin saw Sara come in, and after fighting through the crowd he gave her a warm hug and said, "My goodness, you've become a beautiful young woman!"

"Thanks, Mr. O'Flaherty," she blushed.  "I really appreciate the invitation today."

"You're required to call me Martin now," he insisted.  Maeve came up beside him and captured Sara in a hug also.

"We're so glad you came, Sara.  I hope we'll see you again often," she added.

"I'd like that Mrs. Drisc÷O'Flaherty," she finished weakly.

"It's Maeve, dear."

"Okay, Maeve it is," she smiled.  "Do both of you know Ryan's friend Ally?"

"No, we've not had the pleasure," Martin said, his eyes lighting up in surprise.  "I've heard Siobhán speak of you for years, Ally, but somehow we've never met."

The large woman looked a little puzzled, but graciously greeted her hosts.  Ryan was standing across the room, and she was pleased that Sara was introducing Ally to a few important people.  Conor came up beside her and asked, "Who's with Sara?  She looks like one of the women from the World Wrestling Federation."

"Nice," Ryan said, her face expressing her disapproval of her brother's description.  "That's an old friend of mine."

"Old friend," Conor said slowly.  "You don't have any old friends that you didn't÷" He looked from Ally to his sister and finally said, "You hit that?"

"Pardon me?" she said with exaggerated slowness.

"Did you hook up with her?" he asked, trying another expression when Ryan didn't reply.

"Did you have an operation to remove all of your tact, or did it just seep out through the hole in your head?"  She was obviously perturbed, but he honestly couldn't figure out why.

"I asked a simple question, Sis.  She doesn't look anything like your type, and I just wanted to know if you bumped boots with her.  No biggie."

"Yes, Conor," she said through clenched teeth.  "I bumped her boots and everything else.  That's my friend Ally."

"That's Ally!?"  He said this loudly enough to be heard across the room, but luckily the crowd noise was far too loud for his voice to carry above it.

"Yes, that's Ally.  And I'd prefer that you didn't stare at her!"

"You÷you÷you had sex with her for years!" he gasped.  "She's÷she's so butch!  That can't work, Ryan," he insisted.  "You're butch!"

"Well, at least somebody thinks so," she muttered aloud as she wandered off.

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Ryan decided that her friends needed to meet Jennie, and she dragged them upstairs with her.  Rory was playing a lively tune on his accordion for his appreciative audience.  Jordan was sitting on the floor watching in rapt fascination, Jennie was sitting right next to her.  Jordan had her arm casually draped around the young woman's shoulders, and Ryan briefly thought, That's always the way to make yourself feel better.  Reach out to someone less fortunate.

Rory quickly concluded his little tune and placed his instrument on the bed as he rose to shake hands with first Sara and then Ally.  His sunny demeanor gave no indication of past ill feelings, and as Jordan and Jennie struggled to get up, Ryan urged them to remain seated.  "These are my good friends Sara Andrews and Ally Webster," she said.  "This is Jordan Ericsson and Jennie Willis."

"Good to meet you both," Sara said as she squatted a bit to shake their extended hands.  "I saw your last game, Jordan," she added.  "Quite a performance."

"Thanks," she said as she shot her a dazzling smile.  "Having Ryan on the team made this season a lot easier."

"You don't have to tell me," she laughed.  "She turned our soccer team around in one year."

"We'll feed you guys even without the bull," Ryan smirked.  "Hey, you two have something in common."

"What's that?" Jordan asked.

"You're both waiting for some life-changing news."

"I'm waiting for bar results," Sara volunteered.  "What about you, Jordan?"

"I should find out by Monday if I'm invited to try out for the national volleyball team," she said shyly.

"That's so cool!" Jennie piped up, but after a second she added, "What's that mean?"

Jordan gave her a little squeeze as she laughed and said, "That's the kind of reaction I like!  You think it's cool even when you don't know the significance."  She rubbed Jennie's head affectionately as she told her, "They have a team that spends the next year getting ready to participate in the summer Olympics.  You have to get invited to try out, and they might ask me."

"Wow!" she said with open-mouthed amazement.  "That's awesome!"

"Well, I'm not sure I'll get invited÷"

"You'll make it," Ryan assured her.  "You had a fantastic year."

"What about you, Ryan?" Sara asked.

"No, I don't think so.  They like to see a real commitment to the game.  My checkered career doesn't show the focus that they want."

"I don't know, Boomer," Jordan opined.  "You might be surprised."

"Boomer?" Sara said with a delighted grin.  "Did you say Boomer?"

Jordan got to her feet and lightly touched both Sara and Ally on their shoulders.  "Let's go snag some snacks, and I'll tell you all of her many nicknames."

Great, now the whole world will have ammunition, Ryan grumbled to herself.

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Ryan left Jennie in Rory's capable hands and went to search for her partner.  I haven't seen that little scamp all day, she mused as she was stopped repeatedly by her various relatives for a few words or well wishes on her upcoming road trip.

She finally found Catherine carrying Caitlin around.  "Ryan, have you been photographed yet?" the older woman asked.

"Nooo, I don't know what you mean."

"Didn't Jamie tell you what she was going to do?"

"Nooo, not that I'm surprised, of course," she smirked.

"Well, let's go outside," Catherine urged.  Ryan threaded through the throng and stood on the small open porch off the second floor overlooking the little photo studio in front of the stately crape myrtle in the far corner of the small yard.

"Where did she÷?" Ryan started to ask.

"I have no idea where she got the idea, but she's been snapping away for over an hour."

They walked down the stairs and observed Malachy, Peggy, Padraig, Liam, Declan, and Dermot posing for their family portrait.  Two large bounce umbrellas were arranged, along with studio quality lights and a very large square format camera on a sturdy tripod.  They waited patiently while Jamie finished with the family, but as soon as they broke the pose Ryan came up right behind Jamie and leaned over severely.  Their faces were nearly touching and she was rewarded with a gentle kiss.  "Like my setup?" Jamie asked lightly.

"How÷?"

"I wanted to have some family portraits taken.  I called around, but it was just ridiculous how much portrait photographers wanted to spend a couple of hours here.  So I decided to rent a whole setup.  I took a lot of photography classes when I was in high school, and it all came back to me when I went to the camera store to rent this stuff.  Cool, huh?"

"You are very, very cool," Ryan said with appreciation.  "You're positively frosty."

"Well, it's about your turn, gorgeous," she informed her.  "I want some with you and the baby, some with you and my mom, and some with your immediate family.  Oh, and you and Jennie, and you and Jordan, and you and Sara, and you and Ally."

"How about you and me?" Ryan asked, her brow furrowed.

"Hmm, I guess that would be okay," Jamie mused thoughtfully, hiding her grin.

"Catherine, would you do the honors?" Ryan asked as Jamie showed her how to snap the shutter.

They posed for a few cute pictures with the baby, but when Jordan, Sara, and Ally came down, Caitlin spotted them and immediately changed her allegiance.  "Do you mind babysitting for a few minutes?" Ryan asked.

"Only at your own risk, Ryan," Sara said as she swooped the baby into her arms.  "No guarantees on when you'll get her back!"

They posed for a few more pictures, and Catherine was very pleased with the result.  She gave them one bit of direction, suggesting that they lean their heads against each other.  "You do that so often, it just looks very natural," she said.

"Kiss shot, kiss shot!" Jordan urged.

Ryan rolled her eyes, but Jordan reminded her, "It's the only way I see you two most of the time!"

One of her props was a small step stool, so Jamie climbed onto the lowest step to equalize their heights.  Ryan stood very close and gazed at her with such love in her eyes that Catherine had to capture the moment.  "We're not ready," Jamie complained.

"Ryan was," she said as she shrugged her shoulders.  They leaned in towards each other for a gentle kiss, and just before the shutter closed Jamie placed her hand lightly on Ryan's cheek to recreate the sensation that the dark woman loved.  That caused Ryan's mouth to curl into a sweet smile that was captured perfectly as Catherine caught them just millimeters before their lips actually touched.  "Perfect!" she cried as they broke apart.

"Okay, Jordan, hop in with Boomer," Jamie instructed.

The two friends smiled up at the camera with their arms casually draped around each other's shoulders, looking very much like the athletes they were.  Next Jamie turned to Sara and said, "You're up."

Sara blinked a few times, but wordlessly handed the baby to Jordan as she stood a little tentatively next to Ryan.  Ryan obviously felt very comfortable, because she snaked an arm around Sara's waist and pulled her close.  She grinned up at Jamie, and just for an instant Jamie saw a flash of the innocent, guileless face that graced the high school pictures she so loved of her partner.  In that moment, she was terribly glad that Sara was back in Ryan's life. If she can bring some of that childlike sparkle back into those baby blues, I'm glad she's back, she thought decisively.

A cute shot of Ryan with Ally was next, and Jamie smirked to herself as she saw Ryan's whole demeanor change when the large woman put her arm around her.  Ryan's gonna spit when she sees these photos, Jamie decided.  I'm certain that she has no idea she looks like a blushing schoolgirl when Ally puts her arms around her.

Next came a few adorable shots with Ryan and Catherine.  They held the baby between them, and Jamie had to laugh when Caitlin looked directly into the camera, just like Ryan did.  Another model, she said to herself.

Jordan then took a few with Jamie added to the portrait, and while Catherine went to grab the boys and Martin and Maeve, Ryan insisted on several shots with her and Duffy.  Martin came down the stairs grumbling loudly, "Dinner's 20 minutes from being ready, girls!  Do we have to do this now?"

"Yes, Da," she reassured him.  "We'll all have our pants unbuttoned after dinner!"

Even though he complained, Ryan knew he was pleased to have this opportunity.  He was clearly a photo nut--as evidenced by the plethora of shots that filled every room in the house--but very few of the shots were professionally done.  He had always wanted some formal shots of the whole family, but they had just never gotten around to it.

It took a few minutes to get all of the boys organized, and they were ready to go when Maeve slid into the group and smiled so brightly that Catherine got a tear in her eye just looking at the scene.  Martin gazed down at her with a look of pure devotion, and she snapped the shutter immediately without them even noticing.  Several posed shots later, Martin and Maeve agreed to a few alone, and when they were finished they nearly ran back into the house to finish dinner.

Jamie got a few shots of Ryan and Jennie together, then she called a halt to her duties until dinner was finished.

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

As everyone filed back into the house, Ally tugged on Ryan's sleeve and asked, "Stay outside with me for a minute, will you?"

"Sure."  Ryan let Jamie pass her to go in, and she sat down and waited for Ally to do the same.  "What's up?"

"First off, I want to thank you for having me to your home, Ryan.  Thank God I didn't know your family before, 'cause I never would have let you get away," she laughed.  "I haven't been at a big family celebration since I left North Carolina, and I've got to tell you-it's given me something to think about.  I tend to think of families as mostly evil, and it's really great to see that's an overgeneralization."

Ryan reached over and grasped her hand, and gave it a squeeze.  "I'm really glad you came.  It's about time my family met the mystery woman," she smiled.

"You know, Ryan," she said reflectively, "I know that you've said you've never allowed yourself to fall in love, but unless I'm reading you very wrong, there is, or was, something special between you and Sara.  Am I off the mark?"

Ryan could feel her color rising, and she decided to be completely honest with her friend.  "She was my first love, Ally.  Things didn't work out from the very start, and she's been out of my life since I was a senior in high school.  We just re-established contact this fall."

"But that was a long time ago," the larger woman said, scratching her head a bit.  "I swore she said she was just now coming out."

"I don't want to give away Sara's confidences, but it's taken her a long time to get comfortable being gay.  She's just now taking some big steps."

"Hmm÷" She looked at Ryan carefully and asked, "How do you feel about me calling her?  Please be honest with me, Ryan.  I would never do something that would upset you."

Ryan sighed and looked to the sky for a moment, trying to organize her thoughts.  "I love you both, Ally, and there's nothing I'd like better than for the two of you to hit it off.  You're both very special people, and I honestly think she'd really like you."

"But÷" Ally led.

"But÷it would take me a long time to get comfortable with it if you÷went out."

Ally smiled gently and said, "I think you mean if we stayed in."

The dark head nodded quickly as Ryan said, "Yeah.  It's the staying in part that I'd have to come to terms with."

"Then I won't do it," Ally said quickly.  "There are lots of other women out there."

Ryan placed her hand on her knee and said, "No.  Really, Ally.  Don't let my discomfort stop you.  Every mature bone in my body wants the two of you to find someone to love.  There's just a small part of me that doesn't ever want anyone else to play with my toys-and that's something I should get over."

Ally brought her hand up, and ruffled Ryan's hair fondly.  "I'd never play with your favorite toys with anyone else, Ryan," she teased.  "I'm retiring them to a shrine of honor."

"Oh, that's helpful," the dark woman laughed.  "Now I feel better."

"I'm just pulling your cute little leg, sugar.  I know you're referring to Sara.  Hey," she said, remembering something from earlier in the day.  "What's with this name your father uses for you?"

"He and my grandparents are the only ones who use it," she revealed.  "Ryan's actually my middle name."

"Well, it's darned adorable.  I really like being around your family, Ryan, and I hope you invite me again."

"I will," she said decisively.  "Hey, if it's not too personal, what happened with Ellen?"

"She wasn't really ready to settle down," Ally said.  "I'm going to try to stay away from younger women.  I want to find someone who's where I am in terms of commitment."

"I hope you find it, Ally, and if it's with Sara, you have my full support."

I might have to run in the other direction if I ever see you together, but you'll have my support from a distance!

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Maeve pulled Catherine aside to check on her just before dinner was served.  "You look like you're feeling a little better, dear.  Is that so?"

"Yes, I honestly do feel better, Maeve.  Thanks for letting me cry on your shoulder.  Letting out some of the sadness really helped."

"I'll be home all weekend, Catherine.  If you're feeling blue or just want to talk, you call me, all right?"

"I will, Maeve.  It's such a comfort to have you for a friend."

"Me too, Catherine.  Me too," she said fondly as she gave her friend a generous hug.

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

The lavish feast was spread on the large dining room table.  Everyone stood and admired the perfectly browned birds, but Ryan broke through the crowd and declared, "I can't wait another minute.  Let's eat!"

"You know the rule," Martin warned her.  "But since you're in such a hurry, you can just do the honors."

"I'm up for it!" she declared.  She held out both of her hands, so Martin grasped one and Jamie the other.  Everyone else joined hands quickly as they jammed into every inch of the small room.  "We all have a tremendous amount to be thankful for this year," she said conversationally as she glanced around the room.  "But the thing I'm most grateful for is friendship.  Even though I'm related to most of you, and deeply in love with one of you," she shot a glance at her beaming partner, "I would choose each of you as a friend.  So I'd like to offer a blessing for friendship."  She closed her eyes for a moment, and let her head drop back as she began to speak,
 

May you be blessed with good friends.
May you learn to be a good friend to yourself.
May you journey to that place in your soul where there is great love, warmth, feeling and forgiveness.
May you be brought in to the real passion, kinship and affinity of belonging.
And may your friends bring you all of the blessings, challenges, truth and light that you need for all of the journeys of your life.


She picked her head up and smiled at each of her guests as she loudly proclaimed, "Amen!"

Before the word was out of her mouth, Jamie had thrown her arms around her in a very enthusiastic hug.  "That was beautiful, Ryan.  Just beautiful!"

"Thanks, babe," she murmured as she squirmed out of her embrace, her blue eyes fixed on the feast, "but I gotta eat!"

*   *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *

Half an hour later, five sets of eyes were fixed on the back of Ryan's head as she continued to lean over her plate, as if worried that her food would be taken from her if she did not protect it.  She was sitting on the second step of the staircase, and Jamie, Sara, Jordan, Ally and Jennie were all perched on higher stairs.  The other women had finished eating 15 minutes earlier, but Ryan had not only not stopped, she had not even slowed down.  When it became obvious that she was deep in her trance, Jamie had taken her own plate and gone to fill it again.  When Ryan finished her first helping, Jamie slid the refill onto her lap.  Ryan acknowledged the gesture with some sort of grunt, but she could not waste the effort to actually form words.  As she neared the end of the second plate, Jamie hopped up again and used Ryan's original for her second refill.  Now all eyes were on her to see if she would be up to a fourth.  As Jamie started to rise, Ryan placed a hand on her knee and smiled over at her as she said, "Gotta save room for dessert, babe."  She popped the last forkful of turkey into her mouth as she leaned back and let out a big breath.  "I would give up my birthday and Christmas before I'd give up Thanksgiving."

"You know, I could make you this dinner any time you wanted it," Jamie reminded her.

"Nope.  It's not the same.  It's the entire experience I enjoy."

Martin raised his voice above the din and begged, "Bit of a hush, please."  The crowd quieted almost immediately as he announced, "Before we serve dessert, it's our tradition to have each person express one thing they're thankful for this year.  I volunteer to begin."  He waited for quiet and said, "I have more gifts in my life than any man deserves, but I'm particularly thankful this year for being blessed by the gift of this wonderful woman's love."  He had grasped Maeve's hand, and he gave it a squeeze as she smiled up at him.

"It's no surprise that my thoughts are exactly the same," Maeve said, giving him a fond smile.

They went around the crowded room as each cousin, aunt, and uncle took a turn.

Catherine was standing on the edge of the crowd, jiggling the baby on her hip.  As her turn came she said, "I understand the rules, but I'm afraid I can't name one thing that I'm thankful for.  It was hard enough to narrow it down to two!" she said with a laugh.  "I'm more thankful than I can say for being given the opportunity to really get the chance to know my lovely daughter."  She walked over to where Jamie was perched, and gently patted her cheek as Jamie turned her head and kissed her palm.  "But I doubt that I would have ever done so if it hadn't been for Ryan.  Her influence helped us all break the status quo and start to see each other as we really are.  For that I'm eternally grateful."  Ryan peeked her head up above the banister as Catherine leaned over and gave her an appreciative kiss.

When the spotlight landed on the young women guests, Jennie went first.  "I'm thankful for lots of things, too," she began in her soft voice.  She shot a shy look at Ryan and said, "But the biggest thing I'm thankful for is that Ryan and Jamie helped me to get to stay in Berkeley.  It's really been great."

Ryan was gazing at the young woman with deep affection in her eyes.  Despite all of the crappy things that have happened to her this year, she's still got that fire of optimism burning in her.  I don't know where she got it, but thank God she does.

Sara was next up and she looked like she wanted to skip her turn, but she took a breath as she gazed at a point in the center of the room, and said softly, "I'm thankful for second chances."  Her head lifted slowly, and she pasted on a small smile and nodded to Jordan to indicate it was her turn.

Jordan looked directly at Ryan as she smiled and said, "I'm thankful for my friends.  One in particular."  She stretched her arm out and caught Ryan's hand as she gave it a firm squeeze.

Ally took her turn and said in her softly accented voice, "I'm thankful for being included in a real family celebration."

Ryan was up next.  "I'm thankful for a gift I received this year," she said as she squeezed Jamie's thigh.  "It's a gift I didn't expect, but I've come to rely on it completely.  I look forward to every time we're together, and I can honestly say that it's given me more pleasure than I could imagine.  So, I thank God for my Lexus," she giggled as Jamie grabbed her and began to tickle her furiously.  "Oh, all of that's true for Jamie too," she gasped out as the assault continued.

"I'm going to be a bit more mature than my little friend," Jamie said when she released her captive.  "I'm thankful for so much this year that it's almost impossible for me to fathom.  But I'd have to say that I'm most thankful for my very large, very loving family.  Some of us are related by blood," she said as she cast a fond glance at her mother, "but all of us are bound by love."  She smiled down at her grinning partner, and leaned over a bit to lightly brush their lips together.  "Especially you, Tiger," she said softly.

"Well done, everyone," Martin proclaimed.  "It's time for dessert."  Jennie, Sara, Ally, and Jordan hopped up immediately, but Ryan grasped Jamie's hand to urge her to stay for a moment.  Everyone was near the dining room, so they had some of privacy for a few moments.  She couldn't stand to have a whole stair tread between them so she tugged at her partner until she climbed down and came to sit between Ryan's legs.  The dark woman draped her arms around Jamie's neck and leaned over until their cheeks touched.

"You're the first person I thank God for every morning, and the last at night."  Ryan was speaking so softly that the sensation of her breath on her cheek was more noticeable than the sound of her voice.  "Being with you has exceeded every expectation I ever had about being in love.  I'm so very thankful for the bountiful gift of your love," she whispered.

Jamie got to her feet and extended her hand to help Ryan up.  "Come with me," she murmured, leading her from the room.  It took quite a while to get through the crowd, but they were finally alone in the backyard.  Without a word, she went over to the camera and attached a long cable-release, double-checked the focus, and positioning Ryan on her mark, stood right next to her.  "I want to forever capture the look on your face when you tell me how you feel about me.  Tell me again," she urged as she clasped her hands around Ryan's neck and leaned back in her embrace.

Ryan smiled serenely and settled her hips against Jamie's, looking down at her with all of the tender emotions she felt for her partner ill-concealed by her expressive eyes.  "I love your very essence," she said softly, smiling a little brighter when she heard the shutter release.  "The things that make you most you are the things that appeal to me the most."  Another muted snap as the shutter clicked again.  "Your generosity, your determination, your perseverance, and your constant quest to make me happy all combine to make you the most desirable woman I could ever hope to know."  She was fairly sure that the shutter clicked again, but the warm pressure of Jamie's lips created a faint buzz in her ears as she lost herself to the sensation.

The cable release fell to the ground as Jamie's arms rose to encircle Ryan's neck.  Their bodies joined, merging into the remarkably secure fit that they had perfected over the previous months with their continuous practice.  "You are the meaning of love," Jamie whispered as her lips were claimed by Ryan's.

"Every time I question my beliefs, I just think of you," Ryan whispered.  "Only a loving God could create someone as pure and good as you are.  You are the most visible sign of God's presence that I've ever known.  You give me faith."

"Happy Thanksgiving, Ryan.  The first of many, many more to come."
 

The End

Book Eleven: Karma

Dedication:
As always, to Carrie.

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