I Found My Heart in San Francisco

Book 12: Lifeline

By: S X Meagher



Part 10

After Sunday Mass, Martin and Maeve came over for breakfast. As soon as the meal was finished Kevin, Rory and Conor left to help Niall on a project, leaving just Jamie, Ryan, Martin and Maeve to sit at the table and chat.

Ryan had been putting off telling her father about her decision to delay graduate school for a year, but she knew she had to tell him eventually, so she sucked up her courage and launched into it. "Jamie and I have finally decided what we’re going to do next year," she began.

"What’s that, love?" Martin asked, looking at her with interest.

"We’ve decided to take a year off and apply next year at this time."

"Oh," he said, his head cocked slightly. When she didn’t elaborate he asked, "What will you do instead? Will you go back to your job at the gym?"

"No, I don’t think so," she said.

"Is there another job you’re interested in, Siobhán?"

"No, I wasn’t planning on working, Da," she said. "We’re going to relax a bit."

"For a whole year?" His eyes had saucered, and his gaze darted from Jamie to his daughter. "You’ll do nothing at all?"

"Now, Marty," Maeve said, "I’m sure the girls have thought this through. Let the child explain herself."

For some reason her aunt’s comments struck Ryan the wrong way. She was on the verge of telling her to mind her own business when she realized what she was about to do. Forcing her mouth shut, she stared down at the table, looking like she was torn between lashing out and crying.

Jamie reached over and grasped her clenched fist, saying, "We have thought it through, Maeve. And I’m sure we’ll do something to keep busy – we just haven’t discussed what that might be. All I know is that Ryan’s been under more stress this year than most people have in their whole lives, and she just can’t handle any more."

The dark-haired woman rolled her eyes in disgust and got up from the table, letting her chair bang hard against the wall as she did so. Without a word, she made for the front door, Duffy scrambling after her.

"What in the holy name of God was that about?" Martin asked, his expression one of complete bafflement.

Jamie looked at him and quietly said, "She needs your support, Martin. She absolutely hates to admit how fragile she is right now." She shook her head remorsefully and said, "I never should have commented about her stress. She absolutely hates that."

"Is she close to a breakdown?" he asked, his eyes wide.

"No, no, not at all. She’ll be fine, Martin. I really pushed her to take a year off – she didn’t want to. I know it’s the best thing for her, but it was incredibly hard for her to do. Deciding not to go to graduate school right away was a very, very big concession to how poorly she’s feeling, and having you question her judgment …" She shook her head in frustration and added, "You always complain about how thin she is, and how tired she looks. Isn’t it obvious that enrolling in medical school so soon after graduation would just wear her down even more?"

He dropped his head into his hands and mumbled, "I’m sorry, Jamie. I let my big mouth spout off without thinking." Standing, he said, "I’ll go find her and apologize."

Maeve gripped his sleeve and tugged on it. "Marty, please sit down and think through what you’re going to say to her before you do that."

Giving her a puzzled look, he sat, but said, "What is there to think about?"

"Don’t make her feel worse than she already does," Maeve said. "She hates to have people believe she can’t handle something, love. You know how proud she is. Please try not to focus on how poorly she’s doing, all right?"

"Okay," he said. Looking at Jamie, he asked, "Any advice?"

She smiled at him and suggested, "She craves your respect, Martin. As long as she knows she has that, she’ll be fine."

He nodded, looking very embarrassed. "I could kick myself. There’s no harder working girl than my Siobhán." Looking a little confused, he asked, "You said medical school, Jamie. I thought she wanted to get a Ph.D.?"

"That’s part of the problem," Jamie said. "She thinks she should go into a joint M.D./Ph.D. program. I want her to just get her Ph.D., but she’s pretty adamant about the other program. The problem is that she doesn’t want to be a physician, and it’s hard for her to commit to four years of med school and a few years of a residency program for something she doesn’t want to do."

"Then why do it?"

"It’s complicated," she said, knowing they could be there all day talking about the various programs and how they would impact Ryan’s future career plans. "But it has to do with how much autonomy she would have as a researcher. She really wants to do genetics research, you know."

"No, I didn’t know," he said quietly. "She never talks about her goals with me."

Jamie smiled at him and revealed, "What she really wants is to be a firefighter – just like her father."

He stared at her with his mouth open. "She does?"

"Desperately. She told me she’s wanted to do that since she was a little girl. She looks up to you so much, Martin. If I hadn’t begged her not to do it, she’d be applying for the firefighters academy right now." She shook her head and added, "That’s why this decision is so hard for her, to be honest. She’s picking between a number of inferior choices. Her first choice is to follow in your footsteps."

He stood again, mumbling to himself, "For the love o’ Mike! Just when I think I have her figured out …"

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan was sitting in a chaise on the deck, Duffy stretched out in front of her, his big, black head on her lap. "Hi," she said quietly when her father pulled up a chair and sat next to her.

"Jamie’s been telling us some interesting things … "

"Yeah? What, that I’m on the waiting list for the loony bin?"

"No, not at all. She doesn’t feel that way, Siobhán, and you shouldn’t either. There’s no shame in listening to your body, sweetheart. I’m just glad you’ve got Jamie in your life to remind you – and me, of that."

She grunted softly. "She’s all about reminding me of that."

"The lass needs to, love. This is one part of myself that I wish you hadn’t inherited," he said. "You and I both hate like the devil to admit any weakness, darlin’, but it’s not good for either of us to be that way." He reached over and grasped her hand and added, "She told me something else."

Looking at him warily, she asked, "What’s that?"

"She told me that you’re so tremendously gifted that you’re having a very hard time deciding which graduate program you want to attend. Jamie says that the one you think you want will give you both an M.D. and a Ph.D." He shook his head briefly and said, "Thank God you take after your mother’s family in the brains department."

Chuckling mildly, Ryan said, "I don’t know about that, Da."

"I do," he said soberly, drawing her attention to him. "You’re a very gifted woman, Siobhán, and you’re going to make a significant contribution to the world. I’m very, very proud of you." He brought her hand to his lips and placed a soft kiss upon it. "You have a lot to give, darlin’, and the world can wait a year or two to have you start."

Ryan nodded, saying nothing. She just squeezed her father’s hand and leaned back against her chair, closing her eyes when the sun broke through the thin fog to warm her face.

* * * * * * * * * * *

As soon as Martin left the room, Maeve looked at Jamie and sighed, "They’re a pair, aren’t they?"

"They are indeed. Like two peas in a pod."

"Lucky for us that their redeeming qualities are so plentiful," Maeve said.

"Yeah," Jamie said. "The good qualities far outnumber the ones that make you want to strangle them."

Maeve’s laughter quieted, and she grew contemplative. "Why do you think Ryan wants to be a firefighter?"

Jamie shrugged and said, "I don’t know. Probably to be like her father, maybe a little because of the thrill of working in a dangerous profession. I’m sure she also would get a lot of satisfaction out of saving lives."

The older woman nodded, her expression still pensive. "That’s probably right."

Jamie observed the thoughtful expression on the older woman’s face. "You think it’s something more, don’t you?"

"Mmm … I think I do," she said. "I think she’s afraid of standing out in the crowd."

"The crowd?"

"The O’Flaherty crowd," Maeve said. "Being a firefighter would give her a nice, acceptable, blue-collar profession – just like the rest of the family. She’d never have to show how special she really is."

Jamie nodded slowly, seeing exactly what Maeve was getting at. "Few things mean more to her than fitting in with the boys," she said.

"And her father. My Marty is a bright man, as you know, Jamie, but Ryan’s intellect is profound. She has so much to give, but I think she’s frightened to make the commitment to give it. I think she’s terrified of surpassing her father’s accomplishments."

"But Martin’s accomplishment’s are huge!" Jamie cried. "My God, just raising his children alone these last 17 years is a tremendous feat!"

"I know that, Jamie," Maeve said. "But to the outside world, Ryan will be a medical doctor with a PH.D., while her father will always be a firefighter. The world values professional accomplishments much more than it does familial ones."

The younger woman chuckled mirthlessly, "I know that to be true." She didn’t make the comment aloud, but she thought of the difference between her own father and Martin, knowing that her father failed miserably in the comparison, but that the world saw her father as the successful one.

"I think Ryan will be able to make the choice to use all of her gifts, but it will take her some time to get used to it. This year off might help her get comfortable with it."

Jamie cocked her head. "Do you think that’s why Ryan never talks to her father about her goals?"

"Yes, I do," Maeve said. "She doesn’t want to highlight the differences between them. Over time, we can help her get past that, Jamie. She needs to use her talents. Being a firefighter would be the worst choice she could make." She smiled and added, "Besides, she doesn’t have the temperament for it. She’s far too brash, and she acts on her instincts too readily."

"I think she proved that recently," Jamie said, shaking her head. "If she risks her life to save the guys who tried to kill her, can you imagine what she’d do to save a helpless, innocent person?" She shivered and said, "My heart couldn’t take it."

"Nor could mine," Maeve said. "My Tommy has the ideal temperament to be a firefighter, and even still, I worry about him every day that he’s on duty. I don’t want that for you."

Jamie smiled and said, "Even though she looks adorable in the outfit, I’d much prefer to see her in a nice, boring lab coat."

"Knowing her, it will be tie-dyed," Maeve said.

* * * * * * * * * * *

On Sunday afternoon, Sara sat in the exhibition hall at the Palace of Fine Arts, waiting for Ally’s group to begin. The meet began at 2, but she had some work to finish, and didn’t arrive until 3:30. The group before Ally’s was just leaving the stage when she got there, so she didn’t know what to expect. Her eyes nearly popped out of her head when the group of 10 women strutted across the stage a few minutes later.

She was sure one of them was Ally, but if it hadn’t been for her short hair, she never would have picked her out. Sara hadn’t read many comic books, but the women on stage looked more like the stylized representation of muscular women that she’d seen on the covers of the fantasy magazines, than actual human beings.

Ally hadn’t specified what type of competition this was, but for some reason, Sara had assumed that it would be a gay and lesbian meet. Looking at the women posing, and the men hooting and hollering, she quickly changed her assessment.

It actually took her mind a few minutes to fully take in the group, and before she had done so they exited the stage again, to be replaced by the individual women posing. The first woman was unbelievably muscular, in a way that was actually distasteful to Sara. Her muscles were very large, and very bulky and heavy looking. She was quite dark skinned, but the hue was the result of an astonishingly dark suntan that also looked less than attractive. The woman wore a bikini that barely covered her obviously surgically enhanced breasts, the massive mounds not moving an inch when she posed.

She had long, bleached blonde hair, styled in a way that Sara had seen in movies from the 1950’s, but never on a modern day Bay Area woman. Layers upon layers of stiff, teased blonde cotton candy tresses floated about her head, made all the more incongruous by the massive bulk of her muscles. She looked like someone had taken a Barbie doll’s head and breasts and had merged them with a G.I. Joe – and then had stuffed Joe into a tiny bikini.

She went through her entire routine, and by the end of it, Sara’s face was curled into a look of complete distaste. Everything about the woman looked artificial and brittle and hard, and her heart began to beat heavily in her chest – wondering if Ally’s look would be as much of a turn off.

The next 5 competitors didn’t appeal to her either, and she was near panic when they announced that Ally was next. Peeking through the fingers of the hand that covered her eyes, Sara paused a second, then her mouth curled into a grin which continued to grow.

The differences between Ally’s body and that of the other women were rather stark, Sara determined. While Ally looked very powerful and well defined, she didn’t have the heavy, masculine look of the competitors that received the most applause. Her skin was nearly as dark as the other women’s had been though, and it glowed from the application of some sort of oil.

Even though Sara didn’t care for the artificial color of her skin, the skin that was revealed was wholly pleasing to the smaller woman. Ally didn’t wear a teeny bikini like most of the women did. Rather, hers was a bright red, combination bikini top/thong bottom suit that showed off her unbelievably rounded ass to perfection.

Her mouth went dry as Ally began to work through her routine, her eyes barely leaving the glowing cheeks of that delectable ass.

Finally, her 3 minutes were up, and the next competitor took the stage, allowing Sara to catch her breath. When all had finished, the judges made the first cut, narrowing the competitors to 5. Ally made the cut, and each of the women posed again, this time for only two minutes. When the winners were announced, Ally wasn’t among them, the grand prize going to the woman with the most outrageous muscles and largest breasts.

Sara waited in her chair, assuming that Ally would find her eventually. It took about 15 minutes for the very drained-looking woman to catch up to her, and when she did, she sank heavily into the chair next to Sara. "I feel like I just ran a marathon," she sighed. "On my hands."

Giving her a gentle hug, Sara said, "Congratulations on making the cut. That was good, wasn’t it?"

"Yeah," Ally said. "Some of the judges like a more moderate look, but others like the women to be as big as the men. There’s no way to do that without juice … uhm … steroids, but what the hell." She shrugged her shoulders and said, "I’m done."

"How are you feeling about your decision?"

"Good. Well, as good as I feel about anything," she said. "I’m on the verge of hallucinating." She lifted her sports bottle to her lips and took a long gulp. "To really look cut you have to be dehydrated. This is the first thing I’ve had to drink since yesterday morning."

"My God!" Sara cried. "That’s terrible! You must feel awful."

"That’s about it," Ally said. "I have to be really careful not to overdo it, though. I have to let my body hydrate slowly."

"Let’s go to my house," Sara said. "You can take a shower and have something to drink."

With big doe eyes, Ally leaned against her, asking, "Do you have any cookies?"

"I bought cookies and ice cream … just in case."

"The woman of my dreams," Ally sighed, getting to her wobbly feet and holding onto Sara’s offered hand.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Luckily, Sara lived just three blocks away, so they walked the short distance. As soon as they got into the apartment, Ally went to shower while Sara sat in the living room and watched the start of the second half of the Warriors basketball game. The bathroom door opened, and Ally emerged in a cloud of vapor. "Well, I’m clean," she announced, "but now I’m even weaker."

"Come here," Sara said, and when Ally walked over to her, she patted her legs. "Stretch out and take a little nap."

"Really? You don’t mind?"

"No, of course not. I’d like you to stay for a while, and you’re obviously too tired to interact right now. Rest for a while, and maybe you’ll feel better."

"Okay," Ally said, smiling wanly. Sara took the loose pillows from the back of the sofa and piled them up at the far end, so Ally had some support for her long legs which extended past the arm of the six foot long couch. It took a little maneuvering, but she got comfortable, lying on her side, with her head pillowed on Sara’s legs. "Are you comfy?" she asked, her voice already slow and sleepy.

"Perfect. Mind if I rub your head?"

"Oh, yeah," Ally said lazily. "That would be torture …"

Sara’s fingers started to trail through the short, sandy hair, and by the time she had made two passes, Ally was sound asleep.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Across town, in Noe Valley, Ryan was lounging on her bed, studying for a quiz, when Maggie came down, surprising her a bit. "Hi," the attorney said. "Did Brendan mention that he asked me to get involved in the negotiations with the Bay Area BMW dealers for you?"

Ryan blinked, having forgotten all about her hasty, impetuous decision. "N … no, he didn’t, Maggie. I’m not sure I was in my right mind when I told him to pursue it, though. After all that’s happened, it’s obviously ridiculous to encourage any form of publicity."

"I agree, Ryan," she said, her voice becoming more businesslike. "Seeing how you’ve handled this entire matter gave me a clear indication that you couldn’t handle any more exposure."

"Thanks, Maggie," she said, relieved not to have to worry about another thing. "We’ll just buy a car with the insurance proceeds. No problem."

"Let me tell you what I’ve negotiated, Ryan. You might still be interested."

"Uhm … okay … shoot."

"As you can imagine, the dealers wish is to have you and Jamie standing in front of BMW regional headquarters, with dozens of photographers, and all of the media outlets in attendance. They want a big press conference, with you making a speech about how great BMW is."

"Oh, that’ll happen," Ryan said dryly.

"Right," Maggie said. "I know that what you want is to have them drop off a car at a secret location, and never tell anyone they gave it to you."

"You read my mind," Ryan said. "Did they go for it?"

"Not hardly," Maggie said. "But my proposal is closer to your wish than theirs."

"Let’s hear it."

"Brendan told me that you were considering consenting to the ceremony they wanted to have for you two at City Hall."

"Well … we discussed it," Ryan said, "but …

"Well, I have some contacts over there, and we’ve got a proposal from the city to start a new program urging people to get involved when they see someone in trouble. They want to call it, ‘Be a hero – San Francisco’. It would be an ongoing program, and BMW would be one of the corporate sponsors. Once a year, they’d pick the citizens who went out of their way to help other people in need, and they’d have a ceremony honoring the nominees. Some committee would chose the most deserving person, and they’d get a new BMW. There would be some cash awards to people, too, and some other corporate sponsors will probably want to jump on the bandwagon. The thing I liked about this was that BMW would definitely be in the background. It wouldn’t be like you were doing an ad for them."

"Wow," Ryan said slowly. "That’s a pretty cool idea. So this would be ongoing, huh?"

"Yeah," Maggie said. "There would be a publicity campaign urging people to get involved when they saw someone who needed help, and then there would be the awards at City Hall once a year."

"Hmm … what do you think, Maggie? Will this be dignified and understated? I can’t be involved in another media circus."

"Here’s the best news," she said. "Because of all the hype, they’re more than willing to do the presentation without you guys even being there. Mayor Brown is very sympathetic about how you’ve been harassed, and he thinks it would make a powerful statement that you two couldn’t even be present to get your awards."

"I knew that I liked that guy," Ryan said. "Now if I could just get him to get out of bed with all of the pro-growth people, I’d be happy!"

"Different issue," Maggie said. "So what do you think?"

"I’ll have to talk to Jamie, of course, but I think it’s a great deal, Maggie. I really appreciate that you’ve worked on this for us."

"It was fun, Ryan. I just want a ride in your new car."

"You’ve got it," she said. "Now I just have to find Jamie, and see if she thinks it’s as good an idea as I do."

* * * * * * * * * * *

As expected, Jamie agreed with the plan, and Ryan immediately got on her motorcycle and rode over to the BMW dealer on Van Ness to get a brochure on the car. She spend the rest of the afternoon trying to decide on color and options, after Maggie told her that BMW was amenable to ordering her any car, with all of the options she might wish.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The loud ticking of a clock woke her, and Ally looked around confusedly, finally meeting Sara’s eyes. "A clock?" she asked, fuzzily.

"Sixty Minutes just came on," Sara said, running her fingers across the furrow in her friend’s brow.

"Wow, how long was I out?"

"A couple of hours. You must have been exhausted."

"Mmm … I was," she said. She struggled a little to sit up, then took a few long pulls off her sports bottle. "Mmm … better."

"How about some dinner? You must be starved."

"I am, but I have to be careful there, too. I have to ease back into eating normally or my system gets all screwed up."

"What could you handle?"

"Oh, a salad would be good."

"I can make a salad," Sara said. She got up and went into the kitchen. "You can have dressing now, right?"

"Indeed I can," Ally said. She sat on a kitchen stool and watched her friend work, commenting, "You look like you know your way around a kitchen."

"Only for simple things, like salads and sandwiches. Nothing too fancy."

Ally was obviously not very verbal, and she sat with her chin on her hand, watching Sara with a vaguely dopey looking smile. She continued to drink from her bottle, and when she drained it, she refilled it with plain water. Passing by Sara on her way back to her chair, she put an arm around her waist and gave her a squeeze, placing a soft kiss on the side of her neck. "Dinner’s ready," Sara said, pulling Ally’s arm tightly against her body. "Hungry?"

"I’ve been hungry for eight weeks," she said, releasing her hold.

They sat in the living room, munching on their salads, Ally nearly swooning over the simple Italian dressing. She continued to hydrate herself, and when she finished dinner she patted her stomach and said, "By tomorrow I’ll have lost ten percent of my definition."

Sara’s eyes widened and she gasped, "That much! That fast?"

"Uh-huh." Ally got up to put her bowl in the kitchen, then refilled her water bottle. "How about a cookie?" she asked.

Walking into the kitchen, Sara took a bag of chocolate chunk, macadamia nut cookies out of the cabinet. "These were the most decadent ones I could find," she said, tauntingly holding the bag over Ally’s head. In keeping with her usual laidback style, Ally just cocked her head and rotated her eyes, giving Sara a sexy half smile, her eyes crinkling a little as she did so. "Want one?" Sara asked, lowering the bag to eye level.

"Uh-huh," Ally drawled, her accent thickening slightly. "One of these will knock another ten percent off me."

Hiding the bag behind her back, Sara said, "Then I don’t think I want you to have one. I know we’re taking it slow, and I agree that we should. But if this was your last competition I’ll never get to … fully … experience that cut body. Maybe you should stay in training for a while," she said.

Ally moved a little closer, and her voice dropped to a low, sexy drawl. "You know, that’s about the third time you’ve alluded to my current body. Does it really … interest you?" By the time she finished her question she was inches from Sara, and the smaller woman could smell the clean scent of her own shower gel on the muscular body.

"Yeah," Sara said softly, lifting her hand to slide it across Ally’s chest and down her arm. "It fascinates me. I’ve never been out with a really strong woman, and I don’t have a clue what a sculpted body feels like."

"It sounds like your interest is almost academic," Ally purred, coming even closer and pinning Sara against the kitchen counter. She placed one hand on either side of the slim hips and hovered over her, giving her a slow, sexy smile.

"Yeah … just academic," she said, swallowing audibly. "Kind of an anthropological study."

"I’m all for the pursuit of knowledge," Ally murmured, bending just enough to be able to place tiny kisses along Sara’s jaw. "Give me your hands."

Blinking up at her, Sara extended her hands and Ally took them and ran her thumbs across the palms. Then she took one slightly trembling hand and slipped it under her roomy sweatshirt. Sara’s eyes closed, and her mouth twitched into a grin as Ally guided her fingers along the ripped muscles of her abdomen. "Ooo … sweet," the brunette sighed.

The larger woman slid the other hand under her shirt as well, then pushed them up until they trailed across her sports bra and came to rest atop her shoulders. When Sara’s hands were in place, Ally struck a pose, flexing her deltoids and her pectoral muscles rhythmically. "Good God," Sara murmured, her eyes still tightly closed.

"Like that?" Ally’s honeyed voice purred.

"Love it … it’s definitely love," Sara said.

"Slide your hands down my arms a little," the body builder instructed.

Doing so, Sara growled with delight when the biceps flexed and released repeatedly. "So nice," she moaned softly.

"Now feel my back," Ally said, tilting her head just enough to place a gentle, tender kiss on Sara’s slightly parted lips.

Sara’s soft, warm hands slid across the larger woman’s ribs, then slipped up her powerful back. Ally moved and stretched and flexed her muscles, while Sara allowed her fingers to trace every dip, every curve, every contour of the perfectly sculpted expanse. Her breathing was becoming audible, but rather than easing off, Ally bent her head and started to kiss her, increasing the passion as Sara’s fingers began to dig into the powerful muscles. The large hands went to Sara’s hips and pressed her hard against the counter, as Ally’s mouth claimed her completely.

Unable to stop herself, and unwilling to even try, Sara’s hands trailed down the strong back and slipped under the waistband of Ally’s sweat pants. Her hands grasped the twin mounds of her ass through a thin covering of silk as she gasped in delight. "My, God, you’re perfect."

Suddenly, Ally’s hands were around Sara’s waist, and she effortlessly lifted her to the counter. Long legs hooked around Ally’s midsection, drawing her in close as their lips met once again in a searingly hot kiss. Sara’s hands were everywhere – caressing every firm, starkly defined muscle, while Ally braced her forearms against the upper cabinet and leaned in to lavish her captive with warm, wet kisses.

Unable to keep her hands from exploring, Sara continued to lean into Ally as her hands dipped lower and lower. The larger woman moved back just a few inches, but in her weakened state she lost her firm hold on Sara and the brunette started to slide off the counter. Ally wrapped her arms around her, but gravity won, and they slowly collapsed onto the floor.

Sara was panting softly, her eyes hooded and slightly unfocused. She maneuvered Ally onto her back and grasped her sweatpants, pulling them down to her knees. Dark blue print silk boxers modestly covered the prone woman, and Sara left them in place, entirely focused on exploring the muscular legs and ass that she hadn’t yet been able to experience.

The short break and altitude change gave Ally time to collect her thoughts, and she reached out and put her hands on Sara’s shoulders. "What happened to going slow?"

"Slow?" she asked hazily. "Oh!" She looked down, seemingly just then realizing what was happening. "I … just … had to …" Her warm brown eyes rotated back to Ally, and she shrugged her shoulders. "I don’t know what happened."

"We got carried away," Ally said, caressing Sara’s flushed cheek. "I guess our libidos are tired of waiting."

Sara dropped her head onto Ally’s chest, hearing her heart pounding away furiously. "Mine’s been waiting a long time. I haven’t been with anyone for months – I guess it caught up with me."

"I want to be with you," Ally said softly, "but I don’t want it to be rushed like this. Can you be patient, Sara? It really means a lot to me."

She looked into Ally’s eyes, their color a soft gray in the dim light. Nodding her head, she said, "Yes, Ally. You take as much time as you need. I’ll do my best to behave." Leaning forward, she kissed her gently. "But it won’t be easy," she said, laughing softly. "I’m so attracted to you that I’m about to combust!"

Reaching down, Ally tugged on her friend, then settled her against her side. "Is it my body?"

"Yes, but only partly so. I’ve never dated anyone who looks like you, and I’m finding that I’m incredibly turned on by your muscles. But it’s not just that," she said. "There’s a dichotomy between your easygoing personality and your powerful body that’s a real turn on. And underneath that slow, easy, laid-back style there’s a very determined, very forceful woman," she added, her lips curling into a sexy smile. "I looooove that part." She placed a gentle kiss on her lips and said, "That’s been a surprise, too."

"A nice surprise?" Ally asked, her slow smile melting Sara’s heart.

"A very, very nice surprise," she sighed. She kissed Ally tenderly, teasing her lips with the tip of her tongue. "It’s deeply thrilling to be with a woman who knows what she wants … and isn’t afraid to get it."

"I do know what I want," Ally said, "I just need to wait to get it." She patted Sara gently, indicating that she wanted to get up. She rose to her feet, her journey a little ungainly because of her pants still around her knees. Sara looked up at her and started to rise also, but Ally put a restraining hand on her shoulder. "Just because I want to wait, doesn’t mean you have to." She kicked off her sweatpants, then pulled her shirt off and stood in front of Sara, revealing her body to the wide, but appreciative eyes. "This is more than I had on earlier today," she said. Their eyes met again, and Ally said, "I want both of us to get what we need. I’m not ready to have sex, but I want you to have your pleasure. Feel free to explore."

Immediately complying with the invitation, Sara sat on her heels, her eyes fixed on the powerful, sharply defined thighs just a few inches from her. "Incredible," she said, running her fingertips over the taut skin.

"My legs are my best feature," Ally said, smiling down at the look of rapture on the mesmerized woman’s face.

"No, no, no," Sara murmured. "Your ass is … a work of art."

"Mmm … the judges don’t like it, because you can’t actually see the glutes. They like a really hard, taut look."

"I’m not a judge," Sara murmured, "just a fan." Crawling around to the back, she ran her thumbs just under the swell of Ally’s ass, shivers rolling down her spine as she did so. Unable to resist, she wrapped her arms around her and nuzzled her face against the firm mounds, her breath growing ragged as Ally reached behind and stroked her hair. "Ungh … I’ve got to stop," Sara said thickly. "I’m gonna start begging and that’s just unseemly."

Laughing softly, Ally said, "I’d stick with bodybuilding if the judges were half as interested in me as you are."

Sara put her hands around Ally’s waist and pulled herself up. Her eyes landed on her abdomen and she said, "Just one more little spot?"

"Sure. Go ahead," Ally said, standing tall and tensing her abs.

Moving to stand behind her, Sara pressed her cheek against Ally’s shoulder and reached around, letting her fingers play with the tight bands of muscle. "Not ticklish, are you?"

"Not at the moment," she murmured. "It comes and goes … depending on the mood."

Sara started to kiss Ally’s neck, closing her eyes as her lips met the soft, slightly damp skin. Now both hands played across her belly, with one daring hand moving under the waistband of her shorts. "Perfect," she sighed, her cool fingers probing lower and lower into the rock hard muscle, finally brushing against soft curls.

Ally’s hand covered hers, and she turned to kiss Sara’s cheek. "That’s about as much as I can take," she whispered. "You’re bordering on an erogenous zone that has a mind of her own."

"Note to self … tickle Ally’s belly the first chance you get."

Pulling the warm hand from her shorts, Ally turned and locked her arms around Sara, intentionally holding on with every bit of force she could muster. Sara’s arms were pinned tightly at her sides, and she could not have moved an inch of her own volition had she wanted to, which she most decidedly did not. Ally gazed down at the serene look on her face and kissed her firmly. "We’re gonna get along just fine, counselor," she murmured. "I think we’re a perfect fit." I just hope it’s not too perfect a fit, she thought, slightly worried.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Late that night, as Jamie cuddled up to her partner, the taller woman jerked awake and looked at her with wide eyes. "I think I want blue!"

"Shh …" Jamie said softly, rubbing her back to relax her. "You don’t have to make up your mind right now. Your little brochure will be there when you wake up."

"Do you like blue?" she asked sleepily as she started to drift off once again.

"Of course I do," Jamie said. "It’s my favorite color since I met you and got to look into those beautiful blue eyes every day."

Ryan was nearly asleep when she once again jerked awake and said, "Maybe green! Then I’d think of your eyes."

"Sleep now," Jamie said, rubbing her back comfortingly, "color choice tomorrow."

* * * * * * * * * * *

When Jamie woke the next morning, Ryan was lying on her back, eyes wide open. "Nightmare?" the blonde asked softly, running a hand over the soft cotton that covered Ryan’s belly.

"No, I’m just lying here trying to convince myself that it’s okay to quit the basketball team."

Now wide-awake, Jamie sat up and looked at her. "I thought you’d decided …"

"I have," Ryan said, nodding. "But there’s a difference between deciding and getting up the nerve to actually do it."

"Tell me what’s going through your mind," Jamie said.

"Well, I guess the bottom line is that even with all that’s happened, I still keep coming back to the one thing I can’t get around. In essence, when I joined the team, I gave my word. Quitting because I’m unhappy with the way things went just cheapens my reputation." She paused for a few minutes, then said reflectively, "I’ve never quit anything before, Jamie. This is really hard for me to do."

"I understand," the smaller woman said. "But you and I have slightly different perspectives. I think the bottom line is whether you think you’re worth it. Do you think that you deserve a little peace?"

"That’s not how I was raised, Jamie, and it’s really hard to go against that conditioning. Following through on your obligations is paramount in my family. I worry … I worry that Da will be disappointed in me if I quit, even though he says he won’t. I saw the look in his eyes when I told him that I was quitting. He looked like he wanted to give me a lecture."

"He might have been," she said honestly. "Over time it’s impossible not to occasionally disappoint the people that we love. But the fact remains, Ryan, if this is the right decision – for you – you have to make it … even if it might disappoint others."

"What about you, honey? How will you feel about me if I quit?" She asked this in a very quiet voice, and Jamie ached for her partner, knowing how fragile and vulnerable she felt at the moment.

"Every day that you don’t have to wear that monstrosity of a uniform is a good day in my book," she joked. When Ryan tugged playfully on a lock of her hair, she gave her a more serious answer. "It doesn’t really matter to me. You’re either going to be playing basketball or softball. You’ll still be gone for a few hours every afternoon, and you’ll still have to travel for away games. I really don’t have an opinion. All I know is that I’m confident that you’ll make the right choice – even if it’s not the most popular one."

"I’m glad one of us is sure of that," Ryan grumbled quietly.

"I have enough confidence in you for both of us," Jamie said.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After her morning class, Ryan knocked lightly on Mary Hayes’ door. The coach looked up, and favored her with a warm smile. "Ryan! It’s great to see you again. Come on in."

Ryan sat down and said, "How ya doin, Coach?"

"I’m good, how about you?"

"Better," she said, smiling tentatively. "Uhm … I wanted to talk to you about my place with the team."

"Are you considering coming back, Ryan?"

The way she framed the question gave Ryan pause, and she asked, "Do you think I should?"

The coach avoided replying directly, saying, "Ryan, if you want to come back, we’ll figure out a way to make it happen."

Ryan cocked her head and asked, "That wasn’t a ringing endorsement, Coach. Level with me, will you?"

Folding her hands on her desk, she said, "The school is very concerned, Ryan. The athletic director was very, very upset about what happened in North Carolina. If you come back, we’re going to have to come up with procedures to ensure that unauthorized photographers can’t get into the arena. And some of the schools have already expressed their concern about you being hurt in their gyms. Nothing that’s insurmountable, but it’s something we’re going to have to look into."

Ryan shook her head, finally letting out a short laugh. "Has anything gone right this season?"

"Not a whole hell of a lot," Mary said.

"I think I’ll just bow out gracefully," Ryan said. "It really doesn’t seem worth the trouble at this point." Mary nodded, seeming like she had expected the decision. "Only one thing bothers me," Ryan said.

"What’s that?"

"I know this is the end of your contract. If my staying could help you land a new deal, I’d do it."

Mary smiled at the earnest young woman and shook her head slowly. "You know, Ryan, I don’t think I’ve ever misjudged a person as badly as I misjudged you. I’m not even sure what it was, but I didn’t trust you from the moment you joined the team."

"Glad to know I’m not just paranoid," Ryan said.

"No, you aren’t," she said. "Over time, I’ve come to see how wrong I was about you, but it’s really too late now to do much good. I’m really sorry, Ryan. If I hadn’t let my first impressions get in the way, we could have had a fantastic year, and you would have had a much better experience with us." Shaking her head, she commented, "Hell, if I hadn’t switched our practice schedule around, you wouldn’t have been carjacked. You would have been sweating your butt off right here in the gym."

Ryan chuckled wryly and recalled, "As my grandfather says, ‘If if’s and but’s were candied nuts, we’d all have a hell of a Christmas.’"

Mary gave her a puzzled look, and Ryan clarified. "You can’t look at it like that. Going through ‘what if’ scenarios just makes you crazy. I should know," she added ruefully.

"I really appreciate your willingness to stick around to help me out, Ryan, but much to my surprise, they’re giving me a one year extension. The fact that we’ve done as well as we have with so many injuries and so much turmoil has apparently impressed the athletic director."

"Good for you!" Ryan said. "I hope it goes well for you next year."

"You know, Ryan, I’ve got to be honest," the coach said. "You’re the least spoiled rich kid I’ve ever met. Your parents did a wonderful job with you."

Ryan tossed her head back and laughed heartily. "Coach, my dad’s a cook for the fire department. We’re blue collar all the way."

"But … you …"

"Jamie’s the one with the dough," Ryan said, still laughing. "And, by the way, she’s not very spoiled either."

The coach shared her laugh, and asked, "How’s a woman supposed to get by if she can’t stereotype people, Ryan? Is nothing sacred?"

Ryan stood to leave, and extended her hand. "It’s been interesting, Coach."

"Yeah … it’s been that. I still haven’t been able to find out who spoke to the tabloids about you, Ryan. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to find her and kick her ass off the team."

"I have my suspicions, Coach, but I’d rather not get into it. I’ve just started to calm down, and I don’t need any more stress in my life. I just want to move on and get back to the things that keep me happy."

"I hope you get there, Ryan. You’re a special woman, and I’m sincerely sorry that things didn’t work out with us."

"I am too," she said. "But it’s only January, Coach. I’ve got five months left of my college career. You might not have seen the last of me."


"I think I might play softball for Hank Roberts."

"Softball? At your height?"

Smiling wryly, Ryan said, "This is the only height I have. It’ll have to do."

"Wow," the older woman said. "That’s an excellent team, Ryan, you must be pretty damned good to be able to walk on."

Fixing her with her intense blue eyes, Ryan said, "I am good. I could have easily snared a softball scholarship, but it’s not my favorite sport."

"That was soccer, wasn’t it?" Mary asked, giving Ryan a sad smile.

"Yeah. Soccer, field hockey, volleyball, basketball and softball – in that order."

Leaning back in her chair, Mary gazed at Ryan for a moment and said, "An athlete like you comes along once in a coach’s career – if she’s very, very lucky. I sure did blow my chance."

"You know – you really did," Ryan said, giving her a crooked grin. "But that’s a moot point now. I think I’m going to join the softball team – just to go out on an up note."

"I wish you all the best, Ryan," Mary said.

"Just one thing," Ryan said. "Coach Roberts might ask you for a recommendation. Will you give me one?"

"That depends," Mary said. She got up and walked around to the edge of her desk and sat down. Looking into Ryan’s eyes, she asked, "How are you – mentally. Did you see someone?"

"I did," Ryan said. "It’s been helping quite a bit, Coach. I’m doing well, and I know my doctor would clear me to play – if she were asked. I’d prefer that she not be asked, though."

"Are you sure you’re well? Are you sure you can put up with the crowds? The photographers?"

"I am. I still have issues, Coach, and I will for a long while, but I’m not going to melt down again. I can handle things better now."

Mary Hayes reached up and placed her hand on Ryan’s shoulder. "I sincerely hope that’s true. You don’t deserve any of the things that have happened to you this year, Ryan."

With a warm, full smile, Ryan said, "I hope I deserve Jamie. She and I just got together this year."

"Yeah, you deserve Jamie," the older woman said, smiling warmly. "How does she feel about your playing softball?"

"Mmm … it wouldn’t be her choice. She thinks I extend myself too much."

"Well, at least one of you has a good head on her shoulders," Mary said. "If Hank calls, I’ll sing your praises, Ryan. That’s the least I can do."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Jamie rode her bike home for lunch and was pleased to find her partner in the kitchen making an impressively large vegetable salad. "Is that all for you?" the smaller woman teased as she got a good look at the serving-bowl sized meal.

"Yeah. Want one?" Ryan turned to give Jamie a hug, and said, "I thought there was a chance you’d come home for lunch. I think there’s enough here for two."

"You’re such a good provider," Jamie sighed as she sat down at the table. "How’d your morning go?"

"It was interesting," Ryan said slowly.

"Interesting and you are often a dangerous combination," Jamie said. "Was it good interesting or bad interesting?"

"Mmm … neutral," Ryan said. "I quit the team, but not before Coach Hayes let me know that it would be a big hassle for the school if I returned."


"They’re all paranoid about lawsuits if I or some other player got injured because of the press. Even though it’s died down, some of the other schools are worried about it. We just kinda agreed that it was best to part ways."

"Weird," Jamie sighed. "Everything about this season was just plain weird."

"Can’t disagree with you on that one, babe. Oh, I ran into Janae when I was over at Haas. She’s back at school, and she seems to be feeling pretty good."

"That’s a relief," Jamie sighed.

"Yeah. She’s even able to work out a little, but she’s definitely not going to return to the team."

"I don’t blame her a bit. Does Coach Hayes know?"

"Yep. Janae said she seemed relieved." Ryan shook her head and said, "I’ll never understand Mary Hayes if I live to be 100. But I feel better now that it’s all resolved. I’m ready to move on."

Jamie laid her head on her companion’s shoulder and sighed deeply. "Can I stay here? I was lonely today at school. I got used to having you all to myself during break."

"Sure, you can stay here. We can come home every day for lunch, and you can sit on my lap to eat."

Jamie speared a crisp baby carrot and eased it into Ryan’s mouth, alternating bites until they had made a substantial dent in the meal. "So, when do you start softball practice?" she asked lightly. "Today?"

"Nope. I’m not going into this blindly. I pulled the schedule off the Internet, and it’s a little more aggressive than I’m used to, to be honest. I uhm … I thought they’d play a couple of games a week, but it’s a lot more than that."

"How many more?" Jamie asked warily.

"A lot more." Ryan gave her an adorably sheepish look and said, "They uhm … play 70 games this season," she said, gulping slightly.

"70 games!" Jamie gasped. "In how many weeks?"

"Mmm … 15," Ryan said.

"That’s … that’s a game almost every day!" she cried.

Ryan gave her an indulgent smile and said, "No it’s not, silly. It’s only four and two thirds games a week."

Slapping at her shoulder, Jamie said, "Like that’s a lot better? Ryan, you can’t afford to play four and five times a week … you’ll never get your studying in."

"No, no, I didn’t make myself clear. The team doesn’t play a lot of single games. They play double or triple-headers quite often, so most weeks they just play two or three days. But they play every weekend … and I do mean every weekend," she said for emphasis. "Usually all three days of the weekend."

"Is there a lot of travel, too?" the blonde asked hesitantly.

"More than I’d like," Ryan said. "The problem is that they play a lot of tournaments in the beginning part of the season, and they’re all over the place. Florida, Las Vegas, New Mexico …"

Jamie sighed heavily, and got up from her human chair. She walked over to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of water, opening it and leaning her head back to chug most of it. Coming back to the table, she stood behind her partner and began to run her hands through the long, black hair, letting the calming action soothe her so that she could think clearly. After a few long minutes of rhythmic stroking she said, "You wouldn’t even propose this if it wasn’t important to you. If you think you’ll get a lot of enjoyment out of this, and you’re sure it won’t be too stressful – I want you to do it."

Ryan reached behind herself and grasped Jamie’s arm, giving her a gentle tug until she was back on her lap. She nuzzled her head into her chest for a moment and finally said, "You’re not happy about this, are you?"

Jamie chuckled mildly and said, "Given that I’m one semester from graduation and still kicking around the idea of switching to a math major just to have extra time with you, no. Having you fly all over the country without me isn’t my idea of fun."

Ryan looked up and gazed into green eyes as she said, "Then I won’t do it. Case closed." She patted Jamie on the butt to indicate she wanted to get up, but the smaller woman stayed right where she was.

"Nope. The case is not closed," Jamie said. "My season is starting at the end of February, and I’m going to be traveling a lot. Is that something that makes you happy?"

"Well, no, of course not," Ryan said. "But you’ve gone through this for both volleyball and basketball with me. It’s your turn now, Jamie, and I should have realized that before I even brought this up. I was just being selfish," she said dismissively.

Jamie placed her hands on her partner’s cheeks and gently tilted her head up so that they gazed into each other’s eyes. "If I could get you to be more selfish, I’d be happy. Competition means a great deal to you, Ryan, and when you do the things that make you happy – you’re a better partner."

Ryan gave her a slightly puzzled frown, but Jamie sought to reassure her. "You’re a marvelous partner no matter what, but I fully believe that the best way for us to each be happy is to fully be who we are. You’re an athlete, Ryan. That’s who you are in your heart. There’s a joy within you when you play a sport … a joy that you don’t have many other ways to achieve."

"You bring me joy," Ryan said softly.

"Yes, we bring each other joy," Jamie said. "But this is a different kind of joy. I can hardly explain it … but I see it on your face. The smile you gave me after the first Stanford volleyball game will be imprinted on my brain for the rest of my life," she said. "I’d never seen it before, but I saw it several more times. I saw a little glimpse of it every time you and your teammates did something extraordinary." She dipped her head and kissed her partner softly, trying to express herself through her caresses. "It’s worth the sacrifices we have to make for me to see that look, Ryan."

"It feels unbelievably wonderful to be so thoroughly loved," Ryan whispered as she pulled her lover close to bestow a flurry of kisses on her soft lips.

"I do love you, Ryan," the smaller woman said. "I want you to do this if you think it will bring you joy. Besides, I’ll get to have you all to myself next year. I don’t mind sharing you a bit now, as long as I can look forward to that."

The dark woman nodded, and said. "I’m going to do a little more investigative work," she said. "If I’m satisfied with the answers, can I talk to Coach Roberts and accept?"

"Yes," Jamie said decisively. "I’m ready to let you go. I’ve had a nice long time to savor you – now it’s time to share you with your jock muse."

"I think you’ve just coined another expression," Ryan said. "A strange one, to be sure, but I think it’s unique."

* * * * * * * * * * *

When Jamie got home that night, Ryan was sitting on the front porch, a big smile on her face. An even bigger first baseman’s mitt was on her right hand, and she was methodically snapping a softball into the pocket.

"Been at practice?" the blonde asked, assuming that Ryan would dive in as soon as possible.

"Nope," she said. "I surprised myself, to tell you the truth. I approached this in a methodical way."

"Wow," Jamie said, rolling her eyes. "You … methodical … go figure."

Giving her a pinch on the side, Ryan explained the decision process. "First I called Heather and asked her how she was leaning. She said that she’d play if I played."

Jamie smiled, thinking that development didn’t surprise her in the least, given the crush she knew the freshman had on her partner.

"So I went over and talked to Coach Roberts and asked him to clarify a few things."

"What things?"

"I told him some of the things that had happened on the basketball team," Ryan said, surprising Jamie thoroughly. "I tried not to bitch too much, but I wanted to make sure that you could travel with us … that we could sleep together … that I could go to a game separately if necessary."

"What did he say?" Jamie asked.

"He said he didn’t care if I went on a three-day drunk and rolled up to the stadium stinking of gin," Ryan said. "He said he learned a long time ago that what matters is performance, and as long as I can perform, he doesn’t care about the details."

"Smart man," Jamie said.

"Yeah," Ryan said thoughtfully. "He said that he realized I was older, and hopefully more mature than some of the other players. He realizes that we’re, in essence, married. He said that he understood that our schedules would be tough to coordinate, and that he would cut me as much slack as he could."

"That sounds really good. What else?"

"Well, I told him about the fears the athletic director had about my playing basketball. While I sat there, he called the A.D.’s office, and told him I was thinking about playing softball. They had a long talk, and both agreed that the situation was not nearly as worrisome for softball as it was for basketball."

"Why, honey?"

"Mmm … couple of reasons. One, having photographers around isn’t very distracting. We play almost all day games, so there wouldn’t be flashes going off. Two, the fields we would play at are small, so the crowds aren’t very big. Heck, the photographers could lie down on the benches at most of the fields, and snap away as long as they liked. No one would even notice."

"That makes sense," Jamie said. "So the athletic director wasn’t opposed to your playing?"

"He gave the all-clear," Ryan said.

"Well, I can see why you accepted," Jamie said.

"Not so fast there, Jamers," Ryan said. "I’m not done yet. I went over to the field a half hour before practice, and introduced myself to the players as they came in to change. I liked the vibes," she said thoughtfully. "The players acted like they were buddies. Everyone was pleasant, and they all said they were excited about having me join them." She gave her partner a sheepish look and said, "I think they might have seen me play basketball."

Jamie chuckled, "I think everybody in the Bay Area watched that game down in North Carolina. The Nielsen ratings must have gone haywire that night."

"So, after I was satisfied there, I said that I’d join the team. Here’s the funny part though," she added. "I told him I didn’t want to start for another week." She looked very proud of herself, and Jamie smiled her approval at her.

"Wow! What made you do that?"

"It was a tough call," Ryan said. "I know I’ll get along better if I’m there early, but I also know that I’m still a little off stride. I decided to do what felt right – for me!" The smile she gave her partner was luminous, and Jamie rewarded her with an enthusiastic kiss.

"I’m proud of you, sweetheart. That’s very, very good news."

"There’s a season-opening tournament that first weekend," Ryan said smugly. "I probably won’t be ready to play because I’ll have so little practice time. Isn’t that great?"

"You’re making progress," Jamie said.

"Yep," Ryan said. "Over time, I’ll be a self-involved egotist, and it’s all thanks to you!"

"Oh, I think that will take a while," Jamie said. "I’ll be happy if you begin to believe that your needs are as important as other people's. That’s my goal."

"My goal is to play a game I like, with nice people, and try not to make it the focus of my life," Ryan said seriously. "I want that focus to remain on you."

"Now you’re talking," Jamie said. "Just for that, you get to pick where we go to dinner tonight."

It took Ryan less than a second to say, "Zachary’s. I’m gonna try to pack a few more pounds on before I start practicing. Zachary’s can always be counted on to contribute to the cause."

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Where’s Ryan?" Mia asked when she came home a few minutes later.

"She ran to Zachary’s for a pizza. Hungry?"

"I could eat a Zachary’s if I’d finished dinner three minutes ago," Mia said. She climbed up on the counter and watched Jamie prepare a salad to accompany the pizza. "Did Ryan follow through and quit the basketball team?"

"She sure did, but as usual, she’s gonna jump right back into another sport." The blonde shook her head and said, "She’s gonna join the softball team in a week."

"That woman is something else," Mia said. "One thing I’m sure of, Jamie – you’re never gonna get bored with her."

Jamie shared her laugh and said, "No, never bored. She may drive me mad – but she won’t bore me." She gave her friend an aggrieved look and said, "You won’t believe this, but she honestly thinks that she can still participate in the AIDS ride, even though she hasn’t started training yet."

"Didn’t you start in the fall last year?"

"Yep. October. Here it is, almost February, she hasn’t ridden more than three miles at a time since June, and my doofus girlfriend thinks she can do it with no problem."

"Well, she is pretty phenomenal. Maybe just being in good shape is enough."

Jamie was shaking her head while Mia was still talking. "No way. Getting used to being on the seat for hours at a time, and stressing your legs from hill work are really critical, Mia. I’m worried that she’ll hurt herself if she tries to do this without putting in the prep time."

"So, what are you going to do? She sure as hell doesn’t take well to being told what to do."

"There’s an understatement," Jamie said. "I’m not sure, yet, but I’m gonna try to penetrate that very hard head."

Ryan came in as they were speaking, and waved the pizza box under Mia’s nose. "Hungry?"

"Starved! Let’s just stand here and eat it out of the box."

"Now, now, let’s at least try to act civilized," Ryan said. She put the pizza on a platter and carried it into the dining room, where Jamie had already set out the salad.

They dug in, and in no time, a sizeable dent had been made in the large pie. Ryan commented, "I’m gonna work on my training schedule tonight. The one I made up when we were down in Hillsborough won’t work with my softball schedule."

"Congratulations on making the team," Mia said. "That’s pretty cool, Ryan. Are the uniforms more attractive than those horrible basketball ones?"

"You Hillsborough girls," Ryan said. "All you care about is fashion." She thought for a moment and said, "I think the uniforms are pretty cute."

"Why don’t you bring your schedule down, and I’ll help you work on it," Jamie said. "I know you’ll sit here and pick at the pizza until it’s gone – we might as well have something to do between bites."

"Ha ha," Ryan said, but she nevertheless got up and went to her room to gather her things. When she returned, she handed Jamie the softball schedule, and she took her eraser and removed most of her proposed training rides from her organizer. "Okay, the challenge is going to be squeezing the rides in without using many weekends."

"That will be a challenge," Jamie said. "Where do you want to start, honey?"

"Well, I’m not going to start softball until next week, so I can ride a lot this week, just to kick-off my training." She made a few notes and commented, "I can probably get in 100 miles this week."

"That’s a lot!" Mia said around a massive bite of pizza.

"No, it’s really not," Ryan said absently. "I should be doing 150 miles a week by February. I’m really behind already."

They started going through the schedule, week by week. It rapidly became clear that Ryan was going to have to start riding before dawn most days to get her saddle time in. "This doesn’t look good," the dark woman said. "I guess I’m just going to have to do what I can, and hope for the best. Maybe I’ll take the two weeks before the ride and really grind a lot of miles out."

Jamie tapped at the softball schedule, and said, "Not if you make the playoffs. The final game of the College World Series is less than a week before the ride starts."

Ryan dropped her head onto the table, and groaned, "Then I’ll have to just do my best. I’ll ride in the damn SAG van if I have to."

"You know as well as I do that you’d walk the whole way before you’d get in that van," Jamie said.

"Yeah, well, I might just have to re-think some of my notions about the ride," Ryan said. "It’s important to me to participate – even if I can’t do it as well as I have in the past. It’s going to be very odd for me," she said. "I mean, for one thing, I won’t be able to lead training rides this year. That was always one of my favorite things about the ride, you know."

"Yeah," Jamie said, echoing her partner’s tone. "That’s one of the ways you stayed connected to your fellow riders, wasn’t it?"

"Exactly," Ryan said. "Training people made me feel like I was part of the whole. I’m afraid that I won’t have that same feeling this year. I’m going to have to just concentrate on myself."

Mia interrupted to ask, "Aren’t you going to do the ride, Jamie? I thought it was going to be an annual thing for you two."

Shrugging her shoulders, Jamie said, "There’s no way I can train enough to even consider it, Mia. I’d have to ride in the SAG van half the time – and that just seems silly."

"Wow," the curly-haired woman said, "I thought that doing this together was a really big thing for you."

"It is," Ryan said soberly. "It’s a very big deal to me."

"This is just one more little challenge," Jamie sighed, giving Ryan a hug. "It’ll work out, baby."

"Yeah, I guess it will," Ryan said, gazing at her partner with sad blue eyes.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Jamie was ready for bed when Ryan came out of the bathroom, and the taller woman approached her from behind to see what she was working on. She was sitting at her desk, and it looked like her calendar was up on her computer. As Ryan got closer, she became fascinated by the top Jamie had on.

It had been cold recently, and they’d both been sleeping in T-shirts. But tonight, the house was quite warm, and Jamie had on just a camisole. It was an ivory-colored knit, and it fit very close, following her curves like a second skin. The bodice was trimmed with a satin appliqué that was significantly stiffer than the rest of the material, and that was the detail that caught Ryan’s attention.

An appliquéd flower was covering the top of Jamie’s left breast, and it gapped a bit, revealing a firm, pink nipple. Ryan felt her mouth go dry, her eyes unable to tear themselves away from the sight. Her hand reached out to touch her partner, but she stilled in mid-motion. They had expressly agreed to ask permission before touching each other, and she wasn’t about to break that agreement – but at the same time, she was afraid to ask for what she wanted.

Standing there, unable to decide what she should do, Jamie reached back and patted her leg absently, silently indicating that she knew Ryan was there.

Ryan sat down on the bed, trying to make up her mind. The first tendrils of desire had already faded, and she cursed herself for her indecision. She tried to remind herself of what Amanda had told her. That at first, things would seem awkward and fairly stilted. Amanda had urged her to struggle through those awkward moments, promising that once they got past them, things would open up and begin to feel normal again.

Jamie was just about finished, and she started to shut her system down. When she was done, she began to stand, but Ryan impulsively said. "Stay there for a moment."

The smaller woman complied, something in Ryan’s voice giving her pause. "What is it, honey?" She started to turn her chair around, but Ryan reached out and grasped the chair back, pulling it close.

Swallowing, Ryan quietly asked, "Can I touch your breasts?" She felt like a very formal thirteen-year-old boy, but she didn’t know how else to ask, and she wanted to make sure that her request was framed properly.

Jamie started to turn again, but Ryan held the chair in place. She didn’t want to see the look on her face – knowing it must reflect puzzlement at the very least. "Sure," she said softly, "I’d like that."

Rubbing her hands together nervously, Ryan leaned over and cupped both of her partner’s breasts in her hands. She could feel a little bit of sweat start to gather on the back of her neck, but her breathing was fairly even – and she didn’t think she was going to have a panic attack. Jamie was still – consciously trying to allow Ryan to explore – without comment or suggestion.

It felt much more clinical than erotic, but Ryan kept at it, letting her hands grow used to the tactile sensations once again. Jamie’s breasts felt just as glorious as she remembered them, the firm flesh yielding to her touch. But even though the physical sensations were the same, Ryan felt a definite barrier between her body and her libido. A barrier as real as the fabric that kept her fingers from feeling her partner’s warm skin. The two parts of her seemed to have severed communications – her libido completely unaware that it was supposed to be enjoying itself at the moment.

To Ryan’s dismay, Jamie’s body didn’t seem to be having the same communication breakdown as her own did. The blonde shifted in her chair and sighed deeply, then placed a hand over Ryan’s and pressed down. "Nice," she purred sexily. Her nipples grew firm, and Ryan could feel the mauve flesh around the peaks start to pebble. She could feel her partner’s breathing start to pick up, but she knew she couldn’t go any further without having a stroke, so she leaned over and kissed her cheek. "Thanks," she whispered. "They looked too luscious to pass up."

With a question in her eyes, Jamie swiveled around in her chair and gazed at her partner. Immediately, she saw a hint of regret in the sad, blue eyes, and she intentionally tried to make light of the situation. "We’re making progress, baby," she said. "You just keep asking anytime you want to touch a little." Standing, she grasped Ryan’s hand and took her over to her side of the bed. Tucking her in, she leaned over and kissed her gently, then placed the hand upon her breast once again and squeezed Ryan’s hand under her own. "We’ll get there, Ryan, I promise you."

For some reason, having Jamie leaning over her like that gave Ryan a little bit of a jolt, and she felt greatly reassured when she felt a familiar tingle between her legs. A warm smile bloomed, and she said. "I know we will. Thanks for being patient with me."

"We’re being patient with each other," Jamie said. "I haven’t been making many moves on you either, sport." She released Ryan’s hand and stood up, then impetuously crawled over the long body to her own side of the bed, making Ryan giggle.

Getting under the covers, they cuddled together for a few minutes and Ryan got up the nerve to ask the question that Jamie’s comment had sparked. "Do you ever want to touch me?"

"Yeah," she quietly said. "It’s always when it’s impossible, though." She was silent for a moment, then added, "I think of you a lot when I’m in class. And sometimes just seeing a certain curve will remind me of some part of your body." She chuckled softly, and said, "I must confess that I’ve really turned into an ass-woman. Most of my images are of your perfect butt."

"Wanna feel it?" Ryan asked tentatively. "I uhm … if you’re not …"

Before she could complete her sentence, Jamie’s hand was palming her cheek through her thin flannel pants, an impish look on her face. "Just like I remember," she sighed. "Maybe a little leaner."

"Yeah, I lost a little weight at the beach."

"My hard-won gains," Jamie said. "I’d just started to see some progress, and then you stopped eating again."

"My appetite’s getting better," Ryan said. "I think I’ll start gaining again."

"You’d better," the blonde decreed. She leaned over Ryan and rubbed noses. "When I grab your ass, I want two handfuls. And I do mean hand ‘fulls’!"

"Yes, ma’am," Ryan said. "I’ll make every effort to pump up the booty."

Giving the butt another squeeze, Jamie slid her hand up and tucked it around Ryan’s waist, smoothing her T-shirt into place. "G’night, honey," she said. "I love you."

"I love you, too, Jamie." Ryan tightened her embrace and whispered, "More than ever."

* * * * * * * * * * *

The next morning, Ryan got up and put on her running clothes. As she opened the front door she was rewarded with the sight of … no one. There was not a reporter, nor a news van, nor a photographer in sight. She poked her head out cautiously, then started to creep out of the door, making slow but steady progress. Finally, she hit the sidewalk, where she stared in every direction, finally standing still and scratching her head for a minute. No one? Who are the poor, miserable wretches whose turmoil is more newsworthy than mine? May God have mercy on their souls!

As she ran along the quiet streets, she considered that Jim had really had a hand in quelling the feeding frenzy. There had only been one lone guy with a camera in Noe this past weekend, and it was obvious that he was a free-lancer, and now this. She was still observing a news blackout, but Jamie was back to her normal habits, and she had informed Ryan that the media dialogue had now switched to an outraged recitation of the sins of the media in hounded the poor, innocent heroes … by the very same media that had committed the sins, of course.

Ryan didn’t much care how the discussion morphed at this point. She was just immensely glad that the focus had shifted from her and Jamie. We should call Jim this evening to give him an update, and thank him for his efforts, she reminded herself.

Thinking of one more task to accomplish, she varied her route, swinging by the group home where Jennie lived. She was pleased to find her young friend sitting on the front steps, neatly dressed in her uniform, massive book bag at her feet.

"Hey!" Ryan called out, startling the young woman from her reverie.

"Oh … hi, Ryan," Jennie said, looking everywhere but into her eyes. "What are you doing over here?"

"I was out running, and I decided to see if you were around. I figured your ride would be here soon," she said as she performed a few gentle quad stretches to keep her legs warm. "You look like something’s bothering you, sport. Everything okay?"

"Yeah," she said, still looking at the ground. "I’m sorry, Ryan," she said softly. "I’ve been trying to figure out all week how to make it up to you, but I can’t think of a thing." Ryan saw the girl’s lower lip start to tremble, and then the tears started to flow.

"How about a sweaty hug?" Ryan asked gently, placing her hand on Jennie's shoulder.

"You’re not mad at me?" she said, her expression so heart-rendingly sad that Ryan nearly started to cry, without even knowing why.

"Of course not, Jen. Why would I be mad at you?" She wrapped her in a hug, trying not to transfer too much of her perspiration onto the neatly ironed uniform.

" ‘Cause of what my mom did," she said, looking up at Ryan like the older woman must be missing something.

"Jen. You’re not responsible for your mom. You’re only responsible for yourself. Your mom’s got some problems, and she’s not one of my favorite people right now, but nothing she does will ever impact how I feel about you." She grasped the young woman by the shoulders and held her out at arm’s length. "That is the absolute truth, Jennie. You and I are friends. There’s nothing anyone can do to change that."

She tumbled into Ryan’s arms again, sobbing pitifully. "I … I … I was afraid you’d never talk to me again. I thought I’d have to quit sch … sch … school."

"Oh, Jennie, I know it’s hard to trust that I won’t abandon you, but I won’t. I swear I won’t. I'm so sorry that I didn’t call you after your mom’s comments came out. I … I just let myself get too busy, and I didn’t stop to think how that would affect you." Tilting her chin up with her fingers, Ryan looked into her eyes and asked, "Forgive me?"

"Sure," the young woman said, wrapping her arms around Ryan so tightly that she let out a soft grunt.

A Lincoln Town Car pulled into the drive as they were hugging, and Ryan took a quick look at her friend’s face. "You’d better go inside and get a tissue."

"Oh, that’s okay," she said. "Robert has some in the car. He’s nice, Ryan. Wanna meet him?"

"I’d love to," Ryan said, walking the short distance with Jennie’s arm snugged around her waist.

* * * * * * * * * * *

When she came home from her run, Jamie had already left for golf practice. Ryan puttered around the kitchen for a bit, making herself an English muffin with some peanut butter on it, and then eating a nice, ripe pear. Her hunger partially sated, she went upstairs to get ready for school.

A shower was the first order of business, and as she cleaned her body, she felt a familiar, but long absent, sensation. A fluttering of desire began to bloom, and as she made the water a little cooler, she trained the hand-held showerhead upon her vulva and let it work its magic. In moments, she felt fully aroused, and spread her legs wider to increase the sensation. Bracing one hand against the wall, she relaxed into the experience and let her body respond – feeling an overwhelming sense of relief at how quickly everything fell into place. Just like old times, she angled the showerhead just so, letting it thrum right onto her clitoris.

Moments later, she felt the pulsing start in her uterus and radiate out, leaving her weak-kneed and fully sated. Good Lord, that felt fine, she sighed. Too bad Jamie wasn’t still home. But even as the thought still rumbled around in her head, the truth hit her. She would not have felt that wave of desire if Jamie were still home. It was the fact that she was gone – that Ryan was sure she wasn’t coming back for hours – that let her relax enough to get aroused. Her libido wanted to come out and play, but it wanted to play alone – and that thought filled her with dread.

* * * * * * * * * * *

She checked and double-checked to make sure that Jamie knew she was about to call Amanda for their evening session. "Ryan, go make your phone call," the blonde finally insisted. "I won’t disturb you, and I won’t pick up the phone by mistake. Now shoo!"

Feeling guiltier than she had since she was in grade school, Ryan made the call, unable to think of even one topic to waste time and delay having to admit what she had done. Getting to the point, she said, "I feel like crap, Amanda. I finally got sexually excited today, and instead of holding off until Jamie came home, I masturbated." She said this with a voice full of self-loathing, certain that her actions signaled a very deep and lasting problem between her and Jamie.

"And … you’re upset by this?" Amanda asked.

Ryan wished that she could see the woman, knowing there was at least a hint of censure showing on her face. "Yes, of course! I haven’t masturbated just to please myself since we’ve been together. I don’t do that any longer, Amanda. My sexuality is for Jamie and me to share."

"Oh, I see," Amanda said. "Well, if that’s how you feel comfortable, I’m sure that you’ll go back to that habit once things are back to normal."

"You act like this isn’t a big deal!" Ryan cried, her voice rising much higher than she wished.

"It’s not," the therapist said. "Look, Ryan, your sexual response has been shut down for weeks now. When it starts to wake up again, it’s going to do so slowly. It makes perfect sense to me that it would feel safe to touch yourself for a while, then you can risk a little more and allow Jamie to touch you. Your body is just trying to keep you safe, Ryan. Listen to it."

The young woman was fairly stunned by this advice. "You really think my body is talking to me?"

"Of course it is," Amanda said. "Just listen to the signals it gives you, Ryan. It knows what your mind needs. Let it guide you."

Ryan nodded slowly, starting to see Amanda’s point. "Okay, I’ll try that," she said. "I just hope my body wants Jamie soon, ‘cause my heart needs her desperately."

* * * * * * * * * * *

The next day, when Jamie returned from school, Ryan was lying in bed on her back, her legs elevated, one ankle crossed over a knee. Her hands were laced behind her head, and she bore a contemplative look on her handsome features. "Thinking?" Jamie asked quietly, careful not to disturb her partner when she was focused on something.

"Yeah," Ryan said, "but not about anything too deep." She patted the bed and said, "C’mere for a minute."

Jamie kicked off her shoes and climbed up next to her, sighing deeply when Ryan wrapped an arm around her.

"You always do that," Ryan said softly.


"Let out a breath when I first put my arms around you. It always makes me smile."

Leaning over to kiss her, Jamie said, "It feels like I’m home. Like I’m safe and protected, and nothing can hurt me."

"It feels like that to me, too," Ryan said. She nuzzled her face into her partner’s sweet-smelling hair, and said, "No place on earth is as welcoming as your arms."

"That will always be true, Ryan," the blonde said. "Always." She rolled onto her side, and started to trail her fingers down Ryan’s arm, watching a smile slowly form on her lover’s features. "Feel good?"

"Uh-huh," Ryan whispered.

Her hand moved slightly, and she let her fingers explore a little, moving over Ryan’s ribs, along her side, then across her shoulder. Tracing a collarbone with her index finger, she asked softly, "Can I touch your breast?"

Ryan swallowed audibly, then nodded. Jamie could feel her take in and hold a breath, so she kept her touch brief, and light. She knew that over time they’d get past this discomfort, and she knew that the only way was to work slowly – but it broke her heart every time she saw how Ryan struggled with the tentative intimacies. Ryan was the most emotionally vulnerable person she had ever met – and to have their blissfully intimate connection taken from them had taken a massive toll on her.

Even though it was hard on Jamie, she pushed on – knowing that they had to get through this awkward time. Using just her fingernail, she scraped along the soft cotton of Ryan’s shirt – running all around her breast. Then she let all of her short nails rake across the rapidly firming flesh, tweaking the nipple gently. "Does that feel good?" she asked softly.

Ryan nodded, not saying a word. She was breathing regularly, but just then Jamie noted a quickening of her respiration, that didn’t seem like arousal. "Go on," the larger woman whispered. "Do that some more."

Complying immediately, Jamie continued to tease her lover through her clothing. After a minute, she slipped her hand down between Ryan’s slightly spread legs and asked, "Can I touch you here? Just for a moment," she qualified, when Ryan hesitated.

Another nod, and Jamie touched her in much the same way, using her short nails to rake up and down the seam of her jeans. Ryan’s eyes were closed, and her body was stiff, but she allowed the touch, which cheered Jamie greatly. Patting Ryan’s belly, she said, "That’s enough for today. I just wanted to have a little visit to some of my favorite places."

Ryan wrapped her in a bruising embrace and whispered, "I love you so very much. It means so much to me that you’re so patient and gentle with me."

"Sweetheart," Jamie sighed. "We’re going to be together for seventy or eighty years. Spending a few weeks getting comfortable with each other again is nothing in the scheme of things. Our sex life is tremendously important to me, Ryan. I promise to treat it like the precious gift that it is."

"It is precious," Ryan whispered. Hugging Jamie tight once again, she asked, "Are you sure we’ll get back to where we used to be?"

"We’ll get back all that we had, and then we’ll just keep going, baby. There’s not a doubt in my mind. We’ll take as long as we need, no rush at all."

"Thank you," Ryan murmured. "Thank you for trusting in us."

Concluded in Part 11

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