I Found My Heart In San Francisco

Book 14

Nurture

By SX Meagher

Part Eleven

Ryan walked into the house on Thursday night, animatedly talking on her cell phone. "Tell the fellas we'd be there if we could," she said. "Make sure you tell 'em that, okay?" She nodded. "Just don't forget. Love you, too. Bye."

She clicked the phone off and walked over to Jamie, giving her a quick welcome-home kiss.

"Who was on the phone?"

"I was," Ryan said, giving her partner one of her "I'll pull that trick on you for the rest of our lives" smiles.

Jamie swatted her on the seat. "Who were you speaking to, Ryan?"

"My brother. Rory," she clarified when Jamie raised an eyebrow. "Niall's moving this weekend. I'm really bummed that we can't help."

Jamie paused, trying to determine if Ryan was kidding. She'd never helped anyone move, and she didn't feel that her life was made poorer by that fact. But Ryan looked entirely sincere. "Does he really need help?"

"Nah. All of the cousins will be there. But I hate to miss anything like that. You know what Da always says."

"No, I don't."

"He says your friends help you move. Your real friends help you move a body."

She had a perfectly straight face on, but Jamie could see the merriment in her eyes. "Does he really say that?"

"Nah. I heard it somewhere. I just thought it was funny."

"You're in a good mood," Jamie said. "Feeling good?"

Ryan took a banana from the bowl Jamie was always careful to keep filled with seasonal fruit. "Yeah, I suppose. What's for dinner?"

"Nothing special. Just fruit and cheese. I got home late."

"So this is an appetizer?" Ryan wiggled her banana.

"It fits with the menu." Jamie patted her side and started to gather the things she needed for dinner. Ryan jumped up to sit on the counter, as she always did when she was home in time to watch the preparations.

"Why were you late?" she asked, peeling her banana.

"I ran into Hannan. The woman Mia hired to impersonate her."

Ryan laughed. "I think about her every once in a while. I was wondering if she was getting away with it."

"Hannan says everything's fine. She claims the prof has been complimenting her on her class participation."

Ryan's eyes popped open. "She's participating?"

"Yeah." Jamie giggled. "She says she's gotten into it. She'd like to take the class, but she knows the guy will recognize her."

"Maybe she can wear a disguise." Ryan shook her head. "That's a damned odd situation."

"Not for Mia. She's always spent more time figuring out how to get out of work than doing the work would ever take her."

"Hmm I see politics in her future."

Jamie looked at her partner for a second. "The most cursory background check would prevent her from running for sewer commissioner."

"Riiiiight."

* * * * * *

After dinner, Ryan and Jamie went upstairs to work on their stock portfolio. The game had progressed to a point where they'd merged their assets, deciding that they'd get just as much enjoyment out of beating the market as each other. Their combined assets totaled $1.6 million.

As she watched Ryan's eyes light up when the totals flicked across the screen, Jamie decided that observing the joy Ryan derived from playing the game was one of the most enjoyable parts of her week. She knew that Ryan would never get the same satisfaction from real money, but playing with funny money as she called it allowed her to enjoy herself immensely.

"So, when do we get those shares of Palm from that spin-off of 3Com?" Jamie asked.

"Didn't I tell you what those rats did?" Ryan asked, her pique obvious.

"No, what?"

"They decided to distribute the shares six to nine months after the spin off. They won't be worth the paper they're printed on."

"Really? But people are jazzed about Palm."

"I know, but an IPO rarely lives up to its hype." She looked up at Jamie thoughtfully. "I think we should sell our whole 3Com holding. I think it's a bad sign that they're making us wait so long for the spin-off shares, and it really concerns me that they still won't say what the distribution's going to be. I don't trust a company that plays cat and mouse like that. Plus, I keep thinking about what my father said. He doesn't know anything about the stock market, but he has a firmer grasp on reality than most people who play the market."

"Okay, I see your point." Ryan made the entry, and when she was done, Jamie looked at her and said, "Hey, wanna have some fun?"

"Sure."

"If you feel strongly about Palm being over-hyped, let's sell it short."

"Really?" Her eyes lit up. "I've never sold short before. How do we do it?"

"Well, if you're sure the stock will fall, you place an order to sell as many shares as you want at the current market price. But since you don't necessarily own them, your broker has to sell them out of his own inventory, or go out and buy them so he can sell them. You have to put up 150% of the current value of the shares, either in cash or stock, then when the price reaches the point you want, you buy the shares and make good on the sale."

Ryan shook her head and said, "What's in it for the broker?"

"He gets 150% of the value, and after he buys the shares, that 50% is his to play with and earn interest on. If you keep the transaction open for a while, that can really add up."

"This is pretty risky, isn't it?"

"Oh, yeah. If the stock goes up, there's no limit to the amount of money you can lose. You've gotta have big cojones to sell short, amiga."

"Let's do it!" Ryan said gleefully. "Let's go big, baby. It's a mortal lock that Palm's gonna go up like a bottle rocket and then crash just as fast."

"I'm in. We just have to wait until the day the IPO is issued."

"That's next Thursday. Can you come home for lunch that day? We can see how it does and decide when to sell."

"It's a date."

"Oh, shit! I've gotta go to Sacramento next Thursday. We don't leave until 3:00. Will we have time to do this if I'm home by 1:00?"

"Sure. It'll just take a minute. It's not like we have to call a real broker, honey. We just have to take a quick look at the stock price, and make an entry on our books."

"Cool. We'll be rich, rich, I tell you!"

"We're already rich," Jamie teased.

"Yes, but now we'll be rich with imaginary money that we really earned. That's cool."

* * * * * *

Ryan barreled into the house on Friday morning and took the stairs two at a time. Her bedroom door was open, and she motored in just as Jamie was coming out. They grazed each other, just missing butting heads. "Jesus! A little warning would be nice!"

Jamie clutched at her chest, fearing her heart would stop. "The house was empty two seconds ago. If anyone should warn anyone-it's you! Damn, my heart's still racing."

"I'm late," Ryan grumbled. She went to her closet and pulled out her Cal duffle bag, then started to add some clothes.

Jamie watched her put in some cotton slacks and tailored shirts, a few T-shirts, a pair of jeans and all of the long compression shorts she owned. "What do you need those for?"

"Don't have any underwear," Ryan said, not looking up. "Got my last pair on."

"You have a full supply. I did your laundry when I got home from golf practice."

Ryan looked up and blinked. "You did? You've never done my stuff."

"That's because Maria Los does my laundry. I don't usually pay much attention. But yesterday she asked me if she could do yours, since it had filled the entire hamper." She smiled. "We were both a little amazed at how many pairs you have. I think she thought we'd taken in boarders."

Ryan looked a little embarrassed. "I've got about six pairs of really good undies. Then I start going down the ladder until I get to the ones that I wouldn't use as rags. I've never run out before. I didn't think it was possible." She started to unbutton her jeans, then shimmied out of them. "Now that I have good ones, I'm gonna put on another pair."

Jamie looked at the pale pink panties that looked like they were once white but had been washed with something red. The elastic was exposed on one leg, and when Ryan took them off, the skin on her thigh looked irritated. "Honey, I know it's hard for you to find time to do your laundry. Why didn't you ask me to help?"

Ryan shook her head. "It's my responsibility. I just have to schedule my time better."

Walking over to her, Jamie put her hands on her partner's shoulders, steadying her while she put clean underwear on. "I'm going to start doing it for you. I'm home more than you are."

"But you don't like doing laundry. You don't even do your own."

Jamie shrugged. "So? I have the time, you have the need."

Ryan made a face, looking like she was going to spit. Then she sighed and said, "Okay. But I'm gonna figure out a way to make the time to do it myself."

Jamie started to argue, then realized it wasn't worth the time. "Fine. Whatever."

"I'm sorry," Ryan said, seeing that her partner was frustrated with her. "I just feel weird having someone else wash my underwear."

Jamie looked at her, trying to figure out why Ryan relished having her mouth on every part of her that the underwear covered but was uncomfortable having her wash it. She quickly realized this was a quirk she wasn't going to able to understand. She nodded and put her hand on Ryan's waist. "I threw away every pair that had holes or where the elastic was exposed. I can't have my girl looking like she dumpster-dives for her undies."

A smile slowly bloomed and Ryan grasped Jamie and hugged her. "Thanks for doing my laundry. Thanks for caring about me. And thanks for putting up with me. I know I can be a pain."

Jamie patted her butt, and Ryan released her. "We all have our things, honey. One of yours is laundry."

Nodding, Ryan grabbed her bag and kissed Jamie quickly. "Gotta go. See you at your mom's tonight."

"Okay, Sparky. Play well."

When she heard the door shut, Jamie called her mother. "Hi," she said when Catherine answered. "Wanna meet me at the Stanford Shopping Center before the game? Ryan's in dire need of new underwear."

* * * * * *

Late on Saturday afternoon, Ryan sat on the bed in Jamie's room in Hillsborough, watching her lover pack a bag for her trip. "I forgot to ask if your mom's going to fly down to watch you play," Ryan said.

"No, I didn't ask her to. I know she'd come any time I asked, but it can't be fun for her. She's just being nice."

Ryan nodded. "Maybe. But if you'd like her to come you should ask her."

"I think I'll wait for her to offer," Jamie said. "Then I'll know she really wants to."

"I really want to," Ryan said. She looked like she was on the verge of tears, and her hands held Jamie's suitcase like she didn't want to release it.

Jamie saw the look in her eyes. She sat down and slipped an arm around her lover, feeling knots of tension in her back muscles. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm all right," Ryan said in her standard response. "It's only a couple of days."

"I know that." Jamie's voice was soft and calm. "But I don't feel very good about going, and I thought you might feel the same."

Ryan nodded. "You know I don't like it, but that's life." She laughed very artificially and said, "A series of calamities and disappointments, occasionally interrupted by a moment of joy."

Seeing that she wasn't going to crack her lover's carefully created shell, the blonde got up and finished getting ready. "Mom said she'd drive you home after the game tomorrow."

"I can take the bus," Ryan said. "She doesn't need to go out of her way."

"She likes being with you, Ryan. And if you'll let her drive you, she might stay for dinner. She really hates eating alone every night."

"She does?" Ryan's eyes grew wide. "Why doesn't she come to our house? She never has to be lonely."

Jamie walked over to her and kissed her, trying to show the depths of her love through her touch. "You're such a find," she whispered. "How did I ever get so lucky?"

Looking a little shy with her lopsided grin, Ryan shrugged her shoulders. "Dunno. Must be fate."

Jamie kept her arms around her neck and hugged her tightly. "I'll call you tonight when I get to Temecula, okay?"

"Okay." Ryan got up, and they held each other for a few moments, then walked downstairs together. After Jamie said goodbye to her mother, Ryan walked her out to the circular drive. She put Jamie's bag onto the passenger seat of the Boxster, then opened her arms to hold her lover for a long hug. "I'll miss you, sweetheart. Play well."

"Do my best." Jamie kissed her and got into the car. As she drove away she caught one last glance of her partner, standing alone in the driveway, her hands in her pockets, staring after the departing car.

* * * * * *

Catherine and Ryan ate in the kitchen, and the pair finally convinced Marta to sit and eat with them. That was a rare accomplishment, and it was clear that Marta didn't feel entirely comfortable. Even though she and Catherine were much more than employer/employee, there was always a line she was careful not to cross-for her sake as well as Catherine's. No matter how fond she was of the younger woman, Catherine was and would always be the one in charge, and that, for Marta, precluded a more casual relationship. Besides, Helena, the housekeeper, didn't have a personal relationship with Catherine, and Marta didn't want to make the other woman jealous.

As soon as the cook had finished her last bite, she got up and started to clean the kitchen, politely, but firmly refusing help from Ryan.

Catherine could see that her daughter-in-law was fidgeting. She knew it went against Ryan's grain to have someone waiting on her, so she suggested they go into the living room for a while.

Catherine turned on some music, and Ryan sat on one of the sofas, taking up much of the space, as was her wont. Catherine recalled how the young woman had behaved the first time she'd visited the house, how she'd tried to blend in with the rather stiff Evans' style. It made her happy that Ryan was now comfortable enough to kick off her shoes and lounge on the sofa, something Catherine had seen her do at home. "You seem a little on edge tonight, honey. Is everything okay?"

"Yeah, yeah," Ryan said. "Just a little unsettled. I think I'll feel better when Jamie calls. I like to I uhm "

"It's hard for you, isn't it?" Catherine asked gently. "To have her gone."

"Yeah. It is."

She didn't say another word, but Catherine could tell she was anxious. "Do you worry about her?"

Ryan nodded, quicker this time, looking like she might cry.

"Since the car-jacking?"

"Uh-huh." The young woman made a fist and rubbed her mouth with it, her lips reddening from the friction. Catherine guessed she was trying to distract herself from crying, and she respected Ryan's need to save face.

"That makes perfect sense," she said. "I still have nightmares about it, and I wasn't even there. I have a low-level discomfort I guess it's anxiety that hasn't really left since that night."

"You do?" Ryan got up and went to sit next to her mother-in-law. "How can I help?"

Catherine smiled and put her hand on the younger woman's leg. "You're such a giver," she said. "I'm so glad you and Jamie found each other."

"Me, too," Ryan said quickly. "Now, how can we make you feel less anxious?"

"Oh part of it is my trying to limit my drinking," Catherine said. "I was swallowing an awful lot of anti-anxiety medicine on a daily basis. It's going to take me a long time to get a baseline on what my real feelings are. I was thinking of asking my psychiatrist for some medication, but I don't want to do that yet. I want to see if I can ride this out and calm myself down."

"You do talk about this with your therapist, don't you?" Ryan asked. "I know it's hard to ask for help, but you've gotta do it."

"It is hard," Catherine said. "Is it hard for you?"

Ryan nodded again, her lower lip quivering.

"How about a hug?" Catherine asked.

Ryan looked at her and realized Catherine was asking for, not offering one. She put her arms around her mother-in-law and held her for a few moments, then started to let go. But Catherine reached up and held Ryan's arm around her shoulders, burrowing up against her. Ryan immediately returned the warmth, and they spent a long time sitting quietly, reflecting on how their worlds had changed in the last months-for better and for worse.

* * * * * *

On Monday morning, Catherine drove down Castro Street in San Francisco, pleased to find that the parking situation was not very bad on a weekday. She was dressed casually, since she assumed that she'd be walking a lot, wearing tattersall plaid slacks in tan and brown, and a brown suede blazer covering a simple, cream-colored cashmere shell. Brown tassel loafers deducted two inches from her usual height. She'd always liked the extra height she got from heels, but she was trying to get comfortable wearing more casual clothing. Being around the O'Flahertys has really begun to rub off on me. She smiled to herself as she walked down the street. Some day soon, Ryan might have me in one of those warm-up suits she's so fond of.

After she announced herself to the receptionist, Catherine waited for just a moment before Alex Joyce came out to greet her. "Mrs. Evans?"

"Catherine," she said firmly, extending her hand. "It's good to meet you, Alex."

"Come on into my office," he said, leading the way. "I'll show you what types of places are on the market now, and you can let me know if any of them suits your needs."

They sat next to each other and began to look through his listing book. "You said on the phone that you were looking for properties for your daughter?"

"Yes, my daughter and her partner."

"Does she have children, or is it just the two of them?"

"It's just the two of them," Catherine said. "They've only been together since summer, but they do plan on having children. Knowing Ryan, her partner, they'll have more than the two they're talking about."

"Ahh he's in favor of big families," Alex said.

Catherine blinked at him, puzzled by his choice of pronouns. "Oh," she said after a moment, "I didn't make myself clear. Ryan's a woman."

"Oh!" he said, blinking in return. "Well, I must tell you how nice it is to see a mother who's so supportive of her lesbian daughter."

Taking her turn, Catherine blinked again, and gave him a tentative smile. "You know, Alex, I don't think I've ever used that term for her. I'm so comfortable around them that I don't stop to think that they're lesbians." She shook her head a little and laughed softly. "But I suppose that they are. The evidence is overwhelming."

The young man smiled back at her. "Any chance you could have a word with my parents? They seem to think that my being gay is the focus of my entire being. I only wish I lived the hedonistic lifestyle they imagine I'm embroiled in."

She patted his arm. "Give them time, Alex. They might come around."

"Maybe." He shrugged. "It's their loss if they don't." He manufactured a smile. "You mentioned that you're only interested in Noe and Castro, is that right?"

"Yes. Ryan's family lives in Noe, and she wants to stay within walking distance."

He looked thoughtful for a few minutes, then thumbed idly through his book. "There really isn't anything on the market in those neighborhoods right now that I'd waste your time looking at. Why don't we look at styles of homes, just so I can get a feel for what you think would please them?"

"That sounds fine, Alex. I think I have a pretty good idea of what the girls want." She smiled. "What they really want is a fairly modest house that can magically expand to accommodate fifty people for dinner."

He smiled back. "We have our work cut out for us then, don't we?"

* * * * * *

"Catherine?" Alex said quietly. "Catherine?"

When he touched her shoulder, she started, turning to give him an embarrassed smile. "I'm sorry, I went off for a minute." Looking around the home they were viewing, she said, "This place isn't right for Jamie and Ryan, but I certainly wish it were."

"It is special, isn't it?" he asked. "I think it's one of the nicest properties I've ever listed."

"Oh, this is your listing?"

"Yes. It's only been on the market since last week, even though the owner has been agonizing over the decision for months." He laughed softly. "The owner is an art director in Hollywood, and he's absolutely never home. I think he said he was here for a total of one week last year. He earns a lot of money, but it's hard to have a place like this sitting idle, no matter how much you have."

As Catherine looked around again she said, "I would hazard a guess that he wants to renovate another place. People who do this kind of work are rarely satisfied to live in it once they've finished."

"You could be right. He's owned the place for three years, and it was an absolute mess when he bought it. It's only been finished for about nine months, and as soon as the last workman left, he was talking about selling."

"That's not uncommon," she said. "I have had friends who live to decorate." She folded her arms over her chest and walked around the rooms on the first floor once again. "I don't know what it is about the place," Catherine mused quietly, "but something about it really resonates with me."

"Are you certain that your daughter couldn't be persuaded to range a little past her comfort zone? Pacific Heights isn't really that far from Noe."

"No," she said with regret. "This space wouldn't suit them at all. It's a good size, but it's not set up like they'd want, and it's so beautifully done that it would be a crime to knock down any of these walls." Catherine cocked her head and said, "Besides, it's a little elegant for Ryan's tastes. I think she'd feel intimidated here."

"You didn't mention how old they are."

"Jamie just turned twenty-two, and Ryan's twenty-four."

"Ahh that is young for a space like this."

"Jamie's used to living in luxury, but Ryan's struggling to acclimate," she said. "She'd break out in hives when she saw the silk on the walls of the master bedroom. And I think there's more marble in the master bath than Michelangelo ever laid his hands on."

"Where do you live? Here in the city?"

"No, I've lived in the Peninsula my whole life," she said. "I live not five miles from where I was born."

"Thank God I can't say the same thing," he said. "I'd be in a corn field in Iowa."

"Are you happy in the city, Alex?"

"Oh, yes. I always say that everyone who loves cities should live in San Francisco at least once in his life. The opera, a world-class symphony orchestra, great museums, wonderful restaurants, and thousands of great-looking gay men-it's nirvana," he said. "I felt like my life began the day I moved here."

Not quite sure why she was sharing her personal life with him, Catherine said, "I'm starting my life over, in a sense. I'm in the process of divorcing my husband."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Alex said sympathetically. "I uhm, figured out who you were when you talked about your daughter and her partner by name. I didn't know that you and Senator Evans were divorcing. That hasn't made the news, has it?"

"Yes, but it wasn't a very big story, thank God. We've kept it very quiet, and we're not fighting, so it should blow over quickly."

Alex gave her a sad smile. "I broke up with my lover a few months ago, and it's been hellish. I really understand how hard it can be."

"Yes, it is hard, but I have Jamie and Ryan, and they help a lot. Actually, I'm in the city more than I'm at home lately. My husband has an apartment on Telegraph Hill, and I should stay there more often just to avoid the drive." She shook her head. "It doesn't suit me, though. I'd rather drive home than stay there."

He nodded. "I can't imagine how hard it must be to have your lives held up for the whole world to see. I know it's been very tough, but I must say that I've come to respect all of you for the classy way you've handled it."

She smiled and agreed. "Tough is not a strong enough word. Having my marriage break up, and then having my daughter and her partner almost killed has really taxed my resources, Alex. I feel like I'm just getting by. I seek solitude, but when I'm alone down in my big house, I feel so lonely." She shook her head. "Well, enough of my complaining. I suppose we should go."

"Would you like to see the second floor again?" he asked. "I know the house doesn't suit your purposes, but if your daughter is going to remodel, the second floor balcony is one of the nicest I've seen. It might give you a few ideas."

"Yes, I would like to see that again, if you have time."

They went back upstairs and Alex opened the door, allowing Catherine to walk outside alone. The balcony, which was very generous in size, seemed like a veritable Garden of Eden, right on the crest of Pacific Heights.

Generously-sized concrete planters surrounded the space-each painted a matte black to make them stand out against the low, white wall. A lavish variety of roses filled them, spilling out a profusion of color and scent. A beautifully rendered wrought iron archway, also painted black, stood right outside the door, and it was covered with wisteria and clematis, just beginning to send off the shoots that would soon bloom. She sat down on an upholstered chair, covered in black with white piping, and gazed out upon the Bay, the wind ruffling her hair.

She noted that even though the breeze was stiff, she wasn't cold, and realized that was because the space was well-protected from the wind on all sides. There was a six-foot-high glass wall surrounding the patio, the glass so clean that it was invisible. Looking up, she noted that the designer had also installed gas heaters every few feet, the appliances cleverly installed on black wrought iron posts.

A feeling of absolute peace settled over her, and she completely lost track of time. It wasn't until she began to chill that she looked at her watch and realized in amazement that it was nearly five o'clock. "Alex," she called as she went back inside.

He came back into the room, his cell phone up to his ear, and held up a finger, indicating that he'd be off the phone in a minute. When he hung up, he chuckled at her shocked expression. "Did you enjoy your afternoon?"

"How long was I out there?"

"A couple of hours," he said. "But it wasn't a problem. I've been busy the whole time. I've got my PC in my briefcase, and I was able to catch up on a lot of work that I can't get done at the office."

"But Alex," she said again, thoroughly embarrassed. "I've wasted your entire afternoon on a house that I won't even bother to show Jamie."

"I promise you that I don't mind a bit." He smiled broadly. "I don't believe in rushing people, Catherine. If we're going to work together, I want you to feel free to spend as much time as you need in a space. That's the only way to know if a home is right for you."

She blinked at him, and heard her mouth form a statement that shocked her thoroughly as it registered. "Alex, this house isn't what the girls are looking for, but it's absolutely right for me. I've purchased three homes in my life, and I bought each one the first time I saw it. Let's get the owner on the phone and make a deal."

* * * * * * * *

Late that afternoon, Jamie got in the courtesy van that the country club had arranged for them. Christie, Crystal, Samantha and Valerie were already in the van, and they had room for another player or two.

Scott Godfrey, the coach, walked up to the van, asking, "Who were you paired with, Jamie?"

"Jaclyn," she said. "She was still in the locker room when I left. Should we wait for her?"

"No. Go on back to the hotel. I'll catch the stragglers in the last van."

"Okay." Scott closed the door, and the driver started the van. "How'd you guys do?" Jamie asked. "I didn't see the results."

"Not bad," Christie said. "I won my pairing, but only by a stroke."

"I sucked," Crystal said. "If I don't get my slice under control, I might as well drop out of school."

"Drop out?" Jamie asked. "Really?"

"Yeah," the young woman said. "I'm just here for golf. My game's really suffered with all of the school work. I might quit and go on a mini-tour."

"But you're getting a free education," Jamie said, wincing when she heard how much like an adult she sounded. The look Crystal gave her confirmed the fact that Crystal and she didn't see things the same way.

"I could care less about a degree."

Couldn't care less, Jamie said to herself. If you could care less, you would. She sank back into her seat, barely paying attention to the other women talking about their scores. All of a sudden, she didn't care if they'd all shot their IQs.

* * * * * *

Softball practice was short on Monday night. Since they'd played two games each of the previous three days, Coach usually let them coast a little on Monday-especially if they'd played well on the weekend. It was raining, and rather than risk an injury on the wet field, Coach kept the team inside and talked about the weekend games. They'd played very well, but he didn't want them to grow complacent, so he picked every nit he could find.

"O'Flaherty," he said, his voice gruff, "you didn't take the safe option when you came in to pitch hit in the eighth inning of the first game on Saturday."

Ryan stared at him, knowing exactly what he was talking about, but finding it hard to believe he was chiding her.

"What's your excuse?" he asked, his tone a little sharper.

She looked down at the tile floor, staring at the pattern of beige splotches on the dark rose background. It didn't always work, but often she could stop herself from being snappish by spending a second or two focusing on patterns or counting something.

Coach didn't give her a few moments. "I don't have all day. What's your excuse?"

For some reason, she felt humiliated, even though he'd already called out almost everyone in the room. Her chin jutted out and she said, "I drove in the lead run. The run held up and we won. I don't need an excuse."

His eyes opened wide, and he really looked at her, seeing the fire in her eyes. He couldn't tell if she was going to cuss him out or cry, and he didn't want either to happen. He looked down at his clipboard as every other player coincidentally found someplace innocuous to direct her attention.

"Hernandez," he said, looking at a little-used player. "You didn't take a turn picking up bats on Sunday. Don't think I don't notice little things like that."

"Sorry," she mumbled.

"'S all right," he said. "I only bitch at ya because I care." He paused for a second and then laughed, breaking the tension in the room. "That's bull. I bitch at everybody."

Everyone laughed except Ryan. The dark-haired woman stared straight ahead, her face impassive.

"Okay," Coach said. "See ya all tomorrow. And don't be late."

In a flash, Ryan was gone.

Coach tried to catch her, but he didn't want the others to see him chasing her down. Casually, he walked down the hall, then sprinted once he turned the corner. He caught sight of her opening the main door in the front of the building and called after her. "O'Flaherty, wait up!" He was sure she'd heard him, since she had ears like a bat, but she kept going, breaking into a jog and then a full-out run by the time he got to the door. "Women," he grumbled. "It'd be easier to coach a sack of cats!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

As soon as she arrived home, wet and breathless, Ryan started to tear off her clothing. She left it where it fell and was stark naked when she reached her room. She wasn't sure where she was going, but she was in a hurry to get there. She threw on a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, then sat on the bed to put on some dry socks and shoes. The phone rang, and when the machine picked up she heard Coach Roberts' voice.

"Hey, O'Flaherty, I don't wanna make a big deal out of this, but I want you to know I wasn't really pickin' on you today. I was glad you didn't sacrifice on Saturday. I wouldn't have put you in to pinch hit if I'd wanted a sacrifice no matter what. I only asked the question 'cause I knew you had a good reason for taking a poke at it. I wanted the younger girls to hear what goes through a good hitter's head. That's all okay? No harm, no foul, right?" He was clearly uncomfortable, but he continued, "You can call me back if you're pissed or something. Uhm sorry," he mumbled, barely audible then hung up.

Ryan sat still for a few moments, feeling like she was on the verge of exploding, but not knowing why. She knew she was at loose ends because Jamie was gone, but this felt bigger than that. Nonetheless, she didn't want to be in the house another moment. She shoved her feet into an untied pair of basketball shoes and grabbed her raincoat. When she got downstairs, she picked up her keys and dashed to her car, feeling better once she was inside. She put in a CD and started to drive, not having any destination in mind. The rain made traffic so ridiculously heavy that she didn't even have to make a choice about which direction to go. She just went wherever she had the opportunity. She would have sworn she had no plan, but about half an hour later, she found herself in a gritty part of South San Francisco, near a place she hadn't been for many years.

She slowed down and saw that the Jackson Arms Target Range was still there and open for business. Inside, she approached the young man at the counter. "What've you got that'll put the biggest hole in the target?"

He placed a nine millimeter Ruger on the counter, the weapon that most women used to get out their frustrations at bosses, boyfriends and bullies. But when his eyes met hers, a black eyebrow had raised and her ice-cold eyes bore into him. Wordlessly, he turned and selected a Glock .45. Ryan picked up the pistol and wrapped her hand around the piece, then nodded at him. He handed her a box of ammo, and she said, "Gimme two." She produced her driver's license and credit card then pointed at a shelf that held safety equipment for her eyes and hearing. "Those, too."

The clerk handed her the safety glasses and ear protectors and ran her card, leaving the total blank in case she wanted more ammunition. There was something about the woman that told him two boxes wouldn't get rid of whatever it was that brought her out on such a night. "Third lane," he said.

Ryan went into the range and immediately put on the ear muffs and glasses. She realized she hadn't taken off her coat, so she did that and pushed up the sleeves of her shirt.

She inspected the firearm methodically and made sure it was in good working order. Then she loaded it and felt the weight of it in her hand-almost three pounds. A small smile of approval creased her lips at the heft of the weapon. Reaching out, she stroked the cold steel, caressing the undulations in the metal with a fingertip. Feeling better than she had all day, she squared herself at the firing line, then extended her arm and clapped her right hand around the weapon and her left hand. Slowly, gently, she squeezed the trigger, the kickback soothing some place deep in her heart. Her lips parted, and her teeth shone in the poor industrial fluorescent glow, making her look like a fearsome animal about to take a large bite out of a small victim.

* * * * * *

The golf team ate in a small private room at the hotel. The room was set up with a steam table and a number of cold salads. I know I'm a food-snob, but wouldn't it be easier to let us go to the regular restaurant and order from the menu? This stuff looks like it's been sitting here for hours. She tried not to let her mood show, but she looked around and saw that each small table was filled with the usual cliques. Lauren, her roommate, sat alone, waiting for Jamie to join her.

Jamie took her tray and maneuvered through the room, then sat across from Lauren. "Hi," she said, trying to sound happy. "How'd you do today?"

The young woman was slowly coming out of her shell, and Jamie felt rather proud of herself for getting her to carry on a conversation. She knew that Lauren was ultra-shy, and if it were not for Jamie, she'd talk to no one.

The girl gave her a bright smile. "I did really well! You know how the landing area on the first hole was really narrow?"

"Uh-huh."

"I landed right in the middle! And my approach shot hit the edge of the green and rolled five feet from the hole. It's like that started my day off right, and things just kept going."

"That's great, Lauren. I'm really happy for you."

Lauren reached into her back pocket and took out her score card. "I made par on two. How about you?"

Dutifully, Jamie took out her score card, and she and Lauren replayed their matches-shot by shot.

* * * * * *

As soon as Catherine was finished with her tiring negotiations, she got on her cell phone and started to call Jamie at home, then remembered that her daughter was in Temecula. She let the phone ring anyway, hoping that Ryan was home. She didn't want to tell either of them over the phone, since she wanted to see their faces when she told them. She guessed Jamie would be surprised, and she knew Ryan would be very happy that she'd seen the light about the grandeur that was San Francisco. No one answered, so she hung up, not wanting to leave a message. She considered what to do, not having any desire to go home to her empty house. It was almost nine o'clock, and on a whim she called the O'Flaherty house, pleased to have Conor answer on the second ring.

"Conor? Catherine," she said.

"Hi there," he responded brightly. "What's up?"

"Ryan's not there, is she?"

"No. She's coming over tomorrow night, though. She's probably in Berkeley tonight. Have you tried her cell phone?"

"No, but I called the house. She must be out."

"What's up? Is something wrong?"

"Wrong? Oh, no. I I did something very impulsive today, Conor, and I'm so excited about it that I could just burst!"

"Don't even tell me what it is," he said immediately. "I want to hear about it in person. Where are you?"

"Oddly, I'm on Castro Street."

"Oh, no, not you, too! I'm not gonna let 'em have you, Catherine."

She laughed heartily, assuring him, "I haven't changed my sexual orientation, Conor. I was conducting some business here."

"Are you anywhere near Market?"

"Yes, just two blocks, I think. Why?"

"I'll meet you at Castro and Market in ten minutes," he said. "Don't talk to any strangers, especially women!"

* * * * * *

As promised, Conor arrived in just a few minutes and managed to find a space to double-park. He hopped out of the truck and loped down the street, smiling when he caught sight of Catherine. Giving her a hug, he warned, "People may stare at us, but just ignore them. Our kind is pretty rare around here, but we can't live in shame just because we're different."

She laughed gently and grasped his hand, letting him lead her back to the truck for the short drive to a legal parking space. They entered Martoonie's, and he escorted her to a small table. "Name your poison, Catherine. They have every kind of martini ever conceived."

Ignoring the little voice that urged her to give in, she smiled up at him. "I'm in the mood for something non-alcoholic. I'll take whatever they have that isn't sweet."

"Done." He turned and sauntered over to the bar, then returned a moment later bearing a caramel apple martini for himself and a mineral water for Catherine. Clinking the rims of their glasses together, he gazed at her seriously. "Now, tell me what we're celebrating."

She tried to control the luminous grin that insisted on covering her face. "I bought a new house!"

"You bought a new house?" he asked carefully. "I thought you were going to start looking for Jamie and Ryan?" His face broke into a wide grin. "You are an impulse shopper, aren't you?"

"Usually not. But Alex, the real estate agent I worked with, showed me a house in Pacific Heights that I fell head over heels in love with. It belongs to a production designer who spends most of his time on location. It's right-"

"At the crest of Divisadero looking down into the Marina," he supplied, beaming with pride. "And it was recently beautifully renovated by one of the most talented carpenters this side of the Rockies."

"Conor! You renovated my new home!"

"I sure did," he said, smiling brightly. "I do good work, don't I?"

"It's a showplace! I've never been so impressed with a home."

"Well, I've got to admit that the owner came up with most of the ideas that make the place sing, and he also gets credit for going all-out on the moldings and trim. That's what makes a house look like it's built with care."

"I didn't think it was possible to be any more excited, but now that I know you worked on the house, I'm positively giddy."

"You've bought a great house, Catherine, and I know you'll love it there. I am surprised you're going to move, though. I thought you loved Hillsborough."

She looked at him for a second, then decided to tell him the whole truth. "I love Hillsborough, and I love my house. But lately, I've been so depressed that I can hardly stand to be at home. I've spent more nights than I can count staying in hotels in the city. I'm I'm lonely, Conor. Jim was rarely home, and Jamie has been gone for years, but the ghosts in that house are about to drive me mad."

Instinctively, he reached for her hand, chafing it between his large, warm, callused ones. "I'm so sorry," he said, his eyes filled with concern and empathy.

Her own eyes fluttered closed, and she nodded slowly. "I appreciate that. I think I'll keep the Hillsborough house-at least for the time being. I love my garden and the pool and it's calming to spend time outside. I just don't want to have to sleep there for a while."

"You let me know if you ever need a shoulder to cry on, Catherine. I'm a very good listener, and I've had my share of heartaches. You're not alone," he said emphatically, locking his clear blue eyes on her.

"I know that, and I'm more thankful than you can imagine," she said, feeling a few tears welling up. "I might take you up on your offer, too. I don't like Jamie to see how upset this has made me. She's got enough to worry about right now."

Grasping her hand again, Conor said, "I meant what I said. If you're lonely or sad and you want to talk, just give me a call. Do you have my pager number?"

"I don't think so."

"Take out your cell phone and program me in," he instructed, giving her both his pager and his cell. "Don't be afraid to use them."

He said it with such emphasis that she believed him completely and vowed to take him up on his offer the next time she was feeling down.

"Thank you, Conor," she said softly. "I never would have guessed that having my daughter decide she was a lesbian could bring such unexpected joy into my life. Being welcomed into your family is healing for me in a way I can't even begin to express."

"We're very glad to have you, Catherine. I thought we'd gotten the pick of the Evans family with Jamie, but I think the race is too close to call."

When he beamed a grin at her, Catherine spent just a moment thanking the heavens for bringing her into the circle of love that was the O'Flahertys.

* * * * * *

When Jamie got back to her room, she called Ryan, but didn't get an answer. Checking her watch, she saw that it was almost 9:00, long past time for Ryan to be home. She called her cell, but the call went to voice-mail immediately, something that usually happened when Ryan was out of cell range. That was an all-too-common occurrence in the Bay Area, so she didn't let it worry her. Instead, she called home and left a message. "Hi, baby. I'm back in my room, and I'll probably go to bed soon. If I don't hear from you in a while, I'll turn off my phone so it doesn't wake me. So call my cell and leave a message, okay? I love you with all my heart. And I miss you even more than that. Bye."

* * * * * *

Ryan stayed at the shooting range for a long time, not even noticing how much time had passed until the lights flicked on and off to signal closing time. She didn't know where to go next, but she wasn't ready to go home.

She surprised herself by winding up in front of the lesbian bar in Berkeley. It felt like her car had been programmed to head to a safe place. A place where she would be with her own. Her hand froze on the door handle, and she wondered if she was asking for trouble. She knew Jamie wouldn't approve, but her need for contact was greater than her desire to please her partner. So she went in, sat at the bar, and talked to a bartender she'd never seen before. She nursed a beer the entire time she was there, staring at the colorful liquor bottles on the back bar when Jeri, the bartender, was busy.

For the first time she could recall, no one approached her. She was glad for that, since she didn't want to strike up a conversation with anyone. But it was a little troubling, too, since it was so unusual. She took a long look at herself in the mirror behind the bar and decided she wouldn't approach a woman who looked like she did, either.

She looked lonely and aimless and a little jittery-the sort of woman who'd glom onto you and talk your ear off. She blinked, hoping the image would change. But it didn't. All of her confidence, her cockiness, her spark, were gone. She looked like the kind of woman she used to feel sorry for-a lonely woman with no one to talk to, the anonymous comfort of a tacky bar the closest thing she had to a friend. She took out a five-dollar-bill and slapped it down, then left without a word, knowing that neither Jeri nor anyone else would notice her departure.

* * * * * *

Ryan walked into the house at midnight, wet and tired and emotionally spent. She played Jamie's message, a half-smile on her face as she listened to her soothing voice. But her smile darkened when Jamie said she'd turned her cell phone off. Her heart started pounding as she tried to decide what to do. Ryan knew she could call the hotel-she knew that Jamie would want her to-would be angry with her for not calling when she felt so low. But she couldn't make herself do it. She couldn't admit to herself how needy she felt.

She also couldn't examine her heart, searching for the darkest feelings, the ones she rarely forced herself to acknowledge. The feelings that made her guts clench in impotent anger. The ones that irrationally held Jamie responsible for her pain-for abandoning her with such ease.

She dropped to the sofa and tried to decide what to do. For just an instant, she considered doing nothing-just going to bed without calling. But her conscience chided her immediately. So she got up and dialed Jamie's cell and did her best to leave an upbeat message. Then she went upstairs and logged onto her computer, poking around until she went to one of her favorite math bulletin boards. She read a message from a student in Ireland who was having trouble with his homework assignment, so she shot him an e-mail, offering assistance. He replied immediately, and they met in an IRC chat room and worked on his trigonometry problems until 2:00 a.m. Richard was very grateful for the help, and Ryan knew she'd done most of the work for him, but she felt so much better to connect with someone-even a high school kid thousands of miles away-that she felt like she might be able to sleep. She lay down fully clothed, not even bothering to pull the bedspread off. In minutes, she was fast asleep.

* * * * * *

Part 12

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