I Found My Heart In San Francisco

Book 14

Nurture

By SX Meagher

Part Fifteen

On Sunday afternoon, most of the members of the O'Flaherty family attended Ryan's game at Stanford. The few who couldn't make it found their schedules freed up later in the afternoon for the barbeque-pool party at Catherine's house.

Nearly fifty people crowded around the pool, with most of Ryan's teammates playing with Caitlin, who was, as usual, the belle of the ball. The late afternoon sun was warm, and the party was noisy and getting noisier.

Marta and Helena had been working hard, and once all of the food was set up on the outdoor tables Catherine insisted that both women take a long break.

As usual, Marta tried to refuse. "I don't need a break," she said, indignantly. "I do nothing all week; I enjoy having these parties."

"I know you do," Catherine said. "But there's going to be a big cleanup job later on. I happen to know you've been on your feet since seven o'clock this morning, and even you get tired, my friend."

"I'm not tired," Marta said. She was standing with her hands on her hips, looking like a child refusing her afternoon nap.

Unexpectedly, Catherine hugged her, holding on until the older woman relaxed and returned the gesture. Catherine let her go, but not before placing an affectionate kiss on her cheek. "You don't have to rest," she said. "You can go join the party."

Marta narrowed her eyes, knowing she'd lost the battle. "I'll go read my book," she said, giving Catherine a faux scowl as she turned and left the room.

Marta and Helene were both ensconced in their rooms and Catherine was just about to leave the kitchen when the doorbell rang. She was puzzled, since all of the family members knew to walk around the side of the house to join a party in progress. It must be one of Ryan's teammates. She went to the entryway and opened the door. She was struck mute to find not a fresh-faced young woman, but a suave, handsome, charming, sexy man smiling at her. A man she had hoped she'd never have to see again.

"Buona sera," he said, taking her limp hand to his soft, full lips to kiss it tenderly.

"Giacomo," she whispered, feeling she might faint.

"May I come in?"

The manners that had been drummed into her compelled her to step aside and let him enter. As he passed, his scent tickled her nose, and her body reacted as it always had when she was near him. Tingling, she followed him into the living room, where he was pointing at a sofa.

"May I?"

She nodded, still unable to manage even a fragment of a sentence. She sat in an upholstered chair, not daring to get close enough to smell him or feel his always-warm body.

"You're so far away," he said, giving her the little pout that always melted her heart.

"You got my letter," she said, dancing away from his comment.

"Of course I did. Why else would I arrive, unannounced? I knew you'd refuse my visit, but I had to see you."

Catherine gestured towards the rear of the house, whence music and loud voices emanated. "This is a very bad time," she said. "I'm having a party."

"I can hear that," he said, a seductive smile starting at the corner of his mouth. "There must be a lot of people here."

"There are," she said emphatically.

"Good. They won't miss you. Let's go " He looked around, getting a sense of the layout. "Upstairs. We'll have privacy there, no?"

"No!"

The vehemence of her reaction took him by surprise. He got up and was next to her before she could say another word. He knelt beside her, his hand slipping into her hair and cradling the back of her head.

Involuntarily, she leaned into his touch, the action so sweetly familiar that she was unable to stop herself.

"I've come so far," he said, his warm, sensual voice sending shivers down her spine. "Don't send me away." He pulled her a little closer, pleased when she didn't fight him. His head moved towards hers, and soon they were a fraction of an inch apart. Catherine's eyes were half-closed and her lips parted just enough to invite his advance. Gently, he broached the distance and touched her lips with his.

She didn't want to give in. She knew it was sheer madness, but he was so warm and tender and smelled so tremendously wonderful that she couldn't resist. Just like the first time they'd kissed, her stomach somersaulted and she felt light-headed when their lips met. Her hand came to rest on his muscular shoulder, and she let it move across the silky feel of his suit jacket.

Giacomo took in a deep breath, and Catherine felt as if he were breathing her into his body. She reacted without a concern, sliding her arm around his back and drawing him close. Her mouth opened, and his warm tongue darted inside, making her whole body prickle with sensation.

Suddenly, her orientation changed and she felt him effortlessly pick her up. In a blink, she was on his lap, and he was kissing her with such passion that she forgot where they were or why he was in her living room. All she was able to do was move with him, feel his heart beat, follow his warm tongue, and purr when his hands moved over her body.

The zeal with which they kissed was nothing new. From the first, they'd instinctively sparked in just that way. A quick kiss usually led to many more-often to making love, just when they were getting ready to part after an entire afternoon of pleasuring each other.

It was the first time in her life she'd had such carnal hunger for a man. Their connection produced such a heady rush that, once they'd started to kiss, neither had any control. And since Catherine hadn't been intimate with a man since the previous summer, her hunger for his touch was omnivorous.

After a particularly incendiary kiss, Giacomo tightened his hold around her body and stood. He was momentarily indecisive, but then headed for the staircase he'd seen. He was halfway up, with Catherine placing soft kisses along his jaw line when he noticed a woman standing in the hall, staring at them. She looked like she'd been shocked with a jolt of electricity, and he knew he couldn't ignore her-even though Catherine hadn't seen her.

Regretfully, he stopped and put Catherine onto her weak legs, tucking an arm around her waist as he turned her towards the woman.

Catherine turned as pale as a sun-bleached bone, and she grabbed Giacomo's arm for support. "Maeve!"

"Are you is everything ?" Maeve was obviously not only stunned but uncomfortable. She was turning in the direction from which she had come, looking like she'd rather be anywhere else in the world.

"I'm fine, dear." Years of practice lying about her emotional state got Catherine through the sentence.

"I'll just go back outside," Maeve said. "I just came in to see if you needed help," she added, looking embarrassed.

Catherine took Giacomo's hand and tugged him down the stairs with her. He was straightening his tie and smoothing the wrinkles out of his suit when they reached the landing. "Maeve O'Flaherty, this is my dear friend, Giacomo Fontini."

Giacomo gave the woman a short bow and took her hand, giving it a quick kiss. "It is my pleasure to meet you," he said. "Are you related to Ryan?"

Catherine smiled at him, charmed that he'd remembered her daughter-in-law's name.

"Yes," Maeve said. "I'm her au step-mother," she said, recalling that it was easier to tell strangers her current relationship with the O'Flaherty children.

"Ahh you're the lovely woman who recently married Ryan's father. His taste is exquisite," he said with a smile.

Catherine mused that his charm was so remarkably attractive because it never sounded forced or false.

Maeve's face lit up and she blushed, yet another victim of the Fontini allure. "Catherine has told me about you, Mr. Fontini. Are you visiting from Italy?"

"Yes, I am," he said, his white teeth glowing against his tanned skin. "And please call me Giacomo. Catherine is probably cross with me, since I didn't tell her I was coming, but she's too polite to admit it."

Catherine squeezed his arm, unable to stop giving him a goofy looking grin. "I'm not angry," she said. "I'm always happy to see you."

"I think we were a little too happy to see each other," he said to Maeve. "I hope we didn't offend you."

"No, not at all!" she said, her voice higher and louder than it needed to be. "I just hadn't seen Catherine in a while and I I told you this already, didn't I?"

"Let's go outside," Catherine said, relieving her friend from prattling on. "I'm sure Giacomo would like to meet everyone." Ooo this is going to be fun.

* * * * * *

The threesome walked outside, and very few of the guests took notice. Maeve waved to Martin, who walked over to the group. "Martin, this is Catherine's friend, Giacomo Fontini."

"How are you?" Martin asked, shaking the man's hand.

"I am well," Giacomo said. "You are Ryan's father?"

"I am," Martin said, looking puzzled. "Do you know my girl?"

"I've spoken to Giacomo about the girls," Catherine said, wondering how she was going to get through the rest of the evening.

"I'd like to meet her, and Jamie, of course," Giacomo said.

"They're right over there," Catherine said. "See you soon," she added as they started to walk away.

"Who was that?" Martin asked his wife, a scowl forming. "What kind of friend knows about Ryan but has never met Jamie?"

Maeve knew more than she wanted to share, so she tried to give him an evasive answer. "He's a man she knows from Milan," she said. "She usually goes to Italy alone."

"What's he doing here?" Martin asked, still giving the well-dressed man the once-over. "Is he in town on business?"

"I don't know, sweetheart. I didn't interrogate the poor man. Why are you so interested?"

He turned his back on the interloper. "I'm not," he said stiffly. "He just seems out of place." He took a sip of his drink, and Maeve could hear him mutter, "What kind of fellow wears a suit and tie to a pool party?"

* * * * * *

Jamie was sitting on the edge of the pool, trying to eat a quick dinner so she could take her turn watching the baby in the pool. Catherine and Giacomo walked up from behind and the younger woman turned when she heard their footsteps on the tile. Her smile froze when she saw Giacomo, recognizing him from a photo her mother had shown her. She put her plate down and stood. Giving her mother a quick look and seeing that she appeared calm, she turned her attention to the remarkably handsome man. Deciding to speak in Italian, she said, "Hello, I'm Jamie. You must be my mother's friend. It's good to meet you, Mr. Fontini."

He answered in English. "I'm very happy to meet you, Jamie. And please call me Giacomo." He gave her a charming smile. "I don't know where you learned Italian, but you have a beautiful accent."

"I was very young," she said. "I really don't remember learning it."

"That is the best time," he said, gazing at her so intently that she felt her personal space being invaded.

As was often the case, Ryan sensed her partner's discomfort and was standing at her side before Jamie knew she'd moved.

"Hi," she said to Giacomo, her smile warm and friendly.

"You must be Ryan," he said, shaking her hand.

"I must be," she agreed. "And you're ?"

"This is my friend from Milan, Giacomo Fontini," Catherine said.

Ryan looked more than a little surprised, and she made no attempt to cover. "Surprise visit?"

"Yes," he said, giving Catherine the intent look he'd just used on Jamie. "I hope it's a good surprise."

Catherine was still holding his arm, and she squeezed it close to her body. "It's always good to see you, Giacomo."

The man bowed slightly to Jamie and Ryan. "It was a pleasure to meet both of you. Your mother speaks of you so often that I feel I know you, Jamie."

She gave him a tense smile and said, "I feel the same. It's good to finally meet you."

"I hope this will be the first of many, many meetings," he said, giving her a luminous smile.

As the couple walked away, Jamie turned towards her partner. "I don't know what he's doing here, but I know he wasn't invited."

Ryan started to speak, but before she could get out a word, Conor was at her side.

"Who's the suit?"

"Friend of Catherine's," Ryan said.

"Foreign?"

"Italian."

"That explains it," he said, nodding.

"Explains what?" Ryan asked.

"Only an Italian would come to a barbeque in a thousand dollar suit and Bruno Magli shoes."

"How do you know what kind of shoes he's wearing?" Jamie asked.

Rolling her eyes, Ryan said, "Don't get him started. He knows more about shoes than Imelda Marcos. He's got a foot fetish."

Jamie squeezed her partner's hand. "Look who's talking."

Before the blush could hit her cheeks, Ryan dove into the pool, popping back up a good twenty feet away.

"She'll never change," Conor said, looking at his sister. "She's harder to corner than a scared cat." His gaze traveled to Catherine. "Is your mom okay? There's something about that guy that doesn't sit right with me."

"Yeah, I think she's fine," Jamie said. "She wasn't expecting him, so that might be what you're picking up on."

"A guy drops in from Italy?" Conor asked, looking more than a little suspicious. "What kinda friend is he?"

"I'm not sure," she said, lying. "I don't know him. He's an art dealer from Milan. Maybe he's here on business."

"He looks like he could play the lead in a movie about a jewel thief," Conor said, studying Giacomo. "There's something too smooth about him. Course, maybe it's the shoes. I'd kill for those babies."

"Just when I think I'm partnered with the quirkiest of the bunch, you surprise me." Jamie put her arm around Conor's waist and escorted him back to the buffet, knowing he'd always help empty the table.

* * * * * *

Since it was a Sunday night, and all of the O'Flaherty men had to get up early on Monday, the crowd started to disperse at 9:00. The softball players stuck around for as long as they could, but when no one was left besides Jamie and Ryan, even the players changed clothes and took off.

Marta and Helena were just starting to clean up when Jamie and Ryan sat down near Giacomo and Catherine. "Wonderful party," Ryan said. "Thanks so much, Catherine."

"It's always a special day for me when your family can visit," the older woman said. "I'm just glad the evening was warm enough for the girls to be able to swim."

"Me, too," Ryan said. "Because Caitlin would have gone in anyway."

"The baby is terribly beautiful," Giacomo said. "It would be a blessing for her to grow up and look like her older cousin."

Ryan gave him a thin smile. She was always cautious about people who complimented her on her looks, and Giacomo made her uncomfortable even without doing so. "Caitlin used to look just like Jamie," she said. "That's when she was a real knockout." She gave her partner a smile, and Jamie took her hand and squeezed it.

"When do you have to leave?" Catherine asked.

Jamie looked at her watch. "I'm on the last flight out. It's at 10:30, so I guess we should get going."

Catherine stood. "Let's go inside and make sure you have everything. I'd hate for you to forget something important."

Relieved, Jamie nodded. "It was good to meet you, Giacomo."

Ryan stood as well, "Same goes for me."

He kissed each of them on both cheeks, then sat back down, giving them a few moments alone with Catherine.

Once they were inside, Jamie turned to her mother. "Was this a surprise?"

"A big one," Catherine said.

"If you want him to go he's gone," Ryan said, her eyes focused and determined.

Laughing, Catherine touched her arm. "Oh, it's fine that he's here, honey. I just wasn't expecting him. I I wrote to him and told him I didn't want to see him the next time I went to Milan. Obviously, he "

"He's got good taste," Ryan finished for her.

Catherine kissed her on the cheek. "You're always good for my ego."

"No bull, Catherine. He'd be crazy to let you get away so easily."

"But if you don't want to see him," Jamie said, searching her mother's eyes, "you shouldn't let him talk you into anything."

"He's not going to overpower me, honey," Catherine said, laughing nervously. She fanned her flushed face. "My God, this is an uncomfortable situation."

"Do you want me to stick around?" Ryan asked. "Jamie can leave her car at the airport and you could give me a ride home tomorrow."

Catherine put both hands on Ryan's biceps and shook her a little. "It's all right. Now you two get going. And don't worry about me."

"But we do worry about you, Mom," Jamie said. "Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yes." Catherine took her daughter and turned her towards the front of the house. "Now get going! You'll miss your flight and have to drive to El Cajon!"

* * * * * *

Catherine walked back out to the yard and watched Giacomo as he sat on a lounge chair by the pool. He was a handsome, elegant man who looked at home nearly everywhere. Oddly, he seemed particularly comfortable sitting by the glimmering pool in his expensive suit and polished shoes. He'd made himself a drink, and had just taken a sip when Catherine drew near.

Immediately, he stood, and took her hand to ease her into the chair next to his. He picked up a second glass and offered it to her. "Campari?"

She hadn't had a drink all day, or the day before, but this one looked too inviting to resist. She accepted the tall glass and took a sip, smiling when the sweet/bitter taste of the liquor mixed with the sparkling water to tickle the roof of her mouth. "Thank you."

He sat down, then reached over and took her hand. Giacomo didn't say another word; he just held her hand while they gazed at the patterns the light made on the water. It was a little breezy, but warm, and the water danced and swayed gently with the wind.

Catherine wasn't sure how much time had passed when his low, soft voice broke the stillness. "Are you angry with me?"

Giving his hand a squeeze, she said, "No, of course not. It was rude of me to write to you the way I did, but I was " She trailed off, not sure if she should say the truth.

"What were you, my treasure?"

She smiled at him, unable to resist the sweet gentleness of his voice. "I was afraid."

His eyes grew wide. "Of me?"

"No, of course not, Giacomo. I could never be afraid of you." Her thumb lightly traced along the back of his hand. "I was afraid to tell you in person, and I didn't want to tell you on the phone. A letter was the best idea I could come up with."

He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. He held it there for a moment or two, warming it with his breath. When he spoke, the vapor caressed Catherine's skin. "Why were you afraid to talk to me?"

For another moment, she debated whether to be frank. Finally, she said, "I thought you'd convince me I was making a poor decision."

"You are," he whispered. He moved her hand to his cheek and let her fingers rest there while he reverently kissed her wrist. "A very poor decision. For both of us."

Her heart was hammering in her chest, but she couldn't force herself to take her hand back. His cheek felt so nice. Rough, where his beard grew and soft as a whisper above. "What can I do?" she asked, even though she knew the question was rhetorical.

"Is there someone else?" he asked, slowly peppering her palm with kisses.

"No. No one."

"Have you lost your desire for me?" He slipped her hand into his jacket and she felt his heart beating quickly. "You can feel how you make my poor heart race."

Her mouth was dry, but she managed to say, "No. I still I " She sighed, and took her hand away, resting it in her lap. "It's nothing you did, Giacomo. I just need more."

He sat up and swung his legs over the side of the chair so that his feet rested on the ground. "I'll give you more. Whatever you want."

Reaching out to caress his knee, she said, "You can't give me what I want. I want to meet a man who's devoted to me. Only me."

His head dropped in defeat and a few locks of his black hair escaped from his careful grooming and fell across his forehead. Slowly he shook his head. "You are correct. I cannot give you that." He lifted his head and gazed at her for a long time, finally asking, "Is there a man who wants to give this to you?"

"No," she admitted. "But I'm afraid I won't look for him if I have you."

Slowly, his head tilted and the barest of smiles touched his lips. "Because I make you happy?"

Catherine nodded, realizing that her excuse wasn't a very good one when it was held up to the light.

Suddenly, he was sitting on the end of her chaise, holding her legs on his lap. "You make me happy, too. Very, very happy." He spent a few minutes rubbing her legs, straightening the creases in her slacks, adjusting the fabric just so. "Is it wrong to be happy?" he asked, not looking her way while he worked.

Putting her hand atop his, she said, "Of course not. But I want someone who lives here, who I can see often-if not live with. Seeing you once or twice a year isn't enough, Giacomo."

"Then come to Milano more often." He gave her a look that made that seem like the obvious answer.

Catherine blinked, trying to stop herself from being so easily seduced. "I don't want to have to travel to be with a man," she said. "I want him here, and I want him to be devoted to me."

"We all have desires," he said. "Sometimes we only realize parts of those needs. Is a part worth nothing?"

She reached out and clasped both of his hands. "No, of course not. But I'm not ready to give up my desire. And staying involved with you seems like I'm settling." She cringed, hating how harsh that sounded.

But Giacomo either didn't understand, or he was intentionally pleading ignorance. He shrugged his shoulders and looked puzzled. "Settling? What does this have to do with us?"

"I'm accepting less than I need," she said.

"Yes, yes, I understand that. But don't we do that in every area of our lives? I want to live in Torino. I love the mountains, and skiing excites me more than anything else on earth. But I live in Milano. That's where my wife feels at home. That's where my children have their friends and their grandparents. It's a compromise, no?"

"Yes," she agreed.

"Does that mean my days in Milano are horrible? Do I wish for a quick death? No. Of course not." He slapped himself on the chest with both of his hands. "I make Milano mine!"

He said it with such fire and conviction that she felt herself inexorably draw closer to him. As soon as he put his hands on her shoulders to pull her close, she pulled away, shivering as she said, "No! I can't, Giacomo. I can't continue to see a married man. I'm doing to your wife exactly what my husband did to me!"

He smiled indulgently and stroked her face. "Catherine, you know my country well, but you have an American mind."

"I know you and your wife have an agreement," Catherine said, "but you've told me that it's an unspoken agreement. My husband probably thought we had an agreement, too."

"No. No. No." He enunciated each word crisply. "We have an " He squinted, searching his mind for the correct word. "Explicit agreement. She's willing to speak to you on the phone to assure you that she doesn't mind our seeing each other."

"You you asked her about me?"

"Yes!" He looked very proud of himself. "For you alone."

"But Giacomo why?"

"Because I knew one of your reasons for not seeing me was because of my marriage. I've made sure that isn't a problem."

"You want me to speak with your wife?" Catherine could hardly believe she was saying the words.

"If you want to." He touched Catherine's chin, lifting it so they looked into each other's eyes. "She's not happy with me. Having our private lives private was better for both of us. But I couldn't let you go," he said, his desire flashing in his expressive eyes. "You mean too much to me."

"What do I mean to you?" she asked, stunned by his passion.

"I care for you," he said, his voice growing husky. "You're the perfect woman for me. But I'm married, and I have my children. I can't I won't hurt my family. But if I could do it over again, you would be the woman I'd choose. If I could touch only one woman for the rest of my life you would be that woman."

"Giacomo," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "I had no idea that you felt like that."

He put his hands on her waist but didn't pull her closer. Gazing into her eyes, he whispered, "Can't you feel it when I love you?"

She let out an enormous breath and nodded her head, tears starting to fall. "Yes. I have felt it, but I thought I thought only I felt that way."

"No, no, my love, you are not alone. I cannot give you my body, but when we're together-you have my soul."

Catherine extended her arms and rested her hands on Giacomo's shoulders. They regarded each other for a few moments, speaking only with their eyes. Finally, her eyes fluttered closed and he closed the distance that separated them. Their lips and then their bodies met and merged in a tender communion. They showered each other with affection until Catherine took her lover by the hand and led him to the pool house. "We'll have privacy here," she said as she locked the door behind them.

"Have you made love here?" he asked as he looked around.

"No, never."

"Good. I don't want to be in a place where you've been with another. This will be our special place."

She wrapped her arms around him and kissed him. "I remember the first time we met," she said. "I wanted you from the start."

He looked thoughtful for a moment, then cleared his throat and started to recite a poem that he obviously had once known well. "Benedetto sia 'l giorno, et 'l mese, et l'anno, et la stagione, e 'l tempo, et l'ora, e 'l punto, e 'l bel paese, e 'l loco ov'io fui giunto da'duo begli occhi che legato m'anno " Oh, blessed be the day, the month, the year, the season and the time, the hour, the instant, the gracious countryside, the place where I was struck by those two lovely eyes that bound me He paused, then shook his head. "There is more, but I cannot remember."

"I don't need another word," she whispered. "I just need you tonight."

* * * * * *

"You're awfully quiet," Ryan observed. Jamie was driving, and she was devoting one hundred percent of her attention to the road, about twenty-five percent more than usual.

"Just thinking," the blonde said.

"About your mom." Jamie turned quickly and Ryan saw the tiny smile on her lips.

"Yeah."

"What's on your mind? Are you worried about her? 'Cause she seemed like she was in control."

"Mmm no, I'm not exactly worried," Jamie said. "I'm oh, I don't know what I am. I guess I just hate that he exists." She shivered roughly enough for Ryan to see her body shake in the dim light.

"That's pretty extreme," Ryan said. She put her hand on her lover's thigh and stroked it gently. "What's up with that?"

There was irritation in Jamie's gaze when she looked at Ryan again. "How would you like to meet the man your mother had an affair with?"

"Damn," Ryan said, looking ill. "Do you have to put it that way?"

"Yes, I do," Jamie said, clearly angry. "I know she's single-ish now, but she wasn't when this started. I'm I'm not very happy about that."

"Have you ever told her that?" Ryan asked gently.

"Are you nuts?" Jamie didn't say a word for a long time, and Ryan judiciously kept her mouth shut. Finally, Jamie broke the silence, speaking in a quiet, thoughtful tone. "We had a distant relationship for twenty-one years. She trusts me now, Ryan. She tells me things and I tell her things I never dreamed we'd be able to share. I don't wanna screw that up by busting her for telling me something she's ashamed of."

Ryan thought about that for a minute. "I can see that. But you ought to talk about it if it's bugging you. You don't have to call her out. You can just say that I don't know something like " She made a face. "I see your point."

"I wanna be close," Jamie said. "And I want her to feel like she can tell me anything."

"Jamers," Ryan soothed, "maybe that's not such a good idea. She's your mom, not your pal. It's nice that you've gotten so close, but you still have to be able to treat her like your mom. And no one wants to hear her mom talk about her lover. It's way high on the ick scale."

Jamie smiled briefly. "I know. But I'm not sure how to handle this."

"Well, she'll get rid of him and you won't have to worry about it. You can talk to her when you're not feeling upset about it."

The blonde nodded. If I were sure she was going to get rid of him, I wouldn't be so upset.

* * * * * *

On Monday after practice, Ryan walked home, going out of her way to stop by Top Dog. Walking home with the scent of a hot link and a calabrese sausage wafting up to tickle her nose, she planned her evening. Gotta spend at least an hour doing my progress report on my independent study then I could work on that funky little problem I've been having with that polynomial or I could read the latest JAMS but that's fun to read when Jamie's home. She smiled. It always cracks me up to tell her about some math discovery so esoteric that no one could really care about it and have her try to act interested.

She couldn't resist the smell of her dinner, so she stuck her hand in the bag and came up with the hot link. Mmm it's kinda nice to be able to eat something so spicy and not have Jamie's eyes cross when I kiss her. Course, I'd eat nothing but vanilla pudding to keep her home. Her mood began to darken, even as she munched on her fabulously hot sausage. Ahh screw it. I'll do what I always do when I'm feeling down-I'll write to Aisling.

* * * * * *

After depositing her bag in the closet, Ryan went into the kitchen and got a beer to wash down her dinner. She went to her bedroom, kicked off her shoes, and spent a long time writing to her cousin, venting every small, medium and large thing that had been bothering her. Jamie continually suggested that Ryan call her cousin, but Ryan couldn't bear the thought of spending money so blithely, so she continued to write.

She was still a little hungry, so she went downstairs and stared at the meager contents of the refrigerator. The only thing that looked appealing was another beer, so she popped the top and took a long gulp. Damn, that washes down a sausage better than anything.

She walked into the living room and sorted through the mail, finding nothing of interest for herself. None of the magazines or journals looked interesting. She considered listening to a CD, but quickly dismissed that idea. Fuck! I need to talk to someone or see someone.

She knew she couldn't go see her father, since he'd notice the liquor on her breath. I wish I could still call one of my old fuck-buddies, but Alisa's the only one who likes to talk, and she'd probably get the wrong idea if I called.

She knew Jamie would call if she had the evening free, but she needed someone immediately. Suddenly, she smiled and grabbed the phone in the living room. Pressing one of the speed-dial buttons, she waited a few seconds until a soft soprano voice answered. Ryan felt tears in her eyes, but she cleared her throat and said, "Hey, stud. Boomer."

"Boomer! Where the hell have you been?" Jordan asked. "Mia's on the phone with Jamie every two minutes, but I never hear from you."

"My phone hasn't been ringing," Ryan said. She laughed softly. "Do you hate to talk on the phone as much as I do?"

"More," Jordan said, laughing along with her. "But I should still call you. I just never know when you're home, girl."

"Neither do I," Ryan said. She lay down on the sofa and draped her legs over the arm. "Is this a good time to talk?"

"Yeah. Sure. We're just sitting in my room watching TV."

Ryan heard Mia call out, "Love you, sweetie."

"Tell her I love her, too," Ryan said.

Jordan did so, then she and Ryan chatted for a long time, filling each other in on all of the details of their respective sports.

During a pause, Ryan said, "Hold on a sec. I need to get something to drink." She went into the kitchen, took a look in the fridge, and grabbed another beer. She had a few big swigs on the way back to the phone, belched loudly and picked up again. "Sorry about that."

"What? The burp or making me wait?"

"That was a pretty good one, wasn't it?"

"All-world," Jordan agreed. "Hey, we've got a new game going. We keep track of every error we make during practice, then we take our dirty practice clothes and put 'em in a laundry bag. Each woman gets hit as many times as she screwed up."

"Does it hurt? Doesn't seem like it would."

"It does when you add shoes," Jordan said, laughing.

"Not bad," Ryan agreed. "Maybe we should hit each other with a bat for every strikeout. That'd make people look alive out there."

"I don't know if you could get away with that in college," Jordan said, seemingly serious. "The stakes are so much higher here. There's none of that 'nice try' stuff. If you screw up-you hear about it from the coaches and your teammates. It's a lot more like a job."

"I guess it would be," Ryan said, feeling an overwhelming sense of relief that she hadn't tried out for the Olympic team. "I think I'm gonna like playing in a beer league after this year. I don't think I'd like to feel like I was working while playing."

"It's not bad," Jordan said. "It's put up or shut up time. This is what I've always wanted, and I'm willing to put up with whatever I have to in order to get the job done."

"They wouldn't be able to have the Olympics without people like you," Ryan said. "I admire how focused you've been on this, buddy. I know what you're giving up."

"I haven't given up much," Jordan said. "Mia, on the other hand, isn't getting anything from this deal except getting to see me for a few hours a day. She's the one who should get a medal."

"She's got you," Ryan said. "You're better than a medal, any day."

"Are you okay?" Jordan asked. "You're being kinda sappy."

Ryan took a sip of her beer. "I'm all right. Jamie's gone you know."

"Ooh. How long's she been gone?"

"Since Sunday. She'll be back Wednesday night."

"Sucks," Jordan said.

"Sure does," Ryan agreed. "It's I'm " She blew out a breath and didn't even try to finish.

"You need your woman," Jordan said. "I know just how you feel. When I was here by myself, it felt like every day was just a a blank. You know what I mean?"

"Yeah."

"I didn't need anyone before I met Mia. I mean, I had friends, and I loved hanging out and stuff, but I didn't need anyone. It's been hard to get used to."

"That's it," Ryan said, nodding emphatically. "It is hard to get used to. I used to be able to fill up an evening without giving it another thought. But now if Jamie's not here "

"I know, Boom. I really do."

Ryan yawned loudly. "I think I'm just gonna go to bed early. I'm feeling pretty tired."

"That's a good idea," Jordan said. "You'll feel better if you sleep more while she's gone. Then you'll be ready to rock when she gets home."

"Thanks," Ryan said. "Felt good to talk to you."

"You too, Boom. I'm here anytime."

"Same goes for me," Ryan said. "Give that girlfriend of yours a kiss for me."

"No way," Jordan said, laughing. "If you wanna kiss her, you've gotta come here. I'm not doin' it for you."

"Fair enough. I love ya, buddy."

"Me, too. Now get to sleep."

"Will do. See ya." Ryan hung up and finished her beer on the way to her bedroom. By the time she'd brushed her teeth she was ready for bed, and a few minutes after she lay down she was sound asleep.

* * * * * *

Ryan was nearly enthusiastic when it came to her turn in therapy on Tuesday morning. Smiling, she said, "Jamie's out of town, and I'm doing a lot better than I thought I would."

Most of the members made approving noises, and Ellen said, "Tell us how it's been."

"Well, Jamie left on Sunday night, and I got through that night pretty easily. There was a big party down at her mom's house and I went to sleep twenty minutes after I got home. Felt great."

"That is great," Ellen said

"Last night, I called my friend in Colorado and we talked for a long time. It felt better to admit that I was still having trouble. She was very supportive."

"Way to go," Arlene said. "It almost always helps to tell someone you trust that you're scared."

Ryan's gaze flitted past the woman, and Ellen detected a bit of irritation. "Yeah. Right."

"Anything else?" Ellen asked.

"No, I'm good. Jamie will be back on Wednesday afternoon and I'll be home late Wednesday night. I just have to get through tonight."

"Do you need any suggestions support?"

"No, I'll just do what I did last night. I had a couple of drinks and that relaxed me."

Several women shifted in their seats and a few looked like they wanted to jump in. "Barb?" Ellen said.

"You might want to think of some other coping strategies," Barb said. "Using alcohol to get through your fears is an easy way to wind up in AA."

Ryan scowled at her. "I had two drinks," she said. "Not twenty."

"It's not the amount as much as the fact that you used it instead of facing your feelings," Barb said.

The brunette consciously relaxed her jaw and tried to look like she was open to the suggestion. "Okay. I get that," she said. "It would be easy to get into the habit of drinking yourself calm."

Ellen watched the young woman carefully as she spoke. This isn't the day to talk about driving. She turned Barb off as soon as she started talking. She gave Ryan a small smile and asked, "Anything else?"

"Nope. Next," Ryan said, looking to her neighbor.

* * * * * *

Late Wednesday afternoon, Jamie and Juliet were playing in the last group of their tournament in El Cajon. Their round had been delayed by lightning, and their opponents were playing so slowly they'd been warned by the officials. The eighteenth hole was empty, but another group was on the seventeenth green. Scott ran up to them as they stood on the seventeenth tee. "We're going to have to leave if we want to catch the plane. Can you two take a cab to the airport?"

"Yeah," Jamie said, looking at Juliet for agreement.

"Can't you wait just fifteen minutes?" Juliet asked.

"No. We're barely gonna make it as it is. But a cab might be able to make better time. Do you need some cash?"

"I've got it," Jamie said. "Don't worry about it, Scott."

He handed her two envelopes. "Here are your tickets. If you miss the plane, the next one is just an hour later." Looking very apologetic, he started to back away, shrugged his shoulders and ran for the group in front of theirs, obviously to deliver the same news.

Juliet shoved her cap further down on her head and crossed her arms over her chest. Jamie was about to wrap a nine-iron around her neck, but she tried not to let her feelings for her teammate interfere with her concentration. She walked to the back of the tee box and quietly took some practice swings, trying to keep warm by knocking the heads off clover.

* * * * * *

Forty-five minutes later, Jamie and Juliet loaded their golf bags and suitcases into a taxi. "That sucked," Jamie said after telling the driver their destination.

"Sure did," Juliet said. "The damned green wasn't rolling true at all."

"I meant the part about being left behind," Jamie said, wondering if Juliet had a part of her brain that wasn't dedicated to golf.

"Oh. Right." She leaned against the opposite door and stretched her legs out as well as she could in the cramped back seat. "Think we can upgrade to first class?"

"What are we booked on?"

"Mmm " Juliet looked at her ticket. "United Express."

"I have a lot of United miles," Jamie said. "I could get us both upgraded if there's room."

"Eh it's no big deal. Short flight."

"I don't mind," Jamie said. "I usually wind up donating some miles to charity every year."

"Nah. Really. If they offer an upgrade I'll take it, but I don't want you to spend your miles."

"I wouldn't offer if I minded," Jamie said, looking at Juliet closely, trying to read her.

"Sorry I brought it up," the other woman said. "It's really nothing."

Jamie was in just a bad enough mood to confront her. "Why don't you want my miles?" she asked, her voice taking on an edge.

Looking uncomfortable, Juliet shifted in her seat. "It's not a big deal. The flight's just over an hour. Why waste 'em?"

"That's not the point. They're mine to waste. You wanted an upgrade and I offered one. You'll take United's upgrade, but not mine. Why?"

The blonde let out an aggrieved breath. "Does this have to be a big deal? Just let it go."

"I'm sick of letting things go," Jamie said. She was glaring at her teammate, and Juliet looked like she'd rather get out and walk than be in the cab at that moment. "The players from the other team are friendlier to me than you are. I'm sick of your treating me like we've never met. Now what the fuck is going on with you?"

Juliet rolled her eyes, much in the way Jack used to when Jamie pressed a point he didn't want to discuss. "I'm not here to make friends. I've told you that before. I'm here to play golf and get out in time to work on my game before qualifying school. Sorry you don't like the way I treat you, but that's your problem."

"Are you afraid to be seen with me?" Jamie asked, refusing to let go.

"No," Juliet snapped. "I'm not afraid. I just there's no benefit to being around you. Everybody knows you're a lesbian," she whispered. "And I don't want people to assume the same about me."

Jamie didn't say another word. She turned her face to the window and watched the traffic crawl by. They arrived at the airport a good ten minutes after their flight had left. Jamie hefted her bag over her shoulder, then took her rolling bag and set it on the sidewalk. She paid the driver, asked for a receipt, and started to walk, ignoring Juliet, who passed her and kept going.

Jamie stood right behind her teammate at the ticket gate, and she heard the agent say, "Yes, I can upgrade you to first class." Juliet finished with her transaction, then went to sit down and wait for boarding. Jamie smiled at the agent.

"I can upgrade you, too, Ms. Evans."

"No, thanks," Jamie said. "I like the people in coach much better."

* * * * * *

It was nearly 9:00 p.m. when Ryan opened the front door of her home. She dropped her bag loudly, then stood still, looking up the stairs expectantly. Her expression changed into a luminous smile when Jamie bolted out of their bedroom and ran down the stairs.

With a very brief warning, she leapt from the second step and flew into Ryan's arms, hanging on tight when they banged into the wall.

"Miss me?" Ryan asked. Without waiting for a response, she kissed her partner while slowly lowering her to the floor.

Jamie held onto Ryan's strong body with all of her strength. Her eyes were closed and she murmured into her lover's jacket, "I can't even tell you how much I missed you."

Ryan grasped her shoulders and pushed her just far enough away to see into her eyes. "What's wrong?"

Jamie shook her head and burrowed back into Ryan's warm body. "Nothing. Just the usual."

Reveling in holding her lover again, Ryan just leaned against the wall and ran her hand through Jamie's soft hair for a long time. When the blonde sighed heavily and moved away, Ryan grasped her hand. They walked into the kitchen together, in silent acknowledgment that Ryan always needed a snack when she returned from a game.

Ryan poked her head into the refrigerator and looked for just a moment before she realized that Jamie had been gone since the previous week and couldn't have refilled the larder. "Did you have dinner?" she asked.

"Yeah. I got a burger on the way home. I had the taxi go through the drive-through window at McDonalds."

Ryan stood up and looked at her. "What? Why were you in a taxi?"

Jamie moved past her, opened the freezer and took out a bagel. "Cream cheese and tomato?"

"Yeah. That'd be great." Ryan watched her move to the microwave to defrost the bagel, wondering when Jamie was going to tell her what was on her mind. She sat at the counter, content to be in the same room for the first time in a few days.

After setting the timer on the microwave, Jamie turned around and saw her partner gazing at her. "Happy to be home?"

"Yeah. Not very happy to be leaving tomorrow. How about you?"

"I'm not very happy about leaving, either. But I'm gonna like my traveling companion. Unlike today." She went to the cutlery drawer and took out a knife. Leaning against the counter, she slapped the flat of the blade against her hand. "If I'd had this knife this afternoon, I'd probably be in police custody right now."

"Will you please tell me what's bugging you? I'm tired of being patient."

Jamie smiled at her. "Sorry, babe. I just hate to bitch about that idiot again."

"Juliet rears her ugly head again?"

"Yep. We were paired together today and our round was delayed because there was lightning in the area. We had to take a cab to the airport, and we missed our flight."

"Uck. So you had to fly home with just her, huh?"

"No, two other girls were on the flight with us, but we didn't sit together 'cause we got to the airport at different times."

"So you had to sit with Juliet and that bugged you?"

Ryan was fishing for every bit of information and she was tiring of the game.

Her expression conveyed her frustration, and Jamie finally said, "I'm sorry, honey. I'm just I'm sick of her. She's damn, she's so fucking frustrating!"

Ryan got up and put her arms around her lover. "You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to. I'll just assume she was being a jerk and got to you a little bit."

Jamie smiled up at her. "Just as well. She isn't worth the trouble."

Even though she knew Jamie always felt better when she vented a little, Ryan let her keep her feelings to herself. They gently held each other until the microwave beeped and Ryan's empty stomach took precedence.

* * * * * *

Mia stood in the surprisingly spacious kitchen and loaded the dishwasher. Jordan always wanted to help, but Mia hated to ask her to do any work around the house-since she worked so hard during the day. Their meals were always simple, due to Mia's inexperience in the kitchen and Jordan's dietary requirements, so cleanup was equally simple. She dried her hands and went into their room, to find Jordan dozing lightly.

Jordan tried to be lively in the evenings, but Mia knew it was a struggle for her. Having never seriously participated in a sport, Mia didn't truly understand how demanding a world-class sport was-but she saw the results of those demands. She knew that Jordan would snooze all evening long if she wasn't there, and she occasionally wondered if that wouldn't be the best thing for her lover. But Jordan wouldn't hear of it. As soon as Mia entered the room, she was awake, trying to look like she was ready-for-action. "Wanna do anything tonight?"

"I don't have a need to," Mia said, even though she did. Jordan frequently offered, but Mia knew her heart wasn't in going out. And neither of them knew where to go or what to do, since neither had spent any time investigating Colorado Springs. Mia knew it was her responsibility to search around, since she had a car and plenty of time, but she didn't want to do touristy things by herself. She stretched out on the bed and cuddled up to her partner. "I wish I'd brought Jamie's bike with me. I know she's not using it, and it would be great exercise to ride it on the hills around here."

"Mmm she'd send it to you if you asked," Jordan said. "But I know you wouldn't ask."

"Never," Mia agreed. "I looked into joining a gym, but every one I called charged a fairly expensive fee just to join. I hate to pay a fee for a local club that I won't be able to use when we go home."

Jordan gave her a weak smile. "It might be a while before I go home permanently, baby. If we do well in Sydney, I don't think I'll be able to walk away."

Mia patted her on the stomach, feeling the depression where her belly used to be. "Let's stay in the present, okay? We don't know what the future's gonna hold."

Jordan rolled onto her side and regarded Mia with a concerned look. "Are you sorry you came?"

"No!" She slapped her gently on the hip. "Never! I'm very, very happy that I'm with you."

"But you're bored," Jordan said. "You have to be."

Mia smiled and gave her a little tickle. "I'd be a pretty boring person if I were perfectly content, wouldn't I? But I'll find my groove. It's just gonna take a while. I was thinking," she said, drawing patterns on Jordan's side, "that we might consider moving to a smaller place."

Jordan's eyes grew wide and she scanned the room. "Smaller than this?"

"No, silly. A one bedroom. For just us. Even a studio would be okay."

Nodding, Jordan said, "You don't like it here."

"Do you?"

"I don't dislike it. It's just a place to sleep, and that's all that I need. Heck, I had to be talked into this. I was happy to stay in the dorm at the training facility."

Mia knew her partner was more than frugal, but she couldn't let the point pass. "I think I'd be happier I know I'd be happier if we had our own apartment. I hate the lack of privacy, I hate sharing a bathroom with two other people, and I hate not even having a chair to sit on. It's depressing to be here all day, honey, and there are only so many hours I can sit in a library or bookstore."

Jordan sat up abruptly. "I knew you weren't happy," she grumbled. "I just didn't wanna admit it."

Mia grasped her T-shirt and pulled her down, then kissed her tenderly. "I am happy-with you. I just want some privacy-to be with you."

Blowing out a breath, Jordan asked, "Do you know how much a studio would cost?"

"I haven't done any research. But I could."

"All right." The lines on her forehead showed that her feelings didn't match her words.

Mia touched her chin and looked into Jordan's eyes. "What's on your mind? Talk to me."

Jordan shrugged away from the contact and stood up. She ran her hands through her hair and stood, motionless for a few seconds, obviously thinking. "It's almost the end of March. We'll probably move out of here at the beginning of September. It doesn't make much sense to move when we'll just be here a few more months, but I'll do it if you're unhappy."

"What?"

"I said I'll do it if you're unhappy."

"I heard you," Mia said. "I just don't understand what you're talking about. Why would we move in September?"

Looking puzzled, Jordan said, "Jill rented this place last September. The lease is up in August."

"But I thought you wanted to stay with the team after the games."

"I probably will kinda," Jordan said.

"What in the hell does that mean?"

"The team disbands after the games. Everyone goes her own way until the 2004 team is chosen. I mean it's kind of a given that you'll be offered a spot if you do well in Sydney and keep playing, but it's not a lock."

Mia stood and put her hands on Jordan's hips. "I'm thoroughly confused. Where would you play?"

"Depends," Jordan said. "I have to see how I do, and see who's interested in me."

Nearly yelling, Mia asked, "Who might be interested?"

Jordan looked thoroughly confused. "I don't know probably a European team. That's the only place that has professional volleyball. I thought we could kinda look around when we start to travel. See where we might like to live."

"See where we might like to live." Mia repeated the words, but they didn't make sense to her.

"Yeah. We start our European tour in three weeks. I've got close to $10,000 that I've put aside for you to travel with me. We've gotta start shopping for airfare to Madrid. That's our first stop."

"It is?"

"Yeah." Jordan smiled. "See how time flies?"

"I I had no idea. You've never mentioned travel plans."

"Really?" Jordan gave her a perplexed smile. "We have to travel to get in shape for Sydney. But it's gonna be cool! We're gonna see the world, honey! Spain, Japan, Eastern Europe. That's why I've tried to watch my spending. We'll need every bit of the money I've saved for airfare and hotel rooms."

Mia tried to keep her smile bright, but all she could think of was sitting in a hotel watching television in a foreign language while Jordan practiced and played. "Do many other spouses or boyfriends go on these trips?"

"No, I don't think so. Most people can't get the time off." She put her hand under Mia's T-shirt and flicked her belly-ring. "You don't have that problem."

"No, I sure don't," she said. "I'm free as a bird." In a really boring cage.

* * * * * *

Part 16

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