I Found My Heart In San Francisco

Book 14: Nurture

By SX Meagher


Part Sixteen

The next morning, Jamie woke and immediately smiled. She snuggled deeper into her partner's embrace while checking the clock. They'd decided to take the day off school to reconnect a little as well as to help Catherine move into her new house.

They had an afternoon flight to Los Angeles for Ryan's weekend games with U.C.L.A. and U.S.C., and Ryan had promised that they'd spend as much time alone as possible. Jamie had taken the liberty of making dinner reservations for just the two of them on both Friday and Saturday nights-just so Ryan didn't have the chance to suggest a pizza with the other girls.

As soon as Jamie moved, Ryan's eyes opened and she tilted her head just enough to be able to kiss her. They each shifted to have more skin contact while the kiss deepened. "Is there a better way to wake up?" Ryan asked when they broke apart, her voice deep and a little raspy.

"No," Jamie said. "This is the best way in the whole world. Time for love?" she asked, not having looked at the clock. She moved her hand up and down her partner's body, drawing a little purr from Ryan.

"Easy, cupcake," Ryan said. "We've gotta leave in half an hour."

"Not a problem," Jamie said, pulling her lover into a deep, sultry kiss. Her hands were everywhere, and Jamie felt her libido surge, so intent on her body's needs that she didn't notice Ryan's tepid response. Easily, she flipped Ryan onto her back and had started to move down her body when the phone rang. Jamie gave the phone a deadly glare and focused again on Ryan's body-which wriggled away from her. Jamie looked up in shock as Ryan reached for the phone.


"I'm at the bakery," Catherine said. "So don't eat breakfast. I'll have enough to fill even you up."

"You sound pretty excited," Ryan said. "Most people dread moving."

"I'm about to squeal," Catherine said, "I can't wait until you two get here."

Ryan's brow furrowed. "Are you in Hillsborough?"

"No, I'm in Pacific Heights. I can't wait!"

"We'll be there as soon as we can," Ryan said, giving her partner a swat on the seat and mouthing, "Heat up the shower."

But Jamie didn't follow instructions. She was lying on her stomach, her eyes boring into Ryan, who hung up and stared back at her. "What?"

"Why did you answer the phone?"

"Uhm ... because it rang?" Ryan was trying her best to charm her lover, giving her a sweet, innocent smile.

But her charms were wasted on Jamie. "We have an agreement. We never answer the phone or the door when we're making love."

"I know that," Ryan said. She slipped out of bed, leaned over and shook her head, trying to get some of the tangles out. "But we weren't making love. We were just waking up."

"Ryan, cut the bull."

Ryan's eyes opened wide. "What bull?"

"If you don't wanna make love, that's fine. But don't act like we weren't starting to."

Ryan walked into the bathroom and turned on the shower. She came back to the bedroom and ruffled Jamie's hair. "I just didn't pick up your signal, babe. My mind was on what we had to do today."

Jamie's eyes never left her partner's. Ryan gave her another smile and shrugged her shoulders. "I'm sorry. Sometimes we just don't click."

"Right," Jamie said, unsmiling.

Ryan went back into the bathroom and called out, "Your mom is waiting for us in the city. Wanna get in the shower with me?"

"No, thanks. I'm not in the mood." She rolled over and scooted up and put her head on her pillow. She was certain that Ryan would turn off the shower and come back into the room to smooth things over. But she heard her lover get into the shower and start to wash her hair, singing quietly.

What in the hell is going on with us? She's never intentionally ignored me when she knows I'm angry. And she knows I'm angry. That smile might have gotten her out of disagreements with her fuck buddies, but it's not going to work with me!

* * * * * *

Even though she was still angry, Jamie deliberately ignored the issue. She knew they had to talk, but having an argument on the way to help her mother move wasn't a good idea.

They got to the BMW, which was behind the Boxster. Ryan stood near the rear bumper, looking a little like a sloth. "Wanna take your car?"

"Because it's more difficult?" Even though she didn't want to fight, it was hard to be civil.

"No." Ryan yawned ostentatiously. "I'm not feeling very sharp. I thought you could drive."

"Give me the keys," Jamie said. "I can manage to drive a big car."

"Don't screw up my seat settings."

Jamie mumbled something and got into the driver's seat. She moved the seat and the mirrors, knowing that Ryan's settings were set in the computer module. Several times Jamie started to say something about their morning, but she bit her tongue, reasoning that they'd have time alone on the weekend. Ryan hummed a soft tune during the whole trip, irritating Jamie all the more. Other than the humming, Ryan didn't say a word, and Jamie found herself in Pacific Heights before she knew it.

She was able to find a parking space quite close to the house, and when they approached the front of the dwelling both young women rocked back on their heels and gazed up at the structure in wonder.

The pristine, white-painted residence was absolutely gorgeous. A combination of understated elegance and pure, simple lines, it had such tremendous curb appeal that both Jamie and Ryan were perfectly content to just stare at it.

"Don't you want to come inside?" Catherine asked, her voice carrying down from the balcony.

Shielding her eyes against the sun, Ryan called up, "It can't get much better than this. What a perfect view of the bay!" She turned to watch an assortment of sailboats dotting the bright blue water, and sighed deeply. "I'd give a lot to have a view of the bay from my house."

"We can have that," Jamie reminded her.

"Not until they move the bay closer to Noe," Ryan said regretfully, shaking her head. "Family before view."

"Well, you're my family, and I'll share my view with you any day," Catherine promised. "Now get in here and start looking around."

They walked up a few steps, then entered a small, covered entryway. Catherine threw the door open.

"Holy crap!" Ryan cried out, earning an elbow to the gut from her partner.


"You don't have to behave," Catherine laughed. "It's nice to hear an honest reaction once in a while. It is impressive, isn't it?"

"It's not just impressive," Jamie said, looking around. "It's absolutely breathtaking, Mom. Who in the world designed it?"

"The former owner is an art director who works in Hollywood," she said. "He certainly used all of his talents here, didn't he?"

"I'm confused," Jamie said. "Did you buy it furnished?"

"Yes. I've never considered buying a furnished home, but the pieces were made for this place, and it seemed silly to try to replicate the feel that I got when I walked in here. It's the whole mood that I fell in love with, so I made my offer contingent on the inclusion of every stick of furniture."

"Then how is this moving day?" Ryan asked.

"My personal furnishings are arriving," she said. "Everything for the kitchen, small appliances ... linens ... clothing."

"Just two trucks, huh?" Ryan asked, getting another elbow.

Jamie did another spin, amazed at how lovely the room was. "Hard to imagine a guy owned this. It doesn't have a masculine feel at all. It's very rich and sumptuous, isn't it?"

"Yes," Catherine agreed. "It feels like a warm cocoon."

She was smiling broadly, and Jamie saw a peacefulness in her expression that had been missing for quite some time. "I'm so glad you were able to buy it, Mom. I think it's really going to suit you." She turned to say something to her partner, but Ryan was missing. "Where did she run off to?"

"I think we'll be able to find her," Catherine smiled. "The place isn't that big."

"How many rooms?"

"Living room, dining room, kitchen, bath and study on this floor, and five bedrooms with four baths upstairs. It's obviously bigger than I need, but the rooms are rather compact. The dimensions really appeal to me."

"I see what you mean," Jamie agreed. "The smaller sized rooms add to the lush feeling you get in here."

"One room that isn't small is the kitchen," Catherine said. "Marta's going to love it."

They walked into the large space and Jamie spent quite a few minutes oohing and ahhing over every one of the top-quality appliances. "Just perfect. And made for entertaining."

"Yes. It will be nice to have you two over for meals. We can all sit in here together. I might even learn a thing or two about cooking," Catherine said.

Jamie took advantage of the fact that they were alone. She lowered her voice and asked, "How did it go with Giacomo? I ... uhm ... thought you'd call me while I was gone."

Catherine looked nonplussed. "Oh. I ... suppose I should have. I just didn't ... think."

"So ...?" Jamie looked at her mother carefully, seeing how evasive and skittish she seemed.

"Well, we worked some things out. I had some ... concerns ... and we talked them out. I think we ... settled some things."

Jamie smiled at her and waited for her to continue, but Catherine just smiled back, not offering another word. The younger woman pursed her lips, then rocked back on her heels and looked around. There was an uncomfortable silence, then she said, "Where's that girlfriend of mine? Are you sure she didn't leave?"

Relieved, Catherine said, "No, but I have a feeling she's outside. Let's go find her."

As predicted, Ryan was sitting on one of the chairs on the deck, watching the bay with a peaceful expression on her features. "What a great spot," she sighed. "Can I come over every morning to have my coffee?"

"I'd be delighted," Catherine said. "Actually, nothing would make me happier than to see you two on a daily basis."

"I think that can be arranged," Ryan said, smiling brightly. "We'll be over so much, you'll change the locks."

Jamie surveyed the entire space, murmuring her approval. "You're going to be very happy here, Mom. Just the place for a fresh start."

"That's exactly how it feels to me, honey," Catherine said. "I've lived in the Bay Area my whole life, but I've never lived in the city. I'm going to take advantage of all this place has to offer."

"Look out San Francisco," Ryan called out to the city below. "Catherine Evans is takin' over!"

* * * * * *

That evening, Jamie lay on the king-sized bed at the Westwood Holiday Inn, waiting for Ryan to take a shower so they could go out to dinner. Her partner was puttering around the room, obviously in no hurry. So Jamie picked up her cell phone and dialed the third position on her speed dial. "Guess where I am?" she asked.

"Paris," Mia said. "Or Cairo."

Jamie laughed. "You're not even trying."

Mia let out a breath. "Okay. You're in some boring college town. Playing golf or softball. Better?"

"Mostly right," Jamie admitted. "But we're in L.A., and I made reservations for just the two of us at the hottest new restaurant in town. And if I can keep her awake, I'm gonna drag my sweetie to a big lesbian club. That's not too boring, is it?"

"Ooo ... L.A.," Mia sighed. "Do I have some great memories from L.A."

"Me, too," Jamie said. "I was just lying here thinking about when all of us were here this past fall. Wasn't that a great weekend?"

"Sure was. Jordy and I were just starting to fall in love. Damn, it seems like it was years ago, James."

"I know it," Jamie said. "Years and years. But it's only been about six months ... if that."

"I'd love to be there with you guys," Mia said. "These roommates suck so bad."

"Not any better, huh?"

"Nope. I've gotta pin Jordy down and figure out what's going on. She knows a hell of a lot more about her plans for the next few years than she's told me. I just have to find the time to get her alone and awake!"

Jamie groaned. "How'd we get into the same fix? Boy, Jack was a pain in the butt, but he was always sitting on the couch where I could find him!"

"Whoo! Ryan's in deep shit if you're comparing her to Jack! What did she do?"

"Oh ... nothing ... really. We're both too busy and we're not taking time to talk like we usually do."

"All you do is talk and have sex."

"Those were the old days. Now all we do is travel and study and try to keep some family obligations. May can't come soon enough for me."

"Yeah, it'll be nice to be finished with school, but Jordan has me scheduled to do a world tour with her."

"Really? That sounds cool!"

"It kinda does," Mia said. "But I'll go to all of her games, and they're anytime from 9:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. I mean, I know I shouldn't bitch, but there's a difference between traveling with Jordan and traveling as a tag-along with the team."

"You don't have to tell me," Jamie said. "It's been nice to go to softball matches with Ryan, but when I went along on basketball games it sucked. Of course, we were in Pullman and Corvallis and not Paris and London."

"I want to travel with Jordy, but ..." She let out a sigh. "I can't complain about this. This is what makes Jordy happy, and I've gotta be a trooper. I'll just have to enjoy the travel."

"You always had fun when you went with your parents, and I know you didn't hang out with them the whole time."

"I was looking to hook-up, Jamie! It's great to go to Madrid and meet a hot guy in a club. But I've gotta go visit cathedrals and museums now."

"Ohh, you poor thing! You're gonna have to see the stuff regular tourists see, rather than stranger's bedrooms."

"It's a bitch!" Mia agreed, laughing.

"Does Jordan know how you feel?"

"Hell, no," Mia said, laughing. "She's oblivious. You know how jocks are, James. As long as she gets enough sleep and enough to eat, she's happy."

"Ryan jokes that Conor only has four emotions: hungry, thirsty, tired and horny. But she doesn't have a whole lot more, so she shouldn't talk."

With an evil-sounding laugh, Mia said, "The horny part makes me put up with a lot. Thank God Jordy isn't too tired for that!"

"The roommates listening doesn't bother you any more?"

"You can get used to anything," Mia said. "But we've learned to be very, very quiet."


"Well, Jordan usually claps a hand over my mouth, but I think I should get some credit."

"I miss you, buddy," Jamie said, on the verge of tears.

"Me, too. Being here has really shown me how much I love Jordy. She's the only good thing about being here, but it's been enough. She's enough for me."

"I'm glad to hear that," Jamie said. "I worry about you a lot."

"I'm fine, babe. I've been studying my ass off, out of sheer boredom. I want to make Dean's list just to show my parents that I'm not a total flake."

"Have you spoken to them much?"

"Huh-uhn. Not since the time I told you about. They both have my cell phone number, but my mother must have ordered my father not to call. He tends to follow her lead."

"What about Peter?"

Mia laughed again, and Jamie could hear her fondness for her brother. "He does what he wants. He calls me at least once a week. He's a very good brother."

"I'm glad you have at least one person in the family who's reasonable. Thank God for Peter."

"Yeah, he's been great. I don't think he believes Jordan's the one for me, but he doesn't ever say so. That's all the support I need."

"Really? That shocks me."

"He just seems to think I'm more straight than gay. I think he assumes I'll get tired of chick-love and run back to hetero-land."

"That doesn't bother you?" Jamie asked, thinking that she wouldn't like it at all if she were in Mia's position.

"Nah. I have been a flake for most of my life. I can't blame him for thinking I'm still like that."

"You're not a flake," Jamie said firmly, her protective streak rising to the fore.

"I'm not any more," Mia said. "Love changes you in many ways, James. It's made me grow up a lot. Peter will see that over time. And so will my parents ... if they ever speak to me again."

"Your mom loves you too much to let this last too long. I'm sure it's driving her crazy."

"Short drive."

"Oh, Ryan looks like she's on the verge of getting ready," Jamie said. "I'd better go."

"Give Ryan a kiss for me and remind her that she has everything in the world she needs to be happy-your love."

"I love you, Mia. Kiss Jordan for us."

"Repeatedly," Mia agreed, before hanging up.

"How are our children?" Ryan asked.

"Okay. Mia's bored beyond belief, but Jordan seems happy."

"Aren't you glad that I made one intelligent decision in my life?"

"Uhm ... besides choosing me?"

"Right," Ryan said. "That's a given. But aren't you glad I didn't try out for the Olympic volleyball team? You know with my luck I would have made it."

"Yeah. You're just unlucky enough to be chosen as one of the top fifteen volleyball players in the country." Jamie got up and walked over to her lover. "But your luck is about to change."

"It is? How?"

Jamie picked her phone back up and scrolled through her phone book. Finding the number she wanted, she dialed and waited for an answer. "Hi, this is Jamie Evans. I need to cancel my reservation for 7:30. Sure. You're welcome." She hung up and smiled at Ryan. "Mia reminded me of something."

"Never to make me go out to a nice restaurant again?"

"Nope. That we have to concentrate on the things that are important. Going out to dinner isn't important." She put her arms around Ryan's waist. "Talking about what's going on in our relationship is what's important right now."

Immediately, Ryan looked terrified. "What's wrong? What'd I do?"

Jamie stroked her bare skin, then kissed her chest. "You didn't do anything, love. We just have to talk through some things. It's early, we're both awake, and we don't have to be anywhere. It's time."

Ryan rubbed her arms, and Jamie saw the goose bumps. "I'm freezing. Let me put some sweats on."

"Okay." Jamie sat down on one of the two club chairs that flanked a small table. When Ryan had donned some sweatpants and a T-shirt, she took the chair opposite her. As usual when they had a serious discussion, Ryan looked like a schoolgirl trying to show that she was paying rapt attention. Her eyes were fixed on Jamie's and she didn't move a muscle.

"I'm not going to lecture you," Jamie said. "We just need to talk."

"I hate those words," Ryan said. "They're always code for 'you screwed up.'"

Reaching out to squeeze her knee, Jamie said, "Not this time. We've both screwed up a lot of things lately, but everything is repairable."

Eyes wide, Ryan said, "Shit! This sounds worse than I thought!"

"Calm down." Jamie tenderly stroked her leg, and looked at her for a moment. "I haven't been doing a very good job of taking care of you."

"What?" Ryan visibly relaxed and ruffled her partner's hair. "You take better care of me than Da did, and that's saying a lot. You have the house cleaned and my car washed and you make dinner for me almost every night. You come to every one of my games if you're in town. What more could you possibly do?"

Jamie didn't smile back. She kept her gaze locked on Ryan. "That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the big stuff. Things like making sure you feel secure and safe and protected. I've let you down, baby, and I'm gonna try to do better."

Ryan looked completely befuddled. "What are you talking about? It's not your job to do things like that. I'm an adult. I have to take care of myself."

Grasping both of her hands, Jamie squeezed them. "It is my job. It's my job to take care of you and it's your job to take care of me. That's why we're together."

Still giving her a curious look, Ryan said, "Okay, I agree. But you can't make me feel secure when I'm insecure. I have to work through that kinda thing on my own."

"No, you don't!" Green eyes were blazing with determination. "That's where you're wrong. You're so wrong! I can help you, but you have to trust me. You have to tell me how you're feeling."

"I do," she said, not meeting Jamie's eyes.

"You do not. I didn't know you were only going to your group because I want you to."

"Rory," Ryan mumbled under her breath. "Can't keep a secret to save his life!"

"I didn't know you've been unable to sleep when I'm gone."

"Aisling! She's a traitor, too?"

"I didn't know something happened at softball practice that made you run away from Coach Roberts."

"Heather! Jesus, I thought she was intimidated by me. I can't believe she went behind my back!"

Jamie grasped Ryan's chin and held it tight. "I didn't know you'd gone to a shooting range."

Ryan's lips pursed, and Jamie said, "American Express. You can't use your charge card if you're doing things you don't want me to know about."

"I wasn't hiding anything."

"That's lie, Ryan. A boldfaced lie."

"It is not!"

"You went on a night I was away. I'm sure I asked you what you did that night."

"No, you didn't," Ryan said, looking like she was about to cry. "You turned off your cell phone and went to sleep."

The words struck Jamie like a knife. She held it together for a moment, then broke down, sobbing piteously. Ryan wrapped her in her arms and rocked her, asking, "What's wrong? What did I do?"

Jamie shook her head, her tears keeping her from speaking. Finally she gasped out, "Nothing, you big dope! You haven't done anything. I'm the one who's let you down. I should have known your group wasn't helping you. I should have known you weren't sleeping. I should have known you were so ... whatever it was that made you go to a shooting range and spend $50 on ammunition. You wouldn't spend $50 on getting a broken leg set without telling me about it!"

Ryan disentangled herself and stood up, holding onto the wall for a second to get her balance. "I'm sorry," she said. Her head was hanging down and her voice shook. "I've been trying to fight my way through this, but nothing's working."

Jamie jumped to her feet and wrapped her arms around Ryan, holding her from behind. "I understand that. That's why you should have talked to me. You should have been telling me all of the little things that have been adding up. All of them. That's why I'm here."

"I didn't wanna bother you," Ryan said. "Your schedule is as busy as mine. It's bad enough that you've had to travel with me on your few weekends off."

Jamie grasped her by the shoulders and turned her around so they were face-to-face. "Are we partners, or aren't we? Are the morons who voted for Prop 22 right? Maybe we don't deserve to be married!"

"What?" Ryan put her hands on Jamie's waist and shook her. "What?"

"You heard me! Do you want to act like we're dating, or do you love me enough to marry me?" She held up her emerald ring, putting it right under Ryan's nose. "You spent all of the money you had on this ring. What does it mean?"

"It means I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you."

Jamie's hands went to Ryan's shoulders and shook her hard. "When things are good, or all of the time?"

"All of the time. What kind of question is that?"

Jamie held her tightly and stared into her eyes. "You act like I should only love you when things are good. You want to be there for me when things are bad, but you won't be honest with me when things aren't good for you. That's never going to work, Ryan. I will not marry you if you don't trust me enough to be honest with me. I'm sorry, but I won't."

Ryan sank to the bed and blinked slowly. She looked utterly stunned. "Jesus Christ. I've never seen you so upset."

Sitting right next to her, Jamie took her face in her hands. "We have to work on our relationship. If we're not ready to commit to each other in good times and bad, I'm going to postpone the wedding. I won't listen to an empty promise."

"You're serious? You really mean that?"

"Deadly. I've never been more serious."

Stunned, Ryan just stared at her. "What do I do? How do I convince you I'm ready to marry you?"

"It's going to take some time, and some effort."

Ryan nodded mutely.

"The first thing we're gonna do is get you some individual therapy. You've got issues from the carjacking that aren't going to go away if you don't get some real help-and your therapy group doesn't seem to be cutting it."

"Okay. I ... I guess you're right."

"Then we're going to have some couples therapy. Maybe not right now, but as soon as school's over. We have to work on some things before we get married. I don't wanna put more pressure on you, but we have to agree on how we're going to interact as partners."

"I'll do whatever you want, Jamie. Just don't give up on me, please!"

Her eyes were wide with fright, and Jamie put her arms around her and held her tightly. "How can you ask if I'm giving up on you? I love you with all my heart. I just want to make sure that we're happily married, Ryan. We can't be happy if we're not honest ... if we don't trust each other ... if we're not vulnerable with each other."

"Vulnerable? Jesus! I cry every two seconds. I've never let a woman see me cry like I do you."

Jamie got up and walked across the room to stand in front of the air conditioner. She felt like she had a fever, but she knew she was just upset. "Here's what you do. You keep things inside until you're ready to explode. Then, something happens and you can't hold it together anymore. Then, you cry. That's not what I'm talking about, Ryan. I need for you to talk to me before you're ready to explode. I need for you to tell me about your fears, about your weaknesses, about the things that you're ashamed to admit. That's what being vulnerable is."

Ryan looked across the room, her eyes hooded, her expression guarded. "You don't tell me things you're ashamed of."

Stalking across the room, Jamie dropped to her knees in front of her lover and grasped Ryan's hands. "You wanna know what I'm ashamed of?" Her eyes were nearly glowing with emotion.

Deeply regretting that she'd asked the question, Ryan nodded slowly.

"I'm worried that our marriage is gonna turn out like my parents'."

"What?" The word was so slow and drawn out that it sounded like it had three syllables.

"I'm ashamed to admit that," Jamie said quietly. "But one of the things that destroyed their marriage was that they didn't talk to each other about the important things. If my father had talked to my mother when he first felt tempted to be with another woman ..." She cast her eyes to the floor, her cheeks reddening.

Ryan jumped up, sending Jamie onto her butt. She realized what she'd done and immediately bent to help her up. Staring into her eyes, Ryan spoke with childlike incredulity. "You think I'm going to cheat on you."

Jamie bit her lip and nodded-almost imperceptibly. "I don't want to. You've never given me any reason to think you will. But I don't think my father planned on cheating on my mother. And I know damned well that my mother didn't expect it."

Ryan could feel the first flood of anger flow through her body. "He lies. He cheats. He manipulates the people he claims he loves. He threatens people. He intimidates people. He tried to bribe me to get me to break up with you. He hired a fucking private investigator to make up shit about me! He cheated on your mother; he cheated on the women he was cheating with." She stopped, breathing hard, sweat showing on her forehead. "I wanna know how in the fucking hell you think I'm going to start acting like him? Am I gonna start controlling you like a puppet? Or will I just whore around on you?" She pushed past Jamie and ran her hands across the dresser, not finding what she sought quickly enough, so she swept her hand across the surface, everything flying in the air before fluttering to the floor. "Where's my goddamned room key?"

Jamie stood, motionless, her gut telling her to be afraid, but her mind unable to believe to Ryan would ever hurt her.

Ryan turned and glared at her, then something seemed to snap. She whirled around and pushed the dresser with all of her strength, banging it against the wall. Then she grabbed the chair and hurled it onto the bed, picked it up by two legs and threw it again and again, the heavy piece thudding mightily. Lifting it over her head, she snapped her arms down, sending the chair crashing to the floor where it cracked and broke into pieces, sending shards of wood flying everywhere. She stood there, breathing heavily, sweat staining her shirt. A tentative knock at the door startled her, and she turned to stare, wild-eyed at Jamie. Her lover was cowering in the corner of the room, crying silently. Seeing her, Ryan collapsed, crumbling slowly to the floor, where she sat, staring into space.

The knock became louder, and Jamie finally moved to answer it. She cracked the door open and saw Jackie, Ryan's regular roommate. Jackie looked like she'd rather be anywhere else, but she stood there, trying not to look at Jamie's tear-streaked face. "Is ... everything okay?" She snuck a glance at Jamie. "Are you okay?"

Jamie opened the door and stepped into the hall. She was still wearing the dress she was going to wear to dinner, and she looked perfectly fine except for her red-rimmed eyes. "I'm fine, Jackie, and Ryan's fine. Or ..." She looked at the door. "She will be when she calms down."

Looking into her eyes, Jackie asked again, "Are you sure? It sounded like she was tearing the place apart."

"She was," Jamie admitted. "She's really, really angry, but she's just venting. She'd never hurt me."

"That's what most women think," Jackie said, her eyes dark with warning.

Jamie put her hand on her arm. "Thanks for caring about us, Jackie, but the only person who has to be afraid of Ryan is Ryan. She's brutal with herself sometimes-but only herself."

Jackie looked very uncomfortable, but she stayed right in front of the door, shifting her weight from foot to foot. "Want me to talk to her?"

"No. Please. She's embarrassed enough. She hates to cause a scene. I swear we're fine, and if you hear any more noise, feel free to call the police. I guarantee this is all over."

Jackie nodded. "I will call the police if I hear furniture flying around again. I don't want either of you to get hurt."

Jamie put her arms around the sturdy woman and gave her a hug. "Thanks for looking out for us, Jackie. I really do appreciate it."

"Ryan's my bud, but I'd call the police on her in a second if she raised a hand to you."

"She never has. She never will. I know her." Her stomach flipped and she worked those words over in her head. She patted Jackie and went back into the room, immediately going to Ryan's side. Kneeling next to her, she held her in her arms and whispered, "I know you. You're my faithful, loving partner. You'd break your own arms before you'd cheat on me."

Ryan looked at her, her normally clear eyes clouded with doubt and pain. "I don't know ... what happened?"

"You lost it, baby. I told you my deepest fear and you ... just lost it."

"Fuck, fuck, fuck," Ryan muttered. "I'm so sorry." She straightened out her legs, kicking away some of the broken chair. "I don't even know who I am anymore."

"I do," Jamie said, her voice full of confidence. "You're my sweet, sweet lover, and you're so stressed that you're about to snap. We're going to get you some help, Ryan. And I'm going to be there for you. And we'll do anything ... anything it takes to let you get back to your old self."

"Maybe it's gone," Ryan said disconsolately. "Maybe it's just ... gone."

"No, it's not. It's not, baby. Every time we have a couple of days at home, you're just like your old self. We have to use all of our resources to make your world safe again."

Ryan smiled sadly. "I don't think my world will ever be safe again."

"Yes, it will. We'll make our world as safe as we can. We can do it," she insisted, putting her hands on Ryan's shoulders. "My love for you is enormous. It's massive. It's everlasting."

"That's how I feel about you," Ryan said, her blue eyes showing so much sadness that Jamie's heart ached.

"We've made some mistakes lately," Jamie said. "I shouldn't have stayed on the golf team after the carjacking. You shouldn't have joined the softball team. You shouldn't have agreed to do this massive independent study. But we're in too deep to turn back now. We just have to figure out a way to struggle through the next two months-together."

Ryan nodded soberly. "I know I shouldn't have joined the team-even though I really like the guys. The travel's killing me."

"That's how I feel about golf ... well, expect for the liking the guys part," she said, smiling.

"You at least get to play," Ryan said, smiling back at her.

"True. And that's the part I like. But it's not worth it. I should have chucked it. But ... I didn't. And I don't feel right quitting now. We're doing well, and I've contributed a lot of wins. I'd be letting too many people down to quit now."

"I wouldn't be letting anyone down, since I never play," Ryan said.

"Yes, you would," Jamie insisted. "You're the first person off the bench. One injury and you're a starter, honey. That's important."

"I know, I know. I just wish ... I wish I had a lot of things to do over again."

"So do I," Jamie said. "But one thing I've never regretted is being with you. You're my compass, Ryan. You're always there when I need you. I just need to know that you feel the same way about me."

"I do," Ryan said, whispering the words into Jamie's ear. "And I'm gonna try to show you I mean that from now on."

Jamie stroked her cheek. "Any other secrets I should know about?"

"Uhm ... did I mention that I went to the bar one night and sat there like a big loser for a couple of hours?"

Jamie looked up at the ceiling. "Good lord, is there anything else?"

"I'm afraid to drive when you're in the car," she said, her voice trembling. "I don't ever want anyone to sneak up on us again."

Jamie held her tightly, murmuring into her ear, "No one will, baby. No one ever will."

* * * * * *

After Jamie called the front-desk to arrange to pay for and have the broken chair taken from the room, she looked over to see Ryan devouring the contents of the mini-bar. The brunette drained a bottle of water in moments, then peeled the wrapper off a candy bar and started to gobble it down. Holding up another candy bar, she asked, "Want some?"

Jamie rubbed her eyes. "I must be hallucinating. You're willingly raiding the mini-bar?"

"Gotta be cheaper than the restaurant you were gonna take us to," she said, giving her a toothy grin. "I'm gonna eat the macadamia nuts next, and that's way out of my comfort zone."

"Bring me something sweet ... besides yourself," Jamie said. Ryan grabbed a diet Coke, more candy and the nuts sat on the edge of the bed. "You're always a surprise, Ms. O'Flaherty."

"It was either this, or room service. And that's no bargain, either. This was at least fast."

"But not enough to fill you up."

"No, but it'll keep me until breakfast. I can load up then."

"Really? You don't want a sandwich or something?"

"Yeah, I'd love one." Ryan held her second candy bar up to Jamie's lips, letting her take a generous bite. "But I don't wanna wait."

Jamie put her hand on Ryan's leg. "Do you think I'm odd?"

"Huh? You're sitting next to a woman who just destroyed some pretty substantial furniture, had her teammate come by to check that she wasn't beating up her lover ... and you wanna know if you're odd? I'm nearly ready for the men in the white coats."

Jamie slapped her arm. "You're a long way from that."

"What makes you think you're odd?"

"I wondered if you thought it was odd that I get ... interested ... after we have a big blowout fight?" She ran her hand up Ryan's leg, then leaned over to kiss her ear.

"Interested in what?" Ryan asked, looking puzzled.

"Okay, O'Flaherty," Jamie said, standing up staring at her lover. "What's going on with your sex drive?"

Ryan giggled playfully and pulled her partner back down. "It's kinda broken. But I got that clue."

"Is it broken from stress?"

"Maybe. But I think it's probably still left-over junk from the carjacking. I just don't feel the drive I used to feel."

"You do seem to do better if it's really spontaneous," Jamie agreed. "And you seem to need to be in control."

Ryan smiled. "I always wanna be in control."

Jamie gave her a tickle. "Not always. But recently you really seem to need it."

"Well, maybe I can take a hint and still be in control." She stood up and whipped off her shirt and dropped her pants. She took Jamie by the hand and helped her to her feet. For the first time that night, Ryan took a long look down her partner's body, taking in her short, slim-fitting dress, black stockings and heels. "God, you look fantastic."

Jamie could see just how sincere the compliment was when her partner's nipples started to harden. Jamie put her hands on Ryan's chest, letting them rest just above her breasts. "Do I look better in clothes?"

"I'm not sure. I'd better check." Ryan had a playful smile on her face, one that Jamie desperately missed. She urged Jamie into the remaining chair, then bent to remove her shoes. She knelt and let one cool hand slide up her lover's thigh, feeling the band of lace that held up her stocking. "These are so damned hot," she said. She bent over and rested her cheek on Jamie's thigh, taking in a few deep, relaxing breaths while Jamie ran a hand through her hair. They stayed just like that for a few minutes, letting their bodies get used to being intimate again.

Ryan's fingers couldn't stay idle for long, and the slipped up another couple of inches. Jamie's thighs were closed and Ryan couldn't quite reach her goal. She looked up at her, her eyes sparkling with interest. "Panties?"

"Uh-huh." Jamie ruffled her hair. "Disappointed?"

"Never. I'm always pleased with your underwear decisions." She put both hands on one thigh and slowly peeled the stocking off one leg, and then the other. She ran her hands up and down the silky-smooth legs, smiling sexily. "Nicest skin in the world. Truly a work of art."

As a reward, Jamie returned the smile and spread her legs apart just a bit, letting Ryan playfully rest her chin on the chair to take a peek. "Looks nice from here."

"Thank you. Want more?"

"Much more." Ryan got up and held out a hand. Jamie accepted it and they stood facing one another. They kissed, lengthily and sensually, pressing against one another. Ryan's hands slid down her partner's back and grasped her ass, pushing it so her hips pressed against Ryan. Then her fingers climbed back up and tugged at her zipper, sliding it down soundlessly. She gripped the fabric between her thumbs and index fingers and pulled, sliding the dress off and letting it pool on the floor.

Now that Jamie was clad only in her underwear, Ryan's temperature started to rise. She held onto her hungrily, wrapping her in a nearly-painful hug while she kissed her intently. They stood in the quiet room, the whir of the air-conditioner accompanied by the soft sounds of their lips touching and touching.

"God, you're good at this," Jamie murmured between kisses.

Ryan smiled, then kissed down her neck, peppering the edge of her bra with a moist line of kisses. "Good at what?"

"Making me hot. Very hot."

"This makes you hot?" Ryan slid her hands inside Jamie's pearl pink panties, palming her ass and squeezing the cheeks tenderly. She continued to kiss her, exploring her mouth with her tongue.

Jamie finally pulled away, pausing to catch her breath. "Yeah, that makes me hot. Everything you do makes me hot. Am I just easy, or are you really good?"

Ryan laughed softly. "Maybe both." She bent and picked Jamie up, effortlessly carrying her to the bed. "Or maybe you just make me so hot that some of my heat rubs off on you." She placed her in the center of the bed and climbed on top of her, dipping her head to kiss her again.

Jamie wrapped her arms around Ryan, pressing their breasts together. They rolled around on the bed, briefly fighting for position, but Ryan was intent. Jamie was going to stay on her back-for the moment at least.

Magically, Jamie's bra had been unfastened while they wrestled, and Ryan slipped it from her shoulders. She slid down and started to feast on her lover's succulent breasts, catching Jamie by surprise with her intensity. But surprise quickly gave way to total satisfaction, and Jamie started to writhe under her, her hips pressing against Ryan's pelvis.

Soon, Jamie started pressing on Ryan's shoulders, urging her down. But Ryan wasn't in a hurry, and she obviously didn't want to be directed. She stayed right where she was, laving Jamie's breasts with bouts of tender care alternated with lusty sucking and delicate kisses. She seemed truly insatiable, and Jamie gave up trying to promote her own agenda. She just lay there, her hands wrapped in Ryan's hair, letting her lover fulfill her need.

Ryan started to turn up the heat, her desire slowly becoming more and more voracious. Jamie reached down and grabbed her ass, clutching her cheeks and squeezing hard each time Ryan sucked firmly.

Finally, Ryan pulled away, breaking the suction with a loud pop. She looked thoroughly dazed and rolled onto her back, panting. Jamie leaned over her, smoothing the hair from Ryan's eyes. With a smoldering look, Ryan murmured, "My mouth. Your clit. Now."

Instantly, Jamie yanked at her panties, unable to get them off fast enough. She carefully put one knee on either side of Ryan's head and ever-so-slowly lowered herself until she hovered just above her partner's waiting lips.

Ryan reached up and gently spread Jamie open, spending a few moments basking in the glorious sight of her. Her mouth watered, and she guided her forward, growling in satisfaction the moment her mouth touched the delicate flesh.

Jamie cried out some unintelligible sound, then reached up and grasped her own breasts, pulling on her nipples just to distract herself. Every time she felt herself start to go over the edge, she pinched herself hard-the pain sensors redirecting some of the pleasure from her clit. But Ryan was devouring her so magnificently, reaching every nerve-filled spot, that she couldn't hold out for long. Far sooner than she wished, she came hard, nearly humping Ryan's face.

Her hips finally stilled, and she tried to pull away, but Ryan held her firmly. "More," she demanded. "I need more."

Jamie wanted to gather her wits, to get herself under control. But she realized that she didn't need to be in control with Ryan. She could let her partner take over completely. So she lowered herself onto that eager, waiting mouth and let the pleasure wash over her again and again.

* * * * * *

It was after 10:00 p.m. when they'd finally had all of their needs fulfilled. They were exhausted, their bodies covered in sweat, the bed a mess. "This might sound crazy, but I feel better than I have in months," Ryan said.

Jamie snuggled closer, kissing Ryan gently. "It sounds perfectly logical to me. We both got a lot off our minds tonight. I feel more optimistic than I have in a while."

Ryan looked at her, her clear eyes taking on a childlike innocence. "Will we really be able to get through this?"

"We will," Jamie said. Her confidence was shining in her eyes, and she hugged her lover tightly. "I'm gonna change my priorities and make them what they should have been all along. Our relationship comes first."

Ryan touched her nose. "You come first."

"That's true. But if you've got a little more energy ... you could come last."

Ryan looked at the playful glitter in the eyes she loved and spread herself out on the bed. "Do me," she growled. "Do me good."

* * * * * *

In Hillsborough, California, a big, black Ram truck pulled into the stately, circular drive of a very impressive home. When Conor rang the bell, Helena answered promptly and escorted him into the living room. Catherine came down just moments later, sweeping down the long, broad staircase in a long, beaded gown, the brilliant blue color nearly matching that of her escort's eyes. The dress was strapless, with a square cut to the bodice, and a full, gathered skirt. Her hair was arranged in her usual, casual, layered style, and it served to contrast nicely with the elaborate, formal, sapphire and diamond pendant that graced her throat. Matching drop earrings-sapphires surrounded by diamonds-nestled against her ears, and a substantial sapphire solitaire ring was on the third finger of her left hand, supplanting the diamond that had occupied the space for the previous twenty-two years.

She glided into the room, unconsciously making an entrance after all of her years of practice. "Conor, you look marvelous in that suit."

He turned from the photos he had been studying and tried to make his mouth work. Before he knew it, he was slowly circling the woman, nodding his head as he took her in. "I'm speechless," he finally said, and the look on his face gave credence to his claim.

She leaned over and kissed his smooth cheek, noticing just a bare hint of cologne. "That's the nicest compliment I've had in years, Conor. Thank you."

Giving her a broad smile he said, "I really like Jim, Catherine. He's been very nice to me, and he seems like a sharp guy, but letting you get away makes me doubt both his intelligence and his sanity."

"You're just the antidote for my bruised self-esteem," she chuckled, linking her arm in his to head for the door. She took a black silk stole and a black beaded bag from the table by the front door and handed Conor her keys.

"What kind of a statement do you want to make, Catherine?" he asked playfully. "We can take my truck."

She considered his offer for a moment and then admitted, "I can't imagine getting out of your truck without falling on my face, Conor. Other than that, though, it would be a kick."

* * * * * *

As he drove along the highway in the usual, heavy traffic, Conor gave Catherine a glance and asked seriously, "How do you want to play it, tonight? Am I a friend, a date, or what?"

"What do you feel comfortable with?" she asked carefully. "I suppose my goal is to shake people up a little and make them not approach me with their false sympathy over my divorce."

"Oh," Conor said, a smile covering his handsome face. "So you'd like everyone to think we're..." Turning slightly, he gave her a waggling eyebrow grin, the original his sister had stolen from him years before. "Works for me."

Catherine placed a hand on his forearm, briefly wondering if he was wearing armor under his Armani. "I don't want you to be uncomfortable, Conor. No one will come out and ask if we're dating, of course. They're far too polite for that. But I certainly wouldn't mind if my erstwhile friends thought I could attract a handsome young man." She paused briefly then asked, "How are you at acting interested in a woman old enough to be your mother?"

"Catherine," he said softly, his crystal clear blue eyes landing on her briefly, "you're barely thirteen years older than I am, so the mom thing doesn't work." His eyes darted to her once again as he said, "I hope this doesn't make you uncomfortable, but I find you devastatingly attractive, and if you weren't Jamie's mother, I wouldn't have to act interested in you. You'd know just how interested I was." His smile returned. "This is honestly the first time that I regret having Jamie as a sister-in-law."

Squeezing his arm once again, Catherine said, "I can't imagine that's true, but I'm going to convince myself that it is. Thank you."

He smiled at her again. "Almost a year ago, I had a conversation with my sister about Jamie. She was talking about her new friend, and about how great she was, and how much she liked her. I remember that she said, 'Conor, this woman is so special, but she's with a guy that doesn't have the brains to see it.' The same thing applies to you, Catherine," he said, shaking his head. "It's gonna be a very lucky guy that finally snares you."

She didn't comment, feeling like she might cry if she even tried to speak. Her stomach flipped when she thought of the huge compromise she'd made to keep Giacomo in her life. She patted Conor's arm and sank back in her seat, wondering if she'd compromised her morals as well as her future.

* * * * * *

The first few minutes were difficult. The wild beating of Catherine's heart was nearly audible, and her hand was so cold and clammy that not even Conor's warmth took the chill off. No sooner had they stepped into Davies Hall than she had second thoughts, even though it was far too late to turn back. The startled looks of her friends and acquaintances were making her uncomfortable, and she had a momentary thought to slip out before she and Conor caught anyone else's attention.

Catherine's stomach clenched, and she was stricken with panic as she considered that she might follow in Jamie's footsteps and lose her insubstantial lunch. The feeling intensified as her former friend, Laura Martin, made a beeline for her. Catherine gripped Conor's hand so tightly that he winced, but before she could warn him, the woman was in their faces, looking smug and superior, as always.

"Well, this is a surprise," she said, her eyes roaming over Conor with thinly veiled distaste. "For a minute I thought you had brought Jamie's 'friend', but then I realized that this must be her brother." She smiled sweetly at Catherine. "It must be hellish to try and find a suitable escort for an affair like this. It's nice that you have some ... options." She gave Conor a look like one she would have given a spilled load of trash.

As her ire rose, her stomach calmed, and in seconds Catherine's discomfort abated. "Laura Martin, this is Conor O'Flaherty," she said, her impeccable manners coming to the fore. Turning to Conor she added, "Ryan and Jamie know Laura's daughter, Cassie. She's the young woman who gave that delightful interview to the National Inquisitor." She actually took a step back as she said this, just to make sure she wasn't hit with blood or bone fragments when Conor decked the woman.

Laura's already pale face paled further and then flushed as she spluttered, "Cassie didn't say one thing that wasn't the truth, Catherine."

Conor's blue eyes had narrowed to slits, and his posture became very aggressive. He was leaning toward the small woman with malevolent intent when Catherine put her hand on his arm to draw him back. She didn't get a hand over his mouth, however, and he started to let the woman have it.

"First off, my sister is not just Jamie's friend," he growled. "She's her lover ... her partner ... her spouse."

Laura's eyes widened at his words and his tone. Not because she didn't know the truth, but because it was so unseemly to speak it.

"My sister's told me all about your daughter," he spat, his eyes sparking fire. "It's clear that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." He turned and draped one long arm around Catherine's waist and guided her away from the obnoxious woman, not stopping until they were on the opposite side of the room. His expression was contrite as he gazed at her and said, "I'm sorry I lost my temper. I just get so pissed off when people are cruel, especially where Ryan's involved."

"Conor," Catherine said, squeezing his large hand, "you have nothing to apologize for. There was a large part of me that wanted to see you knock her across the room." His big blue eyes widened at her statement, and she insisted, "I'm being perfectly honest. She's an evil woman, and if I didn't feel so guilty for spending as much time with her as I have, I'd feel justified to hit her myself."

He gave her a gentle squeeze. "Thanks," he said softly. "I thought I'd ruined your night."

Catherine laughed. "Conor, you're the highlight of my night. The only way my evening will be ruined is if you don't enjoy yourself."

"Not a chance," he assured her. "Let's not let the idiots get us down, okay?"

"It's a deal," Catherine said. Looking around, she commented, "It didn't dawn on me that people would recognize you, but it makes perfect sense. I guess my little scheme didn't work," she said with a trace of disappointment in her voice. "I suppose everyone will think I've had to resort to bringing family members to events. That's rather like bringing your cousin to the prom."

Conor gave her a studied look. "Even though you're a member of our family, there's no legal or moral reason that you and I couldn't be dating. I'm only going to look like your cousin if we act like cousins." His eyes twinkled with mischief. Catherine blinked at him in surprise as he continued, "Let's take a turn on the dance floor and show 'em a thing or two."

"Wha ... what do you want to show them?"

"I wanna show 'em how to dance!"

"You ... know how to dance?" she asked, having assumed that Conor's talents lay in swinging a hammer rather than a partner.

"Sure do," he said. "I'm pretty darned good, if I do say so myself. My Granny's main purpose in life was to make sure we had a little class. After our mother died, she got even more focused ... since she considers us orphans," he said. "She's very big on knowing how to dance, and how to use the proper utensils at a meal, all that crap." He grinned.

"You're just full of surprises." She beamed as Conor led her to the dance floor.

"That's what makes life interesting, Catherine." He took her small hand in his and led her seamlessly around the ballroom. Their height difference did not impair their gracefulness in the least, even though he was somewhere around six foot five and she was a hair under five foot four. His hair was so black that it matched the obsidian studs in his starched shirt, hers so fair that it shone like the sun. His skin was burnished to a rich, dark warmth, hers was nearly alabaster. His body was beyond sturdy, filling his well-made suit out perfectly; hers was nearly frail, only her months of following Ryan's workout program having caused some beginning signs of definition in her exposed shoulders and arms.

Even with the striking differences in their bodies, their coloring, and their ages, there was something so complementary about the pair that they not only didn't appear out-of-place, they looked absolutely perfect together, and their relaxed, smiling faces only served to highlight their connection.

"I don't often dance with someone that moves as well as you do," Conor murmured into her ear as they moved gracefully around the floor.

"I had lessons also, Conor. My mother and your grandmother sound like they'd get along perfectly," Catherine said, laughing. "I was taking some kind of dance or piano class from the time I was in third grade."

"It doesn't seem like it when we're young, but those lessons really can pay off," Conor said. "If I didn't know how to dance, I'd feel like a dope out here, trying to keep up with you. I should write to my grandmother and thank her." He turned Catherine gently to lead her around another couple who were not having an easy time keeping up with the music.

"You should add a thanks for teaching you about the proper way to use flatware," Catherine said. "I didn't mention this because I didn't want to scare you off, but we're at the head table."

"Ooh ... you are Jamie's mother," he teased. "Ryan says that's just what Jamie does to get her to do things. She springs 'em on her when it's too late to turn back."

Batting her warm brown eyes at her escort, Catherine asked, "You're not angry, are you?"

"Of course not. I'm perfectly comfortable here, Catherine." They danced a little more, moving across the floor with enviable grace. "One thing puzzles me," Conor said a few moments later.

"What's that?"

"You didn't know that I knew how to dance, and you didn't know that I knew how to behave at a formal dinner. Why didn't you ask me? It would have been kind of embarrassing for you if I ate with my hands and wiped my mouth on my sleeve."

"Conor, I've had many meals with you, and it's obvious that you're a very well mannered man."

"Yeah, but there's a difference between being couth and fitting in with this crowd," he said, twitching his head in the direction of the other guests.

Catherine thought about his question for a moment, giving it her full concentration. "I've been worried about this night," she said. "I didn't want to come alone, but I also didn't want to be with some stranger, or someone I'd have to entertain. I knew that I'd feel perfectly comfortable with you, and no matter how awful the evening was, we'd still have fun. That's been very reassuring to me," she said, tilting her head as she gazed into his eyes.

He gave her a gentle hug, pressing her small body into his. "I'm very glad that you asked me." With an even wider smile, Conor added, "The cousins are all jealous."

She laughed. "Oh, Conor, surely they wouldn't enjoy hanging around with this crowd?"

"You just don't get it, do you?" Conor smiled to himself as he picked up speed and whirled Catherine around in a tight spiral. How can someone be as gorgeous and as much fun as she is, and have so little confidence in themselves?

* * * * * *

The dinner portion of the evening went better than Catherine had dared to hope. Conor was the definition of suave, thoroughly charming the elderly woman who sat to his left, managing to make her giggle her way through her entire meal, to her husband's great displeasure.

Catherine was able to tend to her social obligations, knowing that her escort was perfectly able to fend for himself. The only near disaster was when Conor leaned over at one point and commented, "Most of the women at this table are as brittle as a fifty year old shingle." Catherine had just taken a spoonful of soup into her mouth, and it was through sheer will that she didn't spew the bisque onto the table.

Conor gave her a sheepish grin. "Sorry about that. We always try to make each other spit. I lost my head there for a minute."

She tossed her head back and laughed, a full-throated, genuine, belly laugh. Every other person at the table turned to look at Catherine, none of her long held acquaintances having ever heard anything even remotely approaching a real laugh come from her mouth. Finally getting herself under control, she clapped a hand on Conor's arm and leaned in to whisper, "I guarantee you're the only man in this entire room who's tried to make his date spit." Giving him a squeeze, she added, "I am so glad that you agreed to come with me. You know how to show a woman a good time."

* * * * * *

As soon as the guests had finished their dinner, the board members all went to the podium to say a few words about their particular area of expertise. Conor was favorably impressed with Catherine's smooth delivery. She didn't look the least bit nervous to be speaking to the crowd of at least five hundred people. Since she was the president of the society, she was the last to speak, and he noted with approval that her speech was shorter and more to the point than any of the others. As soon as she concluded her remarks, the band started to play again, and without even resuming her seat she tapped Conor on the shoulder. "Dance with me?"

He nodded agreeably and got up to join her on the dance floor, which was populated by just a few other couples. "Nice job," he smiled as he grasped her right hand in his left, and placed his right hand on her waist.

"Thank you. Public speaking isn't my favorite thing to do, but I've gotten over my nervousness by doing it often."

"If you were nervous, it was impossible to tell."

Catherine smiled at him, having to lean back in his embrace to see his eyes. "I wasn't nervous tonight," she said, as though that fact was a surprise to her. "I'm not sure why, but I am remarkably unconcerned about what people think of me tonight." She moved closer and rested her head on his chest as the music slowed and segued into a gentle rhythm. "Right now I should be making small talk with everyone. I normally make sure I speak with every person who attends one of these events." She sighed heavily as she added, "I honestly don't care tonight. I just want to enjoy myself."

"You deserve to enjoy yourself," he said, giving her a squeeze. "You obviously do a lot for this organization. Tonight should be a time for you to relax and feel good about your contributions. All of the people here saw you ... they all heard your speech ... you've done enough. They don't own you."

Once again Catherine leaned back in his arms and gazed at him for a long minute. Something clicked in that moment and she blinked up at Conor, maintaining the look for so long that he eventually gave her a puzzled smile and asked, "What's going on behind those brown eyes?"

"What you said," she murmured, her voice distant and faint. He leaned down closer so that he could hear her as she said, "They don't own me."

He straightened and cocked his head at her, his puzzled smile still in place. "No, of course they don't. No one owns you, Catherine. You're your own woman." This was so obvious to him that he didn't think it merited comment, but it was clearly a revelation to Catherine.

"I am, aren't I?" Her voice held as much question as certainty.

"You are," Conor said more forcefully. "You're a strong, determined, decisive woman."

Catherine blinked up at him and asked in a small voice, "Do you really see me that way?"

He smiled at her and gave her another gentle hug. "It's not a matter of seeing you that way. That's what you are. Everyone sees you that way." He gazed into her eyes and saw the fragile, wounded woman that lurked just under the surface of her competent, controlled exterior. "You're the only one who sees a different image," Conor said softly, closing his eyes as he gave her a warm hug. "I don't know why you don't believe in the you we all know and love, but I hope that someday you will."

Blinking away her tears, Catherine took Conor by the hand and led him onto a small balcony and let the cool March night help her re-gain control. She took in a few deep breaths, Conor's powerful arm covering her exposed shoulders, his heat keeping her surprisingly warm. "I was my father's daughter," she said softly, the words floating from her lips on small clouds of vapor. "Then I was my husband's wife." She looked up at Conor with a warm, confident smile and said, "One day I'll be known as my daughter's mother." She shivered in the cold night, her body finally reacting to the chill. "But for now ... for right now ... I'm my own woman." She wiped the tears from her eyes, amazed at how cold the drops became as they slid down her cheeks.

"Catherine Evans is gone, Conor. She's a thing of the past." Warm brown eyes, overflowing with tears met Conor's. "I'm giving up the Evans name," she said with surprising decisiveness. "I wasn't going to do it ... I thought it would cause too much controversy ... but I'm not an Evans any longer." She snuggled closer, her skin so cold that it was painful, but she couldn't bear the thought of going back inside. Conor saw her shiver and took off his jacket and placed it around her shoulders.

"Thank you," she sighed, the residual warmth surrounding her like a blanket warmed by the fire. "I'm a double Smith, you know," she said conversationally, even though it was obvious he could not possibly know that.

"No, I didn't know that." His cocked head urged her to go on.

"My great-grandmother was a Smith and she married my great-grandfather, who shared the same last name. They met at Stanford," she said wistfully, "just like Jim and I did. My great-grandfather was a member of the Pioneer Class," she informed him. "That was the first class to be admitted as freshmen. My grandmother was two years younger, but she graduated, too. She was a biology major." She smiled up at Conor. "Just like Ryan."

"Wow," he said, suitably impressed. "It must have been hard for a woman to even go to college then, much less major in a science."

"She was extraordinary." Catherine smiled. "She became a medical doctor, the only woman in her class. My great-grandfather was an engineer, and he developed a tabulating machine that in some ways was a precursor of the modern computer," she said. "He sold the rights for a substantial amount of money, as well as stock. That's how the Smith fortune was created." Cocking her head at Conor, Catherine said, "Everyone in the family looks up to my great-grandfather for having had the idea and the business acumen to amass the kind of wealth he did, but in my mind, the larger figure of the pair is my great-grandmother." She blinked back another few tears. "I'm reclaiming the Smith name for her."

"I'm sure she'd be pleased with that decision." Conor paused a moment and added, "I'm sure she'd be pleased with you, too."

Catherine gazed up at him as her eyes focused sharply. A determined, intense look settled on her face. "I'm not sure that would be true up to this point, Conor. I've wasted many, if not all of the gifts I've been given." She shook her head firmly, the fire in her eyes growing brighter as she declared, "Those days are over! I've been looking at my life and counting the losses and the disappointments, rather than looking at the gifts and the opportunities I've been graced with. I swear that I'm going to stop that nonsense today. I'm going to make something of my life. I'm not sure what, and I'm not sure how to go about it, but I swear that I won't rest until I've made a positive contribution to this world. I'm going to be proud of myself," she declared fiercely.

Conor wrapped his arms around Catherine, a warm smile gracing his features. "Your family is already proud of you. You never have to prove a thing to us."

They stood together on the moonlit balcony, the cold wind playing havoc with Catherine's fine blonde hair. She looked out into the black night, her mind playing over the events of the last few months that had led her to this place. Her mind was overwhelmed with the details of the past year, and she consciously put them aside, not interested in looking back. Focusing her vision, she gazed at a bright star near the horizon and let her mind idly dream, her wishes for the future suddenly sharper and brighter than her memories.

The End

Book Fifteen: Osmosis

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