Disclaimers in Part 1

Chapter Eighteen

Jamie felt Ryan begin to stir as soon as their neighbors made a sound. Soft hands soothingly patted her back until she turned and grasped her partner tightly. "You have the sweetest ways of waking me up," she murmured into Ryan's ear as she snuggled up close.

"And you cuddle up to me so nicely," Ryan said as she rubbed her body all over, "that it makes me want to stay in bed all day."

"Have you always liked to cuddle?" Jamie asked softly, as she turned to gaze into Ryan's bright eyes.

"Yeah, I've been addicted to touch my whole life," she admitted. "How about you?"

"Well, I wasn't cuddled much as a child, and I had to be careful with Jack, so I suppose I'm just now developing my cuddling abilities."

"What do you mean when you say you had to be careful with Jack?" Ryan asked, unfamiliar with the rudiments of loving a man.

"Um…sure you want to talk about this?" Jamie asked, assuming that hearing about intimate matters with Jack might be hard for her partner.

"That depends," Ryan said, sitting up a little and bracing her head on her hand.

"On what?" Jamie asked, as she turned onto her side to mirror her lover's posture.

"On whether it bothers you to talk about it, of course," she replied with a sweet smile, as she trailed her fingers down Jamie's cheek.

"Oh…so only my opinion matters, huh? I don't think so, Sweet Cheeks," she insisted as she pinched one of the sweet pink cheeks at her disposal.

"Okay…" Ryan said as she flopped onto her back. "Here's the deal. I want to know everything about you. I want to know about every factor that has influenced, molded, pleased, dismayed, saddened or impressed you since the moment you slid from your mother's womb. Whether the topic is painful, or funny, it's important to me to know you intimately."

Jamie had moved over and was now leaning over Ryan's face. Placing a whisper soft kiss on her forehead, she said, "I feel the same way. If it happened to you—I'm fascinated."

Ryan sat up and gave her a kiss as they both assumed their earlier positions. Propping her head up again Ryan asked, "So…you were saying?"

"Right…well…okay, I remember where we were," Jamie recalled. "It's like this. If I rubbed up against Jack very much in the morning, he'd want to have sex. Well, actually," she blushed, "he wanted to have sex even if I didn't rub up against him much, so I learned to get out of bed quickly if I wasn't in the mood. Not like it is with you," Jamie whispered as she leaned in close. "Now I want to stay in bed all day, and this is probably the most uncomfortable bed we'll ever share!"

"Far be it from me to turn down sex in the morning, but it's not my peak time," Ryan informed her thoughtfully. "And even if it was my favorite time, I wouldn't want you to have sex just to please me. So you can rub up against me all you want."

"I don't think I'd mind having sex with you in the morning," Jamie whispered seductively into her ear as her hand began to stroke Ryan's back.

"Mmm," she sighed in response. "Maybe I am a morning person." She slid her hand under Jamie's t-shirt and began to rub her back in slow, delicate circles.

Jamie sat up abruptly, her eyes wide with alarm. "You'd better stop that right now, Ryan," she warned. "My back is a total erogenous zone."

Ryan gave her a delicate little kiss as she withdrew her hand. "That's good to know, but don't tell me any more of your erogenous zones. I want to find them all by myself…manually," she said with an evil grin. "So, what is your favorite time to get busy?" she asked, grabbing her gear.

"I'm not sure what my preference is," Jamie replied. "I've never really been the one controlling sex; I was usually the one responding. " She looked at Ryan quizzically, "What is your favorite time?"

"Every day at three o'clock in the afternoon, I'm ready to rock," she said decisively. "But I'm totally flexible. I'm sure I wouldn't have any trouble accommodating you at any time of the day or night," she added, as she kissed Jamie again and began to slide out of the tent. She indicated her shower supplies and asked, "Same deal as yesterday?" Jamie nodded her assent and began to organize their supplies while Ryan made for the showers.

The day was starting out cool, but they expected very warm weather later in the morning. After their usual breakfast, they headed out. They passed through King City, a neatly manicured little town in the middle of lush farmland. As they pedaled along, Ryan told Jamie about her third ride when the temperature had reached 117 going through this valley. "It was really brutal. A lot of people had to get picked up by a support vehicle and taken to the next campground. It was a very tough day for everyone. I don't think I've ever consumed so much fluid--I was drinking 20 ounces every fifteen minutes--and even with that, I passed two pit stops without having to pee."

"What are they predicting for temperatures today?"

"It'll still be hot, but it's not supposed to be much over 90," she replied with an encouraging smile.

"Goody," Jamie replied facetiously.

Ryan had warned her that they would face a major hill early in the day, and after about fifteen miles they encountered the beginning of the upward slope. They slowly began to climb a five-mile grade of between two and four per cent. They pumped along steadily, making good progress, but then the real hill began. It was two miles long and ranged from a six to an eight percent grade--a real thigh buster. Ryan stayed really close and encouraged Jamie all the way up. "You're doing good; not much farther; keep pumping; pull on your upstroke, that's it; you can do this, Jamie, come on!" she exhorted.

They made it to the top together, where the cheering crew greeted them. Music played loudly on boom boxes, and they noticed that a number of riders had joined the crew to encourage other riders up the hill. After the girls got their breath, they stayed for a while to cheer on those behind them. Jamie got her camera out and took a few pictures of the triumphant riders cresting the hill. When they got ready to leave, Ryan just wiggled one eyebrow as Jamie laughed and patted her on the back. "Go on, Speed Racer. I'll see you at the second pit stop."

Ryan took off, pedaling furiously, and was a blur in seconds. Jamie just shook her head as she watched her fly, and then prudently began her own descent, finding herself cruising down the five-mile drop at a fast 30 miles-per-hour.

The next pit stop was at an Army base, and the crew was dressed for the occasion in fatigues and other military paraphernalia. Jamie found Ryan lounging on the ground, eating a banana and drinking a large bottle of Gatorade. She was chatting with a woman who looked to be around thirty, a little stocky, but obviously very full of life. Ryan greeted her partner with a big smile as she patted the ground next to her. "Jamie, I'd like you to meet an old friend of mine. This is Karen Joncas." She draped her arm around Jamie as she said, "I did pretty well for myself, wouldn't you say?" She smiled smugly at her friend.

Karen regarded Jamie with a long look as she pointed at Ryan and said, "I never thought I'd meet the woman who could snag this one." She smiled broadly as she continued, "I'd say you both did pretty well for yourselves."

They chatted for a few minutes until Karen was ready to leave. "You two take care, now. You'd better double up on your vitamins, Jamie," she said with a laugh as she pedaled away.

Jamie raised one eyebrow and threw Ryan a mock glare. "And that was?"

"Um...my tentmate from the first ride?" Ryan replied sheepishly.

"Ryan, did you sleep with every person you shared a tent with?" she asked incredulously.

"Gee, Jamie, it gets cold out at night. You wouldn't want me to freeze would you?" she asked as she batted her blue eyes ingenuously.

"So does Karen think I'm just the girlfriend du AIDS Ride 6?" she asked with a sharper tone than she intended.

"No. She thinks you're the woman I love," Ryan replied, sliding closer. "She thinks you're the woman I'm going to be with for the rest of my life." Her arms wrapped around Jamie's torso as she nibbled on her neck. "She thinks you're the last woman I'll ever do this with," she said reverently, kissing her deeply.

"Oh...well...that's better," Jamie murmured, now completely placated.

Ryan nuzzled her ear for a few seconds as she whispered, "Did you see me fly down that hill?" Jamie's response was limited to a nod as Ryan took her breath away with a dizzying series of kisses. "I was going 42 miles an hour," she breathed right into her ear. "Doesn't speed make you hot?"

Jamie pulled back a bit as she tried to focus her blurred vision. "You make me hot at any speed," she replied with a sultry little grin. "But unless you want to give these guys a real show, you'd better calm down, Tiger."

Ryan agreed to cool off as they sat back to watch the crew do a competent rendition of "In the Army," a takeoff on The Village People. As they prepared to leave, Jamie indicated that she was feeling a little tender on the insides of her thighs and Ryan generously offered to get some butt balm for her from the medical trailer. She accepted the offer and waited in line for an available privacy tent to apply the ointment. Ryan gallantly offered to help with the application, but Jamie just laughed at her and gave her a little kiss.

When they were back on the relatively flat road, they had the opportunity to ride side by side for a while. "Karen didn't look like your usual type, Ryan," Jamie said reflectively.

"Oh? And what, may I ask, is my usual type?" Ryan asked with a chuckle.

"Well, most of the women I've seen you with are young, and hot, and really cute," she said thoughtfully.

Ryan gave her a beaming smile. "My, aren't we stuck on ourselves?" she laughed.

"I don't mean me, I mean the other women I've seen you with," she protested defensively, a bit embarrassed.

"In your case, I'd say young, hot and gorgeous is more apt," Ryan said with a twinkle in her eye. "But I honestly don't really have a preference for a particular physical type. I'm much more attracted to energy than looks. And Karen has great energy. She and I actually became pretty good friends, but she moved to Sacramento, so I don't get to see her often."

"But why is every woman I've seen you with young, hot and cute?" Jamie persisted.

"Well, given my dating history, first impressions were fairly important," Ryan admitted. "I'm a sucker for a pretty face, too, but I've been with many women who would not be called attractive in the traditional sense. The best-looking woman in the world wouldn't attract me if she was listless or lethargic."

"So, do you like me because I'm peppy?" Jamie inquired.

"You are the total package, Jamie. Brains, energy, looks, sense of humor, and most of all," she said over her shoulder as she picked up speed, "lots of dough!"

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

Jamie really had to pound it to catch her mischievous partner, but she finally tracked her down about four miles outside of the lunch stop. The blacktop of Highway 101 was beginning to heat up, and the temperature was rising quickly. Ryan had shed her jacket and Jamie had to consciously slow her heart down when she saw her in her new sleeveless jersey. It was a bright orange with vivid yellow designs that looked like little whirlpools. It flared just a bit where it skimmed the waistband of her shorts, accentuating her thin waist. Jamie intentionally lagged a bit to watch her muscles move as she pedaled up a slight incline. In addition to her recent discovery that she was most definitely a breast woman, Jamie had been surprised to discover that she was a back woman as well, and, luckily for her, Ryan had the nicest back she had ever seen. Every one of the muscles was fully developed and they popped out when they were under stress. But even with the impressive musculature, the back was not at all bulky looking; it was sleek, and firm, and taut when stressed, but when relaxed it felt smooth and soft. Jamie thought that it was Ryan's best feature, but she decided that she should reserve judgment until she had seen all of the assets properly displayed. She started to let her mind wander to their upcoming honeymoon, but her reverie was interrupted by the lunch pit stop.

They were pleased beyond words to have the crew misting them with cool water as they pulled in for their meal. Ryan spotted a man she knew, and took Jamie over to say hi. She greeted him warmly and introduced Jamie. "Jason, I want you to meet my partner, Jamie." She went on to explain that she had met Jason and his lover, Eric, when they were part of her training group for AIDS Ride 4. She looked around as she asked, "Where is Eric?"

"He's riding solo this morning. He should be along soon, though. Have a seat and join us for lunch," he offered.

Ryan looked a little confused, but she sat down and waited for further explanation. Just then a woman approached, holding her lunch bag in one hand. Her other hand was encased in a substantial cast. "Ryan, Jamie, this is Ellen. She's riding with me this morning, and Eric is on her bike."

Ryan looked at her wrist with a questioning glance and Ellen explained, "I took a tumble yesterday and landed right on my wrist. I fractured it, but the medical team got it casted for me. It didn't feel too bad today, so the crew helped me find all the tandem riders, and they all agreed to let me take a shift on the back where I don't have to use my wrist. Jason took the first shift; I think it went pretty well. What did you think Jason?"

"I think I'm going to trade you for Eric permanently," he laughed. "You pedal just as hard, but you're a lot lighter."

They enjoyed their lunch together, exchanging stories of the ride and little things they had seen. Jamie snapped a few pictures as they prepared to leave, then they rode through the cool mist one last time.

It was quite warm now, and as they went up a small hill, Ryan unzipped her jersey. The deep zipper stopped just above her navel and it clearly exposed her yellow sports bra to Jamie's very interested eyes. The vision of the dark woman straining as she pedaled up the hill, sweat flying from her body, and all of that luscious, exposed, tanned skin was almost too much for Jamie's heart to take. She forced herself to take the lead for the first time all day, just to regain her focus.

As they pulled into pit stop four Jamie noticed a man pulling a little child carrier, just like Caitlin's. "Ryan, can you bring a child on this ride?" she asked, rather dumbfounded.

"No, he's not carrying a child, Jamie. He pulls that empty carrier as a memorial to all of the children who've died of AIDS. See the little 'Positive Pedaler' flag on the back of the carrier?" she asked, indicating the flag that some people with AIDS displayed.

"Oh, Ryan, that's so sad," Jamie said, her eyes welling up with tears.

Ryan just slipped her arms around her and held her for a few minutes. "So much loss," she said quietly as she shook her head.

After their stop they rode in reflective silence until they reached the last stop of the day, Mission San Miguel Archangel. Located just twelve miles out of camp, this beautiful 200-year-old church had been beautifully restored and lovingly maintained by the Franciscan Friars. The friars had generously offered their grounds for the pit stop and had even set out hoses for riders who wanted to cool down. After they sat in the shade for a while, forcing fluids, Ryan said that she needed some time to go into the church. She didn't ask Jamie to accompany her, so the blonde remained outside to stretch her back on the shady ground. After a good fifteen minutes had passed, Jamie went in to the gift shop to buy some postcards. She peeked into the church and saw Ryan, deep in thought, sitting on a chair in front of an imposing statue. It dawned on Jamie that it must be a statue of St. Michael, and that Ryan's late cousin must have been named after him. She paid for her cards and went back outside, leaving Ryan to her prayers. After another 15 minutes, she went inside to check on her partner.

Ryan was in the exact position she had been in earlier. She was sitting in a straight-backed chair that she had pulled up in front of a very large marble representation of a battle-clad-angel who held a massive sword against the neck of the groveling devil that was curled up at his feet. She was leaning forward, with her torso braced by her elbows, which rested on her thighs. Head slightly bowed, eyes closed. Moving to her side, Jamie gently placed her hand on Ryan's dark head and pulled it against her hip. Ryan nuzzled against her, indicating her acceptance of the touch. "Mind if I join you?" the smaller woman asked softly.

"Please," Ryan nodded, opening her eyes to gaze at her partner.

"Feel like talking?"

Her bottom lip stuck out for a moment as she considered her answer. A short nod followed and even though that wasn't a rousing 'yes,' it was enough to assure Jamie that she wasn't interfering.

"I was just thinking how ironic it was," Ryan said as she turned her gaze back to the statue.

"How ironic what was, Honey?"

"How ironic it is that I feel his spirit so strongly here," she related after a moment. Turning to Jamie she explained, "He was no fan of the Church."


"Really," Ryan said clearly, smiling a little at her memories. "I was still a kid when he died, but I recall him talking about it quite a lot—especially in his last year."

"What did he say?" Jamie asked, wanting to share some of Ryan's memories.

"I think he held back a little with me, to tell you the truth," she recalled. "I was still in choir and I was an acolyte so I was really connected, and I think he was afraid of harming my relationship with the Church.

His father, my Uncle Charlie, couldn't come to terms with Michael's sexual orientation. They fought—a lot—and it made the whole situation so much worse. My uncle was very old school about religion. He had been taught that homosexuality was a sin and he was not going to let Michael die without doing his best to get him to repent. But Michael didn't buy into that at all. After a particularly nasty fight one afternoon, he looked at me and said, 'Ryan, I always want you to remember that God loves you just the way he made you.'"

"That's sweet," Jamie said. "Do you think he knew…about you?"

"Oh yeah," she laughed. "He never said anything, of course, but I was a baby dyke from the time I was in diapers. Anybody who was sensitive to gay kids would have known. But he said something else that day. He said, 'God is with you everywhere, Ryan, although he seems to be mysteriously absent in the Catholic Church.' "

"Hmm," Jamie mused. "Do you think he grew disenchanted with the Church when he discovered he was gay?"

"No, I think it was before that. Actually, I'm sure of it," she related. "He was a very bright guy, very much into philosophy and theology. Theology was actually his major in college. He kept a journal from the time he was 16 or so, and a couple of years ago Aunt Maeve let me read them. Wow," she said with a laugh. "He was more than a little disenchanted, but it got worse when he came out, and much worse when he contracted AIDS. He thought the Church was a willing participant in the genocide of gay men worldwide because of its rigid stance against using condoms. Plus he was angry with the Church for refusing to ordain women, not allowing birth control, and a dozen other issues."

"That does sound like he was more than a little disenchanted," Jamie laughed softly. "Did his feelings influence you?"

"No, not at the time," she mused. "I needed the security of the Church at that point in my life. And Michael was usually very gentle in his criticism around me. By the time I read his journals, I had reached my own conclusions," she smiled. "My feelings now closely follow his, but I still enjoy going to Mass. I just look at it in a different light now."

"Tell me how you look at it?" she asked, intensely curious.

Ryan grew pensive for a few minutes. When she spoke again she turned to Jamie and related, "Now I view going to church as a chance to be with other people who are seeking some spiritual answers. I like singing the songs, and the prayers are nice too. It makes me feel very connected to our ancestors," she mused. "I sometimes get an image of prehistoric man, trying to make some sense out of his life, looking to the stars or the moon or whatever it was that they worshiped. I don't think we've made much progress from that point, to tell you the truth," she laughed. "But it's somehow reassuring to be with other people who are trying to answer some of their own existential questions."

"So you don't feel like a Catholic?" she asked.

"I would have to say that I believe about one percent of what the Church considers dogma, so I'm sure the Church doesn't consider me Catholic," she explained. "But it is the faith of dozens of generations of O'Flahertys and Ryans, so I feel culturally Catholic."

"Did you make that term up?" she asked as she patted Ryan's leg.

"Probably," she admitted. "Some people refer to 'Cafeteria Catholics' as the people who pick and choose which parts of the faith they believe. But I believe so few of them that I'm basically fasting!"

"But it doesn't bother you to go to Church, given how you feel about it?"

"No, not really. I actually enjoy myself most of the time. It feels very familiar and usually quite reassuring. I like to recall my childhood, when I believed every word. It was a very peaceful feeling, and going to Mass sometimes lets me recapture that."

"I want to go with you sometime," she offered.

"I'd love to take you," Ryan stated as she gave her a very generous hug. "Thanks for coming to get me." A shy grin crossed her face as she squeezed Jamie's thigh. "It helped."

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

After the stop Ryan seemed in a much lighter mood, and they tossed teasing comments back and forth as they rode the last 12 miles. Jamie would occasionally try to zoom ahead, putting on as much speed as she could generate. Of course Ryan could easily best her, no matter how concerted her efforts. But the effort was always worthwhile when Ryan passed her, pedaling furiously, her muscled rear high off the seat, twitching with effort. Mmmm, maybe that's my favorite body part, Jamie thought as Ryan blew past one more time.

They pulled into the Mid-State Fairgrounds in Paso Robles just before two p.m. This was considerably earlier than they had finished the previous two days, and they decided to shower and nap before dinner. Jamie showered first, as had become custom, while Ryan set up camp. After her shower, Ryan slipped on a white tank top and a pair of vivid blue print running shorts. When she returned to the tent she tried to quietly crawl in to join her lover, whom Ryan expected to be sound asleep. She was a little surprised, but enormously pleased, to find her wide awake, wearing only a light blue cotton tank top and matching panties. She was lying on her side, her elbow firmly planted, her head resting on her open hand. "Hi," she said in a sultry tone as she wiggled one eyebrow.

Ryan was a bit taken aback, but she rallied quickly, assuming a similar tone. "Hi, yourself. You look like something's on your mind, " she said as she crawled up right next to her partner, mirroring her pose.

"Something is," Jamie replied with a small nod and a gentle smile. "Wanna guess what it is?" she asked as she started to trace light patterns on Ryan's arm.

"I think I have a pretty good idea," Ryan purred as she closed her eyes to soak in the sensation.

"Tell me," Jamie teased as she continued to play with Ryan's sensitized skin.

"I think you want to move our honeymoon up a few days," Ryan finally replied, as she shivered involuntarily at the delicate touch.

That response seemed to jolt Jamie back into reality. She shook her head a little as she moaned, "God, Ryan I don't know what I want! I mean, I know what I want, and I really want it now. I really, really want it now. I...I...I've just never felt like this. Sleeping with you at night and waking up in your arms just makes me want to touch you...everywhere," she said shyly. "I think about it all day long," she groaned as Ryan moved closer and cradled her in her arms.

"Shhhh, it's okay, Jamie. It's okay," she said soothingly, as she lightly patted her back.

"I just feel so confused," she mumbled into Ryan's chest. As she pulled her head back, she added sternly, "And you're not helping matters in that tiny little outfit." As she ran her hands up and down Ryan's back she moaned again in frustration. "No underwear, either?!"

"I thought we were going to sleep," she replied innocently. "Would you like me to put some more clothes on?"

"No," she muttered, "you're a total hottie no matter what you're wearing."

"Um...I'm sorry?" Ryan teased.

Jamie looked at her seriously and finally asked, "Can you help me figure out what I want?"

"I think I can," she replied confidently. "Let's go back to when you decided you wanted to wait until our vacation. Why did you want to wait?"

Jamie looked a little embarrassed, but she gamely replied, "I know it's kind of silly. But I've built this up in my mind, and I really want it to be special. Does that make any sense to you?" she asked timidly.

"Of course it does," Ryan said reassuringly. "This means a lot to me too, Jamie. I want to look back and remember our first time together for the rest of my life."

"So you don't think I'm just being silly about this?"

"Not at all," she said vehemently. "I want this to be an experience that will be burned into your memory."

"But what do you want, Ryan? I feel that all of our discussions about sex focus on my needs."

"To be honest, when you first told me of your feelings I was worried that it would be too hard for me to wait. I mean, I had been with Tracy for three months by then, and I was really getting twitchy," she gave a little embarrassed chuckle. "But I think waiting has really been good for me. With Tracy I wasn't sure of my feelings, so I was pulled in both directions. But with you, I'm absolutely certain that you're the woman for me." She sat up to better organize her thoughts. "This might sound weird, but it's been a little like Lent for me." Jamie gave her a quizzical grin, encouraging her to go on. "During Lent you deny yourself some things that you like, and you really try to focus on the important lessons of the season. With you, I've had to deny myself some things I really, really like." Here she laughed a bit. "But that self-denial has made me focus on my feelings for you outside of the sexual arena. I know that I'm more in love with you than I was in March. And I really think that keeping our relationship less sexual has helped those feelings blossom." Now she leaned in and wrapped her arms around Jamie again as she whispered right into her ear. "Even though I want you with a passion that I've never felt for another human soul, I'm glad we waited."

"So, you agree that making love in a tiny tent in the middle of three thousand people isn't the most memorable setting?"

"It might be memorable," she grinned. "But I want the memories to be ours alone. I don't want our neighbors to remember our first time as well as I do."

"Well, you do have a point there," Jamie said as she listened to the people come and go in the surrounding tents. "Besides," she teased, "I'm kind of proud of being your first tent-mate on the AIDS Ride to resist your charms."

"Okay, you've got me there," she agreed happily. "Now can we take that nap?"

As they snuggled up together, Jamie abruptly sat up and asked, "You had sex with every other tentmate on the ride. Didn't people hear you?"

"Oh yeah," she said with a chuckle. "I always tried to wait until it was quiet, but I'll admit that I got a lot of knowing looks from my tent neighbors."

"But you don't want to do that with me?" she asked.

"No, definitely not," Ryan said firmly. "It was just sex with those women, and having people hear us was no big thing. Actually," she said with a rakish grin, "since my neighbors were usually guys, it was kind of a competition. I was just doing my part to show that lesbians like sex too!"

"That might be fun next year after we need a little spice," she said with a chuckle. "But right now I agree that some nice quiet romance is in order."

"Romance it is," she said with a few delicate nibbles of Jamie's tender neck. "But until then how about a nice quiet orgasm?"

"Not a bad idea," Jamie said, after a moment's thought. "Give me fifteen," she demanded, jerking her thumb in the direction of the tent opening.

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

After her forced exile, Ryan crawled back in and snuggled up behind her physically satiated lover. When they awoke an hour later, Jamie was half sprawled across Ryan, with her thigh wedged between the long, muscular legs. Her right hand had strayed up under the white tank top, resting on her rib cage, just below a tempting breast. They laughed a bit at their position as Jamie said, "My subconscious has a mind of its own."

"I think I'm gonna like your subconscious," Ryan whispered in a sultry tone as she leaned in for a kiss.

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

They were already waiting in line when dinner was served. Ryan was jiggling her foot and generally looking anxious for some minutes when the line began to move.

"Hey, are you okay?" Jamie asked.

"Yeah, I'm just really hungry. I normally eat a bigger lunch than we get here, and it's starting to catch up with me, I guess."

"Why don't you go back for seconds at lunch?"

"It's kind of a delicate balance. I need to get enough fuel, but if I eat what I normally do, I'd feel too heavy. So I just try to make sure I'm getting enough calories, even if I still feel hungry."

"You look like you've lost a couple of pounds," Jamie said as she ran her hand up Ryan's tummy. "Try to make sure you get enough tonight, okay? It's early enough so you'll have digested it before we go to sleep."

"I'll do my best," she happily agreed.

After Ryan had tucked away more chicken burritos, rice, beans and salad than Jamie thought possible, they went for another stroll around the campgrounds. They stopped by a group of UPS drivers who were still handing out gear bags to riders who had come in late. Jamie asked, "Are they volunteers, too?"

"Yep. Not only are all of the drivers volunteers, they take their personal vacation to do this. UPS donates the trucks, which is no small thing, but the drivers really make this ride happen. They cart all of the food and water to all the pit stops, and they transport all of the gear from site to site. It's really a remarkable contribution."

They continued on their little stroll, meeting a few of Ryan's old friends in the process. When they were at the farthest point of the campground, they found a quiet spot and grabbed a picnic table. "I really like how you introduce me as your 'partner'," Jamie said as she cuddled up against her partner's warm side.

"Well, since you're my first real significant other, I had to think about your title," she admitted. "Lover is way too one dimensional. Girlfriend doesn't sound serious or permanent enough. That left me with partner, mate, wife and spouse." She pursed her lips and cocked her head a little as she continued. "I kind of like spouse, and I really like mate. But they both seem more appropriate if we had a public commitment to each other. So partner seemed the best term for us right now. What do you think?" she asked.

"I think it is so sweet that you spend time thinking about things like this so carefully," Jamie replied as she wrapped her arms around Ryan's neck and kissed her soundly.

"I looked them all up in the dictionary," the grinning woman added with a hopeful little eyebrow wiggle.

"Then you clearly deserve more kisses," Jamie replied solemnly. When she was finished bestowing the reward, she asked, "Would you like to have a public commitment ceremony?"

"Absolutely," Ryan said decisively, clearly having given the issue some thought. "I'd like to tell every person I've ever known how much you mean to me." She placed a few sweet kisses upon her partner's lips as she added, "When we get back I'm going to write a long letter to my very traditional grandparents to tell them the good news."

"Do they know you're gay?" Jamie asked, realizing that Ryan rarely spoke of her Irish relatives.

"We've never formally discussed it, but I think my Aunt Moira may have indicated that I was. Neither of them has ever asked me a question about who I'm dating or if I'm going to get married, so they must know something, since my granny is always on the boys about it."

"How old are they?"

"My grandmother is 80 this year, and my grandfather is 85. They still live in the little town where my great-great-great grandfather was born. They're not very wise to the ways of the world, but my grandmother knows people. So I don't think they'll be overjoyed, but I think they'll come to accept it. My Aunt is very cool about it and all of my cousins know, so my grandparents can vent to them if it really bothers them."

"When did you see them last?"

"My Aunt and my cousin Aisling were here just last summer—about a month before you and I met. But my grandparents won't leave County Mayo for love nor money, so I last saw them two summers ago. I try to save up to go at least that often since they're getting up in years."

"So you should go this summer, huh?"

"Yeah, ideally I would, but I think I'm going to be terribly busy with a little blonde I know."

"Likewise, I'm sure," she said with a grin. "Did you go to Ireland often when you were young?"

"Yeah, I did. After my mother died, Da had a heck of a time keeping track of me during summer vacation. He enrolled me in every kind of sport, and gave me every kind of lesson to keep me busy, but summers were always hard for him. I always had too much time on my little hands, and I was always in some sort of trouble. So he would send me to my grandmother for anywhere from one to three months. I think he did it partly to give Brendan a break, actually," she laughed at the memory of her brother tracking her down all over the city.

"Wasn't it hard for you to leave your father for that long?" remembering how hard it was for her partner to say goodbye to Rory.

"Yeah," she reflected. "The first time I went was the summer after my mother died. That was tough, but Brendan went with me, which helped a lot."

"Wasn't there any other option?" she asked timidly, hating the thought of her tiny partner being sent away so soon after such trauma.

"Oh, don't get me wrong, Jamie, I wanted to go," she said quickly. "It was my idea. My Aunt Moira was here a lot during my mother's last year, and I grew very close to her. And my cousin Aisling is my age, and it was cool to be around my only female cousin for a whole summer. Plus I think there was a bit of me that craved to be in my mother's country, in her childhood home, with her family. It made me feel closer to her somehow," she said with a small voice.

"I'm glad you could go," Jamie said softly as she draped an arm around her back. "But what did you do all summer?"

"Oh, lots of stuff. That first summer, both Brendan and I were pretty depressed. We spent a lot of time going through our mother's things that my grandmother had saved. It was sad in a way, but it let Brendan and me get closer. My mother was buried in the small church cemetery, and I made Brendan walk me down there every day, just to talk to her. My grandmother didn't like it, and she tried to dissuade us, but you know how determined I get," she said with a wry chuckle.

"That I do," she said fondly as she patted Ryan's back. "So what about subsequent years?"

"Well, Brendan was in high school the next summer, and he didn't want to go. Rory didn't want to miss a summer of music lessons, and Conor never had much interest in the small town life, so I went alone."

"God, you were only eight!"

"Yep. The plane ride was kinda scary, especially since I had to change planes in New York," she said with wide eyes.

"I thought they had rules about little kids flying alone!"

"Oh they do, but I looked twelve when I was eight and they didn't require I.D.," she said lightly. "The flight attendants kind of took to me, and they made sure I was okay. I had an escort to the connecting flight, so it was safe and everything."

"Jeez, that still must have been freaky!"

"Yeah, it was, but it taught me that you had to make some sacrifices to get what you want. I wanted to go, and I had to put up with some scary things to get there. I really have to hand it to Da for letting me go. It must have been hard for him, but I really wanted it, and he let me."

"So did you just play with your cousins all summer?"

"Ha! I wish! No such luck when my grandmother's in charge. I had to take Irish lessons every morning at the National school. Aisling took them with me, so it wasn't too bad, but those masters would not put up with any nonsense! The schoolmasters in Killala closely follow the 'children should be seen and not heard' dictum. Then we had to take Irish dance lessons three afternoons a week until we were in high school!"

"Irish dance?"

"Yep. Aisling would never have done that on her own, but Granny force-fed me Irish culture the whole time I was there. She always said she had to make sure I didn't turn into a heathen, which in her view, is anyone from outside County Mayo!"

"God, school every day! Did you have any fun?"

"Yeah, I got to play lots of sports. The competition was much better in soccer than I got here, so it really helped me as a player. Plus I got to play Irish football, which is kinda like soccer but you can use your hands. And when I was a little older, Aisling and I joined a hurling team, and that helped me with a lot of skills. I'd say that most of my skills as an athlete came from my time in Ireland," she reflected. "But it took months to get rid of my accent every year. I sounded like an immigrant until Christmas!"

"I bet your family was wild to have you back," Jamie said fondly.

"Oh, they were glad to have me back—for about a week," she laughed. "I ran them all pretty ragged, to tell you the truth."

"You really must have been a terror, Ryan," she said lovingly. "I can't imagine you with the energy of a little kid."

"It was frightening. Luckily, Da didn't think there was anything wrong with me. One of my teachers tried to convince him that I needed medication for my hyperactivity, but he told her I was just very high spirited, thank you very much."

"Good for him," Jamie said decisively.

"When I was ten, I switched from staying with my grandparents to staying with my Aunt. The last extended time I spent there was right after the debacle with Sara. I went for the whole summer that year, and believe me, I was a mess. I didn't have the guts to tell my aunt then, but I finally told her what had happened and she was totally great about it. She's been very supportive ever since. I know you'll like her," she said confidently.

"I like everyone who loves you, Ryan. That's the litmus test," she replied firmly.

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

They walked back to the main stage to watch the evening's entertainment, settling down to watch as a very funny comic amused the crowd. Ryan was leaning back on her hands, and Jamie was nestled between her open legs with her head resting on her abdomen. Finally, she turned around and ordered, "Don't laugh so much, you're making me seasick."

Ryan put her index finger up to her lips, dramatically making the sign for quiet. But she was unable to keep her promise, and Jamie finally got up and sat next to her. After a minute she said, "Need more contact," and she scooted over behind Ryan to wrap her legs around her. Ryan leaned back against her chest, completely content, while Jamie slid her arms around her torso and leaned over to whisper, "Perfect."

Since everyone was already laughing non-stop, Jamie leaned over and began to tickle Ryan unmercifully. She had finally found two very sensitive spots on each side, about halfway between her waist and her armpits. Ryan writhed on the ground, trying to keep from screaming over the comedian, and Jamie finally relented. Ryan quickly got her revenge by stooping down and flinging her giggling partner over her shoulder, carrying her like a sack of potatoes over to the Porta-Potties for their last pit stop of the evening. Unbeknownst to them, every move they made was watched by a pair of very angry dark brown eyes.

Chapter 19

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