I Found My Heart in San Francisco

Book 12: Lifeline

By: S X Meagher



Part 2

An hour later they were ensconced in a pew at St. Philip’s with Martin and Maeve, Catherine and Jim, Brendan and Maggie, Rory, Conor, Tommy and Annie, Sara, all of the aunts and uncles, and three of the twelve cousins. Mia and Jordan had taken Jennie and all of the loot back to Berkeley just before the crowd left for Mass, and Ryan had little doubt as to what two of the three of them were doing right then.

It took a few minutes for Ryan to get comfortable in the familiar old church, site of every one of her Christmas eves. She was a little reticent to allow her mind free rein since she was justifiably worried about what might float to the top. But the travails of the previous two days lifted slightly and seemed to fade into the distance after just a few minutes of stillness.

* * * * * * * * * * *

To the strains of Joy to the World, the congregants began to disperse. The church had been filled to capacity, and as they hit the steps, Ryan sucked in a deep breath of the cool, moist air and threw her head back, gazing up at the stars for a moment.

Her partner came up beside her and softly asked, "You seemed a little shaky in there. Too close?"

"Yeah," Ryan said quietly, nodding her head. "I’ve never liked crowds, but since the uhm … accident … I feel a little claustrophobic. It was starting to get to me."

"Your hand felt clammy when I touched you a little while ago," Jamie said as she searched Ryan’s face for an indication of how upset she was. "Why didn’t you get up and come outside for a breath of air?"

"Mmm … I don’t like to give in to things like that," Ryan said dismissively. "It’s just mind over matter." She stretched again, and Jamie could nearly see the stiffness that had settled in her muscles. She knew that her partner was feeling very sore, but Ryan refused to even acknowledge her pain – although she religiously took her muscle relaxants every six hours, an act Jamie knew was a massive concession to the signals her body was sending out.

Looking around at the large crowd they were with, Ryan cast a speculative look at her father-in-law. He had been doing his best to fit in with the family ever since the incident, and she had to admit that it was more than odd to see him in the group. Having him attend Mass was weird enough, but when he and Catherine got to his car, he offered a happy wave and said, "See you at home, girls."

"Did I miss something?" Ryan asked quietly as the assembled throng walked back towards the O’Flaherty house. "Your dad acts like he’s living with your mom again."

"I think we did miss something," Jamie said, her face scrunched up in a puzzled frown. "I don’t know what’s going on, but I suppose there’s only one way to find out."

Jim had insisted that the young women drive his Range Rover, and they’d stowed their overnight bags in the car on the way to Mass. It was now parked in the drive, and they paused in front of it to say their goodbyes, anxious to get going on their drive to Hillsborough. It was hard for Ryan to say goodbye to her father – having never been away from him on Christmas morning, but she muddled through because this was important to Catherine – and by extension, to Jamie.

As they settled themselves into the car, Ryan spent a few minutes adjusting the mirrors and the electric seat to her preferences. As she pulled out she said, "Maybe we should just take this car off your dad’s hands. I don’t think he’s driven it in months, has he?"

"No, I don’t think so," Jamie said. "I guess we could, and I’m sure he’d be happy to give it to us, but I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. I think we need to maintain a little distance with him for a while. I mean … I don’t think he’d use it for leverage if he was angry with us, but you never know." She sighed heavily and said, "I feel like I’m just learning who he is. Much of what I knew about him before wasn’t really accurate, and I just don’t want to step on any potential landmines."

Ryan nodded, understanding her lover’s worry. "Yeah, I didn’t think of it like that, but we probably should be more self-sufficient. Besides," she said, grinning, "you look like you’re driving your daddy’s car when you’re in this behemoth."

Jamie sniffed and tossed her head as she said, "It doesn’t fit my mature, sophisticated image, does it?"

Ryan smiled at her. "I bet you’re dreading another trip to the car dealer with me, aren’t ya? Especially after I assured you we wouldn’t need to go again until the wheels fell off the Lexus."

"Maybe I’ll just call Sandra, and ask her to find me a similar deal," Jamie said. "You haven’t changed your mind about liking the car, have you?"

"No, I like it a lot. It’s a nicer car than I ever dreamed of having, so I’d be happy with a steady diet of Lexi. Ya think that’s the plural?"

Jamie smiled at her, recognizing that the question was rhetorical. "Let’s wait until we get back from the Bahamas to decide what to do. We can use the Range Rover until then."

Ryan gave her a startled look and placed her hand over her heart, feeling the strong beat against her fingers.

"What’s wrong?" Jamie asked, turning in her seat to look closely at her.

"I’m just checking to make sure I’m in the right body," Ryan said, her head shaking slowly. "We’re sitting in a Range Rover, talking about buying a second Lexus – but we have to wait until we return from our quick little jaunt to Eleuthra to make up our minds. I know this is run-of-the-mill stuff for you, but every once in a while it makes my head spin!"

Jamie reached over and patted her leg, looking at her with warm concern. "You know, I have to admit that when we were first together I thought you were being a little silly about the money thing," she said, "but after being a part of your family for six months, I’ve gotten a very different perspective. I see how your family looks at money as almost incidental to their happiness – rather than as a requirement. Do you know what I mean?"

"Yes, I do," Ryan said. "That’s it exactly. I mean, yes, it’s gonna be marvelous to lie on a pink sand beach and soak up the sun after the bitch of a time we’ve had lately. But I could honestly be just as happy with a bottle of bubble bath, our tub, and a delivered pizza. It’s the quality of the relationship that matters – not the accoutrements."

"We’re agreed." Casting a glance at her partner, Jamie followed up with a question. "Given that you’d be happy at home, why did you so willingly jump on the bandwagon about our vacation?"

Ryan smiled and said, "I’m not averse to being pampered. We’ve had a tough time – a lot tougher as of last night – and getting away from the madness at this point is one of the things that’s helping me keep it together. I’m clinging to the thought of this trip like a life raft." She shook her head briskly, trying to banish the recurrent images that were on the verge of overwhelming her again. Consciously trying to focus on their upcoming trip, she said, "I know I act like a Spartan sometimes, but I like creature comforts as much as the next guy. I’m looking forward to being spoiled a little. My only reservation is that I don’t ever want to get to a place where I need pampering to feel happy. I would be very, very disappointed in myself if that ever happened."

"I can’t see that happening. I grew up thinking I needed stuff to be happy, and you’ve shown me that I don’t. If I can be converted to the good side, it’s clearly the better way."

Giving her a wide grin, Ryan said, "Welcome to the team, babe."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan had the moon roof open, hoping the cold air would help her to stay awake, and they were singing Christmas carols as they drew near Hillsborough. The dark head lifted as she heard the distinctive whine of a helicopter. "Do the police search for many fleeing felons around here?"

"No, I’ve never seen a helicopter here. Maybe there’s an accident on the freeway."

"Freeway’s that way," Ryan said, jerking her head in the opposite direction. "That one’s over residences."

Jamie peered at the chopper, noticing it had the emblem for the local ABC affiliate on the tail. With eyes wide she looked at Ryan in dismay. "You don’t think …"

As they came closer to the house, their fears were confirmed. The street was so filled with cars, vans and news trucks, that they had a very difficult time even getting up to the driveway entrance. Two uniformed Hillsborough police officers were blocking the drive, but when they spotted the Range Rover, they lifted the barricades and signaled Ryan to approach. She rolled down the window and exchanged grim looks with the officer.

"We’ve kept them off the property, ma’am, but there’s only two of us. I suggest you park close to the house and make a dash for it."

She nodded, cursing under her breath as they rolled the car up as close as they could get to the front door. As they got out, the reporters started yelling questions at them, their voices growing more frantic when the door opened and Jim dashed out, helping them in with their bags.

Jamie was shaken by the feeding-frenzy, and she stood in the doorway shivering as her father closed the door on the stunningly bright lights that were aimed at them. "Why are they following us? What do they want?" Catherine walked over to her daughter and wrapped her in a hug, holding on tightly until she could feel the trembling body stop shaking.

"Maybe I need to get my office involved," Jim said, his brow furrowed in concentration. "You could record a statement, then we could play it for everyone with equal access. That might satisfy them."

Ryan walked into the living room and sank onto one of the sofas, shaking her head the entire time. She looked at her partner and said, "Jamie, you can do what you want, but I’m not talking to anyone … ever. They can follow me to the grave."

Jamie knew that her partner meant business, and she turned her gaze from Ryan to her father, and then back again. Making a decision, she said, "I’m with Ryan, Daddy. You can make a statement about us being safe and all of that public relations crap, but we’re not going to talk."

Jim’s severe expression softened, and he came over to perch on the edge of the coffee table so that he could look at both young women at once. "I appreciate your feelings on this, but you’re public figures now – even though you don’t want to be. Particularly you, Jamie. I know you didn’t ask for this, but as the daughter of a senator, you come under heightened scrutiny."

She leveled her gaze at him, grasping Ryan’s hand as she did so. "They can scrutinize us all they want. I won’t participate in it. This was a terrifying experience for both of us, and talking about it in public will make it even more upsetting. We’re not going to budge on this, Daddy. I’m sorry." She brought her partner’s hand to her lips and kissed it lightly, feeling some of the tension leave it. Privately, she thought her father had a point, but she knew that Ryan was not the sort of woman who could bear to have strangers intrude on her or her family, and she had no intention of doing anything but support her without question.

He folded his hands and looked down at them for a moment. "Don’t apologize. I think it might go away sooner if you talk, but I could be wrong. You have to do what you think is right." Getting up from the table, he walked to the small bar in the living room and said, "Cognac, anyone? My nerves are shot!"

"I’m game," Ryan said. Jamie and Catherine declined, with Jamie having only a momentary desire to remind Ryan she was taking medication. She quashed the urge, though, deciding that she didn’t want to supervise her partner. The foursome sat in the quiet room for a few minutes, gazing idly at the elaborate decorations, while the low buzz of generators and helicopters provided the nerve-jangling background noise.

* * * * * * * * * * *

They were settled in their room by two a.m., both so tired they were dead on their feet. Ryan was busily brushing her teeth as she asked, "Who was that reasonable, passive man who was in the living room with us?"

"I haven’t a clue," Jamie said, "He’s a source of constant surprise, isn’t he?" She walked into the bath to wash her face, staring at her tired and haggard image for a moment. "I’m just glad that mother didn’t drink today," she said quietly. "She apologized to me this afternoon, by the way. She was really ashamed of herself."

"Yeah, it was bad last night," Ryan said, not elaborating further. She had seen Catherine tipsy before, but never blind-drunk, and it was an experience she hoped she never had to revisit. She knew that the terror of the night provided a very good reason to drink, and she had to admit that she would have likely done the same in Catherine’s situation, but it was still jarring and unpleasant to see the woman she had come to love be so out-of-control.

Jamie stood in the doorway of the bath, looking out the window as she reflected, "It wasn’t bad when I was young, but I think she’s been that way many times in recent years. Occasionally I would call home, and she would claim that I woke her – but it would be the middle of the afternoon, or early in the evening. I think she was too drunk to talk to me. The next time we’d talk she wouldn’t mention it – so I can only assume she didn’t remember."

"I hope she can cut back on her own," Ryan said softly, "but if she can’t, we’re going to have to get involved."

"Involved?" Jamie asked, unconsciously moving back a step.

"Yeah. We can work with her therapist to do an intervention if we have to." She approached Jamie and placed her hands on her waist, looking into her eyes. "Your mom is not going to cut her life short while we stand by and watch."

"Bu …" Jamie blinked at her partner in surprise. "You can’t make someone stop if they don’t want to, Ryan. This isn’t one of those things you can force your will on."

"I know that," Ryan said. "Remember, I watched my Uncle Charlie drink himself to death. We were all involved, and he had more support, and more chances at staying sober than most. He wasn’t able to accept the help – he was just too far gone, and he hated himself too much." Ryan gazed into her partner’s eyes and said, "I don’t see that level of destructiveness in your mom. I think it would really help to let her see how her drinking affects you – if it comes to that."

Jamie looked up at her, a worried frown slowly etching itself onto her face. "Do you think I should have been talking to her about her drinking before now?"

"No, no, I don’t. I think she’s just now becoming receptive to the idea of trying to control it. It’s hard to make a dent when the person isn’t self-aware."

Jamie hugged her tightly and asked the question that had been floating around in her mind for quite a while. "Do you think I should stop drinking?"

Ryan took a breath and decided to be completely honest, having given the matter a good deal of thought. "I think it would be easy – very easy -- for you to become an alcoholic, Jamie. If I were you, I would never drink to excess, or start to rely on alcohol to calm down, or help you sleep. I think you’re genetically programmed towards alcoholism, and it wouldn’t take much to push you over."

She nodded, revealing, "Anna says the same thing. She thinks I should be very careful."

"I always liked that Anna," Ryan said. "She cares about my best girl."

* * * * * * * * * * *

After lying in bed, tossing and turning, Ryan finally decided to get up. She didn’t want to wake her partner with her movements, but given the depth of Jamie’s sleep, she had to admit that wasn’t her primary motivation for rising.

She was struggling with an unfamiliar curiosity about the members of the press who had put the rest of the world’s news on hold to focus on her and Jamie – even though she was certain that knowing the motivations of the reporters would not make her feel better. The newspeople were holding her and Jamie hostage either because their editor told them to be there, or because they were free-lancers who smelled a big payoff if they could be the one to get the women to break their silence. It was really as simple as that, but the reality of the situation didn’t make her feel any better.

Slipping into sweats and a T-shirt, she walked down the dimly lit hall, finding herself pulled towards a full-story-high, leaded glass window that graced the center of the second floor. She had been drawn to the window the first time she saw it, the golden light that flooded the hallway on a sunny day very appealing to her. Two upholstered wingback chairs flanked the window, and she sat in one, drawing her feet up on the substantial cushion and locking her arms around her shins.

The lights from the news vans had not dimmed, and her second floor perspective allowed her to get a much better view than she had been able to glimpse when they were rushing into the house. Her thoughts were vague and unfocused, her mind trying to understand something that she was wholly unprepared to comprehend. She had never had much interest in the celebrities the media created, and she was frankly puzzled by the people who were interested in them. She didn’t understand what she or Jamie could say that would in any way have an impact on a stranger’s life. Her mind was idly wondering if the public really cared, or if the news conglomerates just believed they did, when Jim came up and placed his hand on her shoulder. She jerked around in startled surprise, not having heard him approach.

"Having trouble sleeping?" he asked.

"Yeah. I’m trying to understand why in the hell those guys would rather be here than with their families on Christmas morning."

"That’s a tough one," he said, taking the other chair. "Having the press here is making this much harder for you, isn’t it, Ryan?"

She nodded quickly, turning her attention back to the street. "I almost lost two of the most important people in my world … not to mention almost dying myself … and now I’m expected to share my feelings about that with a bunch of strangers? Why? What do they want?" Her head dropped to rest upon her knees, and he felt his heart go out to the normally self-assured young woman, seeing in her troubled eyes a vulnerability that was striking and completely surprising.

"I truly don’t know," he said softly. "Maybe people want to believe there are heroes …"

"We’re … not … heroes," she said, biting the words off. "Wouldn’t you do anything in your power to save Jamie’s life? That’s not heroic. It’s just doing what anyone would do in the same circumstance."

He shook his head briefly, his lips curling into a smile. "I know that’s how you feel, Ryan, but it’s not reality. Very few people could have held onto that car … and that’s if they were gently placed upon it. Very few people would have willingly climbed into a moving car bearing two gun-wielding men like Jamie did – no matter who was inside. I know this makes you uncomfortable, but your actions were very heroic."

Ryan nodded to show that she heard him, but she didn’t agree. "When you love someone, you don’t think of yourself first, Jim."

Her bright blue eyes glowed from the light that entered the window, and he could feel the determination radiating from their depths. In a rare flash of self-awareness, he was struck by the sacrifice this young woman had been willing to make for his daughter. A stab of regret lodged in his chest when he considered his actions of the previous months, finally forced to acknowledge that he had fabricated every worry, every fear that he had ever expressed about Ryan. His shame was so great that he was unable to speak. Standing up, he approached the young woman tentatively, then leaned over and kissed her on the top of the head, ruffling her hair lightly before he turned and walked down the hall.

Ryan stayed right where she was, shaking her head at the thoughts that rolled through her mind. She was so intent that she almost missed the soft tread coming down the hall. Flicking her head briefly, she saw Catherine, in a satin nightgown and robe, walking down the hall … presumably towards Jim’s room. The older woman didn’t seem to notice her, and for that Ryan was glad. Oh boy! she groaned inwardly. Why am I the one who always sees him with women he shouldn’t be with?

* * * * * * * * * * *

Her soft knock was met with an immediate, "Come in." Catherine cracked the door open, and poked her head into her husband’s room. "Am I disturbing you?" she asked quietly.

"No, no, I just came up." He smiled a little and said, "I’ve had so much cognac, I can’t understand how I’m still standing, but I can’t seem to relax."

She entered the room and walked over to the dresser, leaning against it as she said, "It must be contagious. I can’t even keep my eyes closed."

His eyes took on a shy glint as he asked, "Want some company?"

She nodded, feeling embarrassed, but overwhelmingly needy. Not having had a drink all day made her feel raw and bruised – her feelings much too close to the surface for her comfort. Not wanting to be rude, but determined that he not get the wrong idea, she said, "Just company, Jim. Do you understand that?"

He nodded, and extended his hand. She walked towards him and let him envelop her in a warm hug. "I could use some company, too," he said. "It’s lonely in this big room."

She removed her robe and slid into bed, waiting for him to strip down to his boxers and T-shirt. He climbed in and held his arm out, smiling when she cuddled up against him in a long-familiar embrace. "This is nice," he said, his voice very soft. "It feels right."

She didn’t comment, knowing he was referring to more than the closeness. Even though her heart knew it was dangerous to share this intimacy, her wounded psyche needed the comfort so badly that she allowed her body to relax and drift off to sleep in a matter of moments, feeling safe for the first time in two days.

* * * * * * * * * * *

When Jamie went downstairs on Christmas morning, she was pleased to find Ryan entertaining Marta while the cook iced a tray of her famous cinnamon rolls. When the older woman saw Jamie, she wiped her hands and dashed across the room, enveloping her in a bruising embrace. "I am so thankful you are safe, Cariña. I have never been so worried in my life."

"We’re fine, Marta," Jamie said, holding on tight. As the older woman released her, Jamie shook her head a little. "I don’t know how we’re fine – but we’re fine."

"God protected you," Marta said, the answer obvious to the woman who held such a fervent belief in an omnipotent being.

"I suppose that’s true," Jamie said, not having any reason to dispute Marta’s contention. She crossed the room and gave Ryan a kiss on the forehead, asking, "And when did you get up? Your side of the bed was cold when I woke."

"A while ago," Ryan said, not wanting to tell her partner that she’d barely slept a wink. "I could smell Marta’s cooking, and I had to come down so I wouldn’t miss anything."

"She’s been up for hours," Marta said, busting Ryan completely. "I don’t think she slept, Jamie. Look at the circles under her eyes." The cook was giving Ryan a concerned look, but she shrugged it off.

"I’m fine," she said. "We’ve just had a tough couple of days. I’m sure I’ll be back to normal as soon as we get out of this fishbowl."

"Are they still here?" Jamie asked, not having checked on her way downstairs.

"Yeah," Ryan said, her smile fading. "I know they won’t stay forever, but this is a slow news week, so we’re probably still the biggest local story."

"Lucky us," Jamie said, smiling thinly.

Jim came into the kitchen as they were discussing the matter, and he obviously overheard the last part of their conversation. "Morning, girls, Marta," he said, appearing very businesslike. "I had an idea."

"What’s that, Daddy?"

"I’m considering going to federal court to ask for a temporary restraining order to keep the wolves from our door."

Jamie’s eyebrows shot up as she stared at her father. "Can you do that?"

"Well, the courts don’t like to limit press access, as you know, but given that I’m a senator, I thought I could use an argument about my personal safety. It wouldn’t take much ingenuity to figure out where our house is … any crackpot could come to Hillsborough and drive around until they saw the news vans."

"Well – who feels better?" Jamie asked with false brightness. "Now we get to worry about lunatics picking us off with high-powered rifles!"

Jim looked nonplussed for a moment, then his self-assured demeanor returned and he conceded, "It might be a little ambitious to expect to make much headway with the federal courts on Christmas Day. I don’t know about you two, but it’s the helicopters that are making me crazy."

"Count me in," Ryan said. "They’re why I couldn’t sleep."

Pursing his lips in thought, he said, "I’m going to make a few calls. I might not be able to force them to stop, but I think I have enough influence to convince them to stop voluntarily."

Ryan knew that her version of voluntarily and Jim’s version differed markedly, but for once, she didn’t mind if he used strong-arm tactics to accomplish his goal.

"What about the nuts out there who have already seen an aerial view of our house?" Jamie asked, finding herself slightly panicked at the thought.

"I’m going to hire someone to guard the house," Jim said. "Obviously, no one could get past the news vans to threaten us today, but I don’t want your mother and Marta here alone after we all leave."

"Where don’t you want me?" Catherine asked as she walked into the kitchen, fully dressed and ready for the day.

"I’m going to hire security to watch the house for a few weeks until this dies down."

"If you think it’s necessary, go right ahead, Jim, but I’m leaving for Italy tomorrow, and I was going to see if Marta wanted to go stay with her sister until I get back. Would Helena have somewhere to go if she didn’t stay here, Marta?"

"Yes, her son has an apartment in San Jose. She could stay there."

"Would you like to leave?" Jim asked, turning to Marta.

"Yes, yes, I would," she said quietly. "It is frightening to have those people outside."

Jim nodded, then looked at his wife for a long minute. "How long will you be gone?"

"Not very. Just a couple of weeks."

He nodded again, looking like he wanted to say more, but obviously choosing not to.

Jamie spoke up, "I don’t think it’s worth it to try to force the press to leave, Daddy. We’re leaving after dinner, so most of them will follow us." She shivered involuntarily as she considered that scenario.

"I think I’ll call home and see how bad it is there," Ryan said. She picked up the nearby phone and dialed her home, where Kevin picked up on the first ring. "Hey, Kev, Merry Christmas."

"Hi, Ryan, Merry Christmas to you, too. How’s it going?"

"Good. I just wanted to see if the press was there. There’s a boatload of the bast … jerks down here," she said, catching her profanity before it got all the way out.

"Yeah, there are a few guys outside here, too. Not many, though. They’re gathered over in front of the Necessaries, drinking coffee. My mother wanted to make them some breakfast," he said. "I don’t think she understands that they’re like stray dogs … if you feed ‘em they’re yours forever!"

"She can’t help her good heart," Ryan said. "Are she and my da over there?"

"Not now. They came for breakfast, and then they went to Tommy’s. You can catch them there if you need them."

"No, I’ll talk to them later. Just checking to see if things are still crazy."

"No crazier than normal," he said. "Be careful coming home, Ryan. Call us when you’re close, and we’ll come down to keep the reporters away from you."

"Will do, Kevin. Love you."

"I love you too, Ryan. See you tonight."

She hung up and shrugged her shoulders. "It doesn’t sound like it’s too bad there. I guess that means they’ll follow us tonight."

"God, I wish we could prevent that," Jamie said, sighing as she sank into a chair.

Her father stood and announced with a determined look in his eye, "No one will follow you tonight. I don’t know how we’ll do it, but we’re getting you out of here – sight unseen."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan needed a little alone time after breakfast, so they went outside into the garden. They sat upon a wooden bench placed under a substantial arbor, the structure and the foliage shielding them from one pesky helicopter that had obviously spotted them when they walked outside. Ryan looked at her partner, her eyes a little watery. "We haven’t even wished each other a Merry Christmas yet. This is just so weird, Jamie. It doesn’t seem like Christmas at all." Grunting softly, she said, "Actually, it doesn’t seem like we’re in our own lives."

Leaning forward, Jamie placed a tender kiss on her lips. "Merry Christmas, honey." She wrapped her in a hug and held on for a long while, still able to feel the tension flowing from her lover’s body. "How did it seem at your house and at church last night? Was that familiar?"

"Yeah, that was better," she said. "I guess it’s just weird because I’m used to my Christmas routine. Leaving home has me a little mixed up."

"Are you unhappy we came?" the blonde asked, gripping her hand.

"No, not at all. It would have been weird at home, too. It can’t help but be weird when there are news vans and helicopters hovering over your head. It’s unavoidable."

Jamie snuggled close and said, "You know what I want to do?"

"What’s that?"

"I want to fantasize a little. It’s what I always did when I was little and things started to bother me."

"Fantasize?" Ryan asked slowly, not really getting the point.

"Yeah. I want to talk about what it will be like when we have our family. How will we celebrate Christmas?"

Ryan’s wide smile indicated that Jamie had hit upon a very appealing topic. "Ooo … that’s a nice thought," she said. "You know, I don’t often think about the future in specific terms."

"Specific terms?"

"Yeah, like I don’t think of how many kids we’ll have, or what sex they’ll be, or things like that."

"I just think about one," Jamie said, "and she looks just like you." She tilted her head and kissed Ryan softly. "Jet-black hair and sky blue eyes, and big for her age. Long, long arms and legs, and a smile that could melt a glacier."

Ryan hugged her close and said, "I want to have a baby who looks like you. Those pictures of you when you were little are so precious. I love those pretty green eyes, that adorable little smile, those pink cheeks. I’d really love to give birth to a tiny little copy of you."

"Probably won’t happen, will it, sport?"

Patting her belly, Ryan shook her head. "I don’t think I have any blonde-haired genes in my arsenal, and dark hair is clearly dominant. I might be able to come up with some green eyes, though," she said. "That would be sweet."

"I just want to raise a child with you, Ryan. It doesn’t matter who he or she looks like. It’s just fun to fantasize."

"It is," Ryan said. "It reminds me that one day this will all fade, and we’ll be back to normal, too."

"So, how do you want to celebrate Christmas when we have our family? Any ideas?"

"Well, I know that I was very happy with the way my family did it. I’d be willing to copy the whole shebang. But we need to incorporate your traditions. What’s important to you?"

"Was Santa Claus big in your family?" Jamie asked.

"No, not really. I don’t remember ever believing, although I guess I did. How about you?"

"Oh, yeah," she said. "I’d still believe today if I could get away with it."

"Really?" Ryan said. "I didn’t know that about you."

"Yeah, oh yeah. I loved myths and fables. I’m sure I knew Santa was an allegory or a symbol from early on …"

"And knowing you, that’s exactly the verbiage you used when you thought about it," Ryan said, giving her a playful tickle.

Jamie sniffed at her. "Not quite, but you aren’t far from wrong." She patted her on the thigh, and continued, "Anyway, I loved to allow myself to believe. I hope our kids have the ability to conjure up a belief in something like that – something that represents hope and generosity, and the kindness of human beings."

"Well, the Irish are well known for their belief in fables and imaginary creatures," Ryan said. "I read once where something like 30% of the country believed in fairies."

"Cool," Jamie said. "With your fairy-believing genes, and my imagination, our kids will be completely ungrounded in reality."

"That’s not a bad place to be," Ryan said, wishing she had the ability to transport herself to the land that had no reporters.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Charles arrived around noon, looking frazzled from the media crush. "This has gotten so ridiculously out of control," he said, his face flushed with anger. "Can’t anything be done, Jim?"

"I’ve done all that I know how to do, Dad," the younger man said, shrugging his shoulders helplessly.

"They’ve made a mockery of the First Amendment," he grumbled.

The unhappy five-some sat in the living room, speaking little until Catherine spoke up. "Look, we can either sit here and feel violated, or we can just ignore them. They can’t come into the house … and we’re not going out there … so let’s celebrate a little. The girls made it through an unbelievable ordeal … they’re safe and whole … Isn’t that a cause for celebration?"

"It most certainly is," Charles said. "Catherine’s absolutely right. Let’s not let the vultures ruin our day. Actually, it’s so nice outside, let’s have our dinner outdoors. We might feel less cooped up that way."

"Great idea, Charles," Catherine said. "I don’t know how Jim did it, but the helicopters have miraculously disappeared." She gave him a look that was a mixture of gentle disapproval, and fond regard. "I’ll ask Helena to set the outdoor table."

* * * * * * * * * * *

"How about a walk in the garden while Helena and Marta get set up?" Charles asked Jamie.

"Sure, Poppa. I can’t guarantee that we won’t be strafed while we’re out there, though. I don’t hear anything now, but …"

"I can handle it," he said, draping his arm around her shoulders, "as long as they won’t bother you."

"No, I’m all right with it. It’s a little nerve jangling, but they don’t bother me that much." They walked outside, leaving Ryan to help Marta in the kitchen, which seemed to calm the frazzled woman a little.

Blessedly, the helicopters were nowhere in sight, causing Jamie to let out a sigh of relief. "Thank God," she said, lifting her eyes heavenward. "Ryan might be able to calm down a little."

"She doesn’t look well," Charles said. "Frankly, that surprises me. I view Ryan as being utterly resilient."

"Normally she is," Jamie said. "But something about the incident is really terrorizing her, Poppa, and I can’t figure out what it is."

"Well, I can think of a number of things about it that would terrorize me," he said. "She wouldn’t be human not to be very, very disturbed by the entire mess."

"Of course," she said. "But it’s more than that, Poppa. She’s more upset than I am – significantly more – and that worries me. She doesn’t seem like herself."

"I would tend to agree, sweetheart. Maybe it’s time to seek some professional help."

She rolled her eyes, saying, "I’ve broached the subject a few times, but she’s not buying. I’m going to wait and see how she is when we return from Eleuthra, and if she’s not better – I’ll blindfold her and drag her to a therapist."

"Well, now that we have Ryan’s future planned, let’s talk about yours," he said, smiling warmly. "How are you feeling, honey?"

"Mmm … about like you’d expect. I’m not sleeping well, I’ve been having nightmares, I’m easily irritated, and I feel like buying a machine gun and moving down all of the reporters who followed us down here. But other than that, I feel pretty good," she said, smiling back at him.

"For what you went through, I’m pretty amazed by how well you seem to be handling it. I’ve been worried that you were repressing all of your feelings, but it doesn’t seem like you are."

"No, I’m really not," she said. "What happened was horrible, Poppa, but I feel good about what I did in response. Does that make sense?"

"I think so," he said, nodding. "Tell me more."

She took in a breath, pausing before a stately pink camellia bush that she had always admired. "I think I handled myself very well, Poppa," she said quietly. "I did something that was very brave, and I feel good about myself for doing it."

He wrapped his arm around her and gave her a very gentle hug, remembering that her ribs were sore. "As I told you last night, honey, I’m enormously proud of you. You were only concerned with Caitlin and Ryan’s safety, and that’s a terrifically selfless act."

"It was," she said, "and I take solace in the fact that I did everything possible to protect both of them. If I’d frozen and let them take Caitlin I don’t think I’d be in very good shape, no matter how it turned out in the end. I was put through a crucible, Poppa, and I feel like I did very well. Knowing that has helped me get through the last two days. I don’t have any regrets – all I have to deal with is the trauma of what other people did to me."

"I understand," he said. "Knowing that you did everything possible to save yourself and those you love has to be very reassuring."

"It is. I think the knowledge that I can trust my instincts will get me through a lot of tough times, Poppa. I feel like I’ve grown up a little in the past few days – like I’m more of an adult now."

"You’ve been an adult for a while, Jamie," he said. "The last few days have merely underscored what a competent adult you are."

* * * * * * * * * * *

When the table was set, the group moved outdoors. The warm sun and moderate temperatures helped everyone relax, and soon they’d nearly forgotten about the pack of reporters still baying at the front gate. Jamie decided that she should put in a call to her father’s sisters, and brought out her new cell phone to do so, then realized that she didn’t have either of them programmed into her directory. Jim didn’t have the numbers memorized, but Charles had his small address book in his suit jacket and he provided them.

Ryan listened as her partner spoke to the women, neither of whom she knew much about. Jamie had received Christmas cards from both of them, and when Ryan handed them to her she had commented that she didn’t recognize either of the names or the addresses. A flash of guilt had struck Jamie when she realized that she knew Ryan’s uncles and aunts, and even some of the aunts' extended families, while Ryan had never even heard her mention her own aunts' names.

It wasn’t that Jamie didn’t care for her family; she just hadn’t been around either of her aunts much, and knew very little about them. Her aunt Barbara was four years older than Jim, and she lived in Kansas, where she taught high school English. She had never married, but Jamie knew she had a long-term boyfriend. Barbara traveled during her summer vacations, but she had never managed to stop in San Francisco during her frequent travels. In fact, Jamie had seen her aunt approximately three times in her entire life, and she wasn’t sure she could pick her out in a crowd.

Jim’s eldest sister, Jean, was seven years older than he, and lived in Chicago. She and her husband, Robert Spencer, had two sons, Mark and Chris, both of whom were older than Jamie. She had met the family several times, the last occasion when Chris got married two years earlier, but they had never been close, either.

After Jamie spoke to each of the women, Jim got on the phone to wish them each a Merry Christmas.

While Jim was speaking, Catherine said to Jamie, "I heard from nearly all of the members of the Dunlop clan yesterday, honey. They were all appropriately horrified about the carjacking and send their regards."

"That’s a pithy summary," the younger woman said, chuckling.

"I’d be happy to go into an extended recital of their comments," Catherine said. "But I can’t imagine that you’d like to hear it."

"No, thanks," Jamie said. "I can only imagine that you got a long lecture on the evils of the lower class."

"Something like that," Catherine said. "You uncle David thinks you’re mad to drive yourself anywhere, so he in particular thinks you were asking for trouble merely by being in a car without an armed driver."

Jamie turned to her partner, her mouth curled into a grin. "What do you think, honey? Should we hire a full-time driver?"

"Sure. I’ve already shown I can hang onto the roof of a car, and I’ll need to when you and the driver take up both seats in the Boxster."

* * * * * * * * * * *

After some persuasion, Catherine had agreed not to buy gifts for the girls, but Jim wasn’t a party to that pact, so after he got off the phone he brought out a few boxes, neatly wrapped.

Jamie ran into the house and brought out the few small things she had purchased for her father and grandfather, and they opened their gifts, sitting by the pool with the warm December sun shining down on them.

Ryan was surprised and pleased to open her box to find a set of stainless-steel chef’s knives. She removed one of the beautifully balanced blades and stared at it for a long time.

"Wow, that’s gorgeous," Jamie said, giving her father a smile.

"When I was at your house for dinner I noticed that Ryan was left handed, and I know that most knives are made for righties," he said. "I checked around, and found a Japanese company named Global that makes some of their professional knives in a left-handed model. If you’re going to cook, you need to have the right tools," he said.

Ryan gave him a broad smile and said, "As nice as these are, the bigger gift is that you noticed I was left handed, and tried to buy me something to make my life a little easier. I really appreciate that, Jim."

He blushed a little under her praise, but managed to maintain his near-casual air. "Oh, it wasn’t a big deal, Ryan. I just hope you enjoy them."

"I will," she said. She got up and went over to his chair, leaned over and kissed him lightly, smiling at the slightly stunned look on his face. "Thank you."

"Y … You’re welcome," he said, his face now bordering on crimson.

Taking pity on her husband, Catherine said, "Your turn, Jamie. Maybe you have a matching set for right-handers."

"Oh, I don’t need knives," she said, wrinkling her nose at her partner. "Ryan’s doing all of the cooking from now on."

Jamie opened her gift, discovering a complex-looking digital camera – made for underwater photography. She looked at it in wonder for a moment before her father said, "I thought you’d enjoy being able to take some pictures while you’re in the Bahamas. I can’t imagine you two won’t be snorkeling every chance you get."

"Oh, Daddy, this is so thoughtful!" Jamie said. "Thanks for remembering how much I love photography."

"I can still smell the chemicals coming out of the bathroom in the pool house," he said, recalling the darkroom his daughter had set up when she was in high school.

"I’ll send you some pictures from the Bahamas if we take our computer with us," Jamie said as she rose from her chair, and walked around the table to kiss her father.

"I can’t think of a better time for the two of you to get away," Charles said, still anxious about the hovering media.

"Yeah, I’m looking forward to getting down to North Carolina," Ryan said. "I think this is mostly local media that’s been following us, so it should die down once we’re gone."

Jim was quiet during the last few minutes of their conversation, and he got a knowing look in his eye as he said, "Sitting out here has given me an idea. Let me make a phone call, girls. I may have figured out half of your problem."

He returned a few minutes later, looking very pleased with himself. "An unmarked police car will pick you up at the rear service gate whenever you wish to leave," he said.

"I didn’t think of the back gate!" Jamie said.

"Back gate?" Ryan asked.

"Yeah … for the gardeners, and access for the tennis court and pool maintenance services. The good news is that the gate is on another road, and that road doesn’t pass by the house."

"Excellent!" Ryan said. "Now it’s time for me to make a few calls." As she got up, she surveyed Jamie’s outfit and said, "For my plan to work you’re going to have to change clothes."

"Change clothes?"

"Yep. My plan involves a little fence climbing."

She turned and walked away, leaving Jamie to roll her eyes. "I think I like your half of the plan a little better than Ryan’s, Daddy."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Dinner was finished by three o’clock, and the young women decided that they should get going … hoping that the mid-afternoon timing would catch some of the reporters by surprise.

Ryan had packed their gifts in one of Jamie’s backpacks, but they left everything else at the house so they would be unhindered during their adventure. They stood by the upper gate in their sweats and their running shoes as they waited for their ride. "Are you sure that you’ll be all right?" Catherine asked. "I’m really very concerned about you traipsing through people’s back yards."

"I spoke to everyone involved," Ryan said. "These are friends as well as neighbors, Catherine. They’ll protect us."

"All right," she said, wrapping her daughter in a hug. She looked up at Ryan while she held Jamie and said, "I don’t know why I worry. You’re proven to be a very competent bodyguard."

"She is that," Jamie said, sighing deeply.

The police car pulled up, and after an emotional farewell they took off for the city, both young women dropping their heads down below the level of the windows, just in case. "I’m starting to feel like we’re the lesbian version of Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky," Ryan muttered.

"I might feel like I deserved the scrutiny if I’d been having sex with the President or taping my phone conversations with my friend," Jamie grumbled, her voice muffled by her contorted position.

"I doubt it, but I get your point," Ryan said.

"We’re on El Camino Real now, ladies," the officer said. "I think you can sit up." They both did so, with Ryan spending a long time stretching in her seat, the awkward position obviously hard on her muscles. "So, how are you both feeling?" he asked.

"We’re fine," Ryan said. "Happy to be going home."

He turned around briefly and gave her a winning smile, asking, "What was it really like up on that roof, Ryan? Jesus, that was the bravest thing I ever saw a civilian do."

She smiled thinly at him and said, "I lived it once, Officer. Once was enough."

* * * * * * * * * * *

The police officer dropped them off at a small house two streets from the O’Flaherty manse. Ryan ran up to the front door and rang the bell, smiling when an elderly man opened it. "Hi, Mr. Regan. Ready for the mad dash?"

"Come in here and let me take a look at you, Siobhán," he said, pulling her in and giving her a hug. "I never see your pretty face around the neighborhood. I don’t even see you running any more. What’s become of you?"

"Well, I’m in school over in Berkeley, so I’m not home very often. I’m on the basketball team at Cal, and I do most of my exercising over there. Not much time for running any more."

"Basketball team, eh?" he asked. "Are you ever on the television?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact, our game against the University of North Carolina is on Fox this weekend. Call my father and he’ll tell you what channel that is, okay?"

"Will do, Siobhán," he said. "Now who’s this shy little one?" he asked turning to Jamie.

"This is my partner, Jamie Evans," Ryan said.

"She’s your partner in taking those dirty thugs off the street," he said, his watery blue eyes narrowing.

"That too," Ryan said. "We’d better get going, Mr. Regan. The boys will be outside by now."

"All right, girls," he said, leading them through his small, cluttered house. They got to the back door, and he hugged them both. "You two take care of yourselves. And you can use my yard any time you wish."

"Thanks, Mr. Regan," Ryan said, and Jamie echoed her words. They scampered down his wobbly stairs and crossed the small back yard, finding a smiling Kevin standing next to the ivy choked fence, leaning against a tall ladder.

"We thought you might prefer not having to scale a fence on your way home," he said.

"Hi, guys," Conor’s voice called from the other side of the fence.

"You two are godsends," Jamie sighed, looking at the rickety six-foot-tall stockade fence.

Ryan climbed to the top of the ladder, then carefully stepped down the treads on the other side of the fence. Her judicious moves signaled her bother that her muscles were still complaining, and his offered hug was far gentler than normal. "Thanks for doing this, Con. I could have boosted Jamie, but we’re both still a little sore."

Playfully ruffling her hair, he said, "Anything for you, sis."

"Hey," she said, "here’s something you can do. Mr. Regan’s back steps are so bad he’s gonna fall and break a hip. Will you fix them for him?"

"Sure," he said. "You caught me in a generous moment."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Charles left Hillsborough not long after Jamie and Ryan, then Marta, and finally Helena packed their bags and took off, leaving Jim and Catherine alone with the swarm of reporters. It was just dusk, and they went into the living room to unwind. "Drink?" he asked.

"No, no, thanks," she said, wishing that she could grab the bottle and guzzle it, but determined to keep her promise to herself to cut back to one drink a day.

"You didn’t drink yesterday either," he said. "Is that a conscious choice?"

She paused a moment, not sure of how much she felt safe revealing. Deciding that she didn’t want supervision in case she didn’t toe the line, she said, "I’m just not in the mood, Jim." Taking a seat on one of the sofas, she kicked off her shoes and tucked her feet up on the cushion. "It’s been a rough couple of days, hasn’t it?"

"Having your daughter’s life in danger gives a whole new meaning to the word rough," he said, shivering as he recalled the incident.

"I don’t think I could have gone on if we had lost her," Catherine said, her face grimacing in pain at the mere thought. She was relaxed enough that some of the fear and the terror she had felt that night started to break through, and she began to cry. Jim moved to sit close, and wrapped his arms around her, letting her get some of her feelings out and allowing a few of his own tears to slide down his cheeks as well.

"We didn’t lose her, Cat. She’s fine, and safe, and well. Don’t let yourself dwell on could-have-beens."

"I’ve always loved her desperately," she said, her voice almost inaudible through her tears. "But now that I’ve come to know her better, I feel bonded to her in a way I didn’t know was possible. It would destroy me to lose that now," she choked out in a rough, thin voice.

"I know, sweetheart," he said, closing his eyes to fight back the tears. "I really do understand. She’s given us both a second chance to be better parents. God knows I didn’t deserve one, but she’s such a loving person that she’s even taken me back. Looking at her makes me so proud, Cat. She’s the only thing in my life that I’m genuinely proud of."

"Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly down, I think of Jamie, and remind myself that I’ve made a small contribution to the world by giving birth to her," Catherine said, surprising herself by revealing something so personal to her husband.

"You make my world a better place," he said softly, tightening his hold on her body.

She didn’t comment, not wanting to ruin the moment by injecting reality into the situation. The phone rang, and she felt relieved to be able to get up and answer. Her laughing voice filled the house as she spoke to her daughter, and Jim smiled contentedly at both the sound and the obviously positive message that Catherine was receiving.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Catherine knew that bedtime was going to be a trial, but even with this knowledge, she couldn’t make herself discuss their future. As expected, Jim got up and followed her upstairs when she announced that she was going to bed. When they got to the top of the stairs, he cocked his head as she said good night. "Would you like to sleep together again?" he asked, trying to sound casual. "It really helped me last night. First good night’s sleep I’ve had since Wednesday."

"I uhm … I don’t really think that’s wise, Jim." Seeing the disappointment in his green eyes, she reminded him, "I’ll be gone tomorrow, so we might as well get used to sleeping alone tonight."

He placed his hands on her shoulders and drew her near. "We don’t have to sleep alone, Catherine. Not tonight, or any other night. We can still give this another try."

She shook her head slowly, glad that she had prepared herself for his offer. "No, we can’t, Jim. Nothing has changed. We’re supporting each other because of this trauma, and I’ve been very grateful to have you here – but now that it’s over, we need to move on."

"But, Cat, why not try again with someone who loves you … who supports you? You must trust me a little to have been so close to me the last few days. Isn’t that something to build on?"

Nodding slightly, she admitted, "Yes, of course that’s something. It’s just not enough to build a relationship on. Especially not since we have so much emotional baggage we're carrying."

"Cat, I know that the biggest problem is my infidelity, but I swear … I swear I’m willing to give up other women for the rest of my life if you’ll only give me another chance."

She gave him a sad smile and placed her hand on his cheek. "I know you didn’t mean it this way, but the way you framed that speaks to exactly what the problem is. I didn’t decide to give up other men when I married you. I stopped desiring other men. That might sound like an exercise in semantics, but it’s a very, very meaningful difference for me. I don’t want you to give up something you desire, just to be with me. I’m unwilling to be with a man who doesn’t desire me above all others." She fixed him with an intense gaze and asked, "Can you honestly say that you desire me sexually more than any other woman? Do you want me more than you want Kayla?"

"I haven’t slept with her since the fall …" he said, but she squeezed his shoulder to interrupt him.

"That’s not what I asked. I asked who you desired more."

He was determined not to lie, even though every instinct demanded that he do so. Images flashed through his brain of the youthful vigor of his young associate. He thought of her passion for sex, her complete lack of inhibition, her willingness to try anything that he asked for – things that Catherine would likely faint from the mere suggestion of. Trying to evade the question, he equivocated. "That’s not a fair question, Catherine. Being in love with someone has so many elements … sex is just one of them. It seems unfair to base our future on that one thing."

She nodded slowly. "You may be right. It may be unfair … but it’s how I feel. I may be alone for the rest of my life, but the next man who shares my bed is going to want me … and me alone."

As was so often the case, his mouth started to speak before he considered his words. "Is that true of your lover in Italy? I’m sure his wife wouldn’t like to think you were the only woman he desired."

Giving him a cold stare she said, "You make a good point. I’ll give that some thought while I’m there." Turning abruptly, she said over her shoulder, "Good night."

He stared after her, painfully disgusted with himself. Maybe in the next 46 years you can learn to think before you talk!

* * * * * * * * * * *

The phone rang early on Sunday morning, and Ryan put the paper down and got up from the breakfast table to answer it. "Nollaig shona duit," she said, her Irish accent in full force.

"Siobhán, have you gone Gaelic on us?" her father asked, laughing heartily.

"Nope. I decided to answer the phone wishing whoever was calling a Happy Christmas. Anyone who knows me will recognize my voice … anybody else can kiss my …"

"Now, now, let’s not start with the profanity on the day after the Savior’s birth, young lady."

She laughed and said, "I am feeling a little feisty today. Some reporter called earlier, and I said, ‘Go n-ithe an cat thú is go n-ithe an diabhal an cat,’ before I hung up on him."

"What does that mean, love?"

"That’s one of Granny’s favorites, Da. May the cat eat you, and may the cat be eaten by the devil."

"A lovely wish for the holiday season," he said with amusement. "Your aunt and I were heading off to Mass. Will you go with us?"

"I don’t think so, Da. I’m not up to having flashbulbs popping in my face today."

"How bad is it?"

"Not too," she admitted. "But only because they think we’re still in Hillsborough. I don’t know what they’ll do when Jim and Catherine leave today."

"It’s a bloody crime," he grumbled. "You risk your lives to save a child, and now you’re hunted like a fox. It makes no sense."

"I know," she said. "I think you can come over here through the front door, Da, but we’ve got an escape route through the neighbors’ back yards. We’re not leaving the house in the traditional way until this is over."

"We’ll come by on the way to church. I miss you," he said.

"I miss you too, Da, but I think we’re going to stay in Berkeley after my practice today. It’s just too much hassle getting back and forth."

"I understand," he said, "but we’ll miss you for dinner. How will you get to Berkeley? Didn’t you leave the car in Hillsborough?"

"Yeah, we did, but Jim’s bringing it back over here. We’re going to figure out a way to meet up without detection."

"Let me drive you over there," Martin said.

"I don’t even know where we’re going to meet, Da. Besides, the reporters know your car by now. Jim’s gonna call us when he gets to the city, and we’ll decide what to do." She sighed and said, "This is really a bitch, Da."

"I share your feelings, darlin’. Not your words, of course, but I share your feelings."

* * * * * * * * * * *

When he reached the city, Jim called from his cell phone. "Where should we meet?" he asked.

They negotiated for a few minutes, and finally decided to meet at the Noe Tennis Courts, located just off Diamond and 24th. After traipsing through the neighbors’ yards again, Jamie and Ryan managed to make it to the park. Jim was right where he said he’d be, but he wasn’t in the Range Rover.

Ryan opened the rear door of the big, black BMW, and said, "Nice wheels ya got here. I noticed this the other night, but it was too chaotic to comment then. Is it new?"

"Yes. My lease on my other car was expired, and I decided to go with a little extra horsepower this time. Like it?"

"Very sweet," Ryan said as she sank into the black leather seat.

"Really nice, Daddy," Jamie said, "but how will we get to the Range Rover?"

"I want you to drive this car," Jim said. "It will take you anywhere you want to go … a lot quicker than the Range Rover will."

"I don’t know, Jim," Ryan said as she scooted around in the unbelievably comfortable rear seat. "This is a little rich for my blood."

"Nice back seat, isn’t it?" he asked, looking in the rear-view mirror. "Forty one inches of leg room."

"That’s just about what I need," she said. "But I hate to take your brand new car."

"It’s got … let’s see … 90 miles on it, Ryan," he said at his glanced at the odometer. "I’m almost ready to trade it in." He shot her another glance and said, "I’d feel better if you girls took this one. This is the 750 iL Protection model. Bulletproof glass, run-flat tires, light body armor. I don’t think you’ll need any of that, but this big V-12 will leave anybody who’s following you in the dust." He gave Jamie a grin and said, "Ask the idiots in the news van that tried to follow me to the airport to drop your mother off. I lost them before we hit the freeway."

Ryan reached over the seat and patted his shoulder. "I don’t think I’ll be taking any evasive maneuvers in your car, Jim. What about you, honey? Feel like drag-racing any reporters?"

"Unh-uh. No way."

"So, it’s settled, girls? You can leave the car at the airport when you go on your trip."

"We’ll drive it until we leave," Ryan said. "But Jamie will have to go the airport alone. I have to ride the bleeping bus with my teammates to get there. I’m sure Coach won’t cut me a break just because of our little incident."

"Would you like me to …?"

"No," Ryan said immediately, not sure what Jim was going to offer, but quite sure that she wanted no part of it.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"It sure would’ve been nice if I’d ever taken the time to get to know my neighbors, wouldn’t it?" Jamie asked wryly as they sat at the end of their block, mentally counting the cars double parked in front of the house.

"Well, do you want to go to practice with me? Maybe we’ll get a bright idea while we’re there."

"Not many other options," she said with a shrug.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ryan trotted across the court, finding Coach Hayes chatting with Lynette. Lynette immediately wrapped Ryan in a hug, and the coach even patted her on the shoulder, displaying a rare degree of warmth. "Good to see you’re all right, Ryan. Tough break. How are you -- physically?"

"Not great. I’m as stiff as a board, and I’m still taking muscle relaxants, but I should be okay by the time we’re ready to play in North Carolina." She twitched her head towards the door of the gym and asked, "Is it all right for Jamie to stay and watch practice while she waits for me?"

The coach narrowed her eyes, seeming to give the matter her consideration. "I don’t think so, Ryan. It’s important to keep the practices for players only. She can walk over to Telegraph and do a little window shopping while she waits for you."

It took Ryan a minute to let the message reach her brain, and just a moment longer for her to control her mouth. Saying what was on her mind would clearly get her suspended, and she didn’t want to leave the team just when they had started to play better. Lynette gave her a sympathetic look, but she couldn’t offer much more than that. Practically dragging her feet across the floor, Ryan poked her head out of the door and said, "You won’t believe this, but she won’t allow you to watch. Do you mind just hanging out on Telegraph?"

"Don’t worry about me. I’ll wait in the car. It’ll take me two hours to get all of the radio stations programmed." She gave Ryan a bright smile, even though every muscle twitched to go kick Mary Hayes’ ass all over the court.

Lily and Ella entered the gym just then, squeezing past Jamie and offering a nod to Ryan.

She nodded back, and then continued her rant. "Do me a favor, will you? Remind me never to join a team if the coach is a complete asshole, okay?"

Ryan’s voice was tight with anger, and her volume was quite a bit louder than normal. Jamie’s eyes widened as she looked up to see the coaches walking back to the locker room, clearly within earshot. Looking sick, she muttered, "I think she heard you."

Surprising the heck out of her partner, Ryan shrugged her broad shoulders and said, "I don’t give a flying fuck." With that, she placed a gentle kiss on Jamie’s cheek, and marched into the locker room.

Maybe it was because Jamie was being so gracious, maybe it was because the coach had been so curt and unfeeling, maybe it was just because Ryan was at the end of her emotional rope – but whatever it was, by the time she reached the locker room, she was even angrier than she had been moments earlier. She walked up to the two coaches and stuck her chin out defiantly. "Coach, you told us that if we win both games in North Carolina, I can go directly to the Bahamas."

"That’s right," she said.

"Whether or not we win those games, Jamie and I are going to the Bahamas," Ryan said. "We’re not coming back here first." Her arms were crossed, and she stood at her full height, daring the coach to try to make her back down.

The other players were all trying to get as close as possible, without being too obvious about it. There wasn’t a sound in the normally bustling place – every ear tuned to the showdown.

"We have a team rule about returning as a group, Ryan. I know you’re aware of it."

"I am," she said. "I’m telling you in advance that I’m going to break that rule if we don’t win both games. I need a break, and flying back and forth across the country isn’t the way to get one."

"You’re the one who set it up this way, Ryan. You could have chosen a vacation on this side of the country. People do it all the time."

"That’s not what we chose to do," Ryan said. "So what’s the verdict?"

"The usual. If you miss the plane, it’s 25 laps. You can do them after our next practice." She looked unconcerned, and Ryan actually thought that the confrontation had gone well. Lynette shot her a relieved glance, and after another moment, the rest of the team gathered around as the coach called them to order.

"Okay, we’ve got a lot on our agenda for today. But first, I have a small addition to our team rules. From here on in, we’ll be conducting bed checks. Every player will sleep in her assigned room – with her assigned roommate. Violation of this rule will result in an indefinite suspension." She looked around at the puzzled faces, finally landing on one face that was not puzzled in the least. Ryan’s dark, glowering visage was burning two laser-like holes through her, but she merely gave her a half smile and cocked her head. "Understood?"

* * * * * * * * * * *

As soon as practice was over, Lynette followed the coach into her office. She opened her mouth to speak, but the coach beat her to it. "I know, I know … Ryan didn’t really deserve that." She sat down in her chair, shaking her head. "I swear I don’t understand that woman. She’s the best practice player I’ve ever seen … she has more talent than any two women I’ve ever coached … but she continues to break the simplest rules! What confuses the hell out of me is that most of the time she doesn’t seem like a prima donna. Why in the hell does she jerk me around like that?"

"Well," Lynette said, "most of the rules she’s broken were right at the beginning of the season. She wasn’t aware of most of the ones she broke, Mary. I think she just got a bee in her bonnet after being called on the carpet a few times. Ryan’s a very proud woman – as well as a little thin-skinned."

"I really like the kid," Mary said. "She could be the leader this team has been crying for – but she won’t lead by being a good example. The other seniors don’t trust her – Wendy and Janet have made that clear. Standing up to me today was the worst thing she could have done." She shook her head and said, "I hate to crack down on the kid right after she gets car-jacked, but what was I supposed to do--just let her defy rules and call me out with no repercussions?" She ran her hands over her face in a gesture of frustration. "Damn, Lynette, the team’s fragmented enough without letting them think that open rebellion will be tolerated! I had to do something!"

Lynette sighed, and let her head drop back. "I don’t know what the answer is, Mary. I see your point, but I also know that Ryan’s the only chance we’ve got to keep our jobs. If we have another dismal year, you know our contracts won’t be renewed."

"I know that," she grumbled. "My mortgage knows it, my car payment knows it, my babysitter knows it. But I got this job by coaching my way. I’d rather go out doing what I think is right, than have some spoiled kid force me to change my principles just to keep her happy. The only chance we have is if we can make the team coalesce, Lynette. I can’t kowtow to any individual."

Lynette sat in the chair for a few minutes, agreeing with Mary in principle, but knowing that they were on the verge of losing the one player that could turn their fortunes around.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Instead of leaving right after practice, Ryan stood under a hot shower for so long her skin wrinkled. She knew that she couldn’t show Jamie how justifiably upset she was, mainly because they just didn’t need the additional stress right now, but also because the intensity of her anger was frightening her a little. Once she calmed down, she got into her warm-ups and shuffled back to the car, regrettably finding that she had parked right next to Coach Hayes’ battered Dodge Caravan. As her luck was holding at "pretty bad," the coach was just 50 feet behind her as she hit the lot.

As Ryan came into view, Jamie couldn’t help but play with one of the gadgets she had found. She hit the button on the public address speaker and said, "Will the tall, gorgeous brunette please get into the car and pucker up?" Her voice carried across the deserted lot, plainly heard by anyone within a block.

Ryan slid in, shaking her head at her lover’s playfulness. The unbelievably lush stereo was playing loudly, the sunroof and both front windows open, letting the music blanket the parking lot. Ryan got in and pulled her partner to her, partly to help calm her ragged nerves, and partly to be rude to the coach who was just about to reach her car.

* * * * * * * * * * *

As they drove along the cross street by their house, Ryan looked at the teeming mass of reporters, shook her head and said, "I’m not up to this. I have to have some peace tonight. I’m about ready to pull onto a quiet street and sleep in the car."

"Let’s go to the Claremont," Jamie said. "I’m sure they can squeeze us in."

"Okay." Ryan turned the car and drove to the hotel without a complaint, showing Jamie just how much the entire situation was bothering her.

* * * * * * * * * * *

When they reached their room, Ryan looked around and said, "Uhm … I wasn’t this stressed."

"Regular price, since this was all they had left. Nice, huh?"

They were housed in a small, but nicely appointed room, with a canopy bed, pullout sleeper sofa, worktable, and a spacious bath with a spa tub.

"Maybe my luck is turning," Ryan sighed as she stretched out on the bed.

Jamie climbed up next to her and said, "Tell me what’s wrong. I know something is."

"Yeah. Something is," she said. "I have to make a decision, Jamie. I think I might decide to quit the team."

The blonde sat up so abruptly that she frightened her partner. "You what? Where did that come from?"

"Coach dislikes me personally, and she’s decided to be more obvious about it. Today she announced that I can’t sleep with you on road trips any longer. If I do, I’m suspended indefinitely."

Jamie flopped down onto the bed, amazed and puzzled by the strange woman’s even stranger behavior. "This just makes no sense! Why would you want to piss off your best player?"

"Don’t know. Don’t wanna find out. Don’t fucking care." Ryan was really in bad shape, judging by her inability to muster the strength to speak in complete sentences.

The tall woman rolled off the bed and turned on the television, catching the end of ‘Meet the Press.’ She stared in amazement as she saw her own and her partner’s face in a cut out above the moderator’s head, and heard him say, "How do we, as members of the media, balance the public’s right to know with the right of the individual to be left alone? From every indication, these two women are intensely private individuals. Not one close friend or family member has revealed one word about either of them. And yet, the public’s thirst for information about these young heroes has grown in direct proportion to their refusal to speak. Does there come a point at which our needs as a people override their needs as individuals?"

"No! There does not!" Ryan shouted, flinging the first thing she could get her hands on at the television. Luckily, it was just her warm-up jacket, because the force she used would have shattered the appliance if she had grabbed a more substantial object.

"Honey, honey," Jamie said, wrapping her arms tightly around her waist. Ryan’s body was coiled so rigidly that she felt more like a bundle of wire than the powerful, yet soft woman that she was. "You have to calm down."

"I can’t," she moaned, sinking to the floor. She dropped her head onto her bent knees and whispered, "I just can’t."

"Tell me what’s going on," Jamie said. "Why are you so upset?"

"I feel like I have to take a stand! I can’t let her push me around like this! The problem is, I’m just not up to a confrontation right now … do you know what I mean? I feel like quitting – but I’ve never quit anything in my life, and I don’t think I’d feel very good about myself if I did. I’m so fucking confused!"

"Baby, baby, baby," Jamie said as she rocked her partner in her arms. "It’s gonna be okay. You don’t have to decide anything now. It’s really okay." She got up and pulled Ryan up with her. "Let’s lie down, and you can tell me all about it."

Ryan nodded, and docilely followed her partner to the bed, lying down and unburdening herself of every anxiety. It took a long time, and Jamie was astounded by all of the things that were going through her partner’s fertile mind, but after a half hour she finally felt like she had a good handle on how to help.

"Okay, here’s the deal," Jamie said. "I say we enjoy our night here in this fine hotel. I thought we could have Mia and Jordan come over and bring everything you need for your trip. It’s Mia’s birthday, remember … it might be nice to order a good meal, and have a couple of bottles of champagne to celebrate."

"Okay. That would cheer me up, too," Ryan said. "What else?"

"I think you have two viable options. One is to ask for a leave of absence until you feel better."

Ryan’s head was shaking before she finished the sentence. "I won’t do that," she said, sticking her chin out in a small indication of her intractability. "I’m not going to ask to be coddled just because I’m upset."

"Well, that’s a matter of semantics," the blonde said. "I don’t think it’s being coddled to ask for some time to recover from almost dying and being forced to shoot a man, but then, I’m a weenie."

Ryan blew out an audible breath in a suggestion of a laugh.

"Wanna hear my other suggestion?"


"I think you should go to North Carolina alone." Ryan flinched at that, and Jamie hurried to explain. "I want to go … and I’d go just to see you for ten minutes if I thought it would help you – but I don’t think it will. I think it would burn and grate at you to know that I was in your hotel, and that we couldn’t be together. I don’t want to do that to you – even though I’ll hate to be apart from you."

"Fuck ‘em," Ryan said quietly. "Just fuck ‘em. I’m not leaving you behind. You’re my fucking spouse! She wouldn’t do this if you were my husband."

"You might be right, honey, but there’s no way to know that." She kissed her cheek and said, "Easy on the ‘fucking spouse’ thing, okay? It’s not my preferred title." She was trying her best to tease her partner, knowing that she usually responded better to tense situations when there was some levity thrown in, but nothing was working today. Ryan just nodded once, and then stared at her.

Looking into her troubled eyes, Jamie knew that one tiny shove would push Ryan into quitting, and she wanted that outcome more than words could say. She hated everything about the basketball team, and what it was doing to her partner – but she knew that Ryan would be very disappointed in herself if she quit just because she was being picked on. "Honey, I urge you to think about it for a few days. If you still want to after you consider it, then by all means, go ahead and quit. But with all of the stress you’ve been under, I just don’t think it’s wise to quit right now. Please let it settle for a bit. Think this through thoroughly … when you’re not so angry."

Ryan rolled over onto her stomach and beat at the pillow for a few minutes, her fists flying. Finally, she let out a sigh and dropped her head into the defeated down and said, "Okay. You’re right. I’ll decide after our trip."

"Good girl. Now I’ll call Mia and see about getting them over here without detection."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Jordan’s flight back to Colorado Springs was not until nine, leaving them plenty of time to share the afternoon and evening with their friends. Jamie instructed Mia carefully, detailing a long list of items that Ryan needed for her trip, along with their toothbrushes and a change of clothes for Jamie.

When the pair arrived, Jamie and Ryan put on their happiest smiles and wished their friend a very happy birthday.

"It’s happier now that I get to see you two," Mia said. "I was afraid you’d take off without us being able to hook up."

"Nah, no way, babe," Jamie said. "I’d never ignore your birthday."

"So, what did you guys do to celebrate?" Ryan asked. Before Jordan could say a word, she said, "Leave out the X-rated parts, okay?"

Mia answered for her partner. "Well then, I guess we didn’t do anything to speak of."

"Hey," Jordan said, "I took you out for a very nice dinner last night. Doesn’t that count?"

"Of course it does," Mia said, giving her a kiss. "I’m just yanking Ryan around. It’s one of my favorite hobbies."

Ryan tucked an arm around her waist and said, "Nobody yanks me better than you do, Mia."

"Hey!" Jamie said. "That sounds like the kind of thing I should be doing for you."

"You both yank me," Ryan said, "just in different ways."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Since the reluctant heroes, as the newspaper had dubbed them, were loath to leave the building, Jordan and Mia took Jamie’s ATM card and loaded up on cash, then made a trip to one of Berkeley’s gourmet markets and bought provisions for the evening. Even though they complained of the largesse, they followed orders, and bought the champagne that Jamie specified, along with a variety of cheeses, some sliced ham and salami, and some crusty French bread that the Acme Bakery truck had just delivered.

The foursome ate their repast while sprawled out on the king-sized bed, each pair entwined comfortably. The Forty-Niners were playing football, and they had the television on in the background – their attention only sporadically drawn to the game. "This is just like being at home, but the food’s a lot better, and my brothers aren’t giving me grief for being wrapped around Jamie," Ryan said.

"It seems like you feel better," Jamie said. "Do you?"

"Yeah. I’m much calmer."

They had told their friends all about the disturbing events of the day, and Mia said, "James, if you want to go down to North Carolina, I’ll go with you to keep you company. I know the last thing you two want is to be separated right now."

Patting her nearby foot, Jamie smiled and said, "I appreciate the offer, buddy, but I think this will work out all right. You and I will just go down to Miami and meet up with our women there."

"I truly think your coach is a psychopath," Jordan grumbled. "She’s ruined this season for her team – and nothing makes me madder than a coach that won’t let her team members play to the best of their abilities!"

"I read you, loud and clear," Ryan said. "I’m not sure we would have won many more games so far, but it sure would have been a more pleasant experience if Lynette had been running the team."

"You’d be a better team if you still had Janae – and Janae wouldn’t have been hurt if she hadn’t been on the court during garbage time. You’ve gotta have a screw loose to play an irreplaceable player when the game’s as good as over. She sucks," Jordan grumbled, her ire still rising.

"I agree, Jordan," Ryan said, "but I don’t have much control – so I’m gonna try to just go along and see what happens. I’ll make up my mind about staying or going when we get back from the Bahamas."

"Ooo … the Bahamas," Mia said. "I’ve never had a better birthday present in my whole life."

"Me either … and it’s not my birthday," Jordan said.

"That was your Christmas present," Jamie corrected her friend. "This is your birthday present." She pulled an envelope from her backpack and handed it to Mia.

"James! You don’t need to buy me anything for my birthday! Jesus! Isn’t a trip to the Bahamas enough?"

"Nope," the blonde said. "You shouldn’t be punished just because your birthday is the day after Christmas. Go on … open it."

Giving her friend a grin, Mia tore into the envelope. Inside a colorful birthday card was a first class round-trip ticket from San Francisco to Sydney, as well as a calling card with an enormous number of minutes. "I wasn’t sure what to get you, but Ryan reminded me that there’s only one thing that seems to be on your mind any more."

"Hey!" Jordan said, her eyes wide. "Isn’t this a little premature? I haven’t even made the team yet."

Jamie patted Jordan’s thigh, giving her an indulgent smile. "Ryan’s been telling me how well you’re doing, Jordan. There’s not a doubt in my mind that you’ll be the star of the team."

"Uhh … I don’t think that’s gonna happen, Jamie. I’ll just be happy to sit on the bench — as long as the bench is in Sydney. There’s really a chance that I’ll get cut."

"Don’t stress about it, Jordan," Ryan said. "If you don’t make the team, you and Mia can turn this ticket in for two tickets to some place warm where you can lick your wounds."

"She’ll make it," Mia said, looking at her partner with unshed tears making her eyes glisten. "I have complete confidence in her."

Jamie kissed Mia’s cheek, and said, "I know you’re having trouble saving enough money to pay for the ticket. And it’s such a long flight I want you to sit with us so we can yak the whole time."

"I didn’t realize that was part of the deal," Ryan said. "Maybe I’ll sit in coach."

Mia popped Ryan in the belly while leaning over to kiss Jamie. "Thanks, James," she whispered. "You’re the best friend I could ever imagine having."

"The same goes for me," Jamie said. "Now let’s break out that champagne. We’ve got a birthday to celebrate!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

After yet another lingering, tearful goodbye, Mia and Jordan left for the airport at 7:30. Ryan was still full of nervous energy, so they decided to go to the pool and let her work off some stress. Jamie chose to hang out in the spa, and after a very long while, Ryan emerged, winded and fatigued, but seemingly calmer. "I’m cooked!" Jamie said. "I thought you were never going to come out."

"I decided to stay until I was tired. Took a while," Ryan said, looking a little sheepish.

"You’d better save some energy. You’ve got two games to win in North Carolina."

"That’s the last thing I want to think about. I’d like to focus all of my energies on you for the rest of the night."

"Now you’re talking, Tiger."


* * * * * * * * * * *

Continued in Part 3

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