DISCLAIMER: Guiding Light and its characters are the property of Proctor & Gamble. No infringement intended.
TIMELINE: Begins immediately after the episode on the 12th of May and goes off into its own little world at that point.
DEDICATION: This is dedicated to the memory of badtyler, a great writer and an even better friend.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
"Oh my God..."
Those three simple words could mean many things and, in the quiet moments between action and consequence, they meant a great deal to Natalia. First there was "Oh my God, that felt really good." That was the first reaction, but it didn't last long. She went from pleasure to embarrassment to shame quicker than a Ferrari goes from nought to sixty and the final "Oh my God" that slipped from her lips was pure "Oh my God, what have I done?"
The power to say anything but those three words seemed to have left Natalia. She muttered them over and over as the red mist of anger-fuelled arousal gradually receded.
Olivia tensed beneath her, obviously sensing her abrupt change in mood. "Don't freak out," she said, but it was much, much too late for that.
Natalia raised her head. "I'm not," she lied, scrambling away from Olivia's touch like a skittish rabbit. "I just...I don't know what just happened."
Olivia attempted a smile. "I thought you said you weren't naïve," she said.
Natalia groaned, dropping her head into her hands. "Oh my God," she said again, and there was no mistaking the horror in her voice.
"Hey, this was your idea," Olivia said. She sounded like she was beginning to panic. "I didn't expect that. I didn't ask for it."
Natalia shook her head. "I didn't expect it either," she said. "I don't know what...oh my God."
"Look, can we just leave God out of this?" Olivia said as she self-consciously pulled her shirt closed and covered her legs with a sheet.
Natalia looked up. There was a bleak sadness in her eyes. "I don't know what came over me," she muttered. "I...I don't do things like that. I don't talk like that. That's not me."
Olivia seemed to get smaller as she crossed her arms defensively over her chest and hunched her shoulders. "You got a little carried away," she said. "It's nothing to be ashamed of."
"But it is!" Natalia insisted. "Making love is supposed to be beautiful and pure and...and holy. What we just did was...was..." She trailed off, unable to find the words.
"That wasn't making love, Natalia," Olivia said, a little sharply. "That was sex."
Natalia's jaw hardened. "It was vulgar," she said. "I was vulgar. It was cheap and sordid and-"
"Sinful?" Olivia ventured.
"Yes!" Natalia replied, without thinking.
For half a second there was no reaction, but then hot tears sprung to Olivia's eyes. "I knew it," she muttered bitterly. "I knew it."
Natalia scraped her hands through her hair. "You don't understand," she said.
"I understand fine," Olivia replied, wiping at her eyes with shaking fingers. "I understand that you've been sending me the mother of all mixed signals for months. I understand that I never asked you for anything. I understand that you were the one who pushed for this horrible sin we've apparently just committed."
Natalia ground her teeth, clenching and unclenching her fists rhythmically. "I don't even know who I am anymore," she snapped. Weeks, months, perhaps even years of uncertainty bubbled up inside her, threatening to spill over. "I look in the mirror and I don't recognise myself. This doesn't happen in my world. I'm not the kind of woman who loses herself in...in lust." The last word came out as a hiss.
Blood rushed to her cheeks as she recalled how wanton, how carnal she had been. The things she'd done, the things she'd said...she doubted she'd ever even used words like those before. She couldn't bring herself to repeat them, even in her thoughts. She had been so angry with Olivia, so filled with rage and jealousy and heat, it was like someone else had taken over her body. A stranger with her face.
"For crying out loud Natalia, you've been with men!" Olivia exclaimed. "Haven't you ever just got caught up in the heat of the moment?"
"No!" Natalia replied, shaking her head firmly.
"Sounds like you've been having some pretty lousy sex then," Olivia snorted.
"Yeah, well you're the expert on that," Natalia replied, and regretted it instantly.
Olivia's nostrils flared. "Yeah, yeah, Olivia Spencer the town whore. I'm so sorry I corrupted you, oh sweet innocent practically virginal one."
Natalia let out a little squeal of frustration. "I didn't mean that. Don't put words in my mouth!"
Olivia rolled her eyes and moved back, further away from Natalia. "I'm not. No-one's putting words in your mouth. There isn't some magical force writing a script for you and making you say things you don't mean."
Natalia shook her head and tears nipped behind her eyes. "I know," she murmured. "I know. It's just...look, I've never felt anything even remotely like that before. I've never even..." she trailed off, blushing hard.
"Never what?" Olivia leaned forward a little, intrigued in spite of herself.
Natalia couldn't look at her. "I've never...you know." She made a meaningless gesture with her hands.
"No, I don't know," Olivia insisted, but there was a wicked gleam in her eye.
Natalia sighed. "Don't make me say it," she pleaded.
Olivia relented. "You've never...had an orgasm?" she asked, raising an eyebrow. "Is that what you're trying to say?"
Natalia whimpered. "Don't make fun of me," she muttered.
Olivia shook her head. "I'm not," she said. "That's...not even remotely funny. That's tragic."
Natalia flushed. "Don't be dramatic." Her voice was hard. "A child starving to death is a tragedy. My failure to have a...an-"
"Orgasm," Olivia interjected helpfully.
"-is not a tragedy," Natalia finished, flashing Olivia a withering glance.
Olivia shook her head. "You're wrong. Maybe if you'd had better sex in the past I wouldn't be sitting here with a thirty four year old woman who can't handle the fact that she just enjoyed herself!"
Natalia looked away. She spotted her pants in a heap on the floor and suddenly realised she was still half naked. With a groan of profound embarrassment she reached for them, desperate to be covered up again. "You make me so angry," she muttered.
Olivia raised an eyebrow. "You're not going to jump me again, are you?"
Natalia barked out a short, humourless laugh. "Uh, no," she said, hastily pulling up and fastening her slacks. She froze when she felt Olivia's hand covering hers.
"Natalia," Olivia murmured softly. "Look...you're a passionate woman. You put all of yourself into everything you do. So maybe there are some parts of you buried really deep down that you didn't know were there? It doesn't mean you've changed. You're still the same woman. You're still the woman I love."
She turned her head slowly to meet the other woman's steady gaze. "Am I?" she asked. "I don't feel like the same woman. I don't feel like myself at all."
Olivia's eyes were sad. "You'll feel like that for a while," she said. "Change is...well, scary. I didn't react so well the first time you popped into my head while I was-"
"Ah, don't!" Natalia interrupted, clamping her hands over her ears.
Olivia's head drooped. She took a deep breath. "Look...if you can't handle this, being in this kind of relationship with all that it means, I need to know. I can't do this with you if it's going to make you feel like you're dirty or sinful. You deserve better than that."
Natalia hesitated briefly and then gently took Olivia's hand. "So do you," she said.
Olivia bit her lip, tears swimming in her eyes. "So...what does this mean? What happens now?"
Natalia took a deep, shuddering breath. "I don't know," she admitted. "I know that this was a mistake. We shouldn't have done this. Not now, anyway. I know that this whole...everything with you is drawing out bits of me I never even imagined could exist. I don't know if I like those parts of me. I don't know if I should be embracing them or running from them. I just...don't know anything anymore."
Silent tears streamed down Olivia's cheeks. "You've been feeling like this for a long time, haven't you?" she asked. "This isn't just about today."
Natalia shook her head. "No," she sighed. "When we came back from the spa I just felt so lost. I felt like everyone was looking at me, like I'd grown two heads or something. And I guess I have. There's another Natalia living inside me, and I don't know which one of us is real." She glanced up at Olivia's stricken face. "I'm sorry," she whimpered. "I should have told you. I shouldn't have hidden all this from you. I never wanted to hurt you, Olivia."
Olivia managed a tight smile. "You haven't," she said, but the lie was practically a solid object in the space between them.
"I have," she replied, refusing to allow Olivia to let her off the hook. "I'm sorry." She shrugged with one shoulder, hating the inadequacy of the words. "I do love you," she whispered.
"Love might not be enough," Olivia replied, her voice husky and raw. "Love needs room to breathe. It can't live with fear and shame and self-hatred. I should know."
They lapsed into silence, both afraid to look at the other, and afraid to speak in case they shattered something else.
Natalia's cellphone shattered the silence at last. She grabbed for it, gritting her teeth when she saw who was calling. "Hey mom," she said. She listened quietly for a long moment. Olivia could hear the sound of high pitched yelling down the line. "I'm sorry," Natalia said at last, when she could get a word in. "There was something I needed to do. I didn't think it could wait." She glanced at Olivia who looked away. She caught herself wishing that she'd never left the church, never come to the hotel, never seen Olivia. Then they could go back to pretending that everything was going to be all right. She wouldn't have this yawning chasm of emptiness in the pit of her stomach. "I'll be back soon," she said into the phone and hung up while her mom was still speaking.
Olivia was looking at her hands. "I'm going back to Springfield," she said in a small voice. "Rafe has a plane ticket for Friday. I'll pick him up and take him back to the halfway house if you're not with him."
Natalia closed her eyes. "Don't leave it like this," she said. "Please."
Olivia shrugged. "How else can we leave it?" she asked. "You need to decide who you are and what you want. I can't make those choices for you." Her voice cracked a little. "All I can do is tell you that I love you and I want to be with you...more than anything. Not just for an afternoon. Not for a month, or a year, or five years. I want you to be my happy ending, Natalia."
Tears stung Natalia's eyes and spilled over at last onto her cheeks. "I don't know if I can be," she admitted, feeling like a piece of her soul was being ripped out with every word.
Olivia's voice was just as raw and heartbroken. "I know," she whispered. "But...you know where I am. When you're ready. And until then...we're still friends, right?"
"Always," Natalia replied instantly. Olivia nodded and tried to smile through her tears. "Olivia..." Natalia murmured and couldn't stop herself from reaching over and taking the other woman into her arms. Something inside her shifted and settled into place as she felt the press of Olivia's body against her. A sigh escaped her lips.
She had figured out two things. One: apparently she really enjoyed sex with women. The experience had been a total revelation, one that she wasn't quite sure what to do with yet. Two: Olivia made her feel things that no-one ever had, not even Gus. She knew that she would not be able to stop craving her, even though what had happened felt so wrong. But it was crystal clear to her now, as she felt the warmth of Olivia's skin against hers and the thunder of her pulse in her ears, she didn't think she could make herself stop wanting it.
Two questions, then, had been answered. It was just a shame that they had thrown up so many more in their place.
The tears didn't come when she said goodbye. They didn't come in the elevator, though she could tell they were in the mail. They didn't come in the lobby. They came when she emerged into the crowds of North Michigan Avenue, and were swallowed up by the noise and the traffic and the thunder of the city sweeping past her as she stood there, hugging her own chest and cradling one of the hearts she had just broken. The other was ten floors up in the building she'd just left. Every fibre of her being cried out for her to go back and fix it, to think of something to say or do to make everything better, but she couldn't There was nothing she could think of that would make this better and even if inspiration were to suddenly strike her, would she have the courage to follow through?
With trembling fingers Natalia reached for her cellphone. She could feel a few stares and second glances as she hunted through her contacts, but for once she didn't care. Let them look. Hadn't they ever seen a devastated woman crying in the street before? Honestly.
"Natalia, hey!" Natalia could hear the smile in Selina's voice and it just made her want to cry harder.
"Hey," she whimpered.
Happiness turned to concern instantly. "What's wrong?" she asked.
Natalia swallowed. "Uhm," she began, swallowing hard. "I...something just happened."
"Where are you?" Selina's voice was strong and steady. Natalia clung to it like a life preserver.
"I'm outside the Omni, downtown," she said.
"Right...there's a Starbucks just down the street, about half a mile. Go there and wait for me. I'll be about twenty minutes. Okay?"
Natalia nodded, then suddenly realised that Selina couldn't see her. "Okay," she said and hung up.
She didn't remember anything about the ten minute walk to the coffee shop. One foot stepped in front of the other as if on autopilot until she arrived in front of the familiar plate glass and green lettering of Starbucks the world over. She made her way inside and ordered a latte for Selina and the largest, sweetest, coldest frappuccino on the menu for herself, with extra whipped cream and caramel. She needed to cool down. And she needed to be rescued from a pit of shock and despair - what better than an overdose of sugar?
Sinking down into a cool, comfortable leather chair with her drinks she sighed deeply and closed her eyes. She cast her mind back to all the previous standout momentous days of her life. Her confirmation, when she had been anointed and accepted into the Church. She had heard a howl of wind outside the church and felt the Holy Spirit's presence just as surely as she could feel the girl in the pew beside her or the bishop smearing a cross of oil onto her brow. The day Rafe was born and she'd known her world had changed forever. From that day to this she'd spent every waking moment thinking of him. The day Gus died and her dreams for the future along with him. The day she'd given his heart to a woman she could barely stand. A woman who had wormed her way into her life until suddenly, without conscious thought or choice, she'd found that she was her life.
And today. Her father's funeral. Olivia. And the realisation that she, Natalia, was not who she thought she was. That there was another person inside her straining at the ropes she'd spent a lifetime tying securely round her wrists.
"Hey," Selina said, collapsing heavily into the seat opposite her. "Is that for me?"
Natalia held out the latte without a word and took a quick sip of her own drink. "Hey," she said at last. "I'm sorry I dragged you down here..."
"Don't be silly," Selina replied, waving her hand dismissively. "Any excuse to get out of the office."
Natalia seemed to be very interested in her drink. The cream had begun to melt. Condensation had formed on the smooth plastic of the cup and now dripped down slowly onto the lapel of her dark jacket. She didn't appear to notice. "It was my dad's funeral today," she said in a faraway voice.
Selina nodded. "Yeah, you told me the other night," she replied gently
"I left early."
Selina frowned, then leaned forward and placed a hand on Natalia's knee. "Is it your mom?" she asked. "Did she say something?"
Natalia's lips twitched in a parody of a smile. "No, it's not my mom," she said. She took a deep breath. "It's Olivia. Olivia freakin' Spencer..."
Selina's frown deepened. "Should I know who-" she began, then sat up a little straighter. "Oh," she said. "Oh! The Olivia that guy was calling you about? Your boss?"
Natalia nodded tightly. "She's here."
Selina sat back in her chair and took a long sip of her cooling coffee. "She's not just your boss, is she?" she said. "She's your girlfriend, right?"
Natalia's face twisted in distaste. "Girlfriend?" she said. The word seemed wholly inadequate to describe the many, many things Olivia Spencer was to her. "We're not twelve."
Selina laughed, briefly and humourlessly, a little bit of anger creeping into her tone. "Yeah, well, I'm afraid one of the many, many consequences of our government being stuck in the dark ages is a problem of nomenclature. I've been in a committed relationship for twelve years. I'd have married her a hundred times over, but I can't. So she's my girlfriend. Sorry if that's a little sophomore for your tastes Natalia, but we queers have to take whatever scraps we can get."
Natalia remembered to blink after a few moments and snapped her jaw shut. "Sorry," she said. "I didn't think...I mean you didn't mention her the other night..."
Selina shrugged. "I would have done, but you were out of there so fast after you got that phone call I didn't get the chance."
Natalia flushed. She had beaten an indecently hasty retreat, that was true. "Sorry," she mumbled again, gripping her slippery cup a little tighter.
Selina's face softened. "It's okay," she said. "You're new at this, right?" Natalia nodded tightly. "I thought so."
Natalia managed a smile. "I guess I'm pretty obvious," she said.
"Just a bit." Selina returned the smile. "So, Olivia's here?" she prodded when no further information seemed to be forthcoming.
Natalia flushed a deep and very interesting shade of red. "She...I...we-" she tried, unsure of how to even begin.
Selina raised an eyebrow. "You've seen her," she guessed. Natalia nodded. "Did you fight?"
Another tight nod. "Yes," Natalia said.
Selina leaned forward. "Did you kiss and make up?" There was laughter in her voice now. Natalia groaned and buried her face in her hands.
"Oh my God," she muttered. If anything Selina's smile grew wider.
"Natalia Rivera," she said, amused shock written all over her face. "Did you just run out of your father's funeral to go to a hotel room and have sex with your girlfriend?"
A groan was her only reply and she laughed until she realised that Natalia was crying. She was out of her seat in an instant, kneeling in front of her friend and pulling her into her arms. "Oh my God," Natalia repeated as Selina's hands came up to clumsily pat her back. It really wasn't the best angle for this.
"What's wrong?" Selina asked, trying desperately to comfort the distraught woman in her arms.
"It was all wrong," Natalia murmured, burying her head in the crook of Selina's shoulder. "It was all wrong...and now she's leaving."
Selina caught the eyes of the few people staring at them, daring them silently to say something. They all looked away. "Was it your first time?" she asked gently. Natalia nodded and Selina sighed. "Yeah, well it's only to be expected that it wouldn't be very good the first time," she said. "If you've only been with men before...I mean it's new and different and you shouldn't beat yourself up if it wasn't everything you'd hoped for-"
Natalia cut off Selina's rambling monologue by raising her head. "Oh, you don't get it," she said. "It wasn't bad. It was good. Really, really good." She closed her eyes, wiping harshly at her tears. "That's why it was so wrong."
Selina rocked back on her heels, dumbfounded. "My God," she said at last. "I knew you were repressed, but this is ridiculous."
Natalia's eyes snapped open. "What?"
Selina laughed. "I can't believe I'm actually sitting here comforting a woman who's distraught because she just had good sex. Dear God, Natalia, what'll you be like when you have a real problem?"
There was a long pause, then Natalia looked away. "I don't see why you have to make fun of me," she mumbled, tears springing to her eyes again.
Selina sighed and ran her hands through her hair as she perched once again on the edge of her seat. "I'm not," she said, her voice gentling. "At least I don't mean to. Why don't we start again. Can you tell me exactly what the problem is?"
Natalia looked down at her trembling hands and took a breath. "It's me," she admitted. "I...it was so strange. I've never felt like that before, never acted like that before. It was like I just lost myself somehow..."
Selina frowned. "So..."
"So, I don't know what it means," Natalia explained, throwing her hands in the air. "Who am I now? What does it mean that I...that I enjoyed it so much?"
Selina sat back in her chair, fighting the urge to laugh. She didn't want Natalia to think she was making fun of her again. "I can think of one thing," she said.
Natalia shrugged. "What?"
Selina smiled. "Well...answer me a couple of questions first," she said. "How many men have you been with?"
Natalia flushed. "I don't see what that has to do-"
"Humour me," Selina interrupted. "How many?"
There was a pause as Natalia took a breath. "Two," she said at last. "But the second one didn't really count."
Selina raised an eyebrow. "How so?"
Natalia shrugged. "I was just using him," she admitted. "I was running away from my...my feelings...for Olivia. I'd hoped...I don't know what I'd hoped."
"That he'd straighten you out?" Selina ventured. Natalia shook her head at first and then slowly nodded, biting her lip. Selina chuckled softly. "Yeah, he did a real good job there, huh?" she said. Natalia flushed. "And the other one was Nicky Augustino, I suppose," Selina finished. "And we both know why you slept with him."
Natalia nodded. "I loved him," she said.
Selina shook her head, frowning. "No, I meant...you know, what happened with us," she said.
Natalia felt every muscle suddenly tense. "Nothing happened with us," she said coldly.
Selina did a double take. "But...the other night you said-"
"That doesn't mean anything," Natalia insisted. Selina laughed.
"I beg to differ," she replied. "Christina's party? December...no, January '91? That game of spin the bottle? Am I ringing any bells?"
Natalia's heart pounded as her mind flashed back to that night. A circle of giggling, slightly drunk teenagers gathered round an empty beer bottle. Selina had been there, and Nicky, along with five or six others whose faces had blended into one with the passage of time. She remembered Selina spinning the bottle, remembered how she had held her breath and thought she was going to die when it finished spinning and pointed at her. She remembered hesitant, unskilled lips and the hooting and cat-calls of the boys.
"That didn't count," she said, shaking her head.
Selina pinned her with a steady gaze. "It counted," she said. "Don't deny it."
Natalia looked away. "I'm not denying anything," she said. Selina cut her off with a laugh.
"You're denying everything," she said. "But I'm sure you haven't forgotten what else happened that night. After I kissed you...it was your turn. You got Nicky. You were all over him, remember? You really pushed for it." She leaned forward. "Is that the night your son was conceived?"
Natalia blushed. "Yes," she muttered. Selina snorted with laughter and if anything Natalia's blush deepened. "What exactly are you trying to say?"
Selina shrugged. "Just that it can't be a co-incidence that you've slept with two men in your life and you started it with both of them because you were scared of your feelings for another woman." She grasped her friend's hands. "Natalia," she murmured, kindly now. "Isn't all this even just a little suggestive to you? Don't you think you might be-"
"What?" Natalia asked breathlessly, not sure if she even wanted to hear what Selina was about to say.
"Well..." her friend continued, then rolled her eyes. Did she really need to be hit over the head with this? "I mean...oh come on! You're gay, Natalia. Really, really gay."
For a long moment there was silence and stillness, as if the world had stopped spinning. Then Natalia flinched and pulled her hands away from Selina's as if burned. She grabbed her purse and stood. "No," she muttered, unable to meet Selina's eyes. "You're wrong. I'm not...I can't be. I'm a mother. I make cookies for church bake sales. I have a normal life. I can't be...I can't."
"Natalia," Selina began, reaching out to her, but it was too late. Natalia was gone, sweeping out of the shop like a bat out of hell and all but running down the street.
Selina sighed deeply and punched the arm of her chair in frustration. "Oh, well done, very tactful," she said to herself bitterly. "That'll be another layer of repression welded on tight." She shook her head.
There was only one person who'd shown any success at getting through to her friend. A woman who'd managed to get the tightly controlled Natalia Rivera so worked up that she'd run out of her own father's funeral to be with her. Olivia "freakin'" Spencer. Who was at the Omni, a mere half a mile away.
Selina downed the last of her now cold coffee. It was time she and the intriguing Ms Spencer had a little chat...
Olivia lay on the bed for a long time after Natalia left, struggling to breathe, struggling to remember why she should even care about breathing. What did it matter? What need did her clammy skin, her fractured brain and her broken heart have for oxygen? Better to just lie there until she passed out and hope not to wake up.
But no. She had a daughter at home who needed her. She couldn't wallow in self pity now, not like when Gus died. Back then there had been people around to pick up her slack, to shield Emma from the worst of her depression and hopelessness. Ava, and Frank, and Buzz and Natalia. Most of all Natalia. All of them out of her reach now, either through distance or betrayal or her own stupid mistakes.
And yet again, her mistakes had taken a familiar form.
Sex. Why did it have to be such a big deal? Why did it always cause her so many problems? Why the hell couldn't she just do without it?
She'd meant to tell Natalia that she could. She'd had the whole line planned out, about how she loved Natalia so much, and how she respected her and her beliefs, how she'd be able to go on forever as they were, with hand holding and hugs and very occasional kisses on the cheek. Perhaps even a kiss on the lips now and again, if she was very good - maybe on her birthday and at Christmas.
Well, Natalia had shot that idea to hell. And a few other things too, including Olivia's sanity, dreams and hopes for the future. She might get another kiss from Natalia on her 100th birthday if she was lucky. And as for Christmas? Try the second coming.
It took her about half an hour to finally drag herself off the bed. Her suitcase was in the corner of the room, untouched. There was nothing for her to do, no last minute clothes to pack or preparations to make. All that was required was one last look around the room where she had so briefly had everything she wanted, before it was snatched away. A thirty second ride in the elevator later and she was in the lobby, waiting in a long line to check out.
She'd picked the worst possible time of day for this. It seemed like everyone wanted to check out of the hotel at that exact moment. And only two clerks on duty? Really? She cast a critical eye over their setup. God, The Beacon ran so much more smoothly. You didn't have to wait in a line to check out in her hotel. You just posted your key into a dropbox along with a comment card. And if there was anything wrong with the room or any extra charges were needed, well, that's why they had an imprint of the guests' credit cards.
Spying a comment card on a rack she grabbed it and spent a contented five minutes filling it out in scathing language. So Natalia had turned her world upside down. She'd take it out on the poor bastard who had to read these comment cards.
She was toying between the words moronic and incompetent when she heard her name. "I'm looking for a guest of yours. Olivia Spencer?"
She looked up. The speaker was a woman, younger than her, maybe Natalia's age, wearing a dark blue skirt and jacket with a light blue shirt. Her blonde hair was up in a bun, but a few tendrils had shaken loose at the front. The woman pushed them behind her ears as she looked at the desk clerk expectantly.
"Who are you?" Olivia asked. The stranger turned round and fixed her with very blue eyes.
"Ms Spencer, I presume," she said, holding out a hand. Short fingernails with clear nail polish, Olivia noted as she took it. And a firm handshake. "I'm Selina Steiner. A friend of Natalia's."
Olivia pulled her hand away quickly. "Natalia?"
Selina smiled kindly. "Maybe we could go somewhere and talk."
Olivia took a step back. "Why are you here?"
"Just looking out for my friend," Selina replied, shrugging.
Olivia shook her head. "Right. Come to warn me off? Want to get Natalia back on the straight and narrow?"
Selina snorted with laughter. "Yeah, I like you already," she said. Olivia blinked twice, staring at her. "Oh please," Selina continued. "You're talking to a woman with a rainbow flag tattooed on her ass. I'm not here to give you a hard time." She wrapped her fingers round a slightly stunned Olivia's elbow and steered her away from the queue of business men and tourists. "Now, would you let me buy you a drink so we can talk about how we're going to get Natalia to come to her senses?"
Olivia allowed herself to be dragged into the hotel bar without protest. "Mine's a martini," she said. "Don't skimp on the olives."
Selina perched herself on a bar stool and waved the bartender over. "Two martinis, plenty of olives," she said, then turned her attention to the woman beside her. "So," she said. "I am very excited to be meeting you at last."
Olivia shifted a little in her seat. "Has she...has she been talking about me?" she asked, a note of hope creeping into her voice. Selina shook her head.
"Not really," she said. "Crying about you on the other hand..."
Olivia seemed to grow smaller. She dropped her eyes. "Fantastic," she muttered bitterly.
Selina smirked. "So, tell me," she said, taking a quick sip of her martini, "are you a fully paid up member of the sapphic sisterhood or are you going through all this who am I, what does this mean bullshit too?"
Olivia choked with an olive between her teeth. Selina slapped her on the back rolling her eyes. "Jesus," Olivia spluttered.
"I hope you don't blaspheme like that in front of Natalia," Selina said, now rubbing Olivia's heaving back.
Olivia coughed. "No," she muttered. "But then Natalia hasn't ever used the phrase sapphic sisterhood."
Selina laughed. "Colour me shocked," she deadpanned. A quick flick of her hand in the direction of the bartender produced a tall glass of water which Olivia accepted gratefully.
"Thanks," Olivia murmured, taking a long sip and swallowing hard. Selina watched the movement of her throat, taking in the darkening bruise surrounding a light bite mark just below her ear.
"So," she said smoothly. "Tell me about Natalia."
Olivia shrugged with one shoulder. "What can I tell you? Aren't you her friend?"
Selina made a dismissive gesture with one hand. "I've seen her twice in the last eighteen years. I'm sure you have plenty of gossip to share." She nodded pointedly at the love bite adorning the smooth expanse of Olivia's neck. "You two are...close, aren't you?"
Olivia looked down into her drink. "She's the best friend I've ever had," she said quietly. "She...uh..." She paused, shaking her head and flashing a rueful smile. "There's never been anyone who ever...ever cared about me the way she does." She looked up at Selina briefly. "So yes, you could say we're close."
Selina didn't speak for a moment. Instead she leaned forward and grazed her fingers across Olivia's neck. "I've never had a friend who left a mark on me like that," she said softly.
Olivia rubbed the bite self-consciously, then let her hand travel down to rest over her heart. "It's not the only one she's left," she said.
Selina took a sip of her drunk. "I can see that," she said. "Why don't you tell me about it."
And so Olivia did, letting the whole story spill out - Gus, her illness, the transplant, the fights, the pushing and pulling, the give and take, the uneasy truces and explosive arguments, the tentative friendship, the farmhouse, the family, the two mommies, the kiss that didn't count, the graveyard, the aborted wedding, the gazebo, the spa, the tenth floor hotel room and the seeming finality of their last goodbye.
"Wow," Selina breathed when Olivia's litany had finally choked itself into silence. "You've had a hell of a year, haven't you? Like something lifted right out of a soap opera."
Olivia raised her glass towards her and smirked. "Welcome to my life," she muttered darkly, and downed the rest of her martini in one gulp.
"Same again over here," Selina called, meeting the bartender's eyes.
"I shouldn't," Olivia murmured. "The last time I got drunk with a beautiful woman it got me into trouble."
Selina raised one perfectly sculpted eyebrow. "You think I'm beautiful?" she said.
Olivia flushed. "I've got eyes don't I?" she replied, a little defensively.
Selina laughed. "Don't worry, I take it as a compliment," she said. "You're not so bad yourself you know. I can definitely understand what she sees in you." She smiled. "And I guess that answers my question. You're not in the middle of an identity crisis then?"
Olivia shrugged. "Not anymore," she said. "I was for a while. A long while, if I'm honest." She sighed. "I've been married five times," she admitted. "That is not the track record of a woman who likes women. And I guess I never really thought of myself that way. I thought things were very black and white." She took a sip of her fresh martini. "I thought that being attracted to Natalia meant giving something up. Like I had to choose, you know? But I'm discovering that I don't. I can look at men, I can look at women, and I'm still just me. I really haven't changed." She shrugged. "So I now have another three billion or so people to hypothetically lust after. It doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter one bit who I am or am not capable of wanting. There's only one person I love." She sat staring at her drink for a long moment until she felt the warm press of fingers on her hand and she looked up.
"Then why are you running away?" Selina asked softly.
Olivia shook her head. "I'm not," she said, her voice cracking a little. "But what's the point of trying to push it? She needs her space. And when you love someone and you're a family you have to know when to hold on tight and when to let go..."
Selina rolled her eyes. "Right, okay. If you love something let it go, yadda yadda. Bullshit." Olivia's head snapped round. "Let me tell you something about Natalia," Selina continued. "She's locked up so damn tight that she doesn't even know who the hell she is. She's been like that longer than you've known her, trust me. Somewhere along the line a long time ago she created an image of herself and she's spent her whole adult life denying anything that doesn't fit. Pruning away at uncomfortable truths with denial and shame and the kind of manufactured guilt that only a fucking Catholic can torture themselves with." She paused for breath, holding her hand up to stop Olivia from interrupting. "You know, when we were fifteen her mom told her she couldn't see me anymore. Because I had the most obvious baby-dyke crush in the history of the world. And you know what? Even after she left home and her mother's disapproval really wasn't on her list of priorities? She didn't call me. Didn't come to see me. Made no effort to try to include me in her life at all. And you know why?" Selina grabbed Olivia's hand and squeezed. "Because she was feeling it too, and it scared the shit out of her. So she just ignored it. She ran away. And if you don't stay here and fight for her that's exactly...what will happen...again."
Olivia shook her head. "Don't sell her short," she said. "I know her. She's so much braver and stronger than people give her credit for."
Selina nodded. "Against enemies she can understand, sure," she said. "Against poverty and hardship and other people's bullshit. Not against herself. She's totally lost right now. If you leave her like this she'll just shut down." She smiled kindly. "What she needs right now is...I don't know, a light. To guide her out of all this darkness and confusion. She needs you, whether she would ever admit it or not. Don't abandon her."
Olivia blinked once, then twice, her jaw hanging slightly open. "I..." she began, then cleared her throat. "I'd need to make a few calls..."
"Fine!" Selina exclaimed. "Do it, do whatever you need. Just don't roll over, okay? I can help you."
Olivia managed a smile. "So we attack on two fronts?" she said. "That hardly seems fair."
Selina leaned forward and gave her a conspiratorial wink. "You know what Olivia?" she said. "I'm pretty sure this is one of those situations in which all is fair..."
The apartment was crowded, and because it was crowded it was hot. A bead of sweat travelled down the back of Rafe's neck and joined its brothers soaking into the collar of his overstarched white shirt, the shirt that Olivia had bought for him to go with the ridiculously expensive suit he was wearing. Also a gift from her. She'd muttered something about it doubling up for job interviews as she'd insisted he take it, and he hadn't argued. He didn't think his mom would like it though - she hated taking gifts from anyone. All through his childhood he'd listened to the same three words over and over again - we're not beggars. Only once had his mother ever resorted to charity, when he'd been in the hospital for weeks, his blood sugar levels jumping all over the place, and she'd lost all three of the jobs she'd been working because she refused to leave his side. When the doctors finally figured out the right medication for him she'd gone to the St Vincent de Paul society for help with the expense, and boy had they made her pay for it. Not financially perhaps - but they'd extracted their pound of flesh from her in pride alone.
"Have you met my grandson?"
His grandmother's voice knocked him out of the past and sent him reeling back into the present. He blinked as an unfamiliar man grasped his hand between sweaty palms and wrung it, enthusing all the while about how much he looked like Emilio, the grandfather he'd never laid eyes on.
"Uh...thanks," he managed to say, surreptitiously wiping his sweaty hand on the seat of his pants. He glanced over at his grandmother who was smiling at him in a way he couldn't quite understand.
"Such a handsome boy," she murmured, and for a moment Rafe had the horrendous impression that she was going to pinch his cheeks. Instead she smoothed her palm from his hairline to his chin before tugging at his hand and dragging him to meet yet more relatives.
"This is your second cousin Maria," she said. "And your great aunt Isabel." He shook both their hands, attempting to smile.
Isabel looked him up and down. "Natalia's son," she said. "Well well. Has anyone told you that you look just like your grandfather?"
Rafe laughed nervously. "Uh...someone might have mentioned it," he said.
Maria laughed. "I'll bet they have," she muttered, then smiled kindly. "Do you remember me?" she asked. "I knew you when you were a little boy, before I went to college and moved away. I would babysit you sometimes."
Rafe shook his head dumbly. He'd had no idea his mother had had any contact with anyone in her family after she'd got pregnant with him and left home. From the looks Isabel and Josephine were giving Maria, it was clear it had come as a surprise to them too. Isabel whispered something in heated Spanish, much too quickly for Rafe to catch. Maria simply shook her head and rolled her eyes. "Really Ma, it was fifteen years ago. Get over it." She turned her attention to Rafe. "How would you like to get out of here for a while? You could fill me on what's been going on in your life since you were in diapers."
The answer hell yes was on the tip of his tongue, but before he could speak Josephine curled a hand round his elbow. "There are still a lot of people who want to meet him," she said coldly. Rafe frowned. The temperature in the room seemed to have chilled all of a sudden. If the atmosphere could have had any say in the matter the sweat on his back would have frozen. Josephine was staring at Maria like she was Judas himself. Obviously she didn't approve of the fact that Maria had kept seeing his mother after she'd left home. But then, that didn't make any sense. Why was she showing him off like this? Wasn't he the occasion of his mother's sin? Wasn't he the source of the shame that had forced her from this home and this family all those years ago? Why was his grandmother behaving as if all her Christmases and birthdays had come at once now he was finally in her life?
"My grandson, Raphael," she said proudly to the next stranger. "Isn't he handsome?"
Rafe managed to flash a confused smile as the stranger spoke to him in mile-a-minute-Spanish. "Uh...más despacio, por favor," he muttered, but when his great uncle or third cousin twice removed or whatever he was started to repeat himself Rafe wasn't listening. His attention had been caught by the sight of his mother slipping in the door quietly, obviously hoping not to be noticed.
It had been no more than three hours or so since he'd last seen her but she looked like she had aged at least five years. Her skin was almost grey and her eyes were puffy and red. He could see where she'd rubbed at her eyes to get rid of her ruined mascara. She looked...small. As small as he'd ever seen her.
He was by her side in three seconds, abandoning whoever the distant relative had been without a backward glance. "Ma," he whispered softly as he approached and laid a steady hand on her shoulder. "Are you okay?"
Natalia nodded faintly, and before Rafe could speak again he felt a presence behind him. He turned without releasing his hold on his mother's shoulder. Josephine was there, watching her daughter, and all the warmth and pride that had been written on her face just moments before as she'd shown him off was gone, replaced by a cold disdain and a curl of the lip.
"Come with me Raphael," she said. "Your great-uncle Ricardo hadn't finished talking to you." She dragged him away with a surprisingly strong grip. Rafe watched his mother almost sink into the wall, hugging her own chest and sighing deeply, before he was forced to look away.
Natalia felt a spark of anger erupt in the pit of her stomach as she watched her mother lead her son away, and was glad of it. Getting mad at her mother would be a pleasant distraction from the turmoil in her head and her heart. She briefly considered following them, grabbing her son and driving them both back to Springfield as fast as her beat up old Chevy could manage. But then, Springfield wasn't where she wanted to be either. She wanted to be somewhere where her life made sense, and that wasn't a place at all but a time - before Olivia Spencer had breezed into her life and forced her to grow, to change, and to face so many uncomfortable and long-buried truths.
Truths like possibly being gay. Or really, really gay, as Selina had so succinctly put it.
So strange, really, that she'd never thought about this. Even after trying to kiss Olivia, after admitting she was in love with her, after planning to have a relationship with, even after having sex with her for crying out loud, she had never once considered what it meant for her, or for her own identity. Not until Selina had given it a name, and now she couldn't think of anything else. She was surprised the word lesbian hadn't spontaneously appeared on her forehead, so exposed and vulnerable did she feel. She was sure everyone who looked at her must be able to see it immediately.
There certainly were stares and whispers, but the snatches that carried over to her through the rumble of general conversation covered familiar ground. His daughter...pregnat at sixteen...ran out of the funeral. She sighed and closed her eyes, wishing she could close her ears.
"Well, you certainly know how to keep things interesting," a sly voice whispered in her ear. She opened her eyes.
"Maria," she said, and managed a smile for her cousin who wrapped her up in her arms. "How are you?"
"I'm good," she replied, then ducked her head towards the door. "Can we go in the other room? It's so damn hot in here."
Natalia nodded her assent and the two women escaped to the cramped, but relatively cool, confines of Natalia's bedroom. Natalia flopped down onto the bed immediately, trying not to recall the softness of the bed in Olivia's hotel room, or how the sheets had felt pressed against her naked skin.
"This place is freaky," Maria muttered as she wrenched open the window and quickly lit a cigarette. "I'd have thought your folks would have had a ceremonial burning in the street after you left. They really kept your room like this all this time?"
Natalia looked around at the pastel pink walls and the decades out of date posters. "Yeah," she said, and frowned. Why had they done that? She'd been meaning to ask her mother, but it never seemed to be the right time. From the look her mother had just given her, she didn't think the right time would be coming anytime soon.
"Weird," Maria said, breathing her nicotine fix deeply. "Hey, I hope you don't mind me giving your ma your number. I figured you deserved to know about your dad but it doesn't look like you and she are getting on that well."
Natalia shrugged. "We've never got on that well," she admitted. "I was always a daddy's girl growing up, remember?"
Maria nodded. "Yeah, I remember." She stubbed the cigarette out on the stone window ledge and leaned her head back into the room. "So," she said, sitting down beside Natalia and laying a gentle hand on her arm. "You want to tell me why you ran out of the church today?"
Natalia turned to face her, intending to lie, intending to invent some emergency or crisis. But when she caught her cousin's compassionate eyes the truth bubbled up inside her like an erupting volcano and suddenly, before she had time to think about it, the words "I think I might be a lesbian," tumbled from her mouth.
Immediately her hands flew to her lips, the fingers curled as if she could claw the words back. "Oh God," she muttered, her eyes wide. Maria just shook her head.
"Okay," she said blandly. "And being gay made you run out of your dad's funeral because..."
But Natalia couldn't answer. All she could do was fall forward into her cousin's waiting arms, the tears already coming hard and fast as she grieved. Not for her father or for the years of separation and estrangement - that would come later. At that moment her tears were all for herself and for the woman she'd thought she was, the woman she'd tried so hard to be. That woman had been dying moment by moment since the day she'd met Olivia Spencer, pushed out of the proverbial nest inch by inch by a new Natalia, like a baby bird being superseded by a cuckoo.
Natalia clung tightly to Maria's arms as she cried, one thought running through her mind over and over on repeat. What if Selina was right? What if I really am gay? And the thought made her cry all the harder because that suddenly seemed like the saddest and the loneliest thing on Earth.
Natalia awoke the next morning to the sound of laughter and the smell of fresh coffee and pancakes. She groaned softly. Her head was throbbing in a most unpleasant manner, and she blearily recalled sitting in her bedroom with Maria for several hours the previous day and getting blind drunk. After the confession and the sobbing and the gasping Maria had slipped out briefly and come back with a bottle of whisky and two glasses. Natalia had surprised herself with her willingness to try to drink her problems away. It works for Olivia, she remembered thinking.
Olivia. The almost pleasant sensation of satisfied soreness between her legs reminded her of exactly what she'd been trying to block out, and why. "Oh God," she muttered, rubbing her hands across her face. She flushed as the events of the previous day sped through her mind like a runaway train, despite her best efforts to stop them. A rush of heat flooded through her and her eyes flickered closed. Her physical reaction to the thought of Olivia was just as visceral as ever. But it was wrong.
What exactly is wrong with it?
She shook her head, wincing against the pain, trying to silence the treacherous voice.
So you enjoyed sex for once. It's about time.
"Shut up," she said to herself. She couldn't decide if the niggling thoughts were speaking in Olivia's voice or Selina's, but either way she wanted them to stop.
She squinted against the harsh light leaking in the window as she opened her eyes again. Wearily she collected her robe and made her way through to the kitchen, following the sounds of muted voices and laughter. "Good morning," she mumbled.
Two sets of dark eyes turned to her, one set warm and loving, the other set cold and angry, and a little bit hurt too, behind everything. "Morning Ma." Rafe stood and wrapped his mother in a hug. "You okay?"
She managed a shaky smile. "Could be worse," she said. Josephine snorted.
"Maria was in quite a state when she left last night," she said. "You were no better, I expect. Do you make a habit of getting drunk at funerals?"
Natalia took a deep breath and actually bit down on the inside of her cheek to prevent the angry retort that had bubbled up in her throat. She swallowed the default position of bitterness and resentment with a visible effort and forced a smile onto her face. "Nope, that was my first time," she said. "You could say it was a day of firsts all round."
Josephine frowned, appeared to consider asking what she'd meant by that, and then apparently decided against it. She turned to Rafe, symbolically putting Natalia in the corner. "Would you like syrup on your pancakes?" she asked sweetly.
"Rafe's diabetic," Natalia interrupted. "No sugar." She poured herself a cup of coffee and dragged the sugar bowl over. Rafe couldn't have any, but she sure needed some. More than some, in fact - lots.
By the evening Natalia was sure she was going crazy. Her mother was still giving her the cold shoulder. Fair enough, that was only to be expected. She had run out of her father's requiem mass after all, before coming back with no explanation and getting wildly drunk at the wake. Grudgingly, Natalia could accept that she deserved her mother's scorn.
What was confusing her was her mother's obvious delight with Rafe.
"No more grandma, I'm stuffed!" Rafe patted his stomach and grinned as Josephine tried to cram another couple of pasteles onto his plate. She had been cooking all day, seemingly trying to make up for nearly nineteen years of missed spoiling in one afternoon.
"A growing boy needs his food," Josephine fussed. Natalia snorted with derision.
"I'm pretty sure the growth spurts are over, mom," she said. "You missed those."
Josephine's jaw tightened. "I missed a lot of things," she said, and flashed Natalia a look of pure fury. Natalia blinked, nonplussed.
"Well, whose fault is that?" she said.
Rafe looked uneasily from one woman to the other. "I...uh...you know, I think I need to go out for some fresh air."
"Fine," Natalia said, her eyes locked with her mother's. She waited until she heard the apartment door click shut before she opened her mouth and let her thoughts spill out unchecked. "What are you up to?" she demanded.
Josephine affected an expression of profoundest innocence. "What are you talking about 'Talia?" she asked. Natalia shook her head.
"'Talia?" she sputtered. "You haven't called me that since I was twelve."
"Well, when you behave like a child..."
A startled laugh forced its way up from deep in the pit of Natalia's stomach. "My God," she said. "You really are a piece of work, you know that?"
Josephine's chin jutted forward. "What in the world is your problem?" she snapped.
"You!" Natalia shouted. "You are my problem. You call me back here after eighteen years of silence and you think you can behave like nothing's happened. And now Rafe's here and suddenly he's the golden boy? I don't get you."
Josephine threw her arms up in the air. "What are you talking about? He's my grandson!"
Natalia stared at her mother, mouth hanging open in pure astonishment. "A grandson you've never even met," she reminded her.
"And why is that?" Josephine countered.
Natalia laughed briefly and humourlessly. "Exactly!" she said. "For God's sake!"
Josephine shook her head. "You really are the most selfish, idiotic child," she began, but Natalia cut her off.
"I'm not a child, mom! I'm thirty-four! I've been looking after myself and my son for nearly nineteen years, most of it alone. You don't get to talk to me like I'm a petulant teenager just because you were missing in action for more than half my life."
"Missing!" Josephine exploded. "How dare you?"
The air crackled between them as their gazes locked. Natalia had the feeling she'd lost track of the argument somewhere, but she wasn't quite sure when it had happened. Somehow her mother seemed to have got the upper hand.
"I'm going to find Rafe," Natalia muttered at last.
Josephine grunted. "Fine, run away," she said bitterly. "That's what you're best at."
Natalia spun around in the doorway. "What's that supposed to mean?"
Josephine shot her a derisory glance. "You broke your father's heart," she spat. Natalia shook her head in confusion, her hand coming up automatically to her own chest.
"He broke mine," she hissed.
For an endless moment they stared at each other, breathing hard, decades of pain and betrayal, both genuine and merely perceived, simmering between them.
Rafe's voice shattered the moment and Natalia looked away. Josephine's eyes raked over her profile as she turned her head.
"I thought you were going for a walk baby," Natalia said, impressed with herself for making her voice sound vaguely normal.
"I was," said Rafe as he appeared in the doorway. He seemed to be hiding something behind his back. "But I found someone outside who wanted to see you."
Natalia raised an eyebrow and then, with a giggle and a squeal, Emma rushed out from behind Rafe's legs and threw herself into Natalia's arms.
Natalia wrapped her arms around the girl automatically but her eyes were angled up, looking past Rafe for a figure that part of her had been half expecting to see every moment since they'd parted, although she hadn't realised it till now, until her heart grew wings and took flight and her breath caught in anticipation.
And there she was. Olivia dressed in white, all smoky green eyes and deep red lips, standing in her mother's living room with her hands tucked into her pockets and a hesitant smile on her face.
"Surprise," she said, her voice both hopeful and afraid, and something very important in Natalia's soul suddenly and simply clicked into place.
"Hi," she breathed. Emma squirmed in her arms and Natalia realised she was holding her just a little too tight. She let her go with a quick, apologetic grin, breaking eye contact with Olivia. Emma looked over Natalia's shoulder and flashed her most innocent and charming smile.
"Hi," she said. "You must be Natalia's mommy. I'm Emma Spencer."
Josephine glanced down at Emma, frowning. "Okay," she said, then looked up at Olivia. "And who exactly are you?"
Natalia's eyes flicked from her mother to Olivia. Oh, this should be fun.
Well, at least that answered one question. The sarcastic inner commentary definitely spoke to her in Olivia's voice.
For a long moment Natalia wasn't quite sure what to say. She stood, caught like a fly in a web between the two women who'd done the most to shape the person she was - her mother who had given her life, and Olivia who had given her everything else: love, respect, support, confidence, ambition...well, the list went on and on.
"Uhm, mom this is Olivia Spencer," she said at last, swallowing hard. "My boss," she added at her mother's raised eyebrow.
Olivia raised an eyebrow of her own, but smiled and extended her hand. "Pleased to meet you Mrs Rivera," she said. "I'd like to say I'd heard all about you, but..." She trailed off, still smiling, but a gleam that Natalia knew all too well had entered her eyes.
"I could say the same to you Mrs..." Natalia's mother glanced pointedly at the naked ring finger on Olivia's left hand, "sorry, Miss Spencer."
Natalia coughed. "Uhm...coffee, Olivia?"
Olivia turned her most dazzling smile on her and Natalia was sure her heart had actually skipped a beat. "That sounds absolutely heavenly," she said. "I've just been out to O'Hare to pick up Emma. I could really do with some caffeine."
"I got to fly on a plane all by myself," Emma said excitedly, bouncing a little. "Uncle Jeffrey took me to the airport and a nice lady looked after me and I got free crayons to colour with the whole way!"
Natalia couldn't help but smile, and even Josephine's stony face lightened a little. Emma's bubbling over excitement was reaching out, trying desperately to infect everyone in the room.
"Rafe, could you go and put on a pot of coffee please? And I think there are some popsicles in the freezer if Emma wants one..."
Emma squealed in glee and followed Rafe from the room, almost making him trip over his own feet. Natalia, Josephine and Olivia were left alone. The three of them stood in the centre of the room, each experiencing various levels of discomfort ranging from very little (Josephine) to extreme (Natalia.)
"Sit down," Natalia said at last. Olivia smiled and obliged, sinking gracefully onto the sofa. Josephine took the easy chair, leaving the seat beside Olivia on the couch the only one free. Natalia hesitated, then finally perched on the arm of the sofa, crossing her arms across her chest defensively.
"I'm sorry to burst in on you like this, Mrs Rivera," Olivia began politely. "But when my daughter heard that Natalia was in town she insisted on seeing her." She looked up at a flustered Natalia with a warm grin.
Josephine leaned back in her seat, clasping her hands together. "What brings you to Chicago Miss Spencer?"
Natalia had the strangest sense that the two were circling each other like two competing predators, each looking for the best moment to strike. For a moment she thought she almost saw the flash of the fangs. "A little working holiday for me and my daughter," Olivia said. "I own a hotel back in Springfield. We're looking to expand. Some of my partners suggested some properties for me to look at in Chicago and...well, here I am."
"And what does my daughter do in your hotel?" Josephine asked. Olivia began to answer, but Natalia got there first.
"I'm Olivia's PA," she said, a note of pride in her voice. She flushed a little when a brief expression of surprise flitted across her mother's face. Olivia saw it too.
"I don't know what I'd do without her," she said softly. Natalia snapped her head round. Olivia's face was open and sincere, and Natalia knew that she wasn't just talking about work. She looked back to her mother and with a thrill of fear fuelled adrenaline understood that Josephine had seen it. There was no mistaking the look of love on Olivia's face. It shone out as clear as day in the brief few seconds it took to school her features back to the appropriate expression of polite indifference.
Josephine's nostrils flared and her lips settled into a firm line. "Que exquisito sentido del tiempo tiene tu 'Jefa'," she muttered, her eyes sliding from Olivia's face and onto Natalia's.
Natalia's eyes narrowed. "Mom..." she began warningly. Josephine carried on regardless.
"Ella no sabe que tu padre se murió?" she said, raising an eyebrow. Natalia opened her mouth to respond, but Olivia got there first.
"Si, lo se. También sé que Natalia no ha oído de él, ni de usted, desde que ella tenia dieciséis anos."
A stunned silence settled over Josephine and Natalia - indeed, it was hard to decide which of them was more surprised.
"Tu...tu hablas Espanol?" Josephine said at last, her voice low and hesitant.
Olivia smiled. "Con fluidez," she said. Her eyes glinted dangerously, and Natalia felt she might suddenly burst into hysterical laughter. The gauntlet had been well and truly thrown down. Olivia and her mother stared unblinkingly at each other for a long moment and - amazingly - Josephine was the first to look away.
"What kind of properties are you looking at?" she asked.
Natalia felt her jaw drop. Spencer one, Rivera nil, her mind remarked, and she grinned, a silly feeling of pride washing through her. Almost without realising what she was doing she slid from the arm of the sofa to the seat, her leg resting against Olivia's as she settled herself.
"Olivia, do you take sugar?" Rafe called from the kitchen. Olivia pressed her leg a little more firmly against Natalia's. A deep flush rolled up from Natalia's chest and settled in on her cheeks.
"No, I don't," she called back. "Just plain black, Rafe, as strong as you can make it."
Rafe brought the coffee in, followed by Emma who sat cross-legged on the floor at her mom's feet, nibbling happily on an orange popsicle. Olivia sipped delicately at her coffee, and managed to take ten whole minutes to explain the ethos of The Beacon's expansion plans and describe the properties she'd come to look at. "Basically we're going for personal, small town service in the heart of the big city," she said, sounding like she was wrapping up an investment pitch. "We have a location opening very soon in Indianapolis and my partners and I are very excited about our expansion into Chicago. In fact, I was hoping Natalia would be able to find an hour or two this week to help me with a few things." She looked across at Natalia expectantly.
"Uh...yeah, sure," she said slowly, blinking once.
Olivia smiled and drained the last of her coffee. "That's great," she said. She nudged Emma with her foot. "All right Jellybean, time to go."
Emma pouted. "Aw, mom, do we have to?"
Olivia ruffled her hair. "Oh come on, we're going to the park. There'll be swings and slides and a teeter-totter."
Emma brightened immediately, then looked imploringly up at Natalia. "Are you coming too?" she asked.
Natalia's eyes flicked up to meet her mother's. Olivia shook her head. "I don't think so baby-" she began.
"I'd love to," Natalia said, overlapping with Olivia. Emma squealed and wrapped her arms round Natalia's legs.
Olivia watched Natalia from beneath her eyelashes as she leaned down and hugged Emma. She glanced over at Josephine and met her eyes. There was a challenge there, along with a question and a note of disapproval. Olivia's jaw hardened and she held her head just a little higher.
"Come on then," she said. "Let's go."
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