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.
Emma ran ahead the moment they got to the gates of the park, with a nine year-old's unerring instinct for playgrounds. "Slow down Jellybean, stay where I can see you!" Olivia called, but didn't seem too concerned. Natalia smiled at the little girl's fast disappearing back, then looked over at Olivia shyly.
"I'm glad you didn't go back to Springfield just yet," she said softly. "It's...it's good to see you."
Olivia smiled. "Well, I have business here, like I said," she replied.
Natalia considered pointing out that she was her assistant and that she knew her schedule better than anyone. The excuse about The Beacon's expansion into Chicago was as transparent as it was flimsy. But then...if it suited Olivia to have a veneer of professionalism between them...well, that was fine. She couldn't really blame her for wanting that little bit of distance. It was probably for the best anyway, after how disastrous getting close had ended up being. She smiled sadly.
"Yeah, well, that didn't mean you had to see me. I...I wouldn't have blamed you if you hadn't wanted to..." She trailed off, struck with the sudden appalling realisation that if she kept talking she was going to start crying. Olivia glanced over at her then slowed her pace, reaching out and linking her arm with Natalia's.
"What did I promise you when we were at the spa?" she asked gently.
Natalia shrugged. "We promised a lot of things," she said, her cheeks flushing hotly as she thought of all the assurances that had been so easy to make and so hard to keep.
Olivia nodded. "Yes, yes we did," she agreed. "Specifically, I promised you that whatever happened you wouldn't lose your best friend. Remember?"
Natalia swallowed hard against a sudden lump in her throat. "I remember," she said hoarsely.
Olivia nodded firmly. "So, here I am. Your best friend come to save you from the dragon's den."
Natalia barked with laughter and brightened, decidedly less than mature delight rushing through her as she remembered the look on her mother's face when Olivia started speaking her language. "You were amazing," Natalia enthused, squeezing Olivia's arm a little tighter, and not letting go like Olivia had thought she might. "I had no idea you could speak Spanish!"
Olivia peered into the distance, scanning the park for her daughter. She nodded briefly when she spotted her, then turned her attention back to Natalia. "I was nearly the princess of a whole country you know," Olivia said, with a small self deprecating smirk. "A tiny, insignificant little country, but a country nonetheless. That would have involved a lot of state visits and a lot of foreign languages. And it doesn't hurt to know a few phrases when you're in the hotel business either."
Natalia smiled and raised an eyebrow. "So what other languages do you speak?"
Olivia shrugged. "Um...French, German, Portuguese, a little Mandarin...not that I'm particularly fluent in them anymore. For some reason Spanish always stuck with me." She smiled a small, shy smile, and Natalia realised that she was actually embarrassed. Not for the first time, Natalia wondered why Olivia so hated to let people see her good points. How typical of Olivia to hide all the best parts of herself. But Natalia had seen them all - her intelligence, her kindness, her fierceness, her devotion, her heart-breaking vulnerability. She had peeled away layer after layer of Olivia Spencer and each layer was greater than the one before, so that instead of diminishing in her eyes Olivia had simply got bigger, more vital, more essential, until Natalia was no longer sure how she would survive without her.
"Six languages," Natalia murmured, her eyes roaming possessively over the planes of Olivia's face. "Wow."
Olivia blushed. "It's not that big a deal," she insisted.
"Say something in Mandarin," Natalia interrupted, grinning with child-like glee.
Olivia shook her head. "Oh, I'm not very good..."
"Please?" Natalia leaned into Olivia's side, flashing her dimples as she smiled. Olivia caught her eyes and felt every phrase of Mandarin she'd ever known escape her, except one.
"Wo ai ni," she murmured, a hint of a blush painting her cheeks.
Natalia didn't need to know the language to understand her meaning. It was written all over Olivia's face.
With a slightly trembling hand Natalia reached up and trailed her fingers along the line of Olivia's jaw. "Olivia..."
"You don't have to say anything," Olivia swiftly interrupted.
Natalia considered taking the out she'd been offered, considered smiling and closing her mouth and saying nothing. But then a string of moments passed through her mind like links in a chain: sitting on a table on a sunny August day, holding Olivia with affection for the first time; watching Olivia lock horns with the warden of the prison, then the governor of the state, just so Rafe could have an easier time; Olivia giving up her job with Decker for the sake of her $80,000; and finally Olivia holding court in her mother's living room, standing up for her in a way that no-one ever had before. She couldn't stay silent. If there was one thing she owed Olivia it was honesty.
"I love you too," she said, then bit her lip. "I just-"
"I know," Olivia whispered, eyes shining. "Please, don't...don't say anything else." She leaned forward impulsively and pressed a quick kiss to Natalia's forehead. "I don't expect anything, really. You know how I feel and you know what I want. But...if that never happens I won't love you any less. If all we can ever have is to be two friends who love each other more than anything, I'll still want it." She smiled, although her lower lip was trembling in a tell-tale way that Natalia knew meant she was only one word or one touch away from crying.
For a long moment Natalia didn't know what to say. How could she respond to a declaration like that in a way that wouldn't sound trite or, worse, dishonest? She still wasn't sure how much she could offer Olivia, how much of the happy ending she'd ever be able to give her. Only one thing was clear.
Never in her life had she felt more loved and cherished. To know that Olivia would be willing to put so much aside just to have Natalia in her life, in whatever capacity, was overwhelming.
Natalia decided in that instant to forget about the doubts, the uncertainty, and the tension that stretched between them like a taut rubber band, if only for a moment. She even forgot that they were in public and vulnerable to stares and whispers. All that mattered was that Olivia loved her, and she loved Olivia back, and she needed to have her in her arms.
"I'll want it too," she whispered into Olivia's ear as she pulled her close.
Olivia seemed to relax against her. Natalia closed her eyes, feeling another piece of herself slot into place. This was right, she realised, this was good, this was worth holding on to.
And I don't just want to be your friend, her mind whispered.
They sprang apart almost guiltily, Olivia swiping at her treacherous eyes with the back of her hand. "Yeah, what is it Em?" she called, her voice a little hoarse.
"Can I play with Matthew?" Emma pointed at a boy standing beside her with a soccer ball under his arm. "His aunties said I had to check with you."
Natalia glanced past Emma and the boy to look for the adults who were with him. "Oh," she exclaimed, then smiled. "Selina!"
Natalia reached down and grabbed Olivia's hand, dragging her along as she set off. Within a few seconds the two of them had reached the others.
"What a coincidence!" Natalia said, pulling Selina into a brief hug.
"Amazing," Selina agreed, but she caught Olivia's eye before she pulled back and gave her a surreptitious wink. Olivia flushed and a smirk toyed with the idea of playing over Selina's lips. "This is my girlfriend, Rosie," Selina said, gesturing towards the woman beside her. "Rosie, this is Natalia Rivera, one of my oldest friends."
Natalia leaned forward to shake her hand. "Pleased to meet you," she said, then turned slightly towards Olivia. "This is Olivia Spencer, my..." she trailed off, momentarily lost for words. My boss she'd said to her mother, but what a slap in the face that would be to Olivia now. Hell, what a slap in the face it had been to her then. Natalia coughed to cover her hesitation. "My friend," she said. "My dearest friend." She blushed a little at Selina's raised eyebrow, then held out her hand towards her. "Olivia, this is Selina Steiner. We grew up together."
Olivia and Selina shook hands. "Pleased to meet you," they said simultaneously.
For a moment it was slightly awkward, and none of them really knew what to say to one another. Then Emma tugged on her mother's sleeve and begged again to be allowed to play.
As soon as Emma and Matthew were kicking the ball around happily Rosie smiled and extended her hands. "Well, would you care to join us?" she asked. "We're having a little barbecue and we've brought way too much stuff..."
"As always," Selina said, sliding her arm around Rosie's shoulder and smiling at her indulgently. "Rosie doesn't consider any day a true success unless someone's been overfed."
Olivia laughed, and raised her eyebrows at Natalia. "Now who does that remind me of?" she teased. Natalia swatted her arm.
"I thought you loved my nurturing side," she said. The lines around Olivia's eyes softened.
"Good point," she said softly.
Rosie and Selina glanced at each other, and Selina's eyes said I told you so while Rosie's said I see what you mean.
"We'd love to join you," Natalia said with a smile.
Selina held out her arm towards a picnic table and portable barbecue sitting under the canopy of a leafy tree. The late evening sun was still shining brightly and it was warm enough to be in short sleeves. A light breeze carried the sounds of happily conversing adults and laughing children. Natalia let it wash over her, feeling at peace for the first time since she and Olivia had left the spa. Without thinking about what she was doing she ran her fingers down Olivia's arm and tangled their fingers together.
"Lead on," she said to Selina.
Emma watched Matthew juggling with the soccer ball for five whole minutes before getting bored. It had been vaguely entertaining at first, watching him stop the ball from touching the ground, but it was getting old. "I thought you wanted to play," she said at last.
"Just watch, I'm really good at this," he replied, concentrating hard on the ball.
Emma sighed. Boys, she thought to herself. "I know, but you could do that by yourself. I might have to go home soon."
Eventually Matthew decided that the prospect of a playmate was more enticing than performing for an audience. "Okay, you be keeper," he said. He pulled off his jacket and his sweater and bundled them on the ground as makeshift goal posts. The two children spent a contented half hour or so practicing penalty kicks, most of which Emma managed to save.
"You should join a team," Matthew said in awe. "You're really good."
Emma blushed and grinned bashfully. "I think I was just lucky," she said.
Matthew shook his head. "Nuh uh. My aunt Selina says there's no such thing as luck. Hey, you want to rest for minute?"
Emma nodded and laid down in the grass with her chin resting on her hands, watching the four adults talking. Matthew collected the ball and threw himself down beside her, breathing hard and sweating a little.
"How come your aunts don't look alike?" Emma asked after a few minutes. "Aren't they sisters?"
Matthew laughed. "No," he said, shaking his head. "They're girlfriends."
Emma turned to face him, eyes wide with curiosity. "Girlfriends?"
Matthew nodded. "Yeah...you know, two girls who're like BFFs."
"Oh," Emma replied, her face clearing. "Like mommy and Natalia!"
Matthew shrugged. "I guess. It's different though. Aunt Selina and aunt Rosie live together, and they don't have boyfriends like my mom does."
Emma frowned. "Well...we used to live together," she said doubtfully. "And mommy hasn't had a boyfriend in a while. Natalia was supposed to marry uncle Frank, but she decided she didn't want to."
Matthew stretched out on his side, resting his head on his hand. "Do your mom and Natalia hold hands and hug and junk?"
Emma glanced over at her mom who, at that very moment, had her arm round Natalia's shoulders. "Yeah, they do," she said. Matthew nodded.
"Yeah, they're probably girlfriends then," he said matter-of-factly. Emma's face lit up.
"That means we can all live together again, and it'll be like before!" she said excitedly.
Matthew shrugged again. "I guess so," he said. "You want me to be the keeper this time?"
Emma nodded. "Yeah, okay."
Natalia glanced over at Emma and Matthew for the fifth time in as many minutes, frowning slightly.
"Would you relax?" Olivia said, tugging on their still joined hands. "She's just playing."
Natalia's cheek's coloured a little and she ducked her head. "I know," she said. "But you know what she's like. She just wanders off sometimes. And there's poison ivy, and mosquitos, and bats, and-"
Olivia hushed her with a gentle finger pressed against her lips. "Are you done?" There was a thread of laughter running through her voice, her eyes were bright, the evening sun was making her hair shine in a quite enchanting way, and Natalia was sure she'd never been more beautiful. She swallowed, resisting the urge to press a kiss against Olivia's finger. That would be a very bad idea. Like she wasn't already sending the mother of all mixed signals.
"Yeah," she managed to croak, then coughed. "I'm done."
Olivia smiled, and let her finger trail slowly from Natalia's lips to her jaw. "Good," she said softly, then turned to Selina who was watching them with a grin on her face. "So...you said you and Natalia went to school together, right?"
Selina glanced at Natalia whose eyes had widened. Honestly, what did she think she was going to say? Yes, Natalia and I were best friends, who slept in the same bed at sleepovers and hugged at every opportunity and once kissed at a party, but we don't talk about that. Yeah, that would go down well.
"We sure did," she said. "We were always in competition to see who'd be top of Mrs Pullman's math class."
Natalia seemed to breathe a sigh of relief, and Selina smirked. Olivia turned to Natalia with a smile. "You never told me you were good at math," she said.
"Probably because the ability to do calculus and algebra hasn't really been relevant in my life so far," she said, laughing. "Although being able to quickly work out whether it's cheaper to use cloth diapers or disposables, or which brand of peanut butter gives you the most calories per cent - that did come in handy." She smiled a small, self deprecating smile.
"I'll have to use that when my students ask me what the point of studying arithmetic is," Rosie said. She pulled open a cooler that was sitting at her feet and offered Natalia a bottle. "Do you like beer?" she asked. "I've got water or soda as well."
"Beer's fine." She took the proffered bottle and snapped the cap open. "You're a teacher?"
"Fifth grade," Rosie replied. "Matthew's in my class." She nodded over at her nephew. "Which he doesn't much like, as you can imagine."
"He about died of embarrassment one time when he accidentally called her Aunt Rosie instead of Ms Stone," Selina said, taking a sip of her own beer before opening another bottle for Olivia.
"Is he Caroline's son?" Natalia asked, glancing over at the boy who seemed to be losing whatever game they were playing.
"Mmm hmm." Selina nodded. "He spends quite a bit of time with us though," she added. "Caroline is just as flaky as ever. Matthew's got a new daddy every other month."
Olivia flinched a little. Although, to be fair, she'd never quite been that bad. "Well, it's good he has some stability with you guys then," she said.
"That's the idea." Selina stood and clapped her hands together. "Right, who wants to help me with the dead cow? Natalia?"
"Do you have to call it dead cow?" Natalia looked a little queasy at the thought.
"You know me, 'Talia, I calls it like I sees it," she replied, dragging Natalia from her seat. "Now come on."
Once the dead cow - or burgers, as Natalia insisted Selina call them in her presence - were sizzling away over the charcoal, Selina glanced at her friend with a slightly hesitant smile. "So, about yesterday," she began, but Natalia waved her off.
"It's okay," she said. "You...you were probably right."
Selina flipped one of the burgers. "Probably right as in...what, exactly?" she asked, one eyebrow arching into her hairline.
Natalia suddenly seemed to find the ground very interesting. She ground down into the dust with her heel and shrugged. "You know," she said.
Selina shook her head. "Nuh uh," she said. "I'm not falling for that one. You have to say it - I'm not saying it for you."
Natalia pursed her lips. "God, you're annoying."
"I pride myself on it."
A pair of frustrated brown eyes rolling exaggeratedly was her response, but she kept her mouth firmly shut. "Fine," Natalia said at last. "You were right. I think I might be...I mean, I'm probably..."
"Gay, okay? I'm probably gay. Happy?"
Selina scoffed. "Well, that is what gay means," she said.
"Oh, shut up," Natalia muttered, covering her face with her hands.
Selina relented. "Natalia...it really doesn't matter whether I'm happy about it," she said. "What matters is how you feel about it."
Natalia spread her fingers a little so she could peek out at her friend from behind her hands. "I have no idea how I feel about it," she admitted. "Being in love is one thing. I could rationalise that, I could say to myself that it was pure and holy and that it didn't matter that the person I loved was in a woman's body because it was all about the soul." She dropped her hands, grimacing and laughing at herself at the same time. "But apparently I'm more interested in the body than I thought I was."
Selina glanced over her shoulder to where Olivia and Rosie were chatting over beer and chips. "Yeah, I can see why," she said.
"God, you're impossible," Natalia muttered.
"Oh come on, Natalia, what do you want me to say? I'm a cynical bitch, remember?"
Natalia shook her head. "No, actually, I don't remember that."
"Yeah, well, I was trying to impress you back then," was the reply. Selina looked up from the burgers and sighed. "All right, all right...I'm sorry, okay? I just don't see why realising that you really enjoy having sex with someone you're in love with is such a big crisis for you."
Natalia closed her eyes and shook her head. "It just felt...I don't know. I thought it would be different. I thought I wouldn't feel so...oh, forget it. You wouldn't understand." She turned as if to walk away, but Selina's hand on her shoulder stopped her.
"Hey," she said seriously. "Come on, don't go. You can talk to me. I promise I'll keep the sarcastic commentary to a minimum."
Natalia hesitated, then turned back to her friend, biting her lip. "Okay," she breathed. "Fine. But please don't make fun of me."
Selina held up her hand. "Pinky promise," she said. Natalia blushed, but offered her own pinky to shake, just like they'd done when they were kids.
"You know I've been with men before," she began slowly. Selina nodded. "First Nicky, when we were young. And then I met him again a few years ago, and we got married. And that should have been perfect, right? It should have been everything I ever wanted. I thought it was. But every time we made love I just felt...I don't know. Wrong. Like I was doing something wrong." She paused, wiping away a few stray tears. "He didn't really love me," she whispered. "Not the way he loved his first wife, anyway. And I suppose I thought that's why it never felt quite right. Why it never felt beautiful, like it's supposed to."
"Natalia..." Selina moved forward, grasping Natalia's hand and squeezing gently. There was a pained expression on her face.
"I'm okay," Natalia said, shaking her head. "I think...I think I need to get this out, okay? I've never said this to anyone before."
Selina nodded. "All right..."
"And then," Natalia went on. "And then there was Frank. And what a monumental mistake that was. I mean, we're talking epic here. I was just...using him to run away from feelings I didn't understand. And it was awful. Worse than with Nicky. I mean, I didn't just feel empty I felt dirty."
Selina bit her lip, a caustic comment about Catholic guilt straining to be allowed out of her mouth. "I'm sorry," was all she said, with an effort. Natalia smiled, sadly.
"I thought it would be different with her," she explained. "Because I love her so much, and she loves me and we work. We just fit together so well, and we complement each other, and she...don't laugh."
"I won't." Selina held up her pinky to remind her of the promise. Natalia closed her eyes, and took a deep breath.
"She completes me," she said at last, with a sigh. "And I thought...I thought that would make it okay. That it would be beautiful, for the first time, because it was with her."
Selina squeezed Natalia's hand, her brow knitting together in a frown. "And it wasn't," she said. Natalia shook her head.
"It wasn't," she agreed. "And I don't know why..."
Silence stretched between them, with the sizzling of the burgers in the background, mingling with the hum of Rosie and Olivia's conversation and the boisterous laughter of the children's play. "Natalia," Selina began, but Natalia shook her off, a sad smile on her face.
"It's okay," she said. "This is something I have to figure out for myself, I think." With that she backed away and returned to Olivia's side.
"Hey," Olivia greeted her with a warm, beautiful smile. "You're done with the dead cow?"
Natalia nodded and sat down next to her, moulding herself to her side as Olivia's arm slipped round her shoulders. "Yup," she said shortly. Olivia squeezed her a little closer.
"Hey, are you all right?" she said. Natalia turned to her with a small smile on her face.
"How is it you always know exactly what I'm feeling?" she asked. Olivia smiled hesitantly.
"Do you really need to ask me that?" she said. Natalia shook her head, and impulsively leaned closer to place a soft kiss on her cheek.
"No," she admitted. "Not really." Selina appeared back at the table with a large plate of slightly burnt burgers. "Hey," Natalia said, as Selina called the kids over.
"Yeah?" Olivia's eyes were shining a little.
"When we're done here," Natalia said. "Can you take me to church? I think I'd like to go to evening mass."
"Do you...do you want to come in with me?"
Olivia glanced up at the church, watching the last few worshippers straggling inside. "I haven't been to mass in twenty five years," she said softly.
Natalia shrugged with one shoulder. "That doesn't mean you can't. If you want to."
A deep sigh slipped from between Olivia's parted lips. "Yeah...that's the thing. I don't think I do." She grimaced. "I mean, I respect your beliefs Natalia, I really do, but I-"
"Sssh." Natalia placed a finger over Olivia's lips to hush her, just as Olivia had done to her earlier when she was fretting about Emma. "Will I see you tomorrow?"
Olivia nodded. "I'm going to look at a building I might like to buy tomorrow," she said. "I'll need my assistant, if she's free."
Natalia sat back in her seat and smiled. "You're actually going to look at property?" she asked. "I thought that was just a story for my mom."
"Oh," Olivia said with an answering grin. "Come on. I'm not that clever."
Natalia shook her head. "You are brilliant," she said, patting Olivia's thigh as she unclipped her seatbelt. "I'll see you tomorrow?" Olivia nodded.
"Okay...bye bye, Jellybean." Emma leaned forward in her seat so she could kiss Natalia goodbye.
The first hymn had started when Natalia finally dragged herself away from Olivia and Emma. She had waited until Olivia's hired car disappeared round the corner before hurrying up the steps to the church. The same church she'd run out of the day before, in fact.
Had it really only been a day? She shook her head as she genuflected and shuffled into the back row. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
It was a different priest saying mass today, and for that Natalia was grateful. The last thing she needed was to be recognised and questioned. This was her mother's parish of course; no doubt she was well known by now as the prodigal daughter. She allowed her thoughts to drift as the priest welcomed them to the service and said the opening prayer. It was a vigil mass, so the prayers and readings were really for the following day, Sunday.
And that was just what she needed. The routine and the tradition and the familiarity of worship that had been with her every Sunday for as long as she could remember, with one little gap around the time Rafe was born and she had briefly felt like she wasn't welcome in God's house.
She still remembered the first Sunday she'd gone to mass with Rafe in her arms. She'd expected looks and whispers and judgement - had braced herself for them and practised holding her head high in the mirror for three weeks before making the attempt. And none of that had happened. She'd been completely ignored, as if she were nothing out of the ordinary. And so she'd gone back, week after week, and had gradually become part of the fabric of parish life. She'd made friends and volunteered to read on Sundays and had been one of the first to sign up when some recently retired women had set up a childminding service. Not once had anyone asked where Rafe's father was. Not once had they ever made her feel ashamed or sinful or inferior.
Not that Natalia was naive. She knew that wasn't the reception she'd have got in every church. She'd just been lucky enough to randomly pick a church with a young, progressive priest and a generally young population. Or maybe it wasn't luck. Maybe she'd been led there. Just like she'd been led to Springfield...to Olivia.
She'd fought against it, of course. She'd tried to deny it and to force it down inside herself, and she'd tried to make it not exist. But she couldn't help it. When she looked at Olivia in unguarded moments she knew the truth. She could look behind her and see every moment she'd ever lived, every step she'd ever taken along every narrow path lit up and leading inevitably, inexorably to this time, this place and this...person.
Which was the crux of the issue, of course. This woman.
She was still somewhat lost in her thoughts when the reader stepped up to the lectern and began to recite the first reading. It was still the Easter season, so it was a new testament reading from the Acts of the Apostles. She listened absently, but it wasn't until the second reading - from the first letter of St John - that the words really penetrated her foggy consciousness. "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us."
She closed her eyes. She knew the rest of this reading. She'd turned to this part of the Bible again and again over the last few months as she searched desperately for some way to justify her feelings, some way to make loving Olivia okay. She knew what was coming next. God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.
That was one of the verses written on her heart. It sat there, beating its message into every rush of blood through her veins, along with the first chapter of the book of Ruth and 1 Thessalonians 5:21, and all the other snippets she'd sifted through and clung to as...justification...for being in love with someone she'd always been taught it was wrong to love.
Natalia had always trusted in the teachings of the Church to guide her to what was right. And it hadn't really ever steered her wrong. It had taught her the value of charity and selflessness and of giving of herself. That was what she'd spent her life doing, in fact - giving of herself. And while she had a hard time believing that God could create a sinful form of love, she could quite easily accept that selfishness was the ultimate wrong.
Was loving Olivia selfish? Was wanting her selfish?
She was still pondering that particular question as she listened to the Gospel and the homily, as she processed to the altar for communion, as she recited Amen to the priest's dismissal. But she didn't leave. Instead she joined a short queue of people waiting outside a confessional.
"Bless me Father, for I have sinned," she said as she knelt in the unfamiliar booth. "It's been three weeks since my last confession."
There was a rustle of cloth on the other side of the barrier. "Go on."
He sounded a little bored, Natalia thought. He'd probably listened to a dozen near identical confessions already today. She'd never thought about it from the priest's point of view before. He had to sit and listen to every misdeed, every crisis, every doubt that ran through the mind of his parishioners. And he wasn't allowed to talk to anyone about it. It must be pretty lonely.
"I-" she began, then coughed to clear her throat. "I...did something yesterday that I'm not exactly proud of. Uhm...several things, in fact."
"All right." He didn't sound any less bored.
"Okay...well, first I abandoned my mother at my father's funeral," she said. She could almost see the priest's eyebrows raise and ears perk up. That got his attention, she thought with a smirk.
"There was someone I needed to see," she replied. "Which leads me to the second thing I'm not proud of." She closed her eyes. "I left my mother at her husband's funeral, alone...to go and meet someone in h-...their hotel room. And I...slept with them."
There was an exhalation of breath, but the priest didn't sound shocked. He must have heard worse in his time, Natalia reasoned. "I assume you're not married?" he said.
Natalia shook her head, then remembered that he couldn't see her. "Uh...no," she said. "We...uhm, we can't get married." Not in this state, anyway. Selina's words floated through her mind, making her smile just a little.
"I see," said the priest. "What's her name?"
"Olivia," Natalia replied without thinking. "Wait, what?"
The priest chuckled softly. "Just a guess," he said. "I've heard people playing the pronoun game before."
Natalia breathed out through clenched teeth and waited. When the priest said nothing more she frowned. "Aren't you going to say anything?" she asked. "Aren't you going to talk to me about shameful lusts and abominations?"
To her surprise, the priest actually laughed. "I assume if you wanted to make a confession about engaging in homosexual behaviour you'd have mentioned you slept with a woman in the beginning," he said. "As you didn't, I surmised you actually wanted to talk about something else."
But Natalia wasn't ready to let it go. "The teaching of the church is pretty clear on this though, isn't it?" she said.
"The teaching of the church," the priest replied, "is changeable. In fact, it's changed quite a lot even in my lifetime. I assume you've read all the church documents promulgated since the second Vatican Council, yes?"
The priest sighed. "You know, I think this is shaping up to be a long conversation. How would you like to have coffee with me in the parish house? After I hear the rest of these confessions."
Natalia considered the offer for a moment. "Okay," she said at last, hesitantly. "I...uhm...I'll just wait outside then."
Natalia stopped mid movement. "Yes Father?"
"Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace. I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
Tears nipped at her eyes and she brushed them away with a slightly trembling hand. "Thank you, Father," she said, and with that slipped from the confessional to wait in the church.
By the time Olivia got Emma settled into bed the girl was drooping and could barely keep her eyes open, but she still demanded her usual story before she'd consent to go to sleep.
"Okay honey, why don't you pick a book?" Olivia said with a small smile painting her lips. It had been a good day, and she felt like indulging the little girl.
Emma shook her head. "I want you to tell me a story about you," she said. Olivia blinked.
"Me, honey? Oh...I don't know. I'm not very interesting."
"I think you're interesting," Emma said, the beginnings of a pout forming at the corners of her mouth.
Olivia's smile turned into a full fledged grin. "Oh really," she said, digging her fingers into her daughter's sides and causing her to shriek with laughter. "Well, I am very flattered." She allowed her hands to still and pulled the still squirming girl close for a hug. "So who else should be in this story?" she asked. "Me and you and who else?"
Emma settled back against the pillows. "Ava," she said. "And Natalia and Rafe."
One perfectly sculpted eyebrow raised almost of its own accord as Olivia stroked Emma's hair back from her face. "Them too, huh?" she said softly. "Why's that?"
Emma looked up at her mother like she was one of the slow kids at school that the nasty kids made fun of. "Because they're our family," she said. "Duh."
I'm not going to cry, I'm not going to cry, I refuse to cry, Olivia thought, brushing at her eyes anyway just in case any treacherous tears had escaped. "Okay baby," she said, smiling radiantly. "I'll tell you a story about...uhm...Olivia Spencer, the most notorious highwayman the kingdom ever saw, and Natalia Rivera her trusty sidekick who convinced her to give up her criminal ways and open a hotel instead. Sound good?"
Emma giggled. "Okay," she said. "But Ava and Rafe and I have to be in it too."
"You will be," Olivia assured her, pulling her blankets up a little higher and tucking them under her chin. "If you have a little patience, you'll see - everything will work out exactly as it should."
"Promise?" Emma mumbled, a little sleepily.
"Cross my heart," Olivia replied. She paused for a moment, marvelling at just how much she loved this sweet, wonderful girl who for years she'd believed was the only thing she'd ever done right in her life. Maybe that wasn't true anymore though. Maybe being there for Natalia, in whatever guise Natalia needed her to be, was something else she could add to her very short list of successes.
"Okay," she said, with a final kiss to her daughter's forehead. "So, once upon a time in a faraway land there lived a notorious highwayman named Olivia Spencer. Not that many people knew her name, of course. To most she was known only as The Purple Shadow..."
Natalia alternated between sitting and pacing until the disapproving looks shot her way from the few people still waiting beside the confessional became too much. Instead she dug around in her pockets for some loose change and dropped it into the donation box beside the candles at the Our Lady altar. She lit a candle with a practised motion and then dropped to her knees on the soft leather before the statue.
"I would talk to my own mother," she began quietly. "But I think we both know how that would turn out." She smiled up at the statue, as if expecting it to acknowledge her joke with a wink and a wry chuckle. "Still, you're supposed to be everyone's mother, aren't you? So you ought to help me."
Bowing her head, Natalia racked her brains for all the Marian devotions she knew. The Hail Mary was the most obvious, and she said ten of them, counting them off on her fingers in the absence of rosary beads. She followed that up with the Memorare, voice cracking a little as she recited the words "sinful and sorrowful." Hail Holy Queen was the next prayer that dropped from her mind to her lips, and by the time she reached the line: "Oh clement, oh loving, oh sweet Virgin Mary, amen," the priest had arrived and knelt down beside her.
"Good evening," he said softly. Natalia turned her head slightly to face him. He was older than she'd thought he'd be - probably pushing seventy, with a mess of fluffy white hair on his head and a set of very impressive eyebrows. It wasn't the same priest who'd said mass; in fact, Natalia had never seen him before.
"Hello Father," she replied.
He nodded up at the statue. "It's lovely, isn't it?" he asked, then went on without waiting for an answer. "I often come in just to look at it, and say a prayer or two. Would you like me to teach you one?"
Natalia blinked, then nodded. "Okay," she said.
The priest nodded, then began to recite. "I trust your might, your kindness, mother dear. I do believe that you are always near. Whatever happens, mother mild, I blindly trust in you and in your child. You know the way for me, you know the time. Into your hands I trustingly place mine. Your plan is perfect, born of perfect love. You know the way for me: that is enough." He turned to her and extended his hand. "My name's Joe Dunham. And you are?"
"Uhm...Natalia Rivera," she said, shaking his outstretched hand. "That's...that's a really nice prayer."
"Isn't it?" he said, turning his attention back to the statue. "I find it helpful when I'm having the occasional crisis of confidence. Sometimes you just have to stop worrying and trust, you know what I mean?"
Natalia's lips twitched. "Is that supposed to be some kind of subtle hint?" she asked. The priest shook his head.
"No," he said. "Just an observation." He smiled, and rubbed his hands together. "Now," he continued, beginning to sound businesslike. "I'd better start this conversation by reminding you that the official teaching of the Catholic church is that homosexual relationships are intrinsically disordered and run contrary to the natural law."
Natalia flushed, feeling his words like a punch to the solar plexus. "I-I know that," she said.
The priest nodded. "Good," he said. "Good, good. Well, now that's out of the way why don't you come with me and we can talk about what's really bothering you."
He stood, a little creakily, and began to walk slowly to the church door. After a moment of stunned silence, Natalia followed him.
Emma had dropped off to sleep sometime after hearing about The Purple Shadow's most amazing robbery to date, during which she'd stolen a whole carriage which just happened to have a very annoyed Natalia Rivera trapped inside it. Olivia had slowed her words to a trickle, just to make sure the girl was really asleep, and then she'd given her one last kiss before heading back to her own half of the suite and fishing out her cellphone.
"Hi," she said when the phone was picked up after two rings. "It's me, Olivia."
"Hey," Selina replied. "How you doing?"
"I've been worse," Olivia said, with a slightly ironic smile. "Listen, I just wanted to thank you for today. I think it really did Natalia good to see...I don't know...how normal you guys are. I think she had the idea that being with me meant throwing away all her skirts and getting a crew cut or something."
Selina chuckled softly. "I don't know, I think Natalia could carry off a buzz cut."
Olivia closed her eyes and pictured a river of silky ebony hair; imagined running her hands through it, sifting it between her trembling fingertips. "Over my dead body," she almost growled. Selina laughed again.
"Down girl," she said. "I'm not planning on attacking her with a razor or anything."
"Well, good." Olivia opened her eyes. The hotel room was mostly dark, with just a little amber light bleeding in from the street below. She could hear the muted hiss of traffic, almost overwhelmed by the hum of the air conditioner and Selina's soft breathing on the other end of the line.
"I hope everything works out," Selina said quietly, and something in her tone made Olivia's heart clench.
"Did she say something to you?" she asked, sitting up straight and pulling a pillow against her chest.
Selina sighed deeply. "She told me she loves you," she said. "So, so much. Just...just, hold on to that if things get a little rough, okay. I'm not saying they will!" she added quickly, forestalling Olivia's interruption. "Just...if they do. Please, don't ever doubt how she feels."
Olivia breathed deeply through her nose. "I won't," she said. "I mean...I don't. I trust her."
"Good." There was a pause, and then Selina took a deep breath. "I don't know if I should be telling you this," she said in a rush, "but I'm going to anyway. Do you know that Natalia has never had good sex before?"
Olivia laughed. "Uh...yeah, she said something about that," she said.
"I don't mean just enjoyable," Selina clarified, and Olivia could practically see her shaking her head. "I mean she told me that she's always felt...I don't know...wrong or dirty afterwards. Typical Catholic bullshit."
Olivia blinked. "But...what about her husband?" she asked. "What about Gus?"
"Gus? Oh, you mean Nicky. Yeah, with him too. Look, the girl is messed up. I don't know if it's just some ingrained religious shit, or if there's more to it but...I guess you should know. You're the one who's gonna have to deal with it."
Olivia frowned at the shadows dotted round the empty hotel room, trying to digest this new information. "Thanks," she breathed at last.
"Anytime," Selina replied. "And let me know if you want us to accidentally bump into you guys again. I can clear my schedule."
Olivia managed a short laugh. Somehow she didn't think they'd get away with that one again. Like Natalia had said once, she wasn't that naive.
Father Joe fed Natalia two cups of coffee and several home made cookies without continuing the conversation they'd begun in the confessional. Instead, he'd asked her to tell him about Olivia and Natalia had done so - haltingly at first, and then with growing confidence until at last the words were falling from her lips like rain and she was laughing.
"She's so funny," she said, chuckling at some half remembered joke. "You know for so long I pretended she wasn't? I perfected this stony faced look so she wouldn't know she'd won. One time I actually came right out and said I don't think you're funny. You'd think someone had kicked her puppy!"
The priest smiled. "She sounds like a very interesting woman," he said. Natalia nodded eagerly.
"She is," she said. "She's fascinating. Every time I think I've seen every possible side of her I uncover a dozen more. She's...I don't know, she's just amazing." Natalia drifted into silence, a faraway look in her eyes.
"That's what love is though, isn't it?" the priest remarked quietly. "The eternal mystery of the other. And the quest to know someone so deeply that they become a part of you."
Natalia's eyes fluttered closed. "She's already a part of me," she said. "I'm not sure I know where she stops and I begin."
Her eyes snapped open as she felt a warm hand land on hers. "Looks like you begin here," Father Joe said. "And she's somewhere else."
Natalia flushed a deep crimson. "Okay, so that was dumb," she allowed. "But...what I mean is that things just...make more sense when I'm with her. Normal things, like looking after her daughter or making sandwiches or eating dinner. I've never felt..." She shrugged. "At home," she said at last. "When I'm with her I feel at home."
The priest busied himself pouring a third cup of coffee for them both, adding cream and three sugars to his own. "So what's the problem?" he asked. "Sounds like you know everything you need to know."
Natalia raised her eyebrows. "What's wrong?" she asked incredulously. "Well, how about the whole intrinsically disordered thing you were telling me about earlier? Can we start there?"
"Certainly." The priest sat back in his chair, nibbling on a cookie and sipping his coffee. "Firstly, let me first ask you if you know what disordered means?"
"A disorder is an illness-" Natalia began, but the priest cut her off with a wave of his hand.
"No," he said. "Being gay is not a disease. Everyone knows that. Disordered, in this context, simply means 'against the natural order'." He pushed the plate of cookies over to her, and shrugged when she refused. "But let me ask you this - if something is unnatural, doesn't it follow that it should be completely absent from the natural world?"
Natalia tilted her head to one side. "Yes, I suppose so," she agreed.
The priest nodded. "You know what people used to say? Animals don't engage in homosexual acts, that proves it's unnatural! And then when we discovered that a lot of animals actually do exhibit homosexual behaviour those same people started saying we're better than animals! We should be above animalistic behaviour! Something of a logical minefield that one. Do we take our cues from animal behaviour or not? Apparently, it depends on which agenda you're trying to push."
Natalia began to rub her temples with her fingertips. "The Bible says-" she began, but again the priest interrupted her.
"Oh yes, please tell this old man with a doctorate in theology what the Bible says," he muttered. "May I remind you my dear that the Bible is a library of books, not just one. It contains histories and poetry and letters and narratives and laws - and all of them had a specific audience in mind. As we are not that audience, it's up to us to interpret what is still relevant."
Natalia shook her head in confusion. "Are you saying you can just pick and choose what to believe?" she asked.
"No, not at all," Father Joe said. "I'm merely suggesting that you should listen to what God is trying to tell you, in all the ways he's trying to tell you it. The church teaches that there are three ways that God speaks to us. Do you know what they are?"
Natalia brightened, delighted to have been asked a question she actually knew the answer to. "Yes, I do know this," she said. "The scriptures, the teaching office of the church, and individual prayer."
"Otherwise known as the conscience," he agreed, taking another deep sip of his coffee. "The second Vatican Council reaffirmed the importance of the conscience in matters of morality. Think about it, my dear. The scriptures were originally written thousands of years ago. They were passed on by word of mouth for generations, and then they were written down and translated, and re-translated countless times. The church bases its teachings on those scriptures, and on the thoughts of various holy men - and they were mostly men, of course. When I talk to God in the silence of my own heart - that's the only way I know it's just me and him. No translations, no interpretations, no intermediaries. Do you ever feel like that?"
Natalia sat back and took a deep breath. "I know all this," she said softly. "I've read the Bible, cover to cover, I've read interpretations, I've read books on theology." She blushed briefly, remembering some of the other books she'd read to prepare herself for the idea of being with Olivia. The kind of books that had arrived in the house in plain brown paper and she'd read with a flashlight under her blankets, even though there was no-one around. "I really thought I'd made my peace with everything," she continued, dragging her mind back to the matter at hand. "I mean, I almost married a man a few weeks ago, just to run from these feelings. But even if I had gone through with it, it wouldn't have been right, would it? Even if a priest had performed the ceremony, it still wouldn't have been holy. Because I don't love him."
The priest nodded carefully. "That's right," he said. "The sacrament of matrimony is more than just words. It's love."
Natalia closed her eyes. "Right, it's all about love. Everything is about love. God is love, right, that's what I kept telling myself. And so I thought and I prayed and I really believed that love was what mattered. Until yesterday."
Father Joe leaned forward and grasped her hands. "What?" he asked gently. "What happened?"
Natalia swallowed hard. "I-" she began, then had to stop to clear her throat. "We...well, Olivia and I...were together. You know. And it was..." She sighed. "I don't know what it was. I just know it wasn't right. I mean, if love is what matters then it should have been beautiful, right? Because I love her so much I sometimes forget to breathe when I'm with her. So why...why wasn't it? I don't understand why it wasn't right. Maybe God's trying to tell me it is a sin after all?"
For long moments neither of them spoke. Natalia pulled her hands from the priest's and took a sip of her now cold coffee, wincing at the bitter taste.
"When did your father die?" the priest asked suddenly.
Natalia blinked. "Uh...just over a week ago," she said. "What does that have to do with-"
"I'm trying to establish your emotional state, my dear," he said, as if it should have been obvious. "How were things between you and Olivia when you met yesterday? Any issues or problems?"
Natalia blushed. "Well...someone from home had told me they saw her with another woman," she admitted. "But it was nothing like that," she rushed to assure him. "I mean, I know now she didn't do anything wrong."
"But you were angry with her?" he asked. Natalia nodded.
"At first," she admitted. "Not now."
Father Joe leaned back in his chair and regarded her with a dumbfounded expression. "What?" she said, squirming a little uncomfortably in her seat.
"Are you seriously asking me," he began incredulously, "why a sexual encounter fuelled by grief, anger and jealousy wasn't beautiful?"
A blush spread from Natalia's chest to the tips of her ears. "I just mean-"
"For God's sake, woman," he muttered, interrupting her. "Surely you can see that the motivations behind an act are just as important as the act itself! If you feel like you've committed a sin, maybe the sin is using sex as an act of possession rather than an expression of love!"
He stood suddenly, the chair scraping across the floor. "Father, what are you doing?" she asked. He had stalked over to a bookshelf and was rifling through it.
"Looking for...aha, looking for this," he exclaimed, pulling a slim volume from the shelf. "The Pope's first encyclical, one of the best things ever written about love - physical and otherwise." He thrust it into her hands. "Read it."
She glanced down at the copy of Deus Caritas Est he'd forced upon her. It looked well thumbed. She looked up again, catching his eyes. "I will," she promised. "Father, what you said about an act of possession..."
He sat down again. "You said it yourself my dear - you were jealous and angry, weren't you? Couldn't you have been - consciously or otherwise - claiming her rather than loving her?"
Natalia cast her mind back, flushing as she remembered marking Olivia's perfect skin, growling you're mine, the thrill that had rushed through her at Olivia's answering I'm yours Yes, that was exactly what it had been about. Nothing subconscious about it. "Yes..." she said slowly. "Yes, I was."
"Pure eros," he said, shaking his head. "Possession. Taking, rather than giving. You'll understand when you read the letter."
Natalia slid the priest's gift into her purse with shining eyes. "All right," she said.
Father Joe leaned forward and grabbed her hand again. "Don't be afraid," he said gently. "Have faith. And if you feel the need to repent something, you know where I am. Just make sure you're repenting the right thing, all right?"
Natalia nodded. "I'll try, Father," she said.
The priest smiled. "That's all anyone can ask."
It was nearly eleven by the time she got back to her mother's apartment. It was dark, and she could hear the sounds of her mother's regular breathing coming from her room and the gurgle of Rafe's snores from the living room. After a quick glance at her son to make sure all was well, she escaped into her own room, with the pastel pink walls and the New Kids on the Block posters from another life. She slipped the book from her purse and opened it.
There was a long night ahead of her.
In the end, Natalia didn't sleep a wink.
Father Joe was right - the Pope's letter was beautiful, but it was also dense and sometimes confusing, especially to someone operating on more adrenaline than sleep. It spoke of facets of love, and balance, and the search for the eternal through human relationships. And as she read Natalia had begun to realise that her life, to date, had been completely unbalanced.
She had always been first in line to give of herself. No-one could accuse Natalia Rivera of being uncharitable, after all. And whether it was baking dozens upon dozens of cookies for the church bake sale, or going without meals so that her son's belly could be full, Natalia had always been ready and willing to sacrifice. And this trait extended into her romantic life too.
First Nicky, whose arms she'd run to as a frightened child, terrified of a self she couldn't live with. She'd needed him as shelter, a place to hide, and so she'd given him her body in payment. Later, when they were married, she'd sold herself in much the same way - this time in exchange for the normal family and easy life she knew Rafe had always dreamed of. And Frank...Frank was a rinse and repeat mistake, familiar ground.
Sex for her had always been about giving - giving herself, giving pleasure, giving her body like it was a commodity to trade for safety, or normality. It had never been enjoyable per se - not until Olivia. But with Olivia she had swung too far the other way - taking, grasping, claiming, possessing. Although she loved Olivia, it hadn't been beautiful like she'd wanted their first time to be.
The letter she still held in her trembling hands described the kind of beautiful love-making she'd been dreaming about. There would be a balance of give and take, with every facet of love joining together like the colours of the spectrum to create a pure, white light.
I could have that with Olivia, she thought, hope rising in her heart for the first time in weeks. We could do this. We could make this work.
Because she knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that Olivia loved her. She could feel it as an almost physical force whenever they were in the same room. And like she'd said to Father Joe yesterday - love was what mattered. The church wouldn't sanctify their union, but love would. Love, respect, restraint, balance - with those, she could make this right.
Bolstered by this new-found sense of peace and confidence, she found herself laughing, quietly at first and then more and more freely, until finally she attracted onlookers - Rafe and her mother.
"Ma?" Rafe asked, a confused smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. "What is it? Why are you laughing?"
She dropped the letter onto the bed and rose up to take him in her arms. "I just realised that everything is going to be okay, baby," she said, holding him close.
Josephine snorted. "How do you figure?" she said, sarcasm dripping from every word. Slowly, Natalia's laughter died.
"Mom-" she began, but Josephine cut her off.
"You came home late last night," she snapped. "What were you doing?"
Natalia swallowed hard, fighting the urge to cringe back like she was a frightened school-girl. "Olivia, Emma and I went to the park," she said, only a little defensively. "We ran into Selina and her partner and their nephew. We joined them for something to eat. Then I went to vigil mass and confession."
A deeply unpleasant sneer formed on Josephine's face. "Long confession," she said. "You had a lot to confess, hmm? Like what you get up to with that so-called boss of yours."
Natalia flushed and Rafe looked between them in confusion. "Ma?" he mumbled, a frown creasing his face.
Not like this, Natalia's mind screamed. Don't do this mom, I don't want him to find out like this!
"Olivia is my boss," she said softly. "And anything we may 'get up to' is not anything I need to confess."
A look of incredulity followed by fury rolled across Josephine's face. "You lie to me in my own house!" she demanded, her voice raising. "You think I'm stupid, Natalia? First you carried on with that dreadful girl Selina - right under my nose! And now you try to tell me this woman is just your boss?"
Natalia took a deep breath. Rafe was looking at her with an expression of dawning horror. "She's not just my boss," she said softly, but clearly. "She's the best friend I've ever had. She's my family. And I love her."
Her declaration was like a solid object in the room. It slid from her lips and coiled up on the floor like a sleeping cobra, then reared up, ready to strike. And it struck Rafe first.
"What?" He took a step back from her. "Ma, what are you saying?"
The blood had drained from Natalia's face, but her voice was steady. "If you're old enough to ask the question, you're old enough to hear the answer," she murmured. She took another deep, steadying breath then found his eyes and held them. "I'm in love with Olivia."
There was a moment of stunned silence before the explosion, a calm before the storm. Natalia could hear nothing but the ticking of the clock on her bedside table, feel nothing but the pounding of her own heart. Rafe's eyes registered shock, disgust, hurt, anger, confusion, all in varying degrees, rolling in and out like waves at high tide.
"Oh my God," he muttered. "Oh my...no. No. I can't believe this. I refuse to believe this!"
"I can believe it," Josephine interjected, suddenly reminding both mother and son that they were not alone. Natalia's head snapped round.
"Of course," she said sharply. "You knew. When I was a kid, and Selina was here..."
"Awful girl," Josephine muttered, frowning.
"Who the hell is Selina?" Rafe demanded, but Natalia ignored him. She couldn't deal with that now.
"What was so awful about her? That she was my friend? That she wasn't Catholic? Or that she was gay?" She turned to face her mother, crossing her arms across her chest. Josephine threw her hands up in the air.
"I was trying to protect you!" she exclaimed. "That girl was trouble. Temptation!" Natalia scoffed.
"Right, so throwing her out of the house that morning was supposed to remove the temptation, was it?" she demanded. "It doesn't work like that mom! You don't stop being gay just because the object of your affection isn't around."
Natalia snapped her mouth closed and turned to her son guiltily. She had almost forgotten he was there. "Rafe," she began, reaching out to him, but he flinched away.
"I don't understand," he said, a whining tone entering his voice. "Ma, you're not gay. Come on, ma. You were married! To my father, a man. You can't be gay. You can't."
Natalia's lower lip trembled. Why did she have to say it out loud so soon after being able to admit it to herself? Was this some kind of test? God making sure she was certain about this whole thing?
"I'm sorry, Rafe," she said softly, wiping at a few errant tears. "I...I think..." she closed her eyes, then shook her head. "I am," she said at last, without qualifications. "I am."
The shock of her declaration sent him reeling like a physical blow. He shook his head. "No," he pleaded. "No...Ma, this isn't right."
"Rafe," she said, reaching out to him, but he flinched away.
"Don't touch me!" he screamed, and Natalia reared back as if struck. "I don't know you. You're not my mother." He took one step back, then two. "I'm outta here."
He got as far as the door before he was stopped in his tracks by a commanding bellow that brooked no contradiction.
"Don't you dare walk away from her!"
Natalia gaped at her mother, not quite able to believe what had just come out of her mouth. Josephine was bristling with anger. She grabbed Rafe by the hair, dragging him back into Natalia's bedroom and throwing him to the bed, ignoring his gasps of pain and disbelief. "Grandma," he gasped, but one look from her quieted him.
"Shut your mouth you ungrateful wretch!" she shouted. Natalia's jaw almost hit the floor, but her mother ignored her. "How dare you speak to her like that? How dare you? Since the moment you were born she has done nothing but love you and care for you and put you first. She's only ever wanted what's best for you. You have been her entire world for as long as you've been alive. Who are you to walk away from her now, just because she's made a mistake?"
Natalia picked her jaw back up off the floor as her own anger re-asserted itself. "Love is not a mistake," she said, but Josephine waved her away.
"Oh, of course it is," she said dismissively. "It's selfish and sinful and against God's word, Natalia." Rafe was rubbing at his sore scalp, but he nodded along with his grandmother.
"Listen to her, ma," he said. Natalia shook her head in disbelief. An old anger rose up from a long buried pit in her stomach, burning through her throat, choking to be set free.
"You want to talk about sin?" she said, her voice deceptively calm. "Because we can talk about sin, if you really want to."
Josephine turned to face her. They stood opposite each other like two boxers waiting for the bell, with Rafe between them like a confused referee. "What are you talking about Natalia?" she growled.
Natalia almost laughed. "I'm talking about hypocrisy!" she exclaimed. "I'm talking about you and dad bringing me up as a Catholic, saying prayers, going to church, believing in love and forgiveness. And then-" she broke off, almost choking on bitterness and vitriol. "And then...when I got pregnant-"
"Ma," Rafe interrupted, reaching out to her. Natalia waved his hand away, not breaking eye contact with her mother.
"And then," she continued. "When I most needed you to love me and forgive me...you betrayed me."
Josephine flinched as if she'd been slapped. "We betrayed you?" she gasped. "How dare you!"
"Ma, what is this?" Rafe demanded, standing up and forcing his mother to look at him. Natalia turned her eyes onto him, the lines of her face tense with fury.
"You want to pontificate with her about sin, huh Rafe?" she hissed. "With her?" She turned back to her mother and spat the accusation like a bullet.
"If she'd had her way you would never have been born!"
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