DISCLAIMER: Guiding Light and its characters are the property of Proctor & Gamble. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

The Easy Life
By Doubleyoo


Part 21

Olivia's fingers trailed across Natalia's jaw, starting just before her ear and running down to her chin, then slipping down her neck, tracing the tendons in the slender column to the dip of the clavicle, her pointer finger circling the hollow once, twice. Her eyes followed her exploring digits, and Natalia gulped at the heat and love those roiled ocean colored discs contained. The exploration continued, fingers moving further south, brushing down Natalia's sternum, a searing palm coming to rest against the Latina woman's chest just between her breasts.

Olivia's eyes jumped back up to meet Natalia's briefly before slipping back down to watch her hand as she slid it to the left, to cup a full, heavy breast. The dark-haired woman could not contain her moan, and she unconsciously jutted her chest out, pushing herself more firmly into Olivia's hand. Olivia bit her lower lip, ignoring the sting where her teeth pressed into bruised and tender flesh. She squeezed, and felt Natalia's nipple pebble to diamond hardness in her hand. She felt emotion washing through her like a tidal storm, gathering up everything in its path and sweeping it into the raging torrent, carrying it all to the ocean of her love for this woman, this beautiful woman. The seas inside her roiled and raged, and she felt herself slipping, falling…

And then she was aware of being laid back into softness, and Natalia's voice was around her, soothing the pounding tides of her heart. "There you go. Just lay back, Olivia. That medicine's kicked in now, and you need to sleep." Olivia tried to shake her head no, tried to argue that the last thing she wanted to do was sleep, but the darkness was already closing in around her, and her eyes were already shut, incapable of being opened again in spite of her most dire threats and inner urgings.

She managed only one word, a whisper, air shaped by her lips into sound so she wouldn't upset the other woman by breaking the doctor's orders again. "Stay."

"Of course, baby. I'll be right by your side, tonight, tomorrow night, and every night for the rest of our lives…" The words were the last thing Olivia heard before she slipped into her sedative-fueled sleep, but they pointed her dreams away from the rocky coastline of her oft-explored nightmares, and sent her sailing in the direction of a tropical paradise, where the beaches were white and warm, the forests lush and green, and a copper-eyed woman waited for her in the gently lapping waves.

Natalia stirred the pancake batter, looking over to check the heat on the stove. The skillet was warming up; by the time she finished stirring the crushed bananas into the viscous liquid, it would be time to start pouring the little globs onto the heated surface, and once all the pancakes had cooked, she could make the bacon and eggs. She'd gotten up extra early to have enough time to make all the food, wanting to surprise everyone. She smiled to herself at the thought of the reason she needed to make so much food.

Sam and Ava had surprised everyone, herself included, by mutually declaring that they were moving back to Springfield. Ava had already arranged for movers to pick up and ship her things, and she and Rafe were headed out next week to box up her clothes and sundry other items that she didn't trust the movers to handle. The two had formed a fast bond, and had already become more tightly knit than most siblings who'd been raised together.

Natalia supposed that she shouldn't be surprised that the two had found in each other kindred spirits. She just hadn't expected it, and so it was taking some getting used to, watching them already share inside jokes and secret codes meant to enable them to have clandestine conversations in full view of the supervising parental figures. Doris had called it appallingly alarming, citing with surety the belief that they would get each other into serious trouble at some point, and, though she was inclined to agree (her troublemaking boy and Olivia's trouble-finding daughter simply could not be a good thing for the shrinking of the chaos in all their lives), Natalia couldn't help but be happy about the fact that her son finally had an older sister to taunt him and stand up for him. Ava, of course, seemed thrilled to have a little brother to tease and to adore. They were already quite the pair, those two.

Sam, however, had been having a harder time finding his place in this new family. Emma had remained angry with him, and was only just now starting to get around to forgiving him for running away from what she called his "family 'sponsorbilities." While he had taken up residence in one of the three guest rooms, Ava having taken Olivia's old room, he seemed out of sorts and ill at ease for the first few days. Often, he would sit with Olivia only while she slept, seeming unwilling to be around her when she was awake. When the doctor had cleared her to speak again, the very first thing she'd done was demand that he shut the door with them both inside, and she'd kept him in the bedroom for over an hour. When he'd emerged, they'd both had red eyes, but neither had spoken of what was said. Olivia would only tell Natalia that she and Sam had caught up, and had said the unspoken things that needed saying.

Olivia. Natalia's eyes closed as she thought of her sweet Olivia. They had worked out a tit for tat relationship so far, in a manner of speaking. Natalia had quickly learned that, in order for Olivia to be comfortable with being so exposed in front of the younger woman, the favor had to be returned in kind. Thus, when Olivia had to be unclothed in front of Natalia for her bath, Natalia helping her into and out of the tub, or when she had to change the hotelier's clothes, Natalia literally stripped down right along with her. Of course, this led to lingering glances, shy touches and tender kisses more often than not, but, as if by some sort of mutual agreement, neither side had taken it any farther than that at this point. They were waiting on something. Natalia wasn't sure what, but she wasn't worried about it. Olivia's walls had stayed securely down, even when Natalia was not the one with her. Natalia flipped the first batch of pancakes, smiling as she remembered how their routine had developed.

That first night, they'd carried plates and dishes and silverware up to Natalia and Olivia's bedroom, everyone eating on the floor around the bed, the food laid out between them like an indoor picnic. Doris had left that night with the assurances that she would return in the next morning, and return she had, with Ashlee in tow, and three folding card tables with matching chairs. The tables and chairs were set up in the bedroom at each mealtime, so everyone could eat with Olivia, and she with them. Doris had also brought with her Olivia's blackberry, which she'd retrieved from the Beacon, having some pull to get into the crime scene and secure it.

She'd passed it to Natalia, saying, "Here. Make sure she has this with her so she can just text someone if she needs to. You know, if she's ever alone again." Left unspoken was the acknowledgement that Olivia had been alone, had not been well, and that Natalia would at some point need to address that with her. The younger woman had thanked Doris with a hug and a whispered thank you, but the intimacy had been short-lived, drowned out by the hungry cries of a full-housed brood.

Now, two weeks down the road, Olivia could talk again, though she was encouraged to do so as little as possible. As a result, her texting was somewhat out of control, but Natalia would never tell her to stop. Not when Olivia would send her messages in the middle of the day detailing how beautiful her breasts were, how angelic she'd looked in sleep that morning, how good she smelled, how much Olivia wanted her, needed her… Natalia shuddered at the thought. Whatever they were waiting for, she hoped it arrived sooner rather than later.

She flipped the next batch of pancakes, her body operating on Autopilot. Thuds from above her told her that Sam was awake, and she knew that he would get Emma moving as well. In spite of the distance that remained between them, in the mornings, Sam was the only person aside from Natalia herself who could seem to point the little girl's half-asleep enthusiasm into the direction of getting ready for the day. Secretly, Natalia mused that it was because Emma was just like Olivia had been at that age, and that Sam had some experience with his older sister to guide him with Emma. More thuds and muted voices, followed by laughter and a slamming door told her that Rafe and Ava were up, and engaging in the morning ritual of dueling for first shot at the bathroom. Judging by the mock-outrage trailing down the stairs in a baritone voice, Ava had won this morning's round.

A car pulled up outside just as Natalia put the last pancake onto the serving platter and covered them with a towel to keep them warm. She opened the packet of bacon, and started lining the sizzling pieces up on the large skillet, then reaching for the small mixing bowl she used to crack the eggs. She'd go ahead and get them scrambled now, so she merely had to cook them when the bacon was done. She'd cook Olivia's turkey bacon last. Olivia always wanted the pork version, but she'd grudgingly come to accept Natalia's edict that, if she wanted bacon or sausage, ever, it would be coming from a bird, and that was that.

When the knock sounded at the door, she frowned. Doris and Ashlee no longer knocked; they just walked right in. She turned away from the stove and walked to the door, peering out through the mudroom and into the early morning light beyond. And her heart froze. Frank Cooper stood peering in at her, his eyes dark and unreadable. Shakily she looked behind her. No one had come down yet to help her cook. She'd started early, wanting to surprise everyone with an already prepared breakfast, to give them all more time to lounge and chat in their bedroom cum folding accessory dining room. She looked back at Frank. He had not moved, his hands shoved deep into his coat pockets, still looking at her, still waiting. Natalia swallowed, then waved her hand, motioning for him to come in. Crossing back to the stove she picked up her spatula, prodding at the bacon as she heard the door open and close behind her. Footsteps sounded, one, two, three, and then stopped. She knew Frank was standing in the middle of the room, directly behind her. She took a deep breath. "What brings you by so early, Frank?"

His reply stopped her heart and sent the spatula clattering to the floor. "Olivia."


Part 22

The sound of the cooking utensil hitting the floor echoed loudly in the suddenly silent room. Natalia looked down, vaguely registering that it had come to rest at her feet, and thinking that she was going to have to wash it now, how annoying. She turned to face Frank, and found him staring at the picture of Olivia posted on the fridge, the one she'd taken at Henry's christening. In it, Olivia smiled at the camera, at the photographer, her smile wide and open and radiating love. Funny. She could see it now, could see the adoration that at the time she'd mistaken for friendship. Oh, how hindsight offered such clarity.

"She's beautiful isn't she?" He sounded amazed, sad and amazed, and his eyes didn't leave the smiling visage immortalized in a snapshot taken by an obtuse lover. Natalia looked again at the photo, then reached out and snatched it down. She shouldn't have this out, she thought. It was too easy for someone to come in here and see this look, this expression that was meant only for her. She would have to frame it, and put it up in their bedroom. She didn't want anyone outside of their family to ever see Olivia, her Olivia, this way. God, she'd have a hard enough time fighting off her rivals as it was; she didn't need to give them any more incentive.

"She's everything, Frank. Why are you here?" He stared at the blank spot on the fridge, his eyes never moving from the spot where the picture had just been, as if he didn't see its absence.

"Is- is she ok, Natalia?" His eyes finally met hers, and she drew a sharp breath. Tears, unshed, pooled in heavy eyelids, and she registered for the first time the exhaustion that blanketed his form, hunching his shoulders and coating his frame.

"She's recovering nicely." She paused, then as an afterthought added, "You can't see her, Frank."

"No!" He seemed startled. "No- I-" he shook his head, blinking, sending some of the tears trickling down his cheeks. "No, I didn't come to see her. I wanted- I came to talk to you." He ran his fingers through his hair. "My fath- Buzz. He's very ill. The doctors- they say that it's been going on for some time, that it's why he's been so…angry, so prone to losing his temper." His unfocused gaze rested somewhere over Natalia's left shoulder.

"Is that why you're here? For pity, for Buzz?" Natalia felt her anger rising.

"No, I-" He sighed. "I loved her once, too, you know? Not like you do, not the way you do, but I loved- love her. I never wanted anything like this to happen." He met her gaze. "I was so happy at the thought of you, Natalia, that I never stopped to really think. And I see it now, I get it. You and Olivia- you deserve each other. I know that." Natalia waited. He looked down, taking a breath, as if to strengthen his resolve, looked back up and continued.

"I only want the best for you both, and any fool can see that the two of you are the best thing for each other." He gave a wry smile, his face twisting at the irony of his statement. "Even an obtuse fool like me, you know? And, I- I'm going to have to deal with what Buzz did, our whole family is. I'm sorry, Natalia, so sorry. She never deserved this."

"No." Her voice was firm, strong. "No, she didn't Frank."

"Buzz… has some kind of aneurism. The doctors say it's a slow bleed, and it's been pressing on his brain for a while now." He shrugged. "It's what caused his aggression, his anger. Detective Pratt seems to think that it'd be pointless to press charges, because it'll just get thrown out when it goes to trial because of medical reasons." He looked up at her. "I told him to file anyway. What he did- there's no excuse for it, Natalia, none. He knew, better than anyone, what a delicate person Olivia really is." His shoulders slumped, and he ran his fingers through his hair again.

"I know it's probably not worth anything, to either of you, but I wanted you to know. I can't- I won't forgive him for what he did, no matter the reason. And I didn't want either of you, at any time, to think, even for a second, that I want him to get away with it." He shrugged. "Maybe I'm a bad son, I don't know. I just- I want him to pay for what he did."

He fell silent, and Natalia regarded him thoughtfully. "You didn't do this, Frank. It's not your fault."

"Isn't it?" He laughed humorlessly. "I'm the one who insisted that you marry me, who moved heaven and earth to arrange that wedding, and I knew, I knew, that it wasn't right, and that you didn't want it." He shrugged. "I just didn't want to accept that you might not want me, and I thought, I hoped, that if we were married, and if you could see us as a family, that maybe you might learn to want it, too." More tears trickled down his face. "I'm sorry, Natalia. I'm just so, so sorry."

Natalia felt like the earth had just tilted beneath her feet. "You knew? You knew, and yet you still insisted that we be married? You made me feel so guilty, like I was betraying you, and you knew all along?!" Frank hung his head in shame in lieu of an actual answer, but it was all the confirmation she needed. "Frank, I- I don't know what to say."

"You don't have to say anything, Natalia. I just-"

"Shut up, Frank. I'm talking now." Shocked eyes flew to meet her gaze, and she glared at him until his mouth clicked shut. "You always talked for me; now it's my turn." She bent and picked up the spatula, tossing it into the sink and grabbing another, flipping the bacon as she gathered her thoughts. "I tried, so hard, to be the perfect woman, the perfect wife for you, Frank, and I did that because I told myself that you loved me, that you understood me. It wasn't until our counseling session with Father Ray that I found out how duplicitous you'd been with me, forcing Olivia to play Cyrano to your Christian, but I am not Roxanne, Frank!" His clueless look at her reference to classical literature didn't stop her.

"You treated me like I was nothing more than chattel, and expected me to just play along. Even if I wasn't in love with Olivia, which I am, completely, but even if I wasn't, I would have left you, Frank!" She paused, allowing her words to sink in. "I would have left you anyway. Because you never saw me, you never loved me, and even as confused and silly as I have ever been, I have always known that I deserve to be loved for who I am, not who I might be." The anger coiled in her like an angry cobra, and Natalia had to force herself to breathe, to stop, before she said anymore that she couldn't take back.

"I'm sorry, Frank, for what Buzz did to all of us. And I'm glad that you were big enough to come here today and admit your own wrongs. Know that I don't blame you for what he did, that I don't hold you responsible for his actions, nor does Olivia. But also know that, no matter what, I will never fully trust you again. I lied to you, Frank, because I thought I had to, because I thought God and my son and the woman I loved more than my own life needed me to, but you?" She sneered. "You lied to me to please yourself, and there is no honor in that."

Distantly, Natalia heard the sound of another car, and knew that Doris and Ashlee had arrived. Shuffling sounds in the hallway told her that she and Frank had an audience, though she didn't know who. Suddenly, she was done with him, with his face and his presence in this house, her home, her haven. "Leave now, Frank. You aren't welcome here anymore."

Frank looked at her, his eyes forlorn. He looked around the kitchen, seeing the crosses and the Virgin Mary figurine interspersed with Olivia's and Emma's things, childish drawings on the fridge, a Bluetooth headpiece hooked over the figurine's neck, a necklace hanging from the little cross next to it. All signs of the family already living in this house, all things he'd pictured gone, replaced with his own knick-knacks, all previously seeming temporary to him. He'd seen them as items to be replaced, not symbols of the happy home he'd nearly helped destroy.

"I'm leaving town, Natalia. I just wanted to apologize before I left. I'm sorry." His voice broke on the last word, and Natalia knew that the old her would have rushed to comfort him, would have jumped all over herself for causing him pain. But the new her, the one who'd nearly lost everything because she'd been afraid to hurt this one man, this man who had just admitted to her that he'd used that fear against her, this new Natalia felt no remorse, only pity for the man who'd gambled everything on the surety of his own convictions that he was right, and who had lost it all when his self-assurances had come home to roost. She watched with cold detachment as he exited the kitchen the way he'd always come, through the door she'd never had the sense to bar against him. She was sorry that he suffered. She didn't really think, though, that he was entirely undeserving of the pain.

The shuffling in the hallway started to recede as the door closed behind him. "Whoever's in the hallway better get in here now!" Natalia knew she sounded sharper than she intended, but she'd apologize later. She was too on edge right now.

"I'm sorry, Natalia. I didn't mean to eavesdrop. I just didn't want to leave you all alone with him." Sam stood in the opening, this great big hulk of a man, and Natalia knew that she could break him with a word. You're so much like your sister, she thought. You let me handle my own problems, but you stay nearby in case I need you, and you let me have such power over you.

"It's ok, Sam." Her voice was softer now. She walked to his side, and wrapped her arms around his neck, standing on her tiptoes to reach. He paused just a moment, then returned the embrace. "Thank you," she whispered into his shoulder, "for being there for me."

"Sure thing." He pulled back and smiled down at her, and Natalia was once again struck by the beauty so prevalent in the Spencer clan, most noticeably in their smiles. "Anything for my future sister-in-law."

"Anything?" She smirked as the smile fled his face. "I'll keep that in mind. In the meantime," she gestured behind her to the growing spread of food, "someone needs to carry all of this up and wake up Olivia so we can start setting up for breakfast." He sighed.

"Fine. But tomorrow, Rafe and Ava are on the wake-the-sleeping-monster detail. I'm going to start getting emotional scars from all the insults she hurls before she gets her coffee." Natalia chuckled, and went back to her stove. The bacon was done. Time for the eggs.


Part 23

Doris looked around at the crowd she sat amidst. Ashlee was seated next to Rafe, and they appeared to be having an animated discussion about the merits of something called a "whee" versus something else called an "ex-box." Whatever the hell those were. Next to them, Ava held Emma on her lap, and was braiding her hair while talking to Olivia about the things she had to pack up in her old apartment in San Francisco. She was trying to mentally work out how much storage space she was going to need, and apparently, this line of thought required that she voice it out loud. Olivia had offered her some of the space at the Beacon, but she seemed to think she was going to need more than that.

Natalia and Olivia sat on the bed, Olivia reclined with her injured leg up on pillows. Her eyes were completely focused on her two daughters, but her hands were moving with a mind of their own. One brought the fork to her mouth, feeding her the morsels from the plate resting on the bedtray in front of her, over her lap. The other stroked though Natalia's long dark hair, working out invisible tangles and soothing nonexistent strays. Natalia was talking to Sam, who had pulled his chair up closer to the bed, holding his plate in his left hand as his right gestured wildly. Dimly, Doris noted that he was talking about remodeling the old barn into a guest house of sorts.

She looked around, and caught a glimpse of herself reflected in the bathroom mirror through the open door. She looked so strange, here in this room full of people, and yet, she felt as if she belonged. Odd. She'd never imagined that she'd ever have a family like this. It was too good to be true. It would eventually end, she knew it. Nothing good ever lasted for her.

"So, Doris," Ava had finished her conversation with her mother and had now turned to face her, scooting the now French-braid-sporting nine-year-old off her lap. Emma happily skipped over and crawled into Doris's lap, pulling the other woman's arms around her middle and reaching over to pull her plate closer. She frowned when she realized she'd already eaten all of her own bacon, and, with a casual glance at Doris behind her, stole the two pieces off of the mayor's plate and put them on the smaller, divider dish she preferred. Eyebrow arched at the young miscreant's antics, Doris almost missed Ava's question. "When are you going to settle down with some nice woman and stop running around town being the political crusader?"

The room fell silent, all other conversations screeching to a halt as Doris felt her good thing come to an end. "Wha-what?!"

"Mom told me that you were so helpful to her when she first realized what she was feeling for Natalia, and I was just wondering when you were going to find some nice lady for yourself… and…" she looked around, noting for the first time the mix of shocked and horrified gazes being cast between her, Doris… and Ashlee. She glanced back at her mom, and noticed that Olivia's mortified gaze had not moved from Ashlee's face. She looked at Ashlee, and saw the most horrifying expression of all: complete and utter shock. "Oh my God." She looked at Doris again. "You weren't out, were you?"

Doris could only shake her head slowly, unable to tear her eyes away from Ava's wide green ones to meet the cerulean blue of her daughter. She couldn't bear to see the rejection they'd hold. "Mom?" Ashlee tried to get her mother's attention. "Mom!"

Doris flinched, her eyes snapping to her daughter's face. "You're a lesbian, too?"

Doris couldn't speak couldn't breathe. Instead, she just stared blankly at her daughter, letting her silence answer for her. Ashlee took a deep breath, pushing her plate away from the edge of the table at which she sat and getting up. She stood for a moment, then crossed the room quickly, falling to her knees beside her mother. "You're gay?!"

Doris felt the small body in her lap lean back into her as Emma's hand came to rest on her own where they crossed her small waist. "Don't be mad at Aunt Doris because she didn't tell you, Ashlee. She's sorry, right, Aunt Doris?" The small face tilted up to meet her gaze, and she swallowed, overwhelmed.

"I'm not mad, Emma. I'm not mad at all." Ashlee's hand reached out and wrapped around her mother's forearm. "I'm just sorry that she didn't think she could tell me, because she was probably afraid that I wouldn't love her anymore. And that's just silly, because she's my mother, and I love her, no matter what." Doris saw her vision go misty, and it took a moment to realize that she had tears in her eyes at what her daughter had said.

"Ashlee," she whispered.

"It's ok, mom. Now I know why you never wanted to go out with those guys on that dating website I signed you up for." Ashlee grinned, and Doris felt a chuckle escape her, followed by another, and another, until she was letting loose a full-on belly laugh, and the rest of the room joined in. Ashlee stood and hugged her mother, including Emma in the embrace as well. Emma beamed at her when she stood back, and her mother gazed at her with such wonder that it stole her breath.

"I have an amazing daughter," she said to the room at large.

"I'll say," said Ava. "Now, tell us more about this dating website, missy." She shrieked as pieces of pancake, bacon, eggs and biscuits all came flying her way. "What?! What did I say?!"

Outside, more laughter, followed by shrieks and thumps echoed out the open windows and across the field. Alicia the duck looked up from her spot in the grass next to the pond. Her head tilted curiously when she heard the dark one's voice talking loudly about cleaning up, and who was going to be in charge of getting the sticky syrup out of the floor if they didn't stop it right. This. Instant. Alicia would have sneered if she'd had the lips to do so. These humans were really ridiculous. She settled back into the reeds, calling her ducklings to come to her. She was so going to have to find a different pond next year.


Part 24

Five days later, Olivia sat alone in the bed she'd come to think of as hers and Natalia's. The younger woman was downstairs on the computer, ironing out some kinks with an upcoming event at the Beacon. Olivia flipped idly through the channels of the television they'd brought up for her. The house was too quiet. Emma was at school, finishing out the term before the summer officially started, Rafe and Ava had left the day before to pack up Ava's things in San Francisco, and Sam was meeting with a contractor to start pitching ideas and bidding for his idea to turn the old Barn into a guest house where the older members of the family could live. She and Natalia had been a bit unsure about the idea at first, but Sam had pointed out that it would be good for him and the adult children to have a place more their own, where they could be young adults, while still being so close to the farmhouse and the family within. The selling point for Natalia had been Rafe's excitement at the prospect, and the dark woman's excitement on his behalf had in turn convinced Olivia.

The phone rang, and Olivia looked to the doorway with a frown. It was the middle of the day. Everyone they would want to talk to knew that they would be there, and usually just came by instead of calling. Who could that be? Her question was answered a few minutes later when Natalia came bustling into the room.

"That was Emma's school," she said, gathering her jacket and purse. "Emma's sick. I've got to go get her. Will you be ok here by yourself for a little while? You have your phone if you need anything, right?" She bit her lower lip. "Should I call Doris to come out here and sit with you?"

"No! No. Just-" Olivia blew out an exasperated breath. She hated being so weak. It would be another week before the doctor would clear her for a soft cast and allow her to begin trying to walk on her injured leg. The muscle had torn, badly, as he'd feared, and her anti-rejection medications were slowing the healing process for that as well as the rest of her injuries. "Just go get our daughter, ok? I'll be fine. Don't bother Doris, she's very busy. I don't need a babysitter." She couldn't keep the irritation out of her voice.

"Olivia…" Natalia looked at her, chocolate eyes melting with sympathy. She crossed the room to perch on the bed beside her wounded lover. "I'm sorry. I hate it, too." Olivia ran her fingers through her hair and reached out for Natalia's hand.

"I know, I know." She squeezed, then pulled Natalia to her for a quick kiss that ended up being a little less hasty and a lot less chaste than she'd originally planned. "I'll be fine," she said when Natalia pulled away slightly and rested their foreheads together. "I'll be waiting here!" she chirped brightly, smiling to soothe Natalia's upset nerves.

"Ok, I'm going to go get Emma. We'll be back soon, ok?" Olivia nodded, unable to speak past the lump in her throat, ever present these days when Natalia treated Emma as her own. She watched the dark haired woman leave after one more peck on the lips, and sighed as she sat back against the pillows. She heard the door open and shut downstairs, and the sound of Natalia's car faded away moments later. She shut her eyes and drifted off, the medicine she was on for pain making her sleep even through her worry for her daughter.

The sound of the door slamming shut downstairs woke her. She waited for a moment, but didn't hear any sounds. A niggling sense of fear prickled in her, and she grabbed up her phone. Then she heard heavy footsteps start making their way through the living room, toward the stairs. She dialed 911, and pressed send without thinking, her eyes focused on the open door of the bedroom. The operator answered just as the steps started up the narrow stairs. "Please send the police quickly," she hissed into the phone. "Someone's in my house!"

She gave her address, and started to try to pull herself off of the bed to hide, following the operator's urgent instructions as she heard the footfalls start on the landing outside her room. And then her door pushed open, and she locked eyes with the intruder. "Alan!" Her hand tightened on the cellular, and she didn't realize until she'd done it that she'd accidentally pressed the end button on the phone. Oh, well, serves him right if the police show up, she thought to herself.

"Hello, Olivia." Alan looked around. "How… quaint." The disdain dripped off his words, and Olivia felt anger coil within her.

"What do you want, Alan?" He looked at her, his gaze running down his nose and haughtily taking in her rumpled state, her leg propped up and the bruises still yellowing on her face and neck.

"I came to arrange a time to come pick up my granddaughter to stay with me while you recover from your little incident." He looked around again. "I can't imagine it's good for her, to be in this environment, seeing you and Natalia like this."

"Get out, Alan." Olivia was seething, impotent fury at its finest. She longed for something, anything, to throw at him.

"I will not get out, Olivia. Nor will I allow my youngest grandchild to continue living in this hovel surrounded by such poor examples! Really, living with a convicted felon, an immoral older sister, a gallivanting young uncle, all of whom could be bringing home all kinds of riffraff, and you in your state, not to mention this little, unnatural fling you've got going on with Natalia. I won't have it!"

"You don't have a choice in the matter, Alan. Now get out!" Olivia's fists were clenched; if only he would come closer, so she could reach out and wipe that smirk off of his face…

"Really? I think I can do something about it." He rocked on his heels, ready to play his ace in the hole. "I was just talking to Judge Walker about it the other day, and he was appalled at the thought of the youngest Spaulding living here, cramped into this tiny little house with all of you people, like Mexican sardines," Olivia bristled at what she knew was a racial slur directed at Natalia, "and he seems to think I have a very good case for family court." Olivia felt the blood leave her face, and her heart thudded dangerously.

"You wouldn't dare." She spoke through clenched teeth, terror and fury rendering her incapable of any further response.

"Wouldn't I?" His eyes gleamed maliciously, and Olivia knew he meant to do exactly as he'd threatened.

"No, you wouldn't." Both Olivia and Alan started, turning to look at the third speaker. Phillip Spaulding stood in the doorway to the bedroom. He looked at Olivia. "I was driving back from a trip to Chicago when the call came over the police scanner. I was only a few minutes away, so I detoured right over." He looked at Alan again. "I believe Olivia asked you to leave, Dad."

Alan glared at his son for a moment, then turned to Olivia again. "I'll see you in court, Olivia." He walked stiffly out of the room, stomping down the stairs as police sirens became audible outside, speeding up the road to the house.

Phillip watched him go, then looked back at Olivia. "I'm sorry. I'll handle this, and I'll stop him, don't worry." Olivia nodded jerkily, watching him start to walk to the stairs.

"Phillip!" He stuck his head back in the door. "Emma's sick. Try to have everyone gone soon. Natalia's gone to go get her from school, and I don't want them thinking-"

"I'll take care of it, Olivia." She nodded, her lips pursed in gratitude. He paused. "Do you think- would it be possible for me to stick around for a while after, to see my daughter, maybe read her a book or something?"

Olivia regarded him for a moment. "If I say no?" His shoulders sagged, and she watched the strange hopeful look fade from his face.

"Alright. Fair enough." He started to back out again.

"Phillip!" He stopped, looked at her. "You can stay. I'm sure Emma will be very happy to see her Daddy." The smile he gave her was the same one he'd given her all those years ago, when she'd pointed out that there was no longer anything stopping them from being together, and, for a moment, Olivia remembered that she'd once loved this man, this broken boy, and her heart ached for him.

She still didn't trust him, was still waiting for him to morph back into the evil creature who'd broken her right down to the bone, but she suddenly found herself full of pity for him as well. She knew what it felt like to think you were never going to be able to be good enough to make up for all the wrongs committed in a lifetime. She grabbed her phone and sent a message to Natalia, briefly filling her in on what had just transpired, leaving out the threats Alan had made. Those were best saved for a face to face conversation. She settled back against the pillows again, no longer at ease. Alan was going to try to take her baby. What was she going to do?

Phillip pulled the door shut gently, not wanting to wake his sleeping daughter. Emma had a nasty touch of food poisoning, and she'd vomited until she'd had nothing left to heave, then struggled with her stomach's continued efforts to purge its now-empty state. He and Natalia had finally gotten some Gatorade in her, and then he'd read her to sleep while Natalia went to check on Olivia. Now, he followed the sounds of softly murmuring voices, coming to a stop outside their bedroom door.

Inside, on the bed, Natalia sat behind Olivia, cradling the older woman in her arms and smoothing a hand over her hair. She spoke softly, occasionally dropping kisses onto the crown of Olivia's head, and Olivia's eyes were closed, her body completely relaxed into the other woman. Phillip felt as if someone had punched him in the gut. They were so cohesive, so much a unit, these two women. He felt their love for each other like a balm extending outward from the room, exuding peace and calm. And suddenly he knew what he had to do.

"Excuse me, ladies." Two sets of eyes snapped up to him, but neither made any attempt to move away from the other. Inwardly, he smiled at that. Good. He needed to know they weren't going to let others pull them apart. "I'll be leaving now. Emma's asleep. Thank you for allowing me to sit with her." He bowed his head and started to leave.

"Phillip?" Natalia's voice called him back. "Olivia and I were thinking it would be nice if you could come over and join us for dinner a few nights a week." The look Olivia was giving Natalia told him that Olivia hadn't been thinking that at all, but he wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth.

"I'd love that. Would the day after tomorrow be good?" Natalia tilted her head down, eyes meeting Olivia's.

The hotelier sighed, unable to say no to the softhearted woman holding her. Natalia had been very impressed by how good Phillip had been with Emma, and had been more grateful than she knew how to express that he'd been nearby to deal with Alan. Olivia knew that these dinner invites were her way of saying thank you, and so she acquiesced. "That will be fine, Phillip. We'll see you then, seven sharp." He smiled again, that same, boyish grin that he'd given earlier, and behind her, Olivia felt Natalia's breath catch. Yes, love, she thought. That's the Phillip I knew and loved. He left, and she listened to his footfalls going down the stairs.

"Thank you, Olivia." The green-eyed woman turned her head to meet Natalia's loving gaze.

"For what?"

"For giving him the chance to do something right."

Olivia turned her head to face forward again. "Hell, everybody deserves a chance every now and then."

Doris sat at her desk in her office, eyes unfocused on the papers in front of her. Ashlee knew. Ashlee knew, and she hadn't rejected her, hadn't been repulsed. Just the opposite. Ashlee had come to her office after that fateful breakfast, and they'd sat and talked for hours, about everything and nothing. She'd told Ashlee about her first love, and Ashlee had asked questions, and never once been even remotely disgusted at the answers. She had a whole new life with her daughter. She sighed. It still felt too good to be true.

She didn't notice the shadow that darkened her doorway, but she did hear it when it spoke. "Mayor Wolfe?"

Her eyes snapped up, lasering into focus with a speed that would have impressed even the most focused observer. "Yes? What can I do for you, Mr. Spaulding?" Her tone made it clear that it had better not be much.

"I need your help with something." Phillip Spaulding stepped inside, shutting the door behind him.


Part 25

Olivia was loving her life. She had cajoled Sam into carrying her down the stairs earlier, and now she sat out on the porch in her fancy wheelchair, the one Doris had showed up with the day before, with her leg propped up in the extended rest attached to the frame. "What the hell is this?" she'd asked when the strawberry-haired woman and her daughter had lugged it up to the bedroom.

"It's your legs 'til you can use yours again, killer!" Doris had beamed, her arm wrapping around Ashlee's waist. "My daughter had a few contacts at the medical supply store from a story she did awhile back. She got this thing for you for free!"

Olivia had cast a guarded look at the contraption. "How much would it have cost me otherwise?"

"A lot. And I know you're rich and stuff, but it would have been a lot of money for something you don't need for very long, and it's the least I could do for the family who gave me back my mom." Ashlee and Doris had shared a warm look, and she'd decided that she was going to be grateful for their efforts, no matter how ridiculous the wheelchair looked.

Now, sitting outside for the first time in weeks, feeling the summer sunshine on her body and knowing that she didn't have to worry about Natalia fussing at her for defying the doctor's orders to keep her leg elevated and still, Olivia decided that grateful wasn't going to cover it. Ashlee liked cars right? Maybe she should buy her a new one…

Her train of thought was interrupted as a familiar dark sedan pulled up to the house. Even two days ago, the sight of Phillip's car would have had Olivia screaming for Natalia to call the police. Now, she calmly regarded the tall man as he unfolded himself from the driver's seat and walked toward the house. He looked so thin lately, like a malnourished scarecrow. She wondered how things were going with James and Lizzie; not well, if Phillip's appearance was any indicator.

"Hi, Olivia." He stopped in front of her, smiling up at her and waiting to be invited onto the porch.

"Hey, Phillip." She made a show of glancing up into the mid-afternoon sky. "You know, dinner isn't for a couple of hours yet. You're real, real early!" She chuckled, and he laughed along with her. She marveled; was this how it was going to be with them from now on? Easy allies? It felt good. There had been a time, long ago, before Emma, before Natalia, when she'd though Phillip would be her best friend, her companion forever. And it occurred to her now, as she sat in her fancy wheelchair, looking down at a frail, gaunt version of the man she'd once loved, that she had truly missed him, had missed the carefree, tender spirit that had always lurked in the hardened shell of a madness-wracked man.

"Why don't you come up here and sit with me for a bit?" She waved her arm at the bench next to her. "Em and Natalia are going over math problems. It's their special time. Nevermind that I'm ten times better at math than Natalia. She, apparently, is a 'better teacher.'" She made air quotes on either side of her head with her fingers, and Phillip laughed again at her sardonic tone.

"It's ok." He stepped up onto the porch and seated himself next to her, carefully turning her chair on his way so that she would be able to face him without craning her neck. She flashed a quick smile of thanks, and then laughed out loud at his next statement. "You can always teach her your left hook." He sat, but remained leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, and as the laughter faded, his eyes drifted to the yard.

Olivia watched his face, and saw the amusement melt away, leaving deep lines and etched sadness, stress making his skin taught over his cheekbones and twisting his mouth. "Phillip, what's wrong?"

"I've done something, Olivia." He did not look at her, keeping his eyes focused on the pond in the distance, watching the bright rays of sunlight reflect off of its rippling surface. "I need to tell you about it, and I need to tell you why I did it, and I need you to not say anything until I'm done. Can you do that for me, please?"

Olivia felt her stomach drop, but she knew it would do no good if she freaked out before she heard what he had to say. "Alright."

"Thank you." He took a deep breath, looking down at his feet, then looked back up, his face still turned toward the yard. "I went to see Doris Wolfe after I left here the other day." Well, that explained the weird looks Doris had been giving her the past few days. Why hadn't she said anything? "I swore her to silence, Olivia, so please don't be upset with her." Second question answered.

"I needed her help with something. I had to find out which judge I would need to talk to in order to secure Emma's future with you and Natalia." Olivia's breath caught. "You see, I saw you two the other day, Olivia. I saw how good you are together, even in the midst of all the darkness and the bad things going on around here. None of it makes it inside that house. There is nothing but love in there, nothing but goodness and strength." He met Olivia's eyes for the first time. "I want that for at least one of my children, Olivia."

He sat back, rubbing his side and wincing, and Olivia's brow furrowed at the sight, though she kept her word and did not speak. "Lizzie and James are no less precious to me, but I can't do anything for them now but try to instill as much of my love and support into their memories before I'm gone. They've grown up in that house, within Alan's clutches, and I'm never going to be able to save them from that." He shrugged. "Hindsight is twenty-twenty, right? But if I've learned anything, it's that we must learn from our mistakes, and do our best to never repeat them." He reached out, taking her nearest hand into his.

"Olivia, I'm dying. I've got about three months to a year left, and there's nothing they can do." Her free hand flew to her mouth, and Olivia found her vision awash in unshed tears. "And you know, I'm ok with that, as much as I can be, because I know now what I have to do. First thing, though, I had to see to Emma's future. I want it to be beautiful, wonderful, peaceful and full of life and love and hope. I never want her to struggle under the mantle of a family name that demands her soul as a trade for membership to the exclusive club. I never want her to feel the onus of responsibility to the fortune that I and my brothers and Lizzie and James and all the rest of us were brought up to protect. It's not her job to safeguard a legacy; it's my job to safeguard her. And, so, I've disowned her."

"You what?!" Olivia jerked her hand back. She didn't understand. Why would he do this? Why?

"Olivia, let me explain, please." He looked at her, his eyes dark and needy, and she relented under the desperation in his gaze, nodding at him to continue. "I spoke to Judge Franklin, and I told him everything, on the record. I told him about how my father psychologically abused me and my brothers, about how he'd kill off anyone who threatened to pull us away from the family. I told him about what he did with Lizzie, twisting her mind and making her hate you, and I told him about how he used you, a sick and dying woman, to try to steal the wife from his own son. I told him about James, and how Alan keeps twisting his mind, turning him away from the right choice at every turn, and I told him that he would only do all of that, and then worse, to Emma."

He wiped a tear from his eye, and Olivia felt her heart break just a little bit. How, how can that be, she wondered. My heart has broken so many times because of this man; how can he break it more? "You see, I told him about you and Natalia, too. I told him about the love you two share, how it grounds you and sets her free. I told him about the kind of mother you are to Emma, so loving, so attentive, and I told him what an amazing second mother she has in Natalia, who nurtures her and guides her where you leave off. I told him how Emma continues to blossom under your combined care, and I told him that I wanted the record to reflect that for the future, should Alan ever try to overstep my decision. And then I disowned her, but it isn't about depriving her of anything." He looked up, his eyes bright, beseeching.

"It's about giving her everything. My family only takes, Olivia, takes and takes and takes. You know that, first-hand. I want my baby girl raised in a home far away from that gluttony, where she's taught that the greatest gift a person can give is their heart, and where family meals mean the family makes them together, eats together, then cleans up together, because they love each other, and look out for each other, and have responsibilities to each other. I want her to see her siblings as role models, not rivals for affection, and I want her to wake up every morning and go to sleep every night knowing how much, how very much, she is loved."

Olivia was sobbing now, her tears running silently down her face. She made no noise, which disconcerted Phillip, but he pressed on anyway. "My disowning her is not about denying her anything. In fact, I have already set up a trust account for her in the Bahamas. It's untraceable and won't mature until her eighteenth birthday, and it will be enough to ensure that she will never need to work. I don't want you to tell her about that, yet, though. I did it because I wanted to leave her something tangible, some kind of sign that she can hold onto, a proof of how much I love her, and how much I wanted to give her. I just couldn't- can't- and I realized, watching her sleep after she drifted off the other day, that the best thing, the only thing I can really give her, is my absence."

"It's not about the money, Phillip," Olivia said, her voice breaking. "Hell, I've got more money than I can spend, and God knows, Natalia makes me be even more frugal with it. You're her father! She needs her Daddy."

"I know! I know." He sighed. "And, if you'll let me, I'll be here every evening, to see her, to hear about her day, even if it's only for a few minutes. I'll come to dinner when you invite me, and I'll tell her stories to put her to sleep when I can, but it won't last, Olivia. Soon, I'll be too ill to leave my home, and I won't have her come there to see me. I don't want her to be exposed to that family, and more, I don't want her to remember me that way. And I'm hoping that, when she gets older, and she wants to know who I was, that you'll tell her the good things along with the bad, and, most importantly, that you will tell her how very much I loved her, with all my heart. As you said to me recently, I think she may end up being the one thing I did right in my life."

He looked at her then, and smiled. "Well, one of two. The other thing?" He reached out and stroked her cheek, wiping away the tears that coated it. "Loving you, Olivia, was the other thing I did right. I'm so sorry, so, so sorry for everything that came after, but I need you to know that I loved you better than I have ever loved anyone outside of my children. I was me, and so I had to break it, but you were you, too, and it never would have lasted. We were too alike, both too broken to fix the other. But, that woman in there?" he pointed at the farmhouse. "She's your second chance, Olivia. I'm so glad you found her. It gives me peace like I cannot begin to describe to you that at least you will live knowing what it is to be loved like that, like the world begins and ends with you."

"Oh, Phillip. I'm so sorry, too." Olivia clasped his hand to her cheek. "We both hurt each other, so much."

"I know. But look what we got out of it." He stood, bending at the waist and sliding his hand around to the back of her head as he pressed a kiss to her brow. "We share a beautiful daughter, Olivia. Thank you for Emma. Thank you for you. Just, thank you." He straightened, smiling down at her. They both heard it then, the sound of clattering footsteps stampeding down the stairs.

"Here comes Emma," Olivia whispered, her voice soft. "Please go in to say hello. I don't want her to see me like this."

Phillip nodded and started for the door. "Shall I send Natalia out?"

"You won't have to. She'll take one look at your face and come find me." Olivia did not turn to answer him, and only his silence and the sound of the door opening and shutting behind him greeted her response. She waited.

The door opened again, and the scents of lilac and laundry detergent preceded her angel out onto the porch. "Olivia, what's wrong?" Natalia fell to her knees next to the older woman, taking her hands without thought or conscious decision.

"Phillip is going to die," said Olivia, and then the tears came, and she could no longer stop them at all. She fell into Natalia's embrace and let herself weep, knowing that she was safe here, in this refuge, in this woman. She cried and she cried, and then, as the sun grew long in the afternoon sky, she allowed Natalia to dry her tears, pulling a cool washcloth across her swollen eyes. Tender lips found hers, and a soft voice spoke in her ear.

"You can tell me the rest later, love. I need to get the boys started on making dinner. Will you be alright for a moment?"

Olivia tremulously smiled up at her. "Of course I will; I have you."

"I can't believe he did that." The younger woman's voice was incredulous. Natalia and Olivia were lying in bed together, facing each other. Their hands were clasped together between them, the only physical connection they shared. Olivia's eyes were bloodshot from crying, the verdant green standing out violently against the red spiderwebs around them. She sighed, blinking her eyes.

Natalia frowned at the expulsion of air, her eyes searching Olivia's face. She had done her best to comfort the older woman, and it had calmed her earlier, her kind words and loving attention, but now that they were alone together again at the end of the night, she could see the darkness creeping in around the edges again. She felt the faint pull of frustration in the back of her mind. Olivia wouldn't speak now, her mouth soft but closed. There were no frown lines on her face, and her body was completely relaxed, but there was a tension in her that seemed to roil beneath the surface. Natalia did not know how to soothe it; she couldn't stroke its hair, nor hold it to her shoulder, nor speak softly to its ears, nor massage its shoulders into lassitude. This tension in her beloved's body was not accessible to any of her known, tried and true methods, and she found herself at a loss.

Olivia closed her eyes, shutting Natalia out. The Latina felt the excommunication like a blow to the gut. Her mind began to whirl and her breathing became ragged and sharp. No, no, no, she thought. She's shutting me out, and I'm going to lose her if I can't pull her back! Natalia hadn't been so scared since the day Olivia was attacked.

But, what could she do? How could she reach Olivia? She thought back on Olivia's past, reliving in her mind the major events of the past two years, for most of which she'd been nothing more than a periphery figure at best. Olivia had been diagnosed with a fatal disease, and she'd turned to Jeffrey, seeking comfort in the arms of the man who'd hurt her most originally. Why had she let him comfort her? And then, she'd sought comfort from Gus, originally, Natalia knew, to secure protection for Emma from Phillip, because Alan had wanted Natalia for himself, and hadn't been above sending Olivia after her husband to free her for his advances. But, at some point, Gus had become an actual solace to Olivia, and she a balm to his still raw heart after having lost Harley to his own sense of morality. And then, when he'd died, and Olivia had gotten his heart, she'd been inconsolable. No one had gotten through to her, not Ava, not Emma, not Buzz and not even Josh. No one had been able to pull her back from that edge.

Except her. And she remembered when it had happened, the memory vivid in her mind as if it had happened five minutes ago, and not almost a year and a half ago. She had wandered into Olivia's room, to check up on her, and had found the woman sobbing face down in her bed, the covers kicked off and her clothes in disarray, the sweats she'd worn pulled haphazardly over her body, the shirt backwards, as if simply dressing had been too great a chore. Natalia had frozen in her tracks, staring at this woman who had always been such a monster, such a creature of strength and vile ill will, who had only ever shown any emotional vulnerability to her daughters as far as the then-maid had known, and her resolve to hate this woman had melted away like the spring thaws the winter's ice.

Natalia had crawled onto the bed next to Olivia, and had gently but insistently reached out, pulling the heart-broken woman into her arms. The hotelier had resisted at first, but Natalia had just pulled harder, and the resistance had vanished, the older woman flowing like melted chocolate into her arms, face fitting into the place where neck met shoulder, her body warm and liquid with need and hurt. She had pressed herself to Natalia so tightly that there had been no space between them, and filled every space, every void, between them with her despair, her sorrow, her tears. The woman had writhed against her, hands clutching painfully at her back, face twisting in her neck, hot breath panting across her chest with every exhaled sob. The Latina had held her just as tightly, strong hands tangling in dark hair, holding a pained head against the column of her through, running up and down her spine, seeking to smooth the bumps and hitches caused by every rattled sob and broken breath.

Natalia had lain pressed into the mattress, the soft bedding cushioning her back, sandwiched beneath the soft curves and jagged sobs of the woman she'd chosen to comfort. Olivia had cried herself to sleep that day, and Natalia had held her for hours afterward, stroking her hair and back, humming softly, murmuring soft words of care whenever her aching human blanket stirred, soothing the nightmares with calm tones until the dreamer subsided, lapsing back again into visions of sunshine and a great white beach, where the sun was warm, the water soft, and the waves felt like lover's hands on her skin, stroking down her back and into her hair.

Of course, Natalia hadn't known of the content of Olivia's dreams then. The older woman had only told her that recently, when the Latina had asked her to a story about the first time she'd seen Natalia as anything more than a rival, than the woman whose husband she'd tried to steal, and whose act of kindness gave a thief a good man's heart. Olivia had confessed that Natalia had saved her life that night, and that, from that point on, she'd kept a bottle of the perfume the dark-haired woman wore that night in her bedside table. When her nightmares had been too much to handle, she would spray it on the pillows, and dream again of that beach, surrounded by the scent of the woman who'd held her safe and warm.

Natalia's eyes snapped to their joined hands, her temporary foray into her past forgotten. Of course. Olivia wasn't like her. Olivia didn't find her peace in the hymns of a church mass, or the prayers on a rosary. She didn't find her solace in a child's laugh, nor did she find her calm in the sight of a well-cleaned house. Olivia Spencer found all of those things in one very specific place, a place she'd unintentionally simulated all that time ago. Olivia Spencer found comfort in the physical. Quite bluntly, Olivia found her peace in the body, in being physically stimulated until her mind was drawn out of whatever dark cavern in which it had taken up residence.

Natalia knew that, were they in San Cristobal, Olivia would be swimming in the ocean, feeling the water move over her skin, tasting the salt of the sea, blinking through the burning in her eyes caused not by her own tears, but by the caustic nature of the water in which she bathed. If her leg had not inhibited her so, she would most likely be running through the woods, air burning in her lungs and wind whipping at her hair, thighs and calves burning with exertion. But she was here, in this bed, and she was lost, trapped in her own mind.

Natalia had wanted a better moment. She'd wanted candles, children not sleeping down the hall and upstairs, demanding their silence. She'd wanted Olivia well again, the marks completely faded from her beautiful skin, not because she found them repulsive, but because Olivia did. She'd wanted many things in her life, and had gotten very few of them until she'd met the woman in front of her. A real family. A real home. A real partner, who loved and cherished her even when she made mistakes and wasn't at her best. God, thought Natalia, you have a funny way of answering my prayers sometimes, you know that? But, as she pushed herself up onto her elbow, leaning forward until her mouth was just a breath away from Olivia's, she smiled.

This was the difference between wanting and getting; wanting was clean and naïve, unaware of the sacrifices required to have. Getting was the end of the journey, after the wounds had begun to scar and the bad memories to fade. Getting was not finding fault with the imperfection of what was being acquired, but rather reveling in the joy of finally, finally having what had been desired for so long. And so, her mouth fitted itself to Olivia's, tongue slipping out to tease the seam of the other woman's lips, and Natalia felt a fire blossom within her chest. No, this night would not be perfect, but, by God, it would be theirs.


Part 26

Olivia's eyes snapped open when Natalia's mouth met hers, but fluttered shut just as quickly, her mouth opening to the other woman's gently questing tongue. She moaned into the kiss, falling back to lay flat on the bed, snaking her fingers into Natalia's hair to prevent losing the contact. The Latina moved with her, flowing across the bed to hover over her, hands braced on either side of Olivia's body, holding her full weight off of the other woman. Olivia reached her other arm around Natalia's back, pulling her down, feeling the younger woman's mass coming to fully rest atop her. It was heavenly, and she moaned again. Her ribs twinged briefly, but then the ache eased; the cracks had mostly knitted by now, and her chest had seen much worse.

When that talented mouth pulled away from her own, peppering swift kisses and sharp nips down the column of her neck, when a velvet tongue soothed the pinprick blossoms of pain with warm, soft strokes, it occurred to Olivia briefly that she should put a stop to this, that she should demand that they wait until a better time. But when nimble fingers had her pajama shirt unbuttoned, and a warm sure hand found her breast, squeezing the firm globe, confident fingers sliding up the slope to pinch and roll a suddenly achingly erect nipple between them, she forgot that she'd ever thought it, forgot that she'd ever thought anything at all outside of more, yes, please, and Oh, God, Natalia!

Natalia's mouth wandered momentarily to her ear, whispering in it, "Shh, love. You don't want to wake the kids," and only then did Olivia realize that she'd been moaning Natalia's name aloud, begging and pleading for more. She didn't have a chance to be embarrassed, though; the soft hand squeezed at her breast again, and warm, wet lips closed over her earlobe. Olivia distantly acknowledged the fact that her brain was clearly fried, every synapse burned out, it must be. Why else would she be so undone, so incapable of doing anything but simply feeling what the other woman was doing to her? That hot mouth was on her chest now, tracing melting kisses against the scar that bisected it, then drifting to one side, taking the as yet unattended nipple into its warm, wet heat.

The sucking sensation at her breast fed directly into the clenching, pulling, coiling heat at the apex of her legs. She tried to rub her thighs together, to provide some friction to her ever more desperate center, but Natalia was lying atop her legs, effectively pinning them down. Her hips began to roll, and Olivia found herself whispering harshly, "Please. Please!"

Olivia's hands clutched at the younger woman's back, fingers fisting in the fabric of her nightclothes. Natalia slid back up her torso, mouth abandoning her breast, and her lips found the shell of an ear, kissing it gently, propping herself up and slightly to the side of the woman beneath her. Her other hand released the breast it had been fondling to reach behind Natalia's back and pull one hand away, dragging it to Olivia's belly, coming to rest, palm down, fingers intertwined with smaller darker ones. Together, their hands stroked Olivia's stomach, and the hotelier opened her eyes to find an obsidian gaze boring into her own. The heat in Natalia's look, the sheer desire it contained, sent another rush of liquid warmth to Olivia's belly, and she felt the muscles spasm both within her and beneath the hand resting with Natalia's just below her belly button. "Show me, Olivia. Show me what you want."

"Wha-what do you mean?" Olivia panted, barely able to form words through the lust overwhelming her. She'd wanted Natalia for so long, so much. She was lost in that desire now, lost to the reality of her body finally feeling the touches she'd craved. She couldn't hold herself together. She couldn't think. She couldn't breathe.

Natalia looked down at their hands, then slid them down, pushing beneath the silky fabric of Olivia's drawstring pants, sliding under the dainty underwear beneath them. Their hands changed angles as she went, until Olivia's hand rested atop Natalia's, her palm to the back of the younger woman's hand, their fingers still intertwined and barely teasing at the top of her patch of carefully groomed curls. Olivia gasped, the sensation of touching herself, and yet not touching herself, the muted barrier of another hand between her own and her sensitive skin feeling alien and remarkable all at once.

"Show me how to touch you, Olivia. Show me." And Natalia's eyes came back to Olivia's, burning black coals of desire. There was no fear, no hesitation, only love and lust and need. "I don't know what to do, Olivia. I need you to teach me." Olivia gulped, her chest burning as she panted. Did Natalia not know how erotic this was, how incredibly sensual? She didn't know, but she vowed to find out later. She pushed her hand down, and Natalia's moved with it. Their joined fingers traced down the seam of her nether lips, then slipped inside, a fresh flood of wetness rushing to meet them as they did. Olivia kept her eyes glued to Natalia's and so was able to see the expression of wonder that came over the younger woman's face when she felt the soft, silky skin of Olivia's center for the first time. Her mouth fell open, those Cupid's bow lips forming and 'oh' and she moaned, her breath hitching halfway through.

Olivia moved their fingers up and down her folds, showing Natalia how she liked to be stroked, teasing the entrance to her center, then sliding up to circle her clit, never touching, never going inside. Then, when her hips began to roll of their own accord again, and she felt her vision narrowing in at the edges, she slid Natalia's hand down to her opening, pushing the tips of two of Natalia's fingers inside, slipping one of her own in as well. It was almost too much for the first penetration she'd known there in over a year, but it was so good, so sweet, and she cried out hoarsely, unable to stop herself. "Natalia!"

The darker woman quickly clamped her mouth onto Olivia's to muffle any further exclamations. Olivia began to slide their fingers in and out, her hips rolling to the rhythm, finger pressing on Natalia's to curl them forward, making them hit that one spot inside that was rougher than all the rest of the smooth silk. The friction was so good, and the fire building in her belly was so intense, stoked by the movement inside her and Natalia's mouth, the younger woman's tongue echoing what her fingers were doing between her legs. She needed to come. She wanted to come. But she couldn't, her body wouldn't let her, not until…

And then Natalia's thumb stroked her clit, up one side, then the other, then circled it, hard tight rings keeping it in constant contact with the responsive bundle of nerves. Olivia's head slammed back into the pillow, her eyes squeezed shut, and the world exploded behind her eyes, over and over and over again. Natalia kept her fingers moving, stroking, but she pulled her thumb away when she felt the clenching around her fingers begin to lessen. When the fluttering stopped almost entirely, she withdrew their fingers, feeling one last clench as she did so, and seeing Olivia's belly tighten as she rode out another, minor orgasm. She pulled their still joined hands up, using them to pull Olivia over, so that the woman lay half on top of her, head nestled once again in the crook of Natalia's shoulder. She pulled a blanket up with her feet, grabbing it with her free hand when it was close enough and drew it up over them both. When she felt the panting at her neck even out and deepen into long, sleepy breaths, she allowed her own eyes to close, a contented smile upon her lips. "I love you," she whispered to Olivia.

"I love you, too, Natalia." And with that, they both dreamed of a white sand beach, where the water was as blue green as Olivia's eyes, and the waves as warm and gentle as their love for each other.


Part 27

When she was seven years old, Olivia Spencer got lost at sea. She and her sister, Marissa, had been playing in the surf in an abandoned stretch of sand, beyond the point where the hotels of San Cristobal extended their reach into the poverty that blanketed the hidden coastal element of the otherwise wealthy nation. The strip of sand in which they'd frolicked had been long hidden from any commercial exploration by the ownership of a stubborn, wealthy old sailor's widow, and had become the de facto playground for the local children, shunned from the more populated stretches of coast, for their ratty clothes and unkempt appearance made the wealthy visitors uncomfortable, and unwilling to spend their vast amounts of cash, lest the gypsy babies make off with their capital as they lay napping in their carved oak lounge chairs.

The two sisters had discovered free-floating dinghy, liberated from its moorings on the hotel pier by the chance of fate and the drunken fumblings of a haphazard youth, who had been trying to use it to impress his girlfriend. When his mistake had sent the vessel drifting into the currents around the island, he'd slunk off to the bar, to amuse himself with a different kind of liquid recreation, and the tiny boat had made its way into the clutches of two adventurous little spirits stuck in the wrong side of the sand. Marissa had run to gather driftwood, to use as paddles, and Olivia had scrabbled into the boat, to hold it in its place. But boats ride on waves, which often have ideas of their own, and Marissa returned to an empty shoreline, her sister and their newfound pleasure barely a marked speck on the horizon.

The coast guard had rescued her, much later that night, after frantic phone calls from a hysterical mother sent them tracking the lines of the ocean currents, until they pointed the direction to a small form, huddled sleeping in the belly of a gently bobbing shadow in the great dark blue of the unforgiving sea. They'd woken her with the sounds of their great engines, hurtling their ships toward her silently floating haven, and scooped her out of it, wrapping her in woolen blankets and enclosing plastic goblets of water in her tiny hands for her to drink. They had rushed her home, back to the sand that held no future for her, and as she'd sat in the bow of the Coast Guard cutter, Olivia had looked at her home looming larger and larger in the distance, and, for the first time in her life, felt disdain for its existence. She had seen the world grow small from her perch in the ocean, and this island, this tiny enclave of land and trees and birds and sun was no longer paradise. It was a prison. One she intended to escape.

Years later, after mourning the loss of a sister who'd never been brave enough to fight alongside her, after regretting the loss of a mother who'd never been strong enough to see the giant trapped behind the lonely jade eyes of the little girl she'd borne, after missing the warm arms of the father who'd never seemed to remember that his hugs had once held little girls before they finally housed a small boy, after missing the childhood rough hands and unfeeling eyes had stripped from her, after watching the retreating backs of the daughter she'd found again too late and the brother who'd received all the motherly love she'd wanted to give her firstborn, Olivia Spencer had given up all hope of ever feeling the soft calm that she'd found in that place in the middle of a watery nowhere on a bed made of wood.

Green eyes to match her own had calmed the stormy sea that seemed constantly to rage within her, but even those twin points of sight had not been enough to forever banish the hurricane that never really stopped swirling in her heart. And so, it was with great surprise that she opened her eyes one softly lit morning, and felt again the gentle lap of the waves beneath her, heard again the tidal calm in the faint breathing beside her, and saw again the great open possibility of a world beyond her knowing in the vast expanse of ceiling shaded night-sky grey above her.

Olivia rolled her head to the left, and saw the source of her found-again hope. Natalia. The dark-haired woman sprawled bonelessly across the bed next to her, the covers having long ago slipped off of her dream-ruled frame. Green eyes followed a heated trail, starting with the smooth brow, underscored by dark eyebrows and the gentle brush of eyelashes sweeping down toward rounded cheekbones. They slid down a perfect nose, traced the lush contours of red, open lips. They followed the shaded lines of tendons and the flutter of a heartbeat in a slender neck, circling briefly in a warm, soft-skinned clavicle. That verdant gaze continued downward, raking more heavily over obstructing clothing, fabric to mar the sight they so desperately craved. They hiccupped, stuttered, when they encountered the strip of belly laid bare between shirt and shorts, the product of a fruitful night's sleep sending the two halves divided as the body rolled and turned in its fitful rest. Purpose remembered, grass tinted eyes fell further down, feathering like air across caramel colored thighs, skin stretched taut over smooth muscles from a life spent on her feet. They finally came to a halt at fine-boned ankles, whisking quickly over delicate bones that pointed at dainty toes like rays of sunshine peeking through the clouds on an overcast day. And then, when there was no further down to go, Olivia swept her eyes back up, and with a gentle sigh felt herself go tumbling the rest of the way into amour's great oblivion.

She rolled on her side, sat up, and her hands reached out, unbidden and unstoppable, and furtively unfastened one button at the top of the nightshirt, then the next, and the next, until Natalia's torso lay revealed, her top parted like the red sea on either side of the hidden oasis between. Olivia's hand hovered, a hair's breath above the warm skin, wanting, needing to touch, but hesitant, lest she cross some as yet unknown line that she no longer knew how to see. Olivia's own top, still open from the night before, became oppressive, the heat it contained suffocating her mightily, and she pulled her hands back, rolling her shoulders, letting it slide off and down her arms. The cool morning air felt like silk on her skin, but it was starving for a different kind of contact, and suffered the caress like a starving man who laps at saltwater, knowing it will do nothing to quench his thirst.

Before she could cognitively register her actions, her hands had fisted in the soft cotton of Natalia's night shorts, sliding them down long legs achingly slowly, partly to draw out the reveal, unveiling the treasures beneath like a work of art, and partly to avoid rousing the still slumbering woman. Olivia marveled again at Natalia's double nature. Once awakened, she was a force of nature, energy and alertness wrapped up like a tightly bound coil, but in sleep, she was immovable, like a child in her ability to turn off the world while she played in her dreams. And, once the shorts were removed, divulging the secret that they'd hidden, that there was nothing else beneath them except Natalia's own skin, Olivia spent a few moments in breathless admiration.

Firm, rounded globes rose and fell gently with deep breaths, topped by dusky rose peaks that hardened visibly in the cooler air and the heat of Olivia's gaze. An impossibly small waist tapered out to the flare of curved hips, rounded and luscious, the first cradle their now-shared son had ever known. Long legs shifted sinuously, parting slightly, and allowing Olivia a better view of the small triangle of curls nestled at the point where they came together. The hotelier felt something within herself she had never known before. It was a gentle ferocity, a tiger with insatiable hunger but no sharp claws at all, rise up within her, and with a soft whimper, she flowed back up the bed, her bad leg left trailing behind her as her arms supported her torso over the wonderland to which she'd finally been granted admission.

Her mouth closed first around one nipple, and her body descended gently, the wave of her emotion lapping steadily at her heart as her torso washed over Natalia's, warm like the summer sand of her youth. One hand strayed to caress the other breast, cupping and squeezing, sure fingers finding and circling the ever-harder nipple not lucky enough to be as its sister, trapped between soft lips and caressed by a velvety tongue. And Olivia pitied it when she thought of this, switching her attention to the other side, to show Natalia's body that no part would ever go unworshipped or ignored, allowing her other hand to take her place at a now wet breast, teasing, touching, loving.

She spent seconds, hours, minutes, days there, alternating between the two peaks, relishing the sweet taste and the pebbled texture on her tastebuds. She stopped at Natalia's sternum, laying open-mouthed kisses up and down its surface, and she felt the ribcage beneath the skin begin to expand and contract more rapidly, breaths growing shorter and harsher as arousal made itself known to a still sleeping mind. Her kisses strayed downward, across the planes of a flat belly, tongue dipping into a naval, the sharp contraction revealing a heretofore unknown ticklish spot. Olivia filed the knowledge away, for review and appreciation, should she never be able to experience it again. God would not be so kind to one such as her, surely. He would not allow her this heaven forever, so she must imprint it in her mind for when the good came to an end. Good things always ended for Olivia. At least this time she would know enough to cherish it while she had it.

Dark thoughts cast aside, Olivia let her hands run down Natalia's sides, warm palms inflaming the already growing heat coiling within the slim torso. Bracing her elbows against the mattress, she pushed her body down between Natalia's legs, pushing them apart with her weight, feeling the warm wetness pooled at the apex of the sleeping woman's thighs kiss her skin as it slid past, the sweat of her overheated aroused body mixing with the slick gloss of Natalia's unconscious response to her tender attentions. She kept pushing down, feeling the warm wetness coat the scar on her chest, and then she pushed up again, her hips on the bed and her back bowed as she brought her hands over and under Natalia's thighs, first one, then the other, and let her body fall back to the bed. She slid her hands palm up under the younger woman's buttocks, pushing her legs farther apart with her shoulders, pulling her lower body up and toward her, angling her love so that she could best see where she most wanted to be.

Olivia stared, transfixed, at the treasure before her. Natalia lay open, folds glistening with arousal, swollen and wet, and the scent of her need nearly overwhelmed the older woman. Her head started to lower, her mouth open, panting in her need, her hot breath blowing across the landscape beneath it and enticing even more wetness to slide from the depths. And then she stopped.

What was she doing? Natalia wasn't even awake, and here she was, ready to feast on her, to take her with no thought as to what the other woman might want. That she wanted to love her and bring her pleasure was of no consequence. Olivia had been acting on her need, and her need alone. Her eyes closed, and she felt shame rise up within her cresting against her love and desire like a tsunami, threatening to wash her away in its unstoppable current… and then strong fingers threaded in her hair, fisting, pushing her head down, pleading for her mouth to finish its journey. Green eyes snapped up and met dark brown, gone black with need. "Please, Olivia. Please!" And Olivia knew that Natalia had been awake for some time now, and had simply been waiting for Olivia to finish what they'd begun the night before, the culmination of a journey too many years in the making. Sea stormy eyes met black cauldrons of desire and held, and for a moment, time, and the world along with it, stopped.

And then Olivia's mouth was on her, tongue lapping at her folds, teasing at her opening, circling, dipping briefly inside, then flicking back up again to brush sharply against her clit. One hand slid down from her backside, two fingers slipping into her, curling upward, seeking and finding that spot, that one spot, that would take her pleasure and magnify it times a thousand. Kiss swollen lips closed around her clit and cheeks hollowed with suction, the sharp tip of a tongue flicking mercilessly over its hardened point. Those fingers curled again within her, twisting, fluttering, and Natalia felt her world explode, shattering into a million Olivia shaped pieces, and as she cried out once, hoarsely, "Olivia!" she knew what God had felt when he had made the world. And it was good.


Part 28

Reva O'Neill was not amused. She sat on the picnic table bench, her baby son asleep in his stroller beside her, and watched the people of Springfield's elite clans revel at the fourth of July. Down by the lake, hoards of silver-spoon-gumming children circled each other in a mad game of tag. They didn't notice if they got mud on their designer sneakers. Why would they? By the grill, clear-eyed men circled the sizzling meat, each competing for the alpha position in their verbal sparring sessions of sports, politics and basting techniques. The make-shift bar housed the more blurry-eyed revelers, spirits numbing their lips even as they loosened, and secrets were surely there to be revealed to the perspicacious listener. The chairs and tables between the three points overflowed with warm bodies, gathered and bunched into groups and clumps, some large, some as small as only two, and none of them, not a damn one of them, had noticed that she was essentially sitting alone.

Reva O'Neill, neé Reva Shayne, had gotten somewhat used to being the center of attention in her life. Granted, she wasn't always the focal point of everyone's conversations for good reasons, but she prided herself on having maintained her general likeability throughout it all. People had mourned her when they thought she was dead. Random strangers had erected memorials to her memory. When she'd returned, they might as well have thrown her a goddamn ticker tape parade, so happy were they to see her. When she and Jeffrey had finally gotten married, passers-by had stopped her on the street to congratulate her. When she'd gotten pregnant, and been diagnosed with cancer at the same time, her home had been inundated by flowers and cards from well-wishers and admirers alike.

Truthfully, Reva knew she wasn't that pretty, nor that virtuous, and certainly not in possession of a captivating personality. What she had, though, was a razor sharp mind, and the best damn luck o' the Irish this side of the Atlantic. She always managed to be exactly where the big happenings were, and, if she played her cards right, she'd usually get herself tossed into the mix as well. Nothing major should ever happen in Springfield without the stamp of her participation, or so she'd always believed.

One woman had always managed to mess that up for her, though. Olivia Spencer. Olivia freakin' Spencer. That damn woman didn't need to be present when something happened. Hell, she didn't even need to know about it. Simply the thought of her alone had been enough to drive some of the most explosive events in Springfield's storied history, and Reva knew that, if Springfield were a book, the chapters containing Olivia Spencer would be the most read pages within. And the stupid woman had never known how to capitalize on that, how to use that interest to make people like her.

No, the damn fool had always been too caught up in finding her next fix, in twisting something straight and simple into a misshapen switchback, crooking it around her little pinky, and clenching her fist to keep it there as long as she could. And, when it slipped away, as it always did, Reva would watch with the rest of the town as Olivia would pull herself back up, regroup, and go after her next target. Reva had always admired her spirit, if nothing else.

They had not always been at odds. There had been a time, briefly, when Olivia Spencer, businesswoman, corporate shark, seductress, enchantress, wanton woman extraordinaire, had been simply a dying mother, desperate, needy and so alone. Reva had never expected to see that vulnerability in someone who had been, for all intents and purposes, invincible. Watching those walls come crashing down to reveal the sad, lonely, frightened girl beneath the exterior had been both alarming and exhilarating for her. She had welcomed Jeffrey's need to protect her, to provide her with solace in that time, because, secretly, she had thrilled at watching this scion of power crumble before her eyes. It had been a liberating thing to see; here, this rival, this unbeatable odd, brought low by her own fierce heart. How symbolic, really. Looking back, it had always been the story of Olivia's life, one way or another.

And then the unexpected had happened, and Olivia's life hadn't ended, her flame had not snuffed out in a wet, soggy mass of tears and hopelessness. No, this slip of a woman, Natalia Rivera, had saved her, had done the impossible, and she hadn't stopped saving her since, apparently.

Everyone knew that Natalia had taken it upon herself to make sure that the recipient of her beloved Nicky's heart lived long and well with it inside her chest. In fact, the local bowling alley had even had a running stats board maintained by the local bookies as to how long it would last, who would die first, and whether it would be murder or natural causes. Reva herself had put money on Olivia murdering Natalia within five months. She could have bought another ill-fitting Prada mini-skirt for what she'd lost on that bet…

What everyone had not known, however, was just what was happening between Natalia and Olivia. Reva could still remember laughing out loud when Jeffrey came to see her in the hospital, when he told her that Olivia had moved in with Natalia. She'd thought it was a joke. He'd known, though, even then. He had said something, oh what was it? Ah, yes, that was it. "I think they'll be very good for each other, Reva, just like you and I are." Damn fancy-worded man. He could have warned her.

But no. No, she had to find out just like everyone else in the town, like some sort of peon, like a random admirer, stuck in the grocery store a few weeks ago, in the aisle between the canned goods and the cooking spices. She'd heard laughter, and had recognized the melodious tones of Olivia's voice sight unseen. She had started toward the voice, intent on speaking to her, offering her condolences at the horrible incident, and to see for herself the woman who had been kept under lock and Latina key for almost two months, until she'd been well-enough to venture out into the world again on her soft-casted own.

Reva had not expected to round the corner to the baked goods aisle and find that lyrical voice muffled by smiling lips, had not foreseen strong, independent hands being wrapped up in dark tresses, had no idea that she would find tanned arms wrapped around a still too-slender body. But, she had, and thusly had she been made aware of Springfield's newest dynamic duo. The lesbian thing was happenstance. Actually, she'd be shocked if Natalia was the first of the fairer sex to grace Olivia's bed linens. What stunned her was that no one, not one person in that whole damn store, had been fazed by it at all. Apparently, everyone knew. The whole damn town had known.

Josh and Shayne had toasted to the new couple over beers at Towers. Blake and Marina had publically argued about it, scaring all the customers out of Company and closing the place down for the day so they could sort things out. Marina had reopened the next day, eyes still red around the edges, but her tears were for the men she had lost to their own personal demons and emotional greed, not for the step-mother she finally accepted she'd never have. The murder bets had been revamped, and turned into when-will-they-finally-admit-they're-a-couple stakes. As she understood it, the winner had been a mysterious fedora-wearing woman, but Sly the bookie wasn't talking.

It was insulting, that's all. Why hadn't anybody though to come tell her about this newest crazy development in the center of the town's movers and shakers? God, she was so fucking out of the loop. When the hell had that happened?

The air whooshed next to her and the bench vibrated with the thump of a heavy body sitting down next to her. Reva turned her head, and found her cornflower blue eyes met with their twins in pigmentation. "Hello, Josh. Care to join me?" The sarcasm in her voice was impossible to miss.

"Don't mind if I do, Reva!" He grinned, and bumped her shoulder with his own. She chuckled. She couldn't help herself. Josh was just so easy to be around sometimes. She turned back to the crowd gathered at the center of the barbeque, and felt the newly born smile slip from her face again as her eyes traced the lines of Olivia's neck, long and extended, throat working in laughter as she tilted her head back, guffawing loudly at something one of her children (she didn't know which one) had said. Beside her, Natalia gazed at her, the look on her face some kind of cross between abject adoration and sheer, disgusting, beatific love.

"Honestly, they should just get a room," she muttered.

"That's not very kind, Reva." She met Josh's gaze again, and found his face had fallen to a frown, too, although his was directed at her, and not at the spectacle in front of them.

"What! I'm just saying, it's a little annoying to be surrounded by all these happy, lovey dovey people." She swept her arm around, indicating Bill and Lizzie, Remy and Christina, and the others all canoodling in their respected corners of the party. "I was counting on at least Olivia being interesting enough to have a beer with me, and sit back to make fun of the lovesick puppies, just like we always do, but no! The damn woman's gone and found herself a little lover, and now she's holding center court at the Look How Happy We Are Parade!"

Josh frowned. "Well, honestly, hasn't she earned a little bit of happiness by now, Reva? Haven't they all?" His brow furrowed at her statement.

"Look, Josh, I like Olivia. I do. I'm one of the few people who has actually pretty much liked her all along, and, just between you and me, even when I didn't like her, I respected her. It's just strange to me, to see her now, all caught up in the mess of being in love and flaunting it all around. I mean, yeah," she shrugged. "I'm not so surprised at the flaunting part of it, because, well, it's Olivia, but really? She's acting like she doesn't have a care in the damn world, and how long is that gonna last, Josh? You and I both know that Olivia can't stay happy for too long. It's just not who she is. She'll be on the prowl again before you know it, and poor, sweet Natalia is gonna bemoan the day she walked out of that church and away from the life she could have had to be with a woman who wouldn't know faithfulness or loyalty if it bit her on the ass."

She finished her diatribe by crossing her arms over her sizable chest, and she pursed her lips, glaring at Josh and daring him to tell her she was wrong. He stared at her in silence for a moment, and just looked at her. As the moment drew out, and his expression become more and more confused, she began to grow uncomfortable under his gaze. "What, dammit?!"

"It's just…" He shook his head. "I'm realizing that I don't really know you at all anymore, Reva." Her mouth opened and shut a few times, but before she could escape her speechlessness, he continued. "The Reva I knew, the woman I married, who had my children- she would have taken the time to really get to know this new Olivia. And, once she had, she would see that this "new" Olivia isn't really new at all. She would remember all the times in the past that Olivia, in spite of her best laid plans, despite whatever game she was running, would drop everything to be there for someone who really needed her."

He shifted, lowering his voice and leaning closer, as if he were imparting some great secret. "The Reva I knew and loved would have long ago forgiven Olivia the sins of her past, especially in light of the atrocities committed against her that spurred them on. That Reva would have gone to visit Olivia as she lay broken and abused in her bed, the victim of yet another trusted man's violence against her. She would have sat with Natalia in her kitchen and held her hand, soothing her as the events of the day took their toll, and she just needed a friend to smile at her and tell her that the woman she loves more than her own life will get better, will heal, will find her way back to the world, scarred maybe, but still unbroken by all that life has cast her way."

He looked her up and down, his eyes trailing a scathing path across her frame. "You are not that woman. You're some kind of bitter, angry replacement, and I'm just wondering, really, when exactly she left, and you showed up." He stood up then, and walked away, not looking back, and Reva was left with the startled realization that, for the first time in longer than she could remember, Josh Lewis actually looked like he'd finally had enough of her.

Her eyes dropped to her hands, which had fallen limp into her lap, and she watched them blur as tears began to cloud her vision. Suddenly, she was overtaken by a panic, the urge to flee. She would not cry here, not in front of these people! She jumped up, jerkily pushing her son's stroller toward the cluster of men by the grill. "Jeffrey, watch your son!" she rasped, her voice sounding wrong even to her own ears, but she did not stop, and as she stomped heavily down toward the lake, trekking around to the benches she knew would be isolated and, more importantly, abandoned, she felt the tears start to track their hot swaths down her cheeks.

She collapsed onto the bench when she got there, and instantly the sobs rolled out of her, heartwrenching and wracking, shaking her whole body, and echoing across the water. She didn't notice when soft, uneven footsteps approached, nor did she open her eyes to see that she was no longer alone. However, when a soft hand closed over her own, and a kind voice spoke, it was all she could do not to fold up into herself in misery right where she sat.

"Reva, what's wrong?" Olivia always did have such a pretty voice, melodious and harmonic. The blond had long suspected that her rival had unknowingly half-hypnotized her prey simply by speaking to them throughout the long history of her conquests. In that way, Reva had always felt somewhat at a disadvantage in competing with the other woman; she did not have that voice, nor the artillery of seductive words to follow it up. Reva pondered for a moment the ridiculousness of that train of thought, given the present circumstances, but she snapped back to reality when Olivia spoke again.

"Reva, really, what's the matter? You're scaring me!" She sounded genuinely worried, and somehow, that was enough to stop Reva's tears, sending her eyes to Olivia's face, peering at her expression, trying to gauge the hotelier's sincerity. "What is it?" Olivia's green eyes swam before her, filled with nothing but concern and a twinge of fear. "Is it Colin? Jeffrey?"

At her husband's name, Reva let out a bark of laughter. "Oh! Jeffrey. Jeffrey, my husband, my crusading prosecutor husband, my hypocritical, rapist husband. What could possibly be the matter with him?"

Olivia drew back at the undisguised rancor in Reva's voice. She looked away, staring at the water in front of them. "Yeah, he finally told me the truth, Olivia." Her voice was quieter, more subdued. "He came home one night, after he apparently went to see you in the hospital and got turned away by your felon son, and he was so distraught. He was saying strange things, like how it was all his fault, and I didn't get it, you know? Because it was Buzz, not Jeffrey, who hurt you." She stopped, and looked at Olivia, who was now tense and withdrawn, her shoulders tight, and her eyes on the soft cast still encasing the leg stretched out in front of her.

She reached out, laying her hand on Olivia's shoulder. "Only, it wasn't Buzz all those years ago, was it?" Olivia took a deep, shuddering breath.

"No. It wasn't Buzz."

Reva's hand tightened on her shoulder. "You know, he told me all about the conversation you two had in San Cristobal, too. He told me about how, even all those years later, he still let you blame yourself, he still let you say that you had done something wrong, as if your- as if what he did to you was excusable just because you were drunk. And that's bullshit, Olivia."

Olivia sobbed, once, a jerky exhalation that made her shoulders jump, but she made no attempt to speak, and she did not make any move to look up from her cast. "And I realized, just now, that I've been blaming you,too, because my husband, this person who was supposed to be such a good man, the father of my little baby, he did something horrible, and he had to tell me about it, because he felt like he owed it to you."

"I've forgiven him, Reva. I did a long time ago-"

"Yes, because you had to, because you suddenly shared this daughter, this amazing woman, and you didn't want her hating herself any more than she already did by being the product of a rape." Olivia said nothing. She couldn't deny it; it was the truth. "I know that you don't blame him anymore for the hardships you had in your life, Olivia." Reva sighed, and dropped her hand from Olivia's shoulder. "I just wish you didn't blame yourself, instead."

She sat back against the bench, spent, and stared out at the water, admiring the play of light on the dappled ripples. "He was my friend." Olivia's voice was so soft, so meek, that she almost missed it.

"Who? Jeffrey?"

"No." Olivia shook her head. "Buzz. He was my friend. He was always there for me, always in my corner. I don't understand." And her voice broke, but she remained stiff and upright, unwilling to bend to the force of her own tragedy.

"Oh, honey." Reva shrugged. "Buzz was sick, really, really sick. And I think that the Buzz we knew and loved died with his son. That's the only thing that makes sense to me." She paused, then sat forward, leaning so the she was almost flush against Olivia's back. "But Olivia, this is not your fault. Whatever happened to him, that was outside of all of our control. You didn't do anything to deserve it, not one thing. Do you hear me?"

Olivia turned to look at her, tears coating her face. "Really? Do you really believe that?" Her voice was barely a whisper, and Reva wondered if this was the woman Natalia had seen all along, this soft, open, frightened young girl trapped inside the temptress' body.

Reva nodded. "I know so, honey." And Olivia fell forward into her arms, sobbing desperately, two words repeating over and over again.

"Thank you. Oh, thank you, thank you…"

From a distance away, Natalia pressed her hand against her mouth, her eyes washing over with tears. Behind her, Josh put his hands on her shoulders. "C'mon Natalia. Let's you and me go get some ice cream. I think these ladies need a little alone-time together."

She allowed him to turn her around and start to lead him away, but then she stopped and turned to him. "You knew that this would happen, didn't you? That they would be able to help each other?"

"Did I know that Reva would say just the right thing to help Olivia start to deal with what happened to her? No. Did I know that those two could actually be good for each other if they'd ever stop butting heads and just give each other a chance? Yeah, I suspected that." He gestured to the now out of sight benches by the lake. "Those two always understood each other's bad side better than anyone else. Who better to help you face it?"

Natalia looked at him for a moment, then stepped forward, standing up on her tiptoes and pressing a gentle kiss to his bearded cheek. "You're a good man, Charlie Brown," she said, quoting their shared favorite Peanuts line, an inside joke they'd discovered when Josh had joined the Spencer-Rivera clan one night for a cartoon-movie-marathon, a la Emma's favorites. She flashed him a watery dimpled smile. "Did you bring the mint-chocolate chip?"

"Yeah, I hid it in the back of the freezer. Let's go eat it all before someone else finds it!" They grinned conspiratorially, then walked quickly back up to the barbeque. By the lake, two women, who were more alike than either would ever be comfortable admitting, cried on each others' shoulders, bleeding out the tragedies of two lifetimes in a cathartic embrace. They would join the party later, just in time to see Natalia dump a bucket of ice over Doris' head in retribution for the mayor's having eaten all of the mint-chocolate chip ice cream, and for the food fight that would ensue from that. They would join in, and, for a moment, for a few happy, fleeting minutes, they would celebrate freedom from pain and oppression and sadness and guilt, ringing in the fourth of July like neither ever had before, surrounded by family, friends, and all the happy acquaintances that make up the middle ground between. It was, indeed, a Happy Fourth of July.


Part 29

Sam let the hood slam shut, the metallic clang echoing loudly in the early fall morning air. He rubbed his hands together briskly, trying to generate a little heat as he walked across the lawn to the barn. Well… barn wasn't really an accurate description anymore. Now, it was the former barn, recently converted into the spacious, loft-style living quarters for the adult singles of the Spencer-Rivera clan. His idea to revamp the space had been well-received by the contractor he'd chosen, and, strangely enough, when the man had discovered that they meant it when they said money was no object, so long as it was done well, and swiftly, he'd completed his work in record time. Of course, it had also helped that Natalia talked Olivia out of installing imported Venetian marble and gilt wainscoting, among other things.

He dropped the empty bottle of window washing fluid into the trashcan. Natalia had asked him to refill it the day before, but he'd forgotten, and so he'd ventured out early that morning to do it before she and Olivia woke up and headed out to drive to Chicago. They were going to pick up Emma, and everyone was very excited to have her home again. She'd been gone for the past two weeks, spending time with her friend Jodi and the girl's grandparents in the windy city.

Natalia and Olivia had sent her to stay with them when the word had come that Phillip was not much longer for the world. Per his wishes, they'd explained his situation to the little girl when he'd become too ill to continue to come by for dinner, and they had wanted her out of town when he passed away, so Alan wouldn't be able to throw some sort of hissy fit about wanting her to attend the funeral. Phillip had been emphatic about not wanting her there for that, and Emma herself had expressed the wish to remember her father alive and well, not cold and unmoving in a velvet-lined box. So, he had been laid to rest four days prior, and Natalia and Olivia had spoken with their little girl on the phone for a very long time about it. Emma had been devastated, but Jodi's grandparents had been very good with her, and very understanding. Emma seemed to be doing alright in spite of everything, but Sam knew that they'd all sleep a lot better once they had their little girl home and safe in their loving embrace again.

He entered into the kitchen, dropping his tool kit in the laundry room to the side on the way. Opening the fridge, he pulled out a small juice box and popped the straw in. "Emma's gonna kill you if you drink all of her apple juice again, Sam-bone." The statement emanated from the other occupant of the room, who sat reading the news at the oversized table. Sam grinned as he walked over to plop down next to her.

"I had a little help last time, Ava." One corner of the paper dropped down, revealing her arched eyebrow and pursed lips.

"You have no proof of that."

"What, the crushed, empty juice boxes in your trash can weren't proof enough?" Dark green eyes narrowed, and the paper flipped back up, once more hiding its reader's face, but not her voice.

"You planted those there. You and your little hooligan, that's all." Heavy footsteps overhead announced said hooligan's entry into the world of the waking.

"Oh, great. Now you've done it." The paper came back down, the eyebrow arching again.

"Done what, exactly, Blondie?"

"Jealous?" Sam grinned, running his fingers through his hair, then swatted away the newsprint missile that Ava had quickly balled up and thrown at his head. "What did that paper ever do to you, meanie?" He sat back into his chair and shared a laugh with his now openly chuckling companion. "No, seriously, I meant that you'd spoken of the devil, and now he's awake. You know he's gonna be hungry, and he can't cook, and we're not supposed to go next door and bother Liv or Nat, so he's gonna expect one of us to cook something…" His voice trailed off as he noticed Ava's smug grin and self-satisfied expression. "What?"

Ava looked away and shrugged her shoulders. "Oh, no, it's nothing. I just think that maybe he won't be asking us to cook for him this morning."

"Really? Why?" She simply shrugged again, and smiled good morning to Rafe as he descended into the kitchen. Sam deftly removed the sports section from the rumpled newspaper, handing it off to the younger man with a nod, and started trying to straighten the international news section for himself. He tuned out a bit as Ava and Rafe teased each other about who tended to leave the biggest mess in the bathroom, smiling at the fact that, had he not known any better, he would assume they'd been having that argument their whole lives. And then a strange thing happened.

More heavy footsteps came down the stairs leading into the kitchen. Sam frowned, turning to look in their direction. What the hell? And then his jaw dropped.

"Morning everyone!" Ashlee Wolfe was a morning person. It was something she and Natalia very definitely had in common. Additionally, they shared the fact that they had to live and work with a pack of late risers. As such, Ashley knew exactly what was needed. "So- who wants coffee?" Three hands rose instantly into the air. "Ok, then! Coffee first, then, hmmm… Pancakes?" One hand went down; Ava didn't like pancakes. "How about omelettes?" Ava's hand went back up, but Sam dropped his with a deeply serious expression on his face and a slow shake of his head. Ashley's hands went to her hips. It was a tough crowd. "Last chance- French toast?" Four hands went into the air. "Rafe, don't put both of your hands up: it makes you look desperate. You know I'm going to feed you." Ashley smiled to gentle the snarky comment.

"From the sounds I heard last night, I'd say he's been fed pretty well latel-mmmph!!" Ava's remark was cut off as Rafe's hand clamped down over her mouth.

"What she means is that she loves your cooking and can't wait, sweetie." Rafe offered Ashley a toothy grin, and Ava nodded emphatically behind his muffling palm. Ashlee shrugged. It made no difference to her if Ava wanted to make comments; she would just have to learn the hard way that it didn't do to piss off the chef before she made breakfast. She opened the fridge to pull out the eggs and milk. Yep, someone was going to get a couple of burned slices of French toast…

Meanwhile, Sam wondered when exactly his life had become a circus. Then, he looked around, took in his "siblings" (now swatting each other and sticking out their tongues) and the blond at the stove, and decided that he quite liked the Carnie life.

Four empty plates later, they all sat around the table, catching up on the latest in each other's lives and teasing Rafe and Ashlee about their newly minted status as a couple. Rafe had just finished telling them about the "talk" he'd gotten from a very serious Doris Wolfe regarding the consequences should he ever do anything to hurt her little girl. From the way he sat, his arm over the back of her chair, a dopey-eyed expression on his face whenever he looked at her, it was pretty clear to all that the chances of that happening were very slim.

"So, anyway, we're going to go by Springfield Tech and see about getting me enrolled in some Gen Ed classes. I wanna bring up my GPA, then I can look into transferring to a bigger school somewhere." Rafe smiled at the blonde leaning against him. "I need to get a degree so I can hold my head up when my superhot girlfriend wants to introduce me to people."

"Oh, stop it, Rafe. You know I'm proud to have you as arm-candy, no matter what!" Ashlee kissed his cheek, and Ava tried to pretend she was disgusted with the sappiness, but the smile she couldn't quite keep from her lips betrayed her.

"So, this place is really great, Sam. I think you did an awesome job with it." Ashlee reached over and patted his arm, and Sam noted again that Rafe had done very well, getting himself a girlfriend who possessed all the social niceties he often seemed to lack.

"Thanks. It's really nice to come home to, I'll tell you that." He still traveled a lot for his photography, but he was finding more and more that he preferred keeping his trips short, so he could spend more time at home with his family.

Ava spoke up. "Ashlee, when is your mom getting back from that political thing?"

"It's a statewide meeting of mayors, and tomorrow. That reminds me! She wanted to know if we'd be interested in helping her put together a little thing for Olivia and Natalia, to celebrate their getting together at last, you know, since we finally all have the time, and nothing too heavy hanging over our heads."

"That's a great idea! I'll do the grilling!" Sam loved being the grillmaster; it was the single food preparatory device he handled with true skill.

"It's too bad we can't just send them on a honeymoon," Ava stated wistfully. "They totally haven't had a whole lot of time just to themselves without life or work getting in the way lately, what with the new properties and the stuff with Phillip…" She trailed off. They had all been saddened by Phillip's loss. In the short time they'd had with him, Phillip had endeared himself to them all. Losing him so quickly had been hard, and they all keenly felt his loss. Rafe in particular had been very affected by it, and only Ashlee's attentive care had kept him from lapsing into a depression so far.

Silence pervaded the room for a moment. Then, "Why can't we send them on a honeymoon?" Rafe sat up, looking around the table. "I mean, I know they're not married yet or anything, but-"

"Well, mom was out ring-shopping the other day." Ava furrowed her brow thoughtfully. "I caught her at the jewelers, and then she was on the phone with her guy at Tiffany's yesterday at work." Ava had gone to work for her mother, and had discovered, much more to her shock than anyone else's, that she was an absolute shark when it came to business dealings. Her drive and talent coupled with Olivia's had already helped to turn the Beacon Franchise into a rapidly expanding dynamo, and it was starting to gain even more momentum as it picked up more and more properties. Ava's idea of inviting smaller, individually owned and operated hotels and resorts into the franchise was going over like wildfire, and the membership fees alone had created enough capitol for them to outright purchase a few other properties. Sam had really been quite impressed by the amount of money they were generating. It was a lot, even by Olivia Spencer's standards. At this rate, the Spencer-Rivera clan was about to go from seriously wealthy to filthy, stinking rich.

"So, what, should we wait for them to get married and suggest it or something?" Ashley's thoughtful voice interrupted Sam's train of thought.

"Please." Ava scoffed. "If we do that, who knows how long it'll take them to get around to it. You know how they are." All four took a moment to consider the truth of that statement. Sam spoke next.

"What if we arrange a getaway for them, then individually encourage them each- subtly, of course- to make an honest woman of the other."

"Why both of them? Why not just Mom?" Rafe was confused.

"Because," Sam leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table, "this way we double our chances of having a wedding to celebrate before too long." He looked around the table. "Thoughts?"

"I like it." Ava slapped the tabletop. "I'll work on Mom."

"Ok, you do that. Me and Ashlee will work on Ma." Rafe took his girlfriend's hand as they shared a sappy look.

"Well, what should I do?" Sam asked.

"You plan the honeymoon, silly!" Ashlee clapped her hands together. "Oh, I'm so excited! This is so romantic!" She looked at Rafe. "We'll all work out the details some more while you do the dishes."

"I- wait, what?" Rafe looked at Ashlee, and saw Ava and Sam trying to hide their laughter behind napkins and coffee cups. "Ok." He stood and began clearing the table, smiling as two blonde heads and one dark one all leaned in to begin conspiring.

Olivia sat back on her haunches, pursing her lips and looking around for the source of the shiver that had just wound its way down her back. "What are you doing?" Natalia's voice sounded from above her, and Olivia lifted her face to meet her eyes, trailing her gaze up the other woman's naked, flushed torso as she did, admiring the way that the droplets from the shower trickled down her form and the way that the steam seemed to give her an otherworldly appearance.

She gently stroked the thigh resting on her shoulder, and resumed her deep, slow stroking with her other hand, watching Natalia's eyelids flutter, then shut as she did so. "It's nothing. I just had the strangest sensation, like a shiver right down my back." She grinned wickedly. "Someone must have been thinking about me."

Tanned fingers tangled in her hair. "Yes, someone was and is thinking about you, and if you don't do something to make me unable to think at all very soon, then I won't be responsible for what- oh!" The dark head had moved forward once again, full lips resuming their activities between her legs, a hot, velvety tongue sweeping out to enhance their movements. "Oh, yes. That's exactly it…" Natalia's voice trailed off, giving way to moans and gasps of encouragement.

Olivia hummed her appreciation. Who cared what had caused that shiver? She had better things to worry about at the moment. Emma would be home that night; she needed to make Natalia scream at least five more times before they picked up their daughter in Chicago and brought her home, thus ending their freedom to make love anywhere in the house as loudly as they liked. Olivia felt the fingers in her hair clench. Ok, six times. Six was a good number…


Part 30

Natalia stretched slowly, pointing her toes and arching her back, feeling her overused muscles protest the action at first, before relaxing, easing into the motion and warming as the blood flow once again asserted itself through limbs that had been curled tightly into a ball around an Olivia-scented pillow. She rolled her head to the side, huffing as her eyes landed on the down feather filled fabric that had the audacity to not be her lover, her wife, her other half. She frowned.

Olivia had been gone for a whole week. She'd run off to New York to finalize the deal on yet another franchising opportunity, and it was supposed to have been a day trip. Instead, it just happened to coincide with a rather nasty little lawsuit that had been brought against the Beacon Franchise by none other than one Alan Spaulding, who was accusing the company of undercutting him in a property deal he'd been trying to work in the city. Olivia had been served papers, and had been instructed not to leave the state. Now, seven days later, Natalia found herself imagining different ways she could bring about Alan's death, if only it would end this whole damn thing.

She rolled over, pulling the pillow to her face and inhaling deeply, bringing the scent of the other woman's perfume and shampoo into her lungs, closing her eyes and picturing Olivia's smiling green eyes. Well. It was very early. If Olivia were here, those eyes would be doing anything but smiling. They would be squeezed shut against the light, crinkled at the corners as Olivia pouted. She would sigh dramatically, and tell Natalia that she couldn't possibly be expected to function at this hour, and then she would bury her face into the darker woman's shoulder and neck, burrowing her nose just under Natalia's ear and grumbling, the sound vibrating against the extra sensitive skin there until Natalia would find herself growing wet and heavy with need…

Natalia popped her eyes open and propelled herself backwards out of the bed, barely catching herself on her feet before falling on her backside to the cold floor. Ooh, this wasn't fair! It was winter, and soon it would be coming up on a very important anniversary for them; in three days, it would be exactly one year since Olivia had moved into the farmhouse for the first time, bringing with her a daughter Natalia had never thought she'd be lucky enough to raise, a heart she'd never imagined she'd be fortunate enough to possess, and a life that would blow every idea Natalia had ever had about happiness and being in love right out of the water. Natalia raked her fingers through her long hair. "Damn it!"

Deep down, she felt a slight twinge at the obscenity, but she felt that God would understand her frustration, and would, in fact, be on her side in this whole affair. Alan was being a dick. It had taken all of one day for him to show up at the farmhouse after trapping Olivia in New York, all smarmy smiles and greasy car-salesman platitudes about hating the whole situation, what with her and Olivia being practically family and all. Apparently, as the mothers of his grandchildren, Alan was willing to welcome them back into his fold, so long as they indeed came bearing the aforementioned progeny into the deal. He'd offered to make the whole lawsuit go away, if only Emma and Rafe could be guaranteed to start spending more time with the Spaulding half of their ancestry.

He'd made the offer while standing in the front yard. Well, he'd not really had a choice about that. As soon as his car had crested the hill, Natalia had planted herself on the front steps, her arms crossed and feet spread, willing to make a very big scene if the old trickster had attempted to step one foot inside their family home. She had just gotten off the phone with an infuriated Olivia, and she had been ready to wipe that smile off his face with force. Thankfully, she had a rather large brood who had been all too willing to do that for her.

"You can take your offer and shove it right up your ass, you piece of shit!" Rafe had cried, storming out to stand next to his mother. Natalia had made a mental note to scold him about his language later, opting for the solidarity of a united front whilst Alan was still in hearing range.

"Yeah, fuck you, old man!" Emma, however, really shouldn't be talking like that.

"Emma!" Natalia had dropped form, turning to glare at her little girl. "Where did you learn such language?!"

The little girl had turned from staring daggers at the interloper on their lawn to glance sheepishly at her other mother before dropping her eyes and shuffling her toes against the boards of the porch. "I heard James yell it at Grandpa outside Company the other day, Mama." She'd peeked up through her lashes, trying to gauge how much trouble she could expect from her little outburst. "I'm sorry. I'll put my allowance in the swear jar and light a candle for my stupid Grandpa, ok?" She grinned, and Natalia couldn't maintain her stern expression.

"That sounds good, sweetie." Natalia had turned back to her enemy, who still stood on her lawn, tainting her green grass with his insidious need for power, whatever the expense. "Seems you're just Mr. Popular with all your grandchildren these days, Alan." She had arched an eyebrow at him, knowing as she did it that she had gotten the gesture from Olivia, and also knowing that he would recognize this, and be annoyed by it.

"My children have all apparently conspired to turn the next generation against me. I am tired of it, Natalia!" Alan's eyes had flashed angrily. "I lost my son, my heir. I will not allow myself to lose my remaining chances at a legacy. You may not think me capable of it, but I will regain my position as the patriarch of this family!"

"Well, I guess you haven't heard the news, then." Ashlee had spoken from the entrance to the barn-cum-renovated loft. "Patriarchy is dead, Alan. It's all about the feminine mystique these days." She'd grinned, leaning up against the side of the building. "Now, if I were you, I'd get gone. You never know when I might find another gun laying around…"

Alan had paled considerably as he watched her nonchalantly examining her nails. "You haven't won, yet!" he'd called back over his shoulder as he turned to retreat to his car- only to find himself blocked by the two tallest members of the Spencer-Rivera clan. Ava and Sam had stood shoulder to shoulder, blocking his path to his car. "Get out of my way!" Alan had looked for all the world like a two year old, full of bluster and no actual might, craning his neck to face his two taller opponents.

Ava and Sam had grinned at each other, each taking a step to the side, allowing him to pass between them. As he did, Sam's hand shot out, flattening against the old man's chest, and Ava had leaned in, whispering something into his ear. And then they'd both stepped back, and Alan had run- run- to his car.

Try as she might, Natalia had still been unable to get Ava to reveal what she'd said to light such a fire in Alan, and, truthfully, she wasn't sure she wanted to know. She knew enough of Ava to recognize the same fiery intensity that fueled her mother and little sister. There was no doubt in Natalia's mind that, while any of them might be capable of doing damage to someone who threatened their family, Ava would be the one to take pleasure in it. And the craziest thing of all was that she found that trait to be endearing. Natalia sighed, padding to the shower. She hoped Olivia came home soon. She was losing her mind without the other woman there.

To Be Continued

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