DISCLAIMER: Guiding Light and its characters are the property of Proctor & Gamble. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is a sequel to Almost Home (which can be found on Burning City and Incandescent Fire) and takes place a few weeks after the ending of that story. It would be extremely helpful were you to read that story first, in order to understand Ava's return to Springfield, her relationship with Olivia and, of course, the kittens. This is set in October of 2009 and supposes an angst-free Otalia storyline, one decidedly lacking in pregnant Natalia, or any mention of a Frankenbaby. In this universe, Natalia did not run off and break Olivia's heart, she is still working for Blake Marler, and all is well in the Otalia universe. Sue me. I find all the angst unnecessary and annoying. Also, in my universe, Phillip is not dead or dying, nor is Jeffrey dead (although not because Natalia doesn't want him to be), and he and Reva are still together. Again, too much angst causes wrinkles. Beta'd as always by the lovely, talented and patient trio of Flying Peanuts, DiNovia and Darandkerry, and aided now by the brilliant Kelinswriter and her Bossy muse. My eternal gratitude, my dears. A portion of this story has appeared elsewhere. A couple months ago, I wrote a first chapter of a story called, Right Here in This Moment and then, unfortunately, did not get back to it. I realized as I wrote Almost Home that RHIM was, in fact, part of this universe, one which I had inadvertantly written out of order. So, I have decided to include that one chapter into this story, as it fits perfectly into this universe. So, if you feel as if you are experiencing a bit of déjà vu, you are. *g*
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
"Owwww!! Fuck!! Goddamn it! " Olivia screeched, rising a few feet off the bed on which she had been so happily slumbering.
A small bundle of orange, white and black fur scrambled from the bed with a "thunk" and disappeared under the edge of the duvet. Olivia threw back the covers, grabbing her right foot and pulling it toward her, wincing as five small pinpricks of red began to show on the top of her foot.
"Emma!! Ava!!" Olivia bellowed, rubbing away at the tiny drops of blood, drops that reappeared as soon as she stopped rubbing them.
"Olivia, what in the world are you yelling about? Emma's already left for school," Natalia's voice came from the doorway. She stood, one hand on the door frame, the other on her hip, staring at her lover with a confused and slightly exasperated expression.
Ava's face popped into the space behind and above her stepmother's, a similar expression gracing her features.
"What is it, Mom?" Ava asked, watching as her mother stared at her foot as if seeing it for the first time. She remarked casually to Natalia. "You know, usually people outgrow their fascination with their toes when they're about ten months old."
"Hey! One of your little demons just lacerated my foot!" Olivia charged in full huff.
"Lacerated, Olivia?" Natalia repeated skeptically, crossing to examine the almost microscopic pinholes in Olivia's smooth skin. "I think that might be a slight exaggeration, don't you, sweetheart? You can't even see them, except for the tiny amount of blood."
"Yeah, well, it hurt like hell," Olivia grumbled, mollified a bit by the gentle sweep of Natalia's fingers along the top of her foot and around the curve of her ankle.
"Which kitten, Mom? And where did she go?" Ava asked, peering around the room in search of a tri-colored ball of fur.
"I didn't really stop to ask which one it was when she was sinking her claws into my foot. I think she went under the bed," Olivia admitted, her voice only slightly irritated as Natalia continued to rub soothing circles along her arch and sole. Natalia smiled at her indulgently, shaking her head at the minor melodrama Olivia had caused.
"Mom! Oh, she's scared! Mother, you cannot scare the kittens like that! I've told you, when you move under the covers, they think you're playing with them." Ava muttered from her perch on the floor. Her voice was muffled as half her upper body disappeared under the edge of the bed, as she tried to coax the kitten out. "Come on, Emily. It's okay. Mean lady isn't going to yell at you anymore. I know you didn't do it on purpose."
"Mean lady!? Where the hell does she get 'mean lady'?" Olivia fumed at Natalia, who merely chuckled at her. Olivia glared over the side of the mattress at her daughter's lower body.
"Just remember, if it wasn't for 'mean lady,' you and your sister would be stuck in a box in Iowa, months away from living off mice and sleeping in the barn." Olivia raised her voice, whether for Ava's benefit or the kitten's, Natalia wasn't sure. "Now look at you: sleeping on the bed, eating Kitten Chow and milk. Living a life of luxury. All 'cause 'mean lady' gave in to her rotten child's manipulation. 'Can I have a kitten, Mommy?' Please. 'Mean lady,' my ass."
Ava emerged from under the bed with a furry, colored ball tucked into the crook of her arm. She kissed the kitten's tiny head. Even from the bed, Olivia could hear the small rumble as the cat began to purr. Natalia slipped her hand from Olivia's ankle and moved closer to Ava, a slender finger reaching out and gently patting along the kitten's silken fur.
"Did you really ask 'Mommy' if you could have a kitten?" Natalia laughingly asked Ava.
"Yup. Even looked at her from under my eyelashes," Ava admitted, smirking at her mother.
"Oh, that always works," Natalia told her conspiratorially. "She can't resist the eyelash thing. She's also a sucker for a quivering lip."
The two proceeded to engage in a rather in-depth analysis of the weak spots in Olivia's armor.
Olivia considered pointing out that she was still in the room, considered protesting the casual discussion between her lover and her older daughter of sure-fire ways to get what they wanted from her. And a part of her did feel more than a trifle offended. She was Olivia Spencer, after all, and some respect should be shown for her fierceness and her legendary volatile temper. The fact that it wasn't troubled her far less than she would have ever imagined.
Instead, a feeling of immense contentment settled over her. The woman she loved and her child were laughing and discussing her with a great deal of very indulgent affection and Olivia discovered that she couldn't muster enough indignation to protest. The fact that another small tri-colored creature had scrambled up the side of the bed and crawled onto her chest, settling down with a sigh only achieved by the very old and the very young, served to increase that feeling of contentment.
Closing her eyes, and placing one hand carefully along the warm side of the ball of fur cradled on her chest, Olivia managed a very close facsimile of that sigh.
"Olivia. It's nearly eight. Were you planning on getting up today?" Natalia asked suddenly, the shift in the conversation dragging one of Olivia's green eyes open.
"Yeah, Mom. I thought you and Natalia had an appointment with your lawyer sometime this morning?" Ava added, chuckling lightly at her mother's one-eyed gaze. Apparently it was genetic.
"We do, but it isn't until eleven. Plenty of time. I was getting up, but now I have company," Olivia murmured, snuggling her head deeper into her pillow. "And you wouldn't want the 'mean lady' to scare the kitty, now would you?"
The only response Olivia heard was the faint click of the door closing. Neither she nor Charlotte opened a single eye.
"Sign right here."
With a flourish of pen and ink, Natalia Rivera owned half of Olivia Spencer's hotel. The fact that she owned all of Olivia Spencer's heart meant a hell of a lot more to her, but half of the Beacon was nothing to scoff at. Looking up, she met Olivia's green eyes, marveling, as she often did, at how colored irises and reflected light could reveal to her the workings of this woman's heart. Just a moment's connection could show her, like Technicolor images across a screen, glimpses of tenderness and love and pride that left her breath caught in her throat like the brambles that clung to Emma's socks when she trudged across the meadow.
"So, how's it feel to be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt?" Olivia laughed, leaning back against the desk, head tilted back in amusement.
"I knew there was a reason why you were so anxious to sign over half the hotel to me. Don't want to go to jail alone if the Beacon goes under, huh?" Natalia countered, needing to maintain this public image of lightheartedness, at least until they left Olivia's lawyer's office. The rest of her emotions were too near the surface, too overwhelming to trust right now, as she watched the lawyer put the final touches on the paperwork.
"I can't think of anyone else I'd rather share a cell with, baby," Olivia smirked, her expression relaxed and happy.
"Great. Carrying on a grand tradition of Spaulding, or ex-Spaulding, jailbirds," Natalia quipped, unable, as ever, to resist the grin that lit Olivia's face. "So, do I need to sign anything else?"
The lawyer looked questioningly at Olivia, who motioned with her head toward the door. With a slight smile, he eased out of the room, leaving the two women alone.
"What? Olivia, what is it?" Natalia asked nervously, as the door clicked shut.
"Nothing," Olivia smiled, shaking her head gently as she moved to sit in the empty chair opposite Natalia. Reaching out, she snagged the younger woman's hand, amazed for the millionth time at how their hands fit together, fingers interweaving perfectly, like the finest of Gullah baskets. "There are a couple other things that I want you to sign, just to verify that you accept them and the conditions."
"Like what?" Natalia's eyebrows furrowed a bit over her eyes, leaving a tiny crease that Olivia found adorable.
"A couple powers of attorney forms, one for health care, one for finances, and custody papers for Emma, should anything happen to me," Olivia said softly, her thumb rasping gently along the back of Natalia's hand. "Nothing major."
"Um. Power of attorney and custody of Emma? Nothing major? Olivia," Natalia felt the wave of unease she had been fighting at accepting half of the hotel begin to rise, lapping her mind and threatening to overflow with another drop. "Agreeing to take half of the Beacon was hard enough."
Olivia sighed, a flicker of exasperation ghosting across her face.
"I thought we covered that, Natalia? Look, I know we can't legally get married in Illinois, not yet anyway, but if we could, all of this would be half yours," Olivia began, trying not to let her impatience with the conversation creep into her tone.
"Not if your attorney were doing his job, because you'd have an airtight pre-nup," Natalia began, only to be silenced by the feel of Olivia's fingers pressing softly against her lips.
"Which I would tell him to shove up his ass. Natalia, I've given you the only things that matter to me: my heart and my daughter's heart. The rest is just paperwork," Olivia said softly, the immense sum of her feelings laid out, the answers to every question, every eternal truth evident in the depths of her eyes.
Natalia's head jerked, nodding quickly as a few tears escaped her eyes to fall silently onto the back of the joined hands.
"So. Custody of Emma? How's that going to work? I mean, Phillip isn't going to hand her over to me." Natalia's voice mirrored her expression: grave and not a little anxious.
"Actually, he is. I've already talked to him and he's agreed to continue the custody arrangement we have now. Except he'll share her with you. She'll live with you and you'll make all the day-to-day decisions in her life. Just like you do now," Olivia explained patiently, knowing that Natalia's seeming reluctance had nothing to do with not wanting to keep Emma, and everything to do with two years of watching the malicious machinations of the Spaulding family.
"Why would he do that, Olivia? Sharing isn't a Spaulding trait," Natalia pointed out, eyes watching the subtle shift of greens in Olivia's eyes as thoughts and emotions rushed through them at warp speed.
"No, it isn't. But Phillip knows that Emma is happy and loved with us. It's why he's been one of our biggest supporters against all the Hillarys and Howards in town. And he knows how much you love Emma. And how much I love you. That's enough for him," Olivia replied, her gaze distant as she contemplated the enormous change in the man who had once kidnapped her daughter, the man she had sworn to kill.
Amazing the people who find redemption, she thought. Hell, look at me.
"And the power of attorney is something you need to have, especially now that you own half the Beacon. It'll allow you to handle all our finances and Emma's. As for the health care one, I had that drawn up last year. I don't want anyone else making decisions for me. Okay?" Olivia's hands were warm and strong in hers and Natalia allowed that heat and strength to seep into her as Olivia spoke.
"So, I guess I need to do the same thing, right? Have power of attorney papers drawn up for me?" Natalia asked, her eyes scanning Olivia's face, finding the reassurance she needed in her eyes.
"Since we don't have a lot in the way of legal protections, it would be a good idea. The partnership papers will cover us both with the Beacon, but the rest will fall to next of kin. For me, that's Ava. For you, it'll be Rafe," Olivia explained, her gaze a little worried as she watched the woman she loved. "And I know that you and Ava will be able to talk and make the best decision for all of us."
At the mention of her son, Natalia's expression clouded. She loved Rafe with all her heart, but she knew that he wasn't ready to be left in charge of any kind of decisions, particularly those that concerned her and Olivia. After five months, he still hadn't fully accepted her relationship with Olivia, although they had made a little progress, and a tiny part of her worried that he would attempt to keep Olivia from making choices for her should anything happen.
"There's one more thing." Olivia smiled at her, the corners of those full lips tilting upwards tenderly. "Then we are done with all this tedious crap and we can head over to Company for burgers and ice cream."
"Olivia. I'm not eight: I'm not as won over by the promise of ice cream as Emma is," Natalia reminded her fondly. "So, don't even try it. What else is there?"
"You know there isn't much you wouldn't do for a sundae with extra fudge," Olivia teased. Natalia knew the older woman was simply stalling and she waited patiently until Olivia sighed and relented.
"I also changed my will. My estate will be split three ways, among Ava and Emma and you. And before you argue or tell me you don't want my money, just stop, okay? This is what I want," Olivia told her firmly, her eyes glowing fiercely.
"Fine. After you're dead, I can just give my share to the girls and we'll both be happy," Natalia rejoined with nary a flinch at Olivia's glare.
"Natalia. Come on. Don't be like that. I just want to know that if anything happens to me, you'll be okay," Olivia murmured softly, slipping her arms around Natalia's waist and pulling her close, feeling the sudden warmth of the younger woman's body against her own.
Natalia regarded her evenly for a moment, her expression inscrutable, dark eyes merely reflecting back to Olivia her own image, distorting it a bit, like the flaking, cracked glass of the old mirror in the antique dresser at the farmhouse. After what seemed hours, she finally spoke, her voice as firm and uncompromising as Olivia had ever heard it.
"Olivia, if anything ever happened to you, believe me when I tell you that no hotel, no will, no amount of money, nothingnothing---could ever make it okay. Ever make me okay. So don't worry about the will, alright? Just worry about staying here with me for the next forty or fifty years. The rest doesn't matter."
Olivia knew that her tears were falling hot and fast down her cheeks, but she could do little to stem the flow. God, this woman made her feel things she thought she had left abandoned on the road behind her long ago. Made her feel things that she'd only read about in books and seen in god-awful sappy movies. Things that left her as vulnerable as a new born kitten, terrified and blindly seeking out the warmth and comfort of a familiar scent and touch.
Like she was now, pulling Natalia even tighter against her and burying her face in the soft skin of her throat and the silken strands of dark hair, inhaling the scent of grapefruit and lemon. The feel of Natalia's hands moving in abstract circles across her back and the gentle murmur of endearments in her ear eventually smoothed out all the ruffled places in Olivia's soul, the ones she never let anyone else see: the ones littered with insecurities and doubts, the ones trampled down by one too many departing lover, one too many fair-weather friend, one too many devastating loss.
Taking in a few deep breaths, Olivia moved back slightly in the encompassing warmth of Natalia's arms, fingers hastily brushing away the tracks of moisture along her perfect cheekbones, as if deliberate speed would somehow disguise them; as if their swift removal would erase Natalia's knowledge that she had once again brought her lover to tears.
"Fine, then. If you feel that way about it, you can just give me half the farmhouse and we'll call it even," Olivia smirked, attempting a little unsuccessfully to restore her own emotional equilibrium.
Natalia's smile should have been a warning, but Olivia was too transfixed on the soft glow in those dark eyes to truly notice.
"You know, I was just thinking the same thing. Get that lawyer of yours back in here. You're about to become the co-owner of a farmhouse, a very dirty barn, a couple dozen cows, a few goats and a flock of very hungry ducks. Think you can handle that, Ms. Spencer?"
Natalia couldn't help but grin at the sight few others had ever been privileged enough to witness. A speechless Olivia Spencer.
The sound of music wafted up the staircase of the farmhouse. At first it was merely faint notes that meandered down the hall, the odd F and B Flat, just tickling Natalia's ears, like the whiskers of one of the kittens as it brushed gently against the bare skin of her legs in the morning. Straining to hear, the brunette leaned a little further off the side of the bed, head tilted to catch each stray note. Olivia's side of the mattress was empty, the sheets cool to the touch.
That was what had first awakened her: that intense feeling of lacking that happened whenever Olivia was more than a few feet away from her. Natalia knew that the older woman had been having trouble sleeping since Dr. Rick had changed one of her prescriptions, an issue that they both hoped would be resolved at her next appointment in a few days. In the meantime, Olivia had taken to slipping downstairs to watch television, so that her tossing and turning wouldn't keep Natalia awake.
With a sigh, Natalia swung her legs over the edge of the bed, feet sliding into warm slippers, a thick robe tossed on hastily as the chill of the Autumn evening struck her sleep warmed skin. The doors to Ava's and Emma's rooms were closed, and Natalia could envision both of Olivia's daughters sleeping peacefully, arms and legs flung out in the abandoned, carefree sleep of youth. As Natalia reached the top of the stairs the music coalesced, random notes merging into melodies, snatches of words combining into lyrics. The lyrics to this particular song caught on the periphery of Natalia's memory. She had heard it before, ages ago.
"I'll be your girl for all seasons, all the year through.
Your girl for all seasons,
'Cause I love, yes I love to be everything to you, just you."
Bending down quietly, careful not to make her presence known to the figure wrapped snuggly in a thick quilt, curled up on the couch, Natalia moved far enough down the stairs to make out the television screen. What she saw brought a wide grin to her lips, and it took nearly every ounce of self-control to not laugh out loud and give away her position.
As the song continued, Natalia could hear the soft sound of humming emanating from that same quilt covered figure. Humming was swiftly followed by singing as the chorus swung around again. The brunette couldn't help but admire the lovely voice, even as her mind registered the complete incongruity of the entire scene. The song ended in full chorus, the couch bound singer included, and moved on to the next frame. Finally, Natalia couldn't contain her amusement any longer and slowly descended the remaining stairs, still attempting to keep her tread light enough to avoid detection. Reaching the bottom step, she spoke.
"Olivia Spencer. You're watching Grease 2," she teased, the grin on her face not a little gleeful at catching the normally discerning owner of the Beacon watching one of the worst sequels in the history of moviedom.
As the words left her lips, Olivia sat up with a start, dropping the remote she had been clutching in her hand. In the time it took her to retrieve it from under the coffee table, Natalia had plopped herself down on the end of the couch, pulling part of Olivia's blanket over her own now chilly legs. Olivia straightened, and with a glare that was equal parts embarrassment and irritation, quickly changed the channel. Scenes of leather jackets and motorcycles morphed into Storm Stories, as Natalia continued to grin and chuckle.
"You were so watching Grease 2," Natalia taunted, her tone making it clear that as far as she was concerned, Olivia was busted.
"Was not," Olivia huffed, yanking at the blanket her lover had so cavalierly purloined. "I was just surfing through the channels. It may have been on one of them, but I wasn't watching it."
"Were, too! I've been on the stairs for the past ten minutes and not only were you watching it, but you know the words to the song. I heard you singing," Natalia crowed merrily, her smile putting the Cheshire cat's to shame.
Olivia's mouth opened and closed several times, a look of consternation in her eyes as she scrambled to come up with one, just one, good reason that she might have been watching Michelle Pfeifer's secret shame. Nothing came. Finally, she closed her eyes in defeat, a deep sigh issuing forth, a sigh of surrender.
"Fine. I was watching it, okay? But if you tell anyone, I swear to you, Natalia, they will never find the body," Olivia growled, those green eyes boring into the brunette from the other end of the couch.
"Olivia Spencer, we both know that you can't live without me, so don't even bother with the idle threats," Natalia smirked, sliding over on the couch to snuggle her body closer to the warm softness of Olivia's. "So you have a guilty pleasure. So what? We all do."
"Oh, really?" Olivia asked archly, one eyebrow climbing the smooth skin of her forehead. Leaning forward, her expression took on a decidedly predatory gleam. "And what's your guilty pleasure, baby?"
Natalia laughed again.
"Subtlety thy name is NOT Olivia Spencer," Natalia grinned, turning her head to meet Olivia's eyes, their faces close enough that Natalia could feel Olivia's warm breath on her cheek.
"Hey! I can do subtle," Olivia objected indignantly, one hand slipping under the blanket to ghost along the silken material of Natalia's nightgown clad thigh. Slowly her hand edged upward, its destination clear to both of them.
"Like I said, subtle is so not you, Olivia," Natalia chortled, capturing Olivia's wandering hand with her own, interlacing their fingers.
"Alright then, what is your guilty pleasure?" Olivia demanded, green eyes soft and warm in the muted light from the television.
"Hmm. Well, when no one's home, I eat the Cherry Garcia right out of the carton," Natalia offered, titling her head to lay it on Olivia's shoulder, the length of their sides and legs molding together like wax figurines, melting in the sun.
This time, Olivia laughed.
"That may a guilty pleasure, but it sure as hell isn't a secret, sweetheart. It's hard not to spot the spoon marks in the ice cream. Besides, you're way too neat about it. Ice cream halfway down the carton isn't usually smoothed out into a nice even layer."
"At least I don't stick a container back in the freezer with one lousy bite left in it," Natalia rejoined, sounding a little huffy now herself.
Chuckling, Olivia steered the conversation back to the topic of interest: pleasure. Guilty or not, that was always something that captured Olivia's attention.
"Come on, pony up. You know there's something, something you'd never want anyone to know, something you'd never admit to in polite company," Olivia inveigled, her voice dropping to the husky register that always tugged at Natalia's mind, like Hester Prynne beckoning the good Mr. Dimmesdale into the heady promise of those dark woods.
Natalia allowed her mind to wander along those sinfully enticing paths, feeling the heat of the body next to hers, inhaling the scent of her, the faint traces of perfume, of shampoo, of something essentially Olivia. She felt the rush of warmth through her veins, the ache that seemed to settle low in her stomach, the wetness that pooled between her legs.
Raising her head from where it rested on Olivia's shoulder, Natalia met curious emerald eyes, eyes that darkened to nearly black as they took in the flush of arousal on Natalia's face. Brushing her nose along the satiny skin of Olivia's neck, she kissed up to the intricate curve of her ear, her breath hot and moist against Olivia's throat.
"You know, the girls are sound asleep. How about, instead of telling you my guilty pleasure, you come back to bed and I'll show you?" Natalia whispered, her own voice low and rough along the edges. "I have a strange feeling it's probably one of your guilty pleasures, too."
Watching her lover's shapely ass as she climbed the stairs ahead of her, Olivia couldn't help but hum softly to herself. As the door to their bedroom closed behind them, the faint strains of "cause I love to be everything to you," could be heard.
"Come on, Mom," Ava cajoled, sidling up to her mother as she stood by the sink, slipping her arm around her mother's waist. "That's what pumpkins live for: to be made into a gorgeous jack o'lantern come Halloween."
"No one touches the Great Pumpkin, you got me?" Olivia snarled, glaring at her older daughter.
"Mom, it'll just end up rotting away on the porch," Ava tried a different tack, plopping down in one of the kitchen chairs and pulling the plate stacked with pancakes towards her. "This way it will go out in a blaze of glory. I promise, we'll make it the most amazing pumpkin Springfield has ever seen."
"Ava, baby. If you touch my pumpkin, I will hurt you. You got a kitten. I got a pumpkin. Capisce?" Olivia threatened, the smile gracing her lips only serving to emphasize the promise of her words.
"Fine, Mother, fine. I was under the impression that we bought the pumpkin for Emma. Remember? For Halloween? Which is in a week?" Ava goaded, unable to resist yanking Olivia's chain a bit.
"We? I don't recall that we bought her anything. I seem to recall that I forked over money for the pumpkin, and the cat cage, and the food, and the cost of shots for two kittens for my two children. Not to mention driving across the fucking country in the first place. So keep your grubby fingers off my friggin' pumpkin, okay?" Olivia countered, eyes narrowing as she stared at her daughter over the top of her coffee cup.
God, doesn't my own kid know not to harass me in the morning? Olivia groused to herself.
Ava's answering chuckle merely increased the intensity of her mother's patented glare. Only the entrance of the youngest Spencer to the kitchen stopped what would no doubt have been an expletive loaded barrage that Ava could see lining up at the tip of her mother's tongue.
"Morning, Em," Ava smiled, a hand snaking out to tickle her little sister's stomach until she slid into her chair.
"Stop!" Emma demanded, throwing Ava a smaller, less concentrated, but no less effective glare. "Pass me the pancakes, meanie."
"Please," Olivia corrected, "Please, pass me the pancakes, meanie."
"Hey!" Ava complained, the curl of her lip the twin to the one already gracing her mother's face.
"Pumpkin killer," Olivia whispered, just loud enough for Emma to overhear.
"Who killed the punkin?" Emma questioned rather shrilly, mouth so stuffed with pancake that it came out more like 'wu kulled de punkin?'
"Nobody killed the pumpkin, Em. And you can't kill a pumpkin, because a pumpkin isn't alive. It's just a big squash," Ava explained, her own dark eyes throwing daggers at her smirking parent.
"Mom thinks it's alive, 'cause she talks to it, don't you, Mom?" Emma explained, one pancake stuffed cheek bulging out like a chipmunk. "I heard you the other night telling it that it was the only thing around here that listens to you and doesn't talk back. That even the kittens don't pay any attention."
Their mother's expression was priceless and Ava couldn't control the laughter that bubbled up as she waited for the all-powerful Olivia Spencer to explain why she had been overheard not merely talking to a giant orange gourd, but soliciting sympathy.
"Both of you be quiet and eat your breakfast. Don't you know children should be seen and not heard!" Olivia countered, clearly opting for a good offense as her only defense.
Fortunately for everyone in the kitchen, she was spared any further teasing by her daughters. At least for the moment.
"Why is it that I am the only person in this house who can put the new roll on the toilet paper holder?" Natalia's voice sounded from the living room doorway in a decidedly annoyed tone.
"'Cause you're the Mommy?" Ava offered, trying out the 'under the eyelashes look' that had earned her a kitten. It didn't work.
"You have a mother. Who also is incapable of putting the new roll where it belongs," Natalia pronounced, sending a glare of her own in Olivia's direction.
"You mean it doesn't go on the counter by the sink?" Olivia asked innocently, mimicking her child's fluttering eyelashes.
"You're my mommy, too," Emma interjected from around another mouth full of food, sensing that Mommy number one and big sister could use the help.
"I am your mommy, Emma. And as such, I will attempt to teach you some of the important lessons in life, like not talking with food in your mouth and putting the roll on the holder. Lessons your other mother seems to be neglecting," Natalia assured her, running a hand over Emma's smooth, dark blonde hair.
"Sorry, I thought we were splitting those up. You got the whole food and toilet paper thing and I got the 'don't run with scissors and never eat yellow snow'," Olivia explained, her grin not quite hidden behind the rim of her coffee mug.
Ava pursed her lips together to keep from laughing at her mother's words, but clearly was not completely successful, as a slender finger was pointed at her with a darkly muttered, "Don't you dare encourage her, Ava!"
"You're not funny, Olivia." Natalia stated firmly, dropping into her chair and picking up her now cold coffee cup, her words tempered by the fond look in her eyes.
Olivia simply grinned back at her and, as was so often the case, Natalia immediately forgot what she had been irritated with her about. Shaking her head, Natalia grimaced as she took a sip of chilly, slightly bitter brew.
Without a word, Olivia rose and taking the mug from Natalia's hand, walked over and dumped the contents in the sink, rinsed the cup, and crossing the kitchen to the coffee maker, refilled it, returning it with an adoring smile to Natalia.
The younger woman had made breakfast and then run upstairs for a quick shower while "her girls" started eating. Natalia loved Saturday mornings, with her family gathered around the kitchen table, especially now that autumn was fully upon them, the morning air crisp, the melting frost on the meadow sparkling in the sun. Outside, the sky was cloudless, the trees along the far edge of the field like hundreds of torches, red and orange and yellow against the impossibly blue sky. The only thing missing was her son, but despite finally warming to the idea of his mother in love with Olivia Spencer, Rafe had chosen to live in town, so Saturday mornings were still just her and her girls.
"So Em, don't you think that the pumpkin would make a wonderful jack o'lantern?" Ava asked, re-instigating much to her mother's annoyance.
"Nope. I'm not being a punkin killer. 'Sides, if we cut up the Great Punkin, who would Mom have to listen to her?" Emma replied sagely, masticating on what Olivia had noted, longingly, was a particularly lovely looking slice of bacon.
"Thanks, 'bean. The pumpkin thanks you, too!" Olivia praised her younger child, not noticing the confused look that had stolen over Natalia's countenance.
"What do you mean, who would listen to her?" She asked suspiciously.
"Mommy told the punkin that it was the only thing around here that listens to her and that everybody just ignores her and does just what they want," Emma supplied guilelessly.
"She did, did she?" Natalia asked, her attention focused not on Emma but her spouse, who, at the moment, was doing a rather passable guppy impression.
Open. Close. Open. Close.
Okay, Spencer, talk your way out of this one, Olivia grimaced.
"Snitch," Ava leaned over and whispered in her sister's ear, confident that the ensuing conversation would distract attention from the wheels spinning in her mother's head as she tried to maneuver out of this one.
"Am not!" Emma protested, frowning at her older sibling.
"Are, too! You just snitched on Mom," Ava chuckled.
"Did not!" Emma stated vehemently, looking for all the world like a pint-sized version of a pissed-off Olivia Spencer.
"Hey! How old are you?" Olivia demanded of Ava, secretly grateful to her daughter for the diversion. "She's nine. You're twenty-five. I should be able to tell the difference."
"So, no one listens to you but the pumpkin? Hmm, Olivia?" Natalia wasn't going to be distracted by such obvious tactics. Her lover needed to suffer just a little for this one.
"Sweetheart," Olivia began, only to be swiftly interrupted.
"Don't sweetheart, me," Natalia told her firmly. Unfortunately, the glint in her eyes gave her away.
"You really don't care if my only friend is a friggin' fifty pound squash, do you?" Olivia challenged, catching the sparkle of amusement in those gorgeous dark eyes. "So tell me. When was this designated 'Yank Olivia's Chain' day?"
"Just now," Natalia grinned, "when I found you've been having meaningful conversations and complaining about your wife and kids to a fifty pound squash."
Faced with said wife and kids grinning at her, laughter echoing against the walls of the cozy kitchen, Olivia Spencer couldn't help but smile. Some days it really didn't pay to get out of bed.
"You all done?" Olivia chuckled, the sound of her family's amusement washing over like warm rain, replenishing her very soul.
"Yeah. I'm done. Ava? Emma? You both good?" Natalia smirked, the fingers of her right hand tracing a pattern up and down the length of Olivia's forearm, her expression so full of love and laughter that Olivia's breath caught in her throat.
"Yup," Emma agreed easily.
"Yeah. I'm good for now," Ava added. "Hey Mom, Emma wanted to ask you about Halloween, right, Em?"
"What about Halloween? I thought we agreed to go to the houses of people we know and then to the party at your school," Olivia asked, a tingle of suspicion snaking its way down her spine.
"We did. But Jodie's Mom and Dad and little brother Ben are all dressing up as a family and I think that we should do that, too," Emma offered, a wide grin lighting her face.
"Oh, really," Olivia replied neutrally with more than an inkling of where this was going. "What are they dressing up as, 'bean?"
"The Simpsons." Emma stated matter-of-factly.
"And what did you think we should dress up as?" Olivia asked reluctantly, quite certain that she wasn't going to like the answer, regardless of what it was.
"Umm," Emma began, and Olivia cringed inwardly, knowing that if her youngest child was hedging, it did not bode well. "Remember last year when I was the Good Witch in that play? Ava was asking me what I wanted to be and I told her about that and she said it would be fun if we dressed up like the Wizard of Oz people. But since there are five of us," Emma continued, enthusiasm and excitement glowing on pink cheeks. Her next words were curtailed by her mother's voice.
"She did, did she? What a good big sister," Olivia smiled, the look not quite making it to her eyes as she shot a glare at her older daughter. "Five?"
"Yes, Mommy. You and Natalia and Ava and Rafe and me. Five," Emma said, counting on her fingers, her glance a little impatient at her mother's slowness.
"Ah, good. Rafe gets to dress up, too," Olivia said out loud.
To herself, she thought, Ha! Just cause you don't live here doesn't mean you don't get to suffer with the rest of us, little man.
"So, if you're going to be the Good Witch, who is playing the other roles?" Olivia asked, part of the answer already apparent to her.
"I'm not, Mommy. Ava's going to be Glinda, the Good Witch," Emma countered.
"Ava? Kind of going against type there, aren't you, daughter of mine?" Olivia grinned, chuckling at the disgruntled look on Ava's face.
"Rafe is going to be the Scarecrow," Emma began to list, sounding for all the world like a producer lining up her cast.
"If I only had a brain." Well, that works, Olivia chuckled inwardly.
"Natalia is going to be Dorothy and I'm gonna be Toto," Emma went on, oblivious to the looks her mother and sister were throwing at each other. "And you can be the Wicked Witch."
"Gee, I didn't see that one coming," Olivia muttered, glaring at Ava's sudden smirk and Natalia's laugh. "I don't know that I want to spend an entire evening with green skin and a big hat. Not my best look."
"You have to, Mommy. Nobody but you can be the Wicked Witch. Ava says you've been practicing for a long time," Emma elucidated, rather surprised at her mother's reluctance.
"Ava said that, did she?" Olivia narrowed her eyes to green slits as she watched her older daughter's shoulders shake with barely contained laughter.
She had just opened her mouth to deliver a well-deserved zinger when Natalia leaned over and placed her lips against the elegant curve of Olivia's ear, whispering just loud enough for her to hear.
"You know, if you play your cards right, Dorothy will definitely be surrendering," she husked, the warmth of her breath on Olivia's skin sending a shiver down to her toes. "In fact, if we can get Ava and Rafe to stay at the party with Emma, Dorothy might just surrender two or three times."
Ava watched as a flush stole over her mother's cheeks and a decided glaze settled across those green eyes. She had a pretty good idea what her step-mother was whispering and she wondered briefly if the pancakes she had so recently consumed would be staying down.
"Hey, Em, now that we're done with breakfast and got our Halloween assignments, why don't you and I go and feed the ducks? I'll bet they're hungry," Ava offered, pushing back her chair and practically dragging her little sister over to the bread box. "Here, let's go."
"What's the matter, Glinda? You're the one who's looking a little green at the moment," Olivia smirked, very aware of the reason for Ava's abrupt departure.
"You know, Mom, you really aren't as funny as you think you are," Ava huffed, shooting Natalia a look of betrayal as the other woman laughed softly.
"Well, you know, darling child of mine, sometimes typecasting pays off," Olivia reminded her, turning her head to meet Natalia's eyes, eyes that held the same look of heat tinged adoration.
"Ducks. We're off to feed the ducks," Ava groused, pulling Emma out the door behind her, thinking that for a morning that had started off with such promise of amusement at her mother's expense, she was the one looking out for falling houses.
"Ava? What does 'Surrender Dorothy' mean?" Emma asked, tugging at her hand to get her attention. "Mom said it as we were going out the door."
"It means we'd better take our time feeding the ducks." Ava answered, hauling her sister across the still damp meadow toward the pond. "A really long time."
To Be Continued
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