DISCLAIMER: Xena and the rest of the Xena universe are copyrighted characters owned by Ren Pics and Universal. Lucky bastards!
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I really didn't think I'd ever do a 20K+ fic, but once I started I couldn't stop. It was a very self-satisfying exercise so I may do it again if you all like this. This is more or less an original fic that I have been meaning to write for a long time, but I used the basic charactistics of Xena and Gabrielle for our main characters.
THANKS: To my primary beta, Sofia Lindsay, for listening to my insecurities and reading and re-reading this fic. It wouldn't have been done had she not poked the daylights out of me. That sounded very wrong! Also, thanks to my secondary betas on this fic, Darkbardzero and Sinjenkai. Last but not least, to my partner Michelle for putting up with my late nights working on this.
WARNING: Descriptions of violence and abuse (physical not sexual).
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
CHALLENGE: Written for Epic Proportions 2009.
On Hallowed Ground
Riley let out a sigh when she dropped the duffle bag at the bottom of the stairs. She cradled her cell phone on her shoulder, listening with quickly fading patience, before sitting on her sofa facing the large floor-to-ceiling windows to tie her hiking boots. She rubbed her forehead, trying in vain to fight off a headache. Glancing out at the sun barely peaking over the downtown Chicago skyline, she blew out a breath and ran her fingers through her long dark hair.
She hated early morning flights. Partly because she really liked to sleep in, but mostly because she loved her view of the sun rising over the Hudson. It was what sold her on her obscenely expensive condo, but she wouldn't trade it for all the money in the world.
"Al Al, listen to me. I don't give a damn what Jack wants. This is important. I'm doing this and that's final." Holding the phone away from her ear, she barely heard the rant on the other end something about him going down on her sinking ship if she screws this up. Shaking her head, she made her way to the kitchen and her daily dose of caffeine an extra tall travel mug of strong black coffee. "No, you can't talk me out of it. I'm going. Period. End of story. Yes no, I'm not mad at you. Yes, I'll call." She laughed as she flipped her cell shut before her well-meaning co-worker could protest further.
Alonzo "Al" Perkins, junior editor and resident shit deflector for star writer, Riley Jacobsen, had been concerned for her well-being ever since Riley was captured by a drug dealer during one of her undercover stories. Jack Jessly, their editor-in-chief, was thrilled with the story because it had finally put his two-bit Chicago news-rag, The Weekly Herald, on the map. He was less than pleased, however, with the massive doctor bills and lawsuits the paper had to cover after Riley had physically expressed her displeasure against her captor's face. To say Riley had to work a lot of overtime to make up for it was an understatement.
Riley, in her own form of controlled recklessness, decided the only way to fix a bad situation was to snag another great story. Jack had warned her about going off on her own again. That was how she ended up in the drug dealer situation. When she pitched her new idea, he drew a new line in the sand. First, he didn't want her getting into dangerous situations. Now, he didn't want her dealing with controversial subjects at all. She'd never get a job with a major paper if he kept holding her back. To Riley, news wasn't worth reading, much less reporting, if it didn't bother, scare, or unnerve anyone. On that principle alone, the determined brunette found herself packing a bag and catching the first flight out for Alabama.
Grabbing up her mug, she hefted her duffle on her back for the long ride down the elevator. While she waited on the taxi she had called, she reflected on the life she had now. It was so vastly different from the life of her childhood.
Since leaving home six years ago for journalism school at Columbia College, Riley maintained only one piece of remaining contact with Warrior, Alabama a subscription to the town's local paper, The Warrior Way. It was an ad in the paper that caught her eye and started the wheels turning. Sandwiched between announcements for the local councilman's daughter's wedding and the latest natural disaster in Sri Lanka was a full page ad for Warrior First Baptist Church's Real Life Through Jesus program. Riley followed the link provided on the Internet and learned that the Real Life program was really an ex-gay ministry. That alone didn't shock her, but it did unnerve her that she was on a plane bound for the one place she swore she'd never return to.
The last time Riley had stepped foot into Warrior First Baptist was also the last time she had seen the town or her family six years ago. When Riley was eight years old, a young, handsome, and enthusiastic preacher, Rev. John Porter, had taken over for the elderly, and quite frankly, senile, older reverend, Frank Smith. As a child Riley had heard stories of Rev. Frankie, how his family had lived for generations in Warrior and founded the church he eventually assumed. The Reverend had never had formal education, most townsfolk didn't, but he knew the Bible word-for-word. There was little doubt among the locals that he was ideal for the job.
Rev. Frankie's family became concerned about his ability to continue his ministry. After wandering off twice and one of those times being found naked and disoriented on the side of Highway 31, his wife and children decided to begin searching for a replacement. The natural place to look in those days was the nearest seminary. With his charms, good looks, and cutting edge ideas for developing the youth base of the church, a move that would ensure the growth of members for generations to come, John Porter easily wooed the search committee.
Quick to be good to his word, Rev. Porter and his family tackled the youth segment through the local schools. The key leader was his charming and outgoing son, John Jr., who started the first Federation of Christian Athletes, while his daughter, Samantha Renee, won over the enthusiastic younger crowd with her kind spirit and infectious smile. John Jr. made sure to show the rough and tumble country boys of Warrior that they could still be all male and Christian at the same time, or at least his definition of it. As cherubic and innocent as Samantha was, her brother was as troubled and crafty. The good looks he inherited from his father and the cover of being the preacher's son served him well in escaping many unsavory scrapes. To round out the family was the obligatory Sunday School teaching preacher's wife. Janet Porter, a petite and perky blonde of only 20, was key to bringing in and maintaining the family element. Her daycare services and eventual preschool drew in young families from all over town. Within five years of his arrival, Rev. John Porter and his family had nearly doubled church membership, more than half of which were under 25.
Riley felt a chill go down her spine at the remembrance of that enigmatic family and the powerful sway they held over so many. At 18, Riley had entered the double pine doors of Warrior First Baptist for the last time, with little more than a duffle bag containing a few mementos and clothes in tow. At the time, she had to remind herself that college students didn't need luxury to succeed, only desire. Only two desires existed for Riley at that moment to succeed and to escape. The next day she would leave to start a new life, but as she sat in the hard wooden pews, she was letting go of an old one.
The quiet of an empty church always managed to fill Riley with a sense of awe. In her opinion, it was the best time to go to church. Her family had never been big on "Sunday morning show-and-tell," as she remembered her father describing it, but as she grew she watched her classmates find a commonality in her small town because they all went to the same church. After much pestering, her mother finally agreed to let her walk to the church down the road, the same church all of the other kids went to. Over time, the lanky, dark-haired girl found a place to fit in. Sitting in the plane's cramped window seat, Riley recalled the emotions and feelings of belonging in those early days at the church. There were always games and music and fun. It was an emotion she had long let go of. As a young girl, Riley gave little thought to Mrs. Janet's Sunday School stories or noticed how they changed over the years from generic "stay out of trouble" stories associated with Jonah and the Whale and the "bravery in the face of adversity" stories of David and Goliath to warning stories of "raging hormones" and "having a lustful eye" usually connected to Samson and Delilah. Looking back with an adult's eye, the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
The summer Riley turned 13 she finally understood what Mrs. Janet had been saying when a petite redhead named Susie Graham moved to town. Her father was in the military and her mom taught at the high school. Susie joked about being a gypsy, but the truth was moving so often made it difficult to have friends. Riley didn't mind. In fact, it encouraged her to make sure that her new friend never had to do without a friend ever again. Riley thought little about why she always wanted to see Susie or why it bothered her if a boy talked to her friend. Everything Mrs. Janet had said about lust was about men and women so Riley thought that was the only way a person could get into trouble. In spite of their efforts, Riley didn't pay much attention to boys so she figured she was safe.
It wasn't until one day after church when Susie's mother was taking Riley home that she learned that not only was it wrong to like her friend but it was worse than when a man lusted for a woman. At least that's what Mrs. Janet had said when Riley's mother forced her to go to a counseling session. Her friend became scared to be alone with her and one day, as she stood crying on the young girl's front porch in the pouring rain, Susie's mother slammed the door in her face, refusing to even allow Riley in her house. Who knew that leaning over and giving Susie a simple kiss on the cheek when she got out of the car would cause so much trouble? The moment was purely instinct. She didn't think it out, just wanted to give her friend a kiss. Riley never went back to church and never faced Susie again. When school started that fall, her redheaded crush wasn't there. She asked a couple of kids from the church, and they said she moved with her family to Atlanta. The images of a crying Susie, her angry mother, and a disappointed Mrs. Janet flickered in Riley's memory. She felt her stomach unconsciously knot in a sickening spasm, and she felt like running. What the hell possessed me again to go after this story?
Riley contemplated on the flight down if her urge to go back to Warrior was revenge or simply a good story. There was nothing left for her there. Her father had walked out on her and her mother when she was only 10 years old. After the scene with Susie and her own mother's personal sense of failure and humiliation, Riley shut down. She refused to talk to her mother and made little to no effort to make friends. The whole town knew the story of her downfall. There was little she could do but focus on her escape from small-minded America. Even if it was painful, the best thing to come out of the experience was her education. She read every book she could get her hands on, spending endless hours at the town library. Anything to keep from going home to the preaching and the disappointment. Not surprisingly, Riley's mother found religion and became an avid supporter of the very church that had banished her daughter. Needless to say, when Riley left for college, she cut all communication with her mother. The only way she found out her mother died two years ago was the very brief obituary in The Warrior Way.
When she left Warrior, the striking brunette vowed never to return. Never say never, Riley mused. Being valedictorian earned her a one-way ticket to freedom. Now, the prodigal child exited the Birmingham airport and instantly knew why she had left. Taunting her from across the street was a huge billboard for First Warrior Baptist Church with the tagline: Spreading God's message of love to a lost world. She shook her head in disgust. Okay, maybe it is revenge that drives me. Still, if my gut instinct is right, this is going to make one hell of a story. No pun intended, of course.
Before the tall woman could even get her bags into the rental, her cell phone started ringing. Pushing aside pleasant images of chucking the contraption into the nearest lake, she rifled through her bags until she found the sleek piece of silver.
"What?!" The oppressive heat was already fraying her ragged nerves.
"What me! What you, Jacobsen! Where the hell are you?" Shit, fuck, damn! One of these days I'm gonna get caller ID!
"Heya, Jack, what's up?" Trying to be more nonchalant and pleasant than she felt, she slipped into the leather seats of the Jeep waiting for the inevitable explosion that didn't come.
"I'll answer your question when you answer mine." Now, Riley knew it was going to be bad because Jack was way too calm, too fast. She could almost envision the red splotches breaking out all over his face as he tried to remain calm. Holding the phone to her shoulder, she effortlessly pulled back her long dark hair in a ponytail then started the car.
"I'm in Alabama," she held her breath waiting for it to sink in.
"Ala what the oh, no, no, NO, Riley!!! I told you not to do this! Are you deliberately trying to shoot yourself in your one and only professional foot? Have you completely lost your mind?"
Merging onto the highway, she had to nearly yell to be heard, "Probably, Jack, but it's not my sanity we should be worrying about here. Look, I'll get you one helluva story. I promise." She played it up, hoping a little over the top would work on the guy that thought and acted like he was a father to everyone, and not always in a good way. "Don't give up on me."
She barely caught the sigh on the other end. Come on, Jack, bend a little. "Damn it, Riley. One of these days, I swear, you're going to give me a heart attack. Fine, I want weekly updates and if I don't hear from you, I'm calling a search party, got it? I'll blow your cover and won't feel bad about it, 'kay?"
The brunette let the smile show in her voice, "Thanks, Jack, you won't regret this."
"I hope not, kid. I sure hope not." Then he was gone. She snapped the phone shut and dropped it in the passenger seat. When she first met Jack Jessly, it had irritated her that he never said "bye," but now she knew it was part of his personality. It was an aggravating part, but a part nonetheless, and she was learning that his brusqueness was what made Jack, well, Jack. It actually made it hard to stay mad at the bear of a man.
Finding the one and only rock station in the area, she turned up the radio and let the warm wind and scent of pine transport her to another moment from her childhood. Passing the same fields, she pulled a rare memory out, one with her riding with her dad on his motorcycle. When they were out of eyesight of her mom, her dad would let her stand on his legs, while he held onto the belt loop of her jeans. At that moment, she was happy and content, imagining soaring like a bird among the trees and fields.
Without realizing it, she had pulled over to the side of the road. The tears hung on the precipice ready to fall any moment.
"Excuse me?" Riley nearly jumped out of her skin. Lost in her reverie and sadness, she didn't hear the other car pull up beside her. A blonde head poked out of the window, holding a hand up to shade her eyes.
"Sorry, just thinking," Riley apologized. The blonde tilted her head to the side, looking at the dark-haired woman with scrutinizing eyes.
"It is you Riley Jacobsen," the other woman quickly slipped out of the car, "It's interesting to have you back in town. I'll be honest, I didn't expect it." She crossed her arms as she studied Riley. When she looked over the names of the incoming group, Riley's name jumped out at her. After Googling her name, the mystery was solved. Small town girl goes bad, runs away to the big city to live a life of sin and debauchery, her mom dies, the guilt eats at her until she decides to change her ways. She had seen this scenario many times over the years.
Riley felt uneasy under the scrutiny, "Yeah, well, I better get going."
"Where are my manners? My name's Samantha. Everyone calls me Sam," she held out her hand to Riley.
She stared momentarily at the small hand before finally giving a firm shake, "And some call you the preacher's daughter. Yeah, I remember you too."
"Some call me that still, but it's not usually in a nice way. Well, you're in luck, Riley. I'm the church welcome wagon. Follow me and I'll show you where you're staying," Without even looking back, Sam got back in her car and moved ahead of Riley down the road.
Taking a deep breath, Riley shifted into gear, "No turning back now, Jacobsen."
Sam watched from her rearview mirror, contemplating her memory of Riley with the woman here now. Aside from adding a few years to her face, she looked exactly the same dark hair, piercing blue eyes, and legs that seemed to never end. Riley had been three years ahead of Sam in school, but Sam distinctly remembered her first memory of the other woman a weekend youth retreat to the beach that her dad called "Fun in the Son." The slogan still made her groan at its ridiculousness. She seriously doubted that worshiping God was the primary thought on the minds of the teenagers on the trip, especially after Riley came out of the beach house in a royal blue two-piece bathing suit. The guys openly ogled her and the girls talked about her behind her back. For them it was jealousy and fear that Riley would steal their boyfriends. Sam, however, simply watched her, as her dark hair fell in a shiny braid down her back and her skin glowed in the sunlight. At least the girls from the church agreed on one thing, Riley was a perfect pick for the girls versus guys game of beach volleyball. With her long legs, she effortlessly spiked ball after ball. Sam still smiles at the memory of Riley pegging John in the back with the ball. He wasn't too happy though.
John glowered at the back of the tall girl as she turned away and high-fived Sharon Johnson, girlfriend of John's best buddy and wide receiver for their football team, Caleb Stewart.
Sharon taunted from the other side of the net, "Come on! I thought you were big, tough men. You're not gonna let a girl do that to you, are you?"
Sharon leaned across the net closer to John, who was still pampering his bruised ego, "Besides, I think she likes you."
Caleb laughed and gave him a chuck on the shoulder, "How many girls does that make for you this week alone, John? Three four?"
John smirked at Riley, who was oblivious to the conversation as she waited at the line to serve, "Quit flirtin', Sharon! Let's go!"
Later that night on the beach, they sat by the fire and sang hymns. John tried to coax Riley off for a walk, but she found some excuse to stay near the fire. Sam remembered spending a lot of time watching Riley, but not really sure why. There was a strange aura around her. She didn't follow the lead of the other girls. She didn't babble over boys and makeup, yet she seemed quietly content with herself, almost confident, as if she didn't need the usual social trappings to feel at ease. Sam was intrigued.
Then one day it was as if the sun refused to shine and Riley one day simply stopped being happy. For Sam, it was an odd mix. Even if only watching her from the periphery, she had become used to seeing Riley sauntering through the church, virtually unreachable, even by her own peers, and seemingly being happy that way. Then she became a shell of the girl she once knew. The change had come on a surprisingly chilly October evening. Sam had been sitting at dinner with her parents and John, when the doorbell rang.
Her dad answered the door, ready to politely send whoever it was away, "Yes, may I help you?"
Painful sobs reverberated past the door before anyone heard a voice, "You you don't know me, but my daughter goes to your church."
Fearing the worst, the death of a child, her father immediately ushered the woman in and invited her to sit on the couch. Sam's mom, realizing the gravity of the situation, told Sam to go to her room.
"Honey, go upstairs."
Sam could see who it was now and not seeing the dark-haired girl, she couldn't bring herself to leave the room. Her heart clinched in a palpable ache.
"Sam, listen to your mother. Go." Her father was more forceful, and Sam instinctively moved to the steps. It didn't occur to her then that it was odd that John got to stay. She climbed the stairs in a daze, but as she reached her bedroom door, she opened and then closed it again without going in. Instead, she slumped against the wall across from her door where she could huddle in the shadows and listen to the conversation.
"Who's your daughter?" her father gently directed the woman to continue.
"Riley Jacobsen," she barely got the name out before breaking down in sobs again.
"Please, Mrs. Jacobsen, start from the beginning. Is she okay? Is she hurt?"
The woman chuckled in a way that sent shivers up Sam's spine. She had heard a laugh like that once before when her father took her to visit her crazy Aunt Mae in the hospital.
"She's not hurt not yet, and I doubt she's okay, not anymore. I just I don't know what I did wrong. She didn't learn about stuff like this from me! This filth! This perversity." The words were sputtered from her mouth as if the very sound of them made her sick. Sam crouched deeper into the shadows. She didn't like where this was going.
Her father kept a soft, soothing tone, "I'm sure it wasn't your fault. You've done the best you can. Sometimes you have to leave them in God's hands."
She came back with a soft, defeated voice, "I don't want her to burn in hell. But, that's what's going to happen to her, isn't it? That's what we're told in Leviticus."
"We're told a lot of things in Leviticus. What did she do?"
"I don't want to say it. It'll make it real, and I don't want to believe it. I don't want to believe my own flesh and blood is a pervert." Sam could practically see the older woman shaking her head in disbelief.
"If we name it, we bring it out of the dark and take away sin's power. We can't fight it if we can't call out the demon by name. What is your daughter's sin?" Her father's voice had taken on an air of authority. He sounded like he did in the pulpit. Sam had an urge to cover her ears. She wasn't sure she wanted to hear this, but she couldn't stop herself from listening.
There was a stretch of interminable silence, only broken by occasional sniffles from Riley's mom and now that Sam was really tuned in, she could hear the weeping of her own mother, before Mrs. Jacobsen finally spoke in a deadly calm, "Homosexuality."
Her father took a deep breath before speaking, "Mrs. Jacobsen, I'm so sorry this has happened to you, and I'm sorry that you have to endure this pain. The good news is that Christ can fix anything. Nothing is too broken for Him. There is no evil strong enough to defeat a mother strengthened by the love of Christ. Do you want to save Riley?"
"Yes, of course."
"Then give yourself to Christ and thank Him for this opportunity to serve His will through your daughter."
Sam felt inexplicably saddened. She wasn't sure if it was for Riley's mom or for Riley herself. It could have even been for her. Hearing the confession of Riley's mom struck something within her that was familiar yet alien. For such a great evil, she was surprised she had never heard of homosexuality until that night, but the word didn't scare her. However, to hear her own mother crying in pained sympathy for another mother of a child afflicted by this evil did scare her.
Once she heard the mumbled beginnings of prayer, she slinked over to her bedroom door and quietly entered. In the dark, she prayed for Riley.
Sam glanced in the mirror as she approached the house Riley would be staying in. She pulled to the curb and waited for her to park. So many things were starting to make sense. Looking back now, she could even see why John developed an almost obsessive interest in Riley during high school. It would be interesting to see how he would react to having Riley in the program. For her part, Sam hoped she could just make this experience as painless as possible for Riley.
Riley had followed Sam at a reasonable distance trying to keep the dust and dirt from coating her in a fresh layer of travel grime. As hot as it was, Riley speculated that it could turn to mud pretty quickly. After passing through a row of trees, the fields opened up to neatly manicured lawns and row after row of white fence guarding nearly identical prefab houses. At the end of the road, a white steeple rose high in the sky, reaching for the unattainable. Easing to a stop at the third house on the right, Riley slipped her shades off and rounded the front of the Jeep.
Sam practically leaped from the car, beaming a bright white smile, "Home sweet home!"
Riley was already annoyed by her, "This isn't exactly a vacation in Tahiti for me, ya know?" The dark-haired woman cut into the petite blonde with ice blue eyes. Sam had the decency to look away.
"Well, guess we better get you settled in then," the blonde moved past Riley to the back of the Jeep.
"We? There's no 'we' in this," Riley took the duffle bag from Sam's hand and started to turn.
A small hand on her arm stopped her, "Riley, you can't expect to do this on your own," the blue eyes riveted on the gentle hand before rising to bore into soft green. Sam suddenly realized how her gesture looked and pulled away quickly, her fingers still tingling.
"I just mean that we're here to help you, Riley. That's all. Let me help," Riley sighed and stretched to her full six feet. She was disarmed by the sincerity in the blonde's eyes. There was too much at stake to let emotions get in the way. She pushed down her desire to reach out to the younger woman. She had a job to do and she couldn't let the ghosts of her past deter her.
"Maybe some other time."
Sam pushed a little further, "Good. I'm gonna need some help with something and I'm volunteering you."
"Huh?" Riley stopped mid-step. This woman may be nuts in more ways than one.
Sam shuffled her feet and looked down at her tennis shoes, wondering at her sudden compulsion to weasel her way into Riley's good graces.
"Actually, it's part of the treatment developing a feeling of family and community outside of the gay lifestyle. Anyway, the July 4th will be in less than a month and our church always puts on a picnic for the community, and I could use the help."
"And ?" A dark eyebrow rose high waiting.
"Well, would you mind helping me? Look, if it's not this, it'll just be some other community project and at least I'm not a tyrant." Riley knew she should say no but any plausible excuses that would work under normal circumstances wouldn't work here. There were no deadlines, no visiting relatives, no trips to suddenly leave on, and nowhere she needed to be. Besides, Sam looked terribly ill at ease as she babbled and fidgeted. She couldn't keep torturing her.
"Okay, sure," If the sun hadn't already been high in the sky, Sam's smile would have lit up the entire encampment.
"Great! I'll call you sometime this week!" Before Riley could respond, Sam hopped in her car and sped off down the street. Shaking her head, she turned to go in the house then realized she didn't get the key from Sam.
"Crap!" She leaned her head against the cool metal door and fumbled hopelessly with the handle, which surprisingly gave way, causing Riley to stumble into a small foyer.
"No keys?" Looking closer at the handle, she narrowed her eyes. "No lock fabulous. Well, this should be a truly interesting experience." She kicked the door closed with her foot, "What in the hell have I gotten myself into?"
Sam pulled away from the curb and mentally congratulated herself for getting Riley to let down her guard, even just a little bit, when her cell phone rang. She chanced a glance at the caller ID, having a good idea who was on the other end.
Even though they had only been dating six months, Sam had known Bobby McIntyre since her family had moved to Warrior. They had been friends, hanging out at the church and doing random group things with the other kids, long before he dared to ask her out. Bobby was going to be one of the few who made it out of their small town when he got a basketball scholarship to the University of Alabama. Unfortunately, in his first outing on the court, a forward from Florida State mowed him down trying to get to the ball before it went out of bounds. Bobby and the guy went one day. His knee went the other. That fall he was back and working at his dad's car shop.
"Hey beautiful! How's your day shapin' up?" Sam parked her car in the driveway and struggled to hold onto her phone, keys, and grocery bag at the same time.
"Not bad, I guess. I ran into someone and had to show her where she was staying." Sam jimmied the front door open and put everything down on the kitchen counter with a sigh. She looked at the clock and realized she needed to get started on supper so it would be ready when John got home.
"So, it was one of those people in the program?"
"Yeah," Sam rifled through the refrigerator and found enough food for hamburgers.
"Hey, so do you want to do something tonight?" Sam let out an audible sigh, and looked at the clock again before answering.
"Bobby, I'd love to, but tonight's not a good night. I just finished running a bunch of errands for supplies for this next group coming in. I have to start dinner, then I have to check on dad "
He cut her off before she really got going, "Whoa! Hang on there. Tell you what, forget dinner. I'll stop by the diner on the way in and bring enough food for a small army. You go check on your dad. I'll be there in 30 minutes."
"Well, I can hardly refuse that, now can I? You're too good to me."
Sam could tell he was smiling, and the thought of it made her smile too. "That's my job. See you later. Love you!"
Sam looked at the phone for a moment, not quite sure if she heard right. If he said what she thought he said Sam suddenly felt uneasy about him coming over. Did he expect her to say it too? She wasn't sure if she could yet, but a lot of people would think she was nuts if she didn't.
For many of the women in Warrior, Bobby was a prime catch. Tall and gentle, with boy-next-door good looks the wavy dirty blonde hair and brilliant white smile easily making him mistaken for some California surfer. Any other woman would have squealed with delight and called her best friend to brag. Sam wasn't any other woman though. She was Sam, and suddenly what should have been the easiest and most natural event in her life, became incredibly complicated.
Riley glanced around the nondescript house. The eat-in kitchen was small but filled with the necessities, even a coffee pot, which made the brunette smile. A modest living room led to two sliding glass doors that looked out over a deck and tiny backyard. Riley sighed. It was livable but it definitely wasn't home.
She threw the duffle on the floral print full sized bed before heading to the bathroom. She chuckled at the subtleties of the house. A full size bed? Just enough for one person. Not that Riley had any intentions of needing a larger bed and not like she'd have the chance here, but still, it made her laugh.
She checked out the kitchen and found it already stocked with necessities bread, cheese, water, milk and lunch meat. Riley's stomach growled at the sight so she made a sandwich and headed to the couch. She flipped on the remote.
"Great! No cable!" There went her chances to even watch The L Word. Without thinking, the lanky woman took a shortcut over the back of the couch. She came back with her laptop and plopped back down on the couch.
"Guess I'll have to entertain myself then." In a few clicks, the order had been placed. She estimated that with delivery time it would arrive after the first group session, exactly when she'd need it. She played around on the Internet for another hour, but eventually got bored so she pulled out her notepad and started taking notes on her experience thus far.
By the time she was finished, it was only 7 o'clock and she was already bored out of her mind. She killed some time cruising around CNN's site before finally closing her computer all together. By then, it was 7:30. Giving up for the night, she clicked the TV back on to mindlessly watch the Miss America pageant. "Someone shoot me now."
The room was dimly lit by the bleeping of the heart monitor in the corner. Sam walked over and turned it down a little so her dad could get a good night's sleep. She checked his IV and diaper. When she realized he would be good for a few more hours, she kissed his forehead, automatically checking for fever in her touch.
She brushed the graying and nearly non-existent hair out of his eyes. She tried not to think about him giving her piggy back rides or teaching her to swim in the lake. To think about the way he used to be hurt too much. After her mom had died, he tried desperately to continue on, but it seemed like from the day they put her mom in the ground, John Porter had slowly began to wither away and die too. Sam had always been amazed at the depth of love her parents had for each other. They laughed and joked with each other, and once Sam even caught them necking like teenagers on the sofa. Her young teenage mind at the time couldn't stomach it and begged them to stop damaging her fragile sensibilities. Not for the first time, she wondered if she'd ever find a love like that. Whatever that spark was between them, she hadn't felt it yet or at least not for Bobby.
With a sigh, Sam wandered back downstairs to see Bobby standing in the kitchen. He had come through the backdoor as he had come accustomed to doing in recent months and made himself at home. She stood on one of the stairs and watched him move around the kitchen with ease, realizing this is what it would be like if they were to marry. At this point, she should be smiling and getting little warm and fuzzy feelings in her stomach, maybe even imagining a couple of kids running around his feet screaming and tugging on him. But she didn't. All she saw was year after year of the same scenario, the same lackluster feeling greeting her.
He turned then and spied her on the stairs, "Hey, baby. Come on, I got your favorite, that Hawaiian kind with ham and pineapples." He walked up to her and pulled her into a strong and gentle hug, before kissing the top of her head. "How's your dad doing?"
She pulled back and stuffed her hands into her pockets, "He's fine. Today was a good day for him."
Sam fought to put on a smile, but she felt like crumbling inside. Bobby was a good guy, and she felt nothing for him.
A knock at the door startled Riley from her slumber, causing her to nearly fall off the couch. She smacked her lips trying fruitlessly to rid herself of the bale of cotton in her mouth. The knock came again, longer and more fervently than before.
"Hold ya horses, I'm coming!" She flung the door open to glaring sunshine. Disoriented and now temporarily blinded, the brunette had a hard time focusing on the knocking irritation. "Yeah, what?"
"Good morning to you too, Riley," Sam smiled far too brightly for so early.
"Don't tell me. You're a morning person," she placed a hand above her eyes and squinted.
"Not really, but I realized after I left yesterday that I forgot to give you this," the perky blonde stretched out a hand holding what appeared to be a large gift bag, complete with bow and frilly ribbon.
Riley bowed back suspiciously, "My birthday was last month, what's this?" She gingerly took it by the handle.
"Since I'm the welcome wagon, this is the customary welcome package. There is information in there on the program, dates for different events, group meetings, special speakers, and such. Oh, and some books you are required to read for group," Riley shook her head and turned to walk back inside.
"It's too early for this, I need coffee." She plopped the bag recklessly down on the kitchen counter before pilfering in the cabinets for sustenance. When she looked up, Sam was still standing in the doorway watching her.
"So much for a quiet, peaceful morning to myself," she mumbled under her breath, turning back to the little blonde she procured a fake smile, "Would you care to join me for some coffee, Sam?"
From the grin that broke out on Sam's face, you would have thought Riley had just surprised her with a puppy on Christmas morning, "I'd love to!" She slid onto the stool at the counter. "I'm not usually up this early but so much has to be done to get ready for the first group session."
Riley grunted but didn't turn around. Sam tapped her fingers on the countertop, looking around the living room. "I guess you're not a morning person, huh?"
"Gee, whatever made you think that," she intoned flatly. Turning, she saw the hurt look on the woman's face, "Hey, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you."
A slight almost shy grin came back to Sam's face, "No problem."
"So, what's on the agenda for this group thing?" The brunette was going to try valiantly to be hospitable to the younger woman. It wasn't her fault that being back home was stirring up emotions she had long pushed away. Simply breathing the same humid air again made her stomach flip with nausea.
"It's all in the bag," she motioned to the discarded item, "but we'll start with introductions probably then have a rundown of the program, the expectations, rules, goals things like that." Riley slid the milk and sugar over to Sam, followed by a hot cup of coffee. The blonde stared at the proffered items strangely.
"Do you have any sweetener?" Riley scrunched her eyebrows up and poked at the container of sugar.
Sam snickered, "No, not sugar. Sweetener."
Riley practically slapped her own forehead, "Oh! THAT kind of sweetener. Yeah, here you go." She reached behind her then slid it across the counter. Sam grabbed three packages and poured them in her cup. The taller woman felt a tad queasy just watching the amount of processed product Sam put in her cup. It must have shown because when the blonde looked up she laughed.
"What? What's wrong?"
"Nothing really. Sure you don't want a little coffee with your sweetener?"
"Oh yeah, well at least mine doesn't have any calories," she leaned smugly back in her chair.
"Maybe, but at least I'm not starting early trying to preserve my body for science."
"Haha, you may not be a morning person, but you sure are a smartass," Riley practically spit her coffee in Sam's face.
"My, my, what would your daddy say if he heard that kind of language from you?" Sam's gulp could be heard across the room, her eyes wide with something Riley couldn't place. Fear maybe?
"I I I'm sorry, Riley. I didn't mean to say that, really. I just got carried away," Riley noticed the sweat breaking out on the blonde's forehead.
"Hey, hey, it's okay. I was only joking. You didn't offend me, okay?" The sudden serious turn scared Riley. Sam wouldn't look at her so she reached for her hand only to have Sam jerk away at the last minute.
"I better go. Thanks for the coffee. I'll see you in group tomorrow," Riley watched in stunned silence as Sam made a quick exit.
The Jeep rumbled underneath her feet as she maneuvered the vehicle over a rough dirt road. It had taken Riley a few days to get up the nerve to make this drive. After a couple of turns, she was at the gate of a once well-kept front yard. The knee-high white wooden gate had fallen off its hinges long ago. Gingerly, Riley stepped over the rotting wood.
If she closed her eyes for a moment, she could still hear the creak of metal on metal from her old swing set. She looked in the general direction of where it had once stood, sheltered by the long branches of an old oak tree. When that tree was only a fraction of its size, she had climbed as high as she could to see over the bluff behind the house. Unfortunately, the limb being so young wasn't strong and it snapped under her weight. A lump rose in her throat that she forcefully pushed down. It was the first time she was chastised for being a tomboy, but it wasn't the last time she'd climb that tree. Usually, it was to get away from the ranting and raving of her mother. As the tree grew, she had to resort to nailing 1x4 pieces of wood to the trunk so she could reach the branches. This tree had been her awakening and her salvation in so many ways. When no one else would listen, the gently swaying leaves held her secrets.
Stepping closer, she ran her hand over the rough bark touching a dark hole in the trunk a little above her head. She took a deep breath before stepping away. It was time to do what she came for. Walking far out into the backyard, less than a hundred feet from the bluff drop off, she spotted a simple cross. Engraved on the white wood was "Deborah Marie Jacobsen b. 4/3/64 d. 10/12/03". Riley kneeled in front of the cross, running a finger over the letters.
"I doubt this is the way you expected me to show back up, huh, Mom?" She paused as if expecting an answer before continuing her one-sided conversation.
"Yeah, well, neither did I. There were so many things I didn't say to you, that I wish I had. I wanted to tell you how angry I was with you, how angry I AM with you." A tear fell silently down her cheek.
"You hurt me, mom. Do you even realize that? You chose these," the words stuck in her throat, "people, this church, over me. Your own daughter. All because I love differently than you. Because you didn't understand me. Because I embarrassed you. I know you felt like you failed somehow in raising me. I wanted to reassure you so many times and tell you that you didn't fail as a mother, but the truth is you did. You let me down. When I needed you, you abandoned me. You orphaned me for strangers."
The words and tears fell from her lips, bittersweet. She wanted to rage, but the anger wouldn't come. She finally had said the words she wanted to say, express the grief and loss the way she had needed to for so long, and now all she felt was numb. She leaned close to the cross, whispering, "I love you, Mom, even if you couldn't love me back." She placed a kiss on the wood before saying goodbye and walking away.
The drive back was somber. She took the dips and curves slower. In the distance, the sun was beginning to set. She pulled over to watch the oranges shimmering with heat above the horizon before turning to deep red and finally purple. The chirping of the crickets on the still, hot air was broken by a shrill chirping from Riley's jeans pocket.
She flipped the phone open, "Yeah, Jacobsen here."
"How's the research going, Riley?"
"It hasn't officially started yet, Jack," she rubbed her temple to ease the headache she felt coming. A reaming from her boss was the last thing she needed right now, "Patience is a virtue, you know."
"Look, I just worry about ya, kid. This can't be easy on you. It's home, family, memories, all of that crap." She could picture him waving his hand in the air at that last statement and in spite of herself, she smiled. Jack and his wife Martha had never had kids, never wanted kids. Both had been the oldest among the siblings of their respective families and had done enough butt-wiping of little ones to last a lifetime, and he made sure to remind anyone who inquired about the oddity of a perfectly healthy heterosexual couple not having kids of his unintended and unwanted trek through faux-parenthood. Sometimes though, Riley got the distinct feeling that she served as an unofficial daughter for Jack. Someone to worry and fret over but not obligated to pay a car note for.
"I know you worry, but everything's under control. We have a group session tomorrow so I'll get a better feel for how things work here," she heard the raspy sigh on the other end of the line, "I'll call you in a week with an update, okay?"
"And Jack? Lay off the cigars, man," she could have sworn she heard the words "bite me" before the phone went dead. When she pulled back onto the road, she was surprised to find that she was actually smiling.
"When I get back, I'm getting that man a gym membership."
Riley tapped away on her computer, letting the words flow from her. While this wasn't official press for the paper, it was still work. Before she could deal with the issues group was sure to bring up, she needed to get some points down on paper. Otherwise, she feared being too close to the story would affect her work. These "talking points" would keep her on task and focused. For each of them, she planned to write a little every day, fleshing out her first-hand experience in an ex-gay camp.
She rifled through the "gift bag" Sam gave her, making notes on its contents, just in case she got the urge to "accidentally" burn them all. Finished with her work, she looked at the clock. It was dinner time, but she wasn't hungry. The sun was setting and the camp was quieting down for the night. Strangely, though, she felt keyed up and fidgety. Eventually, she gave into the urge and pulling her hair back, slipped on a baseball cap.
In the warm evening air, she slowly strolled past the identical houses. She looked back at her own temporary residence, making a mental note of its location so she wouldn't accidentally wander into another house.
Soft light brightened quiet, drape-covered windows. The small camp was eerily quiet. A dog barked in the distance and some grasshoppers chirped loudly down by the creek, but otherwise, nothing.
Riley stopped and looked up at the imposing cross on the steeple in front of her, a familiar feeling of emptiness and loss washing over her. Nothing about this church had changed. The field surrounding it was now home to all the cookie-cutter homes of the camp, but the church had remained the same. Same pine doors. Same chipped white paint peeling from the wood. She opened the heavy doors and it even smelled the same inside. Over-polished pine filled her senses. She closed her eyes and could still hear the choir singing "Amazing Grace." Even after all these years and all the pain, she still loved that hymn. She couldn't sing it though. Every time she tried, she barely made it through the first stanza without crying.
She walked further into the foyer, running her fingers over the slick wood of the pews. She felt still and quiet, like this small town. Her heart ached for what had been lost, but she couldn't change what had been and who she was now. She sat in the third pew from the front, the same one she always sat in as a child and put her head in her hands and wept.
Sam watched the tall, dark figure emerge from the house and slowly walk down the dirt path. The branches of a tall magnolia tree in front of her bedroom window providing coverage for her open appraisal. She ran her finger over the pane, blocking the image of Riley from her view. Her first instinct was to go to Riley, maybe ask her to go for a walk to the creek, but she knew that wasn't acceptable.
Something tugged at her about Riley, made her want to reach out. The sadness that Riley exhibited all through school had never gone away. Being here hadn't lifted a burden, it seemed to only make the weight heavier. It was an emotion that Sam understood far too well. She touched the gold lettering of the Bible sitting on the sill in front of her. She should pray about these feelings and put them away.
A bell ringing snapped her out of her thoughts. With a sigh, she rushed from her room to the door dividing hers from her father's, thankful to be able to lose herself in another emotion for the moment. She hurried to his bedside, while he continued to persistently ring the small bell.
"I'm here, Dad. What do you need?" She checked the IV drip. He still had another hours worth of morphine before she needed to put more in his drip. He struggled to sit up.
"Whoa, Dad. Take it easy. You're going to hurt yourself." Suddenly, the old man whimpered and fell back on the bed, the yellow stain quickly spreading from his waist to his knees. The tears slid down his cheeks at the humiliation.
"It's no problem. We'll clean you up in no time, okay? Let me go get John. I'll be right back." She slowly stepped down the stairs and heard the cheering and smell of beer long before she reached the living room. Four men sat huddled around the TV, drinking and eating pizza. When the quarterback got sacked, one jumped and threw his empty can at the TV.
"Stupid, fucking faggot! Run, you idiot!"
"John?" The bellowing man turned at Sam's voice, his eyes bloodshot.
"What?" Sam walked up to him, not wanting to say this in front of his friends.
"I need your help with dad. He soiled himself. I need help getting him into the bath."
He shook his head at her and sat back down, "Then why the hell did I build in all those rails and buy those special chairs for him to sit on? Just wipe him down with a rag. He'll be fine."
"John, he hasn't had a bath in a week. I can't pick him up."
"Goddamn it, Samantha! Get the fuck out of my face! I pay the goddamn bills here, not you. You want to call the shots, then you run this fucking fag camp." His buddies snickered behind him.
Sam felt the words bubbling up before she could stop them. In spite of the work they did here, she hated the slurs her brother freely used. She crossed her arms, "I already do."
Before she knew what had happened, he backhanded her in the mouth. She fell back against the wall, the metallic taste of blood already filling her mouth. Long ago, she had stopped crying when he hit her. She simply licked at the cut in the corner of her mouth and walked back up the stairs. She stopped off in the bathroom to spit out the blood and wash out her mouth. She didn't need her dad seeing this.
When she got back to the room, the acrid smell of urine filled the room. She covered her nose and moved to the bed.
"Dad?" She felt his pulse. It was weak but steady. The rest of the meds must have kicked in. He would be out cold until they wore off. She did the best she could to undress him and change his sheets without help.
When she rolled him over and caught a whiff of the foul smell, she nearly gagged, but it was the sight that drove her to finally cry. On her dad's low back, a red whelp the size of a baseball was oozing puss.
She covered her mouth and let the tears fall freely, "Oh dad, I'm so sorry."
With anger and frustration driving her, she finished changing and cleaning her father, taking special care to wash and dry the sore. Moments later, she was showered and out the door. Once in her car, she let the dam open on her tears eventually having to pull over because she couldn't see the white lines on the road anymore. She got herself together and got back on the road. In less than two minutes, she pulled into the gravel driveway and climbed the steps to Bobby's apartment over the car shop.
"Hey," she tucked her hands in her jean pockets.
"Hey are you okay? You look upset."
"Can I come in?"
"Yeah, sure." Bobby stepped aside to let her in.
She looked around the small space at the football posters, makeshift basketball goal on the wall, and a Hooter's calendar by the refrigerator. There was something so comfortably typical about the space a constant in her uncertain world. She could always depend on Bobby and Sam was certain that the person he was now would be the person he'd be 20 years from now too. It was safe and for some reason, thinking about it made Sam want to hurt him, slap him, make him move do something anything.
He came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her waist, placing his head on top of her head. She hated it when he did that so she pulled away.
"I don't know what to do," she sighed.
She sat on the worn sofa that had seen better days about four owners ago. One leg was broken off so it had been propped up with old magazines and an old Biology textbook Bobby had from college. He had dreamed of being a doctor when he was a kid so he kept it as a souvenir of his college days.
"Dad has bedsores, and um I, um I can't keep doing this myself." Bobby came to sit next to her, gingerly putting his weight down fearing the couch would collapse.
"But John ," she interrupted him before he got started.
"John won't do anything. It's like Dad doesn't even exist for him anymore, so it's all up to me," she looked at him with pleading eyes, "He wet himself, Bobby. He's getting worse."
When she broke down crying again, he put his arm around her and pulled her close. He stroked her hair and kissed her cheek, brushing the tears away with his rough thumb. When he pulled her chin up into a kiss, she let him. She told herself not to think too much that he cared about her, even loved her, and she needed to let him know that she cared for him as well. But his kisses got rougher until he brushed the sore corner of her mouth from John's slap, making her pull back with a flinch.
She licked at the fresh blood and he turned her head to see better, the dim light making it hard to see. She saw the flicker of anger on his face.
"When did this happen?"
He shook his head, "He must have really been drunk."
She laughed at his naiveté and stood up, walking to the window to look out, "It's not the first time. It won't be the last. This is just the first time he was stupid enough to leave a mark that would show."
"Well, it should be the last time," Bobby was standing too and his voice was more forceful than she had ever heard it.
"Don't get yourself worked up, Bobby. There's nothing you can do anyway." He hated the truth in those words, but he knew she was right.
A few years after the Porter's had moved to Warrior, the Reverend had bought up several strips of land along the main road of town. At first there had been homes on the land and Sam's father had rented the houses on them. One of those homes had been rented by Bobby's family. Sam's father eventually turned them over to commercial property and allowed the families renting to buy the homes and start businesses there if they wished. It sounded like a good deal to Bobby's dad since he had always wanted his own shop. Within a few years, the strip had grown tremendously sporting a dozen or so local businesses. Sam's father, however, continued to own the land and ultimately had say so in what happened to the people on the land. Now that her dad was in bad health and John Jr. had taken over the finances, he called the shots. For Bobby to challenge John would be the death of his dad's shop and they both knew it.
She turned and saw the look on Bobby's face. She knew what he was thinking about and she wanted to kick herself for making him feel bad about the situation.
She walked over and took his hand, "Just help me figure out what to do with my dad, okay? I have the part-time home care nurses coming, but I can't afford to up that to full-time. I need another solution."
He smiled at her then as an idea came to mind, "I think I know what you can do."
Sam headed back home in much better mood than she had left. Bobby had suggested that she talk to Mrs. Peterson, the church secretary, about some of the church ladies helping her out. They could come in and take turns watching him while Sam's out running errands and a couple of them were in good enough health to help get him into his wheelchair so Sam could take him to the bathroom for a bath. Feeling like she had a handle on things for the first time in a while, she bounded up the steps to her room.
The alarm blared far too early for Riley. She stumbled out of the small bed, cramped from having her long legs pulled up all night on the too short mattress, and bumped the doorframe leading into the bathroom with her shoulder.
"Son of a bitch!" She rubbed at her shoulder and glared at the doorframe as if doing so would make it cower into submission.
She fought to open her eyes under the harsh fluorescent lights and made a face at herself in the mirror, "Welcome to your first day in hell, Jacobsen."
In the kitchen she added a little more to her scoop of coffee. She felt like she'd need it today with it being the first group meeting. She wandered back to her bedroom and grabbed the first pair of jeans she found and a rumpled David Bowie t-shirt. She had five minutes to get to the meeting so she quickly pulled her hair back in a ponytail and slipped on her worn baseball cap before heading out.
She mused that life like this was easier in some ways. At least she didn't have to remember to lock up or worry about locking herself out of the house. It was one less thing to carry in her pockets, though she refused to give up the begrudging comfort of her cell phone. She loathed and loved it at the same time. Out here, it was her only connection to the real world, but she dreaded the worried and inquiring calls from Jack and even Al. Plus, there was no one to impress so she didn't even bother with makeup.
Hell, no heels no makeup! Those two things alone may make this adventure into hell worthwhile!
The meeting house was set off to the side of the church. It was a basic warehouse style building with the only sign as to its purpose being a simple sheet of computer paper taped to the inside of the door that read "Real Life Program."
With a deep sigh, Riley opened the door and moved inside. A fold out table was directly in front of her with a sign on it saying "Check In." The Hilton this was not, Riley mused. Two gray-haired ladies sat at the table and they smiled at her kindly as she approached. As she got closer, a pair of familiar brown eyes looked up at her. It was Mrs. Peterson, her 10th grade English teacher, the woman who had encouraged her love of reading and writing. If she had to attribute anyone with her becoming a journalist, it was Mrs. Peterson. She had worked for The Warrior Way part-time while teaching and told her students of her love for her "other" job. She had a way of telling it so it sounded far more exciting than it probably really was.
A pang of sadness, which comes with realizing one of the people you respected as a child could support such a horrid program, hit Riley in the gut. She couldn't believe Mrs. Peterson, of all people, who spoke with such passion about human and civil rights for blacks, would be here. Mrs. Peterson had been her very own hero, but in the end, she was just human and flawed like everyone else.
The elderly woman stood and walked around the table. She took the taller woman in her arms, "Riley Jacobsen. It's so wonderful to see you again. I couldn't believe it when I saw your name on the list. Welcome home, honey."
Riley fought to keep down the tears, "Mrs. Peterson, you look good. How's your family?"
"Oh, Mike's as ornery as ever and Sylvia, my eldest, you remember her, well, she had her first grandchild last month."
"That's great!" Riley dug through her memories of the family and realized that Mrs. Peterson hadn't said anything about Randall. He had been a few years older than Riley and was a quiet and reserved kid.
"I was so sorry to hear about your mother. She was such a wonderful, God-fearing woman."
"Thanks," Riley answered uncomfortably, "How's Randall? I haven't heard anything about him since I left."
The older woman's face turned dark and sad, and she moved to sit back in her chair, rubbing at a sore spot on her hip.
"He died three years ago," she paused a long time, a hardness coming over her face, as she nearly snarled the word out, "AIDS."
Riley should have seen that coming, "Oh, Mrs. Peterson. I'm so sorry."
"I'm sure the devil's making him far more sorry than I am right now. Come, let's get you signed in." With that, the conversation was closed. Riley shook with the chill that Mrs. Peterson's words sent through her. She'd never understand how a parent could think so cruelly of her own child.
Riley took a seat on one of the hard metal chairs set in a circle at the back of the building. Across from her were three other people, two women and a young man who appeared to be barely an adult. They didn't look at each other or at her, but stared at their hands or a vague point off in the distance. Apparently, there was a spot on the wall that was far more intriguing than the humans around them.
Suddenly, a loud bang behind Riley made all of them jump.
"Ow!" A muffled reply on the other side of the door was the only indication that someone was trying to get in. Riley turned to see a blonde head and shoulder poke through the small opening.
She jumped up and ran for the door to grab it before Sam decapitated herself and Riley would be writing a news story of a totally different type.
"Whoa, easy there, She-ra! I got it."
Sam looked up smiling, as she tried to blow a lock of hair out of her eyes, "Thanks!"
Riley eyed the dolly full of boxes, heavy boxes that nearly crushed each box below it, "Here, let me get that." Without discussion, Riley took the handle from Sam. "Hold the door for me."
With a yank, Riley pulled the heavy load into the building, "Did you get all of this here by yourself?"
Riley shook her head as she turned the cart around in front of her, "Next time ask for help, okay? I don't mind."
Sam put her hands on her hips and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself after the exertion. She nodded her head and smiled, "Sure, I'll remember that."
"Good. Now where do you want this?"
"Over there," she pointed to the opening between the ring of chairs, "Put it in the middle of the circle."
Sam followed and watched as Riley carefully unstacked all the boxes on the floor. When she stood, she indicated the dolly still in her possession, "What do you want to do with this?"
"I'll just take it back to my car."
"I'll take it. It'll give me a reason to get up and move around. All of this sitting and waiting is making me nervous."
Sam led the way outside, popped the hatch on the back of the church van, and turned. In the bright sunlight, Riley saw what the fluorescent lighting hid. A slight reddening at the corner of Sam's mouth and the outline of dark blue under her skin that makeup couldn't hide. Riley knew what it was without having to ask, and the thought made her fling the dolly into the back of the van a little harder than necessary.
"So, what happened?" Riley gestured at Sam's face.
Sam instinctively raised her hand and felt the wetness of fresh blood on the corner of her mouth, "Oh nothing. I bit my lip a minute ago trying to get this stuff in. No big deal."
"Do you always bruise so easily when you bite your lip?"
"It's nothing. Come on, it's time to get started."
Riley crossed her arms as the younger woman walked back toward the building, "You're welcome."
Sam stopped and turned. The look in Riley's eyes must have said it all. The blonde raised her hands in surrender, "Alright. Sorry! Thank you, Riley, for your help."
Riley smirked, letting her concerns go for the moment, knowing she was going to have several months to get to know Sam. "That's better. We are in the South after all. The niceties must be observed."
"Absolutely," Riley opened the door and made a grand gesture for Sam to enter, making Sam laugh.
Both stopped laughing as they entered and noticed at the other end of the building, a handsome man in a dark suit charming Mrs. Peterson into a fit of girlish giggles. With the burgundy bound Bible tucked neatly under his arm, he used the other to wrap the elderly woman up in a one-armed hug.
"Is that ?" Riley didn't get to finish.
"Yep! Taller and a little thicker in the middle, but John Jr. hasn't changed much, huh?"
"Nope, still charming anyone with two X chromosomes, I see." Riley focused in on John, feeling something was off but not being able to put her finger on it. Her memory of their one and only date making her feel nauseous. She pushed it down with a long sigh.
"So, I thought your dad ran this gig."
"Well, see, that's an interesting story. Our dad's been sick the last few years so he's never actually had a hand in the program. It's really all John's baby."
Riley looked at Sam with curiosity, "But he runs it under your dad's name and under the name of the church even though he's not the official pastor here."
"Let's say that John has a way with people. He's been very good about rubbing elbows with the right politicians and finding funding from major donors. People who have never heard of or even stepped foot in Warrior, Alabama, but they believe in the cause. Come on, looks like we're starting."
Sam stepped away from Riley as her brother approached, but Riley didn't miss his first words to her, "This is bit of a mess, ain't it, for the first meeting? I expect it organized better next week. I know it's a small group, but that's no reason to be lazy."
John started to walk away and then turned back, "Oh, and would you mind getting me some coffee?"
Riley noticed Sam struggle with the words, "Sure thing, John."
The dark-haired snake oil salesman turned to Riley with an obvious sneer, "If it isn't Riley Jacobsen. The prodigal child has returned." He let his eyes drift over her body in blatant appreciation.
"And some things never change," he glared at her before turning away. Riley noted that some things truly hadn't changed here. John was still the patronizing, ball-shriveled little bastard he had been in school, and she was suddenly very relieved that her shipment was coming in this afternoon. She was definitely going to need it.
The sun was high in the sky as Riley brought up the last bucket of sand from the river. It was a slow go, but as she hoisted the padded cylinder on top and locked it into place, it was all worth it. She wiped away the sweat rolling into her eyes as she stepped back, raised her fists, and let loose with a vicious roundhouse kick.
The satisfying thwack of skin hitting plastic sent a thrill through Riley, "Oh yeah, I needed this."
Thinking about group this morning set her off into a series of jabs and uppercuts. John's comment to the young man, Phillip, caused her to swing around and land a vicious spinning back kick to the punching bag. The poor kid was bawling at being kicked and beaten by a group of boys at school and all John said was, "He who liveth by the sword shall perish by the sword. You can't really expect to live as you do and not face the consequences."
Riley had found herself fighting the urge to knock John's lights out. Phillip cried harder at his words and if she wasn't mistaken, John smiled at the kid's pain. Son of a bitch!
Thirty minutes later, Riley, who was still blindlessly throwing solid punches and hard kicks, her long dark hair hanging in wet tendrils and the sweat dripping from her white tank top, nearly punched a clueless Sam who had walked up behind her.
The brunette had barely pulled back on a spinning backhand in time to stop from hitting Sam, but unfortunately, lost the battle with gravity and fell hard to the wooden deck when her fist missed the punching bag as well.
"Jesus Christ, Sam! What the hell are you doing sneaking up on me?" With the adrenaline pumping, Riley forgot where she was but realized it was too late to take back the words. "Oh, I'm sorry."
Sam was smirking actually, smirking, "It's okay, Riley. I really shouldn't have gotten so close. I was calling your name from the moment I walked in the door, but you were in a zone, I guess."
Riley pulled herself up and brushed off her backside, "Yeah, I guess you could say that."
Sam stepped back as the taller woman stood, a little intimidated by not only her imposing stature but the wild look in her blue eyes. For a moment, Sam wasn't sure if she could or should trust the woman, an electric air of dangerousness, pulsated with life around Riley. As hard as she tried, Sam couldn't look Riley in the eye so she looked down.
Riley pulled her gloves off and handed them over to Sam, "Here, take a shot."
Sam swallowed hard, and unable to respond, simply shook her head.
"Come on, just a couple of punches. It's amazingly liberating. Here, I'll show you how." She stepped closer and slipped the gloves over her hands, then moved around behind her. The slight brush of Riley's breasts against Sam's back, made the blonde quickly pull away.
"That's okay. You're ," she wanted to say 'braless,' but thought that would just prove she had taken notice of Riley's breasts, which she hadn't, or at least that's what she told herself, "you're all sweaty."
Riley pulled back, "Oh, yeah sorry."
Sam held up her gloved hands, "Maybe some other time?"
"Yeah, sure," Riley removed the gloves and tossed them onto the nearby table. "So, what's up?
Sam quite literally smacked her own forehead, "Oh yeah! I knew there was a reason I came over. You said today if I needed help to ask for it. Well help?"
"Okay, I guess," Riley headed into the kitchen and grabbed the orange juice from the fridge taking a healthy swallow. "What do you need help with?"
Sam climbed on the chair at the bar, finally able to focus with Riley across the room, "The 4th of July picnic thing." She said it as if it was the most obvious thing she needed help with.
"That's next weekend."
The blonde pushed some hair nervously behind her ear, "Yeah, and I haven't done anything on it yet. Well, I mean the invitations are out and the ads are out, but the actual event no. I need to go shopping. I need to do a LOT of shopping, which means I'll have a lot of stuff to load into the van, unload from the van. Lots of carrying heavy things and you're good with carrying things and "
Riley waved her hands in the air and then crossed them into a T, "Whoa, Sam! Time out. I'll help. Don't worry, I'll help. When do you want to do this shopping thing?"
Sam beamed at Riley, "Tomorrow?"
"As long as it's not before 10am."
After a long, hot shower and a huge salad for dinner, Riley flopped down on the couch and flipped open her cell phone.
Two rings later, Al picked up, "Hey there, buddy!"
"Well, I'll be damned! If it isn't the devil child from Alabama! You left me in a helluva fix here, Riley. You know that, right?"
"And I owe you big time, Al!"
"Oh yes you do! Patti's going to have my hide if you cause me to lose this job." Riley laughed at the image of a five foot woman chasing the ex-football jock with a meat cleaver.
"She will do no such thing. She's your wife and she loves you. Besides, she told me to torture you. She even paid me to do it."
"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Riley could hear the object of their discussion in the background thanking Riley for her hard work.
"Tell her, 'you're welcome.'" Al laughed half-heartedly at the two women's antics at his expense.
"Alright, Jacobsen, what's up there? Tell me the scoop."
Riley gave him the run down on her first days at the camp and what she had learned so far. He said he'd pull some strings to see what he could get on the financial history of the church and if there was any record of Johnny boy being official caretaker of the family fortune.
"And you said there's a daughter involved too, right? What's her name again Samantha?"
"I'll do some checking on her too."
Al was surprised with the suddenness of Riley's reaction, "And why not?"
"She's not a part of this. I don't think she's like the rest of her family or even this town." Riley played with the worn fringe of her jean shorts. In spite of what she was doing to get this job, she didn't want Sam hurt or ran through the public wringer with some ad hoc investigation.
"Hmmmm, and you think this, why?"
"It's a feeling, okay?"
She heard Al sigh deeply through the lines, "Don't get yourself in over your head, Riley. She's not worth it."
"I'm not really. I have no proof that she's an integral part of this issue. I don't want to hurt her or drag her through the mud."
Al took on his best warning tone, "Riley, you know the minute she finds out about what you've been doing there really doing there, she's going to be pissed and she's going to take it out on you. And she will find out. It's inevitable. For once, please, listen to your head."
There was a long pause of silence, "The other head, I mean."
"I know. Look, don't worry. I've got it under control."
Al let out a deep breath, "Well, if you do start to lose your infamous control, I'll be there for you. You know that, right?"
"Yeah, buddy. I know." They talked for a few more minutes before Riley's eyes got so heavy she could hardly concentrate. She hung up and literally, laid her head back on the sofa and fell asleep.
Riley watched the blonde as she barreled south down the interstate into Birmingham. She had been thinking about her most of last night. Mainly she wondered if she had imagined Sam's sudden awkwardness and withdrawal when she came close to her yesterday. It was hard for Riley to put away who she was, ignore the way she interacted with women, especially women she found attractive. It was hard for her to admit, but she did find Sam attractive. Damn, Al, and his ridiculous assumptions!
She looked at Sam again. Her blonde hair fell from the ponytail in ringlets around her face. There wasn't a drop of make-up on her face, but she was naturally beautiful. Her lips curled into a soft smile as she talked about some of the new attractions that had recently opened up in town. Apparently, there was a new planetarium on the edge of the city, and Sam became quite animated when she talked about the planets and stars.
Riley smiled as she listened to Sam rattle off constellation information, while at the same time, she pushed down her own desire to stare endlessly at the younger woman. Images of the two of them lying on a blanket in an open field staring up at the stars and laughing flitted in and out of Riley's mind. She shook her head to clear it of the image. It all felt so real, yet so impossible.
Sam was the epitome of the girl-next-door, and Riley had a hopeless weakness for that type. Susie Graham was proof of that, and that was a mistake Riley didn't intend on making again. Besides, she reminded herself, she was here to get a story. That's all. Sam was a great inside track to that story.
Heading the wrong way down the parking lot, Sam pulled into the closest spot to the store's entrance. Riley always hated big box retail and looked up at the huge blue letters with a sigh. When she moved to Chicago, she made it a mission of hers to shop at small, local stores. It was her small way of sticking it to the big stores who ran the little guys out. But, she was back in Alabama and avoiding the fill-in-the-blank marts was about as likely as avoiding hitting a deer at sunset.
They had barely made it down two aisles when Riley already felt drained and tired from the fluorescent lighting. It didn't faze Sam though. She seemed even more animated, checking out the sales racks.
"Oh, these pants are adorable! Don't you think so, Riley?"
Riley lifted her head from her chin resting in her hand, which was resting on the handle of the basket, "Oh, yeah, adorable."
Sam carried a deep purple blouse over to Riley and held it up to her, "This would look great with your eyes."
Riley looked down at it with barely withheld disgust, "It has kittens on it."
"Yeah, well, except for the kittens." Sam shrugged as she put the shirt back on the rack. "You're not much of a shopper, are you?"
"Am I that obvious? I tried so hard to hide it!" Riley sarcastically replied.
Sam pulled on the front of the basket, "Come on, spoil sport!"
Sam had the basket half full with enough paper plates and cups for a small army when she headed down the seasonal decoration aisle.
"So, which one do you like?" She held up a generic red, white, and blue table topper decoration in her right hand and an even more hideous version of it in her left.
Riley gave her the same look as the one with the noxious shirt, making Sam laugh out loud, "Look, it's either this or you're going to be spending every night this week with me doing red, white, and blue color-by-numbers."
Riley gave a pained look and pointed at the lesser of the two evils in Sam's right hand, "Oh, don't threaten me. That one, please!"
Sam grabbed a handful of table toppers, an equal handful of table covers and a mix and match variety of napkins decorated as the flag. In spite of understanding the inherent importance of the holiday, after all her ancestors had been Revolutionary War soldiers, Riley found the grotesque misuse of the flag insulting to those who had sacrificed their lives for it. However, being proud of her heritage, she couldn't deny the significance of the symbolism either.
She watched as Sam threw a few more miscellaneous items in the basket, "I'm hungry. Wanna get some lunch?"
Riley didn't even hesitate with her answer, "Sure."
On the way out, Sam deliberately went past the pant's rack from before and pulled her size off.
Riley laughed, "You just couldn't resist, could you?"
Both women had their heads deep into their menus trying to decide between the smart choice of a salad bar and the fun choice of a double bacon cheeseburger when the voice of their waitress interrupted them.
"Hey, my name's Natalie. Can I get you ladies some drinks? We have a 2-for-1 special on margaritas." Riley's mouth watered at the thought of a good margarita, but knew that was not an option with the preacher's daughter across the table from her.
"Natalie? Natalie Smithfield? Oh my God, how are you!?" Sam jumped up from her seat and hugged the other woman.
"Oh wow, Sammie! It's been so long!" She pulled back and looked Sam over with an observant eye. "You haven't changed a bit."
Sam sat back down, "I didn't know you were back in town. I thought you went to school out west somewhere."
"Southern Cal. Business, yeah. They didn't tell me that general business majors are a dime a dozen, and that I'd end up back home working my way up to management. I could have done that without the degree! Oh well, school was great and I met a great guy there. We got married last year."
Riley rolled her eyes, and had the urge to excuse herself to the restroom at Sam's exuberant reaction, "Oh, that's wonderful! Congratulations! So, any plans for kids?"
"Oh, believe me, we're working on it." Natalie giggled, feigning false embarrassment.
"If you two would excuse me," Riley stood up, "I'll have that margarita special, by the way."
Natalie looked at the tall brunette seemingly for the first time, "Sure."
Sam watched Riley's quickly retreating figure, "Sammie, is that Riley Jacobsen?"
Natalie sat down across from Sam, leaning over intent on some juicy gossip, "Oh my God, is she at that camp of yours? I heard what happened to her. I can't believe she likes to," Natalie cast her eyes downward, "you know, to other women. That's just gross!"
Sam squirmed, uncomfortable with where this was going. The mental image of Riley doing that with another woman wasn't helping either.
"That's my brother's camp, not mine, and you know I can't talk about who's there and who isn't." Sam undid the wrapper holding her napkin and silverware together, ready for Natalie to leave. For some reason, she didn't want to talk to her about this.
"Well," Natalie stood, "I sure hope she's getting some help. If she isn't, then I'd watch out for her if I was you."
"What does that mean?"
"From what I've heard, she likes the young, innocent types. The younger, the better, if you know what I mean." Sam felt sick to her stomach, but she wasn't sure if it was from Natalie's implication or Natalie herself.
"Well, you haven't been around her for what years? I don't think you're an expert on Riley Jacobsen, so until you have proof, maybe you should keep your opinions to yourself."
Natalie raised an eyebrow and huffed off in the other direction, nearly running into Riley as she made her way back to the booth.
"She looked ticked. Is everything okay?"
Sam smiled at her, trying to put Natalie's comments out of her mind and enjoy the moment, "Yeah, her boss just came by and chewed her out for making chit chat."
"Ah! That would make me mad too." A few minutes later, another server came by to drop off the drinks. Sam was relieved that Natalie had seemed to trade off her table with someone else because she never came back.
It was mid afternoon when Sam and Riley made it back to the camp. Riley offered to help her unload their party stash before heading back to her place.
Riley had dropped the last bag on the kitchen counter when John came in the back door, "Sam, did you get me some beer at the ?" He stopped mid-sentence when he saw Riley and Sam in the kitchen.
He looked Riley up and down with obvious disgust, and something else Riley would rather not think about, "What are you doing here with my sister?"
"Isn't it obvious, Junior? I'm converting her to my evil ways." She didn't like John in school, and she really didn't like him now, especially since she had a strong suspicion that he smacked Sam around. It was becoming an effort to contain the urge to kick his ass.
"That's not funny."
Riley was ready to respond when Sam stepped in front of her, "Thanks for your help getting this stuff in, Riley. I really appreciate it."
Sam's eyes sent the message loud and clear, and Riley stepped back, "Sure, no problem."
John glared as he watched the exchange and Riley heading out the door. When he looked back at his sister, she was busy putting away snacks in the refrigerator.
"Samantha," he started with his warning voice, but Sam cut him off hoping to deter him.
"I forgot the beer. I'm sorry. I'll go back in a little while and get it."
"Hear me. Don't let your guard down with her. She's a predator, just like the rest, and she'll latch on to you because you trust too easily. You're naïve, and you have no idea what these people are like."
Sam ground her teeth together at being talked to like a child for the second time today. When she didn't respond, John slammed his hand down on the counter with a loud smack, "Answer me!"
Sam jumped, immediately responding, "Yeah, okay. I hear you."
"Good." He opened the refrigerator and pulled the last beer from it. "Yeah, maybe you should go back tonight for the beer. This is the last one."
"Sure, no problem." She went upstairs to check on her father, who was sleeping soundly. She looked at the chart and saw that the day nurse had given him a dose of morphine two hours ago. She checked to make sure his diaper didn't need changing and when she was confident that he would be okay until she returned, she gave him a kiss on the forehead and left the house again.
The sun was setting as Sam made her way back into camp. She slowed to a crawl when she got close to Riley's house. Taking a deep breath, she stopped the car and got out. She looked through the window and saw Riley on the back deck rhythmically punching the bag. Instead of risking her life a second time, she walked around the house and up the deck.
Riley stopped when she saw her approach, "Smart girl! You learned."
"Maybe. Sometimes I doubt my logic." Sam wasn't sure why her heartbeat was beating wildly, but the sensation left her feeling off balance and slightly lightheaded. She was kind of surprised to realize that she didn't mind the sensation.
Riley simply smiled at her, "Look, I'm sorry about John."
"Don't apologize for him. He's not you and you're not him. It's okay. Besides," she smiled wickedly at Sam, "he gave me focus for my workout." With that, she set loose with a rapid fire succession of punches and kicks that stunned Sam. She watched as the weighted bag moved a few inches back along the deck.
"Wow! Did you train to hit like that?"
Riley shrugged, "I took a few kickboxing lessons in college, but got bored with them. I just really needed something to take my aggression out on."
Riley pulled her gloves off and watched as Sam's eyes glanced at the bag, then back to her, as if contemplating something before stepping forward, motioning for the gloves.
"Ah, ha! I knew I'd tempt you to do my evil bidding!" Sam laughed at Riley's fake evil laugh.
Riley slipped the gloves onto her hands and showed her the basic fighting stance, "Almost. Not quite. Here, let me show you."
She stepped behind Sam and placed her hands on her hips, guiding her into position. Sam had her hands up, in a fighting pose, when she felt Riley's hands caress the bare skin along her waist. A rush raced through her body and she struggled with the urge to lean back into Riley or simply run away.
As hard as she tried, Riley couldn't stop her hands from softly touching the exposed skin under her hands. She knew she shouldn't do it. She knew she was playing with fire. As quickly as it started, Riley stopped and pulled away.
"That's it. Now let's see a punch."
A part of Sam was disappointed when Riley moved off and she tucked away the emotions it provoked for another time. Instead, she reared back and threw the hardest punch she had.
"Not bad," Riley smiled, "How did it feel?"
Sam nodded, putting her gloved hands on her hips, "Good. I can see what the fuss is all about."
"Want to do some more?"
"Alright," Riley went into full teacher mode, "Now, when you do it this time, I want you to put your body into it. Women are stronger in the legs so to get the full effect of a good punch, you need to twist from the hips and put the power of your legs behind it. Like this."
Riley demonstrated slowly for Sam, twisting at the hips like she had told her. Sam watched the muscles of Riley's thighs bunch and tighten. She had the urge to reach out and touch the sweat-glistened skin and feel the muscles move under her fingers.
A hard thwack snapped Sam out of it. Riley had finished her demonstration and Sam had completely zoned out thinking about things she had no business thinking. Sam needed to leave. She had to get her bearings and put some distance between herself and Riley. She pulled the gloves off and handed them over.
"I better go," Riley looked at her puzzled, but let it go.
"Sure. Come by any time you need to hit something."
"I'll remember that," Sam smiled, but Riley noticed it didn't reach her eyes. She watched the blonde leave, not quite sure what had just happened.
When Sam rounded the corner of the house, she broke into a run. She didn't stop until she reached the creek a few hundred feet past the property line of the church. She fell to her knees and looked up to the swaying branches above her.
"Help me. Show me the way." Her whispered plea dissipated on the humid air, mocking her with silence in her time of need. Slowly, from deep within, a pain she had long ignored surfaced and the helpless cries came with it until she was doubled over with her head in her hands.
When Sam entered the house, she heard laughter coming from the living room. Seated in front of the TV watching some random sitcom she didn't recognize was John and Bobby. Bobby jumped up when she came in and gave her a friendly hug.
"Hey, baby!" Sam patted his back and moved to the refrigerator for some water.
"Hey what are you doing here?"
He shrugged his big shoulders and smiled at her sweetly, "Just thought I'd drop by. I hope that's okay. Where in the world were you anyway? I looked all over for you."
Sam bit her lip and tried to act nonchalant, "I went for a walk. It was kind of nice out tonight."
Bobby looked over his shoulder at John, "Too bad, I was kind of hoping we could take a walk. There's supposed to be a meteor shower tonight. Thought it would be cool to see."
Sam watched Bobby shift uneasily on his feet and put his hands in his back pocket. It was a nervous gesture she first noticed when he asked her out for the first time. Suddenly, her mouth went dry and she didn't even want to be in the same room with him. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw John stand up.
"I think that's my cue to leave." He gave Bobby a hearty pat on the back as he headed out the door. "Good luck, buddy."
Sam swallowed hard and looked back to Bobby.
"Can we talk, Sam?"
"Um, yeah. I guess." Bobby went into the living room and sat on the sofa, taking liberties to cut off the TV himself. Sam regretted the loss of background noise. Right now, she really wanted to imagine that none of this was happening or pretend she didn't hear anything Bobby was saying. She sat safely on the edge of the recliner across from Bobby.
He looked at her oddly, "What are you doing way over there? Come here, baby." He reached out for her. Instead of taking the proffered hand though, she went around the table and sat down on the other side of the couch.
He shook his head and shrugged, "Okay."
Sam raised her hand to stop him from saying anything else, "Bobby "
"Wait, Samantha. Please, let me say this. If I don't, I may never get the nerve up again." He slid closer to her on the sofa and took her hand in his. "I know this is moving kind of quick, and that we've only been dating for a few months. But we've known each other forever and I really care about you. I love you, and I need for you to know it. I want everyone else to know it too."
He reached into his pocket and produced a small black box. Sam closed her eyes as her head started to spin. She put her hand over the box to stop him from opening it and looked into his eyes, the now confused and vulnerable look in them making tears spill from her own easily.
"Don't please. Don't do this."
"I I don't understand. I thought ," his voice broke at the realization that his proposal wasn't going to go as planned or hoped. He gritted his teeth to hold back tears he refused to let fall. It wasn't supposed to happen like this.
"Bobby, you're a great guy. I like you, but I don't...," Sam fought to get the words out around the lump in her throat.
"I even asked John for your hand. I bet he's out telling everyone we're getting hitched." Bobby made a quick swipe at his eyes before Sam could see the tears.
Anger was starting to win over the hurt and humiliation, "Why? Why did you lead me on?"
"I wasn't trying to. I just realized not long ago that I didn't feel the same way about you. I thought I did, but I don't. It's not your fault, Bobby. It's me. It's not you."
Bobby stood and walked to the door, "Bobby, don't go."
He turned back with his hand on the knob, "Why shouldn't I? There's no reason for me to stay."
"But we're friends too."
He looked at her sadly, the tears freely falling without pride, "We were. A real friend would have told the truth though, a long time ago, before I fell in love with you."
Sam was still sitting in the dark when John came home. She slunk deeper into the cushions, hoping he didn't see her. He went to the refrigerator and pulled out a beer. Popping the top, he leaned against the counter still facing away from her.
"I don't know what the hell you're thinking, but don't do something stupid," his voice was deadly calm.
Without another word, he climbed the steps, leaving Sam alone in the dark.
A humid breeze had kicked up, ruffling the red, white and blue coverings smartly taped down to folding tables across the church lawn. The tangy scent of hamburgers and hot dogs roasting floated on the air. Riley stopped suddenly as two kids ran in front of her, chasing each other with water soaker guns.
Attending the July 4th celebration at the church was part of the group's mandatory policies, but Riley would have come even if it hadn't been required. A familiar laugh in the distance caught her attention as she turned to it.
Down by the river, Sam had a young girl by the hands and they were spinning around in a circle. She could hear the soft Southern lilt of Sam's sing-song voice, "Ring around the rosy pocket full of posey " The little girl broke into a fit of giggles as Sam started spinning faster, until they fell in a heap at each other's feet.
When Sam looked up, Riley was leaning against an enormous magnolia tree smiling.
"Well, hi. You made it."
Riley rolled her eyes, "As if you had any doubts. You gave me the gift baggie with the little handwritten invitation that said, 'Be here or be queer.'"
Sam swatted Riley on the arm, "It didn't say that!"
Riley laughed, "You're in an awfully good mood."
"Yeah, I am," she looked around at the picnic once again going off without a hitch, "Surprisingly."
Riley saw a brief flash of sadness cross Sam's face, "Is there a reason you wouldn't be?"
The blonde put her hands up, "Alright stop. You're messing with my good mood. This is not a time for serious. We have beautiful weather, not a cloud in the sky, amazing food on the grill that is horribly bad for you, and lots of games." Sam mischievously raised her eyebrow at Riley, "Speaking of which "
The matching smile on Riley's face was instantly gone. This didn't sound good. "Oh no you don't! You're not wrangling me into some silly games. I've shown up, done my civic duty I'm outta here." Riley turned to leave and Sam went after her, laughing.
"No, no, no you can't leave." The shorter woman jumped in front of Riley, holding out both hands to stop her. "I need your help and you promised you'd help. Come on, it'll be fun Pllleeeaaasseee."
Riley put her hands over her eyes, "No, don't look at me with those eyes! You're worse than Medusa!"
Sam laughed and took the brunette by the arm to drag her over to wooden box-like cage contraption. Riley looked at it in horror and then around at all the happy faces waiting in anticipation of seeing Riley soaked to the bone.
"I don't think so."
"And why not?" Sam put her hands on her hips.
Riley looked down at herself, pointing at the t-shirt she was wearing, "White. Sorry."
Sam smirked at the taller woman and went to a booth. When she was a few feet from Riley, she flung the item in her hand at Riley, hitting her square in the face.
"Bathroom is right through that door," she pointed to her right, "Don't take too long though. You have a line forming."
Sure enough, Riley looked around at the crowd of people and there was a line of easily twenty or more people waiting to dunk her. She sighed and walked past Sam, "You are so going to owe me for this."
In a few minutes, Riley found herself propped up on a stiff wooden chair dangling over about five feet of water. She watched as Sam gathered up three softballs, weighing each carefully in her hand.
"Oh, and Riley, just so you know and can't say this is beginner's luck, I played community baseball for about five years." She paused for dramatic effect. "I was the pitcher."
Before Riley had the chance to realize how totally screwed she was, Sam threw the first ball and hit the red target squarely in the middle. With a shocked yelp, Riley disappeared below the watery surface. A split second later, she came flying out of the freezing water, sputtering water from her gaping mouth.
"You are so going to pay."
"Maybe eventually, but for right now, you're trapped in a metal and wood box, so I can do whatever I want."
Sam passed off the ball to a teenage boy standing behind her, "Be gentle. She's new."
The blonde stood off to the sidelines watching Riley quickly lose her battle with dignity when a deep voice came up behind her, "I need to talk to you."
Bobby had debated approaching Sam. His head told him to let it go, let her be, but his heart was starting to scream over it to be heard. He needed to know what he did wrong, why he wasn't good enough, and not for the first time in his life did he wonder if he should have stayed in college. Maybe then he'd have something to offer a girl like Sam. All he'd ever be now is a small town car mechanic.
"Hey, um well, I'm kind of busy."
He put his hands in his back pockets, "It doesn't look like it. In fact, it looks like you're having a grand ol' time." Sam didn't miss the hint of jealousy in his voice.
"Bobby, I really don't want to talk about this here," she whispered to keep from drawing attention to the people in line.
"Just tell me then, tell me what I did wrong. I'm a nice guy, right? I was good to you, wasn't I?" Sam took a couple of steps away to keep everyone from hearing what he was saying.
"Yes, but that's not the point."
He grabbed her arm a little too roughly, "I didn't pressure you. I didn't even try to kiss you the first few times we went out. I don't get it. Am I not good enough for you?"
Sam gritted her teeth against the ache in her arm and spoke far calmer to him than she felt, "Bobby, you're making a scene. Let me go."
"Is it someone else?" He gave her arm a shake with the question.
"Is there a problem here?" Riley stood next to them, towel in hand, dripping from head to toe, and she had never looked more intimidating.
She had seen the guy come up to Sam, which set off a warning bell to begin with, but when he grabbed Sam's arm, she jumped out of the dunking booth faster than was really smart. They were so engrossed that neither saw her slip on the ladder and twist her ankle. Now, she stood here trying to look imposing when inside she was fighting back the urge to scream from the pain.
Bobby gave her an odd look, wondering why she was butting into a private conversation, "No, there's no problem. Not that it's any of your business. I can talk to my girlfriend if I want to."
"Ex-girlfriend," Sam quickly emphasized, compensating for Riley's confused expression. "We broke up."
"You broke up and I want to know why." Sam sighed.
"I told you, Bobby."
He pulled her closer, "No you didn't. All you said was that it wasn't me, it was you. That's not a good reason."
"Sounds good enough to me," Riley interjected, not liking how he was manhandling Sam.
"Look, you seem like a nice enough person, but you should butt out."
Riley smirked as the adrenaline rushed through her veins, her muscles poised to strike, "I will when you get your hands off of her and treat her like a lady."
Sam didn't have a chance to react before Bobby shoved Riley hard into the booth behind her. She winced when her bad ankle couldn't catch her weight and she slammed back hard into the wooden frame. Immediately, Sam was at her side, helping her up, but the adrenaline pumping through her negated the pain in her leg as she made a jump for Bobby.
"Riley! Stop!" She pleaded with the fiery blue eyes that looked back at her. "Please."
Riley's body visibly relaxed as she let up causing the pain to rush back into her body, making her limp much more pronounced, "Are you okay? What happened? Did he "
Riley smiled at her concern, shaking her head, "No, just being my usual clumsy self. I slipped getting out." She motioned to the water-filled box behind her.
Bobby shuffled his feet uncomfortably as he tried to avoid the staring eyes around him. He tried one last time to get Sam to cooperate, "Can we please talk alone?"
Sam looked at him and shook her head. The boy she had known wasn't the man standing in front of her. The Bobby she knew never would have hurt another woman. Instead of answering him, she helped Riley move, putting her arm around her shoulder.
"Come on, let's get some ice on that ankle."
In a few minutes, they were inside the house and Sam contemplated her next move. She needed to let her sit, but she was still dripping wet. She brought a dining room chair over. Riley hopped the short remaining distance and carefully sat down. She then bent down on one knee and started untying Riley's shoes. She was extra careful not to jar the injured ankle any more than necessary, but it still didn't stop Riley was sucking in air at the sharp ache radiating up her leg. When she was done, Sam stood back up and motioned for Riley to stay put.
"You can't get on the couch the way you are. Sit. I'll be right back." Sam disappeared down the hall and Riley could hear drawers opening and closing. She was thankful now she didn't have anything embarrassing hiding in those drawers. The blonde came back into the room with a t-shirt and shorts in hand.
"Here you go. Once you change, then you can sit on the couch. It'll be more comfortable there."
"Thanks," Riley waited a moment but Sam never moved. She had never really been the shy type, but considering where they were at and the situation they were in, she didn't want to give the wrong impression. "Um, Sam, do you you know," she tried to get her eyes to say what her mouth wouldn't. Sam stood there apparently trying to process Riley's meaning when it hit her.
"Oh, yeah! Sorry sure. I'll just, um, go get some ice." Sam walked backwards as she talked, bumping into a bar stool on the way.
When she rounded the corner, Riley quickly changed her shirt and managed to get her pants off, but getting the dry pair up was another matter. Sitting on the chair, she got the shorts halfway up, but couldn't go any further, so she stood instead to finish the job. Sam came barreling around the corner and nearly lost control of the glass of water in her hand at the sight she saw.
"Oh!" Riley jumped at the sudden noise and flopped into the chair gracelessly.
"Sorry," Riley apologized even though the intrusion wasn't her fault.
Sam tried to hide her blushing cheeks by placing the items in her hand on the kitchen table, "It's okay. Here, let me help you to the couch." If she kept busy, it would keep her from thinking too much of the image she just saw.
She reached a hand to Riley, which the brunette readily took, and pulled her to her feet. Wrapping her arm around Riley's waist, they made their way carefully to the soft cushions. Sam deposited Riley on the couch and slid over a stool for her to prop her foot on.
"Much better, huh?"
Riley sighed in contentment, "Much."
"Here," Sam offered a glass of water and two aspirins to her patient.
"Thanks," Riley downed both quickly, wanting and needed desperately for the pain to ease. She watched with a bemused expression as Sam took extraordinary care to fold and wrap a dish rag then drape it over Riley's injured ankle. She then took the two bags of ice and placed each on either side of her ankle and securing it all with some heavy duty tape she found in the kitchen storage.
"Good wrapping job," Riley wondered for a moment how many times Sam had wrapped and bandaged her own injuries.
"Thanks," Sam sat on the floor, looking like she didn't know what to do with herself.
"Hey, you don't have to hang out here. You have a party. Why don't you go back?" Sam shook her head, the blonde hair dangling into her eyes. She pushed a lock back.
"No need. It pretty much runs itself anyway. I'll just need to go back and do some cleanup later. That could even wait until tomorrow."
Riley smirked, "What are you gonna do? Sit there and watch me all night?"
"Nope. I was actually thinking of making you a homemade dinner, but if you really want me to leave, I guess you could always call for pizza." The thought of the greasy food made her feel slightly queasy.
"Oh, well, in that case, stay as long as you like."
Sam laughed as she stood, "I thought that would change your tune!"
Riley smiled at the noise coming from the kitchen. After a few minutes the commotion of banging pans and rattling utensils settled down to a dull roar. She could have sworn in her semi pain-induced haze that Sam was humming. As she rested her head back on the cushion, the thought occurred to her that she could get used to this. The brief happy feeling that brought was quickly replaced by the sickening awareness that anything she was feeling was based on a lie. Reaching for the remote, she found CNN and turned it up, effectively drowning out the joyous and off-key tune coming from behind her.
When Riley stirred, the sky outside was cast in orange and purple as the sun fell below the horizon and a fabulous smell permeated the house.
"You're awake," Sam came around the end of the couch carrying two overfilled plates containing heaping mounds of spaghetti. It wasn't ordinary spaghetti because it wasn't runny, so she knew that Sam didn't get it out of a can. In fact, she could see actually hunks of meat and veggies in it. Her mouth watered as she finally noticed how hungry she was.
"Wow, that looks wonderful!" Sam smiled at the genuine comment.
"Thanks. Hopefully, it'll taste as good as it looks. I tried something a little different with the sauce." She set the plates down and went back to the kitchen. She came back with glasses and a sodas.
Riley felt like something was different, but she couldn't put her finger on it.
"Is something wrong?"
"Um," Riley looked around, "What's different in here? Something feels off."
"Oh yeah, the lights," she pointed overhead, then behind her back, "And the blaring TV."
But there was light and sound and Riley chuckled at her oblivion. Accent lights were strategically placed along the wall to look like your average sconches and above the casing for the TV were glowing lights methodically ticking off the time to the jazz disc playing inside. She had never noticed it because she rarely spent more than an hour a day in front of the TV.
"What other secrets does this house hold?"
Sam smiled, digging into her dish, "Far too many probably."
"Here? I doubt that."
"Well, we may not be as fast-paced and fancy as Chicago, but we have our excitement."
Riley laughed heartily, "Oh really? Like what? Oh, let me guess, the mayor was really married to his prize pig!"
Sam picked up her napkin and threw it at Riley, "You're horrible."
Riley smirked at the blonde, trying to think of another way to get her to laugh. She loved the sound of it, "Yeah, well, that's me being good. If I started being really bad, you better run."
Riley saw the hint of a blush on Sam's cheeks and decided it was time to take a different path in the conversation. With renewed enthusiasm she focused on the dish in front of her, twirling up a large helping on her fork and savoring a healthy bite of food, "God, that's incredible!"
"What did you do to it to make it so good?"
"Sugar. Just a little in the sauce. It takes the tanginess out of the tomatoes and makes them more flavorful." Riley shook her head.
"Sugar well, I can honestly say that's not an ingredient I would have considered. You thought of that on your own?"
Sam nodded her head and stared at her plate shyly, "That's pretty talented. Most people can't cook off the cuff like that."
Sam pushed around the food with her fork, not looking up at Riley, "It's no big deal. I've had a lot of practice over the years."
Both women looked up at each other. Sam's eyes got huge as she sniffed the air. Jumping up, she ran to the kitchen.
"Ow ow crap!" The distinctive smell of burning toast finally reached Riley and she started to giggle.
When a dejected Sam appeared in front of her empty handed, Riley fought the urge, but couldn't resist, "That was almost the perfect dinner. Is burned toast the newest culinary trend?"
Sam didn't laugh at the joke and Riley didn't want to run her off again, "Hey, it was great. Really. Actually, I'm not much on garlic toast anyway."
Sam tossed the potholder she had been twisting in her hands down on the table, "Guess it worked out for the best then."
"Yep, now come on, sit. Let's finish dinner."
A couple of hours later, they were laughing uncontrollably on the couch. Sam was doubled over and having a hard time catching her breath.
"I can't believe you actually did that!" She gasped out.
Riley threw up her hands, "What?! I didn't mean to. I swear. The guy just got too close to the pool table and the ball just happened to bounce off the table and into his crotch."
Sam nodded, disbelieving, "Conveniently, after he hit on your girlfriend."
"Yeah, well, if I had been smart, I would have realized she had been flirting with him all evening and instead should have made HER the target. Eh, she's one I'd rather not think about. That was funny though. The poor guy never showed his face around there again!" Riley took her last swallow of soda and watched over her glass as Sam seemed to zone out for a moment.
"So, what about you?" Finally aware that she was being spoken to, Sam shook her head to get back in the conversation.
"What about me?"
"What's the story with Boy Wonder from the picnic today?"
Sam rubbed at her forehead, before running her fingers through her hair and resting her head in her palm. She wasn't sure if she wanted to get into this, but she really had no one else to talk to.
"That was Bobby," she froze up on what to say and how to say it.
"I gathered that much from the number of times you said his name. I also gathered that you two had been dating, but apparently, you're not anymore and he's not too happy about it."
"Excellent summation," Riley gave her a slightly bemused look. The journalist in her wouldn't settle for half a story. She was curious to a fault and needed to know the rest of the story.
"But that's not everything. People don't break up without a reason." Sam couldn't look at Riley. "So, what's your reason?"
Sam brought her hand down and started worrying at a cuticle, "You go right for the jugular don't you?"
The brunette sensed she had a strong desire to shut down and was wrestling with opening up, "You can talk to me. It'll all stay right here."
Sam sat up and leaned forward a little, weighing the words in her mind. If she said it now, there was no going back. Saying it made it real. Her hands shook at how close she was to crossing a mental and spiritual line she had drawn so many years ago on that upstairs landing as she listened to the mother of the woman across from her, pray for a way to stop the words from spilling out. To say it, made it real.
Riley waited patiently as emotions darkened Sam's deep green eyes. One moment the blonde looked set and determined, the next it looked like the world had buried her alive. Riley had this overwhelming urge to rush in and rescue her, but she didn't even know what she would be saving her from or if she could. She could barely take care of herself. She decided to wait it out when Sam let out a deep sigh and finally spoke.
"I just don't feel for Bobby the way he feels for me. He was talking about love and I'm pretty sure he was close to asking me to marry him. I couldn't drag him down with my uncertainty. He's a decent guy," she smiled unconvincingly at Riley, the tears of what she had let go with Bobby coming to the surface, "he deserves someone who can love him back." Sam let the words sit. She wanted to say more, to tell all that was eating her up inside, but the words wouldn't come.
It took a moment for the familiarity of those words to sink in for Riley. Inside, she understood what Sam was trying to say but couldn't find the courage for, or at least she wanted to believe that. She had felt the same way many times when she struggled between playing the games expected of her in her small town and her own sanity. Every action carries with it a price, and Riley had paid her fair share. When John had forced her hand, quite literally, one cool fall night after a football game, it was only then that she decided the price she'd pay for playing was too high.
Riley was one of the last ones at the school. A couple of teachers were in the front office closing up for the night after the post-football game dance, while Riley swept up streamers and styrofoam cups from the dance floor.
"It's a shame for someone so pretty to not dance." Riley jumped at the deep voice behind her. John Porter leaned against the metal door frame leading into the gym. A couple of his buddies were snickering behind him.
He turned to them, smiling, "Some privacy please."
They scattered into the night, leaving Riley alone in the dim room with him. She swallowed hard, not liking the situation. When he got closer, she could smell the sickly sweet scent of alcohol and stale pot.
"Come on, let's dance." He reached for her. "You know you want to."
She pulled her hand back, "Not really."
It had been around this time last year that Riley's mother had come crying on his dad's doorstep, confessing her daughter's sins. Ever since, John had watched the tall, dark-haired girl pull further and further away. He felt something for her, and he was willing to offer her the perfect opportunity if she'd just listen to common sense.
"Why are you being so stubborn, Riley? You could have it all. Do you know how many girls would love to be standing here right now?"
Riley glared at John, knowing where this was going, but not sure how to play her hand to get out of this, "Yeah, actually I do so why don't you go find one of them and leave me alone."
He looked her over and smirked at her, "But knowing you can have something is not nearly as much fun as working for something more."
He made another grab for her and she slap his hand away before he made contact, "Not many guys would bother with you, but I know there could be something beneficial in this for both of us." He brushed his fingers along her cheek, making her flinch. "You get your respectability back and we get to have all kinds of naughty fun together."
The implication of his words turned her stomach, "You're a sick fuck."
"No, I'm just practical. Don't be stupid. Take your chance while you can."
Riley's heart beat double time. She had to get out of there quick. She edged toward the doors where John had come through, "What does that mean?"
He shrugged and smirked at her evilly, "Whatever you want it to mean."
Riley had a clear shot for the door and decided to take it. She refused to show fear and run, but she walked as fast as her legs would go to her car. John's buddies were standing by his souped up sports car, leering and hooting at her as she moved away from them.
She never was alone with John again. In fact, she made a concerted effort to stay as far from him as possible. It was a natural extension of the situation that she withdrew even more from people. He was friends with everyone and she didn't know who to trust. If playing along meant she had to live feeling like that every day of her life, she'd gladly pay whatever price she had to for remaining true to herself.
Riley's gaze settled back on the blonde who had fallen uncharacteristically silent, "Don't worry about what other people think, Sam. Just follow your own way."
Sam set her head on the side of the couch, folding her arms around herself, as she studied the tall woman across from her, "This coming from somebody in an ex-gay camp."
"Everyone has a reason for what they do. I have mine." Riley sighed. At least that was partly true. She really hated this.
Sam didn't look at Riley, her words taking on a far away quality, "It doesn't work. People can't change who they are. You know that, right?"
Riley looked at her quizzically, "You're not exactly being encouraging. Don't go into marketing. You really suck at it."
Sam rolled over so she was staring up at the ceiling and chuckled, "This program isn't meant to change you. We don't tell anyone this because no one would sign up for what we're offering."
"A lie. You learn to say your straight. Learn to act straight. Learn to deny your feelings. You don't really change, you just deny." Sam sounded angrier with each word.
"Why are you telling me this?"
Sam looked back at Riley, letting her green eyes burn into blue ones, "Because you deserve to know. If it's okay for me to follow my own way, shouldn't you be able to do the same?"
She didn't know what to say to that so instead she let them fall into silence. A sharp beep broke the silence and Sam looked at her watch.
"I need to go," she stood to leave, "I have to check on my dad."
Riley fought the urge to reach out to Sam, "John could do that."
Sam turned to her at the door smiling, "Are you kidding? The Saints are playing. The return of Jesus Himself wouldn't drag him away from the TV tonight. 'Night, Riley."
"Hey, Sam?" The blonde poked her head back in through the door.
"Thanks," she pointed to her wrapped foot, "for everything."
"Anytime." With that she pulled the door closed, leaving Riley to her thoughts. She hadn't taken any narcotic pain killers so she could count out hallucinating anything Sam had said. It was really too much to take in. She needed to talk this out, write it out something.
After a moment of contemplation, she hobbled to her bedroom and got her laptop. She settled in and started writing. An hour later, she re-read the words on the screen. Biting her lip, she hesitated only a moment before going to her email and sending the file. Al should have it any moment. She had to talk to someone about this. Surely she wasn't crazy.
Sneaking in through the back door, Sam avoided a very overly enthusiastic and inebriated John. She wished he would have the decency to keep the noise down with their father upstairs. Fortunately, the pain meds were strong enough to keep him pretty much oblivious, but she knew he had to be disturbed a little by all the racket.
She greeted the nurse who had stayed tonight, knowing John was going to be useless with football on. Her father could have screamed and yelled and John never would have heard him, and he probably wouldn't have done anything but call her on her cell and yell for her to get home and tend to him anyway.
When she had the clear from the nurse that he would be good for the night, she went to her own room and dropped down on the bed. She was exhausted, but she couldn't seem to shut her mind down.
It had been so hard for her to leave Riley earlier, and she was lying to herself if she acted as if it was only because Riley was injured. She liked being with her and talking to her, just being around her. She felt so torn. She was sick over what had happened with Bobby and there was a small part of her brain that mourned the loss and pushed her to take it all back. Thinking about what would never be made her sad, yet she looked at Riley and it was like all of the pain never existed. She could so easily forget when Riley was around. She should be terrified of what it all meant, but she wondered what was so wrong with feeling so happy.
She tosses restlessly in her bed, broken images flashing before her eyes. Soft skin, blue eyes, dark hair and laughter. Deep and rich, warm and intoxicating. A tender kiss to her neck and a tongue caressing the hollow between neck and shoulder, sending a welcomed shiver through her. Strong sure hands lift her legs to wrap around a shapely waist and a brush of firm breasts against her own shock her, disturbing the delicate balance between dreams and reality. Her knowing mind refuses to break the tenuous connection forcing herself back into semi-consciousness where fingers tease her aching nipples. Even in her sleep she can feel the ache building, demanding attention, a slow building heat burning her from the inside out. She looks down at dark hair and a familiar face as she's entered, the heat inside intensifying until the need for more is excruciating and leaves her begging.
Warm breath on her ear answers her, "Come for me."
Sam jerks awake, the pulsing in her body shockingly real, making her shake and gasp for breath. She flops back on the bed exhilarated yet drained. She closes her eyes, the images quickly coming back, reawakening her desire.
She rolls over, pulling a pillow to her and burying her face in it, "Dear God."
Riley was jerked awake by her cell phone ringing. She flipped it open and mumbled a string of curses before actually addressing the person on the other line.
A deep laugh answered her gruff greeting, "Having a sleepless night, Riley?"
Riley cracked one eye open to look at the clock, "Al, it's only 7am. I have whole other hour before I have to get up for group. What are you doing calling so God awful early?"
"I have to pick on our star reporter for falling for the blonde hair preacher's daughter. Only you, Riley."
"Oh please! I haven't fallen for her." Riley rolled over and stared at the ceiling.
"Then why do you care that she broke up with her boyfriend? You were quite detailed in your recounting of that particular part of your conversation." She could tell he was trying not to laugh and if she could have she would have reached through the line and jerked him through it backwards.
"Bite me, Al! It could be important to the story I'm doing." She threw her pillow over her face.
She could hear him draw in an audible gasp, "You think she's gay."
"How many straight women turn down a chance to get engaged to the most eligible guy in town and on top of that, use the excuse that he's a great guy but she just doesn't feel quote 'that way' about him? In other words, she doesn't have sexual feelings for him. I've seen him, Al, he's a good looking guy. If I was straight, I'd go for him. Hell, you'd probably go for him!"
"Hey!" He fussed in warning.
"Just putting it in perspective for you, buddy." Riley was sitting up fully in bed now. Obviously, she wasn't going to get anymore sleep!
"Hmmm, damn Riley, if you're right this could be freakin' huge! I can see the headline now: Daughter of ex-gay pastor come out."
"This isn't about Sam. I didn't come here to out someone, especially her. This is about the lies these programs tell, and she admits as much." Riley rubbed at the crease between her eyes, feeling a headache already starting. She got out of bed and went to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee.
Al sighed, "And that's all the more reason why this is such a huge deal. Besides, she's given you information and put herself in the middle of this story by doing so. It's not your fault if you simply report the truth. In fact, this should go to print now. We could run it as an on-going investigative report."
"No, Al! I'm warning you. I'm not going down that road."
There was silence on the other end of the line and for a moment Riley thought the call had been dropped. Then, "And I'm warning you, Riley. Both of our careers are riding on this story. You fuck up, I go down with you. I have a family to care for, and I won't allow that to happen."
Riley felt the pounding of the headache come on full force. She sat on the bar stool understanding firsthand what it meant to be stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Al had been right. She does feel something for Sam, and she doesn't want to hurt her. The further she gets into this story though the harder it's becoming to separate the woman from the story. She also can't let Al, Jack, and everyone at the paper down. So much rides on this and it's bigger than her now. That thought scares her.
"I won't let you down, Al, but I'm going to need to do this my way. At least let me have the chance to warn her what's coming."
"Okay." Riley balked at his half-hearted response.
"Promise me you won't do anything with this story yet."
He sighed, "Okay, I promise."
Sam smiled as the last of the group left the building. Phillip was the first to leave with his head down and his hands stuffed in his pockets. She knew he was trying to keep everyone from seeing his fresh tears. John had been particularly harsh with him today, yelling at him and forcing him to read passages from Leviticus over and over again. She had become so concerned at the vehemence of the exchange that she was about to step in, when John lowered the bombshell.
John had to go to Birmingham to bail Phillip out of jail last night. Apparently, the Birmingham police were performing random raids on bars that were on a watch list for drugs. To make matters worse, the bar was also a gay bar. Under the pressure, Phillip broke down and begged for forgiveness.
Sam watched uneasily from a distance, wanting to jump in, but fearing her own demons would surface. The dreams were still vivid. Her mind would randomly jump to an image and she'd forget what she was doing. When Riley didn't show up for group, Sam was relieved and concerned. She wanted to see the woman who haunted her dreams, but she wasn't sure if she could even look her in the eye right now.
She locked the door behind her and headed to the church. Going through a back door the choir used, she entered the sanctuary through the choir loft and she took a seat in the back. She closed her eyes, letting the quiet settle her mind. She loved to do this as a kid. The church would be so quiet, but if she listened close enough and asked a question of God, she could "hear" the answer. It had been at one time that she believed her method worked, but when her mom got sick, she went through her ritual of asking God if she would be okay. She was so sure the answer was yes. Instead she died the next week from complications in surgery. She stopped talking to God. It was something she couldn't admit to anyone. What would they think of the preacher's daughter losing her faith?
She bit her lip feeling the pain of that loss of her mom and her faith in one swipe. She let the tears come, not trying to brush them away, letting them cleanse her for what she had to do. Bowing her head, she opened her heart to the faith she had let go so long ago.
She let the quietness sink into her soul and calm her restless spirit. She offered her love and her belief to God one more time and let her heart ask the question she had held inside for so long. Is it wrong to feel this way, Lord? Am I evil and wicked and deserving of death? If so, Lord, take me from this world. Remove me from your sight.
"My child, I love you. You are mine, and you are perfectly made in my image. Do not fear."
Sam suddenly braced herself against the railing in front of her, surely she was imagining this. Her eyes were closed but she felt a warm, radiating light invade her senses, bathing her in peace. A hand brushed over her shoulder and she felt a tremendous weight she didn't know she had been carrying lifted from her back.
She was crying new tears, but they were tears of joy. She started laughing then, a laugh that she felt into her soul. She was happy. This is what happy felt like. Finally, opening her eyes she looked up. A bright shaft of light had come through a window and landed on the cross to her left.
She knew what she had to do. Taking one last look back at the cross, she smiled, "Thank you."
In moments she was standing at Riley's door, knocking steadily but getting no answer.
"Oh for crying out loud!" She turned the knob and went in. The house was quiet. Papers were strewn over the coffee table and a laptop sat open on it. "Riley?" She heard a shuffling from the bedroom.
Entering the room, she saw Riley sprawled out across the bed, face down, her feet dangling off the end. Sam smiled at the sight and couldn't help but think how beautiful she looked with bedhead. She leaned against the door and simply watched her sleep.
She couldn't help but think about her dream. She looked at Riley's hands splayed out across the pillow and a small tremor ran through her body. If the dream was even close to reality, she was in trouble. A good kind of trouble, but still trouble. She knew she should be freaked out by the feelings she was having. It ran counter to everything she had ever known or heard. Being drawn to another woman like this should have made her feel crazed or mad, or at the very least as if she was drowning, dying, and out of control. She felt a little of all of that, but it all left a smile on her face because all of those feelings can be used to describe falling in love. She knew she hadn't imagined what had happened in the church. Somehow no matter what anyone said, she knew this wasn't evil.
Walking around to the side of the bed, she looked down on Riley. Her face relaxed and peaceful. She had the strongest urge to lean over and kiss her, but the selfish part of her wanted her first kiss with a woman to be something both of them were fully aware of. There were no do-overs for the first kiss, not this kiss.
Reaching over she brushed the thick dark hair away from Riley's face and tucked it behind her ear, making her stir only slightly. She slid the tips of her fingers along Riley's angular cheek and jawline, memorizing the feel of her skin under her fingers.
"Riley?" She flinched at the rough sound of her own voice. She wondered for a moment where that sound had come from. The brunette finally opened her eyes and nearly jumped out of her skin.
"It's okay! It's just me!" Sam laughed at the terrified look on Riley's face, not because the other woman was afraid, but because it was so counter to the tough exterior put on.
"God, don't do that to me again!" Riley held a hand to her chest, willing her heart to calm down.
"Sorry, I ," Now that she was here, she couldn't find the words anymore.
Riley switched gears at breakneck speed, "Wait a minute, why are you here?"
"I, um ," Sam took a deep breath, "I needed to talk to you. I needed to tell you something."
Concern immediately kicked in and she thought about the bruises she'd seen that she was sure John had left and then the way Bobby had roughed her around. She had a feeling she needed to be firing on all cylinders for whatever was coming.
"Do you mind if I get a shower first?"
Sam hoped Riley didn't see the blush that flooded her face, thinking of Riley naked and wet, "No, not at all. Go right ahead. I'll, um make some coffee."
Riley smiled genuinely, "Now ya talking! Give me five minutes."
By the time the coffee had finished brewing, Riley walked into the kitchen, sporting a pair of gray shorts and a black tank top. Her hair was hanging in wet curls as she tried fruitlessly to dry them with her towel. Sam turned with a cup in hand and nearly dropped it at the sight in front of her. She thought Riley couldn't beat the bedhead look, but she had been horribly wrong. She forced herself to swallow, but she realized she had nothing to swallow because her mouth was bone dry. She covered her physical fumbling by taking a swig of her own coffee.
Riley took the offer appreciatively, "Mmmmm, perfect!"
Sam got a little of her bearings back and she seemed fine as long as she didn't look too long at the blue eyes that looked almost silver in the morning light. "Thanks!"
Riley took a healthy sip of the coffee loving the feel of the warmth in the pit of her stomach, "So, what's so important that you had to break into my house?"
"Technically, I didn't have to break in. There's no lock, so no crime." She liked this. The banter and easy conversation. Riley was so much of what she had been looking for and she never expected it all be packaged in such a feminine wrapper.
"Okay, granted. A phone call would have sufficed unless it's really important."
"It is," Sam stared down into her coffee cup. She had snuck away to see one of the Harry Potter movies and in it a character told the future of Ron from tea leaves. Right now, she wished she could find the answer that easily in her cup.
"So, spill it."
"I think I'm a lesbian," she saw the confused look on Riley's face, the message not quite being fully received yet, "No, wait. That's not right. I know I'm a lesbian."
The message was finally getting through to Riley, who looked at Sam skeptically before smiling and waving a finger at her. "Oh, that's good. That's real good!"
This wasn't exactly the response Sam had expected, "What?"
"This is a test. You're testing me, tempting me, to see if I'll give in and then you can kick me out of the program."
"No, it's not a test. I'm telling you the truth." Now Sam was annoyed. She had dared to trust Riley, and all Riley could do was scoff at her. "I can't believe you'd even think I'd do something like that!" She slammed her empty coffee cup on the counter and walked over to get in Riley's space. She looked at her and into her.
"Look at me, Riley. You know I'm not the type to lie or trick. I came here to entrust you with something so important, so revolutionary in my life, and you laugh it off. You're no better than the people in the church who claim you don't know what love it because love between two people of the same sex isn't real love. You hypocrite!"
Riley was stunned at how quickly this was going downhill. Sam had pushed past her to leave and for a second, Riley almost let her go. As Sam was opening the door to leave, Riley came up behind her to push it closed. Sam gave up on fighting the tears. She was humiliated and all she wanted to do was leave.
"Let me go, Riley," her voice was soft and sad.
"I can't. Not like this. Please, turn around and look at me." Seconds seemed to stretch eternally before Sam complied and turned to face the taller woman. She looked in the blue eyes that now flashed with a fire she had only seen once before. Now, she didn't want to turn away. She was drawn in, like a moth to the flame. This dance was as dangerous and deadly as it was beautiful, and Sam couldn't stop it now if she wanted to and God knows she didn't want to.
Riley felt the electricity crackle between them. They seemed to hold in the moment forever, refusing to give in or back off. The fierce determination in Sam's eyes all the proof she needed that this wasn't fake. Slowly, she leaned down to claim the soft lips that were slightly parted and waiting for her.
A sharp crack outside broke the moment. They both looked at each other, but Sam voiced it first.
"What was that?"
Riley had lived in the city long enough to know the sound of gunshots when they happened.
"Come on, let's see what's going on." Riley took her hand and led her outside.
A small crowd was already gathering across the street. Riley pulled Sam along, shouldering her way to the front. She looked at one of the other women from her group. Her eyes were red and the tears were pouring down.
"Alicia, what happened?" She shook her head.
"I I don't know. That's Phillip's house. It sounded like gunshots, didn't it?" Alicia hiccupped out the last of her sentence now that her tears were subsiding.
"Yeah, I think so." She looked in Sam's shocked eyes. It was taking the police far too long to get there and no one had yet stepped forward to find out what was going on. Slowly, she made her way to the front door. Sam held tight to her hand, fear etched on her face.
"It's okay." Riley squeezed her hand before inching further up the walkway, leaving Sam behind.
As she got closer, the house was eerily quiet. She tried to peek into a window but all the shades were drawn. She stepped to the side, like she had seen police do in the movies, and with a quick twist of the handle, she let the door swing open.
When a barrage of bullets didn't greet her, she peeked around the corner and saw nothing. The living room and kitchen area were completely empty. There wasn't a sign that a person lived there at all no trinkets, momentos, or even a notepad, pencil or dirty coffee cup.
She looked back at Sam who was watching her with intense worry. One hand was up to her face as she gnawed at a fingernail. Riley heard sirens in the distance, and she saw Sam motion that she was going to intercept them. Riley nodded and turned to the hallway.
"Phillip? Hey buddy, ya here?" Her voice sounded far calmer than she felt. The further she got into the house, the stronger the sense of dread became. It was too quiet. Since the houses weren't big, there weren't many rooms to check so she headed directly for the closed door at the end of the hallway.
"Come on, Phillip. Please don't do this." She mumbled to herself as she turned the knob and closed her eyes before pushing it open. She thought she was prepared for what she was going to see, but nothing can prepare a person to see anyone with half of a head.
"Oh, fuck!" She pulled the door to and closed her eyes again trying to block out the sight. She was sure she hadn't imagined it and she was sure she had woken up this morning. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"
Her mind's eye though remembered something white on his chest. She swallowed down the bile threatening to come up and told herself to imagine it was just a mannequin and not really a human being on that bed. Flinging the door open again, she rushed into the room and frantically pulled at the rectangular piece of paper being careful not to get the blood sliding down his chest on her hands.
The sirens had come closer until they were right outside the house. In a sudden rush of frenzy, medics came bursting through the door with Sam on their heels. Riley turned in time to see green eyes roll back into her head as the blonde went limp and hit the floor. In seconds, Riley was by her side, tapping her on the side of her face. When she didn't respond, she went to the bathroom to dampen a washcloth. She stopped in her tracks, staring open-mouthed at the walls.
It seemed like every inch of the large mirror over the sink was covered in small notebook sized paper with neat feminine handwriting. She looked at the paper in her hand. It looked like a drunken kindergartner had written it. Scriptures and highlighted pieces of the letters were everywhere. She saw Leviticus and Romans highlighted several times and words like perverse, despised, dirty, and ashamed were underlined.
"Son of a fuckin' bitch." Her mother had been bad, but it had never been like this. She couldn't even imagine facing this emotional assault day in and day out. The anger that flooded her for the lost soul in the other room made her want to rip ever piece down and tear it into tiny shreds, but she couldn't. She knew it had to stay for the police to see.
She grabbed a clean washcloth from over the toilet and wet it with cold water. When she came back in the room, an EMT was checking Sam's pulse. She knelt back down beside the blonde touching the cloth gently to the side of her face.
"Hey, kiddo, come on. Wake back up." When Sam started to stir, Riley moved so her body would block the view of the bed.
"What happened?" Sam put a hand to her mouth, remembering quickly how she had ended up on the floor. Her bottom lip trembled as the tears came back with a vengeance.
Riley stroked her hair, "You're okay. You just passed out. Come on, let's get you outside and get some fresh air." She pulled Sam to her feet, and when Sam tried to look over her shoulder, Riley wrapped an arm around her effectively hiding her from the horrid sight.
Two uniforms and a suit stood by the front door. The suit looked to be the lead investigator so she handed the piece of paper over to him before continuing to guide Sam to the sidewalk.
"Samantha! There you are. Are you okay?" John pushed his way through the crowd, his dark suit and red power tie out of place for a hot summer day.
He stopped short when he saw Riley there with her arm around Sam's waist, "What are you doing here?"
Riley sighed, knowing instinctively where his mind was going, "Your sister passed out inside when she saw him Phillip. I got her outside, away from it, okay?"
He swallowed his anger and she could almost see him physically make himself refocus on the situation at hand. There was now a large crowd, and he had to handle the situation tactfully.
Riley found herself detesting the arrogant bastard even more when he shifted his eyes around the group and spoke in a hushed voice. Why she bothered to follow his lead she'll never know. She turned away from the crowd and whispered to him, "Let's just say there are pieces of Phillip Dwyer all over his bedroom wall."
John visibly cringed at this description and she got a momentary bit of pleasure out of watching him squirm. He nodded his thanks before heading to the police officers.
She knew the police were going to want to talk to her, but right now, she just wanted to get Sam away from the chaos.
"Hey, you wanna get out of here?" Sam nodded but didn't respond.
They climbed in Riley's Jeep and headed further down the back roads leading deeper into the country. Riley drove slow giving Sam time to think and process. Aside from the unrelenting heat, it was a beautiful day with perfect blue skies. She turned down an unnamed dirt road. She had a vague recollection of it from her childhood and riding with her father. About a mile down the road, it abruptly ended and opened up into a field, and a little further down the stream that had run by the camp twisted in an S-shape with a large willow tree in one of its curves.
She pulled her Jeep as close to the edge as she could, snagging a piece of the coveted shade. When she stopped and turned to Sam, the blonde had her head back on the headrest. She saw the sun glittering off the tears on the side of her face.
Reaching up, she brushed it away with the back of a finger. Sam turned to look at her, the brightness in her eyes turned dull with sadness and something else she couldn't pinpoint.
"I should have done something."
Riley understood that look in her eyes now, "There's nothing you could have done."
"Yes, I could have. I saw him this morning in group. He was upset when he left. John rode him and tore him up again in front of everyone. He cried and begged for forgiveness." Sam turned to look up into the drifting limbs of the willow. "I didn't even pay attention to the signs."
Riley leaned back and stroked Sam's cheek, "No, don't talk like that. You couldn't have known."
She shook her head, letting her eyes focus on a white puffy cloud in the distance. The world was still turning and the clouds were still moving across the sky as if nothing has happened.
"He was so afraid, and who could blame him? I guess he didn't think he had any other way out." Riley didn't know what to say. Words were failing her so she simply sat there and ran her fingers through the soft blonde hair.
"I don't want to be afraid anymore, Riley. I've been spending almost all of my life feeling afraid. I even remember feeling afraid when I was five years old. It was a dream, a stupid dream, but it stayed with me."
Riley encouraged her, getting her to talk about something besides Phillip, "What was the dream about?"
Sam tossed a crooked, tear-filled smile her way, "I dreamed I was being chased by the devil. The funny part was, my young mind filled in the way he looked, by making him my size and wearing a red devil suit, tail and all, and carrying a pitchfork."
Riley smiled at her, "You're not that scared five year old anymore though."
"No, no I'm not, but I've lived like I was for so long I'm not sure I know any other way to be." Sam took a deep breath, readying herself to tell the story she had held in for so long. "When I was about nine, your mom came to our house and told my folks about you being gay. I had never even heard of that word until then, but I understood it. Something deep inside of me knew, even then. I was so scared, Riley. I pushed everything and everyone away. I thought if I was good enough, smart enough, if I tried hard enough, it would all go away. But you show up again on our doorstep, like a ghost from the past, and I can't deny this anymore. I don't want to."
"But you're still scared."
"Are you kidding? I'm terrified!" She laughed, feeling good in spite of the horrible events of the day.
"Being scared doesn't go away just an FYI."
Sam reached out and took Riley's free hand in her own, running her thumb over the back of her fingers, "I just don't want to end up like Phillip."
Riley's chest tightened at the mere implication of the words. It hit her like a ton of bricks. She didn't want anything to happen to Sam, and she would do anything to stop something horrible from happening to her.
For Sam, the moment seemed to move in slow motion. She felt Riley's hand slip from her own as it came up to brush along her jaw line, gently lifting her chin until Riley's fiery cobalt eyes pinned her to the car seat. Knowing what was going to happen didn't stop the nervous flutter in her stomach or prepare her for the overwhelming sensation. She had heard about kisses that were earth shattering and mind blowing, but she thought they were the over-romanticized emotions of writers, not reality. At least her reality. When Riley's lips touched her own though, she understood. She finally got what all the fuss was about. This was the feeling that made people do crazy things go to war for love, fall on their sword for love, betray a brother for love. This was what it was all about.
Instinctively, she tilted her head and granted Riley more access. A hand on the back of her head gently held her in place, guiding both of them on this delicate journey. The soft curl of Riley's tongue against her own, must have hit a nerve, because Sam felt it in the pit of her stomach. Suddenly, she couldn't keep her hands off of Riley. She grabbed onto a jean-clad hip and tried to pull the brunette closer.
Riley moaned at the aggressive move. It took all of her control to break the kiss. She pulled back to look into Sam's hooded green eyes. Sam swallowed hard at the soft and intimate caress of fingers along her spine. If it wasn't her kiss, it was her touch driving her crazy. She licked her lips and leaned back in for another kiss. Riley raised a finger to her lips.
"Sam, you know this is going to change everything."
"I know," she smirked at Riley, "I'm not afraid, not with you."
Riley brushed her lips daringly against Sam's, causing the blonde to shiver, "You know I want to make love to you, right?"
"After a kiss like that, I would hope so."
Riley smiled hesitantly. In spite of Sam's bravado, she was pretty sure that Sam had never been with a woman before. In fact, she would bet a month's pay that she'd never even slept with a man before.
"I don't want you to feel rushed or pressured or anything."
Sam sighed, "Can I tell you something?"
"Of course, anything."
Sam took a deep breath, "This is kind of embarassing, but it's no more embarassing than the things I've imagined us doing so, here goes "
Riley raised an eyebrow at the blonde, curious about what she had been imagining. She stored that away for a later conversation.
"I, um had a dream," Sam looked sheepishly at Riley, "about you and me together."
The brunette quirked her eyebrow again, "Oh really?"
"Yeah, um," she picked some imaginary lint off her shirt, "It was "
"Yes?" Riley enjoyed making her squirm a little.
Sam rolled her eyes, "You're going to make me say it, aren't you?"
Sam growled, "Fine fine. It was hot, okay? Like, really hot. There happy?"
She tilted Sam's chin up to look at her, and kissed her deeply before pulling back, "Very. But I don't want to do this here." She checked the clock on the radio. They had been gone a couple of hours so it was possible the crowd at the camp had dispersed. "Do you want to go back?"
Riley turned her vehicle around and headed back down the dirt road. When she came to the main road, she reached over and took Sam's hand. Sam looked down at their entwined fingers, thinking no one else's hand had ever fit her's so perfectly. A sudden blush crept up her face as she thought about Riley's fingers. If she was going to burn in hell, she was at least going to enjoy the ride getting there.
When Riley turned down the road heading back into the camp, it was incredibly quiet, somber even. Yellow tape criss-crossed over the door to Phillip's house. Sam watched as they passed and Riley squeezed her hand.
"It's okay. I'll be okay."
They got out and walked the short distance to the front door. Sam let herself in and Riley followed. Once inside, they didn't know how to act. Riley didn't want to push her and Sam didn't know what to do.
"You want something to drink. I need something to drink." Riley brushed past her and headed to the kitchen. Sam reached for her hand, stopping her in her tracks.
"I don't want anything to drink. I just want you. I know I haven't done this before, but I know what I want." Sam pulled her down into a kiss, letting her hands caress the tender skin along her neck. Riley responded instantly, wrapping her arms around Sam's waist and pulling her close.
Riley managed to guide Sam back to the bedroom without breaking the kiss. She tugged at the t-shirt Sam wore, pulling the hem from the shorts she had on. Sam moaned when Riley's fingers touched her stomach, softly caressing the area around her navel. Against her will, she felt her body respond as her hips jerked forward.
Riley broke the kiss only to start an unrelenting assault on Sam's neck, moving lower and then back closer to her ear. She breathed in Sam's scent, tasting the salty sweetness of her skin. Sam relished the feeling and the waves of electricity moving through her body.
"That feels so good," Sam's hands couldn't be still. She needed to touch Riley. "You have too many clothes on."
Riley chuckled to herself. Her voice was raspy with desire. "So do you. I think we need to remedy that."
Riley stepped back just enough to make room to slip Sam's shirt off, before moving to unbutton her own shirt. Sam stopped her.
"Oh no you don't." Sam undid the first two buttons, just to the point where she could see Riley's bra. She leaned over to kiss the space between Riley's breasts, dipping her tongue into the open space below, while her hands continued to work at the other buttons. Riley closed her eyes and urged Sam to continue by running her long fingers through blonde hair.
Sam pushed the shirt off Riley's shoulders and threw it behind them. Sam kissed her way up Riley's chest, until she was at the hollow of her throat. When Riley threw her head back, Sam opened her eyes and really looked at Riley openly for the first time. Something shifted inside Sam.
"You're so beautiful." Sam watched mesmerized as Riley tilted her head back down, a sexy smirk gracing her face. She stopped Sam's wandering hand on her chest and neck. Taking the hand in her own, she locked eyes with Sam as she took a finger in her mouth and softly sucked.
Sam gasped at the sensation, feeling it hit her low in the stomach. She tugged with her free hand at the waistband on Riley's jeans, attempting to undo the button. Riley smiled at the look of abandon on Sam's face.
"Let me help you with that." Sam watched as Riley slid out of her jeans and kicked them aside. She noticed that Sam wasn't moving, enjoying the show, so she reached back and unsnapped her bra, letting it fall at her feet. She let Sam look at her, noticing the subtle motion of her tongue licking the corner of her mouth.
"Like what you see?" Sam could only nod. Riley motioned her forward with a finger, "Come here." When Sam came closer, she said, "Turn around."
Riley pushed blonde hair aside to kiss and nip at Sam's shoulder, while her fingers searched for the clasp to Sam's bra. It came undone easily and she slid the back of her fingers down Sam's back, until they danced teasingly on her lower back. She leaned back and pushed the bra off Sam's shoulders, tossing it aside. A slow throb was starting deep inside of Sam and it only became stronger with each brush of Riley's lips on her neck and breasts on her back.
Riley could sense the change in Sam's body her increased breathing, the slight tilt of her hips pushing back into Riley, and the almost unnoticeable sighs and moans. All of these things were quickly making Riley's body respond in kind. She reached around, splaying her fingers across Sam's stomach, pulling their hips in close together. She needed to get closer to Sam.
"God, Sam." She nipped at her earlobe, earning her a gasp and a grinding of her hips back into Riley. "We need to get these off." She tugged at the shorts. Sam couldn't hold back anymore. She reached up and helped Riley take the rest of her clothes off. Riley slipped her underwear off as Sam turned to face her.
Riley slid her thigh between Sam's legs, instantly feeling the wetness on her skin. If there was any doubt left in Riley's mind that Sam wanted this as much as she did, it was gone now. She kissed her tenderly, leading her back towards the bed. Sam felt the mattress bump the back of her knees. There was no turning back now, not that she wanted to anyway. Her heart beat triple time knowing that Riley was going to make love to her and she wanted her to.
She sat back on the bed and pulled Riley down on top of her. Riley braced herself above Sam, letting their kisses slowly deepen, knowing there was no need to rush now. She took her time memorizing the taste of Sam's kiss, the feel of her body underneath her, and soft sighs and murmurs of encouragement.
Riley nudged Sam's legs apart, letting her hips settle there. She watched the changes on Sam's face as she rotated her hips against her. One minute Sam was the picture of contentment, the next she closed her eyes tight, her eyebrows scrunching together, as a low groan escaped from her.
When Riley reached between them to tease at the wet curls, Sam nearly came undone, thrusting her head back and gasping for air. Riley wanted to take her time so she stopped and instead leaned down to take a nipple into her mouth. Sam's hands immediately came to Riley's head, tangling in the dark mane. Riley wasn't sure if it was a sign for her to continue or stop, but when she looked up at Sam alternating between biting her lip and gasping for air, she got the distinct impression to continue.
When Riley sucked hard on her nipple, the words that had been playing like a mantra through her head finally came tumbling out.
"Oh God! Oh Riley!" She was starting to ache so bad from the slow torture she was close to begging. For what, she didn't know, but she was damn near going to beg for it. "Please."
Riley took the cue and kissed down Sam's stomach, taking time to dip her tongue into her bellybutton. Sam felt Riley slide lower and for a moment she hesitated, shocked at the knowledge of what was about to happen. She looked down and watched in amazement as Riley moved lower and then lower still, brushing her lips over her curls and licking the skin just above them. When Riley slipped her shoulders under Sam's thighs, lifting and opening her to Riley's waiting mouth, Sam saw her face. Her eyes were closed in a look of pure contentment. They didn't stay like that for long. Her blue eyes, darkened to violet by desire, caught Sam in the act of watching.
She smiled at Sam, "It's okay if you want to watch."
It didn't matter if she wanted to or not once Riley leaned down to run her tongue through Sam's folds. The sensation ripped the air from Sam's lungs and her head fell back in a thud on the pillow. Sam was convinced that Riley was trying to slowly kill her with pleasure. She'd find a particularly sensitive spot and would pull away to dip her tongue lower and deeper. Sam wasn't sure which she liked better the sharp jolt or the warm penetration. All she knew was that she couldn't imagine anything feeling better.
"Sam?" The blonde had a moment of panic thinking Riley found something wrong with her or with her body.
"What's wrong?" Riley came back up and kissed her softly. Sam leaned up to kiss her deeper, distracted by the taste of herself on Riley's lips.
"Nothing's wrong. I ," Riley brushed her lips against Sam's neck, whispering the rest in her ear, "I want to touch you."
"But you are," Sam kissed the tender hollow above Riley's collarbone.
"No, I want to touch you," she looked into Sam's eyes, trying to convey her need, "inside. I want to be inside of you, but I don't want to hurt you."
Sam's heart felt like it was going to burst from her chest, "Why, Riley Jacobsen you're just a romantic at heart, aren't you?" Riley smiled with relief, "Besides, you can't hurt me when I want you to do it."
Sam bit her lip, trying to fight the blush creeping up her face, "Oh yeah."
Riley kissed her again, slow and deep, rolling until they were on their sides facing each other. She pulled one of Sam's legs up over her hip, letting her hands wander along the outside of her thigh, her nails scratch lightly over her ass.
She watched the changing expressions cross Sam's face as her hand slipped between Sam's thighs. Sam's eyes fought to stay open as Riley's fingers slid easily between her folds, teasing her gently.
Slowly, she dipped her fingers lower, feeling resistance as she slid a finger deeper. Sam pulled Riley closer, her nails digging into Riley's back, "Please."
Riley kissed her and swallowed Sam's cry as she pushed in all the way. Tears sprung to her eyes at the intimacy and trust. She buried her face in Sam's neck as she took her past the pain, steadily thrusting in and out, waiting for Sam's strangled gasps to change over. After a few seconds, she felt the tightening of muscles around her finger and the rhythmic pants in her ear.
"Riley." She pulled back and saw green eyes shining bright, in spite of the tears slipping down her face, and a smile curling at her lips. Riley moved faster in and out watching the storm build. Suddenly, Sam buried her face in Riley's neck, her body rigid, and her nails cutting into Riley's back.
She turned her head so she could kiss at Sam's head, cheek, and shoulders, slowly bringing her back to earth. The pulsing subsided, and she gently pulled out, the soft groan at her ear the only sign that Sam was even awake.
"Hey, you okay?" Riley coaxed the blonde.
Sam rolled over and laughed, "I think that's an understatement."
Riley smiled, "Good. I'd hate to think I deflowered you for nothing!"
Sam smacked Riley on the arm, "Smartass!"
"Yeah, but it's a cute smart ass."
Sam woke up to find her head resting on Riley's naked stomach. She blushed a little at the last memory she had of the night before. Sam hadn't been sure of what she was doing to Riley, she moved purely on instinct, but obviously she had done something right because Riley passed out at some point. Making love to and with Riley was entirely different than what she had imagined it would be. Her guilt-laden past had convinced her that she'd wake up feeling dirty and guilty, but she actually felt really alive for the first time in her life.
She looked up the long expanse of Riley's body, noticing the dips and curves in the light of day and even the small scratches and imperfections. She kissed a scar closest to her making Riley squirm.
"Hey," her voice was raspy from sleeping and Sam was sure she had died for a moment at the sexy sound of it.
"Hey yourself." Riley was kind of surprised that she didn't wake up alone. At one point during the night, she woke up and struggled to get back to sleep. She had a dream where Sam was falling further and further away from her. She tried to race after her, but could never get close enough to grab her and stop the descent.
"Sleep well?" Riley shook her head at the haunting scenes playing out in her mind.
"Not bad, but I'm starving. Want to eat something?"
"Mmmmm, sounds great! I make a killer french toast."
"No, I'm cooking." Sam propped herself up on her arms to look into the stubborn blue eyes.
Sam laughed, "I want to live to see tomorrow so I'm cooking."
Riley rolled out of bed and slipped on a worn t-shirt and boxer shorts, "Go for it, Martha Stewart. I'm going to go get the paper and make some coffee. I can manage that!"
Sam laughed as the tall woman headed out the door. She slid off the bed and padded to the bathroom. When she looked in the mirror, she half expected to see horns growing out of her head or something equally demonic. Instead, she saw the same face staring back at her she'd seen for over 20 years.
"Funny, I don't look different, but I sure do feel it." She turned the shower to a nearly skin-melting temperature and stepped in. Ten minutes later, she padded to the kitchen. Riley was standing at the stove with the paper in one hand while she absentmindedly stirred some bacon around the pan.
Sam looked in the refrigerator and got milk and eggs before heading to the pantry for the sugar. When she turned, Riley had a concerned scowl on her face.
"What's wrong?" Riley tossed the small paper on the bar counter in front of her.
"Eh, nothing probably. There's just nothing in the paper about Phillip. It's just kind of odd that something that noticeable wasn't even reported. Instead, we have a photo of the world's largest tomato."
Sam took the paper and flipped to a specific section, "Huh? Interesting. I could have sworn that I saw Bethany Norris here yesterday." She tapped at the picture of a local reporter. "There's no report though."
"I'm sure it's nothing. It'll probably be on the news later today anyway." Riley pushed the issue aside and focused on the now burning bacon.
About an hour later, Sam walked back into the house. She half expected John to be there waiting, ready to attack her for being out all night. Instead the house was frighteningly quiet. She walked upstairs to her father's room and found it empty. Panic gripped her as her worst fears came into her head. She raced to John's room and found it empty too. Finally, she went to her room and found a note on her pillow.
Dad took a turn for the worse last night. I couldn't find you and didn't know where you were at. We're at Highland Baptist Hospital.
Sam flew down the steps and out the door in record time. She prayed all the way to the hospital.
"Please God, not like this. Not now. I know I should have been there. I know I know I know. Oh God! What have I done?" For the next twenty minutes, the personal recriminations continued. She had worked herself into a full-blown crying fit by the time she got to the hospital.
She burst through the doors of the emergency entrance. Finding John seated between Mrs. Peterson and another elderly woman from the church, she ran over to get a report. John looked at her like a bug that had crawled up his leg. In an instant, he was on his feet and dragging her out the door she had just come through.
"Where the hell were you?"
Sam stumbled. She couldn't tell the truth but she didn't necessarily want to lie either. "I I was out, clearing my head. Seeing Phillip like that was hard. I needed to get away."
"With Riley? Of all people Riley? Why not Bobby?" Then John snapped his fingers, "Oh yeah, that's right, you broke up with him in front of half the town. Couldn't exactly go running to him now could you?"
"Look, we don't have time for this. We'll talk about it later. Right now, what's going on with Dad?"
John squeezed a little tighter on the arm he had been holding all this time, "You're right. We will. You won't get out of it. As for Dad, well, one of his lungs collapsed. He couldn't breathe. At least the nurse was there. It made getting him in the car easier. We didn't have time for an ambulance."
Sam noticed the small jab at her not being where she was supposed to be, but let it go. She didn't want to get into that right now. "Have the doctors come out to say anything?"
John relaxed and let go of her arm as he relayed the simple facts, "Yeah, he's going to need to stay here for a few days for observation. No surgery, but he will need constant attention."
"Right. Are we able to see him?"
"Yeah, I'll take you down to his room, but I can't stay. I need to get back and deal with the work on the house Phillip was in."
"Work? Isn't it a little soon? Have the police even been out yet?"
"No, but the coroner ruled it an accidental death. The safety on the gun was off. They think he was cleaning it and it went off."
Sam shook her head incredulous, "Well, duh! The safety has to be off in order to properly commit suicide."
John shook his head and looked at her puzzled, "Suicide? This wasn't a suicide, just an accident. A very sad one, yes, but still one nonetheless."
"Then explain the note."
"The note that Riley found on Phillip's body and that she handed over to the police."
John laughed at her, "There was no note. I have no idea what you're talking about." He glanced down at his watch, "Ah, I've got to go. I'll check in later."
Sam stared at his back, astounded at what she had heard.
It was the fifth time Riley had gone through the paper. She checked every inch carefully, and read each individual obit. She turned on the TV and DVR. Out of habit, if she couldn't sit to watch the news, she always recorded it. Reporters had to know what was going on in the world and being holed up in a backwater town didn't stop that. Instead of scanning through the segments, she actually watched the whole thing in its entirety.
She stood up and started pacing the room. She picked up the paper and looked through it half-heartedly this time. She knew she hadn't accidentally missed it. It just wasn't there.
She tried to calm herself, urging her practical mind to realize that she needed to wait until tomorrow before really calling this what her heart knew it was a cover-up. She felt it in her bones. There's no reason why this shouldn't have been reported. There was too much action around the whole event, even the police and paramedics were there. Certainly, the cops had to report incidents like this!
"Son of a bitch!" Riley threw the paper across the room.
It was time for some reckoning. She barreled outside and turned to face the house down the street, sitting quietly next to the church. The windows were dark and she found it odd since it was well after lunchtime. Her stomach growled at the realization that it hadn't been fed yet because Riley went back to sleep after Sam left.
"Fine." She went back inside to make a sandwich, convincing herself that she really didn't want to run to Sam to talk to her. "No, I can't take this to her. I can't lay this at her feet. I'll go take care of this after I eat my lunch. She was going to have a long couple of days ahead of her in Birmingham." She sighed and took her sandwich back to the bedroom so she could start packing her bag.
The machines beeped in a staccato rhythm that annoyed Sam. She mentally tried to shut them out, but they wouldn't go away. She sat down next to her dad's bed and took his frail hand in her own. The skin was paper thin, the blue veins standing out in stark contrast to the pasty white skin covering them.
The elderly man stirred at the warm touch, and when he looked over to find soft green eyes watching him, he smiled, "Hey, kiddo."
"Hey, Dad." She fought back the tears. His voice was deep and strong, as if disease had never touched him. She wanted to hold on to that memory, the sound of him confident and proud.
He raised his hand to brush his knuckles along her hair, "You're troubled."
"You're perceptive." Sam laughed out around the knot in her throat.
"I'm your father. I'm supposed to be."
Sam looked down at the hand she held, the moments ticking by slowly, "How do you know if you're in love?"
He laughed and rolled his head over to look at the dirty ceiling tiles, "That's an interesting question to get on your death bed."
"You're not on your death bed, Dad."
"Is it Bobby?" He looked expectant, almost excited. She hated to crush the moment.
"No, no it's someone else," she bit her lip, trying hard not to give anything away. "So, how do you know when you're in love? How did you know you loved Mom?"
"Well, kiddo, there's no magic road sign that points you to where you need to go. It's a journey and you won't know your destination until you're there."
Sam shook her head, "Alright! Now if you're done with the analogies and philosophizing, give me the dish. How did you know you loved Mom?"
"When I asked myself that very question too. How did I know? My head didn't, but my heart did. And it refused to stop making me do crazy things until I gave in to it." He laughed at a remembered memory. "We have these huge water towers back home and she insisted that if I loved her, I would climb to the top of these water towers. I did and I fell about a quarter of the way up and broke my arm in three places."
He continued, lost in his own thoughts, "I would have done anything for her, and I did do everything for her, not out of obligation but because I loved her." He stopped and looked over to Sam. "Of course, it didn't hurt that I got these annoying little butterflies in my stomach every time she was near."
Sam listened intently, pegging everything he said to Riley.
"Whoever this," he paused and looked at her meaningfully, "person is, follow your heart."
Two days later, Sam walked out of the hospital into the light of day. She climbed into her car and methodically started it up. Making her way into the camp, she slowed in front of Riley's house. She pulled to the curb and slowly got out.
After two knocks, Riley opened the door, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. "Hey, what are you ?"
She didn't have a chance to finish when Sam fell into her arms, crying desperate tears. Riley closed the door and held the blonde tight as they stood in the foyer. Riley stroked her back and whispered comforting words in her ear. When the sobs subsided, Riley pulled back and brushed the tears away from Sam's cheeks.
"What's wrong?" Sam took a deep breath to gather herself.
"My dad. He was rushed to the hospital several nights ago, collapsed lung. They thought he was going to be okay, but something started going wrong," Sam waved her hands around, "Something about an infection spreading to his brain. He didn't last long after that."
In the midst of her relating the story, she had gone to the sliding glass doors facing the deck and was staring out at the tall swaying grass in the distance. She didn't hear Riley come up behind her and wrap her arms around her waist.
"Oh, Sam. I'm so sorry," she rested her chin on Sam's shoulder and pulled her closer. "I had no idea he was that sick."
"We kept it quiet so the church members wouldn't be upset or bothersome. He fought cancer for a long time, and I always thought that would take him, not some stupid infection!" The tears started fresh and she turned in Riley's arms, kissing her fervently.
The words of her father rang in her head. She had followed her heart and it had led her right to Riley's doorstep and into her arms. Right or wrong, she was listening to the only thing that made sense anymore.
Sam quickly rid Riley of her t-shirt, pushing her back to the bedroom, only occasional stops along the way as they bumped into walls and doors interrupting their progress.
"I need a shower," Sam muttered past another kiss.
Riley shrugged, "It's not caffeine, but it's a damn good way to start the day."
Thirty minutes later, they stumbled out of the bathroom, towels in hand and still attached at the lips.
"Christ, don't you two ever come up for air?"
They jumped apart at the booming voice in the room, rushing to cover up with their towels.
"Fuck! What the hell?" Riley covered her chest with her hand, her heart threatening to come up through her throat.
Sam's mind reeled at what to do or say to explain the situation and she came up empty, "John, I "
"Don't bother. It's pretty obvious what's going on here, and I can't say that I'm surprised. You two have been attached at the hip ever since she showed up. Which begs the question," he unfolded himself from the chair in the corner and stood, "what exactly was your role in this farce?"
"What?" Sam looked to Riley who had turned ashen.
"Oh, you don't know, do you? Well, maybe this will clear things up." He thrust several sheets of paper at her that looked like they had been printed off the computer. She looked at the headline and her hand started to shake.
In bold letters it said, "Ex-Gay Ministry Fraud." The bi-line was far more damning, "Local Reporter Goes Undercover to Unravel a Small Town's Darkest Secret."
Riley ran her fingers through her hair, "Sam "
"Don't," the blonde held up a hand and sat on the bed, scanning the words on the page but not really absorbing them. It was too much to take in.
"How could you, Riley?" The brunette sank to her knees in front of Sam.
"Please, let me explain."
Sam looked at her incredulous, "How can you explain this? Everything you've said is a lie."
"Not everything. I never lied about how I felt about you. This here, between you and me, it's not a lie."
"When did you write this?"
Sam stared at her coldly, "When?"
"This weekend. After Phillip they didn't cover it. The papers, the news I talked to that woman, Brittany Norris, that you mentioned. She was here. She just didn't report it. Why? Because she's a member of your precious church and didn't want it reflecting badly on her community. I went to the police. Oh, they got Phillip's suicide note as evidence, but it got conveniently lost." Riley was standing now, looking back and forth between John and Sam, wanting to smack the self-righteous smirk off his face. "Thank God I have a photographic memory. I recounted it word-for-word for the article."
Sam stood and came close enough to her to whisper, "All of this, after we made love. After I spent the night with you. And you still didn't tell me the truth."
Riley reached up to brush a tear from Sam's face, but her hand was pushed away. "I never meant to hurt you, Sam."
"But you did. Didn't you think I'd eventually find out?" Sam retrieved her clothes from the bedroom floor.
"I knew the article was coming out. I was planning to tell you."
"And you know what? It's not even the article that hurts. We all know this conversion therapy's crap, especially you," she pointed at John, "What really hurts is that you didn't trust me. What kind of relationship can we have without trust?"
Sam turned her back and went into the bathroom to change, leaving a stunned Riley in her wake. John sneered at her, "Just couldn't keep it in your pants, could you, Jacobsen?"
"You're one to talk. I'm not done with you, John. Seems there are a lot of skeletons in your closet just dying to tell a story."
He grabbed her by the throat, squeezing tight on her vocal cords, "If you're smart, you'll walk away, bitch. I have ways to make you disappear."
"Fuck you!" She growled out around the pain. When his eyes went wide and his grip loosened, she grinned triumphantly. For extra measure, she tightened her vice grip on his balls, resisting the urge to rip them off and shove them down his throat.
"Oh, and John, if you touch Sam again, I'll feed these to you with a spoon." With one last squeeze and a jerk, he fell to his knees. "Got it?"
When he was finally able to stand again, the color returning to his face in vibrant colors of reds and purples, he hissed at her, "I'll make you pay for this."
"I already am." As if on cue with her thoughts, Sam exited the bathroom.
John reached for her, but she pulled away, "Both of you stay away from me. I'm done."
Riley held it together until she heard the click of the door when they left. She curled up in the bed and slept until late afternoon. When she woke, she functioned just enough to pick up her cell phone and call Al.
"I'm leaving. Book me a flight out ASAP." She didn't wait to hear the confused question on the other end. She simply rolled over and went back to sleep, this time on the couch where she didn't have to smell where Sam had slept in her bed.
Al slid a chicken sandwich and salad under Riley's nose, "You need to eat. You look like hell."
"Gee, thanks! Good thing I'm not on the broadcasting side of journalism. I don't have to look good to write."
The bulky man folded himself into the chair across the desk from her, "No, but you will need your strength to walk up the steps and get your award. That was a helluva job you did on that article."
She looked up at him with dull eyes, "Then why don't I feel so great about it?"
"Because you miss her. You should go to her. Beg, plead, whatever you have to do."
"I can't. It's not that I don't want to, but damn Al, I've never hurt like this before. I don't think I could go through seeing her damaged any more by me right now."
He looked at her confused, "How are you damaging anything now? The story's dead, last week's news literally."
She leaned back in her chair, fiddling with the pencil in her hand, "I kept digging up info on John Porter Junior, of course. There are little things that aren't turning out to be so little anymore. I don't know if I can turn my back on this now."
"What's not so little anymore? What did you find out?" He leaned forward and put his elbows on his knees."
She pushed a coroner's report across her desk and Al took it. He thumbed through it for a moment, "I don't see anything."
"Page two, halfway down."
Al read out loud, "Deceased had a series of marks along his back, moving across from the top right shoulder to the rib cage on the left side. Marks appear to be inflicted by a blunt object. Wounds show evidence of a leather material embedded in the skin."
He looked at her, "I don't understand."
"Lash marks. Phillip Dwyer was beaten and tortured while he was at the camp. The direction of the marks and the pull on the skin indicate that it couldn't be self-inflicted, and the wounds were too new to have occurred before he came to the program."
"Jesus, are you saying?"
"That someone there beat the stew out of Phillip? Yeah, I am, and I have a pretty good idea of who it was."
Al rubbed his hands over his stubbly face, "If what you're saying is true, then Sam needs to get out of there. He knows about the two of you, and you're going out all guns for him. He's not going to go down quietly."
"What if I'm wrong though and I cause her more pain."
"What if you're not? Do you really want to live with that?"
Sam stirred the meat in the pan without really paying attention. A couple of days ago, she put her father in the ground. The service was amazing and the crowd was perhaps the largest that Warrior had ever seen. It was at least the largest Sam had ever seen, and she had been required as part of the church family to attend all funeral services. Tomorrow, she'd have to go to the lawyer for a reading of her father's will.
John came through the door and dumped a pile of bills on the counter. She stopped long enough to open the first one, dropping it back down on the counter when she realized it was a hospital bill. She grimaced at the amount. It would take them the rest of their lives to pay it off.
John came over and tasted the sauce in the pan, "It needs more garlic."
Sam wanted to dump it all in the sink and tell him to stick it where the sun doesn't shine, but she couldn't. Like it or not, she was stuck here. The program was going to have to continue bringing in new attendees or else they'd never pay the bills piling up. Even if she wanted to leave, Sam was realistic enough to know she didn't have any skills an employer would want, and selling an employer on the transferability of Bible-quoting skills would be a bit tough, even in Alabama. Except for graduating from high school, she had no other education, and there was no way she could cover all the expenses and her dad's debt with a secretarial job.
Sam closed her eyes at the harsh and condescending tone in John's voice, "You're still stuck on her. That's just sad. She built up your hopes and dreams, only to shatter them before your very eyes. She was good though, a classic at manipulation. She even got you into bed with her, which is an amazing feat considering how frigid you are."
"Shut up, John!" Sam gripped the knife in her hand, until the handle dug painfully into her palm.
"And what are you going to do anyway if I don't? You can't run to her. Bobby won't have you now. Most people know about your problem, so they don't want anything to do with you. Looks like you're stuck in this little slice of hell with me. Lucky you!"
The tears welled up again. Today would be the fifth day in a row that she cried. She missed Riley terribly, but even if she wanted to see her, she couldn't. There was no way to accomplish that without money.
John looked at her disappointingly. If she wouldn't verbally spar with him, there was little use for him to hang around. He took a beer from the fridge and went to sit in his recliner to watch the news.
Fifteen minutes later, she had dinner on a plate at the table. She took the plate to John then headed upstairs.
"You're not eating?"
"I'm not hungry."
He shook his head, "Pathetic."
While the dark suit was looser than it had been before, Sam felt constricted and suffocated in it. It wasn't her style, but fortunately, the will reading wouldn't take long. John sat next to her in the matching high back chair in his standard dark suit and red tie. His "power suit" as he called it. Ironic that it was the suit he always wore for his Sunday sermons. The only thing that would change would be his ties the design would be different, but they all had red in them. Funny the things she noticed now about John that never occurred to her before.
The lawyer and his secretary entered, shook their hands, and sat behind the enormous mahogany desk. John commented on its ornate design, softening up another potential supporter. The lawyer held back a smile but was clearly pleased that John noticed.
"Thank you, it was a hand-crafted desk imported from Italy."
Sam cleared her throat, not wanting to prolong this anymore, "Yes, let's get started."
He shuffled some papers and pulled out the primary document, "I, Reverend John Isaac Porter, Sr., being of sound mind and body do by bequeath the family home and church to my son, John Isaac Porter, Jr. To my daughter, Samantha Renee Porter, I bequeath all of my financial earnings, life insurance, and equity in sold property. Both of my children are entitled to do with these matters as they see fit."
Sam chanced a glance at John, his jaw clenched. Sam fought back a smile. The lawyer shuffled a few more papers.
"Miss Porter, I have documents on the current financial standing of your father. There was little in earnings to pass along, except a small standard savings account and a CD that has steadily earned equity. However, it looks like your father played it safe with his investments so the total earnings on this were small around $20,000."
Sam heard John fight back a snicker next to her and she dug her nails into her palm to stop from smacking him right there in the lawyer's office.
"The life insurance policy, on the other hand, was one of the largest I've ever seen. He, apparently, took out a policy that maxed out at $500,000."
Sam gripped the arm of her chair, "What the ? Are you kidding me?"
"No, I don't kid my clients about money."
"Holy shit!" The lawyer reached across his desk, a white envelope in hand.
"He also left this for you. Only to be opened in the event of his death." Sam took it without saying a word.
John squeaked out, "What does it say?"
"I don't know. There were explicit instructions that no one was to open the letter except your sister."
The remainder of the session passed by in a blur. Sam refused to open the letter in front of John. When it was over, she raced to her car and got home easily ten minutes before her brother. She picked up the mail on the floor, extracting what looked like a personal letter for her, before heading upstairs. She stripped and got into a pair of shorts and tank top before opening the letter.
My Dearest Samantha,
If you're reading this, then I guess I'm dead. Don't worry about that though now. I'm going to make this quick. By now, you know about the insurance policy I took out and how much it's worth. Whatever you do, do NOT let John get a hold of the money in this policy. As much as I loved him because he is my son and my blood, he's toxic. He had a volatile and hostile streak a mile long and unfortunately, I covered for him too many times. I can only guess that he's made the past few years horrible for you. I want you to take this money, pay off whatever debt you have, and start over. Anywhere you want to go, anything you want to do, just be happy and free. I know that you are meant for so much more than this town. Do something amazing!
I will love you always,
P.S. See you on the other side, sweetie.
By the time she got to the end, she couldn't see the words on the page for the tears in her eyes. She heard the door slam downstairs and quickly she hid the letter in the back corner of her closet.
John came bursting through the door, the veins in his head threatening to pop from the anger pumping through him, "Where is it? What did he say?"
"Get out! This is none of your business anymore."
"Like hell it isn't." He stepped forward menacingly, and Sam dropped back automatically into the stance Riley had shown her.
John started to laugh, "Oh, what's this? Your girlfriend show you some moves that didn't involve dry humpin' on the sofa?"
Sam wouldn't let him get to her. She smiled, "At least I got laid. All you got was drunk."
He barreled at her full force and she easily side-stepped him. She felt the rush of adrenaline in her veins and fought the impulse to take him on, but her logical side knew she wouldn't win that battle. Instead, she stepped back out of his reach, gaining a moment to think.
He made a move to come after her again. She held up her hand, "Don't even think about it. Right now, you really don't need assault added to your record. Imagine what that would do to your precious program."
He glared at her, "You wouldn't."
She stood up straighter, "Oh yes I would. You don't have power over me anymore, John. The days of being your personal punching bag are over."
John gathered himself, sneering at her, "Fine, go ahead. Run off and play the carpetmunch game with her. She doesn't give a shit about you, you know that right? If she had, she wouldn't have lied to you in the first place."
She stopped him as he headed out the door, "This isn't about Riley. Just to clue you in, John, I've always been gay, and I always knew it deep down. I didn't have words for it when I was a kid, but I learned quick that night Riley's mom came to see Dad. I also learned real quick to keep it to myself. With or without Riley, I would still be walking out this door eventually."
He simply looked her up and down, a look on his face that was hard to discern, before turning and leaving. Sam flopped down on her bed, the fight completely gone from her. She felt an envelope underneath her and pulled it out. It was the mail she had gotten earlier.
She rolled over and ripped it open. Inside was a plane ticket, what appeared to be an invitation, and a short letter.
"What the ?"
I know you don't know me, but my name is Al Perkins and I work with Riley at the paper. She misses you. She won't admit how much this is bothering her, but I can tell you that she's not herself. She's being honored for her work on the article about your family's ex-gay camp at a banquet in two weeks. She's waited her whole life for a moment like this, but she doesn't even want to go. What does that tell you? Please, come to Chicago. I've included a plane ticket and an invitation. A room is reserved in my name at The Omni. I hope you will come.
"Well, this day is getting crazier and crazier." She looked at the invitation and crawled over to her closet and pulled out her dad's letter. "This can't all be some weird coincidence. This has to mean something." She looked up at the ceiling, "Right?"
Sam was restless. She couldn't sleep, and she kept getting up and re-reading the letter from her father and the mail from Riley's friend, Al. Eventually, she gave up and decided one way or another she had to make a move. The door was wide open and there was nothing to stop her now, so she took it.
Slipping on some shorts, she tiptoed quietly downstairs. It was a little after midnight so John was probably passed out in his bed. It occurred to her that she'd never have to live like this again if she left, sneaking around so John wouldn't hear her so she wouldn't incur his wrath. The thought made her smile and she grabbed the keys to the church with a little pep in her step.
She followed the path of the flashlight in front of her until she got to the backdoor of the fellowship hall.
"Hey." Sam nearly jumped out of her skin at the voice behind her.
"Bobby! What are you doing here? It's the middle of the night." He stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets.
"I was going to ask you the same thing."
"Well, I do live here for now. You don't, so why are you hanging out behind my house. That's kind of creepy." Sam leaned against the metal door as Bobby mirrored her and leaned against a tree.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to scare ya. I was just thinking." Sam shuffled a foot nervously. She didn't really want to have this conversation with him, but apparently, it was inevitable.
"You me. So much of it makes sense now." Sam let out a sigh she didn't realize she had been holding. She thought she was going to have to fess up to him about why they really broke up, but someone had already taken care of it.
"Who told you?"
Bobby motioned to the top floor of her house, "Who else?"
He shrugged at her, "Don't worry. It was just me he said it to. He never did like me that much, even though he pretended to, so I think he got a charge out of rubbing it in."
Sam put her head back against the cold metal, "Bobby, I'm sorry. I should have told you the truth. I was still figuring everything out, and I had to be sure."
"Hmmmm, so it is true. It wasn't just the drunken ramblings of your crazy brother."
She looked down at the ground before looking back up to meet his eyes, making sure he had no doubts, "No, it's definitely true."
Bobby took a deep breath and smiled at her unconvincingly, "So, I guess you're leaving to be with her?"
She chuckled a little at the thought, "No I'm I'm just going. I'm not sure what's going to happen, but I have to leave. I can't stay here."
"I understand." She saw the sadness, and something else, perhaps envy, in his eyes. He did understand, probably better than most around here, that's there's a larger world out there for her with so much potential for her.
She pushed off the door and motioned with her head to the doors, "Mind helping me get some boxes out?"
He smiled for real this time, "Sure."
The sun had been up for a little over an hour when Bobby pushed the last of the boxes against the wall of Sam's room. He stood up and dusted off his hands, stepping back to stand next to her in the nearly empty room. Her whole life was in those boxes. It was amazing how little can constitute a life when you see it all so neatly tucked away.
"You okay?" He bumped her with his shoulder.
"Yeah, I think so. I'm really scared. I haven't even traveled outside of the state before and now I'm moving, like far away." They had talked about a lot of things during the night. Mostly about all the good times they had together and some about Sam and Riley. To her surprise, Bobby dealt with the conversation very well. He even asked a couple of questions about Riley. They never did talk though about what she was going to do or where she was going. In her mind, it was a foregone conclusion and not one she had to think about much.
"So, where are you going anyway?"
"Chicago." His eyebrows rose at that.
"So, you are going to be with her."
Sam sighed and sat on her bed, "No. I'm going to see her, yes, but not be with her. We have unfinished business. What happens after that well, a lot depends on what she says."
Bobby was about to say something when sirens started coming down the street. They looked at each other curiously and then went to the window to look out. A lone police car was pulling into the driveway.
"What in the world is this about?"
Sam shrugged, "I have no idea."
She went down the stairs before she heard the knock. The officer only got one knock out before she pulled it open.
"Ryan, what's going on?" The cop was a member of their church, not a regular one because of his work schedule though.
"Hey Sam. Is John home?"
"Yeah, I think he's asleep. Why?" He looked at her sadly.
"I'm afraid he's under arrest." In spite of what had transpired between her and her brother yesterday, she was still shocked to see cops at the door calling for his arrest.
"What for? What are the charges?"
He looked around as neighbors started coming out of their houses to see what was going on, "Maybe we should talk about this inside."
"Yeah, sure." She stepped aside to let Ryan in.
"The family of Phillip Dwyer demanded access to his full autopsy report and they found that he had been severely beaten during his time here." Sam put her hand to her mouth.
"And it was obviously covered up because if we had seen that report at the station, you could bet there'd be some investigatin' goin' on."
Sam looked to Bobby who was holding back his own form of shock, "And they think that John had something to do with it?"
"If he didn't do it himself, he was at least involved somehow."
"Why do they think that?" John's voice came down the stairs.
Ryan turned and reached for his handcuffs to get ready to arrest John, "Because your fingerprints were found on his body, most notably around his neck. Now, turn around. Let's make this easy."
John went without a fuss as Ryan read him his rights. Bobby turned to Sam who was still stunned.
"Do you want me to drive you to the station?"
She shook her head, "Um, yeah sure."
An hour later, Sam sat at a table in the Birmingham metro jail listening to John's lawyer explain the charges and the evidence. She had to admit that it was pretty damning evidence. There was even a whip found in a box in their shed with blood and skin tissue on it. Sometime tomorrow, they should know if it matched Phillip's DNA. Deep inside, Sam had little doubt that it would. She had seen the monster in John, witnessed it first hand. Now the rest of the world would see it too.
The lawyer walked her out of the jail. John had made a point to tell him about the insurance money from their father and insist that he convince Sam to post his bail. He made the suggestion, but made no push for her to do it, which she made clear she had no intentions of doing. It was moments like this of defending the most baseless of humans that made him hate his job.
Sam, on the other hand, was going home to sleep and to think. The last 72 hours had been some of the most emotionally draining of her life, right next to the moment she found out Riley had lied to her. When she crawled into bed, she slept for what felt like the first time in weeks.
Riley adjusted her skirt for the third time and reapplied her lipstick because she kept chewing it off. She looked in the mirror again and she almost didn't recognize her own face. The dark circles wouldn't seem to go away no matter how much Al's wife, Patti, tried to cover them with concealer. In a couple of hours though, it would all be over and she could change back into the jeans she brought to work with her and head out for a mind-numbing drink alone. Al and Patti had tried to convince her to go out with them, but she knew she wasn't good company now and didn't want to ruin their night.
All told it had been about a month, actually 28 days, 12 hours and 33 minutes, since she had left Alabama, but who was counting? Every night though she dreamed of Sam and it was taking a toll on her. Al had even offered to buy her a plane ticket to go back so they could work things out, but Riley refused it. She had cause Sam enough pain and she was pretty sure with turning her brother over to the police that she wasn't high on Sam's must-see list.
The trio slid into the car, with Al and Patti up front, "Did you bring your acceptance speech with you?"
She pulled a set of notecards from her purse and waved them at the rearview mirror. "Good girl!"
"Yeah, yeah. Let's just go already so we can get this dog and pony show over with, 'kay?" The couple exchanged looks but left it alone.
When they arrived, the valet took the car and they entered The Omni Hotel and took the escalator to the ballroom upstairs. Riley felt terribly out of place with the wall-to-wall monkey suits around her. There were faces she had only seen on the news watching her and she rubbed at the collar of the lapel of her suit.
"I hate this," Riley mumbled to Patti.
"I know it's not your cup of tea, honey. But think about it? You are being honored for all your hard work."
"I can't believe it was even noticed. It wasn't that great!"
Patti fused at her bleached blonde hair, before glaring at the taller woman, "Now you stop it. You hear me? Look around you. There are some wonderfully talented people here tonight, people that you've put to shame with that article. They're worried about the next Brangelina and you're writing about these huge social issues. Hold your head up. They can only wish they had half your talent."
Riley sighed as the words of encouragement deflated her, "I know. You're right! I just hate the way it all went down. It wasn't supposed to happen like that. I was a complete ass."
The blonde rubbed her arm motherly, "I know, but it'll all work out somehow. It'll get better. You'll see."
Al came back from the sign-in table with badges and drink passes, "Here you go, ladies. Ready?"
They found their table near the front of the room. Jack and his current girlfriend, Roxie Roxanne, Riley really couldn't remember for sure, were already seated at the table. Roxie was already pretty inebriated, but Jack didn't seem to mind in the least. Since Riley had come back with a gym membership in tow, Jack had quit the cigars and started working out. That's where he met Roxie Roxanne whatever. She was an aerobics instructor at the gym.
Riley chuckled at her boss as she sipped her wine. The head of the national and regional journalist association came up to speak. A couple of other awards were handed out, including one to Jack for his innovative, socially-conscious stories. Jack was the lead in to Riley's award and when she saw the balding man head up the dais, her hands started to sweat.
She took a deep breath, "I can do this. I can."
When her name was called and the crowd erupted into applause, she slid her chair out and carefully made her way up to the podium. Please God, don't let me trip. Turning, she squinted into the bright lights shining in her eyes. Looking down, her eyes went wide with fear. Shit! The notecards!
She closed her eyes and wished she could teleport herself out of there like they do on Star Trek. When she opened them, she couldn't believe her eyes. Leaning against the wall in the back of the room, in a green dress and heels, her blonde hair pulled up but pieces falling in curls around her face, was Sam. She swore everyone in the room must have left because all she could see was Sam and all she could hear was her own heartbeat thumping steadily faster against her chest.
Sam tilted her head to the side a little and she smirked at the stunned brunette.
For Sam's part, she deliberately had shown up late so she could slip in the back quietly and leave again if it was too hard to be there. When Riley made eye contact with her though, she became permanently rooted to the floor. It was like the world stopped spinning for a moment and the only people there were the two of them. She tilted her head and stared up at the dumbstruck look on Riley's face while she fought back a laugh at catching her off guard.
While Riley tried to gather her wits to speak, Sam took a good look at her. She was thinner and she looked tired, but even then, Sam couldn't help but admit that she was the most astonishingly beautiful woman she'd ever seen. The sides of her hair were pulled up in a simple barrette while the remainder cascaded down around her neck and shoulders in loose curls. Sam flexed her fingers at the immediate need to run her fingers through the dark hair. Riley wore a simple dark suit with a white blouse underneath, unbuttoned far enough to tempt, but not enough to show anything.
Sam sighed and wondered for the first time if coming here was the best idea. It took all her will power not to race to the podium and smother Riley in a kiss.
Riley cleared her throat and shifted the microphone, "Thank you all for this honor tonight. It's amazing to stand here before people I've only heard about or seen on television, and be recognized as a member of this community of professionals. However, this award isn't about me or even Jack's paper. This is about telling the truth, telling it in all of its sometimes ugly and complicated ways. It strikes me as odd that journalism is supposed to be about revealing the truth in our world, even if and especially when, we don't like to hear it, yet here I am tonight being honored for getting a story dishonestly."
She looked up and saw Jack and Al exchange a concerned look, and when she caught Sam's unflinching eyes burning into her, she decided the only way to see this through was to barrel right on through.
"Don't misunderstand me. The story's real, the people are real, the situations are horrifyingly real, but to gain the truth, I lied about me and about who I am and mostly about what I feel. I pushed on with the lies even when I knew the results were going to cause others pain, and that was inexcusable. It certainly wasn't professional, and it was barely human. I told lies and I kept telling lies to get the story, and I hurt someone very important to me, someone I had come to love. I hope she can forgive me because I'm finding it hard to forgive myself."
She smiled up at Sam, her hands shaking with the confession, and Sam matched her look, tears shimmering in her eyes.
"So, this award isn't about me or the paper or even journalism. It's about the truth. It's about facing the truth and all its consequences, being true to yourself and honoring the love you have for others. If that's the case, then this award belongs to every young man and woman, like Phillip Dwyer and Samantha Porter, who dared to tell their truth and faced the consequences. Thank you."
Riley stepped away from the podium, the silence deafening in the large room, until slowly claps started from all over the room, eventually melting into a roaring applause and standing ovation. She stepped down, but instead of going back to her table, she walked to the back of the room.
She smiled at Sam and brushed a tear from her cheek, "I'm tired of making you cry. I need to stop doing that."
"Yeah, you do, but we have a lot of time for you to make it up to me." Sam stepped up to Riley, put her arms around her neck and pulled her down into a deep kiss.
With the last bit of strength she had, Riley lifted a box from the kitchen table and took it into the bedroom.
"It says 'books' where do you want it?" Sam turned and motioned for her to put it in the corner.
"Right there's fine." Riley readjusted her hold on the box and carried it over to the spot Sam indicated. With a sigh, she dropped her burden on the floor.
Sam turned and snickered, "Good thing there was nothing breakable in that."
Riley went to the bed and flopped down to sprawl out on her back, "You're just lucky to have a love slave like me. The things a girl will do for hot sex."
The brunette reached for the hem of Sam's shorts and pulled her to the bed. They fell into a heap on the bed, laughing. Sam untangled herself and sat up, slipping a leg around Riley's waist to straddle her hips. She leaned over and slowly kissed her, letting her tongue come out a little to tease her lips apart. Riley summoned what little energy she had and readily gave in to the persistent kiss. She slipped her hands up Sam's bare thighs, but was stopped when her hands went under the edge of the shorts. Moaning, she broke off the kiss.
"Why did you stop me?"
"We've made love every day since I moved here. Sometimes a slow buildup is worth the wait."
Riley dropped her head back on the bed, "True."
"Besides, we have plenty of time. I'm not going anywhere." Sam looked at her excitedly. "I was going to wait to tell you over dinner tonight, but I, um I have an interview with Kendall College tomorrow."
"The culinary school?" Riley sat up, smiling.
Riley threw her arms around Sam, as much for her happiness in Sam getting the interview as for her not leaving Chicago anytime soon, "That's wonderful! Congratulations!"
Sam laughed at her enthusiasm, "It's just an interview. I still have to be accepted."
"You will be."
Sam got off the bed and headed to the living room, "Glad you have enough confidence for both of us."
"It's not confidence. It's purely selfish. I want you here with me so there's no other option, you see? You have to be accepted." Riley leaned against the bar and looked around at the spartan surroundings. This apartment was far smaller than her condo, but Sam had insisted. It didn't stop her from trying again.
"You know, if you're going to be this big time chef, you need a big ass kitchen to cook in," she motioned at the space next to her that was probably about the size of her closet. "This isn't it. Just move in with me."
Sam came up to her and wrapped her arms around the taller woman's neck, "We talked about this. It's not about how I feel about you. I need this. I've never lived alone and I need my own space for a while."
She reached up and kissed Riley to reassure her, "I know. I know you need this."
"And remember, I only have a six month lease. If I make it that far with you without wanting to kill you, then we'll talk about it then."
Riley accepted it as the end of the conversation. She could live with it for now. "Speaking of killing, have you heard anything about John?"
Sam wrapped her arms tighter around Riley, resting her head against her chest. For a while, Riley didn't even think she was going to answer her. When they got the news that ten other people from the program had come forward with similar charges, Sam cried for hours, blaming herself for never seeing it. After what he had done to her, she felt like she should have known he was capable of something like that, but she just didn't want to believe it.
Finally, Sam broke the silence, "His trial's in two weeks." Then a long silence again, "I have to go back."
Riley leaned back and tilted Sam's chin up to her, "No, you don't. The lawyers said you didn't have to testify against him. They have enough ammo without it."
"I don't care. I have to make this right. I need to see the faces of these people and let them know I'm sorry for the hell we put them through, and I need to put him away. I need to help them do that. It's the right thing to do." Tears were falling down her cheeks, but Sam's voice didn't break. Riley marveled at how strong Sam really was. Anyone else would have broken under the pressure.
"Then you're not doing it alone. I'm going with you."
Sam took a deep breath, accepting the resolute look in Riley's blue eyes, "Alright. Together then."
"Together." Riley sealed her promise with a kiss.
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