DISCLAIMER: Guiding Light and its characters are the property of Proctor & Gamble. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Given that TPTB did indeed manage to take an amazing storyline that they labored over with love and devotion for the past eighteen months and royally screw it up, I decided to write my own version of what I, and some good friends, felt would be a logical storyline in keeping with the overall arc of this relationship, in order to explain Natalia's month long absence. It also embraces the over-riding theme of family and motherhood without resorting to the trite and clichéd, hack-writer scenario of making Natalia pregnant, much less having her leave Olivia without a word or note, a plot that beggars the imagination. This is a story that does deal with the past, with the struggle on the part of both these women to somehow be better parents than their own mothers were. And of how all of us, eventually, have to come to terms with our own pasts. This is set post June 22, but does not include the events of the week of June 29, 2009. This timeline and story veer off forever from this point. Thanks to DiNovia for her advice, her encouragement, and above all, her friendship. It means the world to me. Most sincere and grateful thanks as well to Peanuts for her eagle eye in beta'ing this story. You're the best grammar beta ever! To Tremblingmoon for her input, advice and kindness. And to darandkerry for the support, encouragement and friendship! Love ya, Tex-Ass! Thanks as well to Kelinswriter, who has offered advice and suggestions, and who lets her Liv come out and play with my Bossy one. Cheers!! And a new addition to the Few's Betas team, Senpai20, who has generously offered her extensive knowledge of Chicago to one whose entire store of information about the Windy City comes from sitting in the terminal at O'Hare. Thanks, dear!! In chapter 2 there is also a reference to Olivia's religious upbringing, or lack thereof. Thanks to a wonderful reader, thOu art that, who sent me the link for the specific clip, I have found a concrete reference to Olivia being raised Catholic in a conversation with Jeffrey about the incident described in this story. Thanks so much to thOu_art_that! Hence, I have made an edit to the story to reflect this, and the coming chapter will reflect it as well.
WARNING: Chapter 2 does make a reference to Olivia's past and in particular to an act of violence in her past. I did want to make certain that I made the reader aware of this discussion, due to its sensitive nature.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Sins of the Child
By Fewthistle


Chapter One

Natalia stared blankly at the phone still clutched tightly in her hand, her knuckles white against the black and gray of the plastic. She could hear her heart beating dully in her ears, along with the faint echoes of a voice she hadn't heard in nineteen years. She wasn't even certain the voice was real, wasn't at all sure it hadn't simply been some haunting dream.  A few stray words bounced and clanged against the walls of her mind, like the ricochet of a pinball against rubber bumpers.

"Your mother is sick.....need to come....wants to see you. Please, Natalia. Please..."

It was that last word that dove into her, splitting her heart as neatly as a diver splitting the clear blue of the water. It was quietly pleading, her father's voice, a voice that even now she could hear as it had resounded softly in the half-light of her childhood bedroom, the tale of Pooh and the Honey pot made manifest in the shadows that clamored up the wall toward the broad expanse of ceiling.

"Please, cariño. She's dying..."

The years spun away from her and, looking down, she wouldn't have been surprised to see the rounded curve of her stomach, arching out from her tiny frame to accommodate the burgeoning life now spreading newly formed limbs inside of her. The yellow and brick walls of the living room dissolved in the choking fog of memory and she was standing in the hallway outside her parents apartment, outside of what had been her home for the sixteen years of her life.

Gone were the tasteful prints and the comfort of the solid red brick. All she could see were the stains on the grimy walls from a thousand dirty hand prints, the stale scent of bleach and the lingering traces of urine wafting up from the stairwell; the almost overpowering odor of cooking, of frying meat and spices sending waves of nausea roiling through her like heat rolling off the pavement outside.

At her feet was a single bag that held the sum total of her life: clothes and a few pictures and a Bible. All that she possessed, except for the small life held within her, like some rare creature suspended in amber, one she still couldn't quite convince herself was real. The door had closed on her with a sound that even now reverberated in her bones: the sound of disapproval, of condemnation. The sound of her heart breaking.

It took a few seconds for Natalia to realize that the sound didn't exist in her memory; she heard Olivia's voice call to her from the kitchen, heard the rustle of bags as the older woman carried in the groceries she had asked her to pick up on her way to the farmhouse. Forcing a breath into her lungs, Natalia tried to sweep the memories away, like the dust and dried leaves that collected on the porch; tried to focus on the clean, fresh scent of her home, of the pedestrian sounds of Olivia putting away groceries in the kitchen, the occasional click of wood against wood as she opened and closed cabinets.

"Natalia?" Olivia stood in the doorway, her cheeks flushed a bit from the exertion and warm weather outside. Her head was tilted to the side, eyebrows raised in silent interrogation as she regarded her…her what? 'Friend' was no longer enough but, for now, it would have to do. Expert though she had become in reading Natalia's moods and thoughts, the expression on her face was one Olivia had never seen before and it sent a feeling of dread racing through her bloodstream toward her second-hand heart. "Hey. Natalia? What's wrong?"

Focusing on Olivia's eyes, the green a trifle clouded now as she gazed in concern, Natalia forced her mind to work, forced the words from her lips, her tone not quite as nonchalant and collected as she would have liked, but it was the best she could do.

"Nothing. I'm fine. Nothing's wrong." The slight smile that touched her lips never made it to the rich brown of her eyes and she could see that Olivia wasn't buying either the words or the smile.

"Who was on the phone?" Olivia gestured to the object that Natalia still held gripped tightly in her right hand.

Natalia stared at the phone with a look of surprise, as though she had forgotten she was holding it, forgotten that the one-sided conversation stuck on repeat in her mind had actually happened. Finally she looked up at Olivia, brown eyes meeting hers blankly.

"No one. Why?" Natalia moved suddenly, brushing past Olivia, the scent of the older woman's perfume tickling her nose as she moved by her into the kitchen.

"Gee, I don't know. You seem a little upset?" Olivia replied, just a hint of sarcasm coloring her tone as she dropped down into a heavy wooden chair, her own expression concerned as she watched Natalia begin to pull the same groceries from the shelves that she had just finished putting away. "Who was on the phone? Rafe?"

Despite weeks of waiting for Natalia's son to come to terms with their relationship, the situation had improved little and the conversations between mother and child had a tendency to be stilted and uncomfortable at the best of times. At others, they were explosive and had no doubt left what would be a few permanent scars on both of them. For the life of her, Olivia had yet to figure out what, short of leaving Natalia, would make the situation better. That was something that only Natalia could ask of her, something that Olivia knew would destroy her completely.

"No, it wasn't Rafe," Natalia murmured, her back to Olivia as she fiddled with the plastic tag that held the top of the potato bag closed. She didn't offer any further information and Olivia was just contemplating whether to push any more when Natalia released a ragged gasp.

In a second Olivia was at her side, one hand reaching out to slide across Natalia's body, gently grasping her upper arm and turning her away from the counter, to face her. She expected to see tears in those dark brown eyes, but instead found them flashing with an unanticipated fire. Natalia's face was set in a stony mask that Olivia had had the misfortune of witnessing first-hand several times in the past, an expression of righteous anger stamped on her lovely features.

"Natalia, what's going on? Who the hell was on the phone? What's upset you?" Olivia demanded, her hands slipping down slender arms to wrap themselves around Natalia's. Her eyes were full of concern and love and Natalia felt the grip she had on her emotions loosen at the expression on Olivia's face and the warmth of her fingers entwined with hers.

Taking a few deep breaths against the sudden waves of nausea that bubbled up from the pit of her stomach, Natalia closed her eyes, willing the emotions swirling inside her to calm, but she knew that she would be as successful at that as stretching out her hand in a summer storm and dissipating the dark clouds and torrents of wind-driven rain. Some things in nature just can't be contained.

Like the feelings of anger and long buried pain rising inside her.

"Natalia? Sweetheart, please talk to me," Olivia's voice coaxed her, the tone as soothing as the one she used when Emma was sick.

"It was my father," Natalia breathed finally, the words falling from her lips like some alien tongue, stilted and foreign.

"Your father?!" Natalia almost smiled at the sheer incredulity in Olivia's voice. "The father who threw you out at sixteen for being pregnant?"

Olivia's outraged protectiveness sent a surge of warmth to Natalia's chest. It still amazed her that a single look from the older woman could make her feel so completely and unconditionally loved. There was a fierceness in Olivia's love for her, in the knowledge that she would willingly forfeit both her own happiness and her life for Natalia if need be, that left Natalia with a sense of fearlessness that she had never before imagined, much less felt.

No one had ever loved her like Olivia Spencer and Natalia knew, as surely as she was certain of God's love for her, that no one ever would again.

"Yes. My father." Natalia wished that she could have kept the wounded, bitter tone out of her voice. It had been nearly twenty years. Surely all that anger was spent, all that sorrow washed out of her with the flood of days and weeks and years.

"I'm assuming that this wasn't just to say 'hi' and catch up?" Olivia prodded gently, aware, as she always was, of the tight reins that Natalia held on her feelings, unwilling to push too hard, too fast. She knew that Natalia would tell her, in her own time and on her own terms. She just had to be patient, not a trait at which Olivia had ever excelled.

Natalia sighed deeply, leaning forward to rest her forehead against Olivia's shoulder, feeling the strong, slender arms that immediately, tenderly, wrapped around her waist, drawing her close without demanding her surrender to the offer of comfort. When Olivia held her, there were no problems that couldn't be solved, no obstacles that could not be conquered.

It was when Olivia let her go that all her fears swarmed over her like ants on a melting grape popsicle. The trick was, she decided, not to ever allow Olivia to let her go.

Natalia felt the whisper of lips along her hairline, felt the warmth of Olivia's breath as it ghosted along her cheek. In spite of the feelings of anger and dread left in the wake of the phone call, Natalia couldn't stop the shiver of desire that laced across her skin. It had taken her a long time to recognize it for what it was, the tingling sensation that trickled down her spine like rain water, that ran in swift currents through her blood-stream.

For months and months she had put it down to anger, to irritation, or to simple friendship, to affection, to anything, anything at all but what it was: Longing. Lust. Desire. Need. Want.


Once she had finally named it, finally looked at it clear-eyed and unflinching, she hadn't been able to look away. God knows, there was a time when she had tried, a time when she had walked the earth in self-imposed blindness. A time when she had fled from the love and the heat in Olivia's eyes. Had fled to church. To Frank. She fled to whatever allowed her to feed her willful ignorance, to nurture it, to pray that it would grow large enough, strong enough, to withstand the slender tendril of hope and love that had taken root in her chest. It hadn't, of course. As she stood at Gus' grave, bearing reluctant witness to Olivia's sacrifice, to Olivia's love, it had been reduced to nothing but ash and dust.

Now, she woke each morning with a prayer on her lips, thanking God for this gift and the state of grace that she found in Olivia's eyes.

"Hey. You still here?" Olivia asked gently, her hands making soothing circles across her back and shoulders.

Pulling back enough to tilt her head up, Natalia nodded slowly, a shadow of something Olivia couldn't name darkening her features.

"Do you want to tell me what he said? I'm not going to pressure you, if don't want to talk about it." The considerate tone of Olivia's voice left her blinking back the sudden rush of tears.

Without speaking, Natalia grasped Olivia's hand, leading her into the living room. She dropped heavily onto the sofa, turning instinctively into Olivia's arms as the older woman lowered herself beside her, nuzzling her face into the tender crook of Olivia's neck. Olivia sat silently holding the woman she loved, the only sounds the occasional creak of the foundation expanding in the warming summer sun, and the soft rush of air as Natalia's breath met the supple skin of her throat.

Natalia listened to the steady beat of Olivia's heart under her ear, felt the tickle of the hair on her forehead as Olivia's breath ruffled it. Finally, she spoke, her voice muffled as she ran the bridge of her nose along the smooth line of Olivia's jaw, the movement offering the comfort of a child rubbing circles along the satiny edge of a well-worn blanket.

"My father…he asked around where I used to work in Chicago. They told him I had moved to Springfield. So he had a neighbor's kid get on the internet and find my number," Natalia began, clearly striving for some normalcy in her voice and failing. Olivia recognized the rambling, disjointed cadence the younger woman was prone to when she was upset.

"So, he called to say that my mother is… my mother is sick…very sick. Lung cancer. She never smoked…I guess all those years of working in factories… He said she wants to see me. That the…the priest told her to make her peace with everything. With me."

"Easier said than done," Olivia murmured, her fingers slipping through the thick strands of dark hair, part of her mind marveling, as always, at the feel of heavy silk under her skin.

"What do you mean?" Natalia asked, lifting her head from the safety of Olivia's neck to meet moss green eyes.

"I just mean that being told you're dying doesn't necessarily bring with it a desire to make any kind of peace. At least, it didn't for me. Anyway, the question is, do you want to make peace with her?" Olivia responded quietly, her head tilting to the side in inquiry.

Images of Olivia before her heart transplant scrolled across Natalia's vision: Angry. Bitter. Decidedly not at peace with anything or anyone. Least of all her. Had it only been last year? She found that she felt as she had in the days following her aborted wedding: distracted, overwhelmed, disjointed.

"Natalia? Do you?" Olivia prodded gently, noting from the look on the younger woman's face that she had once again lost her focus.

"Do I what? Want to make peace with her? I…I don't know," Natalia almost whispered.

"What does your heart tell you?" Olivia covered the hand lying against her sternum with her own, feeling the warmth of it through the thin cotton of her shirt.

"I'm not sure. I know…I know what the church tells me. That I should forgive. Especially my mother…but—part of me—part of me doesn't want that. Part of me doesn't want to forgive her," Natalia began, her voice growing firmer and less punctuated by pauses as she spoke. "I'm her child. Her child. And at the moment I needed her the most, she—she threw me out in the streets. She threw her grandchild out in the streets. Because she said I'd sinned. That I'd disgraced her. Disgraced my family."

Olivia didn't respond, her jaw clenching as she tried to keep her own angry vitriol at Natalia's parents at bay. The woman trembling with emotion in her arms didn't need Olivia's righteous indignation. Just her understanding and her love.

"How am I supposed to forgive that?" Natalia's voice sounded so small that Olivia felt like a hand was clenching around her throat, making it hard for her to breathe. "Just because she's dying, now I'm supposed to forget how scared I was? Forget how it felt to be abandoned by the people who were supposed to love me the most?"

Natalia moved back in Olivia's arms, forcing air into lungs that seemed too taut, too tight for more than a single shuddering gasp.

"I can't imagine a single thing that Rafe could ever say or do that would make me stop loving him. Ever stop being there for him. Nothing. Could you? Could you imagine anything that would make you abandon Ava or Emma?" Natalia's voice held all the incredulity, all the pain and anger of nearly twenty years of unanswered questions.

"No, I can't," Olivia answered the semi-rhetorical question, her hand coming up to cup Natalia's cheek, her thumb moving in slow, soothing arcs along her cheekbone. "But we aren't talking about me. Or even about you. And we both know that people sometimes do terrible things in the name of principles or religion. And before you say it, I know that your faith is about love. The thing is sweetheart, for some people it's about everything but love."

Something in the tone of Olivia's voice caused Natalia's stare to sharpen, searching Olivia's features for some hint of what the change in her inflection meant, but a shutter had fallen over Olivia's eyes, one Natalia recognized. The one that always fell when emotions strayed too close to the surface, like doors sliding shut with a resounding clang to keep prisoners inside.

Before she could ask, before she could attempt to divine the meaning behind Olivia's demeanor, the older woman spoke again.

"Do you want to call Father Ray?" As Olivia finished speaking, Natalia knew what those particular words had cost the older woman.

Natalia's religion, her church and its commandments, had been one of the things that had kept them apart, an awkward presence always between them, its expression disapproving, condemning. And for months, Natalia had struggled with the knowledge that nothing she did or said would ever change that, ever alter the heavy-lidded look of censure on Father Ray's darkened countenance. Her admission to him of her love for Olivia, her adamant defense of her feelings and her unwillingness to agree with his assessment that what was happening between her and Olivia was a sin had driven a wedge a mile wide between her and her priest. Between her and her church.

But not between her and God. Of that she was certain.

Still, she knew how Olivia felt about the church and about Father Ray's condemnation and she marveled again, as she had so many times over the past six months, at the flexibility of Olivia's heart.

"No. I know what Father Ray would say. Besides, he'd find a way to blame my relationship with my mother on my choices, and eventually he'd manage to bring you and me into the conversation and I'm just not up for that," Natalia said quietly, giving the hand in hers a squeeze of gratitude. "Honestly, the only person whose opinion matters to me is you. What do you think I should do?"

Olivia didn't answer, her eyes slipping shut for an instant, her lips opening and closing several times, with no sound issuing forth.


"Natalia, I can't tell you what to do," Olivia said finally.

"I'm not asking you to tell me what to do, Olivia. I just want to know what you think," Natalia explained, her thumb ghosting over the knuckles of Olivia's hand. "I love you. I need your advice, okay?"

Natalia watched as Olivia hesitated, uncertain what was going on inside that beautiful head. Olivia was not prone to shyness or generally reluctant to give her opinion. In fact, it was one of her favorite pastimes. So her unwillingness to do so now left a puzzled frown marring the line between Natalia's brows.

"Hey. Why won't you tell me what you think? Olivia? Talk to me," Natalia urged, tilting her head down to look up into Olivia's downcast face.

With a sigh that seemed to rise up from the bottoms of her feet, Olivia answered her.

"Mainly because I don't think that you're going to like my advice. And also, because I don't ever want you to feel that I'm pressuring you to do something or believe something," Olivia told her, her voice tired and strained.

"Olivia, after all that we've been through, I know that you would never pressure me about anything. Why do you think I'm not going to like your advice?" Natalia asked, the frown deepening as she stared into Olivia's shuttered eyes.

"Because I think you should go. I think you should go and see your mother," Olivia breathed, her expression regretful.

Natalia slowly moved her head from side to side, unable to fully process Olivia's words. She had expected the other woman to be angry on her behalf, to offer her words of justification for her own pain and support her recalcitrance to see the woman who had abandoned her all those years ago. Not this. Not this subdued response, not the quiet voice and the pained look in those green eyes.

"Why…why do you think I should go? I mean…I thought you'd be the first to say to hell with them. Why…you don't believe in turning the other cheek, remember?" Natalia couldn't keep the querulous tone out of her voice, her last words a pointed reminder of Olivia's own words to her back in February.

"I know I don't. And that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm just saying that you should think about going. Not to forgive her or help her clear her conscience. For you," Olivia tried to explain, dozens of thoughts and emotions flitting across her eyes, too many for Natalia to even attempt to catalogue or understand.

"For me?"

"Yeah. For you. This may be the one and only chance you have to tell your mother all the things that you never had the chance to say. All the things that have been stockpiling inside you all these years. This is your chance to get rid of some them. To toss away some of the baggage and I think you should take it," Olivia explained patiently, her demeanor shifting as she seemed to take control of her emotions.

Anyone else would have simply accepted Olivia's statement at face value, would have never looked beyond the small, jagged piece of ice protruding from the choppy surface of the ocean to see the massive iceberg that seemed to displace half the volume of the sea.

Natalia wasn't anyone else.

She knew Olivia Spencer on a fundamental level that still amazed them both. In often savage words hurled across a hotel suite, in unguarded, weighted glances, in moments of candor and clarity and sometimes cruelty, in a thousand small gestures: in the gentle brush of fingers, the warm tangle of hands, and the strength of a hundred embraces, moments of comfort and of love, she had learned the secrets of Olivia Spencer.

Like an archaeologist sifting through layers of sand, through strata upon strata of a past littered with loss and pain and anger, she had found a treasure that shamed the wonders of Tutankhamen.

So she called her on it. Called her on her deceptively neutral tone and her even more deceptively innocuous advice. Because Olivia Spencer didn't do innocuous. She also didn't do forgiving, except where she and Ava and Emma were concerned. And she most certainly didn't blandly urge forgiveness of anyone who had hurt someone she loved.

"Olivia, what's going on?" Natalia asked firmly, shifting a little on the couch so that she was angled sideways, her knee pressing into Olivia's thigh, the weight of the touch anchoring her.

"What do you mean? I told you that you weren't going to like my advice," Olivia answered, her face registering surprise and confusion in an innocent mixture that might have fooled anyone else.

Again, fortunately or unfortunately, Natalia wasn't anyone else.

"There's something else going on here, something you aren't telling me," Natalia prodded, the subtle shift of color in Olivia's eyes lending credence to her growing certainty that there was more to Olivia's words and behavior than she let on.

"Natalia, there's nothing else going on. I'm just trying to be here for you. This is part of the reason why I didn't want to say anything. You're upset and confused and you're focusing on me instead of what you should do about your mother," Olivia explained gingerly, her hand coming to rest on the knee pressing into her leg.

"No, actually, I'm not. You're trying to change the subject and make me think I'm just distracting myself and I'm not. I know you, Olivia. When it comes to the people you love being hurt, you don't forgive. You…you're much more Old Testament than New Testament. Revenge and retribution," Natalia pronounced clearly, covering Olivia's hand with her own, lacing their fingers together.

"So, are you going to tell me what's really going on in that gorgeous head of yours or do I have to bring out the big guns?" Natalia teased, knowing that pushing Olivia generally had the undesired affect of shoring up the holes in her formidable defenses, but she was unable to ignore the shadow of something that she could see along the periphery of those sea-green eyes.

With a sigh, those eyes slid shut. Olivia rose abruptly from her place on the couch, a few steps bringing her to the fireplace where she leaned her head against the deep red brick, her arms crossed tightly in front of her. Natalia waited, knowing that she had pushed the older woman as far as she could go.

"Look, Natalia. I just don't want to see you do something that you'll end up regretting. That's all. This may be your last chance to see your mother and talk to her and I think if you don't take advantage of that, you'll wind up wishing you had," Olivia said, turning to face her, her voice heavy, although what the emotion was that weighed it down, Natalia wasn't sure.

"That's true. I might. It's not that I don't agree with what you're saying, Olivia, because part of me does. It's just not anything I expected to hear coming out of your mouth," Natalia explained, the slight smile on her face gentle.

"Why? Because I can't do reasonable? Because I'm so full of rage that all I can do is rant and rave and plot some horrible revenge?" Olivia exploded suddenly, her voice echoing harshly in the room, her face hardening to a mask that Natalia hadn't seen in a long time. One she could have honestly lived with never seeing again. "Is that what you think of me, Natalia? Is it?"

"No. No, of course it isn't," Natalia rushed to reassure, rising quickly to her feet to cross to Olivia's side, her hand reaching out to touch an arm that was just as quickly pulled away as Olivia strode to the other side of the room, placing her body behind the armchair as if she were a soldier seeking a walled barricade. "Olivia. You know I don't think that. Please, Olivia. It's…something's obviously bothering you. Please, honey, talk to me."

"This isn't about me. This is about you. It's your mother that's dying. It's your decision we're talking about, not mine, so let's just stick to the topic at hand, okay?" Olivia managed to rein in whatever force was driving her, her voice returning to a semblance of its normally calm, logical tone.

Time for another tactic, Natalia thought, convinced more than ever that something in this whole muddled situation had set off, at the very least, a small landmine in Olivia's emotional landscape. The anxiety and hurt and anger about her mother had been swept aside completely in her concern for the extraordinarily loving, extremely damaged woman who now stood, pinching the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger, an expression of pain clouding her beautiful face.

"When you said that I'd end up regretting it if I passed up the chance to talk to my mother one last time, you weren't really talking about me, were you?" The question was posed in a voice so gentle that Olivia felt the tears she had been damming up behind closed lids overflow, seeping out to run in silent rivulets over perfect cheekbones.

"Please…I can't do this, okay? Can we just talk about what you should do?" Olivia whispered back, her head falling forward so that now darkened locks fell across her face, blocking Natalia's view, although she didn't need to see the tears. She could hear them in that voice she knew as well as her own.

"Will you come sit back down with me?" Natalia asked, seating herself once again on the couch, directly in the center of the cushions so that Olivia would have no choice but to sit close to her. "Olivia?"

She heard a petulantly muttered, "fine" and watched as Olivia crossed the few feet to sit stiffly on the very edge of the sofa, feet firmly planted, as if ready for a hasty, preemptive flight.

"Hey," Natalia said, one hand snaking out to snag Olivia's chin, forcing her to turn and meet her gaze. "Do you love me?"

A frown immediately took up residence between Olivia's brows.

"You know I do," she breathed, the truth of her words stamped indelibly on those moss green eyes.

"Then why won't you talk to me? Being in love means communicating, talking, sharing. Not keeping secrets," Natalia told her tenderly, her thumb rubbing gently along the smooth skin of Olivia's cheek.

"That's not fair," Olivia began plaintively, only to be silenced by the feel of Natalia's fingers across the curve of her lips.

"All's fair in love and pool, remember?" Natalia smiled, sliding closer until she could rest her forehead against Olivia's. "There's something that's upsetting you, Olivia. And since I love you, that makes it my business. So please, just talk to me, alright?"

For a moment, as the shutters on Olivia's eyes fell, Natalia was convinced she had gone too far. She could have sworn she heard the clanging sound of heavy wood and metal and her heart dropped as well. She was about to withdraw and gather up her own slightly battered defenses when she felt the body next to her sag suddenly, like a punctured balloon, the air seeping out silently and quickly.


Chapter Two

"Olivia, please talk to me," Natalia implored, tracing along the back of Olivia's hand with her index finger,  a vague memory of childhood causing her to write invisible letters against the smooth skin. I-l-o-v-e-y-o-u traced again and again in a repeated, tactile mantra.

Olivia watched in distracted fascination as the slow, repetitive movement of Natalia's finger manifested itself into patterns;  revealed itself from patterns into letters;  wove itself from letters into words. A slow, incredulous smile touched the corners of her lips as her lover's  intricate Morse code was broken. Glancing up, she met the deep, rich brown of Natalia's eyes, the love and concern in them soothing the sudden sting of very old scars.

"I've never told you about my mother, have I?" Olivia asked quietly what they both knew was a rhetorical question. Olivia had shared little about her past. The odd tid-bit here and there, often forced by a situation or someone else's comments, but nothing meaningful and certainly nothing willingly.

Natalia simply shook her head, her eyes never leaving Olivia's face, her other hand gently joining its mate, enclosing Olivia's between her own.

"I guess I just didn't see the point. I mean, it was so long ago, and part of me just didn't want to tell you about all the horrible things I've done in my life. Because if you knew, if you knew what I had done, who I was, then there is no way in hell you could love me," Olivia admitted softly.

Natalia forced herself to breath normally despite the tightening sensation that spread across her chest, like a vice being turned, as the weight of Olivia's words settled on her. There had been times over the past year and a half that Natalia had desperately wanted to immerse herself in the mystery that was Olivia Spencer; wanted to brush away the cobwebs from doors inside her closed so long ago. Wanted to gather up all the stray shards and fragments of Olivia's heart and try to piece it back together, but they had both always known that wasn't possible, anymore than Olivia could reach a slender hand into her past and make right all the things that had gone so horribly wrong.

Still, seeing the pain in those green eyes, Natalia had to steady herself, the rush of righteous, impotent anger at the people and events that brought that glisten of tears to Olivia's eyes threatening to overwhelm her. As it had so many times in the past five months, the intensity of her love for the older woman all but brought her to her emotional knees.

"Olivia, you aren't that woman anymore. We both know that. Whoever that Olivia Spencer was, she died on that transplant table. And no, I don't mean that Gus's heart changed you or that you've become who you are now because of it or him. I mean that almost dying and being given a second chance allowed you to shed all that, all those things you did, that person you used to be. You know, it's kinda like Emma's Etch-a-sketch," Natalia explained gently, her fingers entangled with Olivia's, squeezing tightly in a counter-point rhythm to her words. "You keep turning the dial and you draw this intricate pattern, and sometimes, it isn't the picture you thought you wanted, and so you shake it until it disappears and then you start over."

Olivia chuckled softly, a slightly bitter edge to it, like burnt coffee.

"That's a really nice theory, Natalia, but people aren't that simple. And you know, even when you erase the picture, you can still see the faint traces of the lines. Nothing ever goes away completely," Olivia retorted with a sad smile.

"No, you're right, it doesn't. But you know, all those things, all those lines, are what made you the woman I love, and as much as I know that some of them still cause you pain, I wouldn't wish any of them away because they brought you to me," Natalia replied, the sincerity in her voice and her eyes wrapping around Olivia like the warmth of a wool cloak on a cold winter's night. "Now, why don't you come here and tell me about your mother, okay?"

Natalia leaned back against the firm cushions of the couch, Olivia's hands still held gently in her grasp. She tugged lightly, willing Olivia to follow, letting out a sigh of relief as the older woman allowed herself to be drawn, sliding back on the sofa until she could turn, her body instinctively seeking the solace she only found in Natalia's arms. Natalia wrapped those arms around her, swiveling a little so that she could lean back on the far end of the couch, Olivia's upper body resting against her own, a mirror image of the position they had been in earlier. Now comforter had become comforted.

Natalia waited, knowing not to press. Olivia would speak when she was ready.

"I've never told anyone about this. Well, except for Buzz, a long time ago. And Ava knows parts of it, because she has a right to know, but no one else. Even Sam and Marissa didn't know the whole story. They were too young and there didn't seem to be a point in making it any harder on them. Besides, I just couldn't bear to see the look in their eyes if they knew," Olivia began, the sound of her voice muffled a bit from her position beneath Natalia's chin.

"What story, Olivia?" Natalia prodded gently, more to acknowledge the trust she knew was being placed in her than to urge the other woman to continue. She knew that once Olivia had decided to tell her, she would not back down, no matter how painful it became.

"I killed my mother," Olivia said finally, her voice so plaintive, so full of buried sorrow that Natalia felt tears well instantly, her throat tightening convulsively.

"What happened?" Natalia asked tenderly, willing the tremors of emotion in her voice to subside.

"It's kind of a long story," Olivia admitted, the hand that was splayed across Natalia's stomach clenching slightly, the tips of her fingers pressing into the soft fabric of her shirt and the even softer skin beneath it.

"I'm not going anywhere," Natalia assured, rubbing her cheek rhythmically against the dark head nestled on her chest.

"When I was sixteen, my mother had a stroke. We were arguing. We argued a lot. All the time. But this was different. It was so much worse. I accused her of trying to ruin my life, of trying to keep me from having anything more than what we had," Olivia began slowly, her sentences short and fractured, as if the effort to form them was almost more than she could manage.

"I remember sixteen. Sixteen year old girls and their mothers fight, Olivia. Always," Natalia ruminated, a trace of melancholy coloring her tone.

"Yeah, well this was the worst fight we ever had. And the last. One minute I was yelling at her and the next, she was slumped over in a chair. I tried to wake her up, tried to get her to answer me, but she didn't. She died a few days later," Olivia's voice had become hollow, echoing with the pain of a teenaged girl in an unbearable situation.

Natalia brought her left hand up, stroking tenderly along the silken length of Olivia's hair, her other hand covering the one still resting on her stomach, willing the warmth of her flesh and of her love to seep in somehow, chasing away the chill in Olivia's skin and in her soul.

"Olivia, you didn't kill her. You know that, in your head. It's just in your heart that things are confused," Natalia whispered, bending her head to place a soft, lingering kiss along Olivia's hairline.

Natalia could feel the deep, shuddering gasp as Olivia drew in a breath, the air seeming to ratchet down her throat and through her lungs like tires on a washboard road.

"The last words I said to her, the last thing that my mother ever heard me say to her was 'I hate you'." The voice could have been Emma's, it was so small, so forlorn and intolerably sad.

There was nothing that Natalia could say to ever make this better, she knew that. It didn't stop her from trying.

"Oh, sweetheart," she murmured, tightening her grip on Olivia, pulling that supple body closer to her. "Your mother knew you loved her. She knew you were just a kid, just a rebellious teenager, and that you didn't mean all the things you said. Moms know that. You know it. You know that no matter what Emma says to you in seven or eight years that she's still your little girl and she still loves you.

"Look at Rafe. He said some pretty awful things to me, but despite that, I know in my heart that he loves me. He's just young and confused and trying to make sense of the world. Just like you were." Natalia posited, her voice firm and confident, determined to make Olivia believe her. "What were you fighting about?"

As the words left her lips, Natalia felt Olivia's entire body tense, felt the muscles under her hand grow taut as a bow, heard the sharp intake of breath. Both of them were still for a long moment and then suddenly, Olivia was in motion, pushing herself back from Natalia's arms, her expression one that Natalia, expert though she was in the mercurial moods of Olivia Spencer, was unable to decipher.

"Hey, we're supposed to be talking about you, about what you should do about your mom, not rehashing my old history," Olivia reminded her, the attempt at a breezier tone failing miserably.

"Olivia, don't even try it," Natalia instructed firmly. "You're not going to swing this back around to me. Please, talk to me? I love you, Olivia. I want to spend my life with you. Don't you think you can trust me?"

Natalia watched as Olivia tilted her head to the side, lips pursing, eyes narrowing. This was a look she knew. She had seen it so many times over the past year and a half. It was contemplative and assessing and heartbreakingly vulnerable. Olivia had worn it each time she had come close to telling Natalia she loved her. The look of an animal, kicked and beaten too many times to count, who finds itself presented with affection and kindness and can't decide if the sting of another boot is worth what's being offered.

All Natalia could do was meet that gaze and silently will Olivia to find what she was searching for in her face. Because, as much as she knew Olivia loved her, as strong as that love was, a love that glowed from those green eyes with the light of the full moon on a starless night, she also knew that a lifetime of being disappointed, of being abandoned, of being cast aside had left Olivia wary and tentative, even with her.

"You're sure you want to hear this? 'Cause it isn't a very nice story, although the end is a hell of a lot better than I ever thought it would be," Olivia asked, as always, her attempt at humor barely covering the tread of pain in her voice.

"I'm sure. I want to hear all your stories, Olivia. Even the ones that don't have happy endings," Natalia stated resolutely, her eyes never leaving Olivia's face. "I want to know everything about you, good, bad and in-between. Although, with you, I doubt that there's much in-between."

"I am a woman of extremes, I'll grant you that," Olivia almost smiled, the corners of those impossibly full lips turning up slightly at Natalia's words.

"Yes, you are. It's one of the things I love about you," Natalia smiled back, reaching out to slip her hand into the older woman's, again trying to draw her closer.

This time, Olivia didn't allow herself to be enveloped in the safety of Natalia's arms. Not for this story.

Rising abruptly from the couch, Olivia paced across the room, coming to a stop by the large window that looked out on the front lawn. The meadow was a wide swath of green, stretching out to the edge of the tree-line, the grass lush and verdant in the late afternoon sun. Olivia rested her hands on the cool, smooth wood of the windowsill, intensely aware of the woman still seated on the couch, waiting patiently for her to speak. Natalia didn't press, but Olivia could sense her growing concern as the minutes passed.

"I told you once that I was poor, right? I was sitting here in this room. That night you pulled a rabbit out of a hat and made that fabulous dinner for Decker and the Xiaos. Remember?" Olivia began, her tone almost conversational, although Natalia could hear the undertones, see the muscles in Olivia's jaw flex in a jumpy staccato.

"I remember," Natalia responded, knowing that, despite the rhetorical nature of the question, Olivia needed the reassurance of her voice.

"Growing up on an island, there are not a lot of options, you know? But I was determined that I was going to have something more, that I was going to be wealthy and successful," Olivia said slowly, her eyes taking on a clouded glaze as she looked reluctantly into her past. "My mother didn't approve of my plans. She kept telling me that the rich people I wanted to know weren't like us, that I would end up getting hurt. That I was being vain and foolish."

"She was just trying to protect you because she loved you," Natalia offered, not certain how her words would be received, but loathe to lose her tenuous connection to Olivia at this moment.

"I know. At least, I know that now. Back then, I just thought she was being a bitch, that she didn't want me to have anything that she hadn't. I was always really close to my father, and I thought that my mother resented that, that she didn't like me very much. When my dad died, there didn't seem to be any way for my mother and me to repair our relationship or start over. So we just kept getting farther apart."

Natalia wished that Olivia would return to the couch, the need to offer physical comfort nearly overwhelming. But some part of her knew that the only way Olivia could do this was from a distance, by removing herself emotionally and physically from her, painful though that was.

"So, I made up my mind that I was going to do something. I had heard about this party at the Embassy and I was determined that I was going, come Hell or high water or Rebecca Spencer. Of course my mother forbade me to go, told me I wasn't leaving that house. So, I snuck out," Olivia recounted, her voice becoming eerily calm, an expression settling in those green eyes that sent a chill down Natalia's spine.

"When I got there I had to talk my way in, because I didn't have an invitation. I told the guy at the door that I was meeting someone. He let me stay for a little while, but he was just about to throw me out when I starting talking to one of the guests. I had noticed him watching me, and so I asked him to get them to let me stay. He did, and we danced and I started drinking. A lot. Imagine that, huh?" The blank mask that had fallen on Olivia's features and the dry, casual recounting of the night dropped like a lead weight in Natalia's stomach.

"We drank some more. Danced some more. I started to feel sick, dizzy. I just wanted to lie down for a few minutes. I asked the guy I had been dancing with to help me find somewhere to rest. He lead me to a bedroom there in the Embassy," Olivia said, her voice a dull monotone.

"Olivia?" Natalia knew there must be an expression of trepidation and dawning horror on her face, but she could do nothing to school it at this point.

"When I woke up, I knew what had happened. Some man bundled me out of the Embassy, told me to forget what I thought happened and go home," Olivia told her, her lips pursed to a thin line, her head shaking slowly back and forth as if to rid herself of the memory. "I wasn't going to do anything else about it until I realized I was pregnant. I went back and demanded to know the guy's name, but they just offered me money and sent me on my way. I didn't take it."

"Pregnant? Olivia? With Ava?" Natalia asked, trying to wrap her thoughts around the words that still seemed to hang in the languid afternoon air of the farmhouse.

Olivia simply nodded, watching as all the rest of the pieces fell into place in Natalia's mind. Watching the horror and dismay change into shock and dismay. And then as all of it morphed into white hot anger.

"Olivia, I thought Jeffrey was Ava's father," Natalia said tightly, rising from the couch to cross to Olivia's side, stopping just short of touching her, her eyes dark and intense as she met Olivia's gaze.

"He is."

"Then Jeffrey? Jeffrey raped you?" Natalia knew her voice had risen in volume. She could feel the sharp dig of her nails as she pressed her fingers into her palms.

"I didn't know it was Jeffrey until years later, after he came to Springfield, after I found out that Ava was my daughter. And I nearly destroyed him for it. He tried to explain to me, to apologize, when we both went back to San Cristobel, but I wasn't in the mood to listen," Olivia explained, an odd surge of warmth creeping across her chest at Natalia's anger on her behalf.

"But Olivia, you married Jeffrey last year," Natalia breathed incredulously. "How could you do that? After what he did to you?"

"I was dying. I had already forgiven him by then. I knew that he wasn't the same person any more than I was. Than I am now," Olivia answered not meeting Natalia's eyes.

For a long moment, neither woman spoke, both caught up in the implications of what had been shared.

"Does Ava know all this?" Natalia asked finally, reaching out a hand to grasp Olivia's arm with slight trepidation, not certain of her response.

"Most of it. I've never told her about my mother," Olivia managed to say, her voice thick with emotion. "That's what my mother and I were fighting about. The pregnancy. I wanted an abortion but she refused to allow it. She was a very religious woman, my mother. Bad enough I had gone and gotten myself knocked up, but getting rid of the baby? She wasn't going to stand for that."

"Oh, Olivia. Honey, I am so sorry," Natalia said gently, unsurprised when Olivia turned away from her, slipping her arm from beneath Natalia's hand. "I guess that explains your reaction to the crucifix and the Virgin statue. Was your mother…I mean, were you raised Catholic?"

"Yes. I was supposed to be a good Catholic girl. You can see how well I did at that," Olivia answered shortly. "So. That's my ancient tale of woe."

"Olivia, don't joke," Natalia admonished tenderly, still trying to process the wave of hatred and anger that had swept over her. Jeffrey had been in her house, had sat at her kitchen table, had played pool with them. And he had raped a sixteen year old girl. A girl who had grown into the woman standing before her, beautiful and loving and so very damaged.

As a student, Natalia had never liked math, algebra in particular. All those variables, all those combinations of x and y and z. It wasn't until tenth grade that she learned to appreciate it, learned to see the simple beauty of form as she finally grasped the formula, watching as each separate piece, each number slid into place. She felt that same moment of epiphany now as she met Olivia's eyes, the green darkened with such an amalgam of feelings that Natalia knew she could never name them all.

This was what had made Olivia Spencer, had shaped her with the same deft hand as a potter at a wheel, fingers molding clay, the fire of the kiln hardening it, sealing it. All the men, all the drinking, all the lust for power and wealth. All brought forth in terrible glory in that one defining moment. Jeffrey hadn't merely stolen her youth and her innocence that night. He had set her on the wheel and then left her. Olivia might have forgiven him for it, but in that moment, Natalia was quite certain that she never would.


Chapter Three

The soft drone of the advancing summer twilight settled into the room as Natalia struggled to sort through the avalanche of thoughts that threatened to short circuit her brain. Olivia's revelations had left her reeling. She had always known that there was a great deal that she didn't know about the woman she loved, secrets that Olivia had hidden away, a child stuffing a broken toy into a dark corner of a closet in hopes that it won't be found out.

"I love you," Natalia said firmly, her words like a drunk through a plate glass window: graceless and without direction, but effective nonetheless in crashing through the wall that she could see Olivia rapidly shoring up. She could see the nascent spark of hope gleam for an instant in Olivia's eyes before the shutters fell again.

Natalia moved slowly toward Olivia, hand outstretched as she would to a frightened animal, all too aware of Olivia's propensity to either flee or shut down when emotions threatened to overwhelm her. Her fingers wrapped gently around Olivia's wrist, slipping tentatively down to tangle with hers, and Natalia felt the surge of connection as the circuit between them closed once again.

Olivia's head tilted to the side, eyes searching Natalia's face, although what she was seeking was unclear. Natalia Rivera had, over the past year and a half of intensive study, acquired the equivalent of a PhD., not in an academic subject but in Olivia Spencer. She could practically hear the thoughts whirring at warp speed through Olivia's mind: all the questions, the insecurities, the pain, the anger, the doubt, the fear, all creating a vortex that threatened to pull Olivia away from her.

She had to say something before that door was irrevocably shut.

"I love you," she repeated, tightening her fingers in emphasis. Her jaw muscles clenched as she forced the words out. "I…I…my God, Olivia, Jeffrey raped you. He's been in this house, been welcomed into this house, sat at our kitchen table. You married him, even if it was in name only. You…you forgave him. How? How could you forgive him?"

"Isn't that what your precious church teaches, Natalia? Forgiveness?" Olivia asked accusingly, a harsh edge to her tone. "Who knows, maybe I'm a better Catholic girl than I thought. Hell, I've managed to outdo the Saint of Springfield in the forgiveness department."

"Olivia," Natalia began, only to be brought up short as Olivia's voice cut through the space between them.

"Aren't you the one who's always preaching to me about turning the other cheek? Well, I did. I didn't want to die alone. The same reason I went after Gus. Not pretty, but there it is," Olivia answered angrily, although Natalia knew that the anger wasn't really directed at her.

"Olivia, stop," Natalia began again, more forcefully this time, but again her words were drowned out by the sound of Olivia tightening her armor, the clank of metal as she dropped the blank face guard echoing in Natalia's mind.

"If you actually think that's the worst thing I've ever done, you are in for a sad surprise," Olivia stated bitterly. "I suppose I should have paid more attention in church, but then, I was more interested in the guys than in God. Still, I did get that whole "forgive thy neighbor, Golden Rule" thing, at least this once, didn't I?"

"Olivia. Stop. Just stop. That isn't what we're talking about right now. This isn't about religion or faith. It isn't about Gus or me. It's about you." Natalia said firmly, reaching out to grip Olivia's other hand, anchoring them together in the tenuousness of the moment. "And I know that you're hurt and worried and angry right now, but I just found out that a man I welcomed into my home committed a horrible act against the woman I love more than anything in the world, and it's going to take me a little while to process that, okay? So, stop trying to push me away. Please?"

Olivia visibly swallowed, her lips thinning as she breathed deliberately through her nose, willing down the sudden wave of anxiety that washed over her. Slowly she nodded at Natalia, the tension in her shoulders easing minutely as Natalia continued to meet her gaze, those dark eyes shining with love and understanding and a few unshed tears.

"I'm sorry," Olivia murmured finally, her head dropping as she stared at the pattern in the rug. "I didn't mean any of that."

Natalia moved closer, bringing Olivia's body against hers, sliding her hands along Olivia's arms, grasping them gently. She slipped her fingers under Olivia's chin, tilting her face up until she could see those green eyes, now dark and clouded with emotion.

"I know you didn't. I know how upset you are. How scared you were to tell me that. How painful it must have been to say it after all these years. I get that," Natalia explained patiently, her voice low and comforting. "But I need you to stay with me. I need you to talk to me about this. I need you to understand how angry I am. Because to be honest, Olivia, right now I would like nothing better than to kill Jeffrey O'Neill for what he did to you."

"Why? God, Natalia, it was so long ago. We were both different people," Olivia questioned, her expression a combination of bewilderment and astonishment.

"How can you ask that? He hurt you, Olivia. You were sixteen and he took so much away from you. I know it was over twenty years ago, but it isn't to me. To me, it could have been yesterday. I love you, Olivia. The thought of anyone hurting you…," Natalia's voice trailed off, dark eyes blazing fiercely as another wave of intense anger and protectiveness rolled over her.

A single tear escaped the corner of Olivia's eye and rolled down over the perfect curve of her cheekbone. Natalia caught it on the edge of her thumb and without thinking, brought it to her mouth, her lips closing over it, the taste of the salt lingering on her tongue.

Olivia watched the tip of Natalia's thumb disappear between her lips, watched as Natalia took a small piece of her sorrow and absorbed it into herself, just as she always had, willingly carrying Olivia's burdens as her own. The love inherent in the gesture cracked open the dam inside the older woman, sending teardrop after teardrop tracing paths down the smooth skin of her cheeks.

Natalia didn't speak, simply drawing Olivia tightly against her, her hand finding its way to the nape of Olivia's neck, drawing that dark head down to her shoulder, feeling the dam give way completely as Olivia's arms wrapped fiercely around her. Olivia turned her face into the sloping curve of Natalia's throat, the satiny skin quickly growing damp as the tears flowed unchecked.

Finally, after long minutes of standing, cradling the woman she loved against her, Natalia felt Olivia drag in a deep breath, the sound stuttered and staggered. Drawing back a little, Olivia raised her head, her eyes a brilliant emerald against slightly reddened lids. Natalia's hand still rested gently on the back of Olivia's neck and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to pull that lovely face down to hers and tenderly cover those full lips with her own.

God, so warm. So soft. So sweet, Olivia thought, as the lips she had dreamt of for months ghosted gently across her own, dipping into the corners of her mouth, gliding ever so sensuously along her bottom lip.

"I know that probably wasn't the kiss that both of us have been dreaming about, but I needed to do that. I needed to kiss you," Natalia whispered softly against Olivia's lips, her breath caressing suddenly warm skin. "I need for you to know how much I love you, Olivia."

"Sometimes I'm a slow learner," Olivia murmured, her eyes still closed, her voice low and husky. "Maybe you should do that again, just in case."

Natalia felt a chuckle rising up inside her, like water bubbling out of a fountain. Given the intensity of the conversation, it was amazing that Olivia had managed to go this long without falling back on humor. Smiling against Olivia's lips, Natalia kissed her again. This time was even nicer as she felt the returned pressure of impossibly soft lips and heard the small sound of surrender at the back of Olivia's throat.

Pulling back, Natalia couldn't stop the dimpled smile that lit her face as she met Olivia's eyes. "You know it's even better when you help," she laughed.

"Yeah, I kinda got that," Olivia grinned, green eyes soft and glowing in the darkening room.

"Do you think that we could sit down? I feel like we've been standing here for days," Natalia asked distractedly, still caught in the depths of Olivia's eyes.

Chuckling softly, Olivia pulled her gently to the couch. All the feelings of insecurity, of self-loathing, of fear had drifted away for now, like chimney smoke disappearing into a cold winter sky. She knew that they would return soon. They always did, seeping into the cracks in her rather battered psyche, insidious and stealthy, clouding her vision at her most vulnerable moments, causing her to lash out blindly, the need to protect herself the most basic of instincts, one that had left her alone more times than she cared to remember.

But not tonight. Not now. Never with Natalia. Natalia, who carefully, gingerly sidestepped all her verbal volleys, who absorbed all her insults, all the words she wielded as weapons. Natalia, who simply waited for the worst of Olivia's storms to pass and then wrapped her in her arms.

Just as she was right now.

Natalia's fingers stroked lightly through the downy hair at Olivia's temples, slipping into silken strands to tenderly brush against the curve of Olivia's ear. She watched the emotions flit through Olivia's eyes, still photographs in sepia tones of moss and olive, too myriad to name, but overshadowed by one: love.

"Why didn't you ever tell me that you grew up Catholic?" Natalia asked, part of her mind fairly screaming at her to stop, to not bring those shutters clanging down again in Olivia's eyes, an equal part knowing that if Olivia was ever going to answer her honestly, it was now, when her defenses were minimal.

Natalia could feel the stilling of Olivia's body in her arms, but the older woman didn't pull away. When she spoke, her voice was stained with bitterness and regret.

"In the beginning, it was just that it wasn't something I shared with anyone. It was part of another lifetime, one I wasn't all that interested in remembering," Olivia began, the corners of her mouth tilting slightly in a motion more grimace than smile. "After we moved in and I finally saw that your faith had nothing to do with my mother's church, I thought about telling you. But then I would have had to tell you about my mom. About so many other things. Too many dominoes ready to fall.

"I'm sorry I didn't. There were so many times in the past few months when your religious beliefs came so close to keeping us apart, and I wanted to tell you, wanted to explain why my feelings about the church ran so strong. I…I just couldn't."

"I know I didn't make it any easier on you, constantly running to church, to Father Ray. I'm sorry for that. But, what do you mean, my faith has nothing to do with your mother's church?" Natalia asked, a tiny frown fissuring her forehead, her fingers still stroking in a whispered touch through Olivia's hair, needing to keep that physical connection.

"Your faith is about love, Natalia. Even I can see that," Olivia answered with a self-deprecating, mirthless chuckle. "I don't think that my mother saw the difference between God and the church. Between faith and dogma. The only things I ever experienced from her religion were about power, about control. About judgment. Not about love."

"Olivia, I know your mother loved you," Natalia protested, unwilling to believe that the woman who had given birth to and raised this impossibly kind, amazing creature in her arms had not loved her child.

"I know she did. She just let the dictates of the church control too much of her, too much of us. And it ended up destroying both of us," Olivia said, her voice a small whisper in the encroaching gloom, as the light outside faded to a faint glow in the western sky.

"I have some experience with that myself," Natalia admitted wryly.

"Yeah, I figured you had. Which is one of the reasons I said I think that you should go and see your mother," Olivia responded, head tilted to regard Natalia with a slightly hooded gaze. "You have a chance to say so many things, things I would give a lot to be able to say to my mother. Don't waste this opportunity. You'll regret it."

"You're right. I know you're right, Olivia. I guess I just always hoped that when I finally saw my mother again, it would be on my terms, not hers," Natalia agreed, a hint of steel in her voice.

"Just because she asked to see you doesn't mean that she has the upper hand, you know? If you think about it, you have all the power right now, the power to decide if you're going to go or not. To decide whether or not to offer her the forgiveness she seems to need. You don't have to allow her to control the situation or you," Olivia offered, her voice and demeanor much more confident and assured, now that she was no longer the focus of the conversation.

"I know that in my head. It's just that I'm not sure once I get there if I will be able to convince the scared teenager I used to be that things are different. My mother has a very strong personality. I doubt that even cancer has changed that." Natalia moved closer to Olivia, her body automatically seeking the reassurance of Olivia's touch, of her arms wound tightly around her.

"You will. I've always told you, you're much stronger than you think you are," Olivia reassured, rubbing the tip of her nose along the gentle slope of Natalia's cheek.

The room was dark now, the remaining light having long since faded from the sky. Both of them were loathe to move from the security and warmth of each other's arms. Only the low rumbling from Natalia's stomach caused them to break apart, both laughing.

"Um, I think we kinda missed dinner," Natalia grinned sheepishly, leaning backwards on the couch to snap on the lamp on the table by the fireplace, a pale golden pool of light lapping gently around them.

"We did," Olivia smiled back. "You know, if you're going to head out for Chicago in the morning…you are heading out in the morning, right?" At Natalia's nod she continued. "Then you need to eat something and then pack and get to bed. I don't want you tired tomorrow while you're driving."

"What about you, you need to eat," Natalia reminded gently, the thought that had taken up residence in her mind growing stronger with each passing second.

"I'll grab something at the Beacon, I promise. And you can swing by in the morning on your way out of town and say good bye, if you want," Olivia teased, eyes warm and smiling.

"No." Natalia said quietly, her expression suddenly different, although Olivia was hard-pressed to name it.

"No?" Olivia repeated, the word a short jab to the stomach, releasing a brief burst of air from her lungs.

"I don't want you to go," Natalia said firmly, her expression now clearly determined. "I want you to stay with me tonight."

The remaining air left Olivia's body forcefully. "I don't think that's a good idea."

"Why not?"

Olivia sighed and squeezed the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger. For an insightful woman, Natalia could be remarkably obtuse sometimes. Like now.

"Um. I just don't think it would be a good idea," Olivia began, her brain attempting to reason not only with the gorgeous woman sitting next to her, but with her traitorous body, which saw absolutely nothing wrong with spending the night lying next to her.

"Olivia, I love you. I want you to stay with me," Natalia said simply, trying to convey the depth of her emotions in mere words.

"Natalia. I can't," Olivia muttered, rising from the couch to pace across the room, again suddenly needing distance from the woman she loved.

"Tell me why," Natalia demanded, standing to cross to where Olivia was hiding behind the armchair. "Olivia? Why can't you stay?"

"Because you aren't ready for that, okay? Because having to lie in a bed next to you and just hold you or just sleep would be torture and I've had quite enough of that this evening to last me at least through this decade." The words rushed out of Olivia's mouth before she could sensor them, frustration evident in every syllable. "You're not ready."

She had expected a blush to stain Natalia's cheeks, expected her to look away at the implications of her words. She didn't expect what she got instead.

Irritation. Annoyance. And a strong, clear streak of desire.

"You can stop right there. Stop telling me what I am and am not ready for. Stop convincing yourself that you're the only one who has wants and needs and desires here. We talked about this, Olivia. I thought I made it really clear that I want everything that people in love share, that I want the physical part of this. That I want you," Natalia's expression brooked no discussion, her voice unwavering and firm. "Now, if you're not ready for this, if you don't feel like now is the time for us to move on, then say so, and I will respect that. But don't try and make this about me, because it isn't. It isn't."

"I just…I'm afraid. I want this to be perfect. I want it to be everything you ever dreamed about," Olivia admitted, her voice barely a whisper as she met Natalia's eyes. "I don't want to disappoint you."

Moving around the edge of the chair, Natalia wrapped her arms around Olivia's slender waist, drawing her close until a slim needle of light could not have threaded between them.

"It will be perfect. It will be everything I have ever dreamed about. And you could never, ever disappoint me. I promise, Olivia. I love you. And if I'm going to leave tomorrow for Chicago and face my past, I need to leave here knowing that I belong to you. Completely. That nothing stands between us. That you belong to me," Natalia explained gently, her gaze locked on Olivia's green eyes, eyes now glimmering in the faint light with unshed tears.

"I do belong to you. Only to you. Always," Olivia promised, her voice catching in her throat.

Slipping her hand to once again trail along the soft hairs at the nape of Olivia's neck, Natalia drew that beautiful face closer, her breath tickling the fullness of Olivia's lips.

"Prove it," Natalia husked before claiming those lips with her own. Feeling Olivia's hands begin to move knowingly along her back and around her side, tasting the sweetness of her mouth as Olivia's tongue traced the rounded curve of her bottom lip, Natalia had no doubt that this was something that would be proved again and again.

Because Olivia Spencer was nothing if not thorough.


Chapter Four

The slow burning inferno woke her up. Dear God, she was hot. She could feel the sweat trickling down her legs, feel it gathering along her hairline, tickling across her stomach as it ran in slow rivulets along her damp skin. It took a few heat-stroke induced moments for her brain to process just where she was and why she was melting.

Natalia's bed. She was in Natalia's bed in the farmhouse and the woman in question, the gentle, loving, astonishingly sensuous creature who had stolen her heart was wrapped securely around her, her gorgeously dimpled face buried in the elegant curve at the back of Olivia's neck, her breath a warm caress along her skin.

Her very warm skin. Very warm. In fact, every inch of her body that was touching Natalia's---and there were very few parts of her that weren't--- seemed to practically glow with the heat of a thousand suns.

Alright, a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much, Olivia thought, trying to move without waking her slumbering love, feeling the tug of sweaty skin against skin as she shifted slightly in the bed. Natalia sighed happily and pulled her closer, the weight of her arm like a steel band around Olivia's waist and another weight settled through Olivia, this one on her heart.

She and Natalia had made love. It had been slow and hesitant. Adorably awkward. Passionate. Playful. All of those things and more.

Images and sensations flashed across her mind like still photographs, black and white frames, haphazard and random: the perfect slope of Natalia's spine as she traced every dip and curve with her lips. The weight of thick, chestnut hair in her hands, sifting through her fingers like so much dark silk. The taste of Natalia on her tongue, salty-sweet and heady, putting to shame the finest of liquors.

And with them, the echoes of every sigh and moan, every sharp intake of breath, every whispered endearment, every hoarse plea. Every word of love.

The last time Olivia remembered waking up this happy she was twelve years old and her father had promised to take her to the Summer Carnival at the Palace. At that moment, all was right with a world that hung like a kite in the breeze, suspended in space, bright and ephemeral against a brilliant sky. Just as this moment did, with the feel of Natalia's body pressed against her, the familiar ache in muscles long out of use, the intoxicating scent of sweat and sex and utter contentment that tickled her nose.

She was lying in bed next to the woman she loved more than her very life and outside the window, the pale gray light of dawn was fleeing across the meadow before a golden sunrise, billions of drops of dew scattered like jewels on an emerald cloak. And Olivia felt like Dorothy, awakening in a field of poppies to discover that it was Oz that was real, not the barren black and white of Kansas. Awakening to find Glinda curled up beside her, lashes dark against her cheek.

But dear God, she was hot. The ridiculously beautiful woman slumbering beside her was a veritable furnace, which, come December, would no doubt be a marvelous thing, but right now, with July looming on the horizon, made for a very warm Olivia. Very, very warm.

I wonder if it really is possible to spontaneously combust, Olivia

considered as she again, regretfully, tried to ease away, wanting nothing more than to remain entwined with Natalia's lovely curves. Gently wrapping her fingers around the arm gripping her so tightly, Olivia lifted it, slipping none too gracefully from the bed, her damp skin sticking to the sheets. The muscles in her legs and lower back uttered a sharp protest as she stood.

Damn it, this used to be an Olympic sport for me, she thought, rubbing slow circles along the curve of her spine. When did I get so old?

Another sigh from the woman still occupying the bed brought Olivia's attention to the present. Natalia had rolled over onto her back, dark hair spread like a splash of India ink across the pillows. A slight smile touched the corners of full lips, a tiny dimple peeking out on one side. She looked impossibly beautiful. Olivia ran her fingers through her own hair, most of which was plastered to the side of her head. She could feel the line from the crease in the pillow etched into her cheek. She felt sweaty and sore and happier than she had ever been in her life.

And when those amazing brown eyes blinked open and focused on her standing beside the bed, there was an adoration in their depths that Olivia had never dreamed could ever be meant for her. A smile of absolute wonder split her face, and Olivia Spencer felt like the most beautiful woman in the world.

"Hi," Natalia said sleepily, yet another happy sigh escaping her throat. "Why're you up? It's so early."

"Um. Bathroom. And I was a little warm," Olivia stammered slightly, the surrealism of the moment not lost on her.

"Hurry up and come back to bed," Natalia murmured, turning her face to rub it along the smooth cotton. "I don't have to leave at any particular time and I was thinking we could sleep in a little."

"Sleep?" Olivia grinned shyly, a teasing lilt to her voice.

"Umm hmm. Among other things," Natalia answered, her voice equally coy. "Although if you don't get moving, I may just drift off again and sleep will be all you get."

Olivia stepped into the bathroom, the tiles of the floor cool under her feet. She grimaced as she caught sight of her reflection in the mirror, dark hair sweaty and sticking out in odd places, skin flushed, face shiny with a layer of oil. Not her best look, but not entirely unknown. Except for the eyes.

The eyes she didn't quite recognize. Oh, she was familiar with the shape, wide-set, narrow ovals. Knew the color well. Perhaps colors was more accurate: pale, icy mint; deep moss; clear, bright emerald depending on her mood. Knew the curve of the dark brows above, thick lashes curling in an elegant fringe around them.

It was the expression in them that was foreign, a look that made the familiar suddenly alien, transformed these into someone else's eyes staring back at her in the mirror. Because her eyes had never held this look. She had never seen the endless expanse behind them, the sense of contentment. The peace. The joy.

And it terrified her. If Olivia Spencer had learned one lesson in life, it was that nothing good lasts; that happiness was as likely to stay as the transitory glimpse of the moon on a stormy night. It would go. It always had, and the clouds would remain, offering her a only tantalizing peep of the round white globe hanging just out of sight. Just beyond her grasp.

Something bad would happen. She would manage to ruin this, ruin this love she had waited a lifetime for. It had to, didn't it? After all, she didn't get the happy ending. Didn't get the prince…or in this case, the princess. These eyes didn't get to belong to her. Not for long.

"Olivia?" Natalia voice from the bedroom cut through the self-indulgent fit of melancholy, snapping her out of her state of funk.

"Be right out," she answered, turning on the cold water tap and splashing water on her face, a frigid sting against still too warm skin.

Wiping her face on Natalia's towel, Olivia inhaled the fragrance of Natalia's soap and shampoo that lingered in the terrycloth. Drawing in a deep breath, she chuckled softly. Why was she standing here naked in the bathroom, smelling Natalia's towel, when she could be naked in bed with Natalia, inhaling those lovely scents from the source?

Padding quietly back to the bedroom, Olivia paused self-consciously as she felt Natalia's dark eyes sweep down her body, the gaze intense and laden with desire. Forcing herself to breathe, Olivia allowed the younger woman to stare, allowed the lingering visual caress, silently admonishing herself for feeling so insecure. She was Olivia Spencer, for God's sake. She'd lost count of the number of people who had stared with lust filled eyes at her body.

Except none of them had been Natalia. None of them had been capable of reducing the mighty sex goddess to a puddle of mush with one longing look from warm brown eyes. None of them had ever made her borrowed heart skip a beat or two with just a shy glance.

"Come back to bed," Natalia invited, dimples peeking out of both cheeks as she grinned a little bashfully. Clearly, Olivia's time in the bathroom had allowed her own insecure imps to make a limited reappearance.

Olivia eased gingerly beneath the sheets, feeling the lingering hint of dampness on the bottom sheet from where she had lain. All thoughts of that were banished however, as Natalia slid towards her, one slender arm slipping under her pillow, the other wrapping around Olivia's waist, drawing her closer.

"Hi," Natalia smiled, more than a trace of wonder in her face as her eyes held Olivia's.

"Hi yourself," Olivia murmured back, overwhelmed by the sensation of Natalia's skin against her own, the lingering remains of all her fears and doubts skittering across her mind like crabs along the ocean floor, leaving behind faint marks on clouded green irises, dark striations invisible to all but a few.

Natalia Rivera was one of those few. She had worried at the look of slight panic on Olivia's face as she made a dash for the bathroom, and the longer the other woman remained behind that closed door, the more Natalia knew that Olivia was allowing every doubt and insecurity to gain a foothold in her mind.

Time to get out the sandbags and rebuild that levee before all the small streams and raging rivers from Olivia's past combined to wipe away the last bastion of belief in the future that she possessed.

"Can I ask you a question?" Natalia's breath was a gentle caress along Olivia's cheek as one hand trailed down the smooth skin of her shoulder.

"Anything. You know that," Olivia replied, her own fingers mapping the curve from the soft swell of breast to the slope of shapely hip.

"When did you know?" Natalia asked, watching the subtle shift of colors in Olivia's eyes, dark green along the outer edges lightening to clear jade around the pupil, like looking at the ocean far out to sea, moving in toward shore.

"When did I know what?" A slight bend in eyebrows signaled confusion at the question.

"When did you first know that you loved me?" The clarification came with just the slightest tremor of uncertainty and Olivia felt her heart clench as she saw a shadow flit across Natalia's eyes.

A thoughtful, pensive look stole across Olivia's features, eyes slipping away from Natalia's gaze for a moment to focus on the far wall of the bedroom, a wide swath of golden light creeping up it from the break in the curtains. Funny, in all their conversations, this was one thing they had never really talked about; as if placing their feelings on a time line would leave one of them feeling guilty or thoughtless or obtuse.

"I don't know. I don't think there was an exact moment. It just sort of snuck up on me," Olivia answered vaguely, not entirely certain why she was hesitating. She had known for some time that she had been way ahead of the curve when it came to awareness of her feelings for the other woman. Putting a definitive date on them had always seemed as if it were a competition, as if she were somehow more evolved or self-aware.

"There must have been a day, a moment when you really knew though, wasn't there?" Natalia prodded, fingers now tangled in the thick hair above Olivia's ear.

"I guess. I mean, I don't think I knew it at the time, or at least I couldn't have put a name to it, but looking back, there are certain times that I realize I had begun to see you in a new way. That I was aware of you on a totally different level." Olivia admitted, lulled by the stroking of her hair and the depths of Natalia's eyes.

"When?" Natalia smiled, anticipation on her face.

Olivia couldn't help but smile back. "Why? What's so important about when I fell in love with you?"

"Olivia Spencer, you cannot be serious!" Natalia complained, the indignant tone of her voice tempered by the adoring look on her face. "What's so important? Really? You have to ask?"

Olivia chuckled as the world ceased spinning so precariously on its axis. "When did you realize you were in love with me?" She demanded smirking.

"Christmas eve," Natalia answered softly, expression suddenly shy and hesitant. "I mean, I didn't know what it was then, not really. I just knew that no one had ever made me feel as special as you did that night. No one had ever cared enough for me to spend all that time and money tracking down an old piece of doorframe so that I could have a part of my son's childhood in our new home. Later, when you kissed me after Emma's presentation, I think I started putting it all together. It terrified me, but I knew that what I was feeling wasn't just about friendship anymore."

"Yeah? Christmas?" Olivia asked just as shyly, the look of amazement and joy in her face causing Natalia's breath to catch in her throat.

"Yup. So, come on. Fess up," Natalia urged, molding her body closer to Olivia's. "When did you fall in love with me?"

"The night we were talking about earlier. Dinner with Decker. He'd just made that toast to me, and you looked down at me and we clinked mason jars and something shifted inside me. I wasn't sure what it was either, but I could feel it, like the earth had just tilted sideways a little and suddenly my perspective on everything had changed," Olivia recounted, a hint of wonder in her voice. "It was all downhill from there."

"Downhill?" Natalia sputtered as Olivia's last words registered, along with the sparkle of amusement in those green eyes.

"One of many down hills. You have to admit, this whole thing has been quite a roller coaster ride," Olivia grinned at the look of mock annoyance on Natalia's face.

"True. But at least we've had each other to hold on to," Natalia conceded, tightening her arm around Olivia's waist. "You'll always have me to hold on to. You know that, don't you?"

Olivia knew that Natalia had seen a few lingering doubts and fears flit across her face.

"Olivia, you know that, right?"

"I do. Most of the time. You'll just have to remind me if I forget, okay?" Olivia's voice was as small and heartbreaking as Emma's after a nightmare and Natalia felt moisture gather behind her eyelids.

"I promise. I want to spend the rest of my life reminding you, even when you don't forget," Natalia reassured.


"Yeah. In fact, I wanted to ask you to do something for me while I'm gone," Natalia replied, nodding her head in assent.

"What? You know I'll do anything for you."

"Move back in," Natalia answered simply.

"Natalia…" Olivia began, expression unsure, only to be silenced by a slender finger against her lips.

"Hear me out, okay? I know what you're going to say. That this is a big step, that we still haven't worked out everything with Rafe, that moving in means telling Emma and the rest of the town and I don't care. I don't care, Olivia. I want you here. I want you home, you and Emma. I want my family back. We've already taken a huge step, 'cause if you haven't noticed we're naked in bed together," Natalia informed her firmly, her gaze unwavering as she met the hesitation in Olivia's face.

"I had noticed that part," Olivia rolled her eyes, unwilling to be thrown off her conversational track by Natalia's verbal meanderings. "I just think that we should wait until you get back, that's all."

"I told you the other day, I am so done with waiting, Olivia. I know that I need to go and see my mother. I know that. But I also know that I need to stop allowing everyone else in the world to dictate the rest of my life. I want to be able to close my eyes when I'm in Chicago and imagine you here, in our bed, where you belong. I need to know that Emma's tucked up safe and happy in our home. I need that, Olivia. Please," Natalia cupped Olivia's face, willing her to understand. Willing her to acquiesce.

Olivia could hear myriad arguments, some sound, some not, swirling through her mind, could see the fears and doubts she had just thought were allayed come rushing back with force as the ramifications of what they both wanted settled over them.


"Okay? Really? I mean, you'll move back in?" Natalia couldn't stop the grin that split her face.

"Yes, I'll move back in. We'll move back in," Olivia affirmed. "But there's one small hitch. Emma."

"Emma's not a hitch. She'll be so happy," Natalia responded, eyes glowing with happiness.

"We have to tell her. About us. We can't move back in here and pretend like it's just like before. She has to be told," Olivia said somberly.

"So, we'll tell her today. Before I leave. I wasn't going to go without telling her goodbye, anyway. I could never do that to her. So, we'll pick her up from her sleepover and we'll tell her," Natalia rushed to reassure, knowing Olivia's concerns about Emma's possible reaction to the news of their relationship.

"When you say it like that it sounds so simple." Olivia said, her deep desire to believe Natalia's words apparent in her tone and her face.

"Because it is simple. Emma knows I love her. She knows I love you. She already thinks of me as her other mommy. Do you really think that she'll be upset?" Natalia tried but didn't succeed in keeping the thin sliver of concern from her tone.

"No, I don't think she'll be upset. And if she is, I don't think that it will be anything that will have any lasting effect." It was Olivia's turn to reassure. She couldn't bear to see an ounce of worry in Natalia's eyes. Especially not now, not with having to face a past she had tried very hard to forget. "It'll be fine. I swear."

Natalia smiled, nodding her head, the faint shadow of misgivings fading as she met Olivia's eyes.

"You know, when you lured me back to bed, you promised there'd be more than just sleeping involved," Olivia teased. "And although lying here naked with you is one of the nicest things I've done in a long time, I was hoping you had other ideas about passing the time until we have to get up."

"One of the nicest? One of? And nice? That's all I get? Nice?" Natalia smirked back, the sensation of her fingers tracing a line down Olivia's back to the hollow at the base of her spine, sending goosebumps spreading along Olivia's skin.

"Hmm. Very nice?" Olivia purred, arching into Natalia's hand.

"Very nice? Snickerdoodles are nice," Natalia complained, leaning forward to follow the curve of Olivia's collarbone with her lips and tongue.

"Oh, no. Snickerdoodles are yummy," Olivia amended, tilting her head back to allow Natalia better access as the younger woman continued her path along the elegant column of Olivia's throat.

"I see. Snickerdoodles are yummy, but lying here naked with me is just nice?" Natalia muttered, her voice muffled against the silken skin behind Olivia's ear.

"I said very nice," Olivia replied, her breath hitching as Natalia caught one earlobe between straight white teeth.

Natalia lifted her head to gaze down with very determined, desire darkened eyes. Olivia tried to contain the grin that she had been hiding.

"I'll show you nice," Natalia said, half promise, half threat, pushing Olivia onto her back, her mouth descending resolutely along Olivia's chest toward its rounded, pebbled goal.

"Very nice. I said, very, very nice." Olivia laughed, happily threading her fingers through the dark tresses covering her upper chest. "Very nice."


Chapter Five

"You're not going to pack as much as you did when we went to the spa, are you?" Olivia teased, resting against the headboard of the bed as Natalia stood half in, half out off the closet, her arms full of clothes.

Natalia's only response was a tilt to her head and a pile of clothing deposited across Olivia's lap with a decided smirk. One suitcase sat, partially full, across the chair by the desk, and piles of clothes lay strewn about the bed and dresser and floor.

"Less talking and more helping would be good," Natalia advised, any sting in her words belied by the adoring look in her eyes and the laughter in her voice.

"I'm helping," Olivia countered. "I'm sitting on the bed criticizing you. I know it's not the couch, but I have to go where I'm needed. You did tell me that this is what I'm best at, didn't you?"

"Funny. You think you're really funny, don't you?" Natalia asked, suddenly leaning over the bed, her hands braced against the headboard on either side of Olivia's shoulders, bringing their faces inches apart. Her dark eyes dropped to the lush fullness of Olivia's lips, memories of the taste and feel of them under her lips washing over her, drowning out Olivia's reply.

"Hmm? What did you say?" Natalia murmured, the slight burn in the muscles of her forearms increasing as she leaned forward, feeling the warmth of Olivia's breath on her face.

"I said," Olivia replied, her voice sliding like honey-laden whiskey through Natalia's veins, "that I'm one of the funniest people I know. And that if you don't get packing it's going to be noon before you get out of here. Maybe later if you keep looking at me like that."

"Like what?" Natalia breathed, her eyes fluttering shut as her lips just brushed the smooth skin of Olivia's cheek, the scent of shampoo and soap filling her senses.

"Like you'd really like to fuck my brains out right now," Olivia whispered back, turning her face to brush the tip of her nose along Natalia's jaw line.

Natalia straightened with a gasp of surprise. "Olivia!" she sputtered, the skin of her face rapidly reddening in embarrassment. "I can't…I mean…you so owe the swear jar for that…and I…I mean, I do…what I mean is I was thinking about, well, you know, but not…Olivia!"

Olivia chuckled, a wide grin splitting her face. "I had a feeling that would get your attention. And I am sorry for putting it that crudely, but you really do need to get packed and on the road, baby. We still have to talk to Emma and you need to stop and see Rafe and it's ten-thirty now. If you'd gotten another centimeter closer, it would have been at least a couple hours before we made it back out of bed."

"A couple hours, huh?" Natalia asked speculatively, her body inching its way back towards Olivia's, pulled by some invisible thread. "Is that all? I'd still be on the road by two or three."

"Get thee behind me, Satan," Olivia ordered with a half-hearted chuckle, her pupils dilating as she took in the flush of Natalia's cheeks and the slightly glazed look of desire in those brown eyes.

"We could do that, too," Natalia promised, the rush of heat through her body, the rush of moisture between her legs staggering her in its intensity.

Months of dammed up emotions, countless nights of restless dreams and unacknowledged desires had been unleashed the previous night and with them had come one of the greatest gifts Natalia had ever experienced: permission to want, permission to need, permission to take and touch and be taken in return---without guilt, without remorse, without condition.

Part of her mind registered the truth in Olivia's words: the need to pack, the unasked for mission on which she was about to embark, the urgency in her father's voice. Part of her knew that she was doing what she often did: avoiding, hiding from the ugliness of a past she had done her best to forget.

Which explained why the rest of her mind simply wanted Olivia, wanted to feel silken skin against her own, feel liquid silk against her tongue. Wanted to drown herself in the wonder of Olivia's body, never coming up for air, welcoming the tightness in her chest, the lightheadedness stealing over her mind as she sank into her.

"Natalia," Olivia protested weakly, one hand coming up to rest gently on Natalia's chest, stopping her from closing the final inch between their lips. Forcing some firmness into her tone, she continued. "Sweetheart, you need to get packed. And as much as I would love to pull you down on this bed and have my way with you for the next two or three days, we both know you have to get to Chicago. If you don't leave before one, then you run the risk of hitting late afternoon traffic, and then rush hour, and I don't want you on the road in that. Plus, I promised I would pick Emma up by eleven."

Natalia took a deep breath, her eyes slipping shut as she resolved to admit to herself that Olivia was right. She needed to pack. She needed to say goodbye to Emma. They needed to explain, to tell her about their relationship. She also needed to see her son, to tell him why she was leaving. All truths that did little to stem the flood of desire coursing through her body. All truths that, unfortunately, needed to be addressed.

Pushing off from the headboard, Natalia willed her legs to carry her away from the bed. Standing once more at a relatively safe distance, she turned to face Olivia, nearly undone by the expression of longing and love on the older woman's face. Dragging in a shuddering breath and then another, Natalia forced her mind to once again shoulder the weight of expectations, of duties and responsibilities that lay outside the four walls of that room. There would be time for the rest, days stretching out into decades of loving Olivia. For now, there were things that needed to be done.

"Why don't you go and pick up Emma and bring her back here, and I'll finish packing. Then we can sit her down and explain things to her. I have a feeling that being here will make things a little easier, don't you?" Natalia suggested, still trying to ignore the ache that had settled inside her.

"Sounds like a plan," Olivia agreed. "I have a feeling that you'll get more accomplished without my supervision."

"Is that what you call it? I was thinking more along the lines of distraction."

"Hey, I was just lying here, minding my business, trying to help you get packed. I can't help it if you have a hard time keeping your mind on packing or your hands off me," Olivia smirked, slipping gracefully off the bed to stalk deliberately toward Natalia.

She paused a few inches from the younger woman's body, full lips turned up in a teasing grin.

"Oh, yeah. You weren't doing a thing," Natalia rejoined sarcastically. "Just stretched out on my bed, looking at me with those…those eyes. And smiling at me. Yeah. Doing nothing all right."

"What, I can't look at you? Can't smile at the woman I love?" Olivia's voice dropped a register or two, skittering along Natalia's spine and sending out minor shock waves.

"Go! Get out here! Go get Emma. I'll be ready by the time you get back," Natalia ordered, pointing a slightly unsteady finger at the door.

Laughing, Olivia moved toward the door, her body just brushing Natalia's as she passed her. The sharp intake of breath from the younger woman only increased the size of the grin on Olivia's face.

Pausing in the doorway, she met Natalia's eyes. "I love you," she said softly, all trace of teasing vanished.

"I love you, too. Now go pick up our daughter, okay?" Natalia replied, her voice wavering a little as the meaning of her words hovered between them.

"I'll be back," Olivia intoned, in a fairly decent Schwarzenegger impression. "And just remember, the more clothes you take with you, the more room you leave for me in the closet."


The drive back to the farmhouse allowed Olivia's fears to grow from nascent seeds to choking kudzu, a thick vine that threatened to cut off the rational side of her mind and give free rein to all her doubts and insecurities as a mother. She had put Emma through so much in her young life: a crazy, absent father, an even crazier grandfather, a step-father who abandoned her. And now this.

Olivia shook herself, a stern admonishment ringing in her head. This wasn't anything like the past. This was something good, something that had already made Emma happy. Something that would make Emma even happier. This was Natalia. Not Phillip, not Alan, not Bill. Natalia. And Emma loved Natalia. It would be okay. It had to be.

Emma prattled on happily in the back seat, full of stories of Jodie's new cat, the awesome video games they had played and the new girl they had befriended at camp.

It was this last little tidbit that managed to struggle through the morass of conjectures bogging down Olivia's mind.

"And then Kiera said that she likes purple, too. But Jodie still thinks that we should all wear pink shirts instead of purple." Emma finished, although Olivia was aware she had missed most of the preceding statements.

"So, who's this, 'bean?" Olivia inquired, glancing back to meet her daughter's eyes in the rearview mirror.

"Her name's Kiera. She has the prettiest skin, Mom. She just moved here. She doesn't know anybody, so me and Jodie took her to wing," Emma explained patiently. She had just told her mother this particular piece of news, but Emma was used to Olivia's somewhat absentminded method of listening. Natalia listened much better, not a fact that Emma would ever tell her mother, but it was true.

"Under your wing, is the expression, Jellybean. Under. So, where did Kiera live before?" Olivia corrected gently.

"Outside of Memphis. That's in Tennessee. It's where Elvis lives," Emma stated knowledgably.

"It is indeed. Although, Elvis doesn't…well, never mind. Anyway, it was nice of you and Jodie to make friends with Kiera. It must be hard moving to a new town," Olivia praised, her smile tender as she glanced back at her child.

"She's nice. She has three cats and a dog. She says she didn't like where she used to live. It was a small town and people were big-its. What's a big-its, Mom?" Emma inquired curiously.

"Bigots? Um, bigots are people who are narrow-minded and they judge other people just because they're different. Why did she say that they were bigots, Em?"

"She said some of the kids at her school were mean to her cause her mom is white and her daddy is black. She said that some of them called her mean names and wouldn't sit with her at lunch. Why are people like that, Mom?"

"I wish I knew, Emma. I guess people just get scared sometimes of things that are different and they let their fears control them. And they say and do things that they shouldn't, because they're afraid," Olivia replied slowly, a hand tightening around her heart, making it hard to breathe. "They think that because people are different that they're not as good as they are. Or that they shouldn't be treated the same."

"Like when Derek's mom wouldn't let him play with me because I have two mommies?" Emma asked matter-of-factly.

Her heart squeezed even harder as Olivia pulled the car onto the rural highway that lead to the farmhouse. Funny how her kid always seemed to be one step ahead of her when it came to serious discussions and that she displayed what Olivia could only put down to psychic abilities.

Okay, maybe more like scary.

"Yeah. Just like that. Um, Em. It's kind of funny, 'cause that's sorta what Natalia and I want to talk to you about when we get home. Okay?" Olivia hedged, feeling the need for Natalia's moral support before she said anything else. Trust Emma to shanghai all her plans and good intentions.

It's what I get for having such a damn smart kid, she thought.

"I told Kiera that she shouldn't worry about being different. That being different is a good thing and that she should be proud of it. That's what you told me, right, Mom? And I told her that I'm different too, 'cause I have two mommies," Emma informed her sagely.

"And what…um…what did Kiera say about that?" Olivia managed to choke out.

Emma didn't appear to notice her mother's bout of inarticulateness.

"She said that was cool and that her cousin has two daddies. And she asked me if I can spend the night sometime. Can I, Mom?" Emma explained succinctly.

"We'll, um, we'll discuss that later, 'Bean. When you told Kiera you have two mommies, did you…I mean, do you know what that means, baby?" Olivia asked, her pulse stuttering at the same pace as her tongue.

"That you and Natalia love each other and that you love me and we're a family. Right, Mommy?" Emma answered, eyes so like her own meeting Olivia's in the mirror.

Ah, fuck. Hold your breath and just dive in, Olivia.

"Right, baby. Natalia and I do love each other. Very much. But not just as best friends. We love each other like Mommies and Daddies do. Do you understand, 'bean?" Olivia could hear the tension in her voice, could feel the cold sweat starting to break out in the hair along the back of her neck. This was so not how she had pictured this conversation happening.

The best laid plans of mice and men, eh?

"Sure. That means you kiss and hug and stuff, like Jodie's mom and dad do. Except you're two mommies instead," Emma had a look of slight confusion on her face, wondering why her mother needed this explained to her. "Mommy, are you all right? You look kinda funny."

"I'm fine, Jellybean. I'm just fine. Honest," Olivia rushed to reassure her daughter, a quick glance in the mirror confirming Emma's observation. She hadn't looked quite this pale since before the transplant. "I'm really fine, Em. I promise. So, you don't mind having two mommies? I mean, it's okay with you that Natalia and I love each other?"

"Of course. Don't be silly, Mommy. Oh, look!! The ducks are here!" Emma exclaimed as they pulled down the long driveway to the farmhouse, a cloud of dust trailing them as they passed the small pond, the water now home to a dozen sleek Mallards.

"Yeah, they are. Later we can go and feed them, okay? We need to go in and see Natalia first though," Olivia sighed, the tension in her back and neck easing as her daughter's words sank in.

Natalia was waiting for them as they drove up beside the house, the smile fixed on her lips one that Olivia recognized: determined and not a little terrified.

"Natalia!" Emma cried, flying across the green grass of the lawn to throw herself in her other mother's arms.

"Hey, you! I've missed you!" Natalia enthused, bending to place a firm kiss on Emma's forehead.

"The ducks are here! Mom and I saw them on the way in and they looked hungry. Do you have any bread? Can we go and feed them?" The words tumbled from Emma's lips, bright, shiny pennies that fell to litter the ground.

Natalia laughed, caught up, as always, in the little girl's enthusiasm.

"They are here, I do have some bread and yes, we can go feed them. But your Mommy and I need to talk to you first, okay, Em?

"Emma, why don't you go and get some juice and then we can talk?" Olivia interrupted, needing a few minutes to fill Natalia in on the conversation in the car.

Emma nodded her assent, speeding into the kitchen. The two women could hear the sound of the cabinet opening, the clink of glass as the child poured herself some juice.

"What's wrong?" Natalia asked tightly, her first glimpse of Olivia's pale, shell-shocked face enough to send her own heart racing.

"Um. Well. Nothing," Olivia began, a small smile slowly touching the corners of generous lips. "Turns out my kid is way too smart for either of us. I don't think we need to worry about the whole "my two mommies" thing. She gets it. Hell, she got it before we did. And before you ask, she gets the whole "we love each other like mommies and daddies do" thing. She seemed a little confused as to why I was worried about it."

"I thought we were going to talk to her together," Natalia asked quietly, trying, but not quite succeeding in keeping the sliver of hurt from her voice.

"We were. Trust me, I didn't plan to have that conversation in the car and I certainly didn't plan on having it alone. She started telling me about her new friend and by the time I realized it, we had moved on to having two mommies and being different and how she felt about that."

"She has a new friend?" Natalia asked, her attention momentarily captured by the revelation.

"Yes. Her name is Kiera and she's bi-racial. Apparently she and her parents moved here from Tennessee to find a more accepting atmosphere and Emma has taken her under her wing," Olivia filled in for her, her smile widening as she was struck by how much her daughter was like the woman she loved. "She gets that from you, you know."

Natalia started to protest and then stopped herself at the look of pride in Olivia's eyes. "Well, I guess we really shouldn't have been worried. I mean, she's Emma. We should have known that she was way ahead of both of us on this."

"You can say that again. I was just along for the ride. I guarantee you, that kid is either going to head up the Chicago Syndicate or win a Nobel Peace Prize," Olivia explained, shaking her head in grinning wonder at her daughter.

"Wow. Okay then. Well, I guess we just get to tell her about moving in and about me going away?" Natalia grinned back, a wave of relief washing over her.

"Yup. Piece of cake," Olivia assured, slipping her arms around Natalia's waist and pulling her close. She had just bent her head to brush her lips across Natalia's when a small voice sounded from a few feet down.

"Mom. Natalia. What did you want to tell me? And when can we go feed the ducks?"

"Why do I have a feeling that this won't be the last time she interrupts us?" Olivia murmured laughingly, pulling back to meet her daughter's grinning face.

"I'd say we'd better get used to it. At least until she goes to college," Natalia laughed back, reaching down and drawing the smallest member of her family into their warm embrace.

The steady flow of traffic and the snick of the wheels against the highway provided a less than soothing score to accompany Natalia's thoughts as the car sped along the interstate towards Chicago. God, she hated heavy traffic. It was always bad enough when Olivia was driving, seeing the tension in the older woman's shoulders, the clenching and unclenching of her jaw at the asinine actions of other drivers.

To be the one behind the wheel, particularly in her present mood, made it all the worse. Besides, she hadn't owned a car when she lived in the city, so having to navigate the treacherous streets, feeling like a novice driver, rubbed at nerves left jagged by the events of the day.

The glaring dichotomy of the two conversations she had had today with her children---her children: Rafe and Emma---wound through her mind like a cat through an endless line of fence-posts.

Emma had been so thrilled to be moving home. Home: that's what it was to her, the only real home she had ever had, the one place she had felt completely happy and loved. The sheer joy on her face had eclipsed the puny sun lighting the world outside the farmhouse and even now, the memory of it sent pinpricks of moisture against the back of Natalia's eyelids.

"Can I have my old bedroom back?" She had squealed, throwing herself onto the couch where Natalia and Olivia sat, landing sprawled across them both.

"Of course you can," Natalia had told her, the love she felt for the little girl and for her mother rising like warm, yeasty bread, filling her. She hated to have to tell Emma that she wouldn't be there to help her set up her bookcase or put away her toys.

"Em, sweetie. There's one other thing that your mommy and I need to talk to you about. I want you to know that I'm so happy that you and your mommy are moving back home with me, but you're going to have to do me a huge favor, okay? Can you do that?" Natalia began, pulling Emma against her side and nuzzling the fine down along her hairline.

"Sure, Natalia. What is it?" Emma asked, her face turning up to Natalia's with absolute trust.

"Well, you see, honey," Natalia said gently, feeling Olivia's hand making soothing circles across her back as she spoke, "I need to go out of town for a little while and I won't be here to help you and Mommy move. So I need for you to help put things away and make sure that your mommy doesn't over do it, like she does sometimes. And when I get back, maybe we can go and pick out some new colors to paint your room?"

"Why won't you be here?" Emma asked, a frown creasing her forehead that was remarkably like her mother's.

"Because I have to go to Chicago for a little while," Natalia began, only to be interrupted by Emma's plaintive voice.

"But I don't want you to go away. I want you to be here with me and Mommy like last time."

"I know, sweetie. And I want that, too. But you see, my Daddy called me last night and he asked me to come back to Chicago, 'cause my Mom is sick and she wants to see me. So I have to go," Natalia explained gently, a wayward thought grazing her mind that it had never occurred to her to call Chicago "home". It wasn't. It hadn't been for a long time. Not since she had first crossed the threshold of this farmhouse. Not since she had found her family.

Emma sat silently processing Natalia's words, her expression serious.

"Is your Mom going to die?" Emma's voice sliced through Natalia's heart and she could see the tears gathered in Olivia's eyes.

"Oh, Em," Olivia murmured, sliding her arms around her daughter, her forehead against the crown of Emma's head.

"I don't know, honey," Natalia admitted, unwilling to lie to Emma, even about something that brought such painful memories for all three of them. "I hope not. But I don't know. I just know that she's sick and she wants me to go see her."

"Then you have to go," Emma stated firmly, the determined look in her eyes again a mirror image of one that so often graced Olivia's face. "She needs you to be there and make her feel better, right, Mommy?"

Natalia felt her own answering tears as she watched as Olivia didn't even attempt to stem the flow that slid silently down her cheeks. She simply wrapped Emma and Natalia in her arms, pulling them as close to her as possible, her face buried in the crook of Natalia's neck.

"That's right, baby. She does," Olivia agreed, a break in her voice.

"Mommy, you're smushing me," Emma complained, wriggling to free herself from her position wedged tightly between her two mothers.

"Sorry, baby," Olivia apologized, Natalia's body registering the loss as Olivia loosened her grip on both her and her daughter.

Natalia could see how close to home this conversation had hit for Olivia, could see the struggle to regain control of her emotions being waged behind those green eyes, and she knew that her own feelings were rising ever closer to the surface, a steady flow of flood waters that could overwhelm her if she wasn't careful.

"We were just making an Emma sandwich," Natalia teased, her fingers coming up to tickle along Emma's stomach and sides, a smile spreading, unbidden, across her face as the girl squealed with laughter.

Olivia smiled at her gratefully, her expression so full of love that Natalia felt her breath catch in her throat. God, would this woman always be able to make her feel like this, like she was the most precious thing in the world?

"So, Natalia needs to get going, 'bean," Olivia said regretfully, her fingers tracing along the contour of Natalia's arm, slipping down to intertwine their fingers. "But while she's gone, you and I are going to get packed and move all our stuff back home, okay?"


"Yay is right, Em!" Olivia agreed, her eyes never leaving Natalia's face. "So, I'm going to go and help her get her suitcases and put them in the car, and maybe you can go and get some bread and break it up so that the three of us can feed the ducks before she goes?"

"Okay, Mommy," Emma nodded, a blur of motion as she headed for the kitchen.

Natalia pulled Olivia to her feet and lead her silently up the stairs to their room---their room. She loved how that sounded, loved what it meant. Her bags were stacked neatly by the door and she narrowed her eyes in mock annoyance at the grin that curved Olivia's lips.

"Only three bags? Not bad. I was expecting to have to hire some muscle to get your stuff in the car," Olivia's teasing tone matched the twinkle in those green eyes.

"Hush! I don't know how long I'll be gone, so I might have over-packed a little," Natalia admonished, swiping at Olivia's arm with the palm of her hand, a small grin of embarrassment gracing her features.

"A little?" Olivia laughed, pulling Natalia against her, the melding of curve into curve leaving them both slightly breathless.

"I don't want to leave you," Natalia murmured plaintively, tucking her head under Olivia's chin, her voice sounding for all the world like Emma's earlier cry of dismay.

"I know, sweetheart. I don't want you to. But we both know you have to go. Em and I will be right here waiting for you when you get home. And we can talk every day. It isn't like your going to Bangladesh or something. You'll only be an hour or so away," Olivia soothed, her hands following the line of Natalia's back in a slow, steady motion.

"I know. I know I'm being silly. It's just that everything has finally come together for us, we've finally moved forward and now I have to leave. I mean, I just found out how wonderful it is to wake up in your arms. I want that every day," Natalia acknowledged, tilting her head back to meet Olivia's eyes.

"I want that, too. And I plan on having it. For the rest of my life. But for right now, we'll have to be patient. God knows, we have some experience with waiting," Olivia smiled, eyes calm, voice comforting. "It'll be okay. I promise. Come on, we've gotta haul half your closet to the car and feed the ducks before you leave. And you've still got to stop and see Rafe. So, kiss me. And make it a good one. It's gotta last us for a while."

It had been a good one. Long and sweet and tender and passionate and so full of love that Natalia was amazed her heart didn't simply burst open with the tempered joy of it.

A joy that stayed with her until she stood in front of her son in the narrow alley beside the hardware store. Natalia could see the anger and the frustration and the hurt in each line of Rafe's body, etched into the thick brows, carved into the tense muscles of his shoulders, pressed down into those dark eyes, so like her own, that used to be filled with affection and devotion.

Eyes that merely glared at her accusingly, the wounded eyes of a small boy who finds that he is no longer a boy but is unsure what being a man truly means; a small planet whose moon has been pulled from its orbit by something far more powerful who struggles to comprehend that he is no longer the center of a universe.

"Rafe, I have to go out of town for a while," Natalia began, the wear of the past month pushing her to abandon the usual polite platitudes.

"Why? Where are you going? Have you finally decided to listen to Father Ray and go somewhere away from her and think about things?" Rafe demanded harshly, the derision in his tone at the mention of Olivia almost palatable.

"No, Rafe. I don't have anything to think about. We've been over this. I love Olivia and nothing is going to change that. It's not something I need to meditate about," Natalia sighed, eyes slipping shut in a moment of frustration. She didn't know what else she could do, what else she could say to make her son understand. "I need to go to Chicago for a little while. Your grandmother is sick and I need to go and see her."

"My grandmother?! You mean the woman who threw you out in the streets, who threw us out in the streets? The one who never even wanted to see her own grandson? Why the hell would you even want to see her?" Rafe fumed, his voice rising to echo against the brick walls of the alley.

"Because she's my mother and she's dying and she asked to see me. I don't need any other reason, Rafe. Regardless of what she did, she's still my mother and I owe her that. I owe myself that. You don't just stop loving someone, especially family, just because they've done something to hurt you, or something you disapprove of," Natalia told him quietly, the weight of her gaze seeming to pin him to the red brick wall behind him. "Love isn't something you can just turn off, Raphael, no matter how hard you try."

He finally shook himself free of her eyes, one hand coming up to push his shirt sleeve to his shoulder, stretching the fabric, his eyes falling to the dusty toes of his sneakers.

"Okay, whatever. It's your choice. I hope you aren't expecting me to come, 'cause I'm not," he muttered petulantly, and Natalia was struck again at how young he could be, despite his nineteen years.

"I don't expect anything of you, Rafe," she rejoined sadly, her tone dragging his gaze to her face, a jolt of shame stabbing through him at the sorrow he saw there.

"I can stop by the house and check on things while you're gone," he offered, his voice tentative and caring, an attempt to mitigate the unhappiness in his mother's eyes.

Natalia hesitated, part of her unwilling to add to the discomfort of the moment, to add another piece of wood to the bonfire of her son's rage, but it couldn't be helped. Olivia was right: it was time for Rafe to figure out how to make himself happy. She could no longer do that for him; not without sacrificing the one thing she couldn't live without.

"That's sweet of you, but you don't need to do that. Olivia and Emma are moving back in with me while I'm gone, so there'll be someone there," Natalia explained slowly, watching with a stab of grief as the spark of anger flared again in her son's eyes.

"Mama, you can't do this! You can't be with her. It's wrong. God says it's wrong!" Rafe yelled, the thin thread of control broken with his mother's words.

"No, Rafe. The church says it's wrong. Not God. God loves us and he wants us to be happy. That's all. Our faith is about love, Raphael, love. And if you really searched your heart, you would know that. I didn't raise you to judge anyone. I raised you to be a good man, a man who always tries to do the right thing, even when he fails. I didn't sacrifice all those years to watch my child turn into someone who hates, Rafe. I didn't," Natalia answered, the weariness and resignation in her voice a sharp contrast to Rafe's strident tones.

"So, you're choosing Olivia over your own son, is that it, Ma?" The venom in his tone shocked Natalia and she took a step back, unable for the moment to recognize the sweet boy who used to dance around their apartment in this angry, hateful man.

"No, Rafe. I'm not. I'm not the one choosing. I fell in love, that's all. In the greater scheme of things that have happened, not the worst crime. You're the one who's choosing. You're choosing your hate over me. I just hope that's a choice that you can live with, Raphael, because it's ripping me apart," Natalia replied, tears tracking soundlessly over high cheekbones. "I love you. I'll call you from Chicago."

Without another word she turned and walked away, making her way almost blindly to her car. She wanted to call Olivia, wanted to hear that voice telling her that she loved her and that everything would be all right. But it wasn't fair to the older woman to burden her with her grief over her son, not again. And besides, right at the moment, Natalia wasn't sure she could believe that anything would be okay.

Now, as the car sped along the asphalt, the skyline of Chicago looming ever closer, the congestion of traffic, the blare of dozens of car horns like tiny, precise projectiles into her brain, Natalia felt the suffocating pressure of her son's rage combine with nearly twenty years of her own pain and anger, forcing the air from her lungs. The world outside the confines of the car seemed to mirror the chaos inside her mind, the image growing larger, expanding exponentially as she drew nearer and nearer to Humboldt Park, every pothole in the road jarring her very soul. The expansive, blissful joy she had felt on waking in Olivia's arms this morning seemed like a lifetime ago.

Natalia felt a surge of resentment seep through her; resentment at Rafe for his narrow-minded judgment; at Frank and Father Ray for feeding her son's juvenile response; at the church for daring to tell her that this gift of love that God had sent her was wrong; at her father for his temerity in calling her to rush to the bedside of a woman who had abandoned her.

But mostly, resentment at her mother for using her as nothing more than a tool to clear a troubled conscience, a conscience that Natalia, her son's words echoing in her ears, wasn't certain deserved forgiveness.

Part 6

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