DISCLAIMER: All characters and situations to belong to a bunch of different people and companies who are not me. Also I'm making no money off this.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: For Rysler, for supporting this crazy, bat-shit idea of mine every step of the way, and me as I wrote it over an absolutely frantic fourteen day period in an effort to start NaNo on time. And everything else.
WARNING: This fic has sexual content. Unrelated to that, but additionally it is very dark in nature. Very dark. Do not that this lightly. If you hated "Even If It Killed Her" to the point you stopped reading, you'll like this one even less. No, seriously.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To procrastinatingsith[at]gmail.com
"So, what are you saying, Natalia?" Olivia demanded, no longer even trying to rein her temper in. Natalia had always been able to infuriate her, with her goody-goody-ness and holier than thou attitude. Most of the time, Olivia saw that as charming now, part of what she loved so much about Natalia, but every once in a while it turned into a blazing argument, as ferocious as any that had taken place during her recovery.
Sometimes their fights ended with red cheeks and heaving chests; one thing leading to another. Yelling one moment and kissing the next, tearing clothes off and stumbling for the bedroom, yet never quite making it there. That was Olivia's preferred method of solving their differences, but it wasn't going to end that way tonight. Natalia was too upset and the passion that they usually shared - whether fighting or making love - had been replaced by an ache in Olivia's chest that made it hard to breathe.
Somewhere between everyday nagging and all-out yelling, the argument had become too real, and neither one wanted to back down.
"I'm saying that if you want to kill yourself slowly, I'm not going to sit here and watch it. Every drink you take, shortens your life, Olivia. Takes time away that we could have together."
It was the "I'm not going to sit here and watch it" that caught at Olivia's heart. She heard it and then could hear nothing else. "So you're just gonna leave, is that it, Natalia? Things get a little bit hard and you just..." She pressed her lips into a fine line. "Fine!" She spat out the word, her voice rising with each one. "Fine!" She couldn't stand here and listen to this, listen to this.
"What are you doing?" Natalia sounded scared and Olivia hated it. She had heard Natalia angry at her many times, but never, even when she had been at her cruelest had Natalia sounded frightened of her. Disgusted maybe, but never scared. It choked down the apology that had been about to spill over her lips, cut off the urge to fall to her knees and beg Natalia to give her another chance.
"I'm leaving. You should be familiar with it."
Natalia gasped and blanched. The satisfaction that Olivia had expected to feel at such a palpable hit refused to come. Her hands tightened into fists and she fled outside before she could say something she might regret even more.
Olivia pressed the heel of her hand into her chest and sagged against the door of her Nissan, catching herself against the car. The ache had changed to a tightness. God, she couldn't breathe. Couldn't do this. Not again.
She needed a drink.
Dinner had been an exercise in misery, Emma asking questions about Olivia's whereabouts that Natalia couldn't answer and two-year-old Francesca crying out her unhappiness. She was still too young to catch all the intricacies of the situation, but she was certainly feeding off the tension in the room.
Emma was grumpy and uncooperative as they struggled through homework. It had taken nearly twice as long as usual and, there was still Francesca to bathe and put down when she was done. Chessy's temperament hadn't improved any and even Natalia's nearly infinite patience felt sorely tested before she was done with Francesca's bath, much less finally gotten her to sleep.
And Olivia still wasn't home.
Natalia knew exactly where she was - drinking with Doris. It was a well-developed pattern. Olivia always ran to Doris when there was a problem. Natalia didn't have a problem with that; she knew all about sounding boards. But what she hated was the way that Olivia staggered home at the end of the night, so drunk she could barely stand. Natalia had pleaded with her to stop it more than once, but Olivia never seemed to understand that the pleading came from fear.
Long before they had fallen in love, when Olivia was still just the woman who had Natalia's husband's heart, she had gone to Olivia's appointments with her and heard the statistics, straight from Dr. Rick's mouth. With her borrowed heart, Olivia had ten to fifteen years if she was lucky. Just the fact that it was Gus's heart - a man's heart - already reduced Olivia's chances. Time was the enemy, constantly slipping away. With every drink Olivia took, all Natalia could see was it slipping through her fingers more quickly. She didn't want a handful of years. She wanted a lifetime. But Olivia never seemed to hear her.
Natalia bit back tears.
Suddenly Natalia didn't care if Olivia was drinking, she wanted her home. Not because she wanted to stop her, but because she needed to hold her and be held. A flash of anger surged through her. She needed Olivia and Olivia was just throwing their time away, as casually as she pleased. Natalia would be the one left with four broken-hearted children and a life she didn't know how to live alone anymore. It was maddening and only one thing would ease the anguish in her heart.
Natalia reached for her phone and quickly typed out a text.
Come home. Please.
Short and simple. Part of her wondered if Olivia would even respond. For a few hopeful moments, Natalia sat on the couch waiting for a reply. When there was none, she moved to the kitchen and started cleaning up. There was no way she would be able to sleep any time soon.
Natalia was folding laundry when she heard someone pounding at the door, loud, angry, urgent slams that jolted through her. She dropped Olivia's shirt and headed for the door. Her heart had leaped, irrationally hoping that it was Olivia, but she had her keys. There would be no need to knock. And she certainly wouldn't do it that loudly and risk waking Francesca. Maybe it was Doris, probably more than a little tipsy herself, bringing Olivia home in her blind-leading-the-blind fashion.
But Natalia's chastisement died on her lips when she found Frank standing there, cap in hand.
"Oh, Frank." She pushed her hair back from her face and tried to shift mental gears. It was so late. "Francesca's already in bed..." she trailed off not sure what else to say. There was something in his expression she couldn't quite place. He looked beyond weary.
"Natalia, there's something I need to tell you," he intoned.
"Can it wait for tomorrow?" she asked, in no mood to deal with this. "It's so late." And Olivia wasn't home. Anything Frank had to say, he could say it to them both.
Frank shook his head, clutching his hat even tighter, almost crushing it in his hands.
"There was an accident."
It took a moment for his words to sink in.
Slowly Frank nodded.
"Oh, God." She clutched at her throat, terror gripping her instantly. "Is she at Cedars? How bad is it? I have to-"
But Frank was shaking his head again. "We found her car in the river, Natalia. It was..." He swallowed. "There was no way she could have... We haven't found a body yet, but it's just a matter of time. They're still searching. I thought you should hear it from me, before..." He kept speaking, but Natalia couldn't hear any of it. She just felt numb.
Olivia was gone.
Three months had passed since Frank had shown up at her door and given Natalia the worst news of her life. There were moments when it seemed like just the night before. Emma was still inconsolable. She had cried when Natalia had broken the news to her as gently as possible the next morning, but then dried her tears, something hardening inside of her as she did. For the first time Natalia had seen Olivia in her in a way that she had never expected, the same haunted look Olivia got in her eyes when she was as at her most hurt and most destructive.
"But Mommy had a new heart! She said she'd be fine." It was the first and only time Emma had lashed out. At the time it had broken Natalia's heart, reaching a part of her that hadn't been completely numbed to the pain already. Now Natalia almost wished Emma would lash out again. It would be preferable to her sad eyes and the absence of the vivacity that had always been such an innate part of Emma. She had lost Olivia, but now it felt like she was missing her little girl too.
Francesca, on the other hand, cried constantly, and no matter what Natalia tried, she wouldn't stop. Natalia had taken her to Dr. Rick, thinking it was teething or an ear infection or colic, but Rick hadn't been able to find anything wrong.
Finally Rick had turned to her, his large hands holding Francesca gently on the table, helping to keep her balanced. "I can't find anything wrong with her physically, Natalia."
"Something has to be wrong, Rick," Natalia had exclaimed, arms wrapped around her waist. "Look at her." And it was a pitiful sight. Francesca's full cheeks were red and blotchy, her face damp and her little chest heaved with small, staccato bursts of sobs.
"I think, Natalia..." He shook his head. "Sometimes there's no physical explanation for this. I think she's just looking for something that isn't there."
"You mean..." Natalia broke off, swallowing hard. She couldn't finish that sentence.
"If you have something that smells like her you might try giving it to Francesca," Rick said it so gently that it made Natalia want to lash out. "It might calm her. They do it with younger children, when they're trying to get them to take a bottle. If it smells like the mother..."
"Olivia, Rick," Natalia bit out her name. "You can say it. If it smells like Olivia it might trick her into thinking that her Mommy's still there. Don't you think that's cruel, Rick, tricking a child like that?"
"I think it might help her sleep and it might give you and Emma a few minutes of peace and quiet," Rick responded. "That's all, Natalia." He took a deep breath. "I'm sorry for what you're going through. I know how hard-"
"You don't know," Natalia snapped. "You have no idea what's its like, so don't pretend that you do."
Rick looked stunned. It was a side of Natalia that he had never seen.
"I'm sorry." He looked back down at Francesca. "If you want me to refer her to a specialist..."
"No." Natalia stepped between Rick and Francesca, forcing him to let go and scooped her up. "I'm not going to put her through something unnecessary."
"Right," Rick agreed, without much conviction. "Natalia, if you ever need to talk, I could refer you to-"
"Talk, Rick? I appreciate that you mean well, but talking isn't going to bring her back, is it? Talking is just going to- I see her in everything I do. I see her in Emma and Francesca. I can't forget her for one second. She's there constantly, but not - and I can't stand it, Rick. I don't want to talk about it."
"Okay," he said with nod. "I'm sorry. But if you ever want to, the offer stands."
Natalia had left without another word.
Now Francesca was curled up on the couch. She was sleeping, wrapped in one of Olivia's Armani suit jackets. It looked ridiculous, but it was the soundest and the longest that Francesca had slept in weeks, only whimpering occasionally. She bit her lip until she tasted blood. It was crazy to be jealous of her two year old's ability to derive some comfort from the scent trapped in a piece of clothing.
A knock startled Natalia, jarring her out of her thoughts. She had no idea how long she had been standing there, staring at Francesca. She moved through the living room on autopilot, going to the door mainly because she didn't want whoever was there to keep knocking and wake Francesca. The last thing she wanted to see was more do-gooders, or women from the church, checking on her and bringing her food. The same women who had glared and refused to speak to her when they had found out she was with Olivia. She wanted to shove their food back in their hypocritical faces.
Natalia smiled bitterly to herself. Maybe the anger was her little piece of Olivia, like Francesca's co-opted jacket. She swung the door open and took a startled step back. It was Phillip, a far cry from the self-righteous church ladies that she'd been expecting.
"Phillip." She felt something that almost could have been relief. Emotion had been distant since Olivia had died. Everything had been difficult and feeling - anything - had been no exception.
"Natalia," he didn't try to smile. "I came by to see Emma."
"Of course," she said, holding the door open. "Come in." She pressed her hand to her forehead. "I think she's up in her room." Emma had been spending a lot of time up there lately. Natalia had tried to get her to come down but with Francesca's nearly constant crying, she could hardly blame Emma for wanting to hide.
Francesca shifted on the couch and Natalia glanced over automatically, holding her breath as tiny eyelids fluttered, only exhaling when they stilled again.
"You can go on up," she murmured softly to Phillip.
He nodded, sticking his hands in his pockets awkwardly. "If there's anything I can do..."
Her teeth ground together and she forced herself to nod, turning her head until Phillip had walked away, taking the stairs up to Emma's room.
Natalia waited until she heard the soft murmur of voices from upstairs before she walked back toward the kitchen, returning to the dishes had lain abandoned for sometime. Maybe Phillip could reach Emma where she couldn't. She just couldn't seem to find anything in herself to give to Emma. She wanted to be able to comfort Emma, to scream and cry like Francesca, but she just couldn't.
She heard a whimper from the living room and tensed, gripping the edge of the sink so tightly that her knuckles turned white. The whimper hitched and then turned into a sob, a sob that grew into a long cry.
"Damn it." The moment the words had spilled out of her mouth, Natalia snapped her teeth together. She couldn't believe she had said it, but then she had meant it. Living with saying it was the least of her worries at the moment.
She took a deep breath and dried her hands, forcing herself to go back into the living room. Phillip was just coming down the stairs as Natalia reached down to pick up Francesca.
"Hi." He looked uncomfortable. "I wanted to make sure everything was okay."
"I can take care of my daughter."
"I know," he said with impressive calm. "If it's okay, I think Emma wants to go over to Jodi's for a little while."
Natalia wasn't sure how she felt about it. Had Emma thought she couldn't confide in Natalia or had it been Phillip's suggestion? Did it really matter if Emma was finally showing an interest in something? "Sure."
Francesca cried louder; Natalia jiggled her on her hip, trying to soothe and distract her. Natalia wished she would shut up. Who was she crying for? Someone that she would have no memory of in just a few years. Natalia had lost far more - the love of her life, her whole world. And she wasn't screaming about it, was she?
Phillip reached down to pick the crumpled coat up off the couch. Natalia resisted the urge to snap at him for touching it. Without a word he hung it over Francesca's tiny shoulders.
She swallowed, trying to push down her anger, her frustration with Olivia - and the entire world since Olivia wasn't there to the target of her ire. "Rick thought it might help. She won't stop crying."
"She misses her mommy."
"She has to stop crying sometime. Nothing's going to change because she's--" How many thoughts had she bit off over the past weeks? So many. Olivia was everywhere and nowhere. It only made it worse.
"What about a change of scenery?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, Emma's going to Jodi's. Why not see if Frank can take Francesca for a little while? She's used to Olivia not being around when she's with him, maybe it will be a distraction." He shrugged.
It was a good idea. Natalia wondered why she hadn't thought of it.
"Emma and I can drop you off."
Natalia couldn't see a reason to refuse, so she didn't.
Natalia tried not to think as she sank back into the soft leather of the seats in Phillip's car. The scent of his cologne permeated the car. It wasn't a smell Natalia would have been drawn to before; she had no particular association with it. But right now it felt like a good thing. She had no memories of Olivia with her here and now. They had never kissed here or shared a look full of meaning. It was a space completely absent of them and Natalia was almost grateful.
She didn't realize her eyes had fallen closed until she heard Phillip's car door slam closed. Natalia forced herself to open them again.
Phillip took a moment to belt himself in - he had gone in with her to drop Francesca off, even though she had assured him it would be unnecessary - then looked over at her. "Can I take you anywhere?"
She shrugged. Emma had been dropped off at Jodi's on the way and there was nothing pressing at the moment. She didn't particularly want to go back to the farmhouse, but she wasn't sure where else to go. Not the park or the Beacon.
"You know it might do you good to get out for a little while yourself."
Natalia rolled her head against the headrest until she was facing him. The car really was too comfortable. "What do you suggest? A movie?" It felt ridiculous.
"No. That wouldn't..."
Natalia put her hand on his wrist, trying to convey her sincerity. "I appreciate the offer, but there's nothing."
He nodded and for the first time Natalia felt like someone understood.
"Do you trust me?"
It was a loaded question and they both knew it.
"I mean, for right now, today. I'm not trying to pressure you. Emma is a better person because of you. I want her to be exactly where she is."
"Oh." Natalia had hardly thought about that, but Phillip's reassurances were good. She didn't know many things right now, but she did know that if he tried to take her girl away she would fight him tooth and nail, just as fiercely as Olivia would have. "Good."
"Good," Phillip smiled as if that settled it and put the car in gear.
Natalia started to protest, but then gave a small mental shrug. After all, where else did she have to be? She had almost drifted off to sleep without realizing it when the car came to a stop again. She struggled momentarily against the fuzziness in her mind as she tried to orient herself.
Phillip shrugged. "It's a little off the beaten path these days."
Translation: he didn't think she and Olivia had ever been there together. And he was right. Natalia sighed, almost grateful for the small gesture. Phillip's thoughtfulness didn't rankle the way so many others did. Maybe because they had always known exactly where they had stood with Olivia and with each other. He didn't pretend to be anything other than what he was and right now she appreciated that.
"Have you ever been up there?"
"No," Natalia shook her head and took a deep breath. Why not?
"There's no time like the present." Phillip's innocently intended words struck her like a blow to the abdomen and for a moment she struggled to breathe.
"Right." She climbed out of the car, using it to hide her face from him.
They stayed silent for the climb up the lighthouse. Phillip didn't try to start a conversation and Natalia felt no need to. She might have once upon a time, but not now. The view was impressive, Natalia had to admit that.
Clouds shrouded the sun and a brisk wind cut through the air. Natalia shivered, the cold air going through her clothes as if they weren't even there.
Without a word, Phillip slipped of his coat and settled it on her shoulders. Natalia glanced over at him and tried to smile.
"It's beautiful. Thank you for bringing me. But-" she hesitated- "shouldn't you be home with Beth?"
"Olivia didn't-" He frowned and cut himself off. "I'm sorry. Beth and I aren't..." His lips thinned. "Everything with Beth and I is complicated. Right now things aren't working out."
What could she say to that? Natalia would have given anything for things with Olivia to be complicated. Dead was so very, very simple. Suddenly Natalia felt words choking, words she hadn't said to anyone, even that night. "We had a fight the night she-- That's why-- If she hadn't been drinking with Doris, she might not-- Olivia might still be alive and Emma wouldn't look like she'd been gutted and Francesca might stop crying."
"It's not your fault - or hers."
"She was driving drunk, Phillip. That's what Frank said. There was someone at Towers who saw her stumble out into the parking lot and get into her car." Her hands clenched. "I hate her. I. hate. her. for doing that." Her muscles strained, her body wound so tightly that she shook and trembled. Her jaw clenched and her nails bit into her palms, but she just trembled harder until she was shaking uncontrollably.
Phillip put his hand on her shoulder. She didn't push him away. His other arm enfolded her so gently that it hurt.
"I hate her," she whispered again, the sound muffled by his shoulder. The shaking turned into great gasping sobs. For the first time since Frank had come to her door, she cried.
Frank held his daughter, who was for the moment blissfully silent, gumming on a few Cheerios. In the past Natalia would have warned him of the danger of sticky hands covered in slobbery Cheerio mash. Today she was content to let him discover it for himself. She was surprised he hadn't already. Francesca had been spending more time with Frank over the last week. Phillip's theory about Francesca not expecting Olivia to be there when she was with her father seemed to be holding true. Natalia hated spending less time with her baby, but if Francesca was happier then it was a trade off that she could handle.
She wished there was somewhere she could go that would make the ache of missing Olivia go away.
"I could, uh, come over and mow the lawn sometime. If you need me to." Frank shuffled awkwardly, fussing with Francesca's jacket in an attempt to make it seem like a casual offer.
"Ah, thank you, Frank. I appreciate the offer, but we have a service that comes over." Natalia winced. We. She couldn't stop saying it. It had a habit of slipping out subconsciously, without warning.
"Oh, right, of course you do."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Natalia demanded, already knowing of course. How many times had Frank let his petty bitterness toward Olivia slip out while they were together? And Natalia had let him do it, as long as he kept those little jabs discreet and ignorable enough that she could pretend she hadn't heard them. Olivia had. She had felt them slide in with unerring accuracy and Natalia had done nothing, because she was more worried about Frank and his crushed pride. She had placated herself with the knowledge that Olivia knew she didn't believe the things Frank was saying and that her love would make up for it.
"Nothing," Frank said, surprised and a little defensive. "Just that it makes sense that Olivia would have wanted a service to do it."
"How do you know it wasn't my idea?"
"Uh, I didn't. I just assumed. Natalia, if something I said upset you, I didn't mean to." He frowned. "I'm just trying to be here for you. I know you're going through a hard time right now and I want to do anything I can to help. I just thought it might be something I could do for you."
"I got the service because she wanted to do it herself, with that horrible push mower out in the barn. I thought she'd give herself a heart attack if she tried. Ironic, isn't it?"
"Don't, Frank," she said, cutting him off before he could finish whatever he was going to say. "I appreciate you taking Francesca more this past week, but I don't want your pity."
"It's not pity." The tears swimming in his eyes belied his words. "She was my friend, too. And I care about you, Natalia. You're the mother of my child. I just want you to be okay."
The urge to lash out, to yell at him to get out of her house - to shut up - was almost overwhelming. Her nails were already beginning to dig familiar grooves into her palms. Frank looked like he was about to touch her, put a hand on her shoulder. Natalia wasn't sure she could be held responsible for her actions if he did.
The screen door squeaked as it opened, drawing their attention and providing a welcome distraction.
"Emma?" Natalia called, puzzled at who else might be coming in unannounced. Rafe had been granted a short period of leave from the army to come home when it had first happened, but he had been gone for several months now.
"Not quite," Phillip said as he walked into the living room. "I hope I'm not intruding. Emma called me and said she'd forgotten her backpack. She asked if I could bring it to her."
Which was odd, because Natalia distinctly remembered Emma hefting her backpack as she ran for the bus that morning. But this was Phillip, and he rarely did anything without a purpose. Natalia knew that about him.
"Oh. I should go...look for that." She turned her attention back to her youngest, stroking down her riotous curls and giving her a kiss on the cheek. "Frank," she smiled as much as she could. "I guess I'll see you later."
"Oh, right. I guess I should go then. Miss Emma needs that backpack."
He bent and kissed her on the cheek before she could turn away and then headed out the door, talking animatedly to Francesca as they went.
Phillip didn't say anything as Natalia crossed the room to watch Frank strap Francesca into her car seat. She didn't look away until they were pulling out of the driveway.
"Emma had her backpack this morning."
He nodded. "I know." He shrugged. "Well, I mean, not exactly, but she didn't call me. I just happened to be passing by and when I saw Frank's car I thought I'd stop and see if everything was okay."
"And you didn't think it was?" Natalia wasn't sure if she should feel insulted by that or just relieved at the interruption.
"You had this look on your face when I walked in." Phillip smiled, his eyes almost dancing with mirth. "I've seen it before - on Olivia's face. It was her 'I really want to dismember you - slowly' expression. I thought Frank might need rescuing. That's all."
"Frank? Not me?"
"No," he shook his head. "You're an incredibly strong woman, Natalia. You had the strength to come and confront me about Emma, even knowing that Olivia would be very angry if she found out what you'd done. It takes someone with amazing will and stubbornness to do something like that. I wouldn't presume to jump to your defense - or coddle you. You're perfectly capable of taking care of yourself."
And the only person she had ever wanted to take care of her couldn't anymore. It wasn't fair.
"He never really got over you, you know." Phillip's dry observation was his second welcome interruption.
"Now that sounds like something Olivia would say."
"She would know."
Natalia's head snapped up; Phillip held up his hand in a gesture of surrender.
"I didn't mean it like that; just that she would know what it looked like not to be able to get over you. She saw that expression in the mirror often enough."
"So you think, what...that Frank wants to be with me?"
Phillip shrugged. "Maybe he just wants to be there for you as a friend."
"But you don't think so?"
Phillip hesitated and then shook his head. "No, I don't. And I don't think you do either. But the good thing is, how you feel about that is completely up to you."
Natalia shot him a horrified look. "I don't love Frank."
"Okay," Phillip said, accepting her statement at face value. "I know it's only been a few months, Natalia, and I would never try to push you to do anything, but just because she's dead, doesn't mean you should stop living." His lips quirked upward into a smile that was more bitter than sweet. "She wouldn't want that."
"I can't," Natalia stammered. "It's too soon. I'm not even thinking about that. I just-"
"It's okay. You don't have to explain anything to me."
Natalia took a deep shuddering breath. She was having a hard enough time just struggling to get through each day. She couldn't even begin to think about imagining a future with someone else.
"I hope I didn't upset you."
"No," Natalia said quickly. "I know you mean well, Phillip."
"Then you'll accept my invitation to dinner at Towers this evening."
Natalia looked startled.
"As a friend. I was planning to dine alone, but I think you could use an evening out. Jane can watch Emma for one meal, and as Emma's parents I think we could use a meal to discuss things."
"Oh?" A tight fist of fear clenched in Natalia's chest.
"Yes, I've heard from Lizzie that there might be a boy - that Emma likes."
Natalia snorted, almost relieved at the horror she heard in Phillip's voice. Then she clapped her hand over her mouth in disbelief. She couldn't remember the last time she had laughed.
"It's okay to laugh, Natalia," Phillip said gently. "It doesn't mean you miss her any less."
"Right. You're right." She almost managed to convince herself. "Okay. I'll go." Anything to get out of the house and away from the endless loop of her thoughts.
Phillip smiled, looking pleased with himself. "Great."
"Thank you, Phillip," Natalia said, lingering in front of the door, keys in hand. "It was a very nice evening."
"You hated every second of it." But he didn't say it like he was offended by it.
She raised one shoulder in a shrug, not knowing what to say. She wasn't even sure she was capable of fun these days. It felt too hard.
"Maybe," Natalia admitted. "But thank you anyway." She laid her fingers on his wrist briefly. Against his skin, they felt like icicles. "I know what you're trying to do - taking care of me because you were Olivia's friend and that's what she would have wanted. You were a good friend to her. A good ex-husband." The words sounded like an oxymoron, but that seemed to apply to the relationships Olivia'd had with her exes.
He nodded, not looking sheepish at all that she had realized his intentions. "I consider you a friend, too, you know, and I hope the feeling is mutual. And we have a little girl that's very important to both of us to consider. It would make things less awkward for the next fifty years if we could be friends for her sake."
"Are you going to try to get custody of Emma?" Natalia asked it bluntly. The question had been weighing on her mind. After they had moved in together, Olivia had made Natalia Emma's legal guardian and in her will she had set it in motion for Natalia to adopt Emma if anything should happen to her, erring on the side of caution when it came to her little girl's security. But despite having any legal rights to Emma stripped away years before, Phillip was still her biological father and he had the Spaulding name behind him. There had been no indication that he was planning to, but she wanted to know now if she was going to be facing him in court.
"Do you know of a reason that I should?" Apparently it was a rhetorical question, because when she didn't reply he continued. "I don't. She's happy and healthy here. I won't take her out a home where she's loved like this."
"Not so happy right now."
"I know." His expression darkened. "You can see it in her eyes."
"It reminds me of Olivia."
His eyes flicked up to meet hers and for the first time he looked startled. "Emma might not be happy now, but she will be again one day."
"How do you know that?"
"Because Olivia might have looked that way once, but you're the one responsible for lifting that shadow from her eyes. You made her happy."
"What if I can't do that again?" What if I have nothing left without her?
"You already have. You taught her how to be happy and resilient. She just needs time - to grieve and to remember."
It was a sentiment that Natalia appreciated, but couldn't quite believe. Not yet.
Two months later
The small auditorium was full, the sheer amount of people milling in the small space raising the noise level to a dull roar. The stuffy air made it hard for Natalia to breathe.
"My little girl looks all grown up," Phillip said, disbelief plain in his voice.
Too fast in Emma's case, Natalia thought. But Emma had certainly shined today. She hadn't gotten the lead in the school play. She had gotten a smaller, but important part. And she had pulled it off with that special Emma Spencer flare. Best of all had been the smile that broke across her face at the end as the group of costumed children had taken their final bow. It had been free and unfettered, reaching up to make her eyes sparkle. It had been like the old Emma shining through, the one who hadn't lost her mother far too young.
"She looked wonderful," Natalia said, wiping at the corner of her eye. She had tried not to think about the fact that it should have been Olivia beside her and not Phillip, or about how proud Olivia would have been. But even focusing on Emma couldn't block everything out. She would think of how grown up Emma had looked today and then the thought that Olivia would never get to see her like that would cross her mind, bringing a fresh ache to her heart. It was never really absent, but there were moments when she could almost breathe again. This wasn't one of them.
Parents were standing now, milling in small groups here and there, discussing their child's performance and bragging about the video they had recorded or the pictures they had taken. It might as well have been the Oscars, not a fifth grade play.
Natalia watched a woman who looked like a teacher moving through the crowd, speaking to parents as she passed, consoling the mother of the little girl who had forgotten all her lines and turned bright red, and commiserating with the father of the little boy who'd just stuck his tongue out and refused to speak at all. Though Natalia thought she might have seen the woman around school before she didn't know her name. What she'd heard from Emma about her usual teacher, Natalia liked. She hadn't much concerned herself with it beyond that. If Emma was all right, then she was all right. That's what she told herself. She would be more involved next year. Maybe then it would be easier. Natalia found it hard to imagine.
It was odd that Emma's usual teacher wasn't here though.
"Hi," the teacher said, greeting them warmly as she reached them. "I'm Ms. Lasner. You must be...Emma's parents, right?" At Natalia's nod she continued. "She was so good tonight."
"Uh, yes, we are," Natalia agreed. "I thought Ms. Endig was Emma's teacher this year?" Surely she hadn't been so preoccupied that she'd missed a change in Emma's teacher.
"Oh, I'm sorry. She is. She came down with something today and the principal asked me to take over for her. We take turns putting on the play, every other year. It was her turn this year, but I'm always happy to pitch in."
"It went very smoothly," Phillip assured her. "The kids looked like they were having fun."
"Some of them too much, maybe," Ms. Lasner said with a fond smile. "But Emma was a little star." She smiled over at Natalia. "You and your husband must be so proud of her."
Everything in Natalia froze - her muscles tensed, her breath caught and she could have sworn her heart skipped a beat. Phillip shot her a worried look, but she couldn't speak. She didn't have the words and nothing would come out.
"Ah, we're not married," he said with a calm smile. "Just Emma's parents."
"Oh, I'm sorry. You two just looked so comfortable together, that I just assumed..." Ms. Lasner, trailed off, and gave her head a firm shake. "I shouldn't have presumed and I hope you can accept my apology."
Natalia hardly heard her. All she could think of was another teacher and a very similar assumption. "Excuse me," she murmured, not waiting for them to respond before she turned and fled, pushing her way through the crowd of people toward the exit. She got all the way out to the car before she remembered that Phillip had brought them. She sagged against the door, doubling over until she could catch her breath, not caring who saw her or what they might have to say about it.
Natalia couldn't hold in a laugh at the irony of it all. She and Olivia had fought that day because she had cared too much about people's assumptions about them and now here she was today, no longer caring what people thought, and Olivia wasn't there to appreciate it.
It wasn't fair.
Natalia gasped, a sob rising up in her throat to choke her. She tried to take another breath, but no air would come. All she could do was let out great, gasping sobs, desperately trying to pull in air. She felt a gentle hand on her shoulder. Natalia didn't need to look up to know that it was Phillip. No one else would have come near her in this state. Desperately she clutched at his arm like a drowning woman clutching at a life preserver.
He pulled her up and wrapped her in his arms. Her nails bit painfully into his back even through his coat. Phillip didn't flinch or even offer words of comfort; he just held her until the sobs became tears. Natalia took a shuddering breath and tried to pull herself together, but tears continued to slip down her cheeks even as she sniffed them back.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled, plucking at his shirt.
"You don't have to apologize to me," Phillip said matter-of-factly. "I've been there. Beth was presumed dead once."
She blinked up at him, confusion registering even through her grief.
He gave a little shrug. "It's a long story. Doesn't really matter now, but you don't ever have to apologize to me for missing her, because I know exactly how it feels."
Her fingers tightened, digging into a handful of his shirt, crumpling it inside her fist. "I miss her so much; I can't stand it. I feel so alone all the time. Emma gets a good grade or Francesca learns a new word and I turn to tell her about it and she's not there. I spent so many years alone, raising Rafe, waiting for Gus to come back. I don't want to be alone anymore. She made me want that, but the only person I want to be with is her. She made everything...amazing. She introduced me to a life that I never imagined and she could make anything better - just by being there. With me.
I can't stop thinking about what she would think or say about something. I see her everywhere. I can't make her feel dead. She won't go away and I can't stand it anymore. She's everywhere."
He held her shoulders, waiting until she had spent herself and all her words had spilled out.
But she couldn't. Even after all of that, she couldn't breath, couldn't think. Couldn't stop missing Olivia. It was an all-consuming ache that never seemed to go away. It felt endless and inescapable.
She kissed him out of desperation, clutching his face in her hands and pressing her lips against his, trying to feel something, anything, other than the anguish of Olivia's loss. It lasted for an infinite moment, until she slowly let go, her hands sliding down to his chest, and fell back onto her heels.
Their gazes locked and held.
"Daddy! Natalia! Did you see? Did you see?" Emma's voice rang out across the parking lot and jerked them both out of the moment that had held them together. Natalia yanked her hands away from Phillip's chest and almost stumbled away from him, her eyes wild.
By the time Emma reached them, the only indication of what had happened in the parking lot was the puffy redness of Natalia's eyes.
It was a beautiful day - sunny, but not too bright. The air was mild and a gentle breeze ruffled the branches of the trees that skirted the yard. Emma was at a sleepover at Jodi's house and Natalia had brought Francesca outside to play while she worked in the flowerbeds by the porch. Once she might have called it soothing and fun; now it was just something else that needed to be done.
Her back was to the driveway, so it was the crunch of the gravel under the tires and the soft sound of the engine that she heard first. She glanced over her shoulder, curious about who was coming to visit, and saw Phillip's car. Something inside her tensed and slowly she pushed herself to her feet. She hadn't seen Phillip since the night of Emma's play. It had been awkward but she had stayed through the celebratory dinner out that they had promised Emma afterwards. It had felt like more torture to Natalia, a reminder of the night she would always think of as her first date with Olivia. Emma had even ordered spaghetti. Natalia had barely been able to touch her own food.
She had managed to avoid being alone with Phillip for the rest of the evening, keeping Emma between them like a shield. She had no idea what she would have said, or how to explain what she had done. She had hardly tasted the rich, garlic-y alfredo, but she couldn't forget the unfamiliar feel of dry, chapped lips pressed against her own, the hint of menthol that made her lips tingle. It was disconcerting and left her heart still trip-hammering away in her chest, beating out a staccato rhythm of anxiety.
Why had she done it? Had it been worth it? What had she been thinking? It didn't really matter. It was done now and nothing about it had managed to fill the gaping hole of Olivia's absence. She yearned for the familiarity of softness and gentle curves, not hard muscles and chapped skin.
Phillip stepped out of the car, shoving his hands in his pockets, and made his way over to her slowly, giving her plenty of time to react to her approach.
"Emma isn't here," Natalia said, wiping her hands on her pants as she stood up. "...but you knew that." Spending the weekends at Spaulding Mansion with her father had slowly become a part of Emma's routine since Phillip had recovered enough from his from his illness to keep up with his always-energetic little girl. The sleepover had been impossible for Em to turn down though, so Natalia had made Emma call and explain to Phillip why she wouldn't be coming.
It had the added bonus of not making it necessary for Natalia to call Phillip himself.
"I did," Phillip agreed. He stopped a comfortable distance away from her, a little bit farther than he would usually stand, but close enough to still talk easily. "I thought we might need to talk. About what happened after Emma's play."
"I don't know what to say." Natalia spread her hands. "I don't know why I..."
Phillip gave a little smile. "It's okay. I do. You love Olivia. You miss her and the only reason you kissed me was because I was there."
"I'm sorry," Natalia offered. "I should never have done that. I just...the first time she kissed me was after a presentation of Emma's. Ms. Jennings made the same assumption Ms. Lasner did."
"Is that when the two of you became a couple?" Phillip asked gently.
"Oh, no," Natalia said, surprising herself by smiling at the question. "Olivia kissed me. 'To make a point' she said. She was the one who talked to Emma's teacher - and recognized the way people were looking at us. I didn't get it at all."
Phillip's smile turned into a faint smirk. "That sounds like something Olivia would do. Forgive me for asking, but nothing happened then?" He saw the faintly horrified look on her face. "Not like that," he amended quickly. "I mean, you didn't realize you felt something more than friendship for her?"
"Oh," Natalia said, her cheeks flushing as she realized how she had misinterpreted his comments. Of course Phillip wouldn't be asking about that. "No, I mean, we were arguing, when she kissed me. I thought she was ashamed of us - of being seen with me as a family. Rafe was in the prison infirmary and we just made it back to the school in time for Emma's presentation. But she was trying to tell me how people saw us and she got so frustrated." Natalia couldn't help but smile at the memory. "That's when she kissed me. I had no idea why she'd done it - it was totally out of the blue for me." Her smile turned fond and conspiritorial. "It didn't help that I couldn't think at all when she got done kissing me. That should have been my first clue."
"But it wasn't?"
Natalia shook her head. "Not for a long time. I couldn't stop thinking about it though. I had no idea what it meant." She brought her fingers to her lips and Phillip wondered if she could still feel that phantom kiss. She shook her head and abruptly dropped her hand as if she hadn't been aware of what she was doing. She wrapped her arms around her waist, holding herself tightly. "We wasted so much time."
"It was the happiest I ever saw Olivia," Phillip offered, hoping the knowledge would comfort her but knowing it would do little.
Natalia smiled again but it was more pained this time. Phillip immediately missed the less sad versions of a few moments ago. "It doesn't matter. I hope you'll accept my apology for what happened."
"Of course," Phillip said gallantly. "But it isn't necessary. I understand."
"Thank you." Natalia fidgeted, brushing a piece of hair out of her face. "I'm glad someone does."
Phillip nodded. "I just wanted to make sure that things weren't weird between us. We're still Emma's parents and I didn't want it to be uncomfortable - for her or for us."
"Right. Emma is the most important thing."
He smiled. "That we can definitely agree on." He rocked back on his heels a little. "So...we're okay then?"
"We are," Natalia said, with a certainty she didn't quite feel. It still seemed strange that she had knowledge of kissing this man now.
"Will you still be coming to the cocktail party at Spaulding then? I think it would be good for the board members to get to meet you."
"I don't know. Something tells me I'm not what they expect."
"Who says that's a bad thing?" Phillip countered. "But you should be there to represent Emma."
"You can't just..." Natalia made a gesture.
"I can advise you, of course, if you'd like, but it does need to be you. Olivia left you in charge of Emma's stock until she's old enough to manage it herself. Or hire someone to do it. She wanted you to look after Emma's interests."
"But you would never do something that hurt Emma."
"No," he said slowly. "But I have other children - and several ex-wives. There could come a time when what's best for them and what's best for Emma is in conflict. This way there's someone looking out for Emma who always has her best interest as their first priority."
"Okay. Then...I'll be there."
Phillip smiled, pleased to have won this round. "Excellent. Then I'll see you there," he said, backing away toward his car.
"Don't forget to pick up Emma," Natalia called after him.
"Right." He agreed with a quick nod.
And for just a moment, it almost felt normal.
"See? Not so bad," Phillip said, glancing around the room with a critical eye, surveying all that he saw and making note of what was and wasn't to his satisfaction.
"Not so bad?" Natalia murmured. "Everyone is staring at us!" It had been the same when she was with Olivia, if for different reasons. They had made a striking couple. But Natalia had never gotten used to being the center of attention. Olivia had thrived on it; Natalia had merely tolerated it.
"They're staring because you look breathtaking this evening." Phillip said it so casually that it actually took a moment for his words to register with her.
It wasn't that it was the first time that Natalia had heard something like that said to her. Olivia had told her frequently that she was beautiful, amazing, gorgeous, and it hadn't been merely habit. There had always been a note of awe in her voice that said it was completely genuine. In Olivia's eyes, she had felt beautiful. She had never doubted either, that of the two of them, Olivia was more beautiful - in her admittedly biased opinion, the epitome of everything a woman should be.
Natalia just hadn't realized that Phillip saw her as "breathtaking". It sent a small frisson of...something - power, excitement, pleasure - down her spine.
"Thank you. But I don't think Mr. Cafferty would agree with you."
"Mr. Cafferty spends a large portion of his time struggling not to agree with anyone."
His dry words startled a laugh from Natalia. She clapped a hand over her mouth, unable to believe that she'd laughed at that. "That's horrible. I'm sure he's not so..."
Phillip's eyes twinkled merrily. "Would you like to find out?"
She shot an admonishing look. "No, we couldn't. That's just...mean."
"It wouldn't be mean. Think of it as an experiment, testing my hypothesis."
Natalia shook her head. "You're almost as bad as Olivia."
It was Phillip's turn to laugh, a rich melodious sound that warmed Natalia. "Considering the source, I'll take that as a compliment."
Natalia was just about to reply when she noticed the Spauldings' longtime butler, Jeremy, discretely moving toward Phillip through the throng of people. She didn't have to look any further than the small slip of paper to know what he was doing. She touched Phillip's arm and gestured discretely toward him. Phillip followed her gaze, his focus sharpening as he slipped into 'business mode'.
Natalia hadn't noted the distinction, but hadn't realized that he had seemed more relaxed all evening, not as formal and guarded as he usually was in a business situation. Maybe he was just trying to make her feel more at ease. It would be thoughtful like him to do that.
"Excuse me for just a moment," Phillip murmured as Jeremy approached, his expression growing even more serious.
"Sure," Natalia said, letting her hand fall away from his arm with a smile.
Phillip hesitated. "Will you be okay for a moment?"
"Of course." He still didn't look certain. "I've been to plenty of events like this with Olivia. I know how to fend for myself."
"Something tells me she could be scarier than I am, though."
Natalia doubted that, but it would be rude to say so. And he meant it in a fond, complimentary way. "I'll be fine." She smiled too sweetly. "None of them will even know what hit them."
At that, Phillip finally relaxed. "Maybe I should pity them. I certainly didn't know what hit me when you came barging into my office."
"I didn't barge," Natalia protested, but she didn't dispute the rest of it.
"Sir," Jeremy said, his voice pitched low and for Phillip's ears alone as he finally reached them.
"Yes," Phillip said, turning away and giving him his full attention.
Natalia waited, but when it seemed like it would take longer than just a moment, she turned and slowly began to make her way through the crowd. She didn't see anyone she knew as more than a casual acquaintance, so she didn't linger. When a passing waiter offered a glass of champagne, she took it, sipping slowly. She didn't feel like herself tonight, but some other creature. It was an uncomfortable feeling.
"You must be the one."
"Excuse me?" Natalia wondered if she'd miss understood him. The statement was so out of the blue.
"The reason Spaulding threw this party."
"Oh, no, I think you must have me confused with someone else," Natalia said lightly. "I'm just a friend of Phillip's." She hesitated. Well, maybe friend wasn't exactly correct. "I'm his daughter's other mother."
His eyebrows shot up as he realized who she was. She almost liked that his response was surprise, not pity. Surely he had to have heard about Olivia's death. Olivia was an influential enough person and her connection with the Spauldings' was well known. The paper's coverage had been extensive and Natalia had canceled it almost immediately after the accident.
"Samuel Bishop," he said, extending his hand. "And I don't think I was wrong."
Natalia narrowed her eyes. "Oh? How so?"
"You're new blood! The Spaulding Board hasn't seen that in years, not since-" He bit off his next words and Natalia knew what he had been about to say.
"Not since Olivia?"
"Right." He hesitated for a moment. "I feel like I should apologize for being an ass. I shouldn't have-"
"No, it's okay." Natalia said, surprising herself in that it really was. Maybe not okay. Saying Olivia's name still felt like a paper cut on top of a thousand others, an inch-deep wound that had been made one tiny slice at a time and was constantly being added to, but it was a pain that was becoming familiar.
She realized the champagne flute in her hand was empty. "Why don't you make it up to me by getting me another one of these?" It wasn't like her, but what was these days? And the last thing she wanted was for the conversation to continue down the path it was on.
"Certainly," he said, flashing her a charming smile. "Anything the lady wants."
Natalia smiled, wishing he would leave. "Thank you."
She felt the warmth of someone's presence behind her and glanced over her shoulder. Phillip had reappeared, looking serious but inquisitive.
"I see you've found someone to keep you company."
He seemed tense, Natalia noted, not as relaxed as he had been earlier.
"Mr. Bishop introduced himself a moment ago." Not really saying anything one way or another. She had picked up a few tricks from Olivia - not that she would have bothered to be diplomatic. "He was just going to get me another drink."
"I see." Yep, she wasn't imagining it now. There was definitely something frosty in Phillip's tone. Natalia just wasn't sure why.
"Mr. Spaulding, always a pleasure," Samuel said with a smile. "And the lady's correct. I did promise her a fresh drink. Be right back." He spun on his heel and ducked through the crowd, plainly searching for the nearest server.
"Bad news?" Natalia asked, keeping her voice low and soft. Not commiserating, but pitching her words so that no one could overhear.
"No, actually, very good news. I was just informed that a deal has gone through that will significantly raise the value of Spaulding stock. You should be thrilled."
Natalia was stumped. She could play twenty questions and tiptoe around the obvious or she could be blunt. She went with the latter. She found she had less patience these days.
"Then what's wrong?"
"Nothing." There was something in the clipped, curt way that he said it that felt familiar to Natalia, but she couldn't place it. "Was Mr. Bishop bothering you?"
"No, he was...entertaining." Natalia thought about it a little bit longer. "He wasn't scared of me. Everyone treats me like I'm fragile." She tensed. "Like I'm going to break any second. I hate it."
"He's interested in your money, you know," Phillip said flatly. "Emma's money."
Natalia's head snapped up. "I would never-" She bit off her sharp retort and narrowed her eyes. "Why are you doing this?"
"I'm just trying to open your eyes to exactly who Mr. Bishop is. He might seem handsome, charming, kind, even, but he isn't. He's shrewd, cunning and not to be trusted in the least."
"He was getting me a drink, not asking me to sign over Emma's stock," Natalia countered, her mind working frantically as she tried to figure out what was really going on here. There was no reason for Phillip to be this upset or for them to be arguing like this. "Did something happen that you're not telling me about?"
"No, of course not," he said dismissively.
"Phillip," Natalia said firmly. "Tell me what's going on."
"No, it's not any of your concern. I'll deal with it. And Samuel Bishop," he muttered under his breath.
Realization hit Natalia like a bolt of lightning. She spoke it before she thought about it, or else she would have dismissed it out of hand. "You're jealous."
The murderous intent in his voice when he spoke of Samuel Bishop was more than a little familiar. It hadn't happened often, but when Olivia would get jealous of someone paying attention to Natalia, her voice would hold that same note of possessiveness. It shouldn't have taken her that long to recognize it, but it was Phillip. It had never even occurred to her that he would think of her that way. Natalia wasn't sure how she felt about it. Hurt, betrayed maybe. Definitely a little stunned.
"Tell me I'm wrong," Natalia demanded in a quiet voice that nonetheless required an answer.
He held her gaze for a long moment, so long that Natalia began to think she might be wrong. Her cheeks began to heat, flushing at the thought of her impending embarrassment. And then his gaze flicked away, unable to hold hers. It was as good as a signed statement.
She tilted her head, her view of him shifting with it. "I can't believe I..." She let the thought trail off, beginning to pace back and forth in front of him. "I should leave. I'm leaving."
It spurred Phillip into action. "Natalia, wait, please." He touched her arm and she yanked it away.
"Don't touch me," she ground the words out from between clenched teeth.
"I'm sorry - I won't." He held his hands up in surrender, even taking a step back from her. "Just don't leave yet. Let me explain."
People near them were beginning to stare. Natalia could feel the curious eyes and hear the whispers beginning to circulate. "Not here."
"No," Phillip agreed, following her gaze. "Not here. Come with me." But he gestured for Natalia to precede him and carefully didn't touch her.
They didn't stop until they had reached the second floor of the mansion and gotten away from the public areas where the party was still in full swing. Phillip guided her way with small gestures here and there. Natalia didn't pay much attention to where they were going. It didn't really matter.
The room Phillip finally directed them into was a small sitting room, obviously a private one. The furniture still boasted lavish detail and spoke of class, but it was solid and showed evidence of use that appeared nowhere else in the mansion. It struck Natalia suddenly that this must be Phillip's personal study, his antidote to Alan's sprawling throne room.
Natalia didn't turn as Phillip entered behind her. She noted the lack of the door clicking shut behind them. He was being careful now, not to make her nervous.
Phillip was silent for so long that Natalia didn't think he was going to speak. Finally he sighed. "I don't know."
"You don't know?" Natalia repeated skeptically, turning to face him. "You have to know. You're the only one who could know."
He shrugged. "What do you want me to say? I didn't expect to feel that way. I didn't think I was doing anything, but being a friend to you - and a good father to Emma. But I saw you with him and you were laughing. You looked happy, like you were having fun and I couldn't stand it. I just...reacted."
"That's not good enough," Natalia said, frustration still churning inside her.
"I can't offer you anything else but an apology," Phillip said, spreading his hands out wide to his sides. "I was out of line and I admit it."
"I'm allowed to have a good time."
"You are," Phillip agreed.
"I'm allowed to forget that I had a fight with my wife and she went out and got herself killed."
"Natalia..." This time Phillip's voice was completely different.
"I'm allowed to have fun," Natalia repeated, her voice breaking.
"You are. You do. Olivia would want you to enjoy yourself. Live your life to the fullest."
"I have fun with you," Natalia admitted. "You make me forget sometimes. It doesn't hurt so bad."
"I'm glad." He hesitated. "I don't want you to be sad. I'm sorry for reacting the way I did. It's the last thing you need and I promise it won't happen again."
"Okay," Natalia agreed, and took a step closer to him. "You promise." She raised her arms, lacing her fingers together behind his neck and stared into his eyes. "Make me forget."
"Natalia..." Gently he took her arms and began to lower them from around his neck.
She tightened her grip, raising her hands to run her fingers through his hair, using enough strength that he would have to hurt her to pull her away from him again.
"I don't want to hurt you," Phillip whispered, his hands running down her arms to rest on her shoulders, traced up her neck and cupped her face. "You hurt so much already."
"You make me feel better," Natalia admitted it to herself as much as to him. "Make me feel better." It was intended to have been a command, but it came out as a plea. She kissed him hard, trying to capture him with a kiss, make it impossible for him to deny her. She wanted to feel and to forget, to lose herself in the sensation of lips and teeth and tongue, bruising kisses that deepened and took away her ability to think.
But he pulled away after the first kiss, holding himself away from her. She didn't struggle, waiting for his response. It had to be his decision.
It came with the smallest caress, his thumb smoothing tenderly across her cheekbone. Then he lowered his lips to her mouth and kissed her, slowly, gently, thoroughly. Natalia was panting and breathless by the time he pulled away from her.
He locked gazes with her, searching her eyes with an intensity that was almost overwhelming, but Natalia held his gaze, just as she had before. This time he didn't look away either.
"Are you sure?"
He didn't ask again, but let go of her. Natalia shivered at the sudden absence of his body heat, confused until she saw him go to the other side and close the door, locking it before he turned back to her. He crossed the distance between them and pulled her to him, wrapping an arm around her and almost crushing her in his embrace as he kissed her again. He was so carefully contained that she had somehow never realized what a physically imposing man he was. His hand slid from the small of her back up to the base of her neck, brushing over bare skin and then back down to cover the top of her zipper. He fiddled with the tab for a moment and then slowly began to slide it down her back.
As the dress fell open, Natalia could feel the warmth of his hand against bare skin. His fingers were soft, un-calloused, yet still somehow rougher than the slender delicate fingers she was used to. He hesitated, feeling the tension in her body. Natalia arched back into his touch and he relaxed continuing down until only his arm around her was keeping the dress somewhat in place.
She broke the kiss, pulling away from him as she gasped for breath, and took a step back on shaky legs. Her dress fell away, landing in a tangle of fabric around her feet. Holding onto his arm, she stepped out of it, pressing herself against him again.
He held her, his hands starting at her waist, going up her back and then down again, lower than before until he was cupping her ass. Natalia began fumbling with his belt, struggling to undo it from her awkward angle and then turning her attention to his fly when that was done. Phillip let go of her for just a moment to shrug out of his jacket, making quick work of the dress shirt and undershirt beneath that, pulling the last over his head and sending it flying.
"We should...the couch..." Phillip murmured, bending to kiss her neck, finding the pulse point at the base of her throat, exploring until he found a place that could make her whimper.
He stumbled over the last step, his ankles still tangled in his slacks, and fell back against the couch. Natalia landed on top of him and let out a helpless laugh at the way they sprawled over the leather upholstery.
"These need to come off," she said, tugging at the legs of his boxers.
Phillip grunted, raising his hips so she could pull them down his legs. "Not as young as I used to be," he murmured by way of apology.
It broke the desperate intensity of the moment; Phillip was grateful for the opportunity to slow things down.
He pulled Natalia closer to him after she discarded his boxers, the evidence of his arousal obvious between them. She ran her hands up his body, starting at the base of his abdomen and going all the way up his chest until her hands were resting on his shoulders. He ran his hands up her sides, his thumbs brushing over the curve of her breasts. Then his hands slowed, lingering until they began to knead, rolling her nipples between his fingers.
Natalia gasped and he almost lost his grip as she fell forward against him. She squirmed against his lap as he kept up his blissful torture, making her gasp and hiss. She took him in her hand and felt his hips jerk. She smiled. So different. Her finger started at the base of him and ran up the length of his shaft. He let go of her breast, his hands tightening on her upper arms.
"Natalia..." The way he groaned her name felt like a victory. She wondered if she could make him do it again. He stopped her before she could try, one hand slipping down between them, stroking, parting her. She shifted, using his shoulders to push herself up on her knees above him, then slowly lowered herself back down onto him. She gasped at the way he filled her; his hands clenched tightly, holding her hips.
Natalia waited a moment to allow them both to adjust. Phillip didn't hurry her, letting her set the pace for this encounter. When she was ready she began a slow rolling motion against him. It changed from moment to moment as they adjusted, struggling to find what she needed, until she had. The speed of her hips increased and he groaned again. If she could have smiled at that moment she would have. Rivera, 2. Spaulding, nil. Instead she just bit her lip and concentrated, prayed. Bracing herself with one arm, she reached down between them with the other, rubbing until she came, gasping and shuddering as she fell forward against him.
Phillip thrust inside of her again, each thrust growing more erratic than the last until he came inside her.
Natalia could hear the rapid beat of his heart beneath her ear. The rhythm was wrong.
Natalia's focus had narrowed down to the steady motion of Phillip's hand, drifting up and down her back, sending intermittent shivers down her spine as he brushed over bare flesh. They had yet to speak. Phillip seemed to be content to let her take the lead and Natalia wasn't sure what she was thinking.
A part of her had been waiting to freak out. She had thought about it, in a detached way. She had slept with a man, a person who was not the woman she had thought she would spend the rest of her life with. A few months ago the mere thought would have been incomprehensible, much less actually doing it.
But...Olivia is dead. That changed everything.
Natalia bit her lip and pushed against Phillip's chest to sit up. His hands slid down her sides as she did, letting her go if that was what she wanted.
"I should get dressed. I wasn't planning to be out late. I want to see Emma and Francesca tonight."
"Okay," Phillip said, shifting on the couch until he could look at her without having to crane his neck uncomfortably. "I'll call a car to take you home."
Natalia stood, feeling awkward and suddenly shy as she bent to gather her clothes, pulling them on hurriedly. As if sensing her unease Phillip rose and began to dress again too. It took away the pressure of knowing that he was watching her. She startled at the murmur of his voice behind her but then she realized he was on the phone not talking to her. Her shoes. She needed them. It felt even stranger being dressed like this and barefoot.
"Is this straight?" Phillip asked, turning to her a moment later as he tugged on his tie. "I don't have a mirror in here."
"Not quite." Natalia hesitated. "It's a little..." She gestured and Phillip adjusted a little more.
"No, just..." Natalia started to make another gesture, then gave herself a mental shake. She'd had sex with the man, straightening his tie for him was no big deal. "Here," she said, crossing the few steps between them. She had it straightened out and back in place in just a moment.
"Thank you." The extraordinary gentleness in his voice made Natalia jerk her gaze up to meet his eyes.
"You're welcome," she said, quickly turning away to find her shoes, slipping them on slowly, so that she could avoid him a moment longer. She had never really done this. Had casual sex. Especially not with someone she had considered a friend. She had no idea what he expected of her or of what she was willing to give.
She wasn't even certain how she felt about what she had done.
"Natalia," Phillip touched her elbow. "I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable."
"You didn't," she denied too quickly.
"I did," Phillip countered. "But you don't have to be. This doesn't have to change anything."
"Doesn't it?" Her voice sounded high and strangled even to her own ears.
"The last time I had unprotected sex with a man, I was running away from my feelings for Olivia and got pregnant with Francesca."
Phillip had the gall to smile. "Well, there are similarities and differences in this case. You're still running from the way you feel about Olivia." She flinched as if he had shocked her with an electrical charge, but he continued. "But there's no chance of you getting pregnant. I had a vasectomy several years ago."
"You're trying to make me feel better," Natalia whispered.
"I am," he agreed.
"Because you're sad and in pain and I miss the way you smile."
Natalia didn't know what to make of that. She pushed it aside to puzzle over later. "Olivia always said that I made her a better person, happier." She rubbed at her forehead. "But without her I don't know how to be that person anymore."
"It will come back to you."
"I would rather she came back."
"It feels like betraying her," Natalia admitted, wrapping her arms around her waist.
"You can't stay alone forever."
"That's something people say as an excuse. If I really loved her-"
"You'd refuse to let yourself have the smallest shred of happiness except for your children."
"Yes! That's what I should do. I shouldn't forget her so quickly."
"You haven't forgotten anything," Phillip corrected her. Gently he laid his hand over her heart. "You carry her with you everywhere."
"I'm not a child to be soothed by some saying."
Phillip drew back, looking insulted. "I wasn't treating you like a child." He folded his arms over his chest and smiled. "You haven't noticed, have you? You're acting more like her all the time. She's still a part of you - in everything you do - even though she's gone."
"I don't know whether that's sad or comforting," Natalia admitted.
"It can be whatever you want it to be."
Natalia nodded, letting him off the hook and glanced toward the door. "Do you think the car's ready?"
"They should be."
"Okay." She didn't know how they should part. Just walking away felt strange, but now, no longer in the heat of the moment, the thought of kissing him felt strange.
Phillip leaned back against his desk and gave her a smile that told her nothing at all. Finally Natalia stepped forward and put her arms around him. He held her loosely. When she made no attempt to move away again, he kissed the crown of her head. Natalia let go and stepped away.
"Good bye, Phillip."
"Tell Emma I love her."
It was the last thing he said each time they spoke. That tiny bit of normality steadied her.
"I will." She walked out without looking back. It felt like she didn't breathe again until she sagged against the seat of the limo and closed her eyes.
Olivia is dead...and she had slept with Phillip Spaulding. What was she going to do now? Natalia had no idea, but strangely enough the thought didn't bring with it any despair. She just felt the sleepy desire to see her children, wrap them in her arms and hold them tightly before she went to bed.
Anything else would be a problem for another day.
Company was busy once again, swamped under the morning rush. Natalia had a table near the back. A few bites of muffin sat on a small plate next to a half-empty cup of coffee. The coffee was cold and Natalia hadn't bothered to refresh it. Working her way back through the crowd was too much effort and she didn't really care. She was here for the distraction, the noise and bustle of the place, not the food.
She was running the Beacon now, but she couldn't bear to sit in Olivia's office all day. Or for any time at all. Natalia knew that she would need to do something about that eventually, but not now. She had enough on her hands just keeping the Beacon afloat. She had learned a lot as Olivia's assistant, but there was still a learning curve and the pitfalls were steep and unforgiving.
She was hunting through several stacks of paper looking for a particular bid when she heard her name and looked up.
"...sit with Natalia. She's in the back there, working on something," Frank said genially. "She probably wouldn't mind."
"I don't want to intrude." Natalia couldn't see him, but she recognized the distinctive timbre of Phillip's voice and froze.
"Suit yourself," Frank said. "But it's the last seat in the house. Up to you, Buddy."
Frank snorted. Natalia could hear it even over the clatter of silverware and roar of conversation. "Take your time. Let me know what you decide."
This was ridiculous, Natalia decided. She wasn't sure which was more so, Phillip's hesitation or the fact that she was hiding and pretending not to eavesdrop. She stood, shuffling the papers into several neat stacks and then slid out from the booth with her coffee mug in hand.
"Hey, Frank," Natalia greeted him with a tired, but genuine smile. "I was just looking for a refill."
"Oh, hey." He leaned over to casually kiss her cheek. "How's my favorite girl?"
Natalia gave a little smile. "Chessy's good. She's growing so fast now."
"Good," Frank said with a quick bob of his head. "I was really getting worried about her for a while there."
Natalia tensed, but Frank didn't go any further. He just took the mug from her and poured from the carafe he was carrying.
"Sorry I didn't get by your table sooner. We've been swamped. A couple of people didn't show so Pop asked me to fill in." He grinned. "Can't complain about the business though. It's better than the alternative."
"Definitely," she agreed. "And it's no problem." Natalia turned her attention to Phillip. "Hi."
"Natalia." The way he said her name sounded different. Or maybe she was just imagining it. "How are you?"
"I'm good." She gestured behind her. "Just working on a few things for the Beacon this morning."
"Ah." It was such a vague acknowledgement of what she had said, she wasn't sure how to interpret it.
"You don't mind a little company, do you?" Frank asked - mostly rhetorically - tilting his head toward Phillip and adding his most pleading smile as if that made a difference. "We're running out of tables this morning."
"Uh, sure, why not?" Natalia said, keeping her eyes firmly on Frank and not Phillip. Since she had left the Spaulding Mansion that night they hadn't really spoken except to coordinate Emma's plans or discuss issues concerning her. It had all been over the phone and done as quickly as possible. This was breaking the ice, Natalia supposed. Not letting the situation get anymore awkward than it already was. They would have to deal with each other eventually; it was inescapable. Now was infinitely preferable to later, when who knew what awkward situation could happen.
"I wouldn't want to intrude on your work."
Natalia wrinkled her nose. "Actually you might be able to help. I'm not familiar with the way some of these agreements are structured." Natalia wondered if she was just imagining the relief in Phillip's expression.
"I think we can work something out."
Natalia's eyebrows shot up.
"I don't usually do consultations for free. I do have a certain reputation to maintain when it comes to business."
"Oh, right," Natalia said, feeling a hint of embarrassment make her cheeks heat. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have-"
"He's just joking." Frank shot Phillip a look. "Or at least he'd better be. It's the least he can do for barging his way into your table."
Natalia felt like rolling her eyes. The only one who'd been doing any barging or pushing was Frank. But then that was nothing new.
"I don't barge," Phillip corrected him, his innocent words drawing a sharp look from Natalia. The moment their eyes met, she dropped her gaze like she'd been caught with her hand in the cookie jar.
Frank snorted. "Right." Then he shook his head and turned back toward the kitchen. "I'll have your order up just a minute.""
Natalia had a sudden urge to grab Frank's arm and refuse to let him go. She didn't...If it had been anyone but Frank... Then he was gone and she hadn't moved. Neither had Phillip. When she glanced up at him, he held out his hand, gesturing her ahead of him politely. Natalia smiled weakly and started walking. She slid into the booth, sitting where it would be farthest from Phillip unless he made an effort to scoot all the way around the opposite direction to sit near her.
"So how can I help?" Phillip asked.
"First of all, you have to stop doing that."
Phillip leaned back into the booth, crossing his legs beneath the table. "Doing what?"
"Acting so, so..." Natalia fumbled for words, at loss to define something so ephemeral yet so frustrating. "Like we - you know!"
"Ah." Phillip said, crossing his arms over his chest. He glanced down at the table. "I'm sorry if anything I did offended you. It wasn't my intention to act any differently and I hope you'll accept my apology."
"Right." She hadn't expected him to apologize so quickly - or at all. "I mean, yes, of course I accept." She was flustered and she hated the feeling. Natalia didn't want to be flustered. She wanted to be calm and unaffected - she wanted to be ignorant. It was supposed to be bliss, after all. She could use a little bliss in her life these days. "I just, I want things to be the way they were."
"I know," Phillip said with a steady nod. "And I'm not going to do anything to bring it up again." He held her gaze as he said it, letting her see his sincerity.
"Okay," Natalia said, sagging a little with relief. "Thank you."
"Good. Now that we have that out of the way, those agreements..."
"Right," Natalia said, hesitating for a moment before she remembered which stack she'd put those papers in and dove back in, her mind firmly back on work.
Phillip had finished his breakfast and been gone for quite some time when Blake came up, leaning against the side of Natalia's booth.
"Need a refill?"
"No, thank you," Natalia said, glancing up from the reports in front of her. She was on a roll and didn't want to stop. Phillip's help had been invaluable. Once he had started to explain, she had caught on quickly, her insight into Olivia's thoughts making it more readily apparent what she had intended.
Blake nudged her shoulder with her elbow. "Is everything okay? I saw you talking with Phillip. You two seemed a little...weird."
"Oh, no, I don't think so," Natalia said as casually and dismissively as she could. It felt forced, but she knew if she gave the slightest hint of a reaction Blake would be all over it. The woman had an unparalleled nose for scandal and gossip.
But now Blake looked curious and that wasn't good. Curiosity was the last thing that Natalia had wanted to invite. "You don't think so? Shouldn't you know?" Blake hesitated. "You know if something strange is going on with Phillip you can tell me." She put her hand over Natalia's. Natalia tried not to flinch away from her. "I know Olivia's gone, but you're not alone, Natalia. You still have friends in this town - friends who are willing to stand up to Phillip Spaulding."
Natalia stopped and put her pen down, using it as an excuse to take her hand back and put in her lap, as she looked over at Blake. "I think you're reading too much into a simple answer. All I meant was that I don't know of a reason why things should be strange between us, but you never really know what someone else is thinking, do you?"
Blake eyed her carefully - suspiciously. "Okay, if that's what you want me to believe I'll let it go. But...that's not what I saw when I looked at the two of you. Something was wrong. Just know that I'll still be here whenever you're ready to tell me."
Natalia sank back against the booth and felt all the air squish out of the vinyl covered cushion behind her. "I don't know what to say to that, Blake."
Blake took it as an invitation, setting the coffee carafe and dropping the rag that had been draped over her arm down on the table and sliding into the seat across from Natalia.
"Why don't you start by telling me the truth about what's really going on with you and Phillip?"
The sunlight outside Company was bright; it made Natalia squint and reach for her sunglasses. She slipped them on and pulled out her phone. She tapped it against her mouth twice, thinking, and then dialed a number that was becoming more and more familiar.
"Phillip. It's Natalia. I know we just spoke, but I think we need to talk. Meet me at the lighthouse."
To her surprise, Phillip was already at the lighthouse when she got there, leaning back against his car with his arms folded across his chest. He pushed away from the car and started walking toward her as soon as he saw her pull up.
Phillip shrugged. "Your message sounded urgent; I was in the area."
"It is - I think." Natalia hesitated. "Can we go inside?" Her conversation with Blake had made her wary of being seen with Phillip. She knew this town and its merciless gossip. Even though there was nothing to see. That was why she had chosen the lighthouse. It was out of the way and few people came out there anymore.
"Of course." He seemed a little bit surprised by the request but acceded easily. "Is everything okay? Did something happen after I left Company?"
"In a way, I guess something did happen. I talked to Blake."
"Oh?" Phillip tried to look non-plussed, but he felt a sense of foreboding."
Natalia glanced behind her as she stepped inside. "I think she knows about us." She rubbed at her forehead. "Or something. I'm not sure. But she kept asking questions after you left." She glanced up at him. "I didn't tell her anything, but she wouldn't let it go. She suspects...something, and she won't stop asking until she finds out what she wants to know."
"You could tell her what she wants to know."
Natalia shot him a look. Phillip stifled the urge to laugh, not at the situation, but her expression. It was perfect shorthand for "don't be ridiculous" in look form.
"I meant tell her what she wanted to hear. Make something up. It doesn't have to be the truth, but if you tell Blake something it will get her to stop asking questions."
She considered it for a moment and then sighed, wrinkling her nose. "I don't think I could. I'm not very good at lying. She'd probably just start wondering what I was trying to hide and that would just make it worse."
"Then what do you want to do?"
"I don't know," Natalia admitted, looking up at him. "I was hoping you might have some ideas."
"Should I be insulted?" At her puzzled expression, Phillip continued. "That you think I'm the expert at this."
Natalia winced. "I didn't mean it like that?"
Phillip waved his hand, dismissing her concern. "I know." He stuck his hands in his pockets. "Honestly, I prefer not to hide my affairs."
"I prefer not to be anyone's affair."
Tense silence filled the air and then Phillip sighed.
"I don't know what you want me to say, Natalia. I can't change what happened." He hesitated. "I don't think I would want to, but I'm willing to do whatever I can to make this okay. Blake can be trying, but she will stop asking eventually."
"So that's it?" Natalia asked. "Just ignore it and it will go away?"
"No," Phillip said. "Tell me what's really wrong."
"What's really wrong?" Natalia asked rhetorically. "My wife is dead. I had sex with her ex-husband and the town gossip won't stop asking questions about us. I don't recognize myself in the mirror. I think that's plenty."
"Natalia..." Phillip's voice was gentle.
"Don't," she snapped. "Just don't. I knew what I was doing - or, maybe not. But I wanted to. I just don't know why. I don't believe in casual sex. It should mean something."
"It meant something to me." The statement hung in the air between them, loaded with meaning and everything that Natalia had been trying not to think about. "You don't have to say anything. I know why you did it."
"Then please, tell me."
"You miss her."
"Not good enough. I've missed people before. I waited for Gus my whole life. I can't be without her for a single year?"
"She was your whole world."
"So that makes it easier?"
"No, of course not. It wasn't about using me because I had money or power or just because you wanted me. It was about friendship and comfort. You needed to feel something besides the pain of losing her, to be reminded that there's more in this world than just hurt."
Natalia bit her lip. She swiped at her nose as her eyes began to water. "I'm sorry," Natalia whispered. "I know I'm acting crazy. I feel crazy, like nothing is the way it should be - not even me. You've been so nice to me and I just don't know how to-"
"You don't have to do anything. I don't expect anything from you. Just take care of Emma." He hesitated. "And yourself."
Phillip cared about her. It was a revelation for Natalia. She had known it in a detached way for a long time, but she had always thought it was less about her and more about the roles she played in his life, the person who'd made it possible for him to become a part of Emma's life again, Emma's other mother. Now she realized that somewhere along the way it had become about her - just her.
He might not love her - she didn't even want to contemplate that - but he cared about her. He understood her loss. He didn't demand that she just get over it or treat her like she was something to be pitied. He was just there for her as best as he could be.
Natalia knew there was a way out of this. It was an idea that she had dismissed more than once. She could simply stop seeing Phillip. She had dismissed it because it would be unfair to Emma, but that wasn't quite the truth. She could still be Emma's other mother and see Phillip much less than she did now. There were ways to communicate - email, intermediaries - that involved far less contact than they shared now.
But that wasn't what she wanted. It wasn't something she particularly wanted to think about - or admit, even to herself - but it was the truth. Besides her children, Phillip was the thing that had made the months since Olivia's death bearable. She didn't want to cut off all contact with him.
Natalia reached out and took his hand, holding it between hers. She stroked her thumb over his knuckles, noticing the scars there, wondering how he'd gotten them. "I don't want you to go anywhere," she admitted in a strangled voice, barely able to choke out the words past the lump in her throat. She knew it was out of the blue; she prayed he understood what she was trying to say.
She felt the faintest stroke of his hand in her hair, pushing a lock away from her face and tucking it delicately behind her ear. His finger brushed over the shell of his ear and trailed down her neck. Tears burned in her eyes; Natalia willed them not to fall. She stepped forward, dropping his hand and wrapping her arms around him, pressing her face into his chest and holding onto him as tightly as she could.
His arms came around her in a solid embrace.
"I'm not going anywhere."
Natalia just tried to breathe. In and out. One after another. Somewhere along the way his arms had come to mean safety and comfort. She wanted to believe what he said, but she was also aware that it wasn't a promise that he could keep.
She let her arms fall down his back, slipping her hands beneath his coat and tugged at his shirt, pulling it out from beneath his belt, then slipping beneath that too, searching for the warmth of skin. His index finger under her chin tilted her head upward as he leaned down to kiss her. He tasted her bottom lip and then pulled away, resting his forehead against hers. She followed him, raising up on her toes to capture his lips, turning the kiss from gentle and smoldering to fiercely passionate.
"What does this mean?" Natalia asked, shifting against the back of the couch so that she could look at him.
"I don't know. Maybe that we're both getting too old to keep doing this on a couch." He pushed a piece of hair out of her eyes and smiled. "Maybe we should try a bed next time."
"Next time..." She turned the words over in her mouth, trying them on for size. "You think there will be a next time?"
Phillip shrugged. "There was this time."
"I wasn't expecting this." Natalia dragged her fingers over his chest, her nails getting caught in the fine hairs that dotted it. "I came to tell you that it could never happen again."
"Did you?" he asked, stroking his hand down her side, stopping at the curve of her hip. "Is that what you want?"
Natalia sighed, ducking her head to rest on his shoulder. "No." She was so close he could feel her breath tickling against his skin. Then he felt the soft pressure of her lips, kissing that same bit of skin. "I don't know how to do this. You're the first thing I've wanted - besides wanting her back - but everything I've ever believed tells me that this is wrong." She hesitated, reaching down to capture his left hand, her thumb sliding over his third finger. "You're a married man."
"Not for long." Her head jerked up. He put a finger over her lips. "She asked, not me."
"No, she doesn't know."
Natalia swallowed and ducked her head again. "I thought I was done with being someone's dirty secret."
He touched her chin gently. "You were never Olivia's dirty secret."
"No," Natalia admitted, all but whispering. "Even when she tried, she could never hide the way she felt. It shined from every part of her."
"Gus," Natalia explained, looking pained. "He was with Harley. I should never have interfered, but I wanted a father for my son so badly. I made so many mistakes."
"This isn't one of them," Phillip said without a hint of doubt.
"How can you say that?"
"Because it feels right. I'm not ashamed of anything we've done and I won't let anyone tell me differently."
He smiled. "Even you. I understand if you feel differently." He took a deep breath. "If it were up to me, I woudn't hide anything about being with you. I care about you and I don't want to lie about that."
"But you would, if I asked?"
"Of course." He lifted their joined hands to kiss the back of hers.
"People will talk if we admit what we are."
"And if we don't they'll still talk. They'll just make up more of it."
Natalia let out a soft puff of laughter, then sobered. "This is real." It was both statement and question.
Phillip didn't hesitate. "Yes."
"I don't know what I'm doing," she admitted in a rush of words.
"That's okay. We can figure it out together."
And with those two soft syllables he could breathe again.
"Are you okay?" Phillip asked, his lips next to her ears. His question was for her alone, spoken just loud enough to carry over the music and the shifting sounds of a ballroom full of dancing couples.
Natalia waited until he had swirled her out and then pulled her back into his body before she responded. "I haven't stepped on your toes that many times have I?"
"Not what I meant," Phillip said with a wry smile.
"And you don't have to check on me every five minutes."
Phillip acknowledged her point with a tip of his head. "I just wanted to make sure you weren't having any buyer's remorse. I saw Blake talking to you over by the buffet."
Natalia pressed her lips into a thin line. "And the whole party heard when Doris cornered me in the restroom?"
"Something like that," Phillip agreed.
Natalia stopped dancing, tugging Phillip with her as she took a few quick steps back off the stately dance floor. "I'm right where I want to be," Natalia said firmly, crossing her arms behind his neck and lifting herself up to kiss him, deeply, thoroughly. "I wouldn't have said yes to coming to this with you, if I hadn't been ready to face this."
He didn't need to know that she'd spent fifteen minutes alone in the restroom after Doris had left, trying to pull herself back together, hiding the puffy redness under her eyes and reapplying her makeup.
"You make me happy." Or at least what passed for happy with her now, an easing of the ache inside of her. Around him she could smile, laugh. He gave her that. "It may take them some time, but they'll realize that, and when they do they'll be happy for me - for us." She hoped. Blake would come around, Natalia was fairly certain of that. But Doris was another story. She had been Olivia's friend first - her confidant - and she might never forgive Natalia for this.
But that was okay. Natalia wasn't certain she could forgive herself for it either. She tried to console herself that grabbing happiness with both hands was something that Olivia had taught her, but years of Catholic guilt weren't so easily erased. Even if the only thing she had to feel guilty about was how soon she had taken up with someone else. Olivia is dead. Natalia repeated the words to herself. It was a fact that she could never forget but sometimes it still felt completely unreal.
"I'm glad," Phillip said softly, breaking into her reverie as she swayed back and forth gently with her in his arms. "You make me happy too."
"That's nice of you to say," Natalia said, stroking her fingers down his lapel. "But that can't be true. We both know that I'm the most depressed person in your life."
"You're forgetting who my best friend is."
"Rick?" Natalia laughed. "That's just...horrible." But she was smiling. "I can't believe you'd..."
Phillip laughed at her horror. "But it made you laugh."
She laid her head on his shoulder comfortably. "Can I ask you a question?" Her arms tightened around his waist. "And don't say I just did." She felt a chuckle reverberate through his chest.
"I know why I'm with you, but..." Natalia broke off unsure of how to finish her thought.
"What's in it for me?" Phillip suggested with all the diplomacy of a baseball bat.
"Exactly," Natalia said, feeling strangely relieved.
"I wasn't sure at first," Phillip said, his tone distant, almost thinking aloud. "When I realized that I felt drawn to you, I was...upset. I knew that you trusted me and I thought you would see the way I felt as a betrayal."
"I did. At first."
"Right." He shrugged. "I'm not sure that I understand it now. I just know that I hated seeing you hurt and if I could make you happy I wanted to do whatever it took. And gradually I realized that I was happiest when you were happy. That's it."
Natalia stroked his cheek, feeling the faint stubble beneath her fingers, and leaned up to kiss his cheek, deliberately catching the corner of his mouth. "You're very sweet."
Phillip snorted. "I've been called many things..."
Natalia squeezed his hand and heard the faint stirrings of a familiar song. She couldn't quite place it, but it would come to her in a few bars. The small band on stage was playing different arrangements from the standard fare. It was as edgy as a Spaulding event got. Natalia leaned back, tugging at his hand and adding a charming smile. "Dance with me?"
Phillip laughed, but let her pull him back onto the dance floor. The first line of the song washed over them. I wanna a Sunday kind of love. Natalia froze in his arms.
"Oh, God," she gasped, covering her mouth with one hand. "I can't," she blurted, pulling out of his arms, almost stumbling in her haste. "I can't dance with you to this song." Her face was pale, almost ghostly white. "We danced to it-"
"-At our wedding."
If Phillip thought that Natalia had looked pale a moment before, it was nothing compared to the way the color drained away from her now. He hadn't seen her before, his focus completely on Natalia and nothing else as she panicked, but her words caught his attention immediately. Not just what she had said, but that voice - it was unforgettable and unmistakable.
"Olivia." He and Natalia breathed it in unison.
Natalia trembled, throwing her arm out, grasping for anything. Phillip caught her instinctively, bracing her. It wasn't a moment too soon. Her body went limp and Natalia collapsed into a dead faint. He barely got a solid grip on her, slowing her fall before she hit the ground.
Olivia tilted her head. "Should I have called ahead first? Written, maybe? Emailed?" She met Phillip's look with equanimity. "What?"
Consciousness returned slowly, seeping in. First noises, faint beeping and the sound sound of distant voices, the hum of machinery and the distinctive sound of rubber shoes scuffing on linoleum flooring. Then Natalia opened her eyes.
Olivia sat in a small plastic chair, leaning forward with her hands clasped together. Natalia made an involuntary sound, her memory flooding back, and Olivia glanced up. Her eyes were dark, the shadows underneath them prominent. Natalia couldn't move, every muscle in her body going rigid with shock, disbelief, and the aching certainty that if she moved Olivia would disappear.
"You're not real," she said, her voice trembling and breaking, strained by emotions she couldn't contain.
Slowly Olivia reached over and took her hand, wrapping both hands around Natalia's. "I'm real."
"Oh my God," Natalia whispered, reaching over with a shaking hand to touch Olivia's face. "Oh my God." She smoothed her thumb over Olivia's cheekbone, ran her fingers across Olivia's forehead, then back down her cheek, until she was cupping Olivia's chin. Natalia almost fell off the small bed in her haste, stumbling as she fell into Olivia's lap and kissed her, first on her cheeks, then her forehead, both eyelids, her nose, any part of her that Natalia could reach.
Olivia's hands were at her hips, holding her in place but doing nothing else. Gradually the urgency began to fade away, leaving Natalia stunned but no less awed. "You're here."
Olivia nodded, still wordless, tears streaming down her face. Tenderly Natalia wiped the tears from her cheeks and held her face, unable to believe that she was really staring into green eyes that she had thought she would never have a chance to see again. She lowered her lips to Olivia's, reveling in their softness. It felt like coming home after a long, unimaginably hard day. Natalia kissed her with everything she was, holding nothing back. She felt revived, born again, in the absolute certainty of her love for Olivia. Natalia wanted to hold her forever, never letting her go. The kiss turned desperate and consuming. She was already in Olivia's lap and it still wasn't close enough. She needed more.
Olivia caught Natalia's face in her hands and gently eased Natalia away. Olivia's eyes were still brimming with tears.
Natalia was stunned and confused, a powerful combination. Olivia was here. Really here. Not just a dream that would fade upon awakening. She was consumed with the nearness of Olivia, lost in it, in her. She wanted to be closer yet, be inside Olivia's skin, but Olivia was pushing her away and she couldn't understand why.
Olivia was saying something. "I know."
She knew what? The words didn't make sense to Natalia either; they were unimportant. Olivia was alive.
"You're alive," Natalia whispered, ignoring what Olivia had said, her hands tracing over Olivia's face once again with Olivia holding her back. "How is that possible?" Natalia marveled. "Madre de Dios. You're a miracle. My miracle."
Olivia looked pained. "You have to stop, Natalia. I can't do this. I know."
Natalia's brow furrowed and she slumped backwards, relaxing as Olivia grabbed her wrists and gently but firmly pulled them away from her face. "You can't do what?" With Olivia's hands on her wrists - touching her - she could sit docilely.
Olivia's grip on her wrists tightened until it was almost painful. She pushed against Natalia's arms and rose, forcing Natalia to stand or slide into an ignominious heap on the floor. Natalia stumbled, hardly paying attention to what was happening to her, only Olivia Olivia Olivia. Awkwardly she regained her balance but Olivia was already back away from her.
"You can't do this," Olivia said wretchedly, almost stomping her foot as frustration poured out of every word. "You can't be this way, Natalia. I know. I know about you and Phillip."
"Phillip and-" Natalia started to repeat the words back to her, questioning what Olivia had said, when Olivia's meaning crashed over her. Her blood drained from her face again and she swayed unsteadily on her feet. "Olivia." Despite her unsteadiness, Natalia took a step forward, reaching for her.
But Olivia took another step back.
Natalia trembled, desperate to find away to explain it to Olivia. It was never supposed to happen this way. Olivia is dead. But she wasn't, and Natalia was still too weak with gratefulness to process anything else. She just needed Olivia. Couldn't she see that this was nothing? That Phillip meant nothing to her compared to what they had shared. But Natalia couldn't find the words, not the ones that would lower the walls that were already apparent around Olivia's heart. She could barely swallow around the lump in her throat. All she wanted was to be back in Olivia's arms and nothing could give that back to her - not in this moment. Tears of pain and frustration swam in her eyes.
"Olivia, please," Natalia begged. "Please don't go." She threw herself on her love's mercy and even as she did, she knew it wouldn't be enough. Trust had always been the weak point of their relationship. It was either absolute or broken, shattered into a thousand pieces by something Natalia couldn't change no matter how much she wished it away.
"Why?" Olivia asked bluntly. "It's obvious that you've moved on. You don't need me. So why should I stay, Natalia? To watch you with my ex-husband? I think not."
"I do need you," Natalia said, still begging, pleading for understanding. "I need you more than anything else."
"Sure have a funny way of showing it," Olivia bit out. She looked away and then glanced back at Natalia, her eyes hard and glittering. "Did you even wait a week?"
"Of course I did. I waited and I hurt - more than you can imagine - but you were gone, Olivia."
"So you just moved on to the next person who could take care of you, provide the lifestyle to which you'd grown accustomed? I get it. I understand it perfectly." Her words were like acid against Natalia's skin. "I just never thought you'd sink to that."
Natalia stood stunned at the accusation. It was so ridiculous she couldn't even muster a defense. "That's just- it's - Olivia!"
But Olivia just shook her head. "Don't you get it, Natalia? I don't care. You said you loved me-" her eyes closed in defense against those memories. "So many times," she whispered. "But you couldn't have really meant it, could you? Or you would never have-" She cut herself off. "I don't want to hear it. I just want to see Emma and Francesca."
"Of course," Natalia said automatically. She felt numb and devastated. How could coming back to life feel so much like death? "They miss you so much."
"At least someone does," Olivia said bitterly, looking her squarely in the eye.
Natalia gasped, the cutting remark landing exactly as Olivia had known it would. "Olivia, please," Natalia said, lurching forward to catch Olivia's hand, but Olivia stepped away and Natalia stumbled, as she missed her mark, sprawling gracelessly onto her knees.
Olivia never slowed. She just kept walking, her heels making a steady click against the tile floor until gradually the sound faded from Natalia's hearing completely.
Natalia didn't make a move to pick herself up. She lacked the will and energy for it. Her prayers had been answered. Or at least they would have been, if she had thought to pray for such an impossibility. She was still reeling from the sheer knowledge that Olivia was alive. But now her own actions had made a joyous reunion with Olivia impossible. It was her fault; there was no one else to blame or rage against. Now she had to live with the consequences.
"Olivia-" Phillip's voice broke off as he came around the corner and saw Natalia on the floor. "Natalia?" His voice rose sharply with worry as he hurried across the room. "What's wrong? Where's Olivia?"
"Gone? No, she's alive, Natalia. It wasn't just a dream. It was real. I promise you."
Natalia pressed her lips together in a wince and then pushed herself up until she had one foot beneath her. Phillip held out a hand to her and she accepted it, letting him pull the rest of the way up.
"No, I mean she's gone." She looked at their joined hands and smiled bitterly. "Olivia knows about us. She told me when I woke up and then she left. She wanted to see Emma and Francesca."
"Natalia," Phillip breathed her name, realizing the mess of the situation immediately and empathizing with it. "She's angry now, I know that. But she'll come around. She'll understand. You just have to give her time."
But Natalia remembered hard looks and cutting words all too well. She patted his hand with her free one. "Thank you for saying that, but I don't think so. Not this time. You didn't see her. She was so angry." She closed her eyes. "She's already forgiven me for so much. I don't think she can forgive me for this, Phillip."
"Shh," Phillip whispered, pulling her into his arms and comforting her. "It will be okay."
"Thank you," Natalia said just as quietly, resting her head against his shoulder, soaking in the comfort that he offered. She didn't believe them, but she appreciated the effort.
Olivia hesitated outside the door to Natalia's room. She had almost reached the entrance of the hospital before she turning around, unable to take a step further haunted by the image of Natalia weeping on the floor, begging her to come back, to believe her. She had sworn and then turned around. As angry and hurt as she was, there was no way she could leave Natalia when she was hurting that badly.
Gathering her courage, Olivia nudged the door open and started to take a step inside. She froze at the scene before her, Natalia wrapped in Phillip's solid embrace, her head buried against his shoulders as they held each other with a familiarity that bespoke only one thing - closeness. Knowing Natalia the way she did - love.
Olivia saw red. Every denial and exhortation to let her explain that had fallen from Natalia's lips rang false. Without a word, Olivia spun on her heel and strode away without a backward glance.
Olivia's hand shook as she ran it over the silky fine strands of Emma's hair. She pressed her face into it and inhaled the clean, familiar scent of her daughter. The vice grip around her heart eased, just a little. She could almost breathe.
"Emma. Jellybean." She stroked Emma's hair back away from her face, making her touch more solid. "Wake-up, Baby," Olivia said in a sing-song-y voice. "Mommy's home, Baby, and I've missed you so much."
Emma stirred, moving restlessly in her sleep, but didn't wake. Olivia ran a finger down her cheek.
"Open those eyes for me, Sweetheart. I love you so much and I can't wait to see you."
Emma blinked sleepily, rubbing at her eyes and then pulling her hands away. The moment her eyes focused she shrieked and jerked back.
It hurt, but Olivia told herself that it was to be expected. Emma thought she was dead. She had just awakened and she was scared.
"It's really me, Jellybean. I promise. I'm here and I'm not going anywhere."
"Mommy?" Emma sounded groggy and scared but her voice was the best thing Olivia had heard in forever.
Olivia just nodded, tears turning everything into a blurry mess. Emma launched herself at Olivia with another shriek - this time of joy.
"Mommy!" The moment her arms connected with Olivia, she began to babble. "I missed you so much, Mommy. We thought you were dead. Natalia was so sad." Her arms tightened around Olivia with every ounce of strength she could muster. "I tried, Mommy, but I couldn't make it better. I just wanted you. I love you so much. Why were you gone? Are you okay?"
Olivia smiled. Even the pain of Emma's mention of Natalia was dulled by the barrage of questions. It was soothing and oh-so-achingly familiar. She held tighter to Emma. "Hold on just a minute, Jellybean. I want to answer all your questions, but first let me go get your sister, okay?"
"Okay," Emma whispered, reluctantly letting her go. She didn't let go completely though, still clinging to Olivia's fingers. "Mommy?" She sounded scared again. "You are real aren't you?"
It broke Olivia's heart. "The realest, Jellybean." She took a deep breath, trying not to break down into tears. "I love you so much." She hugged Emma tightly again. "Do you want to come with me to get Francesca?"
Emma nodded immediately, but when Olivia rose, she tugged on Olivia's hand again. "Where's Natalia? Why isn't she here? Did you tell her? She was at a party with Daddy tonight." Her tiny brow furrowed. "Jane was here with us."
"I sent Jane home. I'm here now." Maybe that would reassure Emma that she was real. Jane wouldn't just disappear for no reason. She steeled herself answering Emma's question about Natalia. Just how much did her daughter know for that matter? She cursed Natalia again for putting her in this position. She hated it. "And Natalia does know. She's still with Phillip. She had to stay." Each thing was harder to say than the last. "But she'll be here in the morning when you wake up." I hope.
Emma still looked confused, and rightfully so, Olivia thought. Her explanation made no sense. Natalia should have been here with her - with all of them - celebrating, but she was with Phillip instead, in Phillip's arms, kissing him, holding him. Her hands clenched and she forced herself to calm down and think of Emma. Not anything else. Or she would frighten her daughter and that was the last thing she wanted.
"But-" Olivia put her finger over Emma's lips.
"Don't worry about it, 'bean. Everything's okay, I promise. Let's go get Francesca."
Emma brightened. Olivia's diversion successful, she practically dragged Olivia down the hall toward Francesca's room.
"Help me wake her up," Olivia asked, and Emma got on the other side of her bed. Together they stroked and petted her gently to wakefulness, the toddler rolling over, thumb in mouth and hair wildly disheveled, and opened her eyes. She stared up at Olivia for several long seconds then held her arms out demandingly.
The simple gesture startled a choked laugh out of Olivia. This time she didn't even try to stop crying as she gratefully scooped Francesca up and the little girl buried her face against Olivia's neck.
"Hey there, little one," Olivia whispered. She reached out for Emma's hand and pulled her up on to the bed and into their hug. "My girls. I love you both so much. Never forget that."
For the first time she felt almost complete again. Except for the gaping, irreplaceable piece of her soul that was missing.
Natalia unlocked her front door and opened it carefully, expecting to see Olivia at any moment and holding her breath afraid that she wouldn't. Even after Phillip's reassurance that he had seen Olivia too and all the chatter in the hospital about a prominent Springfield citizen come back to life, it still felt unreal to Natalia. She had been almost frantic to get out of the hospital and even more so when she realized she had no idea where to find Olivia.
She had been panicking, her forehead pressed against the hard rubber of her steering wheel as she tried not to hyperventilate, when Jane had called. The usually unflappable babysitter was talking a mile-a-minute babbling something about Olivia being there at the farmhouse and sending her home. Jane was more than a little freaked out, but Natalia couldn't bring herself to care. As soon as she'd realized where Olivia was, she'd hung up on Jane and driven like a mad woman out to the farmhouse.
It'd taken some convincing to get Phillip to let her leave alone, but she had insisted. His presence felt stifling and she needed space to think. Space and Olivia. If Natalia could just find Olivia, hold onto her and make her stay, then everything would make sense again. No matter what had happened - and Natalia had no idea - they could figure it out together.
The sight of an unfamiliar woman's coat thrown across the arm of the couch made Natalia's heart race. It was proof that Olivia was really there. It was the most gorgeous ugly, plastic-y winter coat Natalia had ever seen. She picked it up and brought it to her face, inhaling Olivia's scent. It was a little different, undoubtedly changed by the soaps and scents she had available, but underneath it all still undeniably Olivia. Natalia dropped it almost as quickly as she had picked it up and glanced upstairs.
Olivia had to be upstairs. She had mentioned wanting to see Emma and Francesca in the hospital, Natalia remembered that now. And even if she hadn't, Natalia should have known. Their daughters were the most important thing in Olivia's world. Of course she would want to see them.
Natalia started up the stairs slowly, her heart pounding in her chest. Olivia had been so angry at the hospital. Natalia didn't blame her, but when she thought about it she felt like she couldn't breathe with the desperation to prove that what she had shared with Phillip was nothing. Subconsciously Natalia rubbed her thumb against the underside of her wedding ring. She had never taken it off - not once. She hadn't even considered it. Just like she hadn't taken off Gus' rings until she was ready to admit to herself the possibility of being with Olivia. Unlike here - where there had been no possibilities.
She swallowed hard. Not that it made any difference. Olivia would never believe her. She had to though. Natalia straightened and started forward again. She found them in Francesca's room. She had looked in Emma's room first and then headed straight there. Natalia had known that Olivia wouldn't be in their bed - too many painful memories. She'd had her own nights where it felt like her only sanctuary in the world and the last place that she wanted to be. Without Olivia it had felt so empty.
Natalia just stared, soaking in the sight of her girls all together again, Emma and Olivia curled up on opposite sides of Francesca. Olivia's arm was thrown across both girls, reassuring herself even in slumber that they were there.
Tears slipped down Natalia's cheeks. She didn't bother to brush them away, just stuffed her fist in her mouth and bit down to stifle a whimper. She didn't want to wake them. This moment was almost perfect. Perfect except that the moment Olivia woke she would be furious and pushing Natalia away again.
Natalia had to do something though. There was too much emotion for her heart to contain. She felt like she was going to burst. Without thinking she stepped forward quickly, taking the small quilt that lay at the end of the bed and unfolding it. Carefully she laid it over Olivia and the girls, covering them all as best as she could.
She could see the goosebumps pebbling Olivia's arms now that she was closer. It made her feel like she had accomplished something. Francesca fussed, trying to turn her head away from the blanket as it brushed against her cheek. Hurrying to soothe her before she woke and woke everyone else, Natalia leaned over and pulled the blanket down so that it wouldn't bother her.
Natalia held her breath until Francesca settled and almost sagged in on herself with relief, her chin dropping down to her chest. Natalia took a moment to gather herself and raised her head, opening her eyes and finding herself staring straight back into Olivia's brilliant green eyes. Only now they looked hard and flat. All Natalia could see was the wall that Olivia had thrown up between them, not the depths of Olivia's soul - what she usually saw when she fell into Olivia's gaze.
Natalia's heart hammered in her chest. Even tired, with tear streaks dried on her cheeks and dark circles under her eyes, Olivia looked beautiful - breathtaking. It was like taking a starving man and putting him in the midst of a banquet. Natalia couldn't take her all in fast enough. She reached out for Olivia without thinking, needing to touch what she saw.
Olivia caught her wrist before her fingers could even brush against Olivia's cheek. Natalia whimpered at the sudden, unexpected deprivation. Olivia's eyes hardened even more. Her grip on Natalia's never loosened as she rolled over and swung her feet off the bed. She stood up in one smooth motion. Natalia was so close to the bed, that they were pressed up against each other.
Natalia her breath. For what she wasn't quite sure. She wanted... But Natalia knew what she wanted was impossible. It was all in Olivia's hands now.
When Olivia didn't move, didn't speak, didn't do anything but stare back at Natalia, she raised her other hand to wipe the tear tracks from Olivia's cheek. Olivia's grip on Natalia's wrist tightened painfully and she used it to push Natalia away, forcing her to drop her hand and stumble a few steps back.
Behind them Francesca stirred again. Both women froze. They glanced at her and then back at each other. By silent mutual consent, they turned and headed toward the door, only stopping when Olivia had closed the door carefully behind them after one last, lingering look at her daughters.
"Olivia-" Natalia started but Olivia cut her off.
"Not here," Olivia said with a shake of her head. "Downstairs."
"Okay." Natalia didn't care. She just wanted to make Olivia listen. She held off though until they were down in the living room, facing each other across the familiar room, surrounded on all sides by the chairs and loveseat that had seen so many of their most important conversations.
Natalia started to speak and then her brow furrowed as she saw Olivia press sleepily at the center of her chest with her left hand. It was something Olivia would do when her heart was bothering her or she was worried. Natalia had seen the small gesture a hundred times after Olivia's heart attack. Fear rushed through Natalia in an instant. She dropped what she had been about to say and asked the question that had suddenly become the most terrifying and pressing thing - even beyond where the hell have you been?
"How are you? How's your heart? Have you had it checked? Rick could-"
"My heart?" Olivia sounded pained and bitter. "My heart. My heart is fine, Natalia. Just fine. You're the one who broke it."
"Olivia, please," Natalia begged, reaching out to Olivia only to get her hand slapped away yet again.
"No. You don't get to touch me, Natalia. You don't get to tell me how much you missed me. Or worry about me. You don't get to ask about my heart or-" she bit herself off. "You don't get to ask anything. Just leave me alone."
"No," Natalia said firmly, almost stomping her foot with determination. "You were dead and now you're not and I'm not letting you go." She hesitated sucking in a breath. "Where the hell were you? How could you leave me like that? Don't you know-" She shook her head. There was no way that she could voice the anguish that she'd felt when she thought Olivia is dead. "I deserve to know."
Olivia snorted. "You deserve - it's all about you, Natalia. Well what about me? What about what I deserve? Like not finding out that my wife is fucking my ex-husband? How 'bout that?"
"Shut up," Natalia hissed. "Don't say that. It wasn't like that."
"Oh, I think that's exactly what it was like." Olivia countered, just as hurt and furious. Her hands sank into her hair. "God, I can't do this." She pushed past Natalia toward the door.
It was Natalia's turn to catch her arm, but instead of pushing away as Olivia had, Natalia clung on to Olivia, refusing to let her walk away.
"Wait. You should stay here. Emma and Francesca deserve that, if nothing else. They'll be confused and scared if you're not here when they wake up."
"Don't," Olivia said harshly. "You don't get to use my daughters against me. Tell them, tell them that I'm real, I'm alive, and that I love them so much." Her voice broke over the last words, her eyes falling closed. Olivia forced herself to open them again and face Natalia. "Tell Emma that I'll pick her up from school tomorrow and Francesca...I don't know...but I'll make time to spend with her. I'll work it out with Frank."
Olivia's words hit Natalia like a gut punch, knocking the air out of her lungs. "You won't even talk to me about our children?"
"I told you," Olivia said coldly. "I don't want anything to do with you."
And then she walked out the door. Natalia had a horrifying flashback to the last time Olivia had walked out that door in anger and ran after her.
"Where are you going?"
"What?" Olivia demanded, startled that Natalia had followed her. In the deep shadows thrown by the porch light, Natalia thought she saw moisture on Olivia's cheek, but she couldn't be sure. "Why do you care?"
"Because the last time you stormed out of this house, you died." Natalia hurled the words at her with all the anger that had simmered inside of her for months, since the moment Frank had shown up on her doorstep with horrible news.
Olivia hesitated. Natalia thought she might not answer.
"The Beacon," Olivia said finally, with a pained twist of her lips that might have been a smile if it hadn't been so bitter. "Think they might remember me and have a room for their old owner?"
"I'll call and make sure they have one ready." More than anything, Natalia wanted her to stay, but she knew Olivia wouldn't. She understood that now. So she would make sure that Olivia would have someplace warm and safe to stay - and that someone would call her the moment that Olivia got there.
"So kind of you," Olivia said sarcastically. "But don't put yourself out. I don't need your pity. Go back to Phillip and your perfect little fairytale world. Stop pretending that you care - I know the truth."
Her words cut Natalia to the quick and left her bleeding, hemorrhaging from a dozen gaping wounds that she couldn't begin to patch up. It seemed hopeless.
But Olivia was alive. Natalia clung to that above all else. That was what mattered.
Brightly colored balloons were tethered to the porch rail and the sound of childish giggles and high-pitched shrieks spilled out of the farmhouse. Olivia hesitated, pausing before she stepped up onto the porch. Natalia was inside with Emma and Francesca and at least a dozen other eleven year olds. Phillip was also in there. Natalia had made that clear when she had come to the Beacon to invite Olivia. It was the only time in the past week that she hadn't honored Olivia's request to be left alone. It had been clear enough that once how much that request had hurt Natalia, but each time Olivia started to reconsider, all she had to do was remind herself of the sight of Natalia in Phillip's arms - after she had returned. Then her heart would harden toward Natalia again. Natalia had also made it clear that this party had been planned well in advance, had nothing to do with she and Phillip, and wouldn't be changed because Emma deserved to have a birthday party with all of her parents present. Yada, yada, blah, blah.
"Is everything okay, Olivia?"
Olivia turned to her companion and smiled. "Of course it is. Let's go." As much as she didn't want to be subjected to several hours of seeing Natalia and Phillip together, Natalia had been right about one thing over the past week, Emma deserved to have them all here. She wouldn't ruin this for her little girl. She'd been through too much in her short life.
She opened the front door without knocking. Rude, maybe, but she wasn't known for her manners. Still she refused to knock in this place. It was her home, no matter that she hadn't been there since that first awkward night when she had fallen asleep with the warmth of Emma and Francesca's little bodies pressed up against her.
Walking out the door had been one of the hardest things she'd ever had to do. Now walking back in seemed even harder. Olivia did it anyway.
The barrage of noise and motion made her immediately wish for a drink, but she had sworn off that several months ago. It was unlike her, but a promise she intended to keep for a while anyway. If she hadn't been so drunk... But Olivia shook her head, pushing that thought away. Now wasn't the time.
Olivia saw the flash of dirty-blonde hair as a group of screaming pre-teen girls darted past and she reached out to touch Emma's arm. Emma jerked to a stop and flung herself at Olivia.
"Mommy! You should see it! It's amazing. Daddy and Natalia worked so hard to get it set up. It's so cool!."
"I'm so glad, Jellybean," Olivia said, leaning over to crush her in a hug. Being able to hold her daughter was still a wonder after months of deprivation.
"Did you bring me a present, Mommy?" Emma asked, looking a little shy. Olivia wondered what she was really asking. Emma wasn't usually so mercenary.
"Of course I did. I got you the biggest, best one."
"But you have to wait until later and open it with all the rest."
Emma heaved a heavy sigh. "Okay, Mommy. Are you sure I can't just-"
"Emma-" Even from across the living room, Olivia could hear the breath Natalia sucked in as she came around the corner of the kitchen and saw who was standing there. "Olivia." The reverence in Natalia's voice, the way she turned Olivia's name into a verbal caress almost made Olivia wince inwardly. She hardened herself against it though, refusing to give in to the familiarity and love in Natalia's voice. She knew the truth.
Emma slipped away, drawn by her friends' laughter back into their hyper activities.
"Natalia." Olivia smiled, but it wasn't pleasant. It cut like a knife. "This is Diane. I don't think you two have met." She laid her hand over Diane's arm possessively. "Diane was the first person I saw after they pulled me out of Lynn Woods. She brought me back to life really."
"Olivia spoke so much about you - well, later, once she could. It just made me want to see everything she'd described and meet the wonderful people in her life," Diane said, holding her hand out to Natalia.
But Natalia brushed her hand aside and enfolded her in a hug. "Thank you," she said, the words coming from the depth of her heart. "Thank you for bringing her back."
Diane looked a bit startled but patted her back gently. "Of course. She was a wonderful patient."
Natalia snorted, pulling away. "Are you sure you're describing the right Olivia Spencer?"
"I had amnesia," Olivia broke in softly. "I couldn't remember my own name for the first few weeks after they found me, much less my usual antics." She smiled fondly at Diane. "I was a model patient."
"Oh, God, Olivia. I didn't know."
"I know," Olivia said evenly, feeling the faintest twinge of remorse for not having told Natalia more. Like how even then it had just been her first name and not her last, tiny flashes of things that made no sense, feelings more often than memories. Nothing concrete that she could hold onto and say "This is who I am." Withholding the information had been a petty revenge that made her feel just a little bit less like the jilted wife, the prodigal son returning home to find out that he wasn't missed or wanted any more.
"Are you okay? Your memories - are they?"
"I remember almost everything that happened before." She wrinkled her nose. "I think. Sometimes things still cross my mind and it's like I'm learning them for the first time, but less and less these days." If anything it seemed that memories came back to her more easily than before, each place triggering some rarely thought-of thing. Like the wicker chair in the corner and the way she couldn't stop glancing at Natalia's lips, wondering if they would be as soft today as they had been that January day.
"I'm glad," Natalia said, worry still plain in her voice. "You must have been so scared. I can't imagine how that must have been. I'm so sorry." She hesitated. "I'm so glad you're better now." She shuddered at the thought of what have happened if Olivia had never regained her memories. Natalia might never have learned that Olivia was still alive. It was too horrible to contemplate. "You are better now, aren't you? Are there any complications or things we need to worry about?"
Olivia pressed her lips together and glanced away. "No, there's nothing we need to worry about. I've been taking care of myself just fine so far." Olivia tipped her head toward her companion. "With a little help from my nurse, of course. But I'm fine now."
Natalia looked hurt - and worried. Instinctively Olivia wanted to reach forward and touch her cheek, to try and cheer her up. She curbed it, turning instead to Diane.
"I'm thirsty. Would you like a drink?"
Diane smiled. "That sounds great."
"Be right back," Olivia said, flashing a smile in Natalia's direction before she turned, brushing her hand over Diane's arm and kissing the corner of her mouth. Olivia didn't turn back to see the look on Natalia's face. She didn't have to. She knew it would be some combination of stunned disbelief and righteous fury. Only Olivia was pretty sure she hadn't earned the right to that fury anymore.
She entered the kitchen, knowing that was where Natalia would have the more adult beverages set out. She was getting two glasses when she felt a hand on her arm, bringing her around.
"You brought a date?" Natalia demanded. "Are you-" She shook her head, temporarily at a loss for words. "Did you forget your wedding vows when you lost the rest of your memories?"
"I don't think you have any room to talk," Olivia said coolly, shaking off Natalia's hand and returning her attention to pouring a drink.
"I thought you were dead, Olivia. I was devastated."
"Yeah?" Olivia said, arching an eyebrow. "I can see that."
"Don't you dare." Natalia shook with everything she held inside, unable to find the words for everything she felt. She took a deep breath, trying to steady herself. "Even if you don't care about us, couldn't you think about Emma? It's not fair to bring that woman to her birthday party?"
"Oh, so she's that woman now? Five minutes ago, it was all 'thank you for saving her'."
"And I still do appreciate everything she's done for you. But that doesn't mean I want her showing up here to my daughter's birthday party on my wife's arm."
"Oh yeah? And how many nights has Phillip spent here with you, Natalia? Huh? Tell me that."
"That's not-" Natalia said, thrown off her stride by Olivia's accusation. "That has nothing to do with this."
"It has everything to do with this," Olivia countered. "Everything. Why can't you see that? You're what kept me going. Even when I couldn't remember you, I knew you were out there. Knew something was. And it kept me from giving up." She made a noise of disgust. "Maybe I should have. Turns out it doesn't matter anyway."
"Don't say that," Natalia said, taking a quick step forward, touching Olivia's cheeks. "It does matter. I thought you were dead. Don't you understand? You are the only one I want to be with. Phillip was just..." she pressed her lips together, searching for a way to explain it. "He was just about...comfort. I missed you and for a few minutes he could make it hurt a little bit less."
"It hurts," Olivia whispered. "I came back and you were in his arms, dancing with him." She hesitated. "To our song." Her eyes hardened. "I never thought you would..." she broke off with a shake of her hand, knocking Natalia's hands away with the gesture.
Olivia's eyes snapped up, flashing with anger. "Betray me. I trusted you and you-" she bit the words off.
Natalia touched her cheek again, not letting Olivia brush her off. "I thought you were dead," Natalia said softly. "I thought you were dead."
Neither woman spoke, each miserable in their own ways, but unable to change anything, trapped by circumstances and themselves.
"What happens now?" Natalia asked finally, leaning back to wrap her arms around her waist. Touching Olivia suddenly felt wrong, all hard and unresponsive under her fingers. Olivia felt dead, like a mere shell of herself and the thought was far too close to the reality that Natalia had been living for the past months.
"I don't know," Olivia admitted.
Natalia took another step back until she stumbled into the counter. "I hate the thought of that woman touching you."
"How do you think I feel about Phillip? I swear, Natalia...if it wasn't for Emma." Olivia shook her head and glanced down.
"I don't care about Phillip," Natalia said, pushing forward again. "How many times do I have to tell you that? Olivia. It's you. You're the one for me. I want to be with you and no one else. Please. You have to believe me. I love you." She closed her eyes. "I've never loved anyone but you."
Olivia's heart broke, shattered by Natalia's words and an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. She hadn't been able to truly rest in forever. All she wanted was to curl up in Natalia's arms and be held, promised that everything would be all right, that she was safe, loved and exactly where she was meant to be. Olivia closed her eyes against the tears that were welling up.
"Natalia..." she whispered. Olivia felt hands wrap around her own, the warmth of Natalia as she brought Olivia's hands to her. She could feel Natalia's heart pounding beneath her palm. She took a breath, opening her mouth to speak and then hesitated, struck by a sudden image of Natalia wrapped in Phillip's arms, her head buried against his chest. She tensed, almost yanking her hands back from Natalia's grasp. She shook her head and opened her eyes.
Olivia pushed through the crowd of children in the living room, carefully guiding them around her one way or another as she made for the door. She ignored the adults. She wasn't ready to see the smug look she was fairly certain Frank was wearing. Olivia wasn't quite certain why he was there, but somehow Frank had become the least of her worries.She was just about to the door when it opened and Phillip stepped inside. Her hands clenched into fists at her side. Emma, she reminded herself. This was the father of her daughter. She couldn't - could not - do any of the things she had fantasized about for the past week.
"Olivia-" His voice was calm and cajoling. She hated that even more.
"No," she said moving closer until they were separated by just a few scant inches. "Don't say it. Don't say anything. Just shut your mouth. I don't want to hear how you were just trying to comfort her or be there for her or whatever you're going to say. Just do me a favor and stay the hell away from me." Olivia didn't wait for him to answer as she pushed past him and stormed outside. She had wanted to be there for Emma to celebrate her birthday. Missing her daughters had been like a gaping hole inside of her, but she didn't think she could take this party even for them, couldn't stand to watch Phillip and Natalia together. She had watched Natalia with someone else once before and it had almost killed her. To do it again now when she knew the sweetness of Natalia's kiss, the way her arms felt around Olivia, the gentle look in her eyes that said Natalia loved her louder than any declaration, really would be the end of her.
Olivia didn't stop until she had reached her car. Moments later she sent gravel flying as she took off. There was no point in staying to watch it all crumble, not when she already knew what the end looked like - Natalia happy and content in Phillip's arms.
"Ah, I saw Olivia leaving," Phillip offered as he came into the kitchen and saw Natalia staring into space.
Natalia seemed to give herself a mental shake and came out of her trance. "Let me guess. She wasn't very happy to see you."
Phillip shook his head. "Not so much."
"Did she say anything?"
He thought for a moment. "Not really. She was just angry - scared." He smiled a pained, twisted smile. "Olivia."
Natalia knew what he meant, but couldn't find anything amusing in it. She bit her lip and looked up at him from across the kitchen. "You know I love her."
"I do," Phillip said with a nod.
"More than anything."
Phillip was almost smiling. "Is this the part where you let me down easy?"
Natalia started to gasp, to say something, but she couldn't find the words. Phillip spared her.
"Well, don't worry about it. I know where your heart belongs." He tilted his head back toward the door. "Even if she's a little bit confused right now."
"Phillip-" She wanted so badly to thank him for everything he had done for her, but she couldn't think of anything that didn't sound trite or placating. Phillip deserved more than that. She crossed the kitchen until she was standing in front of him. He straightened. She touched his cheek and placed a hand above his heart, pushing herself up on her toes so that she could kiss him. It was a tender brush of lips, over almost before it had begun, as she sank back down onto her heels. "Thank you," she murmured, her head tilted down.
He nodded, even though she couldn't see him, his hands resting lightly on her hips.
"I should go," Natalia said, starting to step around him.
"You should," he agreed. Then his hands tightened on her, freezing her in place for a moment, closer than they had been before as she was about to move past him. "If things had been different..."
Natalia felt her heart speed up. "But they aren't," she reminded him.
"If they were..." he shook his head. "I wouldn't let you go so easily."
Natalia didn't know what to say to that. 'Thank you' seemed ridiculous and anything else rude. She settled for the truth. "I don't know how I could have gotten through this without you."
"But now you have her back."
"She's who I'm meant to be with. I was made for her."
He leaned back so that he could get a good look at her. "You really believe that?"
He shook his head again. "You have so much faith in her." He leaned closer and pressed his lips against the top of her head. "I hope it's justified."
Natalia shrugged helplessly. "I don't know, but I do know that I'll always keep fighting for her. I'll never let her go."
Phillip smiled that pained, rueful smile that reminded her so much of Olivia at times. "Then you should go after her."
Natalia glanced up at him. "I can't leave Em's party-"
"You can," Phillip said firmly. "I know the details of this birthday party almost as well as you do. I'm sure we can manage."
Natalia felt a giddy surge of hope. Part of her wanted to protest, to make certain that he was really okay supervising more than a dozen shrieking-eleven-year-old girls high on sugar. The other part grabbed for the opportunity with both hands and didn't look back. "Thank you," she whispered again and went after Olivia.
It was the only thing she could do.
It was dark inside Olivia's suite at the Beacon and for a moment, Natalia wondered if she was really there. The desk clerk had told Natalia that Olivia was, but there was always the possibility that she was in Diane's room. Natalia didn't hate the thought of her any less than the she did at the moment she was confronted with Diane's reality. It wasn't pretty but her feelings for Olivia had always been messy and complicated rather than straightforward. This was no different.
"What are you doing here?" Olivia's voice startled her coming out of the darkness.
Natalia finally located her through the dim light coming in from the slit in the curtains. She almost smiled at the irony of Olivia asking that question. Phillip had been the one to unknowingly supply her with an answer. "Chasing you."
"What about Emma's party? Aren't you neglecting your duties?" The way Olivia said it - like an insult - scraped along Natalia's nerves, provoking her temper just as Olivia had known it would.
"Emma - and her party - will be just fine. Phillip's still there. He has everything under control." Okay, maybe that was a low blow, but they had always been good at fighting. At the moment, Natalia wouldn't mind a good fight at all. They'd had both kinds in their relationship. The bad kind - like the one they'd had the night that Olivia had disappeared - resulted in a screaming détente that neither knew how to break. The good kind got their blood flowing, hearts beating, until they found themselves kissing instead of yelling, tearing clothing off each other instead of throwing insults back and forth. The first time it had happened, Natalia had been more than a little shocked, but the longer she'd thought about it, the more it seemed a natural extension of their original relationship. It didn't happen often, but when it did the ending was often explosive. Not that Natalia had any hopes of this evening ending that way, but it was a place to start. Fighting was better than running away.
Olivia rolled her eyes. "Oh. Phillip's there. How freaking perfect."
"It is perfect. He's there to watch our daughter while I'm here. With you."
Olivia turned her gaze to Natalia. "And what if I don't want you here?" She got up off the bed and stalked toward Natalia. "If I think you should just leave."
"No." Natalia said with a firm shake of her head. "I'm not leaving. Not anymore."
"Get out," Olivia demanded, her voice rising sharply.
"No. You'll have to get security to throw me out. I was too stunned the other day to do anything else, but you're alive. Don't you understand? I spent months thinking you were dead and now you're here. I'm not going to let you go again, now that I have you back. I spent so many days wishing and praying and hoping for something I thought I could never have and you're here. God answered my prayers. You - Olivia. You're the answer to my prayers. Again."
"So?" Olivia demanded. "So what?"
"So you're coming home." Natalia said it with far more bravado than she felt. But then this had worked once before.
Olivia snorted with disbelief. "Are you out of your mind? No. Not this time, Natalia. I can't do this. Don't you understand?"
"I do understand. I get it, but what happened to the woman who just wanted me to be happy? I thought you were dead and Phillip made me feel just a little bit better. Like I could keep going, get through one more minute of the day. There were moments, Olivia. Moments when I didn't know whether I could. Missing you hurt so much. I would think of our daughters, of what losing us both would do to them, but sometimes I just didn't care. I loved you and you were gone. I hated you. And he told me I could get through the day. He did that for me. Can't you understand that without you I needed that?"
"No," Olivia yelled. "No, Natalia, I can't." She seemed to run out of breath suddenly. "I didn't want you to be happy, not so quickly. Not without me. You...you just replaced me with him in your perfect little life. It was like you didn't even miss me. Being without you is like a part of me is missing and you just...got over it."
"Oh, God, is that what you really think?" Natalia asked in disbelief. She laughed; she couldn't help it. It was all so ridiculous. "I was so angry at you," Natalia whispered, wrapping her arms around her waist. "We fought and you left and then you died. You left me. And I couldn't stand it. I missed you so much. All I could think about was what if we hadn't had that stupid fight? Every second of every day was missing you. It was an ache that never went away. There was nothing I could do to make it better because you weren't there and you were never coming back." She glanced at Olivia again. "I hated you for that too. But even as mad at you as I was, I would have given anything to have you back, to know that you were alive. Just to hear you say my name one more time, or hold me. I would have done anything, gone anywhere. I love you, Olivia. More than anything or anyone."
"Then why was he still holding you?" Olivia demanded, Natalia's words finally breaking past her hardened exterior. "I came back. I was there and you were still in his arms. You say he meant nothing, but you can't deny what I saw, Natalia."
For a moment, Natalia was too stunned to respond. "That?" she demanded. "That's what this is about?" She shook her head, her anger draining away and gazed fondly at Olivia. "You're an idiot."
Olivia drew herself up indignantly, but Natalia continued before she could speak.
"But I love you anyway. So much." She stepped forward until she could hold Olivia's face between her hands. "I need you to listen to me. I love you. I don't love Phillip." She swallowed and continued. It was hard to meet Olivia's eyes, but she refused to let herself look away. If Olivia couldn't see the truth of what she was saying, then they would never have a chance again. "The only thing I feel for him-" she frantically pressed her thumbs against Olivia's lips in an effort to silence her as she began to protest "-is gratitude. He held me up and pulled me through, made sure I was there for our daughters when no one else could. I will always be grateful to him for that. I don't know what might have happened, if things, if you hadn't..." Natalia couldn't finish that thought. "But you came back. You're alive and it doesn't matter to me what might have been, because you're here. You're the one I love - the only person I want to be with. Ever. You're all I care about."
Olivia licked her lip, the tip of her tongue flicking against Natalia's thumbs and making her jerk them back. "Do you really mean that?" she asked quietly.
"Of course I do. So much." Natalia hesitated. "Do you believe me?"
Olivia let out a long shaky breathe. "I want to."
"Then do it."
"It's not that easy, Natalia."
"It can be, if you let it."
Olivia crumpled, dissolving into Natalia's arms, tears running down her face. She would have slid to the ground if Natalia's arms hadn't caught her, cradled her, lowered them both gently to the ground, Natalia beneath her.
"Come home," Natalia whispered. "It's where you belong. I want you with me."
"Natalia..." It was a whimper, a plea for something she couldn't vocalize, but needed desperately.
She kissed Olivia's cheek, tucking her head against the side of her neck, breathing in Olivia's scent and being as close to her as she could. "Come home." Natalia repeated.
Olivia sucked in a ragged breath. "I don't know if I can do it," she admitted.
"We'll take it slow," Natalia said. "If that's what you need, that's what we'll do." She nuzzled into Olivia's hair. "Please. I need you. I've missed you so much. I don't want to miss you anymore."
It was the plea that broke Olivia's heart. Above all else, she could never refuse Natalia anything, not when it sounded as if her heart were breaking for what she couldn't have.
"Okay." It was the most terrifying decision she had ever made.
Natalia hesitated. "What about Diane?" She tried to keep the emphasis that she wanted to put on Diane's name off it, but she didn't think she was quite successful. She hated that she had to ask, but she wanted to be clear - clear that Olivia coming home, really meant coming home to be with her.
Olivia let out a soft snort. "What about her?" For a moment, Natalia thought she would leave it at that but then Olivia continued. "She left. She came by before you did. It turns out she doesn't like me very much - not when she realized I have a wife who still loves me. She said I had too much drama for her."
Natalia wasn't really sure how to react to that, besides jumping up and cheering. But it was obvious that Diane had been important to Olivia, especially during her recovery. She could be jealous about that all she wanted, but it didn't change the fact that Natalia hadn't been there and Diane had.
"Are you sad about that?" Natalia asked, unable to resist not knowing.
"No," Olivia said softly, not too quickly, but quick enough that Natalia knew she hadn't had to think about it. "I'm grateful to her for her help, but she wasn't- we weren't together, you know. I just wanted you to feel the way I did. She's not who I want for the rest of my life. "
The words hung between them unsaid. But it was enough for now. It was a beginning - another one - and it was enough to build on for now.
Olivia had no idea how long they had sat there together, before they finally moved. When they did, Olivia had been the first to stand. She had held her hand out to Natalia to help her up and Natalia never let go until they had gotten to Natalia's car. Once they were in the car Natalia had recaptured her hand almost before Olivia had realized she had let go.
She closed her eyes on the long drive back out to the farmhouse. They rode in silence. It wasn't a particularly tense silence, but Olivia wasn't sure what to say. So much had happened and she was exhausted. She was almost glad that Natalia wasn't insisting on carrying on a conversation. It let her focus on the soft warmth of Natalia's hand in hers, a simple comfort she'd been deprived of for the past months. Olivia's effort to block out the rest of the world drifted away from its original purpose. She felt herself sliding toward sleep and didn't resist. From the moment she had woken up alone and disoriented, not even knowing her own name, she had carried within her a certain tension. It was obvious from her condition that someone hadn't wished her well and she'd had no idea who she could really trust. Despite whatever had come between them, Olivia knew Natalia would not let any harm come to her. Content in that knowledge she could finally drift into a deep, dreamless sleep.
"Olivia." Waking to Natalia's thumb stroking her cheek was a reward in its own right. She rolled her head, nuzzling into Natalia's hand. She heard Natalia's soft gasp and opened her eyes.
"What's wrong?" She struggled to wake fully, her words slurring as she blinked her way back to consciousness. All she could see was Natalia's tears and want to fix it.
Natalia shook her head, futilely trying to hold back her tears. "Nothing." She swallowed. "You're so beautiful."
"That's why you're crying?" Natalia nodded. Olivia wrapped her hand around Natalia's wrist, the closest part of her that she could touch. "Don't cry, Sweetheart. I'm here."
Natalia took another gasping breath, clearly trying to do as Olivia had asked. "I've wanted to hear you say that so many times. You have no idea."
Without a word, Olivia put a hand behind her head and drew Natalia against her. It didn't matter that Natalia was awkwardly sprawled across the center console. All that she cared about was being back in Olivia's arms, surrounded by the feel of her, enveloped in her scent.
"Everyone's going to think we're crazy," Olivia murmured into Natalia's hair some time later. "Sitting out here in the car, in the dark."
"Don't care," Natalia said. She shifted, turning so that she could look up at Olivia. "They all think I'm crazy anyway."
"Oh?" Olivia asked, her fingers running idly through Natalia's hair.
"You don't think I took losing you well, do you?" Natalia asked, with a pained attempt at a smile.
Olivia shrugged. "We were fighting that night."
Natalia sat up so quickly that she almost fell off the seat and hit her head on the roof. Olivia steadied her. "You know I would give anything to take back everything I said that night."
"Are you sure you weren't...better off?" Olivia suggested. "No more crazy Olivia with her drinking and her bitchiness and her wild, unpredictability."
"No more person I loved to share my life with, no more my children's other mother. Oh, yeah, that was better off." Natalia rolled her eyes and pushed away from Olivia back into her own seat. "Don't be ridiculous."
Olivia huffed, folding her arms across her chest. "I'm not being ridiculous." But Natalia could see the beginnings of the faint smile tugging at Olivia's lips.
"No," Natalia conceded. "You're being you." She sighed, sinking down into herself a little. "I love you."
Olivia's smile burst fully into being; she reached across the seat between them and took Natalia's hand. "We should go inside. Check on the girls."
Natalia smiled faintly. "If Em isn't in a sugar coma." She glanced over at Olivia. "Are you sure you don't want to stay out here a little longer?"
They found Jane inside, keeping an eye on one exhausted eleven year old and her much more energetic little sister. Francesca, having napped at some point that day, was enjoying her second wind buzzing around the room with as much energy as Emma and her friends had displayed earlier that day. The moment she saw Olivia she ran toward her holding out her arms and Olivia didn't disappoint, sweeping her up immediately.
"Mommy!" Seeing Olivia was enough to energize Emma again, jumping up off the couch only a moment behind Francesca. "You came back."
Olivia cupped Emma's face for a moment, holding her gaze. "I did, Jellybean. I'm not going anywhere anymore."
Emma hesitated. She was old enough now to be aware of the tension between her two mommies and she had certainly found it odd that Olivia had stayed at the Beacon after she had come back. It had taken many strained reassurances from Natalia for her to believe that everything was okay, and it had never quite seemed that way - the meaning of Natalia's words contradicted by the way she said them. "You're really back?" Emma asked again. She needed to know for sure and her mother had never lied to her.
Olivia seemed to sense that Emma was asking something more because she didn't look away or make light of the question. "I really am, Emma." She held Emma's gaze until she seemed to find what she needed in it and then Olivia bent - Francesca still balanced on one hip - to kiss Emma's cheek. "I love you so much, Jellybean," she whispered for Emma's ears alone. "Never forget that." Then she straightened, blinking until no traitorous moisture would slip down her cheeks.
She took in the living room - similar yet different - unfamiliar toys mixed in with the old ones strewn across the floor. The difference was that she couldn't tell which toys were birthday gifts or simply ones she wasn't familiar with yet. Her girls were all gathered around her, all in various states of exhaustion except for Francesca who was bouncing impatiently on her hip.
"I know what we need," Olivia declared, drawing their attention.
"Oh?" Natalia asked, smiling, more than willing to go along for the ride, waiting to be dazzled.
"We need dinner. Something light and easy to revive my tired girls."
"Oh." Natalia almost sounded a little surprised at the practical suggestion. "Actually that sounds wonderful."
Olivia didn't miss the weariness beneath the genuine appreciation of the idea in her words. She gave Emma's hair an absentminded caress as she reached for Natalia's hand, reclaiming it. "Hey. I thought we could do it together." She smiled. "Just like we used to."
The smiled that Natalia flashed her, bright and full of dimples, told her that she had said exactly the right thing. It had been too long since she had done this - even before she had been gone.
Getting the girls settled in the kitchen wasn't hard, Emma keeping an eye on Francesca as Olivia and Natalia washed up, deciding on a simple supper of soup and sandwiches. They moved around the kitchen easily, passing the mayonnaise before it was asked for and managing to catch the soup just before it boiled over.
"You're making it wrong," Natalia said teasingly under her breath as she looked back down at her own efforts, swiftly cutting it in two.
"Oh? And what am I doing wrong?" Olivia asked, matching her tone, grateful for Natalia's teasing and that she could use it to mask her own sudden ache of longing. She had missed them being together this way and the ease that they had shared.
"Not enough peanut butter," Natalia said, glancing at Olivia as she took the knife from her and began to smear another layer on top of the bananas, checking to see if Olivia was with her. She tilted her head toward Francesca. "That little one likes it with way more peanut butter than banana. Almost as much as Rafe." She made a funny face as she concentrated on getting it just so and Olivia gave up any pretense of helping just to watch Natalia.
Natalia looked up from her work and caught Olivia staring at her unabashedly. She smiled uncertainly under the scrutiny.
Standing at the table side-by-side, Olivia gave Natalia a playful bump with her hip to break the tension. "I see you still get as much on your face as on the sandwich," Olivia whispered. She was rewarded with another of those dazzling smiles. Each one made Olivia feel like she had made her first million all over again. Without thinking, she leaned over and kissed Natalia lightly on the lips.
It was impulsive and Olivia didn't regret it. She saw the surprise flash in Natalia's eyes as she drew away and worried for an instant that Natalia would fall at her feet with gratitude or make a big deal out of it. But Natalia's smile only grew wider as she glanced over at Olivia from underneath her lashes, almost shyly if that was even possible for two women who had spent the past several years of their lives together, living and loving one another.
"I should, uh, get more peanut butter," Natalia said, her brow furrowing, glancing down at the still fairly-full-to-Olivia's-eyes jar, and confiscating it.
Olivia watched her disappear into the pantry and glanced back at the small row of sandwiches that still needed to be completed. She redirected her attention to the oldest of the two girls. "You got this, Em?"
Delighted to be left in charge of something as important as dinner, Emma nodded, eager to show her mother how much she had grown and what a good job she could do.
Olivia nodded. "Okay, then. Be right back." It felt a little bit ridiculous to follow Natalia into the spacious pantry, but she did it anyway, her fingers running down the louvered doors as she stepped through them. This had been her first birthday gift to Natalia as a couple. Well, the most practical of them, expanding Natalia's beloved kitchen. The rest Olivia would admit had been completely impractical, with only the goal of spoiling Natalia as much as possible firmly in mind.
"Nat-" Her name died on Olivia's lips as Olivia caught sight of her. Natalia's arms were wrapped around her waist and silent tears ran down her cheeks. "What's wrong?"
Natalia couldn't reply; she just reached blindly for Olivia, who held Natalia without hesitation.
"You don't have to cry anymore," she whispered, her lips against Natalia's ear. She brushed a piece of hair back from Natalia's face and kissed first one cheek and then the other, kissing her until all her tears were gone.
"I'm sorry," Natalia said, straightening. "I didn't want you to see me cry."
"I want all your tears - and your smiles." Olivia tried a smile of her own, wobblier than she had expected. "All your hugs and kisses."
Natalia half-laughed and half-sobbed against her, a release of emotion in a burst of sound. "They're yours. All yours. But Emma and Francesca and Rafe might have something to say about that."
Olivia sighed like it just might be a deal breaker. "I guess I can live with that. If you promise they're the only ones I have to share with."
Natalia's hand tightened around hers almost painfully. "I do," she whispered.
Olivia laughed ruefully. "We've already said that once. I guess I kind of messed up 'til death do us part' huh?"
"Just...don't do it again."
"I'm not going anywhere - I promise."
Hesitantly Natalia leaned forward. Olivia caught her intention immediately. She had a moment to decide if she wanted to let Natalia kiss her or turn her head away so that Natalia got her cheek instead. Olivia wasn't sure what stayed her in the end, but she froze in place. Not moving away, but not bridging the distance for Natalia either. Then Natalia's lips were brushing softly against her own. Olivia gasped. Natalia's lips clung, tasted, sucking in her breath and deepening the kiss. Something flared between them, familiar and consuming. Olivia jerked back from it. Not frightened of it, but not ready to be burned up by it either.
"We should..." she swallowed and gestured behind her, taking a step back toward the doors. "The girls are waiting on us."
"Right," Natalia said, letting her slip away, managing not to look too disappointed, but Olivia knew her too well to miss it.
Dinner was a loud boisterous affair. Re-energized by the food, Emma was loud and talkative, rehashing the events of her birthday party for both her mommies. Natalia seemed content to let her sweep the rest of them up with her mood and Olivia was grateful for her energy - and that it made any other talking unnecessary.
"We should watch a movie," Olivia declared.
"Movie night?" Natalia repeated. "We haven't done that in forever."
"It could be fun," Olivia said.
"Can I pick what we watch?" Emma asked, almost shooting up out of her chair in her eagerness.
"After you finish your dinner," Natalia said, nodding at the unfinished sandwich on her plate.
Emma finished her dinner in record time. Natalia thought even Olivia was eating a little bit more quickly than usual in order to finish faster. She just watched on in amusement, not joining in on their antics. There were still dishes to be done and a kitchen to be cleaned after all.
But when she started loading the dishwasher, Olivia caught her wrist.
"Let it wait. Just for tonight. Please."
There was no way Natalia could refuse the softness in her voice or the look in her eyes. She smiled, charmed and a little giddy that Olivia wanted her there. They hadn't had time to discuss anything beyond Olivia coming back home with her, not the betrayal Olivia had felt at seeing her with Phillip or where they would go from here. It was a small thing, but Natalia had always treasured the small things. "Okay," she whispered. "Let me fix some hot chocolate?"
Olivia smiled back. "That sounds wonderful."
As much as she wanted to hurry into the other room, Natalia took her time and made it on the stove, the old-fashioned way. She knew how much Olivia liked it that way. She put on the finishing touches - whipped cream towering almost impossible high on top - and headed out to the living room. Her heart sank when she saw Emma tucked up against one side of Olivia and Francesca was sprawled out on the other. She mustered a smile anyway, handing Olivia her hot chocolate before taking a seat next to Francesca. Natalia missed Olivia's little frown as she took her first sip of cocoa and settled in to watch the movie. High School Musical was already playing - at Emma's insistence. Natalia was glad that they hadn't waited for her.
But Natalia did notice when Olivia leaned forward to put her mug on the coffee table and scoop Francesca up - much to the little girl's delight - and put her in her lap, cuddling her close, showering her in kisses. Shrieks and giggles ensued, drawing complaints and loud shushing sounds from Emma. Natalia smiled through it all, delighted to have her family surrounding her.
"Hey you," Olivia whispered, when Francesca had finally quieted, exhausting her amusement. "What are you smiling at?"
"Nothing," Natalia answered just as quietly.
"Well what are you doing so far away then?" Olivia asked in the same mock-indignant tone.
Natalia just shook her head, beaming the whole time. "I have no idea," she said simply, before standing to scoot closer.
Olivia pulled her even closer until Natalia was pressed into her side, snuggled up on the couch as they had been so many times before. Even with so many things still up in the air, Natalia was so happy she felt like she was glowing. God had given her this moment and she was going to hold onto it, savoring every bit of it.
Natalia let her head fall against Olivia's shoulder, settling in and relaxing to watch the movie. She had lost herself in the familiar singing and dancing for a few moments when Olivia touched her knee, her fingers curling over it possessively. Natalia glanced over just as Olivia turned toward her. Their eyes met and held.
"This is what I missed most," Olivia whispered. "This right here. All of us, piled up on the couch together, watching a movie." She sniffed and swiped at her eye. "I couldn't remember it. I didn't know what it was, but there was this hole in my heart, and this was the feeling it was missing."
Natalia swallowed hard, emotion welling up at Olivia's soft confession. "Was it horrible while you were gone?" she asked softly, grateful that Olivia was still willing to open up to her. There were so many things that she had thought that she'd never have a chance to do again, having conversations like this one was just one of them.
"Yes," Olivia said simply. "No." Her fingers on Natalia's knee squeezed harder. "It was like going back to living my life the way that I always had before you - even though I couldn't remember anything. But there was always this...feeling...that something was missing. I couldn't name it, but I couldn't forget it. It was just always there on the tip of my tongue, haunting me." Olivia shuddered. "I hated it."
She sounded so lost that Natalia couldn't do anything but wrap her arms Olivia and hold her. Olivia looked startled but she allowed it.
Putting Emma and Francesca to bed was harder than usual. Francesca had fallen asleep during the movie and Emma had been yawning with suspicious frequency by the time it was over, but once the credits had stop rolling both had revived, seeming more hyper than ever in Olivia's presence. They weren't ready for the day to end and Natalia couldn't blame them.
Finally they managed to get first Francesca and then Emma tucked into bed. Natalia had already tiptoed out of Emma's room, having said her goodnight's first, leaving Olivia and Emma for some special time alone.
"I'm so glad you came back, Mommy," Emma whispered, scooting closer to where Olivia was sitting on the edge of her bed. "This was the best birthday ever."
Emma nodded solemnly and Olivia bent to give her one last hug, kissing the top of her head before she straightened.
"I'm so glad, Jellybean. I love you so much."
"I know, Mommy," Emma said with a confidence that broke Olivia's heart. "I love you too."
As satisfied as she could be knowing that her daughter didn't doubt how much she loved her, Olivia rose and quietly left the room. She took a deep breath as she emerged into the hallway. Natalia would be waiting for her - in their room.
When she opened the door, Natalia was standing in front of the mirror atop their dresser, brushing out her long hair. She caught sight of Olivia in the mirror and stopped mid-stroke, lowering the brush and putting it down on the table. It was then that Olivia noticed that Natalia was wearing her favorite chemise, a thin golden strap-y number. Olivia could already feel the flimsiness of it under her fingers.
Natalia knew it was her favorite. She had worn it on purpose. Like so many other things, Olivia wasn't sure how she felt about that. So she ignored it.
"I don't have anything to change into," Olivia said, her voice hushed by the dim light and the feel of the room. She felt like a stranger in her own home.
"Your things are all still here," Natalia said just as softly. "I couldn't-" she shook her head. "They're all still here," she said, opening the drawer where Olivia had always kept her nightgowns and lingerie before.
"Okay, thank you." Even though Olivia knew Natalia wasn't, it felt as if she were watching Olivia's every move as she went to the drawer and pulled out a pair of pajamas, then went to the bathroom to change. It was awkward because she had been gone and because they were acting differently around each other. Olivia smiled bemusedly. It reminded her of the first night they had spent together in the farmhouse as a couple. Only then Natalia hadn't been having an affair with her ex-husband the week before.
Olivia sighed bitterly and stepped into the pajama pants with resignation. So things were different. She was back where she belonged. It would just take time. When she came back out, Natalia was already in bed. That made it a little easier to join her on the other side. Or at least that was what Olivia thought until she was actually in bed. Then she was forced to confront Natalia's proximity, her scent enveloping Olivia. It would be so easy to just reach across the small distance between them and touch Natalia. She already knew how tantalizingly soft and smooth her skin would be.
Olivia couldn't resist any longer. She rolled over onto her side and slid her arms around Natalia from behind, resting her chin against Natalia's shoulder. She breathed in deeply. "You know, you've never actually slept in that," Olivia whispered, her tone ironic.
"I know." Natalia hesitated then squirmed in Olivia's arms, not struggling to move away but to roll over so that she could see Olivia. "I don't know how you feel about..." she faltered and then steadied herself, looking down between them. "About me. About what happened." She plucked at the strap of the gown. "I didn't wear this to pressure you or anything. But...I love you and I've missed you so much."
Olivia swallowed, her mouth suddenly feeling dry. It wasn't pressure, but an invitation, if she wanted to take it. Natalia was putting herself out there, all wrapped up in a bow. "Natalia, I don't know that I can..." She shook her head and scooted closer. "I missed you too. God, I missed you. But-" she cut herself off.
"I don't think I can be with you here in this bed, not where you and-"
"No," Natalia said forcefully, cutting her off before she could finish that thought. "We never. I couldn't. I wouldn't have. Not here. Not in our bed."
"If I hadn't come back it wouldn't have been our bed anymore," Olivia said, feeling irritated with Natalia, picking at the scab that had barely begun to form. "It would have been your bed - and his."
Natalia threw her leg over Olivia's. It was the only way she could get closer than they already were. "Then I am so glad you're here."
"Are you?" Olivia asked bitterly. "Are you sure you don't want something easier? Less complicated. Phillip could give you that."
"But he's not what I want and he never could be," Natalia said fiercely. "Because the only thing I want is you."
"You make it sound so simple," Olivia murmured, reach up to play with the thin strap, slipping it down over Natalia's shoulder. "And it's not."
Natalia shivered as Olivia's nails grazed over her skin and she struggled to hang on to the thread of the conversation. "Tell me what you need," Natalia whispered.
Olivia's lips pursed. For a moment, Natalia thought she wasn't going to answer. "You." She picked up Natalia's left hand and placed a soft kiss on her knuckles - on her ring finger just above her wedding band. "You never took this off, did you?" She brushed her thumb against the band, shifting it on Natalia's finger to reveal the circlet of paler skin beneath.
Natalia shook her head, struggling to form words faced with the intensity of Olivia's gaze. "Olivia..."
"Shhh," Olivia shushed her, putting her finger over Natalia's lips. "Don't say anything."
Natalia squirmed as she struggled to comply. There was so much that she wanted to say, to beg Olivia for her forgiveness, to plead with her not to leave, to ask if she could still possibly love her. But she stayed silent. Even as Olivia rolled them over, until she was above Natalia, their legs intertwined. She hovered over Natalia for a moment, holding herself over her on her hands. Natalia was almost holding her breath, willing to let Olivia do whatever she wanted, but feeling more uncertain than she ever had before in their bed.
Finally Olivia shifted her weight to one hand, using the other to pull down the one remaining strap that held the thin garment on Natalia's shoulder. Olivia hooked it with her pinky and drew it down Natalia's arm, leaving Natalia's arms trapped at her sides by a slender gossamer strand. Olivia drew the garment further down, her index finger tugging at the center of it. Natalia watched her do it, feeling more exposed and vulnerable by the moment as Olivia drew it down. Tears were waiting just behind her eyes, drawn by the overload of emotions rushing through her. Natalia closed her eyes against them, struggling to keep it all inside, wanting to forget everything but Olivia's hands on her.
Olivia had shifted so that she was sitting up, straddling Natalia's hips. Her fingers drifted down the center of Natalia's chest, tracing a wavy path downward. She bent forward, her hair tickling Natalia's shoulders and began to trail kisses down her torso. Natalia whimpered when Olivia's lips found the curve of her breast and then worked her way across it until she could take her nipple into her mouth, sucking until her cheeks hollowed.
Her hands began to wander, skimming down Natalia's sides. She stroked Natalia's hip, lingering there, knowing that the silky smoothness of the chemise was nothing compared to Natalia's skin beneath it. Olivia began tugging on the material, pulling the hem upwards until she could slip her hand beneath it, her fingers skimming over the softness of Natalia's inner thigh.
She released Natalia's nipple with a loud pop as she stroked her fingers over Natalia's firm abdomen just above the waist of her panties. Olivia hooked one finger into the waist of them, but then instead of pulling them down she let her fingers wander down over the material and stroke back up. Olivia could feel the damp heat beneath the thin layer of material all too well. Natalia whimpered.
It was too much; she couldn't take anymore. The tears that she had been trying so hard to hold back began to slide down her cheeks. Natalia turned her head away in an effort to hide them, knowing it wouldn't be successful.
"Natalia?" Olivia asked, pulling her hands back at the sound of her gentle hitching sobs. "What's wrong?"
But Natalia just shook her head. She grabbed Olivia's arms, needing something to hold onto, and clung to her tightly. Olivia held her, turning her head to kiss every part of Natalia that she could reach, her cheek, the side of her face, her temple.
"Hey, it's okay," Olivia whispered soothingly. "It's going to be okay."
"You can't promise that," Natalia choked out. "You might change your mind or...or decide you can't do this after all, after I..." She couldn't finish that thought. It was like history was repeating itself. She had made a huge mistake again, big enough that it might be unforgivable. She couldn't stand the thought of living without Olivia; Natalia knew what that was like.
"I'm here," Olivia said. She hesitated a moment and then drew back so that she could look at Natalia. "Do you hear me, Natalia? I'm here."
Natalia nodded shakily, biting her lip. "I want..."
"To kiss you." Absolution.
"Then kiss me," Olivia said, leaning in, teasingly brushing her nose against Natalia's.
Natalia took Olivia's face in her hands and did just that, kissing her deeply. There were no teasing brushes of lips or tentative tastes, just a deep, demanding kiss. Her tongue slipped into Olivia's mouth as she reached up, grasping a handful of Olivia's hair. She needed more, more and more and more. Natalia finally had Olivia back in her arms, but the ache within her that was more than just something physical had yet to be assuaged. She was almost desperate to find a way to stop missing her, to make herself believe that Olivia was really here, really loved her. It was difficult when Olivia hadn't even said the words yet.
But they were here together, in bed, and that was something Natalia had thought she would never get to have again. She gasped into Olivia's mouth as she felt Olivia's hand resume its journey downward. This time she slipped her fingers inside Natalia's panties without hesitation, cupping her and then sliding her hand further down, stroking her with the tip of a finger.
Natalia squirmed, whimpering, wanting more than Olivia was offering. "Please," she broke the kiss to beg, reaching down and covering Olivia's hand with her own, pushing Olivia's fingers more firmly against her.
"Something you wanted, Natalia?" Olivia said, her voice deep and husky next to Natalia's ear.
"Oh, please," Natalia whispered again as Olivia's strokes grew firmer and then without warning she slid firmly up inside her, the heel of her palm pressed against Natalia's clit.
Natalia pressed her forehead against Olivia's shoulder and bit her lip as she clung to Olivia, concentrating on the ever-building sensation within her as Olivia thrust against her. Her orgasm hit her suddenly and she shuddered in Olivia's arms, feeling as if she were going to come apart. Slowly she calmed, her breathing beginning to slow back to normal as Olivia stroked her hair. She hadn't noticed how her heart was pounding until she was sprawled back bonelessly against the bed.
It took effort, but Natalia reached out, running her finger up and down Olivia's arms. She let out a wry chuckle. "You're overdressed."
Olivia glanced down, realizing then that she was still in her pajamas. "I guess I am." She tugged on the chemise that was still on Natalia, just a little bit worse for the wear. "But so are you."
Natalia grabbed Olivia's hand and struggled to sit up. "I could help you with that."
"You first," Olivia said, arching an eyebrow.
Her legs still felt like jelly but Natalia managed to get to her knees. She laughed as her knee came down on the edge of the gown and it caught her short, throwing her off balance and sending her falling into Olivia.
Olivia caught her, shaking her head at Natalia's not-so-smooth move. "Are you sure you're not drunk?" she teased her.
"Not drunk," Natalia said with a shake of her head. "Just happy."
"Yeah?" Olivia said, a smile tugging at her lips.
Natalia nodded again, pushing away from Olivia until she was balancing a little bit more carefully on her knees and then reached for the hem of the gown, lifting it over her head and pulling it off. She let it fall over the edge of the bed and out of sight. Then she shimmied out of her panties. It took a little bit longer and required her to lean against Olivia several times for balance, but neither one minded.
And then it was Olivia's turn.
The pajama shirt had buttons. Olivia rarely bothered with them. It was big enough that she could simply pull it on and off over her head, but this time she began at the top, undoing them slowly enough that Natalia grew impatient. She scooted forward, laughing at Olivia's amused, superior smirk and started unbuttoning it herself. They met in the middle.
Natalia giggled when their hands met, their fingers tangling together briefly as she leaned forward to nip playfully at Olivia's lips. The butterfly kisses continued until Olivia captured her lips and refused to let go following Natalia as she leaned away. Natalia moaned into the kiss and slid her hands beneath the fabric, easing the shirt off Olivia's shoulders. She tugged it downwards and let it fall away completely.
Olivia broke the kiss and pressed against her, wrapping her arms against Natalia's shoulders and "walking" a little bit closer, still on her knees. Natalia took advantage of the moment and tugged on the string tying Olivia's pajama pants together. It fell undone with just one pull and Natalia began to work them down Olivia's hips. There was a brief moment of confusion about who was leaning which way and Olivia lost her balance, tumbling back against the bed and pulling Natalia down on top of her.
They laughed helplessly until Natalia squirmed against Olivia trying to find a more comfortable position and her bare breasts pressed into Olivia's. Olivia grew quiet instantly, jolted by the feeling of skin-against-skin. The serious look in her eyes caught Natalia mid-giggle. She almost hiccuped as it cut off abruptly.
Then she began to scoot back from Olivia.
"Hey," Olivia protested softly. "Where are you going?"
"Nowhere," Natalia said. "Just finishing what I started." She tapped Olivia's thigh. "Lift."
When Olivia complied she tugged the offending pajama pants the rest of the way off her legs and dropped them down with the top, to be discovered later. She glanced back at Olivia and froze. Natalia couldn't help but stare at Olivia sprawled out before her on the bed, with what could only be called a come-hither expression on her face. Natalia just shook her head.
"You are so beautiful," she whispered, her hands trailing up Olivia's legs as she scooted back toward Olivia.
Olivia swallowed thickly. It always hit her hard when Natalia said that, not because she said it rarely, but because she meant more than just her looks. Each time it was stunning.
Natalia's hands were running up and down her thighs. Olivia couldn't help but be distracted. Her earlier smirk slipped back onto her lips. She knew what Natalia wanted, what she was thinking before she had even thought it. Natalia was looking at her like she wanted to devour her and Olivia heartily approved.
Natalia shook her head at the smirk Olivia was wearing, growing determined to wipe that look off Olivia's face. She slid down to the bed, so that she was just inches above Olivia, her head over Olivia's abdomen. She backed up a few inches, tilting her head and breathing in deeply, her nose pressed almost against the junction of Olivia's thighs. Natalia felt the muscles of Olivia's abdomen jerk and tilted her head a little further forward, her hair cascading down over her shoulders to hide her smile.
Instead of venturing further down, where Olivia was expecting her mouth to land, Natalia shifted, her hair trailing over Olivia's abdomen, and planted an open-mouthed kiss on the inside of her thigh. Her tongue flicked out over sensitive skin, and Olivia grabbed a fistful of hair at the nape of her neck. Natalia didn't let it hurry her, trailing kisses toward her destination and then when she was so close switching sides, going back down toward her knee.
Olivia made a whining sound and Natalia laughed. Olivia's grip on her hair tightened in retaliation, guiding her head back toward where she wanted it. Natalia licked the back of her knee and let herself be guided closer. She nuzzled closer, deliberately bumping her nose into Olivia's clit. She hissed, her nails scratching Natalia's scalp for an instant before she closed her fist again. Natalia licked once, slowly, deliberately and Olivia hissed again.
"Natalia..." Her name was part-plea and part warning.
Natalia smiled again, a too innocent smile. She began to lick again. When Olivia's hips began to move with her touch, Natalia shifted a little so that she could bring her hand around. Then she sat back a little, moving away from Olivia, replacing her tongue with her fingers, coating them in Olivia's wetness. When her fingers were slick, she slid them up into Olivia and bent over her once again. This time she found Olivia's clit with her lips and tongue, sucking on it as she thrust into Olivia.
Olivia gasped, her hips jerking upward more quickly, meeting Natalia's thrusts, until her steady rhythm turned erratic and her hips arched up sharply and then fell back to the bed as she came. Natalia felt the tell-tale signs of Olivia clenching around her fingers and sucked harder on Olivia's clit, making her jerk and whimper again.
"Oh, God, Natalia," Olivia gasped, between sharp panted breaths. "You're going to kill me."
Natalia froze at the panted words, resting her forehead against Olivia's thigh. "Then I guess we can't ever do that again, because I can't live without you."
Olivia froze and for a moment, the sound of her breathing the only noise in the room. Gradually it began to return to normal and Olivia's tight grip on Natalia's hair relaxed, until she was simply stroking her fingers through curly, tangled locks.
"But you did though. You can," Olivia said, finally speaking.
Natalia's arms tightened around Olivia's waist. "What I was doing wasn't living. It was surviving."
Olivia's hand never stopped moving in Natalia's hair. "Even Phillip?"
Natalia sighed, but didn't move to raise her head, her breath ghosting against Olivia's sweat dampened skin and raising goosebumps across her hip.
"Even Phillip. It wasn't something I ever intended to happen, Olivia. It just did one day." She began to trace patterns against the inside of Olivia's hipbone, running her nail lightly back and forth. "Not for any of the reasons you think, but because I couldn't breathe. I missed you so much I didn't think I could go on. He was there and he was kind. I could hold on to him."
Olivia twirled a strand of Natalia's hair around her finger and didn't say anything. The silence began to grow unbearable for Natalia. Finally she raised her head, propping herself up so that her chin was resting on her joined fingers at the base of Olivia's abdomen, leaving Olivia looking down her own body at Natalia.
Natalia could still feel the wet heat of Olivia pressed up against her abdomen. "Do you think you can ever trust me again?" Natalia hesitated. "I mean, really trust me." It was the most essential part of their relationship, an unfailing trust in the other that banded them together against everything. Without it Natalia wasn't sure what they would be. Or if there would be anything left to salvage of them.
Olivia sighed, still toying with her hair, dexterous fingers never ceasing to move. "Yes."
Natalia waited and when nothing came, she pushed herself up a little more. "Yes? That's it? Just yes."
"Did you want a speech?" Olivia asked. "You just fucked me senseless, Natalia. You can't expect eloquence."
Natalia sagged back down against her, laying her arms back across Olivia's hips. "Is that why you're saying yes?"
It was Olivia's turn to struggle to sit up. "You think because we just had sex..." Olivia shook her head. "If I didn't trust you, I wouldn't have let you touch me."
Natalia pushed herself up to her knees and then sat down so that she was facing Olivia. Suddenly she felt chilled and too naked. She wished for a robe but didn't want to get up to get one. She drew her legs up and rested her chin on her knee, wrapping her arms around them. She looked as if she didn't quite believe Olivia.
"Fine," Olivia said. "So that might not have always been true, but you've ruined me. I can't go back. I'll only make love to someone that I love."
Natalia glanced down and away, feeling the words like a knife to the heart.
"Natalia..." Olivia cajoled, realizing almost immediately what Natalia had heard. "That's not what I meant." She heaved another sigh and scooted across the bed until she was sitting beside Natalia on the bed, facing her. "So you slept with Phillip. That just proves you're human. Like everyone else." She grimaced. "I mean, who hasn't slept with a Spaulding or two?"
"It's not funny," Natalia said, crossly.
"I know," Olivia said, softening her voice. "I'm not funny. But what I'm trying to say - in my not-funny way - is that I can live with that." She tipped Natalia's chin up. "As long as you're still willing to live with me - flaws and bitchiness and all."
"Yes," Natalia said. "Of course." She searched Olivia's eyes for a moment. "You really mean it."
Olivia nodded. "I really do. I love you."
Natalia launched herself at Olivia, almost tackling her, pushing her back against the bed and kissing her, raining kisses over her face until she tired and dropped her head to Olivia's shoulder. The steady beat of Olivia's heart beneath her shoulder was soothing.
"Just promise me," Natalia said. "No more drunk driving."
Olivia sounded sleepy, her words slurring slightly as she spoke, tiredness setting in. "Wasn't driving drunk. Was drunk. But I took a cab home." She wrapped her arms around Natalia's waist and snuggled closer. "Still can't remember the accident - or what happened to the cabbie. Just waking up in some woods outside Salem."
Natalia had a moment of foggy panic, struggling to think clearly through the exhaustion that was slowly creeping over her as well. "Then no more accidents," she said, squeezing Olivia even tighter. "I might not let you out of my sight again. I can't lose you."
"I'm here, Sweetheart," Olivia said reassuringly. "Just go to sleep. I promise I'll still be here in the morning."
Natalia started to protest and then relaxed. They could face anything they needed to face in the morning - together. Natalia let herself go, falling into a deep sleep. Olivia dreamed.
"Gu-us!" The voice was a high-pitched whine. "What is...this?" Olivia could see the woman now. She was short haired and diminutive, but clearly had a commanding presence. "This-" she nudged Olivia with her toe "-creature is not who I asked for." She waved her hand dismissively, her irritation evident. "Oh, she looks close enough, but she's no Carly Manning! And that's who I want in a heap at my feet. Subject to my every whim."
"I'm very sorry, Madame. There was some confusion as to Ms. Manning's location and as I was busy with some of your other plans, I contacted some former associates to facilitate her arrival." He sniffed. "Unfortunately they were not very effective. Though I made certain that her disappearance was well covered. There will be nothing traced back to us, Madam. The local detective was told that she was seen getting into her car, after stumbling, drunk, across the parking lot." He smiled cruelly, smugly. "And then her car was disposed of, quite nicely. All the pieces fit perfectly."
The woman heaved a long-suffering sigh. "And yet it was all for nothing. Your little 'associates' didn't get me what I wanted, now did they?" She gave a disappointed shake of her head. "Discard this - with the rest of the trash. Dispose of her as they did the car. Gas her again if you must, make certain that she has no memory of what happened. Kill her for all I care. Just get her out of my sight and bring me the real Carly Manning next time. None of this idiocy." Olivia could hear the faint click of high heels. They grew quieter as she stalked away. "Oh, and Gus? Do be sure to hire a more competent class of goons the next time you feel the need to subcontract one of your errands." She huffed. "Such a bother. Can no one do anything right?"
Olivia shifted restlessly in her sleep and moved closer to Natalia - and warmth and safety.
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