Title: Critical Mass

Author: Phox

Email: Phox333@aol.com (Feedback welcome.)

Fandom: Guiding Light

Pairing: Olivia/Natalia

Rating: NC-17 (language, adult themes, sex)

Disclaimer: Sadly Olivia and Natalia and other Springfield Townshippers belong to TeleNext Media, not me. I’m just taking them out on a playdate and will return them forthwith, hopefully none the worse for wear.

Author's Note: This picks up with the spa fight (5/6/09) and then spins off in its own direction. It’s a story of love, longing, conflict, and an unexpected major crisis that turns everything upside down and leads to a new emotional journey for Olivia and Natalia. What if that little argument at the spa getaway had escalated further instead of fizzling out into a nature hike with the out-of-shape, "what-baby-bump?" Natalia Rivera and the "woman for all seasons," Olivia Spencer? I could easily see it playing out that way, considering the hot tempers and stubbornness of both these women, so ...

Critical Mass
By Phox

| Ch. 1-10 | Ch. 11-20 | Ch. 21-30 | Ch. 31-40 | Ch. 41-50 | Ch. 51-60 | Ch. 61-70 | Ch. 71-80 | Ch. 81-90 |

Chapter 1

The luxuriously furnished spa guestroom was a blizzard of clothing flying randomly through the air as two angry women threw shirts, jeans, bras, and whatnot into and out of their, and each other’s, respective traveling bags.

Olivia Spencer, hotelier and currently one mighty pissed-off spa visitor, was mad enough to shred every item of clothing she’d brought for her little getaway with ... with ... that woman! If she’s not the most irritating person on the planet, I’ll eat this pink bra, she thought as she slam-dunked the offending garment into one of the many pieces of luggage carted to the spa by the permanently-in-denial Natalia Rivera. In her anger, she wasn’t even sure whose pink bra it was; she just wanted the damned thing packed—wherever!

When Natalia tossed the bra back into Olivia’s suitcase, Olivia’s temper ratcheted up several notches, and she thought her head might just explode from sheer aggravation. Serve her right to get bits and pieces of brain matter spattered all over that pile of suitcases she brought with her. Did she think we were staying permanently?

"You know what the problem is?" Olivia asked. "You are just way, way, way, way too sensitive!"

While Olivia’s anger was shooting off her like welding sparks, Natalia’s was in a slow burn. "Oh, no," Natalia retorted, "the problem is whenever we have a problem, you attack my religion."

Olivia’s eyebrows shot up in disbelief. "I was not attacking your religion, okay? Where has your sense of humor gone?" Humor is a good thing, goddamn it! You should get some.

"It’s not funny," Natalia said, "and you weren’t joking."

"Oh, come on!" Olivia continued to fling clothing haphazardly—and unfolded—into her bag, while glancing occasionally at the irksome woman in a mirror-image battle with her own belongings. Natalia’s gorgeous dark hair and eyes, her curvy figure, her perfect mouth, her overall sexiness—all those things just made Olivia’s anger escalate further. Yeah, I know it’s illogical, but damn it, I’ve reached my breaking point. It’s not easy wanting someone this much and getting shot down at every single damn turn in the road!

Mimicking Olivia as best she could, Natalia repeated, "‘Well, maybe next time we should go to a religious retreat.’"

"I wasn’t attacking your religion, okay? I was making a point." Olivia threw a pair of jeans into Natalia’s bag. She had no idea whose jeans they were, but throwing them into Natalia’s bag seemed better than throwing them in her face, which is what she really wanted to do.

"You know what’s happening here? We’ve gone right back to the beginning where we don’t even like each other," Natalia said. When Olivia angrily chucked a shirt into Natalia’s bag, Natalia added, "Will you calm down?"

"You calm down!"

"God, before we got here we were friends, and now we’re ... we’re ... what?"

"Well, that’s what we came here to figure out, right?"

"Yeah, okay, what have we figured out?"

Olivia yanked the zipper of her bag shut with an angry sound of gnashing metal teeth. "That this was a BIG mistake!" she said, hoisting her bag and heading for the door.

"Huge! It was a ... a huge mistake!" Natalia sputtered.

"Well, at least we agree on something."

"Fine, let’s just check out and get out of here then."

"I’ll find my own way home."

"I brought you here in my car. I’ll drive you back."

"Oh, please! Don’t bother. I might feel the need to ‘attack’ your religion again or do any of a thousand other things that irritate you. Can’t have that." Olivia flung the door open, stomped into the hallway, and slammed the door shut behind her. Gee, that went well. Next time I have a "great" idea like this, somebody just shoot me. Please.

******************************

Natalia flinched when the door banged shut. Her anger felt like a living entity hellbent on bursting out of her body, and she struggled to calm it back down.

What was I thinking? This was a bad idea ... a really, really bad idea! I knew it! We should never have come to this place. I don’t belong in a place like this anyway. Who in the world ever came up with the idea of seaweed wraps? That’s just ... wrong. I’d rather get a manicure—and really, I could just do that myself. And leave it to Olivia to be too stubborn to let me drive us both back. No, that’d just be too easy and too practical. Much better to rent a car or a limo or a chopper or something and pay a huge amount of money to get back to Springfield rather than sit in the car for a couple of hours with me. Well, fine! If that’s what she wants, then it’s just fine with me!

Natalia finished packing and struggled to wrestle her three enormous bags out of the room, down the hallway, and into the elevator. She could feel that angry entity wrapping itself mercilessly around her heart and squeezing hard, hard enough to be physically painful. By the time the elevator reached the ground floor, it was gnawing its way through other vital organs, like a chronic disease.

I’ve got to let go of this anger. I need to accept that we... that we can’t ... be. It’s better this way anyway. Better for everyone. She knew now there would be no more confusion, no more painful attempts to try to figure out all these perplexing feelings she didn’t know what to do with, no whispers, no condemnation. It really is better, she thought as she turned in her room key. She scanned the lobby, but there was no sign of Olivia. I should have known that this—whatever this is ... or rather was—would never work.

By the time Natalia reached her car and began the long drive back to Springfield Township, the angry entity had vanished, and she found herself completely alone with her thoughts, which she worked feverishly to discipline. It’s for the best, she repeated over and over in her head. For the best. For the best. For the best. She thought of Olivia grinning at her as she lay under a sheet at their "couple’s" massage looking relaxed and happy. For the best, for the best, for the best. I know it’s for the best. She gripped the wheel tightly. But then ... why do I feel so sad?

******************************

Olivia stood at the spa bar arguing with the bartender. "What do you mean there’s no alcohol?"

The immaculately groomed young man behind the counter watched the irate woman calmly. "I’m sorry, ma’am, but we only offer health beverages here."

"Hey, red wine is healthy. It’s supposed to be good for your heart."

"You might enjoy our green tea then; studies have shown it has beneficial effects on risk factors for heart disease." He looked at her for a moment. "Or maybe you’d like to try our Tension Tamer Tea?

Olivia scowled. "I need something stronger than tea!"

"Then perhaps our Carrot Ginger Surprise?"

Olivia glared at the smooth-faced young man. Could anyone really blame me if I launched myself over the counter and just slapped him silly?

She was surprised to feel a tiny hand slip into hers, and more surprised still when she looked down into the wide-open eyes of her youngest daughter. "Emma! What are you doing here?"

"I asked Jane to bring me. I missed you."

Olivia knelt so they were at eye level and hugged Emma to her. "I’ve missed you, too, baby."

She glanced at Jane, standing a few feet away. Jane shrugged as though in apology, and Olivia nodded. She understood why Jane had let Emma talk her into the impromptu visit, and as much as she disapproved of Jane’s choice, she was suddenly grateful to have her little girl in her arms. However, the thought did cross her mind that she should probably fire Jane. A nine-year-old should not be in charge. I can’t deal with that right now, she thought. Besides, Emma adores Jane, so I ... I’ll let it go for now. I have enough to deal with—but I definitely need to have a serious talk with Jane sometime soon!

"I missed Natalia, too," Emma continued. "Where is she?"

"She went home."

"Went home? Why?"

Olivia’s fingers made their habitual journey to her forehead, where they began a slow circular massage. That’s a good question, but ... I don’t know what to say and I don’t want to think about it right now, because if I do I’m going to start screaming or ... crying ... and I really don’t want to do either of those in front of my child.

Emma frowned at the lack of response. "Is she sick?"

"No, she’s not sick."

"Then what?"

"She was ... she was just ... tired, so she went home." Tired of fighting. Tired of trying to figure stuff out. Tired of me. Tired of "us."

"Maybe we should go check on her."

"No, don’t worry, baby. She’ll be okay. She just needs some time to herself. I think maybe you and Jane and I should go home, too."

"Home to the farmhouse?"

"No!" On seeing Emma’s startled face, Olivia carefully modulated her tone. "We just can’t go back there, Jellybean. We need to go back to our home."

"You mean the hotel?"

"Yes, for now. Is that okay?"

"I guess."

Olivia looked to Jane for support, which was immediately forthcoming. I knew there was a reason I keep Jane around, she thought gratefully as she watched Jane spring into action. Jane took Olivia’s bag and Emma’s hand, and soon the three of them were in Jane’s SUV, heading away from spa country and back to everyday life in Springfield Township.

Olivia leaned her elbow on the armrest of the vehicle and massaged the bridge of her nose as beautiful forest scenery flew by unnoticed, at least by her. Instead, all she could see was images of Natalia in her fluffy white spa robe, long dark hair framing her angelic face so perfectly—images she ruthlessly shoved aside.

I’m not going to think about you. Not anymore. I’m done. I’m done fighting for someone who doesn’t want me—and never will want me. Or at least will never admit it and NEVER deal with it. Either way, as far as Olivia was concerned, they were officially splitsville after the disastrous spa "vacation," so she might as well just deal with it and get on with her life. She rubbed her forehead. Damn headache!

******************************

Natalia dragged her heavy luggage into the farmhouse. It was dusk, and the large house was dark and silent. It feels so empty here, she thought as she pushed the door open. When she entered, she lost her grip on one of the rolling suitcases, and it clattered to the floor.

Suddenly tired, she left the suitcases just inside the door, sank down onto one of the kitchen chairs, and stared quietly at the shadows lengthening along the dark wooden floorboards. There was no Emma. There was no Olivia. There was no sound. There was only her and her suitcases and the utter silence. I’ll have to get used to the quiet, she thought. It’s just the way things are now. She wasn’t sure which emotion was stronger, the relief or the sadness. With resignation she rose slowly, grabbed two of her three bags, and headed toward the stairway.

******************************

Olivia was more than happy to grant Emma’s request for a Saturday overnight with Jody and the kittens. The strain of trying to maintain a happy facade for Emma’s sake was wearing her down, so the idea of letting her little girl go off for a night of fun, leaving her alone to wrestle her demons, was more than a little appealing. She waved goodbye to Jane and Emma, and headed for the shower.

I feel like I need to wash off this day, she thought. She turned the water on as hot as she could stand it and scrubbed her body vigorously. Disjointed images from the short time she’d spent at the spa began to cartwheel through her mind—Natalia’s beautiful smile when she saw the deluxe guestroom; Natalia’s shock when they found out they’d have to share a room—was that so bad?; Natalia in a spa robe looking cuddly and sexy; Natalia naked under a sheet at the "couple’s" massage—how she longed to yank that sheet off. Damn Blake and her unwanted chaperonage!

Couple’s massage. "Couple." Yeah, right. What a joke! Well, we went there to figure things out, and I guess we did. Natalia can’t deal with it; she just can’t deal with feeling attracted to another woman. See, Natalia? I can even call it what it is, unlike you, goddamn it!

She finally coaxed herself out from under the scalding spray and began to dry off. What I need is ... is a drink! She quickly dressed in a casual gray pantsuit and headed downstairs to the Beacon bar. At least we carry some freakin’ alcohol around here, she thought, unlike that pansy-ass bar at the spa.

The dark-haired Beacon bartender materialized instantly in front of her the minute she sat on the barstool. "Red wine, Ms. Spencer?"

"No, Brandon, bring me some vodka."

"Screwdriver?"

"No, just the vodka bottle and a glass."

"Of course."

Olivia tossed back her first glass of vodka and waited for the numbness to hit. She thought about Natalia all nervous and giggly—and so pretty—at their spaghetti dinner with Emma. Okay, I guess one’s not enough. Good thing I have an entire bottle here. She really needed to stop thinking about Natalia. It was an ill-fated relationship, to put it mildly. Can we even call it a "relationship"? I mean ... I’m not sure whatever that was even counted. She tossed back another tumbler of vodka.

She thought about Natalia telling her she loved her. She thought about Natalia telling her she knew what it meant when you told someone you loved them. Well, I don’t think you knew what you were saying or what it meant. I don’t know what the hell you were thinking or feeling. She remembered her own heart soaring at those words, even though she tried to force herself to be cautious. After all, this was Natalia "I live in denial" Rivera. I don’t know and I don’t ... I don’t care what you were thinking or feeling. Even she wasn’t convinced by her last thought, so she poured another glass of vodka and quickly swallowed it down.

When she was on glass number four, Mayor Wolfe entered the bar, spotted her, and headed her way like a heat-seeking missile. "Well, well, Ms. Spencer," the mayor said. "You look like hell."

"Thanks, Doris. I can always count on you to lift my spirits." She noticed a double image of Doris’s face where she knew there should only be one. And were there four bodyguards? She thought sure there were only two, but ... whatever. This vodka is good stuff, she thought approvingly. "Care for a drink?"

Doris eyed Olivia up and down, glanced at the half-empty vodka bottle with a bemused expression, and then nodded. "Sure, why not?"

Olivia turned her bleary eyes toward Brandon, but he was already setting a coaster and glass down in front of the mayor and pouring her a drink.

Good boy, Olivia thought. Efficient and just the right amount of sycophancy. She definitely approved. Maybe if she remembered this night at all, she’d tell Natalia to make sure he got a raise. Natalia. Her personal assistant at the Beacon! She groaned. CRAP! She poured herself glass number five.

"Want to talk about it?" Doris asked, watching Olivia with a half-smile.

******************************

Finally all her clothes were unpacked and put away, and her travel bags were back in storage. She’d showered and changed into blue jeans and a dark violet blouse, and was now standing in her bedroom contemplating the evening ahead. It loomed long and empty. I need to do something, Natalia thought. Anything. She remembered the unfinished report on her computer at the Beacon. Olivia had told her not to worry about it; their getaway was much more important. I’ll just go in and get that done. Then this day won’t be a complete waste.

It suddenly occurred to her Olivia might not want her to continue on as her personal assistant. She dropped onto the edge of her bed, nonplussed at the idea. The more she thought about it, the more it seemed like a real possibility. It was entirely conceivable Olivia wouldn’t want her in such close proximity after ... everything. She’d loved her job, had loved working so closely with Olivia, but now—

Well, that report still needs to get done, so I might as well go over there now and finish it, even if it is a Saturday night. Then if Olivia doesn’t want me anymore— If she doesn’t want me working with her, well, then I’ll just find another job. That’s all I can do. She stood up, headed downstairs and out to her car and the long, dark drive into town.

When she entered the hotel, she passed by the bar on her way to the elevator, and to her surprise saw Mayor Wolfe sitting at the bar smiling broadly at— Is that Olivia? Indeed, Olivia was seated next to the mayor cuddling a glass of clear liquid. Nearby sat a nearly empty bottle of vodka. In the background lurked two hulking men in suits.

As usual, Olivia looked beautiful. Her gold-streaked brown hair fell forward as she leaned on the bar, and it partially obscured her face. Natalia longed to simply walk over to her and brush those soft strands back so she could see her beloved features. Her regret over their argument was palpable. Why do we do that? Why do we argue when we should just talk?

Natalia watched in growing alarm as Doris lay a perfectly manicured hand on Olivia’s shoulder and leaned closer, as though intent on catching her every word. The mayor was impeccably dressed, as she always was in public, and Natalia thought she looked engrossed and fascinated and ... she might even say overly attentive. She knew Doris was secretly gay, and it suddenly occurred to her that Mayor Wolfe might be interested in Olivia. Who wouldn’t be? She’s gorgeous. She’s smart. She’s ... sexy. Natalia blushed at that last thought, but shoved it aside, determined not to analyze why that particular word had popped into her head. She knew Olivia would have no problem finding someone, but ... but surely Olivia wouldn’t be interested in Doris Wolfe, would she?

The thought of Olivia getting involved with anyone else made her feel nauseous.

******************************

Chapter 2

Olivia sat with her elbows on the bar peering into the tumbler of vodka while she tried to wrestle the image of a sheet-clad Natalia out of her head. Why won’t this freakin’ stuff make me stop thinking? I mean ... that’s the point, isn’t it? Maybe Father Ray could perform an exorcism and then she’d be rid of all thoughts of that ... that exasperating woman! And most especially she’d be rid of her current obsessive curiosity about how she’d have looked sans sheet at the couple’s massage. My money’s on "spectacular," she thought with a rakish grin. Aw, damn it! I’ve got to stop that! She downed the glass of liquid painkiller in one go, hoping it would drown out the tantalizing images. She’d forgotten Mayor Wolfe was there till she felt a hand on her shoulder.

"How many of these have you had?" Doris asked.

"Dunno ... maybe six ... or seven." Olivia spoke slowly, aware if she wasn’t careful, she’d start slurring the English language into total incomprehensibility. The fact she was still capable of speech at all was a testament to her ability to hold her liquor.

Doris chuckled. "Well, I think that’s six or seven too many, don’t you?"

"Nah, not really."

"Want to tell me what happened?"

"Nothing! Nothing happened."

"Natalia?"

Olivia nodded.

"All righty then, I think we’ve located the problem."

Olivia reached for the vodka bottle, but Doris scooted it just out of reach. "Hey!" Olivia glared angrily at Doris’s audacity. Whose goddamned vodka is this, anyway?

"I think you’ve had enough. I bet you can barely stand, let alone make it back up to your room."

Olivia shrugged and stared into her empty glass. If I weren’t so tired, I really think I could take her and get my damned bottle back, but ... screw it!

"Talk to me."

"We went away to a health spa to relax and figure things out, okay? But we fought."

"About what?"

"Nothing ... everything."

"Okay, that’s clear. So ... what did you decide?"

"That it was a big mistake."

"The spa?"

"Us." Olivia dropped her face into her hands. She knew she was still angry, but it was hard to focus on it when you had enough vodka in your system to mellow out the entire Russian Olympic wrestling team.

"You shouldn’t give up on her, Olivia."

"She doesn’t want me."

"She loves you. Anyone can see that. Well ... except Frank, of course."

"Oh, I dunno. He seemed to have some idea the day your bodyguards kicked his ass and landed him in the hospital. What brought that on anyway?"

"He was drunk and belligerent, and he shouldn’t have grabbed me."

"Why would he do that?"

Doris shrugged, a careful expression of innocence plastered on her face.

"Well, whatever," Olivia continued. "He confronted me in the hospital about Natalia ... accused me of deliberately ‘stealing’ her away from him. I can’t imagine what would’ve put that idea in his head all of a sudden."

Doris’s eyes slid away from Olivia, and she cleared her throat. "Do you really want to talk about Frank?"

Olivia shook her head.

"Then tell me about Natalia. I know you love her. Don’t even try to tell me you don’t."

"Okay, fine, I love her, but what good is it? She refuses to see what we have, what we could have. Despite everything she’s said, I just don’t think ... I don’t think she can go there, can ever go there." Abruptly Olivia stood up—and swayed precariously. Whoa! What’s wrong with this damned floor?

"All right, you need to go back up to your room and sleep it off, Olivia. We can talk some other time. Come on." Doris put her arm around Olivia to steady her and guided her toward the elevator, flanked by her two bodyguards. She caught Olivia when she stumbled over the elevator threshold and chuckled softly when Olivia groaned and lay her head on Doris’s shoulder, as though too dizzy to hold it upright anymore.

Hanging on to Olivia with one arm, Doris pressed the button for the top floor, where she knew Olivia’s luxury suite was located. Just as the doors were sliding shut, Doris caught a glimpse of Natalia staring open-mouthed at them—and the mayor grinned at her and winked.

******************************

What is that horrible woman doing? Natalia felt panicked. Clearly Olivia was drunk. Very drunk. In fact, it was the most inebriated Natalia had ever seen her, which was really saying something.

Furthermore, she did not trust Mayor Wolfe. Not at all! For one thing, the mayor, in blatant disregard for privacy or fairness, had outed Emma’s "My Two Mommies" presentation in a press conference on local TV last winter for her own personal political gain, igniting a storm, not only of public awareness, but also awareness for her and Olivia, not to mention arguments and panic and that attention-grabbing kiss Olivia had planted on her that same day—"to make a point," she’d said.

Natalia shivered at the memory. She’d never told Olivia how the kiss had affected her, how much it had affected her, how much she thought about it afterwards, how much she still thought about it.

Natalia certainly didn’t trust the mayor after she and Olivia had joined forces to blackmail her into moving up Phillip’s trial date. And now ... now she was taking a very drunk Olivia up to her room. I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. She practically ran to the elevator and then jabbed the up button repeatedly. When the doors finally opened with a soft swoosh, she hurried in, punched the button for Olivia’s floor, and waited impatiently for the elevator to ascend.

By the time she got to Olivia’s penthouse, there was no sign of her or Doris, only the mayor’s two bodyguards, who eyed her dispassionately. However, when she approached the door, they immediately moved to block her. "Sorry, ma’am. You can’t go in there," the taller guard said.

"Oh, yes, I can," Natalia retorted and reached past him to knock on the door. The other guard grabbed her wrist and pushed her back. "Olivia!" she shouted. "Olivia, are you all right?"

Suddenly the door opened and Natalia was staring into the pale blue eyes of Mayor Wolfe. "Where’s Olivia?" she demanded. She tried to push past the guards, but was unable to get by them until the mayor waved them off.

"It’s okay. Let her in."

Natalia rushed to the figure lying supine on the bed. She nudged her gently, but Olivia was out cold. She whirled around on Doris. "Why is she partially undressed?"

"Undressed? Her shoes and jacket are off. I wouldn’t call that ‘undressed.’"

"So why are her shoes and jacket off?"

"Because I took them off," the mayor explained reasonably, a faint smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

Natalia glared. "And why would you do that?"

"So she could rest more comfortably." Doris glanced at Olivia’s inert form and then looked back at Natalia. "In case you didn’t notice, that is one drunk woman."

"I noticed."

"Well, then, fine. Why don’t you just leave and I’ll make sure she’s okay."

"Oh, no, I’m not leaving. You’re leaving. If anyone should be taking Olivia’s clothes off— I mean, if anyone should be taking care of Olivia, it should be me."

"Oh really? And why’s that?"

"Because ... because I ... uh ... I work for her. I’m her assistant, personal assistant, and it’s my job to make sure she’s okay."

"Uh-huh. I see. Personal assistant, you say." Doris smirked.

Oblivious to any innuendo, Natalia nodded. "That’s right. I’ll make sure she’s all right, so you can just ... you can go now."

"If you’re sure, because I’d be happy to stay and help out—in any way I can."

"I’m sure you would, but please don’t. Just go and ... and let me do my job."

"All right, fine."

Doris looked back at Olivia’s motionless body. Natalia thought her eyes lingered way too long, but to her relief the mayor finally picked up her purse and headed out the door. God, I hate that woman, Natalia thought.

As soon as she was gone, Natalia approached the bed cautiously. "Olivia?" she said softly. There was no response. You really are out cold, she thought. Why did you drink so much? It occurred to her she probably knew exactly why, but she shook off those thoughts, pulled the comforter from the foot of the bed up over Olivia’s sleeping form, and stood for a moment gazing down at her. If she didn’t know better, she’d think she was simply in a deep, restful sleep instead of bombed into oblivion by the vodka. Still ... she always looked so sweet when she was asleep—sweet and vulnerable and ... breathtaking.

Natalia wanted to lie down next to her so she could keep a close eye on her through the night, and had it not been for the morning’s quarrel at the spa, she probably would have. Now it seemed ... awkward. She was afraid of how Olivia might react if she found her personal assistant lying in her bed next to her the following morning, so she opted to lie down on the nearby couch. I can’t leave you alone like this. What if something happened in the night and no one was here? She’d slept on far less comfortable places than Olivia’s couch. In fact, she’d slept on that very couch numerous times following Olivia’s heart transplant. One more night wouldn’t hurt.

She dragged a comforter off the back of the couch, using it to cover her suddenly chilled body, and then listened to the sounds of Olivia’s steady breathing until she finally drifted off to sleep. The Olivia who met her in her dreams was not the angry, loud, contentious woman from the spa. She was funny and playful and flirtatious, and Natalia’s dream self felt giddy in her presence.

******************************

Who the hell parked a damn Mack Truck on my head? Olivia pried open one eye and flinched at the tiny amount of light in the room. Wow, that hurts! She looked around groggily. I need to splash some cold water in my face or something. Maybe that’ll help me wake the hell up. She knew she must have gotten plastered the night before, but so far any memory of the happy event eluded her. Must’ve been some good stuff, ‘cause I don’t remember a thing. Maybe her memory would come back later. Maybe she didn’t care whether it did or not.

She grabbed some underwear and gray sweats from the dresser and stumbled toward the bathroom and a hot shower. As she was drying off, she realized she should have already called room service to bring her a morning-after concoction to help with the hangover. Oh well, I can do that now, I guess. Better late than never. As soon as she was dressed, she headed for the phone on the desk. She grabbed the handset, but it tap-danced on the tips of her none-too-steady fingers for a moment before taking a nosedive to the floor. "Damn it!"

"What?" Natalia sat bolt upright on the couch, looking around frantically for the source of the emergency.

Olivia clutched her chest. "Natalia! Oh my god! You nearly scared me to death!"

"I’m sorry. Are you all right? What happened?"

"I dropped the damned phone. Hey, wait, never mind that. What the hell are you doing here?"

"You don’t remember last night?"

Olivia paused and her head tilted quizzically to the side. Last night? Was there a "last night"? Infinite possibilities insinuated themselves into her brain. "Uhm ... what about last night?" Was it possible they’d spent the night together—and she’d missed it? Christ! She glanced heavenward. You wouldn’t be that cruel, would you? It’s all the cursing, isn’t it?

"You know," Natalia prompted. "The bar, the vodka ..."

"Oh, okay, that’s ringing a bell." She remembered heading downstairs to get a drink. Did she meet up with Natalia at the bar? Had they had a drink together? Had something happened between them ... finally? "So ... the bar, the vodka ...?"

"And Doris."

Olivia frowned. "Doris?" Jeez, that’s like a shot of cold water to the face. All the wonderfully provocative fantasies of a night of bliss with the damnably alluring dark-haired woman standing there staring at her in the middle of her penthouse suite faded away into nothingness.

"As in Mayor Wolfe," Natalia added.

Okay, now it’s coming back to me. Doris came in when I was drinking and ... uhm ... okay, things are a little fuzzy from there.

"Well?" Natalia persisted.

"Well what?"

"You and Doris. What was that all about?"

Olivia’s eyes narrowed. "Is it really any of your business?" she finally said. Why would you even care after you’ve made it more than obvious you want nothing to do with me? Clearly nothing happened between you and me last night, damn it.

Natalia flinched. "You’re right. Of course it’s none of my business who you sleep with."

"Sleep with?" Wow, that was a bit of a leap, wasn’t it? Where’d that come from?

"I just came in to finish up that report I didn’t get done before we left for the ... for the ..."

"Spa?" Christ, this conversation is moving way too fast! And it’s making my damned head spin. Maybe if I could just sit down ...

"And when I saw how drunk you were, I just ... well, I am your assistant, so of course I felt it was my duty to make sure you were okay."

"So what happened to Doris?" God, this is like trying to unravel a murder mystery.

"I told her to— Well, she left."

"And what did you do?"

"I covered you with the comforter, and I decided I should stay over in case you ... got sick or needed anything in the night."

Needed anything in the night? Jesus! I should just show you some of the things I need in the night. Then maybe you’d finally catch a clue. She looked at Natalia’s earnest and open expression. Or not.

"So ... you were just doing what I pay you to do, right?"

"Uh ... right. Like I always do. That is ... if you want me to stay on as your assistant ... after ... after everything that happened."

Olivia rubbed the bridge of her nose. I really need to order up a hangover remedy for this. Either that or I need to make her leave right now or I need to grab her and show her what she’s been missing all these years. Olivia was leaning toward Curtain #3, but the bowling balls bouncing around in her head urged her to wait for the goodies behind Curtain #1 to arrive from room service before she tried to do or say anything else.

******************************

Chapter 3

Natalia waited anxiously for Olivia to respond. She loved— She paused to try to organize her thoughts. She loved her job. That’s right; it was the job she loved. She’d hate to lose it, hate to have to stop working with— She tried to read Olivia’s expression. What are you thinking, Olivia?

There were great benefits, too. She could see Emma and of course she could see— Emma, that’s the one she wanted to see, and she could see her practically every day as long as she kept this job. Oh, and all the health insurance and company stock were good, too, she supposed.

She watched Olivia’s face for any clue to her thoughts, but it looked totally blank to her, maybe even a little ... annoyed? If you don’t want me— If you don’t want me working here ... with you ... I’ll understand.

******************************

Olivia felt a bit dizzy from watching the multitude of expressions flitting across Natalia’s face. What the hell is going on inside that head of yours? I can’t believe you’d think I’d just up and fire you because we argued, for Christ’s sake!

"Well?" Natalia prodded.

"Well what?"

"Do you still want me to be your assistant?"

"You think I was going to fire you? For what? Stealing my pink bra?"

"It was my pink bra."

"Whatever. I wouldn’t fire you. Why would I do that? You’re good at your job. In fact, you can do your job right now and get me some room service."

"You want breakfast?"

Olivia’s skin tone moved decidedly toward the green area of the color spectrum, and she clapped a hand over her mouth. "God no!" she mumbled from under her hand.

"What then?"

"Just tell them to send me up a hangover remedy."

"Which one?"

"That spicy one with— You know what? Just tell ’em to send up anything that might help."

"Okay." Natalia picked the handset up off the floor and called in the request. "Are you sure you don’t want something to eat?"

Olivia groaned.

"I guess not. So ... what else can I do for you?"

Oh my god. So many things ... so very many things. Olivia’s head reeled. What could Natalia do for her? She should write her a list. Yeah, maybe that’d clear a few things up for her. You’d faint if you could see my to-do list, she thought. You’d just faint dead away. "Just go," she finally said.

"I don’t know, Olivia. You don’t look so good." She put a hand over Olivia’s forehead, but Olivia pushed it off.

"Stop hovering!" And for god’s sake, quit touching me. I’m trying to get over you, and that is seriously not helping! She stood up and paced over to the bed, hopefully out of reach of the annoyingly touchy-feely Natalia Rivera. If all that touching could only be a two-way street, it’d be fine with me, more than fine, but ... goddamn it!

"I think I should wait till your order gets here."

"I’ll be fine. You think I can’t drink down some disgusting, hangover-curing concoction all by myself? Really, I’ll be fine."

"If you’re sure ..."

"Just go. Please!"

Natalia watched her for a moment and then finally turned and left, closing the door quietly behind her.

Olivia fell back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Why does she have to be so damned gorgeous? And WHY does she have to keep TOUCHING me?

******************************

Natalia headed for the office, where she quickly finished up the abandoned report. It felt good to be working on something, even if it was Sunday morning. After printing out a copy and leaving it in Olivia’s in-box, she reluctantly decided to head back to the empty farmhouse. She rode the elevator to the ground floor, and when the doors opened, once again she was confronted by the chilly blue stare of Mayor Wolfe.

"What are you doing here?" Natalia asked. I think I know exactly why you’re here, and I don’t like it!

"I’m here to check up on Olivia."

Natalia’s eyes narrowed. I bet! "Why?"

"Because she got sick as a dog last night, remember? She’s my friend, and I’m worried about her."

"Is that all?" Natalia resented the mayor’s sudden smug smile.

"This is beginning to sound like an interrogation, Ms. Rivera."

"I’m just concerned, that’s all."

Doris’s thin eyebrows shot skyward. "Mm-hm, right."

"It’s my job."

"Right, personal assistant. I remember."

I really hate this woman. "Exactly."

Doris stared at her a moment. "You know what? I really hate pussyfooting around, so I’m just going to come right out and state the obvious."

"I have no idea what you mean."

"Uh-huh, and that’s why I have to state the obvious. Olivia told me you two are not an item."

"She told you about the spa?" I can’t believe Olivia would talk about us—and to Doris, of all people!

"Let’s just say she told me enough before she passed out."

"What did she say?"

"Let me tell you what I know. I know you’re in love with her."

Natalia felt as though she’d been slapped, and by the mayor of Springfield, no less. She couldn’t believe Doris would think such a thing or say it out loud. This was way too personal and ... confusing and ... and it was just very ... upsetting.

"And I know she’s in love with you."

Natalia’s shoulders slumped. She knew it was true. Olivia herself had told her that during the gut-wrenching graveside confession.

"I also know you two are not together, right?"

Natalia neither confirmed nor denied. She was too shocked by Doris’s bluntness to be capable of speech.

"Frankly, I think you broke her heart."

Natalia’s head dropped down. I would never hurt Olivia, she thought. But I did, didn’t I? "I ... we ..."

Doris ignored Natalia’s stuttering and plunged on. "Perhaps you’ve noticed Olivia is a very beautiful woman?"

"Uh ... of course."

"And perhaps you’ve noticed she’s smart and sexy? And I’m going to guess she can be quite ... passionate."

Natalia was dumbstruck.

"Let’s see. How can I put this?" Mayor Wolfe’s smile broadened. "You may not want her, but that doesn’t mean others won’t."

Natalia tried to say something, anything, but nothing would emerge from her gaping mouth.

"I’ll just leave you with your thoughts, Ms. Rivera, while I go check on my friend."

Natalia could still hear the mayor chuckling as the elevator doors closed behind her.

******************************

Olivia groaned when she heard a knock on the door, but she dragged herself off the bed anyway. It’s about time those hangover remedies arrived. What’d they do? Fly ‘em in from overseas?

To her surprise it was Mayor Wolfe. "What are you doing here?" Olivia asked.

"Good to see you, too, Olivia. Mind if I come in?" Doris walked in, threw her purse on the couch, and sat down.

"Well, you’re in, so ... I guess not." Olivia looked down the hallway. Where’s room service for crying out loud?

"I just saw the love of your life."

"What? Where?"

"She was getting off the elevator. She wasn’t happy to see me."

Olivia frowned. "Why not?"

"I think somehow she’s gotten the idea I’ve set my sights on you, Ms. Spencer." Doris laughed.

That’s a wicked laugh. What the hell are you up to, Doris? Olivia had no illusions about the crafty mayor. She’d gotten to know her much too well after the mayor’s "My Two Mommies" press conference, not to mention their subsequent interactions regarding Phillip’s trial and the ill-fated wedding, at which Doris had officiated—at least over what little there was of the ceremony. She sat down on the opposite end of the couch. "And just how might she have gotten an idea like that?"

Doris shrugged. "You got me, but I can tell you this: She’s not happy about it. Not happy at all!"

"So what are you saying?" If somebody wasn’t jackhammering in my head, maybe I could make sense out of this conversation.

"I’m saying the woman is in love with you, Olivia."

"I told you! She doesn’t want me."

"I think you’re wrong."

"Yeah, well, you haven’t been where I’ve been. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about."

"I think you need to be patient with her."

"I have been patient."

"Oh, really? How patient were you at the spa?" Doris quirked her eyebrows.

"I ... uhm ..."

"That’s what I thought." Doris leaned forward, pinning Olivia with her pale gaze. "Olivia, I don’t think the problem is that she doesn’t love you or doesn’t want to be with you. I think the problem is she’s scared to death, and she’s having trouble thinking around all that fear and panic. If you’d just be patient and give her some time ..."

"What? Then she’d suddenly be all fine and dandy with loving another woman, with being attracted to another woman, with being with another woman?"

"So you do realize she’s attracted to you. I mean ... the woman can’t take her eyes off you anytime you’re in the same room with her, and she gets this kind of glazed look in her eyes, as if she’s just mesmerized or something. I think she’s got it bad."

"Sure, I know when someone’s into me, and she’s definitely into me, but I really don’t think she knows it, or maybe she just can’t let herself know it. Either way I’m screwed, because ..."

"Because you love her so much," the mayor finished softly.

Olivia rested her elbows on her knees and dropped her face into her hands. I am completely in love with someone who is completely unavailable to me. She felt like weeping. When had life become an unending series of gut punches?

******************************

Chapter 4

Natalia sat at the table in her beloved kitchen at the farmhouse. Strewn across the tabletop were bills, receipts, bank statements, mortgage papers, and her small Virgin Mary statue, which she’d carried in to keep her company. I’m really going to miss this place, she told the little statue sadly.

After going over her budget several times, she’d come to realize there was no way she could afford to keep up with the mortgage payments, just as she’d told Olivia last winter when Olivia had urged her to buy the farmhouse in the first place. There was no way she could have afforded it on her own. The farmhouse had only become a reality when she’d talked Olivia into moving in and paying rent. Unless she could find a boarder who could afford to pay the amount Olivia had been paying—

The problem was Olivia was paying a very high amount because it included "full care," including any and everything she might need post-op. Finding someone who both needed that and could also afford it and who’d be someone she could see herself living with comfortably seemed like an overwhelming and insurmountable problem.

Besides, the previous arrangement had worked because they were family, she and Olivia and Emma. Nothing could replace that. No, it looked like the only solution was to sell the farmhouse and find somewhere else to live. What else can I do? I just can’t cover these payments. She knew what she had to do. She’d have to go to the bank tomorrow and start the paperwork. She loved the farm, but truthfully it didn’t feel like home anymore without Olivia and Emma sharing it with her, and Rafe was going to be at the halfway house for the foreseeable future.

I miss you so much, Olivia. I’m sorry we argued. I was just feeling ... confused. You make me feel so confused sometimes. I feel things around you, things I never felt before ... and I just don’t know what to do with those feelings.

She looked at her little statue. "Any ideas?" she asked it. Regrettably, the little statue remained mute, as did Natalia, whose thoughts turned once more to Olivia and those stomach-flipping smoldering looks she would sometimes catch Olivia giving her.

******************************

Monday morning Olivia was sitting at her desk going over a financial report. She was wearing her favorite blue pantsuit with a crisply ironed (though not by her) white blouse, and she was determined to concentrate her energies on work. I am not thinking about her. I am not thinking about her. Realizing she was indeed thinking about her—and about how good she looked wearing nothing but a sheet, for Christ’s sake—Olivia slammed her pen down on the table and leaned back with her eyes shut tight. Damn it!

Natalia arrived promptly at 8:00 and went directly to Olivia’s office. "You’re here early," Natalia said as she entered.

Olivia glanced up, and without realizing it her eyes flickered down Natalia’s shapely body before returning to her face. Natalia was wearing a black blazer and skirt with a dark orchid blouse whose top button was undone, leaving just enough olive skin showing to be ... interesting. Olivia wasn’t sure if she looked prettier all dressed up like that or when she wore jeans and a casual shirt around the farmhouse. No, no, no! You’ve got to stop thinking like that, Spencer. Is that anyway to get over someone? I don’t think so! She tried to concentrate on the pile of papers in front of her. "Lots to do," she muttered.

"What can I help with?"

"Here," Olivia said, passing Natalia a sheet from her yellow legal pad. "You can start by calling everyone on this list and confirming the month’s reservations. See if they have any special needs we’re not already aware of and so on. You know the drill."

"Okay, I’ll get right on it. There’s just one thing."

"What?"

"I need to be out for at least an hour sometime today."

Olivia frowned. "Doctor appointment?"

"No, bank. I need to— Well, I have to meet with my loan officer."

"Problem?"

Natalia glanced down at Olivia’s mahogany desk and ran her fingers idly over the glassy surface. "I’m going to have to sell the farmhouse."

"What? Why would you do that?" Olivia was aghast. You love that place. Why in the world would you sell it?

"Because ..." Natalia looked up at Olivia. "I can’t afford the mortgage."

"You shouldn’t sell."

"I have no choice."

"Look, I can help you."

"No! That wouldn’t be right. You ... you’re not living there anymore, so it wouldn’t be fair."

"So let me help you until you can find another boarder."

"No, I can’t let you do that. Besides, where am I going to find another boarder who can afford that kind of rent? I’ve thought and thought about all this, and it’s clear that selling the farmhouse is really the only option."

Olivia’s mind raced. No, I can’t let you do that. You love that place too much. There has to be a way ... and I think I know just how to do this—and just the person I need to call to make it happen. "Have you thought about refinancing?"

"Refinancing?"

"Sure, lots of people do that. Just talk with the loan officer—that was Jacqueline Bishop, right? Just talk with Jackie about getting the mortgage payment lowered."

"By nearly half? They’re not going to do that, Olivia."

Oh, yes they will—after I talk with the bank president, my good buddy, Thomas Hathaway. "You’d be surprised what banks are doing right now for people just to make sure they don’t have to foreclose on a lot of property. That’s not good for banks, you know."

"You really think they might lower the mortgage?" Natalia looked doubtful.

"Yes! I mean ... they’ll probably increase the length of the loan, meaning more interest, but at least you could keep your home."

"I don’t know."

"What would it hurt to ask?"

"I guess it wouldn’t hurt to bring it up."

"There you go. You’ll see. It’ll work out fine." Olivia was happy to see a glimmer of hope light Natalia’s dark eyes. "In fact, I’ll call and set up the appointment for you myself." She punched in the bank’s number and within minutes had a time scheduled for Natalia. She held her hand over the mouthpiece. "They said be there at 4:00. Is that okay?"

"Sure, that’s fine. Thank you."

"All right then, why don’t you go work on that list I gave you? I need to take care of something on the Beacon account."

As soon as Natalia left the room, Olivia spoke into the phone again. "She’ll be there at 4:00. Now I need to speak to Thomas. (...) Yes, Mr. Hathaway. (...) Well, tell him it’s Olivia Spencer. I’m sure he won’t be too busy to speak with me."

She smiled smugly when Thomas’s voice arrived promptly on the other end of the line. "Thomas! How’ve you been? (...) Yes, too long. Now, I have a favor to ask. (...) Mm-hm, I knew you’d say that."

She briefly explained Natalia’s situation. "Yes, Thomas, I know you can’t just halve mortgage payments ‘willy-nilly,’ but you’re going to lower this one. (...) Because I’m going to pay the balance and you’re going to let her make half payments. (...) No, leave the title in her name and leave the bank’s name on the mortgage papers. (...) Yes, I realize that’s not exactly kosher. (...) Well, you can credit my account with the payments. (...) Yes, I understand this involves a lot of ‘unnecessary’ paperwork. (...) Why do I think you’ll do it? I think you’ll do it for me, that’s why. I think you may recall what you said to me that time you were at the Beacon with—what was her name? Brandi? Candi? Bambi? Well, I don’t remember her name. I just remember it wasn’t Beatrice, as in Mrs. Hathaway, so— (...) What? (...) Oh, that’s so good to hear, Thomas. I just knew you’d help me out with my little problem."

Olivia hung up the phone. Putz! Well, at least now Natalia could keep her home. That’s what counted.

Home. She remembered sitting around the kitchen table at the farmhouse, she and Emma and Natalia, eating, laughing, working on one of Emma’s school projects. Living together might have started out as an unmitigated disaster, but over time everything seemed to work out fine, more than fine really, and truthfully she’d never been happier. Of course, then came the courtship (Frank’s and Natalia’s), the wedding proposal, the wedding day, and the confessions of love (Natalia’s and hers).

At first she’d been convinced it’d never work, the two of them, but then Natalia had given her hope. She’d made her believe maybe they could actually have a life together. Natalia had seemed happy. She’d seemed "open" to possibilities. That’s why Olivia had suggested the spa getaway, so they could figure out where they stood, so they could explore some of those possibilities. She’d been so hopeful, and the two of them had actually begun to have fun together, especially at the "couple’s" massage, even with Blake in attendance; but then ... well, that fragile hope had gotten smashed, and here she was ... more miserable than she could ever remember being.

It’s one thing to be alone. It’s quite another to be totally in love with someone and still be alone. That’s hard. She knew she was seriously hurting when she didn’t have a single snarky thing to add.

******************************

A little after three that afternoon, Natalia tentatively approached Olivia’s office door and knocked. She was hesitant to broach any touchy topics, but she just couldn’t stand the tension and distance that had developed between them. She felt as though her heart were breaking—literally.

"Come in."

"Are you busy?" Natalia asked. She looked at Olivia carefully. She looked amazingly gorgeous as usual, but she seemed pale. You look so tired. In fact, you look as though that Sunday morning hangover is still with you. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Still, I’m here and ... I don’t like the way things are between us right now. There was no doubt in her mind that she loved Olivia. She just didn’t know what to do about it—and it scared her.

"Not that busy," Olivia said with a sigh. "What do you want?"

"Could we just ... talk?"

"About what?"

"The spa. Well, more like the ... you know ..."

Olivia leaned back in her cushy black leather executive chair. "Do we really want to get into all that again?"

"Olivia, I hate that we fought, and ... and I miss you." There. I said it. I do miss you, Olivia. I miss you so much it hurts.

"I miss you, too, but ... I just don’t know what else to do, Natalia. I’ve told you how I feel about you. I told you we needed to figure out—that you need to figure out what you want. I can’t keep going like we have been. It’s making me insane!"

"Do you know what you want?" Natalia suddenly felt breathless. She was desperate to hear Olivia’s answer, but she was also afraid.

"Yes, I know what I want. I want you!"

******************************

Olivia rose from her chair and leaned forward, bracing her hands on the top of the mahogany desk. Why the hell are we having this conversation—again? It’s going to spiral around to its inevitable conclusion, and I’m tired of it! You really need to just let this go. I know you love me, but ... but you don’t want to. That’s all I need to know.

"Olivia, I love you."

"Mm-hm. Do you even know what that means?"

"Yes, I know what it means."

"Oh, really?" Olivia slowly walked around her desk until she stood directly in front of Natalia, almost touching. "Well, when I tell you I love you, I mean I’m in love with you. I mean I want us to be together—in every sense of the word."

"What do you mean?"

Olivia took a deep breath. God, this is tough slogging. "I mean ... I want you."

"You mean ... like ..."

"Oh my god!" she cried, exasperated. "I mean ... I mean like this."

Olivia grabbed Natalia and yanked her close, reveling in the feel of soft curves pressing into her body. She stared into wide-open dark eyes for a brief moment and then kissed her full on the lips—a brief, chaste, yet clearly passion-filled kiss. She drew back in time to catch the startled expression on Natalia’s face. Oh hell!

And then something just snapped inside her brain, something that controlled logical thought processes, and suddenly she was kissing her again, and this kiss was not so brief and not so chaste. She savored those tantalizing lips she’d longed to taste. Her mouth was ardent and demanding, and the minute Natalia’s lips parted in response, whether by instinct or invitation, she plunged her tongue into those sweet depths and explored the seductive terrain with total abandon. Her body was aflame with desire—a deep, overwhelming need to make love to this person she loved so much and wanted so much it consumed her waking hours and haunted her dreams.

By the time Olivia drew back from the kiss, they were both panting hard. She rested her forehead against Natalia’s for a second, and then pulled back far enough that she could look at her. Natalia’s eyes looked glassy. Her cheeks were flushed. She looked ... shocked. She looked utterly shocked.

Olivia let go of her immediately, as though Natalia had suddenly burst into flames, and she stepped back. She’s in shock. And I did that, damn it. All because I can’t control my impulses. She felt like slamming her head into the wall and might have if it still didn’t hurt so badly following that little vodka incident Saturday night.

Hell, I knew this would never work. I knew she would never, ever, accept any kind of physical relationship with another woman. Look at that expression on her face! What more proof do you need, Spencer?

Olivia felt profoundly sad. She knew she loved Natalia, knew she wanted them to be together in every sense. It wasn’t just about sex, but a physical expression of love was definitely part of the equation for her, and with Natalia it was an unbelievably strong, urgent, and nearly overwhelming drive. Knowing those types of feelings were one-sided was difficult, even painful, to accept. It’s gotten unbearable to be around her and not be able to touch her.

"I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that."

Natalia merely stared at her with an odd expression on her face.

Is that ... disgust? Fear? Confusion? Whatever it is, it "ain’t" good. "Believe me, that will never happen again, so no need to worry I might pounce on you at any moment." She could have sworn Natalia had started to respond to the kiss, but ... apparently not, judging by the look on her face now.

"I’m not ... I wouldn’t ..."

See, Spencer? She can’t even get a sentence out. Maybe you could find some little kids to torture later or maybe kick a puppy or something. Couldn’t be any worse than this. Olivia grabbed her purse and opened the door. "I’m leaving. I have an appointment at the bank at 3:45. Beacon business. I’m not coming back to the office today, so ... don’t worry."

Why did I have to fall in love with someone who hates sex? What did I ever do to deserve this? she asked, looking heavenward. She remembered trying to destroy Beth’s marriage by publishing the diary of her alternate personality, blackmailing the Lewis family, abducting Gus, attempting to take over Spaulding Enterprises, getting involved in the mob-related Harbor Project, drugging Alan and leaving him for dead on an island. Okay, point taken.

Olivia sighed, turned back for one last look at the woman standing frozen in the middle of her office, and then resolutely left, leaving a flustered Natalia in her wake.

******************************

Chapter 5

Natalia placed one hand over her heart, which was pumping so furiously after the unexpected kiss, she could fairly feel it thudding against her palm. Her pulse was erratic, her face felt hot, and she was breathing hard. More disconcerting, though, was the deep throb she was feeling, along with an embarrassing flood of liquid heat pooling "down there." Oh my god, she thought. I can’t believe how she makes me feel.

As much time as she’d spent thinking about Olivia’s first "edifying" kiss last winter, it was nothing compared to this, and her reaction to this more recent intimacy astounded her. I’ve never felt like this before. Not with anyone. All she wanted was for Olivia to come back into the office and kiss her like that again.

Suddenly her brain kicked back into gear, and she was appalled at her last thought. How could she be having feelings like that? How could she want ... something like that? Wasn’t it wrong to have feelings like that for another woman? She’d never felt anything even vaguely similar when Nicky kissed her, and kissing Frank was like kissing a brother ... or worse, but when Olivia kissed her, her world tilted on its axis and she was aware of nothing whatsoever but the feel of Olivia’s mouth on hers, of Olivia’s hands moving over her back, of Olivia’s body pressing into hers.

This is so wrong, these feelings. Her fingers obsessively stroked the cross hanging from a gold chain around her neck, and her forehead puckered with worry and dismay. In her heart the way she felt about Olivia didn’t feel bad, but she knew it was wrong according to the teachings of her church. She knew it was wrong according to the Bible. She could only imagine what Father Ray might say if she strolled into confession and announced she had some unusually strong feelings for her former maid of honor, feelings so intense she went weak in the knees if Olivia so much as looked at her. And Father Ray, she imagined herself saying, when she kisses me, I just can’t even think straight. No, she couldn’t imagine a conversation like that going well, and she really had no one else she could talk to about it.

She didn’t understand her feelings and she didn’t know what to do with them; and furthermore, trying to sort through them and get them to weave seamlessly into the fabric of her life made her feel confused and anxious and scared.

She knew she and Olivia would have to try—again—to talk about what was going on between them and reach some kind of resolution, but for now—she looked at her watch—she had an appointment at the bank. She knew she’d have to hurry to be on time, so she retrieved her purse from the desk in her office and headed for the elevator. Olivia had gone to the bank, too, so maybe they could talk afterwards and try to set everything right, whatever that might be.

The one thing she was sure of was she wanted—she needed—Olivia in her life. Please, God, please let her always be a part of my life.

******************************

Olivia shook Thomas Hathaway’s hand when she stood up to leave his office. "Thank you so much for your help, Thomas. Jackie’s been informed, right?"

"Of course," he replied with a stiff smile. "I told her what to do earlier today after we talked."

Thomas Hathaway was tall and thin and graying at the temples. In fact, he was still a very attractive man, but the only use Olivia had for him at the moment was to make Natalia’s mortgage problems disappear, and she’d written a very large check to make sure that happened. Of course, she knew it helped that the last thing he wanted was to lose the Beacon account, so she’d been fully confident he’d do whatever it took to appease her. Having caught him in a dalliance with a call girl last New Year’s Eve hadn’t hurt.

Olivia smiled sweetly at a grim-faced Mr. Hathaway and left his office. She felt proud of herself for finding the perfect solution to Natalia’s problem, and she had no regret over paying off the balance of her mortgage; after all, she’d tried to give her the house last year, but Natalia wouldn’t let her. It was just too bad Natalia would have to go on making any kind of payment at all, since the farmhouse now officially belonged to her, but Olivia would make sure her monthly payments were kept in a savings account in both their names, so at least she’d get her money back eventually.

Meanwhile, there was no way she could let her know because she knew damn good and well Natalia would never agree to it. Of course, there was no way she’d ever know—or at least she’d never know as long as Olivia was still alive. And it’s much too beautiful a day for dying, so I think we’re safe, Olivia thought with a self-satisfied smile. Spring had finally arrived in Springfield, and it was a welcome break after the recent late-season winter storm. Maybe I’ll go to the park when I leave here, try to clear my head, try to forget ... what happened in my office earlier. Her stomach fluttered at the memory. It’s just such a shame you don’t feel the same way, she thought sadly.

It was well after 4:00 and getting close to the bank’s 4:30 closing time when Olivia emerged from the private office area. Only a few customers stood in line at the two teller lanes still open: a man in a business suit stood at one window text messaging on his BlackBerry as he waited for the teller to finish a transaction on her computer, and a woman wearing sweats and a tired expression leaned on the counter at the other; a teen-aged boy was nodding his head, presumably in time with music he was hearing on his earbuds; an elderly couple stood close together, talking quietly; and a young mother struggled to contain the exuberant toddler she had in tow. It seemed like just last week Emma had been that little—too little to be taking clandestine bus rides around town whenever the spirit moved her, Olivia thought wistfully.

She felt Natalia’s presence before she saw her. She was sitting across from Jackie at a large oak desk situated in one of two carpeted alcoves along the wall just outside the hallway leading to the president’s office. The desk in the other alcove was vacant. Olivia was surprised when Natalia looked her way and flashed a dazzling, dimpled smile—a smile so gorgeous she could feel it wreak some serious erotic havoc all through her body.

Christ, I hope I can get over that, she thought, though she remained doubtful, considering what a quick and powerful response she always seemed to have to her, dazzling smile or not. And I like sex, damn it, even if certain other people apparently do not. She was even more surprised when Natalia waved her over after what had happened earlier. She wondered if Natalia might have already forgiven her for her impromptu and, as it turned out, unwelcome kiss, though she had severe misgivings, in light of how Natalia had looked afterward.

"Olivia! You were right!"

"Oh?" Olivia caught a knowing smile from Jackie, telling her Thomas had probably explained the entire situation to her. That’s just great, Thomas. The more the merrier when you’re trying to keep things SECRET, I always say.

"You were right! They did refinance the mortgage."

"That’s great. So you can stay in the farmhouse?"

"Yes!" Natalia’s eyes were shining.

"I’m happy for you."

"I’m so glad you suggested it. If it weren’t for you ..."

"Well, I’m just glad you don’t have to sell. That would’ve been a shame." Maybe we can get over that disastrous kiss. I just want things to go back to some semblance of normalcy.

"Olivia? Maybe we could go somewhere and ..." Natalia’s voice trailed off and she stared past Olivia, clearly alarmed.

Olivia turned around to see what had upset her—and stiffened. There were men. With guns. Men in the bank, mere yards away, and they had guns.

******************************

Natalia could not breathe! She hated guns. They’d always terrified her. She’d flipped out last winter when she found out Olivia had been keeping a gun at the farmhouse to protect them from Phillip, but these guns were in the hands of men wearing ski masks and dark clothing, and she could feel the menace rolling off them in waves.

"Everybody on the floor now!" a short, stocky man yelled, as the two men with him fanned out to his left and right, weapons raised and pointed at the people standing in line at the teller windows.

"Olivia," Natalia whispered.

"Do it! Just get down," Olivia hissed.

Natalia froze. She was aware Jackie had disappeared, probably behind her desk. She gasped when the stocky man shoved the elderly gentleman down next to his wife, who was already lying prone on the tiled bank floor. The other two men moved quickly to the tellers and handed them empty gym bags, presumably to be filled with cash.

The shorter one seemed to be in charge, and Natalia thought he seemed overly agitated, very aggressive, and completely uncaring about anything but the crime they were perpetrating. His nervous movements and incessant random pacing made her think he might be high on something. She couldn’t see any details of his face because of the mask, but still ... there seemed to be something familiar about him, something about the way he moved, something about the restless way his head swivelled from side to side. Where had she seen that before?

"I said down!" the stocky man shouted, pointing his gun at the stunned teenager till he flung himself facedown next to the young mother, who was trying desperately to corral her fidgety two-year-old. The man brandished his weapon, a semi-automatic pistol. "Anyone moves and I shoot." He paced restlessly, his eyes flickering back and forth from his companions to the people lying on the floor. He seemed not to have noticed the women at the far side of the bank, standing unmoving in the alcove. "Hurry up!" he yelled at the other men, and in his impatience kicked a metal trash can across the room. It went sliding over the tiles and banged noisily into the far wall opposite the loan officer alcoves.

Startled, the toddler burst into loud, screaming sobs, and the gunman spun toward the sound, his pistol raised. Natalia was certain he was going to fire at the traumatized child. He was just a little boy. He had medium-length black curly hair and reminded her of Rafe when he was that size. She took a step toward them and screamed, "No! Don’t!"

In one smooth motion the gunman whirled around with his arm raised straight in front of him and his weapon pointed directly at Natalia.

******************************

Everything lurched into slow motion. Olivia watched in horror as Natalia stretched out her arms and took a step towards the child, before yelling and drawing the gunman’s hostile attention onto herself. Olivia saw the gunman pivot toward the sound. She had no doubt he would fire his pistol—and it was aimed right at Natalia. All she could think was, No, no, no!

She felt an adrenaline rush surge through her body, powering her muscles, and she propelled herself over the few steps between them and lunged in front of Natalia. One hand reached out in front of her as though she could ward off the bullet and the other reached behind to push Natalia back. She heard a sharp, explosive sound and suddenly they were both lying on the slate gray carpet.

Olivia felt as though someone had punched her in the chest, and then she felt nothing at all. She could hear someone sobbing. She could feel something warm spreading over her upper body. She tried to locate Natalia, but the light in the bank was growing dimmer and finally there was no light at all.

******************************

"Olivia!" Natalia screamed. Olivia was lying partially on top of her on her back, and Natalia could see she was bleeding. Olivia’s blood! No, no, no! Natalia struggled to sit up, cradling Olivia’s head carefully as she maneuvered out from under her and carefully lowered her to the floor. She could see a bright red stain slowly flowering out over her chest, coloring her white blouse crimson. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was labored and shallow. "Olivia! Olivia, please ..."

Natalia whipped off her jacket and pressed it firmly over the growing pool of liquid to try to stanch the flow. "Somebody call 911," she sobbed. She leaned her face close to Olivia’s as though willing her to hang on. She was vaguely aware of disjointed sounds in the background: the gunman yelling at her to lie facedown, which she ignored; the bank alarm jangling deafeningly; the toddler crying; the gunmen yelling and crashing back out the bank doors. She even missed the arrival of the police shortly after the robbers had escaped with their cash-stuffed bags. She simply focused like a laser on applying pressure, knowing the bleeding had to stop. "Olivia," she whispered. "Olivia, please don’t leave me."

After what seemed like an eternity—an eternity in which Olivia’s lifeblood continued to slowly ooze out—Natalia felt strong hands on her upper arms pulling her back. "No!" she cried. She wrestled for a moment with the man who’d grabbed her, and then Jackie was holding her.

"It’s the paramedics," Jackie said. "You need to let them do their job."

Natalia stopped struggling immediately and watched as a man and woman in midnight blue uniforms worked feverishly over Olivia’s body. "Is she all right?" she sobbed, as she slipped to her knees, one bloodstained hand grasping her cross.

Neither answered. They just worked steadily and quickly. After what seemed like hours, but in reality was mere minutes, they finally lifted Olivia onto a gurney and wheeled her soundlessly toward the bank doors. Natalia scrambled to her feet and raced after them, but someone grabbed her before she could reach the doors. She could see it was a uniformed officer attempting to detain her, but she tried to shake him off.

The detective on the scene approached them and regarded the dark-haired woman fighting to free her arm from the officer, who had a firm grip, his fingers digging hard into the soft flesh of her upper arm.

"Natalia," the detective said. "You’ve got to calm down. We just need to ask you a few questions and then you can go."

Natalia looked at him with tears rolling down her cheeks. It barely registered on her brain that he was someone she knew. "I have to go with her," she cried.

Mr. Hathaway unexpectedly came to her aid. "Come on, Mallet, let Ms. Rivera go with her friend," Thomas said quietly.

Detective A. C. Mallet finally relented and motioned to the uniformed officer to release her. "All right, you can go for now, but we’ll need to get a statement from you first thing tomorrow, okay?"

Natalia nodded, and without a single thought as to why the president of the bank would know her name, she raced out the door, pushing her way unceremoniously into the back of the ambulance. There was no way she was not going to ride with Olivia to the hospital.

The female paramedic looked her over, fairly alarmed at her gruesome condition. "Here, let me look at you," she said, pulling on a fresh pair of rubber gloves.

"I’m not hurt."

"I’m not sure you’d realize it if you were. Look, you’re covered in blood. Just let me check you over to be sure you’re okay."

Natalia began to cry quietly. "It’s not my blood," she sobbed. "Is she going to be all right?"

The woman glanced briefly at her companion before answering. "They’ll know more at Cedars. We’ll be there shortly, and they’ll do everything they can to— They’ll do everything they can for her."

Natalia submitted to the quick examination, but her eyes never left Olivia’s face, which was now ghostly pale and serene. When the paramedic was satisfied she was all right, Natalia moved closer to Olivia, took one of her hands, and clasped it to her chest. "Olivia, please hang on. We’ll be at the hospital soon, and Dr. Rick will make sure you’re okay."

She was painfully aware the bullet had struck Olivia somewhere in the chest, the place where her lifesaving new heart resided, and she was utterly terrified of the implications. I can’t lose you! I can’t! You have to be okay! She began to pray to Saint Anthony, performer of miracles.

******************************

Chapter 6

Olivia stood outside the Aitoro house in the hot summer sunshine. She was waiting for ... something. She wasn’t sure what. There was a mild breeze, just enough to keep the sun from being unbearable. It seemed very intense, too intense and too bright. It shone nearly white, not gold, and she held up one hand to try to block the penetrating rays.

Then she saw her, a young woman, slender yet curvaceous, with raven hair and midnight eyes. Her olive skin glistened in the morning sun, and Olivia found her unbelievably beautiful. She wanted to move nearer, see her up close, talk to her, reach out and touch her tantalizing tan skin, but the sun was searing into her body, and its bright white light was making it hard to focus on anything else.

Just as she was about to give up and turn away, the woman walked up to her, took her hand, and pulled her under the cool shade of a red maple, its canopy of pale green and gray leaves providing more than ample protection from the aggressive rays.

Olivia leaned back against the smooth gray bark, grateful to be out from under the piercing glare of the white summer sun. She was surprised when the young woman moved closer, trapping her between a soft, shapely body and the hard, unyielding trunk of the tree. Olivia was even more surprised when the other woman pressed silky lips over the throbbing pulse in her neck and kissed her there, a hot, wet, lingering caress—and then she was pulling Olivia’s face down close to hers and kissing her with utter abandon. Olivia had never been so aroused.

******************************

Distraught and disheveled, Natalia paced the brightly lit hallway outside the emergency exam rooms, waiting anxiously for Dr. Rick to appear with a preliminary assessment of Olivia’s condition.

She’d called Jane and made arrangements for her to keep Emma for the foreseeable future, promising to come by and talk to her in person as soon as she knew something definitive. She also asked Jane to keep Emma home from school and not let her listen to anything on radio or TV until she saw her. This would be difficult enough for the little girl without her hearing about the shooting on the local news.

Please, God, please let her be okay. It was her one and constant thought, a prayer for Olivia’s life. She wanted to go to the hospital chapel to light a candle, but she didn’t want to leave the ER, so she continued to pace nervously.

Finally Dr. Rick emerged from the exam room, followed immediately by an orderly wheeling Olivia’s lifeless form toward the elevator.

Natalia clutched his arm as he strode by. "Is she all right?"

"We have to get her into surgery—now!" Dr. Rick said in a clipped tone.

"Please ... is she going to be okay? Please tell me she’s going to be okay." Natalia sobbed.

"I hope so," he said.

"Dr. Rick?"

"We have to get the bullet out. There’s no exit wound, so we know it’s still in there. Once we have her in surgery, we’ll be able to tell more about ... about what kind of damage was done. That’s really all I can tell you right now. I’m sorry."

"She has to be okay."

"I know. We’ll do everything we can, Natalia."

Dr. Rick rushed off toward the elevators, while Natalia stood as still as her little Virgin Mary statue, watching the elevator doors close. Her last sight was of Dr. Rick looking back towards her, frowning, his face etched with deep ruts of worry.

Natalia had no idea how long she’d been standing in the corridor looking at the closed elevator doors; she was only aware that Mayor Wolfe seemed to have materialized out of nowhere and was now leveling her icy blue stare at her.

"What the hell happened to you?" Doris asked.

Unaware of her bloodstained clothing or the spatters of blood on her face and hands, Natalia merely stared at the mayor vacantly for a moment. "Not me, Olivia."

"Olivia? What happened?"

"She was shot."

"Is she all right?"

"She’s in surgery."

Doris stood quietly for a moment. "You look like holy hell."

"What?"

"Look at you. You’re covered in blood."

Natalia shrugged. It was the least of her worries.

"You should go home and get cleaned up."

"No! I’m not leaving."

Doris’s eyes narrowed, as though assessing a wily boxing opponent. "Look, if she was shot, she’s likely to be in surgery for quite some time, I’d guess. Do you really want her seeing you like this when she regains consciousness? You’ll scare the living daylights out of her."

Olivia, waking up from surgery. Olivia, surviving. Olivia. "She has to be okay," Natalia whispered.

"I know," Doris said. "Meanwhile, I’m taking you to my place. You can grab a quick shower, borrow some clothes, and get back here in less than an hour."

"I don’t know."

"Natalia! Look at yourself!"

Startled, Natalia looked down and saw dark stains on her orchid blouse. Oh my god! Olivia’s blood. There seemed to have been so much of it—on Olivia’s white blouse, on Natalia’s hands, on the slate gray bank carpeting. So much blood. Suddenly she desperately needed to get it off her! She couldn’t stand seeing Olivia’s blood all over her clothing. "Okay," she said. "But not your place. I’ll go to Olivia’s room at the Beacon and shower and change there. It’s closer."

"I’ll drive you."

Natalia started to protest, but the mayor already had her firmly by the arm and was briskly escorting her to the elevator.

******************************

The sun blazed overhead as whitecaps raced playfully onto the sandy beach of San Cristobel before receding to gather themselves for another capricious run. Seagulls reeled lazily over the sparkling blue waves, filling the sky with living white and black M’s and V’s. The only sounds were the high-pitched plaintive conversation among the gulls and the watery response of the turbulent sea.

Olivia lay facedown, eyes closed, on a thick white beach towel, clad only in the bottom half of her bloodred bikini. She could feel the searing heat of the tropical sun mixed with an occasional cool spray of briny water, could smell the sand and the salt and the sea, could hear the incessant chatter of the gulls and the aqueous clamor of the frolicking waves. She stirred restlessly, intensely aware of the resultant friction between her naked breasts and the terrycloth beneath. She smiled when she felt a shadow intercept the sun’s piercing rays.

"You’re going to burn. I think we better get some lotion on you." The woman’s voice was soft and low and sweet.

Olivia sighed and nodded her head. She opened one eye just enough to catch a glimpse of slender tan legs and then felt those legs straddling her hips as strong hands began slowly smoothing cool liquid over her back and shoulders and arms. The languid massage continued for long moments, and she could feel her muscles relaxing as she drifted in a happy, erotic place somewhere between sleep and full wakefulness.

Then she felt a curtain of hair fall over her head and face, felt soft lips briefly brush her cheek, felt full breasts pressing into the oil-slicked skin of her back. She shivered, every nerve suddenly alert and tingling. Obviously she wasn’t the only one who’d abandoned her top. She opened one eye long enough to see a black bikini top lying inches from her face on the white towel, and then the dark-haired woman straddling her hips was turning her over, stretching out on top of her, kissing her ... kissing her slowly and deeply and endlessly as the sun caressed their nearly naked bodies with its sensuous rays and the whimsical waves moved closer to them each time they assailed the beach.

******************************

Natalia emerged from the penthouse bathroom wearing Olivia’s black jogging suit. Her skin was scrubbed and her hair was freshly shampooed and soaking wet. As she expected, Mayor Wolfe was sitting on the couch waiting for her. She glanced briefly at Doris, grabbed her purse, and headed for the door.

"Wait," Doris said. "Don’t you think you should try to eat something first?"

"No! I have to get back. I’ve been gone too long already."

"We’ve only been gone around forty minutes."

"That’s too long. Please!"

"All right," Doris sighed.

The ride back to Cedars Hospital was brief. Natalia checked in at the nurse’s station only to learn that Olivia was still in surgery and there’d been no word yet on her condition. "I’m going to the chapel," she announced. She turned and left before Doris had a chance to react.

Once in the hospital chapel she lit a single candle, knelt, and prayed. Please, dear Jesus, please don’t let Olivia die. Please. Life without Olivia stretched out before her like the endless black reaches of space, and she knew it would quite literally be unbearable. She has to live. She has to!

When she returned to the waiting area, Mayor Wolfe was waiting for her with a cup of steaming hot coffee.

"Here, drink this," Doris said.

Natalia shook her head, but the mayor thrust the cup at her and Natalia automatically took it, peered into its murky depths, and finally sipped some of the black liquid down. It was too hot and too bitter, but it made her body feel less numb.

Doris handed her a protein bar. "And you’d better eat or you’re going to keel over and be of absolutely no use to Olivia when she gets out of surgery."

Realizing Doris was right, Natalia dutifully nibbled at the chocolaty bar, glancing nervously at the large clock on the wall. Olivia had now been in surgery for nearly two hours. That seemed like too long. What if there were complications? What if the bullet had damaged her heart? Why was it taking so long? Why couldn’t someone tell her what was going on?

Dr. Rick appeared suddenly in the waiting room door, looking grim, and both Natalia and Doris rose simultaneously.

"Is she all right?" Natalia asked. She didn’t like the expression on Dr. Rick’s face. "Please tell me she’s going to be all right!"

Dr. Rick entered the room and walked directly to Natalia. "Olivia’s heart stopped during surgery ..."

Natalia’s head lolled back and she slumped, unconscious, to the floor.

******************************

Chapter 7

Olivia flicked off her desk lamp and leaned back in the black leather executive chair in her office at the Beacon. She was exhausted after a full day of work, and it felt good to close her eyes and relax in the relative obscurity and quiet of the empty room. She didn’t hear the door open or close, but she smelled the scent of rose petals and the faint aroma of cinnamon. That could only be one person. She opened her eyes to see her personal assistant standing just inside the office, leaning back against the door as she gazed steadily at her, dark eyes intense and unfathomable.

Olivia felt her breath catch at the sight. She was just so beautiful with her perfect olive skin and long dark hair curling around her face and shoulders. She was slender, but shapely, and Olivia’s eyes traveled slowly down her body with undisguised pleasure. She could see her ample breasts straining against the confines of her dark green blouse, their twin peaks of arousal clearly in evidence. Olivia trembled when she saw her finally push herself off the door and move slowly toward her, her movements graceful and catlike as she prowled across the plush carpeting.

When she reached Olivia’s chair, she rolled it a little away from the desk, turning it toward her, and leaned her face down close to Olivia’s, their mouths mere millimeters apart. "I love you," she whispered, and then closed the short distance between them and brushed her lips lightly over Olivia’s. "I love you so much." Olivia could feel soft lips begin a sensuous exploration, and she parted her own lips in response.

She moaned with regret when she felt those delectable lips leave hers, but when she opened her eyes she saw her sexy visitor hiking her black skirt up so she could sit astride her lap. Olivia loved the feel of her there—her weight, her nearness, her softness—and Olivia’s arms encircled her narrow waist.

The woman gazed into sea green eyes for a moment before she cupped Olivia’s face in her hands and began kissing her again, leisurely, as though she had all the time in the world to memorize every detail of Olivia’s mouth. The slow heated kiss was quickly reducing Olivia to a mass of quivering lust.

She sighed when the woman straddling her lap drew back from the passionate kiss, but her attention riveted on the woman’s hands when she saw her begin to unbutton her dark green blouse, her nimble fingers moving leisurely as they slid each dark disk through its narrow slit. Once all the buttons were undone, she pulled the top open to reveal the wonders hidden there. Olivia’s breath caught when she saw she wore no bra, leaving her lush contours completely bare and accessible.

Holding her on her lap, smelling her sweet and spicy scent, seeing her rounded, full breasts was the most erotic experience she’d ever had. Before she could react, the woman pulled Olivia’s face to her bare breasts, and Olivia was overcome by her urgent and burning desire.

******************************

"Natalia!" Dr. Rick knelt beside Natalia’s unconscious body lying sprawled on the waiting room floor. He unzipped the black jogging jacket and pulled it open, revealing a formfitting black t-shirt beneath, but before he could do anything else Natalia began to stir and finally opened her eyes, looking around groggily as she tried to focus. He helped her stand and supported her as she staggered toward the couch where Mayor Wolfe now sat, taking in everything with her pale blue eyes.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

"Olivia ..."

"She’s in recovery."

"She’s not dead?" Natalia sobbed with relief. Thank you, God!

"No! She’s alive. I’m sorry I frightened you. Her heart stopped during surgery, which gave us all a scare, but we were able to start it again."

"Did it hit her heart ... the bullet?"

"No, thankfully it didn’t hit her heart or any other vital organ. It was small caliber, which was lucky, but of course it still did plenty of damage, and she lost a fair amount of blood at the scene before the paramedics were able to stop the bleeding. Also, she must have hit her head on something when she fell, so on top of everything she has a minor head trauma, but hopefully that won’t turn out to be serious."

"Will she be all right?"

"We’ll know more after the first twenty-four hours," he hedged. "She still hasn’t regained consciousness, so ..."

"What about her ... what about the transplant?" It was her greatest fear ... that Olivia’s new heart, the heart that had saved her life, might be damaged beyond repair.

Dr. Rick regarded her quietly for a moment. "That’s what’s making this so tricky. The last thing we wanted was any kind of chest injury, especially after the trauma of that major surgery last year. She really didn’t need a gunshot wound to the chest and more surgery after everything she’s already gone through."

"But ... she’ll be okay, right?"

Dr. Rick sighed. "I hope so. I really do. We’ll do everything we can. That’s all I can tell you for now."

"Can I see her? Please?"

"Well, she’s in recovery right now, but as soon as they move her to intensive care, I’ll make sure someone takes you to her room."

"Thank you, Dr. Rick."

As soon as he left, Natalia offered a prayer of thanks, oblivious to Mayor Wolfe’s watchful eye. Finally she leaned back against the couch and focused on the large wall clock, tracking its black second hand as it unhurriedly made its way around and around the dial, but she must have drifted off, because the next thing she knew a nurse was leaning over her gently shaking her shoulder.

"Ms. Rivera? I’m Florence; well, everybody calls me Flo. Dr. Bauer asked me to take you to see Ms. Spencer," the nurse said. She was youngish, maybe late twenties, with reddish hair, and despite the late hour, she seemed filled with endless energy.

Natalia scrambled to her feet. "Thank you."

"Remember, she’s still out," cautioned the nurse.

"Where? Where is she?"

"I’ll take you," she said, opening the door and waiting for her to pass through.

Doris, uncharacteristically silent, walked with them to the intensive care unit, but remained outside the door when Natalia and the nurse entered.

There were two beds, both occupied. Natalia walked past the first and stopped at the foot of the second, where Olivia lay deathly still. Natalia had seen her lying pale and unconscious with tubes and IVs and all sorts of machines attached after her heart transplant, but it was different now. Back then she had an entirely different attitude toward Olivia. She’d disliked her before Nicky’s accident and hated her after. As Nicky’s widow, she was the one who’d signed the consent forms allowing his heart to be donated, but she deeply resented that Nicky was dead and his big, beautiful, kind heart was now beating in the chest of that horrible woman; however, as the days and weeks and months passed by, everything slowly changed.

When Olivia admitted she couldn’t live with knowing she was alive because Gus died; that, in fact, she didn’t want to live at all, Natalia made it her personal crusade to make certain she did just that—not for Olivia’s sake, but because it was the only way Nicky’s heart would live on. Somewhere along the way, though, it became about Olivia, not Nicky; about Olivia’s heart, not Nicky’s; about her love for Olivia, not Nicky.

She approached the side of Olivia’s bed, her eyes hungry for any signs of life. Olivia’s skin had virtually no color, and she lay perfectly still, her face partially obscured by an oxygen mask. Only the faint rise and fall of her chest gave any indication she was still in the land of the living.

Natalia carefully took Olivia’s nearest hand and cradled it in both her own. Her skin felt so cold, it was alarming. She rubbed her hand gently, but Olivia’s hand remained cool to the touch. She ran her hand up Olivia’s arm and then touched her cool cheek. She thought of all the times they’d touched—casual touches, intimate touches like the kiss earlier that day—and how warm and full of life Olivia’s body had always been. This chill ... it was wrong, all wrong.

"Olivia ..." She brushed a strand of soft hair back from her brow and tucked the hospital blanket more tightly around her. "I love you so much," she whispered, for once oblivious to the implications of that statement. You have to live. I made sure of it before and I’m going to make sure of it now.

She wanted to crawl onto the bed with her, hold her close, share the warmth of her own body heat, but the nurse was still there, and she knew she didn’t dare. She was aware Nurse Flo had pushed a chair close to the bed for her, and finally she sank down on it and laid her cheek against Olivia’s hand while the nurse changed her IV bag.

******************************

It was night and it was snowing. Olivia parked her car outside the farmhouse and shivered when she stepped out into the frigid air. She was wearing a dark wool coat, heavy gloves, black boots, a knit hat, and a bright red muffler, but she could still feel the icy wind whipping her body as tiny white flakes swirled around her in the pale glow of the porch light. As she neared the door, she suddenly saw her leaning quietly against a post, watching her approach.

Olivia stopped and stared. The woman was young, her face smooth and pretty. She was bundled up in a dark down jacket and pink muffler that matched the rosy highlights in her tan cheeks. Her dark hair looked nearly black, as did her eyes, and she wore an expression of ... anticipation? Olivia wasn’t sure. What she was sure of, though, was that she, Olivia Spencer, woman of the world, was in love for the first time in her life.

She wanted to go to the woman leaning serenely against the post contemplating her, wanted to hold her, wanted to kiss her, wanted to take her into the warmth of the farmhouse and the heat of her embrace and make love to her all night long. Her lips tingled at the thought of tasting those soft pink lips. Her loins throbbed with her overwhelming desire. Still, she only stood and gazed wistfully, uncertain for once in her life.

To her surprise, the figure leaning against the post held out her arms in clear invitation, and Olivia moved soundlessly over the short space between them until those welcoming arms wrapped around her, pulling her close, and then that gloriously sexy mouth was leaning toward her and at long last they kissed, something she’d fantasized about and dreamed about for ages. The heat of the sultry kiss contrasted sharply with the icy world around them, but Olivia was no longer aware of the cold or the wind or the snow; she was only aware of the warmth and the softness and the all-consuming passion.

******************************

Chapter 8

Natalia awoke with a start, aware of a hand insistently shaking her shoulder as she sat on the chair near the bed with her arms and head resting on the firm mattress. She looked around groggily, and then her eyes took in the empty hospital bed.

"Olivia! Where’s Olivia?" she cried in panic. She should be here. She should be right here! What if something’s happened? She stood up, whirled around, and came face to face with the mayor of Springfield Township, who was standing there calmly watching her. "Where is she, Doris?"

"Relax. They moved her to a private room."

"Is she okay? Is she awake? Where is she?" Natalia could feel a giant ball of tension in the pit of her stomach crowding her other organs, and having to try to find out from Doris, of all people, what had happened to Olivia threatened to shred her last nerve.

"She’s fine. She hasn’t regained consciousness, but she’s okay," Doris said.

"Where?"

"I’ll take you. Come on."

"Why didn’t someone wake me up? They should have waked me up!"

 

"They probably noticed you were on the verge of total collapse and decided to let you sleep."

"What time is it, anyway?" Natalia asked.

"It’s morning."

"Morning? You should have waked me. What if Olivia had needed me? What if something had happened?"

"Well, I was here, so ..." Doris chuckled when she saw Natalia’s little scowl. As they talked, Doris led the way through the labyrinthian hospital corridors till they reached a door at the end of a long hallway. "She’s in here," Doris said.

Natalia pushed open the door and to her relief saw Olivia’s quietly sleeping form. The oxygen mask had been replaced by an oxygen tube, and Dr. Rick was standing at the foot of the bed studying her chart.

"How is she?" Natalia asked, her eyes never leaving Olivia’s pale face.

"No change, really," Dr. Rick said.

"Is that bad?"

"It just is. Her vitals are good, though her pressure is lower than I’d like to see it." He moved to Olivia’s side and began a careful examination. After jotting notes on the chart, he turned to Natalia and Doris. "Hopefully she’ll wake up soon."

"Is she in a coma?" Natalia asked.

"No, but she does need to wake up, the sooner the better," Dr. Rick said. "I’ll be back later to check on her."

As the doctor left the room, Doris eyed Natalia with her piercing blue gaze. "You look awful."

"Look at how still she is, Doris."

"Natalia!"

Startled, Natalia tore her eyes away from Olivia’s face to glare at the mayor. "What?" Her dislike of the mayor was intense. Why does that annoying woman have to hang around here anyway? I wish she’d just go away.

"You look terrible," Doris said.

"I don’t care."

"I mean ... you look like you’re going to pass out. You’ve barely eaten anything, and I’m sure you didn’t get much sleep last night. You’ve got to take better care of yourself."

"I ... I’m just so worried about ..."

"I know, believe me, but you’ve got to eat something. What if Olivia wakes up and you’re passed out cold on the floor?"

"I just don’t know if I can eat."

"Well, you’re either coming with me to the hospital cafeteria, or I’m going to go down there, get you something, bring it up here, and force it down your throat."

Natalia knew Olivia was going to need her, and she knew she couldn’t continue to function if she didn’t eat something, so ... "Okay."

"‘Okay,’ you’ll come to the cafeteria, or ‘okay,’ I’m going to have to force-feed you?"

"I’ll eat, but ... I just can’t leave her here alone, Doris. I can’t."

"Fine, I’ll be back. Any requests? Eggs? Toast? Cereal?" Doris sighed. Natalia was once more staring down at Olivia, so the mayor left quietly on her mission of mercy.

Natalia was relieved to see that although Olivia was still pale, she wasn’t as chalky white as she’d been the night before. That’s a good sign, right? She pulled a chair close to the side of the hospital bed, but instead of sitting, she leaned over Olivia, observing her carefully. Olivia’s sun-kissed brown hair was spread out over the white pillowcase like a halo, and her face looked peaceful. You are so beautiful, Natalia thought.

She tentatively touched her fingertips to Olivia’s cheek. Her skin felt cool and smooth and silky, not icy cold like the night before. She cupped her hand around the side of Olivia’s face and leaned down to press a lingering kiss to her forehead. She longed to see her wake up, longed to see her gorgeous green eyes again, longed to— Her eyes strayed to Olivia’s lips and her thumb traced a slow path over them. They were full and shapely and soft. Without thinking she leaned down and kissed her gently on the mouth. "Olivia?" she murmured, but there was no response. Please, please, please wake up.

******************************

Olivia stood alone on the balcony of her guestroom on the top floor of the palace in San Cristobel and gazed down at the lush grounds and colorful tropical gardens below. She was dressed in a crimson silk evening gown, backless with a high collar and keyhole bodice that revealed an enticing oval of soft, pale skin. The cutout was just large enough to show the top of the deep vee where her full breasts met.

It was nighttime and Cassie had just married Prince Richard. Olivia could hear the faint strains of Strauss’s "Voices of Spring" played by the string ensemble in the downstairs ballroom, and she could imagine the happy couple enjoying their first dance as husband and wife, watched and admired and envied by their many guests.

Olivia was no longer sad about losing Richard, and the reason for that had just appeared at the opening to the balcony. She was wearing a sapphire blue satin gown cut low enough to reveal generous cleavage, and her long dark hair was swept into an updo with soft curly tendrils falling gracefully to frame her exquisite face. The minute she saw Olivia, she smiled, and Olivia was dazzled by her beauty. They moved toward each other and their bodies melded together as they held each other and began to sway slowly to the distant waltz. Olivia loved the feel of the woman’s knowing hands languidly caressing the bare skin of her back.

When the music finally faded away, Olivia cupped her face and kissed her slowly, relishing the taste and feel of her impossibly soft lips. When she pulled back, she could see the glint of desire in the woman’s umber eyes, and she whispered, "Come with me." The woman nodded, and Olivia took her hand and led her back inside the guestroom and toward the large canopied bed.

******************************

Natalia stared at the large orange cafeteria tray laden with various breakfast treats: eggs, bacon, waffles, cereal, toast, fruit, orange juice, coffee, milk, pastry. She looked up at the mayor in confusion. "What’s all this?"

"It’s called ‘food,’" Doris smirked. "Hey, don’t look at me. You didn’t tell me what you wanted, and I couldn’t decide." Doris set the tray on the narrow overbed table, lowered it, and rolled it in front of Natalia. "Now I don’t care what you eat; I just want you to eat something."

When Natalia hesitated, Doris scooted the coffee mug closer to her. "Here, start with this."

Natalia sipped the bitter brew. It tasted awful, but its warmth as it slid down seemed to reanimate her, so she slowly worked on it as Doris stood with her arms crossed, watching her like a prison matron with an unruly and unpredictable prisoner who might make a break for it at any moment.

"That’s good," Doris said. "Now eat something—and before you even think about refusing, just be forewarned that if you don’t pick something up and put it in your mouth, I’m going to personally shove everything on this tray down your throat."

Suspicious the obnoxious woman might try to do just that, Natalia picked up a thin slice of crisp bacon and forced herself to take a small bite.

"That’s more like it," Doris said.

Doris continued to loom over her until Natalia ate another slice of bacon and most of the scrambled eggs.

Despite her annoyance, Natalia was grateful when she began to feel stronger and less lightheaded. She’d been unaware of how bad she felt until she’d gotten enough food down to mitigate the ill effects of virtually no food and little sleep.

"Why are you doing this?" Natalia asked.

Doris looked over at Olivia. "For her, of course."

Natalia’s brow furrowed with worry as she contemplated Doris’s response and the expression on her face as she gazed at Olivia. You want her, don’t you? It suddenly struck her that Doris, unlike her, would probably have no reticence about physical intimacy, so if Olivia wanted to be with another woman— Oh dear god! This new thought was unsettling and ... and maddening!

She knew Doris was ruthless in her pursuits, whatever they might be, and she wasn’t unattractive. In fact— Natalia looked at the mayor in a whole new light and found herself resenting Doris’s smooth pale skin and delicate features and the undeniable beauty of her sky blue eyes, however much Natalia might dislike having them trained on her. Are you in love with Olivia? she wondered. It was a nauseating thought, and the idea of Olivia so much as touching Doris’s hand made her want to scream.

When Olivia stirred and moaned, Natalia thrust the overbed table away and leapt to her feet, moving quickly to her side. "Olivia?" She could see a frown puckering Olivia’s forehead, as though she were upset or in pain. "Olivia? Wake up! Everything’s okay. You’re in the hospital. Please wake up." Please, God, please let her wake up. The longer Olivia remained asleep, the more worried Natalia got. What if she slipped into a coma? What if she never woke up again?

She pressed the nurse call button repeatedly and watched nervously as Olivia moved her head slightly to the side and groaned. Her eyelids fluttered briefly, but her eyes remained closed.

"You’re got to wake up," Natalia cried. "Olivia! Please, please wake up!"

******************************

Olivia stood beside the couch in her Beacon suite, arms folded across her chest, watching Gus as he placed various take-out Chinese cartons on the coffee table. Her heart was in such bad shape it seemed to her that it only beat once every minute or so, even though she knew that couldn’t really be true. What she did know for sure was that she was dying and there was little if any chance a matching donor heart would be found in time. She’d already told Emma Mommy might be going to heaven to live with the angels. All she wanted now was not to die alone.

She regarded Gus with affection as he busied himself with his task. He was married now, but he’d spent his wedding night, not with his bride, but at Olivia’s side in the hospital after she’d missed out on the one suddenly available matching heart, a cruel twist of fate that had left them both feeling crushed under the weight of such devastating disappointment. He’d also been with her most of the time over the following days.

When he looked up at her, she saw his smile fade, and his suddenly somber expression told her he could see the defeat in her eyes, her resignation, her acceptance of impending death. He moved toward her, took her in his arms, and kissed her passionately, as though willing her to live; but for her it felt like a farewell—a farewell to Gus and to life. Her body’s message was clear: her life’s journey was very near its end.

But when she pulled back from the kiss, it was no longer Gus holding her; it was his bride. Natalia had her arms around Olivia. Natalia was smiling at her, willing her to live, making her believe she could live. Natalia was looking at her with love in her eyes—and then it was Natalia kissing her passionately, Natalia’s mouth covering hers, Natalia’s lips, Natalia’s tongue slipping inside, compelling a response, demanding she feel connected—and alive. And Olivia did. She could feel her heartbeat quicken, could feel her blood heating as it raced urgently through her veins, could feel wondrously alive again.

Then suddenly they were no longer standing; they were lying together on Olivia’s queen-size bed, lying naked in each other’s arms, kissing and touching; and Olivia could not get over the miracle of her—her sweetness, her softness, her beauty, her passion, and mostly the miracle of her life-giving love.

******************************

The nurse walked swiftly to Olivia’s bedside and began to take her vitals. Natalia moved back away from the bed to give her room to work. She was vaguely aware it was the same nurse from the previous night.

"She moved," Natalia said. "Her head moved, and it looked like she was trying to open her eyes."

Nurse Flo held Olivia’s wrist as she stared at her watch and counted. "That may or may not mean she’s close to waking. She does seem a bit restless, though."

They both watched with twin expressions of concern as Olivia’s head shifted slightly from side to side and she moaned softly in her throat.

******************************

Chapter 9

Olivia gripped the wheel of her car, trying to hold it steady on the icy roadway. It fishtailed wildly as she approached a red stoplight, but luckily she was able to straighten it out and bring it to a stop before sliding into the intersection.

When the light turned green, she eased the car forward slowly. Suddenly she heard the high-pitched whine of a motorcycle approaching from the right, and just as she turned her head toward the sound, she saw the driver lose control on the slick road surface and tilt into a precarious skid.

The rider wasn’t wearing a helmet. His hair was dark and— With a sickening roll of her stomach she realized it was Gus. She tried to swerve away from him, but immediately felt the impact as he crashed into her car. The sound of metal grinding into metal made her flinch. Terrified, she scrambled out of her car and slid around to the passenger side. She saw the mangled bike. She saw Gus lying facedown. She saw bright red blood staining the white snow. She fell to her knees on the frozen highway. She tried to scream, but no sound emerged.

******************************

Olivia’s eyes snapped open and she tried to sit up, but quickly fell back with a grunt of pain.

"Olivia!" Natalia cried, overjoyed she was finally awake. Thank you, God! Thank you, thank you! She wanted to go to her side, but Nurse Flo was still there at her bedside, and Doris had grabbed her arm to hold her back out of the way.

The nurse pressed the intercom and paged Dr. Rick.

"Where?" Olivia croaked, clutching her chest as though in terrible pain.

"You’re in Cedars," the nurse said.

"No, I mean Gus. Where’s Gus?"

Nurse Flo glanced over her shoulder at Natalia, uncertain what Olivia was talking about.

Natalia was stunned. Why was she talking about him after all this time?

"Is he all right?" Olivia asked. Her voice was low and weak and sounded a little hoarse, and her eyes squinted against the bright light of the room.

Natalia felt panicked and confused. She could see Olivia was in pain, severe pain judging by the expression on her face, and all Natalia wanted to do was take her in her arms and make all her pain go away.

Just then Dr. Rick came in. "Olivia, how are you feeling?"

"Hurts." One of her hands was pressed over her chest and the other gripped the side of her head.

"We’ll get you something for that," he promised, looking at Nurse Flo, who promptly sprang into action. "Do you know where you are?" he asked.

Olivia nodded. "Hospital."

"You’re going to be okay, Olivia. Do you remember what happened?"

"Gus ... hurt."

"No, you were hurt, remember?"

Olivia nodded. "New heart."

"You were at the bank," he prompted, as he checked her pupils.

Olivia frowned. "Bank?" Her eyes looked glazed, but she made an effort to focus. "I ... I remember ... bank," she said hesitantly. "Thomas ... Natalia and Jackie ... gunmen—" Olivia’s eyes sprang wide in alarm. "Natalia?" she asked, suddenly alarmed. "Is she all right?" She tried to sit up again and moaned in pain as she fell back onto the flat hospital pillow.

"She’s fine. She’s right here." He motioned for Natalia to approach the bed so Olivia could see for herself.

Natalia shook free of Doris, moved to the bed and took Olivia’s hand, and gently stroked her thumb over the back of it.

Olivia immediately relaxed. She gazed steadily up at her for a moment, and then her eyes fluttered shut and she drifted back to sleep.

"Why was she talking about Gus, Dr. Rick? Does she have some kind of amnesia?" Natalia asked. It was a frightening thought—Olivia with no memory, no memory of her or what they’d come to mean to each other. Although ... Olivia did seem to know who she was just now, so ... Natalia tried to get a grip on the erratic and panicked flow of her thoughts.

Dr. Rick shook his head. "No, I don’t think she has amnesia. I think she was just confused. That’s typical with concussions. She woke up in a hospital bed, so I’m not surprised the first thought in her head would be about the heart transplant. She’s probably feeling a lot like she felt back then, and that’s not all that pleasant."

"Will she be okay?"

"This is a very good sign," he said. "She woke up and for the most part she was lucid, if a bit disoriented. That’s not unusual. Now we just need to let her rest."

"Thank you, Dr. Rick," Natalia said. She prayed he was right about Olivia’s memory.

He nodded at her and left, and Natalia was aware of Doris moving to her side and looking down at Olivia.

"See?" Doris said. "She’s going to be fine."

"She has to be."

"I know. Look, I have things to do ... busy life, you know? But I’ll check in on her later."

Natalia could not have been happier to see the mayor finally vacate the room, leaving her alone, at long last, with a peacefully sleeping Olivia. As the door was swinging shut, she could just see Doris waving down Nurse Flo. Natalia was relieved the mayor’s attention was on something else for now, though she felt a bit of sympathy for the nurse what with the interrogation she was certain former-DA Doris was about to put her through regarding Olivia’s condition. At least she’s gone from here, she thought. She’d had enough of Doris for one day; in fact, she’d had enough of Doris for a lifetime.

Natalia sat on the chair by the bed. She was still giddy with relief that Olivia had finally awakened. How good it had been to see her gray-green eyes looking up at her, even if they did look bleary, but still ... she woke up and Natalia was euphoric. She picked up Olivia’s hand and pressed a soft kiss to her palm before cuddling it against her chest.

******************************

Olivia lay on a hospital bed wearing ruby red silk pajamas, their rich color a startling contrast to the sterile white sheets and white walls and white tiled floor. She felt tired and a little confused about why she was there. Was she injured? Was she ill? She didn’t remember getting checked in. She wasn’t even sure what hospital she was in, only that it certainly wasn’t Cedars. She could see a narrow sliver of outdoors through the partially open vertical blinds on the windows that spanned the far wall of the room. Clearly she was on the ground floor, but more amazingly she could actually see palm trees and sparkling sand and the distant blue and white line of the sea. Where am I? she wondered.

She was about to reach for the call button, when a woman in a white nurse’s uniform entered the room and approached her bed. She was petite and curvaceous. Her long dark hair was pulled up into a French twist, her skin was olive tinted and smooth, and her dark brown eyes looked warm and kind. She smiled down at her patient serenely, revealing even white teeth and deep dimples, and Olivia found her exotic and absolutely breathtaking.

The nurse pulled out an oral thermometer and shook it vigorously before bringing it to Olivia’s mouth, and Olivia parted her lips to allow entrance. The nurse slipped it in and then held it there in her fingertips the entire time, while Olivia trembled from their close and seemingly intimate proximity. She could feel the cool, glassy surface of the tiny tube lying on her tongue, could detect a faint taste of alcohol, could feel a small amount of pressure as it was held firmly in place by slender fingers.

When the nurse slid the thermometer back out, she gazed at the reading and her mouth turned down into a tiny frown. "Looks a bit high," she said, and then she leaned over the bed and pressed a cool hand against Olivia’s forehead as if to double-check her temperature.

Olivia couldn’t help but notice the top two buttons of her uniform were undone, leaving an alluring glimpse of the top of her rounded breasts, and she suddenly found herself wondering how her beautiful nurse might look without her uniform, especially if she were lying beneath her on the bed. When she tore her eyes away from the enticing view and looked up at the dark-haired woman, she could swear from her expression that she must have read her mind, and she felt heat rise in her cheeks at having been caught with such lustful and inappropriate thoughts about the sexy RN.

She tried to purge her mind of the sinful images, but instead found herself focusing hungrily on the nurse’s perfectly shaped lips and wondering how it might feel to run her tongue over them, teasing them until they parted to grant her deeper access.

The nurse regarded her quietly for a moment, and finally said softly, "I think I know what you need."

Olivia was surprised when the shapely RN sat on the edge of the mattress and lightly touched her fingertips to her cheek, a ghost of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth, and then she was slowly unbuttoning Olivia’s ruby red top, spreading it apart to reveal her naked breasts, smoothing her hands over her soft and aching curves.

Olivia could neither speak nor breathe. She could only watch in fascination as the other woman lowered her head and wrapped her lips around an already engorged peak. Olivia’s hands instinctively cupped around the woman’s head, holding it as her nurse lavished attention on her sensitive and aroused flesh, and all she could think was, Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.

******************************

When Mayor Wolfe finished her brief conversation with Nurse Flo, she spotted Frank striding down the hallway toward Olivia’s room and hurried to intercept him. "I take it you heard about Olivia?" Doris asked.

Frank’s face was bruised and cut, a little gift from the mayor’s bodyguards. "Yeah, I heard," he said shortly. "How’s she doing?"

"You’ll be so happy to know she’s doing just fine," Doris said with a smug look.

"Is Natalia in there?"

Doris laughed. "Well, of course. Where else would she be?"

Frank glared at her.

"What are you doing here, Frank? I can’t imagine you’d want to visit Olivia ... all things considered."

Frank’s jaw tightened. "I’m here to question Natalia about the bank incident."

"Oh, really? I thought Mallet was planning to question her. He was the detective on the scene and he’s the lead investigator on the case; in fact, he’s the one I talked to last night after I found out about the shooting, and he mentioned he planned on questioning Natalia today."

"Well, now I’m going to do the questioning," Frank snapped.

"Interesting. How’d that come about?" she asked with a lift of her thin brows.

Frank glowered at Mayor Wolfe with anger and genuine dislike. "It just did, okay?"

"I think maybe you’re deliberately taking advantage of your relationship with Mallet and trying to thrust yourself into the middle of that," she said, nodding toward Olivia’s hospital room, where they both knew Natalia would be sitting vigil.

"Look, I’m doing it for Natalia," he said.

"Oh, of course, for Natalia. Well, Frank, I’m sure she’ll just be overjoyed she has to go through the questioning about the bank robbery and the shooting of the love of her life with her ex-fiancé."

Frank grimaced and balled both hands into fists. After a brief glance at the mayor’s two bodyguards standing a few feet away, however, he visibly relaxed his body. "It’s none of your business, Doris," he finally managed to force out.

"Actually it is my business, as you well know."

Frank’s shoulders slumped. "Fine. Now do you mind?" he asked, reaching for the door handle.

"Are you sure you want to disturb the lovebirds?" Doris asked with a catty grin.

The muscles in Frank’s jaw twitched as he flung the door open and marched in without knocking.

******************************

Natalia recoiled when she heard Olivia’s hospital door slam into the wall. Frank’s sudden looming presence in Olivia’s room surprised and disconcerted her. "What are you doing here, Frank?" she asked, still trembling from her scare. You look awful and ... and mean. Why would you come here after the way you treated Olivia? He’d made it clear the day he was admitted to the hospital that he blamed Olivia for the aborted wedding, despite her efforts to set him straight and take the rightful blame herself, and now she just wished he’d turn back around and leave. She couldn’t deal with his anger and his unfair censure of Olivia, not now, not with Olivia lying unconscious and vulnerable.

Frank, oblivious to her frightened response to his sudden noisy entrance, stood over Olivia and glared down at her, jaw clenched. "So how is she?" he finally asked.

"She’s ... she’s doing okay."

Frank looked back at Natalia. "I need to ask you some questions."

"You? I thought Mallet ..." Her voice trailed off. Frank looked determined and ... angry, very angry. "Okay," she said meekly. What choice do I have? I just hope we can get this over with quickly.

He took her by the arm, led her to the brown faux leather recliner in the corner, and pushed her down onto the seat. He remained standing, and she stared up at him nervously. This was not the man she’d gotten to know and grown to care about over the past year. This was a stranger, an angry stranger, and she had a growing feeling of dread about his motivation for coming to Olivia’s room to question her.

******************************

Chapter 10

It was the day of the wedding. Olivia stood just behind Natalia’s left shoulder listening stoically to Frank’s earnest vows to his bride. She glanced at Mayor Wolfe, who was officiating over the ceremony. Doris met her look with a disapproving glare, obviously still annoyed with Olivia that she hadn’t followed the mayor’s advice to stop the wedding. Olivia sighed and looked down. She’d done what she thought was best for Natalia, so she could have the life she’d always dreamed of for herself and her child, but now, watching Natalia fidget and occasionally cast a worried look over her shoulder toward Olivia, she was having serious second thoughts.

Then it was the bride’s turn to say her vows to her eagerly waiting groom. Olivia listened in growing alarm as Natalia stuttered, cleared her throat, glanced around nervously, started over, hesitated, stammered, looked back at her. It seemed as though she might burst into tears at any moment.

Suddenly Olivia couldn’t stand it anymore. Screw it, she thought to herself, and then she tossed her bouquet on the floor, grabbed Natalia’s hand, and dragged her unceremoniously toward the exit in the back of the church as Frank and Buzz and the rest of the Coopers watched in utter shock. Only Mayor Wolfe smiled at their retreating backs.

The ride to the farmhouse was silent, though Olivia kept a tight grip on Natalia’s hand, their fingers interlaced. The second they were inside, Natalia tried to reach the zipper on the back of her bridal gown.

"I’ve got to get this off," she cried, but she was unable to reach the zipper to get it started. "I need it off! I need it off now!"

"Stop, I’ll do it," Olivia said. "Come on, let’s get you upstairs and out of all this." Again she took Natalia by the hand and led her upstairs to the master bedroom.

Natalia leaned against the dresser, her head bowed so she wouldn’t have to look at herself in the mirror all decked out in her wedding day regalia. Olivia stood behind her, eyes fixed on the reflection of Natalia’s face as she pulled her zipper down and peeled the dress off her shoulders and down her body. Natalia stepped out of the pool of white fabric, kicked off her white shoes, and yanked her bridal slip over her head, tossing it carelessly to the side. Finally she stood in front of the dresser wearing only a white lace bra and panties. She looked at herself in the mirror, and her fingers immediately began scrabbling through her hair until it was rid of the elaborate wedding do and hanging in loose, tousled curls to her shoulders. Once all remnants of her wedding attire were gone, she leaned heavily against the dresser, breathing hard.

"I’m sorry," Olivia said softly. She stood just behind Natalia’s right shoulder, watching her face in the mirror.

Natalia looked up in surprise at Olivia’s image in the mirror. "Why are you sorry?"

"For trying to make you marry Frank." Olivia couldn’t look away from Natalia’s tortured dark eyes staring intently back at her.

"It’s not your fault, Olivia. It’s my fault."

"I’m the one who told you that you should marry Frank. I’m the one who helped Frank and pushed you into this. I’m the one who dragged you from the cemetery to the church earlier today when I could clearly see you ... you were having doubts."

"Olivia, I’m the one who accepted the proposal of a man I don’t love. I’m the one who went through all the motions—dating him, meeting his family, meeting with Father Ray for couple’s counseling. I knew it was wrong. I knew I didn’t love Frank."

"But ..."

Natalia turned around to face Olivia directly. "I don’t love Frank. I love you."

"I ..." Olivia didn’t get the chance to finish her thought because unexpectedly Natalia moved close and embraced her fiercely.

"I love you, Olivia," she whispered.

Olivia couldn’t believe she was holding a nearly naked Natalia in her arms—finally! No one had ever felt so ... perfect. She wanted to kiss her. She wanted to lay her down on the bed and touch her ... everywhere. She wanted to make love to her, all night, endlessly.

She knew she couldn’t, though. Natalia would freak out. She’d be horrified. She’d ... she’d never want anything else to do with her. Olivia knew she could never live with that, so instead of following her instincts, she simply held on tight to the warm and trembling body in her arms.

But then Natalia was looking up at her, and Olivia could see dark eyes drift down to her mouth. She was astonished when Natalia leaned up and kissed her lightly, hesitantly, and then drew back and waited expectantly. Olivia needed no further encouragement. Finally she could kiss the woman she loved, and suddenly all the months of pent-up longing and passion burst, like a dam overburdened by raging floodwaters, and she kissed her back. The kiss was ardent and intimate and long, and it left them both panting heavily when it ended.

She trembled when Natalia reached around behind her for the zipper on the back of her scarlet maid of honor dress and eased it down, followed quickly by the dress itself. Soon Olivia stood clad in just her matching scarlet bra and panties, and then they were both lying on the bed, completely naked, wrapped around each other, touching and kissing, and finally Olivia was able to explore those sexy curves and silky planes as she’d fantasized doing so many times. She kissed her mouth, she kissed her neck, she kissed her breasts; she touched and kissed her everywhere until finally she slid down to kiss her most intimate flesh, reveling in the taste and the texture and her writhing response; and she didn’t stop until Natalia finally cried out in pleasure and release. When Olivia moved back up to cradle a heavily breathing Natalia, she could feel a single tear roll down her own cheek as she felt the woman in her arms quiver in the aftermath of what Olivia was quite certain was the first orgasm of her life.

******************************

Natalia eyed Frank warily as he pulled a small notebook and pencil from his coat jacket. She wished Mallet were the one about to ask the questions. Frank looked too angry. She knew most of his anger was directed towards Olivia; however, she also realized he was angry with her, too, whether or not he realized it.

"I need you to tell me everything that happened at the bank," Frank said.

"There’s not a lot to tell. Couldn’t this wait, Frank? I promise I’ll go by the station later and leave a statement," Natalia said.

"No, I’m here and we’re doing this now. You’re a witness to a crime after all." Frank regarded her for a moment. "Or I can take you down to the station and we can do it there."

"I can’t leave Olivia!" Natalia knew that was the wrong thing to say the minute she saw the furious look on Frank’s face. His eyes darted toward Olivia lying motionless on the bed, and she could see they were filled with hatred and scorn.

"You know what?" Frank said in a carefully measured tone. "I think we better just take this conversation down to the station."

"No!" Natalia cried.

Frank grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet. "Let’s go," he demanded.

"Please, Frank, I’ll tell you everything I know, but please don’t make me leave. I can’t leave her here alone. I just can’t!"

"Oh, I think it’d do you good to get away from that woman, Natalia. Hasn’t she done enough damage in your life?"

Frank kept a tight grip on her arm and dragged her out of the room. When she fought to get loose, he stopped, grabbed both her arms and peered into her face. "If you don’t stop fighting me, I’m going to slap some cuffs on you and place you under arrest for obstructing an ongoing investigation. Either way, you’re coming with me to the station."

It didn’t occur to Natalia to wonder whether or not the threat of arrest was legal. She just immediately stopped struggling and allowed Frank to haul her toward the elevator, but her heart was breaking and all she could think about was Olivia lying pale and vulnerable and all alone on her hospital bed.

******************************

Olivia was enveloped in darkness. She wasn’t sure where she was, only that it was black and cold and she was in terrible pain. She could hear voices. It was Natalia—and Frank. What’s Frank doing here? Natalia sounded frightened. Frank’s voice was low and menacing. She suddenly remembered she was in Cedars Hospital. I have to wake up, she thought. I’ve got to come up out of this and help her. What’s Frank doing?

She heard their voices rise angrily, heard a scuffle, heard the door open. She made a herculean effort to open her eyes. Finally she managed to get one eye open, and her head rolled to the side in time to see Frank dragging a struggling Natalia out of the room by her arm. She tried to yell, scream, say anything, but she was still too groggy from the pain meds to make anything come out. She heard the sounds of the scuffle in the hallway outside her room abruptly stop, and then she was left completely alone with her worries and her pain.

******************************

Natalia fidgeted restlessly on the hard wooden chair in the interrogation room at the police station. She’d given her statement—three times!—and was now waiting for Frank to return and tell her she could leave. He seemed to have been gone for ages, and her nerves were on the screaming edge.

Finally Frank reentered the room.

"Can I go now?" she pleaded.

"Maybe we should go over it one more time."

"I’ve told you everything I remember, Frank! In fact, I’ve told you several times now." Why are you doing this? Why are you keeping me here so long?

"These are dangerous men," Frank said. "We need to apprehend them. This isn’t the first time they’ve done this. We were lucky nobody died this time—so far, anyway." The corner of his mouth twitched, as though he were fighting to suppress a smile.

Natalia flinched at his insinuation and the look of disdain on his face. He almost made it sound like he hoped Olivia would die. She was incensed. Do you really hate her that much, Frank?

"They’ve killed at least two people in similar robberies in this part of the state," Frank continued. "Do you really want to be responsible for any more deaths?"

Natalia glared. His reasonable tone wasn’t fooling her one bit. He was punishing her. She couldn’t blame him for wanting to, but she couldn’t allow him to do it like this, could not allow him to keep her away from Olivia any longer.

"Frank," she said. "I’m sorry I hurt you. It was wrong of me to agree to marry you when I knew I didn’t love you." She thought Frank looked like he’d been slapped, but she plunged on. "But now you’re in the wrong and you know it."

Frank scowled and slammed a manila folder down on the metal table. "I’m just doing my job, Natalia," he said, his voice raised alarmingly. "And just for the record, we were happy, you and I, before that conniving bitch decided she just had to get in the middle of everything and ruin it! She always has to get what she wants, no matter who gets hurt, and I guess she decided she wanted you." His eyes narrowed. "Or maybe she just wanted to hurt me again by taking you away from me. Did you even think of that? You shouldn’t trust her, Natalia. She’ll just dump you eventually, when she gets tired of you, and she will get tired of you. She always does! Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. She takes people and toys with them, but once she’s had her fun, she discards them like week-old leftovers and goes after her next victim."

Before either of them could say anything else, the door banged open and Mayor Wolfe stepped in, flanked, as usual, by her two bodyguards.

"What’s going on here?" she demanded.

"I’m interrogating a witness to a crime," Frank said.

"Oh really? That’s not what it sounded like to me," Doris said.

"I’ve given my statement three times, Doris. It’s been recorded. It’s been typed up and I’ve signed it," Natalia said. "I’ve got to get back to the hospital."

"Get your things," Doris said. "I’ll take you."

"I’m not done with her yet," Frank protested.

"Yes, you are, Frank." Doris fixed him with a riveting pale gaze. "And it’s not even your case. Mallet is the lead investigator."

"Look, we need all the help we can get on this, and I figured it’d be easier on Natalia—"

"Easier on Natalia? Does it look to you like she’s having an ‘easy’ time, Frank?"

Frank looked at Natalia’s tearstained face and shrugged.

"She’s coming with me, and after I take her to the hospital, you and I and Chief Wolfe are going to have a little talk about appropriate behavior for a member of the Springfield police department. Do I make myself clear, Frank?"

Frank glanced at the two bodyguards and looked back at Mayor Wolfe, but didn’t say a word.

Natalia was relieved he didn’t try to argue. She was well aware of how much he resented the mayor for not reinstating him as police chief and appointing her cousin instead, but all she really cared about at the moment was getting back to the hospital and back to Olivia.

Doris put her arm around Natalia’s shoulders and escorted her out of the station and into the back of her waiting vehicle. The two guards got into the front of the black SUV and soon they were on their way back to Cedars Hospital.

"I’m sorry he put you through that," Doris said.

Natalia thought she actually sounded sincere. "He blames Olivia for what happened at the wedding. He thinks she ‘stole’ me away from him."

"Well, he couldn’t be more wrong, now could he?" Doris said with a short laugh. "Frankly, I blame you."

"I ... uhm ... well ... it was my fault."

"Exactly. You had no business agreeing to marry Frank when you knew damn good and well you were in love with Olivia!"

Natalia slumped down on the seat and lay her head against the door, eyes wearily sliding shut. Doris was like some kind of nightmarish fairy godmother, rescuing her one minute and smacking her over the head with her magic wand the next.

******************************

Continue to Chapters 11-20

 

You Are On
The Pink Rabbit Consortium
(click the above link to break out of frames)
Send Comments or Questions to Pink Rabbit Productions
pinkrabbit@altfic.com

| Home | Subtext Zone Art Gallery | Subtext LinksWhat's New |
 | Xena Fanfic Archive | Buffy Fanfic Archive | In Process |