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. Iím 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. Itís 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 31

It was dawn when Natalia arrived at the church. It was a gorgeous, cool morning. Normally it was her favorite time of day, but for now she was oblivious to the beauty of the world around her. She desperately needed comfort and reassurance and guidance, and sheíd come to the one place where sheíd always felt safe.

She walked slowly to the front of the empty church and began to light votive candles, one for each of the people she loved mostóOlivia, Rafe, Emmaóand one to ask for help as she tried to sort through the difficult issues she was facing.

Afterward she sat in the second row of pews, closed her eyes, and clasped her hands in prayer. She prayed for the safekeeping of her loved ones, she prayed for forgiveness, and she prayed for clarity as she tried to figure out what she should do about her life and, in particular, her relationship with Olivia.

Please let her always be a part of my life. Even if they couldnít be together as a couple, maybe they could at least always be friends.

Suddenly she felt a shiver of awareness that she was no longer alone, and her eyes flew open in alarm. She saw a woman who had just entered from a side door near the altar and was standing quietly looking at her. She was a pretty woman, blonde and blue-eyed, and she wore a dark pantsuit with a crisp white blouse open at the collar.

"Hello, Natalia," the woman said.

"Sister Anne ... hello."

"I didnít mean to disturb you."

"Itís okay. I was just trying to pray, but ..."

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Iím not sure."

"Would you like to talk?"

Natalia nodded. Sheíd never exchanged more than a passing greeting with the nun, but sheíd always liked her, and right now the kindness she saw shining from her eyes looked like a beacon.

Sister Anne sat on the pew in front of her and turned sideways so she could see Nataliaís face. "What would you like to talk about?"

Natalia shrugged. "I donít know. Thereís just so much."

"Thereís no rush. Take your time."

"Is Father Ray here?"

"No, Iím sorry. Heís out for the day."

"Thatís good. I mean ... itís okay. I didnít want to see him." Natalia felt a little embarrassed to speak of Father Ray like that; after all, heíd always been kind to her, but truthfully sheíd come by the church so early in hopes she wouldnít run into him. After their brief discussion about her love for Olivia, she just didnít want to have to see him or the disapproval in his face, no matter how well-meaning he might be.

"I understand."

"Do you know what happened?"

"Yes, I saw it on the news. Would you like to talk about it?"

"I donít know. I mean ... I donít know what to say. Olivia told me I should go to the rape crisis center, but ..."

"I volunteer there sometimes."

"You do?"

"Yes, Iíve done that for the last couple of years in fact. I have a degree in counseling, but I also took the special training course they offer for all their volunteers."

"I didnít know that." Natalia was surprised. Sister Anne didnít look like a nun, but clearly sheíd dedicated her life to service.

"I was attacked several years ago."

"Oh my god! You were raped?"

"No, I was lucky. Someone stopped them before they got that far."

Natalia realized Sister Anne was using a plural pronoun. "They?"

"There were two of them. They came into the youth center where I used to volunteer. Weíd had a bake sale, and Iíd stayed behind to finish cleaning up and put things away. It was late and I was all alone when they came in. They were probably in their late teens or early twenties."

"What happened? I mean ... if you donít mind talking about it."

"Itís fine. I do this all the time at the center," Sister Anne said. "They must have known I was alone because when they came in, they were really cocky. At first they just taunted me, but then they grabbed me and started tearing off my clothes."

"You must have been terrified."

"Yes, I was. I started to pray, but it soon looked as though nothing could stop them. They were touching me and trying to kiss me. I fought, but I couldnít get free. One of them punched me in the stomach to make me stop resisting. It worked, too, because I was stunned and just lay there trying to catch my breath. Fortunately, before it could go any further, Father Ray came back to the center to make sure everyone had left."

"Father Ray saved you?"

"Yes, he did. Even though there were two of them, they didnít want to go up against Father Ray. He was like an avenging angel. He seemed larger and more powerful for some reason, and they just ran out."

"What did you do then?"

"Father Ray took me to Cedars to get checked out, and I talked with a female detective while I was there. She encouraged me to get counseling, which I did. I went to the rape crisis center that night, and I went back for regular counseling afterwards."

"Did it help?"

"Yes, it really did. I had a hard time dealing with what happened. Even though they didnít actually rape me, it was terrifying, and I had a hard time dealing with all the fear."

"Did you feel guilty?"

"Yes, I did at first, mostly because Iíd stayed there alone when I could have easily asked someone to stay with me. Are you feeling guilty?"

Natalia looked down at her hands, which were clenched in her lap. "Yes," she whispered.

"Why would you feel guilty? It wasnít your fault."

"It felt like maybe God was punishing me."

"Why would you think that?"

Natalia was hesitant to tell Sister Anne about Olivia; after all, she might take the same position as Father Ray, and she really didnít need anyone else to explain to her how she was failing to follow the teachings of her church. On the other hand, Sister Anne seemed compassionate and nonjudgmental, so maybe itíd be okay to risk simply telling the truth.

Natalia looked up at Sister Anne. "Because I fell in love with another woman," she finally said.

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

Olivia decided to eat breakfast in the Beacon dining room. She was dressed casually in jeans with a blue short-sleeved blouse and was just finishing her coffee when Mayor Wolfe arrived with her bodyguards.

Doris plopped herself down on the chair opposite Olivia and signaled a waitress to bring her coffee. "Mind if I join you?"

"I guess not," Olivia said with a laugh. She knew Doris irritated a lot of people, but she was glad to see her that morning.

"Howís it going?" Doris asked.

"Could be better."

"Why? Whatís up?"

"Natalia stayed in the penthouse last night, but she left before I got up this morning."

"Oh my. Have you two been ...?" Doris lifted her thin brows.

"No! God no! Nothing like that has gone on between us, and now that she canít stand to be in the same room with me, itís looking like it never will."

"Iím sure she just needs some time on her own, Olivia. Thatís not so unusual, I think."

"I realize that, but you havenít seen how sheís been around me. Mostly she acts like itíd freak her out if we so much as brushed hands accidentally in passing."

"And you think thatís odd under the circumstances?"

Olivia dropped her head and idly turned her coffee cup around and around on its saucer. "No, I guess itís not all that odd, but I was really hoping sheíd let me help her."

"Maybe you canít help her with this. Maybe she needs to get through it on her own. Is she getting any counseling?"

"No, not so far. Iíve urged her to go, but she seems dead set against it."

Doris grinned up at the pretty young waitress when she set down her coffee.

"Flirting with more of my employees?" Olivia asked after the waitress left.

"Not anymore. Iím too happy now."

"Iím glad."

"Maybe Natalia will change her mind about counseling, or maybe sheíd prefer to talk to her priest."

"I donít know if sheíll want to talk to Father Ray. I kind of doubt if sheíd do that after their last talk, but sheís feeling so guilty about everything, maybe sheíll want to talk to someone who might reinforce some of those negative feelings. Iím just not sure." Olivia reached down to pick up her purse from the floor, and flinched from the pain. Wow, I should have done my stretching exercises before I came down here. My arms and shoulders still hurt like a son of a bitch.

"I take it youíre in pain?"

"Uhm ... yeah, a bit."

"More problems after what happened at the farmhouse?"

"Yeah, pretty much."

Doris looked somberly at Olivia for a moment and then suddenly smiled broadly. "I know just the thing thatíll help."

"Oh, really? What? Alcohol? Pills?"

"I think Iíll just order it for you myself and have it delivered to your room."

"Okay," Olivia said hesitantly. "Thanks, I think." Probably gonna send me some lotion or something. Maybe sheíll throw in a bottle of red wine while sheís at it.

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

Natalia braced herself for a lecture on the churchís stance against same-sex couples, but Sister Anne merely continued to regard her with the same patient expression of compassion.

"I really donít think God would punish you or anyone else for loving someone," she said.

Natalia was surprised. "You donít?"

"No, I donít. I canít speak for the church. I can only speak for myself. I believe God is about love, and I believe relationships are about love. Thereís no reason to be punished for loving someone."

Natalia tried to comprehend the message in those words. "So ... you donít think Iím ... bad?"

"I donít think itís up to me to judge, but since you ask my opinion, no, I donít think youíre bad."

"And you donít think loving another woman is wrong?"

Sister Anne looked at her for a moment, as though debating what or how much to say. "No, I donít," she finally said. "I donít believe loving someone else, man or woman, is wrong."

Unexpectedly Natalia began to cry. "I really love her," she sobbed, "but I donít know if we can be together."

"Why not?"

"Because of the disapproval of the church. Because I feel guilty she got hurt because of me. Because I donít feel worthy of her love. Because of a lot of things."

Sister Anne got up and walked around the end of the pew and sat next to Natalia on the second row. She held out her arms, and Natalia leaned into her embrace and continued to weep.

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

It was midmorning. Olivia had exercised and showered and now she stood in the middle of her penthouse debating what to do next. She felt sore and she felt sad. Not a good combination, she thought. Not a good combination at all. Maybe I should drink some wine now that Iím off all the pain meds. Yeah, thatís the best idea Iíve had all dayóa little red wine to help me relax.

She made straight for the liquor cabinet, pulled out a bottle, and poured herself a healthy glassful, which she proceeded to drain in one go. She coughed. See? Iím outta practice. Canít let that happen. She poured a second glass, but this one she took with her to the couch. She put it on a coaster on the coffee table and lay down with one arm over her eyes. Her thoughts immediately turned to Natalia, as theyíd been doing all day. Where are you? What are you doing? Are you all right? I wish youíd call and let me know.

She heard a knock at her door. I bet thatís my little "surprise" from Doris. I hope itís something that helps. More wine would be good. When she opened the door, she was surprised to see Angelica.

"Angelica? What are you doing here?" Olivia looked past her down the hallway. Nope, nothiní.

"Mayor Wolfe said youíd be expecting me."

"I, uhm ..." Christ, Doris. What the hell have you gone and done now?

"I have my table and everything with me. She insisted on paying me, too, even though I said Iíd gladly do you for free." Angelica blushed. "I mean Iíd, uh, gladly do a massage for you for free."

Olivia ignored the verbal gaffe. Sometimes itís just best to let things slide. "Well, thatís really nice of you, Angelica, and itís nice of Mayor Wolfe, too, of course, but I really donít know if ..."

Angelica reached down to her right and picked up her portable massage table, which was leaning against the wall by the door, hefted a large bag onto her shoulder, and moved closer to the doorway. "May I? The mayor made me promise not to take no for an answer. Sheís kind of scary, you know?"

Olivia sighed and stepped back. "Oh, I know."

"Where should I set this up?"

"Anywhere thereís enough room, I guess." Oh man, I just donít know if this is a good idea. She knew all about Angelicaís crush and realized somewhere in Springfield a very mischievous mayor was chuckling. Damn it, Doris!

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

Chapter 32

Natalia sat at a table in a small diner on the outskirts of town drinking coffee. Sheíd barely touched her lunch, and now she was debating her next stop. After sheíd left the church, sheíd gone to the park, but had avoided the gazebo and the area around it because she thought she might run into Olivia and she didnít want to do that right now. She needed to think and she couldnít seem to think very clearly when she was around Olivia. Even after everything sheíd been through, when she was near her, all she really wanted to do was just sit and look at her. She blushed when she remembered how often she used to think about other things, too, like the times when Olivia had kissed her, but she couldnít allow herself to think about that sort of thing right now.

The talk with Josh yesterday and the conversation with Sister Anne that morning had both been not only helpful, but enlightening. In fact, sheíd agreed to see Sister Anne for private counseling, but away from the rape crisis center. One thing sheíd realized after talking with both of them was that her thoughts were all mixed up. She wasnít seeing things clearly and she knew she shouldnít be making any decisions, especially life-altering decisions, until she could find some clarity.

Right now she wanted to go out to the farmhouse, but she couldnít quite commit to the trip because the thought of being inside the house alone was too scary. Maybe she could just drive out there and walk around outside, she thought. Then if she didnít feel like going in or staying, she could go back into town and get a room somewhere for the nightósomewhere other than the Beacon.

She left a generous tip on the table, paid her bill at the counter, and left, determined to head out to the farm.

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

Olivia sat on the couch and watched in fascination as Angelica quickly and efficiently removed the table from its zippered case and unfolded and set it up in the middle of the room. It was made of metal and black leather, and had both a face rest and an armrest. It looked heavy to Olivia, but she noticed Angelica handled it with ease. That girl must do a lot of aerobics, she mused as she noticed her toned arms. In fact, she was obviously in wonderful condition. She was wearing white slacks, a plain white form-fitting t-shirt, and tennis shoes, and she looked for all the world like a model with her perfect face, shoulder-length blonde hair, blue eyes, and golden tan.

Angelica pulled a sheet and a handful of CDs from her large bag. "A lot of people like to listen to music or nature sounds to help them relax," she said. "I have all kinds here, if youíre interested, or maybe you have something of your own youíd like to listen to?"

"Iím not sure." Not about the music and not about the massage, Olivia thought. Of course, her muscles were stiff and achy, so maybe she should just stop worrying about it and take Doris up on her gift.

"Well, I have chamber music, guitar music, Celtic music, sounds of nature or thunderstorms, and a whole lot more, if youíd like to take a look."

"What do you recommend?"

"I like the classical guitar collection."

"Sounds good. Here, Iíll put it on."

When Olivia turned back from slipping the CD into the player, she found Angelica watching her expectantly as the sweet and vibrant sounds of guitar music filled the room. She raised her eyebrows as if to ask, now what?

"Maybe youíd like to get undressed in the bathroom?"

Oh crap. "Okay, Iíll just go do that. Be right back." Canít believe Iím gonna go get naked now. Why do I feel like this is not a good idea? She hesitated briefly and then turned and padded off to the bathroom to strip down. She returned wearing only a fluffy white robe and feeling very naked.

Angelica held the sheet up, obviously to protect her modesty. "You can lie face down on the table, and when youíre comfortable, let me know and Iíll cover you."

"All righty." Iím not sure Iím going to be comfortable. Well, probably best to lie about it then. She slipped off the robe, which she threw on the couch, and sat on the table. Normally she wasnít particularly modest, but there was something about the situation with Angelica that made her feel uneasy and more than a little annoyed with Doris for dropping her into it like this. She hesitated for a moment, still tempted to bail and send Angelica back downstairs, but then she thought, oh, screw it, and lay facedown on the table. She managed it, but only with some difficulty because of her sore muscles. She positioned her face in the oval head rest and gripped the arm rest below. She stared down at the carpet with some trepidation, acutely aware of the feel of the cool and buttery smooth leather upholstery beneath her very sensitive and currently very bare breasts.

I think Iím actually feeling MUCH LESS relaxed now, she thought, so this is working just great so far, damn it. On the other hand, she was already lying thereónaked!óso she might as well just get it over with, she decided. She could deal with Mayor Wolfe and her damned quirky sense of humor later.

"Okay, Iím ready," Olivia said. She felt the sheet draping over her bare body, covering her from her neck to her feet, and then felt cool air again when Angelica folded it down to the top of her buttocks.

"Do you have any areas where youíre having special problems?"

Do I ever! But Iím not telliní about all of Ďem. "Arms, shoulders, chest, to list but a few." Thatís what was still hurting the most after holding the gun up for so long at the farmhouse. Between that and the surgery and her overall tension level, which had skyrocketed into the stratosphere, she was a bundle of painfully knotted muscles, and so far no amount of stretching exercises or attempts at yoga had mitigated her increasing level of discomfort.

"Okay, let me know if anything is uncomfortable."

"All right." She could hear Angelica rubbing lotion into her hands and then finally she felt those hands on her upper back and shoulders. Her annoyance with Doris instantly vanished. OH MY GOD that feels GREAT! The girl has incredible hands. Sheís strong, too. Strong and she knows what sheís doing. Oh wow. "Feels really good," she mumbled.

"Iím glad."

Between the gorgeous guitar music wrapping around her and Angelicaís incredibly talented hands kneading her aching muscles, Olivia felt herself begin to relax for the first time in ... well, she couldnít remember when. That glass of wine isnít exactly hurting the process, she thought, but it was those magic hands that were really doing the trick.

By the time Angelica worked all the way down her back, over her buttocks, and along the backs of her legs to her feet, Olivia felt like she was floating in an alternate dimension, a lovely place that wasnít as painful and stressful as the dimension sheíd been living in lately.

She vaguely realized Angelica had said something. "What?"

"I said time to turn over. Iíll hold up the sheet."

Olivia turned over with some difficulty. Wine, massage, music, wine. Iím feeling SO much better. Did I mention wine? "Okay, Iím ready."

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

Natalia pulled up to the farmhouse and parked. It looked deserted. She grabbed a light jacket, but locked everything else in her car, including her purse, and looked around. There was no sign of anyone. It was a bright and sunny afternoon, and the house and grounds looked gorgeous. There was no way to tell something horrible had happened here just recently.

She began to walk in the general direction of the barn, but veered off when she noticed the duck pond, Emmaís favorite place, and she headed directly toward it. She missed their little girl. I hope youíre still having lots of fun out there in San Francisco with your big sister, she thought. She was painfully aware of how much she missed living out here with Olivia and Emma. I was so happy then. I was just so very happy living here with you.

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

Again Olivia felt the sheet drape over her body. This time Angelica started at her feet and worked her way up to her thighs, slowly and expertly massaging away every kink; then she walked around and stood at the other end of the table and began to massage the back of Oliviaís head and neck and shoulders.

"God that feels good," Olivia groaned.

"You mentioned your chest was hurting," Angelica said as she began to work on her arms. "I know you had surgery last year and I know you got injured at the bank, so I donít want to do anything to hurt you,"

"I think it should be okay, as long as you go easy around the actual wound area. It looks healed, but itís still a little sore, so I think we should be careful. I really strained all those muscles the other day, including my chest muscles, and theyíre not only sore; Iím also having trouble with spasms."

"Yes, I heard what happened," Angelica said. "You were amazing."

"I donít know about that. I just know everythingís been hurting like hell since then."

"Letís see if we can make it better. I normally massage the upper chest. It can also help to massage the pectoral muscles, the ones around your breasts, but some women donít feel comfortable with that."

"Oh, nothing much bothers me, so feel free." I possibly could have worded that a little better. Between the wine and the massage, Olivia felt incredibly relaxed. Angelica had already worked wonders on her back and shoulders.

"Some women prefer to have their breasts draped while I work in that area."

"Nah, thatís okay. Iím not that modest." For the moment sheíd forgotten about Angelicaís crush and was only thinking about how that would just make it harder for the massage therapist. She heard the sounds of more lotion and then those magic hands were doing wonderful things to her aching chest muscles.

She thought about Natalia when she felt Angelica begin to work around her breasts. If only these were your hands, she thought. She was surprised at how quickly her body reacted to the thought of Natalia touching her like thisóNataliaís hands kneading her upper chest, sliding over and under and around her breasts. Oh god, if only. If only you were here and if only you wanted to do this. She could feel the unmistakable throb of desire. Her loins were aching with need. Itíd been so long since sheíd been with anyone.

She thought about kissing Natalia under the red maple. It had been an amazing afternoon. Sheíd kissed the woman she lovedóand very thoroughly at thatóand Natalia had responded. Sheíd been so happy that day. Life seemed filled with infinite possibilities.

"Is there anything else I can do?" Angelica asked.

"Hmm?"

"Can I do anything else for you?"

"No, Iím good. That was wonderful. Youíre really good. Maybe we should talk about listing your services with the hotel. That is if itíd be something youíd like to do."

"That would be great. Thank you so much!"

"No problem. Weíll get together soon and talk about it. Thanks for the massage, by the way."

Angelica held up the sheet so Olivia could get up and put on her robe with some degree of modesty, and then she began to pack her things away.

Olivia lay down on the couch, once more fascinated with how efficiently Angelica squared everything away. She watched her zip the table into its case and carry it to the door, where she leaned it against the wall and then returned for her bag. Angelica lingered by the couch, though, looking down at her somewhat wistfully, Olivia thought.

"Is there anything else I can do for you before I go?" Angelica asked softly.

Olivia understood immediately what she meant by "anything." Her conduct during the massage had been above reproach, but Olivia knew that right now she could ask her for, well, "anything," and Angelica would be more than happy to comply.

Without realizing it, Oliviaís eyes slid down Angelicaís flawless body and returned to her face, where they lingered on her full lips, which were slightly parted, as if she were about to say something more. It would be so easy to take her to bed, Olivia thought. She was a beautiful young woman and she was sweet. Olivia could tell about people, and she knew instinctively that Angelica would know exactly what she was doing in bed. She would know how to take care of Oliviaís carnal aches, and clearly she wanted to. It would just be so easy to close her eyes and let Angelica hold her and touch her while imagining it was a certain elusive dark-eyed, dark-haired beauty. There was a time when she wouldíve had no problem doing that, but now she just couldnít.

"No thanks, Angelica," she finally said. "Iím good, but thanks for everything."

She could see the disappointment reflected in Angelicaís sad smile as she nodded. "Okay, but just let me know if you change your mind," she said and quietly left.

Olivia rolled over onto her side facing the back of the couch and groaned. Physically she felt so much better, maybe too much better, because now her body ached with need and all she could think about was how much she wanted Natalia, but in the back of her mind she was more than a little aware that temptation was just a phone call away.

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

Natalia had been wandering aimlessly around the property and now found herself standing under the shade of the red maple. It seemed like a lifetime ago that she and Olivia had stretched out together on the picnic blanket. The memory of their heated kiss floated into her mind, but she abruptly pushed the image away. Iíll never be able to think straight if keep thinking about things like that.

She threw her jacket over the thick grass and lay down with her hair spreading out over it while she stared up into the intricate arboreal canopy overhead. It was the first time since the attack that she didnít feel afraid. In fact, she felt peaceful lying under her favorite tree, and her mind was quiet instead of brimming with fear and bad images. This time when she prayed, she felt like God was listening, and she felt His love washing over her, reassuring her all would be well.

She fell asleep and this time there were no nightmares. When she woke, she looked at her watch and was startled to see it was well after five. She must have been asleep for hours. She stood up, grabbed her jacket, and headed back to the farmhouse. As she approached the house, she could see Joshís black SUV. She waved as soon as she saw him sitting on the bench. She was really happy to see him.

"Hi. What you are you doing out here?" she asked when she got to the porch.

"Oh, I thought Iíd just swing by and check on things out here. Have you been here long?"

"Iíve been here awhile, but I ... I havenít gone in."

She could see Joshís eyebrows rise imperceptibly.

"Maybe we should do that now," he said.

"Okay. I could ... I could fix you something to eat, if youíre hungry."

"Now that you mention it, Iím famished," Josh said with a grin.

She smiled back. "Okay then."

He carried her duffle bag into the farmhouse and up the stairs to her room while she threw together a simple meal of salads and sandwiches. She watched him while they ate. He seemed relaxed and kept her entertained with stories about his day, about his past, about Olivia. She especially loved the stories about Olivia. Heíd known her a long time and he seemed to have a lot of tales to tell.

When theyíd finished eating, he helped her clean up, and then they went in and sat on the couch to drink coffee.

"Are you planning to stay out here tonight?" he asked.

"Iím not sure. I want to. I wanted to last night, but I ... I just couldnít do it."

"How about if I stay here, too?"

"What?"

"I could sleep on the couch here tonight. Maybe that would help you feel safer."

"Iíd love that, but are you sure you wouldnít mind? It seems like a pretty big imposition."

"I donít mind at all. I donít have any other plans."

"I have a guest bedroom, so you wouldnít have to sleep on the couch."

"I think Iíd rather stay down here. Iím sure no one will try to break in, but if Iím down here, youíll know nobody could possibly get past me and up the stairs without my knowing about it."

Natalia nodded. She felt incredibly grateful. Obviously Josh had some empathy for how fearful she felt about staying overnight for the first time after the assault, and he wanted to help her get past it. She needed to reclaim her house, but staying out there alone was too frightening, and she really didnít want to subject Olivia to it either. "I donít know how to thank you, Josh."

"Thereís no need. Youíre a good person, Natalia, and Iím just happy if thereís something I can do for you."

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

Olivia was in bed reading when the phone rang. She glanced at her clock. It was nine oíclock. God, I sure hope thatís you. She still hadnít heard from Natalia and she couldnít help but worry.

"Hello?"

"Olivia?"

"Natalia, are you okay?"

"Yes, Iím fine. How are you doing?"

"Iím good." Way better now that you called.

"Did you eat?"

Olivia grinned. "Yes, I did. I exercised, I got some fresh air, I worked a little, I ate. Iíve been a very good girl." She was happy to hear Nataliaís short laugh.

"Iím glad. I just wanted to let you know Iím going to spend the night at the farmhouse."

Olivia was immediately alarmed. "Would you like for me to come out and stay with you? I could be there in no time." I really donít want you out there by yourself. She thought it would still be too scary, especially when she knew Natalia had been having nightmares.

"No, thatís okay. Actually Josh is downstairs. He came out and volunteered to spend the night on the couch so Iíd feel safe."

"Okay, thatís a relief. Iím just so glad youíre not alone. Will I see you tomorrow?"

"I was going to ask you if itíd be okay if I take the rest of the week offóif you donít need me, of course. I just need some time to work through some things."

"Sure, thatís fine. Take all the time you need, but please let me know if I can do anything to help you."

"Thank you, Olivia. Iím doing okay. I talked with Sister Anne this morning."

"Oh, really?"

"Yes. Did she know sheís a volunteer at the rape crisis center?"

"No, I didnít know that."

"Talking with her really helped. Iím going to start seeing her regularly for counseling."

"Iím glad." Olivia felt immense relief. Natalia sounded much better and finally she was going to get the help she needed. All she wanted was for her to be all right. She caressed the edge of the phone with her thumb. "I really miss you," she said softly.

"I miss you, too," Natalia whispered.

Thank god for that. "Thatís good."

"Good night, Olivia."

"Night."

It was a start. Natalia might not want to be around her right now, but at least she missed her. At least she called. At least she still fretted about whether or not she was taking care of herself. Olivia wanted her to be all rightóthat was the most important thingóbut she still wanted them to be together. She was in love and she ached to be with her. Maybe thereís still hope for us, she thought. God, I hope so! I donít know what Iíd do if I lost you for good.

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

Chapter 33

Natalia woke early the next morning. It felt good to be in her very own bed, but she missed Olivia terribly. It felt like part of her heart was missing. She dressed quickly and went downstairs, where she was surprised to find Josh already up and making breakfast.

"So," Natalia said, "on top of everything else, you cook?"

Josh laughed. "Well, I grill and I cook breakfast. Does that count?"

"Absolutely!"

"Did you sleep well?" he asked as he set a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon in front of her.

"I did, actually, thanks. How was the couch?"

"It was great. Iím used to roughing it from time to time, so the couch felt pretty good." He looked down at her for a moment, as though assessing her condition. "How are you doing?"

"Iím doing better. The world isnít looking all distorted like it was, kind of like scary images in a fun-house mirror, so I feel like my mind is starting to get clearer."

"Thatís good."

"Yes, it really is."

After they ate and cleared away the breakfast dishes, Josh turned toward her. "Is there anything I can do for you?" he asked.

"No, but thanks for everything youíve done. Youíve helped me more than you know."

"Are you sure youíre going to be okay out here by yourself if I take off?"

"Yes, I think I will now."

"Okay, but how about I check with you later today and see if youíd like some company again tonight?"

"That would be great. Iím not sure what Iím going to do yet."

"Okay, Iíll call you later."

"Thanks, Josh."

Natalia watched as he left and then looked around her kitchen. Between the two of them, the kitchen was clean and tidy with literally no trace of anything that might remind her of what had happened here. This is my kitchen, she thought. Itís my house, and Iím not going to let anybody take that away from me.

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

Olivia decided to go to Company for breakfast. When she entered, Buzz greeted her warmly as usual.

"Itís almost nine," she said as she sat at her favorite table in the corner. "Are you still serving breakfast? Iíd sure love a Buzz omelet."

Buzz grinned. "For you, anytime, Olivia."

Sheíd brought the morning paper with her and was reading it when a shadow fell over the page. She looked up and saw Josh smiling down at her.

"Getting caught up on world events?" he asked.

"Yeah, donít want to get too far behind," she said. "Natalia told me you were going to stay at the farmhouse last night. That was really nice of you."

"I was happy to do it."

"How is she?"

"Sheís doing better than the last time I saw her. She seems calmer and a little more sure of herself."

"Iím so glad."

"I figured you might be worried."

Olivia nodded. "It was really terrible, what she went through at the farmhouse."

"I know, and I know it was difficult for you, too, Olivia. Iím sure Natalia isnít the only one who was traumatized."

Olivia was embarrassed to feel a tear well up and roll down her cheek. She swept it away impatiently. "It wasnít the most fun time Iíve ever had," she said. "Thank god I had a gun out there."

"Yes, that was fortunate. So... what are you up to today?"

"Iím getting ready to go for my daily walk."

"Okay, Iíll leave you to it then."

"Josh?"

"Yes?"

"Thanks for helping Natalia."

Josh nodded and headed to the counter to order coffee.

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

Natalia sat at the kitchen table looking down at her little Virgin Mary statue. After Josh left, sheíd cleaned the entire farmhouse from top to bottom and had laundered everything that was loose, including the bedding from every bedroom in the house. She was tired, but it was a good fatigueóthe kind you got from hard work, not from being emotionally wrung out.

Sister Anne had come out to the farmhouse right after lunch, and theyíd had their second counseling session. Afterwards Natalia felt more at peace. The nun had helped her see that her feelings of guilt about Jacob were irrational, and Natalia realized she shouldnít be taking on responsibility for someone elseís behavior. Why do I do that? she wondered. She immediately thought of the immense guilt she felt about getting pregnant and bearing a child out of wedlock, and the resultant rift with her parents, who had, in essence, thrown her out. I feel like Iíve felt guilty my entire life, like Iíve been bad and need to make up for it somehow.

For the first time it seemed like she had someone whose opinion she respected telling her she was not guilty, that what happened to her and Olivia at the farmhouse was not her fault. It was easier to embrace that perspective after hearing Oliviaís story of what happened to her as a girl and after listening to Sister Anneís recounting of her near-rape at the youth center. Both Olivia and Sister Anne had felt guilty after their attacks, just as she had, but she could see very clearly that neither of them was at fault, which in turn helped her see she wasnít guilty either, even though sheíd never told anyone about Jacob, and had, in fact, pushed the bad memories of what happened at the prison out of her mind.

Sister Anne also made her see that Olivia getting shot at the bank wasnít her fault either. It was a natural reaction to yell when she saw the gunman point his weapon at the toddler. Like Sister Anne had said, if heíd shot the little boy at such close range, there would have been little if any chance he could have survived, so really, Natalia had probably saved his life, just as Olivia had saved hers.

"Do you have any advice for me?" she asked the little statue. Sheíd always found their "conversations" helpful. "No? Well, thatís okay. Sister Anne had some very good advice for me today, and I was really listening."

Part of that advice had to do with Olivia. Initially theyíd talked about Olivia because sheíd been at the farmhouse during the attack and so would also be affected by what happened there. Later, though, Natalia confessed that Olivia was the one she loved, and they talked about their relationship, which Natalia knew was currently in limbo because of her own inability to make a commitment one way or another.

Not only was Sister Anne completely nonjudgmental about her loving another woman, but she also called their love a "gift," the same word Natalia herself had used before at her near-wedding when sheíd started to say her vows to Frank. Sheíd said that "when you feel love," itís a "direct gift from God" and "you have to cherish it with all of your heart." In fact, that was a major part of what had helped her see she couldnít marry Frank, because that gift of love she felt wasnít for him; it was for Olivia. Sister Anne had said a gift like that should be held close and treasured.

Natalia cradled the small statue in her hands. "When Sister Anne said those words," she said to little Virgin Mary, "I knew they were true."

After Sister Anne left, Natalia had taken the picnic blanket and a cooler back out to the red maple. The first thing she did there was pray, and this time she experienced a clear "knowing" in her heart, which felt godsent. She knew that loving Olivia was a good thing, not bad or sinful or wrong; in fact, it was an amazing blessing and one she didnít want to lose, and part of that, she realized, was not allowing anyone else to undermine what she knew in her heart was right.

"I feel like Iím in such a better place," she told the little Virgin Mary. "I know I have more things to work on and I know some things will just take time, but at least I have some very important things figured out now, and for that I give thanks."

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

"I thought I might find you here."

Olivia looked up from where she lolled exhausted on the gazebo bench after walking around the nearby large pond, thereby almost doubling her usual morning walk, and saw Mayor Wolfe grinning down at her. She couldnít decide whether to strangle her or hug her.

"How did you like my little gift?" Doris asked.

"Well, at first I was pretty pissed, but I have to admit that girl is talented."

"Are we talking about massage?"

"Yes, damn it, we are." Okay, Iím leaning toward strangling her. "What did you think I was going to do? Hop into bed with Angelica?"

"No, actually, but I did think youíd be tempted."

Oliviaís eyes slid sideways away from the inquisitorial mayor and toward the butterfly magnolia, where they lingered as she thought about her last moments with Angelica the day before.

"Uh-huh," Doris said. "Thatís what I thought."

"Hey, I didnít say I was tempted," Olivia said, turning back to stare up at the mayor.

"You didnít have to."

"Goddamn it, Doris!"

Doris chuckled. "Youíre just so easy to wind up. Almost takes the fun out of it," she said. "Almost."

"Look, Angelica is a beautiful young woman, but ..."

"You donít need to tell me that."

"Did you ever ...?"

"No, Iím not into going to bed with someone whoís in love with somebody else."

"Angelica is not in love with me."

"Yes, she is, Olivia, as you well know deep down."

Olivia shook her head. She tried to think of someone who irritated her more than Doris. Nope, I got nothiní. "I will say this," Olivia said. "Sheís a very talented masseuse. Weíre going to talk about listing her with our other hotel services."

"For massage?"

"Yes!" God, sheís annoying!

"I take it she really helped you then?"

Oliviaís expression softened. "In all seriousness, I felt like a new woman after she got done with me. Iíve had so many painful knots and spasms since that day at the farmhouse that Iíve just been miserable, and she took care of all those aches."

"Well, maybe all but one, right?"

I think my head could actually burst from sheer exasperation, Olivia thought as she glared up at the mayor. And itíd serve her right to get little bits of me all over her nice, sharp business suit.

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

Natalia was checking to see what she might have in the fridge for dinner when the phone rang.

"Hello?"

"Natalia? Itís Josh."

"Hi, Josh."

"I thought Iíd see if youíd like to have company again tonight. It just so happens Iím free."

"Josh, thank you, but I think Iím going to be all right."

"Are you sure?"

"Iím ... well, Iím mostly pretty sure."

"Thatís not exactly convincing," he said with a laugh. "How about if I come by for at least one more night? Then when youíre feeling more certain about a solo night, you can give it a try. Itís no problem. I really donít mind. "

Natalia hesitated. The idea of having Josh stay another night was more than a little tempting. If he were there, she knew she wouldnít be afraid. Sheíd discovered that fear was a terrible and debilitating emotion. Also, Josh was a genuinely kind man, and she had no doubt he truly meant it when he said he didnít mind.

On the other hand, she knew staying by herself at the farmhouseóat her homeówas something she had to do at some point as part of her healing process and as part of reclaiming her house and her sense of independence. Would it really be any easier to do that tomorrow night, if he stayed with her one more time?

"Josh, I really think Iím ready to do this, but I want to thank you for staying with me yesterday. I honestly donít think I would even want to try this tonight if you hadnít helped me feel safe last night."

"Okay, if youíre sure, but if you change your mind, just call me and Iíll come right out. I donít care if itís two in the morning; you call me, okay?"

"I will, thanks, Josh."

After they hung up, Natalia busied herself with making and eating dinner, and then went upstairs to Emmaís room and looked around. On the small dresser were a few items that had gotten left behind during Oliviaís hasty departure right before the wedding. Natalia looked through the DVDs sheíd found and picked one out to watch. It was a childís movie, but she wanted to watch it and recapture the happiness sheíd felt when she and Emma and Olivia had watched it together on one of their movie nights.

She went into Oliviaís old bedroom next. Sheíd cleaned the room and laundered all the bedding that day, including the bedspread, and the whole room smelled fresh and clean. It was hard to believe Olivia had napped here just a few days ago. Natalia imagined her lying stretched out for a nap after their walk to the red maple that day. How she loved to watch her sleep.

Suddenly it hit her what Olivia must have felt that terrible afternoon when sheíd heard noises coming from downstairs. She knew it was a difficult day for Olivia, too, obviously, but she hadnít really stopped to think about what she must have gone through; however, standing in her room like this caused a dizzying shift in perspective.

Olivia had to have heard the window break. Thatís when she must have known something was wrong. She imagined Olivia opening her door and hearing the sounds of struggle below. Olivia had told her how hard it was to try to reach the gun case on the top shelf of the closet after her surgery, and for the first time Natalia thought about how panicked Olivia must have been, how worried, how frightened. She remembered what a hard time Olivia had had trying to climb the stairs and realized the trip down had to be extremely difficult as well.

Oh my god, Olivia. How many people could have done what you did? She couldnít imagine the courage it must have taken for Olivia to descend into such a frightening scenario, especially when she couldnít have been certain what sheíd find down thereóbut she had. Sheíd appeared in the doorway of the kitchen like an Amazon warrior and sheíd saved her from that psychopath. Mallet had told her that if Olivia hadnít been fast-thinking enough to shoot Jacob the second he threatened to crush her windpipe, he might well have done exactly that, and she would probably have died of asphyxiation long before help arrived. And then on top of everything else, Olivia had bravely faced the inevitable confrontation with the other two men, who they knew were armed.

You are the most amazing person Iíve ever known, Olivia. How could I ever repay you for saving my lifeótwice? She felt humbled by this newfound awareness of what Olivia had gone through and what sheíd done, and her heart ached with love and longing for this extraordinary woman.

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

Olivia chugged her second glass of red wine that evening. The penthouse suite felt unbelievably empty without Natalia there. In fact, her entire life felt pretty empty at the moment, although she was quick to remind herself that at least Natalia had said she missed her. Of course, sheíd known for ages that Natalia had feelings for her. That wasnít the problem. The problem was apparently Natalia didnít really want to have feelings for her, or at least thought she shouldnít have them. Either way the end result was the same: They were not together, and if her life pattern continued on its usual track, they never would be. She sighed. I really need to stop thinking about this or Iím going to drive myself insane.

Sheíd eaten a light dinner and taken a shower, and now she was sitting propped up on the bed in her pajamas debating her next "fun" move. Letís see ... I could watch Finding Nemo to keep up with Emmaís sudden interest in the sea or I could check out whatís on TV or I could read. She picked up her third glass of wine and took a healthy sip. Or I could just see how many glasses of wine itíd take to get me totally plastered. She took another swallow. Iím leaning toward option #4.

She started when the phone rang. She glanced at the clock on her night table as she reached for the phone. It was almost ten.

"Hello?"

"Olivia?"

"Natalia?"

"I hope I didnít wake you."

"No, not at all. In fact, Iím happy you called. How are you?

"Iím doing better. Are you okay?"

"Yeah, Iím fine. Iíve been wondering how you were."

"I know I should have called sooner. I wore myself out today cleaning and doing laundry, and I fell asleep on the couch watching Emmaís copy of Little Mermaid that got left here."

Olivia laughed. "She loves that movie. I was thinking about watching Finding Nemo what with her going all marine biologist on us and all."

Natalia laughed. "I can hardly wait to see her when she gets back."

"Me, too."

"Olivia, I think we need to talk."

"Okay. What about?" Jeez, should I be scared? I think maybe I should be scared. It was no secret that her relationships never worked out, so it was hard for her to maintain any sense of optimism about this one. The difference was she was in love for the first time, which left her particularly vulnerable to the dizzying ups and downs of Nataliaís emotional roller coaster.

"Well, first of all, when I talked with Sister Anne today, she suggested maybe you could come with me to one of our counseling sessions since you were at the farmhouse and all of that affected you, too."

"Okay, I could do that if itíd help."

"Sheís coming tomorrow after lunch, so I was wondering if you were free to come out for that. In fact, I thought maybe you could take your walk at the farm with me tomorrow morning, and afterwards I could fix us some lunch. We could even take a picnic with us and eat under the red maple."

"Okay, sounds like fun. Iíd love to do that."

"Then later we can meet Sister Anne back at the farmhouse for counseling."

"Sounds good."

"By the way, just so you know, I ... I told Sister Anne about us."

Oliviaís eyes widened. Did I miss a chapter? she wondered. Last I heard you werenít totally "down" with the whole "us" concept. "You, uhm, talked with Sister Anne about ... us?"

"Yes, I hope you donít mind."

"No, of course not." Hell, Iím thrilledóI think. In truth, Olivia was feeling so punch-drunk from all of Nataliaís back and forth and the "I want you" and the "I donít want you" and the "I want you but I donít want to want you" and the "Iím not sure what I want" that she felt emotionally raw. "So you told her that weíre ... that we love each other?" she asked tentatively.

"Yes. Well, we do, donít we?"

"Uhm ... yes, but I thought you werenít too sure where you stood on ... that." To put it mildly.

"I know thatís how it must have seemed, especially lately, but Iím thinking a whole lot more clearly now."

"So what now?"

"So now youíre going to come out tomorrow and we can talk more, okay?"

"Okay," Olivia said. "Are you staying at the farmhouse tonight?"

"Yes."

"Is Josh going to stay over again?"

"No."

"Would you like some company? I could get dressed and be out there in no time."

"No, I think Iíll be fine. Josh helped make it feel normal and safe last night, and I think Iíll be all right now."

"Are you sure?"

Natalia nodded slowly. "Yes, Iím sure. Iíve been here all day and itís felt good, kind of like Iím reclaiming my house. This is something I have to do on my own, Olivia. I hope you understand."

"I do." She did understand, but she was worried it was too soon for a solo overnight at the farmhouse after such a traumatic incident. "But please promise youíll call me or just come here and stay with me if you change your mind, okay?"

"Okay, I promise."

"All right, good," Olivia said. "Iím glad you called. I ... Iíve really missed you."

"Iíve missed you, too, Olivia."

"I can hardly wait to see you tomorrow."

"Me too. Good night."

"Night."

Olivia hung up but held the handset clasped over her heart as if some essence of Natalia might somehow remain. I still canít believe she told Sister Anne about us. Thatís a huge step for her. Olivia had talked with Sister Anne last winter when she was trying to get a better understanding of Natalia and her faith, so she knew what a patient and compassionate listener she was, and sheíd also been the source of good advice when Olivia had needed it most.

Olivia sighed as she thought about the pending visit to the farm. It felt like forever since sheíd seen Natalia, even though it hadnít been all that long, and she was aching to see her. Thank god she wants to see me, and best of all, she said she misses me. Christ, I hope this works out. She was almost afraid to hope, as she was all too personally familiar with the feeling of getting let down, but at least Natalia wanted to see her. Thatís good, right?

She rolled onto her side, still holding the handset snuggled against her chest, and smiled as she thought about having a picnic with Natalia under the red maple tree.

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

Chapter 34

Natalia woke fairly early. At first she just lay quietly enjoying the sounds of birds serenading her right outside her window, but then she realized sheíd finally done it. Sheíd finally stayed all night at the farmhouse by herself, which left her feeling far more confident and very empowered.

She got up and showered, and afterward stood looking at her naked body in the full-length mirror in her bedroom. She didnít see the beauty in her lush curves and smooth skin. All she saw was the evidence of her assault. Her bruises were now yellowish-green and fading, but they were still conspicuous. She didnít want anyone to see them, especially Olivia. She herself hated seeing them because they were a painful reminder of things she wanted to forget. Iíll be so glad when they finally go away, she thought.

She dressed quickly in blue jeans with a sky blue tank top and ate a simple breakfast of oatmeal and orange juice. She checked her fridge and decided sheíd better head to the grocery store. She wanted to have plenty of Oliviaís favorites on hand for lunch. It was around eight, so she figured she had plenty of time to run into town and still get back long before Olivia got there.

The thought of seeing Olivia after what seemed like an unbearably long length of time left her feeling a bit breathless, kind of like a giddy teenager getting ready for her first date.

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

Olivia groaned when her alarm went off at 8:00. Why did I even set that damned thing? Christ, this is way too early. Suddenly, though, she remembered exactly why sheíd set it. She had a date. The thought of seeing Natalia spurred her to action. She got up, showered, and ate a protein bar with a can of Red Bull.

Since Natalia had suggested she take her daily walk with her out at the farm, she dressed in snug-fitting white capris, a red V-neck knit top, and tennis shoes, and tossed a light jean jacket near her purse. She could hardly wait to get going. I can hardly believe Iím actually going to see you in just a little while.

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

Natalia was packing her cooler when she heard a car pull up outside. She knew it had to be Olivia, and the thought of seeing her jolted her heart into higher gear. She hurried to the door and opened it just as Olivia was about to knock. She immediately grinned on seeing Oliviaís joyful expression and threw her arms around her. She felt unbelievably happy to be able to hold her. In fact, she realized sheíd be content to stay exactly as they were, just standing there in each otherís arms.

Olivia pulled back first. "Hi," she said with a besotted smile. "Itís so good to see you."

"I"ve really missed you, Olivia."

"Me too," Olivia sighed.

"I canít believe how much Iíve missed you." It was almost like seeing Olivia for the first time. Natalia knew she was a beautiful woman, but suddenly she was achingly aware of just how gorgeous she really was. She knew sheíd be happy if she could just spend the rest of the day drinking in her beauty and her vitality and her larger-than-life presence. She could actually feel the force of Oliviaís love washing over her, and it left her feeling off-balance and a little breathless.

"Thatís good to hear," Olivia said.

"Do you ... do you want to go for a walk now or would you rather stay here?"

"I say letís go. I havenít had my walk yet today, and Iíve been trying to be very good about that."

"Okay, I packed a lunch for us, so I think weíre good to go," Natalia said as she grabbed the cooler and a light jacket.

"What can I carry?"

"Here, you can carry the picnic blanket."

"Arenít you afraid Iíll strain myself?" Olivia asked with a wry grin.

Natalia laughed. "Well, I sure hope not."

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

How Iíve missed your smile, Olivia thought, not to mention those dimples. That dazzling white smile and those adorable deep dimples created a heady combination, and it was all Olivia could do to keep her wits about her enough to put one foot in front of the other as they headed out the door and across the property.

Natalia headed for the duck pond first. "We have our second batch of ducklings," she said, obviously excited. "Josh said we could expect babies anytime, mostly in the spring, but also into summer sometimes. Emma will be so excited."

"Yeah, she will. Hm ... Iím seeing an aquatic theme going on with our little girl."

Natalia turned and looked at her. "I love when you call her that. You donít know how much it means to me that youíve shared Emma with me like you have."

"Well, Emma said it best. You are the other mommy." And there are those dimples again. Life canít get much better than this.

"Look! There they are, the littlest ones."

"Aw, Emmaís got to see these little cuties."

They took a few minutes to throw bread crumbs on the water, laughing as they were gobbled up by the fluffy yellow babies, and then they headed on out to the field beyond the barn where the red maple stood towering over the other trees in the vicinity. Once they got there, Natalia spread the red tartan picnic blanket out and set the cooler on one corner.

"Are you hungry yet?" Natalia asked.

"Actually I am. I just had a protein bar for breakfast. So ... whatís for lunch?"

"My specialty: peanut butter and banana sandwiches."

Olivia laughed. "Hey, you remembered how much I love that."

Natalia nodded. "I also brought tortilla chips, apple juice and bottled water, and thereís strawberry yogurt for dessert."

"Itís everything I love," Olivia said. Including, most especially, my gorgeous lunch companion.

"I know," Natalia said with a grin.

Olivia hadnít felt this happy in a long time. Natalia was like a different person, although Olivia didnít try to kid herself that Natalia might be completely over the attack. Still, there were notable differences, not the least of which was her overall mood, which was lighter than it had been in a long time, almost carefree. It was the first time since the assault that sheíd seen her wearing a tank top instead of a long-sleeved shirt buttoned all the way to the top. Also, Natalia was smiling and chatting and looking at her in a way that was having an interesting effect on her hormones, which were now careening around like a fleet of drunken sailors on shore leave.

Of course, she was painfully aware she dare not so much as try to touch her hand, but she was okay with that. This was more than enough for now; in fact, the earlier hug was far more than sheíd hoped for. Just to spend time with her like this, knowing Natalia wanted to be there with her, filled her with happiness. Iím feeling really mushyóme, Olivia Spenceróand I donít care what anybody might think.

The only downside for Olivia was the deep-seated uneasiness she tried to ignore that told her these joyful feelings could easily get blown away on the wind like so many inconsequential dandelion seeds if Natalia panicked or changed her mind or found the reality of loving another woman too much to deal with.

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

Natalia loved Oliviaís obvious enjoyment of their simple lunch. She looked so pretty with the light wind gently ruffling her hair, and her eyes were a vivid shade of blue-green. Sheíd never seen them look so dark, almost like the deep blue sea itself, and she seemed so alive and vigorous, almost as though sheíd never been injured, never had a heart transplant, never had a sick day in her life. It was amazing to see her like this, and Natalia was more than a little enthralled.

I think Iíve been in love with you for a very long time, maybe even longer than I realized, she thought with wonder. Clearly sheíd been slow to catch on, but she vowed to get caught up now. After all, this was Olivia, the love of her life, and she was determined not to lose her.

Hopefully she hadnít made Olivia so distrustful with all her indecisiveness that sheíd never have any faith in her love or her ability to make a genuine commitment. She knew Olivia very well, and to know Olivia was to understand she had significant trust issues. Natalia realized with dismay that Olivia must feel uncertain about her and about their chances to forge a real relationship, especially one that would inevitably face societal challenges. Iíll have to show you that you can trust me, she vowed silently. I know it wonít be easy.

After they finished eating, they sat together side by side in companionable silence, just gazing out over the property, which looked lush and gorgeous in its spring finery. Finally Natalia dragged her eyes away from the line of trees marking the beginning of the small wooded area on the north side of the property, and looked at Olivia. They just had so much they needed to talk about, and she was uncertain where to begin.

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

Olivia realized Natalia was watching her, and she turned to look at her. My god, youíre gorgeous, she thought. She loved her exotic good looks, but reminded herself not to get carried away. After all, the last time sheíd been around her, Natalia had been careful to stay well out of reach. "You look like you have a lot on your mind," Olivia commented.

"Yes, I do," Natalia said. "I think we should talk."

"Okay." But Iím sure not starting because I just honestly have no idea what to say, and I donít want to say the wrong thing. In fact, I donít want to say anything thatís going to make you feel uncomfortable or pressured. Olivia was painfully aware she had always been several steps ahead of Natalia where their relationship was concerned. She was the first to realize she felt more than friendship, the first to realize she was in love, the first to be aware of the physical attraction, the first to say "I love you."

But now? Now she just couldnít be the trailblazer. Natalia had proven to be too skittish, too frightened, too indecisive, too changeable, and it had left Olivia feeling too uncertain to say or do anything that might exacerbate those equivocal feelings.

"Olivia?"

"Mm?"

"You suddenly seemed really far away."

"Sorry, I was just thinking."

"Do you want to share?"

Olivia shook her head. No way was she going to share any of that. "Caution" was the word of the dayóand maybe for the foreseeable future.

"Okay," Natalia said. "I wanted to tell you that Iíve been doing a lot of thinking."

Oh Christ! Thatís never good. Not ever. "Okay," she said. "What about?"

"About us, among other things."

Olivia looked down at the tartan pattern on the blanket and tried to brace herself for the impending bad news. Just when things were looking up, too, she thought with regret. She didnít have the heart to respond, so she just sat and listened.

"Olivia?"

"Yeah?"

"I can understand why youíre expecting the worst right now."

Olivia looked up into Nataliaís dark eyes. "What makes you think Iím expecting the worst?"

"The expression on your face, for one thing," Natalia said. "Knowing you as well as I do, for another."

Olivia shrugged.

"Olivia, I love you."

Olivia nodded. She knew that. "I love you too, Natalia, but ..."

"I know my ... my love must seem pretty unreliable to you at this point."

"I, uhm ..."

"But I want you to know that I realize now what I want."

"Okay." Olivia paused for a moment, unsure if she wanted to hear anymore.

"I want you in my life, Olivia. I want Ďus.í I hope thatís still what you want."

"Thatís all I want," Olivia said, "and I hear you saying thatís what you want today, but I canít help but wonder what youíll want tomorrow or next week."

Natalia sighed. "I know, and I donít blame you for doubting me."

"Itís not that I donít think youíre sincere."

"I know. Itís that you havenít been able to count on me. I understand. I just want you to know that Iíve truly reached a different place."

"What kind of different place?"

"A place where I know without a doubt that weíre meant to be, you and I, and thatís what I want. I want a life with you, Olivia."

God, I wish I could have faith in this, in you, but ... Iím just not sure. "I donít know what to say."

"I know. You donít have to say anything. I know itíll take time for you to realize you can trust me and count on me not to run away again."

Olivia was surprised when Natalia took her nearest hand and held it in both of her own. Even that small point of contact ignited a tingling sensation that sizzled through her body like wildfire.

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

Chapter 35

The two women sat side by side on the red tartan picnic basket gazing out over the pastoral landscape. It was a beautiful day, cool and clear, and they could hear a variety of birdsongs filling the air around them.

Natalia turned toward Olivia, who had a faraway look in her gray-green eyes. "Itís getting close to time for Sister Anne to get here," she said.

"We better get going then."

Natalia was reluctant to end their picnic and especially loath to let go of Oliviaís hand, which lay entwined with hers on her thigh, but she also looked forward to the two of them getting a chance to talk to the nun together. She knew it would help her and was fairly certain it might help Olivia as well.

It concerned her that although it was clear how much Olivia loved her, she had become standoffish at the mention of anything smacking of commitment, and Natalia knew it wasnít because Olivia wasnít read to commit to her; itíd been clear for some time that she was. It was because Olivia didnít trust her to be able to make and honor a commitment. Natalia knew she was ready, but she didnít blame Olivia for not wanting to get her hopes up.

It didnít take them long to gather everything up and take a leisurely stroll back to the farmhouse in the early afternoon sunshine. Shortly after they arrived, they heard a car pulling up.

Natalia greeted Sister Anne warmly when she opened the door to let her in. "Thank you so much for coming," Natalia said. "Olivia, Iím sure you remember Sister Anne."

"Yes, of course. How are you?"

"Iím well, thanks. How are you doing, Olivia?"

"Iím good."

"Youíve had quite an eventful year," Sister Anne said, still looking at Olivia.

"A little too exciting, Iíd say."

"May I get either of you anything? Coffee? Tea? Juice?" Natalia asked.

"Coffee sounds good," Sister Anne said.

"Olivia?"

"Coffee would be great. Iím definitely going into caffeine withdrawal after only having that one energy drink this morning."

Natalia had already brewed a pot of coffee in anticipation of her two guestsí predilection for java, and soon all three women sat at the kitchen table with a steaming mug.

"Iím not sure where we should start," Natalia said.

Sister Anneís eyes shifted from one to the other, but then settled on Olivia. "Itís usually helpful to talk about your feelings after a traumatic incident. Olivia, would you like to go first?"

"Me?"

"Yes," Sister Anne said. "You were both here and you were both affected by what happened. I think it might help if you talked about how you felt."

"Okay," Olivia said hesitantly. "I can tell you I felt scared. I was terrified I wasnít going to make it downstairs in time to stop him."

"Thatís understandable," Sister Anne said. "What else?"

Natalia noted with alarm that Olivia suddenly seemed to be having trouble trying to speak. She hadnít expected that. Olivia always seemed so confident and outspoken.

Olivia cleared her throat. "I feel really bad for what happened, for what happened because it took me so long to get down there."

Nataliaís eyes widened in shock. "Why would you feel bad, Olivia? I mean ... you stopped him before he ... before he ... raped me."

"But he hurt you. I was upstairs sleeping, and he was hurting you. By the time I heard the window break and realized something was wrong, he was already ... hurting you. And it took me forever to get the gun and get down those damned stairs, and all that time he was hurting you."

Natalia was stunned when she saw tears begin to stream down Oliviaís face. "Olivia, you saved me."

"After he already tore your clothes, after he already had his hands all over you, after he already had you down on the floor clawing at your jeans."

Sister Anne put her hand over Oliviaís to get her attention. "Olivia," she said. "Nobody could possibly have done more or done it more quickly than what you managed to do, despite how difficult it was for you physically and despite the emotional toll it had to be taking. You did an amazing and brave thing, and in doing so, you saved Natalia from something far worse and much harder to get over. I know there arenít very many people who could have done what you did."

It broke Nataliaís heart to see Olivia sitting there at the kitchen table with tears rolling down her cheeks, feeling remorseful about something Natalia thought she should feel proud of. After all, if it werenít for Olivia, the rape would have only been the beginning of a horrendous ordeal. She suddenly realized sheíd never told Olivia what Jacob had threatened to do. She reached over and took Oliviaís hand.

"Olivia," Natalia said. "I just realized I never told you what Jacob said to me before you came downstairs."

Olivia frowned. "Thereís more?"

Natalia nodded slowly. This is going to be hard, she thought, but Iíd rather Olivia find out what she really saved me from because then maybe sheíll feel better about what she did. "He told me that after he ... after we Ďpartiedí here, he was going to take me with him."

"What? That bastard!"

Natalia fought to remain calm. She knew this was hard enough for Olivia to hear without her breaking down in the middle of telling it. It was difficult, though, because in some ways it was the most frightening part, just the very idea that he wanted to kidnap her and use her at will for his own sick whims. "He said he was going to keep me with him. He said we could have lots of fun together. He even said he was going to share me with his men."

"Son of a bitch!" Olivia abruptly stood up and began to pace. "I could kill him. I really could. In fact, I wish I had. I wish that last bullet had gone straight through his black heart! If Iíd actually been able to aim, it would have, but the gun just kind of went off when he tackled me to the ground." Olivia looked down at Sister Anne. "Iím sorry, Sister; I know itís wrong, but thatís how I feel."

Sister Anne continued to watch Olivia with a calm expression. "I think thatís a pretty normal reaction," she said. "I think most people would have similar feelings toward the person whoíd harmed someone they loved. Olivia, you didnít do anything wrong. In fact, you did everything right, and because of that, you saved Natalia from a truly horrible fate."

Natalia was relieved to see Olivia visibly relax. She got up and walked over to where Olivia was leaning against the cabinet next to the sink and hugged her. "Thank you, Olivia. Thank you for saving me from that evil man."

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

"Gee, that was fun," Olivia said when Natalia came back inside after seeing Sister Anne off. Maybe next we could shove bamboo shoots under our fingernails. Thatíd be almost as fun. She was still shocked to find out what Jacob had planned for Natalia. It made her skin crawl to realize what might have happened if she hadnít been at the farmhouse that afternoon. She had no doubt that psychopathís plans included eventually killing her to get rid of the only witness. Her blood pressure had shot up when Natalia told her what heíd said, and her heart was still pumping way too fast after the jolting, anger-fueled rush of adrenaline that was still playing havoc with her body.

"Oh, I know, believe me," Natalia said as she sat back down at the table with Olivia. "Itís been hard talking with her about what happened, especially the first time, but it really has helped me a lot. Sheís helped me see a lot of things more clearlyóand not just the attack. Sheís also helped me think much more rationally about us."

"Iím glad sheís helped you." Olivia thought Natalia certainly looked much better than she had in a while, and she definitely seemed to be in a better place where the two of them were concerned; after all, sheíd said she now wanted them to be together. But how long is that going to last? Olivia wondered. How long until someone else makes you doubt us? How long until your own personal doubts bubble back up to the surface? I donít think my heart can take a whole lot more of this. I really donít. I havenít had this heart all that long, so I really canít afford for it to keep getting broken. Itís bound to wear out at some point.

"What about you?" Natalia asked. "Did you find this ... helpful in any way?"

"Yeah, actually it does feel kind of good to get some of that out. I didnít even realize how upset I was till I heard myself start to talk about it. No wonder my muscles have been so knotted up."

"Then itís good we planned this. Maybe we should do it again sometime soon?"

"Sure, if thatís what you want."

"I think it could be good."

"Okay, just let me know," Olivia said, as she stood up from the table. "Well, I guess I should get going and leave you to the rest of your day."

"Are you sure? Maybe youíd like to take a nap before you go. I know youíve been taking naps most afternoons since you got out of the hospital."

Gosh, if only you were talking about a nap for two, but I know you. You mean literally that I should take a nap while you repaint the house or whip out a patchwork quilt or something. "Maybe I should drive back now while I still have some caffeine in my system to keep me going," Olivia said. "I can take a nap when I get back to my place if I need to."

"Okay."

Hm, you sound kind of wistful. Maybe you really want me to stay, but I donít know. I used to think I could read you fairly well most of the time, but I think Iíve lost my touch, because right now Iím just not sure where youíre at. "Iíve enjoyed our day," Olivia said. "Well, maybe not so much that walk down memory lane, but the walk out to the maple and the picnic and just seeing you have all been great."

"Iíve loved getting to spend time with you."

Olivia picked up her purse and jacket and headed for the door.

"Olivia, wait."

"What?"

"I ... Iíd love to see you tomorrow sometime, if youíre free."

Now that sounds promising. "I can be free tomorrow. Did you have something in mind?"

"Well, maybe we could have dinner together. I could either cook for us here, or we could go out somewhere if youíd rather."

"Kind of like ... a date?"

"No," Natalia said, flashing a sudden smile. "Exactly like a date."

Holy crap! I must be dreaming. She looks ... almost flirty. Nah, that canít be right. Good god, I can already hardly think when Iím around her. I canít imagine being able to function if she actually started flirting with me.

Olivia looked down at the floor for a moment before finally replying. "Okay, Iíd love that, but since itís a date, letís go out. Shall I come pick you up?"

"No, thereís no point in your driving all the way out here and then back into town. Iíll come pick you up, okay?"

"Sounds good," Olivia said. "Fancy or casual?"

"Whatever you want."

"How about casual?"

"Okay, casual is always good."

"Iíll see you tomorrow, maybe around 6:00? And then we can decide where we want to go."

"Perfect."

"Okay, till then."

Olivia turned to leave, but before she could get out the door, Natalia caught her arm and pulled her back around.

"Thanks for coming out today," Natalia whispered as she hugged Olivia to her. "Iím so glad I got to see you." She kissed Olivia lightly on the cheek before releasing her and holding open the door.

"Me too," Olivia sighed. She looked one last time at Natalia, and then turned and left.

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

Natalia lay in bed, freshly showered and completely smitten. The act of finally accepting her love for Olivia seemed to have lifted a veil that had been obscuring the full depth and impact of her feelings. Those feelings of love and longing sheíd experienced before paled in comparison to the rich, full-bodied ache she felt now. Even though she knew they would need to go slowly for both their sakes, she yearned for Oliviaóyearned to see her and hold her close and kiss her. She sighed as she curled up on her side and began to relive every single kiss theyíd ever shared.

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

Olivia paced around her suite with a glass of red wine in her hand. Sheíd gotten in touch with some feelings of fear and guilt that afternoon that she didnít even realize sheíd been feeling. No wonder Angelica had practically had to take a sledgehammer to some of her muscle spasms. The revelation that Jacob had planned to kidnap Natalia haunted her. They better damn well make certain that psychopath stays under lock and key, she thought.

She glanced at her clock. Guess I better get some beauty sleep if Iím going to be at my best for our date. Suddenly her face relaxed into a smile as she thought about the upcoming date. I canít believe you asked me out. Whereíd that come from? I guess it doesnít matter. What does matter is Iím going to get to see you tomorrow.

She finally set her wine glass on her night table and crawled into bed. She thought about the few nights Natalia had slept with her in this very bed. That was a good system, she thought. A very good system. If only you were here tonightóand every night.

Of course, the one problem with that was she knew she was readyóno, more than readyófor things to get sexual, and Natalia was decidedly not. Thatís okay. Iíve told you I still want us to be together, even if it never includes sex. She turned onto her side and closed her eyes. But that doesnít mean a girl canít dream. She fell asleep thinking about holding Natalia in her arms as they lay stretched out together on the bed.

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

Natalia stirred restlessly in her sleep, unconsciously pulling the covers more tightly around her. She dreamed it was a cold winterís night at the farmhouse; the air was crisp and clean, and heavy snowflakes were floating silently to the ground. She was standing outside on the porch waiting when Olivia arrived home from work.

Oliviaís cheeks were rosy from the winter chill and her breath was clearly visible in the frigid night air as she approached the house. She paused to gaze into Nataliaís eyes before drawing her close.

"Iím home," Olivia whispered, and then she kissed her, slowly, and she kept on kissing her as the snow continued to swirl around them unnoticed.

Natalia pressed her body into Oliviaís. She couldnít get enough of her slow, sweet kisses.

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

Olivia wandered along a path in the tropical gardens within the walls of the palace in San Cristobel, surrounded by the heady aroma of bougainvillea and heliconia and hibiscus. Even though it was night, it was sweltering, and she found the heavy air difficult to draw in. With effort she finally found her way through the tortuous paths to the inner courtyard, where she paused near the fountain, enjoying the cool spray of water on her heated skin.

She thought she was alone until she heard a movement behind her. She whirled around to see a beautiful latina watching her. Sheíd seen her earlier at the banquet, where the dark-haired beauty had smiled directly at her, black eyes glinting with unmistakable desire. At the time Olivia thought it was a harmless flirtation, but now, seeing her here and realizing she must have followed her when sheíd left the heavy air of the banquet hall to seek relief in the gardens, Olivia knew she must have more on her mind than flirting.

As if to confirm her suspicions, the latina approached her and without preamble reached out to trace her fingertips along the side of Oliviaís face.

"Quť exquisita eres," the woman said softly.

Her Spanish sounded rich and exotic, and Olivia was mesmerized by the sensual lips from which it emanated.

"Te quiero besar," she whispered. "Ahorita."

The gorgeous latina cupped her face and kissed her softly on the lips, but then she deepened the kiss and her hands began brazenly exploring Oliviaís body, coaxing a plethora of erotic responses from her needy flesh, and Olivia felt herself swept up into the vortex of the mysterious womanís passion.

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

Chapter 36

Natalia spent most of the day working outside in the flower beds surrounding the farmhouse. It felt relaxing and satisfying to tend to the various flowers and shrubs that added such beauty to her home. She loved the farmhouse, but she knew sheíd love it even more once she convinced Olivia to move back in.

I know you want to, she thought. I know we could be happy here again. Thereís no doubt Emma would be thrilled. Then eventually Rafe would be released from the halfway house, and their two families would be completely merged into one. It was her fondest dream, and she fully intended to make it come true. She just had to convince Olivia to trust in her love and her ability to make a true and abiding commitment.

When it was finally time to get ready, she put away her gardening tools and showered, and afterward she dressed in black jeans and a violet form-fitting knit top. It had a plunging V-neck, which showed a good bit of cleavage. A smile ghosted across her lips as she looked at herself appraisingly in the full-length mirror in her bedroom. She knew full well Olivia would love seeing her in this.

She was aware Olivia thought she was completely innocent, and she knew she was in some ways, but the truth was sheíd noticed how Olivia looked at her, how Oliviaís eyes would slide down her body, lingering here and there, feeling like an actual caress. When she thought about those smoldering looks sheíd occasionally catch, she could feel what had now become a familiar ache. If you only knew what you do to me, she thought as she picked up her purse and keys and headed out the door to her car.

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

Olivia dropped the shampoo bottle. "Damn it!" she said in exasperation as she leaned down to pick it up off the tiled floor of the shower. For Christís sake, how many things have I dropped today? That entire day it had seemed as though everything she touched she either fumbled and dropped outright, like a toddler with hands too small to handle adult-sized objects, or else something would dance tantalizingly on the end of her fingertips as if of its own volition before taking a header to the floor. Freakiní annoying, thatís what it is.

She finally managed to finish her shower without further incident, but she bumped into the doorframe on her way out of the bathroom. "Shit!" Christ that hurt! Why canít I do something as simple as navigate my way through a damned doorway? she wondered as she flung off her robe and rummaged through her closet in search of just the right thing to wear. Youíd think I was going to a ball or something.

She thought about the upcoming date, as sheíd been doing all day, and her stomach pitched and rolled, like a small fishing boat on a stormy sea. Letís face it, Spencer. Youíre downright giddy. She tried to remember ever feeling this excited about a date, but nothing came to mind.

Okay, we agreed on casual, she thought as she grabbed a pair of dark blue jeans and tugged them on. She managed to get one tennis shoe on, but for some reason her other foot rebelled at being thrust into its leather casing, and she hopped awkwardly on one foot as she tried to force the issue. Damn thing fit the other day. She flung colorful curses about till the shoe finally gave way and her foot slid inside.

Next pairís gonna have velcro fasteners, she threatened as she fought with the mutinous shoestrings, which refused to submit meekly to her desire to get them neatly tied. Why the hell is everything so damned hard to do all of a sudden? She finally managed to get both shoes tied, but chose to ignore the slightly skewed position of the shoestrings. "Close enough," she muttered.

Afterward she pulled on a vibrant blue knit top with a scoop-neck and checked herself out in the mirror. The rich shade of blue tinted her eyes toward the blue range of the color spectrum, and the knit top and form-fitting jeans showed her voluptuous figure off to perfection. She knew the men sheíd dated would have loved seeing her in the snugly fitting top and jeans, but she guessed Natalia would be fairly oblivious as usual.

Olivia realized Natalia liked the brief physical contact theyíd had, like hand-holding and hugging and maybe even kissing, what precious little thereíd been of that, but she thought Natalia was more in a little girl "crush" mode than the full-blown "I want to grab you and rip your clothes off" phase that she herself was inóas she had been for a very long time.

Thatís okay, she thought. I can be patient. She saw her image staring back at her from the mirror, a look of doubt clouding its face. Seriously, she told her doppelgšnger. I can totally be patient, goddamn it!

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

Natalia knocked on the penthouse door. Sheíd heard the expression "butterflies in your stomach," but sheíd never realized what an accurate description it was for the kind of fluttery feelings she was experiencing in anticipation of seeing Olivia, the only person whoíd ever made her feel like that. She heard a noise from within, as though something heavy had dropped, and then finally there was Olivia, beaming as she opened the door wide.

Natalia stood transfixed, just staring at her. Oliviaís eyes looked deep blue, no tinge of green at all, she noted with surprise, and she looked happy and radiant and unbelievably beautiful. Natalia had always loved looking at her, her face and her eyes and her hair, and lately sheíd become more aware of the beauty of her pale soft skin and lush curves. Iím actually feeling a little lightheaded just standing here looking at you, she thought in amazement. And itís not just that youíre so beautiful. Itís because youíre ... you. She loved Oliviaís strength and passion and zest for life; in fact, she pretty much loved everything about her.

"So," Olivia said with one cocked brow. "You cominí in?"

Natalia blushed and nodded as she entered the suite for the first time in days. Based on the knowing expression on Oliviaís face, Natalia wondered if Olivia might have some idea what sheíd just been thinking. "Are you okay? I thought I heard something drop."

"Uhm ... I knocked over a lamp when I heard you knock."

"Oh, okay," Natalia said as her eyes roamed around the room. "It feels like forever since Iíve been in here."

"Yeah, it does. Would you like something to drink?"

Natalia shook her head no. What she really wanted was to hug Olivia, but sheíd been too embarrassed by the dizzying direction her thoughts had spiraled off to on seeing Olivia, and now the moment for a casual "hello" hug had passed.

"Well, are you hungry? Maybe we should decide where weíre going," Olivia said.

"Okay, that sounds good."

"Any ideas?"

Natalia glanced down, a bit at a loss. Iím having trouble thinking right now. She looked up at Olivia again. Itís just hard to think with you looking at me like that, like you can look inside my head and see what Iím thinking. "Not really."

Olivia tilted her head slightly to the side as she gazed down at Natalia. "Okay, well, letís see. We could just go downstairs or we could head over to Company for a Buzz Burger." Olivia waited a moment for a reaction. "All righty, thatís a no."

Natalia laughed.

"We could go to Farleyís."

"Thatís not a bad idea."

"Wait, this is Ladies Night."

"Ladies Night?"

"Where I saw Doris last winter. You know, Ladies Night ... a night just for ladies?"

"So just women?"

"Well, just women who go there with other women or to meet other women."

"Oh."

"Yep, I think itís way too soon for that. Besides, we might run into Doris, and I know she sets you off. Hell, she sets me off sometimes, too."

"Honestly, I donít care where we go. I just want to be with you, and Iíd really rather not be around other people right now."

"Okay, I tell you what. How about we grab some takeout, something simple like sandwiches or burgers or a pizza, and take it to the park. Itís beautiful this time of evening, and I bet we can find someplace out there where we ... where itís not too crowded."

Natalia smiled. "That sounds perfect."

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

They decided on sandwiches from the sub shop and then headed out to the Olivia Spencer Memorial Park. It was after seven by the time they got there, and the air had cooled considerably. They walked past the gazebo, where another couple sat whispering, and headed to the far side of the pond, where they found an empty bench in a vine-covered arbor near the edge of the water, one of Oliviaís favorite features of the park. The arched latticework structure was covered with wisteria vines, whose large drooping clusters of heavy flowers were bluish-purple and filled the air with a sweet floral scent.

"This is beautiful," Natalia said. "Iíve never been on this side of the pond."

"I had this arbor built special," Olivia said as they settled themselves on the wooden bench. At the time she thought she might not live long enough to see the completed structure, but she could always picture it in her mindís eye, down to her own personal choice of climbing vine, which she had selected partly for its beauty and partly for its intoxicating aroma. She never would have dreamed back then that the first time sheíd ever sit under the protective shade of the arbor, sheíd be with Natalia, who looked incredibly lovely sitting there with her dark hair and olive skin framed by the profusion of blossoms whose blue-purple hue coordinated perfectly with her violet top, as though nature itself wished to accessorize her beauty.

While they ate, they talked about their kidsóRafe was doing well at the halfway house and Emma was still having fun in San Franciscoóand the Beacon and what theyíd each done that day, but they both steered clear of any heavy topics, such as the incident at the farmhouse or the counseling session with Sister Anne. After they finished eating, they walked to the edge of the pond and tossed bits of their remaining bread onto the water for the ducks to fight over.

"This was a wonderful idea, taking a picnic to the park instead of eating inside somewhere," Natalia said as she stood gazing out over the glassy surface of the pond. "Itís so beautiful and peaceful here."

"Iím glad you like it," Olivia said. "So ... what would you like to do now?" She was pretty sure Natalia wasnít in the mood to talk, so finding something else to do seemed like a good idea.

"Iím not sure."

They both wandered back to the bench, as though reluctant to leave the refuge of the secluded arbor. They sat closer than while they were eating, their shoulders almost, but not quite touching. Their arms were so close Olivia could feel the warmth of Nataliaís skin even though they werenít in actual contact.

She thought Natalia seemed happy, but subdued, and she didnít quite know what to make of her mood. She was shocked to see her wearing such a revealing top after such a long spate of long-sleeved shirts buttoned all the way to the top, but she thought Natalia looked especially gorgeous in her violet top, and the glimpse of cleavage was sexy and enticing.

Iíd love to know if you have any idea what you do to me. Surely Natalia had to have some idea how pretty she was; she certainly knew sheíd always attracted her fair share of attention from men, even though for the most part she ignored their interest. I know damn good and well you know Iím attracted to you. How could you not? I think Iíve been pretty obvious, so maybe you know exactly what kind of effect you have on me. Or maybe not. Iím just not sure, and this is starting to give me a headache, she thought as she began to rub the bridge of her nose.

"So ... are you ready to go home?" Olivia asked.

Natalia put her hand over Oliviaís where it rested on her leg. "No, I like being with you."

"Me, too." Olivia sat quietly for a moment, relishing the feel of Nataliaís hand over hers. She was surprised sheíd reached out like that. "Would you like to go for a drive? I could take you somewhere Iím pretty sure youíve never been before."

"Okay."

"Come on, I think youíll love this." Olivia stood up, but held onto Nataliaís hand and tugged her to her feet. "Iíll give you three guesses where weíre going, but I bet you wonít figure it out." Olivia loved seeing the sudden flash of dimples when Natalia grinned at her challenge.

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

There were no lights along the deserted stretch of roadway, and Natalia found it a little hard to see as her headlights barely pierced the heavy darkness ahead. Theyíd passed the outskirts of town, and she still had no idea where they were going. Sheíd never been on this road, so she knew whatever it was Olivia wanted to show her would be a surprise.

Natalia was acutely aware of Olivia sitting close, and somehow being alone with her in the car in the middle of nowhere, surrounded only by the inky night, felt adventurous and daring, something her real life had never been. Being around you always seems to be a bit of an adventure. Olivia could make even the most commonplace activities exciting, and Natalia found her intoxicating, like a rare and addictive fine wine.

"There," Olivia said as she pointed off to the left. "Turn there."

Within a short distance after the turnoff, Natalia saw a lofty tower standing in stark silhouette against the moonlit night sky. "Oh my goodness, itís ..."

"Yep, itís the Springfield lighthouse. Youíve never been here, right?"

"No, Iíve never been out here at all. In fact, I didnít even know Springfield had a lighthouse. There are several in Chicago, near where I grew up."

"I knew there were some there," Olivia said. "At least a half dozen, right? But thereís also one in Evanston and one in the harbor at Waukegan. Both of those are on the shore of Lake Michigan, of course, and then thereís this one right here in our own fair city."

"How come thereís no light?"

"The tower was closed awhile back, and itís been deserted ever since."

"Ah, now that you mention it, I think most, if not all, of the Chicago towers are closed now, too."

"Do you still have that big flashlight in your trunk?" Olivia asked.

"Yes, why?"

"Because I thought it might be fun to go inside. Thereís a full moon, which is probably bright enough to light the path to the lighthouse, but we might need the flashlight once we get inside."

"Can we even get in?"

"Sure, I think everybody in Springfield used to end up here for one reason or anotheróhiding from the law, trysting with a lover ... that kind of thing. Come on."

Natalia found Oliviaís enthusiasm contagious and had to grin at her excitement as she led the way over the cobbled path to the lighthouse entrance.

"Ha!" Olivia exclaimed as she turned the handle and pushed open the door. "Told yaí!"

"Are you sure itís okay for us to be here?"

"Sure, why not? Like I told you, everybodyís been out here. There used to be a full-time keeper, but not anymore."

Olivia flipped the light switch just inside the door, but nothing happened. "Well, I was hoping the generator might still be working, but at least we brought our own light." She snapped on the flashlight and swept its beam around the interior, which was all metal and hardwood.

Natalia was surprised to see that it was still fully furnished, like the home it must have been at one time for the lighthouse keeper and perhaps his family. It looked clean, although it smelled a bit musty.

"Come on. The best part is up here," Olivia said, pointing the beam upward.

"Youíre going up the stairs?" Natalia asked when she saw Olivia climb onto the first step of the cast-iron spiral staircase in the middle of the room. "Are you sure you should be doing that?" It looked really steep, and she worried Olivia might not be strong enough yet to make it.

"Absolutely," Olivia said with a cocky grin. "Iíve been practicing on the stairs at the Beacon."

When Natalia saw Olivia head up the stairs with a steady gait, she quickly realized she had to be much stronger and steadier than when sheíd dragged herself up the stairs at the farmhouse, and she scurried to keep up with her. Once they were up top and standing on the observation deck, Natalia was astounded at the panoramic view. They could see the skyline of Springfield on one side and on the other an unobstructed view of the moonlit night sky over the dark and brooding waters of the lake.

"How beautiful," Natalia said as she held onto the brass rail encircling the balcony.

"Yes," Olivia said softly.

Natalia turned to see Olivia looking down at her and knew she wasnít talking about the breathtaking vista. For a moment she thought Olivia was going to kiss her, and she felt her body trembling in anticipation, but Olivia just stood there with her hands crammed deep in her pockets gazing at her with eyes that looked dark in the subdued white light from the moon. Natalia wished she would. She wished Olivia would just kiss her as they stood together high above water and land. It felt like they were soaring, as though they were part of the starry sky; cosmic, not earthbound.

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

My god, you are so beautiful. I want to kiss you so badly, but I know I canít do that right now. Natalia had been far too distant after the assault, as though she couldnít bear to be touched at all. Even though she seemed to have gotten past the worst of itóafter all, sheíd initiated some physical contact just in the last couple of daysóOlivia didnít want to be the one to push this particular envelope. I am leaving that envelope alone! She imagined pushing an imaginary envelope and having it suddenly turn into a Hogwarts-style talking letter, screaming at her for her audacity. Nope, not gonna go there. On the other hand, if they didnít leave soon, she was concerned she might just lose all self-control and shock them both by sweeping Natalia into a passionate kiss.

"Maybe we better head back down," Olivia said. She hated to leave, but better to leave on speaking terms than risk upsetting Natalia with yet another unwanted kiss. She turned toward the staircase, but felt Nataliaís hand on her forearm pulling her back.

"Olivia?"

"Yes?" She was surprised when Natalia cupped her hand around the side of her face, much as sheíd done one time at the hospital when Olivia was still too deep under anesthesia to respond, but not so deep that she couldnít feel that tender touch.

You really shouldnít touch me like that, Olivia thought. Seriously, I just donít have that much willpower. She felt as though sheíd just become one big ache, an ache that never found any relief. It was hard enough to deal with that when she was anywhere near Natalia, but when Natalia touched her, self-restraint began to seem like her own personal mission impossible.

"Please donít go yet," Natalia said.

"I take it you liked our little jaunt out to the deserted lighthouse?"

"Yes, I love it here."

"Good, Iím glad."

"I love being here with you."

Olivia nodded. It was getting hard to talk with Natalia touching her face like that, stroking her cheek with her thumb, looking up at her. Then the stroking stopped and Nataliaís hand slipped behind her neck and pulled her head down, and then unbelievably Natalia actually kissed her lightlyóand all too brieflyóon the lips, causing Olivia to reel, both from surprise and arousal.

"I, uhm ... I didnít think you wanted ... that," Olivia said.

"I do, though," Natalia whispered. "I think about you all the time, Olivia. I think about the times you kissed me. I think about how much I want you to kiss me again."

Olivia just stared at her for a moment, not quite believing what she was hearing. Natalia looked gorgeous standing there, like a flesh-and-blood painting with the moon and the stars for a backdrop. Then before she could form a conscious thought or make a mindful decision, Olivia was kissing her, kissing the woman she loved, and it was unlike any of their other kisses because this time Natalia was fully responsive and Olivia quickly became lost in the sensuality and the passion and the wonder of their ardent kiss high above the mundane planes of the earth.

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

Chapter 37

Natalia sighed when Olivia pulled back from their kiss, but at least she kept her arms wrapped tightly around her. She snuggled into Oliviaís body, resting her head in the crook of the taller womanís neck. She could feel a heart beating hard, but wasnít sure if it was hers or Oliviaís. After that kiss, itís probably both, she thought with an inward smile.

Olivia was an amazing kisser, not like anyone sheíd ever kissed before. Of course, she realized being in love had to impact her reaction, but it was more than that. Olivia was just incredibly sensual, as were her kisses, and Natalia found herself having difficulty standing upright. She thought she might actually have fallen if she werenít leaning against the brass rail. I guess you really can get weak in the knees, literally, she thought. Weak in the knees and totally lightheaded. It felt so good be in Oliviaís arms that she had no desire whatsoever to move from that spot.

"Do you want to sit down?" Olivia asked. "We can go downstairs."

"I donít really want to move."

Olivia grinned. "Yeah, but youíre trembling and I think we better get you off your feet, at least for a while. Come on."

"Okay." Natalia was reluctant to let go, but she let Olivia take her hand and lead her down the spiral staircase to the overstuffed sofa.

Olivia removed the quilt someone had thrown over the couch and tossed it on a nearby chair, thereby getting rid of most of the dust and the musty smell. While Natalia sank down into the soft cushions, she rummaged around behind the stairway and came back with a kerosene lantern and a box of matches.

"Letís see if this has enough fuel to run for a while," Olivia said as she removed the glass chimney and lit the wick.

The lantern produced a surprising amount of golden light, enough that Natalia could clearly see the look of concentration on Oliviaís face as she replaced the globe and adjusted the small brass knob extending from the wick mechanism before setting the lantern on the nearby mantle.

"Howís that?" Olivia asked as she joined Natalia on the couch. "Hopefully thatíll give us some light for a while."

"Itís perfect," Natalia said, "just like you."

"Oh, I donít think Iím anywhere close to perfect," Olivia laughed.

"You are for me," Natalia said softly. She took Oliviaís hand and rested it with hers on her thigh.

"Maybe we should talk," Olivia said.

"About what?"

"About us. About what weíre doing. About where weíre going. Honestly, Iím a little confused right now."

"I know, and thatís my fault."

"This isnít an issue of fault. Itís an issue of ... confusion, at least for me."

"Okay, tell me whatís confusing and Iíll try to help if I can." Natalia wasnít surprised Olivia was confused; after all, she knew sheíd become the queen of mixed signals. Iíve got to stop that, she thought, and I will. She knew she could now because sheíd actually made a decision this time. Sheíd chosen Olivia. Now she had to help Olivia believe in her and in them again. From the tense lines of Oliviaís face, she had no doubt it was going to be challenging.

"Iíve gotten to the point where most of the time Iím a little afraid to ... to touch you," Olivia said.

"I know."

"There was a time when touching was definitely not okay, except maybe for an occasional hug. Then touching seemed okay sometimes and not others, but after what happened that afternoon at the farmhouse, I knew you just didnít want to be touched at allóunderstandably, I might add. I truly do understand that, Natalia," Olivia said. "Now you seem like you want to get closer to me, but Iím not sure how close and whatís okay and whatís not, and Iím also not sure if youíll change your mind and suddenly it wonít be okay again."

"Youíre right; that does sound confusing."

"Maybe talking about it right now isnít the best thing either. I just donít know. All Iím sure of is I love you and I want you in my life. Sure, Iíd love for sex to be a part of our relationship at some point, but only if it feels right for both of us; and even if it never does feel right for you, I want you to know youíre still the one I want. I can live without sex, but I donít want to have to live without you." Olivia watched her for a moment and added, "If this feels like pressure talking about this right now, we donít have to, okay?"

"Olivia, I feel the same way. I love you and I want us to be togther. I want everything with you, just like any other couple."

"But what does that mean to you?"

"For starters, it means I want you to come back to the farmhouse to live, you and Emma. I want our family back. I love the farmhouse, but it doesnít really feel like home without you there." Natalia held her breath waiting for Oliviaís reaction to the idea of living together again.

"Iíd love that, too, but Iím not at all sure about moving back till we really get to a better understanding of where weíre at."

"I know," Natalia said. I know you donít trust me enough right now to make the kind of commitment moving in would require. "And as for the other thing ..."

"Uhm ... you mean the part about sex?"

"Yes, I want that too, Olivia. Weíll have to go slow, though, because Iím not ready for ... for ..." Her voice trailed off as she tried to think how to put it into words. It was hard because she had so many issues regarding physical intimacy, and not just because of the recent assault.

"You donít have to explain," Olivia said. "I know youíre not ready for ... everything, but itís good to know that at least youíre interested."

"I am interested, Olivia. Iím more than interested. I think about you all the time, but then when Iím in the same room with you, I can hardly think at all. You make me feel all nervous and lightheaded and ... uh ... achy. I never felt like this before, not ever, not even with Nicky. I realize now I was never in love with him. I thought I was, but thatís only because I didnít know what real love was."

"I feel the same way when Iím with you."

"Really?" It was hard for her to believe Olivia could possibly feel as swept off her feet as she did.

Olivia laughed. "Yes, really. Clearly you have no idea how crazy I am about you. I am, you know. Iím just head over heels crazy in love with you."

"Olivia, I love you so much," Natalia murmured as she hugged Olivia to her. She couldnít believe how lucky she was to be loved by this extraordinary woman. It seemed like a miracle, one she cherished and never wanted to lose.

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

Oliviaís heart pounded in her chest and she could feel an answering throb at the juncture of her thighs. My god, I donít know when Iíve ever been this turned on. It was truly sweet torture to hold Nataliaís sexy body in her arms, especially right after hearing her admit she did want a sexual relationship with heróone day. Probably one impossibly far-off day, Olivia thought, but at least now I know for certain itís something she does want. Olivia felt ecstatic at this new revelation.

There was one shadow hanging over her happiness, though, and that was the knowledge it was possible Natalia might change her mindóyet again. What if your son disapproves? What if you canít handle the reaction of Father Ray or the congregation of your church or the parents at Emmaís school or any of the other people we know in Springfield? What then?

Olivia was savvy enough to know there were no guarantees in life. God only knew sheíd been disappointed before. The problem was Natalia mattered much more to her than anyone else sheíd ever been involved with, so a rejection by her wouldnít just be disappointing; it would be devastating. Itíd feel like getting poleaxed. Thatíll drop you quicker than anything, she thought, but is that reason enough to give you up?

She drew back from the hug to gaze into Nataliaís eyes, which looked black and luminous in the golden glow from the lantern. I guess it doesnít matter, she thought as she looked at Nataliaís sweet face, because I could never willingly give you up.

"What now?" Natalia asked.

Good question. What was it you said? You said weíll have to go slow because youíre not readyóand I know that. Iíve known that for a long time; in fact, I knew that way before that monster attacked you.

"What now?" Olivia echoed. "Now weíll go slow. Weíll just take things very, very slow. I want everything to feel okay for you, for both of us, so we wonít rush into anything. And you know what? Thereís no reason to rush, no reason in the world, okay?"

Natalia nodded.

"So I want you to promise youíll let me know if anything feels uncomfortable or too much or too fast, all right?"

"I promise."

Olivia was thrilled to see Nataliaís sudden dazzling smile. Good god, Iím feeling kinda dizzy now; not too dizzy to do this, though. "So in the interests of going slow," Olivia said, leaning close enough to Natalia that their lips were almost touching. "I think we should just try a very ... slow ... kiss."

Olivia said the last word against Nataliaís lips and began to kiss her slowly, taking the time to savor the taste and texture of her lips, pausing between kisses to prolong the sensations. "Howís that?" she breathed near her ear.

"Good. Itís good," Natalia sighed.

Olivia left a trail of kisses over her forehead, her eyes, down her cheeks to her neck, where she lingered, memorizing which places made her shiver. She dipped her tongue into the hollow of her neck and then kissed her one last time on the mouth before drawing back once more. Sheíd come dangerously close to burying her face in that all-too-enticing cleavage, so she knew she better rein herself in while she could.

"I think maybe we should go before it gets any later. Itís still a bit of a drive back to town, and then you still have the drive back out to the farmhouse."

"Okay, but I really hate leaving. I love being here with you. It feels like weíre the only two people on earth."

"I know, but I still think we better go." Because if we donít leave soon, Olivia thought as she tried to control her raging hormones, all bets are gonna be off.

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

"Are you sure you donít want me to walk you to your door?" Natalia asked. Sheíd pulled up to the front entrance of the Beacon to let Olivia off, but she was having a hard time letting go of their eveningóand Olivia.

"Really sure," Olivia said. "Unless ..."

"Unless what?"

"Unless you donít want to drive back to the farm this late at night. You could stay here, you know."

Natalia desperately wanted to stay with Olivia. She could imagine herself snuggled up in Oliviaís arms, feeling warm and safe and loved, but she was also afraid to go up to Oliviaís room with her, afraid that the way she was feeling and the way she knew Olivia had to be feeling might lead them to go further than either of them was ready to cope with right now. Reluctantly, she shook her head. "I want to, but ..."

"Itís okay. I just wanted you to know you donít have to drive back out there tonight if you donít want to."

"Iíd love to stay with you, Olivia, but Iím afraid to."

"I told you I wouldnít rush you."

Olivia looked upset or frustrated, Natalia wasnít sure which, and she realized she was sending the wrong message. "I know, but I donít want to rush me either, and the way Iím feeling right now ..." She was relieved to see Oliviaís sudden grin. I think youíre starting to understand this is not as one-sided as you seemed to believe.

Olivia took Nataliaís nearest hand off the steering wheel, drew it to her mouth, and pressed a kiss to the soft skin on the back. "Well, if you put it that way," she said. She leaned over and pulled Natalia close for a quick kiss on the lips and then got out of the car. She leaned down for a moment to smile at Natalia before closing the door and striding toward the entrance.

Natalia watched her walk away, tall and striking. Olivia was every inch the CEO and very much the love of her life.

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

Olivia lay in bed in the semi-light cast by the small lamp on the desk across the room and thought about her evening with Natalia, which had been both enlightening and exhilarating. Sheíd known for a long time Natalia was into her, but she was also aware, even from early on, that Natalia either didnít know or didnít want to know. Either way the end result was the same: Natalia kept her at armís length.

More than once while she was still living at the farmhouse, Olivia had tried to tell Natalia how she felt about her, but Natalia would find a way to stop her or someone would drop by or something would happen to interrupt them. Olivia had realized the depth of Nataliaís denial when she accepted Frankís proposal. Yes, sheíd urged her to say yes, but only because she saw no hope for the two of them and thought Frank could provide her with the acceptable lifestyle she seemed to crave for her and her son.

At the time, given Nataliaís refusal to acknowledge or deal with her feelings for Olivia, it seemed like the only solution. Olivia would step aside and Natalia could find safety and societal approval within the institution of marriage. Jesus, how big a disaster was that? Olivia thought as she remembered Natalia sprinting away from the altar in the wedding dress Olivia had helped her pick out.

At least Olivia had learned from that mistake. Nataliaís love for her was too strong to ignore, and therefore, despite her misgivings, Natalia was going to have to try to deal with it and all the accompanying challenges, and Olivia knew she herself needed to stop trying to find ways to fix it. At least now they could try to forge a relationship together. For both their sakes they needed to try. If they couldnít find a way to overcome the multitude of difficulties facing them, well, theyíd just have to deal with it. At least this way they stood a chance.

Olivia curled onto her side and thought about their kiss high atop the lighthouse tower. It had been amazing to kiss her and feel her kissing back. Just knowing Natalia wanted a physical relationship with her caused a rush of liquid heat. I can wait, Olivia thought. I can wait for you for as long as it takes because I know youíre worth it.

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

Natalia lay in bed wide-awake. Even after the long drive back to the farmhouse, she was filled with restless energy. Her body felt charged and aching. I could be lying in your arms right now, she thought with regret, but she knew if sheíd stayed with Olivia tonight, they wouldnít have just lain in each otherís arms; they would have continued kissing, and she was afraid they wouldnít stop. Part of her fear was not knowing exactly what came next, but she also had a lot of issues with physical closeness and wasnít entirely sure why. The assault wasnít the cause of all her issues; it was just that after the assault, she had even more.

Maybe she could talk with Sister Anne about it tomorrow afternoon when she came out to the farmhouse. So far nothing seemed to throw the nun. She just listened calmly and nonjudgmentally, and occasionally clarified or advised. Maybe sheíd be the perfect person with whom to try to sort out some of her feelings, and then maybe sheíd be able to move forward in her relationship with Olivia. The idea of letting go and seeing what happened next was scary as well as seductive, but sheíd come to crave Oliviaís kisses and couldnít imagine giving that up.

She was startled when the phone rang. "Hello?"

"Hi there. I just wanted to make sure you made it home safely."

Natalia grinned. "Iím safe and sound and lying here in bedóthinking about you."

"Nothing bad I hope."

"No, all good."

"I hope so. I wanted to ... uhm ... make sure you were okay about ... everything. You know ... everything that happened tonight."

"I am, Olivia. You make me so happy."

"I do, huh?"

"Yes, you really do."

"Good to hear. So ... when am I going to see you again?"

"Well, Iím volunteering at the church tomorrow morning, and Sister Anne is coming out right after lunch, so I was thinking ... this is movie night, right?"

"Yeah, thatís right."

"So I was wondering if maybe youíd like to pick up a movie and come out for dinner?"

"Okay, Iíd love to. Can I bring anything besides the movie?"

"Maybe dessert?"

"All right, will do. What time?"

"Around six?"

"Okay, see you then."

"Night."

Natalia rolled onto her side to put the handset back on the charging stand and curled into a tight ball. She just had no idea what to do with the throbbing ache she was feeling. All she could do was think over and over again about their kiss atop the lighthouse, which seemed to make her deep ache much, much worse.

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

Oh my god, we have another dateótomorrow! Olivia was thrilled. She was excited. She was giddy. Iím gonna have to work on not destroying the penthouse again just because Iím too freakiní nervous, she thought as she remembered her earlier difficulties dropping things, knocking things over, running into things, and just generally operating like a one-woman wrecking ball. Man, youíd think I was sixteen and dating my very first crush.

She realized with a sudden rush of poignancy that in some ways thatís exactly what she felt like. She felt as though she was now going through what people normally went through in their teens. Her rape and unwanted pregnancy coupled with the death of her mother, for which she felt responsible, had not only crushed her almost beyond recovery, but it had also wrenched her away from the safe harbor of her youth and innocence and dropped her into a turbulent emotional sea. As the pregnancy progressed, she found herself imprisoned in a body she no longer recognized, one with the abhorrent reminder of her violation growing inside it. She not only felt repulsed and angry, but the innocent girl whoíd been excited to attend her first ball felt forever lost in the murky waters where she seemed to be drowning.

With effort Olivia pulled herself back from the brink of those disturbing memories she knew could still wield power over her if she allowed herself to fall into them. Through sheer force of will sheíd come back from the series of disasters that had destroyed her youth, but she was never the same. No matter how much sheíd accomplished in her life, she knew that vulnerable and wounded girl still hid deep inside. It was partly why she had tended to be the sexual aggressor in her past relationships with men. Better to be in control than used. Better to take what she wanted than have someone take from her again. Better to remain emotionally untouchable than risk being that vulnerable.

But I donít want to be aloof with you. In fact, I donít think I could if I wanted to. Realizing how vulnerable she was with Natalia was terrifying. I want you, though. I want "us." I can hardly wait to see you tomorrow. And you know what? Going slow is not only okay; itís actually turned out to be amazingly erotic. Who knew? You make me feel like a blushing schoolgirl, like I want to carry your books to school and slip notes into your locker between classes.

Olivia laughed out loud at the images, but she knew they were accurate. She felt like she could finally embrace and enjoy the excitement and wonder of first love, as though she could now recapture some semblance of her lost youth.

I have a date. I have a date with you. Tomorrow! She glanced at the green LED display of the clock on her night table. It was midnight. I get to see you in just eighteen hours.

She was still almost painfully aroused after their evening together, after all the touching and holding and kissing, and she considered relieving her ache. She decided not to, though. There was something about savoring her arousal that satisfied some deep-seated need to feel vibrantly alive and connected at long last. "Soon," she murmured as she drifted off to sleep. "Iíll see you very, very soon."

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Chapter 38

Natalia was the last volunteer left at the church. Theyíd had a food and clothing drive to help needy families in the area, and most of it had been picked up by the steady stream of seniors and single mothers and homeless people of all ages. It reminded her how lucky she was to have a job and a home and people in her life to love and love her back.

She was packing away the few remaining items when Father Ray entered. "Hello, Father. I think it went really well."

He looked over the small amount of clothes and canned goods left behind. "Looks like most of it was picked up. Thatís good," he said. "I wanted to come by and thank you for helping out."

"I was happy to."

"Where are Alice and RosalŪa?

"They needed to leave, so I told them Iíd stay and clean up."

"That was good of you," he said. "So how are things going in your life?"

"Rafe called this morning before I left the house. He seems to be doing really well. In fact, heís starting to get excited about his hearing. Weíre hoping the judge will release him from the halfway house so he can start to put his life back together in the real world."

"I pray thatís what happens," Father Ray said. "What about Olivia? Have you made any decisions there?"

Nataliaís throat constricted, but she immediately reminded herself to remain calm. She knew she needed to stay grounded and have faith in what she knew was right no matter what anyone else thought or said. "I love Olivia and she loves me. I want to have a life with her."

Father Ray slowly shook his head, his disapproval readily apparent. "You know I canít give you my blessing," he said.

"I know."

"All I can do is try to get you to see what a huge mistake it would be to commit yourself to that kind of lifestyle. Itís just wrong, Natalia, as you should know."

Natalia flinched. "I donít think itís wrong."

"How can you choose to ignore the teachings of the church, which are clear on these matters?"

"I donít think theyíre all that clear," she said.

"No, youíre refusing to see that theyíre clear because right now youíre finding yourself caught up in all these unnatural feelings for another woman."

"They donít feel unnatural."

Father Ray regarded her quietly for a moment. "I know a little about Olivia Spencer and her history, and I have to be honest with you. I think sheís deliberately trying to lead you astray. Youíre a good person, Natalia, and you need to fight against whatever temptations youíre feeling."

The personal comment about Olivia surprised her. "Youíve been talking with Frank about this, havenít you?"

"Yes, I have. I canít share anything specific from our discussions, but I can tell you Frank is just as concerned about the damaging choices youíre making as I am."

"I know he resents and blames Olivia for what happened with him and me, but she didnít do anything wrong. What happened with Frank was all my fault, not hers. In fact, sheís been wonderful. Sheís helped me and supported me; sheís been incredibly kind and generous."

"Maybe youíre confused about what youíre feeling, Natalia. Maybe youíre just feeling gratitude."

Natalia thought about Olivia kissing her in the lighthouse last night, and she could feel the heat seeping into her cheeks, no doubt tinting them pink. The way she felt when Olivia kissed her or held her? Those were most definitely not feelings of gratitude. However, she realized that not only would Father Ray not understand, but there was no point in trying to convince him. She just needed to stay focused on the truth sheíd found in her heart when sheíd prayed to God for clarity. She couldnít bring herself to say anything in response to Father Rayís dismissal of her feelings for Olivia as gratitude. Whatís the point? she wondered. Youíll never approve, and Iím not going to debate my feelings with you.

"Does Rafe know about the two of you?" Father Ray asked.

Natalia hesitated. Heíd managed to land a probing arrow right in the center of her most vulnerable area. "No," she said. Sheíd gone over and over in her mind what might be the best way to tell her son about her and Olivia, and when she should tell him.

"Are you going to tell him?"

"I ... yes, Iím going to tell him, but not right now, not while heís still in the halfway house."

"When then? When are you going to tell your son you want to live a life of sin with Olivia?"

Natalia felt a rush of anger. Why was he treating her like a little girl whoíd been caught doing something naughty? Yes, he was a priest and the spiritual leader of this church, but he was still just a man, a man with his own personal beliefs and opinions that he brought to bear on his interpretation of scripture. She knew not all religious people agreed on every issue. Even well-meaning people of the same faith could have honest differences of opinion. Perhaps it was time for her to accept that she and Father Ray were never going to have a meeting of the minds where her love for Olivia was concerned.

"Iíll tell my son when the time is right," Natalia said.

"And what if he canít accept it?" he asked. "What if it destroys your relationship with him?"

Natalia cringed at the thought her son might never be able to accept her love for Olivia. She couldnít bear to lose her son. Her one comforting thought was the number of times Rafe had said all he wanted was for her to be happy. Didnít that mean her son would eventually accept her relationship with Olivia even if he were shocked by it at first? She tried desperately to cling to that hope as Father Ray continued to stare at her with a somber expression making his heavy features look even heavier.

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

Olivia pulled another DVD off the rack at the movie rental store. So many choices, she thought as she read the synopsis on the back of the box. She wanted to get just the right one, but that might depend on what kind of mood Natalia was in after her counseling session with Sister Anne. She mostly seemed to feel better on the days they met, but Olivia could easily see a different outcome based on what got brought up and how things went.

Aw, screw it! she thought as she carried a stack of DVDs to the checkout counter, where the bored young man at the register barely noticed her unusually large pile of rental movies. Better to be over-prepared, Iím thinkiní.

Now she just needed to swing by Company to pick up the dessert sheíd ordered, and then she could head out to the farmhouse and her date with a certain luscious latina.

Maybe we can hold hands at the movies, she thought with a grin. You kind of forget how exciting such a simple thing can be.

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

Natalia glanced around the kitchen, going over an inventory in her head. Chicken is grilled, salad is tossed, ice tea is chilling in the fridge, but ... Iím forgetting something. She frowned as her eyes swept the room once more and landed on the bare table. Forgot to set the table, she thought as she headed to the cabinet to retrieve her blue willowware.

As soon as the table was set, she looked around the room again. Okay, what else? I know thereís something else. Food is ready, table is ready, house is ready, andó Oh my goodness! she thought, suddenly panicked as she glanced down at herself. Iím not ready.

She whirled around and bolted for the staircase. As soon as she reached the bathroom, she quickly shed her clothes, but paused to look at herself in the mirror. She could barely see any traces of bruising. It was a relief to see that most of the tangible signs of her attack had all but disappeared. She leaned closer to examine her face and neck and chest. Her left eye still had traces of discoloration around it, but that was easy to cover over with makeup. She could barely see a faint shadow of bruising on her neck and chest, but it was very hard to make out against her olive skin. She was pretty sure youíd have to be looking for it in fairly bright light to be able to see it.

Finally satisfied with the progress of her healing, she hopped into the shower. The warm water felt wonderful washing over her skin, and she quickly lost herself in the sensual sensationóuntil she heard a knock from below. Oh no! Oliviaís here and Iím not ready.

She turned off the water and toweled off quickly before donning a powder blue terrycloth robe and heading downstairs to let Olivia in. When she opened the door, she grinned at the startled look on Oliviaís face when she must have realized Natalia was only wearing a robe.

"Well," Olivia drawled, as her eyes wandered down Nataliaís body. "I know you said casual, but ..."

Natalia laughed. "Iím sorry. I lost track of time."

"Oh, no need to be sorry. Iím not complaining."

"Make yourself at home and Iíll run upstairs and change."

"Or ... thatís a good color for you, so feel free to just wear that."

They both laughed and Natalia turned to leave.

"Hey, wait. Donít I get a hug?" Olivia asked with a lift of one brow.

Natalia turned back towards her and hugged her for a moment. Being held so close in Oliviaís arms made her acutely aware of her nakedness beneath the robe, which immediately brought that familiar ache back in full force.

"You smell so good," Olivia said softly.

Natalia grinned up at her. "Iíll be right back," she said and left Olivia to put away whatever sheíd brought for dessert. She knew for both their sakes she shouldnít tarry in that state of near undress, especially with Olivia looking at her like that and sending shivers of awareness rippling over her bare skin.

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

WOW! You are definitely a hottie, Olivia thought as she watched Natalia disappear into the living room. Maybe I should just stick my head in the freezer for a moment and cool the hell down. If I didnít know better, Iíd say you did that on purpose just to get me all riled up, but knowing you, you probably really did just lose track of time, and that tempting glimpse of skin I just saw was merely a happy little coincidence.

But ... you had to be aware Iíd know damn well that robe was the ONLY thing you were wearing. Surely you knew what that would do to me, didnít you? Of course, being you ... maybe not. Well, whatever. I enjoyed it anyway. What could you possibly wear to dinner to top that? Bikini? Lingerie? Birthday suit? Clearly Iím overdressed for this date.

Olivia was wearing tailored navy capris, white sandals, a crisp white tie-sleeve shirt with the sleeves rolled up and tied just above her elbows, and a short navy vest. Yep, Iím way overdressed. She wished Natalia would come back down in just her robe, even though Olivia knew that would be way too much for her to resist. Sheíd already been tempted to slide her arms inside the robe when they hugged. Couldíve been a plausible accident, right? How could she possibly be expected to keep her hands to herself all evening if she knew one little flick of the wrist could untie the belt on her robe and let it fall open to reveal all that sexiness beneath.

As soon as Natalia came back downstairs and Olivia saw her in a pale turquoise sundress, she changed her mind about the terrycloth robe. Now thatís a lot of skin, a whole lot of gorgeous tan skin, she thought. I didnít think you could do it, but you actually look even sexier now than you did awhile ago.

Olivia leaned back against the kitchen counter with her arms crossed just watching her. "Youíre so beautiful," she finally said.

"You make me feel beautiful," Natalia said with a quick smile and brief flash of dimples.

I vote we skip dinner and head directly upstairs for "dessert," Olivia thought. Okay, yeah, I know we canít really do that, but you canít blame a girl for fantasizing, can you? I mean ... especially if you donít know about the fantasy. But even if you did, could you really blame me for wanting to slide those slim straps off your shoulders and ease your top down to your waist? Olivia could feel a powerful wrench in her nether muscles at the thought of uncovering such a treasure trove of soft womanly curves. Okay, I guess I better stop this line of thought before I either get myself in trouble or pass out from being overly stimulated.

Her eyes traveled once more down Nataliaís body and back up to her dark eyes, which she realized had been watching her intently. Oops, I think you saw that. Well, in my own defense, Iíd just like to say itís NOT my fault. Itís totally YOUR fault for being so damned sexy.

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

Natalia concentrated on trying to breathe. How am I supposed to think straight when you look at me like that? She had no idea how Olivia could make her feel as though she were actually caressing her skin when her gorgeous green eyes wandered over her body like that, but thatís exactly how she felt. She knew she should be doing something other than watching Olivia look at her, but she couldnít remember what it was.

Goodness, Iím a terrible hostess, she thought as it finally occurred to her that Olivia was there for dinner. "Are you hungry?" Natalia asked.

"Famished," Olivia said with a smile Natalia could only describe as suggestive.

"Everythingís ready. Thereís ice tea or I can get you wine or coffee, if you prefer."

"Ice tea sounds great."

They chatted animatedly through dinner, mostly about what theyíd done that day, although Natalia avoided talking about the confrontation with Father Ray or any specifics from her counseling session with Sister Anne. She wanted to discuss some of that with Olivia, but not right now because she didnít want to bring down the lighthearted mood. It had been much too hard for both of them to finally get to this point of easy conversation and carefree companionship.

"So what did you bring for dessert?" Natalia asked once sheíd cleared away the dinner dishes.

"Here, Iíll get it," Olivia said, jumping up and heading for the fridge. She grabbed the sack sheíd picked up at Company and began pulling the contents out and placing them on the kitchen table. "Weíll need bowls."

"Is that strawberry shortcake?" Natalia asked as she set two willowware bowls on the table.

"Yep, one of Buzzís summer specialties. He even makes the sweetened biscuits to go with it, and, of course, I brought whipped cream."

"I love strawberry shortcake."

"I know. Here, taste this," Olivia said, as she held a plump red strawberry up to Nataliaís lips.

Natalia bit into it, surprised at how sweet it was. "Has that been dipped in sugar or liquid sweetener or something?"

"No, theyíre just that sweet." Olivia brushed her thumb over the corner of Nataliaís mouth to catch a tiny rivulet of red juice, which she then brought to her own mouth to taste. "Very sweet," she said, looking directly into Nataliaís eyes.

Natalia watched in fascination as Olivia licked strawberry juice off her thumb. She could feel the impact of those smoldering green eyes all the way "down there." If this is how I feel when you look at me, how could I ever stay conscious if we ever did much more?

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

Olivia brought her bag of movies with her to the living room and sat down on the couch. Here comes the best part of the evening. I get to sit right next to you on the couch for at least a couple of hours. She looked up when Natalia entered from the kitchen. Is it too soon to grab you and kiss you? Oh, fine. Yes, I already know the answer to that, darn it.

"How many movies did you bring?" Natalia asked as she sat next to her and peeked into the top of the bag.

"Oh, a few," Olivia said noncommittally. "Okay, I might have brought a half dozen or so. Iím not sayiní for sure. I kinda lost count."

Natalia laughed.

"And I think I should stay right here till we watch Ďem all."

"Now thatís a very good idea, actually."

"Yeah, I thought so, too." Olivia loved seeing Natalia in such a light mood. There was a time when she feared she might never see her like this again, but here she was, all dimply and smiley and looking excited about movie night.

"So letís see what you have there."

"Well, I have romantic comedies, thrillers, psychological dramas."

"Like?"

"Letís see, I got Australia, Knowing, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Last Chance Harvey, Phoebe in Wonderland, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I guess if you like Brad Pitt, we should watch that one."

Natalia shook her head.

"Not a Brad fan?"

"Not really."

"So ... any of the others appeal?"

"How about Australia? Iíve always wanted to see AustraliaóI mean the continent, not the movieóso I think itíd be fun to watch that one."

"Okay, Australia it is," Olivia said as she got up to pop the DVD into the player.

When Olivia sat back down, she debated whether it was too soon to hold hands, but Natalia solved her little dilemma by sliding close and taking her hand. As the opening credits rolled, Olivia began to play idly with Nataliaís hand as it rested on her thigh, brushing her fingertips over the back, turning it over to stroke her palm, massaging her fingers one by one. Even that small contact felt amazing, and she wondered how a so-called "woman of the world" like her could not have known how erotic such simple touching could be.

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

Natalia had no idea what the plotline of the movie was about or if it even had a plot at all. Furthermore, she didnít particularly care at the moment. Her attention was focused entirely on Olivia and the way she was touching her hand and sending tingly feelings scampering over every inch of her skin. She watched with fascination as Olivia slowly traced over the lines in the palm of her hand, igniting matching trails of shivery response in other parts of her body. She was amazed by how Olivia made her feel.

Gradually it dawned on her that Olivia was watching her, and she glanced up. Embarrassed, she started to look away, but Olivia caught her chin with her fingertips and turned her head back.

"Not into the movie?"

"Itís a good movie, but ..."

"But ... finding other things more interesting?"

Natalia sighed and nodded. She found it disconcerting that all she seemed able to think about was whether or not Olivia was going to kiss her. She wanted her to. She would have been happy to initiate a kiss herself, but she couldnít quite bring herself to do it. How did I manage to do that last night at the lighthouse? she wondered. Probably because I was painfully aware you thought I didnít want you to touch me at all, and I knew I needed to show you that I did. Mostly, though, it was difficult for her to take the initiative, even when she wanted to as much as she did right now.

"All you have to do is tell me what you want," Olivia said softly.

Natalia gazed into Oliviaís eyes, which were now deep sea green and glittering. "I want ..." Her eyes drifted down to Oliviaís mouth. Her lips were full and moist and slightly parted. "I want ..." She tried to form the right words, but they just wouldnít come out.

"Okay," Olivia finally said and cupped her hands around Nataliaís face.

Thank god, Natalia thought, as Olivia began to kiss her. She could feel the kiss everywhere, as though it radiated out from their point of contact and flowed through her entire body like liquid flame. Natalia trembled when she felt Oliviaís hands slide down her neck and over her bare shoulders and upper back, heating flesh everywhere they touched. Then Olivia deepened the kiss, and all she could think was she didnít ever want her to stop.

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

Chapter 39

It took a superhuman effort for Olivia to break off their kiss, and Nataliaís soft moan of disappointment when she pulled away didnít help any. God, I want you so much. You have no idea. Her body felt saturated with longing, but she was terrified of going too far or doing anything that might upset her. She kissed Nataliaís forehead and pulled her close, only vaguely aware of Nicole Kidmanís voice emanating from the TV. She was trying hard to control herself, but she couldnít resist running her hand over Nataliaís nearly bare shoulder and down her arm and back up again.

"Your skin is so soft," Olivia said. "I love touching you." She could feel Natalia squeezing her arms around her in response. "And kissing you."

This time Natalia nodded. "Me too," she said, almost too low to be heard.

They sat holding each other until the ending credits of the movie rolled, at which point Olivia tried to rouse herself to get up and retrieve the DVD. It wasnít easy though, because by then Nataliaís head was resting on her chest, rising and falling in tandem with her breathing, and she had no real desire to move.

"I guess thatís it for Nicole and Hugh," Olivia said.

"Who?"

"The movie, itís over."

"Oh."

I donít think you want to move anymore than I do, Olivia thought as she rested her cheek on the top of Nataliaís head. She continued to caress her shoulder and back. At one point Natalia shifted position slightly, and Olivia noticed one of the narrow sundress straps slide down off her shoulder, revealing a glimpse of the very top of one breast. Oh god, you are so beautiful and sexy. Natalia didnít seem to be aware anything was amiss. Olivia wanted nothing more than to lean down and kiss the top of that soft, rounded flesh, but she was far more concerned about alarming Natalia than she was about satisfying her own urges.

"I think we better pull you back together," Olivia said.

Natalia lifted her head and looked at her with unfocused eyes. "What?"

Olivia leaned down and kissed her bare shoulder before pulling her strap back up. "There you go."

"Oh." Natalia gave a nervous giggle. "I didnít realize."

"I know." Olivia was almost too aroused to think clearly. I think I either need to kiss you senseless or flee from your general vicinity. Natalia was looking at her with such love and trust, she knew which option sheíd better take. "Maybe I should take my big bag of movies and hit the road now."

"Do you have to go?"

Olivia looked at her sweet face, her dark eyes and hair, her wistful expression, all that smooth olive skin. Going is truly the LAST thing I want to do right now, but Iím kind of afraid to stay. All Iím going to want to do is kiss you and touch you and slowly reveal more of your gorgeous, sexy bodyóand I think right now you might actually let me go a fair way down that path, but Iím pretty sure at some point youíd start to panic, and I just donít want to push things that far.

"Yeah, I think I do, actually. I think I really do have to go now." Olivia gently extricated herself from Nataliaís arms and walked over to the DVD player to retrieve the movie. "But I loved spending the evening with you," she said as she slipped the disk back into its case and added it to the pile of movies in the rental bag.

"Me too. It was wonderful just being with you. I love being with you."

Natalia walked her to the door, where Olivia turned and pulled her close. She kissed her briefly on the lips and turned to go, but spun back suddenly and kissed her more thoroughly, her tongue probing the depths of Nataliaís mouth as though it had a mind of its own that was completely disinterested in any desire to take things slowly.

By the time Olivia could gain enough control to let her go, she was breathing heavily, as was Natalia, she noted with some satisfaction, despite the slight twinge of guilt over her momentary lapse. "Good night," she said. She turned quickly and stepped out into the night to begin the long drive back into town.

My god, I just seem to have very little self-control. I really need to work on that. However, she couldnít quite bring herself to regret that passionate good-bye.

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

Natalia watched until Oliviaís glowing red taillights were swallowed up by the darkness, and then she leaned back against the door, still panting after Oliviaís heated good-bye kiss. If sheíd ever had any doubts about the nature of her love for Olivia, there was no room for uncertainties now. She was not only in love with another woman; she was attracted to her physicallyóvery attracted. She was acutely aware of wanting to touch her and be touched by her; she knew they could spend hours kissing and sheíd barely notice the passage of time.

Sitting on the couch with Olivia, she had been aware her breasts ached for her touch. She literally ached for her. Sheíd never felt like that before. Even though she didnít want to rush things, even though she knew she wasnít ready, she still found herself wishing Olivia would touch her like she had under the red maple that day. When she realized her strap had fallen off her shoulder, for a brief moment she imagined Olivia pulling it all the way down, leaving her breast bare; imagined her hand covering her aching flesh; imagined her leaning down to kiss her there. I think you wanted to. I think you might have been thinking the same thing.

She knew Olivia was a very physical person, a very passionate person, and Natalia felt she was finally beginning to have some understanding of the intense longing she must be feeling. Her face reddened at the direction her thoughts were taking, and she hugged her arms around herself as she waited for her breathing to slow down to a more normal pace. Feeling such a profound and undeniable physical attraction to someone was completely new, not to mention astonishing, as though her entire life had been turned topsy-turvy. She felt a little like Dorothy leaving the black-and-white world of Kansas and arriving in the amazing technicolor universe of Oz.

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

Olivia lay on her back in bed and punched Nataliaís number into the handset. She smiled when she heard the phone pick up after the first ring.

"Hello?"

"Hi there. Just wanted to let you know I got home safe and sound," Olivia said.

"Iím so glad you called."

"Youíre not still downstairs leaning against the door thinking, are you?"

"I ... uh ... no, Iím upstairs in bed. How did you ..."

"Because I know you and I figured youíd be thinking about ... well, everything. Leaning against the door was just a guess."

Natalia laughed. "Okay, maybe I was leaning against the door for a while and maybe I did just come up here to bed."

"Uh-huh, thought so." Olivia grinned. She figured Natalia wasnít going to be moving too soon after that last kiss. "I hope ... well, I hope I didnít scare you."

"No, you didnít scare me, not at all. You made me feel ..."

Olivia waited to see if Nataliaís vocabulary had gone missing again, as it seemed to be doing with greater frequency lately. "Good?" she suggested. "Alive? Turned on?"

"Yes," Natalia said softly.

"Which one?"

"All that."

"Okay, good to hear. Just wanted to check."

"You make me feel very alive," Natalia said.

Hm, donít forget turned on, Olivia thought. She realized Natalia had problems verbalizing those kinds of feelings. Hell, it had only been recently that Natalia had allowed herself to acknowledge them, even to herself. Olivia knew leaving the safety of her deep denial had to be difficult. "I feel more alive with you than I ever have," Olivia said.

"Part of me wishes you were here with me right now."

Oh god, if only! "Me too, but I know thereís another part of you that isnít ready for that." She imagined Natalia lying in bed looking all sexy and adorable in her jammies. Jammies that would be cominí off if I were there, so I guess itís a good thing Iím not.

"I wish ... I wish I didnít have these problems."

"Itís okay. Donít worry about it."

"Itís not just what happened ... you know, that afternoon."

"I know."

"You do?"

"I know youíve had other issues all along. Iím not sure what all of them are."

"Would you come to my counseling session with Sister Anne tomorrow, if youíre free? Sheís coming out around 1:30."

"Of course. I have a late morning meeting, but I should be able to make it out there by then."

"Thank you, Olivia."

"Iíd do anything for you."

"I know. I think youíve proven that, more than once."

"Iím going to let you go so you can get some sleep, but Iíll see you tomorrow. Sweet dreams."

"Good night."

Iím sure Iím going to be having very sweet dreams tonight myself, Olivia thought as she closed her eyes and imagined once more sitting on the couch with Natalia. This time there was no need for self-restraint, so as she drifted off to sleep, she envisioned pulling both shoulder straps all the way down and the bodice of the sundress with them, leaving her free to enjoy all that gorgeous expanse of flesh with the full approval of the willing and responsive woman she held in her arms.

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

Sister Anne took another sip from her hot mug of coffee while Natalia peered out the window of the kitchen. The nun was wearing her typical dark pantsuit, but Natalia looked casual in her jeans and yellow tank top.

"Olivia said she had a meeting, but she thought she could make it out here in time to meet with us," Natalia said. She was anxious to see her and not just because of the counseling session. It felt like her life revolved around when she would next see Olivia.

"Iím sure sheís just been delayed. Thereís no rush. I have plenty of time. Why donít you come sit down and tell me how youíre doing after our talk yesterday."

"Okay," Natalia said. She started to sit down, but then heard a car pull up outside. "Wait, there she is." She met Olivia at the door and hugged her. "Thanks for coming." She felt a tiny thrill to see Olivia looking so gorgeous and professional in a navy pinstripe pantsuit with a pale blue blouse that matched the color of the pinstripe. "You look amazing," she whispered before she released her from the hug.

Olivia smiled at Sister Anne when she entered the kitchen. "Sorry Iím running late. Had a last-minute problem I needed to iron out."

"Thatís no problem," Sister Anne said. "I just got here a little while ago myself."

"Would you like some coffee?" Natalia asked, one hand already on a coffee mug.

"Iíd love some," Olivia said as she took off her jacket and sank down onto one of the wooden chairs at the kitchen table. "I could use some waking up after that meeting."

Natalia set a mug down in front of Olivia and sat across from her with her own coffee. They both looked toward Sister Anne, who sat at the head of the table between them.

"Shall we get started then?" Sister Anne asked.

"Yes," Natalia said. "I ... well, I havenít told Olivia yet about my ... my talk with Father Ray yesterday." She could see the immediate concern in Oliviaís eyes.

"Perhaps you should start there," the nun suggested.

"What happened?" Olivia asked. "Did he say something to upset you?"

"We talked and he ... he asked me what I planned to do about us."

Olivia set her mug down and just stared across the table at Natalia. "And?"

"I told him I loved you and wanted to have a life with you, but he ..."

"But he didnít approve, right?" Olivia asked.

"No, he didnít. I already knew that, but he tried really hard to talk me out of being with you. He said ... he said itíd be a sin." She waited for the inevitable outburst from Olivia, but was surprised when there was none. Olivia just sat looking at her with a sober expression. "He said I was going against church teachings, which were clear on this issue, but ... but I said things werenít really all that clear." She turned to look at the nun. "Thatís why I wanted to discuss this with you when Sister Anne could be here. I mean, people of faith can have different interpretations of scripture, right, Sister Anne?"

Sister Anne set down her coffee mug. "Yes, thatís right. In fact, I would say thatís why priests and ministers deliver sermons, rather than just read scripture from the Bible before sending the congregation on its way."

"I never thought of that," Natalia said. She was aware Olivia was listening carefully to the other woman.

"Peopleís interpretation of scripture is colored by age, gender, background, culture, economic status, individual life experiences, and even the age in which they live," Sister Anne said. "Scripture provides us with a guide, but it doesnít provide a specific answer to each and every one of our philosophical or political or social questions."

Olivia nodded. "That makes sense to me."

"The Catholic Church teaches that we have an obligation to search our own conscience and be guided by it when making moral decisions, and many of us believe we have the right to dissent. For example, many Catholics disagree with the churchís position on such things as using contraceptives."

"So," Olivia said, "where does that leave you, Natalia?"

"I disagree with Father Ray about our relationship being sinful," Natalia said.

"But are you really okay with that?"

Natalia looked toward Sister Anne for support. This was one of the biggest difficulties she faced regarding her relationship with Olivia, and she was still struggling with it.

As if taking her cue, Sister Anne continued. "I believe each of us has a responsibility to follow our own spiritual journey and to a great extent find our own answers to many of the moral questions we face in this day and age."

"Like when I prayed to God for clarity and knew in my heart my love for Olivia was a blessing, not a sin?"

"Exactly," Sister Anne said. "You only sin if you do something you believe is wrong."

Olivia looked at Natalia. "So are you okay with all this?"

Natalia nodded. "Yes, but only because I know in my heart that our love is not wrong." She looked at Sister Anne. "Youíve helped me so much, Sister. You really have."

Sister Anne smiled. "Iím glad."

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

"Well, she totally rocks," Olivia said after Sister Anne left.

Theyíd taken their coffee into the living room so they could sit more comfortably on the couch, which, after last night, had become one of Oliviaís favorite pieces of furniture.

Natalia laughed. "She really does rock. Itís helped me to talk with someone like her whoís definitely a person of faith, but who has a very different perspective on things than Father Ray."

"Iím glad you have her. When you first mentioned Father Ray, I got worried."

"I know."

"I was concerned he might ... well, talk you out of wanting Ďus.í" Olivia immediately noted Nataliaís downcast eyes. "Thatís not all he said, is it?"

"No."

"Do you want to tell me the rest? Itís okay if you need to keep it private, but if you feel like sharing, Iíd like to know."

"He told me he could never give us his blessing."

"Okay, thatís not surprising. What else?"

"At some point I realized he must have been talking to Frank."

Oh crap! I get it now. One step forward, two steps back. "So he probably thinks Iím some kind of reprobate leading you down a path of sin for my own evil reasons, right?"

"Well ..."

"Thatís okay. If heís been talking to Frank, I can just imagine how that conversation went."

"Iím sorry, Olivia."

"Donít worry about me. Iím fine. The truth is I have been a sinner, as you probably already know. All I can tell you is ever since I started falling in love with you, Iíve felt like a new person. And besides, loving you makes me want to be a better person."

"I know."

Olivia watched Nataliaís fingers soundlessly drum against the side of her mug. "Okay, what else? I know thereís something else."

Natalia set her mug on the coffee table beside Oliviaís. "He asked me if Iíd told Rafe, and then he asked me when I planned to tell my son I wanted to live a life of sin with you."

Olivia leaned her head against the back of the couch and began to massage her forehead. "Thatís just great." Make that one step forward, three steps back. Damn it!

"I told him I couldnít tell Rafe while he was still at the halfway house. I said Iíd tell him when the time was right."

Olivia nodded slowly, not looking at Natalia. On days like this when I get such a clear view of some of the issues youíre facing, I just donít feel very hopeful. I really donít. Despite all the progress theyíd made in the last couple of days, Olivia could feel the ground tilting beneath her feet, as though it were going to send her spinning all the way back to square one. And if she couldnít see a way through all these obstacles, how could Natalia possibly manage it?

She was surprised when she felt Natalia pull her hand away from her forehead, and she opened her eyes to find dark eyes watching her intently. "What?" Olivia asked.

"I know what youíre thinking."

"Oh?"

"Youíre thinking thereís no hope for us."

Olivia shrugged and looked away, suddenly too exhausted to reply verbally.

"But thatís not true, Olivia."

"How can you be sure?"

"Because I love you. Because I want you in my life. Because I want us to be together. Iíll figure all this out."

"What about Rafe?"

"Iíll tell him when the time is right."

"What if he wonít accept us? What then?"

Natalia sat in total silence for a moment. "I canít lose you, Olivia. I wonít!" She threw her arms around Oliviaís neck and hugged her tight.

Okay, maybe thereís still hope for us, Olivia thought, but she wasnít at all sure what Natalia might do if her son refused to accept his motherís relationship with another woman. She knew that would be the most difficult obstacle of all for Natalia to overcome.

She wasnít able to pursue that line of thought any further, though, because when Natalia drew back to look at her, she paused when their faces were so close together, all Olivia had to do was lean a fraction of an inch forward for their lips to lightly graze, which she did, and very quickly a light touch wasnít nearly enough, and before she knew it, she was lying on top of Natalia, right on the couch in her living room, French-kissing her with abandon, as though the idea of going slow had never entered her mind.

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

Chapter 40

Natalia was close to passing out from the sheer overwhelming arousal she was feeling. She wasnít even sure how theyíd ended up lying together on the couch. She only knew sheíd never felt anything as wonderful as the feel of Oliviaís weight pressing her into the deep cushions of the sofa while she kissed her deeply. She loved running her hands through Oliviaís hair and over her back, loved pulling her closer, loved the feel of her mouth and lips and tongue.

They both jerked apart when they heard a door bang open. Olivia jumped up, facing the doorway into the kitchen, and Natalia sat up, one hand clutched over her heart in fear.

"Olivia," Natalia whispered.

"Itíll be okay." Olivia grabbed the heavy iron fireplace poker and cautiously approached the doorway into the kitchen.

Natalia saw her begin to raise the poker and then abruptly lower it when she reached the opening.

"Frank! What the hell are you doing here?" Olivia asked.

"Frank?" Natalia quickly joined them in the kitchen. There he stood in the middle of her kitchen as though he owned the place. "You scared me to death, Frank!"

"Did I? Iím sorry." Frank just stood looking at her.

Nataliaís body was trembling from fright. She was also annoyed, especially since Frank didnít look at all sorry. To her he looked as though he felt entitled to walk into her house anytime he chose, just as heíd always done.

"What were you thinking?" Olivia said, shaking with anger. "Did you forget what happened here the last time a man just walked in?"

Frank glared at Olivia. "I would never hurt Natalia."

"You just frightened the daylights out of her, Frank. You shouldnít be walking in here like that without knocking."

"This isnít your house, Olivia," Frank said, voice escalating, "so itís sure not your place to be telling me what to do."

"Frank, stop yelling at Olivia. Itís my house and I donít want anyone feeling like he can just walk in here without knocking." The adrenaline rush kicked off by her fear response not only sent her pulse racing, but it also made her feel nauseous.

"Fine." Frank peered at Natalia closely, glanced at Olivia, and looked back at Natalia, his eyes quickly sweeping over her. "What did I interrupt here, ladies?"

Natalia flinched and looked down at the wooden floorboards, but Olivia glanced at Natalia and quickly pulled up one of her tank top straps that was hanging off her shoulder. Natalia realized her hair must be looking a bit wild, and she tried to smooth it back into some semblance of neatness.

"You know what, Frank?" Olivia said. "Itís none of your business."

"Oh really?" he said, taking a step toward Olivia.

Natalia stepped between them. "Stop it, both of you. Frank, just tell me why you came out here."

"I wanted to talk to you."

"Okay, talk," Natalia said.

"Iíd prefer to speak with you privately."

"Anything you want to say to me, you can say in front of Olivia."

Frank frowned. "All right," he said at last. "I guess I can do that since this does involve her."

"Oh, great," Olivia said.

"Please just say what you came to say, Frank," Natalia said.

"I talked with Father Ray yesterday afternoon, apparently after the two of you talked."

Natalia felt her nausea increasing and now her head was beginning to throb. She glanced at Olivia, whose cheeks were tinted red. With anger, probably, she thought. Please donít fight with him, Olivia. "And?" she prompted Frank.

"Well, as Iím sure youíre aware, weíre both very concerned about the unwise choices youíre making right now."

"I told you, Frank," Olivia said. "Itís none of your damn business."

"Iím sure youíd love for me to stay out of it so you can ruin this poor womanís life before you move on to your next victim, Olivia."

Natalia was too shocked by his outburst to speak, but she could see Olivia gathering herself up for a verbal sparring match.

"Iíd love for you to leave her alone so she can live her life the way she chooses," Olivia said.

"Youíre a sexual predator, Olivia, and some day Natalia is going to see that and sheís going to come running back to me."

"Yeah, you wish," Olivia sneered.

"Why her? Why did you have to steal the one woman I love? Were you just curious about being with another woman? Thatís it, isnít it? Youíre just experimenting, and youíre ruining my life and her life in the process. Why couldnít you have just found yourself some other woman to screw around with? Why did it have to be Natalia?"

Natalia watched with alarm as all the color drained out of Oliviaís face. Sheíd never seen her this angry, and sheíd seen her angry plenty of times over the last year. She put her hand on Oliviaís forearm and squeezed it to get her attention. "Olivia," she said softly. "Donít."

Olivia turned to look at her. "I canít let him talk about you like that."

"Itís okay," Natalia said. She turned back to Frank. "Donít talk to Olivia like that. If you have something to say to me, just say it and then leave, please."

Frank looked at Natalia with a pleading expression. "Natalia, please donít let her take advantage of you like this."

"Frank, sheís not taking advantage of me. I love her."

"I know you think you love her."

"No, I do love her, Frank. Iím in love with Olivia. Iíve told you that. Iím sorry I hurt you. I was so wrong, and I feel awful about it."

"We could have been happy," Frank said.

"No, we would have both ended up being miserable because I didnít love you and because you wouldnít have had someone to love you the way you deserve to be loved."

"I donít believe that."

"Frank," Olivia said in a much calmer tone than the last time she spoke, "youíve got to let it go for your own sake."

Frankís jaw tensed as he looked at Olivia. "Stay out of it!"

"Is there anything else?" Natalia asked.

"Yes," Frank said. "Itís about your son."

Natalia froze. She could tell by Frankís expression he felt he had an ace up his sleeve, which he was about to play in his effort to somehow win her back.

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

Olivia was gripping the handle of the poker so tightly she thought they might have to use the jaws of life to get her hand separated from it. She wanted desperately to throw Frank out of the house, but she couldnít do that while Natalia still wanted to hear what he had to sayóand now that they knew it had something to do with Rafe, she knew there was no way Natalia was going to do anything but hang onto his every word, as Frank well knew.

Son of a bitch! To think I tried to help you last winter, and Iíve actually been feeling sorry for you for getting hurt. Well, youíve officially run out of sympathy, so you better watch yourself now.

It hurt her to see the sudden anxiety in Nataliaís face at the mention of Rafe. It was bad enough Frank had panicked them both with his noisy entrance into the house, but now heíd hit her most vulnerable areaóher son.

"What about Rafe?" Natalia asked, her face strained with worry.

"He should be having a hearing in the near future."

"Yes, I know."

"Father Ray and I are both worried about how heís going to deal with getting his life back together once heís released from the halfway house."

"Iím going to do everything in my power to help him," Natalia said.

"Yes, but thatís not enough. Iíve talked to the judge whoíll be hearing his appeal, and he was quite concerned about Rafe not having a strong male role model."

"How did the judge even know he had no male role model?" Olivia asked.

Frank ignored her. "Also, Father Ray and I both think if the judge found out about the two of you, it might make it even less likely for him to agree to early release from the halfway house, meaning heíd have to spend another six months there beyond the first six months he will have served by the time he goes in for his appeal hearing."

"Another six months?" Natalia said, clearly distressed.

I can see exactly what youíre up to, Frank, Olivia thought. "So what are you saying, Frank?"

"Iím saying if someone doesnít intercede and help out, Rafe is unlikely to get early release."

"What can I do?" Natalia asked.

"I told the judge Iíd be willing to serve as Rafeís mentor, but only if he releases him into my custody."

"What? Into your custody? He should come home to live with me. A boy should be with his own mother, Frank."

"I already talked to Rafe," Frank said. "When Father Ray and I spoke yesterday, we both agreed Rafe would be much better off to get out early, even if it meant living with me, than he would be if he had to spend the remainder of the year in the halfway house. I have to tell you, Natalia, Rafe was grateful and excited."

Olivia felt like she was watching a disaster movie, with some force of nature just mowing down everything in its path. "We donít know that the judge wouldnít have released Rafe to go home to live with his mother if you hadnít butted in," Olivia said. "And why in the world didnít you discuss this with Rafeís mother before you talked with anyone else?" She was livid at Frankís blatant manipulation of the situationóand of Rafe and Natalia. Youíve gotten pretty crafty, Frank. Gee, people talk about hell having no fury like a woman scorned. Well, women have got nothing on you, buddy.

"Look," Frank said, concentrating his gaze on Natalia. "Nothing has been decided. Thereís been no appeal and no ruling. Iím just trying to find a way for Rafe to get out of the halfway house early. Wouldnít he be better off if we can get him out of there?"

Natalia nodded. "Yes, I do want him out," she said slowly. "I want him completely out of anything to do with the prison system as soon as possible."

"That would be best for Rafe, right?" Frank asked.

"Yes," Natalia said.

"For that to happen, the judge has already indicated he needs a stable male figure in his life to mentor him. His father is dead. Thereís no man in your life, Natalia," Frank said, glancing at Olivia. "Your fatherís not in the picture, and you have no other male relatives or friends who could help, right? So who else is there?"

Natalia shook her head.

Olivia hated to see Nataliaís shoulders drooping as Frank piled on the logic. It was like watching a car wreck. You didnít want to look, but you just couldnít tear your eyes away.

"You canít ask my father to take on something like that after the way you ran out on me at our wedding in front of my entire family," Frank said.

"No, I couldnít ask Buzz."

"That leaves me and Father Ray, right? And he and I agreed I was the one best suited to take on this responsibility. Rafe can move in with me in the house I just rented, if the judge rules in his favor at the hearing." Frankís eyes narrowed as he watched Natalia. "The boy needs a father, Natalia, even if itís a surrogate father. No boy should have to grow up the way he did."

Olivia closed her eyes and rubbed the bridge of her nose. I believe that was checkmate. Time to topple your king in defeat, Iím guessing. She could see tears beginning to well up in Nataliaís eyes. Olivia had no doubt this was only the beginning of Frankís plan to insinuate himself back into Nataliaís life, and unfortunately it looked like he was off to a very good start.

Frankís eyes narrowed as he watched Natalia. "Iíd say you should be thanking me for being willing to go out on a limb like this for your son, Natalia, in spite of the way you treated me."

A single tear rolled down Nataliaís cheek. "I ... uhm ... thank you, Frank."

Frank turned toward the door, tossing a smug look over his shoulder at Olivia as he strode off. "Iíll be back in touch when I find out more."

As soon as Frank was out of the house, Nataliaís tears began falling in earnest.

Shit!

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

"Olivia," Natalia sobbed. Frankís news had completely knocked the props out from under her, leaving her feeling as though she were adrift at sea with no shoreline in sight. She was shocked and sad, and she just didnít know what to do.

Olivia leaned the poker against the wall and took her into her arms. "I know," she said softly as she began to stroke her hair.

"I canít believe Rafe wonít be coming back here to live with me."

"Look, first of all nothing has been decided; and second, even if this is the way it works out, itíll only be temporary, right?"

"Yes, I guess, but heís my son. He should be with me, not Frank."

"I agree. Weíll just have to see how things work out."

"Iím worried about the other thing he said."

"What was that?"

"He said he and Father Ray both think if the judge finds out about you and me, heíd be less likely to let Rafe out early." She could feel Olivia tense up.

"I donít believe that," Olivia said. "I really think Frank was just trying to ... intimidate you."

"Are you sure? What if heó ... oh my god, Olivia, what if he tells the judge about us?"

"I really donít think heíll do that."

"How can you be sure?"

"Because if what he said about the judge is true, and frankly I donít necessarily believe it is, then it would only hurt Rafeís chances to get out. No matter how angry Frank is with either of us, I really donít think heíd deliberately hurt Rafe like that."

"I hope youíre right." Natalia wasnít sure, though. She could see no trace of the sweet and loving man whoíd proposed to her last winter.

"Iím pretty sure I am."

"But you saw how angry he was."

"Yes, but I still donít think heíd hurt Rafe."

Natalia stepped back so she could look into Oliviaís eyes, which looked dark and stormy, like an angry sea. "What now?"

"Now I think maybe I need to leave so you can sort through some things."

"What do you mean?"

"Iím sure you must be rethinking the whole Ďusí issue right about now," Olivia said as she picked up the poker and carried it back to the fireplace tool stand in the living room.

Natalia trailed after her. She could see Oliviaís stress level had elevated to an alarming degree, and she could only imagine what she must be feeling. "Olivia, I love you. Thereís nothing to rethink."

Olivia turned around to face her. "Are you sure about that? This is your son weíre talking about. I know youíd do anything for him."

"Yes, I would, just as youíd do anything for Emma, but Olivia, my son loves me. Nothing Frank or anyone else can do will ever change that."

"You sound so ... certain."

"I am, Olivia. Now Iím upset and Iím worried, but Iím also aware Frank is trying to use this to ... I donít know ... either punish me or try to get close to me again or maybe try to break us up."

"Yeah, thatís pretty much how I read it."

"Heís not going to be able to do that, Olivia."

"Weíll see."

"Please trust me."

Olivia dropped down onto the couch with her elbows on her knees and rested her head in her hands. "Iíll try, but ... I donít know. Weíll just have to see what happens."

It broke Nataliaís heart to see Olivia so distressed and doubtful. She realized Olivia had been disappointed repeatedly in her life. Olivia had told her once that more than anything she longed for someone who would love her enough to make her their first choice because she always felt like she came in second. It was hard for Natalia to imagine anyone not choosing Olivia first.

She sat next to Olivia on the couch and draped her arm around her shoulder, tugging her close until Olivia finally allowed her to hold her in her arms. Natalia smoothed her fingertips over Oliviaís cheek to brush away the tears she knew sheíd find there.

As soon as she did, Olivia pulled away and stood up. "I think I should head out," Olivia said.

"Would you like to stay for dinner? I can whip up something simple."

"Thanks, but I think I should go home. Iím tired, so all I really want to do right now is take a shower and go to bed."

"If youíre that tired, maybe you should take a shower and go to bed here instead of making that long drive back into town."

Natalia could see Olivia hesitate, obviously tempted, but the minute she saw her straighten up, she knew her decision was made.

"Thanks," Olivia said. "I appreciate the offer, but Iím going to go home tonight." She walked into the kitchen, picked up her jacket and purse, and headed toward the door.

"Okay, if youíre sure. Will you call me when you get in?"

"Sure."

"Okay, drive safe."

"I will. Good-bye."

"Bye."

Natalia watched Olivia walk to her car and drive off without looking back. No hug, no kiss, no backward glance, she thought sadly. I know you think Iím going to run away from you again, so youíre running off first, arenít you? Iíd follow you home right now, but I think youíre too exhausted to deal with anymore tonight. First thing tomorrow morning, though, youíre going to find me at your door and Iím going to convince you how wrong you are.

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

Continue to Chapters 41-50

 

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