Title: There Is No Us

Author: Phox

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

Fandom: Guiding Light

Pairing: Olivia/Natalia

Rating: R (language, adult themes, sex)

Disclaimer: Unfortunately these characters belong to TeleNext Media, not me, darn it. I’m just taking them out for a spin.

Author's Note: This story picks up at the end of the conversation in the gazebo immediately following the WoD (the almost-wedding, aka the Wedding of Doom, 4/17/09) and heads down an entirely different path.

There Is No Us
by Phox

| Chapters 1-8 | Chapters 9-16 |

Chapter 1

"What ... what happens to us?"

"There is no us." Olivia gazed into the dark depths of Natalia’s eyes and nearly wavered, but steeled herself to continue. "You love me, but you’ll hate me for this one day." She could feel her throat constricting, making it nearly impossible to squeeze out any more words. "I can’t live with that," she finally whispered. Feeling the hot sting of tears, she abruptly turned and strode away across the snow-covered landscape, leaving a distraught Natalia alone in the gazebo at the Olivia Spencer Memorial Park.

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

Natalia did not remember the trip back to the farmhouse. She only remembered the haunted expression in Olivia’s glittering green eyes and her forlorn pronouncement: "There is no us." How can she say that? How can she think there’s no us?

Her eyes slid over the gaily decorated banner looming over the fireplace: "Welcome home, Frank and Natalia." Idly she grabbed a pink and silver wrapped wedding gift and dropped onto the couch while clutching it tightly in her arms.

Her thoughts careened from Olivia in her gorgeous red dress to the ominous admonitions of Mayor Wolfe officiating at the wedding ceremony to the look of confusion on Frank’s face as she whirled around and bolted for the exit. He’s no more confused than I am, she thought sadly. I have no idea what to do. Please, Father, she prayed, please don’t forsake me now. In one brief tick of the clock she’d gone from knowing exactly the future she was creating for Rafe and herself—a real family and a real father figure for her son—to confessing her love to Olivia and finally to losing the one person who made her world make sense.

Suddenly her scattered thoughts snapped into one clear focus: The one person. The one person who was everything to her. "Olivia," she breathed. She knew exactly what she had to do.

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

Olivia lay on her back on the queen-sized bed in her penthouse suite at The Beacon. A small lamp in the corner cast a small pool of yellowish light that was no match for the darkness enveloping the lone figure on the bed. Olivia flinched as scenes from the day kaleidoscoped erratically through her head. Up until now she had no idea one could actually be too sad to weep.

She pressed her eyes more tightly shut in hopes of stopping the flood of images and words and feelings, the weight of which seemed to press her aching body deeper into the cold embrace of her wine-colored satin sheets. She felt cold. She was vaguely aware she was shivering despite the weight of the covers. She’d pulled on her charcoal gray sweats after shedding her bloodred matron of honor dress and attempting to scrub away the detritus of the disastrous day in a steaming hot shower.

"You’ve outdone yourself, Spencer," she whispered into the empty room. My god, what the hell was I thinking? It was her wedding day, for Christ’s sake. Couldn’t I have waited until, oh say, next century to lay all that on her? All she’d managed to do was destroy the future of the woman she loved—and for what? She’d known for sometime Natalia had feelings for her. The near-kiss at the hospital as Olivia lay sedated was merely further proof of what she already knew, of what she’d told Doris afterwards. She told the mayor she knew when someone was into her, and Natalia was definitely into her. However, she also knew Natalia could never ... would never "go there," not with all her religious issues, not with her concerns for providing the best possible life for her son, not with the specter of societal expectations and disapproval of anything outside the norm.

But she loves me. She told me she loves me, she thought in a moment of rebelliousness, but whatever happiness she could draw from that memory was short-lived, because it made the realization they could never do anything about it all the more painful.

She slowly rolled over onto her side and tucked one hand under her cheek. She could feel each painful thud of her heart, her new heart that was now so thoroughly broken.

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

Natalia stared at the dark wood of Olivia’s penthouse door. She’d dressed in black jeans and a dark teal sweater whose neckline was a bit low for winter, but it was one she knew Olivia loved and without analyzing why, she’d tugged it on after a quick shower, glancing briefly at her flushed visage in the mirror of her bedroom before hurrying down the stairs and into the softly swirling snowflakes of the late winter storm.

And now here she was at Olivia’s penthouse. How many times had she stood there over the past year? How many times had she opened that door with her passkey? At first she’d been determined to make Olivia fight to survive the transplant, even though Olivia was adamant she couldn’t live with the knowledge that the price for her second chance at life had come only because Gus had died, but Natalia knew Gus’s heart had to live on and she would make sure of that. It was just that simple.

However, somewhere along the line everything changed. It was no longer about Gus, no longer about Gus’s heart, no longer about her own stubborn will that Olivia live. Somewhere it had become ALL about Olivia: Olivia, the hardheaded, exasperating hotelier who saw a competence and worth in Natalia no one else had ever seen; Olivia, the businesswoman sought after by Galaxy, the largest worldwide franchiser of hotels that wanted her as their international spokesperson; Olivia, the mother who would do anything to protect her daughters; Olivia, the force of nature; Olivia, the heartbreakingly beautiful woman who had somehow stolen Natalia’s heart even as Natalia fought to make sure Olivia’s new heart survived.

Natalia sighed ... hesitated ... and finally knocked softly. At first there was no sound from within, and she wondered if she’d guessed wrong about where Olivia would be. Maybe she’d gone to the new upscale condo she’d bought for her and Emma. That’s where the movers were to take the stacks of boxes Olivia had packed as she rushed to vacate the farmhouse so Frank could move in. Where are you, Olivia?

Natalia frowned. She knew Olivia was hurting. The agony she’d witnessed that morning in the graveyard and the torment in her eyes when Olivia had left her at the gazebo were testament to her pain. Natalia was so sure, though, that Olivia would come back to her penthouse. She thought she’d want to be somewhere familiar, somewhere safe, somewhere—

Her thoughts were interrupted when she finally heard a voice emanate from behind the dark wooden door—her voice.

"It’s open, Luisa," Olivia called out in a husky, subdued tone.

Natalia pushed the heavy door open and stepped inside, her eyes quickly searching the room until settling on the solitary form huddled beneath the bedcovers. She could see Olivia was lying on her side facing away from the door.

"The stuff for the dry cleaning is on the chair," Olivia said. "Thanks for taking it down for me."

Natalia lay her coat and purse on the back of the chair, then turned and gently closed the door. She stood for a moment watching Olivia, but after detecting no further signs of life, she padded quietly over the thick carpeting until she stood on the far side of the bed right next to Olivia and dropped to her knees so that her eyes were on the same level as Olivia’s face, a face that looked drawn and pale and sad. She longed to reach out and brush soft hair back from her face, smooth the lines from her forehead, lean closer and— You are so beautiful, she thought.

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

Olivia listened till she heard Luisa close the door and then allowed herself to sink back into her painful lethargy. She thought she’d asked her to come by in the morning, but ... whatever. She really didn’t care.

She knew she’d have to rally herself out of this depression. She was Olivia Spencer after all, but right now she had neither the strength nor the heart to do that. Good one, Spencer. You don’t have the heart. She might even consider laughing if she had any energy whatsoever. Who knew a broken heart could hurt this bad? Not me, that’s for sure.

Her mind idly rummaged through her past, her past loves, her past lovers. She’d certainly thought she’d loved before, thought she’d been in love, but now she’d learned she’d never really known what that was, never been in love before, not until—

Her thoughts turned back to Natalia—Natalia happily cooking in her beloved farmhouse kitchen, Natalia looking so pretty and sweet in her white-as-snow wedding dress, Natalia choking on her wedding vows, Natalia’s look of panic as she glanced at Olivia before fleeing the warmth of the church to run blindly into the winter storm, Natalia’s anguish when she’d confessed her love to Olivia at the gazebo. Jesus, I think I can actually smell her perfume even now.

Startled, Olivia’s eyes snapped open and she found herself staring into Natalia’s beautiful, sweet face. The soft glow of the small desk lamp in the corner behind her cast a shimmering golden halo around the edges of her sable hair, and her dark eyes looked inky black in the darkened room. For a moment she lost herself there in those dark depths, felt herself falling in, knew she wanted to gaze into those warm and loving eyes forever, but then with effort she pulled herself back, back into the unpleasant reality her life had become, a life that was going to have no Natalia in it. You’ve got to get a grip, Spencer, she self-admonished. Seriously.

"What are you doing here?" Olivia finally asked.

"I’ve come to get you and bring you home," Natalia replied.

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

Natalia might have laughed at the look of utter astonishment on Olivia’s face had the situation not felt so serious. She waited for the inevitable response.

"What? You can’t be serious. I... I just can’t do that."

Yep, there it was. Natalia had expected it, but she had no intention of accepting it. "Yes, you can." She continued to stare calmly into Olivia’s eyes, which were currently a deep shade of emerald green. She knew that could change at any moment as she’d noticed long ago the capricious nature of Olivia’s eye color, much like the mercurial temperament of the woman herself.

"No!" Olivia took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down as she flung the covers back and pushed herself up into a sitting position on the side of the bed.

Natalia watched as Olivia swept an errant strand of hair back from her eyes. She looked like she did in the morning at the farmhouse—sleep rumpled, hair tousled, eyes fighting to focus. You are so not a morning person, Olivia Spencer, she thought with an inward smile. Natalia’s heart ached with longing at the sight. How she longed to see a sleepy morning-time Olivia stumbling around the farmhouse kitchen once more. Natalia wanted to tell her that, tell her she had become the center of her universe. "Where’s Emma?" Natalia asked instead as she looked around the room for any telltale signs a nine-year-old might be somewhere about.

"Sleepover," Olivia said. "It seemed like ... the best thing for her right now. What about Rafe?"

"They found a job for him already, much earlier than anyone expected, so he left for the halfway house. He said the sooner he got started on his time there, the sooner he’d be home." She felt the ghost of a smile pass over her lips when she said the word "home." "You know? Home?" Natalia continued. "That place you need to be?"

Olivia grimaced. "Look, Natalia, it’s not going to work."

Natalia watched Olivia carefully, noting the riot of emotions cascading over her features as her eyes ricocheted around the room, probably in an effort to look anywhere but at Natalia. "Why not?" Natalia prodded.

"You know why not."

"No, I don’t." Natalia saw Olivia’s hand reach up to rub the bridge of her nose. How many times had she seen that gesture? It might mean a headache coming on or it might indicate exasperation or it might—well, it could mean a lot of things. Still, it was comforting in an odd way, because it reminded her this was someone she knew and knew well, someone she had no intentions of losing. I can’t lose you, Olivia. I won’t!

"As I recall, we discussed this earlier today."

Natalia shook her head slowly. "No we didn’t, not really." She almost smiled at Olivia’s look of surprise, which was quickly replaced by one of consternation. She was truly the most maddening, most exasperating, most stubborn, not to mention the most gorgeous woman she’d ever known. I’m going to get you to listen to me, Olivia Spencer, and I’m going to get you to come home where you belong. She lightly squeezed Olivia’s knee in an effort to jump-start a response.

"I told you there is no us."

"I know."

"Well?"

"Well what? Just because you say it doesn’t make it true."

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

Chapter 2

Olivia stared at Natalia in disbelief. She had for sure fallen in love with the most naive person on the planet, possibly in the entire universe. Damn this is hard, she thought. Well, I’ll just have to be patient. Okay, maybe that’s too much to aspire to, but I can at least take the time to try to make her understand. I owe her that much after blowing up her entire life today because I just couldn’t keep my feelings bottled up for a few more hours. A few more hours ... after all these months, a few more hours; that’s all it would have taken. Why was that so goddamned hard, Spencer? She was suddenly glad Natalia’s tiny Virgin Mary statue wasn’t there to frown at her language choices.

"Look..." Olivia swallowed hard as Natalia leaned forward and grasped both of Olivia’s hands in her own, resting them on Olivia’s thighs as she gazed up at her with a look of utter adoration. Oh great...this is just great. I have to explain why we can’t move back to the farmhouse, I have to try to make a home for me and Emma somewhere else that we both know isn’t really home, I have to be brave and do the right thing for all of us when...when all I want... She struggled to stifle the sob that threatened to burst forth from her constricted throat. When all I want to do is just take her in my arms and ... and kiss her ... and ...

Olivia mentally shook herself in an effort to stop the sudden onslaught of carnal thoughts involving the sexy . She tried to extricate herself from Natalia’s vice-like grip, but damn, that woman was strong! How could she hope to string together a coherent thought when her entire attention was riveted on the feel of Natalia’s soft hands holding onto hers with such fierce determination?

Olivia cleared her throat. "Look," she began again. "I know you told me you love me."

"I do love you!"

"But you also asked what it was we were feeling, what it meant. I just ... I think ... no, I know that I’m further along in this ... in figuring out what it means, at least to me, and figuring out what I ..." Olivia paused as she struggled to find the right words. "Figuring out ... what I want." Well now, that was clear as swamp water. Good job. She sighed.

"What do you want, Olivia? Just tell me. Don’t you know I’d do anything for you?"

Olivia reeled as her thoughts skittered off onto decidedly prurient pathways. Stop that! Stop that right now! "I’m not saying there’s some specific something ... like ... like ..." Her voice trailed off as her mind began to catalog some very specific somethings she’d like to do involving a certain someone who was now leaning heavily against her legs while still holding her hands captive. She didn’t want Natalia to "give" herself to Olivia as she’d done with Frank, if that’s what she meant. No, I couldn’t live with that. No way. Although... No, no, no! Don’t even go there. Besides, that’s probably not even what she meant. I mean ... the woman is positively oblivious when it comes to that kind of thing.

She realized she had to say something, something intelligible preferably, but she had no idea what to say. Oh hell! Maybe I should just try out for the Olympic ski team. That would have to be easier than this—and as an added bonus, it’d be great aerobic exercise for this poor aching heart. Dr. Rick would be so pleased.

She felt Natalia tug at her hands. "Tell me, Olivia."

"No...you tell me. What is it you want?"

"I told you. I want you and Emma to come home, home to the farmhouse. You’re my family and I want you ... I need you ... with me. And Olivia, I know you and Emma both want to come back. We were all happy there with our little family."

"You want us to come back and you think things will be the same, like they were before." And I’m sure you mean you in your bed and me in mine, she silently accused. "But things won’t be the same, they can’t, not after ... after ... after everything that’s happened, that was said, that ... I don’t think ... it’s just not going to work."

"Yes, it will. We’ll make it work. We’ll figure it out, together, like we always have," Natalia said, squeezing Olivia’s hands. "We can do this."

Olivia shook her head. "I don’t know if I can do this. You want movie nights and duck feedings and reading Emma to sleep at night, like before, and I want ..."

"What? What do you want?"

Olivia tried valiantly to rein in her emotions, but finally blurted, "I want you!"

"You can have me. You already have me."

Olivia groaned inwardly as a sickening feeling of déjà vu swept over her. How could Natalia still not get it? It was like reliving the whole "My Two Mommies" aftermath when she’d tried and tried to get Natalia to understand what Emma’s teacher and the other parents were thinking about their relationship. When the younger woman’s naïveté persisted in the face of Olivia’s increasingly pointed explanations, Olivia finally grabbed her and planted a decidedly non-sisterly kiss right smack on her oh-so-tantalizing mouth. Sure she was still a little drunk and maybe she could have thought of some other way to get the point across, but her slightly inebriated self had taken a much more direct, not to mention much more fun, route to enlightenment. That kiss was not just a revelation to Natalia on the "My Two Mommies" homophobia front; it was a revelation to Olivia in a much more personal way. Suddenly her body was vibrating with ... lust, that’s what it was. She’d kissed Natalia and she’d loved it, wanted to do it again right then and there, wanted nothing more than to wrap her arms around the dazed-looking brunette and kiss her till they both passed out from lack of oxygen. And that brings us back to the current problem, she thought with dismay as her gaze slid down from deep umber eyes to pale pink lips, lips she ached to taste. I can’t do this anymore.

Abruptly Olivia tried to stand up, but Natalia held tight and all Olivia managed to do was stumble and fall with a heavy thud onto her knees facing Natalia, her legs partially straddling Natalia’s, leaving them in way too close proximity.

"Are you okay?" Natalia asked with concern.

Other than my wounded pride? Oh, and my broken heart? "I’m fine," Olivia huffed. Just peachy, she thought. Never better. Maybe tomorrow I’ll throw myself under a bus as a followup to all the fun from today.

She tried to pull away, but Natalia had already recaptured her hands and pulled them tightly to her, as she had so many times before; and like so many times before, Olivia’s heart faltered and then rocketed into a way-too-rapid rhythm as she felt her fingers pressed into the soft flesh of Natalia’s upper chest.

She would have to be wearing one of her more revealing tops, she thought with both joy and dismay. When did I start finding the female form so tantalizing? No, not any female form, only hers. She was enough of a sexual adventuress (she knew some would say "sexual predator") that if she’d ever had any interest, even the slightest curiosity about sex with another woman, she wouldn’t have hesitated to find a beautiful woman and take her to bed, but she’d never really noticed other women, except to assess them as potential rivals for men, and certainly had never been attracted to another woman, had never wondered how soft her skin might feel, how it might feel to kiss her lips, how it would feel to caress her curves, not until one Natalia Rivera had thrust herself—uninvited and unwanted—into Olivia’s life and proceeded to irritate the holy hell out of her while forcing her—against her will–-to live, and somehow in the process stealing her heart and changing her life forever.

Olivia reeled from the sensation of being so physically close to Natalia, but made one last herculean effort to extricate herself—no, both of them—from a situation that felt, at least to Olivia, like it was rapidly careening out of control. Or maybe that’s just me, she thought. I’m the one on the verge of losing control—again. Let’s not go there, Spencer. Not again. And certainly not again today. I mean...really!

"You need to go," Olivia said abruptly. "You’re tired. You’re not thinking clearly. Hell, I’m not thinking clearly. Come on." She tried to tug her hands away, but Natalia was apparently having none of that.

"I’m not going anywhere without you."

Suddenly Olivia felt her strength ebb away and she slumped down. She could feel her throat constrict and her eyes well with tears. Damn it! Get a grip. She used to hardly ever cry, but that seemed like all she did lately. What the hell had happened to her? "You have to, Natalia. You have to go. I just can’t do this anymore."

"I know you want to come home, Olivia. I know Emma wants to come home. I know I want you home ... with me. Now please, let’s just go. We can figure everything else out later."

God, that was tempting. She could just say yes. She could just let this determined woman in front of her drag her back to the farmhouse. Natalia was right. She did want to go back, go back home. She could pretend everything was all right, couldn’t she? No, I can’t do that, not anymore. I can’t pretend. I won’t.

"That won’t work."

"Why not?"

"Because we ... we want different things."

"I told you I’d do anything for you, Olivia. You are everything to me."

"I don’t know if I can live with you...stand to live with you and not be able to..." Olivia trailed off, reluctant to engage in any more painful confessions. She was over her limit for the day. Hell, she was over her limit for the decade!

"Not be able to do what?"

Damn, the woman was relentless, not to mention stubborn. "To ... to ..." Olivia paused and tried to find her "calm" voice. "Look, just forget I said anything. We’ll talk tomorrow ... or the day after ... whenever ... and then we can ... just ..."

"Not be able to do what, Olivia?" Natalia persisted.

Olivia struggled. She sucked in a deep breath. Her mind scrambled for a reasonable explanation, a plausible lie. She wasn’t particular. She just wanted to get away from Natalia before she said or did something they’d both regret, something that would undoubtedly horrify the woman she loved. How could she do that? She couldn’t. But she also couldn’t tear her eyes away from Natalia’s mouth. Natalia’s lips were slightly parted, and her chest heaved in a clear sign that inside she was not as calm as her outward manner suggested. Her hands still held Olivia’s pressed against her chest.

Olivia felt heat seeping into her cheeks. She could see Natalia’s lips moving but could no longer hear her words. She felt herself falling again, tumbling into Natalia’s eyes. She was no longer rational, thinking Olivia. She was emotional, reactive Olivia, an unpredictable entity, a creature of passion. She tried to pull herself back, to regain some semblance of self-control, but then Natalia’s words finally penetrated the heavy fog of her desire.

"Tell me, Olivia. Just tell me what you want."

"I want.. No, you don’t want to know."

"I do! Tell me."

"I want ... this," Olivia breathed, and with no further pesky rational thoughts to constrain her, she felt herself flow across the small amount of space separating them, as though she were not mortal flesh and blood but primal energy and emotion, until finally she pressed her lips to Natalia’s in a scorching kiss. While she’d fantasized their first "real" kiss would be hesitant and chaste, this kiss was fierce and demanding. While she’d imagined slow and sweet, this was passionate, deep, probing. While she’d envisioned herself holding back at least until she was sure they were on the same page, she found herself kissing Natalia with complete abandon, her lips searing an indelible imprint of her love, her tongue demanding greater intimacy as it explored the sweet depths of Natalia’s mouth. Her hands sifted through heavy dark hair, reveling in the weight and the softness. Her left hand cradled the back of Natalia’s head to hold her close while her right burned a torrid path down a slender neck, slid over a soft shoulder, skimmed lightly over Natalia’s upper chest before firmly and possessively cupping the swell of a full breast, something Olivia had longed to do for ages.

As soon as she touched her breast, Olivia heard Natalia gasp, and the sound abruptly yanked her back to reality. She drew back. She felt dizzy from the panoply of emotions rippling through her being and positively undone by her overwhelming physical need, but with a worried frown she forced herself to assess Natalia’s state, and what she saw made her breath catch. She saw Natalia’s beautiful dark hair loose and wild, cheeks flushed; she was panting heavily, and her face—oh god, she was staring at Olivia with a look of utter shock. Olivia’s heart broke. Again. What have I done?

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

She watched Natalia struggle to say something.

"No, don’t. Don’t say anything. Just go."

Olivia was a blur of motion as she sprang to her feet and retrieved Natalia’s coat and purse from the chair where she’d obviously tossed them earlier. She pulled Natalia to her feet and thrust her possessions into her arms, then dragged her across the room toward the door. She flung the heavy door open and gave Natalia a gentle push towards the hallway.

"I’m truly sorry, Natalia," she said while studying the carpet around Natalia’s booted feet. "But at least now you see why I can’t come ho— ... why I can’t come back to the farmhouse. Clearly I can’t be trusted to control myself."

"Olivia," Natalia began with a pleading tone.

"Please don’t say anything. The look on your face, that look of shock..." Olivia’s voice broke and she stopped trying to use it. She just shook her head and stared at Natalia for a moment in abject misery before turning and striding off toward the bathroom. She would never forget that look as long as she lived. She closed the bathroom door behind her without looking back, then leaned heavily against the bathroom counter, head bowed, and stared down into the immaculately clean white basin until finally she heard the penthouse door close, and then she finally allowed pent-up tears to flow unabated down her still burning cheeks.

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

Chapter 3

Natalia leaned back against the heavy oak door of the penthouse and whispered into the now empty room, "It wasn’t a ‘bad’ shock."

Her eyes fluttered closed as she lightly touched her tingling lips. Dear Lord, she thought, I’ve never, ever felt like this before. With a blush she acknowledged her lips were not the only parts of her tingling. In fact, her entire body was throbbing in a way—and in places—she’d never before experienced, and her heart was beating so hard and so erratically she almost felt like she was the one who needed a pacemaker.

She swayed slightly, eyes dreamy, as she replayed the kiss in her mind. She could swear she could still feel Olivia’s mouth on hers, still smell the lotion she always used after a shower, still taste her ... taste Olivia—Olivia kissing her, Olivia’s lips, Olivia’s tongue ... tasting her lips, demanding entry, exploring her mouth. Natalia groaned as she felt an unfamiliar and demanding ache in her nether regions. Oh, Olivia....

If she were truthful—and she did so want to be truthful, especially after recent disastrous events—she’d have to admit that Olivia’s "enlightening" post-"My Two Mommies" kiss hadn’t exactly left her cold. However, at the time she was so shocked at the revelation other people thought she and Olivia were a "couple" that it had been easy to force herself to ignore the jolt that brazen kiss had given her, and so she tucked the memory away in a far dark corner of her mind. She’d felt a similar jolt on more than one occasion when she’d caught Olivia staring at her, green-gray eyes smoldering with— She was beginning to gain a better understanding of what those smoldering looks were all about.

Her eyes slowly opened and scanned the room. Olivia was still in the bathroom. Well, she would just wait for her, patiently, and then they were going to talk, really talk, and everything would be okay if she could just get Olivia to listen. Of course, knowing Olivia as well as she did, she knew that was going to be tricky, especially now that Olivia had careened off into self-protection mode. Nobody else fully realized how vulnerable Olivia could be, but Natalia knew. She’d seen it, and it always made her want to wrap her arms around Olivia and protect her from any and all hurts the world might sling her way. She’d seen Olivia retreat more than once when she felt overwhelmed by her emotions, and knew the headstrong woman would do whatever it took to hide her vulnerability from the world. You can run, Olivia, but you cannot hide—not from me, she thought.

Natalia stood up straight, moving away from the door that had been propping her up, and squared her shoulders with fresh determination. She lay her coat and purse back on the chair where she’d placed them earlier, walked over to the rumpled bed, and sat on the edge of the mattress nearest the bathroom door. Shortly afterwards she heard the tap running and imagined Olivia splashing cold water over her gorgeous features. She was so beautiful and honest and brave and ... passionate. Natalia blushed at the memory of her own reaction to Olivia’s passion.

Part of her was still confused though. She had loved Nicky—Gus, his family and friends here called him, but she’d known him as Nicky, the kind and caring boy who pursued her relentlessly when they were but teens. She was a skinny, though amply endowed, teenager with little self-confidence—studious, quiet, religious, introspective. He was popular, smart, athletic, and a little wild.

At first she couldn’t believe he’d asked her out—her, Natalia Rivera, a nobody in the high school pecking order. She couldn’t understand what he saw in her despite his protestations that she was the prettiest, the sweetest, the kindest girl he’d ever met. The only thing she was sure of was that he loved her, truly loved her, and his love was a fresh wind blowing happiness and meaning into a sterile life of school, church, prayer, and chores.

She knew she liked it when he kissed her, had enjoyed his boyish groping, had even eventually given in to his insistent ardor, an act that resulted in a child, Rafe, her beloved son with Nicky. She’d enjoyed giving pleasure to Nicky, but as for herself? The one time they were together as teenagers had been more painful and embarrassing than anything else—and then Nicky was gone, spirited away by unknown forces and seemingly lost to her forever, while her own life was turned completely upside down. She was a young, pregnant Catholic girl, and her family made it agonizingly clear she had shamed them, shamed herself, and shamed God. The only thing preserving her sanity was the feel of new life stirring inside her young body. She loved this baby, Nicky’s baby, and would protect it with her life.

She never gave herself to anyone else after that, not until she found Nicky again years later. She searched for him, found him, wanted him to be a father to their son, and she got him—away from Harley, no less. They married and she was happy. She loved him. He was her childhood love and now he was truly a father to their child.

Their adult sexual relationship was different than the one time they were together in high school. He was more experienced, for one thing, and she at least knew what to expect. And she liked being close to him in that way, still liked his kisses, liked how much he wanted her, liked his passion when he made love to her, liked pleasing him, but...

Natalia’s head tipped back and she drew a deep ragged breath. The truth was he never made her feel like Olivia just had—and that was just with one kiss ... one passionate, abandoned, life-altering kiss. The memory of it suffused her cheeks with heat and caused her aching center to throb with need. What have you done to me, Olivia? A soft hand moved back up to her mouth and slender fingers caressed her lips as she savored the memory of Olivia’s impassioned kiss.

The only other man she’d ever been with was Frank, and that was just ... a horrible mistake. Yes, he was a good man, and yes, he would have made a good husband, she supposed, but she felt no physical desire for him whatsoever. The day they’d had sex she’d only wanted to comfort him after his brother Coop had died in a car crash almost exactly a year after the accident that killed Nicky. It was an emotion-charged time for everyone who knew the Cooper family. She personally knew the agony of that kind of pain, and she hated to see Frank suffering; Frank, the man who was working to help her son—her beloved child!—escape the prison system and find his rightful place in the world. How could she possibly repay that?

Well, she’d repaid him all right. She’d done her best to assuage his suffocating grief and ended up doing it in the only way possible, by giving him the one thing he wanted—her, her body, her physical comfort. It wasn’t what she’d intended, nor what she wanted. She knew at the time it was wrong. It felt wrong. She wanted desperately to back out, to push him away after that first kiss, to tell him no, that it was a mistake, that she was sorry, that she just couldn’t do this no matter how much she wanted to comfort him, no matter how grateful she was for the help he was giving her son, but it was too late. By then he was already pressing her down on the bed, kissing her, touching her, oblivious to her physical discomfort and emotional distress. She shuddered. How could I ever possibly have thought I could marry Frank Cooper and be his wife—till death do us part?

Her not-so-pleasant journey down memory lane was interrupted by the sound of the bathroom door opening, and the next thing she knew there was Olivia staring down at her in disbelief.

"What are you still doing here?"

Natalia did not miss the tone of exasperation nor the anguished expression in eyes that were now the color of the deep blue sea.

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

Olivia continued to stare at the beautiful woman sitting serenely on her bed. She felt confused. She thought surely Natalia would leave. In fact, she was certain she’d have run screaming. Surely she wanted nothing to do with someone as out of control as Olivia felt, even if Natalia did profess to love her. Or maybe that had changed by now, too. Maybe Natalia had realized it wasn’t love, it was ... friendship ... yes, a close, loving, passionate— No, no, no, not passionate, Spencer. She shook her head, then realized Natalia had said something. "What was that?"

"I said I was waiting for you."

"I told you I was sorry."

"That’s not why."

"I don’t know what else to say, Natalia, so if you just need to yell at me or hit me or..." Olivia paused long enough to realize Natalia didn’t really seem angry. She could always tell when the feisty young woman was angry, it wasn’t all that difficult after all, but this wasn’t anger sparking from her eyes; it was ... hell, she wasn’t sure what it was. No, she did know. It was love; that’s what it was. No, no, that’s wrong. It couldn’t be. Not after today. God, I’m an idiot. Of course she’s angry. How could she not be?

"Olivia!"

Natalia’s sharp command instantly halted the tumultuous thoughts jostling about in Olivia’s mind, and she made a concerted effort to focus. "What?"

"Olivia," Natalia continued in a softer tone, "you’ve got to listen to me. And I mean you really need to hear me, okay?"

Olivia nodded, but she couldn’t help the feeling of dread that filled her up like bile gushing up from an over-stressed stomach.

"Come here," Natalia said, patting the mattress.

Olivia shook her head vigorously. No way was she going anywhere near ... that!

With a sigh Natalia stood and moved purposefully in Olivia’s direction. Olivia immediately jerked into gear and awkwardly backed up, but slammed to a stop when her backside smacked against the wall. Natalia calmly took both of Olivia’s hands in hers and pulled them close to her chest, effectively trapping Olivia between her body and the wall. There was nowhere to go.

Olivia felt panicked. She felt exhausted. She felt ... hopeless, like she was trapped in a never-ending nightmare. Is this day ever going to end? If only the floor would open up and swallow me whole. Now that would be a fitting end for Olivia Spencer, the hotelier who got gobbled up by her own hotel.

Suddenly she was aware of dark eyes boring into her. She slumped back against the wall. Clearly this was hell, which meant it was going to last for infinity. Great! I’m being punished for my sins, she thought. She could imagine Natalia’s little Virgin Mary statue nodding her tiny head in approval. Okay, fine. I deserve it. She decided she might as well just relax and take the drubbing she was about to get from the person she loved beyond all reason, the person who was angry and ... and disgusted, she thought bitterly ... and rightfully so!

"Olivia, you need to try to stay with me. You’ve got to listen to me, but I can tell you’re a thousand miles away. I know you’re ... hurting. I know you’re scared, but I want you to trust me, okay?"

Olivia hesitated and finally nodded. "Okay." She could see Natalia searching her face, so she carefully slapped on her trademark "poker face," a face she liked to think hid her deepest, most secret thoughts. Unfortunately she remembered Natalia seemed able to read that face as well, if not better, than any other facade Olivia might assume when she wanted to conceal her true feelings. That woman was just so ... so irritating sometimes! Well, screw it! she thought, concentrating on smoothing away any telltale signs of the bubbling cauldron that had lodged itself in her chest. I’m not going to give away any more than I already have today, that’s for damn sure.

"First of all," Natalia continued, "I’m not angry at you. I’m not disappointed in you or disgusted or whatever else you might be thinking."

Olivia looked at Natalia in amazement. How does she do that? she wondered. Can she actually read my mind? Maybe she could get a job as a psychic: "Have crystal ball. Will lay bare your most painful innermost secrets."

"I’m not upset with you in any way."

"I saw the ... the look on your face, Natalia ... the shock." Olivia choked back a sob and hated herself for her show of weakness.

"Yes, I was shocked."

"I know, I know...I don’t know what came over me." Olivia paused. Actually she did know. It was love and passion and ... lust. She was just so in love and she was definitely at a place where she ached to act on those feelings, all of them, even if a certain other entirely-too-gorgeous-for-her-own-good someone was not.

"Olivia, it wasn’t a ‘bad’ shock."

"I know it was bad ... wait ... what?" What the hell did that mean?

"It wasn’t a ‘bad’ shock, Olivia. It was just that ... you made me feel things, things I’ve never felt before."

"Feel things?" Olivia felt like a swimmer who’d tripped off the starting block long seconds after the other competitors had knifed smoothly into the water and was now floundering in the heated pool trying to figure out which way was up and which way was the finish line—and she just had no freaking idea. Get a grip, Spencer, she implored. Oh god. She realized Natalia was still talking. Did she just mention Gus? Shut up and listen, for Christ’s sake! "Uhm....Gus?" she prompted, in hopes of picking up the thread of Natalia’s thoughts.

Natalia smiled patiently, and Olivia realized her latina beauty knew full well she’d gone missing from the last bit of conversation.

"I said I loved Gus."

"Okay."

"I loved Gus and I liked when he kissed me and when we ... when we made love."

Olivia nodded. This was just great. She SO wanted to hear about Natalia having SEX with someone ELSE.

"But I never felt anything with him like I just felt when you ..." Natalia took a deep breath and whispered softly, "When you kissed me." She peered intently at Olivia. "And with Frank..."

Olivia’s chin dropped to her chest, and she stifled a groan. Oh god! I REALLY do NOT want to hear about Frank, thank you very much. It was hard enough hearing about that back when it happened. Do we really have to rehash it now? Isn’t this day painful enough to suit you yet? Forget Frank, she silently pleaded. Let’s go back to the part about where I kissed you and you felt something, something you didn’t feel with Gus.

"With Frank," Natalia continued, "it was just ... " She thought about Frank’s too-intimate kisses and worshipful caresses and grimaced. "It was just wrong. It felt all ... wrong. I hated that I did that ... that I let him do that."

"So ... what are you saying?"

"I’m saying I love you. I’m saying I loved when you kissed me. I’m telling you I have never, ever, felt like that with anyone else before."

"Felt like what?" Olivia watched in wonder as a deep blush stained Natalia’s beautiful tan cheeks even darker.

"Like I was on fire, like I ... like I never wanted the kiss to end ... like I wanted you to hold me tight and never let me go."

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

Chapter 4

Natalia gazed up into Olivia’s face, searching her perfect features for a reaction, for any sign she’d heard and understood. Truthfully Natalia still wasn’t sure what all this meant or what came next. She was only sure she couldn’t bear a life without Olivia in it, without her precious little Emma, without her family. She had to bring them both back home to the farmhouse; then eventually Rafe’s time at the halfway house would be over, and her family would be complete. She had every intention of making that happen, and her heart swelled with joy at the thought.

However, the center of her universe was just standing there mute and pale—and trembling. Is she even breathing? What if it’s her heart? she wondered with some trepidation. What if all of this—this long, difficult, emotional day—has just been too much for her heart? All she could envision was the sight of Olivia lying on the sidewalk in front of Company last winter, the day her new heart stopped. Natalia had felt her own heart stop as she watched Remy administer CPR while Olivia lay ghostly pale on the snow-covered concrete, her golden brown hair haloing around her beautiful face. I can’t go through that again, she thought, fully panicked now.

"Olivia!" Natalia grasped Olivia’s upper arms and gently shook her. "Olivia, are you all right? Say something!"

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

Olivia was stunned. The minute she heard Natalia’s declaration, she froze, fearing the slightest movement might shatter this perfect moment in time. Her thoughts were spinning so rapidly through her head she literally could not catch a single one, and so merely stood there, gaping at Natalia as though she had no discernible brain activity.

"Olivia? Did you hear what I said?"

Natalia’s gentle shaking jerked her back into the moment and she took a deep breath. "Yeah."

"Are you okay?"

Now there’s a good question, Olivia thought. She was beyond relieved she hadn’t frightened Natalia into the next county, but... Never wanted the kiss to end. The phrase looped over and over through her mind. Never wanted the kiss to end. Oh my god. She felt positively giddy. Was there a chance for them after all? She wanted to grab Natalia and give her that unending kiss right there and then, but some primal instinct held her back.

Her eyes slid off to the side, away from Natalia, vaguely focusing on the lemony yellow pool of light cast by the small lamp in the corner. She knew they were still not in the same place. She was acutely aware she’d had much more time than Natalia to process feelings. Best to proceed with caution, Spencer. You know good and well she’s not ready for anything too ... heavy ... and you sure don’t want to scare her off, or worse, disgust her with something she’s not ready for and probably never will be ready for. She shook her head with dismay. Now there’s a nauseating prospect, she thought, all feelings of giddiness evaporating.

She remembered Natalia with her prayer beads, Natalia talking to her little Virgin Mary statue, Natalia lighting a candle at the church, and she realized Natalia would never be ready for what Olivia ached for. This is so never going to work. Suddenly she felt the room tilt and vaguely noted the pool of light from the lamp seemed to be receding. Maybe the bulb was going bad?

"Olivia!"

Olivia jerked herself back upright, only then realizing she’d swayed toward the light, nearly losing her balance in the process. What the hell’s wrong with me? Oh wait...maybe it’s the fact I ruined a life today—no, several lives actually. That’ll take it outta ya’.

"I think you should come and sit down before you keel over," Natalia said, tugging her toward the bed.

"No, that’s okay. I’m fine," Olivia said as she yanked one hand free and pirouetted awkwardly, determined to steer clear of the bed. "Really," she panted, finally succeeding in extricating both hands from Natalia’s grip. She vaguely wondered if Natalia had ever engaged in intramural wrestling because, holy hell, that woman had skills!

"You look pale. Have you eaten?" Natalia asked.

"I ate," Olivia mumbled.

"When?"

"Uhm..." Oh great. Here comes the Spanish Inquisition. She could actually feel the guilty expression spread itself over her face. "This morning?"

"Olivia! That was hours and hours ago. You’ve got to take better care of yourself than that. You’ll make yourself sick again. What would Dr. Rick say?"

And there’s the Guilt Trip. Olivia sighed. "I know, I know. Usually I do pretty well."

The two women stood several feet apart now glaring at each other, one with hands on hips in battle mode and the other with arms wrapped around herself in a posture of self-preservation.

Natalia frowned. "Pretty well, huh? Well, that’s not good enough, Olivia."

Olivia felt Natalia’s dark eyes drilling into her. This is not good, she thought. Nope, not good at all. I so know what’s coming next.

"You’re coming home with me, and I’m going to make sure you eat properly."

Yep, she could see that coming from a mile away. Maybe she was psychic, too: "Have crystal ball. Will use it to find the quickest way to destroy your life. Extra charge for each additional life destroyed in the process."

"I’ll be fine. I’ll order something in and I’ll be ... I’ll be just fine."

"You’re nowhere near fine, Olivia. You have no color in your face. And look at you. You’re trembling."

"I am not!" Actually she realized she was trembling, but she really didn’t think it had anything to do with food or lack thereof.

"You are too, and I’m not leaving you here like this. You’re coming home with me and that’s final." Natalia’s eyes flashed with determination.

Olivia shook her head slowly. Don’t you understand I can’t risk trying to go back? She imagined long nights alone in her bed at the farmhouse, longing for someone who would never, ever, be able to bring herself to enter into a fully realized relationship with another woman. Olivia was certain Natalia would never betray her faith, her church, her God to live "in sin" with another woman. But hey, I could go back to the farmhouse and live with a woman I want desperately and can never have. Yeah, there’s some fun times.

She thought about how her feelings for Natalia had morphed from vague longing to agonizing need. I can’t go back, she thought, because, unlike you, I want a relationship that’s everything, that’s emotional and physical—and by "physical" I mean sex, damn it!

The torment of the past months weighed her down as though she were lying beneath the concrete rubble of a collapsed building, making it impossible to draw breath. Her head bowed as she remembered her shock on realizing her feelings toward Natalia had begun to include some not-so-chaste fantasies—fantasies of kissing sweet lips, exploring soft curves—and the fantasies didn’t stop there. Eventually she’d experienced an epiphany, one that finally explained the jumble of emotions, the mood swings—and let’s not forget the outrageous gifts she’d tried to bestow on Natalia, she mused, including a house for Christ’s sake (which sadly Natalia had refused). Olivia Spencer—femme fatale, tough businesswoman—had finally realized months ago that she loved Natalia Rivera, was in love with her, in love with another woman, and wanted to be close to her in every way possible.

And now Natalia was offering her a way back, a way to come home, a way to live in the same house, breathe the same air, share the same life. So what if I can’t have everything I want? Is that so bad? Wouldn’t it be better to have a little part of Natalia, whatever she could bring herself to share with me? Wouldn’t that be better than losing her completely? Come on, Spencer. You can do this.

She thought a moment, imagining the endless nights alone in her luxurious queen-sized bed at the farmhouse, knowing Natalia was just a few stealthy footsteps down the hallway. Her shoulders slumped. I can’t. I really cannot do this. It would just kill me. Better to mercifully end things now and help her move on.

"I can’t, Natalia. I just can’t go back."

Natalia gazed steadily at Olivia, her expression unreadable. "I’m not leaving you alone here, not when I’m worried there might be something wrong, not when you haven’t been taking care of yourself. You haven’t even eaten, Olivia."

"Don’t fuss! I’m fine. I’ll get some ... whatever ... order something. And there’s nothing wrong with my heart!" Except, of course, that it’s shattered into a million pieces, she thought.

"All right, fine," Natalia said.

Olivia was relieved. That had certainly gone much better than she thought it would. Natalia was frequently much more difficult to get off point. "Okay, then. You should go. Come on, let’s get your coat."

Olivia took Natalia’s arm and began to pull her toward the door, but Natalia spun away, out of Olivia’s grasp, marched over to the bed, and plopped herself down, sitting upright against the pillows with her legs crossed at the ankles. "I’m not going anywhere. I’ll just stay here with you tonight and take care of you and make sure you eat something."

"NO!" Olivia shouted in alarm. No way was she going to spend the night with Natalia in her bedroom—in her bed! No way in hell! she thought. For god’s sake, I’m only human and really, there’s just so much I can take. She squeezed her eyes closed and rubbed the aching spot between her eyes. Could I see what’s behind Door #2? Maybe it’s a bed of nails. That’d be an improvement.

"Either I’m staying here or you’re coming with me back to the farmhouse," Natalia intoned. "Either way I’m not going to leave you on your own to starve yourself to death. And Olivia?" Natalia continued in a much softer tone. "We have to talk. You know that."

Despite herself, Olivia found herself nodding. We do need to talk, she acknowledged, at least to herself, noting the worried frown haunting Natalia’s delicate features. She really didn’t want to talk anymore about any of this. Between the graveside confession and that little gazebo tête-à-tête, she felt pretty much ALL talked out.

But then there was that frown, and all she wanted to do was make it go away. Suddenly she realized there really was no choice to be made here. Despite her best intentions, she felt her resolve crumple and fade away.

Olivia looked back up and found Natalia watching her intently. Gray-green eyes locked with brown, and then to her astonishment she saw Natalia’s tiny frown transform into a dazzling white smile, and dear god there were those dimples! Oh crap! I am so screwed. How could she know the very second I gave in? Olivia felt herself melting under the brilliance of that beaming smile. Spencer, you better never let her know the effect she has on you. She groaned inwardly when it occurred to her that maybe the pretty young woman already knew. That would certainly explain the look of triumph shining from dark eyes. Crap, crap, crap!

Natalia pushed Olivia towards the bathroom door. "Go get your toiletries and I’ll start packing your overnight bag."

Olivia teetered uncertainly. Am I doing the right thing? Shouldn’t I just make her leave me right now, free her up to find someone else, someone she could be with without all the problems, the whispers, the stares that a relationship with another woman would thrust into her life? Wasn’t that just too selfish? Too difficult? Too goddamned impossible? Natalia would get past whatever this was she was feeling, wouldn’t she? And then she could have the life she deserves, and I’ll get the solitary hell I deserve after so thoroughly screwing everything up!

"Go on," Natalia prodded. "I’ll cook for you tonight, and you can rest up and get to feeling better, okay?"

Secretly Olivia loved when Natalia cooked for her. She realized Natalia had no idea she was a chef. She’d certainly not prepared any of her amazing specialty dishes for over a year because of the heart failure, subsequent heart transplant, and slow, problematic recovery. In all honesty, she much preferred Natalia’s tuna casserole to any of the fancy meals she was capable of producing. However, still resistant, she said, "I don’t know, Natalia. I’m just not sure what good this’ll do."

"When are you supposed to pick up Emma from her sleepover?"

"Sunday afternoon."

"Okay, you’ll stay with me at the farmhouse, and then we’ll go pick her up together. That way we’ll have the weekend to talk. And Olivia," Natalia added softly. "You know we have to talk about this."

Do we have to? Olivia thought glumly. Personally she’d said pretty much all she had to say on the subject. She’d told Natalia she was in love with her, she couldn’t give her the kind of life she deserved, and Natalia needed to move on. Yep, that pretty much covered all of her bulleted points.

"Olivia?"

"All right," Olivia finally said. "But just for tonight, okay?"

"We’ll see." Natalia made shooing motions with her hands. "Go on. It’s still snowing out and we need to get going before the roads get any worse."

Olivia could see Natalia grinning happily as she busied herself stuffing the overnight bag with the few items Olivia had brought back to the penthouse, and then finally with a sigh she turned and obediently shuffled off toward the bathroom to retrieve what she needed from there. Oh, that’s right, she thought. It doesn’t really matter if I’m doing the right thing because I just do not have a freaking choice in the matter! However, she did have to concede that the two of them would have to hash through things. After all, she had to help Natalia see the utter impossibility of their situation. Helping her do that, well, it would be a kindness in the long run, and Olivia owed her that much.

By the time Olivia returned to the bedroom, Natalia was waiting for her with her heavy wool coat and muffler. Olivia stuffed her bath items in the bag and zipped it shut.

"Come on and bundle up. It’s cold outside," Natalia said, as she helped Olivia pull her coat on and drape her muffler snugly around her neck. Then she grabbed the overnight bag in one hand and Olivia’s arm in the other, and marched resolutely toward the door. When they crossed the threshold, Natalia abruptly turned, hugged Olivia tightly to her, and whispered happily, "We’re going home!"

Home. Olivia’s heart ached with longing for the home they’d made together, but any joy she felt at the prospect of returning there tonight with Natalia was marred by the certainty that it was destined to be temporary—not to mention unpleasant what with all the "talking out" they were going to have to do. Boy, that’s going to be fun! Yep, I can just hardly wait. How many times did she have to point out to this obstinate woman that her religious beliefs and her shame over her feelings for another woman—a shame that was abundantly clear when Natalia had made her own confession of love in the gazebo—made any kind of real relationship between the two of them utterly impossible?

Too emotional to respond verbally, Olivia merely nodded her head and let the jubilant younger woman drag her toward the elevator—and toward home ... at least for one last brief moment in time. God, this is going to be painful, she thought with a heavy sigh.

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

Chapter 5

The farmhouse was a beautiful sight at dusk, especially now with a fresh blanket of pristine snow making it look for all the world like a perfect winter wonderland scene from a Hallmark card. Natalia could see her breath billow crisp and white into the air when she exited the warmth of the car. She grabbed Olivia’s bag from the back and watched Olivia drag herself up out of the car with no small effort and pause to gaze toward the farmhouse. Natalia’s breath caught at the sight of Olivia standing motionless in the swirling snow. You are so beautiful, she thought.

Just then Olivia turned towards her, eyes shining, and Natalia felt a sense of peace and certainty. She’d brought her love home and she’d make sure she never lost her again.

"Come on, let’s get you inside and get you fed," Natalia said.

Olivia nodded, and the two women headed toward the farmhouse door, boots crunching across the snow_covered porch.

Once inside Natalia was a whirlwind of activity. She carried Olivia’s bag up to her old room, then left her there to get settled while she hurried back down to the kitchen to fix them both something to eat. Olivia was entirely too pale and way too quiet. She’d been through too much in the aftermath of her transplant to be able to deal easily with the kind of emotional and physical stress she’d been through that day—that entire week, really, what with the engagement party and the wedding planning and then the toll of this long, emotional day full of confessions and joy and heartbreak. No wonder Olivia looked like a ghost, albeit a very beautiful ghost.

Natalia bustled about her beloved kitchen, humming softly as she prepared the meal and set the table. Suddenly she felt a pinprick of awareness and turned away from the stove to see Olivia leaning against the doorframe watching her intently with those smokey gray_green eyes. "Hungry?"

"Is that what I think it is?" Olivia asked with a lift of one perfectly sculpted brow.

Natalia grinned and nodded.

Olivia chuckled. "Well, I do love your tuna noodle casserole."

"I know," Natalia laughed.

"What can I do to help?"

"Nothing. Just sit down. It’s almost ready."

"I could get the drinks?" Olivia said, heading toward the cabinet where they kept the wine, a cabinet she’d always made sure was well stocked.

"I made you hot spiced tea," Natalia said quickly. "I thought that might hit the spot on a cold night like this." She wasn’t sure wine was the best idea for someone who looked like she was already on the verge of passing out.

Olivia hesitated, her hand on the cabinet doorhandle.

"It has cimma- ... cinnanon ..." Natalia giggled. Why did she always have so much trouble making that word come out right?

"Cinnamon?" Olivia laughed. "Then by all means...bring it on."

Olivia’s smile transformed her face, and Natalia was transfixed.

"Here, I’ll get the cups," Olivia said.

But Natalia stopped her, her hand covering Olivia’s as it rested on the cabinet door. They wrestled for a moment, giggling as their fingers entwined. They stood like that for a moment, fingers interlaced, soft skin against soft skin, until finally Olivia let go.

"Oh fine. I’ll just go sit down and let you wait on me," Olivia said.

"Finally!"

"It’s not like I’m dying to do chores, you know."

"Oh, I know," Natalia grinned.

As they ate their simple meal, Natalia noticed with satisfaction that a bit of color was returning to Olivia’s pale cheeks, and she offered a silent prayer of thanks. Afterwards she shooed Olivia out of the kitchen despite her attempts to help clear the table. "Just go on. I’ll be out in minute," Natalia said.

"Fine."

"Fine," Natalia laughed, giving her a gentle push toward the living room. She felt happier than she had in ages. Olivia was home and all was right in her world.

When Natalia finally entered the living room, she discovered Olivia lying on the couch sound asleep. Finally her face was smoothed clear of any sign of tension, and her cheeks had a faint tinge of pink, unlike the deathly pallor from before. Olivia had never looked more beautiful to her eyes, and it completely melted her heart. It reminded her of seeing Olivia lying unconscious

in the hospital after that scary episode with her pacemaker battery, a little event that had frightened Natalia senseless. Her relief when Dr. Rick pronounced it a battery malfunction, not a problem with Olivia’s new heart, was palpable.

She knelt down by the couch and brushed Olivia’s honeyed brown hair back from her face, her eyes lovingly scanning every inch of her beloved features. I couldn’t bear to lose you, Olivia, she thought. She ran her fingers lightly over Olivia’s forehead and then cradled her cheek, marveling at its softness. Her eyes roved wantonly over her hair, her brow, her shuttered eyes,

and finally lingered on Olivia’s lips. How she longed to lean forward and taste those lips once more, feel Olivia’s mouth on hers, feel Olivia’s passion sweep them both away. She’d never before longed so much for anything.

Just then Olivia’s eyes opened and she gazed groggily up at Natalia. "What’s up?" she slurred, still not fully awake.

"Nothing. I’m just glad to see you have a bit of color in your cheeks now."

"Well, I do feel better."

"See? I told you," Natalia said with a sly smile.

"Oh fine."

They both laughed as Olivia sat up with a small groan, but then Natalia watched with dismay as Olivia’s smile slowly faded.

"I guess we should talk," Olivia said.

"Not now."

"But you said..."

"Not now."

"Well, we’re going to have to talk about things sometime."

"I know, but not now, Olivia. You’re tired; in fact, you’re obviously exhausted, so I think you should go up and get some sleep."

Natalia could see a faint look of doubt cloud Olivia’s face.

"Are you sure? ‘Cause I’m okay, really, and maybe we should get some things ... well, straightened out."

"Nope. You’re going to bed. Come on."

Natalia grabbed Olivia’s hands and pulled her to her feet. She would brook no argument when it came to Olivia’s health.

"You’re just plain bossy sometimes. You do know that, don’t you?" Olivia asked.

Natalia laughed. "Up you go." She led Olivia to the stairway, and the two of them climbed the stairs slowly arm in arm. Once they reached the door to Olivia’s bedroom, Natalia turned Olivia toward her. "Thank you," she said.

"For what?"

"For coming home with me tonight."

Olivia nodded.

Natalia wrapped her arms around Olivia in a close embrace, breathing in all the Olivia scents she’d grown to love, a heady mixture of her shampoo, her body lotion, and the unique fragrance of her skin. She could feel those eyes on her, eyes that seemed to be darkening from light to dark green as she watched in fascination.

Her own dark eyes lowered to Olivia’s mouth, Olivia’s lips .... She could feel herself being pulled as if by a magnet, and without thinking she leaned forward, pressing her lips to Olivia’s in a slow, sweet, searching kiss. She could feel Olivia’s body melting into hers, feel her arms tightening around her, feel her breath on her skin, feel the softness of her lips, so unlike anything she’d experienced before. She could also feel an unbelievable heat permeating her body, as though she were filling up with thick, hot, molten liquid. The ache at her center radiated out and up and everywhere, until her entire body seemed to be one big, throbbing ache.

After what seemed like an eternity, she pulled back, feeling a little disoriented. She noted Olivia looked as disoriented as she felt. She was dying to kiss her again, to just get lost in the sensations, lost in the kiss, lost in Olivia—but she knew Olivia was exhausted, and the thought drew her back to a more rational place. Olivia needed rest, and she would make sure she got

the rest she needed.

"Good night, Olivia," she whispered, and then reluctantly turned and padded off to her own room.

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

Chapter 6

Olivia stood stock-still, dazed from the unexpected kiss. She could not have been more surprised if the skies had opened up and begun to rain down hundred-dollar bills. She gingerly touched her lips, savoring the sensation. Oh ... my ... god! She closed her eyes and leaned back against the bedroom door for much needed support. She could feel her heart thundering in her chest.

What the hell was that? Good god, women were confusing—or at least this one was. Just when she thought she knew exactly where they were headed, what Natalia wanted, or more importantly, what Natalia didn’t want, the maddening woman had to go and do something like ... that, leaving Olivia completely off balance. She’s killing me. She’s just freaking killing me here, she thought. She kisses me. She leaves me. I think she must ... I think she’s ... Hell, I don’t know what she’s doing.

Olivia felt woozy, whether from the kiss or the exhaustion she wasn’t entirely sure. She opened her bedroom door, stumbled over to the bed in the dark, and collapsed onto the mattress. She’d barely had time to pull the covers over her aching body before she fell into a deep sleep, a sleep filled with disquieting dreams of a dark-eyed beauty who held her heart irrevocably captive.

The next morning Olivia struggled to swim up out of the murky depths of a troubling dream. It felt like trying to regain consciousness after being sedated in the hospital the last time she was there with that little battery incident. Was that really just a few weeks ago? It seemed like an eternity. Slowly she became aware of faint sounds of ... well, some kind of activity, but she couldn’t tell exactly what.

She cautiously opened one eye and frowned, as the other one just didn’t seem to want to follow suit no matter how hard she tried. Where the hell was she? Not at the penthouse apparently. Her one open eye fell on her overnight bag sitting in a corner of the room, and with a start she remembered exactly where she was ... and with whom ... and why. She sat bolt upright. Yes, she remembered what was on the docket for the day: The Talk. They were going to have to have The Talk.

Olivia rubbed the bridge of her nose. Gee, I can hardly wait, she thought. I mean ... I haven’t had my heart ripped out of my chest in at least— She looked at the alarm clock she’d left behind on the night stand by her bed. In at least ten hours. I’m overdue. I better get crackin’!

Memories of Natalia’s sweet kiss in the darkened hallway the night before floated blissfully through her head, but she shoved them away. She just couldn’t get that unexpected kiss to fit into the reality of their current situation, which in her mind was utterly hopeless. Trying to fit it in was like working on a jigsaw puzzle of the Mojave Desert and finding one puzzle piece sporting a bright red rose. There was just no freaking way to fit that into the barren desert landscape! And she’d be darned if she could fit that kiss puzzle piece into the jigsaw puzzle of her messed-up life.

Finally she gave up trying to figure it out and dragged herself off the bed. She pulled on a pair of jeans and a navy blue sweater, and groggily headed off in the direction of where she would hopefully find some coffee—and plenty of it. God, she hated mornings!

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

Natalia looked up the minute she heard Olivia stumble into the kitchen doorway. Apparently she’d misjudged by a few inches and gotten hung up in the opening. She saw the bleary-eyed woman grab the doorframe to steady herself and had to stifle a laugh. How adorable was a sleepy Olivia first thing in the morning? The beloved sight of Olivia, half asleep and yawning, shuffling toward the kitchen table positively made her heart ache with love.

"Coffee?" Natalia asked, pouring the rich brown liquid into Olivia’s favorite coffee mug, which was unintentionally left behind the day Olivia had abruptly packed up and left.

"Nnngh," Olivia groaned.

"I’ll take that as a yes," Natalia said, laughing as she watched Olivia carefully grasp the mug with both hands and slowly guide it to her mouth, as if afraid she wasn’t quite up to the simple task.

"Not funny," Olivia muttered.

"I know," Natalia said. "You’ll feel better once you eat. I made you pancakes and there’s bacon. Or I could fix you something else, if you like."

Olivia shook her head, so Natalia placed a plate of food down in front of Olivia and watched happily as she finally began to eat. She couldn’t remember feeling so at peace.

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

How could Natalia be so damned cheerful in the mornings? Olivia wondered. That is SO not normal, she thought, eyeing the other woman askance. Not normal at all. Still ... Her eyes roved over Natalia’s face and figure. She was wearing black jeans and boots and a somewhat low-cut dark purple sweater that hugged her curves perfectly, which was pretty much what Olivia wanted to do. Natalia did look so pretty in the mornings, all bright and alert and ... cheery.

Olivia pushed her nearly empty plate away and, bracing her elbows on the tabletop, dropped her head into her hands. Her fun day was starting. Oh joy.

"Are you okay?" Natalia asked.

Olivia looked up. "Yeah, I’m fine," she said. "That was good," she added. "Thanks." Her heart skipped a beat when Natalia flashed her dimples in a big grin, and she could feel herself grinning back in spite of herself. Jesus, a person could get lost in those dimples.

She mentally shook herself. Get a grip, for Christ’s sake, she thought. She looked around the kitchen for the little Virgin Mary statue, but didn’t see her. Well, that’s a relief. Can’t be taking the Lord’s name in vain around this place. No, sirree, mustn’t do that. And you could never really be sure where the tiny figure might pop up next, as Natalia had a habit of moving her from room to room depending on where she wanted to have one of their little "chats," at least a few of which, Olivia would wager, featured Olivia herself.

"Olivia?" Natalia stood up from the table and began to gather up the breakfast dishes.

"Mm?" Here it comes, she thought morosely.

"I think we should go for a little walk."

"I know, I know we should. Uh ... wait ... what?"

"Let’s go outside. It’ll be fun. It’s so pretty out there with all the snow. And besides, I think it’d do you good to go outside and get a little fresh air."

"I ... uhm ..." Shouldn’t we be having The Talk. You know, the Painful Talk? I’m sure I have that right on my scheduler: Saturday, 9:00 a.m. Painful Talk. Yep, there it is.

"Please?" Natalia said. She set her empty plate on top of Olivia’s, her fingers caressing the porcelain edge of the blue willowware as she gazed down at Olivia.

Olivia could see Natalia’s eyes shining, could see the barest hint of a smile as she waited for Olivia’s answer. Gee, freezing her butt off—first thing in the morning—was just so darned ... appealing. Maybe she could take a nap in a snowbank while Miss Country Living soaked up the rural atmosphere.

And yet ... those eyes, those gorgeous dark eyes, at once guileless and mysterious and just so ... mesmerizing. Olivia sighed. Might as well give in now instead of exhausting herself in an argument and then giving in later, as she knew she inevitably would. And people think I’m a force to be reckoned with, she thought. Finally she shrugged. "Okay."

With a merry flash of dimples, Natalia leaned down and hugged Olivia, cheeks touching briefly, strands of dark and golden brown hair intermingling. "Okay, let’s go," Natalia said as she scurried off to collect their coats.

Shortly afterwards they were bundled up and crunching their way across the icy landscape in the general direction of the duck pond. Olivia felt Natalia link arms with her and smiled. The snow-laden farmhouse, the expanse of fields now white after the previous day’s winter storm, the sun shining brightly from above and glinting back up from the crystalline white ground—everything was heartbreakingly beautiful, and only more so with Natalia by her side, drinking it in with her. She filled her lungs with frigid air and it invigorated her.

They strolled past the barn and around the duck pond. There was a gentle chill breeze, just enough to riffle playfully through Natalia’s thick dark hair and summon rosy highlights to tan cheeks. Natalia looked serene and happy, her dark features standing out in stark contrast to the white world around them, and Olivia was filled with wonder at the breathtaking sight. She felt as though they were safely tucked away in their very own little snow globe, a self-contained universe with an exquisite wintry snowscape.

When they reached the rustic split-rail fence bordering the northern edge of the property, they stopped, and then as though with one mind, they slowly turned toward each other, gazing into each other’s eyes for a long moment. Finally Natalia moved toward Olivia, and without a word Olivia wrapped her arms around the other woman, pulling her close, feeling her warmth, breathing in her scent. She felt she had never experienced a more perfect moment.

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

Natalia pressed her face into the warmth of Olivia’s neck. She felt overwhelmed with joy. After all this time to be able to hold Olivia close like this made her heart overflow with happiness. Finally she pulled back from the embrace to look at Olivia, whose face now looked flushed. She sure didn’t want to wear her out.

Olivia would never admit to it, but she was still not completely recovered from the past year’s arduous health journey, even though for the most part she seemed to be. Natalia knew she still got tired easily and knew it was very important for her to take care of herself, something Olivia never quite did to Natalia’s satisfaction. She thought getting her outside in the crisp air might help her get her mind off the stresses of recent events and help her to relax. For the last twenty-four hours, Olivia had been like a too-tightly strung guitar string, and Natalia did not want that string to snap. I couldn’t bear it if anything happened to you, she thought as she peered into Olivia’s eyes, which were now a pale gray-green.

"I think it’s time to head back," Natalia said. "You look pretty cold."

Olivia nodded with a faint grin.

Natalia took Olivia’s gloved hand in hers, and together they turned back, slowly retracing their footprints in the snow, oblivious to the dark storm clouds gathering on the horizon. They remained quiet on the walk back to the farmhouse, quiet as they removed and hung up their coats and mufflers, quiet as they turned to each other.

Finally Natalia broke the silence. "I’ll make us some hot chocolate. Why don’t you go in by the fire, and I’ll be there in a minute."

When she brought the steaming mugs in and set them on the coffee table, Olivia was sitting on the couch, elbows on her knees, chin propped on one hand. "Are you okay?" Natalia asked.

"Sure," Olivia smiled. "That smells good."

She loved Olivia’s smile. In fact, the truth was it made her feel a bit lightheaded—a lightheadedness that lately came accompanied by other blush-worthy physical reactions, especially now that she knew what it was like to feel Olivia’s lips on hers. It was as though her entire body had suddenly awakened, and its wakeful state, especially when Olivia was in the vicinity, was unlike anything she’d experienced before.

Natalia watched sadly as Olivia’s beautiful smile slowly faded away. With a sigh she sat next to her on the couch and sipped her hot chocolate. She was so chilled from their wintry walk she could feel the liquid heat slide all the way down. "You look like you’re deep in thought," she said. And they don’t look like good thoughts either, she worried silently.

"Hard not to think," Olivia said.

"I know."

"What are we doing here, Natalia?" Olivia asked. "What are you doing? I love you. I know you love me, but I also know you’ll never in a million years be able to turn your back on your faith ... could never handle the reality of a relationship with me. And even if you tried, I think ..." Olivia paused and swallowed hard. "I think it’d kill you, Natalia, and I just couldn’t live with that."

Natalia glanced up at the wooden cross on the living room wall. "I can do this, Olivia."

Olivia shook her head. "No," she enunciated carefully, "you cannot!"

"You’ve got to stop trying to tell me what I can and cannot do," Natalia said, voice raising a few decibels and eyes sparking ominously. You can just be the most maddening person, she thought. Sometimes she didn’t know whether to strangle her or hug her or— She blushed at her next thought. Olivia just made her feel like a giddy schoolgirl, and no one had ever made her feel like that, not even Nicky back in the days when she actually was a schoolgirl. Certainly no one had ever driven her to such emotional extremes.

"Look," Olivia cut in.

"No, you look! I told you I love you, and I meant it. I love you, Olivia!" She had to get Olivia to stop pushing her away. "I want you to move back in here ... with Emma ... for good."

"I don’t think you’ve really thought this through, Natalia."

"I think about this all the time. I think about you."

"But the implications of ... us ... what that would mean ..." Olivia shook her head wearily.

"I know."

"What about Rafe? What about Emma?"

"My son has told me repeatedly he just wants me to be happy, and you make me happy, Olivia. And you know how Emma’s been here on the farm with us. You yourself said you’d never seen her happier."

"What about what other people think ... like the parents at Emma’s school, for example?"

"They already think we’re a couple, don’t they? And I really don’t think those two mothers at the restaurant—you know, the ones you told I was a ‘hottie’ while you had your arm wrapped around my waist? I don’t think they’d believe we’re not a couple at this point," Natalia smirked.

Olivia laughed, but then Natalia watched her face grow more somber. "Okay, fine, but what about your faith? What about your church? What about your God, Natalia?" Olivia abruptly stood up and paced over to the fireplace before turning back around and pinning Natalia with an accusing look. "That’s why you’re ashamed of ... this ... of us, and that’s why we are never going to happen."

"You are so wrong, Olivia." Natalia stood and moved towards Olivia. She lay her hand on Olivia’s shoulder, but Olivia shrugged her off and strode over to the window looking out over the porch. Natalia followed her and stood behind her, aching to just wrap her arms around Olivia’s body and never let her go. She could just see the edge of the bench they’d shared so many times over the last months—talking, laughing, drinking, sometimes crying. "You’re just wrong about this, Olivia."

"I don’t think so."

"Well, you are. You can be wrong, you know."

"I know I can be wrong; I just know I’m not wrong about this." Olivia folded her arms over her chest, as her eyes suddenly focused on the horizon. "It’s starting to cloud over out there. Maybe there’s another storm coming."

"Don’t change the subject. Just listen."

Olivia turned back to face Natalia. "Okay, I’m listening. Go ahead and explain to me how on earth this can ever possibly be right in your world?"

Natalia took Olivia’s hands and pressed them to her bosom. "When I stood in the church, facing Frank, with you right behind me, and tried to say my wedding vows, my throat just closed up. I kept trying to clear it, but it wasn’t working. There I was in God’s house about to tell a lie ... and I couldn’t. And then after weeks of praying for answers that just wouldn’t come, I heard myself speaking, and it almost felt like God was speaking to me and through me. Do you remember what I said?"

Olivia just looked puzzled, so Natalia continued. "I said that when you feel love, you’re experiencing that love through God, that you're allowed to feel what He feels, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it." Natalia tightened her grip on Olivia’s hands. "I said it’s a direct gift from God, and when you feel that love, you have to cherish it with all of your heart, but, Olivia..." Natalia could feel warm tears begin to slide down her cheeks.

Olivia reached up to cup her cheek as her thumb gently tried to brush away the tears.

"As I heard myself say those words, I realized I’d been given such a gift ... from God ... but it wasn’t a love for Frank; it was a love for you, Olivia. I knew this enormous love I felt for you was a gift from God." She could see tears welling up in Olivia’s eyes now. "That’s when I knew I couldn’t marry Frank, so I ... I ran. I ran out of God’s house. I was so confused and lost, and I had no idea where I was going; but then I found myself in the gazebo at your park, and soon there you were, like a beautiful miracle, and I finally told you how I felt."

"I know, but you sounded so miserable about it, Natalia. It just broke my heart."

"I was confused. I was scared. I’d just hurt someone who’d been nothing but good to me. I admit it took awhile for me to realize it, okay? But Olivia, I know you are the person God chose for me. I know that in my heart, Olivia. That’s how I know it’s right. You are everything to me, and I want you ... I need you in my life ... always. As long as I have you, I know everything else will be all right."

"How can you be sure?"

"Because I have faith."

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

Olivia was speechless. Was it possible there might be a happy ending for her? After all the times in her life when she’d come in second place, was it possible that at long last she might come first with someone? I don’t know if I dare allow myself to hope, she thought. Best to proceed with caution, because I don’t think my heart can take much more of this.

"Look, it’s easy to say that here in your little isolated farmhouse, but what about when the rest of the world intrudes? What are you going to do then? I just ... I just don’t think you can handle that, Natalia. I really don’t. I don’t think you can handle the truth in front of the rest of the world."

"I don’t know exactly how this is all going to work. I only know I want it to, Olivia, and I have faith we can figure it all out—if you’ll just give us a chance."

Olivia tried to remain strong, tried to protect her heart, which she was very sure would not survive another major heartbreak, but looking down at Natalia, she realized she was already lost. She’d risk everything to be with her. She took Natalia’s sweet face in her hands and pulled her close for a kiss, and everything else just faded away. Kissing Natalia was unbelievably sensual. She’d never kissed anyone before and felt it everywhere. For a so-called woman of the world, she’d certainly learned a whole lot of unexpected things lately, she thought, as she reveled in the warmth and wetness of Natalia’s yielding mouth.

Abruptly Natalia pulled away.

"What’s wrong?" Olivia asked, confused at Natalia’s reaction after what she’d just said.

"Do you hear that?" Natalia asked, clearly alarmed.

"No, what?"

"Someone’s knocking on the door."

"What? Who?"

"I have no idea who it could possibly be."

"Maybe they’ll just go away," Olivia said hopefully, impatient to lose herself in another kiss. I could never get enough of this, she thought, eyes drifting down to Natalia’s delicate lips.

Suddenly they heard the door to the kitchen bang open and heavy footsteps echo off the wooden floor in the kitchen. They broke apart and turned as one to see who it was.

And then Olivia saw. The rest of the world had just invaded their privacy in the form of one Detective Frank Achilles Cooper. Fucking hell! she thought, unmindful for once of what the tiny Virgin Mary statue would think of her off-color language skills. My life is just a goddamned soap opera!

She saw Natalia blanch, felt her move away, heard her breathing quicken. Well, of course. Here we go again! Why did I let myself think for even one freaking second that everything might actually work out? She looked at the earnest expression on Frank’s face, which she suddenly found supremely irritating. And why the hell does this guy think he has the right to burst in here like he’s conducting a damned drug bust?

"What are you doing here, Frank?" Natalia asked.

"I came to check on you, Natalia. I’ve left you voice mail and text messages, but you never answer. I was worried."

Olivia saw Frank glance her way as though for support, but she looked away. Sorry, that ship has sailed, Frank. You’re on your own, buddy.

"I’m sorry, Frank," Natalia said. "I know we should talk, but this ... right now is not a good time."

"Why not? You just said you know we need to talk."

"Yes, but..."

"I know you love me, Natalia," Frank said with utter confidence.

Olivia groaned softly, aware that Natalia glanced nervously in her direction, before looking back at Frank. Christ, she looks like a deer caught in the headlights—or in this case, maybe like a felon caught in a police helicopter spotlight.

"I want to do whatever I can to help you get over Gus," Frank said, oblivious to anything other than his special ops mission to recapture his bride. "I’d do anything for you. I know we can work this out." Frank grasped Natalia’s upper arms firmly, as though he could force her to be ready for "happily ever after" with him. "I still love you, Natalia."

Olivia rubbed the bridge of her nose as she turned away from the spectacle of Frank with his HANDS on Natalia ... AGAIN! I would love to just toss his butt out the door, she thought. Or ... maybe I’ll just start screaming. Yeah, screaming would be good ... a little primal scream therapy right here in the middle of the farmhouse living room. Or ... maybe I could just bang my head against the mantle till I pass out. Yep, it’s looking like a pretty good day to listen to Tosca.

She roused herself from her meandering inner dialogue and tried to focus on the couple standing in front of the couch. Oh my god ... is he still talking? Olivia leaned against the fireplace mantle for support and waited for Natalia to babble her way through another hide-and-seek conversation with "the groom."

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

Chapter 7

Natalia’s eyes flitted nervously back and forth between Frank and Olivia—Olivia solemn and silent by the window overlooking the winter storm, Frank looming over Natalia, holding too tightly to her upper arms. He was earnest and solemn and ... determined. Unexpectedly his head dipped to kiss her on the lips. She managed to avert her head just in time for his mouth to graze her cheek instead.

She glanced anxiously at Olivia, who now stood wearily rubbing her forehead as if the mother of all headaches had just exploded in her head. Natalia could practically feel Olivia thinking, and she was pretty sure they were not happy thoughts. I need to go to her ... reassure her ... tell her not to worry.

She tried to do just that, struggling to twist away from Frank, but he held her firmly in place, his brown eyes piercing into her, willing her to listen to reason—his reason. She felt cornered. She felt panicked. She felt anxious. She couldn’t think with Frank staring at her and Olivia sinking down into what Natalia knew would be chaotic and despairing thoughts. Natalia wanted to cry out in frustration. Just when she felt sure she’d almost convinced Olivia there could be an "us," in marches Frank to reestablish his claim, sending Olivia cantering off like a skittish colt.

What am I going to do? Please, Father, help me, she silently prayed. Her mind scrambled wildly for something to say, something to appease Frank, something to keep Olivia from drifting so far away from her emotionally she might never be able to reel her back in. She understood things about Olivia nobody else did. Other people saw the tough, hard-charging businesswoman, the beautiful seductress, the sardonic, aloof woman of the world; but Natalia knew how vulnerable Olivia could be, how kind, how generous. She was smart and brave, funny and unpredictable, hardheaded and exasperating. She is my life!

Suddenly a feeling of complete calm suffused her, and with it came clarity. She glanced at the wooden cross on the wall, a symbol of her faith, and it comforted her. Her eyes moved to Olivia and lingered there. Olivia was now looking out the window, arms wrapped tightly around her torso. Oh, Olivia. Her heart ached at the forlorn sight of Olivia standing alone, staring out at the darkening skies. If I could only get you to understand how much I love you—

"Natalia!"

Frank’s voice snapped her back into the present moment.

"Natalia," Frank continued, "I know you said you needed time to get over Gus. I can understand that, and I want to give you that time, but ... but I can’t stand being entirely apart from you. Please let me help you. Together we can get through anything."

"Frank," Natalia said, trying again to wriggle free from his smothering grasp. "Frank, you need to let go of me," she said softly.

Frank frowned and then his eyes widened and he abruptly let go of her arms. "I’m so sorry. Did I hurt you? I wouldn’t hurt you for the world, Natalia."

Natalia just smiled. Actually he had hurt her, his grip was so tight, but it was the least of her worries. A surreptitious glance toward the window informed her that her main "worry" was standing there in agony.

"Natalia, please talk to me."

She heard Olivia mutter, "Don’t mind me. I’ll just stand over here and be nauseous," but Frank gave no indication he’d heard anything. He was fixated on the woman standing in front of him.

"Okay, Frank. You’re right." She hated seeing the relieved smile spread across his face, hated having to hurt him—again. "Frank, I do love you." With dismay she watched as Olivia slumped against the windowsill and pressed her forehead against the frosted glass.

"I know you love me, Natalia. That’s how I know we’re meant to be." Frank enveloped Natalia in a huge bear hug, crushing her tightly against his chest, his chin resting on the top of her head.

Natalia struggled to extricate herself from the suffocating embrace. "I love you, Frank," she said, peering up at him, "but ... but I love you like ... like a friend."

He frowned, let her go, and moved back to peer quizzically down at her, as though she’d just started speaking in a foreign language. "Like a friend?" he asked.

"Like a very dear friend. You’ve been nothing but good to me, Frank. You’ve helped Rafe and you’ve helped me. You’ve helped me far more than I deserve, in fact. I’m so sorry I’ve ... hurt you like this. It was wrong. I pray you can forgive me someday."

"But ..." Frank stopped, as though momentarily at a loss for words. "But if you love me, then there’s still a chance..."

"No, Frank, there isn’t." Natalia steeled herself. "I’m not in love with you."

"Not in love with me?" Frank rocked back on his heels, gaping. "I thought— No, that just can’t be."

Natalia could see Frank laboring to process the new information. "I’m so sorry to disappoint you like this, Frank."

"But ... but over time, when you’ve had a chance to get over your loss, you know ... get over Gus .. we could still ... there’s a possibility you could fall back in love with me," he said. "Fall in love with me," he quickly amended.

Natalia took a deep breath and glanced at Olivia, who was unexpectedly turned back towards her, unmoving, her eyes now dark and intense and focused like a laser on Natalia, her beautiful face unreadable.

Natalia forced herself to look Frank squarely in the eye. "I can’t fall in love with you because ... because I’m in love with someone else."

Frank looked thunderstruck. "In love with someone else?" His eyes narrowed for a brief moment, but then he relaxed and nodded. "You mean Gus."

"No, I don’t mean Gus."

"There’s someone else?"

Natalia could see his face drain of all color, and she flinched.

"Who, Natalia?" Frank demanded in a voice he normally reserved for interrogating criminals. "Who is it?"

Without thinking, Natalia tore her eyes away from Frank’s face, which had now hardened with anger and pain, and glanced anxiously at Olivia, standing perfectly still in front of the window ... watching. She could feel Frank follow her gaze, and when she looked back at him, saw he was staring at Olivia with growing alarm.

"Who is it, Natalia?" he asked in a tone devoid of emotion, his eyes fixed firmly on the beautiful woman at the window.

Natalia hesitated, sighed, and answered softly, "Olivia."

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

Olivia could NOT believe what she’d just heard. Natalia just told Frank—Frank!—that she’s in love with me. Oh my god! Olivia was stunned! She realized she must have stopped breathing at some point because she was beginning to feel faint from oxygen deprivation. She dragged in a deep, painful breath, her lungs seemingly unused to such a strange activity. I must still be dreaming, she thought, ‘cause there’s no freaking way that just happened. Her attention was riveted on Natalia, who was staring back at her with so much love shining in her eyes it took her breath away.

"That’s impossible," Frank said quietly, his eyes flicking back to Natalia’s face.

Olivia suddenly remembered the two of them weren’t alone. Frank was there, Natalia’s groom. Well, not so much anymore, she thought wryly. And he’s not looking like a happy camper. Nope. Feeling a bit guilty, she tried to rise above her snarky feelings towards Frank. After all, he was basically a good man; in fact, he was the man she’d picked to take care of the love of her life. But god, it’s been HELL watching him all these weeks mooning over Natalia, dragging her out on dates, touching her, kissing her—KISSING her, damn it, right on the mouth—doing all the things I’d have given anything to do, and I just resent the holy hell outta that. It wasn’t that she had no sympathy for Frank; in fact, she did. It was that right now all she could think about was how agonizing it had been to watch the two of them together all those months, while she worked behind the scenes to orchestrate the marriage for Natalia’s sake, thereby shattering her own life in the process.

Her muscles tensed when she saw Frank turn towards her.

"Is that true, Olivia?" he asked.

She could practically feel the interrogation spotlight burning into her face. Uh-oh. This is not going to be good.

Frank took a step towards her. "Olivia, I asked if it’s true."

Well, she knew it was true, but she couldn’t quite get her mouth to work in order to confirm it, much as she’d like to. She’d hazard a guess that after all the monumental stress she’d been under lately, the neurotransmitters in her brain were no longer firing properly, or maybe her synapses were clogged. Stress could do that, couldn’t it?

Whatever, she thought. Bottom line, I just can’t seem to choke anything out. Not that I wouldn’t love to shout it out to the world in general—and Frank in particular: Hell, yes, it’s true! I’m amazed you didn’t notice something yourself, Frank. You’re a detective, right? Detectives, like, deal with clues and stuff, don’t they? Didn’t you notice any clues, Frank? Like maybe—oh, I don’t know—the fact your finacée couldn’t take her eyes off of ME? Like she constantly blew you off so she could be with ME? Like even after she accepted your proposal, she kept talking about ME? I sure noticed, ‘cause, well, I was trying to get her happily married off to you, so I had to figure out how to deal with pesky little obstacles like the bride-to-be wanting to be with ME.

Frank strode across the room and grabbed Olivia’s upper arm. "Olivia! What’s going on here? Talk to me!"

Before Olivia could open her mouth to speak, both she and Frank were shocked to suddenly find Natalia wedged between them, slender hands pressed against Frank’s chest as she shoved him back—hard!—away from Olivia.

"Frank!" Natalia said sharply, shielding Olivia with her body. "Don’t! Don’t you touch her!"

Olivia thought Frank looked like he’d been punched in the face. Wow, she thought, the only thing missing here is blood or bruises. Olivia doubted he’d ever heard Natalia so much as raise her voice—although Olivia sure had, and more than once ... and Olivia had frequently been the cause of it. An angry Natalia was truly a magnificent creature. She almost felt sorry for Frank with his inability to really see the incredible person Natalia truly was. She’d definitely feel sorry for him if her arm weren’t currently throbbing from his apelike grip. Probably gonna be a bruise and probably gonna piss Natalia off even more if she sees it.

"I don’t understand," Frank said. "I just ... I just don’t get it."

"I know you don’t, Frank," Natalia said, "but all of this ... all of these misunderstandings, these mistakes ... are my fault. Don’t blame Olivia."

"What are you saying?"

"I’m saying I’m in love with Olivia."

"In love with Olivia," Frank echoed hollowly, his face contorting as though the very words tasted bitter on his tongue.

"Yes," Natalia said softly.

Olivia was still having trouble believing her ears. I’m asleep, she finally decided. And even though hearing Natalia declare her love seems like a dream come true, it’s really a nightmare in disguise, and before I know it scary monsters are gonna come pouring outta the walls. God, I better wake up sometime soon.

"I can’t believe that," Frank said, interrupting her train of thought. "I can’t believe you’re ... in love—with Olivia!"

"Well, it’s true."

Or maybe I’m just nuts and none of this is happening at all. Olivia rubbed her forehead slowly, as though to massage away the current hallucination. Maybe I could find a nice asylum in a warm climate where they let you sleep in in the mornings. That’d be good. Do they have wine cabinets in asylums? she wondered idly.

"Then why did you agree to marry me?" Frank persisted. "Why did you accept my ring?"

"Because I was afraid and I was lying to myself, and because of that, I ended up lying to you. I can’t tell you how sorry I am, Frank. I’m so very sorry I hurt you like this. It was wrong. I was wrong and I’m so ashamed."

Olivia listened intently, her eyes never leaving Natalia’s face. I still can’t believe she told Frank. Boy, I just never saw that coming.

"But ... what happens now?" Frank asked.

"Now?" Natalia said. "Well ... I think it’s best if you left now, Frank. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing left to say."

"Leave? Leave you here?" His pain-filled eyes shifted suspiciously toward Olivia. "With her?"

Olivia watched as Frank’s eyes raked over her body, looking at her appraisingly from head to toe. She rolled her eyes. She knew men. In fact, she knew men very well. I know what you’re thinking, Frank, she admonished him silently. I know exactly what you’re imagining right now.

Not that she could blame him, really; after all, it probably wasn’t a whole lot different from the kinds of things she’d been imagining—nonstop!—for months. She watched a hodgepodge of emotions flitting across his face, saw his eyes widen as he looked into hers. Yep, I think you’re starting to get it, she thought, not without a certain amount of empathy considering the trouble she’d had trying to eradicate images of Frank and Natalia’s connubial bliss that kept popping into her head over the past several weeks.

Why was it again that I tried to force that marriage? she wondered. My god, I am insane! I mean ... the thought of the two of them together ... in bed ... naked! ... made my head feel like it was going to explode and spew its contents all over the walls. And I’m sure the contents of my stomach would have followed suit shortly thereafter.

The truth was that even as she’d pushed Natalia toward Frank, she’d felt ill. Even as she’d coached Frank on how to win Natalia’s heart (a feat she was well aware he’d never manage to pull off on his own), she’d felt heartbroken. Even as she threw the engagement party, planned the wedding, dragged the bride from the cemetery to the church, she’d felt nauseous. Someone else would be holding Natalia, kissing her, making love to her. I thought surely I’d go mad!

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

Natalia felt gut-wrenching remorse over Frank’s pain. She’d hurt someone who was good and kind and decent. How could I do that? How could I do that to the man who helped get my son out of prison? But she realized continuing to lie would only hurt him more, and she had no intentions of inflicting any more pain on Frank. "I’m sorry, Frank, but yes, I want you to leave. I know you’re hurt and angry, and I don’t blame you. I only blame myself."

"I don’t know if I can do that."

"Do what?"

"Leave you here with ... with her!"

Natalia looked at Olivia in time to see her tilt her head to the side, her face carefully expressionless. She longed to know what she was thinking. She was more than a little surprised Olivia hadn’t jumped into the middle of this fiasco, flailing Frank with a dozen sardonic remarks, like a fencing master with a flexible and deadly foil. What are you thinking, Olivia? What are you feeling? The longer Olivia remained silent, the more Natalia fretted. She just wished Frank would leave so she could find out what was going on inside Olivia’s wondrously complex mind.

In alarm she saw Frank begin to pace about the room like a wounded lion, forcing her attention back to him. She watched nervously as he moved about—two steps toward the fireplace, two steps back to the couch, two steps toward the window where Olivia stood, two steps back towards her. She’d never seen him like this.

"Please just go, Frank. We can talk again some other time if you want," she said in an effort to placate him and get him to just go. The longer he stayed, the more concerned she got. She felt like she was watching the gentle Frank she’d always known metamorphose into what Detective Frank must be like when he was dealing with the criminal element. She’d never really thought about that before. Suddenly she realized he was capable of violence; he had to be; he was in law enforcement. She tried to calm herself, but the more he paced and the wilder his eyes looked, the more she worried what he might do next. Her fear seemed justified when he stopped pacing and abruptly turned on Olivia.

"This is all your fault," he spat.

Natalia saw Olivia’s eyebrows lift imperceptibly, but otherwise she showed no reaction.

Frank scowled as he stared at the person ... the woman ... who’d stolen his love away from him. He moved close to her and leaned down so their faces were inches apart. "You did this to her. You took a gentle, sweet, pure person and poisoned her with your ... your filth!"

"Frank!" Natalia cried.

He shook a finger in Olivia’s face, oblivious as usual to the love of his life, even though she’d called out his name. "You were always an evil bitch. I found that out the hard way a long time ago. I never should have trusted you!"

Natalia grabbed Frank’s arm and yanked him around, away from Olivia. Her heart bled at the thought of his vicious words flying through the air like daggers to pierce the heart of her beloved. "How dare you say that to her? She did everything she could to help bring us together, to help you, Frank. You said yourself she coached you, she told you things about me, about what I liked, and you took credit for everything."

"I love you, Natalia, and I just wanted us to be together," Frank sulked.

"And you know why she did that?" Natalia continued, ignoring his words. "Because she loves me, Frank. She wants me to be happy. She was willing to sacrifice her own happiness so I could be happy. That’s how much she loves me. That’s the kind of love she has for me. What kind of love do you have for me, Frank?" Natalia’s chest heaved with emotion and anxiety as she waited to see what Frank might do next.

Natalia saw him pause and stare spitefully at Olivia, anger radiating off his body like heat shimmering off hot desert sands. She saw his hand clinch into a fist, and for a terrifying moment she feared he might actually strike Olivia, who remained oddly calm, she noted; but then he spun around and strode out of the house into what now looked like a major snowstorm. She locked the door and watched through the window until his car disappeared into the blinding white downfall.

Only then did she whirl back toward Olivia, chest heaving. Her emotions felt raw, exposed, out of control, as though she were perched precariously on the edge of an emotional precipice. Her anxiety over what Olivia might be feeling and thinking made her head reel, and the fear she felt when she thought Olivia might be in any kind of danger, physical or emotional, had shredded her calm. She felt her heart would never slow its thunderous pace.

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

Chapter 8

As Natalia watched Frank leave, Olivia watched Natalia. She was in awe. She’d seen Natalia angry before—notably at Olivia herself, she thought wryly. She’d also seen Natalia in protective mode and knew she’d do anything to safeguard the ones she loved, but she’d never seen her like this—forceful and fierce, like an avenging angel, magnificent in her righteous anger. My god, I am so in love with you, she thought, her heart positively aching with love. And I’ve never wanted you as much as I do right now. I am in agony from wanting you.

When the agitated young woman finally turned away from her vigil at the window, Olivia could see she was breathing fast, too fast, and her hair looked ruffled and wild, as though she’d been running in a blustery wind. Her dark eyes were darker than usual, almost black, and they glittered as Natalia stared directly into her own eyes. Olivia could feel those ebon eyes penetrating all the way into her, and she shivered.

Natalia was instantly at her side, peering into her face, touching her arm. "Are you all right? You had me worried."

"I’m fine. You?"

"I’m okay. I’m just concerned about you. I got scared."

"I could see that."

"Are you sure you’re okay," Natalia said, gently rubbing Olivia’s arm where Frank had grabbed her.

"I’m fine," Olivia said, pulling away. "Stop fussing!" God, she really needs to stop touching me before I throw her down and kiss her senseless, Olivia thought. That’d scare the bejeezus out of her. Serve her right, too, all that touching—and my god that kiss last night. You can’t kiss a person like that and then just leave them all "throbby" and woozy in the damned hallway while you skip merrily off to your room—probably to say a thousand prayers of contrition for the sin you’d just committed on my mouth.

Olivia mused about that for a moment, imagining Father Ray’s shock were Natalia to confess the kiss. My god, the woman would have to work up a flow chart to plan all the acts of contrition she’d have to perform.

She could feel a deep throb between her legs, a huge, aching, unrequited throb that seemed to be the only constant in her life at the moment. I don’t think she has any idea what she does to me, and I’m damned sure she hasn’t thought about what might come after a kiss. Meanwhile I’m gonna just keep my distance, ‘cause otherwise I’m gonna freaking come unglued here.

"Stop!" Natalia said.

"What?" Olivia said, startled.

"Stop running from me, Olivia."

"What do you mean?" Actually Olivia knew exactly what she meant, but she wasn’t going to admit it. Nope. She was going to get the subject changed pronto; that’s what she was going to do. "I’m standing right here."

"Physically maybe, but your mind is somewhere else."

Without realizing it, Olivia nodded absently. Her mind was definitely somewhere else and sadly it wasn’t anywhere Natalia would want to go. Maybe I should just book a flight straight to hell, she thought. It’d have to be more pleasant than this kind of agony, and as a bonus, I’d get to meet lots of famous people.

Her escapist fantasy was abruptly interrupted when Natalia crossed the short space between them, took her in her arms, pulled her head down, and pressed her lips to Olivia’s—and this was not the sweet kiss from the night before. This was passionate and urgent. Olivia’s speech center shut down, as did most of her other cognitive brain functions, and she felt herself swept away by sensation—Natalia’s mouth moving hungrily over hers, Natalia’s hands pressing her close, Natalia’s breath on her face. Olivia groaned involuntarily into the kiss. Her body throbbed. She could feel her strength draining away and was vaguely aware they’d both slipped down to their knees on the thick carpeting in front of the fireplace, arms wrapped tightly around each other, curves pressing together, while the dizzying kiss continued on.

Finally a mutual lack of oxygen necessitated a pause, and they stopped, pressing their foreheads together, panting rapidly as they knelt on the carpet facing each other.

"My god," Olivia whispered. Her breath caught at the sight of Natalia’s grin.

"I needed to get your attention," Natalia said.

"Mission accomplished," Olivia laughed, "but ..."

"But what?"

Olivia settled back on her heels, reluctantly letting go of Natalia in the process. "But I don’t think you’ve thought this through."

"I didn’t get the idea you were thinking just now either," Natalia replied, sitting back as well.

"Okay, no, I wasn’t, but ... come on, I think we need to slow down here." Olivia swallowed hard. Natalia looked so gorgeous with the flickering light of the fire dancing across the planes of her face. She was vaguely aware of the howling wind buffeting the farmhouse and in some distant part of

her brain knew the snow was probably still falling fast and steady and silent. "Not that I particularly want to slow down, mind you, but ... but I’m pretty sure you’re not ready for what comes next, and if you don’t stop ..." Olivia’s voice trailed off. If Natalia didn’t stop, she was likely to get "what comes next" whether she wanted it or not.

"Honestly, Olivia, I don’t really know exactly what comes next. Well, I mean ... I do ... I mean ..." Natalia blushed. "I mean I know kind of in general, but I’m not real certain of ... of specifics." Natalia halted her meandering explanation. "This is hard to explain."

"Look, you don’t have to explain anything. We don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do or aren’t ready to do," Olivia said. There should be plenty of cold water for a shower, she thought. And I better be taking one pretty soon or I’m not going to be responsible for my actions.

Olivia noticed Natalia looking at her pensively. I’d love to know what you’re thinking. She wondered what it would be like to be privy to her private thoughts, especially whatever thoughts Natalia might have about her. She knew she’d love to crawl inside her mind and just curl up there to watch the show.

"Did you know I’ve only been with two men?" Natalia finally asked.

"Well, I guess I sort of assumed that," Olivia said.

"It’s true. Even though I’m a grown woman and even though I’ve had a child and been married—in that order, I might add—I really haven’t had that much ... experience with ... you know, with ‘being’ with someone."

"Okay, so ... so you’ve only been with the two." Great, we’re back to talking about Natalia having SEX with someone other than ME, damn it. She tapped the fingers of one hand restlessly on her thigh while the fingers of her other rose to her forehead and started the habitual stroking—until Natalia grabbed both restless hands and drew them down to hold them quietly in her lap. In her lap! Christ!

"Are you still with me, Olivia?"

"Yeah, you’ve had sex with two men. Got it." Maybe I should take notes, Olivia thought. ‘Cause, you know, I might actually FORGET that Natalia has had sex with other people, and then I’d never pass one of these damned pop quizzes.

"Well, I was only with Nicky once in high school, and I was only with Frank that one time after Coop died."

"Right," Olivia said, trying hard not to roll her eyes. Actually she wanted to rub her eyes—just to try to rub out the image of Natalia and Frank lying together—in bed!—but that’d mean her hands would have to leave Natalia’s lap. She was acutely aware of her hands resting on Natalia’s slender thighs. Eyes can wait for rubbing, she decided.

"When I reunited with Nicky here in Springfield, we agreed to wait till we got married."

Olivia was genuinely surprised. "You did?"

"Yes. Well, I said I wanted to wait and Nicky agreed," Natalia explained. "And as you may recall, Nicky got so furious with me right after the wedding."

"I remember," Olivia said, with a knowing smile. After all, she’d been a part of that little fiasco, though for once her involvement wasn’t intentional. In fact, for the most part she lay unconscious in an isolated cabin as the groom dropped all thoughts of his wedding and his bride and rushed to find Olivia and save her life. He had, in fact, saved her life, though he was unable to get her to the hospital in time for her to get the unexpectedly available heart.

"He was worried about you, Olivia. He wanted more than anything to get your name to the top of the transplant list, and he was always at your penthouse taking care of you, remember?"

Olivia nodded. Gus had been hellbent on saving her life—and eventually succeeded ... though at a terrible cost to him and his family.

"And even though we reconciled and even though we did have some time together as husband and wife, he ... he ..."

"He was killed not that long after the wedding." Olivia suddenly realized what Natalia was driving at.

"So I haven’t had much ... you know ... experience."

"So you’re feeling ..."

"I’m feeling like I want to be with you, Olivia."

"But I thought you didn’t want ..."

"I know, but you’re wrong. I want to be with you. I’m just not exactly sure what to ... do ... or expect."

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

Natalia could feel herself flush furiously, and knew her face had to be bright, candy-apple red. And now Olivia was just staring at her with an odd expression on her face. Her eyes dropped down to concentrate on Olivia’s hands, which she still held nestled on her lap. She stroked the back of Olivia’s hands with her thumbs, noting the silky smoothness of her skin. It was so hard getting that out, she thought, but this was Olivia, and she’d do whatever it took to make sure they had a life together, and part of that was being honest and forthright, something she was determined to do after all the months of hiding and denying and compartmentalizing.

"Do you know what you’re saying?" Olivia asked.

"Yes, Olivia, I do. I’m inexperienced. I’m not stupid."

"So ... what do we do now? Tell me what you want."

Natalia glanced up at Olivia and blushed. That’s all I seem to do lately, she thought, aware of the burning in her cheeks. What do I want? I want you, Olivia; that’s what I want. "I know I love ... being in your arms," she began hesitantly. "I know I love ... kissing you." She felt dizzy from the sudden onrush of memories of those kisses and how they affected her. She had no idea a kiss could make you feel like that. Even now she could feel a deep throb "down there" that those impassioned kisses caused—Olivia’s kisses! I can’t believe how you make me feel, she thought, as she lowered her eyes to stare once more at Olivia’s elegant hands, which she still held snugly on her lap.

"I know I’m feeling this overwhelming ... ache that ... that I don’t know what to do about," Natalia continued. "I know I want to feel close to you ... be close to you. In fact, I know I don’t ever want to be away from you, even ... even at night." And I’m blushing again, she thought, as she felt more heat seep into her cheeks.

Natalia knew Olivia epitomized "experience." She was worldly and sophisticated and gorgeous, and Natalia knew full well Olivia could pretty much get anyone—well, male or female, as it turned out—that she might take a fancy to. In fact, it was more than a little mystifying to her how someone like Olivia could have fallen in love with someone like her, how someone of Olivia’s experience could want someone as inexperienced as she. Natalia hoped her lack of experience wasn’t a huge turnoff. What if it was? What if this was making Olivia have second thoughts? How heartbreaking would that be? She waited nervously for Olivia to say something—anything!—but Olivia remained uncharacteristically mute.

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

Olivia had never been more in love with Natalia than she was at that very moment. Her heart melted as she listened to Natalia’s confession about her lack of sexual experience. It wouldn’t matter to Olivia if Natalia were a virgin or as experienced as Olivia—and that would be pretty darned experienced! The only thing that mattered to her was the woman herself—her sweet, kind, feisty, gorgeous self.

"Come here," Olivia whispered, drawing Natalia into a protective embrace. "None of that matters to me," she whispered into her ear. "I only care about your happiness. We can figure out all the rest together."

Olivia felt Natalia relax in her arms and gripped her more tightly, reluctant to let her go. "We can take things slow, and just ... we’ll just see how it goes."

Natalia nodded. "Okay."

"This is new to me, too, you know."

Natalia drew back. "New to you?"

Olivia laughed. "Yes, new to me. I’ve never been with another woman before."

"Oh. I wasn’t sure."

"Don’t get me wrong. I would have if I’d wanted to, if I’d been curious, if I’d been at all attracted in another woman, but I just never have been. Only you," she said. "And by the way, just so you know, I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else before." She was inordinately pleased to see Natalia blush profusely at her admission.

"You do?"

"YES!" Olivia burst out laughing at the vehemence of her reply.

Natalia laughed too. "That’s good to hear."

My god, isn’t it obvious? Olivia thought. After all she was like one giant, needy, pulsating hormone these days, but then she reminded herself that Natalia was capable of Olympic-worthy obliviousness. Well, if she needs to take it slow, we’ll take it slow. I can do that. Uhm ... I can, right? "You know what? There’s no rush," Olivia said. "Slow is fine. Really." Olivia stifled a groan. Going slow was the exact opposite of what she really wanted, but—

"Well, not too slow," Natalia whispered and leaned forward to press her lips to Olivia’s in a short, sweet kiss. Her fingers brushed soft golden-brown hair back from Olivia’s face, as she studied her features, then traced over her brow and cheeks and lips. "You’re so beautiful, Olivia. Sometimes all I want to do is just look at you." She kissed her forehead, she kissed each eye, she planted a tiny kiss at the corner of her mouth.

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

"Did I ever tell you I almost kissed you at the hospital as you lay sleeping?"

Olivia, looking somewhat disoriented, shook her head.

"It was when you were sedated while Dr. Rick checked out the battery problem," Natalia said, gazing wistfully into Olivia’s gorgeous green eyes, now bright and richly hued like the emeralds they currently resembled. "I wasn’t thinking. I’d just been so worried about you, and then later when you lay there dozing, you looked so pretty and sweet and vulnerable, and I noticed your perfect eyebrows and your long lashes and your smooth skin. And then all I could see was your lips and how perfect they looked and how soft, and I found myself wondering what it would feel like to kiss you ... just kiss you right there as you lay sleeping ... and I leaned down over you, and my mouth was so close to yours, and without thinking I kept getting closer and closer, almost close enough to kiss—"

Natalia suddenly found herself in Olivia’s arms and Olivia’s breath was hot on her face and Olivia’s mouth was pressing hard against her own. Finally! she thought, before being completely swept away by Olivia’s ardor and her own unfamiliar yet rising passion.

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

Olivia was no longer thinking. She was past all thought. All she wanted was Natalia. She wanted to kiss her so thoroughly there’d be no doubt how much she wanted her. She wanted to feel her skin under her hands, explore every plane, every curve, every inch of softness. She wanted to touch her and taste her—everywhere!

She’d been hyper-aware of that near kiss in the hospital. She was floating somewhere between the thick fog of sedated slumber and the conscious world, slowly drifting back up into the world of sights and sounds and smells, though not quite able to open her eyes or move, but in the blackness she could hear Natalia’s soft voice—a voice saying, "You make me happy"—and she could feel herself fluttering towards it like a moth to light. She felt Natalia’s hand caressing her face, and then—unbelievably!—felt Natalia’s lips pressed to her forehead, felt strands of her long, silky hair brushing her face, felt her breath warm on her skin. She wanted to wake up and wrap her arms around her and pull her down on top of her, right there on the bed in Exam Room #3.

But then she could sense Natalia leaning closer, knew what she was about to do, and in a sudden panic over the possible negative outcome of such a kiss—she might regret it, it might scare her once she realizes what’s she done, it might send her skittering away ... can’t let that happen—she was finally able to ascend from her drug-induced stupor like a dolphin leaping straight up from the sea and prevent the chaos she thought likely to ensue. That was her instinct at the time, to stop that kiss, but god, part of her wished she’d just let it happen and damn the consequences.

Remembering that near kiss ignited her passion further, and she pressed Natalia to the floor, stretching out on top of her with abandon. It was amazing to feel those soft curves beneath her. Her body throbbed with need, and she pressed herself closer, her hand sliding firmly down Natalia’s side, over the swell of her hip, until it reached her thigh, and she reveled in the feel of pliable flesh. She pulled back from their heated kiss only to taste Natalia’s throat, her mouth following a tantalizing path across delicate skin left enticingly bare by the revealing purple sweater.

Her hand cupped a ripe breast and she was shocked to discover how much it turned her on—not to be touched, but to touch ... to feel the softness and then from the softness the hardened peak of aroused flesh. Even the palm of her hand felt aroused by the sensuality of this simple touch. She thought she might actually pass out from arousal.

Olivia drew back to gaze down into Natalia’s flushed face, aware they were both panting hard.

"Olivia?" Natalia whispered.

"Yes?" Please don’t tell me you want to stop, she groaned inwardly.

"I don’t think I want to go slow."

Olivia exhaled in relief. "Me neither. Come on, let’s go upstairs."

They both suddenly burst into giggles, clambered awkwardly to their feet, and then leaning heavily against each other for support, staggered toward the stairway on wobbly legs.

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

Continue to Chapters 9-16 (the conclusion)

 

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