Title: Critical Mass

Author:

Phox

Email:

Phox333@aol.com (Feedback welcome.)

Fandom:

Guiding Light

Pairing:

Olivia/Natalia

Rating:

NC-17 (language, adult themes, sex)

Disclaimer:

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

Author's Note:

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

Critical Mass
By Phox

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

Chapter 11

Olivia slowly drifted toward consciousness until finally her eyes blinked open and a familiar figure swam into view. It was a man and he was standing by her bed looking down at her with an expression of concern.

She scanned the room, but saw no sign of Natalia. She wasn�t sure if she�d dreamed hearing the struggle between her and Frank or if it had really happened, and if it did, she couldn�t imagine why Frank would be treating her like that; after all, she was sure he was still in love with her. She also couldn�t remember if she�d imagined making a groggy phone call to Doris begging her to find out what had happened between Frank and Natalia.

The man interrupted her jumbled thoughts by taking her hand.

"Buzz?" She felt like her chest was in a vise and the pain was crushing. Christ, that hurts! And as if that weren�t enough, she had the mother of all headaches, and it was making it hard for her to make sense out of the thoughts tumbling about in her head.

"How�re you feeling, Olivia?" Buzz asked as he patted her hand.

"Awful."

"Should I get the nurse?"

"Yeah."

Buzz pressed the call button, and soon a nurse arrived to check her IV drip.

"How are we doing?" the nurse asked.

"I don�t know about you, but I feel like hell," Olivia said.

It was Nurse Flo, her least favorite of all the nurses. She was just so goddamned cheerful all the time. She was fairly young, maybe in her late twenties or early thirties at most, Olivia guessed; she was a rather pretty strawberry blonde, medium build, but quite strong. She wore her long reddish hair in a plain bun at the nape of her neck, but Olivia guessed it would be quite lovely when she let it down. She was efficient and hardworking, but Olivia found her perpetual cheeriness extraordinarily irritating. To make matters worse, Nurse Flo was apparently permanently assigned to Olivia�s case and appeared to regularly work double or maybe even triple shifts. Is that even possible? At any rate, it sure seemed to Olivia that this Energizer Bunny RN was omnipresent.

"Well, you have another thirty minutes before I can administer any more pain medication," Nurse Flo announced, tapping the face of her watch. "I�ll be back in a little while," she said and turned to leave. "Don�t go anywhere," she added with a grin.

"Peachy," Olivia said, glaring at her. "God forbid we give medication when the patient actually NEEDS it!" she shouted at the nurse�s retreating back. "Much better to stick to a freakin� timetable," she muttered as the door swung shut.

"Can I get you something?" Buzz asked.

"Not unless you�ve got some alcohol or morphine on you."

They both laughed, but Olivia immediately clutched her chest.

"You okay?"

"Yeah, sure ... except my chest hurts like hell and my head is killing me ... AND I�m back in the damned hospital," she said. "I�m a little surprised to see you here, by the way."

"Why? You should know I�ll always have your back, Olivia."

Olivia looked at him fondly. They had a complicated history, but she knew his affection for her was genuine. In fact, he�d been madly in love with her at one time, and sometimes she had the impression some of those feelings might still linger. "I had to wonder," she said, "after everything that happened at the wedding."

"Olivia, I�ve never blamed you for any of that."

"Well, Frank sure does."

"Yeah, but he�s hurt and angry and not seeing things clearly. It was obvious to me how much you tried to help make that marriage happen." He watched her steadily for a moment. "Do you love her?" he finally asked.

She nodded and sighed. She wasn�t surprised Buzz had figured it out. Too bad Frank hadn�t gotten a dollop of his father�s perception. After all, wouldn�t a bit of perception help a detective "detect" stuff? "I hope you know I never meant for Frank to get hurt ... again."

"I know. Like I told you, I don�t blame you."

They both looked toward the door when it opened.

"I blame her," Buzz said, staring angrily at Natalia, who still had her hand on the door handle.

Olivia winced at his vitriolic tone. "Buzz!"

"You�re the one who hurt my son," he accused, as Natalia stood frozen in the doorway.

"I know, Buzz," Natalia said, "and I�m sorry. I�m so sorry for everything."

This is just great,

Olivia thought as she listened to the two of them. I feel like a rhino has planted its butt right on my chest, to the point it�s seriously hard to breathe around all this pain; my head feels like I�ve been on a three-day bender instead of out like a light here at Cedars; and now these two are apparently going to rumble right here in my hospital room while that half-witted nurse sits somewhere watching the seconds slowly tick by till it�s "time" for my damned pain medication.

"Saying �sorry� doesn�t change the fact you broke my son�s heart."

"I know, Buzz. It�s all my fault."

"Damn straight it is!"

Olivia just wanted to stop Buzz�s verbal assault. Natalia looked so forlorn and guilty. And so gorgeous, she thought, a little surprised her mind would still drift off into those waters right now all things considered. Yes, Natalia had walked out on the wedding, and yes, Olivia knew it had been devastating for Frank and upsetting for all the Coopers, but Buzz should understand that Natalia had not deliberately set out to hurt anyone. And besides, she knew she herself deserved a nice big helping of blame what with playing matchmaker for the whole freakin� fiasco. She grasped the bed railing and tried, unsuccessfully, to pull herself up into a sitting position.

Natalia saw her struggle and was at her side in an instant. "Olivia, you need to be careful. You�ll pop your stitches."

"I�m good. I�m fine. I�m�" Olivia began to cough and quickly clutched her chest, obviously in pain.

Natalia poured fresh ice water from the pitcher on the overbed table into a mustard yellow plastic cup and held the straw to Olivia�s lips so she could sip the cool liquid.

"Fun times," Olivia gasped as she lay back, exhausted. She gazed straight overhead. Hey, up there! I�m feeling so bad I�m actually thinking about praying. She stared at the sterile white ceiling. Nobody home? Or are you just not talkin� to me?

Buzz watched the two women for a moment, and then squeezed Olivia�s hand. "I better go. I can see you�re in good hands. If you need me for anything ..."

Olivia nodded, and Buzz turned and left.

"Can I get you anything else?" Natalia asked.

"Yeah ... my lawyer."

"Your lawyer? Why? Why would you want your lawyer?"

"Natalia, if ... if anything happens to me, I want you to take Emma."

"Nothing is going to happen to you."

"Easy for you to say," Olivia said, one hand still pressed against her chest. "I�m serious here. Will you take Emma? I can�t stand the thought of leaving her all on her own to end up who knows where. Ava is too young and too involved in her own life to be able to take on the responsibility of caring for a nine-year-old; and besides, even if she did, it would mean that on top of losing me, Emma would have to leave you and her school and all her friends behind to go live with Ava in San Francisco."

"Olivia, Emma is not going to lose you. We are not going to lose you. You�re not going anywhere."

Olivia took Natalia�s hand and clasped it over her heart. "Will you do this for me, please? Will you do this for Emma? You are the other mommy, you know."

"Of course I will, but ..."

"Good, then I need you to call Mel and ask her to get over here as soon as she can." Olivia felt exhausted. She felt nauseous. She felt urgent.

"Mel?"

"You know ... Melissande Boudreau, Remy�s sister. Her number�s in the book." Olivia began to cough again. Good god that hurts! I�m gonna have to seriously consider trying to be good from now on and then maybe we can cut down on these goddamned once-a-year chest surgeries.

"Okay, I�ll call her later. Right now we need to get you more comfortable. You don�t look so good."

"Now!" Olivia said urgently. "You�ve got to get her over here now ... need to make it official ... just in case." Her chest hurt something awful. Shit! This is really, really not good. "Maybe you better call a nurse ... this ... this really hurts."

Natalia repeatedly hit the call button while keeping a tight grip on Olivia�s hand.

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

Natalia paced in the corridor outside the room while Dr. Rick examined Olivia. What if something�s seriously wrong? What if it�s her heart? What if they have to operate again? What if she can�t make it through another surgery? By the time the doctor emerged to talk with her, she was wound tighter than a banjo string.

"Is she all right?"

"Yes, I�ve just upped her pain meds."

"She was really in a lot of pain, Dr. Rick."

"Well, surgery is painful, and so is healing."

"So this much pain is ... normal?"

"This really isn�t outside the norm. We just need to monitor her closely to make sure the pain doesn�t get this far out of control again. Sometimes we try to stick too closely to artificial time schedules instead of listening to our patients. I�ve left instructions for the nursing staff to give her pain meds on demand. Besides, as she heals, the pain is probably going to get worse before it gets better."

"Why�s that?"

"Because as the numbness leaves and the nerve endings begin to heal, they start doing a much better job of sending signals to the brain; the net result is acute pain, even though the healing process is actually progressing."

Natalia vacillated. She didn�t want Olivia suffering, but wasn�t it dangerous to allow someone all the drugs they asked for? "But what if she asks too many times?" she asked. "What if she gets too much? What if she gets addicted? What if...?"

"Honestly, I�m not worried about that. Olivia is much more likely not to ask at all. I think there�s little if any risk she�d go overboard the other way. You know what she�s like."

Natalia knew it was true. It was difficult to get Olivia to take any kind of medication. She�d been nearly impossible following her heart transplant, and they�d fought about it more than once back then. "You�re right. I just got scared. Is it okay if I go back in now?"

"Wait, Olivia asked me to give you a message."

"A message?"

"Let me see if I can get this right. She said, �Tell Natalia not to dare come back in here till she�s called Mel.� Does that make sense to you?"

"Perfect sense," Natalia said with a sigh as she turned away from Olivia�s door and headed toward the payphone bank outside the visitor waiting room. Olivia, you have such a one-track mind sometimes. She knew it was useless to try to fight her on this, even though she felt it could wait. Olivia was not going to die and leave an orphaned Emma. She just couldn�t! Or at least there was no way Natalia could even contemplate such a thing, but if this was what Olivia needed for her peace of mind, then so be it.

When Natalia finally returned to the room, she stood at Olivia�s side and took her hand. "Are you feeling better?"

Olivia nodded. "Drugs�re startin� to kick in, so things�re gettin� mellow," she slurred. "�Didja� call Mel?"

"Yes, she�s coming by later today."

"Good."

"We need to talk."

"I know," Olivia said, fighting to keep her eyes open. "I know we do."

Natalia stroked her thumb back and forth over the silky skin on the back of Olivia�s hand as she watched her drift off to sleep, and she stayed by her side throughout the night, finally falling asleep herself, with her head and arms resting on the mattress next to Olivia�s hand.

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

Olivia followed at a distance as Natalia and Emma strolled hand in hand toward the duck pond. She heard Emma giggle when one of the fat white birds waddled toward her, quacking stridently. Emma held out her hand to see if it would eat some food directly off her palm, which it did, much to her delight, and then she skipped down to the edge of the water to try to find the recently hatched ducklings she knew must be hiding in the deep grass and cattails and reeds.

A light spring breeze played gently with Natalia�s long dark hair as she stood smiling, watching over "their" little girl. She looked so young and so fresh and so pretty, but even though she was smiling, Olivia could see a shadow of sadness in her eyes. Olivia�s heart ached with love at the sight of the two of them, and she called out, but neither heard her.

It was a good decision, she thought. It was a good decision to leave her youngest daughter in Natalia�s care. She knew Natalia loved Emma as much as if she�d given birth to her herself, and she had no doubt she�d watch over her and nurture her and protect her no matter what. Her only regret was that she�d had to leave them so soon.

Time and space tilted, and she next found herself watching Natalia reading a nighttime story to a tired little girl in her upstairs bedroom at the farmhouse. Emma had a small smile on her face when she finally drifted off to sleep, and Olivia was overjoyed to see her so happy. She watched her sleep for a while, and then wandered off in search of Natalia.

She found her already in bed, lying on her back in her red and black flannel jammies, her rose-colored sheets gathered around her waist. Her hair was sleep tousled and fell partially over one eye, and the top buttons of her shirt had come undone, leaving an enticing view of most of her left breast. She looked sweet and cuddly and sexy.

Olivia longed to unfasten the rest of those little black buttons and get a really good look, although she realized she wouldn�t be able to do that now. She smiled, though, as she thought about stealing a peek. Her physical response was the same as it had always been�instant, powerful, and overwhelming. In fact, she was so aroused, it was downright painful. How cruel to be able to look at her like this, but not be able to touch.

Her smile faded as something else occurred to her. She didn�t know that much about heaven, but ... she was pretty sure you weren�t necessarily supposed to still be having mortal feelings like these, especially such painfully uncomfortable ones. She was so turned on, it felt like her body was literally on fire. I thought you were supposed to be happy in heaven, she thought.

Wait, wait, wait! Cruel ... painful ... on fire� Aw, CRAP!!! This isn�t heaven at all, is it? Damn it! I really should have tried to be a MUCH better person�and now I�m stuck here, in my own personal hell ... for eternity!

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

Chapter 12

The next morning when Natalia awoke in Olivia�s room, seated as usual on the chair by her bedside, she saw a single tear trickle down Olivia�s cheek as she lay sleeping. What are you dreaming about? she wondered. She hated to think Olivia might be having sad dreams on top of everything else she was going through. She stood and brushed the tear away with her thumb, and then sat back down and just watched her breathe. It was amazing how reassuring it could be to simply watch someone you loved breathing. Someone I love. The someone I love.

The wild emotional swings of the last few days, the terrifying situation at the bank, the trauma of watching Olivia get shot and seeing her bright red blood pour out, her terror waiting to find out if Olivia was going to survive surgery�all of it was so emotionally and mentally and physically exhausting, she literally had no resources left to keep her wall of denial intact; and as it crumbled down around her, she had a piercing epiphany: It wasn�t just that she loved Olivia. She was in love with her, madly and deeply and hopelessly in love; and for once she didn�t stop to question it or try to rationalize it away or wonder why she felt something infinitely more powerful and more all-consuming than she�d ever felt for anyone else, even Nicky.

She didn�t even flinch away from the realization that she loved when Olivia touched her, even if it was a mere grazing touch when she passed her a plate to dry or a more lingering one when their hands sometimes tangled together as they talked. She especially loved when Olivia kissed her. There were just the two times. Some might say the first didn�t really count, but Natalia knew it did. Olivia had been a little drunk at the time and the "make-a-point" kiss had been comparatively short, but Natalia could feel the genuine passion in it, despite Olivia�s facile rationalization afterward; and if she were honest with herself�and she realized painfully she�d really better get to working on that�she�d have to admit that kiss had left her stomach feeling all fluttery and had also left her with a confusing achy feeling "down there." Nicky had never made her feel like that and she now realized why. I loved Nicky, she thought, but I�m in love with Olivia. She knew it was the first time she�d ever been in love, and she was just beginning to figure out the enormity of such an overpowering emotion.

She didn�t know what a person was supposed to do with those kinds of feelings. What she did know was she wanted Olivia to kiss her like that again; in fact, ever since that first kiss she�d spent a fair amount of time wishing for just that, even though she knew she probably would have pushed her away if she�d tried. And then there�d been that more recent kiss in Olivia�s office that had taken her breath away and a lot of her denial with it. She�d been shocked by the suddenness of it, but more so by Olivia�s intensity and by her own undeniable response.

Natalia stood up and leaned over the edge of the bed so she could comb her fingers through Olivia�s soft hair. She loved her hair and savored the opportunity to play with it. She caressed the side of her face, watching her closely, and traced over her beautiful eyebrows with her fingertips. Her eyes wandered to Olivia�s mouth, and she remembered how it felt when Olivia�s mouth had covered hers, how Olivia�s lips felt as they�d pressed against hers, how good Olivia�s breath felt on her skin, how good she smelled, how good her arms felt as they held her tight. Why have I been fighting this?

She suddenly wondered what it might be like if she just quit fighting against all these feelings, if she just accepted them, if she just gave in to them. Did it matter if she didn�t know what came after the kiss? The kiss. Olivia�s kiss. Olivia kissing me. She felt a powerful wrench in her nether muscles at the thought of Olivia kissing her again, and the very thought of it left her feeling lightheaded and weak-kneed.

In the past when any thought of that nature had entered her head, she�d always pushed the images away as quickly as she could, chastising herself harshly for her sinful fantasies, but now ... now she wondered what it would be like if Olivia kissed her and she didn�t push her away, if there were no guilt and no denial and no stopping�just Olivia kissing her, kissing her passionately as she�d done in her office just recently, kissing her endlessly.

Without realizing it, she�d been leaning closer to Olivia as she lay quietly sleeping. One hand was cupped around her face, and she longed to kiss her�just a soft, gentle, secret kiss. She could hear the soft sound of her breathing; she did not, however, hear the hospital door open.

"Not so scary when she�s asleep, is she?"

Natalia wrenched herself away from Olivia when she heard Mayor Wolfe�s caustic voice. It was like hearing a stainless steel roofing nail scraping across a chalkboard.

"What?" Natalia asked. Why did you have to come back here? Don�t you have some kind of "mayor" stuff you should be doing?

"Olivia," Doris said, nodding her head at the still form on the bed. "She�s not nearly as intimidating when she�s out cold, huh?"

The mayor�s smile was broad and knowing, and Natalia found it extremely irritating. Obviously Doris had been standing there long enough to see her touching Olivia�s face. She could feel her cheeks flame up at the knowledge. "I have no idea what you mean," she muttered.

"Well then, I�ll just spell it out for you."

"NO! Please don�t."

"I think you�re so in love and so in �lust� you just don�t know what to do with yourself."

Natalia was absolutely shocked. Was there no stopping that woman? "You don�t know anything!"

"Sure I do. In fact, you�re so obvious it�s really not all that hard to figure out. It�s clear as day, I�d say. You�re in love and you�re finding yourself physically attracted to another woman�I�m guessing for the first time in your life�and you�re scared to death. Go ahead, tell me I�m wrong."

Natalia glared. Is it wrong to wish the earth would open up and swallow someone whole? Okay, she knew it was wrong, but, well, she�d just deal with that at confession next time she went. "You�re ... you�re ..."

"Wrong?" Doris laughed.

"It�s none of your business."

"When have I ever let that stop me?"

"Just ... just ..."

"What? Shut up? Leave? Not tell you what�s perfectly obvious to almost everyone around you? It�s sure as hell obvious to me." Doris walked over to the other side of the bed and stood looking down at Olivia. "It�s obvious to her, too, in case you didn�t realize."

Natalia jerked her angry stare away from Doris and looked down at Olivia in alarm.

"Oh my god!" Doris said. "You didn�t realize."

"Realize what?" Natalia asked with a growing feeling of dismay. She felt like a featherweight boxer in the ring with a heavyweight. She could flail her arms all she wanted, but it was just a matter of time before a knockout punch was thrown by her more experienced opponent, and she was going to be lying flat out on the canvas with only a big black shiner to show for her efforts. She flinched when Doris cast her icy blue gaze in her direction.

"Olivia realizes how attracted you are to her; that�s what."

"No, I never ... I always ... she couldn�t ..."

"Trust me, she knows." Doris watched her for a moment, her eyes narrowed to thin blue slits. "In fact, she probably knew before you did. Apparently you�re the only one who didn�t know, or ... maybe you just didn�t want to know. Easier to deal with if you just ignore it, right?"

Natalia�s emotions were suddenly running rampant, and she was finding it difficult to handle the onslaught of conflicting and confusing feelings, especially with those cold blue eyes stabbing into her like twin ice picks.

"Bottom line," Doris continued. "Olivia loves you and wants you. Do I need to explain what I mean by �want�?"

Natalia shook her head miserably.

Doris chuckled. "You love her and want her, and by that I mean you�re physically attracted to her."

Natalia scowled.

"Hey, that was a freebie explanation, just in case my meaning wasn�t clear." Doris laughed again. "So there�s poor Olivia, knowing all that, and she still sees you running and hiding and denying. Honestly, Natalia, I think you�ve just driven the poor woman insane."

"Why are you doing this?"

"Slow day at the office?" Doris laughed at her own joke and laughed louder still on seeing Natalia glower at her. "Well, I�d love to stay and chat longer, but ..."

"Are you ... are you after Olivia?"

Doris paused and her eyebrows shot skyward. "Me? You�re asking if I want Olivia for myself? Hm, let me think ..." She gazed down at Olivia. "Just look at that face. She�s beautiful, isn�t she? Beautiful and smart and funny. And you know what? I�m going to take a wild guess that she�d really be something in bed�passionate and imaginative and maybe even a little wild sometimes. What do you think?"

Natalia was horrified to hear Doris�s musings on ... on ... on what Olivia might be like in bed! That was so wrong! She felt like her head might explode from sheer indignation and rage. What a horrible, horrible woman! She was especially infuriated because now she kept hearing that one phrase looping endlessly through her mind�"passionate and imaginative and maybe even a little wild"�and it left her feeling unbelievably off-balance as her body began to respond with a deep and urgent throb.

"Well, I�ve really got to go. I�ll just leave you to mull all this over, Ms. Rivera," Doris said. "Call me if you have any questions."

Natalia watched her go with a mixture of relief and frustration. Her last glimpse was of Doris flagging down Nurse Flo in the corridor outside the room, no doubt to quiz her within an inch of her life about Olivia�s condition since the mayor was so obsessed with her. I know it�s wrong to hate anyone, but� Her thoughts were interrupted when she heard Olivia stir. She was immediately by her side.

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

"Hi," Natalia said softly.

"Hi," Olivia murmured, gazing up at her sleepily. She wasn�t aware of where she was. She was only aware of how glad she was to see those dark chocolate eyes looking down at her. You�re so beautiful. I wish you were the first thing I saw every time I woke up.

"How�re you feeling?"

"Not sure." Olivia was still floating in a happy place somewhere between asleep and awake, and with such a lovely vision hovering over her, she was in no hurry to go anywhere else.

Natalia reached for her hand, and their fingers automatically laced together as though they�d been doing it for years.

"You okay?" Olivia asked softly, suddenly remembering the altercation she�d heard�or thought she�d heard�between her and Frank.

"Yes, I�m fine."

"I heard you and Frank, I think. You were arguing here in my room, right?"

"Uhm ... he came to ask me about the robbery."

"But the two of you left, didn�t you?"

"He took me down to the station to do the ... for the ... interrogation."

"Why were you fighting?"

"Because I didn�t want to leave you here alone."

"And he forced you?" Olivia was beginning to feel fairly alarmed. If they�d argued, and apparently they had, then that meant the glimpse she�d had of Frank dragging Natalia out of the room by her arm had been real and not another drug-induced dream.

"Olivia, everything�s okay. We went to the station, I answered all his questions, and then Doris brought me back here afterwards. There�s nothing to worry about."

Olivia relaxed and closed her eyes. "Mm ... �kay, if you say so," she murmured as she drifted back to her happy "floaty" place, a place where it was just she and Natalia and the heated area where their hands were linked together.

Just then Nurse Flo bustled in. "Time for a little walk," she announced cheerily.

"A walk?" Olivia asked, suddenly fully awake and not happy about being jerked out of her happy place.. "I ... I can�t even sit up. How am I supposed to walk?" And for Christ�s sake! Does this hospital have anyone on its nursing staff other than Nurse "I�m gonna kill you with cheeriness" Flo?

"Now, now, you�ve been through this before. You know how important it is to get moving post-op. Have you done your coughing exercises yet today?"

Natalia looked at Olivia in surprise. "You�re supposed to be doing coughing exercises?"

"Uhm ..."

Nurse Flo clucked her tongue in disapproval. "Well, I think we�ve been a bit naughty today, haven�t we?" She grabbed an extra pillow from the small closet near the door and placed it over Olivia�s chest as she cranked the top of the bed higher, bringing Olivia into a more upright position.

"No, we�ve either been overcome with pain because we couldn�t get our pain meds or passed out from the drugs once they finally got here," Olivia snapped. "Either way, it�s hard to work a coughing fit in there."

"Okay, you know what to do," Nurse Flo explained patiently. "Hold the pillow tight against your chest. It�ll help with the pain."

"Oh goody." Olivia glanced up at Natalia. "You might want to wait in the hallway. This �ain�t� gonna be pretty."

Natalia put one arm around Olivia�s shoulders and a hand over Olivia�s where they rested on the extra pillow. "I�m not going anywhere," she said.

"Suit yourself." But you can�t say I didn�t warn you.

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

Natalia wasn�t sure which had been worse, the coughing or the walking. Despite Olivia�s protests, after the coughing exercise she�d insisted on going along for the very short walk�to the hallway and back with Olivia, Nurse Flo, and the rolling IV stand. It was a good thing, too, as it had taken both of them to support Olivia as she slowly shuffled along. It�d been hard to see Olivia having so much difficulty doing something as simple as stand and try to put one foot in front of the other when just the other day she�d been so vibrant and strong and full of life. The whole process had obviously been painful, too, and it brought back a flood of memories from the previous year, mostly not very happy ones; and Natalia suspected Olivia was probably experiencing her own uneasy stroll down memory lane.

At least now she�s back in bed and able to rest.

"You okay?" Natalia asked, as she took her customary seat on the chair next to the bed.

"Great, I�m great. How many miles was that anyway?"

Natalia giggled. "More like yards."

"Whatever. I just hope Nurse Flo stays away for a while."

"She�s not so bad."

"Oh really? Well, you�d feel different if you were lying here totally at her mercy, trust me," Olivia said. "And I had no idea she was so tall."

"Tall?"

"Yeah, like an Amazon dragging me around."

"She�s around my height, Olivia," Natalia said with a grin. "Maybe 5'2" or 5'3" at most."

"You�re kidding! Come to think of it, you looked pretty tall yourself today. I just realized."

Natalia laughed. "That�s because you weren�t standing up very straight," she explained.

"Oh."

They both laughed this time, but then Natalia�s smile faded. "I�m so sorry this happened."

"Just one of those things."

"It�s my fault."

"It�s not your fault. Why would you even say that?"

"Because ... because you never would�ve been shot at all if I hadn�t yelled at the gunman."

"Well, if you hadn�t yelled, that nervous bastard would�ve probably shot and killed that little kid."

"You saved my life."

Olivia shook her head. "No ..."

"You did, Olivia. You know you did. You threw yourself in front of me."

"Nah, I just tripped."

Natalia knew that wasn�t true, and she was well aware Olivia knew it wasn�t true. Olivia was just far enough away from her that the only way she could possibly have intercepted the bullet in time was to have literally thrown herself in front of Natalia�s body, which was exactly what she�d done. The details of the actual shooting had only slowly begun to come back to her, and she was shocked when she realized what Olivia had done. Olivia had shielded her with her body, exactly as she�d done the day Phillip had grabbed and fired the policeman�s gun at Coop�s funeral. Then at the bank Olivia had launched herself forward, had pushed her back, and had taken the bullet that would otherwise have struck her. On top of everything else, she must have hit her head on Jackie�s desk as they�d both fallen to the ground, which would account for her concussion and resultant headaches.

"No, you didn�t trip, Olivia. You ... you saved my life; that�s what you did." Natalia was overcome with the knowledge of Olivia�s sacrifice. She was the bravest, most amazing person she�d ever met. So many people had no idea what she was really like, how good and generous and loving; even she hadn�t realized when they�d first met. She took Olivia�s hand and pressed it to her cheek. "How can I ever possibly repay you?"

Natalia shivered when she saw Olivia lift one expressive brow and tilt her head to the side on hearing her question.

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

Chapter 13

How can you repay me? Hmmmm ... let me think. It�s just so tempting to make a little suggestion or two here. Maybe I should make a list. Need to get an extra big legal pad for this, and I know exactly what�s going to be #1.

She imagined Natalia reading down her list of helpful suggestions. Yes, I know it�d make you blush, but then ... you�re just so adorable when you go all pink in the cheeks. Tempting, tempting, tempting. She thought about Natalia�s na�vet� and general inexperience. I guess I better add diagrams.

"No need to repay me," Olivia finally mumbled. See? I can restrain myself. Sometimes. Wouldn�t want to make a habit of it though.

She knew she�d done the only thing she could possibly have done that day at the bank. She could not, under any circumstances, have just stood there and watched Natalia get hurt. There�d been no thought process involved. There�d only been instinct, the instinct to protect the person she loved. That�s what she�d done and that�s what she�d do again. She had absolutely no regret. Even she was astounded by the depth of her love for Natalia, and she also realized this great big love had changed her ... irrevocably. She barely recognized herself some days.

Just then Mel knocked and peeked around the door. "May I come in?" She was dressed in a black pinstripe skirt suit and looked every inch the accomplished lawyer that she was.

"Mel! I�m so glad to see you," Olivia said. "I think you and Natalia have met before, right?"

"Yes, of course. Hello, Natalia," Mel said. She set a slender black briefcase on the floor by the wall and approached the bed. "How are you, Olivia? I was so concerned when I found out what happened."

"I�m just fine and dandy. Couldn�t be better. I�m an old hand at all this surgery stuff."

"I know you are. So ... Natalia told me you needed to see me. What can I do for you?"

Olivia turned her head toward Natalia. "Have you talked with Emma yet?"

"No," Natalia said. "I was going to do that as soon as ..."

"As soon as you were sure I was going to make it?" Olivia didn�t need to be told how frightened Natalia must have been when she saw her get shot or how worried she had to be waiting for word after her surgery.

"Well, I wanted to wait till I had something definite and ... and good ... to tell her."

"Would you do me a favor?"

"Of course, anything."

"I want you to go see her and tell her in person exactly what happened and that I�m okay."

"Sure, I�ll go over there sometime soon."

"No, now. Please go now. I don�t want her to find out about it from anyone but you, and the longer we let it go, the more likely she is to hear about it from some other source."

"Okay, I�ll go now. She�s going to want to see you, you know."

"I know, but it�s too soon. Just ... just tell her I love her and she can come visit when Mommy�s feeling better."

"All right, don�t worry, I�ll take care of everything."

"I know you will. I trust you completely." Olivia realized she actually did trust Natalia completely. In fact, she was the only person in her life she�d ever really come to trust. "And while you�re at it, will you go by my room at the Beacon and pack me something to wear so I can get out of this damned hospital gown?"

Natalia grinned. "Too breezy?"

"I take it you noticed?" Olivia chuckled when she saw a bit of pink creep into Natalia�s cheeks. A person might start to think you notice more than you let on.

"I�ll pack you a bag before I come back," Natalia said, ignoring Olivia�s comment as she turned and headed for the door.

As soon as she left, Olivia explained to Mel what she wanted her to do. "I want to make sure Natalia gets full custody of Emma if anything happens to me, whether I die or I�m incapacitated. That�s priority one."

"Okay, that�s easy enough to take care of."

"Also, I want to make a new will. I want everything I have to be divided equally among Emma, Ava, and Natalia."

"I see," Mel said, scribbling notes as they talked.

"I want Emma�s inheritance to be put in a trust until she�s twenty-one, and I want Natalia in charge of that until then. I also want her to run the Beacon. We can designate that all profits be divided among the three of them, but I want Natalia running the business. And the way I�m feeling at the moment, I�d like to get this signed and filed as soon as possible."

Mel nodded. "I�ll take care of it. I�ll put everything down on paper and get back to you soon."

Olivia knew there was no need to explain anything to Mel. She was a smart woman. She�d understand good and well why Natalia would figure so prominently in her last wishes. "Thanks, Mel. Thanks for coming so quickly."

Mel smiled, picked up her briefcase, and left.

Olivia wasn�t entirely confident she was out of the woods yet after this latest trauma to her body. She felt as bad now as she had after the heart transplant, if that was even possible, and she was a little afraid she might not be all right, although she sure as hell wasn�t going to admit that to anybody. Besides, I�m just being paranoid, aren�t I? Aren�t I? Anybody up there talkin� to me yet? Maybe she better get Natalia to intercede on her behalf with the Big Guy in the sky.

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

Later that evening Natalia quietly opened the door to Olivia�s room. She thought she might find her sleeping, but Olivia looked wide awake. She set down a small leather tote bag and walked over to Olivia�s bedside. She�d taken the time to shower and change into a pair of charcoal gray sweats while she was at her suite and was feeling somewhat rejuvenated. Olivia, on the other hand, looked tired and pale.

"Did you talk to Emma?" Olivia asked her.

"Yes." It had been so good to see their little girl, even if she did have to share some difficult news with her.

"Is she okay?"

"She�s fine. Well, she definitely got worried when I told her you were in the hospital, but I explained that you were going to be just fine, and she seemed to take everything else in stride. She really wants to see you, though." She�s spunky and smart, just like her mom, she thought fondly. A tiny, headstrong Olivia-in-training.

"I knew she would, but ..."

"But you don�t want her to see you like this."

"No, I really don�t. I�d rather wait till I�m stronger."

"I understand, and so does she," Natalia said.

"So, did you bring me something in that bag to wear ... or maybe drink?"

Natalia giggled. "I brought jammies and sweats and other goodies, but no, there�s no wine in there. Dr. Rick would not approve, and Nurse Flo would just cheerfully confiscate it."

"Yeah, that�s right. And then if she sampled the wares, she might get even cheerier. Can�t have that. I�d go mad for sure."

Natalia laughed, but her smile faded as she remembered the mayor beating her over the head earlier that day with her observations about her relationship with Olivia, not to mention her own concerns about the nature of Doris�s interest in Olivia. I think maybe she�s in love with Olivia, or at the very least wants to� She couldn�t bear to complete that thought.

"I�m surprised Mayor Wolfe isn�t perched here watching you like a hawk," Natalia said, trying to sound casual.

"Haven�t seen her since earlier. Why?"

Natalia hesitated, thinking maybe she shouldn�t pursue this, and yet ... It�s starting to drive me crazy, so ... "I think the mayor is ... uhm ..."

"Is what?"

"I think she�s ... interested in you."

Olivia laughed, started to say something, laughed again, clutched her chest. "God, that hurts. Don�t make me laugh like that, seriously."

"It�s not funny."

"Well, yeah, it kind of is."

"I�m not kidding, Olivia. You should see how she looks at you when you�re sleeping. And she�s always here, always, all the time. And if she�s not in here staring at you, she�s running down poor Nurse Flo to interrogate her about how you�re doing."

"Look, Doris is ... well, she�s not interested in me, not like that."

"I think you�re wrong." I wish you were right, but I can tell she�s very interested, and ... and I don�t like it. Her own feelings for Olivia were confusing enough to deal with without adding Doris�s inappropriate and unwelcome interest into the mix.

"Actually, the last I was aware, she seemed interested in one of the bartenders at the Beacon."

"Brandon?"

Olivia rolled her eyes and shook her head. "No, Angelica. Remember, this is Doris �I�m wearin� a hat disguise to Ladies Night� Wolfe."

"Angelica? The blue-eyed blonde that�s so ..."

"Drop-dead gorgeous? Yep, that�s the one."

Natalia was certainly aware of who Angelica was. She was fairly young, maybe mid to late twenties, and she was stunning. The bar never did better business than when she was there smiling and joking and mixing drink after drink for an enthralled male clientele. "Do you think they�re ... involved?"

"No idea. I just saw them flirting one time when Doris and I were having a drink together at the bar last winter. It looked to me like something might come of it, but I have no idea if it actually did."

Well, if it did, that�d be the best news ever

, Natalia thought. Of course, that still didn�t explain Doris�s constant presence in Olivia�s room nor the way she looked at her. Maybe I�m just being paranoid, she thought. Maybe I was wrong about Doris being interested in Olivia. Maybe she just sees Olivia as a friend. I bet she doesn�t have too many of those. An image of the two of them at the bar on Saturday night when Olivia had chugged nearly an entire bottle of vodka popped into her head, followed by images of Doris with her hand on Olivia�s shoulder, Doris in the elevator with an arm around Olivia, Doris in Olivia�s Beacon suite with Olivia passed out on the bed with her jacket and shoes off, Doris waiting outside the ER, Doris in Olivia�s hospital room, Doris everywhere she looked these days. She still wasn�t sure of Doris�s feelings or motivations. She only knew she didn�t trust her, especially around Olivia.

They both heard a firm knock on the door and looked over in time to see Det. A.C. Mallet cautiously enter the room. He looked casually professional in his tan corduroy jacket, white shirt, and blue jeans.

"Everybody decent?" he asked as he lingered by the door.

Olivia snickered. "I don�t know about �decent,� but everybody�s dressed, if that�s what you mean."

He laughed. "How�re you doing, Olivia?"

"I�m good."

"I need to ask you some questions about the robbery, if you�re feeling up to it. Dr. Rick told me he thought you would be."

"Sure, it�s fine. Go ahead. I�m not due to go jogging for another hour or so."

"I just need you to tell me everything that happened�everything you saw or heard."

Olivia began a slow and detailed recital of her memories of that afternoon at the bank. Natalia frowned as she listened to her. It was bringing back that whole horrible day, the day she almost lost Olivia. The day you risked your life to save me. I wish ... I wish you hadn�t done that. Then you wouldn�t be here struggling all over again to get over yet another surgery. It hurt to see Olivia like this, weak and in pain.

"I know the gunmen wore masks and were pretty well covered from head to toe in dark clothing, but did you notice anything else about any of them?" Mallet asked. "The way they talked, the way they moved, glimpses of hair or skin, maybe a watch or ring or tattoo or anything like that?"

Olivia shook her head, but Natalia tensed up.

"I saw something," Natalia said.

Mallet looked at Natalia, pen poised over a small notebook. "What?"

"I just realized I could see a little bit of blond hair, like a fringe along the bottom edge of the ski mask."

"Really? What shade?"

"It looked light, kind of straw colored."

"Just take your time. How much could you see?"

"Maybe ... almost an inch. It was hard to tell because it was partly hidden by the collar of his jacket."

"Which one was it? I have notes here saying two of the men were fairly tall, maybe around six feet, and one was several inches shorter."

"It was the stocky one; he was a little short for a man, about Olivia�s height or a little taller. He was the one who seemed to be in charge."

Mallet glanced at Olivia. "How tall are you?"

"Around 5'6" more or less."

"Good, that helps," he said, jotting another note. "Natalia, was this in your statement?"

"No, I didn�t remember it at the time. Oh ... and one more thing. There just seemed to be something familiar about him, the stocky one."

"Like what?" he asked, looking at her closely.

Natalia hesitated. She didn�t know what it was, but there was just something about him, something familiar, something uncomfortably familiar. "I�m sorry, but I�m just not sure. It was ... kind of the way he moved. He paced from side to side and his head kept swivelling around, like he was trying to take everything in all at once or maybe keep an eye on everyone all at the same time."

Natalia could feel the intensity of Olivia�s gaze as she listened with rapt attention to everything she said.

"Is there anything else?" Mallet asked.

They both shook their heads, so he flipped his notebook shut and handed each of them one of his cards. "If either of you remembers anything else, please call me day or night."

As soon as he left, Olivia motioned for her to come closer, and when she did, Olivia took her hand. "What�s this about one of those men looking familiar to you?"

"It wasn�t so much how he looked; it was more like how he ... �was� ... the way he moved. I just had this uneasy feeling I�d seen him before. And then the gun went off and you went down and I didn�t think anymore about it till just now. It�s probably nothing."

She thought Olivia looked worried, and she was gripping her hand tightly.

"I don�t like it," Olivia finally said. "I don�t like the idea he might be someone you know."

"He�s probably not, but does it really matter?"

"If it�s someone you know, then he probably knows who you are."

Natalia hadn�t thought of that, but she still didn�t see the problem. "So?"

"What if he starts to wonder if you can identify him?"

"Olivia, those men were completely covered. I�m sure that�s the least of their worries."

"You heard his voice, though."

His voice. That�s right. His voice was ... deep, a little hoarse sounding, raspy, like maybe he�d had a cold or was a smoker or something. I think I�ve heard that voice somewhere, but where? Where have I heard it?

Olivia squeezed her hand. "What are you thinking? You�ve heard his voice before, haven�t you?"

"I�m not sure. Maybe."

"I don�t like this, Natalia. I don�t like this at all!"

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

Chapter 14

Olivia groggily opened her eyes, but where she expected to see Natalia, it was the mayor of Springfield who sat quietly at her bedside watching her.

"Where is she?" Olivia asked.

"Good to see you, too, Olivia," Doris said. "As for Natalia, she said you threatened all kinds of bad things if she didn�t go home and shower and rest, so that�s where she was headed when I got here this morning."

"That�s right. I�d forgotten. Well, good. I�ve been here what? Over a week now? And she�s just been exhausting herself staying with me nearly 24/7, so it�s about time she took a break."

"Well, she�s certainly been ... devoted." Doris looked at Olivia meaningfully.

"I know what you�re thinking, but that�s not what�s going on here. Nothing has changed. I mean ... we�re still not ... together."

"Oh, Olivia, for a smart woman you sure can be obtuse sometimes. You two couldn�t be any more together if you were hot-glued from head to toe."

Olivia regarded the mayor solemnly. "I wish! But really ... we�re not. We are not together."

"You may not be living together, you may not be sleeping together, but believe me, you�re together, and I really don�t see that changing for either of you."

"But she�"

"�She�? What about you? Sure Natalia has her hang-ups�religion ... sex ... who knows what else?�but she�s not the only one with issues."

"Okay, sure, I have issues, but ..."

"Do you even know what they all are?"

"Of course, I do. Why the hell wouldn�t I?" I do, don�t I? I mean, I know there�d be issues with some people�s attitudes, and I don�t want any of that to affect Emma. And, of course, I want us to be together, but "together" in all ways, including a physical relationship. Is that so wrong? It suddenly occurred to her that her insistence, at least in her own mind, that they get physical�and by that she meant in bed, naked, making love, damn it, and sooner rather than later!�just might have become a wee bit of an obstacle to the smooth progression of a relationship, especially with someone who was grappling with so many difficult obstacles to overcome and who was inexperienced and innocent in so many ways. It was a brand-new perspective.

"Oh my," Doris said. "Can it possibly be that I�m seeing wheels turning in that hard head of yours?"

Olivia began to rub the bridge of her nose. "Look, Doris, I�m tired and my head hurts like a son of a bitch. Would you mind just ... just leaving so I can rest?"

"All that thinking tucker you out? Or was it finally figuring something out that did you in?"

"Shouldn�t you be at the Beacon bar flirting or something?"

"Flirting at the Beacon? No idea what you� Oh, you mean Angelica." Doris laughed.

Olivia knew the beautiful young bartender had clearly caught the mayor�s eye last winter. "Angelica is a gorgeous young woman, and it looked like the two of you were hitting it off."

"True, but it didn�t take me long to figure out she had eyes for someone else."

"Really? So when would you let a little thing like that stop you?"

"Are you sure you�re not getting me mixed up with you?"

Olivia laughed. "Aw, come on. I�m not that bad."

Doris lifted one thin brow.

"Okay, maybe once or twice I might�ve �kinda� gone after someone who was already in a relationship. Or ... uhm ... maybe even married."

"Once or twice?"

"Or maybe more ..." Wow, I really have been bad, haven�t I? It dawned on her, however, that currently she had no interest in being with anyone other than Natalia, even though in the past if one relationship failed, she�d just turn around and find herself someone else. Her attitude now was so different she felt like a completely new person in some ways. All I want is her. She�s the only one I want. She�s all I want. Olivia knew she was really and truly and deeply in love for the first time in her life, and as a result, she couldn�t just console herself with someone�anyone�else this time. It was a profound revelation.

"Whatever," Doris said. "You certainly have a reputation for ... oh, let�s say getting what you want."

"Well, not every time, as it turns out." Not this one time when it really matters.

"Olivia, you haven�t lost her. She�d still be here right now clinging to your bedside if you hadn�t forced her to leave. She�s crazy about you."

"But her religion ... she�ll never accept us, never accept us being in a relationship together, not when her church says it�s a sin. Her faith is everything to her."

"Olivia! The two of you are in a relationship. It doesn�t matter what her issues are or what your issues are or whatever the two of you �say� about it. You are together. It�s pretty obvious."

"I don�t know."

"Maybe you�re the one who needs to have a little faith," Doris said.

Olivia shook her head. Doris just doesn�t get it. "By the way, Mallet came by to question me about the shooting."

"How�d that go?"

"Natalia was here, too, and she remembered one of the gunmen seemed familiar to her, the one who shot me, and the more I think about it, the more worried I get."

"So she thinks she may know one of them?"

"Maybe, or at least thinks she might have seen him somewhere before. I don�t like it, Doris."

"You think she might be in danger?"

Olivia nodded. "And I just realized I made her promise to go home and rest. Why did I do that? You know how isolated the farmhouse is. What the hell was I thinking? These damn drugs are addling my brain!"

"You want me to go check on her?"

"Would you? I�d be really grateful."

"Of course, I will. I�ll go now."

"Thanks. And ... you will have your, uhm ... �boy toys� with you, won�t you?"

"Of course, they go with me everywhere these days. I never know when I might get attacked by one of our own Springfield detectives after all."

"Ah, good ol� Frank. I still have to wonder what in the hell got into him that day. And god, I just remembered. Did you ever find out what actually happened between Frank and Natalia the day I thought I heard them arguing? I asked Natalia about it, but she was fairly evasive."

"Yes, they had words right here in your room. Frank had leaned on Mallet to let him question Natalia about the robbery, and he came to the hospital to do it. I saw him before he went into your room and called him on his motives, but I had to leave for a council meeting, so I didn�t stick around. Later after you called, I did some checking and found out that for some reason he�d decided to haul her down to the police station to do the questioning. Flo told me they�d argued outside your room, and then he practically dragged her to the elevator."

"What the hell is his problem?"

"Oh, I don�t know. Maybe he�s feeling a bit pissy that she dumped him on their wedding day. Some people find that difficult to deal with, you know."

"Yeah, well ..."

"Also, she dumped him for someone else, and not just anyone�you, another woman no less! Most men don�t like that, in case you didn�t realize."

"He still had no right to treat her like that."

"I agree. In fact, when I got to the station, I found out he still had her in the interrogation room. He actually kept her in there for several hours, and he was yelling at her when I got there."

"Oh my god. What�d he say?"

"I did hear the words �conniving bitch,� so of course I knew he must be talking about you." Doris laughed.

"Thanks a lot."

"He pretty much told her not to trust you, that you�d get tired of her and dump her eventually, so clearly he has no clue you�re actually in love with her. I bet he thinks you�re bi-curious or maybe just after another conquest�and a very pretty conquest this time, I might add."

"Hey!"

Doris grinned at Olivia�s indignation. "By the way, Chief Wolfe and I met with him the following day and gave him a royal dressing-down. The chief was no happier with Frank than I was. Hopefully Frank will lay off her after that. Obviously he needs to get a grip on his anger."

"Thank you, Doris. I owe you one."

"I may have to take you up on that one day. Meanwhile, I better get going. I have a farmhouse to check on."

"Thank you for going all the way out there. I just hate to think of her all alone in that big isolated house. You know ... she never locks the door, and that�s really starting to worry me. Maybe she should stay in my suite at the Beacon till these men are caught. Will you tell her I asked her to do that?"

"Of course," Doris said. "Don�t forget what we discussed earlier. I�m telling you ... she�s madly in love with you, Olivia, and I really think if you�re patient with her and give her the time she needs to work through her issues, you might just end up with everything you want."

Olivia wanted desperately to believe her. If only it were true! But Doris didn�t see the look of utter shock on Natalia�s face when I kissed her�uhm ... both times, in fact; she didn�t see Natalia jerk away when we were at Emma�s school and I took her hand and pressed it against my cheek; and she didn�t see any of the dozens of other times when Natalia became uncomfortable if we got too close. So as much as I�d like to believe we have a shot, I just ... I just don�t know if we do.

She was suddenly aware that Doris was watching her like a bird of prey about to swoop down, powerful beak and sharp talons at the ready. My god she�s intense. No wonder she�s the political powerhouse she is. Olivia also remembered her early days as one of Springfield�s most successful lawyers and later her rough-and-tumble prosecution style when she was district attorney. She was certainly nobody to mess with. Olivia wasn�t the least bit intimidated by her, but she could certainly understand why Natalia was having such a difficult time dealing with her. I know you�re not going to be happy with me that I sicced her on you, but I�d rather you be upset with me than in any kind of danger.

"I hope you�re right, Doris," Olivia finally said, "but honestly, I just don�t think you are."

"If you could see the way she looks at you when you�re sleeping, if you could see how she touches you ... well, let�s just say I think you might feel differently."

Olivia was astonished. Touches me? What the hell are you talking about? she wondered, but before she could ask, Doris turned to leave.

"Well, I�m just going to leave you with your thoughts." The mayor grinned and with one last piercing pale glance left.

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

Natalia felt rejuvenated after her hot shower. It felt good to be back at the farmhouse, even though she didn�t plan to stay long. She was anxious to get back to the hospital. She hated leaving Olivia there all on her own, but the increasingly cranky patient had insisted she get out of there and get some rest, so she�d eventually caved in.

She�d had no intentions of taking a nap or staying any longer than necessary, but exhaustion had caught up with her and she actually had taken a short nap�a nap that had resulted in a disconcerting dream about Olivia. She sighed. In truth, she hadn�t wanted to wake up from that dream and had fought to hang onto it when she felt herself begin to drift toward consciousness.

In the dream she and Olivia were at the farmhouse sitting on the couch together in front of the fire just watching the flames dancing on top of the logs; and then Olivia was kissing her slowly and deeply ... and she kept kissing her ... and her lips were soft and silky. Natalia could feel her dream body tremble and melt from the sheer ecstacy of those leisurely kisses, and when she finally woke, she could feel the liquid heat between her legs ... and all from Olivia�s passionate dream kisses.

After that dream the one thing she knew she had to do was deal with the conflicts between her religion and her love for Olivia; and she tried to do just that, tried to find that quiet place inside herself, tried to pray for answers, but none was forthcoming. Finally she gave up for the time being. She still needed to stop by the Beacon and make sure all the rapid delegating she�d done in the wake of Olivia�s shooting was working smoothly, and she also knew it�d help the staff for Olivia�s assistant to drop by and update them personally on her condition. Time to get moving.

She dressed quickly in blue jeans with a low-cut white tank top tucked in. She pulled on a silky long-sleeved coral blouse, which she left unbuttoned. She was heading down the stairs when she heard a knock at the door. Who could that be? Maybe it�s Frank. No, it�s probably not him. He would�ve just walked in. She hurried down the stairs and through the house to the door. When she opened it, she was surprised to see Mayor Wolfe.

"Doris! What are you doing here?" I see enough of you at the hospital. Do you have to follow me home, too?

"What a lovely and gracious greeting. I will come in, thank you," Doris said as she pushed past her into the house.

Natalia could see the mayor�s two bodyguards stationing themselves just outside the door. She had a sudden horrid thought. "Did something happen to Olivia?"

"No, no, she�s fine. In fact, I just left her."

Natalia teetered between relief that Olivia was okay and irritation that once again the mayor had been at the hospital with her�alone. "Well, that�s good to hear. So ... why are you here?"

The mayor�s eyes roved around the homey, well-appointed kitchen. "Nice place," she said. "You do a lot of cooking?"

"Sometimes. Are you going to tell me why you came all the way out here?" Natalia could feel her temper starting to flare up.

"Olivia tells me you thought one of the gunmen seemed familiar."

"It�s nothing definite, just a feeling."

"I understand, but she was worried about you being way out here all by yourself."

"I�m not afraid in my own house." She could feel Doris�s pale blue eyes staring into her.

"Maybe you should be."

"I�m sure those men are long gone."

"And you�re basing that on what? Your vast experience with the criminal element?"

"No, I�m basing it on common sense. Why would they hang around here after the robbery?"

"Criminals don�t always behave in a common-sense fashion, Natalia. You�d be wise to exercise some caution. Look what you did just now. You opened the door without checking to see who was on the other side. It could�ve been anybody. I bet it never even occurred to you to wonder if the person knocking on your door might be someone dangerous."

"Well, it wasn�t someone dangerous." Actually I think you are kind of dangerous, at least where Olivia is concerned.

"And come to think of it, I didn�t hear the sound of a lock, so anybody could have walked right in here without knocking. Olivia told me she was worried because you never lock the door."

"Olivia�s just ... worrying too much." She was irritated with the mayor, but the thought of Olivia thinking about her and worrying about her was giving her a warm, fuzzy feeling that enveloped her like a hug�like a hug from Olivia, she thought dreamily.

"Well, maybe she is worrying too much, but that�s because she loves you."

Natalia really wished the mayor would quit commenting on her relationship ... on her friendship with Olivia. It was none of her business. "I think maybe you�re interested in Olivia," she snapped. And I really don�t like it!

"Oh, are we back to that? Well, okay, Olivia is beautiful and smart and funny and sexy. Who wouldn�t be interested in her?"

"Olivia told me she thought you were seeing Angelica," Natalia blurted out.

Doris burst into laughter. "You are just too funny," she gasped. "No wonder Olivia finds you so fascinating."

"I don�t see what�s so funny."

"Yes, I know. That�s part of why it�s amusing. You�re just so transparent. Why don�t you give in to all those lustful feelings and just take her to bed already?"

Natalia�s face flushed bright red. She felt like slapping her. The thought of her and Olivia in bed� Oh my god! Suddenly she did think about her and Olivia in bed�Olivia lying on her side, head propped on one hand, sea-green eyes smoldering as they gazed into hers. She felt the heat in her cheeks soar higher as her stomach lazily flipped all the way over, which made her even angrier at the mayor. I know these thoughts are wrong, and it�s wrong of her to ... to say things like that. Worse still, she feared the overly observant mayor might be able to see her discomfiting reaction, a thought that was absolutely mortifying!

"As to Angelica," Doris continued with a half-smile, "it�s true she and I flirted a bit last winter, but I didn�t pursue it once I found out she couldn�t keep her eyes off of someone else."

"Oh really? Who?"

Doris chuckled. "Olivia, of course. That gorgeous blue-eyed blonde just cannot keep her eyes off of Olivia. I�m surprised you haven�t noticed. She practically swoons every time Olivia walks into the bar."

Natalia�s mouth dropped open, and she just stood and stared at the mirthful mayor.

"Why, Ms. Rivera, at a loss for words?"

"I ... I ... I don�t believe you."

"Why on earth wouldn�t you believe me? Have you looked at Olivia? She turns heads everywhere she goes. I�m amazed you�re not aware of that."

"I know she�s gorgeous."

"Interesting word choice."

Natalia flinched, but ignored her comment. "And I know there�ve been people who were attracted to her."

"�Are,�" Doris corrected. "�Are� attracted to her, including, as it turns out, Angelica. My, my, wouldn�t they make an attractive twosome if Olivia ever decided to give her a chance?"

Natalia was livid, especially since the mayor had just planted a very disturbing image in her head of Olivia grabbing and kissing Angelica the way she�d kissed her the day of the shooting. "W- w- would you please just ... just go? Please go!"

"No, I promised Olivia that my guys and I would stay here with you till you left the farmhouse for town," Doris said.

"Fine, then, I�m going. I�m leaving right now," Natalia said, grabbing her purse and keys.

"By the way, she wants you to stay in her suite at the Beacon until we know things are safe, so you might as well pack a bag while you�re at it."

"You can�t tell me where to stay."

"Do you really want to face Olivia if you haven�t done this one little thing she�s asked of you so she won�t have to worry about you out here all alone while she�s trapped in that hospital room feeling powerless? After all, what�s she ever done for you? Oh, except save your life, of course."

Natalia stood for a moment staring angrily at the mayor, and then turned silently and headed back upstairs to pack with the sound of Doris�s laughter ringing in her ears.

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

Chapter 15

Olivia stared at the white acoustical ceiling tiles thinking long after Mayor Wolfe had left to check on Natalia. Leave me with my thoughts, huh? God, she�s annoying! Of course, I suppose just because she�s annoying doesn�t mean she doesn�t have a point about my "issues." And what was that crack about the way Natalia "touches" me when I�m sleeping? What the hell was that about?

Olivia remembered waking up after being sedated while Dr. Rick checked her pacemaker battery problem last winter. She was floating somewhere between total unconsciousness and full wakefulness when she became aware that someone was leaning over her�and from the scent she knew it had to be Natalia. She felt a hand caress her face and a gentle and lingering kiss on her forehead. Then she could sense her leaning down closer, as though she were about to kiss her on the mouth. Panic over the possible consequences of a kiss between them catapulted her out of her drugged state, and she opened her eyes in time to stop it. Shit! How many times have I regretted that? No, no, wait ... I did the right thing. I did! It was too soon, way too soon. In fact, the way things stand now, anytime at all is apparently too soon.

But now she was wondering what Doris might have seen. Did she see you touch my face? Did she see you kiss my forehead? Is it possible she saw you kiss me on the mouth? No, that couldn�t be right. Natalia would never do that. She was just too afraid and probably too repressed to even think of it. Olivia wasn�t even sure she would have actually kissed her like that last winter; back then she�d just felt like she couldn�t take that chance, so she�d forced herself to wake up. If only you wanted to, she thought sadly. If only you really did want to kiss me like that.

Olivia sighed. Her chest hurt. Her head hurt. Her heart hurt, though not just from the recent surgery; her heart hurt because she and Natalia still had so many barriers keeping them apart, and it was beginning to look like they were cemented permanently in place.

So what are you going to do about all this, Spencer?

Olivia had no idea. Their problems seemed insurmountable. She had learned one thing, though. One of their problems was her own burning desire that their relationship become sexual ASAP�or at the very least at some point in the not-too-distant future. What if she doesn�t want that? What if she never wants that? What if she can�t accept it? What if she couldn�t live with it if we did go there? The thought of taking her to bed one night and waking up the next morning alone because Natalia had regrets would be more than she could bear.

She also thought it was quite possible that, religious issues aside, Natalia just didn�t like sex, period. Of course, she�d be basing that on a limited amount of experience with Gus and the one time with Frank that had led to her sobbing in Olivia�s arms afterwards from remorse and ... who knew what else?

Olivia was experienced enough in the ways of the flesh to know it would probably make all the difference for Natalia if she were to experience sex with someone she was in love with, but the problem was Natalia didn�t have enough experience or knowledge to realize that. Besides, maybe for her sex was something ... maybe either ho-hum or downright unpleasant that you did for someone else to please them. Olivia knew it was unlikely she�d ever get the chance to show her how amazing sex with the right person could be�and she had no doubt she was that right person.

So now what? What if she does hate sex? What if that never changes? Can I live without a sexual relationship?

The idea of life with no sex seemed like an impossible scenario. She�d always been a very sexual person. It was an integral part of her. The idea of giving that up, of giving up a fundamental aspect of who she was, seemed inconceivable. How could I possibly do that?

Visions of Natalia began to swirl through her head�Natalia happily baking cookies in her beloved farmhouse kitchen; Natalia reading a bedtime story to Emma; Natalia folding laundry (she seems to fold laundry all the time; what�s up with that?); Natalia dressed in a sleek black skirt suit, looking all proper and efficient at the Beacon; Natalia constantly watching over her at the hospital; Natalia taking her hands and pulling them close as they talked. She was sweet and smart and capable, and, of course, she was just so gorgeous and sexy, even if she herself was unaware of it.

Olivia suddenly realized there was a much better question she should be asking herself, a far more important question than whether or not she could live without sex: Can I live without her? Finally she�d hit on the crux of the matter and finally there was a simple answer: No. No, I can�t live without her. She realized that there was no other option, that there�d never been another option. She was so in love, she just couldn�t imagine her life without Natalia in it, and if that meant she had to give up sex, then ... then by god that�s what she�d do.

Well, not give it up entirely,

she amended. Just give up having sex with someone else, meaning with her, since I have no desire whatsoever to be with anyone else. She knew she was perfectly capable of taking care of her own physical needs; in fact, it was the only thing that�d gotten her through the last months of painful longing. It wasn�t as satisfying as being able to make love with her, but it was something�and god only knew being around her all the time provided a panoply of erotic inspiration for those furtive nighttime sessions!

She knew the "old" Olivia, the one with the ever-so flexible morals, would have found plenty of justification for being in a loving, though sexless, relationship with Natalia, while meeting her physical needs in clandestine rendezvous with others. The "new" Olivia, the one she�d slowly evolved into as she�d fallen more deeply in love, not only wouldn�t do that, she didn�t even want to. Who the hell am I these days? Seriously. Just who the hell have I become? And whatever happened to Olivia freakin� Spencer, worldly sexual adventuress?

She began to massage her forehead as she contemplated the possibility of returning to the farmhouse to live, of moving back into her old bedroom while Natalia slept in her own room down the hall, of never, ever being able to hold her or kiss her or make love to her. I feel like weeping or maybe screaming, or better yet weeping AND screaming, and I would, too, if I didn�t know that�d hurt like hell right now.

She knew the alternative would be no Natalia in her life whatsoever, and that was not acceptable ... nor would it be bearable. She knew for her there was no choice. She�d just have to hope she hadn�t already frightened Natalia off with her impetuous kamikaze kisses. God, what was I thinking?

Maybe Natalia would be open to their being together if she knew Olivia was willing to give up on pursuing a sexual relationship. Wasn�t that the main problem, that having a physical relationship with another woman was a sin in the eyes of her church? If they didn�t act on those feelings, then there was no sin, right? She�d have to ask Sister Anne to be certain, but she was pretty sure that was the way it worked. And besides, if it was true Natalia didn�t like sex, as she was becoming more and more convinced was the case, wouldn�t it remove a major obstacle for Natalia if Olivia let her know she didn�t have to worry anymore about being pressured about it?

Christ! Why couldn�t I have fallen in love with a wanton woman? There�s a lot to be said for loose women, right? Well, I guess it doesn�t matter since I�m already in love with a near saint.

Olivia sighed and, grabbing hold of the side rail on the bed, laboriously worked until she managed to get herself turned over onto her side. She pulled her knees up closer to her chest in a near fetal position and closed her eyes. She felt exhausted, physically and mentally and emotionally. I can do this, she thought. Really. Seriously. I can totally do this. She chose to ignore the tear that slid down her cheek and rolled onto the white cotton pillowcase.

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

Natalia parked her car in front of the small Catholic church where she�d almost made the biggest mistake of her life. She felt humbled by the enormity of her bad judgment and poor decisions, and she was determined to be strictly and painfully honest in the future�not only with others, but even more importantly with herself. That�s partly where she�d gone wrong, and she knew it. Sure, Olivia had urged her to accept Frank�s proposal, but Natalia knew at the time she didn�t love him. In fact, if she were honest�and I know I really need to be honest from now on!�she�d have to admit she was already aware she loved Olivia, even when she said yes to Frank.

She knew even then that her life revolved around Olivia. She could hardly wait to see her stumble into the kitchen in the mornings, groggy and grumpy; she loved every minute they spent working together at the Beacon; she looked forward to movie nights and talks on the bench and playing card and board games with her and Emma. She�d never been happier, and at the center of that happiness was Olivia. She was gorgeous and smart and funny, and somewhere along the way Natalia had fallen in love with her, a fact of life that had both exhilarated her and confused her and frightened her to death.

Once she finally realized she didn�t just love Olivia, but was in love with her, she felt staggeringly off-kilter, as though she could no longer make sense of her life, because on the one hand her love for Olivia felt good and true and right, but on the other the teachings of her church said they were wrong and sinful and an abomination in the eyes of God. That painful dichotomy left her feeling as though she were perched on the brink of a dizzying precipice where any wrong move could send her crashing over the edge into the black abyss below.

And that�s why she was now standing at the door of the church. After leaving the farmhouse, followed by Mayor Wolfe�s black SUV, she�d driven straight here instead of going immediately to the Beacon or back to the hospital. She was relieved when she saw the dark vehicle continue on into town when she pulled into the church parking lot. The thought of having to deal with anymore of Doris�s probing and pecking was more than she felt she could handle right now, especially when she knew she had to deal with her current quandary, had to see if she could find some way to resolve her feelings for Olivia with the teachings of the church, which said that how she felt was wrong. It doesn�t feel wrong, she thought defiantly as she pushed open the heavy double doors.

When she entered the church, she made her way to the front and lit three candles: one for Olivia, one for Rafe, and one to ask for guidance as she tried to deal with the powerful feelings she had for her best friend, feelings she was no longer able to ignore or deny. She was like a butterfly newly emerged from its cocoon. She was out in the real world now, but she was still clinging to the chrysalis, waiting for her wings to dry before she could properly take flight, which for the moment left her completely vulnerable to any predator that might wander by.

Father Ray entered just as she lit the last candle. "Hello, Natalia. What brings you here today?"

"I wanted to pray for Olivia and Rafe, and ... and I also wanted to ... to seek guidance."

Father Ray looked concerned. "Is there anything I can help you with?"

Natalia looked down."I�m not sure."

"Is this about Frank?"

"No." She felt torn. Normally she would turn to the priest for guidance, but she felt reluctant to open up to him about her feelings for Olivia.

"I thought you might be having second thoughts about stopping the wedding. Have the two of you been trying to work through your problems?"

"No, it�s ... it�s just not possible."

"Of course it�s possible. If two people love each other and want to be together, they can overcome any obstacle."

"Father, I ... I can�t marry Frank because I don�t love him, not that way."

Father Ray looked surprised. "The two of you seemed so compatible, and clearly Frank loves you very much."

"I know he does, but ..."

"But what? Talk to me, Natalia."

"There�s someone else." She cringed as the words left her mouth.

"Someone else you love?"

Natalia nodded. "Someone else I love very much."

"Who is it?"

Natalia hesitated, took a deep breath, and finally said, "Olivia."

"Olivia?" Father Ray�s heavy eyebrows shot up in alarm.

Natalia could clearly see he was shocked. "Yes, Olivia."

"You love Olivia? You mean ..."

"Yes, I love her." Natalia took a deep and painful breath. "I�m in love with Olivia."

Father Ray slowly shook his head. "Natalia, you know it goes against the teachings of the church to act on those feelings."

"I know that God is love�it says that in scripture�and I know love isn�t wrong."

"The Bible is very clear on these ... �matters,� Natalia."

"The Bible also says, �Three things will last forever�faith, hope and love�and the greatest of these is love.� I love her, Father Ray, and it doesn�t feel wrong or bad. It feels right and good."

"Natalia, the Bible specifically states this kind of love is wrong."

"Well, the Bible also says �faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.� In my heart I know my love for Olivia is not wrong or bad or sinful or whatever else others might want to call it."

Father Ray just stood and shook his head with a look of sadness and concern on his face. "You would be going against the fundamental teachings of your faith, Natalia, if you pursue these feelings."

Natalia looked down at the wooden flooring and tried to hold onto her conviction that loving Olivia was not a sin, but when she remembered her dream, the dream in which Olivia kissed her passionately in front of the fireplace at the farmhouse, her cheeks heated up with embarrassment and shame.

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

They sat together on the couch in the living room of the farmhouse, already dressed for bed. Olivia wore her black silk pajamas, and the dark-haired woman beside her was dressed in blue and white flannel jammies. It was movie night, but Emma was on a sleepover, so they were just sitting quietly in the warm glow of the low-burning fire, shoulders touching and hands entwined.

When Olivia noticed dark eyes fighting to stay open, she nudged the beautiful woman sitting next to her. "Hey, I think we better get you up to bed."

The other woman nodded sleepily, and the two of them walked slowly up the stairs, still holding hands. At the top they hugged for one long moment, and then the smaller woman continued down the hallway to the room at the far end. Olivia watched her until she disappeared behind her door, and then with a heavy sigh she went inside her own room and crawled between the cool sheets on her bed.

Merely sitting next to her on the couch holding her hand had inflamed her libido, and she�d had to fight her instinct to just grab her and kiss her till she passed out. She knew that would break the unspoken rules, though: no kissing, no "inappropriate" touching, no sex.

She unbuttoned her silk pajama top, pulled it open, and ran her hands over her aching breasts. How she wished these were her hands. How she longed to feel her hands caressing her flesh. How she wished the other woman wanted to touch her like this. She played with her nipples as she imagined herself flinging off the covers and striding down the hallway to the other bedroom, the forbidden room. She imagined herself catching up with the sleepy woman who kept her in a constant erotic fog of longing. She�d be surprised to see Olivia daring to breach the barrier of her door.

Olivia slid her hand beneath her waistband and cupped her heated sex. She could imagine exactly how things would play out in the forbidden room:

"What are you doing here?"

"I�m not sleeping alone, not tonight."

Olivia gazed at the smaller woman for one long moment and then abruptly pushed her against the door and leaned into her, effectively trapping her there between her own soft curves and the unyielding wood of the door. She tried to kiss her, but she turned her face away, so Olivia slid her lips across her cheek and down to her neck, where she spread hot, wet kisses over smooth tan skin, pausing at one point to deliberately leave a mark, her mark, one that would be plainly visible for all to see. "Mine," she whispered as she lifted her lips from the bruised flesh.

Olivia was filled with frustration and brimming with unbridled lust. It was a difficult combination to manage, especially when she knew damn good and well the sexual desire was not one-sided, even if the object of her love and lust was in a state of denial about her own carnal needs. The long months of unrequited longing had shattered her self-control, and now she was determined to push past barriers, instead of patiently waiting; determined to make love to the one she loved, instead of spending one more night pleasuring herself while fantasizing the other woman wanted to touch her.

She felt the woman brace her hands against her shoulders, gently trying to push her back, but she grabbed her wrists and pressed them firmly against the door on either side of her head, holding them there as she gazed into her glistening brown eyes.

"Olivia, we can�t ... I can�t ... it�s sinf�"

Before she could get the last word out, Olivia captured her mouth in a heated kiss. She reveled in the taste of her sweet lips, which were kept tightly closed against her probing tongue. It didn�t stop her from exploring her lips, though, and she did just that, gently tracing over their perfect contours and reveling in their velvety texture.

Finally she released one slim wrist so she could cup a full breast with her hand, and she kneaded it as she continued her languid, exploratory kiss. Then suddenly unbearably impatient from all the months of waiting, she yanked open her flannel top, sending dark blue buttons flying through the air before clattering to the floor, and her eyes drank in the beauty of perfect olive skin and womanly curves.

"My god you�re beautiful," she whispered.

Her painful arousal drove her to seek out the pulse point in the side of her neck, and she was not the least bit surprised to feel the conspicuous throbbing there, a clear sign her blood was roiling hot and fast in her veins. Elated at her find, Olivia covered her gorgeous breasts with both her hands and slowly massaged them until she felt the unmistakable evidence of arousal pressing into her palms. Finally she dipped her head, drew one now awakened peak into her mouth, and swirled her tongue around the turgid flesh until she heard a wrenching gasp of pleasure.

This time when she kissed her, those sweet lips were pliant and parted readily to admit her questing tongue. As she kissed her passionately, finally able to explore the previously forbidden terrain inside her mouth, her hand slipped between her thighs and cupped the tender flesh there through the thin barrier of the flannel cloth. The woman gasped and then moaned as Olivia began slowly and rhythmically pressing the heel of her hand against her secret center. Then before the woman in her arms realized what was happening, Olivia slid one hand under her waistband, slid over hot wet flesh, brazenly exploring hidden folds�and then she was inside her, thrusting inside her, feeling and gauging her response till she got the rhythm just right. She was jubilant when she felt slender arms wrap around her holding on tight, when she heard her gasp and groan, when she felt her begin to rock her hips in rhythm with the inexorable tempo of her urgent hand.

Finally Olivia searched with her thumb for just the right place, that one place that made the woman in her arms tremble and tilt her head back against the door, and she massaged the tiny bud there until the woman finally, at long last, shuddered and cried out. Olivia held onto her as she collapsed into her arms, and they both slid down to the floor with their arms still wrapped around each other, both breathing hard, both silent.

Time seemed suspended. Shadows lengthened as pale moonlight filtered through the partially open blinds. After long moments, during which Olivia stroked the dark head resting on her shoulder, she put her forefinger under a trembling chin and tipped the woman�s face up so she could peer into her dark and lustrous eyes. She exulted at the expression there�of arousal ... of surrender ... of submission�and she knew she could do anything now, and that�s exactly what she planned to do�anything ... and everything. She�d awakened the sleeping princess and now she was hers.

She unbuttoned her silk top, kissed her leisurely and deeply with their bare torsos pressed together, and then she drew the woman�s head down to one of her own breasts and smiled when she felt a warm, wet mouth close over her distended and aching nipple.

On seeing that last image in her mind, Olivia�s dream self suddenly reached a prolonged and shuddering climax, and afterwards lay breathing hard, heart hammering in her chest, her mind continuing to fixate on the erotic vision.

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

Chapter 16

Natalia was glad she�d decided to make a quick stop at the Beacon before heading back to the hospital. The staff clearly appreciated her update on Olivia�s condition, and she was able to do some minor troubleshooting while she was there. She also authorized temporary pay bonuses for the two people bearing the greatest delegated responsibility: Sheila, the general manager; and Greg, the banquet manager.

On her way out, she paused at the door to the bar when she saw Angelica was working there. She watched her for a moment as she efficiently mixed a cocktail for a young man in a business suit who was openly staring at her.

She�s so beautiful

, Natalia thought, and she�s always so sweet. She could see how anyone would find her attractive, including Olivia. If Olivia wanted to be with another woman, she could see how Angelica would make a perfect choice. Is that what you want, Olivia? Do you want to be with another woman? No, she knew that couldn�t be right. After all, Olivia loved her. Olivia was in love with her, but ... if they couldn�t find their way back to each other, couldn�t find a way to "be" together, might Olivia want to console herself with another woman? That was the question that gnawed away at her brain, and she very much feared the answer might be yes.

By the time she got to the hospital, the nagging question had gnawed its way through her brain and all the way down to her heart, where it sat painfully nibbling away at her most tender organ.

When she opened Olivia�s door, she was surprised to find her sitting up in the recliner in the corner by the window instead of lying in bed. She had to smile when she saw Olivia was now wearing light gray sweats instead of the ugly and thin and very revealing hospital gown.

"You�re up," she said with a smile, "and I see you�re wearing a new outfit." She was happy to see some color in Olivia�s face, and her eyes looked much more alert�and a much more vivid shade of green. She knew you could tell so much about Olivia if you just paid attention to her shifting eye color.

"Yeah, pretty exciting stuff, huh?" Olivia said with a grin. "Did you get moved into my suite at the Beacon?"

Natalia nodded as she pulled her customary chair over directly in front of the recliner. "How�re you feeling?"

"Better. I�m feeling stronger. In fact, Dr. Rick is talking about releasing me soon."

"Really? That�s great!"

"I�m ready, let me tell you, and then I never want to see that redheaded nurse again!"

Natalia laughed. "I think she�s sweet. She�s been very good with you, whether you realize it or not; and don�t forget, she had to put up with the mayor flagging her down to ask about you practically every time she was here."

"So ... speaking of the mayor, I guess Doris caught up with you at the farm?"

"Yes, thanks so much for that." She was still annoyed about the mayoral visit to the farmhouse, and she knew her tone revealed her irritation.

"I knew you wouldn�t be happy about it, but I suddenly realized I�d insisted you go out there without remembering what you said about possibly knowing one of those men."

"Yes, �possibly.� I�m not even sure. In fact, I probably don�t. I�m probably just being paranoid."

"Well, I�d rather not take any chances."

"I know you meant well, but Olivia, Doris just drives me crazy."

"I know. She can get under my skin too. Hell, I�m sure she can get under anybody�s skin."

"By the way," Natalia said, trying to sound casual. "She�s not seeing Angelica."

"Oh really? How do you know that?"

"Uhm ... well, I asked her."

"You asked her?" Olivia laughed. "That�s just ... funny."

�Well, she was in my face talking about me and my relationships, so I figured I�d just ask her about hers."

"Hm ... so what did she say about you and your relationships?"

Natalia blushed. "I ... uhm ... you know ..."

"Not really."

"Just ... stuff." Natalia could feel her cheeks warming.

"Stuff ... hm." Both of Olivia�s eyebrows rose up and she was clearly trying to stifle a grin.

Natalia suddenly found the pattern on the floor tiles acutely interesting, and she kept her eyes focused there so she wouldn�t have to look at Olivia. "She just keeps butting in where she has no business going."

"I understand. She does the same with me ... and I suspect with others. The woman doesn�t seem to observe anybody�s personal boundaries."

Natalia looked up and studied Olivia�s face for a moment. "I went by the church after I left the farmhouse. I wanted to say a prayer for you and for Rafe, and I saw ... I ... I spoke with Father Ray while I was there."

She could see Olivia tense up and she understood exactly why. Natalia knew her religious issues were the main reason they weren�t together, and she was feeling pretty tense herself after her troublesome talk with the priest.

"So how�d that go?"

"He asked me if Frank and I were trying to work out our problems."

"Okay, so ... what�d you say?"

"I told him no, we weren�t. I said I didn�t love Frank. I ... uhm ... I told him ... I said there was someone else."

"Really?"

"I told him I love you." Natalia felt nervous, but she looked directly into Olivia�s eyes as she spoke. She knew she had to be more open and straightforward about her feelings, or she was going to lose Olivia forever. It was an unbearable thought. I can�t lose you, Olivia. I just can�t!

"You did? You�re kidding!"

"No, I really did. I ... uhm ... in fact, I told him I�m ... I�m in love with you." Natalia could feel her heart lurch into overdrive as she watched the expression of amazement spread over Olivia�s beautiful face.

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

Olivia was stunned. She was stunned Natalia had told Father Ray. She was stunned Natalia had just told her about telling the priest. She was mostly stunned Natalia had just made such a bold and unmistakable declaration of her feelings. Holy Christ, that was totally unexpected. She wanted to pinch herself to see if she was off in druggie dreamland again�not that that was such a terrible place to hang out.

She searched Natalia�s face carefully, looking for any clue as to how the talk had gone. After all, some priests were more liberal in their interpretation of scripture. Maybe Father Ray might be one of those. "So what�d he say?" Best to proceed with caution here, she thought, but she could feel her moribund hopes begin to revive, at least a little. Then she noticed the forlorn expression on Natalia�s face, and she was pretty sure this conversation was about to go south.

"He said acting on feelings like that ... for another woman ... is against the teachings of the church and is just ... just wrong."

Olivia let her head fall back against the recliner, and she wearily closed her eyes. "Well, I think we already knew that, didn�t we?" Same old same old. Damn it! I just can�t do this over and over and over, this push and pull, and back and forth. It�s ... it�s just way too painful. She was surprised when she felt Natalia reach for her hands, and when she opened her eyes, she found her leaning forward, looking at her intently.

"It doesn�t feel wrong to me, Olivia. Loving you doesn�t feel wrong."

Olivia wanted to hold onto hope, any shred of hope whatsoever, and those words made her think maybe there could be hope. On the other hand, she knew all these issues were weighty ones for Natalia, so she still had serious doubts. "What about ... well, what about the church?" she asked. "What about the Bible? What about God?"

Natalia drew back, but kept a tight hold on Olivia�s hands. "I don�t know. I ... I just don�t have all the answers yet."

And there it is, folks: Olivia Spencer�s Hopes, R.I.P.

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

The look of utter hopelessness that washed over Olivia�s face made Natalia want to cry. "Olivia, I know what you�re thinking. You�re thinking that means we can�t be together, but ... well, all I can tell you is I want us to be together. I�m not even sure what that might mean for us, but ... but I can�t stand things the way they are right now. I want you in my life, Olivia. You are my life. You are everything to me." She was a little alarmed when she saw Olivia clasp one hand over her chest. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I�m fine," Olivia said. "Look, I love you, Natalia. I feel like I�m in love for the first time in my life, and I want you in my life more than anything. I think I could handle just about anything if we were together, but ..."

"But what?" Natalia was barely breathing she was so anxious. She felt like she was on the verge of truly losing Olivia. I can�t lose you, Olivia. Please don�t give up on us.

"But I�m ... I�m just not sure if it�s possible."

"Can�t we at least try? Can�t we try to figure everything out... together?" Natalia held her breath waiting for Olivia�s response. She felt as though the beautiful woman sitting in front of her�the woman who had saved her life!�literally held her beating heart in her hands.

Olivia sat silently for a long moment, just gazing at Natalia, obviously deep in thought. Finally she spoke. "Yes, yes we can. We can at least try."

Natalia slid forward off her chair and onto her knees so she could wrap her arms around Olivia as she sat in the recliner. She felt Olivia�s arms enfold her, and, mindful of her recent surgery, she carefully rested her head on Olivia�s chest. It was enough for now. Everything would be okay as long as they were together. She would pray for answers and she would receive them. She remembered her favorite scripture: "Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." She was certain of her love for Olivia and of Olivia�s love for her, and she had faith they would find a way to work everything else out.

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

Olivia�s heart flooded with joy. She could live without sex. She could not live without Natalia. It was just that simple. Holding her hand, holding her in her arms like this ... it was enough, more than enough, and she was grateful. If you only had some idea of how much I love you, she thought as she breathed in her scent and relished the feel of holding her soft, sexy body in her arms. It was a perfect moment.

When they finally drew back from their long embrace, they smiled at each other shyly. Olivia felt giddy at the sudden flash of those adorable deep dimples. Ever since the day of the bank robbery, those dimples seemed to have mostly gone missing, but seeing them now warmed her heart. It also warmed some other places, which she steadfastly tried to ignore. She was determined to follow the unspoken rules: no kissing, no "inappropriate" touching, no sex. I can do this, she thought. It may be killing me, but I can do it.

In some part of her brain she knew she was completely whipped. She was also well aware of the irony; after all, she was used to being the one who left others in that vulnerable state, so finding herself on the business end of the whip�and put there by someone she�d have least expected to have that kind of effect on her, at least when they first met�was a strange experience. However, as they played with each others� hands, smiling broadly and gazing into each others� eyes, she simply accepted her fate.

"Listen, Natalia," she said. "I want you to know I�ve been thinking." I might as well just put this out there now so you�ll know you don�t have anything to worry about. After all, we can�t have any more incidents like that surprise kiss at the office last week. The last thing I want is to freak you out or gross you out or make you feel like you "have" to do anything like that just to please me.

The idea that Natalia might feel pressure to do something, anything, sexual with her just to make her happy, despite her own distaste for sex, was revolting in the extreme, and Olivia was determined to avoid that at all costs. She�d hate to see Natalia sobbing afterwards if they ever had sex the way she had after that unfortunate "incident" with Frank last winter. Hell, it still makes me nauseous just thinking about it. Natalia had been devastated after having sex with Frank, and Olivia knew she could never live with Natalia having a reaction like that if the two of them were to ever become physically intimate.

"Thinking, huh? What�ve you been thinking about?" Natalia asked.

"Well, I�ve been thinking about you ... about us ... about sex."

"Uhm ..."

"NO! No, no, no, wait! That came out all wrong. It�s not what you�re thinking. That�s not what I meant," she quickly amended. Crap! I�m doing this all wrong. My god, I�m an idiot! "I mean ... I know I should never have grabbed you and kissed you like that in my office last week, and I�m sorry."

"Olivia, there�s no need to apologize."

"Yes, there is. I know I�ve been ... impetuous, and I should have known better. I admit I�ve always been a very sexual person, but I realize you have religious issues about stuff like that, and I should have taken that into consideration instead of just pouncing on you."

"Olivia ..."

"No, please just listen. This is hard to get out, so I need to keep going. I know one of our problems is me ... well, my determination to get physically close to you, and I�ve realized that ... that we can�t ... do that."

"You mean ..."

"I mean I know I can�t go around grabbing you and kissing you, for starters, and I sure can�t ... well, do anything else." Oh my god. I should have practiced this, because ... Christ, I�m stuttering around here like I�m fourteen and trying to talk with my virginal girlfriend about sexual stuff.

"Olivia, I don�t know ..."

"Well, I know. I know your church says acting on these feelings is a sin, right? So if we don�t ... if we don�t act on them, then it�s not a sin. Isn�t that right?"

"Well, yes, but ..."

"Okay, then, I just wanted you to know you don�t have to worry about that anymore."

"Worry?"

"Yeah, worry that I might grab you at any moment and ... uhm ... kiss you ... or whatever." And trust me, if the kisses shocked you, the "whatever" would just freak you the hell out.

"But, Olivia ..."

Just then Nurse Flo swept into the room.

"Not you again!" Olivia cried.

"Time for you to get back in bed," Nurse Flo said with a patient smile. "You�ve been sitting up for quite a while now."

"Oh fine," Olivia grumbled as she let the overly cheerful nurse help her to her feet and back to the bed. She felt exhausted by the time she lay back on her pillow. When the hell does her shift end anyway? It does end, doesn�t it?

"There now, isn�t that better?" the nurse asked.

"It�s just peachy," Olivia said. Her eyelids felt too heavy to hold up, and she could feel herself beginning to drift. She could barely hold her eyes open long enough to see Nurse Flo bustle back out the door, hyperactivity at full throttle.

"Olivia," Natalia said softly as she took Olivia�s hand in hers. "Olivia, we�ve got to talk."

"Mm?" Olivia said, and then she fell into a deep slumber while Natalia just sat and watched her breathe.

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

Olivia�s breathing was slow and steady and deep, and Natalia knew she must be sleeping very soundly. She, however, was wide awake. As she sat on her usual bedside chair watching Olivia, her thoughts were ricocheting wildly about her head, to the point it was making her woozy. She�d been floored by what Olivia had said about ... about kissing and stuff�or more precisely, not kissing her ever again, or doing anything else for that matter�and her emotions about it were all over the map. In fact, at this point they were completely off the map and milling about in total disarray.

On the one hand, she wasn�t at all sure about physical intimacy with another woman, wasn�t sure what came after a kiss, wasn�t sure what to do, wasn�t sure she was ready to find out; but on the other hand the thought that Olivia might never kiss her again was depressing and downright heartbreaking.

She did know some things, though. She knew she wanted Olivia to hold her. She knew she wanted Olivia to kiss her. In fact, she was aware she no longer wanted to make Olivia stop kissing her once she started, but now ... well, things could not be more convoluted, and it was making her feel a little crazy as she tried to make everything fit into place. Why does this have to be so difficult?

She took Olivia�s nearest hand and pressed it to her cheek, and then turned her head to press a lingering kiss to her palm. Her love for Olivia filled her up to nearly overflowing, and all she wanted at this point was for the two of them to find a way they could be together. She wanted Olivia to come back to the farmhouse to live, Olivia and Emma; eventually Rafe would be released from the halfway house, and then her little family would be complete. Her heart swelled with happiness at the thought. How wonderful would it be to see Olivia every morning?

Her mind abruptly executed a dizzying circumvolution and began to run images from her recent dream�images of Olivia kissing her, kissing her passionately on the couch at the farmhouse�and she could once more feel the intense liquid heat flowing unchecked.

She leaned forward to lay her head on the mattress as she held Olivia�s hand against her cheek. The rhythmic sound of her breathing was hypnotic, reassuring, joyful to hear, and finally she drifted off into a shadowy dreamworld.

In this dream she was not at her beloved farmhouse; she was sitting on the chair by the bed while Olivia lay quietly sleeping with the overbed light on its lowest setting. It was night and the hospital was deathly quiet, but then she felt a presence; and when she looked toward the doorway, there was a dark figure standing there just inside the room. She couldn�t see a face, but she knew immediately it was a threatening presence. In fact, she knew exactly who it was. It was the man who�d shot Olivia at the bank. It was the man who wanted to hurt her again, who wanted to hurt them both. A bolt of fear pierced her heart, making it suddenly hard to breathe, and she was horribly frightened for Olivia�s safety and for her own. Her mind frantically scrambled as she tried to figure out what to do, but before she could react, the hulking figure began to move toward her, and she was paralyzed with fear. She tried to scream, but no sound would come out.

She awoke with a start and realized someone was shaking her shoulder.

"Are you all right?" Nurse Flo asked.

Natalia jerked her body upright and looked wildly around the room, but everything looked normal. Olivia was still sleeping and it was quiet. "I ... I think so."

"Are you sure? It looked like you were having a bad dream."

"Very bad," she said. "A very bad dream."

"Can I do anything? Do you want to talk about it?"

Natalia shook her head. "No, but thanks. I think it�s just all the stress."

"Well, that can sure lead to bad dreams. I tell you what. If you change your mind and want to talk, just use the call button or come track me down, okay?"

"Okay, thanks."

After Nurse Flo left, Natalia tried to calm her still ragged breathing. After all, it was just a dream. It was stress. It was nerves. It was paranoia. In fact, it was highly likely she didn�t even know the stocky gunman. It must have been some trick of her mind that made her think he seemed familiar. And besides, even if he was someone she�d seen somewhere, he had to be long gone from this area. She sure would be if she were in his shoes. If she were one of the gunmen and had managed to pull off the robbery without getting caught, she�d be in a completely different area of the country, if not a different country all together.

She felt better after thinking it through, but she didn�t go back to sleep, not right away. Instead her attention swung like a pendulum between Olivia�s peaceful face and the closed hospital door.

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

Chapter 17

Olivia woke the next morning to find Natalia once more sitting by her bedside. She had dark shadows under her eyes and looked as though she might not have slept at all. She was staring at the door and hadn�t noticed yet that Olivia had awoken.

Olivia smiled when she saw that Natalia had her hand cradled in both of hers. She remembered their talk from the night before and felt hopeful and happy for the first time in a long time. She knew she�d made the right decision. She would follow the unspoken rules, and they would finally be able to be together. I�m not even worried about anything else, she thought. I�m just so happy you�re here.

"Hey," Olivia said softly, tugging at Natalia�s hand.

Natalia turned towards her immediately, and her wide white smile transformed her face. "Hey you. Did you sleep well?"

"Yeah, slept straight through." I could never get enough of that smile, she thought, or those dimples. There�s just something about those dimples that drives me wild. I must be feeling a lot better, �cause I�m thinking how great it�d be to kiss them, just spend all morning kissing them�and then all afternoon kissing the smile that brought them out.

"That�s good. I�m glad."

"What about you? You don�t look like you slept at all." I need to get out of this place so you can rest.

"I slept a little," she hedged.

"Maybe you need to go back to the Beacon and shower and nap." You look like you�re about to collapse.

"I don�t want to leave you."

"I know, but you�ve got to take care of yourself." Suddenly Olivia laughed.

"What�s so funny?"

"I think we�ve got some role reversal going on here. You�re usually the one nagging me to take care of myself."

They both laughed, but then Natalia�s expression turned serious. "Olivia," she said, "we need to talk about what you said yesterday."

"What I said ... about what?"

"You know ... about ..."

Just then Dr. Rick entered with Nurse Flo at his side. "Good morning, ladies. How are you, Olivia?"

"I�m good. In fact, I�m ready to go home. Could you just take care of that for me, Dr. Rick? Could you just go sign some release papers so I can get outta here?"

"Well, you�re sure feeling feisty. I know you�ve been feeling anxious to leave us, but don�t forget I told you if you want me releasing you a little sooner than I planned, you�re going to have to prove yourself by walking to the nurse�s station and back all by yourself."

"Hey, not fair! I�m in the room at the very end of the hallway." And he damn well knows it! He�s pretty sure I�d never make it that far. He�s probably right, too, damn it! But I�ve got to get outta this place.

"Well, when you�re strong enough to do that on your own, I�ll sign you out."

"How about you just move me to a room closer to the nurse�s station and then I�ll do it?"

Dr. Rick laughed. "If I did that, I�d just have to pick a further-off destination. So ... I take it you don�t think you can make it that far?"

"Uhm ... no, that�s not what I�m saying. I can make it. I can totally make it that far. I�ve been practicing."

"You need to do it with no help. We can�t have Flo carrying you down there and back."

"Yeah, sure. No help." Crap, this guy is totally unreasonable. The nurse�s station has to be three miles down the hallway. Well, fine, I�d walk to Chicago and back if it�d get me outta here. I�m sick to death of this place!

"All right, tell Flo when you�re ready to give it a go so she can verify you did it on your own," he said. He looked pointedly at Natalia. "No helping."

Natalia nodded solemnly. "No helping."

When they were alone again, Olivia motioned Natalia to come close, and when she did, she took her hand. "We�re together now, right? Or did I just dream that? I�ve been having so many dreams lately, it�s kind of hard to tell." Her heart skipped a beat when Natalia grinned broadly, dimples at full mast.

"Yes, we�re together."

"Great! So, do I get a hug to make it official?"

Natalia sat on the edge of the bed and Olivia leaned forward, and the two of them shared a close embrace as they listened to the sounds of the hospital waking up around them.

Thank god

, Olivia thought. Thank god we�re finally together. She was giddy with joy. They�d have to work out what that meant exactly and how it was going to work, but they were together and nothing else really mattered to her at the moment.

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

Nurse Flo came back into Olivia�s room after breakfast. She smiled at the patient, but then she looked at Natalia with genuine concern. Before Natalia could head her off the topic she knew was about to be brought up, the nurse spoke. "Are you doing better?"

Olivia was immediately alert and worried, as Natalia had known she would be.

"What�s this about �doing better�?" Olivia asked as she cast a penetrating look her way.

"I�m fine," Natalia said.

"What happened?" Olivia asked.

Natalia looked at the nurse, looked back at Olivia, looked at the floor. "Nothing."

"Hey! Talk to me."

"I just had a bad dream, that�s all."

Nurse Flo shook her head. "You were pale and you looked panicked. I was really concerned."

Natalia could feel dark green eyes drilling into her. "Everybody has a bad dream now and then. It was ... it was no big deal.

Before Olivia could pursue it further, Nurse Flo approached her. "Are you ready to make your solo journey to the nurse�s station?"

Natalia could tell Olivia was having to make a huge effort to let go of the conversation, and she knew she�d bring it up again, but with relief she saw her swing her legs off the bed."

"I am ready and able," Olivia said. "And then I�m gonna go home!"

Natalia started to reach for her when her knees buckled as her feet hit the floor, but Olivia caught herself before she crumpled to the ground.

Nurse Flo waved Natalia off. "Has to be a solo walk, remember?"

Natalia nodded. She had mixed feelings about Olivia leaving the hospital. She knew how overjoyed Olivia would be to get out, and of course she would love it, too, but she worried about her leaving the relative safety of the hospital. What if she had a problem? What if something happened to her heart? At least here she could get immediate attention. At the Beacon it would be much more difficult if an emergency did arise.

She watched with trepidation as Olivia slowly shuffled toward the door.

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

I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.

Olivia was within ten feet of the nurse�s station, and she could feel her leg muscles trembling from the exertion even though she�d been training like an Olympic athlete and was able to walk further and further each day. She was aware of Nurse Flo tracking her progress and Natalia hovering a bit too close�just in case I start to fall, she realized. I can do this ... I can ... whoa, gettin� shaky here. Keep going, keep going, keep going. She focused like a laser beam on her destination. Five more steps, four more steps, keep going. Finally she reached the counter and leaned on it gratefully.

"I am going home!" she announced triumphantly.

"And back," Nurse Flo said.

"Huh?" Olivia asked.

"And back. Dr. Bauer said to the station and back ... on your own."

Well, shit!

"I, uhm ... okay, yeah ... and back. Of course. No problem." No way in hell I�m gonna make it all the way back there without some serious assistance, like maybe a wheelchair or a gurney or a piggyback ride on Nurse Flo�s back maybe. She could probably run laps around the hospital with me on her back and never crack a sweat.

She could feel the anxiety billowing off Natalia in waves. She flashed her a jaunty grin. "Don�t worry. I can do this. Really." I am such a bullshitter.

Olivia slowly turned around so that she was leaning back against the counter and looking down what seemed to be an endless corridor back to her room. Yeah, a bullshitter who�s gonna be stuck here for all eternity with that always-on-duty nurse unless I can pull myself together and make it all the way back. What is it? Two, three miles? She thought about Emma. She thought about her very own room at the Beacon. She thought about being able to just "be" with Natalia away from all the hospital routine and drama.

Finally she took a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and began the long walk back to her room at the end of the hallway, painfully aware of the quivering muscles in her legs.

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

Natalia forgot all about her conflicting feelings about whether or not Olivia should leave the hospital yet. She was just overjoyed to see her jubilant smile when she finally tumbled back into bed with a gasp. "You did it!" Natalia cried. She was amazed Olivia had made it all the way back to the room, because it was clear to her how close she was to collapsing. Of course, Olivia was one of the strongest people she�d ever met, so she should know better than to ever underestimate her. She grinned when she saw Olivia pump her fist.

"I�m goin� home!" Olivia said. She looked at Nurse Flo and raised one brow. "I believe you have a report to make to Dr. Rick?"

Nurse Flo smiled and nodded. "I"m on my way."

When the nurse opened the door, Natalia could see Mayor Wolfe standing there about to enter. Flo opened the door more widely for her, but then uncharacteristically dropped her clipboard. Natalia had never seen her so much as drop a pill or miss a beat no matter what was going on around her. Maybe she was worried the mayor would pin her down for yet another interrogation about Olivia�s condition, or maybe even Flo actually got worn out from all the extra shifts. Natalia was no stranger to hard work and long hours, but even she was amazed by Nurse Flo�s energy and fortitude.

"Sorry," Nurse Flo mumbled as she retrieved her clipboard. "I�ll be back soon, Ms. Spencer," she called over her shoulder as she barreled down the hallway.

Doris watched her go, but turned quickly toward Olivia. "How�s it going?"

"Great! I�m going home!"

"That�s wonderful. When?"

"As soon as Dr. Rick signs the release papers."

"Need a lift?"

Oh no you don�t!

"I can take her," Natalia said. "My car�s here."

"Are you sure?" Doris asked. "One of my guys can go get the SUV and bring it around to the front entrance. It�d be quick and easy."

Natalia looked toward Olivia for support. She found Olivia staring at her with an odd expression on her face, and she suddenly realized she was gripping Olivia�s hand rather tightly�some might say possessively, she realized with a blush. She started to let go of her hand, but Olivia held on with a firm grip.

"Thanks, Doris, but I think we can manage okay," Olivia said. "Besides, who knows how long it�ll take for all the paperwork to actually get completed?"

"All right, but if there�s anything I can do to help ..." Doris�s pale blue eyes pinned Natalia with a meaningful glance. "If there�s anything at all, you just let me know."

Olivia laughed. "Thanks, I will."

"Well, ladies, I�ll leave you to it, then," Doris said, as she turned toward the door. "Olivia, be sure to tell Angelica I said hello."

Natalia glared at the mayor as she breezed through the doorway and down the corridor, but when she looked back at Olivia, she found her smiling and looking happy, happier than she could ever remember seeing her. Suddenly any worries about the mayor�s obvious interest in Olivia and Angelica�s crush on Olivia washed out of her mind, and all she could see was Olivia�s beautiful, relaxed smile.

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

Olivia finally collapsed onto her very own bed in her Beacon suite. "Oh my god!" she gasped. "I thought we were never going to get out of there." She was beyond annoyed at the paperwork delay at the hospital. It was early evening before the final go-ahead was given, and then she�d spent another hour and a half waiting for the required wheelchair ride to the front entrance. She�d fumed, she�d cursed, she�d finally begged, but nothing made the ponderous hospital red tape spin out any faster.

"We�re here now, though," Natalia said. "Do you need anything? Food? Drink?"

Hm ... I can think of several things I need

, Olivia thought with an inward smile. Hey, there�s nothin� in the unspoken rules about "no thinking" or "no fantasizing," and believe me, that�s the only way I�m going to be able to get through this. She began compiling a list of things she needed, starting with a hot and heavy kiss from a certain gorgeous latina.

"Olivia?"

"Huh?"

"Would you like a snack or maybe something to drink?"

"How about a screwdriver from the bar?"

"How about orange juice instead?"

Olivia laughed. "Seriously, I don�t need anything, not after that crap I just ate at the hospital. My stomach�s still not speaking to me"

"Okay, but if you change your mind, just let me know."

Olivia put an extra pillow behind her back and propped herself into a sitting position against the headboard. "Come here," she said, patting the mattress beside her.

Natalia walked to the bed and sat down, immediately taking one of Olivia�s hands in both of hers. "I�m happy you�re looking so much better."

"You sayin� I looked bad?" Olivia�s mouth dropped open in mock outrage.

"You never look bad," Natalia said softly.

"Hm, that�s more like it."

"Olivia, maybe I should get another room?"

"No, stay here."

"Are you sure?"

"Of course! I mean ... what if I needed you?" Inside her own head, Olivia cracked up, but she was careful not to let it show. My god, what a question! I so need you. You have no idea.

"That�s right. You really shouldn�t be alone right now. I wasn�t thinking. Do you want me to see about hiring you a private nurse tomorrow?"

"Why? Are you tired of me already?"

"No, I just thought you might like ... an actual nurse."

"Nah, not when I have you. I mean ... you�re experienced after last year, so ..." Olivia hesitated. "Unless you�re not feeling up to it?"

"Of course, I�m feeling up to it. I love taking care of you."

"Good, it�s settled then."

Natalia picked up one of the extra pillows from the bed and carried it to the couch.

"What are you doing?" Olivia asked.

"Making a bed on the couch," Natalia said, reaching for the comforter on the back of the couch.

"Uhm ... why not just sleep in the bed?"

"In the bed?"

"Yeah, sure, why not? It�s huge."

"Well ..."

"Look, I already promised you I wouldn�t ... well, I told you that you didn�t have anything to worry about, not anymore." Unless you could read my mind, �cause whoa, that could cause some serious alarm. Or, uhm, if you could see my dreams, because Christ, I�ve had some doozies! And I�m pretty sure you would NOT like any of them.

"I know, but ..."

Olivia threw the covers back from the other side of the bed and immediately grabbed her chest. "Christ that hurt!"

Natalia moved quickly to her side. "Olivia, are you all right? Did something tear? Should I call the doctor?"

"Nah, I�m fine, I�m good, I�m ... I�m ... maybe I should take one of my pain pills," Olivia said, eyes tightly shut. Apparently her last one had long worn off and she still needed the damn things. The sooner she could get completely off them, the better she�d like it!

Natalia grabbed her purse and scrabbled through the interior till she fished out a small brown prescription bottle. She went to the mini fridge and pulled out a container of bottled water, which she opened, and then she handed a pain pill and the bottle to Olivia.

"You make a much better nurse than that hyperactive redhead," Olivia said. And SO much more attractive. She imagined Natalia wearing a white nurse�s uniform like the sexy, partially unbuttoned one she�d worn in one of her many dreams. Now I know why patients fall in love with their nurses. She was happy to be back in her own room at the Beacon and elated Natalia was there with her. Life was looking very good for the first time in a long time. She scooted down and relaxed into the comfort of her extra big, extra soft pillows, and her soft, silky sheets. I think I could just fall asleep right now, she thought. Just pass right out ...

Natalia grinned. "Do you need anything else?"

Do I need anything else?

Olivia drifted off to sleep with a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

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

Chapter 18

Natalia stood hugging the extra pillow to her chest as she watched Olivia sleep. Only the small desk lamp in the corner was on, and Olivia looked gorgeous in its pale golden glow. She knew she had to be exhausted. She herself was feeling utterly fatigued after the long and stressful day, especially after a night of virtually no sleep.

She decided to take a quick shower, and afterwards changed into the black and white flannel jammies she�d packed for her stay at the Beacon. She hesitated when she reentered the room where Olivia slept.

I don�t know if I should sleep in the bed with you. Well, not with you ... just in bed ... uhm ... where you�re in bed.

The thought of sleeping so near to Olivia was achingly appealing. But I don�t know if I should, even though you wanted me to. It was tempting, but in a "forbidden activities" kind of way, the kind that made you want to blush but do them anyway. She turned back and forth between the bed and the couch like the little tin bear in the arcade game that was getting pelted by a seriously crack shot.

She remembered Olivia�s earlier question: "What if I need you?" That�s right, she thought. You might need me, and I should be close by just in case. Relieved at finding the perfect rationale, she walked to the opposite side of the bed from Olivia, lay the pillow down, and crawled between the cool sheets, careful to stay well away from the slumbering woman on the other side.

At first she lay on her back, listening quietly to Olivia breathing, but after a while she turned onto her side facing her. Olivia was like a high-magnitude, flesh-and-blood magnet, and she her polar opposite. All she wanted to do was scoot over and put an arm around her and hold her close as she slept, but she didn�t. Instead she just lay and gazed at the profile of her beautiful, peaceful face, illuminated by the soft glow of the desk lamp.

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

Olivia slowly floated toward consciousness. She was in no hurry to leave her latest dream, which prominently featured a lusty latina lying on top of her kissing her deeply. And nobody�s wearin� clothes, she thought sleepily. Just the way I like it.

The more she woke up, though, the more aware she became that there was some actual real-world weight on her shoulder and legs. She carefully opened one eye to find Natalia�s head lying on her shoulder while one of her slender flannel-clad legs was flung across her thighs. Oh my god! This just feels incredibly good! And to think I must have slept through most of this, damn it! Well, I�ll just bet she has no idea where she drifted over to during the night. She loved being able to tip her cheek down to rest against the top of Natalia�s head, loved the weight of Natalia�s leg on her thighs, loved that her unconscious instinct had drawn her so close in the night. Now why shouldn�t I enjoy this? I sure haven�t broken any of the unspoken rules. This is totally not my fault.

When Natalia stirred, Olivia quickly closed her eyes and waited. Sure enough, after waking up sufficiently, Natalia suddenly rolled away from her as though she�d gotten scorched and then was quickly up and out of the bed. Damn! That sure didn�t take long. You�d think I had something contagious. Oh well, no point pretending to be asleep now.

"Morning," Olivia said softly.

Natalia was rummaging through her overnight bag, but stopped immediately and came over to Olivia�s side. She was still wearing her jammies, and Olivia thought she looked adorably cuddly, although unlike in her dreams, her pajama shirt was buttoned all the way to the top, darn it. Is cuddling against the unspoken rules? she wondered. I�ll have to find out sometime, �cause that would just be so freakin� great. She almost laughed at how much her intimacy standards had lowered. Aw, come on. Is that too much to ask for? Just some simple cuddling?

Natalia perched on the side of the bed next to Olivia. "Morning. How are you?" she asked as she took Olivia�s hands in her own.

"Okay, so far. My legs are aching, but ... I probably just need to walk it off." She looked down at their hands. Natalia was absently running her thumb up and down the length of one her hands. I love when you hold my hands, she thought. I especially love when you play with them like you�re doing right now. See, Spencer? This would be "appropriate touching." Acting on your instincts to pull her down on top of you and grab her shapely behind while you deliver your best curl-her-toes morning kiss would be "inappropriate touching." See? I can totally get the hang of this "unspoken rules" thing.

"I think a walk is a really good idea. Do you want to go down to breakfast as part of your walk, or would you like for me to order something from room service?"

"How about room service? And then maybe we can go to the park and walk a little there. I�d love to get outside."

"Sounds perfect. How about we call Jane and have her bring Emma over to have breakfast with us? She�d love to see you."

"That really is perfect," Olivia said. She missed Emma so much, and she really felt like she was feeling strong enough to see her now.

By the time Jane and Emma arrived, there was a huge breakfast cart waiting, but Emma only had eyes for Olivia.

"Mommy!" she cried, as she rushed to the bed to throw her thin little arms around Olivia�s neck.

Olivia flinched from the unintentionally inflicted pain as Emma landed on her chest, but she smiled and stroked Emma�s hair, happy she was still around to hold her little girl. "How are you, baby?"

"I�m so glad to see you, Mommy! I missed you."

"I missed you, too, Jellybean."

Emma motioned for Natalia to come over and join the family hug. "I missed you, too, Natalia."

Natalia quickly joined in, and Olivia was more than happy to enfold her into the family hug. This is the best three-way I�ve ever had, Olivia thought with a wry grin, trying not to think about the last three-way she�d had not long before her transplant surgery, nor about the two men, relative strangers at that, with whom she�d had it. My god, how you�ve changed me, she thought as dark and green eyes met over the top of Emma�s head.

"School�s out now, isn�t it, Emma?"

Emma vigorously nodded her head.

"I talked to Ava this week, and she wondered if you�d like to come spend some time with her in San Francisco," Olivia said, shrugging when Natalia looked at her in surprise. Yeah, I forgot to mention. Hey, it�s the drugs. I can barely remember my own name some days.

"Really?" Emma squealed.

"Yes, really, but only if you�d like to go. She said you could take a cable car ride to Fisherman�s Wharf and you could see the Golden Gate bridge and go to the zoo and spend a day at the beach playing in the sand and watching the dolphins," Olivia said. "But only if you want to, baby. You don�t have to go if you�d rather stay here."

"No, I wanna go."

"All righty then. I�ll call Ava today and get it all set up." Olivia grinned when she saw a flash of dimples informing her a certain someone approved of her plan to provide a distraction for little Emma while she continued her recuperation. "Jane, I�d love for you to go with her, if you�re free. That way Ava won�t need to fly out here first to pick her up."

"I can fly by myself, Mommy."

"Oh, I know you can, Jellybean," Olivia said with a laugh. She was well aware of Emma�s solo travel prowess. "But that doesn�t mean you�re going to. And besides, wouldn�t it be fun to have Jane along?" She knew Jane would make things much easier for Ava, who was still getting used to a new life and a new job. "Jane, are you free to go? Obviously it�d be all expenses paid, and let�s say ... triple salary from now until the time the two of you get back?"

"Totally free," Jane said with a grin. "I�m totally free and happy to go with her."

"Okay, it�s settled then," Olivia said. "Who�s ready for some breakfast?"

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

It was a beautiful spring day in Springfield Township, and the Olivia Spencer Memorial Park was awash with nearly every color in the rainbow, from the rich violet of the aptly named state flower to the pristine beauty of the white crocuses, with multicolored peonies and pansies, tulips and bluebells, and many other spring flower varieties filling out the rest of the color spectrum.

Natalia strolled arm in arm with Olivia toward the gazebo, enjoying the sights and smells and sounds of springtime, and most of all just being with Olivia in such a peaceful setting after all the fear and worry and stress. Olivia was wearing her navy jogging suit, although actual jogging was out of the question, and Natalia wore a jean skirt and a somewhat low-cut cornflower blue tank top. No one would ever know that just yesterday they were both trapped in a small room at the end of a long corridor on the third floor of Cedars Hospital.

"You should rest for a while," Natalia said as they entered the azalea-rimmed sheltered structure.

"No argument from me," Olivia said with a sigh as she sank down onto one of the wooden benches.

"Do you need a pain pill?"

"Nah, I�m fine. It just feels so good to be out here," Olivia said. "With you," she added with a smile.

Natalia loved Olivia�s smile, which always seemed to do funny things to her tummy, and seeing her relaxed and smiling with the wind gently playing with her sun-kissed brown hair filled her heart with a feeling of peace and contentment. This feels so right, she thought. She lay her huge purse on the floor near the bench and lowered herself down right next to Olivia, sitting close enough for their shoulders to touch. She smiled as Olivia lay her head on her shoulder, and she took her nearest hand and drew it over to rest on her thigh. "I love being here with you, too," she sighed. "I was amazed by how much you knew about all the flowers and trees around here. I could never name them all the way you can."

"Olivia Spencer Memorial Park, remember?"

"Oh, right. Well, does that mean you did all this yourself?"

"That was before my heart transplant surgery, so I got a bit too easily winded back then to plant an entire park," Olivia said with an impish grin.

Natalia laughed. "That�s not what I meant. I meant did you tell them what to plant?"

"I had some major input on some things, yeah."

"What�s that tree over there with the yellow flowers all over it? I�ve never seen anything like it; that�s a really vivid shade of yellow."

"Butterfly magnolia. It�s my favorite. I wanted it planted here especially for Emma. It was going to have a little plaque at the base of its trunk reminding her how much her mommy loves her�just in case."

"That�s so sweet, but thank God Emma still has her mommy." And thank God I still have Emma�s mommy. Natalia sighed.

The park was so peaceful and serene, and it looked like they were currently the only two people in it, like it was their own personal sanctuary, a place for them to just "be" together, a haven where they had no cares in the world. It was as though Olivia had never been shot and she herself had never grappled with any issues as weighty as facing fire and brimstone for falling in love with another woman. Thank you, God, she silently prayed. Thank you for watching over Olivia and keeping her safe. Please let her recovery be speedy and complete.

She felt close to God sitting in the park next to Olivia. She could feel Him in her heart, and she suddenly had no doubt that her love for Olivia was a divine gift, a gift from God to be treasured and enjoyed. It was an illuminating discovery. God is love, and my love for you is a gift from God. How could that possibly be wrong or sinful?

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

Olivia�s eyes were closed. She was unaware of any aches or pains or worries. She was only aware of the lilting birdsongs and the mesmerizing rise and fall of Natalia�s chest as she sat resting against her, with her head cradled on her shoulder. She couldn�t help but notice the enticing view of deep cleavage, especially from her vantage point, and she wondered idly whether or not Natalia might have any idea what effect her low-cut top might be having on her. I�m guessing not. But it was definitely having an effect, seeing that much cleavage as well as the tops of her rounded breasts. It was certainly making her feel much more alive and a whole lot less like someone just released from the hospital.

She felt as though they�d traveled light-years since the last time they�d sat on this bench in the gazebo�the day Natalia told her she loved her, the day Natalia wouldn�t or couldn�t tell Frank the truth when he tracked her down after she bolted from the wedding; and because of that, it was also the day she�d told Natalia, "There is no us," and walked away, leaving her alone and forlorn in the late-season snowstorm.

There�s an "us" now

, she thought happily. She�d come so close to losing Natalia, to losing her own life, that at this point she was grateful for whatever form their relationship might take. If she could have an occasional perfect moment of contentment like this, it was worth giving up sex. If she could have her in her life every day, it was worth any sacrifice she might have to make. She�d made a decision and she had no regrets. While she felt melancholy for what they could never have together, she knew whatever they could have would make it all worthwhile.

"Olivia?"

"Mm?"

"We still need to talk."

"About what?"

Natalia sat quietly for a long moment. "About us. About us and ... uhm ... what you said about us."

Olivia reluctantly drew her head back from its comfortable resting place, thereby losing her bird�s-eye view of all that luscious olive skin, and peered into Natalia�s eyes, which now looked like unfathomable dark liquid pools. "I�ve been such a chatterbox since they cut back on my pain meds, so I might need a bigger clue than that."

"About us and s� ... about us and ... and kissing and stuff."

Olivia was startled Natalia would even bring that up again, let alone want to talk about it some more. We have so talked about this enough! "Uhm ... what about it?" I think I�ve surrendered on every major point. What else could there be? I mean ... I�d offer my firstborn, but I think Ava�s a bit too big to go along with that now, and I�m already sharing my second-born, so .... Besides, I�m totally following the unspoken rules: no kissing, no "inappropriate" touching, no sex. That doesn�t mean I can�t fantasize about lying down with you in the grass under the butterfly magnolia and kissing you until first frost. She sighed at the provocative image, decided to remove all clothing, decided she would lie on top of those sexy curves. Mmm, much better.

"You�re wrong."

"Wrong? Wrong about what?" Damn. Too much fantasizing, not enough listening. I�m kinda lost here.

"About me. About what I want ... or what I don�t want."

"Okay." I�m seriously lost. I have to say ... men are way less complicated than women. It�s clear to everyone what they want. No conversation necessary. Of course, don�t get me wrong. I�ve learned to highly appreciate the female form�well, your form anyway. My god, just look at you! You�re just the sexiest, most gorgeous creature I�ve ever laid eyes on.

"Olivia?"

"Huh?" Try to concentrate, Spencer.

"I love when we hold hands."

"Me too." That�s not a news flash. I know how much you love to touch and hold and play with my hands, and I get that that�s one way you can feel physically close to me without feeling threatened or intimidated. I get it. Really.

"And I love when we hug."

"Me too. Really love that." She thought about their many hugs: short ones, long ones, hugs with tears, hugs with laughter. I must be feeling MUCH better �cause even the thought of a hug is doing serious things to my body�serious, warm, sexy things.

"And I ... I ..."

Olivia began to get concerned. What is so hard to get out? God, I hope you�re not still worried I might grab you at any moment. I thought I made it pretty damned clear the other day that there was NO WAY I was going to do that again.

"I know you think I hated it when you kissed me."

"Well, yeah ... pretty obvious."

"I didn�t hate it," Natalia whispered so softly it was almost below the threshold of human hearing. "I ... I loved it."

Olivia was flabbergasted. "Wha- ... what?!?"

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

Chapter 19

Natalia knew her cheeks must be bright red. In fact, judging by the heat extending down her neck and over her chest and beyond, she guessed she must be blushing nearly everywhere she had skin. The look of utter shock on Olivia�s face might have been almost funny under other circumstances, but to her it seemed poignant. She could see, not just shock in her sea-green eyes, but also confusion. She wasn�t entirely sure how Olivia, not patient by nature, had managed to be so patient with her over these past many months while she moved through her fog of denial at glacial speed.

Her eyes drifted down to Olivia�s mouth, which was slightly open�from the shock, I�m sure�and suddenly she remembered how it felt when that mouth had covered hers in the office the day of the shooting, how it felt when those full lips had pressed into hers. Abruptly she realized she was staring, and she quickly looked back up into green eyes that had darkened at least a few shades in those few seconds she�d looked away.

"What? What are you saying?" Olivia repeated.

"I�m saying I know you think I was upset when you kissed me in your office the other day, but I wasn�t."

"You looked shocked�very, very shocked."

"I ... I didn�t say I wasn�t shocked. I was shocked. Well, I was surprised by the kiss�it was just so sudden�but I was shocked by ... by how it made me feel."

She tried to keep looking directly at Olivia, but the conversation was too intense, as were those penetrating green eyes, and her own eyes strayed back to Olivia�s hand, which she held and stroked as it lay on her lap. She could still feel those eyes, though, Olivia�s eyes, even though she wasn�t looking into them. She could feel them�looking at her, looking into her�and she trembled with emotion and with a building physical response that she felt radiating through her aching breasts and through her fluttery stomach and through her suddenly heated loins. This was all-new and very confusing territory, and she wasn�t sure how far into this unknown terrain she dared tread.

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

OH MY GOD! What are you saying?

Olivia felt as though just when she thought she�d figured out the rules of the new world order, her universe had gotten summarily flipped upside down. It�s the drugs. It has to be those damned drugs. I�m seriously losing it here. Or maybe I�m dreaming. She watched Natalia carefully, but she could no longer see into her dark eyes because they were now focused on their entwined hands.

Of course, if I�m dreaming, she�ll suddenly start stripping and then she�ll throw me down on the gazebo floor and make wild, passionate love to me.

She waited a moment. Damn! I must still be awake. Unless ... unless this is a nightmare, in which case Frank and the rest of the Cooper clan will probably show up at any moment with Father Ray to make it official: Mrs.-Detective Frank Achilles Cooper.

Okay, I�ve gotta stop that. I�m gonna make myself sick. I better try to stay focused, but ... but I�m actually kind of afraid to say or do anything right now.

Olivia cleared her throat. "So ..." She cleared her throat again. "So how did it make you feel?"

"Good," Natalia said softly. "It made me feel good and ..."

Good? Oh my god!

"And?" she asked in wonder.

"And kind of all ... achy."

Oh my god, oh my god!

Olivia felt like she could make no sense out of this shifting universe. She felt frozen. She felt like Galatea, a statue of ivory bedecked with raiment and jewels by Pygmalion, but not yet blessed by Aphrodite with the gift of life, so she could merely sit and observe and ponder, but not act.

"Olivia?"

"Mm?"

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I just ... I�m surprised. I thought you were upset, maybe even angry or ... or repulsed even, and now I�m finding out maybe that wasn�t the case. You never said anything."

"I know, but last winter when you kissed me after Emma�s presentation, I was too shocked and too ... well, in denial, I guess, to realize what was going on inside of me, but that day in your office ... I knew then ... I knew I liked when you kissed me; in fact, I knew I loved when you kissed me. I just wasn�t able to let you know right away because I was so shocked by how I was feeling. I wanted to tell you, though, and I was going to tell you later that day after we left the bank."

Wow, I�m still not sure I�m not dreaming. I just don�t believe what I�m hearing. This is the total exact opposite of how I thought she felt, but ... but I better be careful. I better be damned careful what I do and what I say, because I sure as hell don�t want to screw this up, not now.

"Olivia, you�re so quiet."

"I know. I�m just so ... so surprised. I�m not sure what to think, not sure what this means or where we go from here."

"I don�t know either. I do know I want to figure all this out with you. I know I want us to be together, whatever we decide that means for us."

"What about all that stuff Father Ray was saying to you when you talked with him the other day?" Olivia cursed herself silently when she saw Natalia�s body go rigid. Way to go, Spencer. Way to ruin the first good conversation you�ve had with her about any kind of physical intimacy.

It was not lost on her that Natalia had only talked about holding hands and hugging and kissing, but not anything more. It wasn�t surprising. For a woman who�d given birth she was surprisingly innocent, even virginal in so many ways. At least talking about hand-holding and kissing was a start.

"I know Father Ray is a priest and the spiritual leader for our church, but I can feel God in my own heart, and I have faith that what I feel there holds the true answer to my prayers."

"I�m not sure I understand what you�re saying." And I really don�t want to say or do anything till I have a much better idea what�s going on here.

"No matter what Father Ray said, no matter what the church says, I know in my heart that my love for you is not wrong or sinful or bad or anything else people might call it. My love for you feels right and good."

They gazed into each other�s eyes for a long moment, and then as if by one accord, they moved into each other�s arms and held on tight.

If I died right now

, Olivia thought, I could die happy. Eventually she pulled back from the embrace so she could see Natalia�s face. "So ... what now?" She was still uncertain what came next.

"I don�t know. I don�t think we should be in a rush to ... to� I don�t think we should be in a rush."

Okay, now we�re in more familiar territory

, Olivia thought. In fact, I think we may be back to the unspoken rules, only ... only maybe there might be an addendum or two, like a peck on the cheek or maybe even lips equals "appropriate" kissing and openmouthed kissing with tongue equals "inappropriate" kissing. But wait, that�s not what she said either. She said the office kiss made her feel good ... and achy�and that was not a chaste kiss, so maybe that means� Christ! I�m confused and I�m startin� to get a pretty serious headache here.

"Okay, no rushing. That�s fine," Olivia said, as she began to massage her forehead. "I just want you to be happy, and I sure want you to feel safe, so ... no rushing, okay? No kissing, no rushing." She could see a tiny pucker of ... worry? ... form between Natalia�s brows. "What? What is it?" I�m startin� to wish women came with some kind of handbook, or at least I sure need one for this woman.

"I didn�t mean ... didn�t mean we shouldn�t do anything like that at all, I mean kiss, I didn�t mean ..." Natalia�s voice trailed off and she sat there looking at Olivia as the pinkish tinge in her cheeks deepened another shade.

God, I think I need a translator for Natalia-speak.

Olivia noticed Natalia�s eyes looked deep and dusky and unreadable. No, wait. I can read them. I can see exactly what you�re thinking. "You want me to kiss you, don�t you?" she said softly.

Her stomach did a reverse triple somersault when she saw Natalia nod, and she suddenly felt like a preteen on the verge of experiencing her first kiss. She�d never had that exact feeling before because of what had happened at the embassy party in San Cristobel when she was sixteen. The rape had robbed her of her youth and nearly all her "firsts," including a real first kiss.

Right now she didn�t feel like someone with a vast amount of sexual experience. Normally she had virtually no sexual inhibitions; all of her inhibitions were emotional. It was emotional intimacy that frightened her, not sexual; but now as she gazed into the eyes of the woman she loved, the woman who wanted her to kiss her, she felt ... shy, she felt uncertain, she felt a little scared, as though she�d never kissed another human being in her life. She wanted to, though. She wanted to kiss Natalia more than she�d ever wanted to kiss anyone else, but it felt as though it would be her first time, and it left her feeling nervous and unsure of herself.

Everything tipped into agonizingly slow motion as the sights and the smells and the sounds of the park melted away, and Olivia felt herself being drawn inexorably toward perfect bowed lips. She moved slowly, as if in a dream, exhilarated to see Natalia leaning toward her. She paused when their mouths were a tiny fraction of an inch apart, hesitated, alert to the slightest hint of rejection; and finally, sensing none, she covered the minuscule amount of space between them and softly pressed her lips to Natalia�s. She felt an instant electric spark sear from their point of contact all the way through her body from her trembling lips to her quivering nether muscles, leaving a blistering trail of arousal and desire in its wake. She could feel Natalia�s mouth welcoming the delicate brush of her lips as they gently touched and caressed for a brief, magical moment.

When they pulled back, breathing as hard as if they�d been deep-kissing for hours, Olivia was astounded at how erotic, how sensual, how arousing such a simple "first kiss" could be.

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

Chapter 20

From the moment she nodded, admitting that yes, she wanted Olivia to kiss her, her insides turned into molten heat. Natalia felt embarrassed, she felt excited, she felt scared, she felt exhilarated. She also felt as though she might pass out from anxiety if Olivia didn�t kiss her pretty soon. She herself felt incapable of crossing the perilous chasm dividing them; she only knew she could no longer stand for it to keep them apart.

The waiting was unbearable. Olivia sat unmoving, as though deep in thought or ... maybe uncertain? Natalia could definitely understand why she might feel ambivalent. After all, Olivia�s feelings for her, both her love and her desire to be physically close, had become more than apparent over the last several months, while she, on the other hand, had clung to her denial, pulling it snugly about herself like a heavy overcoat in a snowstorm. Even when Olivia had been on the verge of making an outright declaration of her feelings at least a couple of times in the past months, Natalia had sensed her intentions and had always found some way to stop her. So when you were brave, I was a coward, and I�m so sorry now, especially when I see how unsure you seem. I think I did that. I made you doubt me, doubt us, doubt yourself. I�ve had my own doubts. I still have some doubts, but I have no doubt I want you to kiss me, right now, right here in the gazebo.

She�d never wanted so much for someone to kiss her, never needed it so much, never thought much about it before really. She had gladly accepted kisses from Nicky, enjoying his desire for her, and she�d tolerated kisses from Frank; but she�d never felt such a potent need, such a deep desire as she was feeling now. In fact, "desire" had never been a part of her active personal vocabulary. She had accepted and submitted, but never desired. She did now though. She had a desperate desire for Olivia to kiss her, not just to cement their "togetherness," but also because she just needed to feel Olivia�s mouth over hers, needed to feel her lips, desperately needed this simple act of physical intimacy.

Her heartbeat suddenly slammed into high speed when at long last Olivia slowly began to lean toward her, and without thinking she inclined her body towards Olivia. Her half-lidded eyes riveted on Olivia�s mouth, something she�d increasingly noticed them doing of late, while the rest of the world just seemed to fall away, leaving only her and Olivia and their impending kiss. Her mouth became dry and other places became wet before their lips even met.

It seemed to be taking forever, and then at the last minute Olivia paused. Please don�t stop, she silently begged. I can�t stand it if you stop now. She waited breathlessly, and after what seemed like an eternity, Olivia finally closed the narrow gap between them and gently kissed her on the mouth. It wasn�t like the kiss in Olivia�s office. That kiss had been unexpected and heated and deep, and it had wrenched an explosive and shocking reaction from her, one that had left her mute as she watched with dismay when Olivia turned and left. This kiss was hesitant, gentle, almost shy, and ... emotional. She could feel Olivia�s love radiating through her tender kiss, and it made her feel special and cherished and loved; but it also kindled a new feeling, a feeling of passion and of desire.

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

They sat on the wooden bench in the gazebo with their foreheads pressed together, their eyes closed, their hands entangled, their breathing still heavy. Neither spoke. The light spring breeze playfully tugged at Natalia�s long dark tresses and teased Olivia�s soft brown hair, while the melodious songs of the park birds blended to form an avian symphony in the air around them. When they finally pulled back to gaze into each other�s eyes, they were aware of a subtle shift that had followed in the wake of their first "mutual" kiss. It had taken a long time and a great effort for them to reach this milestone on what had become their shared journey, and for now they rested.

Olivia was reeling from the intimacy of their emotional connection. She had thought she knew all about intimacy, but now she realized there were things far more intimate than simply getting naked with someone. She felt vulnerable. She felt alive. She felt fearful. She felt incredibly connected to Natalia, to this woman she�d grown to love and trust, and who had come to know her; in fact, Natalia knew her better than anyone ever had. To be known so well and to connect like this emotionally with someone was completely outside of her experience. In the aftermath of her rape, and especially after her own mother�s betrayal of her trust, she�d avoided any true emotional intimacy, preferring instead to maintain control�of the situation, of the people, of the relationships. To fall in love for the first time, to feel so emotionally vulnerable was not only new, it was scary; but their kiss�their kiss had been amazing!

She was a little concerned about Natalia, though. She was so still and so quiet. Could she be having second thoughts? Oh god, please don�t be sorry. Please don�t be sorry we kissed. It had always been her greatest fear where any kind of physical closeness with Natalia was concerned�not that they�d never be intimate, but that they might and that Natalia would regret it.

Olivia gently touched her cheek, looking deep into her eyes. "You okay?" she asked quietly.

Natalia smiled and nodded. "Very okay," she said. "You?"

"I�m good, really good." In fact, I think I may never have been better than I am right this second. Her relief that Natalia was not already steeped in regret was palpable. "I just wanted to make sure you ... make sure you felt okay about ... everything."

"I do. I feel happy. You make me so happy, Olivia."

"That�s good. Just wanted to check." Because if you�re having second thoughts about our kiss, I better find out about it now before I get my hopes up any more.

"And I ... I love when you kiss me," Natalia added softly.

Thank you, Jesus! I think that means we�re gonna get to do this again sometime.

"Me too," Olivia said, as she leaned back against the wooden railing behind the gazebo bench. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the tingly feeling her lips were still experiencing. My lips have never felt like this, she thought with wonder. And other parts of me have never felt exactly like they�re feelin� right now either.

"Oh my god, Olivia. I just realized we�ve been out here for quite a while," Natalia said with concern. "Are you ... are you tired? Are you hungry? We should get you back to the Beacon, get you some food�and I bet you�re probably needing a pain pill by now."

Olivia was definitely feeling the need for a pill, but the morning at the park had been totally worth it. "Yeah, maybe." But I really don�t want to go. I just want to sit here and look at you and think about how amazing that kiss was. She glanced at Natalia�s mouth. And how amazing it would be to kiss you again ... sometime soon, I hope.

Natalia stood up and held her hand out to Olivia. "Come on. Let�s get you something to eat, get a pill down you, maybe put you down for a nap."

"Wow, you�re almost as bad as Nurse Flo," Olivia said as she let Natalia pull her up from the bench. "Although ... you�re much cuter." And WAY sexier.

Natalia laughed. "Nurse Flo is gorgeous. I�m surprised you didn�t notice."

"I only have eyes for you."

They both laughed as they ambled off arm in arm toward the parking lot.

"Do you want to order room service, or would you like to go somewhere for lunch, like maybe Company?" Natalia asked.

"Company? Are you serious?"

"Well, we can�t avoid the Coopers forever. Besides, they�re everywhere!"

"True, but I tell you what. I�m feeling kind of tired, so I think I�d rather order something up to the room and maybe take a nap. Might be fun to go down for dinner later, though."

"Okay," Natalia said as she opened the passenger door for Olivia. "Why don�t you tell me what you want and I�ll call it in now so they can take it up and you can eat as soon as we get back."

"Brilliant idea! I knew there was some reason I hired you as my personal assistant."

Natalia grinned.

Not that that�s the only reason I like having you around

, she thought. Her mind wandered off again to their incredible kiss, and the thought of it was enough to send some serious erotic shivers throughout her body. Oh my god. If this is how I feel after one little kiss� But wait ... I know we can�t rush anything. For one thing I just got out of the hospital and I�m not exactly at the top of my game here, and for another, I know you�re not ready for anything too ... heavy, especially since right now all you�re thinking about is holding hands and maybe kissing. Can�t stop a girl from fantasizing though. Olivia closed her eyes and proceeded to do just that as Natalia backed out of the parking place.

By the time they arrived back at the Beacon, the food order was in and Olivia was out, sound asleep in the passenger seat. Natalia walked around to the other side of her car and opened the door. "Olivia?" she said as she gently shook her arm. "Wake up."

"Mmph?" Olivia dragged her eyes open. "Is it morning already?"

"Please don�t tell me you already forgot about our morning."

Olivia�s eyes strayed to Natalia�s mouth. "It�s startin� to come back to me now," she said. I can still hardly believe we actually kissed. I just can�t believe it. She stepped out of the car, but her knees buckled, and only Natalia�s quick reflexes and arms strong from years of manual labor kept her from collapsing onto the concrete floor of the Beacon�s parking garage. "Mm, this is nice," Olivia murmured as she enjoyed the tight, fall-preventing embrace. I could be happy just staying right here in your arms. Maybe I should fall more often.

"Maybe I should get one of the courtesy wheelchairs," Natalia said with concern.

Olivia stood upright. "No! I�m not riding up to my room in a wheelchair!"

"Then maybe we should get some help."

"Nah, I�m good. Although, I suppose we could get Boyd or one of the other guys to just carry me up to my room like a bag of potatoes."

"Which one is Boyd?"

"He�s that corn-fed Iowa boy. You know, the young bellhop with all the muscles that the women love so much?"

"Oh, him. Well, I can see why they would. He�s the blond, blue-eyed all-American boy."

"Unfortunately for them, he has a pretty big crush on you."

"What? Oh ... he does not!"

"Yeah, actually he does."

Olivia draped her arm around Natalia�s shoulders and leaned heavily on her as they walked toward the service elevators. She was a bit surprised at how much the little amount of walking she�d done at the park had worn her out. Or maybe it was that kiss. It sure took my breath away, and it might also explain why my legs feel so weak.

"I think you�re teasing me about Boyd. I�ve never noticed anything."

Olivia laughed. "Well, you wouldn�t." Natalia was nothing if not oblivious, especially to the appreciative stares she got from men. "But believe me, he can hardly take his eyes off you when you go anywhere near him."

"I think you�re imagining things, Olivia."

"No, I�m not. Can�t really blame him, though," Olivia said as they entered the elevator and Natalia pushed the button for the top floor. "I can hardly take my eyes off you either," she said softly.

Natalia blushed and turned toward Olivia, pulling her into a hug as the elevator doors closed and they began their ascent to the top of the Beacon.

This was totally worth getting shot for

, Olivia thought as she buried her face in Natalia�s soft dark hair.

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

Continue to Chapters 21-30

 

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