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 21

When the elevator reached the top floor, the two women reluctantly disengaged from their close embrace and walked slowly down the corridor toward the penthouse suite. Natalia could tell Olivia was struggling to put one foot in front of the other, so she kept a firm grip around her waist. She was relieved when they finally reached Olivia�s door with her still standing and walking on her own.

"We made it," Natalia said, using her master key card to unlock the door.

"Barely."

Olivia�s voice sounded strained, and Natalia reminded herself, again, that Olivia was just out of the hospital, so no matter how much she was beginning to look and act like her old self, they both needed to remember she still had a ways to go before she was fully recuperated.

When they entered, they discovered the cart of preordered lunch already in the room, as requested. Natalia set the food up on the coffee table while Olivia sat with her eyes closed and her head resting against the back of the couch. After Natalia laid out their simple meal of salads and sandwiches, they sat eating side by side.

Natalia was still feeling giddy after their kiss, and now, sitting right next to Olivia on the couch was making her stomach feel all fluttery. I still can�t believe how you make me feel, she thought as she stole a sideways glance at Olivia. She could no longer ignore nor deny her feelings, and at the moment she wasn�t even trying to.

"Look at the time," Olivia said, as she lay the remainder of her chicken sandwich on her plate. "Emma and Jane should be well on their way to California by now."

"Oh, that�s right. Are you sorry you decided not to go to the airport to see them off?"

"Not really. It would�ve been fun if I weren�t still trying to get back on my feet. I just figured there�d be way too much walking and waiting involved, and I didn�t want Emma�s last image to be of me about to pass out or me being pushed around in a wheelchair."

"I think you did the right thing. The trip was a wonderful idea, by the way. This way our little girl can have fun out there with Ava, and by the time she gets back, you should be a lot stronger." She�d always been impressed with what a good mother Olivia was, even back in the days when there was nothing else about her she liked. I can�t believe I ever hated you.

"I�m already feeling better just being back home," Olivia said. "Especially since you�re here with me."

Natalia turned to look at Olivia and smiled. Her heart swelled with joy that Olivia liked having her there in the suite with her. Sometimes she really didn�t understand why Olivia loved her, of all people. Olivia could literally have her pick of just about anybody. "I�m so happy you�re out of the hospital," she said. "I was thinking ... maybe sometime soon, if you�re feeling up to it, you might like to move back to the farmhouse to recuperate�maybe for just a little while, like a vacation?"

"The farmhouse?"

"Yeah, why not?"

"I don�t know."

"Think how great it�d be to spend some time out in the country with all that fresh air. Wouldn�t it be nice to get out of the city? We could take walks to the duck pond or out to the big red maple in the field past the farm. That�d be a perfect place to have a picnic. Think how pretty it is out there." Truthfully she just wanted Olivia to move back in permanently, but she knew they had a lot of things they�d have to work through first. Getting Olivia back into the farmhouse might actually make that go easier, though, and once she was there, she could work on keeping her there.

"Well, it is peaceful out there, but ..."

"Maybe you could think about it?" She could already picture Olivia lying on her red tartan picnic blanket, eyes closed, hair spread out around her head like a halo. Olivia always looked so angelic when she rested or slept, and Natalia felt certain the country air would be good for her. After growing up in Chicago�s concrete jungle, living on the farm seemed like paradise to her. What better place for Olivia to convalesce?

"Sure, I could do that. I could give it some thought," Olivia said. "In fact, now that you mention it, I left a few things out there I really should pick up sometime."

"Like your bedroom furniture?"

Olivia laughed. "Hey, I told you I left that for you, so you could use that extra room as a guest bedroom if you wanted. I don�t need all that stuff, but there are a couple of things I should get. I moved out in such a hurry I just didn�t remember to pack everything."

"Like what?"

"Uhm ... like my alarm clock."

"You hate that thing."

"Yeah, well, still gotta wake up in the mornings."

Natalia laughed, but she felt hopeful. At least they were talking about going out to the farmhouse, even if it was just for a day. She knew once Olivia got there, she�d remember how happy they�d been, and that would be a start.

She was determined to put her family back together. She still felt horribly guilty that it was her fault they weren�t living together now. If only she had never accepted Frank�s proposal! What was she thinking? Now she felt as though she might have another chance. It doesn�t feel like home without you there, you and Emma. If you�d just go to the farmhouse with me, I think you�d remember how perfect it was living there together, just you and me and Emma. Eventually Rafe will get out of the halfway house, and then our family will be complete.

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

Olivia could see the hope in Natalia�s eyes, but she had serious doubts about rushing back into living together. What if it didn�t work out? What if it put too much pressure on their evolving relationship? She felt like they�d made a tentative step that morning, but everything still felt fragile to her and she had no desire to test it, not yet, not while she was still struggling to regain her strength.

Wow, this feels like some serious role reversal here. Shouldn�t I be the one pushing to move in together, even if it�s supposedly a short-term stay, and shouldn�t she be the one dragging her feet? I just can�t get used to all this.

The new universe she was suddenly inhabiting post-kiss was confusing as hell. Besides, she knew full well Natalia had more in mind than a day-trip or even a two- or three-day stay at the farmhouse. Natalia wanted her back full time, but�what would that mean exactly? Would it mean separate bedrooms like before? Would it mean living "together" in every sense of the word, like any other couple?

Okay, I know it�s not the latter, darn it. She�s just not there yet, and I know she may never get there. Right now she wants to hold hands and maybe kiss ... maybe kiss a little bit ... maybe.

Olivia was under no illusions that any and all kissing was okay. She knew it wasn�t. Unfortunately. She was definitely ready for that, more than ready, but she knew Natalia was not.

On the other hand, for the first time since she became aware of her feelings, she didn�t want to rush things any more than Natalia did. She�d already reached the decision while she was still in the hospital that she�d be willing to give up sex if that was the only way they could be together, and she was painfully aware that, despite the morning�s kiss, it might well be the only way. She was very good at gauging where someone stood sexually, and she knew good and well Natalia was nowhere near ready for anything beyond a simple kiss�and might never be.

It�s okay. Really. I love you too much to want to live without you, so ... it�s okay. Whatever you can handle, it�ll be enough. And whatever you can�t handle, it�ll be all right.

She knew her flesh-and-blood Natalia would never be like the Natalia in her dreams, but she also knew she could live with that. After all, she was in love with the real woman, not the dream woman. Doesn�t mean I�m not gonna have fun with the dream version though, she thought as she lay down for a nap, smiling as Natalia hurried over to pull the comforter up over her.

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

Natalia happily bustled around the suite, clearing things away after their room service lunch. Olivia hadn�t eaten as much as Natalia might have wished, but she had eaten and taken a pain pill, and then she lay down right afterwards and fell asleep almost immediately, which Natalia knew she desperately needed to do.

As soon as Natalia pushed the lunch cart outside the door for the wait staff to pick up, she went over to the bed and sat down beside Olivia. She looked tired, but at least there was some color in her cheeks. Natalia gently cupped the side of Olivia�s face. To her relief, Olivia�s skin felt cool, not too warm nor cold.

She thought about their earlier kiss, and she could feel the sudden rush of heat into her cheeks. She carefully traced her thumb over Olivia�s lips with a featherlight touch so as not to wake her. She could hardly believe those lips had touched hers just that morning, and she ached to lean down and kiss them now. She was still amazed by her feelings for Olivia. When had that happened? Whenever and however it had happened, it had turned her world upside down.

She was finally beginning to understand so many things she�d never understood before. For one thing, she realized that while she�d loved Nicky, she�d never been in love with him; and if she were honest, she�d have to admit she knew Nicky had not been in love with her, not really, just as Olivia had told her long ago when they were enemies and fought over him. She�d certainly not been in love with Frank either. She cared about him. She was grateful to him for helping her and Rafe, but in love? No.

However, she was in love with Olivia, and she was feeling things with her she�d never felt before, not the least of which was the unbelievable potency of her sweet, yet breathtaking kiss, the thought of which still made her go weak in the knees.

Natalia wasn�t completely naive. She knew people had physical ... urges. She�d just never understood them. In fact, she�d only just realized recently that she�d never really understood that aspect of relationships. The truth was she�d never thought much about it because it had never seemed important, mainly because she�d never felt anything like that herself.

For her, sex, what little she�d experienced, had not been the wonderful thing everyone seemed to think it was. She�d been with Nicky three times: once in high school, a quick, painful, and rather embarrassing experience that�d left her pregnant; once when she�d stolen him away from Harley�to make sure she got a father for her son, she realized with shame; and once after they were wed. She�d insisted they wait to be together again until they were husband and wife because she felt so guilty about having sex with Nicky when he was still with Harley. That�s not the kind of person she wanted to be.

Then, of course, there was that one time with Frank. What had started as a "comfort" kiss after Coop died had rapidly escalated. She wanted to stop him. She didn�t know why she didn�t. She only knew she didn�t want him kissing her, undressing her, touching her intimately, having sex with her�but she�d let him. She�d just lain there and let him do what he wanted to with her. Why did I do that? The thought of it still upset her and made her skin crawl. Afterwards, she kept seeing images of Olivia even as she lay naked with Frank, which made her feel even worse.

Suddenly she realized something, realized why she hadn�t stopped him. It was part of her denial. She already had unsettling feelings about Olivia back then. Her mind was already filled with troubling thoughts about Olivia�how she looked at her, dark green eyes smoldering with emotion; how she had suddenly kissed her last winter�to "make a point." She knew having feelings like that for another woman directly contradicted the teachings of her church. Allowing Frank to do what he�d done was an attempt to keep her carefully constructed wall of denial intact. It hadn�t worked, though, because afterwards she felt horrible, not only for letting someone she didn�t love have sex with her, but also because she felt as though she�d been unfaithful�unfaithful to the one she did love, Olivia�and that�s what had devastated her.

All of her limited experience with sex had either been downright unpleasant, as it�d been with Frank, or a way of pleasing someone she cared about, as it�d been with Nicky. Other than that, she�d really never thought that much about any kind of physical intimacy because it just wasn�t something she wanted.

With a blush she realized she was making up for lost time now, because all she seemed to think about lately was Olivia�the way Olivia looked at her, the way she felt when they touched, the way she felt when Olivia kissed her, how much she wanted Olivia to kiss her again. She knew she was obsessed. She was in love and she was obsessed�obsessed with Olivia. It was completely new territory�beautiful, disconcerting, and rather scary new territory.

Natalia stood up from where she sat at Olivia�s side as she lay sleeping, exhausted after the morning outing. Normally she never napped, but she�d missed out on so much sleep lately, especially after that horrible nightmare the night before, she decided she�d better at least lie down and rest her eyes. Besides, it would be wonderful just to stretch out next to Olivia and watch her as she slept. She slid under the other half of the comforter that was covering Olivia, snuggled up against her side, and slid one arm around her waist. In seconds she was asleep.

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

Olivia was the first to wake. She was surprised, but delighted to find Natalia hugging her as she lay sleeping beside her, head nestled on her shoulder. Well, well, look where you are, all snuggled up against me. I�ll just take this as a very good sign. Olivia shifted her weight, turning a bit so she could reach Natalia�s hair with her free hand and stroke the long soft strands. She loved her gorgeous dark hair. What a natural beauty she was with her exotic olive skin and dark hair and eyes. It amazed her how happy you could feel just to be near the person you loved. She�d definitely cared about people in the past, loved some of them in her own way, but ... in love with any of them? No, not really, not until now.

She noticed Natalia begin to stir restlessly, and then her body started to twitch as she began shaking her head back and forth and making small sounds in her throat. Olivia knew immediately she must be having a nightmare. "Natalia," she called. "Wake up! It�s just a dream." She gently shook her shoulder until Natalia finally jerked upright, panting hard and looking wildly about the room.

"You were having a bad dream," Olivia said, sitting up and rubbing her back. "Just a bad dream. You�re okay."

Natalia looked at her, and Olivia could see the panic in her eyes.

"It�s the same nightmare from the other night, isn�t it? The one Nurse Flo woke you from."

Natalia nodded.

"Tell me about it." She was much more worried that Natalia wouldn�t talk about her nightmare last night, than she would be if she�d just told her what it was about. I think I know, though.

"No ... it�s nothing."

"That wasn�t �nothing.� Now please, tell me. You dreamed about him, didn�t you?"

"Yes."

"The gunman?"

"Yes."

"All right, that�s it. You and I are going to figure out who this guy is, where you may have known him from or where you may have seen him."

"Olivia, I don�t even know if I ever did know him or if I saw him anywhere. I�m probably just nervous after that whole horrible incident. It was traumatic, all of it, especially seeing you get shot." She abruptly began to cry, nerves ragged from worry and exhaustion.

Olivia gathered her up in her arms and stroked her hair. "I�m okay. We�re both okay and we�re going to stay okay, because we�re going to figure this out. And I know exactly where to start."

Natalia pulled back to look at her. "You do?"

"Yes. I want you to start going through all the personnel files here at the Beacon, the ones for the men. I want you to pull the file of any man who might even vaguely remind you of the gunman, so any man with blond hair, white hair, light brown hair; any man about the right height and build. I want you to look at the photos, see if anything looks familiar. We can give a list to Mallet if you find anybody who might fit the profile, and he can question them about where they were that day."

"You think it might be someone working here?"

"I don�t know, but since we work here and we�re staying here right now, it�s a logical place to start."

"You don�t really think it�s one of your employees, do you? I mean ... I know you screen people pretty carefully."

"Yes, but that�s no guarantee that a rotten apple might not slip in."

"I don�t know, Olivia. You think it could actually be someone here?"

"Why not?"

"Who? Like Boyd?" Natalia laughed.

"Why not? He has the light hair. Isn�t he about the right height? He�s a couple of inches taller than I am, and he grew up on a farm doing a lot of manual labor, which has left him looking like a bodybuilder, in case you didn�t notice."

Natalia suddenly felt uneasy. "Oh, Olivia, I really don�t think it�s Boyd. He seems much too sweet. It probably isn�t anybody working at the Beacon."

"You never know about people, and I�d rather not take chances. And don�t forget ... he�s fairly obsessed with you. I�ve seen him watching you."

"You have?"

"Yes! I told you. I mean ... it always struck me as an innocent schoolboy crush�he�s so young after all, maybe early twenties�but now I�m not so sure."

Natalia shook her head, still not convinced.

"I�m telling you ... I don�t want to take any chances, not with your safety." I could never let anything happen to you. I would never forgive myself! Olivia pulled her into a fierce hug as she fought a growing feeling of unease.

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

"Olivia, I really think you�re worrying too much," Natalia said. But I love when you hold me like this. She had calmed down considerably after her second nightmare, in which the dark figure had entered Olivia�s penthouse suite, and all she wanted to do was forget the bad dream and how it�d made her feel, and concentrate instead on how Olivia was making her feel right now, which was very good indeed.

"Fine, but you�re still going to go through all the personnel files," Olivia said. "And then you�re going to sit and make a list of any of the men you can remember who�ve stayed here and might fit the profile, especially any of them who talked with you directly or showed any kind of interest in you whatsoever. Then we�ll go over anybody you might have run into when you worked at Company or anywhere else around here, like when you served drinks New Year�s Eve at Towers, for example."

"You sound like Ms. Spencer now, big hotel executive." How she loved Olivia�s "in-charge" voice!

Olivia laughed. "Yeah, well, that is who I am after all."

"I know. I like it when you do your powerful boss thing."

"Oh, you do, huh?"

Natalia nodded. You have no idea how much! She was still feeling besotted after their kiss in the park that morning. She wasn�t sure what was next or exactly how to act now, but she did know she wanted Olivia to kiss her again ... sometime soon ... maybe now. Now would be good, she thought dreamily as she gazed at Olivia�s mouth. Maybe they should talk about it.

She noticed Olivia watching her, and she blushed, wondering if by chance Olivia could read her thoughts from the expression on her face. Her gray-green eyes were going all smoky, so maybe she could. "Olivia?"

"Mm?"

"Maybe we should talk about�"

A sharp rap on the door interrupted her thought before she could get it out.

"Now who the hell could that be?" Olivia said.

"I�ll see." Natalia reluctantly pulled away from Olivia�s arms, got up from the bed, walked over to the door, and opened it. Oh no! Not you!

Mayor Wolfe nodded at Natalia and breezed into the room and toward where Olivia still sat propped up against the bed pillows. "I just came to check up on you, Olivia. How are you doing?"

"I�m good. It�s great to be back home."

"That�s good to hear."

Doris looked more closely at Olivia and at the large comforter, only half of which covered her. The other half looked at though someone else had been lying under it�just recently, in fact. She swung her gaze around toward Natalia. "So ... what�s going on here, ladies?" she asked with a smirk.

"I don�t know what you mean," Natalia snapped. She was so not in the mood for one of the mayor�s probing sessions into her personal life, into her head, into her emotions. She was feeling much too off-balance and vulnerable for that right now.

Olivia laughed. "Well, I just had a nap after an outing in the park."

"You went to the park?" Doris asked. "I�m surprised."

"I�m doing really well. You know how Nurse Flo kept dragging me up and down that damned hallway. I mean ... I really did some serious training."

"She�s certainly ... energetic," Doris said.

"Yeah, well, I�m surprised they need any other nurses on that floor when she�s on duty�which, by the way, seems to be ALL the damn time!"

"She does seem to work a lot of hours," Doris said. "But what about you two? Things are looking pretty cozy here. Natalia was already staying here, right?"

"I don�t think that�s any of your business, Doris," Natalia said. Why can�t you just go away and stay away?

"Yeah, she was staying here and she�s still staying here." Olivia glanced at Natalia, who was frowning. "She�s ... helping me. I didn�t want to hire a private nurse."

"Helping you? Hm, interesting." Mayor Wolfe looked at Natalia with a sly grin. "I�m guessing Olivia is going to be needing a lot of your �help.�"

"I ... I ... you should just ... just ..."

"Well, I�ve got to go, ladies. I�m meeting someone for dinner. I�ll just leave you two to your ... evening together," Doris said, and with a merry wave, she left.

"She makes me so ..." Natalia sputtered as she tried to find just the right word.

"Tense?" Olivia offered helpfully. "Frustrated? Crazy?"

"Furious!"

Olivia got up from the bed and walked, albeit a bit unsteadily, to stand behind Natalia, who still stood glaring at the door that Doris had just closed behind her.

Natalia could feel Olivia slide her arms around her waist and rest her chin on her shoulder. She could feel her muscles immediately begin to relax�and then Olivia tightened her hold, and her muscles sailed right on past relaxed and turned to jelly.

"I know she drives you nuts," Olivia whispered near her ear.

Suddenly all Natalia was aware of was Olivia�s warm body pressing into her back. There was something about her soft curves, her arms, the feel of her breath on the side of her neck and ear when she whispered.

"Who?" Natalia asked, momentarily confused.

She heard Olivia�s soft chuckle, and then turned in her arms and looked up into her now blue-green eyes. Then, as they were wont to do, her eyes slid down to Olivia�s mouth, Olivia�s beautiful, sexy mouth, and all she was aware of was how much she wanted Olivia to kiss her again.

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

Chapter 22

My god, I can�t believe how much I want to kiss you again

, Olivia thought as she gazed down into Natalia�s dark brown eyes. But ... I�m not sure. I�m just not sure if I dare. I don�t know if you want me to. In the past if she wanted to kiss someone, she just kissed him. No big deal. If she wanted to have sex, she had sex. She had three speeds: fast, faster, fastest. Now she felt hesitant, almost shy. Okay, not "almost." I do feel shy ... and kinda awkward ... and definitely unsure of myself.. I can�t believe how you make me feel. I�m actually more concerned about what you might want than what I want.

"Olivia?"

"Hm?

"What are you thinking? You seem so far away."

"I was thinking I don�t know what to do. I don�t know what�s okay and what�s not okay."

"Maybe we should talk about it?"

"Maybe." Or maybe not. I just don�t know. I�m a little afraid of losing ground if we talk about it too much, but on the other hand, maybe we should try to get a better feel for where we stand.

"Unless you�d rather not," Natalia said.

"Talking is good, but ... I think we better sit down." Suddenly her legs felt shaky and she knew she�d better get down of her own volition before she just fell flat on her ass.

"Oh my gosh! I keep forgetting you just got out of the hospital." Natalia immediately stepped back from their embrace and took Olivia�s arm to guide her toward the couch, where they both sat. "Do you need a pain pill?"

"Nah, maybe later."

"Are you hungry?"

"Yeah, actually, I am a little hungry. Must have been all that jogging in the park."

Natalia giggled. "I�m not sure we worked up enough speed for that to be considered jogging."

"Hey, it felt like we were moving along at a pretty good clip." Maybe not quite as fast as when Nurse Flo was at the helm, but it seemed pretty fast to me.

"Do you still want to go down to the dining room for dinner?"

"You know what? I think that�s a good idea. I think it�ll help me feel a little more normal."

"You? Normal?"

"Hey!"

They both laughed.

"Okay, let�s go then," Natalia said. "Maybe getting some food down will help you get your strength back."

"All right, I�m ready ... I think." Her legs still felt a little shaky, but it was just a short walk to the elevator and a short walk to the dining room from there.

Olivia grinned when Natalia bounded up from the couch and offered her hand. Olivia took it and pulled herself up. I could get so used to this, she thought. Natalia linked her arm through hers to provide some support, and they both ambled toward the door. I could get very used to this.

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

By the time they got to the Beacon dining area, it was fairly full, but the maitre d' immediately showed them to a premium private table in a secluded corner of the restaurant. "I�ll send a waiter right over, Ms. Spencer."

"Thanks, Kurt," Olivia said.

As soon as he left, they both looked at each other and giggled, but they pulled themselves together long enough to place an order when a waiter materialized at their table. the Beacon staff was nothing if not efficient in the extreme, especially when the boss was around.

"I can�t believe that just last night you were in the hospital," Natalia said. "And now just look at you ... all out on the town." Natalia loved how solicitous the maitre d' had been around Olivia. In fact, she secretly loved her in her role as the powerful hotelier. She epitomized the independent, competent, in-control executive.

"Well, if you want to call the Beacon dining room �out on the town.�"

"Close enough. And you�re looking so much better." I don�t think I�ve ever seen you look more beautiful than you do right now.

"Thanks ... I think."

They both laughed again.

Natalia looked around the dining area, a little surprised at how crowded it was. "Hey, I think that�s the mayor over there." She would have to pick the Beacon. Why couldn�t she go to Towers or Company or ... or ... or McDonald�s?

Olivia turned and looked. "Yep, that�s Doris all right."

"Who�s that she�s with?" All Natalia could see was the back of her dinner companion�s head. She had a glorious mane of long, curly hair, and Natalia could hear the cheery sound of her laughter carrying across the room toward them as she laughed at something Doris said.

Olivia stared for a moment. "Good lord! I know exactly who that is."

"Who?"

"Look!"

"I am looking. I have no idea."

Olivia waved to catch Doris�s attention. Doris waved back, said something to the person sitting with her, and then the other woman turned around to smile and wave, her face lit up with a big smile.

"Oh my god!" Natalia exclaimed. "It�s ... it�s ..."

"Nurse Flo." Olivia finished for her.

"Why would she be having dinner with the mayor?" She�d always known Nurse Flo�s reddish-blonde hair would look beautiful when she let it loose from that bun she constantly wore, but it was really a sight to behold now that it was down and flowing over her shoulders.

"Why indeed?" Olivia lifted her eyebrows and tipped her head to the side as she looked at Natalia.

"I can�t imagine."

"Come on, try."

"I am trying, but I can�t think why your nurse would be having dinner with the mayor, unless ..."

"Unless?" Olivia prompted.

"Unless Doris wants to thank her for how good she was to you."

Olivia dropped her face into her hands. "Keep trying. You�ll get there."

"Maybe she has questions about your recovery?"

"Or ... maybe you won�t get there."

Natalia still had no idea what those two would be doing together. "Get where?"

"I think they�re on a date."

"A date?"

"You know ... date. Dinner, wine, song, maybe dancing later at Ladies Night."

"But Ladies Night was at a gay bar, wasn�t it?"

Olivia nodded. "Right ..."

"You mean?" Natalia looked back across the room, and this time she noticed the relaxed and happy expression on Doris�s face. There was no sign of Doris�s usual sarcastic smirk or the narrow slit of her eyes when she went in for the kill as she dissected your life�just a sweet and happy expression. She looked younger and ... pretty.

"Yep, that�s what I mean."

"All this time I thought Doris was tormenting Flo with questions about you."

"Nope."

"You don�t seem all that surprised," Natalia said, observing Olivia carefully.

"That�s because I saw the look on Nurse Flo�s face when she saw Doris and dropped her clipboard the last day I was there. I could see the way Flo looked at her. It�s the only time I ever saw Flo get flustered."

Natalia looked back towards the mayor�s table. She just could not get over the revelation. Doris. And Nurse Flo. Dating? She looked back at Olivia and saw her bemused expression. "You�re laughing at me."

"Maybe. Just a little, but only because you�re so cute."

"Well, I told you Nurse Flo was gorgeous."

"Yeah, you were right about that," Olivia said, never taking her eyes off of Natalia. "But not as gorgeous as you."

Natalia blushed under Olivia�s intense stare, but she loved how Olivia was looking at her ... as though she were the only other person in the room. Finally, she thought. Finally I can let go of my worries about Doris�s interest in Olivia. It wasn�t that she ever thought Olivia was interested in Doris, exactly; it was just that Doris was always around, as though she were there ... just in case. And who knew what might have happened with the two of them had she and Olivia not mended the rift that had developed between them at the spa? She had worried that Olivia might want to console herself with someone else, and Doris seemed to make sure she was constantly available. She felt a little guilty about it all, but she was very glad to see Doris interested in someone else. Whatever. It�s just a relief, that�s all, and now I don�t have to worry or wonder about it at all.

Just then a woman approached their table. She was beautiful. She was blonde. She had deep blue eyes. Oh no! What�s Angelica doing here?

"Hello," Angelica said.

Even her voice was beautiful, which Natalia found extremely irritating.

"I hope I�m not interrupting," Angelica said as she looked down at Olivia with a smile.

"It�s fine, Angelica," Olivia said.

"How are you feeling, Miss Spencer?"

"Much better, thanks."

"I�m so glad. I just wanted to tell you ... well, offer really."

Natalia frowned. She was already not liking the sound of this.

"What?" Olivia asked.

"I don�t know if you realize, but I sometimes work as a freelance masseuse."

"No, I didn�t know that."

"A friend of mine taught me a little after my mom hurt her back. I liked it, so I took classes to get my certification. Mostly I did it to help my mother, but sometimes I do it to make a little extra money."

"I see," Olivia said.

"Well, I mean ... for you it�d be free," Angelica said with a blush.

For once Natalia was not oblivious. She noticed the blush and she noticed the smitten expression on the young woman�s face as she gazed down at Olivia. She realized she might not have noticed if the mayor hadn�t already smacked her with a sledgehammer to get her attention about Angelica�s crush on Olivia, but she definitely noticed now�and for once, it seemed as though Olivia did not.

"So what are you saying exactly?" Olivia asked.

"I just wanted to offer my services," Angelica said. "I mean ... you know ... my massage services. I could, like, give you massages and maybe that�d help you feel better since you�re just out of the hospital and maybe even help with your recovery."

No, no, no!

During all her worry about Doris, she could never really picture her with Olivia. However, she could�and already had, thanks to Doris�pictured Angelica with Olivia ... if the two of them didn�t work out.

I can�t believe how I�m feeling. I�m actually feeling jealous of this pretty young woman, even though I know Olivia loves me, even though Olivia told me she�s in love with me, even though Olivia kissed me just this morning. What is wrong with me?

She could feel Olivia watching at her, and she tore her eyes away from Angelica to look at her, unable at the moment to read her expression.

"I think a massage sounds wonderful," Olivia said, looking back up at Angelica with a smile.

"Really? That�s great! I have a portable massage table and everything, so ... all you�d need to do is let me know when would be good for you, and I could come up to your room."

Suddenly Natalia remembered how Olivia looked at their "couple�s" massage at the spa, lying naked under a sheet. Then she imagined Olivia on Angelica�s massage table naked under her sheet, imagined Angelica pulling the sheet down, imagined Angelica�s hands rubbing oil all over Olivia�s bare back, down her arms; and then she�d move on to her legs and she wouldn�t stop until Olivia was covered everywhere in oil! She felt like screaming ... or throwing up.

"Okay, let me see how I�m feeling and maybe I�ll get back to you," Olivia said.

"Okay, good," Angelica said, and turned to leave.

"Angelica?" Olivia called after her as she walked away from the table.

Angelica turned back toward Olivia.

"Thanks."

Angelica blushed, smiled, and then turned and left.

Natalia watched her go. She had an absolutely perfect figure, and her skin was tanned to perfection, giving her a tawny look, especially with her long and lovely golden hair. Angelica was her complete opposite. I can see how much she likes Olivia. In fact, I�m sure she has a crush on her at the very least, she thought as she continued to watch Angelica�s graceful movements as she glided toward the exit. I think ... I think she may even be a little in love with her. Of course, this was Olivia. Who wouldn�t fall in love with her? It slowly filtered into her consciousness that Olivia was watching her�her, not Angelica�and she turned to face her penetrating stare.

"You are so adorable," Olivia said quietly.

"What?"

"You�re adorable."

"Wh- ... Why would you say that?" It was so hard to think�or talk�when Olivia looked at her like that.

"I think maybe you�re feeling jealous of Angelica."

"I ... uhm ... why would you think that?" She�d sure never told Olivia what Doris had said about Angelica being interested in her. Why should she? She wasn�t eager to share that kind of information with her, so why would Olivia get the idea she was jealous?

"Because I can see it in your face," Olivia said.

"Well, I�m ... I�m not."

"Just so you know ... I�m not interested in Angelica."

Natalia felt giddy with relief�ashamed, but relieved. "You�re not? She�s so beautiful."

"I know."

"And ... and I think ... I think she likes you."

"I know."

"You do?" Natalia was taken aback.

"Sure, I can tell when someone is into me."

"I didn�t think you knew about her."

"Why wouldn�t I? You figured it out."

Natalia dropped her head. "Well, not exactly. Doris told me."

Olivia laughed, but then she reached out and put her hand on top of Natalia�s where it lay on the table near her water glass. "Natalia, you�re the one I love. You�re the one I think about. You�re the one I dream about. You�re the only one I want."

Natalia could feel every word as though it were an actual physical caress, and some of those caresses were landing low and causing a disconcerting throb at the apex of her thighs.

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

Chapter 23

Olivia was fascinated with the kaleidoscope of shifting expressions that had been flashing across Natalia�s face during dinner. It was like watching a movie on fast forward. She was happy, she was surprised, she was relieved, she was appalled, she was worried, she was� Oh my god. Right now you look ... kind of turned on.

She was beginning to think Natalia must be going through some kind of sexual awakening, or at least she hoped that�s what it was. If it was, then there might be more hope for them than she�d thought, which would be good since she herself was fully "awake" in that department. Of course, Natalia could also stay stuck in young girl mode, happy with hand-holding and the occasional kiss. Well, that�s already more than I hoped for, so ...

After they finished their meal, Olivia left a generous tip, and they headed back upstairs to the penthouse suite.

"I think maybe it�s time for a pain pill," Natalia said as she peered intently into her face.

"Yeah, okay." She knew she needed one, but she was still determined to wean herself off them as soon as she could. She took this one, though, when Natalia handed it to her along with some bottled water from the mini fridge.

"Do you need anything else?" Natalia asked.

I need you. Does that count?

"I think I�m going to go brush my teeth and shower."

"Do you need ... uhm ... need any help?" Natalia asked with a blush.

Oh, if only.

"Nah, I think I can manage. I�m going to take my first real shower on my own since I was in the hospital. I�m tired of taking �birdbaths.�"

"I don�t know, Olivia. Are you sure you don�t want some help?"

So tempting!

"No, I�m good. I�m sure I can manage." It wasn�t like Natalia hadn�t seen her nearly naked before. After all, Natalia was the one who�d taken care of her last year after the heart transplant when she could barely make it from one room to the next without help, let alone dress or undress herself; but this ... this would be different, and she was pretty sure she�d better avoid it no matter how tempting it might be to just let Natalia come in and help her get undressed and into the shower.

Might need some help scrubbing down, too

, she thought as she fought the smile tugging at her mouth. Now, Spencer, stop that! You know you better not go there, not now. She knew in her heart if she rushed anything, the skittish woman watching her with concern might just bolt, at least emotionally, and then they�d lose whatever fragile chance they might have for a more intimate relationship.

"Okay," Natalia said. "But holler if you need any help."

Olivia imagined herself naked in the shower, "hollering" for help; imagined Natalia rushing in to the rescue. "I�m too exhausted to wash," she�d tell her, handing her the soap. "Wait, you better take off your clothes first so they don�t get all wet." She imagined Natalia obediently stripping down, joining her under the warm spray, washing her back, blushing when Olivia turned so she could wash her front. Olivia would make sure she washed her thoroughly everywhere!

"Olivia?"

"Huh?"

"If you need help, just yell, okay?"

"Yeah, sure," Olivia mumbled, and then she turned and disappeared into the bathroom.

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

Natalia wasn�t at all sure it was a good idea for Olivia to be trying to take a shower all by herself. What if she was too weak? What if she fell? What if she hurt herself? I should be in there helping. It�s not like I haven�t done that before. She remembered helping Olivia after the heart transplant. Back then she could barely tolerate the obnoxious hotelier, but she did what needed to be done to make certain Nicky�s heart survived. Suddenly memories of Olivia in various stages of undress swirled through her mind, and she could feel that deep ache between her legs begin to throb.

Despite the disconcerting images, she hovered near the bathroom door, listening to the sounds of the shower, just in case Olivia might need her.

When Olivia finally emerged, she grinned, clearly proud she�d managed the shower all on her own. "See? Told ya�!"

"You missed a button," Natalia said, looking at the front of her dark green pajama top.

"What?"

Without thinking, Natalia reached out and slid the dark green button between Olivia�s breasts through its matching slit. "I said you missed a ..." Her voice trailed off when she noticed Olivia staring down at her hands, which were still holding the front of her silk top. "Th- ... there you go," she said, and stepped back, suddenly too nervous to be standing that close, especially now that she realized the back of her fingers had brushed against the insides of Olivia�s breasts. Olivia smelled incredibly good fresh out of the shower. Natalia could feel heat radiating off Olivia�s skin, and now she could feel heat radiating over her cheeks after accidentally touching Olivia like that.

"Thanks," Olivia said softly.

"Uhm ... no problem. I think ... I think I�ll go take a shower, too."

"Okay," Olivia said, still watching her.

Natalia hurriedly grabbed her overnight bag and disappeared into the bathroom. She felt nervous, very nervous, and ... unsettled. Her heart was beating fast and her mind was moving slow. She was beginning to feel like she�d spent most of her life in a state of arrested development.

The quick sex with Nicky in the backseat of his car and the resultant pregnancy had put an end to a lot of things: her relationship with her family, who threw her out when she refused to give her baby up for adoption; her education, because her parents insisted she drop out and stay at a Catholic Charities home for unwed mothers; and her youth, because from the minute her baby was born she dedicated her life to working and taking care of him�with no support of any kind from her family. She had no time for and no interest in relationships. Nicky had left Chicago and she didn�t know where he was. The only thing she dreamed about was finding Nicky so her baby could have a father. But other boys? Other relationships? No, she wasn�t interested.

And now? Now she was in love for the first time, and it felt new and exhilarating and frightening. She wanted to spend every moment with Olivia. She wanted to be near her, touch her, hold her, but ... most of the time she felt incapable of following her instincts, which constantly urged her toward Olivia. She felt too shy, too uncertain, too inexperienced, too scared to be the one to reach out, to be the one to initiate anything, even a simple kiss. The thought of it was just too overwhelming. She�d just recently reached the point where her wall of denial was too ponderous to keep up any longer, and once it crumbled around her, it left her achingly aware of wanting to be closer to this amazing woman who kept her in a constant state of turmoil and longing.

By the time she finished her shower and emerged from the bathroom in her blue cotton jammies, she was surprised to find Olivia awake and sitting on the couch, not sound asleep in bed as she�d expected, especially when she knew Olivia had just taken a pain pill. What was wrong? Maybe she wasn�t feeling well after their long day.

She set her bag down and moved around the end of the couch so she could see Olivia�s face to gauge for herself if she looked okay. She did. In fact, she looked beautiful in her dark green pajamas, which seemed to call forth a darker shade of green in her eyes, eyes that were staring at her intently.

"Olivia? What are you doing still up?"

"Waiting for you."

Natalia suddenly found it hard to breathe�and impossible to speak.

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

Olivia stood up from the couch and walked to where Natalia was standing frozen in place, looking nervous and uncertain. She put her hands on Natalia�s shoulders for a moment as she gazed into her dark eyes and then let them glide slowly down her arms to her hands, which she held firmly in her own. She wasn�t surprised to see Natalia�s sudden breathing difficulties nor the darkening of her expressive eyes.

She�d figured out some things during their day together. For the longest time, even after she�d realized Natalia was "into" her, Olivia thought she had no interest in a physical expression of that interest�or if she did, she was sure Natalia didn�t want to act on it. However, after their kiss that morning and after spending all day and all evening with her, she�d reached an entirely different conclusion.

For one thing, Natalia didn�t seem as guarded about her feelings as she used to. Maybe it was leaping a major hurdle by confessing her love for another woman to Father Ray. Maybe she just couldn�t hide from it anymore. Whatever the case, Olivia could now see the longing in Natalia�s eyes, could sense her growing attraction, could feel her increasing need to be physically close. She knew instinctively, though, that all these feelings were new to Natalia and probably a little scary, partly because they were brand-new and partly because they went against church teachings.

Olivia had known ages ago that Natalia wasn�t really in love with Gus, even though she�d stolen him away from Harley, even though she�d fought Olivia for him, even though she�d married him. It had been clear to her back then that Natalia was desperate to give a father to her son, as though if she and Gus married, it would somehow make up for the pain and hardships of the past.

Olivia could also imagine what her life must have been like as a single teenaged mother. She didn�t know a lot about Natalia�s life back then, but she did know she�d never completed high school; and because Natalia never talked about her family, she guessed they hadn�t wanted anything more to do with her after their good Catholic girl had gone and gotten herself pregnant. Family was way too important to Natalia for her to ignore hers if they were still a part of her life.

To Olivia, all of this meant Natalia must have missed out on a lot of the emotional development a young girl would have normally gone through. She herself knew something about that because of how her rape and consequent pregnancy had robbed her of her own youth. She understood that although Natalia�s religion was a stumbling block to their relationship, it wasn�t the only one because in a lot of ways Natalia was still very much the innocent teenager experiencing her first love and the awakening of her dormant sexuality.

Olivia felt as though she�d finally gotten a major clue about what was going on with Natalia, and it gave her an idea of how to deal with Natalia�s uncertainties and fears. The problem wasn�t that Natalia didn�t want any physical intimacy; she did, but she was confused by her feelings and she felt guilty because of the teachings of her church. However, Olivia felt fairly certain that despite all that, Natalia finally did want for them to be closer. She wasn�t sure how close they could get physically. It could be they�d never advance beyond a simple, chaste kiss, but she also realized that like her, Natalia was no longer content to keep her distance; in fact, it felt to Olivia as though she was no longer able to do so even if she wanted to.

And now? Now they would go slow, very slow, and she would be patient. I can be patient, she thought, fully aware it wasn�t her strongest suit. I can be patient for you because I know you are so worth it.

"Waiting for me?" Natalia asked softly.

Olivia nodded. "I wanted to tell you what a wonderful day I�ve had."

"Me too."

"I loved going to the park with you. It felt so good being outside and seeing everything blooming."

"I loved that too."

"Mostly I loved kissing you," Olivia said as she slid her arms around Natalia�s waist and pulled her closer. My god, you feel good in my arms. I should just never let go.

Natalia blushed and ducked her head, not quite able to meet Olivia�s eyes. "Me too," she whispered.

"Tonight at dinner? That felt kind of like a first date."

"Yes, it really did."

"And now ..."

Natalia finally looked up. "Now?"

"Now I think we should have a first-date goodnight kiss." And that�s why we�re talking over here by the couch and not over there by the bed. Way too threatening over there, I�m guessing.

Olivia could sense Natalia tensing up, but for once she understood it wasn�t because she didn�t want to kiss. It was because she did, but it scared her. Best not to hesitate then, Olivia thought as she cupped Natalia�s face in her hands and drew her close. She kissed her lightly and drew back to look into her eyes. They looked unfocused. I think that�s a good sign.

She kissed her again, lingering a bit longer this time before pulling back. Then she kissed her again, taking the time to explore her lips more fully with her own. She lightly ran her tongue over her top lip and then her bottom lip, reveling in the feel of the silky texture as Natalia�s body seemed to melt into hers. She could feel Natalia�s lips parting, instinctively, so she slipped her tongue in just enough that the very tips of their tongues touched and caressed for a brief moment before they both pulled back and stared into each other�s eyes.

That brief oral caress left Olivia painfully aroused, but even though she was more than ready to undress Natalia and take her to bed and make love to her the rest of the night�or at least until she passed out from exhaustion or pain�she knew in her heart that going slow was the only way this was going to work, so she gave her one last quick kiss and then stepped back, reluctantly releasing her hold.

"Time for beddy-bye," Olivia said. Her heart ached on seeing the look of disappointment on Natalia�s sweet face. I know you still want me to kiss you, but trust me, this is a good place to stop. We don�t want you getting more than you can handle. This is enough for now. Believe me, I know you�re going to be thinking about this and maybe worrying about it, and I don�t want to give you anything else to fret over�at least not for right now. And to be honest, I need to stop now or I�m afraid I won�t be able to stop at all.

Olivia walked slowly to the bed and crawled between the sheets. "Coming?"

"In a minute."

And so the thinking and worrying begins

, she thought with an inward smile. But I think we can do this. I really do.

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

Natalia stood riveted on the exact same spot where she�d stood when Olivia kissed her. She was swaying slightly and her mind was racing, as was her heart. She had literally spent a great deal of the day wishing Olivia would kiss her again, and then when she announced she was going to, Natalia could feel herself freezing up�from longing and anxiety and desire and fear; but before she had time to dwell on any of the scarier feelings, Olivia was kissing her and she forgot about everything else�everything but the feel of Olivia�s lips exploring hers, the touch of her tongue as she lightly ran it over her lips. When she felt Olivia�s tongue slip a little ways into her mouth to touch the tip of hers, she thought she might faint from her overwhelming physical response. She could feel that oral caress everywhere, from her mouth to her toes and all points in between, and most especially "down there," where she could feel liquid heat gathering in an embarrassing abundance.

When she could gain enough control to make herself move, she walked over to the desk and turned on the laptop with the pretext of looking over the week�s work schedule. After all, it was part of her job, but she couldn�t focus on the screen. All she could do was replay their "first-date" kiss and the astonishingly sweet havoc it had wreaked on her body and mind.

Olivia, you just have the most amazing effect on me. I�ve never, ever, felt anything like this.

She tried to imagine how she might feel if Olivia had kept on kissing her like that, but she honestly felt as though she wouldn�t have been able to stay conscious very long if she had.

Abruptly Father Ray�s face floated unbidden into her mind, and his look of disappointment and condemnation she�d seen the other day was unmistakable. For her, he symbolized the church and the church�s disapproval of her love for Olivia. But I know it�s not wrong, she thought defiantly. She knew there were many different interpretations of scripture, and to her that meant faith was all the more important. She believed you had to have faith in what you truly believed was right, and she truly believed her love for Olivia was right. It felt right, and she believed in her heart that God not only still loved her, but approved; that He had, in fact, been the bestower of this amazing gift, this love she shared with Olivia.

Of course, that didn�t mean there wouldn�t be people who disapproved, people like Father Ray and the parents at Emma�s school, but did that mean she shouldn�t be allowed to keep this precious gift? Did that mean she shouldn�t love Olivia, shouldn�t share a life with her? Giving her up was unthinkable. I almost lost you forever when I nearly married Frank. My heart was breaking. I could never do that again. I could never bear to lose you. Whatever happened from this point forward, all she knew was Olivia had to be a part of her life. In fact, Olivia was her life; she was everything to her.

She finally gave up on getting any work done, so she shut down the computer and quietly padded over to the bed. Olivia looked as though she was asleep, so she carefully crawled into the other side of the bed, taking care not to wake her. She lay on her back, arms crossed over her midriff, listening to Olivia�s deep and even breathing while she played their kiss over and over again in her mind.

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

Chapter 24

Olivia woke to find herself snuggled up to Natalia�s sleeping body. Natalia was lying on her back with her left arm along her side nearest Olivia and her right hand lying on the pillow by her head. Olivia was on her side facing her. Her arm was thrown over the other woman, and her hand was cupping her breast. Holy shit this feels great! The more in love she�d fallen, the more obsessed she�d become with Natalia�s sexy curves, including most particularly the one she now held in her hand.

At first her interest in Natalia�s womanly curves and other more hidden assets had surprised her; after all, for her entire life she�d only been attracted to men. Over time, though, she�d noticed more and more how her eyes would wander appreciatively down Natalia�s body, how she would wonder how she�d look naked�pretty damned good, I�m guessing!�how it would feel to hold her naked body and touch her everywhere, how it would feel to make her gasp with pleasure.

In the past her only interest in breasts had been whether her own were getting the attention they needed; now she found herself obsessed with Natalia�s breasts. Natalia�s penchant for wearing revealing tops merely exacerbated her already painful longing to see them and touch them. Basically she wanted to explore all her curves, and she prayed that might actually become reality, even if it were some far-off day in the future. She could wait. It�d be hard, but she could wait. It was far better than the no-sex-whatsoever scenario she�d feared would be the case. Now it seemed as though it was at least possible they could have some physical intimacy, even if Natalia never reached a point where she was comfortable with everything Olivia would like to do�which was pretty much everything.

As to their current position, Olivia was loathe to move her hand, but she was pretty darned certain she was not supposed to be anywhere near "second base." I know I should move my hand, but darn it, I really hate having to do that. Besides, this is not my fault. I was asleep. I can�t be held responsible if I was asleep, can I?

Reluctantly, she decided to be good and began to move her hand away, but noticed immediately that even that slight amount of friction was having an interesting effect, an effect that was now pressing against her fingers as she slid them off that most tempting curve. Jesus Christ! I always thought I�d love touching her, but damn, this is beyond good. She moved her hand back to where it had been, gently cupping it around that full mound of womanly flesh. Couldn�t hurt to enjoy this a minute longer, could it?

She knew she should move her hand. She knew she should move back to her side of the bed. However, she found herself thinking about lightly touching her other breast just to make them "match." After all, one was clearly aroused and the other was not. I mean ... that�d just be considerate, wouldn�t it? She spent one long moment savoring the feel of aroused flesh and her own naughty thoughts, and then reluctantly removed her hand from its voluptuous resting place and rolled over onto her back, away from the sleeping beauty next to her and away from all that temptation.

Okay, fine. I�m bad. I�m a pervert. I�m kind of a happy pervert right now, but yeah, I know it�s wrong. Wrong! I�ll never do it again.

She thought for a moment. Of course, that�s not to say it might not happen again if I�m asleep, in which case�not my fault!

She contented herself with imagining what it would have been like if she�d been really bad and slipped her hand under Natalia�s soft cotton top and cupped her bare flesh in her hand. Man, I must really be feeling better �cause ... oh my god! The way I�m feeling right now ... See? I could have been really bad. I was only a little bad, really, and I�m sorry now. Kind of.

Just as Olivia was imagining unbuttoning Natalia�s cotton top, pulling it open, and burying her face between her full breasts, Natalia stirred and sleepily opened her eyes. When she looked over at Olivia and saw she was awake, she rolled towards her and hugged her for a long moment, face tucked into Olivia�s neck, before she moved away, got up, and headed toward the bathroom.

Wow! Just wow.

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

Once she woke up a bit more, Natalia was surprised at herself for impulsively hugging Olivia like that in bed. She wasn�t thinking. She was just so happy to see her and she wanted to hold her. She wasn�t awake enough yet for her inhibitions to be fully in gear, so she�d just hugged her; it was that simple. It had felt great, too. Being able to roll over first thing in the morning and hug Olivia felt wonderful. How amazing would life be if she could do that every morning?

By the time Natalia came out of the bathroom, Olivia was up and dressed in blue jeans and a blue short-sleeved top. Natalia was wearing black jeans and a low-cut rose-colored tank top. She blushed when she saw Olivia�s eyes slide down her body, pausing for a moment on her cleavage. She�d become aware that Olivia liked her more revealing tops, which was a major incentive to make sure she packed plenty to wear while she was spending so much time with her.

"Are you hungry?" Natalia asked. "Do you want me to order something from room service?"

"You know what I�m hungry for?"

"What?"

"One of Buzz�s special omelets."

"You want to go to Company?" She was more than a little surprised, especially since Olivia had balked at the idea of going there when she�d suggested it just yesterday.

"Sure, why not?"

"Oh, I can�t think of any reason not to," Natalia said with a laugh.

Olivia grinned. "I think you were right the other day. We can�t avoid the Coopers. Seems like there�s one on every corner, and I don�t think we should avoid Company either. We haven�t done anything wrong."

"You haven�t done anything wrong. Me? I did everything wrong."

"Well, you apologized�repeatedly and to everybody�and now I think it�s time for everyone to move on. We can�t really do that if we continue avoiding people. I say let�s go there for breakfast and just let everybody get used to the idea."

"Okay, if you�re sure."

"I�m sure."

Olivia certainly looked sure of herself, but Natalia was feeling anything but. She dreaded showing up at Company, especially considering how angrily Buzz had talked to her that day in Olivia�s hospital room. Frank might be there, too, and she hadn�t seen him since the night he�d dragged her down to the station for questioning, where he�d prodded and baited and finally ended up yelling at her and accusing Olivia of merely wanting to "toy" with her. Her blood still boiled when she thought about his hateful condemnation of Olivia. She knew what he said wasn�t true because she could feel Olivia�s love. For heaven�s sake, the woman had just saved her life and had been lying in a hospital bed because of it even as an irate Frank ranted about what a horrible person she was. And now Natalia dreaded the thought of seeing him again.

But if you really want to go, I�ll take you. I just hope this isn�t going to be as bad as I think it�s going to be.

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

Olivia felt pumped to be back at Company. It was one of her favorite places, but more importantly she knew for Natalia it was a symbol of the societal rejection she was feeling after running out on the wedding that would have secured her a place in the "normal" world. She knew Natalia was nervous about coming here, but Natalia didn�t know she had a secret "weapon," namely Buzz. No matter what else might be going on, Olivia knew Buzz was a true friend to her, and she had faith that everything would be fine, despite the way he�d lashed out at Natalia at the hospital. Olivia understood Buzz�s need to make his feelings known, but she also knew that once he had, he was done; and she also felt fairly certain he would forgive Natalia one day and, in fact, might have already. After all, he figured out before a lot of other people, including Frank and Natalia, that maybe the "happy" twosome shouldn�t be getting married at all.

As she�d predicted, Buzz greeted them both warmly and walked with them to their favorite table in the corner along the far wall, where they always sat if it were free. He also took their breakfast orders himself. Olivia could tell Natalia was astounded by his genial treatment of her.

"Told ya�," Olivia whispered when Buzz bustled off to personally make their omelets.

"You were right."

"And that surprises you?"

Natalia laughed. "I guess it shouldn�t."

Olivia loved seeing Natalia�s big smile and sudden flash of dimples. She really could just never get enough of those dimples. She had to restrain herself from leaning over the table and kissing one. Just one little dimple kiss. Would that be so bad?

Shortly after their omelets arrived, so did Frank. Olivia could feel someone staring, and looked over to see Frank�s rather hostile visage as he stood glaring at them. She was annoyed when he made straight for their table. Oh great! Well, better to get this over with. I�m still mad as hell at how you treated Natalia the other day, so you better not do anything to piss me off now or you�re going to get more than you bargained for.

"Morning, ladies," Frank said.

"Morning, Frank," Natalia said as she studied her plateful of omelet.

"Morning." Olivia was now feeling extremely annoyed at how blatantly Frank was peering down the front of Natalia�s top. Feeling angry about being left at the altar was one thing. She didn�t blame him for that. Acting like a complete and utter asshole at every opportunity was quite another.

"What are you two doing here?" Frank asked.

"Eating," Olivia said, waving a forkful of omelet for Frank to see.

"That�s not what I meant," Frank said. "I meant what are you doing here?"

"Buzz makes the best omelets in Springfield," Olivia said. She almost hoped he�d push his point, because she�d love nothing more than to lay into him for the shameful way he�d dragged Natalia out of her hospital room and then kept her a virtual prisoner at the police station while he questioned her over and over. She knew from Doris that he�d also taken the opportunity to harangue Natalia about their relationship, and she was itching to put him in his place.

"Well, I don�t think either of you should be setting foot in here�ever again!" he sneered.

Buzz had clearly overheard the conversation because he walked over and grabbed hold of Frank�s upper arm. "Frank, these ladies are my guests. They�re always welcome here. In fact," Buzz continued, looking down at them with a smile, "breakfast is on the house this morning, ladies. I think we should all celebrate Olivia�s recovery." He looked up at Frank. "And don�t forget that if it weren�t for Olivia, Natalia would�ve been the one to get shot and she could have easily died."

Buzz affectionately squeezed Olivia�s shoulder before dragging Frank over to the counter, where he pushed him down onto a stool and slapped the back of his head with his open hand before leaning down and whispering in his ear.

Olivia�s eyebrows shot up at the sight, and she looked at Natalia to make sure she�d seen that little father-son exchange. From her wide-eyed, open-mouth expression, she was guessing yes, she had.

"Now, come on," Olivia said. "You had to love that, right?"

Natalia shook her head, but grinned as she pushed pieces of omelet around on her plate.

"Mm-hm, thought so."

They both laughed.

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After their breakfast at Company, Natalia felt as though a tremendous weight had been lifted off her shoulders. Buzz might have been angry with her, but clearly he�d found it in his heart to forgive her. Olivia had been right. Going to Company was a very good idea, and it had left her feeling less isolated and less like the town pariah for what she�d done to Frank. Now she could only pray Frank would also forgive her one day. The way Buzz had reprimanded Frank in public like that gave her hope that maybe the father could help the son get to a place of forgiveness. She wanted that, not just for her sake, but also for Frank�s. She didn�t want him to stay angry and bitter. She wanted him to find someone who could love him the way he deserved to be loved.

Meanwhile, she�d achieved a major victory. She�d talked Olivia into a drive out to the farmhouse. All it took was a reminder to Olivia that she�d said she�d left some things there that she wanted. She must have really wanted that alarm clock or whatever else was there, because she�d immediately acquiesced. The long drive to the farm had flown by quickly because Olivia held her hand on her lap the entire way and played with it, stroking the back, drawing patterns on her palm, massaging her fingers one by one, and now here they were taking a stroll out to the big red maple in the field just past the barn.

It was a beautiful spring day. The sky was clear blue with just a few puffy clouds floating lazily by, and there was a light breeze. Exercising was crucial to Olivia�s recovery, and it was the one thing she maintained strict discipline about doing, so taking a walk was at the top of their agenda for the day.

As soon as they got to the farmhouse, Natalia had packed a cooler with water, fruit juice, cheese, and crackers, and grabbed her red tartan picnic blanket. Then the two of them strolled arm in arm toward the red maple. It was a bit further than their walk to the gazebo, but Olivia had seemed confident she could make it fairly easily, especially since they planned to rest for a while once they got there.

This particular red maple was Natalia�s favorite tree. As she laid the blanket out over the lush grass, she thought about the first time she�d seen it. It was in late fall when the majestic tree was in its full autumn glory with the reddest leaves she�d ever seen. The crimson flowers that had bloomed in March had now blossomed into the maple�s characteristic green over gray leaves, though the stems still retained a blush of red. It made a perfect shade tree. In fact, one of her favorite images she�d clung to while Olivia lay unconscious much of the time in the hospital was one of Olivia lying on the picnic blanket in the shade of this very tree.

And now, that�s exactly what she was doing. She was lying on her back playing with a fallen leaf. Her hair was being gently ruffled by the light breeze, and she looked relaxed and happy. In fact, Olivia looked so good that if Natalia didn�t know better, she�d have no idea how badly she�d been injured nor how close to death she�d come. Knowing Olivia�s heart had stopped on the operating table still sent chills racing down her spine.

Olivia looked over at her. "What are you lookin� so serious about?"

"Nothing. I�m just so glad you�re okay."

"I�m better than okay. This was a great idea. It feels wonderful to be out here, just relaxing under this tree. You should lie down and look up into the branches. It�s an amazing view."

Natalia stretched out beside Olivia on the blanket and gazed overhead at the intricate dark gray and green latticework. Olivia pointed out a bird�s nest ensconced securely in the crook of a limb partway up. Natalia could just barely make it out, but the longer she looked, the more life she saw, including several birds and a curious squirrel that paused on its jog along a narrow branch to stare down at them. It was uplifting to experience the vibrancy of life thriving in this one lone tree.

She glanced at Olivia, whom she found watching her intently. "It�s so beautiful here," she sighed.

"You�re beautiful," Olivia whispered as she rolled onto her side and cupped Natalia�s face with her hand. "Beautiful and sweet and sexy."

Even Olivia�s voice made her stomach flutter, but then Olivia was kissing her, kissing her slowly and gently, and her entire universe suddenly focused on the sensuous feel of Olivia�s mouth and the corresponding ache she felt everywhere. Then Olivia rolled partially on top of her and began to kiss her more deeply, and Natalia felt as though she might pass out from the wonder and the ecstacy of Olivia�s passionate kisses.

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Chapter 25

Olivia was lost in their heated kiss as they lay on the tartan picnic blanket under the red maple. Natalia�s ingenuous pleasure as she�d gazed up into the heavy foliage of her favorite tree had been touching. She�d looked so young and sweet and so very sexy in her low-cut rose top. Her skin was naturally tan and it looked smooth and soft, and she was smiling just enough for there to be a trace of dimples adorning her face. How incredibly pretty she was.

Olivia had rolled onto her side so she could see her better, had reached out to cup her face, and then without remembering her self-admonition to go slow, she followed her instincts and began to kiss her; and the more she kissed her, the more she wanted to kiss her and the more intimate her kisses became. She was desperate to get closer and without realizing it, she shifted her body till she was lying partly on top of her as she deep-kissed her thoroughly. The hand that had cupped Natalia�s face drifted downward, sliding slowly down her neck and over her upper chest until finally it cupped her breast. Olivia could feel the aroused tip jutting into her palm, and she teased it to even greater prominence with her thumb. She wanted nothing more than to ease the rose-colored tank top and bra down so she could touch bare flesh.

The sensory overload had short-circuited her cognitive functions to the point she might have done just that, but Natalia�s sudden gasp of pleasure when she squeezed her breast brought her to her senses, and she kissed her one last time gently on the lips before she rolled onto her back, breathing heavily.

Spencer, that�s not slow. That is so not moving slow. That�s going fast, too damned fast. If you go too fast, you run the risk she�ll panic and run, and then you might never get her back. Is that really what you want?

Olivia hated her "naggy" voice. It was new and it was damned annoying. In the past she pretty much just did what she wanted most of the time and didn�t worry about it. Now she was much more concerned with how Natalia felt and what was best for her in the long run than she was with her own immediate short-term needs, which at the moment included a burning desire to strip the woman lying next to her and make love to her till she screamed with pleasure.

I�d bet anything that if she did, it�d be the first time anyone had ever made her feel like that.

Olivia was certain Natalia had never had an orgasm, had never come close, had never so much as explored her own body. I�d bet all my worldly goods on that, she thought, feeling as though it was a pretty safe bet. She longed to be her first. She craved seeing and hearing her having an orgasm for the first time ever. Her body throbbed with arousal at the thought, to the point it seemed possible the very act of bringing Natalia to a climax might trigger her own.

"What are you thinking?" Natalia asked softly.

"Uhm ... how much I love you," Olivia said. She reached out for Natalia�s hand and pulled it over to rest on her stomach. "How much I love being here with you."

"I love you, too," Natalia said with a sigh.

Olivia turned onto her side to face Natalia again. "I think maybe I got a little carried away there."

Natalia shook her head slowly. Her eyes looked shadowy and her breathing was still a bit ragged.

Olivia had no doubt she was turned on, very turned on by the looks of it, but she also knew there was no way they could go any further, so she contented herself with gazing into those dark eyes she�d grown to love so much and savoring the memory of the brief moment during which she�d let herself go.

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Natalia wondered if she�d ever be able to breathe normally again. Probably not while you�re looking at me like that, she thought. Her heartbeat certainly showed no signs of slowing down. Between Olivia�s kisses and the feel of Olivia�s hand on her breast, Natalia could barely think; she could only feel, and what she was feeling was amazing. She�d liked it when Nicky had touched her breasts, but when Olivia touched her like that, a profound feeling of pleasure unlike anything she�d ever experienced had blossomed out from their point of contact and suffused her body, and the dull ache she�d just been getting used to feeling between her thighs had developed into an urgent throb. It was unsettling, to say the least, and more than a little confusing.

Not that she was complaining. Part of her wished Olivia would start kissing and touching her like that again, but another part of her was still afraid�afraid of how she was feeling, afraid of what might happen next, afraid of how all this was changing their relationship, afraid of how others would react to them being a couple. The only time she was completely unafraid was when Olivia was actually kissing her or touching her because when she was, Natalia couldn�t think about anything else.

A distant rumble brought her back to the present. She sat up and looked around. She could see the skies to the west darkening.

"Maybe we should head back? You probably need to take a pill pretty soon anyway, right?" Natalia was acutely aware that Olivia had not recuperated completely, and she felt very protective of her recovery process. In fact, she still felt guilty that she�d caused Olivia to get shot in the first place.

"Oh, I suppose," Olivia answered lazily as she played with Natalia�s hand, which she was still holding.

"They said on the weather this morning that it would rain, but it wasn�t supposed to start until later today."

Olivia dragged herself into a sitting position and looked at the distant storm front. "I think it�s still a ways off, but it�s definitely coming."

"We could go back and eat lunch, and then you could take a nap, if you�d like."

"I hate to say it, but a nap actually sounds pretty good, and by the time we walk all the way back it�ll probably sound even better."

Natalia felt anxious to get Olivia back to the relative safety of the farmhouse. Hopefully once she�d eaten and taken a nap, she�d feel better. She didn�t want Olivia getting too worn out, especially since it�d been Natalia�s idea to go out to the farmhouse in the first place. It suddenly occurred to her that if it stormed, she might be able to talk Olivia into spending the night out there, far away from town and people and worries, an idea that made her smile.

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They�d eaten lunch, Olivia had taken her pain pill, and now they stood at the bottom of the staircase looking up.

"Wow, I don�t remember these stairs being this steep," Olivia said. I�m not sure I can make it up there, she thought. That is one big-ass staircase! Nurse Flo had dragged her up and down the hallways at Cedars, and she�d continued to walk regularly since she�d been released, but she hadn�t attempted any stairs yet.

"Maybe you should just nap on the couch. I could get you a pillow and throw a quilt over you."

"Nah, I want to go up. I still need to get some things I left behind."

"I can get anything you need. Just tell me what to look for."

Olivia hesitated. "I really want to, uhm ... look around up there, so ... I better see if I can do this."

"Okay, if you�re sure."

I�m not sure at all, but I�m gonna give it a try

. She grabbed the rail with her right hand and grinned when Natalia slipped an arm around her waist to support her. And apparently I�m gonna have fun trying. The first step was difficult. "Wow, that uses totally different muscles than walking."

"Olivia, please just stay down here. I can get whatever you want from upstairs."

"Nah, let�s keep going."

"What if you fall?"

Olivia glanced sideways at Natalia. "I know you�re not gonna let that happen, now are you?"

"I�m sure going to try, but ..."

"Don�t worry. It�ll be fine. Besides, it�ll probably be good for me to start using some different muscles."

Olivia took another step, painfully aware of her shaky leg muscles. Christ! Amazing how getting shot and lying around the hospital can screw up your body.

It took awhile, but she finally reached the top landing and shuffled slowly toward her old room. Once there she fell on the bed face-first with a groan.

"Time for a nap?" Natalia asked.

"Mmph."

"Okay then." Natalia threw a comforter over Olivia. "You rest. I�ll be downstairs if you need me."

Olivia groaned and Natalia smiled as she quietly left the room.

Goddamned stairs! There should be a law against such steep staircases ... although, the assistance from a certain gorgeous latina was nice.

She smiled as she thought about Natalia lending her strength during her ascent to the top floor of the farmhouse. You should have stayed up here with me, she thought sleepily. I could sleep so much better with you in my arms. She fell asleep thinking about holding Natalia close.

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Natalia went downstairs to the laundry room and began to pull sheets and towels from the dryer. Doing laundry was a relaxing task for her, and she was happy to be able to do that in her own home. She carried the basket to the living room and quickly folded everything into a neat pile, which she stacked back into the laundry basket to be carried upstairs next time she went. Now they�d have fresh sheets and towels if they did end up staying the night. She could hear the distant rumble of thunder announcing the nearness of the spring storm, which she thought made it more likely she could talk Olivia into staying.

She went back to the kitchen and began clearing away their lunch dishes. Once again Olivia hadn�t eaten much, which was beginning to concern her, but at least she�d eaten. Maybe after her nap she�d feel better. Natalia knew the walks were important, but they were also draining. Obviously the naps were a part of the healing process, and at least Olivia wasn�t trying to fight that�probably because she couldn�t, Natalia realized.

She smiled as she remembered how sleepy Olivia had looked by the time they�d made it up to her old bedroom. You�re so cute when you�re half asleep, she thought. If they stayed at the farmhouse that night, she could make Olivia one of her favorite dishes for dinner, maybe tuna casserole, and then she might be tempted to actually eat a full meal. The next morning, she�d make Olivia one of her favorite breakfasts and watch as her morning coffee slowly waked her up. How she missed seeing Olivia every morning in her kitchen looking all sleepy and utterly adorable.

Natalia was checking to see what else she had in the fridge when she heard the back door open. That has to be Frank. Why can�t he knock? He acts like he owns the place. She felt irritated and turned toward the door ready to confront him, but it wasn�t Frank. It was a man, a muscular man with longish light-blond hair. She knew exactly who he was and exactly where she�d seen him before. She froze as pinpricks of fear skittered over her skin.

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[Warning: The following chapter contains content some may find disturbing, including scenes of physical violence and a threat of sexual violence. If you feel this may be a problem, you may want to proceed with caution or skip this chapter in its entirety.]

Chapter 26

Olivia was beginning to wake up from her nap, but she tried to hang onto her dream, a wonderfully erotic dream that featured a sexy dark-haired woman lying naked on a red tartan picnic blanket. She was holding her arms out to Olivia in a welcoming gesture, and Olivia was more than happy to accept the invitation to stretch out over her and feel all that smooth, soft flesh against her own bare skin. However, try as she might to stay in dreamland, she was now fully awake and her lovely, lifelike dream was fading. If I have to nap every day, I should at least get to finish my dreams, damn it, she thought, glancing groggily around the room.

She turned over onto her back and closed her eyes again, this time picturing Natalia in her rose tank top and black jeans lying on her back gazing up into the branches of the red maple as she�d been doing earlier. Olivia lightly touched her fingertips to her lips as she remembered kissing her. Kissing you is so amazing. Touching her like that had been amazing, too, and she longed to pick up where they�d left off. She felt incredibly happy because for the first time she had hopes for their relationship and fairly high hopes at that.

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

The man stood staring at her from the doorway. He looked taller up close like this, maybe three inches taller than Olivia, and he was heavily muscled. His biceps were huge, like a wrestler�s, and his chest was thick. He was clean-shaven with handsome features marred only by a broken nose, and she knew most women would find him good-looking. Natalia could see his lips twist into a smug smile as his pale gray eyes raked insolently down her body. Instinctively, she backed away from him, stopping only when she reached the far wall of the kitchen.

"I see you remember me," he said. His voice was gravelly, and he reeked of cigarette smoke.

Natalia knew exactly who he was. She�d seen him the second time she�d gone to see Rafe at the state penitentiary, the initial place her son had been sent before Olivia twisted the governor�s arm to help get him moved to a safer facility. After that, the light-haired inmate was there every time she was, as though he knew exactly when she�d be coming to see Rafe, which she did more frequently once she found out Rafe was getting beaten up by other prisoners.

His name was Jacob and his presence in the visitors� room went from unsettling to frightening once she realized his attention had become fixated on her. She�d come to dread his lecherous looks and rude sexual gestures. Instinctively she knew her son feared him as well. Rafe was careful never to look directly at him, even the time Jacob walked right up to their table and made a lewd comment about her body before a guard herded him to the table where his visitor sat waiting. Rafe�s face had reddened, but he didn�t look up, nor did he say anything. Natalia knew that normally Rafe would have jumped immediately to her defense. That�s how she knew Jacob had to be one of the men brutalizing her son, and now, seeing that same loathsome man standing in her kitchen, she feared his interest in her might have had something to do with it; after all, the more problems Rafe had, the more often she showed up at the prison.

The last and most frightening encounter she�d had with him had been the last time she�d gone to see Rafe, who was in the prison infirmary with a staph infection. She was in the visitors� room alone, waiting to find out if they were going to allow her in to see her son. It wasn�t normal visiting hours, so she was surprised when she heard the inner door open. She was startled to see Jacob appear in the doorway and hand something to the guard, and then he entered alone and strode directly toward her. She tried to back away from him, but she quickly bumped into the wall and there was nowhere else to go.

She remembered how large he looked as he towered over her, how strong, how threatening. She shivered with fear when he leaned close and whispered into her ear exactly what he planned to do to her once he got out of prison.

Thankfully the doctor had arrived before the inmate could do more than announce his intentions, and he immediately summoned a guard to escort the lone prisoner back to his cell. She could feel Jacob�s eyes brazenly sliding over her body when he looked at her one last time before grinning and disappearing back into the bowels of the prison.

Rafe was moved to another facility soon after that, so she never saw Jacob again. She�d never told anyone about what had happened�not Father Ray, not Olivia, and certainly not Rafe, who already had way too much to deal with. In fact, it had been such a terrifying experience, she�d pushed it out of her mind completely�until this very second.

Now he was not only standing in her kitchen, but she had no doubt he was the man who shot Olivia; now that she remembered him, she also remembered his voice, which was unmistakably the voice of the gunman. She knew he was evil. She knew he could be brutal. She knew he�d been obsessed with her, and from the look on his face, he still was.

The room felt as though all the oxygen had been sucked out of it, and she strained to draw air into her constricted lungs. When he began to saunter toward her, she felt dizzy with fear. She knew Olivia was just upstairs, but she didn�t want him to know that. She couldn�t bear for Olivia to get hurt again. She�d been through far too much already.

"All alone?" he asked, his head swivelling from door to door and back to her again.

She nodded. "Please don�t hurt me."

"Now why would I do that?" he said, finally coming to a stop directly in front of her.

He seemed enormous, and she�d never been more terrified. She flinched when he reached out to touch the side of her face.

"Please don�t ... please don�t do that."

"Come on now. You be nice and I�ll be nice."

He grabbed her upper arms and tried to kiss her, but she wrenched her face to the side and grimaced when she felt his lips slide over her cheek. Then he grasped her face firmly in both hands and kissed her hard on the mouth, bearing down firmly as he tried to force her lips open. She reached out with her right hand and scraped her nails down the side of his face. He jerked back and touched his fingers to the wound. When he pulled his hand away and saw the small drops of blood beading on his fingertips, his face contorted with anger.

"You fucking bitch! You�re gonna pay for that."

He lunged for her, but she darted around him and ran toward the door. If only she could get outside, maybe she could get away from him; it would also draw him out of the house and away from Olivia. He caught her around the waist before she got very far, but she managed to grab a pan from the dish drainer, hoping to use it as a weapon. She swung it backwards over her shoulder toward his head, but he effortlessly wrenched it out of her hand and slung it across the room, where it crashed into the window, shattering it into tiny pieces that rained down over the wooden floor.

"Stop fighting," he hissed. He slammed her against the wall with enough force to stun her momentarily, and then easily pinned both of her slender wrists behind her with one large hand. He grabbed the front of her tank top and ripped it down, exposing her bra-clad breasts. "Now that�s more like it. I told you before you have great tits," he said, as he grabbed her breast and tried to kiss her again.

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Olivia sat bolt upright when she heard the crash from below. What the hell was that? She was certain the noise she�d heard involved breaking glass, and it didn�t sound like dropped china. In fact, it didn�t strike her as a normal noise at all. Alarmed, she opened her bedroom door, careful not to make any sound. She immediately heard a man�s voice screaming an obscenity. It was a voice she recognized from the bank the day she was shot, and the realization turned her blood to ice.

As the sounds of violence below escalated, her mind raced. She knew she needed to act and act quickly. She had no doubt what was going on downstairs and she knew she had to stop it. If it was who she thought it was, whatever he did, she was sure he wouldn�t want to leave a witness around to talk about it.

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He slapped Natalia hard across the face and threw her down on the floor, knocking the wind out of her; then he pinned her down by straddling her thighs. She gasped for air as she flailed her fists trying to hit him, but he caught her hands and trapped both wrists over her head with one hand. She fought to get loose, but he was just too strong.

"Stop it! You know you�re gonna love this," he said, as she squirmed beneath him, trying to get free.

Please, dear God! Please help me! Please don�t let him hurt me.

Please don�t let him hurt Olivia. She tried to buck him off, but he was too heavy, and her strength was ebbing after trying to fight him off this long. She only prayed Olivia was too sound asleep to have heard the window break, because she knew he wouldn�t hesitate to hurt her, too, or maybe worse; and she also had no doubt Olivia wouldn�t hesitate to rush to her aid if she had any idea she was in trouble. She couldn�t bear to see him hurt Olivia.

"Please stop," she gasped.

"Stop?" he muttered. "I was just thinking I might take you with me after our little party here. We could have lots of fun together, you and me. I might even share you with my guys. You remember them from the bank, I bet."

"No! Don�t, please!" The thought that he might actually kidnap her and she could end up at the mercy of him and his cronies was too horrifying to contemplate, and she redoubled her efforts to pull her hands free.

"Yeah, you�re much too nice a piece of ass not to share."

He laughed and reached for the snap on her pants, which he yanked open. She struggled wildly, but he effortlessly held her in place while he unzipped her jeans.

They both recoiled when they heard the sharp crack of a gunshot. Natalia looked toward the doorway to the living room and saw Olivia standing there holding the 9mm handgun she�d bought to protect them from Phillip when he first returned to Springfield.

"Get off her, you son of a bitch!" Olivia shouted.

He let go of Natalia�s wrists, but quickly grabbed her throat with his right hand. "I could crush her windpipe with one�"

Before he could finish his sentence, Olivia shot him, knocking him backward into the kitchen cabinets. His head slammed into the cabinet door at the same time the shell casing hit the wooden floor with a thud. He grabbed his shoulder as the casing bounced several times before coming to rest by the table leg.

"You bitch!" he rasped.

"I told you to get off," Olivia said. "You should�ve listened. I�m not a very patient person."

Natalia scrabbled across the floor away from him. She could see blood oozing from his left shoulder. "I should ... I should call 911."

"I already called from upstairs," Olivia said. "They should be here soon."

Natalia heard a car pull up outside. "That must be the police."

"No," Olivia said. "It�s too soon."

Jacob began to laugh. "Not too soon for my guys, though. Both you bitches are gonna be sorry."

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Chapter 27

The first thing Olivia did after hearing the man�s voice coming from downstairs was go back into the bedroom and drag a chair over to the closet to reach the top shelf where she�d hidden her gun case, well out of Emma�s reach and Natalia�s view. Natalia had been very unhappy with her when she found out last winter Olivia had been keeping a gun in the house. Later in the spring when she moved out right before the wedding, she was feeling so stressed she simply didn�t remember it was there. When she�d put it on the high shelf, it�d been an easy reach, but now after her injury she couldn�t stretch far enough to grab it. She finally had to get a hangar to reach it and drag it to the edge of the shelf.

The next hurdle had been the stairs. Her legs felt weak and shaky, but she carefully eased herself down one step at a time until she finally reached the bottom. She was terrified of what she�d find once she made it to the kitchen, especially since she could hear the sounds of them scuffling and the disgusting things he was saying to her. Her heart was beating so hard she thought surely it would be audible to anyone nearby.

When she finally reached the doorway to the kitchen, the sight of Natalia pinned beneath that heavily muscled body filled her with a violent rage, and it was all she could do to fire a warning shot instead of aiming for his heart. She�d had plenty of practice at the shooting range and she�d gotten to be a pretty good shot, but she still didn�t want to risk aiming so close to Natalia, especially at that angle, so she fired toward the ceiling instead.

The shot had the desired effect because he immediately let go of her wrists and twisted toward Olivia, but the instant he put his hand around Natalia�s throat and threatened to kill her, she squeezed the trigger. There was no way she was going to give him any chance to hurt her anymore than he already had. She knew how quickly someone with a crushed windpipe could die of asphyxiation, so she realized instantly she better not hesitate to act.

Now she knew she didn�t dare take her eyes off him for a single second. He�d carried a gun in the bank, and she was certain he probably had one on him now. He seemed reckless, though, so she didn�t want to take a chance on either of them trying to search him to make sure because she had no doubt he�d attempt to grab either of them, gun or no gun.

She was a little surprised at how easily she could kill him. Seeing Natalia�s torn clothing and the reddened skin on the side of her face and around her eye enraged her, but she forced herself to remain calm. She knew their safety hinged on her ability to stay cool and clearheaded.

The sound of a vehicle pulling up alarmed her. She knew it was too soon for the police to get there. "Natalia, look out the window and try to see who it is."

Olivia could see her moving to the broken window out of the corner of her eye as she maintained eye contact with the man who�d attacked her. He�d risen to his feet and was watching her like a cornered animal, and she could see the malevolence in his pale gray eyes.

"It�s them!" Natalia said.

"Who?"

"Them, them! They�re both tall and I see ... I see guns."

"Okay, try to stay calm.

"They have to be the men from the bank."

"I know."

"What are we going to do?"

"Mallet will be here any minute and he�ll have plenty of backup."

"Olivia, they�re coming!"

Olivia gripped the gun tightly, fighting to control the muscles in her arms, which were beginning to shake from fatigue. She didn�t want him to see that, though. She didn�t want him to see any sign of weakness whatsoever, but holding the gun on him was overtaxing her muscles and trying to keep it steady was quickly becoming agonizing.

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Natalia peered through the window, careful to stay back far enough not to be seen. The two men looked fairly young, maybe early twenties. They�d gotten out of the dark gray SUV they�d pulled up in, but instead of coming directly toward the house, they both lit up cigarettes and now leaned against the vehicle as though waiting. She knew Jacob was the leader, so maybe he�d told them to wait outside while he� She shuddered when she thought about what would have happened to her if Olivia hadn�t interrupted the attack.

"I only see one vehicle, Olivia." She wondered how Jacob had gotten there.

"Had my guys drop me off," Jacob said as though reading her mind. "Sent �em off to check the barn and the rest of the property to make sure we were alone. Didn�t want our little party gettin� interrupted," he sneered. "I guess nobody else is out here to help you little ladies."

"They�re smoking now," Natalia said. "They�re leaning against the car."

Natalia noticed Jacob staring at her chest and she looked down. She flushed with shame when she remembered he�d torn the front of her top, leaving her bra exposed. Mortified, she tried to cover herself with her arms. Her top was too torn to be of any use.

Without warning, Jacob took a step toward Olivia.

"Stop right there," Olivia warned.

"What�re ya� gonna do? Shoot me again?"

"I don�t have a problem with that, you bastard."

"You shoot me and my guys�ll hear it. They�ll be in here in no time flat, and then both you bitches will get what you deserve."

Natalia saw his sudden lunge and screamed as his body hit Olivia and propelled her to the floor under him. She saw them struggle and then abruptly she heard the gun go off. She watched in horror as she saw blood begin to ooze from between their bodies and drip onto the floor.

"No!" she screamed. "No, no, no!" She was terrified it was Olivia�s blood. Olivia�s eyes were closed and she wasn�t moving, just like at the bank. Please, God. Please don�t let her die!

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

Olivia had instinctively begun to squeeze the trigger when she saw his body hurtling directly toward her. The gun fired just as he slammed into her, twisting it between them, and at first she wasn�t even sure who had gotten shot. She could only feel warm blood seeping over her chest. She was momentarily stunned when she hit the floor with his massive bulk landing on top of her, but she quickly rallied. She pushed against his body, trying to roll him off, but he was too heavy for her to move by herself. "Help me," she gasped. "Hurry!"

"Oh my god! Are you all right?" Natalia asked as she grabbed Jacob�s body and helped pull him off Olivia.

"Yeah."

"You�re not shot?"

"No. Get behind me," she said, as she scrambled to her feet, gun pointed toward the door.

"Is he dead?" Natalia asked.

"No, I don�t think so, but at least he�s unconscious for now. Stay away from him. He could come to any minute," she said. "They had to have heard that shot."

"What are we going to do?"

"Get upstairs. Find somewhere to hide."

"No."

"Just do it!"

"No! I�m not leaving you."

Shit! This is not good.

Olivia took a deep calming breath. She would do whatever she had to do to protect both of them, and she knew that meant she had to be prepared to shoot to kill the minute she saw the first man enter the house. I can do this. I will do this.

They both jumped when they heard the back door creak open. Olivia grasped the gun in both hands, as she�d learned to do when she took lessons at the shooting range, and aimed it toward the door at chest level, ignoring her arm and shoulder muscles, which were screaming in agony, as was her chest, which hurt like hell.

She knew she had a full magazine, minus two cartridges, and another in her back pocket�if she even got a chance to reload. She�d purchased a Glock 26, or "Baby Glock" as it was sometimes called, because of its subcompact size, and she knew each magazine held ten rounds, leaving her with just eight. Well, that�s four each, I guess. Just shoot, she told herself. Just shoot the minute you see the first one.

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

Natalia stood just behind Olivia, shaking with fear. She kept glancing down at Jacob, who lay mere feet away on the kitchen floor. There was no telling how bad his wound was, or even where the second bullet had struck him. Seeing Olivia covered in blood�again�was terrifying, and now the other two men were coming in. They were coming in and they had guns. She prayed silently and fervently.

She heard a footstep in the vestibule and could see Olivia tense up. In fact, she could see her arms trembling and suddenly realized how difficult it must be for her to hold the gun stretched out in front of her like that after her recent injury and resultant surgery. She�d watched her doing her arm exercises every day, so she knew she was still working to regain full use of those muscles.

"Back up," Olivia whispered.

They both backed into the living room. Olivia motioned toward the couch, and they both knelt behind it. Olivia rested the gun on the back of the couch with the barrel pointed toward the door, and Natalia realized she probably needed the support at this point to keep the gun aimed properly. She could hear footsteps in the kitchen now, could hear the men talking.

"Is he dead?" one of the men asked.

There was a pause, and then the second man answered, "No, but that wound looks pretty bad."

"I can�t believe she shot him."

"Let�s go find the bitch."

Natalia sobbed quietly, terrified they�d kill Olivia, but before they reached the door to the living room, she heard sirens and immediately she could hear the men�s footsteps retreating toward the outside door.

"Thank you, God," she whispered.

"Just stay down," Olivia said, but she herself kept her gun trained on the doorway to the kitchen.

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

Olivia was amazed Mallet managed to talk the men into surrendering their weapons without a single shot being fired. She�d felt certain they were about to hear a shootout of major proportions, but Mallet�s calm, reasonable voice over the police megaphone seemed to work wonders. It probably didn�t hurt that their leader was out of commission, at least for the moment, and she guessed the other two were not the brightest specimens on the planet.

Finally she could lower her weapon. Thank god. Christ that hurt! She put the Glock on the floor near the couch and turned to Natalia, who was hugging her knees with her head hanging down and her long dark hair forming a curtain that hid her face. Olivia knelt beside her and wrapped her arms around her protectively. She was no medic, but she knew enough to think Natalia might be going into shock. She was pale, her skin felt clammy, and her breathing was weak. I could fucking kill that bastard!

"It�s over now," Olivia said softly. "He can�t hurt you." She watched her for a moment. "Are you okay?"

Natalia nodded, but remained silent.

As soon as the two men were handcuffed and secured in the back of one of the police cruisers, Mallet and several uniformed officers entered the farmhouse. He must have been worried about what he�d find out there because he�d already called for an ambulance. Two paramedics worked over Jacob�s unconscious form while Mallet entered the living room in search of the two women. As soon as he saw Natalia�s torn clothing and bruises, he motioned to a female officer, who left and returned a couple of minutes later with a blanket, which she draped over Natalia�s shoulders.

"Are you both all right?" Mallet asked.

"I�m worried about Natalia," Olivia said. "I think she may be going into shock."

"Get one of the paramedics in here, Jennings," Mallet said to the female officer. "Natalia? Are you okay?"

Natalia shook her head. "Cold ... and ... and feel sick."

Olivia felt helpless as she watched Natalia shiver uncontrollably. "We need to get her to the hospital," she said. "We need to take her now."

One of the paramedics knelt beside Natalia and quickly examined her. "Basically she seems okay, no cuts or broken bones, but we can take her, too."

Olivia hugged Natalia to her. "You�re not putting her in the ambulance with that animal!"

"Olivia," Mallet said.

"Mallet, you can�t do that. I won�t let you."

"All right, Olivia. Let�s put her in my car and I�ll take her to Cedars myself."

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

Natalia was only vaguely aware of the ride to Cedars Hospital. She lay on her side in the backseat with her head cradled on Olivia�s lap. She felt nauseous and chilled and numb, but she was aware of Olivia gently stroking her hair with one hand while her other curled around Natalia�s as it rested on her thigh.

Her examination at Cedars had passed in a blur of bright lights and discordant hospital noises, and she was now lying quietly on a bed in the ER. They�d given her something and she was feeling better. She realized she must have dozed off, but Olivia was still there, standing by her bedside in one of Natalia�s blue Chicago Cubs sweatshirts, holding her hand as she watched over her.

"Feeling any better?" Olivia asked.

She nodded.

"Can I get you anything? Water? Ice?"

"No, I�m okay." She sat up slowly, feeling a little groggy. "I just want to go home ... back to the Beacon, I mean."

"I think they may want to keep you overnight."

"I�m okay. He didn�t� I�m ... I�m okay."

"Are you sure you don�t want to at least spend the night here?"

"No! I can�t stay here! I just can�t. I need to ... I need to get out of here, get away from all the noise�and these lights ... these lights are too bright. Please, Olivia."

"Okay, let me find Dr. Rick. I�ll be right back."

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

Olivia had mixed feelings about bringing Natalia back to the penthouse suite. She�d have preferred for them to keep her overnight, but Dr. Rick said basically Natalia was fine physically, other than the bruises, which were rather extensive, because in addition to the more noticeable bruising on her face, she had bruises on her throat, wrists, and other parts of her body. He said her other symptoms�the chills and nausea�were not unusual after the kind of trauma she�d gone through, but he didn�t feel they warranted an overnight stay, especially when she was clearly having difficulty dealing with the noise and harsh lighting of the hospital, which he said was also well within the norm.

Olivia knew Natalia was far from fine emotionally. They�d taken a cab back to the penthouse. It was storming by then, and Natalia had flinched every time it thundered. The minute they�d walked into the penthouse, Natalia had gone into the bathroom to shower and she was still in there. In fact, she�d been in there so long, Olivia was starting to get worried. I hope you haven�t passed out in there or maybe gotten sick. In either case, she felt like she better check.

She went to the bathroom door and knocked. "Natalia? Are you all right?" When she didn�t hear a response, she opened the door cautiously. She could only see an indistinct image of Natalia�s body through the frosted shower door, but it was enough to tell she was just standing stock-still under the stream of hot water. Olivia tapped lightly on the shower door. "Natalia?"

"What?"

"You�ve been in here a long time."

"Have I?"

"Yeah. I think it�s time to come out now."

"Okay."

Olivia grabbed a large white towel emblazoned with the Beacon logo, which she held up to protect Natalia�s modesty as she exited the shower stall, and she wrapped it around her as soon as she stepped onto the bath mat. "You need any help?"

Natalia shook her head, so Olivia left her alone to finish drying off and get dressed. It broke her heart knowing the ordeal she�d gone through. She could cheerfully kill the bastard who�d put his filthy hands on her and knew she�d feel no remorse.

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

Natalia lay on the bed with the covers pulled up around her neck, but she was still shivering, despite the extra blankets and the flannel pajamas she�d put on after her shower. She flinched when she heard the bathroom door open. It was Olivia. She wore blue silk pajamas and a worried expression.

"Are you still cold?" Olivia asked as she slid between the sheets. She turned onto her side and propped her head on her arm, but made no attempt to reach out and touch her.

"No."

"Do you want to talk about ... about anything?"

"No." She didn�t want to talk or think about anything whatsoever. She�d already offered a prayer of thanks that she and Olivia had survived, and now she just wanted to embrace the numbness.

"Okay, but I just want you to know if you do want to talk about it, whenever, it�s okay. Maybe it would help."

Natalia shook her head. "You can�t possibly know how I�m feeling right now."

Olivia just looked at her for a moment. "Actually I could."

"No ..."

"I think I do know something about how you�re feeling."

Natalia felt an irrational annoyance at the notion Olivia could possibly have any idea how she felt after being ... mauled by that animal.

"You don�t know everything."

"I was raped."

"What?" She heard the words, but the meaning was too horrible to register.

Olivia cleared her throat. "I was raped."

Natalia could feel the blessed numbness leaving. "No!"

"Yeah, when I was sixteen, I was raped ... at an embassy party in San Cristobel."

"I didn�t know ... you ... you never told me. I didn�t know."

"I know."

"Why didn�t you tell me?"

"No reason to."

"I can�t believe you were�" Abruptly Natalia began to cry. "I�m so sorry."

"Look, I only told you so you�d realize I do know something about what you must be going through and that it�s okay if you want to talk about it."

"He didn�t ... he didn�t�" She just couldn�t get the hateful word out.

"I know, but he still hurt you and ... and he terrorized you, both at the prison and then again today. Anybody would be traumatized by that."

Natalia abruptly moved toward Olivia and snuggled into her arms. "I feel so ... awful," she sobbed.

"I know." Olivia sighed as she began to stroke her hair. "But it�ll be okay. You need to know it�ll all be okay."

Natalia thought about her feeling of abject terror, of vulnerability, of hopelessness; about how it felt when he put his hands on her and when he tried to kiss her; about how it felt when he pinned her to the floor. It doesn�t feel like it�ll be okay. It doesn�t feel like it�ll ever be okay.

The only thing that felt right was being in the protective embrace of Olivia�s arms. She could feel her love, and it felt like a warm blanket enveloping her and keeping her safe from the cold and the uncertainties of a capricious universe.

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

Chapter 28

Olivia held Natalia as she cried. She felt sad. She felt angry. She felt devastated over the trauma Natalia had undergone. Mostly Olivia just wanted her to be all right, and she intended to do everything in her power to make sure she was. She was relieved when Natalia�s sobs tapered off and she finally just rested quietly in her arms.

The thunder was now a distant rumble, though Olivia could still hear raindrops pattering against the windowpanes. She found the muffled drumming soothing, and fortunately Natalia was no longer flinching from the sounds of the storm. Olivia was relieved when she finally drifted off to sleep. Once she knew Natalia was sleeping soundly, she relaxed and soon followed suit, though she continued to hold her cradled in her arms.

When she woke the next morning, however, the other side of the bed was empty. The rich aroma of coffee penetrated her morning fog, and when she sat up to look around for the source, she saw a food cart near the couch. Natalia was up and dressed in blue jeans with a long-sleeved white shirt buttoned all the way to the top, and she was sitting at the desk doing something on the laptop.

"Morning," Olivia said as she dragged herself off the bed. It felt like every muscle in her body ached, making the very act of walking a painful process. "How are you?" She stumbled toward the desk and looked over Natalia�s shoulder to see what she was doing. Apparently she was working on the week�s scheduling.

"Fine," Natalia said. "Just getting some work done."

"You don�t have to mess with any of that right now."

"Why not? It�s my job."

"Well, some things can wait."

"There�s coffee."

"Yeah, I can smell that. Thanks."

"And I ordered up a continental breakfast, but I can get you something else if you prefer."

"No, that�s perfect, but ..."

Natalia turned off the laptop and stood up. "I need to get going."

"Uhm ... where you off to?" Despite Natalia�s makeup, Olivia could see that the bruises on the left side of her face and around her eye had darkened, and she knew there had to be more hiding under her clothing.

"I need to go down to the police station to talk to Mallet. He said he questioned you yesterday while I was ... when I was ... uhm ... asleep at the hospital."

"Yeah, that�s right. If you�ll give me a couple of minutes, I�ll get dressed and go with you."

"No need. You should stay here and eat."

"Your car�s still at the farmhouse, right?"

"Yes, but I called a cab. Mallet said he�d get someone to take me out to get my car later today."

"I can take you."

"I�m not sure you should be driving yet."

"I can drive."

"Well, there�s no point in your coming. Mallet said they�d probably be done with the ... the, uh, crime scene by noon, and I could go back into the house this afternoon."

"I�m not sure being out there alone is a good idea."

"I want to. I ... I have to get it cleaned up."

"We can just send a cleaning crew out."

"No, I need to do it. It�s my home. I�ll ... I�ll clean it up myself."

"Natalia, look ..."

"Olivia, I�m not going to be afraid in my own house!"

"Okay, but that doesn�t mean you have to do all this on your own. Let me help you."

"No! You need to stay here and take care of yourself. Just look at you. You�re in pain. I�m sure your arms and shoulders are hurting pretty bad after what you went through yesterday. I don�t want you going through anything else because of me."

"Because of you? What does that mean?"

"It means I know what happened was my fault."

"How in the world did you reach that conclusion?"

For the first time that morning Olivia saw Natalia�s carefully constructed calm exterior crack enough for her placid expression to slip and reveal the pain beneath for a brief moment before Natalia clinched her jaw, took a deep breath, and started to speak again.

"Because I should have remembered where I�d seen him before."

"Hey, that�s not your fault."

"Yes, it is. I never told you about what happened with him at the state penitentiary. I never told anybody."

"So that�s where you saw him before?"

"Yes, on my second visit with Rafe."

"Did something happen?"

"He ... he started ... harassing me. He was always there and he ... he�d stare at me and make obscene gestures. Sometimes he�d ... say stuff."

"Oh my god."

"And one time he came into the visitors� room when I was alone, that time Rafe was in the infirmary. I think he paid off the guard so he could get me alone."

"Did he hurt you?"

"No, he didn�t touch me, but he threatened me. He told me all the things he was going to ... to do to me when he got out. I was afraid he was going to do something right then, but the doctor came in."

"That sick bastard!" Olivia started to put her arms around Natalia, but she backed away.

"Don�t."

"Natalia ..."

"I feel ... really guilty."

"Why?"

"Because I never told anyone. I was so scared and so ... so ashamed about how he talked to me. I just ... I just never talked about it. I pushed it out of my mind."

"I think that�s a pretty normal reaction."

"But, Olivia, if I�d said something, maybe I could have gotten Rafe away from there sooner. I�m pretty sure now he had to be the one brutalizing my son, maybe even to make sure I came back more often, which I started doing, remember?"

"Yes, I know."

"And if I�d dealt with it all the way I should have, instead of hiding from it like I always seem to do, I would�ve known right away who the gunman at the bank was. I could�ve told the police exactly who he was�and I didn�t. I also would�ve known he was likely to try to ... to come after me, and then I�d have known not to go out to the farmhouse, just the two of us."

"You shouldn�t be blaming yourself, Natalia. None of this is your fault." Olivia could see tears welling up in Natalia�s eyes.

"It is my fault, Olivia. You could have gotten hurt again or killed, and it would�ve been all my fault�again! Just like at the bank."

"That�s not true. You�ve got to stop this."

Olivia tried to reach out to her once more, but Natalia moved out of reach, grabbed her purse off the desk, and headed for the door. "I�ve got to go. Please eat something, okay?" She picked up her overnight bag and opened the door.

Olivia watched as Natalia walked out and closed the door behind her. She dropped onto the couch and began to rub the bridge of her nose. This is really, really not good. She knew people reacted to trauma in different ways, and she knew it was going to take Natalia time to work through what had happened to her at the farmhouse. However, she was determined to do whatever she could to help, even if that meant giving her the time and space she needed to do it. She noticed Natalia had taken her overnight bag, and she was more than a little concerned about the implications of that. The last thing she wanted was Natalia staying by herself at the farmhouse.

She was especially worried about what she�d said about feeling guilty. She knew from her own personal experience that guilt could be an insidiously self-destructive emotion, and she realized Natalia was especially vulnerable to feelings of guilt. She also suspected there was more to it than what she�d just verbalized. I think you�re feeling guilty about more than what happened yesterday. I really hope I�m wrong, but I�m afraid I�m not. She knew if she was right, they had yet another obstacle standing in the way of their relationship.

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

Natalia sat in a chair next to Mallet�s desk and answered all his questions in detail, no matter how difficult some of the details were to describe. She spoke in a monotone and her face showed no emotion. When they finally finished, Mallet turned to the female officer who�d been at the farmhouse and asked her to drive Natalia out to pick up her car.

"Is it okay for me to go inside the farmhouse now?" Natalia asked. "I want to get everything ... well, get it straightened up out there."

Mallet looked at her for a moment. "Yeah, I suppose. We have everything we need. It�s a pretty open-and-shut case."

Frank had been leaning against the wall listening just out of Natalia�s line of sight, and now he sat down at his desk, which faced Mallet�s. "What about the shooting?"

Mallet looked at him quizzically. "What about it?"

"Olivia Spencer shot an unarmed man; that�s what about it."

"She did it to protect me," Natalia said, looking over at Frank in surprise.

Frank scowled and leaned back in his chair. "The man had no weapon�no gun, no knife, nothing�and Olivia just shot him. Twice, in fact."

Natalia stood up and glared down at Frank. "The first time he had his hand around my throat and threatened to kill me, and the second time he attacked her. He knocked her down, for god�s sake, and the gun went off. Thank heavens Olivia wasn�t shot�again!" It was the first emotion she�d felt or shown since she arrived at the police station. She was outraged. She knew Olivia was completely blameless. In fact, if it weren�t for Olivia, she would have been shot at the bank, possibly leaving her son without any parent at all, and that animal most assuredly would have finished what he started when he attacked her yesterday at the farmhouse.

"Still�"

Mallet cut Frank off before he could continue. "Frank, Olivia didn�t do anything wrong and she is not going to be charged, so just drop it."

Natalia saw Officer Jennings waiting, and she turned to join her; but as she was walking out, she paused at Frank�s desk, leaned down, and whispered low enough so that only he could hear. "You�ve got to stop trying to punish Olivia because she�s the one I love." She could see the hurt expression on his face, but for once she didn�t care.

Frank caught up with her outside the station and grabbed her arm just as she was about to get in the squad car. "Natalia, wait. We need to talk. I�ll drive you out to the farmhouse."

Natalia yanked her arm away. "No! I don�t want you driving me, Frank. I�m going with Officer Jennings."

She got into the car and didn�t look back as it pulled away from the station.

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

Olivia sat waiting on the bench at the gazebo. It was a gorgeous day. Everything looked extra lush after the overnight rain, and the birds seemed particularly jubilant as they sang their morning tributes to spring. She leaned her head back against a post and closed her eyes, breathing in the floral scent. She was a little tired after walking to the gazebo from the parking lot where the cab had dropped her off. She looked up when she heard the clickety-clack of high heels.

"Morning, " she said without opening her eyes. "Thanks for coming."

"How did you know it was me?"

Olivia opened her eyes and grinned up at Doris. "Who else would wear high heels to the park?" She herself was wearing a light gray jogging suit and tennis shoes for her morning exercise.

Doris laughed. "I should make you a detective. We could use someone with your powers of observation."

They both laughed, but soon Doris�s smile faded. "How are you? I know that had to be tough yesterday."

"I�m okay. It�s Natalia I�m worried about."

"How�s she doing?"

"She seems mostly okay on the surface, but ..."

"But she�s not really?"

"No, I don�t think so. For the most part she seems all right physically except for all the bruising, which I�m sure is painful, but I know that�s going to heal. It�s her emotional state I�m worried about."

"I�m sure she must be feeling traumatized."

"Yeah, but she�s also feeling guilty."

"About what?"

"She said she felt guilty about not remembering the gunman. He used to harass her when she went to see Rafe at the state pen. She said it was all very frightening and she just shoved it out of her mind."

"That�s not all that unusual."

"I know, but she has a tendency to take on an unfair burden of guilt. I mean, she already felt guilty that I got shot during the robbery."

"Why would that be her fault?"

"Because she yelled at the gunman when he pointed his gun at that toddler."

Doris frowned. "Nobody should be blamed for that except the man who shot you."

"Yes, I know. Speaking of him, have you heard how he�s doing?"

"Yes, I just talked with Dr. Rick awhile ago, and he said he was going to make a full recovery."

"Well, that�s too damned bad." He deserves to die for what he did, and no, I don�t feel guilty for feeling that way.

"Don�t worry. We�re going to throw the book at him. Hopefully he�ll just rot in prison for the rest of his life."

"God, I hope so! He deserves it after what he did to her." Olivia began to massage her forehead as her thoughts turned back to Natalia.

"Okay, I know there�s more. Talk to me," Doris said.

"I don�t think that�s all she�s feeling guilty about."

"What else is there?"

"I think she�s feeling guilty about how she feels about me."

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

As the police cruiser approached the farmhouse, Natalia could see a dark SUV pulled up in front, and she immediately panicked. "Who is that?"

"I don�t know, but it can�t be the men from yesterday," Officer Jennings said. "Two of them are in jail, and the third is under armed guard at the hospital."

When they pulled up in front of the house, Natalia could see Josh Lewis, who was in the process of installing a new window to replace the one that had been broken the day before. He smiled and waved at her as she got out of the squad car.

"Josh, what are you doing?"

"I heard what happened, so I decided to come over and fix your window."

"I don�t know how to thank you."

"No need. I knew exactly what type and size to get since I used to live here, and it really didn�t take long at all to switch them out."

"Thank you so much."

Officer Jennings got out of her vehicle and walked around to stand beside Natalia. "Would you like for me to go in with you?" she asked.

"No, I�ll be fine. Thanks so much for the ride."

"My pleasure. Let me know if you need anything else."

Natalia nodded as she watched the officer get back into her vehicle and leave. She looked at Josh, who was now putting his tools back into his SUV.

"I know it�s a mess in there, but could I offer you anything? Coffee? Tea? Juice?"

Josh studied her face for a moment. "Coffee sounds great," he finally said. "And it�s not quite as bad a mess as you�re expecting. I had to go inside to get the window fitted right, and while I was in there I cleaned up the broken glass and used some rags I found in the utility room to mop up the worst of the blood. I threw all that into a garbage bag and set it out."

Natalia felt like crying with relief. "You didn�t have to do that, but ... but thank you."

"I�m just glad I could do something to help."

There are good people in the world. Lots of good, kind people, like Josh.

It was an important reminder, and she resolved to hang onto that thought. Maybe it would help push out the bad images that kept looping through her mind.

The homey task of making coffee was remarkably calming, and she was already feeling better by the time the two of them sat down at the kitchen table with their steaming mugs of liquid energy, which she realized she desperately needed just to keep going. She�d tossed on a load of laundry while the coffee brewed, and even the familiar sound of the washer swishing around a load of clothes was soothing.

"Is there anything else I can help you with?" Josh asked.

"No," she said. "I don�t think anyone can help."

"Why do you say that?"

"Because I feel ... I feel like I�m being punished."

"Punished?" Josh looked surprised. "What for?"

Natalia stared down at her hands clasped tightly around her coffee mug. "For loving Olivia."

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

Chapter 29

Olivia could see genuine concern in Doris�s pale blue eyes. The mayor of Springfield was an interesting character, she thought, and the only one she felt she could talk with about her relationship with Natalia. She knew Doris could be irritating as hell and she could drive a person insane with her probing and prodding, but when it was just the two of them, she could be kind and compassionate and often the source of wise counsel. That�s what I need right now, she thought. I need some good, old-fashioned wise counsel.

Olivia understood a lot about the complex emotions one was likely to experience after being violated. The circumstances of her rape were unlike the sexual assault on Natalia, but she knew there had to be similar reactions involved. In fact, on top of other myriad emotional responses, she�d gone through her own feelings of guilt, though for very different reasons than Natalia, because she�d sneaked out of the house to go to the embassy party and she�d consumed alcohol there, although she�d had no idea the punch was spiked. Still, it left her feeling more than a little culpable for what happened.

At first she hid the rape, but eventually she�d told her mother, who, instead of comforting her, blamed her, and the two of them ended up quarreling. Their argument escalated, but then her mother suffered a stroke and died, leaving a teenaged Olivia overwhelmed with guilt and remorse. Everything that happened�the rape, the unwanted pregnancy, her mother�s condemnation and death, her own guilt�had completely changed her and irrevocably altered the direction of her life.

Olivia dragged herself back to the present when Doris sat down beside her on the wooden gazebo bench.

"You said you think Natalia is feeling guilty about how she feels about you, but hasn�t she been feeling guilty all along?" Doris asked. "I mean ... that�s been one of the main problems, hasn�t it?"

Olivia sighed. "Yes, but I�m a little afraid she�s now seeing a cause-and-effect factor here because of what happened yesterday."

"Like bad things happen when you don�t follow church teachings?"

"Yeah, I guess. I�m not sure. I only know last night she let me hold her and comfort her, but this morning she was standoffish and nearly tripped over herself getting out of the penthouse�and away from me, I think�as fast as she could. I believe her mind has kicked into high gear and she�s going to think this�and maybe �us��to death." Olivia sighed. She had a very bad feeling about where the muddy waters of Natalia�s emotional currents were carrying her.

"I wish I could disagree with you," Doris said.

Olivia�s chin dropped to her chest. "Yep, that�s what I was afraid of."

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

"I�m no expert," Josh said, "but I believe love is never wrong."

Natalia looked up into his sky-blue eyes. She�d had a serious talk with Josh once before when he�d come out to the farmhouse last winter to fix the plumbing. It was right after she�d let Frank take her to bed, an incident that had left her feeling anguished and guilty. She�d been reading her Bible, searching for answers when Josh arrived. Although she hadn�t told Josh the source of her distress, she did confess to the former minister that she�d been trying to help out a friend, but had done something horrible and now feared God was unhappy with her.

When she told Josh she wasn�t feeling like a very good person, he said, "I may not have been a minister for a very long time, but I think I know a good person when I see one." He�d told her he thought "God was just fine" with her, and after their talk, she�d felt much better about herself. Josh was kind and accepting and nonjudgmental, and their exchange had left her feeling grateful to him and appreciative of his simple, straightforward perspective on spiritual matters, which in many ways mirrored her own.

Now she found herself feeling surprisingly comfortable after admitting to Josh that she loved Olivia. He certainly didn�t act the least bit surprised, which could mean he wasn�t at all shocked or bothered by the idea of two women in love, or perhaps Olivia had already told him about her own feelings. Either way it was a relief to be able to say it out loud to someone who didn�t look at her with disappointment and disapproval, as Father Ray had done.

"I ... that�s what I finally came to feel after praying and looking into my own heart for answers. I just �knew� it wasn�t wrong. I really believed that this ... this love was a gift from God, but now ..."

"Now? What�s changed?"

"Now ... well, after what happened yesterday, I feel like maybe I�m ... like I�m being punished, like God is punishing me for loving another woman." She could feel tears begin to gather in her eyes and soon felt them sliding down her cheeks, but she didn�t try to wipe them away. She was exposing her rawest emotions to the man sitting across from her, so there didn�t seem to be any reason to try to hide this tangible proof of her distress.

"I really don�t think that�s how God works. I think God is all about love."

"Yes, I believe that, too; I do, but ..."

"I don�t think your love for Olivia is wrong. I also don�t think God was behind what happened to you yesterday. Sometimes in this world bad things happen, and there�s no easy explanation for why."

"I just know the church teaches that two women together is wrong, and I ... I was going against that, at least in my heart."

"That�s just it. I believe we can only find the true answers to our prayers in our own hearts. Now I don�t know if this helps you," Josh said. "All I can tell you is it�s what I believe. I think you have to look inside your own heart and have faith in the answers you find there, because I believe that�s where God speaks to each of us."

Natalia knew what he was saying reflected the conclusions she herself had once reached, but what happened the day before had shaken not only her sense of safety, but also the very foundations of her faith. "I want to believe that," she said. "I did believe that before yesterday, but ..."

"But now you�re not sure?"

"That�s right. I don�t know what to believe now."

"Maybe you�ve reached critical mass."

"I�m not sure what that means."

"Well in physics it refers to the amount of fissionable material needed for a nuclear chain reaction."

"Okay, now I�m really lost."

"It�s also used in general terms to describe a point of change, like something happens and it makes change finally occur," Josh said. "Maybe that�s where you are in your life right now. Maybe you�ve finally reached a point in your life where you have to make a change."

Natalia felt a chill of recognition. She knew instinctively Josh was right. She had no doubt she needed to make a change in her life; she just wasn�t sure yet what it was going to be. The assault had not only terrified her, but it had confused her as well, and in many ways it did seem like a last straw of sorts. She�d made so many mistakes�losing the house money on a risky investment, sleeping with Frank, agreeing to marry him, equivocating where her relationship with Olivia was concerned, not reporting Jacob�s harassment at the prison. What happened at the farmhouse had finally made her realize she couldn�t continue through life the way she�d been doing up until then. Unfortunately, it just wasn�t clear to her what she should do.

One thing she did know was she needed to figure out once and for all what to do about her relationship with Olivia. She knew she loved her, she knew she wanted a life with her, but could she fully embrace that life without the suffocating feelings of guilt that so far she�d not been able to shake? She wasn�t sure. She only knew there were two huge impediments. For one thing, loving another woman went directly against the teachings of the church; and for another, after everything that had happened, after all the misjudgments and mistakes she�d made, she felt unworthy of Olivia�s love.

She was also acutely aware that once again, instead of facing a dilemma head-on, she�d been straddling the fence where her relationship with Olivia was concerned. She realized with shame that she�d never fully committed to Olivia, nor had she made a clear-cut decision to give up their relationship in order to avoid going against church doctrine. As a result, she�d left the two of them and their relationship in limbo. That wasn�t right and it sure wasn�t fair to Olivia. She knew she needed to figure things out and make a decision, one way or the other.

The very idea of giving up a relationship with Olivia was heartbreaking, but on the other hand, didn�t Olivia deserve better than what she had to offer? Her head was beginning to throb with pain from the effort of trying to sort through such a complex array of factors.

She realized Josh was sitting there watching her quietly. "I think you�re right, Josh. I think I�ve finally reached the point where I have to make a change in my life."

Josh nodded and smiled.

"Thanks for talking with me. It�s really helped."

"Anytime," he said with a smile. "By the way, while you�re thinking all this over and trying to make decisions, there�s one thing I hope you keep in mind."

"What�s that?"

"Olivia genuinely loves you. That�s no small thing."

Apparently Olivia had told Josh about her feelings, Natalia thought, but she wasn�t all that surprised. "I know, but ... but I think she deserves better than me."

"First of all, I think you�re wrong about that. No one is perfect�not me, not you, and not Olivia. We all have our faults and weaknesses, and we�ve all made mistakes. It doesn�t make us unworthy of love," Josh said. He took a slow sip of his coffee before setting it back down on the table. "But more importantly, Natalia, she loves you so much, if you turn your back on her, you�re going to break her heart."

Natalia flinched and her eyes dropped back down to stare at her coffee mug. She knew he was right. Hurting Olivia was the last thing she wanted to do, but she still wasn�t sure that Olivia might not be better off without her. If they broke it off now, especially before things went any further than they�d already gone, eventually Olivia would find someone else, maybe someone who could commit fully and who would be worthy of someone as kind and loyal and brave as she.

She stared at the coffee grounds in the bottom of her otherwise empty mug, as though somehow they might reveal the secrets of the universe if she just studied them long enough. "I don�t know, Josh. I just don�t know what to do."

"I have faith you�ll figure it out," he said quietly.

She glanced up quickly and found his blue eyes regarding her with kindness and empathy.

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

It was evening and Olivia sat on the couch in her penthouse suite idly sifting a fork through a plate of chicken salad sitting on the coffee table in front of her. She knew she needed to eat, but she just didn�t have any appetite. She hadn�t heard from Natalia and she was worried. She knew Natalia had taken her overnight bag with her when she left that morning, so she thought probably she planned to stay at the farmhouse that night. However, it wasn�t like Natalia not to call and let her know something, so she couldn�t help fretting. Olivia wanted to just drive out there and make sure she was okay, but she knew that was a bad idea since Natalia had pretty much let her know that morning she didn�t want Olivia there with her. Maybe I should just call ... although my gut is telling me I should wait and give her time to call me.

She started when she heard a knock on her door. It was almost eight, and she had no idea who might be coming over at that time of night. She�d already talked with Doris, so she knew she had plans with Flo that night. At least somebody�s relationship is moving along smoothly, she thought with a wry grin. I sure never thought I�d see Doris go all sappy over someone.

It crossed her mind it might be Angelica at the door, since the blonde beauty had asked her again that afternoon if she�d like to schedule a massage, but Olivia had hedged and she really doubted Angelica would show up at her suite at that hour. Truthfully, a relaxing, deep-muscle massage sounded heavenly, but given Natalia�s precarious emotional state and the difficulty she�d had dealing with Angelica�s interest in her, Olivia didn�t want to chance it. She herself saw no problem with it, despite Angelica�s crush. After all, she was used to people finding her attractive. She�d mentioned it to Doris, who laughingly suggested she find a gay male massage therapist. Doris could just be so ... helpful.

When Olivia opened the door, she was surprised to see Natalia standing there with her wheeled duffle bag, which was much bigger than the overnight bag she�d brought last time.

"Can I come in?" Natalia asked, looking down at the handle on her bag, where her hand idly clinched and unclinched the neoprene padded grip.

"Of course."

Natalia remained standing in the hallway. "Is it okay if I stay here tonight?"

"Sure, you can stay here as long as you want." Olivia was giddy with relief that Natalia wasn�t at the farmhouse alone. You can stay here permanently as far as I�m concerned.

"I know I said I didn�t want to be afraid in my own house, and I wanted to stay out there tonight to prove it, but I ..."

"It�s okay." Olivia pushed the door open wider and stepped back.

"I couldn�t do it." Natalia said as she wheeled her bag into the room.

"Don�t worry about it. It�s too soon. It�ll be okay. Maybe you should let me come and stay with you the first time you try an overnight out there."

"Uhm ... maybe."

"Have you eaten?" Olivia asked.

"I took a sandwich with me to the park. I just wanted to sit and think in our, uhm ... at the gazebo." Natalia set her purse on the desk, leaving her duffle bag next to it, and then she turned and noticed the full plate of chicken salad. "Looks like I ate better than you did."

"Oh, that. Well, I just wasn�t very hungry."

"Olivia, you have to take better care of yourself. I know yesterday was hard on you, too, and you can�t afford to let yourself get run down. You need to eat."

"I know, but ..."

"You�ve got to just do it, Olivia. There is no �but.� There�s only doing."

"You sound a little like Yoda."

"Who?"

Olivia laughed. "Never mind."

"Come on over here and sit down and eat your salad."

"Would you like some?"

"No, I told you; I already ate. Now I want you to eat."

Olivia secretly loved when Natalia fussed over her, though she would never admit it. Her appetite had magically returned, and she was able to eat most of her chicken salad, while Natalia watched over her like she was the headmistress of a private school and Olivia the truant student writing a hundred times on the chalkboard, "I will not skip dinner. I will not skip dinner." If I�d had a headmistress like you, I would�ve been so good, she thought. Or ... maybe if it meant alone time with you as punishment, I might have been bad more often.

Once the dinner dishes were cleared away and the room service cart pushed into the hallway, they took turns showering. Olivia went first at Natalia�s insistence, while Natalia checked the company email account. Later Olivia was sitting propped up against the bed pillows in her dark gray sweats reading when Natalia emerged from the bathroom wearing her dark green flannel jammies, with the shirt buttoned to the top.

Now that Natalia no longer had on any makeup, Olivia could see how dark the bruising on her face had become. It had also turned from dark red to dark blue and black. She could see a little bit of the bruising on her throat over the flannel collar, and also caught glimpses of the dark marks on her wrists. She knew there had to be even more contused skin hiding under all that flannel, and she could feel anger roiling in her gut like a chemistry experiment gone bad.

When she noticed Natalia hovering uncertainly by the bathroom door, she turned back the covers on the other side of the bed and patted the mattress in invitation. Olivia was relieved when Natalia padded around to the far side of the bed because for a moment she thought she might balk at sharing the bed at all since she clearly didn�t want to be touched in any way for any reason.

Like Olivia, Natalia opted to sit propped up against the pillows, making Olivia think she probably wanted to talk, even if it was about nothing in particular. I can do that, she thought. I can totally talk about nothin�.

"I did some laundry while I was at the farmhouse," Natalia said, "so at least I have all clean clothes again."

"How�d that go out there?"

"It was okay. It was easier because Josh was there."

"Really? What was he doing out there?"

"He was already there when Officer Jennings and I got there. He�d replaced the broken window and cleaned up most of the mess in the kitchen."

"Wow, that was incredibly nice."

"It really was. I didn�t realize how much I was dreading seeing ... seeing all that blood and stuff till he said he�d mopped it up."

"Josh is a very nice man."

"He really is. He�s always been very good to me."

"Did he stay while you did laundry?"

"Actually he did, and we also had coffee and talked. He was ... he was really good to talk to."

"I�m glad." Olivia would�ve loved to have heard that conversation, but she knew she needed to give Natalia space to tell her whatever you felt like sharing.

"Did you get your exercise in today?" Natalia asked.

"Yep, I was a very good girl. I took a cab to the park and walked all the way from the parking lot to the gazebo. I met Doris there and she gave me a lift back here."

"Have you talked with Emma?"

"Yeah, I called her today. She�s having a wonderful time out there. In fact, she�s currently in love with whales."

They both laughed at the thought of little Emma getting to see her first whales.

"I guess we better get her a copy of Free Willy," Natalia said with the first genuine smile Olivia had seen since before the attack.

Olivia laughed. "Well, we better pick up Flipper while we�re at it, because she�s head over heels for dolphins too."

"Isn�t she due back ... what? Day after tomorrow?"

"That was the original plan, but I talked to Ava about keeping her longer. I just didn�t want her coming back here yet while this ... while this is all over the news."

"And you didn�t want her to see me all bruised up like this."

"I don�t want her around any of this right now. I think she went through enough after I got shot."

"I agree. I think it�s better for her to stay out there awhile longer."

"I�m glad you think it�s the right thing."

"I do."

"It�s still a bit early. Would you like to watch a DVD? We have a bunch of movies here. We could get in the mood for Emma�s new interest in marine biology by watching her copy of Finding Nemo."

Natalia laughed, but her smile quickly faded as her face took on a more somber expression. "You can go ahead if you want to. It won�t bother me, but I�m just so tired that all I want to do is go to sleep."

"Actually sleep sounds pretty good to me, too."

Natalia turned onto her side facing away from Olivia, who noticed how close to the far edge of the mattress she was lying, as though to avoid the chance of even accidental contact in the night. Olivia sighed and turned off the light on her night table. With a heavy heart, she curled up on her side, facing the opposite way.

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

Chapter 30

Natalia awoke in a cold sweat. Her heart was hammering in her chest, and she was having difficulty breathing. The nightmare had kidnapped her and deposited her back in the farmhouse at the mercy of a madman. She could feel his hands on her body, smell the cigarette smoke clinging to his clothing, hear his vile words. It took her a moment to realize where she was. She looked at the green LED display on Olivia�s alarm clock. It was four in the morning. She felt agitated, uneasy, frightened, and she prayed for the numbness to return.

Olivia turned over toward her, instantly awake. "Are you okay?" she asked groggily.

"Yes." She tried to quiet her breathing. Physically it felt as though she�d been running�running from something.

"You sure?"

"Yes!" She immediately felt contrite for snapping. After all, she knew Olivia was concerned, just as she would be were their positions reversed.

"Okay, just wanted to make sure."

"I�m sorry."

"It�s okay."

"No, it isn�t."

"Natalia, I understand you�ve been through a traumatic experience. It�s not something a person gets over right away."

"I�m fine. He didn�t actually ..."

"I know, but he assaulted you and he terrorized you. You have bruises all over your body, and I�m sure you�re hurting. Anyone would have difficulty dealing with all that."

"I just need to pull myself together and I�ll be fine." Natalia sat up, using her pillows as a backrest, and hugged her knees to her chest. She felt wide awake despite the early hour.

Olivia pushed herself up to sit cross-legged facing Natalia. "Maybe it�d help if you got some counseling, like maybe at the rape crisis center. I could go with you if that�d help," Olivia said, "or maybe you could make an appointment with Dr. Boudreau."

Natalia glanced sideways at Olivia. "Who?"

"Dr. Felicia Boudreau, the psychiatrist�you know ... Mel and Remy�s mother? I�ve always heard very good things about her, and you�d be completely covered by your Beacon health insurance."

"No." She returned to gazing toward the shuttered windows at the far side of the room.

"That�s it? Just �no�?"

"I don�t want to see a psychiatrist, and I can�t go to the rape crisis center when I wasn�t even ... when I wasn�t raped."

"They help survivors of attempted rape, too."

"I can�t do that." She felt completely disconnected, and the last thing she wanted to do was try to talk to any strangers.

"But sometimes it helps to talk with other women who�ve gone through something similar."

Natalia loosened the tight grip she had around her knees and turned to look directly at Olivia.

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

Olivia felt like an aerial acrobat with no safety net to catch her if she made a single wrong move. I wish I knew how to help you, she thought as she gazed into Natalia�s shuttered eyes. I think the most important thing is for me to be patient, and I will be. I�ll be patient for as long as you need. She could tell Natalia had something on her mind.

"What is it?" she finally asked when Natalia continued to sit silently watching her.

"I was just thinking about what you said."

"About what?"

"About talking with other women who�ve gone through something like I did."

"Okay, good. I think it could really help you. Does that mean you�ve changed your mind about the rape crisis center?"

"Actually, I was thinking maybe if you feel up to it, you could tell me about what happened to you at the embassy party."

Olivia was stunned. It was the last thing she expected Natalia might want to hear about tonight or possibly anytime whatsoever. She�d only mentioned it to let her know she really did understand something about what she was going through. "Okay," she said slowly. "I can do that, if that�s what you really want, but ..." God, I don�t think this is a very good idea. I really don�t.

"But ... you don�t want to talk about it?"

"It�s not that exactly. It�s that I�m not sure if you really want to hear about ... all that. It�s ... it�s not a very pretty story, and I don�t know if it�d help you."

"I need to know what happened to you, Olivia."

"Okay." Olivia cleared her throat as Natalia sat waiting expectantly, her eyes looking darker than usual and completely unreadable. This is sure not gonna be fun, but if it�s what you need ...

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

Natalia leaned back against the pillows, arms crossed over her chest as she waited for Olivia to begin her tale. Olivia had left the small desk lamp on last night, as she always did, and its pale glow was the only source of light in the room. It was far enough from the bed that Olivia�s face was partly in shadow, and in a far corner of her mind Natalia registered how incredibly beautiful she looked in the half-light.

"I grew up in a strict Catholic family," Olivia said.

"You�re Catholic?" Natalia was astonished.

"Well, I grew up Catholic. I�m not a practicing Catholic now, as you know, and haven�t been for a long time. I�m not a religious person. My mother was, and by that I mean she was judgmental. I think that has a lot to do with why I�ve avoided religion in my adult life."

Natalia just nodded. The revelation made her realize there was a whole lot she�d never known about Olivia, including the fact she was raped when she was just a teenager, something Olivia had only admitted to her the day before.

"I developed faster than other girls my age, and boys really started noticing me. Even college guys were asking me out. I liked it, too. They were so much more interesting and fun than guys my age. My mother wouldn�t let me date any of them, but sometimes I used to sneak out at night after she was asleep to go on a date or to a party."

Natalia could see Olivia had a far-off look in her eyes, as though she�d been whisked back in time to witness some of those late-night excursions when she was just a girl.

"I never let them do anything. I was a good Catholic girl in that sense, but I liked getting all that attention. It made me feel important."

Natalia nodded. "I can understand that. That�s how Nicky made me feel when we were in high school."

"I read about the embassy party. I wanted to go, so I got dressed up and slipped out of the house after my mother fell asleep. I was just sixteen and had never seen anything like it. It was amazing�the fancy clothes, the music, the dancing."

Natalia could see an almost dreamy expression on Olivia�s face. She looked so young in the soft light, and Natalia felt as though she could almost see what she must have looked like back then, an innocent young girl at her first grand party.

"The night was really hot," Olivia said, "and there was this punch. It was so sweet, and I just kept drinking it. I had no idea it was spiked. I was dancing with this very nice guy when the booze suddenly hit me all at once. I felt dizzy, like I couldn�t stand up anymore, and I told him I needed to lie down."

Olivia pushed the covers down off her legs, leaned back against the pillows, and hugged her knees as she stared straight ahead, as though she�d forgotten she had an audience.

"He was very sweet and kind. He said there were bedrooms upstairs where I could lie down, and he took me up to one at the end of a long hallway. I was really woozy by then and I lay down on this huge bed. He stretched out beside me and started stroking my hair and kissing me. At first I liked it, but then he was lying on top of me and touching me places he shouldn�t."

Olivia paused and struggled a moment, as though searching for the right words. "I knew things were getting out of control, and I told him no. I told him I didn�t want that, but he wouldn�t stop. I ... I passed out, and when I woke the next morning, he was gone, but my clothes ... they were all messed up. I ... I was hurting and there was blood, and I ... I knew what he�d done to me."

"I�m so sorry," Natalia whispered. She saw a lone tear trickle down Olivia�s cheek. She wanted to wipe it away, but she didn�t. She just watched it slowly slide down. She couldn�t imagine how Olivia must have felt to have been violated like that when she was just a girl. She suddenly understood why Olivia tended to be so distrustful of people.

"Some man came into the room and threw my purse at me, and then he took me out a back entrance of the embassy to a car that was waiting to take me home. When we got to my house, the driver barely stopped to let me out."

"Did you report him to the police?"

"No, I didn�t even know his name," Olivia said as her hand drifted up to her forehead and began a slow massage. "I tried to find out. I went back to the embassy and asked, but the man I talked to before wouldn�t tell me. He gave me an envelope stuffed with cash and told me nobody would ever believe my story, so I might as well take the money and keep my mouth shut. I was scared and I was ashamed, and that�s exactly what I did. I took the money and I left."

"Did you tell your mother?"

"Not at first, but eventually I worked up the courage to tell her. I kept thinking, hey, she�s my mother; she�s going be on my side, right? But when I finally told her, she blamed me. All she could say was, �I told you! I warned you!�"

"That�s awful."

"We had a terrible fight, and in the middle of it, she had a stroke and she died shortly after."

"Oh no! How terrible!"

"I felt so guilty. My mother was dead because of me. I knew it was my fault. I killed her. I knew I�d killed my own mother."

"It wasn�t your fault!" She could see Olivia�s tears flowing freely now, and she looked like she was somewhere faraway. "I ... maybe I shouldn�t have asked you to tell me about all this. I had no idea about your mother. I�m so sorry." I never should have asked you to go through this. What was I thinking?

"It changed my life," Olivia said, as though she hadn�t heard a word Natalia said. "It changed who I was, especially when I found out I was pregnant."

"Oh my god! Pregnant? I didn�t realize." I should have figured that out, but it just didn�t occur to me.

"I hated the thing that was growing in me. I�d told my mother I wanted an abortion, but she�d said no, I was going to have the baby and I was going to find it a good home. That�s what we argued about. After she died, I lay in bed for days, weeks, maybe longer. By the time I could think rationally, it was too late to terminate the pregnancy, so I was stuck."

Olivia�s voice trembled with pent-up rage and she struggled to get each word out through clenched teeth. "I hated it ... that thing inside me. All I wanted to do was give birth to it and get rid of it."

Natalia suddenly experienced a crushing epiphany. She knew the child Olivia had given up for adoption was Ava, and her father� "Oh my god, Olivia, Jeffrey raped you?"

"What?" Olivia turned toward her, but her eyes looked bleary, as though she were coming out of a trance.

"Jeffrey is Ava�s father, so he had to be the one who raped you, right?"

"Yes."

"But the two of you are ... you�re friends now."

"Well, we weren�t always, believe me. When I finally figured out he was the one who�d raped me, I wanted to kill him. I confronted him and I forced him to acknowledge what he�d done. It was hard too, because at first he wouldn�t admit it, but I finally made him. I made him admit what he�d done to me."

Natalia was reeling from all the revelations. She felt as though she understood Olivia so much better now. She was feeling really bad that she�d asked her to go through such a grueling story, but at the same time she felt closer to her.

Olivia�s shoulders sagged and she lay her head on her knees, which she kept hugged close to her body. She wasn�t crying; she was just very quiet.

Natalia sat looking at her, astonished at how much Olivia had had to overcome. She knew a lot of people would have been crushed by such a series of devastating events, especially at such a tender age, but Olivia had triumphed over everything to become the amazing person she was today. Natalia was astounded by Olivia�s strength and her fortitude, and she was more than a little surprised to feel herself falling even more in love with her than she already was.

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

Olivia felt as though she�d just run a marathon. Very few people knew she�d been raped. Most only knew she�d gotten pregnant when she was a teenager. It had been hard going back in time to arguably the worst period of her life, but her instincts had told her Natalia needed to hear her story, maybe partly because she wanted to know everything that had happened to the person she loved, but also because she needed to hear about it after what had happened to her yesterday at the farmhouse. Their stories were very different, but she knew the emotional fallout was all too similar.

"Are you okay?" Natalia asked softly.

"Yeah, I�m fine. It was a long time ago."

"I know, but ... but I can see how hard it was for you to talk about. I�m so sorry. When I asked you to tell me about it, I didn�t realize how many other things were involved�your mother, the pregnancy, Jeffrey. I just didn�t know."

"It�s okay. I�ve spent most of my life just trying to forget it ever happened."

"But now a lot of bad things have gotten stirred up, things besides the ... the rape."

"I don�t want you to worry about me. I�m a big girl. It happened a long time ago, and I�ve ... well, I�ve dealt with it." Maybe not very well at times, like now, for example. It had been a lot to deal with on top of what had just happened to Natalia the day before. She only hoped it had helped her in some way.

Olivia was still reeling from her own terror when she realized a man was in the farmhouse and he was attacking Natalia. She could still feel the adrenaline rush fueled by fear and her fierce determination to put a stop to the assault. She�d never fired a gun at someone before, and now she�d not only done that, but she�d shot a man�twice!�and on top of that, she�d been prepared to kill the other two men as soon as they entered the farmhouse. I would have done it, too, she thought. If I�d needed to and if I�d been able, I would have killed to protect you.

Suddenly she felt incredibly fatigued, and she let herself lie back down and stretch out her legs as she stared unseeing at the ceiling. I feel like I could sleep the rest of the day.

"Maybe you should try to go back to sleep," Natalia said softly.

Olivia nodded. She couldn�t seem to stop the disturbing images swirling through her head, but mercifully she fell into an exhausted sleep.

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

Natalia watched as sleep smoothed away the signs of anguish from Olivia�s face. I�m so sorry, Olivia, she thought. I�m so sorry for what you went through, and I�m sorry for asking you to relive it. It was hard to imagine how a teenaged Olivia had survived the rape and the pregnancy and the sudden death of her mother. Their stories were different, hers and Olivia�s, but she knew in her heart that a lot of what she was currently feeling, Olivia had also experienced when she was just a girl.

She loved looking at Olivia, especially when she slept. She wanted to reach out and touch her face, kiss her forehead, hold her, just as she�d wanted to do after Olivia finished her story, but she just couldn�t. I have no right to touch you. In fact, I have no right depending on you like this when I haven�t been able to make a decision about what to do about ... us.

Natalia quietly slipped out of bed, dressed in jeans and a long-sleeved light blue shirt buttoned to the collar, and wrote a note, which she left on Olivia�s night table in front of her clock. She stood for a moment gazing down at her. I could stand here looking at you all day, she thought. I never get tired of looking at you. As much as she wanted to stay, she knew she had to leave. She had to be on her own to figure out what to do with her life. I love you so much, but I just don�t know if we can ... be.

She slowly turned, grabbed her purse and the handle of her wheeled duffle bag, and left the penthouse suite.

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

Olivia woke with a start. She knew she�d been dreaming, but she had no idea what about. She only knew her heart was racing. She looked around the room and immediately noticed Natalia�s bag was gone. Where did you go? She sat on the edge of the bed and saw the note right away.

She read it quickly: "Dear Olivia, I�m sorry about earlier. I realize I shouldn�t have asked you to talk about all that stuff from your past. I hope you can forgive me. I need to be by myself for a while to figure some things out. I�m going to the office now to get some work done, but then I�m going to take the rest of the day off. Call me if you need anything. Please take care of yourself. Natalia."

Okay, Spencer, don�t panic. You knew this was coming. You knew she was going to distance herself from you at some point. It�ll be okay.

Olivia did feel panicked, though, try as she might not to. She was terrified Natalia might never find her way back to her.

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

Continue to Chapters 31-40

 

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