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 61

(Author's Note: For anyone who�s not a longtime viewer of GL, I thought I�d mention that all information in this chapter concerning Rafe�s past when he first arrived in Springfield, including what happened with Daisy, is based on actual show history and is not a figment of my imagination.)

After gently kissing a barely awake Olivia, Natalia went down to the kitchen to make coffee. It had been more than a little tempting to prolong the morning kiss and hold that incredibly sexy body longer, but she knew they needed to get ready and hit the road into town to make it to Rafe�s hearing. She�d already said a heartfelt prayer for the best possible outcome for her son.

When she heard a faint thump, she turned toward the doorway and saw one of her most cherished sights: a sleepy Olivia leaning against the doorway as though she�d lost her way. She guessed the soft thump she heard was Olivia getting hung up on the doorframe as she used to do from time to time when she�d drag herself into the kitchen half asleep.

"Coffee?" Natalia asked. She heard Olivia make some kind of utterance before she stumbled toward the table and sat down. "I think that was a �yes,�" she said with a grin. She poured fresh brewed coffee into a mug and set it down in front of Olivia, and then waited for her to take a sip.

Olivia grasped the mug with both hands and brought it slowly to her mouth, as though she were a toddler with a cup too large for little hands to manage.

As soon as Olivia took a drink and set her cup down, Natalia leaned down and kissed her right on the mouth. You�d be shocked if you knew how many times I wanted to do that when you were living here. She deepened the kiss, much as she�d done the night before. Olivia�s moan low in her throat almost made her want to skip the hearing and spend the day in bed�with Olivia; she broke the kiss, though, and stepped back because she knew she had to be at the hearing. However, seeing a sleepy Olivia turn into a sleepy, aroused Olivia was almost more temptation than she could resist.

Natalia backed away toward the stove, aware of slightly unfocused green eyes following her. "Are you hungry?" she asked.

Olivia shook her head.

"Do you think you could eat some scrambled eggs or maybe some toast?"

Olivia lay her head on the table.

"Okay, maybe we can get something in town. Drink your coffee at least."

Natalia grinned as she watched Olivia pull herself back up and wrap both hands around the coffee mug again, guiding it carefully toward her mouth as though at any moment it might decide to leap right out of her hands and make a run for it.

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

Olivia stood in a corridor of the courthouse watching Natalia pace. She was a vision in a dark blue skirt suit and white blouse. She�d worn her hair up, and Olivia thought she looked gorgeous, though worried. They�d arrived early, and now it looked as though Natalia might just work herself into an anxiety attack. Maybe I can distract you, she thought.

"I have a question," Olivia said.

Natalia turned and paced back toward her. "What?"

"If I come back to the farmhouse to live ..." Olivia smiled at the sudden hopeful and happy expression that broke out over Natalia�s face. "Will you kiss me like that every morning?"

Natalia giggled. "Yes!"

"Okay, I�m going to put that on my list of reasons to move back in with you."

"You have a list?" Her dimples flashed as she grinned at Olivia.

"Mm-hm, and it�s getting longer by the day." And right up there towards the top it says "dimples."

"I thought about that a lot," Natalia said.

"Making a list?"

"No, kissing you when you used to come into the kitchen half awake, back when you were still living with me."

"Well, I wish you had." Good lord that would�ve been great. It also would�ve saved a hell of a lot of time and avoided a whole bunch of problems.

They were still smiling at each other when Mayor Wolfe approached.

"Good morning." Doris looked at each of them as though she were an entomologist studying a couple of particularly fascinating specimens pinned to her cork board.

Olivia shook her head. "Don�t even go there, Doris."

Doris laughed. "Thanks for confirming my suspicions, not that I really needed confirmation."

God, Doris, don�t you have your own love life to police now?

Olivia noticed Natalia had resumed pacing and her worried look was back, making her pretty face look downright forlorn. "Hey, it�ll be okay," Olivia told her.

Natalia paced back toward the two women standing near the wall. "I hope so. I just can�t help but be worried."

Olivia heard heavy footsteps and looked up in time to see Frank approaching them.

"Morning, ladies" he said.

"Hello, Frank," Natalia said.

Frank looked at Olivia. "I see you came."

"Of course she came, Frank," Natalia said with a tiny frown.

"I�m not sure that�s the best thing for Rafe considering how much he dislikes you, Olivia," Frank said, ignoring Natalia�s comment.

"That�s not up to you to decide," Natalia said.

"All right, fine. Don�t say I didn�t warn you." Frank turned and headed toward the courtroom where Rafe�s hearing was scheduled.

Doris peered at Natalia. "You don�t look so good. In fact, you look downright green around the gills."

Natalia started to say something, but instead turned and bolted toward the women�s restroom.

Olivia was momentarily stunned by Natalia�s sudden departure, but quickly recovered and headed toward the bathroom with Doris right on her heels. By the time she got there, Natalia was coming out of one of the stalls, and then she went directly to the sink, rinsed her mouth, and began splashing cold water on her face.

"Are you okay?" Olivia asked.

"I just ... I got sick."

"You threw up?"

Natalia nodded and patted her face with more cold water.

Olivia wet a paper towel and pressed it over the back of Natalia�s neck. "Are you sure you�re okay?"

"I think so."

Doris stood with her arms folded watching the two of them. "It�s morning. You�re sick. I�m going to apply a little deductive reasoning here ..."

Olivia�s head snapped around toward Doris. "Don�t even go there. I know you used to be the DA, but do you have to analyze the holy hell out of every damned thing?"

"Hey, I�m just stating the obvious. I mean she was engaged to Frank. It�s not unreasonable to assume they might have had sex before the ... well, before the almost-wedding�or maybe even a little �I�m so sorry� make-up sex afterward."

"That�s none of your business," Olivia said, looking back at Natalia. Olivia rubbed her back as Natalia stood there leaning against the sink looking none too steady on her feet. Olivia was a little afraid Doris�s needling might make her sick again, if, in fact, the nausea was caused by nerves, which was her assumption.

"And now she�s having morning sickness," Doris continued. "Is it possible the good little Catholic girl has gone and gotten herself pregnant?"

Olivia glared at the mayor. "You�re not helping, Doris."

"Oh, fine. I�ll wait outside and let you two have some privacy. Looks like you might need it."

Olivia scowled at the mayor�s retreating back, but as soon as Doris was gone, she turned back to Natalia. "Are you feeling any better?"

"I�m not pregnant, Olivia," Natalia said, still hanging over the sink.

"I know."

"That one time I slept with Frank was back last winter�February, in fact. It�s summer now. I�m sure I would�ve noticed if I�d missed four or five periods�which I did not."

"I know that. Besides, I�d think if you�d gotten pregnant, you�d be showing at least a little bit by now, and I can testify that is not the case." Olivia was relieved when Natalia glanced up at her with a small grin.

"Yes, I guess you really could verify that."

"Yes, I could," Olivia said, remembering Natalia�s naked and very svelte body. "And I�d be happy to monitor that situation with daily examinations, if you�d like."

"Gee, that�s really nice of you."

"Yeah, I thought so," Olivia said. "Now, can I get you anything? Soda? Crackers? Bribable judge?"

Natalia laughed. "I�d love a soda."

"Okay, I�ll go get you one. Why don�t you sit down on one of the benches out there when you�re ready, and then maybe the soda will help settle your stomach. Do you think you have a virus?"

"No, I think I�m just feeling anxious about what�s going to happen to my son," Natalia said. "And Frank didn�t help just now, either."

Olivia caressed Natalia�s cheek and then left her to head for the vending machines on the main floor of the courthouse.

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

Natalia sat beside Rafe at a large wooden table in the courtroom while she watched Judge Miriam Hern�ndez flipping through the pages of a large file. The judge was a stern-looking woman in wire-rim glasses, maybe in her forties or fifties, who wore her black hair in a tight bun at the nape of her neck.

The 7UP Olivia had brought her had helped, but Natalia knew her stomach wouldn�t completely calm down until she knew the outcome of the hearing. She looked over her shoulder at Olivia, who was sitting just behind them, and was reassured to see Olivia�s quick smile.

She turned back to gaze at Rafe, who she thought looked very handsome in his suit. Her heart was full just to be able to sit beside her son after such a long time during which he was virtually out of reach. Just beyond Rafe sitting on the other side of the courtroom aisle was Frank, and a couple of rows behind him sat Mayor Wolfe.

She was pretty sure Olivia thought she was angry at Doris, but she wasn�t. Doris had helped get Rafe into the halfway house. Doris had not only gotten the hearing moved up, but she�d also managed to get it done in a way that edged out Judge Walker, who�d been prepared to stipulate Frank be given primary responsibility for her son. Olivia had called that the "old boys� network." Doris had also bothered to come to the hearing this morning. Natalia was well aware the mayor could be a royal pain, but her actions proved time and time again that she was someone you could count on. I�m not angry with Doris. I�m grateful to her for everything she�s done for my son.

Finally Judge Hern�ndez looked up from Rafe�s file. "Mr. Rivera, the purpose of today�s hearing is to determine whether or not you�re to be allowed to leave the halfway house and reenter the community under strict supervision. Do you understand?"

Rafe shifted in his seat. "Yes, your honor," he said.

"On a positive note, I see that you used your time working in the prison library to complete your GED."

Rafe nodded.

"I also see you have a good report from your employer, Mr. Murphy, the manager at White Castle. He says you�re punctual and you work hard while you�re there."

Natalia was beginning to have hopes that Rafe really would get to leave the halfway house.

"However, Mr. Rivera, I see a number of things in your file that concern me. Prior to your recent conviction, you served time in juvenile detention for robbing a Mr. ..." The judge glanced down at the file. "A Mr. Joshua Lewis."

Natalia�s heart sank. Shortly after Rafe arrived in Springfield, he mugged Josh and landed in juvie, which is where he�d met and begun a romance with Daisy.

"And then not long after you were released from there," the judge continued, "you got drunk, picked a fight, and got arrested again."

Natalia remembered when she found out Rafe had impregnated Daisy. It was like watching a rerun of her own life, except unlike her, Daisy terminated the pregnancy. Rafe became furious when he found out Daisy had gotten an abortion. He blamed Daisy for the pregnancy and railed against her for having an abortion without telling him, but then he started drinking and lashing out at everyone, which led to the fight that landed him in jail. Alan bailed him out, but afterward both Natalia and Nicky had tried to help him see that he was just as responsible as Daisy for the unplanned pregnancy.

"And, of course," Judge Hern�ndez said, "let us not forget that you took a gun to the courthouse and shot Jeffrey O'Neill."

"That was an accident, your honor," Rafe said.

"It was an accident that you went to the courthouse with a gun in your possession, sought out Mr. O'Neill, and pointed the weapon directly at him?"

Natalia lay her hand on Rafe�s forearm and squeezed. She didn�t want to see him engage in an argument with the judge about to decide his fate.

Rafe glanced at his mother before speaking. "That was wrong, your honor. I did take a gun to the courthouse, but I had no intention of shooting Mr. O'Neill."

"Mr. Rivera, we�re not hear to argue that case. You were found guilty and you were sentenced. We�re here to determine if you�d be a danger to the community if the court grants your request to be released from the halfway house."

Rafe nodded.

"I have some serious concerns about your anger issues, Mr. Rivera; however, based on your good work record and the positive reports I�ve received from your parole officer, your counselor, and your caseworker at the halfway house, I�m inclined to consider allowing you to begin the process of reintegrating into the community."

Natalia could feel her hopes rising again, and she glanced over her shoulder at Olivia, who smiled at her encouragingly.

"However, I have some requirements. First, I need to know that you have somewhere to live should you leave the halfway house."

"Your honor," Natalia said. "I�m his mother. He can live with me. I already have his room ready for him at our house in the country."

"That�s good to hear, Ms. Rivera," the judge said.

"Your honor," Frank said.

"Yes, Detective Cooper?"

Natalia�s heart sank when she realized the judge already knew Frank.

"I�d be willing to serve as a mentor for Rafe," Frank said, "and even have him live with me at my house in town."

Judge Hern�ndez looked over her wire-rim glasses at Frank. "What exactly is your relationship with Mr. Rivera?"

"Well, he and I are ... I guess you could say we�re friends. I got engaged to his mother last winter."

"You�re engaged to Ms. Rivera?"

Natalia violently shook her head no.

Frank glanced at Natalia. "No, we�re not currently engaged, your honor."

"Currently?"

"Well, hope springs eternal," he said with a sad smile.

"This court deals in facts, Detective Cooper, not wishful thinking. That said, I think Mr. Rivera could benefit from any and all positive role models, including one of Springfield�s finest, so I would certainly view this �friendship� in a positive light." The judge shifted her attention back to Rafe. "However, you are a nineteen-year-old man, Mr. Rivera. I�m not going to stipulate where you live, although I can tell you that I personally believe in the importance of family. Now I do want you reporting to your parole officer on a strict schedule, and you will inform him of your place of residence or any change in residence you may make."

"Yes, your honor," Rafe said.

"You must stay employed unless you decide to go to college full-time. You may also opt to work part-time and go to school part-time. You�re free to change jobs if you find one that pays better or fits better with your class schedule if you do decide to enroll in college. Have you thought about what you want to do with your life, Mr. Rivera?"

"I wanted to join the marines and then become a cop like my dad, but ..."

"I think you�ll need to reassess that now that you have a felony conviction on your record."

"All I�m sure of right now is I do want to go to college."

Natalia was overjoyed. She�d always wanted Rafe to get a college degree, but this was the first time she�d heard him say he wanted to.

"That�s an admirable goal, Mr. Rivera," Judge Hern�ndez said. "I also want you to continue in both group and individual counseling for anger management as the need for that is clearly evident in your history. You will attend all required meetings, and your parole officer will continue to receive reports on your progress there. Do you understand?"

Rafe nodded. "Yes, your honor."

"Now there�s one more thing." The judge removed her glasses and stared intently at Rafe. "You�re going to get to leave the halfway house and reenter the community, but you need to remember how lucky you are to have this opportunity after the very serious crime you committed. You have a second chance. Do not squander it. Have I made myself clear?"

"Yes, your honor," Rafe said. "Thank you."

Natalia hugged Rafe. She was overjoyed. Finally Rafe was out of the prison system. Even if he had to go to meetings and report to a parole officer, he could still resume a much more normal life, which is all she wanted for her child.

Natalia stood up and turned toward Olivia, who was already standing and waiting for her. They hugged, unaware that Frank had walked up to shake Rafe�s hand.

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

Olivia caught sight of Frank over Natalia�s shoulder. He grasped Rafe�s hand and shook it, but then the two of them hugged. She let go of Natalia and gently turned her around. I�d hate for you to miss the male bonding going on behind you.

"Congratulations, Rafe," Frank said.

"Thanks, man," Rafe said with a huge grin.

"So, where do you plan to live?" Frank asked. "I meant it when I said you could bunk with me at my place if you�d like."

Olivia forced herself to stay quiet, but she could feel Natalia�s stress level shoot sky-high.

"Frank, Rafe is my son. He should come home with me," Natalia said, glaring at Frank. She turned to Rafe and her tone softened. "Rafe, your room is ready and waiting for you."

"Has Olivia moved in yet?" Frank asked.

Okay, I�ve kept quiet long enough.

"No, Frank," Olivia said. "Emma and I are still living in my suite at the Beacon."

Rafe turned to his mother. "I thought you said you were going to ask Olivia to move back in. I know you don�t want to live out there all by yourself."

"Well," Natalia said. "I did ask her, but ..."

"But I said no, that wasn�t going to work out," Olivia said, "at least not right now."

"Rafe," Natalia said. "I�d love for you to come home with me tonight. You�re a big reason I wanted to get the farmhouse in the first place, so we could have the real home we always wanted."

Rafe looked at Frank. "Thanks for offering, Frank, but I think at least for right now I�m going to go home with my mom."

"Okay," Frank said. "But if for any reason you change your mind," he added, glancing at Olivia, "the offer is still open, okay?"

"Okay, thanks," Rafe said.

Olivia smiled when Rafe turned and hugged his mother.

"Okay," Rafe said to Natalia. "Let�s go. I want to get out of here."

"All right," Natalia said with a huge dimply smile. She handed Rafe the keys. "My car is outside. We just need to give Olivia a lift."

"No, that�s okay," Olivia said. She could see Doris watching from nearby. "I�ll get a ride from our esteemed mayor."

Doris was near enough to hear what Olivia said, and she immediately nodded.

"Are you sure?" Natalia asked. "It wouldn�t be any trouble."

"I�m sure," Olivia said. "You go and take your son home."

"Okay," Natalia said. She looked as though she was going to say something else, but then she looked at Rafe and Frank, both of whom were watching her, and she just smiled at Olivia and turned away.

Olivia watched as Frank walked out of the courtroom with Natalia and Rafe. There you go, she thought. And I�m not sure when I�ll see you next. I�m only sure it won�t be tonight, darn it. Hopefully it�ll be tomorrow if you come into work, but I�m not sure you will since Rafe just got released. How I wish I could be with you tonight ... tonight and every night. God, this is going to be hard.

"You do realize he�s going to keep at it," Doris said as she walked up to Olivia.

"Yeah, I know. What do you think he�s hoping to accomplish?"

"I think he wants her back, so he�s going to keep at it till he gets her or he fixes it so Rafe moves in with him, either as a last-ditch effort to get her back or maybe as a way to punish her if she stays with you."

Olivia�s brows lifted. "You can�t be serious. Why would Frank think he has any chance with her after everything that�s happened? And why would he even want to at this point?"

"The �why� is easy. He�s still in love with her�or at least he thinks he is. Also, he got jilted, and his ego probably feels like getting her back is the only thing that�s going to fix the way he�s feeling right now, which is hurt and mad as hell."

"I�m truly sorry he got hurt," Olivia said. "I also realize he�s an angry man."

"And as to why he thinks he has a chance, well, she hasn�t told Rafe about the two of you yet, right?"

"Right, but ..."

"My guess is Frank believes Rafe will never accept it, and he thinks Natalia will give you up rather than alienate her son for life. Meanwhile, Frank is making sure he�s right there in her orbit and as close to Rafe as possible."

Olivia shook her head. "That�s not going to work."

Doris shrugged. "I didn�t say it was going to work, but don�t forget the power of a mother�s love. We can�t really be sure what�s going to happen."

"I know all about a mother�s love, Doris, but Natalia loves me."

"Love isn�t always enough."

Olivia began to massage her forehead as she thought about Frank and Rafe and Natalia walking out of the courtroom together, looking for all the world like a Norman Rockwell family portrait. She knew despite anything Rafe had said about not needing a daddy, that was exactly what the boy wanted, and Frank fit the bill perfectly. I need to trust you to work through this. I have to believe everything is going to work out for us; otherwise, I�m going to go insane.

"Are you going to be okay?" Doris asked.

"Sure," Olivia said. "I have to be."

"I�m guessing this is going to be an adjustment though, Rafe back at the farmhouse."

"Huge," Olivia said. "A huge adjustment."

Doris and Olivia walked out of the courtroom together. Olivia didn�t feel like talking anymore and for once Doris was quiet, to Olivia�s profound relief. She couldn�t deal with too much more right now on top of her forced separation from the woman she loved�the woman with whom she�d just recently become physically intimate. It�s so not fair getting separated when you�re basically still on your honeymoon, damn it.

As she sat with Doris in the back of her black SUV, driven by one of the mayor�s bodyguards, Olivia thought about her last night with Natalia�how sweet she looked, how she sounded when she came, how aggressively she�d kissed Olivia afterward. And then again that morning, Natalia had surprised her with an intimate kiss in the kitchen of the farmhouse as Olivia sat there groggily drinking coffee. She thought about the amazing time they�d spent together in Hawaii�touring by chopper, snorkeling, going to the luau, making love. Now she couldn�t even go see her at the farmhouse tonight, nor would Natalia be able to get away to visit her at the Beacon.

Well now, this is just gonna be hell.

The only thing keeping her going was knowing she might get to see Natalia at work tomorrow.

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

Chapter 62

Natalia sat in the passenger seat of her car watching the countryside roll by outside her window as her son drove them to the farmhouse. Right after the hearing, they�d picked up what few belongings he had at the halfway house, and then Rafe had met briefly with his parole officer to give him the address and phone number at the farmhouse. She could tell Rafe was in high spirits as he guided the car along the nearly empty roadway. He�d always liked to drive, but she was certain today�s drive into the country was especially satisfying after the restrictions he�d been under since he was arrested for shooting Jeffrey.

As happy as she felt about the outcome of the hearing, her heart ached after having to leave Olivia at the courthouse. To see her standing there alone in the nearly empty room while she left with her son, especially with Frank tagging along after them, made her feel immeasurably sad. It�s just not right that you stayed behind, she thought as Rafe pulled up and parked at the farmhouse. You should have been with us. You and Emma should both be here to celebrate Rafe�s homecoming.

Unfortunately it was going to be the three of them, she and Rafe and Frank. Frank had walked them to her car after the hearing and offered to pick up some food and bring it out to the farmhouse to celebrate Rafe�s homecoming. Her son was immediately enthused at Frank�s offer, as she was sure Frank knew he would be, and she felt she had no choice but to be gracious and allow her son the homecoming party he wanted.

As Natalia and Rafe were walking toward the farmhouse, Frank rolled up and hopped out of his car, grabbing a couple of pizza boxes and a cooler, probably filled with sodas, she guessed.

"You got beer in there?" Rafe asked with a grin.

"Absolutely not," Frank said. "I have diet sodas, tea, and some of Buzz�s lemonade. Nothing has sugar."

"You remembered," Rafe said.

"Of course I did," Frank said, handing Rafe the pizzas.

Natalia unlocked the farmhouse door and went inside, grateful to get in out of the sun. She was still feeling a little queasy and just hoped she could make it through what she was certain was going to be a boisterous lunch with her son, who was on a natural high after getting released from the halfway house, and her ex-fianc�, who was looking at her as though they were still dating and he was anxious to make a good impression.

She wished it were Olivia standing at the counter pulling sodas out of the cooler.

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

The mayor�s black SUV pulled up to the main entrance of the Beacon. Olivia picked up her purse and glanced sideways at Mayor Wolfe.

"Thanks for everything, Doris," Olivia said. "This day would have gone so much differently if you hadn�t used your influence or black magic or whatever it is you do to get things done."

Doris burst into laughter. "Well, I just do whatever it takes at any given moment," she said. "But seriously, I�m glad I could help. As you know, Ashlee has had her share of problems, so I understand what Natalia is going through."

"Yes, I know Ashlee spent time in juvie, too."

"By the way, are you sure Natalia�s not pregnant?"

"Very sure. It�s just not possible."

"Okay, good to hear. What a nightmare that�d be�tied to Frank for the rest of her life."

"Yeah, big nightmare," Olivia said with a frown. "By the way, how�s Flo?"

"Tireless," Doris said with a big grin.

"Interesting." Olivia laughed at the implications of that one word. "So I take it you two are still seeing each other?"

"Yes, definitely."

"Any plans to move in together?"

"No! That�d be career suicide for me. What about you and Natalia?"

"She�s asked me to move back to the farmhouse, but ..."

"But you said no? Don�t you want to?"

"Yes, I want to, but I just don�t think it�s a good idea right now. Rafe is just now moving in, and I�m not sure he�d stay there if I were there. Besides, he doesn�t even know about us yet."

"Do you think she�ll tell him?"

"She said she plans to."

"Well, she better hurry up before Frank beats her to it."

"I just don�t think Frank would do that."

"The man wants her back. Have you noticed how out of control he�s been since his wedding blew up in his face? He accosted me on the street! Thankfully my bodyguards intervened, but I have to tell you I wouldn�t put anything past him."

Olivia frowned and shook her head. "I think he honestly cares about Rafe, though, so I just don�t think he�d do something like that when he knows how much it would hurt him."

"I hope you�re right."

"Me, too," Olivia said, trying not to let Doris get her anymore worried than she already was. "Anyway, thanks again�for everything."

Olivia got out of the SUV with a quick wave at Doris and walked through the entrance of the Beacon. She headed directly toward the elevator as she was in no mood to deal with anybody. She was relieved when she was finally back in her suite. She wasn�t hungry, but she ordered a light lunch from room service and changed into comfortable clothes since she didn�t plan on going up to her office till in the morning.

This is just peachy. Yesterday I was in Hawaii with the woman I love, after spending several days enjoying the local sights�not to mention each other�and now here I am all alone in my suite in Springfield, and there�s no way we can see each other again today. Sometimes life just seriously sucks.

A knock from room service interrupted Olivia�s spiraling thoughts. She was able to eat a little of her chicken salad, but all she could think about was calling Natalia to see if she was feeling any better. She felt relatively certain Natalia�s nausea was just an attack of nerves brought on by the uncertainties surrounding the hearing, but she wanted to know for sure. She sat down on the edge of her bed and glanced at the clock on her night stand. It was two. Hopefully she�d given Natalia and Rafe enough time to eat lunch and get settled in. She picked up the handset and resolutely rang Natalia�s cell phone, and then she lay down on the bed.

Natalia picked up after two rings. "Hello?"

Olivia smiled the minute she heard Natalia�s voice, and her thumb caressed the edge of the handset. "Hey," she said. "How are you feeling?"

"Better, thanks. I was still feeling a little ... run down, I guess, so I came up to my room to rest."

"Does that mean we can talk?"

"Yes, Frank took Rafe into town to play pool so I�m alone."

"Frank?" Jesus, he didn�t waste any time.

"Yes, he volunteered to bring food out to the farmhouse to celebrate Rafe�s homecoming, and Rafe was so overjoyed I couldn�t say no."

Shit!

"I understand. Rafe really likes Frank. He�s a cop like his dad, and I think Rafe looks up to him."

"I know, but I didn�t really want Frank here. I just didn�t know what else to do."

"I think you did the right thing under the circumstances, but ..."

"But you�re worried Frank is going to make a habit of this."

"Well, yes, that�s exactly what I think. I�m not saying I don�t think Frank cares about Rafe. Actually I think he does. I�m just saying I think he might try to use all of this to ... well ..."

"Try to get back with me?"

"In a word, yes."

"That�s not going to happen, Olivia."

"God, I hope not, but I think he may make things difficult for you. Look what he did today. He manipulated the situation so he could spend time with you and Rafe at the farmhouse."

"I know, Olivia. I knew exactly what he was doing."

"Well, I�m glad you�re aware of it."

"I am aware and I don�t like it. I just haven�t figured out what to do about it," Natalia said. "All I wanted was for you to be here. It didn�t feel right that Frank was here."

"I wish I could�ve been there."

"I really miss you," Natalia said softly.

"God, I miss you, too. I just ... I just miss you terribly." Olivia closed her eyes and imagined Natalia lying on her bed at the farmhouse. How she�d love to join her there!

"I wish you were here right now."

"Me, too." You have no idea how much. "Are you going to come into work tomorrow? Well, I should add I�d love to see you, but if you�re not feeling well or if you want to spend the day with Rafe, I�ll understand." I won�t be a happy camper, but I�ll understand.

"I don�t know yet. Rafe went off with Frank before I thought to ask him about his work schedule."

"Okay, just do whatever you need to do tomorrow. Surely I�ll see you sometime soon." Hopefully very soon. I�m not sure how I�m going to make it till tomorrow, let alone longer than that if you don�t come in.

"I hope so, Olivia."

"Since you�re feeling tired, maybe I should let you go so you can take a nap before they come back."

Natalia was quiet for a moment. "Okay, I guess that�s a good idea. My stomach still feels a little ... off."

"Take care. Call me if there�s anything I can do."

"I will, thanks."

"And don�t forget how much I love you."

"I love you, too. Don�t ever doubt that."

After they hung up, Olivia lay back and closed her eyes. I don�t doubt that you love me. I worry about whether you can handle a relationship with me now that your son is back in your life.

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

The following morning Natalia dropped Rafe off at work and then headed over to the Beacon. Rafe had called her the night before to let her know he�d run into Daisy and the two of them were going to catch a movie. At least he called, she thought. She knew he was at an age when it was natural to want to be independent of your parents. She also knew he was going to have some problems adjusting now that he was out of the halfway house. She was certainly determined to help him any way she could. At least so far he seemed to be doing well. She�d actually been glad when she found out he had plans with Daisy because she wanted him to have friends and feel connected.

Right at the moment she was more concerned about Olivia. She knew all about Olivia�s insecurities and trust issues, and she knew quite a bit about things that had happened in her past to make her feel that way. It seemed likely that the current situation with Rafe and Frank coupled with her and Olivia�s forced separation would trigger some anxiety, so Natalia was eager to reassure her.

When she arrived at Olivia�s office, Natalia saw her sitting at her executive desk reading what looked like a report. She looked stunning, as always, especially in her slate blue skirt suit. Natalia paused for a moment, just happy to be able to look at her sitting there. Finally she knocked softly to get Olivia�s attention.

As soon as Olivia saw her, she stood up. "Lock the door," she said as she came around her desk.

Natalia closed the door behind her and pressed the button in the doorknob to lock it. By the time she turned around, Olivia was standing right behind her, and Natalia threw her arms around her and leaned into her. She felt better the instant Olivia�s arms wrapped around her, as though everything were now right with the world.

Then suddenly Olivia was cupping her face and kissing her, and the rest of the universe just slid away, and there was only Olivia and the feel of her arms and her hands and her mouth.

"My god I�ve missed you," Olivia said as she pulled back to look into Natalia�s eyes.

"I can�t do this," Natalia said.

Olivia stepped back. Her hand floated up and rested over her heart. "What?"

Natalia could see the stricken expression in Olivia�s eyes. Oh god. "No, no, that�s not what I meant. I mean I can�t live without you. I just can�t stand being separated like this. I need you with me."

Olivia took another step back and leaned against the front of her desk for support. Natalia could see she was still holding her hand over her heart.

"Are you all right?" Natalia asked, going to her and putting her hand over Olivia�s where it lay on her chest. It wasn�t that long ago that Natalia had worried about Olivia�s new heart, and this was bringing back some scary memories.

"Uh, yeah, I just ..."

"I scared you. I�m so sorry."

"Yeah, maybe a little."

Of course, I did. If I�d been thinking, I wouldn�t have blurted that out. I know you. You�re waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Natalia reached for Olivia�s other hand, which was hanging down at her side, and then pulled both hands to her bosom. "I love you, Olivia. I am in love with you. I�ve made a commitment to you, to making a life with you."

"I know, but ..."

"There�s no �but.�"

"Look, I understand what you�re saying, but we don�t really know what�s going to happen with Rafe when ... well, when or if you tell him about us."

"Of course I�m going to tell him."

"I�m sure you don�t want to tell him right now. I mean ... he just got out of the halfway house. We don�t want anything interfering with his adjustment right now."

"I know, but I�ve been thinking about all that."

"Okay ..."

"I agree I shouldn�t tell him right away, but I think I should tell him sometime soon."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes! I don�t want him finding out from someone else."

"Doris would never say anything."

"I wasn�t thinking of her. I know she has a child, and I really don�t think she�d do anything to hurt mine, especially after everything she�s done to help him."

"Father Ray?"

"I don�t think he�d come right out and tell Rafe, but I also know once Rafe finds out, Father Ray won�t be supportive of our relationship if the two of them talk."

"That just leaves ..."

"Exactly. I�m not sure what Frank might do. I don�t think he�d tell Rafe, not deliberately, but you didn�t see how he was today when he brought pizzas out for lunch."

"What happened?"

"Nothing really �happened.� It�s just that Frank and Rafe were both really happy and laughing and joking, and Frank kind of acted toward me the way he did back last winter when we were dating."

"Like what?"

Natalia shook her head. "I can�t really tell you some particular thing. It�s more like a feeling I had, kind of like in Frank�s mind he and I were getting some kind of second chance."

"Oh great."

"I could be wrong. I wasn�t feeling all that well, and Frank coming out just stressed me out more, so I could be reading more into it than was actually there, but ... but I feel very uncomfortable."

"I just don�t know what to think. I know Frank isn�t a bad person at heart, but I also know he�s been a real jerk lately ... to both of us. I don�t care about me. I can understand why he�s so angry with me�after all, he knows you chose me�but I�m concerned about it because I�m not sure what he might be capable of if he gets any angrier," Olivia said. "Hopefully I�m worrying for no reason."

Someone knocked on Olivia�s office door.

"Who is it?" Olivia asked.

"It�s Greg, Miss Spencer."

"Shit," Olivia muttered under her breath. She unlocked and opened the door. "What is it?"

"I need your signature on these purchase orders," Greg said. He glanced at Natalia, who was standing by Olivia�s desk.

"All right, fine." Olivia sat down at her desk, grabbed a pen, and began to quickly initial the small stack of forms. "Here you go," she said, handing the purchase orders back to Greg. "Is there anything else?" she asked.

"No," he said. "Thank you." He quietly turned and left, shutting the door behind him.

"This is so not working," Olivia said.

"What?" Natalia asked.

Olivia gestured around her office. "This."

"I�m not sure what you mean."

"I mean will you come down to my suite with me so we can ... talk ... without interruption?"

Natalia nodded.

"Good. I tell you what. I�m going to head down there now. Would you mind checking with Sheila and letting her know I�m going to be out the rest of the day? Just ask her to handle anything that comes up. That�s what a general manager is for, after all."

"All right, is there anything else?"

"Yes, after you take care of that, I�d love for you to come down to my suite, okay?"

"Okay."

Olivia hugged Natalia and then whispered in her ear, "I�ll be waiting."

Natalia shivered.

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

Chapter 63

Olivia paced across the carpet in her penthouse suite, impatient to see Natalia. She�d asked her to talk to Sheila primarily so no one would see them leaving the office together headed toward her suite. She hadn�t missed the knowing look on her banquet manager�s face just now when he�d asked her to initial the purchase orders. She�d told Natalia once before that nothing got past Greg; in fact, she was pretty sure he thought they were sleeping together before they actually were.

Hell, I wish you�d been right back then, Greg. I really do.

Personally she didn�t care whether or not he knew. She just didn�t want word getting out before Natalia was ready, and especially not before she�d had a chance to tell her son.

Finally Olivia heard a light tap, and she whirled around and walked quickly toward the door. She threw it open wide to admit Natalia, whose beautiful white smile and adorable deep dimples made her tummy tilt precariously. She looked so pretty in her black skirt and dark turquoise blouse, which looked gorgeous with her dark hair and eyes and exotic olive skin.

As soon as Olivia shut the door, she pulled Natalia into her arms. "I�m so happy you�re finally here."

"Me, too," Natalia sighed.

Olivia drew back to look at her and immediately became concerned at how pale and drawn she looked. She�d desperately wanted to kiss her, but Natalia looked a little unsteady on her feet, so Olivia wanted to make absolutely certain she was all right. "Come over here and sit down," she said, leading Natalia to the couch. "Would you like something to drink?"

Natalia nodded.

"Water? Juice?"

"Maybe just some water."

"Okay." Olivia went to her mini fridge and got out two bottles of water, and handed one to Natalia, and then she sat down beside her on the couch. She could tell Natalia wasn�t feeling well, which was especially worrisome considering Natalia was usually the one who kept going no matter what. In fact, she couldn�t remember her ever getting sick. "How�re you feeling?" Olivia asked.

"I�m okay."

"No, I want you to tell me how you�re really feeling."

Natalia leaned back against the couch with her eyes closed. "I�ve felt better."

"What�s wrong?"

"I just don�t feel good."

"Okay, but ... what�s wrong exactly?"

"I don�t know. My stomach doesn�t feel right. My head hurts."

Olivia felt her forehead and then looked at her more closely. "You�re pale, and look, you�re sweating a little. Maybe you have a virus."

"I don�t think so. I think I�ve just been worried since I got back. You know ... the hearing, Rafe, Frank ... everything�s just ... it�s just difficult right now."

"And you�re worried about me, too, right?"

Natalia opened her eyes and reached for Olivia�s hand, which she pulled onto her lap. "Of course I worry about you. I hated leaving you alone at the courthouse yesterday. I hated that you couldn�t come with us to the farmhouse. I really hated that Frank ended up coming out."

Suddenly Natalia stood up and bolted for the bathroom. Olivia set down her bottled water and followed. As soon as she heard her trying to throw up, she went in and held her head, pulling her hair back out of the way. It was dry heaves, which made Olivia realize Natalia must not have eaten anything that morning.

When the wave of nausea passed, Natalia washed her face with cold water while Olivia stood behind her and watched her in the mirror.

"Are you okay now?" Olivia asked.

"Yes, I�m okay." Natalia turned and leaned into Olivia, tucking her face into the crook of her neck.

"All right, that�s it. You�re coming with me." Olivia had spent time the night before researching Natalia�s symptoms on the Internet. She realized she shouldn�t jump to any conclusions, but she�d discovered her symptoms could be caused by a number of different things, including something as simple as flu or food poisoning or as scary as Addison's disease or viral hepatitis.

There were also some moderately threatening scenarios in between those two extremes, such as appendicitis or peptic ulcer�and, of course, every site she visited listed pregnancy as a likely cause, although she knew that couldn�t be the case, not this long after the one time she�d had sex with Frank�a little fact of life that still made Olivia�s skin crawl. You just can�t be pregnant, right? Even if by some horrible twist of fate you are, well ... then we�ll just have a bigger family, that�s all. I bet you�d still be gorgeous nine months along.

Natalia pulled back. "Olivia, I don�t feel like going anywhere."

"I�m taking you to the hospital."

"I really don�t think I need to go to the hospital."

"You�re going." Olivia handed Natalia her large black purse and grabbed her own off the desk, and then she took Natalia�s hand and pulled her toward the door.

"Olivia ..." Natalia tried to pull lose from Olivia�s strong grip.

Olivia held on tight. "You�re going." We�re not going to take any chances with your health. Something is obviously wrong and we�re going to find out what the hell it is.

"Maybe if I just lie down for a while ..."

Olivia paused before opening the door to her suite and pulled Natalia into a fierce hug. "Something�s not right, Natalia. I want you to see Dr. Rick. Now I�m taking you to the hospital. Don�t even try to argue."

When Natalia didn�t say anything else, Olivia kissed her on the forehead, opened the door, and slipped an arm around her waist to steady her as they walked toward the elevator.

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

Natalia sat on the edge of a bed in the ER at Cedars Hospital wearing a thin hospital gown and a little frown. "I don�t see why I have to wait here in this gown," Natalia said, starting to move off the bed. "I should just get dressed and�"

Olivia gently pushed her back onto the bed and then stood right in front of her to block any further attempts at escape. "My goodness you�re a grumpy patient," she said. "I believe you�re still in a hospital gown because we�re waiting to see if Dr. Rick wants to admit you."

Olivia�s teasing grin was almost enough to make Natalia smile�but not quite. She was still too worried that Dr. Rick might try to keep her overnight as he�d threatened to do depending on what the tests revealed. I can�t stay here. I need to get home before my son gets off work.

"I�m not really a patient at all," Natalia said. "In fact, if you could just get me my clothes ..."

"Oh, I don�t think so, not till Dr. Rick says it�s okay." Olivia eased Natalia�s thighs apart and stood between her legs. "Besides, I was just thinking how sexy you look in your �outfit.�"

This time Natalia did smile. Once long ago when she was annoyed with her, Natalia had told Olivia she didn�t think she was funny, but in truth she loved Olivia�s quick wit and sardonic running commentary on life. However, she was feeling much better now after the shot Dr. Rick had given her to help with the nausea, and all she wanted to do was get dressed and get out of there.

I�m beginning to understand better how you must have felt those times you were trapped in the hospital for so long

, she thought. Then she shivered as she felt Olivia�s hands slip under the bottom of the hospital gown and begin to glide up and down her thighs. See? I must not be too sick if you can make me feel like this.

"I like you in short skirts," Olivia said. She took one hand and reached around behind Natalia where the gown was more open than closed, thanks to the inadequate number of flimsy ties, and slipped her hand under the thin material to massage her back. "I also love you in backless gowns," Olivia added. "You have the most beautiful back I�ve ever seen."

Natalia giggled and leaned against Olivia, enjoying the impromptu back rub and the warm and fuzzy feelings that were beginning to flow through her body, but her head jerked around when she heard someone enter the room.

"Nurse Flo!" Natalia cried when she saw the energetic redheaded nurse who�d taken such good care of Olivia after she was shot.

Olivia stepped back, and Nurse Flo went immediately to Natalia�s side. "I just heard you were here for tests. How are you feeling?"

"I�m feeling better. Dr. Rick gave me a shot for the nausea, and that�s completely gone now. I don�t think there�s really anything wrong with me, but Olivia ..."

Nurse Flo smiled at Olivia. "But Olivia did exactly the right thing by bringing you here," Flo said as she picked up Natalia�s chart and scanned it.

"Ha! Told ya�," Olivia said. "It�s good to see you, Flo. How�ve you been?"

"Good, thanks. How have you been doing?"

"I�ve been fine," Olivia said. "By the way, I talked to Doris yesterday," she added with a grin.

Natalia noticed Flo�s expression immediately soften. I think maybe Flo has a crush on the mayor�at the very least. Flo wore her reddish-blonde hair in a plain bun at the nape of her neck, but Natalia knew how gorgeous it looked when she let it loose to flow over her shoulders as she�d done the night Natalia and Olivia had seen her dining with Mayor Wolfe at the Beacon.

"I�m seeing her later," Flo said with a smile. "But let�s get back to Natalia. Are you waiting on test results?"

"Yes," Olivia said.

"I�ll go check and see what�s going on with that."

"Thanks," Natalia said.

"Wait," Olivia said. "You just looked at her chart. Any thoughts?"

"Not really," Flo said. "Well, a lot of women presenting with symptoms like these turn out to be pregnant, but ..." She hesitated, looking at first one and then the other.

"I cannot be pregnant," Natalia said. And I wish everyone would stop saying that! The very thought of carrying Frank�s child made her feel queasy.

"I�ll go see what I can find out." Flo patted Natalia�s hand and bustled out of the room.

"I�m not pregnant," Natalia said to Olivia.

"I believe you. Let�s just wait and see what Dr. Rick has to say." Olivia returned to stand next to Natalia, who was still sitting on the edge of the bed. Olivia smiled at her and caressed her cheek. "It�ll be okay." Damn it, I should have researched whether women can possibly continue to have periods if they�re pregnant, as in it�s rare but it can happen�or wait ... maybe they can have some kind of bleeding when they�re pregnant that�s not really a true menstrual cycle. Shit!

Natalia slumped into Olivia�s arms and rested her head on her shoulder, and Olivia just stood there and held her as they waited to hear back on her test results.

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

Olivia was rubbing Natalia�s back under her hospital gown when Dr. Rick entered, followed by Nurse Flo. Natalia looked up at him expectantly.

Olivia could feel herself tense up despite the smile on the doctor�s face. "So, what�s the verdict, Dr. Rick?"

"So far all indications point toward anxiety as the likely cause. Fortunately we were able to rule out some of the more worrisome possibilities, but since your blood pressure and heart rate were both increased, I had the lab run tests to make sure you hadn�t suffered a mild heart attack or stroke. I even had them do a pregnancy test even though you seemed sure you couldn�t be pregnant. I�ve seen a lot of positive test results for women just as sure as you, though, so I figured we better make certain."

"And I�m not pregnant, right?" Natalia said.

"That�s right. You are definitely not pregnant."

Natalia looked at Olivia. "I told you I wasn�t pregnant." I�d know if I were pregnant; really I would. You can�t be pregnant and have periods, and I haven�t missed a single period since that one awful time I had sex with Frank way back last winter.

"Yes, we�ve definitely ruled out pregnancy," Dr. Rick said. "However, I also wanted to rule out heart problems, as a number of your symptoms are consistent with that. As you may know, heart attack symptoms in women are different than they are for men, and your nausea, clamminess, unexplained fatigue, and even the feelings of anxiety are big indicators�although you didn�t report any of the other major symptoms that would concern me, such as chest pain or any pain in the upper back, shoulders, arm, neck, or jaw. However, women who have heart attacks don�t always have pain, so I wanted to be sure."

"So did you rule out heart problems?" Olivia asked. She was so anxious about Natalia�s health she was having a little trouble following the conversation.

"I think we can rule that out for now," Dr. Rick said to Olivia, but then he turned his attention back to Natalia. "Have you had some additional stress in your life lately?"

Natalia and Olivia both suddenly laughed. Natalia noticed Flo smile, but she didn�t say anything.

"I�m sorry, Dr. Rick," Natalia said. "It�s just that ... well, there�ve been a lot of stressful things in my life lately."

"I know about what happened at the farmhouse awhile back. Have you been getting counseling for that?"

"Yes, I�ve been talking with Sister Anne. She�s a volunteer with the rape crisis center. I mean, he didn�t rape me, but he, uh ..."

"I understand," Dr. Rick said. "I know Sister Anne, and I think it�s great you�ve been seeing her."

Flo nodded. "I�ve heard wonderful things about her from some of the patients I�ve worked with here."

"You may also know about my son, Rafe?" Natalia asked.

"The last I heard he was in a halfway house," Dr. Rick said.

"He had a hearing yesterday and the judge released him, so he�s back home with me now."

"That�s good. I�m glad," Dr. Rick said. "But maybe there�s some stress involved with that? I�m sure there must be some adjustments involved for you both."

Natalia looked down, but Olivia nodded.

"Yes," Natalia finally said quietly. "There�s definitely some stress involved."

"Do you want to talk about it?" Dr. Rick asked.

Natalia shook her head.

"Okay, but I�d encourage you to keep seeing Sister Anne. She�s helped you, right?"

"Yes, actually she helped me a lot after the ... after what happened. I don�t know what I�d have done without her."

"Then I think you should keep seeing her. Maybe she can help you with whatever�s going on now. If not, I can recommend a good psychiatrist, such as Dr. Boudreau. She�s excellent."

"Okay, but I think I�d rather see Sister Anne because I trust her and she already knows about ... well, about a lot of what�s going on. I�ll give her a call later," Natalia said. "So ... if this is just anxiety, I guess I can go home now?"

"I wouldn�t say �just� anxiety. Anxiety attacks can be serious. I�d say at this point, since your symptoms only began manifesting fairly recently, we shouldn�t be too concerned, nor should we ignore them," Dr. Rick said.

"Oh, don�t worry; we�re not going to ignore them," Olivia said. "That�s for sure!"

"Good," Dr. Rick said. "Over 40 million American adults are affected every year by some kind of anxiety problem. Right now I wouldn�t diagnose you with a full-blown �anxiety disorder� though. I think you�re feeling anxious in response to some very real circumstances in your life, which is perfectly normal. If you continue with counseling, take care of yourself, and try to avoid any unnecessary stress, hopefully you�ll be fine."

"So, can you prescribe something?" Olivia asked.

"I already gave Natalia a shot, so she should be feeling better," Dr. Rick told Olivia, "but I�m also going to write a prescription to be taken as needed to help with any recurring nausea."

"I really am feeling much better," Natalia said. "In fact, I feel better than I have in quite awhile."

Dr. Rick turned back to Natalia. "That�s good to hear. However, as I said, you�ll need to continue seeing a counselor and working through whatever problems are the root cause of all this anxiety, okay?"

Natalia nodded.

"Now I want you to check back with me in a week�sooner if you�re not doing better, okay?"

"Okay, thanks, Dr. Rick," Natalia said.

"Yes, thank you," Olivia echoed.

Dr. Bauer scribbled on his prescription pad and tore off the sheet, which he handed to Natalia. Then he smiled at her, as did Nurse Flo, and the two of them left Natalia alone with Olivia in the exam room.

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

Olivia hugged Natalia. "I�m so relieved." Oh my god, I was so worried! Thank god you�re all right! In fact, right now you look like you feel pretty good.

"You were researching symptoms on the Internet, weren�t you?" Natalia asked.

Olivia grinned. "You know me so well."

"Well, I�ve just found out lately how much research you do on the Internet," Natalia said. "Now can I have my clothes?"

"Yes, in fact, I�ll help you get dressed," Olivia said, retrieving Natalia�s clothes from the small closet in the corner of the room and placing them on the bed beside her.

"You�re going to help me?"

"That�s right. After all, you�re a patient in the hospital, at least for the moment. You can�t be expected to do everything all by yourself," Olivia pointed out in what she thought was a very reasonable manner. "And I think we should start with this," Olivia added, tapping her forefinger on Natalia�s pale turquoise bra.

She grinned when she saw Natalia�s quick blush, but she went right ahead and eased her body in between Natalia�s thighs again and reached around to unfasten the top tie on the back of her hospital gown. "Let�s see how many of these there are." Her hands slipped down to untie a second and then a third tie. "Only three. No wonder these gowns gape in the back the way they do�not that I�m complaining in your case, of course."

Natalia grinned and shook her head.

Olivia slipped the gown off Natalia�s shoulders and down her arms and let it pool around her waist, leaving her naked from the waist up. "Now I hope you appreciate that I�m being a very good girl right now, because ... oh my god ..." You have the most gorgeous body. It�d take a saint not to touch you right now.

Natalia suddenly grinned up at Olivia.

"It would be so tempting to do this," Olivia said, running her hands lightly over Natalia�s shoulders and upper chest and then over her breasts. "But I�m going to be very good and not do something so inappropriate while you�re sitting here on a hospital bed." Olivia gently squeezed her breasts and then flicked her thumbs over her nipples, noting with satisfaction that they became immediately erect. "Because that would be so wrong," she whispered near her ear, "and I�m trying to be so good." Well, clearly I�m no saint.

Olivia was surprised when Natalia slipped a hand around the back of her neck and pulled her close for a kiss, but she was more than happy to oblige. Her hormones were having a major party by the time they stopped. "Feeling better, I take it?" Olivia asked.

"Much better."

"Dr. Rick must have had some good stuff in that shot."

"He really must have because I�m feeling good for the first time since we left Hawaii."

Olivia held Natalia�s pale turquoise bra up so she could slip her arms through the straps. "Much as I hate to cover these up," Olivia said, glancing wistfully at Natalia�s womanly curves, "I guess we better do that if we�re ever going to get you out of here."

"Getting out sounds good."

"Yeah, I thought so." Olivia pulled Natalia�s bra on her, carefully making certain each cup captured its sexy target. She reached behind her to fasten the hooks, which took a moment as it was a different angle than she was used to. She grinned with pride once she�d accomplished her mission. "Good lord that was a huge turn-on," Olivia noted. "Who�d have guessed?"

Natalia grinned. "Not me."

"Me either, but ... oh my god! I�m thinking I might have to insist on doing this from time to time." Olivia ran her hands over Natalia�s bra-clad breasts. "Just checking to make sure this is on right."

"Uh-huh, sure."

"Hey, I�ve had more practice taking your bra off. This is new, so I want to make sure I did it right."

"You�re such a perfectionist," Natalia said. She gasped when Olivia�s fingers found her nipples through the sheer material of her bra and gently teased them.

"Only with you," Olivia said, reaching for Natalia�s blouse. "Such a shame to cover all this up." Nonetheless, Olivia helped her on with her blouse and then picked up her pale turquoise panties and slid them over her feet and up her legs.

"I don�t even know why I took these off," Natalia said.

"Maybe because the doctor told you to get undressed?"

Natalia stood and Olivia pulled her panties the rest of the way up. "Maybe I should make sure these are on right." Olivia ran her hands over Natalia�s shapely behind. "Feels good back here," she noted before sliding her hands over Natalia�s stomach. "And here." She slipped one hand between her legs and lightly skimmed over the narrow strip of silky cloth. "I�m not sure about here, though. Does this feel right to you?"

Natalia gasped and leaned against Olivia.

"Was that a no? �Cause if that was a no, I�d be happy to check again."

Natalia giggled.

Reluctantly Olivia removed her hand and picked up Natalia�s skirt. "Well, much as I hate covering up any more of your charms, I guess I better."

As soon as Natalia was completely dressed, Olivia kissed her gently on the mouth. "You�re starting to look a little sleepy. I think I should take you back to my place and let you sleep off whatever that happy juice was in Dr. Rick�s shot, okay?"

"Okay, sounds good."

Sounds good to me, too. I�m going to put you down for a nap in my bed, and then I�m going to lie right next to you and watch you sleep. And you know what? I can hardly wait. Good god, you�d think I was in love or something.

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

Chapter 64

Natalia sat on Olivia�s bed and slipped her shoes off. It seemed odd to be getting ready to take a nap in the middle of the morning; however, the truth was she could barely keep her eyes open, so there was no question about the need to sleep.

"Maybe you should change into something else if you�re going to take a nap," Olivia said. "I think you�d be more comfortable."

"Okay, that�s probably a good idea. I�m feeling really sleepy�and it�s still morning."

"I guess that�s Dr. Rick�s happy juice," Olivia said. "Would you like me to get you something to wear, like maybe a t-shirt?"

"Sounds good." The room was beginning to fade away, as though she were in a dream, but she knew it had to be the shot she�d gotten at the hospital.

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

Olivia went to her dresser and started to pick up a black Beacon t-shirt, but changed her mind and pulled out a white one. Yeah, I think white is definitely the way to go, she thought, not even bothering to chastise herself for her randy thoughts. When she turned back around, Natalia was sitting on the edge of the bed in just her turquoise blouse and panties. "Here you go," she said, handing her the shirt. That�s a great outfit you�re wearing right now, though. Maybe we should rethink this.

Natalia hesitated, but then unbuttoned her blouse and slipped it off. When she picked up the t-shirt, Olivia cleared her throat. "What?" Natalia asked.

"Don�t you think you�d be more comfortable if you take off your bra?"

"Uhm, okay."

"Don�t worry. I know you need to nap, so I�m just going to stand here and watch."

Natalia sat for a moment looking into Olivia�s eyes as though mesmerized, but finally she unhooked her bra before pulling it off and setting it on the night stand on her side of the bed; then she quickly slipped the t-shirt over her head and struggled to get her arms through the sleeves.

"Here, let me help," Olivia said, coming quickly to her aid when she saw she�d gotten tangled up. "You must be about to conk out on me if you can�t even figure out how to get a shirt on."

Natalia grinned and let Olivia help her get the shirt on the rest of the way. "Will you stay with me till I fall asleep?"

"Absolutely," Olivia said. She took off her slate blue suit jacket and hung it in the closet; then she walked around to her side of the bed and kicked off her shoes before sitting down on the edge of the mattress. By the time she lay down, Natalia had already scooted toward her. Olivia held out her arms, and Natalia snuggled into them, laying her head on Olivia�s chest and one hand on her shoulder. Wow, this feels good, Olivia thought as she began to rub Natalia�s back.

"Please don�t let me sleep the rest of the day, okay?" Natalia asked in a sleepy voice.

"I won�t. I�ll wake you up by lunchtime, and then I�m going to feed you chicken soup and ice cream�or whatever sounds good to you by then, okay?"

"Okay."

Olivia could feel Natalia relax more and more in her arms, and then her breathing slowed and deepened, and Olivia knew she�d finally fallen asleep.

You�re not pregnant. You don�t have any of the scary diseases. You�re here in my arms where you belong. God, I�m happy! But now that you�re asleep, maybe I should at least do a little work on the computer, although I don�t really want to move.

Olivia was debating what to do when Natalia shifted in her sleep and the hand she�d put on Olivia�s shoulder slid down over her breast.

Okay, that settles it. I am NOT moving.

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

Natalia�s eyes were still closed, but she was becoming more and more aware of her surroundings. She realized her head was still on Olivia�s chest, which was gently moving up and down in time with her breathing, whose slow and even tempo told her that Olivia had to be asleep. She could hear the soft and reassuring beat of her heart under her ear. She moved and suddenly realized where her hand was, which brought an immediate feeling of warmth both to her cheeks and to that place between her thighs that lately seemed to belong more to Olivia than to herself. She opened her eyes then and gently moved the pad of her thumb over the center of that sexy mound of flesh, smiling when she saw Olivia�s nipple stand at attention, clearly visible under the slate blue silk of her blouse.

Before Olivia, Natalia had never had any interest in another woman�s body�the curve of her hips, the swell of her breasts, the softness of her skin. She was shocked by her recent near obsession with Olivia�s body, including her breasts. She was aware of men sometimes staring at her own breasts, and she certainly knew how much Nicky and then Frank had loved touching them. She�d liked when Nicky touched them, although she�d never had the weak-kneed response with him that she always had with Olivia if she so much as looked at her breasts, let alone touched them. Of course, Olivia made her entire body feel like one giant erogenous zone, from her ears to her neck to her back and everywhere else Olivia looked or touched.

Eventually Natalia had become more and more aware of Olivia�s body�how shapely, how sexy, how desirable�and somewhere along the line Natalia had found herself addicted to touching her ... everywhere. It was an amazing feeling, one she�d never experienced before.

I�ve discovered so many new things with you

, she thought as she lazily slid her hand to Olivia�s other breast. Amazing things. You make me feel alive, like I was asleep my entire life and then one day you kissed me and woke me up. Her thumb teased Olivia�s other nipple till it was standing just as proud as the first one she�d touched. She longed to unbutton her blouse and pull her bra down so she could feel Olivia�s bare skin beneath her fingers.

"Having fun?"

The sound of Olivia�s voice startled her, and she instantly jerked her hand back. "I ... I�m sorry."

Olivia took her hand, put it back on her breast, and held it there. "Hell, don�t be sorry," Olivia said. "I love when you touch me. I love that you want to touch me."

"You do, huh?"

"Yes! You can touch me anywhere and anytime you want. I am all yours. Seriously."

"All mine?" Natalia could feel warm liquid pouring out of her body "down there" on hearing those words.

"Yes, if you want me," Olivia added softly.

"I do want you," Natalia whispered. She trembled when Olivia put her forefinger under her chin and tilted her face up to kiss her lightly on the mouth.

"Good to hear," Olivia said. "I think we should order you up something to eat, though. It�s almost noon, and I know you didn�t eat anything this morning." Olivia started to sit up.

"Okay, but please ..." Natalia held onto her, preventing her from moving very far.

"What?"

"Please don�t get up yet."

Olivia looked into her eyes, and to Natalia it felt as though Olivia could see all the way inside her, leaving her body feeling warm and tingly with desire.

Olivia hesitated, but then suddenly kissed her again, and this kiss was neither brief nor light. It was long and slow and deep, and by the time Olivia broke it off, Natalia was breathing hard and her body was screaming for more.

Olivia gently, but resolutely pushed her back, though, and got off the bed, pausing to look down at her with a look of utter lust, but not even Natalia�s small moan of regret was enough to entice her back into bed. "If I loved you even a little bit less," Olivia said, "I�d tear your clothes off and keep you in my bed the rest of the day�at least."

Natalia felt a violent wrench in her nether muscles at the images that suddenly conjured. There was nothing she wanted more, and right this minute she couldn�t tell that her body had ever felt anything other than vibrantly alive and aroused.

"But," Olivia continued, "I love you enough to put your health first, and right now I know you need to eat."

Natalia sighed. I know you�re right, but I wish ...

"So," Olivia continued. "shall we order something from room service, or would you like to go somewhere?"

"I don�t want to go anywhere."

"Room service it is, then," Olivia said. "What would you like? Something easy on the tummy, like maybe chicken soup?"

"Okay."

Olivia picked up the handset and called room service to place an order for lunch.

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

Olivia played with her ice cream sundae while she watched Natalia eating hers. They were both sitting side by side on the couch in her suite, Natalia still wearing Olivia�s white Beacon t-shirt and her own pale turquoise panties.

"Are you feeling any better?" Olivia asked. You look like you feel a lot better. Her eyes skimmed down Natalia�s slender tan legs and back up to her chest. Let�s face it. You just look gorgeous in my t-shirt. I especially like that the white one doesn�t really hide much.

Natalia nodded and licked her spoon. "Way better."

"I�m glad. You were a very good girl, eating all your chicken soup like that."

"Your chef makes excellent chicken soup."

"He probably made a batch just for you. We can arrange for you to take some home later, if you like�or something else, if you prefer. In fact, we can send an entire dinner home for you and Rafe, and then you won�t have to worry about cooking anything later."

"Thank you, Olivia," Natalia said. "Have I thanked you lately for how good you are to me?"

Olivia grinned. "No need for thanks."

"I think there is. Nobody has ever treated me like you do. You make me feel so special."

"Well, you are special."

Natalia set her ice cream bowl down on the coffee table and leaned sideways against Olivia, laying her head on her shoulder. "You make me so happy."

"Good." Olivia leaned her head against Natalia�s. "I�m just glad you�re feeling better."

"I am, so much better, in fact, that there�s no reason I shouldn�t get dressed and get back to work."

Natalia stood up, but before she could take a single step, Olivia pulled her straight down on her lap, with her back against Olivia�s chest, and wrapped her arms around her midriff, effectively holding her captive.

"Just a minute, now," Olivia said. "I doubt your boss would want you going back to work after spending half the morning in the ER." Seriously, you are not going anywhere.

Natalia giggled, but when she tried to get up again, Olivia held her even tighter, so she finally just relaxed and leaned back against her chest, letting her head tip back to rest on Olivia�s shoulder. "I don�t know. I�d hate to get fired."

"You are so not going to get fired," Olivia said softly. "I think you should stay here and relax till it�s time to pick Rafe up from work."

"That does sound good."

"Are you still sleepy? Maybe you�d like to take another nap."

"No, I�m not really sleepy, but I�m not feeling terribly energetic either."

"Maybe you need a massage to help you relax. We could get Angelica up here."

"No, that�s okay. Angelica ... well, that doesn�t sound all that relaxing to me."

"Okay," Olivia said with a chuckle. She stroked Natalia�s hair slowly. "Love your hair," she said, turning her head to breathe in the faint aroma of her raspberry shampoo. She ran her fingers over Natalia�s cheek and across her lips. "It always smells so good." Her hand floated down Natalia�s throat and onto her upper chest. She brought her other hand up and began to massage the muscles there.

"Mm, that feels so good."

"I know a person can hold a lot of tension in the muscles here." Olivia massaged her chest muscles for several minutes before moving to her shoulders, and then she worked her way down Natalia�s arms. Boy, I love holding you on my lap like this. You just feel amazingly good.

"I didn�t realize how much tension there was in all those muscles till you started massaging them," Natalia said.

Olivia gently massaged her stomach and her midriff, and then finally cupped her breasts and gently massaged them. "I don�t want to neglect anything," she whispered into her ear. She could feel Natalia nod. She loved how much Natalia enjoyed being touched. She sure never got tired of touching her.

I know I shouldn�t get too carried away here, but could anyone really blame me for wanting to do this?

Olivia slipped her hands under the front of the white t-shirt and caressed Natalia�s bare breasts. Both Natalia�s moan and the sudden movement of her hips made the incessant ache between Olivia�s legs spike. God, just imagine if we lived together and we could do things like this anytime we wanted.

She could feel Natalia�s hands gripping her thighs and suddenly realized she�d better stop while she still could. "Hey, maybe I should let you go before I lose what little self-control I have left and attack you just hours after bringing you home from the hospital. So not cool."

"I don�t want you to let me go," Natalia said so softly Olivia almost couldn�t hear her.

"I don�t want to, but I feel like I should. You were really ill earlier, and I don�t want�"

Natalia cut Olivia�s sentence short by twisting around and kissing her. This time Olivia was the one who moaned.

Hell, how could anyone expect me to resist this?

She returned the kiss with fervor, but her worries over Natalia�s health won out over her libido, and she gently pushed her back. "Seriously, let�s not take a chance on overdoing it, okay?"

"But ..."

"I�m serious. We need to stop." Shit! I can�t believe I actually said that.

"Okay, but only if ..."

"Only if what?"

"Only if you just let me do one thing."

"You can do anything you want. You know that."

Natalia�s quick dimply grin was the only warning Olivia got before Natalia turned around and knelt between her legs, and then she felt slender fingers unbuttoning her slate blue blouse.

"Hey, now, wait just a minute" Olivia said, trying to stop Natalia�s nimble fingers.

"You said I could touch you �anywhere and anytime� I wanted."

"Yes, but ..."

Natalia undid her last button and spread her blouse open to reveal a matching slate blue bra. "You also just said I could do anything I wanted."

"Well, but I didn�t mean ..."

Natalia cupped Olivia�s breasts and squeezed them gently. She watched Olivia�s face as she peeled one bra cup down. "Anywhere," she repeated and then pulled the second cup down. "And anytime. That�s what you said." Natalia swirled her tongue around one pale tip while her fingers played with its twin.

Olivia opened her mouth to say something, but moaned when Natalia began to suck on her nipple. "Oh my god." Have we not clearly established that I�m no saint? And now I have to make you stop. Damn it!

Natalia moved her head over Olivia�s other breast and caught a tiny pink prisoner in her mouth.

"Natalia ..." Jesus, that just feels too good. Obviously Natalia had figured out how sensitive her breasts were, and this was making the rest of her rebel hard against the notion that she should be good and make all this stop.

"Mm?"

"Please ... we�ve got to stop." Even I draw the line at "molesting" someone who�s just out of the hospital.

Natalia stopped just long enough to ask, "Why?"

"Because you were just in the ER a few hours ago, that�s why."

"I feel fine now."

"Well, I�m still worried," Olivia said, pushing her back firmly. Seeing the woebegone expression on her face, though, she drew her close for a deep kiss, before pulling her bra back up and buttoning her blouse. "Now come up here. We need to talk," Olivia said, patting the cushion next to her. And then I�m going to have to take a cold shower�not that that�s likely to help any.

Natalia sat back down on the couch next to Olivia and turned sideways to face her. "What do we need to talk about?"

"We need to talk about what�s causing this anxiety that�s so bad it�s making you throw up�and then we need to figure out what we�re going to do about it." I just pray to god the solution doesn�t involve us having to break up, because at this point I just don�t know if I can live without you.

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

Chapter 65

Natalia�s little burst of energy had dissipated, and she felt lethargic again, like there was a heavy weight pressing her down.

"Are you cold?" Olivia asked.

"Not really."

"There�s a comforter right here on the back of the couch if you change your mind."

"Okay." She didn�t feel cold. She felt worried�so worried, in fact, it was hard to think now that Olivia had brought up the elephant standing in the corner of her luxury suite trumpeting its disapproval. She didn�t really need an imaginary pachyderm to tell her she had to face her problems head-on or she�d never have the life with Olivia she so desperately wanted.

"So ... about this anxiety ..." Olivia said.

"I don�t know what to say ... or what to do."

"You said you were going to call Sister Anne. Maybe that�s a good place to start if you don�t want to talk with me about it."

"It�s not that I don�t want to talk with you. It�s that I don�t know what to say."

"Okay, I don�t want you to feel pressured."

"That�s just it. I do feel pressured."

"I make you feel pressured?"

"No, not you. Rafe. Frank. Father Ray. Everything."

"But this is partly about us, right?

Natalia nodded.

"Is there anything I can do? Tell me what you want."

"I want us to have a life together."

"I want that, too."

"But I have to tell Rafe first."

"I know."

"And I think I need to do it sometime soon before he hears it from someone else or maybe figures it out on his own."

"Okay."

"But the problem is I don�t think it�s a good idea to tell him right now. He just got out of the halfway house, and I don�t want to do anything that�d make his life any harder right now."

"Well, we already discussed waiting, and I told you I�m okay with that."

"Well, I�m not okay with that."

"So what are you saying?"

"I don�t want to wait."

"Does that mean you want to tell Rafe now?"

"I think that�d be a mistake." Natalia was beginning to feel dizzy from trying to work her way through the convoluted mess that was her life.

"Uhm ..."

"And meanwhile Frank is just ... it just seems like all of a sudden he�s all over my life again!" Natalia could feel her stomach clenching up at the memory of leaving Olivia after the hearing and suddenly having Frank in her face the rest of the day, while Rafe just blossomed with happiness in Frank�s company. That should have been you at the farmhouse yesterday, not Frank.

"Do you need to have a talk with Frank about backing off?"

"He doesn�t really listen to me, Olivia."

"Well, yeah, I�ve kind of noticed that."

"He just decides in his own head what I�m thinking and feeling�or what I should be thinking or feeling�just like he did last winter, and then he just pushes and pushes."

"I know he can be persistent."

"Part of the problem is I think he�s really helping Rafe right now, and I don�t want to do anything that might ruin that." She could feel Olivia�s gray-green eyes looking into her again. She felt upset and a little ashamed at her inability to figure out a solution to her dilemma. I have to figure this out, though. I love you so much and I just couldn�t bear to lose you.

"Do you think you can just ... hang on for a while, at least until you feel the time is right to tell Rafe about us?"

Natalia hugged her arms around her stomach, which was really starting to cramp in earnest. "The problem is Frank is really starting to worry me. He�s just everywhere I turn."

Suddenly Natalia jumped up and ran to the bathroom, where she threw up most of her lunch. Afterward she rinsed out her mouth and patted her face down with cold water. She was leaning against the sink with her head hanging down when Olivia knocked and opened the door.

"Are you okay?"

Natalia slowly shook her head. "I got sick again."

"Are you ... do you need to stay in here just in case?"

"No, I think I threw up everything I had in my stomach."

Olivia got a clean washcloth and wet it with cold water, and then began running it over Natalia�s face and the back of her neck. "We need to get one of your pills in you, if you think you can keep it down now."

"Okay."

They walked back into the other room, and while Natalia leaned against the back of the couch, Olivia fished the prescription bottle out of her purse. "Okay, it says �take one as needed.� I�m thinking it�s needed right now." She got a bottle of 7UP out of the mini fridge and opened it, and then handed the bottle and a pill to Natalia. "Here you go, and maybe the fizzy soda will help, too."

Natalia swallowed the pill down with a little sip.

"Come on, I�m putting you to bed," Olivia said.

"I can�t go back to bed. I need to pick Rafe up from work in a little while."

"I�ll pick him up. I think you should stay here at least for tonight so I can take care of you. Besides, it�d be better for you to be here in town rather than way out in the country far away from the hospital ... just in case."

"I don�t need to go back to the hospital."

"Maybe not right now, but I don�t want to take any chances, do you?"

"No, I guess not." It was hard for her to admit she was having any kind of physical problem. Normally she could keep going no matter what. In fact, that�s what she�d done all her life. She�d had to.

Olivia led her by the hand to the bed and set the 7UP bottle on the small night table on her side of the bed. "Is it okay if we let Rafe take your car for the evening?"

"Sure."

"Okay, then I�ll just have him bring me back here and let him go do his own thing."

Natalia smiled. "He�ll love that."

"All right, it�s settled then."

"You�re not going to ... say anything, are you?"

"Me? No, of course I�m not going to say anything. You know me. I�ll be gentle as a lamb."

Natalia remembered that�s what Olivia had said the day she�d visited Rafe in the Springfield lockup back when he was refusing to see his own mother because he blamed her for getting him arrested. Miraculously when Olivia came back out after talking to Rafe, she�d told Natalia Rafe had promised to see her during visiting hours the next day. When Natalia saw him the following day, he had a vastly improved attitude. I don�t know what you said to him, but whatever it was, it worked a miracle.

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

Natalia was sound asleep by the time Olivia left to pick Rafe up at White Castle, where he�d been employed during his work-release program at the halfway house, one of whose requirements was that everyone either be in school full-time or gainfully employed.

When Rafe got into Natalia�s car, he was surprised to see Olivia sitting at the wheel. "What are you doing here? Where�s my mom?"

"She�s not feeling well, so I said I�d come pick you up."

"What�s wrong with her?"

Olivia pulled into traffic and headed back toward the Beacon. "She�s been nauseous and throwing up the last couple of days."

"So she has the flu?"

"Well, that�s what we thought at first," Olivia said, "but her symptoms were too severe, so when she got violently ill again this morning, I took her to the ER, and Dr. Rick ran some tests."

"She�s in the hospital? Why didn�t you tell me?"

"No, she�s not in the hospital. She�s in my suite right now sleeping. She took one of the antinausea pills the doctor prescribed, and it put her right to sleep."

"Can I see her?"

"Of course, that�s where we�re headed," Olivia said. "We were thinking it might be a good idea if she just stays where she is, at least for the night."

"Maybe she should come home with me."

Olivia glanced sideways at Rafe as she pulled into the Beacon parking garage. He was staring directly at her, and his eyes were narrowed. "The farmhouse is a fairly long drive if she were to need to go back to the hospital for any reason. I�m just trying to think what�s best for your mother, Rafe. I think that�s the most important thing right now."

Rafe remained silent as she parked Natalia�s car, and neither spoke as they rode the elevator to the top floor. When Olivia opened the door to her suite, Rafe entered and strode directly to his mother, who was sound asleep in Olivia�s bed. He sat on the edge of the bed and brushed her hair back from her face, then looked up at Olivia.

"She looks pale," Rafe said.

"Yes, I know," Olivia said. "I�m worried about her."

Natalia stirred and slowly opened her eyes. When she saw her son sitting on the edge of the bed, she smiled. "Rafe, you�re here."

"Yeah, are you okay, Ma? You don�t look so good."

"I�m all right. I ... I just haven�t been feeling well."

"Olivia said you went to the hospital this morning."

"Yes, she took me."

"What did they say? What�s wrong with you?"

"Dr. Rick said it was anxiety."

"Anxiety? About what?"

"I ..."

Olivia approached the bed and looked down at Natalia, who seemed to be getting agitated.

"Maybe this isn�t a good time for an in-depth discussion," Olivia said.

Rafe looked up at Olivia. "This isn�t any of your business, Olivia," he said.

Olivia could see his dark eyes were crackling with anger, and it all seemed directed at her. Well now, this is just peachy.

"Rafe, don�t talk to Olivia like that," Natalia said. "She�s the one who took me to the ER, and she�s the one who�s been taking care of me today."

"Ma, I just think she interferes too much."

"Like when she interfered twice to save my life?" Natalia asked.

Olivia could see Natalia�s temper starting to get away from her. She was normally easygoing, especially with her son, but Olivia knew first-hand what a hot temper she could have under the right circumstances.

"What do you mean twice?" Rafe asked. "I know you think she saved your life at the bank."

"She did save my life at the bank. She stepped in between me and a bullet, and she pushed me out of the way. She almost died, Rafe."

"Okay, fine, so when was the other time?"

Good lord, doesn�t he know what happened at the farmhouse? How could he not know? Doesn�t he read the paper or watch TV?

Olivia knew recently Rafe�s entire life had been divided between living at the halfway house and working at White Castle. Maybe he really had been too isolated to hear what happened. She could definitely see Natalia not wanting to tell him, especially considering how traumatized she�d been after the sexual assault. Olivia knew Frank had been to see Rafe, but she guessed Frank hadn�t said anything either. Probably because he was trying to convince Rafe to move in with him when he got out of the halfway house, and Frank knew Rafe wouldn�t do that if he were worried about his mother being alone out there after getting attacked.

"The men who robbed the bank showed up at the farmhouse a few weeks ago," Natalia said.

"Why would they go there?"

Christ, he doesn�t even realize he knows one of them.

"The leader was ..." Natalia hesitated and pulled the sheet more tightly around her. "It was Jacob."

"Jacob? Who�s that? Wait, you don�t mean Jacob Helstrom, do you? From the prison?"

"Yes."

Rafe abruptly stood up. "He ... he used to say things to you when you came to visit me, and he ..."

"I know he was probably one of the men who ... bullied you, Rafe," Natalia said softly.

"Then he must have gone out there to hurt you, right? Maybe because he thought you might recognize his voice or something?"

"Well, he didn�t get a chance because Olivia was upstairs when he came in, and before he could ... hurt me, she came down and stopped him."

Rafe whirled around toward Olivia. "What did you do? How could you possibly stop him?"

"I�d gotten a gun for protection and I�d left it in my closet, so I took it and I ... I made him stop."

"Stopped him how?" Rafe asked.

"She shot him, Rafe," Natalia said. She sat up, but still clutched the sheet to her chest.

Rafe turned toward Olivia again. "You just walked up to him and shot him?"

"Well, not exactly," Olivia said. Christ, this is so not a good conversation to be having right now. Natalia�s just going to get sick again if this doesn�t stop. She began to massage her forehead. Clearly nobody had told Rafe anything about what had happened. Olivia had assumed he knew and that�s why he�d opted to move in with Natalia after he was released from the halfway house when not that long ago he�d been so excited about "batching" it with Frank at his place.

"I mean ... I know he�s a bad guy and all," Rafe said, "but I just don�t understand why you did that�unless you wanted to get revenge because he shot you at the bank."

Olivia could feel her own temper rising. Boy, he really doesn�t like me. I save his mom, shooting his former tormentor in the process, and the kid�s pissed at me. "I wasn�t out for revenge, Rafe." She made herself keep her temper in check because she figured Rafe�s irrational anger stemmed from his worry about his mother and his resentment of her. Besides, she knew if she lost her temper, it would only stress Natalia more.

Rafe turned back and scowled at his mother. "Why didn�t you tell me about all this?"

Olivia touched Rafe�s arm to get his attention and maybe calm him down, but he yanked it away.

"Don�t touch me," he said.

"Look, Rafe, this isn�t a good conversation to be having right now after your mother�s been so ill. Maybe we could talk about it another time."

"I want to know what happened. I want to know why you shot a man in my house. What if you�d missed and shot my mother?"

"He was trying to rape me," Natalia said.

Rafe jerked his head toward his mother and his eyes widened. "What?"

"Jacob was trying to rape me. He tore my clothes and threw me down on the floor. When Olivia came in, he was on top of me and he�" Natalia stopped suddenly.

Olivia pushed past Rafe and sat on the edge of the bed, peering into Natalia�s pale face. "You don�t need to go into all that. In fact, I think we should let this go for now. There�s no reason to dredge all this up now."

"Leave her alone," Rafe said.

Suddenly Natalia threw off the sheet and bolted for the bathroom, leaving Rafe and Olivia standing there glaring at each other.

"I told you your mother was ill," Olivia said.

"Well, I wanted to know what happened. She�s my mother so I have a right to know."

"And of course what you want is so much more important than your mother�s health, I guess."

"My mother is none of your business."

"Rafe, your mother sacrificed everything for you. Her life would have been much easier if she�d given in to her parents� demand that she give you up for adoption, but instead she quit school and went to work so she could keep you�and remember, she was several years younger than you are right now. She�s spent her entire life working, often more than one job at a time, just to support you. Couldn�t you try to put your mother first just this one time when she�s so ill?"

Rafe stood there silently glaring at Olivia.

"All right, why don�t you just think that over while I go check on your mother."

Olivia headed toward the bathroom and knocked on the door. When Natalia answered, she went in to find her once more leaning over the sink methodically splashing cold water on her face.

"I guess we�ll be needing another antinausea pill, huh?"

Natalia looked up at Olivia in the mirror and then turned and wrapped her arms around her with her head resting on her shoulder.

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

Natalia slipped on the white terrycloth Beacon robe Olivia handed her before going back out into the main room. Her eyes searched her son�s face. He looked worried and ... contrite. She�d never wanted him to know what Jacob did. She knew he never read the paper and paid virtually no attention to the news, so she�d felt pretty safe, especially when what little he�d told her about the halfway house made it sound like a pretty isolated environment.

"You okay?" Rafe asked.

"Yes, I just got sick again."

Olivia handed Natalia a pill and the bottle of 7UP. "Here you go. Take this. As soon as you�re feeling better, we need to get some food down you."

"I don�t know if I can eat anything, Olivia."

"You didn�t eat breakfast and you threw up lunch. You�ve got to eat or we�re going to have to go back to the hospital so they can put you on an IV."

"I can drive you home," Rafe said. "Maybe you�d be better off in your own house."

"I doubt a car ride is the best thing for your mother right now, Rafe. Besides, I wasn�t kidding about maybe needing to take her back to the hospital if she can�t keep any food down."

"Rafe, honey, I�m really not feeling well. All I want to do is lie down."

"Come on, Natalia, let�s get you back in bed," Olivia said.

"I hate to leave you here," Rafe said.

"Look, Rafe, you�re welcome to stay here, too," Olivia said. "Emma is out of town, so you could stay in her room, or we�ll just book you a room of your own for the night if you�d rather do that."

Rafe stood uncertainly for a moment, watching Olivia tuck his mother back into bed. "Ma, if you think you�re going to be okay, maybe I�ll go ahead and meet Frank. We made plans to get a bite to eat at Company and play catch at the park."

"I think that�s a great idea," Natalia said. "You should go and have fun. I�ll be fine."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, Olivia will take good care of me, and then you and I can touch base tomorrow."

"Okay." Rafe leaned down and hugged his mother. "If you need me, call."

"You can take the car if you want," Natalia said.

"I don�t really need it. Frank can give me a lift. Maybe I�ll just stay at his place tonight, but I�ll leave my cell phone on so you can get me."

"Okay, have fun," Natalia said. She was glad he had plans, even if they were with Frank.

Rafe glanced at Olivia and quickly left without saying anything else.

"Gee, that went well," Olivia said.

Natalia rolled onto her side and tucked her knees up close to her chest. She hated when Rafe got angry, especially when he directed his anger at Olivia. He still seemed to dislike her. She was hoping he might have made some progress on that by now, but obviously he hadn�t. It was going to make it so much harder for her to tell him about their relationship and for him to accept it.

"Look," Olivia said, "why don�t you see if you can sleep a little bit. Just relax and try not to worry. There�s nothing you can do right now anyway, okay?"

"Okay."

"Meanwhile, I�ll order something from room service. Is there anything that sounds good?"

"Not chicken soup," Natalia said. Not after throwing all that up awhile ago.

"Okay, I�ll improvise," Olivia said. She sat down on the bed and began to rub Natalia�s back. "No worries."

Natalia could feel herself begin to relax as Olivia�s hands tamed her tense muscles, and then she finally drifted off to sleep.

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

Olivia was relieved when Natalia finally woke up. She was also determined to keep things as low-key and stress free as possible. She knew Natalia hadn�t kept any food down that entire day, and she suspected she hadn�t eaten much if anything yesterday at the farmhouse. She doubted she�d have tried to eat any of the pizza Frank brought. At any rate it was starting to seem critical that they get some food down her.

"Hey, how�re you feeling?"

"Better," Natalia said, stretching. "What time is it?"

"A little after seven."

"I can�t believe I slept so long."

"It�s good for you," Olivia said. "But you know what�d be even better?"

"What?"

"Food."

"Okay, I�ll try, but no chicken soup."

"I didn�t order any kind of soup at all."

"So what did you get me?"

"Things that are easy on the tummy. Do you feel like sitting on the couch, or would you like to eat in bed?"

"I�ll get up."

As soon as they relocated, Olivia began to uncover the dishes on the room service cart. "Let�s see, I got a variety of things in hopes something might appeal."

Natalia smiled for the first time in hours, and Olivia was thrilled to see her smile and the accompanying display of dimples.

"Like what?" Natalia asked.

"I know you love oatmeal, so ..."

"You got me oatmeal? That actually sounds kind of good."

"There�s also applesauce, chocolate pudding, crackers, cheese�and there�s some dessert in the mini fridge."

"Dessert?"

"Mm-hm."

Natalia grinned. "What is it?"

"Root beer float."

Natalia laughed. "I love root beer floats!"

"I know you do," Olivia said with a grin. "Now let�s see if you can get some oatmeal down�and more importantly keep it down."

"Okay."

Olivia set the food out on the coffee table and then sat beside Natalia on the couch. "Buen apetito," she said.

"Hablas espa�ol. �Qu� bueno!" Natalia said with a laugh.

"Well, I wouldn�t say I actually speak Spanish, but I do remember a little from high school." Olivia could see Natalia looked much more relaxed, and the more food she got down, the better her color looked. I think if we can shut the world out for the rest of the night, we can get you feeling better, she thought.

"Anytime you want to practice, just let me know," Natalia said.

"Let�s not go overboard here." Olivia was happy to hear Natalia laugh. It wasn�t lost on her that Natalia seemed perfectly relaxed and happy when it was just the two of them. She�d definitely noted a pattern in when and why she was having the anxiety attacks. We�re going to get you through this.

"What are you thinking?" Natalia asked.

"How much I love you," Olivia said. Natalia leaned toward her and Olivia took her in her arms and held her close. "Everything�s going to be okay," Olivia said.

"I hope so."

"It will be. We�ll figure all this out ... together."

Natalia looked up at her and leaned closer, and Olivia pressed a small, sweet kiss to her perfect lips.

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

Chapter 66

Natalia felt much better after eating some of Olivia�s easy-on-the-tummy meal she�d ordered up from room service. She realized her current feeling of well-being was as much from Olivia�s thoughtfulness as it was from the actual food. You�ve just been so sweet to me. Nobody has ever treated me the way you do.

She�d taken a shower and put on a pair of Olivia�s black knit shorts and her black Beacon t-shirt. Olivia had also handed her a pair of black panties, "so you�ll match," she�d said. Natalia had smiled at that because she knew how much Olivia loved matching lingerie. The hot shower had felt great, as though it were scouring away all the tension and worries that had suddenly stacked up and overwhelmed her once they�d gotten back to Springfield.

The trip to Hawaii had been perfect. It was not only where they�d made an amazing change in their relationship, but it had also shown her how wonderful a life with Olivia could be. Olivia was exciting and thoughtful and funny and generous, and she made Natalia feel like the most important person on earth. Furthermore, their newfound physical intimacy had been nothing short of mind-blowing and had left Natalia completely addicted to Olivia�s touch.

Natalia�s reverie was interrupted when Olivia breezed back into the room after her shower. She was wearing charcoal gray knit shorts and a dark gray Beacon t�shirt. She headed directly to the bed�smelling wonderful, Natalia thought�but didn�t get in right away.

"How are you doing?" Olivia asked as she gazed down at Natalia.

"Much better."

"I guess food helps, huh?"

Natalia giggled. "Yes, a lot."

"Good. Is there anything else I can get you? Tea? Soda? Water?"

"A hug?" Natalia asked, turning down the covers on Olivia�s side of the bed.

"I could probably do that."

Natalia loved seeing Olivia�s quick grin as she climbed into bed. She looked happy, and Olivia never looked more beautiful than when she was happy�unless maybe it was when she was sleeping. She watched Olivia slip under the sheets and hold out her arms, and Natalia gratefully snuggled into her embrace.

"How�s that?" Olivia asked, hugging her tight for a moment before relaxing her hold.

"Perfect." Natalia�s head was resting on Olivia�s shoulder and she had one arm thrown across her midriff. "Just like you."

Olivia laughed. "Well, I think that�s one thing I�m definitely not."

"I think you are."

Olivia slowly rubbed Natalia�s back. "Do you think you can sleep?"

"I�m not sleepy. Besides, I�ve already slept so much today."

"I know, but I think it�s good for you after how ill you�ve been."

"Olivia, I�m so sorry for the way Rafe talked to you earlier."

"Hey, don�t even worry about that. I know he has ... issues with me, and I understand why."

"But he shouldn�t."

"Look, I don�t want you worrying about anything right now."

"But I think we should talk."

"We can talk tomorrow ... or whenever. I think for now you need to just relax and not worry about anything. We don�t want you losing your dinner, now do we?"

"No, we don�t."

"Would you feel better if you called tonight and made a date with Sister Anne?"

"I already did that while you were in the shower. We�re going to get together tomorrow."

"That�s great. Maybe she can help you with all this."

"I hope so," Natalia said. "But you�re the only one who can help me with some things."

"Like what?" Olivia asked, instantly concerned. "What do you need?"

"A kiss?"

Olivia sighed and kissed her on the forehead, but Natalia leaned up and pressed her lips against Olivia�s. Olivia kissed her gently, but quickly drew back.

"Don�t stop," Natalia whispered.

"I really think you should try to sleep," Olivia said.

"Please," Natalia whispered.

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

Oh god. I want you so much, but I just don�t think this is a good idea.

"Olivia?"

"I, uh ... Look, don�t you think you should just ... take it easy?"

"I�m feeling fine. Better than fine now."

"Well, I don�t think we should do anything that might make you feel worse."

"But I think ... this ... would make me feel better."

God, I think I used up all my self-control earlier. I�m running on fumes here.

"Olivia?"

"I don�t know, Natalia. You were so sick earlier."

"I�m not sick now." Natalia kissed Olivia lightly on the lips.

Oh crap. That is so not fair when I�m trying so hard to be good. It�s not like that comes easy to me.

"Please?"

"So ... you want a kiss before you go to sleep, is that it?" Maybe one little kiss wouldn�t be so bad, would it?

Natalia grinned and nodded. "A real kiss."

It�s not like I�m not dying to kiss you right now. Hell, I�m always dying to kiss you.

Olivia turned on her side and began to kiss the love of her life. It felt as though she hadn�t kissed her, really kissed her, in ages, and all she wanted to do was savor everything�how she smelled, how she felt, how she tasted. "You have the softest lips," Olivia said. "Soft and sweet."

She ran her tongue across Natalia�s upper lip and then nibbled on her lower one before beginning to kiss her again. She tried to keep the kiss relatively chaste, but before she knew it, things started heating up and she slipped her tongue past those lips to savor the more intimate terrain beyond. She could feel Natalia�s hand slipping under her shirt to caress the bare skin on her back as she continued her slow, deep kiss.

Okay, I think we better stop �cause this is startin� to feel way too good.

Olivia abruptly broke the kiss and looked into Natalia eyes, which were currently very dark and very unfocused. "Maybe you should try to go to sleep now, okay?"

Natalia rolled over so she was lying partly on top of Olivia, and she initiated another kiss. This time she was the aggressor.

Olivia�s mind told her to stop, but her lips gave way to Natalia�s probing tongue. Oh my god. Feeling Natalia�s tongue caressing hers inflamed every cell in her body, and without thinking her hands slipped under the waistband of her black shorts and cupped her bare buttocks, kneading the sexy globes of flesh while Natalia�s tongue thoroughly explored her mouth.

Feeling in danger of totally losing it, Olivia managed to break the kiss once more, and her hands found a much safer perch on Natalia�s back�on top of the t-shirt. "Wow!" Damn it, that�s not what I meant to say. "I, uh ... I think we should stop before things get too out of hand." There, that�s what I meant to say.

Natalia pushed Olivia�s gray t-shirt up and caressed one breast with her hand while her mouth found the other one.

Oh god, that is so not stopping. I should make you stop. I should just get up and go to the couch or something. I should�

Olivia gasped when Natalia�s hand crept under her shorts and down between her legs to cup her sex. She grasped her arm to make her stop, but Natalia had already found the one place that made Olivia forget about everything except the incredible pleasure suddenly radiating from her center outward through the rest of her body. She was so turned on it took a very small amount of direct intimate contact for her to suddenly climax hard enough she thought her back might just snap. When she finally opened her eyes, she saw Natalia smiling at her, dimples clearly in evidence and obviously very pleased with herself.

Well, hell, I can�t resist that any longer. This is totally not my fault,

Olivia thought as she rolled on top of the sexy body lying next to her. This time when she kissed her, she didn�t hold back, and by the time she finally broke it off, she could feel how aroused Natalia was. She pushed up the black t-shirt and feasted on her breasts. She loved her breasts. They were round and full and sexy, and she loved nothing more than touching them and kissing them and making Natalia writhe beneath her with desire. She could tell Natalia was more than ready, so she slipped a hand inside her black shorts and caressed the hot, wet flesh she found there.

"You feel so good," Olivia murmured as her fingers traversed hidden folds, finally lingering on the one spot that made Natalia moan. She concentrated her efforts right there until Natalia�s body went completely rigid and she cried out before going utterly limp.

"I love you so much," Olivia said as she held Natalia�s quivering body. I just hope I haven�t done anything to set you back. She felt guilty for giving in to her lust, but then she realized Natalia had fallen sound asleep. Okay, maybe this was a good idea, she thought with a grin. At least I finally got you to go to sleep.

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

When Natalia woke the next morning, Olivia was already up and showered and dressed for work. She�d also ordered in breakfast. As soon as Natalia stirred, Olivia went over to the bed and sat down next to her. Before she could speak, Natalia pulled her down and they kissed. This is how I want to wake up every morning, Natalia thought.

"How are you?" Olivia asked.

"I feel okay."

"Think you can eat?"

"I�ll try, but I want to call Rafe first and make sure he has a ride to work."

Once she�d talked to Rafe, who was getting a ride to work with Daisy, not Frank, interestingly enough, she headed to the couch to see what Olivia had ordered for breakfast.

"Wow, look at all the choices," Natalia said.

"I figured there�d have to be something you could eat if I ordered a variety of things."

"Actually oatmeal still sounds good, and that went down really easy last night�and stayed down."

"Okay, let�s start you with that, and then if you�re still hungry, maybe you could try some scrambled eggs or pancakes or something."

They sat side by side on the couch eating, shoulders and legs touching. Natalia could tell Olivia was keeping careful watch over how much she was actually getting down. She�d never had anyone take care of her, or at least not since she was a very little girl. The older she�d gotten, the more responsibilities she was expected to take on around her parents� house, and, of course, later on she�d worked round the clock to support her baby. To have someone taking care of her, worrying whether she felt okay or whether she was getting enough to eat, seemed strange but deeply satisfying. The fact that she was in love with that someone made it even more wonderful.

"When are you seeing Sister Anne?" Olivia asked.

"She�s coming here this morning. I thought maybe we could meet here, if that�s okay; and if not, I know there are other places at the Beacon we could go."

"You�re welcome to meet here. I�ll be in my office," Olivia said. "And I don�t want you to worry about coming into work today. I�m much more concerned that you get to feeling better, okay?"

Natalia hesitated. She hated missing work. On the other hand, she hated being too ill to work, as she had been the last couple of days, so maybe she better be smart about all this. "Okay," she finally said.

"I thought for a second there you were going to argue with me."

Natalia laughed. "I thought about it, believe me."

"I bet you did." Olivia laughed and pulled her into a sideways hug.

Natalia turned in her arms and they just sat and held each other for a long time�until the phone rang. Natalia could tell it was work related�probably Greg, she guessed from what she could hear of Olivia�s side of the conversation.

"Well, we have a little double booking snafu I need to go help straighten out. Are you going to be okay here by yourself?"

"Sure, I�ll be fine. You go ahead and I�ll talk to you later."

Olivia hesitated, and Natalia realized how worried she must be about leaving her alone.

"Really," Natalia said. "I�m fine. I�m not even a little nauseous."

"All right, but call me on my cell if you need me, okay?"

"I will."

"Promise?"

"I promise."

Olivia kissed her, got up, and headed for the door. After one backward glance and a jaunty over-the-shoulder wave, she left.

Natalia watched till she disappeared. It�s kind of unbelievable how in love with you I am when it wasn�t that long ago I didn�t even know what that really meant.

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

Olivia sat tapping a pen against the polished surface of her executive desk. She�d taken care of the booking problem, calmed down Greg, and gone through the daily correspondence, and now she was deep in thought.

Trying to think her way through the current problems she and Natalia were facing was making her dizzy, so it was easy for her to understand why Natalia was positively sick at her stomach over them. After all, she was much more directly affected, mostly by Rafe, but also by Frank�s sudden reemergence in her life.

Olivia was worried about Rafe because he was young and had been through so much in the last year�losing his father, going to prison�and right now he was looking at the world through a self-centered prism, one that was keeping him from seeing how much his mother was suffering.

She was also worried about Frank�not that he might succeed in getting Natalia back, but that he might stress her out to a dangerous degree. She was also concerned that once Natalia told Rafe about them, Frank might try to use that to his advantage.

I�m sure Rafe will have a problem finding out his mother is in love with another woman, but when he finds out that other woman is me, he�s going to go through the roof.

Olivia rubbed the bridge of her nose. She was just glad Natalia was meeting with Sister Anne, who she knew had both an advanced degree in counseling and also special training at the crisis center. Perhaps even more importantly, though, she�d been able to help Natalia with her religious issues. God, I hope she can help you today.

Abruptly she picked up the phone and dialed Mayor Wolfe�s cell. "Hi, Doris. Do you have time to grab a cup of coffee with me? (...) Good, meet you in the Beacon bar? (...) Okay, thanks."

She knew Doris could be irritating as hell, but she�d been a very good friend to Olivia and was the best person to talk to about all the things that were currently making her feel like her world might just get blown out of its happy little orbit sometime soon.

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

Natalia sat on the couch of Olivia�s suite listening to Sister Anne. She�d just poured out her heart to the nun in a rambling, disjointed torrent of words and emotion, and now she sat totally drained. She could not see a way through the forest of problems confronting her. She�d almost expected Sister Anne to shake her head in dismay when she shared all her fears, but she didn�t. Instead she regarded Natalia calmly.

"I�m a mess, aren�t I?" Natalia asked.

"No, you�ve just lost your way," Sister Anne said.

"Lost my way?"

"Right now you�re looking outside of yourself for answers. Maybe what you need to do is listen to that inner voice we all have. Isn�t that what you told me before, that you can feel God�s answers to your prayers in your own heart?"

Natalia nodded. "I�ve tried to pray, but every time I do, I start to worry about my son or about Frank or about what�s going to happen to my relationship with Olivia."

"Maybe you need to take care of yourself first."

Natalia frowned. "I can�t put myself before my son."

"You can�t be any good to your son if you don�t take care of yourself first. Just look at what you told me has happened over the past couple of days."

Natalia realized Sister Anne was right. She�d been too upset and too ill to enjoy her son�s sudden freedom.

"It�s not selfish to take care of yourself," Sister Anne went on to say. "In fact, it�s probably the most loving thing you can do, not just for yourself, but also for your son and for Olivia, too."

It was a totally new concept, the idea of putting herself first, but she understood the wisdom of what Sister Anne was saying. "I just realized you�re right. I have lost my way. My faith has always given me strength, but I�ve been feeling so overwhelmed lately, I�ve just ... well, I�ve just gotten lost."

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

"So, how are the lovebirds doing?" Mayor Wolfe asked as she sat with Olivia at a small table in the corner of the Beacon bar.

"I think Natalia is freaking out." Olivia was seriously worried about Natalia�s state of mind and the physical toll it was taking on her body.

"Frank?"

"How did you know?"

"Because I know Frank. Also, I�m sure she�s worried about telling Rafe about the two of you, especially since he just got out of the halfway house. Then there�s that pesky worry that Frank is just waiting to use the situation to his advantage. Don�t forget he thinks you manipulated Natalia into a relationship with you. I think he may believe he still has a chance with her if he can get you out of the way. We know he already told Natalia you�d dump her when you got tired of her."

"I�m not sure what Frank might do. Right now I think he�s trying to shoehorn himself right back into her life with the help of his partner in �crime,� Rafe, who seems to worship the ground he walks on."

"Worrisome."

"Yeah ... but you know what? I don�t think Frank is a bad guy. I think his heart got broken and his ego got wounded, and now he�s just testing the waters to see if he can make any of that better."

"Are you even listening to yourself?"

"What?"

"Broken heart, wounded ego. I�m telling you I wouldn�t trust Frank right now. I wouldn�t put anything past him. He�s not in a good mental place."

"I just don�t think he�d do anything to deliberately hurt Rafe�or Natalia either, for that matter."

"Yeah, well, maybe that�s because he didn�t accost you on the street like he did me."

"No, but he�s gotten in my face a couple of times. It wasn�t anything I couldn�t handle."

Doris sat quietly for a moment. "Look, I don�t have a crystal ball, but I�m telling you that you better keep an eye on that guy."

"I think the bigger worry is Rafe."

"Because he�s not going to accept his mother with another woman?"

"Well, that and especially because the other woman is me. He really dislikes me, Doris."

"Can�t you try to patch things up with him?"

"I�ve tried, but so far I just can�t reach him."

"And meanwhile all this is making Natalia sick at her stomach, I take it."

"Yeah, that�s exactly right." I just hope to god Sister Anne can help her.

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

When Olivia returned to her suite, there was no sign of Natalia, and suddenly the penthouse seemed very empty. Where are you? Wait, I�ll bet there�s a note here somewhere.

Olivia found a note on the desk, but as she was reading it, she heard a knock on the door. To her relief, it was Natalia, who was wearing Olivia�s navy jogging suit. As soon as she was inside and the door was closed, Olivia hugged her as though she hadn�t seen her in a month.

"Did you find my note?" Natalia asked.

"I was just reading it. So you went to church?"

"Yes, I went there to light a candle and pray."

"So ..."

"Yes, I�m feeling better. Actually Sister Anne helped me out a lot earlier."

"She did?"

"Yes, she really did. She helped me see some things and ... well, I�m just in a much better place now."

"I�m so glad. You look better than you have in a while."

Natalia grinned.

Olivia laughed. "Hey, you know what I meant."

"I know."

The phone rang and Olivia went to the night stand to pick it up. "Hello? (...) Emma? How are you, baby? (...) I see. What did Ava say? (...) Are you sure? (...) Well, yes, it�s okay with me if it�s okay with Ava, but don�t forget your day camp starts next week. (...) Yeah, I thought you�d want to get back in time for that, Jellybean. (...) Right. Do you want to say hi to Natalia? She�s right here."

Olivia handed the phone to Natalia and watched her face transform the minute she heard Emma�s voice. Jesus, every trace of worry just melted right off your face, and my god, what a gorgeous smile. If I didn�t already know how much you love our little girl, the look I see on your face right now would be all I�d need to convince me.

Natalia covered the mouthpiece. "Do you want to talk to Emma again?"

"Tell her I want to talk to Ava."

Natalia handed the phone back to Olivia.

"Hi, Ava. How�s it going? (...) Are you sure you�re okay with keeping Emma longer? (...) Yeah, she told me about the birthday party, so ... (...) All right, if you�re sure. I�ll talk with you sometime soon. (...) Thanks, Ava. Bye."

"Did Emma tell you about the party?" Olivia asked.

"Yes, she made a little friend in San Francisco. Isn�t that sweet?"

"Yeah, that�s my girl."

"That�s our girl."

Olivia grinned. She loved how much Natalia loved Emma.

"I�ve learned some important things today," Natalia said, taking Olivia�s hand and drawing her toward the couch.

"Oh really? Like what?"

"Sister Anne helped me see I�d gotten lost."

"Okay, but ... do you know how to, uh ... get found?"

"Yes, I think I do. And then I went to the church and prayed, and I remembered how important it is to stay centered and find that �knowing� in your heart, the part of you that always knows what�s the right thing to do."

"That sounds good."

"It really is. I was so happy with you in Hawaii, and then when we got back, it seemed like all of a sudden I was losing control of my life. Rafe was coming home and Frank was suddenly back in my life full force. I wanted to tell Rafe about us, but at the same time, I felt like I shouldn�t because it might make his life so much harder, which would be the worst thing to do to him right now."

"Have you figured out what to do about all that?"

"Not entirely, but at least I have an idea now what I need to work on."

"That�s encouraging."

"And then Emma reminded me how important my family is to me. I mean ... I know how important my family is, but talking with her reminded me I have to stay strong for my family, for you and Emma and Rafe, so we really can be together one day."

"I understand."

"And mostly I learned how amazing you are�not that I didn�t already know you�re amazing, but Olivia, you�re so important to me. I can�t imagine my life without you. You are everything to me, and I can�t let anything get in the way of that."

Olivia suddenly felt overwhelmed with emotion. It was what her wounded inner self had always craved�finding someone who chose her. She didn�t even realize there were tears rolling down her cheeks till she felt Natalia wiping them away. Olivia pulled her into a close embrace, too emotional to try to say anything out loud.

Olivia felt as though they were perched on a precipice, and she had no doubt they were about to confront some very difficult obstacles, but in her heart she knew if they could only remember their love and have faith in it and in each other, they would somehow find their way to safe harbor. She wanted to tell Natalia that. She wanted to tell her they�d be okay. She wanted to tell her how much she loved her. She wanted to tell her that she�d waited her entire life for her, that she was the love of her life, that she�d do literally anything for her�but she couldn�t get her vocal cords to work, so instead she kissed her and tried to imbue that one simple act with all the love and tenderness she felt brimming in her heart.

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

Chapter 67

Natalia sat with Rafe at a table along the wall at Company. Most of the dinner crowd had left by the time they got there, leaving the small restaurant relatively quiet, except for an older couple sitting near the front and a man reading a newspaper at the counter.

She�d picked Rafe up from work, and he�d wanted to get a Buzz Burger, which surprised her since he�d just worked all day at White Castle. However, Rafe had pointed out Buzz Burgers were nothing like the little square hamburgers he�d spent the day making. She�d readily agreed just to keep him happy. She was still thrilled�and a bit surprised�he�d chosen to live at home with her when she knew he�d been making plans to stay with Frank. Maybe Judge Hern�ndez�s comment about the importance of family had gotten through to him. She had ordered macaroni and cheese, as she knew that would be easier on her stomach. Hopefully she�d seen the last of the nausea, but Olivia had made certain she took her prescription bottle with her just in case.

Having to say good-bye to Olivia earlier had been hard, especially after she�d gotten so emotional. Natalia knew some things about Olivia that apparently no one else knew, including what a tender heart she had.

She had a sudden epiphany. No one else knows ... And that included her son. Rafe just didn�t know a lot about Olivia. After he shot Jeffrey, he�d gone out of the country with Harley to hide, and even when he finally came back, he�d gone to jail. She realized that�s what she needed to do. She needed to tell Rafe about who Olivia really was and all the things she�d done for them both.

She looked at her son as he wolfed down his burger and fries. He looked so much happier than she�d seen him in a long time. Maybe this better mood was the perfect time to try to reach him.

"Rafe ..."

"Yeah?"

"I�m so glad you�re back home now."

"I�m glad to get out of the halfway house. It was better than prison, lots better, but you were still trapped there, except for work."

"Have you thought about enrolling for fall classes?"

"Yeah, I have a class schedule, and I�m going to see an adviser."

"I�m glad."

"I�m going to keep working, though."

"I think that�s wonderful, but I�ll help you, too."

He smiled and she was struck by the beauty of his face when he was happy. He didn�t exactly look like Nicky, but he reminded her of Nicky with his dark hair and eyes and olive complexion. Even his smile was a little like his father�s.

"Your dad would be so proud of you, Rafe."

She could see a cloud come over his face the minute she mentioned Nicky.

"You think so? Even after ... everything that happened?"

"Yes, Rafe, I do. I know he would be. We all make mistakes, including your father and me."

"I guess."

"Rafe, I need to talk to you about what happened yesterday."

"You mean you getting sick?"

"Well, that, but mostly what happened with Olivia."

Rafe tossed what was left of his burger onto his plate and leaned back in his chair.

"Do we have to talk about ... her?"

"Yes, I think we do. Will you please just listen to me?"

Rafe hesitated. Natalia thought he looked as though he might bolt for the door, but finally he leaned forward with his elbows on the table and propped his chin on one hand.

"Okay."

Natalia took a deep breath. "Olivia isn�t just my boss; she�s my best friend. In fact, she�s the best friend I�ve ever had."

"Yes, but ..."

"Please just listen to me for a minute."

"Fine."

"She�s done more for me than ... well, anybody ever has."

"That�s hard to believe."

"But it�s true, Rafe."

"How can you say that when she took our house from us, the house Gus wanted us to have?"

"Rafe, Olivia didn�t take the house from us. I couldn�t afford the mortgage payments, so we were never going to have that house anyway. Someone was going to buy it."

"Yeah, but it was Olivia. She bought it."

"I know."

"Because she�s selfish."

"No, she bought it because she loved your father. They were friends and they loved each other. She was devastated when she found out he died, and she was horrified when she found out she�d gotten his heart. She wanted the house because she thought it would help her feel closer to him, and she was desperate for that after everything that happened."

"Well, I hope she was happy with our house."

"She wasn�t, so she traded it to me for my wedding rings."

"She took your rings? The rings Gus gave you? I told you she was selfish!"

"I think she was still trying to feel close to him, but the rings didn�t help and she gave them back to me a few hours later�but she still made sure I kept the house."

"I ... I didn�t know that. I just thought you ... maybe you�d gotten a raise or were working extra shifts and were buying the house back."

"I should have told you, but you had enough problems of your own at the time."

Rafe was quiet for a moment. "So why did you sell the house?"

"When I found out you were getting beaten up at the prison, I told Olivia how worried I was. She went to the governor and talked him into getting you moved to a safer facility."

"What? I thought Frank did that."

"No, that was Olivia. The governor wanted to buy Gus�s house for a freeway access, and the state paid an above-market price for it. That�s how I got the $80,000 to help pay for your legal fees."

"Olivia made you lose the house?"

Natalia�s eyes narrowed. "Rafe, where did you learn to always think the worst about someone? Not from me."

"It�s just ... it�s Olivia."

"Listen, she didn�t make me lose the house. She tried to get the governor to move you without involving the house, but he insisted. The decision to accept the deal was mine, and I did that to help you. None of that was Olivia�s fault. In fact she was the reason you got moved out of that horrible place where you were getting hurt."

"I ... I didn�t know that."

"I just realized awhile ago that I�d never really told you all the things Olivia has done to help me�and you."

"You mean there�s more?"

"Yes, Rafe, there�s lots more."

"Like what?"

"Remember when I told you I�d lost the $80,000 on a risky investment?"

"Yeah."

"Remember how devastated I was that I�d lost the money I was going to use to pay your lawyer and make a down payment on a house?

"Yeah, I remember that. That was right before Christmas."

"That�s right. And then I got it back, remember?"

"Yeah, but ..."

"Olivia went to Decker, the head of Galaxy, the guy who�d invested the money for me, and she made him give it back."

Rafe frowned. "Yeah, well how did she do that?"

I can see you looking for the bad again. I need to teach you better than that.

"Decker had found out about her heart transplant and thought it�d look bad for Galaxy, so he wanted to push her out of her job as spokesperson. In exchange for the money she had to resign and she had to give a press conference and say she�d lied to Galaxy about her health. He also made her say Decker had tried to get her to stay on, which of course he hadn�t."

"She gave up that big job just to get your money back? That�s hard to believe."

"It may be hard to believe, but it�s true."

Rafe sat completely silent.

At least he looks like he�s thinking

, Natalia thought. Hopefully he really is thinking this over and maybe beginning to change his mind about Olivia a little bit.

"Olivia also gave me several thousand dollars so I could go to Greece to try to find you when you went on the run with Harley."

"She did?"

"Yes, I asked her for the money because I was so worried about you and needed to see you. She gave it to me, and she wouldn�t let me pay it back," Natalia said. "So Olivia gave us a house, she got my money back from Decker, and she got you moved to a safer prison."

"Well, but Frank got me into the halfway house."

"Because Olivia asked him to work with Doris on getting you released to a halfway house."

"What?"

"Olivia was behind that. In fact, she�s the one who told Frank he should go visit you in jail in the first place, partly for your sake and partly for mine. She also asked Frank to use his influence to get you a job in the prison library so it�d be easier for you to work on your GED."

"I thought ... I thought Frank did all that."

"Frank definitely helped. I�m not trying to take anything away from Frank because he�s definitely been good to both of us. That wouldn�t be fair, but it�s also not fair to treat Olivia as a villain because she loved your father, especially after everything she�s done to help us both."

"I just ... I just didn�t know."

"Now just one more thing, Rafe, okay?"

"Okay."

"I told you yesterday that Olivia had saved my life twice."

"I know."

"Can you imagine seeing someone about to get shot and throwing yourself in front of the bullet, knowing you might die?"

"I never really thought about it."

"Well, think about it. That�s the kind of thing your father might have done. He was a good, brave man. And that�s exactly what Olivia did for me. She saved my life. If it weren�t for Olivia, you might not have a father or a mother."

Rafe looked down at the tabletop.

"And what happened at the farmhouse ..."

"I should have been there."

"Well, you weren�t there. Olivia was there. She could have stayed upstairs and hidden, but she didn�t. She hadn�t been out of the hospital very long when that happened. In fact, I had to help her get up the stairs that afternoon so she could take a nap. I don�t even know how she managed to get down the stairs or hold a gun on Jacob for so long, but she did."

"I ..."

"I didn�t want you to know what happened to me. That�s why I didn�t tell you. I only told you because I was so shocked at how you spoke to Olivia yesterday."

"I know I said some things I probably shouldn�t have."

"Yes, you did, and it wasn�t right�and I�m going to tell you something else, since you know most of it anyway."

"There�s more?"

"Remember when you were in the prison infirmary?"

Rafe nodded.

"I came out to try to see you, and while I was waiting, Jacob bribed a guard so he could get me alone."

Rafe immediately frowned and leaned forward. "Did he hurt you?"

"He didn�t exactly hurt me, but he cornered me and he ... he told me all the horrible things he was going to do to me when he got out."

Abruptly Rafe stood up. "I�ll kill him."

"Sit down!"

Rafe hesitated, clearly shocked by his mother�s sharp tone.

"Down, now. That kind of reaction is exactly what ended up getting you locked up." Natalia realized she needed to take a more active stance where her son�s anger problems were concerned. She didn�t want her son growing up to be an angry man.

When Rafe finally dropped back down on his chair, Natalia continued. "That afternoon at the farmhouse was awful. Maybe I shouldn�t be telling you some of this, but ..."

"You can tell me. I�m not a kid."

Natalia swallowed hard. "It�s a terrible thing to be ... attacked like that. I knew he was going to ... to rape me and ... and I wasn�t strong enough to make him stop. I knew Olivia was asleep and I knew not even the two of us could stop him. I was so ... frightened." Despite her best efforts, Natalia could feel tears begin to slip down her cheeks.

"Ma, maybe you shouldn�t ..."

"He told me after he ... he said afterwards he was going to take me with him and ... share me with his men."

"That bastard!"

"And do you really think whenever he got tired of tormenting me, he�d have let me live?"

Rafe looked stunned, Natalia thought. She felt bad to be telling her son things she�d never wanted him to know, but in her heart she knew it was the right thing to do.

"So Olivia really did save my life again that day," Natalia said. "She was so brave, Rafe, and so quick thinking. When Jacob heard her tell him to get off me and saw she had a gun, he put his hand around my neck and threatened to crush my windpipe, which would have meant a quick death. You know how strong he is. He could have easily killed me with his bare hands. That�s why Olivia shot him. She shot him the minute he put his hand on my throat and made that threat. She shot him before he got a chance to carry out the threat."

"I didn�t realize ..."

"And yesterday when I told you Olivia saved my life, when I told you she shot Jacob, you actually talked to her as though she�d done something wrong. That didn�t even make any sense. You treated her like she was the bad guy, not Jacob."

"I ... I�m sorry. That was wrong." He lowered his eyes.

"I�m not the one you should be apologizing to."

Natalia watched her son intently. He looked as though she might actually have gotten through to him.

Buzz walked up to their table. "Do you two need anything else?" he asked. "More soda? Dessert?"

They both shook their heads.

"Did I hear Olivia�s name mentioned? Is she okay?"

Natalia realized Buzz must have noticed the tension at their table and might have concluded Olivia was having a health problem. "Olivia�s fine, Buzz. I was just telling my son what a wonderful person she is."

Buzz looked at Rafe. "I told you last winter that Olivia was a worthy recipient of your father�s heart, and I meant it. Your mom�s right. Olivia really is a wonderful person. Trust me. I know what I�m talking about." Buzz squeezed Rafe�s shoulder and left them alone.

"I guess you think I should apologize," Rafe said.

"What do you think you should do?"

"I guess I should apologize, but that doesn�t mean I�m going to like her now."

Natalia smiled at her son. Well, at least it�s a start.

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

Oh god! Not someone at my door now. Not after the day I�ve had.

Olivia reluctantly dragged herself up off the couch where she�d been resting. She knew it couldn�t be Natalia because she was with Rafe, and her suite was the last place that boy would want to be. As she walked slowly toward the door, it struck her again how empty the penthouse seemed with Natalia gone. She didn�t want her to be ill, but having her there had still been wonderful. After spending so many days together in Hawaii and then most of their first two days in Springfield in each other�s company, it was just very hard to adjust to her being gone.

When Olivia opened the door, she was surprised to see Natalia�and then shocked when Rafe entered right behind her.

"Well, hello, you two. Everything okay?" Olivia asked. "You�re not sick again, are you?"

"No, I�m fine. Everything�s okay."

"Have you both eaten? We could grab a bite downstairs."

Rafe shook his head.

"No, we just had Buzz Burgers," Natalia said. "Well, Rafe had one. I ordered mac and cheese."

Olivia laughed. "That was probably a good idea, and hey, that�s a step up from oatmeal, so I guess you really are doing better." She looked at Rafe, who seemed unusually quiet and also seemed to have lost the veneer of hostility that usually accompanied his sullen silences around her. "So ... what�s up?"

Olivia noticed Natalia lay her hand on her son�s shoulder.

"Olivia," Rafe said. "I just wanted to apologize for the way I talked to you yesterday."

"It�s okay," Olivia said. "I know you just found out what happened to your mom, and I understand that had to be upsetting."

Rafe glanced down at the carpeting, before making an effort to look at Olivia again. "I don�t think it was okay. I think it was ... unfair. I judged you without really knowing all the facts. I wouldn�t want someone to treat me like that, and I shouldn�t have done that to you."

Olivia was stunned. An apology from Rafe was the last thing she expected. Obviously the world had turned upside down when she wasn�t looking. She was almost at a total loss for words, but realized she needed to say something.

"Thanks, Rafe, I really appreciate that."

Rafe glanced at Natalia, who smiled at him. He looked at the floor again before dragging his eyes back up to meet Olivia�s. "I also wanted to thank you for everything you did�you know, for my mom and ... and for me when I was in jail. I didn�t even know about all that till ... well, till just recently."

Okay, mystery solved. I guess I was topic #1 at the dinner table tonight.

"Rafe, I�d do anything I could to help you or your mom. Your mother is the best friend I�ve ever had, and you�re both very important to me. I think you know Emma thinks of you as her big brother."

For the first time since they�d entered the suite, Rafe smiled. "Where is she, anyway?"

"She�s in San Francisco visiting with Ava, but she�s going to be back very soon, and then we all better watch out."

The three of them laughed. Emma�s excessive energy and high spirits were well known.

Rafe looked at his mother. "I told Daisy I�d meet her later, so ..."

"Sure, you go on and have fun," Natalia said. They both hugged. "I�m so proud of you," she whispered as she saw him to the door.

Rafe grinned at his mother and left.

"Wow," Olivia said. "What the hell happened between yesterday and today?"

"Just dinner at Company," Natalia said with a radiant smile as she quickly covered the ground separating them and hugged Olivia tight.

Oh, I�m thinking it was more than just dinner,

Olivia thought. She still couldn�t get over the unexpected apology, but she was too happy to have Natalia in her arms to dwell on it too long.

"So what now?" Olivia asked.

"Now I need to go back out to the farmhouse tonight so I can quit borrowing all your clothes."

"I�m happy to share�or I�d be happy if you didn�t want to wear clothes around here at all."

Natalia laughed.

"I just hate to see you leave. I�ve missed you something awful," Olivia said.

"I don�t need to go right this minute," Natalia said, drawing Olivia toward the couch.

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

Chapter 68

Natalia pulled Olivia down on the couch beside her and took her hands, just happy to finally be able to look into her gorgeous eyes.

"That was quite an attitude change in your son," Olivia said. "What did you do to him?"

"I realized he didn�t really know who you are."

"What does that mean?"

"I mean I realized he didn�t know about any of the things you�ve done to help us, him and me. He shot Jeffrey not long after Nicky died, and then he went out of the country. Even when he came back, he got caught and sent to prison fairly quickly. I was so worried about him and struggling with so many personal issues, like my feelings for you, that I never really told him a lot of stuff, like how you were the one who helped get him moved to a safer prison or how you got back the money I lost." Natalia was surprised to see Olivia at a loss for words, but she pressed on. "So I told him about all that, and I also told him more about what Jacob did ... and what he planned to do."

"Wow, I can�t believe you did that. I know you didn�t even want him to know about Jacob."

"Yes, but I realized part of the problem was I�ve been trying to protect him, but that also meant he didn�t know some things he really should know."

"I just hope he and I can get along better."

"Well, at least this is a start." Natalia could tell by Olivia�s sudden grin that she knew this really was just a start, but at least Rafe had apologized. Natalia was so glad she�d talked with Sister Anne, who�d helped her see she needed to take control of her own life again, and Natalia also realized she needed to take a firmer hand with her son if she was going to help him overcome his current challenges.

"Oh, I realize not all our problems are solved," Olivia said. "You do know he may never like me, don�t you?"

"Yes, I know, but at least he listened to me and then apologized to you�as he should! I�m so sorry about the way he treats you."

"I can deal with it."

"But you shouldn�t have to."

Olivia shrugged. "Listen, it�s getting late. If you really feel like you need to go back to the farmhouse tonight, maybe you should get going�not that I want you to leave, because believe me, I don�t."

Natalia could see the concern in Olivia�s gray-green eyes. You have no idea how much it means to me that you care about me the way you do. I just wish I didn�t have to go. Natalia imagined what it might be like to be able to stay the night�that night and every night�in Olivia�s arms, and she could feel her body warming up at the thought.

"I don�t want to leave you, Olivia."

�I know, but you�ve been so ill the past couple of days, and I don�t want you to overdo it. If you really have to go, then I�d rather you go now so you�re not out on the road any later than you have to be."

Natalia wanted to throw her arms around Olivia, she wanted to kiss her, she wanted to lie with her on the bed and touch and be touched, but before she could so much as hug her, Olivia stood up and held out her hand.

"Come on," Olivia said.

Natalia took Olivia�s hand and let her pull her to her feet. "Are you throwing me out?"

"Yeah. Kinda unbelievable, isn�t it?"

Natalia was torn. She wanted to stay, but she knew Rafe would be home later and she had to be there before he got back.

They both walked slowly toward the door, and once they got there, they turned toward each other and hugged.

It felt so good to be in Olivia�s arms, to feel her warmth and her curves and her love. "I love you so much," Natalia said softly.

"Love you, too."

Olivia kissed her then, a slow, sweet kiss that was over much too soon.

"Call me when you get in, okay?" Olivia asked.

Natalia nodded, and then with a heavy heart, she left.

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

Olivia went in early to her office the next day. By midmorning she�d gotten most of the pressing work taken care of and was now taking a moment to collect her thoughts. She�d talked briefly with Natalia the night before when she�d called to let Olivia know she�d gotten home safe. Olivia thought she sounded about as forlorn as she herself felt to be separated again. She knew she�d gotten spoiled in Hawaii where they were able to be together constantly. If only we didn�t have to come back. I could totally see living with you in a tropical paradise.

She would have loved to spend the night making love to Natalia in her queen-size bed at the penthouse, but instead she�d run an imaginary video in her head of every intimate moment they�d shared until finally her exhaustion outweighed her frustration and she�d fallen asleep.

She knew Natalia would be a little late to work that day because she was taking Rafe to Springfield University to see an academic adviser and perhaps get enrolled for fall classes, and she wanted to be around to offer moral support. Olivia just prayed there�d be no problem getting him admitted. If there were, maybe she could ask Mel to intercede with her father, Clayton Boudreau, who, as far as she knew, was still dean of students.

Olivia knew Rafe needed some positive goals in his life, and she thought college would be a wonderful thing for him. She was so glad Natalia seemed to have made some headway with him yesterday. Hating her was one thing, but being angry and lashing out had only gotten him in trouble in the past, first landing him in juvie, then in the Springfield lockup, and finally in the state pen�and he was only nineteen. Olivia didn�t know what Sister Anne had said to Natalia, but she had the feeling her latina beauty was now keenly aware that Rafe needed some firm guidance, not just in group or individual therapy, but also from his one remaining parent.

The office phone suddenly rang, derailing her train of thought. "Hello? (...) I�m surprised you�re here already." Shit, nothing like showing up early. Olivia massaged the bridge of her nose. "You checked in last night? (...) Okay, sure, I�ll be right down."

By the time Olivia made it down to the Beacon restaurant, her guest was already seated, but rose as Olivia approached the table.

"Hello, Kat."

"Olivia, you look beautiful as always," Katarina said with a smile as she briefly embraced Olivia.

"You got here earlier than I expected," Olivia said. She noted Kat was elegantly dressed as always. She was wearing a dark gray pinstripe pantsuit with a blue blouse that matched her sky-blue eyes, and her long blonde hair was pulled into an updo with pale tendrils falling loose and framing the delicate features of her lovely face.

"I thought it would give me a chance to see the sights," Katarina said. "I like doing that wherever I go."

"I know you�re quite the globetrotter."

"Yes, I am indeed."

Olivia knew Kat had been born in Sweden, but had immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was just a little girl, and now she had only a hint of a Swedish accent. Olivia also knew she traveled quite a bit in her role as software expert for the international company that employed her. The hospitality industry was only one of several key markets they covered.

"Springfield might not be quite as exciting for you as other places you�ve been," Olivia said. She saw a ghost of a smile haunting Kat�s mouth and realized immediately that the city was not Kat�s only interest. Hopefully I�m misreading her intentions. That�s probably it. After all, I turned down her "invitation" when we were in Hawaii, so surely she�s not still thinking about pursuing me. Olivia remembered how often she herself had continued to pursue someone who didn�t succumb immediately to her considerable charms and felt a little less certain that Kat might have given up on her. Well, even if she hasn�t given up, I can just say no. Problem solved.

"Oh, I�m afraid I can�t agree with you, Olivia. I think this is going to be quite exciting," Katarina said. "In fact, I was hoping if you have time today, you might take me on a tour."

"Well, sure, I guess I can do that. If you�d like to stretch your legs, maybe we could go to the park for a walk."

"That would be lovely," Katarina said, now looking over Olivia�s shoulder. "By the way, who�s that man over there?"

"Where?"

"Near the entrance. He�s been staring at us."

Olivia glanced over her shoulder and saw Frank watching them. "That�s Detective Frank Cooper," she said, turning back to face Katarina.

"A policeman. Interesting."

"Oh, I don�t think you have anything to worry about, unless ..." Olivia suddenly wondered if Kat might like both men and women.

"Unless?"

"Unless you�d like for me to introduce you?"

Katarina laughed gaily. "No, there�s no need for that. I�m more than happy with my current company."

Okay, I guess that�s a no to men�or at least a no to Frank anyway

, Olivia thought with disappointment. That might have taken care of two problems at once. Kat wasn�t overtly flirting with her, but she was walking a very fine line between friendly and interested.

When they got up to leave, Katarina reached into her purse and pulled out her wallet.

"No need for that," Olivia said quickly. "Everything will be comped while you�re here�room, food, everything."

Katarina touched her shoulder while gazing into her eyes. "Thank you, Olivia. That�s very kind of you."

"It�s no problem, really. I appreciate that you�re going to help us with the new software."

As they were leaving the restaurant, they passed by Frank, who was still lurking near the entrance.

"Hello, Frank," Olivia said, trying to get past him.

"Aren�t you going to introduce me to your friend?" Frank asked, eyes flitting back and forth between them.

"Uh, sure. This is Katarina Lindstr�m."

"Nice to meet you," Frank said.

"The pleasure is mine," Katarina said.

"So ... where are you ladies off to?"

"The park, I believe," Katarina said. "Olivia was kind enough to offer to show me around your lovely city."

"Well, well," Frank said looking at Olivia with a smirk. "Isn�t that nice of her?"

God, he�s annoying!

Olivia could hear the sneer in his tone and wondered if Kat might have picked up on it as well. Her curiosity was satisfied as soon as they met in the lobby after they�d both changed into walking shoes.

"I don�t think Detective Cooper likes you," Kat said, as they entered the parking garage.

"No, he doesn�t." Olivia unlocked her car and they both got in.

"Perhaps you broke his heart?"

Olivia pulled out of her parking place at the Beacon and headed for the Olivia Spencer Memorial Park. "Long story," she mumbled. She was relieved when Kat didn�t pursue it.

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

Natalia watched as Rafe walked into White Castle. She was elated after their time at Springfield University that morning. Rafe was now officially enrolled in fall classes and seemed excited about it. She prayed everything would go well. She knew Rafe needed a positive focus, and to her college seemed like the ideal choice to provide that. He�d not only be working on a worthwhile goal, but he�d also be with similarly motivated people, including students his own age for the most part, which she felt was exactly what he needed. As much as she wanted to keep him with her forever, she knew the best thing she could do for her son was to help him on his road to independence.

Once he disappeared inside his place of work, she reached for the key in the ignition, but before she could turn it, her cell phone began to ring. She fished around in the cavernous belly of her big black purse till she finally found it.

She glanced at the caller ID and frowned. It was Frank. "Hello? (...) Right now? I need to get to work. (...) Well, yes, I could call her and see if it�s okay, but� What? (...) Sure, I could do that if it�s about Rafe. (...) All right, I�ll see you there. I�m close by, so it won�t take long."

Natalia couldn�t imagine why Frank might suddenly want to talk to her about Rafe. Of course, he and Rafe had spent time together over the past few days, so maybe he knew something going on with Rafe that she wasn�t aware of. I have no choice really, she thought. I have to go see what he knows about my son.

She dialed Olivia�s cell phone. "Hello, Olivia?

"Well, hello there," Olivia said. " How are you?"

Natalia could hear Olivia�s smile through the phone. "I�m still doing much better. How are you?"

"Good. What�s up?"

"Frank just called me and said he had to talk to me about Rafe."

"What about?"

"I don�t know. He wouldn�t tell me."

"Well, that�s just great."

"I feel like I have to go, though. Maybe he knows something I don�t. He said it was important, so I said I�d meet him. I�ll come right to work after that."

"That�s fine. Take whatever time you need, and I�ll see you later."

"Okay, thanks, Olivia."

"It�s no problem. I�m out of the office right now anyway, but we can meet back there later, and then I need you to help me with something, okay?"

"Of course. See you later."

Natalia smiled. Even hearing Olivia�s voice on the phone made her heart sing.

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

Olivia and Katarina were walking around the large pond at the park. Katarina seemed genuinely charmed by the beautiful setting.

"Why is it a �memorial� park in your name?" Katarina asked.

"Because at the time I planned it, I thought I was going to die."

They had almost circled all the way back around to the gazebo, where they planned to rest before hiking back to the car, but Katarina abruptly stopped and turned toward Olivia on the path. "What? Are you all right now?"

"Yes, I�m fine. The doctors got me all fixed up, and I�m good as new now."

"What was wrong? That is if you don�t mind my asking."

Olivia sighed. "I had to get a heart transplant last year."

"A transplant? Oh dear." Katarina looked very concerned and reached out to place her hand on Olivia�s shoulder. "Are you sure you�re okay?" she asked, peering into Olivia�s face.

"I�m fine. Really." Jesus, this woman sure is touchy-feely. I thought Swedes liked to maintain plenty of personal space. Of course, she grew up in America, so I guess that would explain it.

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

Natalia spotted Frank in the gazebo and walked quickly toward him. He was standing there with his arms crossed looking toward the pond.

"Hello, Frank," she said as she came near.

"Natalia." He turned to her and smiled.

Natalia could see it was a very warm smile. In fact, he was looking at her the way he used to before he got so angry. "What did you want to talk to me about?"

"Have you told Rafe about you and Olivia?"

"No, not yet, and I don�t think it�s really any of your business, Frank." She could see his smile fade.

"Well, it is my business, Natalia. You know about my relationship with your son. I care about Rafe."

"Yes, I know you�ve been good to him, and I know he really looks up to you."

"That�s right, and that means when or if you tell him, he�s likely to talk to me about it, don�t you think?"

Natalia frowned, dismayed that Frank was probably right. "Yes, I guess he might."

"Oh, I think he will, and I just wanted to warn you that if you tell him, I think he�s going to have a really difficult time with it."

"I know it might not be easy for him ..."

"Natalia, you�re kidding yourself if you think Rafe is ever going to accept you and Olivia. It�s just not going to happen."

"You don�t know that."

"I can take a very good guess. Think about it."

That�s all I�ve been thinking about�when and how to tell my son.

The more Frank talked, the uneasier she felt. "I have thought about it."

"Well, don�t forget you may damage your relationship with your son for no reason."

"What does that mean?"

"I told you before Olivia will dump you eventually. That�s what she does. She breaks hearts, and you�re not going to be an exception."

Natalia bristled with anger. "You�re wrong, Frank. Olivia loves me."

"You really think so?"

"I know so."

"And you don�t think she�ll eventually find someone new, someone different, someone who�s more attractive or more exciting or ... more experienced?"

Natalia flinched. It was almost as though Frank could read her mind and easily find all her most vulnerable areas. She could feel that aberrant jealousy streak beginning to stir. She was astounded when she�d first felt it, back when she thought Doris was after Olivia and again when she knew for sure Angelica was in love with her. She�d been not only surprised, but a little ashamed of that emotion, and now here it was again, bubbling up from the depths of her pool of insecurities.

"Look over there," Frank said, nodding in the direction of the path leading from the pond toward the gazebo.

Natalia turned to see what Frank was talking about. She saw Olivia standing on the path with a breathtakingly beautiful blonde woman who had her hand on Olivia�s shoulder. She was leaning toward her in a way that struck Natalia as ... intimate.

"I saw them together at the Beacon earlier," Frank said. "I saw them embracing, in fact."

Natalia just continued to stare at the two women on the path. Olivia was smiling now, and that gorgeous smile Natalia loved so much was directed at the elegantly attired blonde.

"They looked very into each other," Frank said as he took in Natalia�s rapt interest in the duo. "Do you know who she is?"

"Yes," Natalia said softly. "I know exactly who she is."

"I�m sorry," Frank said.

Natalia couldn�t take her eyes off the two women. "Sorry for what?"

"Sorry you had to find out about them like this."

"Find out?"

"Find out that Olivia has already moved on," he said. "It was obvious what was going on between those two. I realized you�d be hurt, but I knew you had to know. She�s a sexual predator, Natalia. I told you this is what she�d do. You should have listened to me."

"You�re wrong about her," Natalia said quietly.

"I can tell by the look on your face you don�t really believe that," Frank said. "Now I want you to think about something."

"What?"

"Why tell Rafe anything about you and Olivia, especially now that there�s not going to be anything between you. Why ruin his life for nothing?" Frank moved closer to Natalia, took hold of her upper arms, and turned her toward him, holding her there with her back to the two women so he had her full attention. "Why not think about giving Rafe the family he really wants."

"What do you mean?"

"I want you to give us another chance. We could be so happy together, Natalia. We were happy once, and you know how thrilled Rafe was when he thought we were getting married. I know he�d be overjoyed if we told him we were getting married and we were all going to be a family. Just think how much that would help your son at a time in his life when he most needs help."

"Frank ..."

"No, don�t say anything now. Just think about it." Frank suddenly cupped her face in his hands and kissed her on the mouth, lingering when she didn�t resist, and then he finally let her go and quickly left.

Natalia was so shocked by the unexpected kiss she didn�t move a muscle for a moment. Eventually she became aware of her surroundings, though, and looked back toward the two women, who were still standing on the path. She saw the blonde link her arm through Olivia�s, and then the two of them headed directly toward the gazebo. Natalia turned and left quietly before they could spot her.

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

Chapter 69

Olivia was relieved to be back in her office at the Beacon after taking Katarina on a quick tour of Springfield. After they left the park, Olivia drove around, hitting area highlights, including Springfield University, Spaulding Enterprises, Lewis Oil & Construction, both the Spaulding and Lewis mansions, Cedars Hospital, the local farmer�s market, the small zoo, and the old lighthouse on the outskirts of town.

They ended the tour at Company, where they stopped for lunch, which is where Frank had annoyed her for the second time that day by hovering over their table on the pretense of being interested in their morning activities. Olivia would have thought he was attracted to Kat, except he seemed more interested in smirking at her, as though he had some delicious secret�and based on the gleeful looks he was casting her way, she guessed it was a secret that might well bite her in the butt when she least expected it.

Kat had either been intrigued by the small town charm or skilled at acting. Olivia wasn�t sure which. She only knew that Kat�s manners were impeccable, and she gave Olivia her undivided attention. She was a beautiful, sophisticated, charming woman, and Olivia was certain she�d rarely, if ever, been turned down, except for that one time in Hawaii when Olivia had smiled, but declined an invitation to go back to her room with her after the first morning seminar, where Katarina had been one of the featured speakers on software for the hospitality industry.

And now here she was right in Olivia�s office smiling at her from a chair in front of her executive desk.

"I must thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to humor my love of exploring," Katarina said.

"My pleasure," Olivia responded. "I just really appreciate that you�re going to get us up and running with the new software." I just hope you�re up to dealing with the more nervous members of the staff, like Greg. Olivia knew Greg dreaded any new technology.

"I�m happy to help."

"Tomorrow morning we can get started on that, and then perhaps that afternoon we can hold a training session for the staff?"

"That should be ideal."

"All right then." Olivia was hoping Natalia would be arriving sometime soon. When she and Katarina returned from lunch, Olivia had asked if Natalia had shown up yet, but no one had seen her. Maybe she decided to take a nap in the penthouse. I know she still has a master key. Or maybe she got sick again. The latter thought made her all the more anxious for Kat to leave so she could track down the love of her life.

Olivia stood up, as did Kat. "I�ll see you tomorrow then," Olivia said, as she came around her desk, intending to walk Kat to the door.

"Till tomorrow," Kat said with smile. "I so enjoyed our morning together."

"It�s always nice to get out. I especially love the park."

"Your park was lovely." Katarina stopped halfway to the door and turned toward Olivia. "There�s just one more thing."

"Oh?" Olivia stopped, too, puzzled. God, I hope she doesn�t want to do anything else today. I�ve done just about all the touring I can stomach.

"I just wanted to leave you with one last thought."

"What?"

"You�re a beautiful woman, Olivia, and I�m very attracted to you."

"I ..." Crap! That is so not what I want to hear. I�ll admit that if I weren�t already in love, you might have been the one woman who could have made me want to experiment with girl-on-girl sex, but ...

Before Olivia could say anything, Katarina slipped a hand behind her neck and pulled her into a sultry kiss. "No pressure, though," Katarina said when she drew back. "It�s completely up to you, but just so you know, I�m in room 333. I hope to see you later."

Kat turned gracefully and swept through the door, pausing only to say hello to whoever was standing there�probably Greg, Olivia thought. He needs to learn to calm down and go with the flow.

When Katarina disappeared around the corner, though, Olivia could see it wasn�t Greg standing in the doorway. It was Natalia, and she was staring directly at Olivia with eyes that looked very dark and very serious.

Shit, shit, shit!

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

Natalia had arrived at Olivia�s office just as Katarina Lindstr�m, software expert and drop-dead gorgeous woman, mentioned leaving Olivia with "one last thought." Natalia had started to leave to allow them to finish their conversation, but the minute she heard Katarina tell Olivia she was attracted to her, Natalia froze in her tracks and turned back toward them, as though she were about to view the aftermath of a horrible traffic accident despite her head telling her not to look.

And then the kiss ... As much as Natalia wanted to look away, she couldn�t. In fact, it felt as though time slowed down and she could see the entire kiss in slow motion�every single second of the slow, sexy merging of lips between two very attractive women. How could anyone not be attracted to her? To either of them?

Now she could see the abject terror in Olivia�s pale green eyes as she moved slowly toward her.

Olivia stopped a step away. "I ..."

Natalia held up her hand. "No, don�t. Wait." She turned around and walked to the door, then closed it and pushed the lock in the handle. "I don�t think we want anyone else to hear this." She leaned back against the door. Her thoughts were spinning so fast in her head, it was threatening to bring back her nausea. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves.

"That was so not what it probably looked like," Olivia said.

To Natalia, Olivia�s panic looked obvious. How many times have you had a conversation like this with someone? she wondered.

"That kiss surprised me every bit as much as it must have surprised you."

"It didn�t really surprise me all that much," Natalia said calmly.

Olivia grabbed her head with both her hands and turned away. "I can�t believe this," she muttered.

"Olivia ..."

"No, please don�t. I don�t know if I can handle hearing it from you of all people."

"Hearing what?"

"What I always hear." Olivia sat down on one of the chairs in front of her desk, propped her elbows on her knees, and dropped her face into her hands, the picture of utter dejection.

Natalia sat down on the facing chair. "Olivia, I want you to listen to me."

"Okay, fine," Olivia said looking up. "I�ll listen, but I just wish you�d believe me that the kiss was not my doing. She just suddenly kissed me. I was shocked, and before I could react she left."

"I do believe you, Olivia."

"I would never do that, Natalia. I couldn�t� What? What did you say?"

"I said I believe you."

"You believe me?"

"Olivia, I know you love me."

Olivia was stunned. "Nobody I�ve been involved with ever believes me. Not ever."

"I know that, but maybe they don�t know you like I do."

"Oh my god. I can�t believe it."

Natalia slid off her chair and onto her knees in front of Olivia, and pulled her into her arms as she knelt between her legs. She felt overwhelmed with the love she felt for Olivia, even though her heart hurt when she caught glimpses of how wounded Olivia was inside. I wish I could heal all your hurts. I would if I could.

Olivia slipped off her chair and kissed Natalia. It was a no-frills, instantly intimate and very steamy kiss that left Natalia lightheaded and wildly aroused by the time Olivia finally pulled back.

"God, I�ve missed you," Olivia said. "I�ve missed you so much."

"I�ve missed you, too."

"It�s pure torture to have to be away from you for so long."

Olivia kissed her again, deepening the kiss as her hands began to explore Natalia�s soft, sexy body.

Natalia pulled back, breathing hard. "Wait."

"What? Is something wrong."

"No. Well, yes." Natalia took a deep breath. "I need to tell you something."

The both clambered to their feet and sat back down on their respective chairs.

"What is it?"

"It�s about Frank."

"Oh, that�s right. I forgot. He knew something about Rafe, right?"

"Well, that�s what he told me, but that wasn�t exactly what the conversation was about."

"What did he want then?"

"Me."

"You? Christ! Don�t tell me he thinks he still has a chance with you."

"I think he believes he has a very good chance."

"Why the hell would he think that?"

"Oh, a couple of reasons. First, he told me Rafe would never accept you and me as a couple."

"Well, I think you and I have always known that was going to be ... problematic."

"And then he pointed out there was no point in ruining Rafe�s life when you�d already dumped me and moved on."

"What?"

"He told me he saw you and Katarina �embracing� this morning."

"God, that makes it sound like more than it was."

"And then I saw you with her."

"Here in my office, right."

"No, at the park."

"The park?"

"Frank asked me to meet him at the gazebo."

"That bastard! He knew Kat had asked me to show her around town, and she told him we were going to the park first to take a walk."

"Yes, I realize he must have planned for me to see you with her."

"So you saw us somewhere at the park?"

"On the path up to the gazebo. She had her hand on your shoulder."

"Okay, I guess that looked bad, but she�d just asked me why I had a �memorial� park in my name, and I told her about my transplant. I think she was reaching out in genuine concern."

"Olivia, I know you love me and I trust you, but I have to admit that seeing you standing there like that, so close, with her hand on your shoulder ... she�s so beautiful."

"And you felt jealous?"

Natalia looked down. "Yes, I did. I felt ... jealous�jealous that a beautiful woman was touching you in a way that looked intimate, jealous that you were smiling at her ..."

Olivia reached for her hands. "But you know you�re the only one I love. You�re the only one I think about. You�re the only one I want."

"I know that, but it didn�t make it any easier to walk in here and find her kissing you."

Olivia let go of Natalia�s hands and dropped her head back in her hands. "Oh god. I�m so sorry."

"Olivia, I know it wasn�t your fault. I realized she kissed you, not the other way around, and even though to me the kiss seemed to last a long time, I know it really didn�t."

"No, it didn�t. It was over so fast I didn�t really have a chance to do or say anything."

"Believe me, I really understand that, especially after what happened to me."

"Happened to you when?"

"This morning, at the park."

"What happened?"

"Frank kissed me."

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

Olivia abruptly stood up. "Son of a bitch!"

"Olivia ..."

"How dare he touch you!" I could kill him. I really could. Or maybe it�d be more satisfying to mangle the family jewels. I�m sure I could get some pliers from maintenance or maybe a nutcracker from the kitchen.

"Olivia, stop. Don�t get yourself all worked up."

"Don�t get worked up? If something like this doesn�t get me �all worked up,� I don�t know what would." Olivia began pacing to and fro over her plush office carpeting. Frank, you fucking bastard! You planned this, and the way you were smirking at me at Company, I guess you thought you succeeded.

Olivia made herself stop pacing and turn and face Natalia, who was just sitting there watching her. God, I need to try to calm the hell down. "Okay," Olivia said, "just tell me what happened."

"In a nutshell, Frank wants me to marry him so we can give Rafe the family he wants."

Shit!

"And," Natalia continued, "since you�d obviously already dumped me in favor of someone more attractive, more exciting, and more experienced, he thought all I needed to do was think it over and then agree to marry him since we�d been so happy before."

"Delusional."

"Yes, I know, but then he grabbed me and turned me around so I�d stop staring at the two of you on the path, and suddenly he kissed me. I was too shocked to move, and I�m afraid ..."

"Afraid what?"

"I�m kind of afraid that because I didn�t push him back or do anything to make him stop, he might have gotten the wrong idea. I mean ... I just stood there and let him kiss me."

Olivia could feel her layer of self-restraint and civility dropping like a condemned building imploded by explosives. She strode toward the door. "I�m going to go have a little talk with that son of a bitch."

Natalia reached her before Olivia could release the lock and planted herself between the angry woman and the door. "Olivia, don�t. You can�t do that."

"Watch me," Olivia said, trying to reach around Natalia for the lock.

Natalia managed to catch both wrists and pull Olivia�s hands to her bosom, which was heaving after their little wrestling match. "No, you�re not going anywhere when you�re this ... worked up. Besides, I�m the one who needs to deal with Frank�and I will."

"Fine." Olivia spun Natalia around so that her back was against the door, and she kissed her ... hard. Her mouth was possessive and wanton, and it wrenched a passionate response from the woman she was kissing.

Olivia broke the kiss, but she still kept Natalia pressed against the door. "I can�t stand the thought of him touching you," Olivia rasped. "I should go talk to him and tell him to leave you the hell alone."

"No, you can�t do that, Olivia. I�m not going to let you do that."

"But I want to."

"No!" Natalia said. "Please don�t go."

Olivia hesitated. She was in the throes of an enormous adrenaline rush, and she wanted nothing more than to throttle Frank Cooper within an inch of his life. Suddenly her eyes narrowed. No, there is something I want more than that. "I want you to come with me to my suite."

"Now?"

"Right now."

"I, uh ... okay. Do you want me to go down first or ..."

Olivia kissed her again as her hands traveled over intimate areas, making her intentions as clear as possible. "No, I want you to come with me right now."

Natalia nodded, and Olivia unlocked the door and led her toward the elevator.

By the time they were safely inside the suite, Olivia could barely contain herself. She was driven by love and lust and frustration�and also elation that finally she had someone who believed in her. All she was consciously aware of, though, was that for whatever reasons, she had to have her now.

As soon as Olivia locked the door behind them, she began to undress Natalia, pulling her closer and closer to the bed as she left a haphazard trail of clothing in their wake. By the time they reached their destination, she had Natalia completely naked and trembling with her own pent-up desire. Olivia was impatient to touch her and make her cry out with pleasure�too impatient to completely undress herself, though she did manage to kick off her shoes and fling her jacket aside. Natalia got her dark green blouse unbuttoned before Olivia dragged her down on the bed.

Olivia pressed her into the mattress with the weight of her body, while her mouth and her hands hungrily claimed every inch of skin they touched. She could feel Natalia responding to her deep, torrid kisses and the possessive caresses of her hands, which explored planes and curves with reckless abandon. She herself was wildly aroused, and even more so when Natalia managed to slip a hand between their bodies to cup and squeeze her breast.

When Natalia pushed her blouse off her shoulders, Olivia relented and let her slide it all the way off, followed shortly by her bra, leaving her naked from the waist up. She also felt emotionally naked. No one had ever gotten to her like Natalia�gotten inside her head and her heart�and she�d never wanted anyone as much as she wanted her.

Even now, with Natalia lying naked beneath her, it didn�t feel like they were close enough. She just wanted more. She craved more. She wanted all of her, emotionally and physically, and with every burning kiss and every searing touch, she drove that point home until finally her passion and her insistent, intimate caresses carried Natalia over the edge and sent her swirling into an all-consuming climax that left her drained and panting and clinging to Olivia, as though if she let go, she might be swept away by the eddying currents of her orgasm.

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

Chapter 70

The only sound in the dimly lit room was their breathing. Olivia had left Natalia so limp, she didn�t think she was going to able to move in the foreseeable future. It seemed as though every time Olivia made love to her, it was even better than the last. She loved that Olivia still held her, one arm draped across her midsection and one leg hooked over her thigh. Somehow it made her feel loved and protected. She leaned her head against Olivia�s where it rested next to hers on her pillow and breathed in the faint fruity scent of her shampoo.

Lying with Olivia like this made it hard for Natalia to understand how she could still be visited by the ugly green-eyed monster that apparently still resided in her somewhere, ready to rear up in protest if it detected a hint of competition for this beautiful woman�s love. I know you love me. I have no doubt about that. Maybe it�s because I�ve never really understood why. I guess I�ve never felt worthy, but it doesn�t change that I know your love is true and loyal.

Natalia turned her head a little more so she could press a tender kiss to Olivia�s forehead. She was so overwhelmed by her deep feelings, all she wanted to do was show Olivia how much she loved her. She lightly kissed her shuttered eyes and then kissed her full, sensuous lips. She loved Olivia�s lips�loved looking at them, loved touching them, loved tasting them. She�d spent a long time craving a kiss, even when she was engaged, even when she knew she shouldn�t, even when she believed it would never happen. Still she couldn�t help but want to be closer to Olivia, even way back then, and the more time that passed, the greater her obsession grew. And now it seemed like a miracle that at long last they could be together like this.

Natalia�s lips grazed across Olivia�s, and she smiled when she heard Olivia sigh. How could I ever doubt you when you show me in so many ways how much you love me? Now we need to help you believe you can trust in my love for you. She kissed Olivia again, this time lingering as she savored the feel of lips on lips. There was something deeply satisfying in knowing she could do this, that she could kiss Olivia now; that she didn�t have to merely watch her from afar and wish for something that might never happen.

She deepened the kiss, aware of how much Olivia loved it when she became more aggressive. In fact, she could feel Olivia�s skin literally heating up under her hands as her tongue explored the inner contours of her mouth, and she could also feel her own body responding to this intimate invasion. She didn�t think she�d ever get over the wonder of their physical connection or the joy she felt to be able to kiss Olivia like this. She loved all of their intimacies�loved the kisses, the caresses, the heady pleasure they found in each other�s arms.

Natalia cupped one of Olivia�s breasts as she kissed her, not surprised to feel her immediate response. She loved Olivia�s body. It was soft and smooth and voluptuous, and touching her always elicited a deep throbbing response in her own body. She moved down to kiss her other breast, lingering over each centimeter as her mouth explored the sexy flesh. She was well aware of how turned on Olivia got when she touched her like this. In fact, that�s probably why Olivia always used to make her stop the first few times Natalia had tried to explore these curves. Of course, that�s before they�d become intimate. Now Natalia knew she was no longer forbidden to enjoy her body like this.

She could feel Olivia�s body moving restlessly beneath her, and she loved knowing it was her touch evoking such a powerful response. She kissed her way down to Olivia�s stomach, pressing her face into the soft flesh there, but when she tried to go lower, Olivia caught her by her upper arms and gently urged her to move back up.

"I want to hold you," Olivia whispered.

Natalia nodded. "But these have got to go," she said, tugging on the waistband of Olivia�s slacks.

"Okay."

Together they managed to get the rest of her clothes off, and then Olivia pulled Natalia down on top of her, cupping her head as she kissed her slow and deep. Natalia caressed the hot flesh between her thighs, marveling at Olivia�s sudden gasp. She felt so wet and so velvety and so responsive. She no longer tried to kiss Natalia. Instead her eyes were tightly closed and her head was tilted back against the pillow.

"I love you so much, Olivia," Natalia said softly.

It seemed as though the minute she heard those words, Olivia groaned and grabbed Natalia�s wrist to still the intimate caress that had made her body suddenly shudder in ecstacy.

"Oh my god," Olivia whispered, hugging Natalia tightly to her. "I just can�t believe how you make me feel."

Natalia felt her own emotional ecstacy as she lay in Olivia�s arms, just happy to be with her like this.

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

They snuggled together for a long time before finally dragging themselves out of bed to take a shower.

"You go first," Natalia had said.

"Let�s both go first," Olivia countered. Because let�s face it. I just can�t get enough of you.

The shower had been long and sexy and loving as they lathered each other�s bodies. Hands sliding over slick, soapy skin had led to more lovemaking as the warm water cascaded over them, reminding Olivia of the waterfall they�d stood beneath in Hawaii. She loved being able to run her hands all over Natalia�s perfect, curvy figure.

It hadn�t been that long ago that Olivia had believed she�d never even get to kiss the love of her life. I was willing to give up sex to be with you, but thank god I didn�t have to! Jesus, just think what we would have missed. She found it astonishing how much better sex was with Natalia than anyone else she�d ever been with. She loved making her come again in the shower; in fact, she�d be happy to spend the rest of the day and night making love to her over and over.

By the time they finished and toweled each other dry, donning white terrycloth Beacon robes, they were both filled with such a feeling of lassitude they knew trying to get any work done was entirely out of the question.

Olivia led Natalia to the couch and pulled her down so that they were lying side by side facing each other. Olivia cuddled her close, thinking once more about how she sounded when she�d made her come a second time in the shower.

"I�ve been thinking," Natalia said as she lay in Olivia�s arms.

"About what?" Olivia�s eyes roved over Natalia�s sweet face�her gorgeous dark eyes, her long eyelashes, her soft olive skin. If you�re thinking third time�s a charm, I�d be totally down with that.

"I�m thinking you should probably fire me."

"What? You must be kidding."

"Actually, I�m kind of serious."

"You can�t be serious."

"Think about it. I�ve barely done any work since we got back from Hawaii."

"You were sick. I do give my employees sick leave, you know."

"I know, but ..."

"But what? I�m not going to fire you because you missed a couple of days of work when you were ill. You even had to go to the hospital for god�s sake."

"Well, what about today then?"

"There�s nothing wrong with taking the morning off to take your son to the university."

"And see Frank."

"Whatever. I told you it was fine."

"But I still haven�t done any work. I mean ... look at us."

Olivia glanced down at the front of Natalia�s robe, which had inadvertently opened and was currently revealing an enticing view of cleavage ... and then some. "Okay, I�m looking," Olivia said with a cocky grin.

Natalia glanced down at her gaping robe and quickly pulled the two sides back together. "Well, that�s not exactly what I meant."

Olivia laughed.

"Don�t get me wrong," Natalia said. "I loved spending the afternoon with you, but I didn�t get any work done."

"Sure you did. If I�m feeling a need to sexually harass one of my employees, well ..."

Natalia giggled. "So you�re saying that�s my job?"

Olivia tilted her head to one side. "Pretty much."

Natalia hugged her. "But seriously, Olivia ..."

"Look, the last couple of days have been unusual. You were ill. Your son just got out of the halfway house. Frank tried his best to manipulate you away from me. You know how well we work together," Olivia said. "And besides, at this point I don�t know what I�d do without you. You�ve made my life so much easier since you became my assistant. Please don�t make me lose that."

"Are you sure?"

"Very sure!"

"Okay." Natalia kissed her lightly on the lips. "I hate to leave, but I need to pick Rafe up at White Castle."

"Okay, I guess I can let you go."

Natalia sat up on the edge of the couch. "What are you going to do about Katarina?"

"What do you mean?"

"I heard her ask you to come to her room later."

"Oh that." Olivia began to massage her forehead. "She didn�t give me a chance to say anything earlier, so she doesn�t know about you."

"You�re going to tell her about me?"

"Well ... at the very least I need to let her know I�m in love with someone else."

"Are you going to go see her?"

"Good question." Olivia rubbed her forehead harder. "I�m not sure. I need to think about it. I don�t want any more awkwardness while she�s here."

"Whatever you decide, I know you�ll handle it just fine." Natalia kissed Olivia�s forehead and got up. "I should get dressed."

"Okay, if you have to." Olivia suddenly grinned. "I�ll help."

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

Natalia picked Rafe up and they headed back home. When they arrived at the farmhouse, they saw Frank�s car parked out front. Rafe was obviously happy to find Frank waiting for them, but Natalia felt a sudden pang of anger.

I�m tired of having my privacy invaded at every turn. This has got to stop.

"Hey, man," Rafe said when he and Frank both got out of their vehicles. "What are you doing here?"

"I thought maybe you and your mom might like to join me in town for dinner," Frank said, beaming at them both.

"That�d be great," Rafe said.

"I already had plans," Natalia said. "I was going to cook."

"Well, that�s okay," Rafe said. "Frank can stay and eat with us."

"I was hoping you and I could have a little family dinner and maybe talk about your morning at the university. We didn�t have much time earlier since you had to go right in to work."

"Yeah, but Frank�s like family," Rafe said, looking at his mother with a puzzled expression on his face.

Frank draped his arm across Rafe�s shoulders. "That�s right."

"So Frank can stay and eat with us, right?" Rafe asked.

Natalia could feel that claustrophobic, nauseous feeling start to permeate her being. She was beginning to feel trapped, like she had no option but to accede�once again!�to her son�s wishes and Frank�s annoying manipulations. Rafe wanted Frank, not only in their home for dinner, but in their lives, constantly, and Frank had made his intentions toward her clear in the park that morning. Natalia was beginning to feel desperate, like a bear with its paw caught in a hunter�s trap. Then she remembered what Sister Anne had said about taking control of her own life, about how important it was for her to take care of her own needs, about how it was the most loving thing she could do for her son in the long run.

"No," Natalia said.

"What? What do you mean?" Rafe asked, frowning.

"I mean no."

"Well, then we can go into town with Frank like he said."

"I don�t want to go into town for dinner. I planned to cook for the two of us, and I hope you�ll stay and have dinner with me, Rafael, so we can talk; but if not, then the two of you are welcome to have a boys� night out, and I�ll stay here and do my own thing."

It felt completely alien to Natalia to take such a strong and independent stand. She could hardly believe the words she heard coming out of her mouth. At the same time, though, she felt as though a heavy weight had lifted off of her, even though she was aware that not only was her son looking at her in an odd way, but Frank was staring at her with a look of utter disbelief.

"Ma, I can�t believe ..."

"Rafe, you and I need to have a talk sometime, whether that�s tonight or tomorrow or some other time."

"Okay, but ..." Rafe looked as though he were trying to fathom a particularly perplexing problem.

Natalia could see Frank�s eyes narrow as he continued to stare at her, then suddenly his easygoing grin surfaced and he turned to Rafe. "So how about it? Want to come into town with me for some pizza and pool?"

Rafe glanced at his mother and then looked back at Frank. Natalia could see the wheels in his head turning, and she held her breath waiting to see what he�d do.

"Look, Ma, we can talk anytime," Rafe finally said, "but I don�t really get to see Frank that much."

Natalia nodded. "Okay, Rafael."

"Hey, Rafe, I brought you two some of Buzz�s lemonade that I know you like so much. Why don�t you take that and put it in the fridge, and then we can go. It�s in the passenger seat of my car."

As soon as Rafe left them alone, Frank turned to Natalia. "Why did you do that?"

"Because you and I are not together, Frank, and we�re not going to be together. I�m sorry I hurt you the way I did last winter. It was wrong and I feel terrible about it. That just makes me even more determined to be clear with you now. I don�t love you. I love Olivia."

"You think you love Olivia."

"No, Frank, I�m in love with her."

"I don�t believe that. I think she�s worked her evil spell on you so she can use you. I just think you�re her latest victim, but even if you did love her, it�s obvious she must not return those feelings, Natalia. When are you going to see her for who she really is?"

"For your information, I do see who she really is. You�re just wrong about her, Frank."

Frank glared at her. "No, I�m not. I know Olivia Spencer. I know what she�s capable of. I know she�s going to break your heart, and when she does, I�ll be waiting."

Natalia shook her head. There�s no point trying to discuss this any further with you, Frank, because you just never listen to me.

"Meanwhile she�s probably screwing around with that beautiful blonde she was with earlier," Frank said. "Someone as sweet and innocent as you makes an easy mark for Olivia. I guarantee that as soon as she gets you into bed, she�ll dump you like last week�s leftovers. That�s all she�s after, Natalia. She just wants to add another name to her considerable list of conquest."

Natalia was shocked it hadn�t occurred to Frank that she and Olivia might have already become intimate. Of course, the only thing he knew about her was what he�d observed first hand, so he�d seen how reluctant she�d been when they had sex that one time and how distraught she�d been afterwards. He�d simply misinterpreted the reason for her distress. He would have no way of knowing how she might respond to someone she was in love with.

"I can tell you one thing," Frank continued. "Olivia is using you for her own perverted amusement, but you and I are going to end up together as man and wife, just as we were always meant to be."

When Frank moved toward her as though he might grab her and kiss her again as he�d done that morning at the gazebo, Natalia quickly stepped back.

"That�s okay," Frank said with the easy smile she�d once found charming. "We�ll be together one day, as soon as you come to your senses."

Before Natalia could respond, Rafe came back outside, and both he and Frank piled into Frank�s car and left Natalia standing alone on her porch. I used to care about you, Frank. Now I�m not even sure I still like you, not the way you�ve been behaving lately�and you just won�t listen to me.

She sighed in frustration and sat down on the bench where she and Olivia had shared so much�cups of coffee, bowls of ice cream, longing looks. I wish you were here with me now, Natalia thought. I wish you were with me all the time.

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

Olivia stood outside room 333. She�d decided it would be better to talk to Katarina face to face. She didn�t want to leave things hanging, especially considering their business relationship and the reason for Kat�s visit to Springfield, so that meant either seeing her in person or calling her. She had opted for the direct route. I know that gets me in trouble sometimes, but I really think all things considered it�s what I need to do.

Olivia knocked, and after only a few seconds Katarina opened the door, looking ravishing in her loungewear�black drawstring pants and a form-fitting sapphire blue tank top. "Olivia, I�m so pleased to see you decided to come."

Good lord, that�s a radiant smile. Well, I guess I�m going to have to bring down the party mood here. I know you were expecting to party. It�s more than a little obvious you�re not wearing a bra.

"I can�t stay, Kat, but I did want to come by and explain why." And there goes the smile. Well, I hope we can at least work through the awkwardness, because if not, tomorrow�s going to be a bitch to get through.

"I�m so sorry to hear that, Olivia. Won�t you sit down?" Katarina said, motioning toward the couch.

"Sure," Olivia said. She noted Kat sat toward the middle of the couch, not directly in the middle, as that would have been too obvious, and Olivia knew this was clearly a woman of some subtlety. Well, except for that whole "come to my room, I want to have sex with you" thing she has going on. It also told her Katarina had probably not completely given up hope since Olivia had, indeed, shown up at her door. Oh great, she may be thinking I need a little convincing.

Katarina lightly touched Olivia�s cheek with her fingertips. "I�m disappointed, as you can well imagine."

Yep, that�s what she�s thinking all right. I bet that usually works for her, too.

"You�re a gorgeous, sexy woman," Olivia said. "The thing is ... Well, I�m in love with someone."

"You�re in love? I see."

"Very in love. In love for the first time, in fact."

"And I take it you don�t have an ... �open� relationship?"

"No, not at all."

"I suppose I must be happy for you, but I confess I�m sad for me." Katarina�s melancholy smile only made her look more beautiful.

Olivia had to admit to herself that if there were no Natalia in her life, this woman probably could have tempted her to experiment. Okay, no "probably" about it. Even if I�d met her before I�d ever thought about getting sexually involved with another woman, there�s no doubt Katarina Lindstr�m could have gotten me into her bed. There�s just something incredibly sexy about her. I�m sure there are few people, male or female, who could resist her considerable charms. The funny thing is I�m so in love I�m not even tempted to cheat.

Olivia smiled. "I�m sure you�ll have no trouble finding someone else, if you so choose."

Katarina shrugged. "And yet I�ve thought of no one else but you since I first saw you in Hawaii."

"I�m genuinely flattered," Olivia said. "And believe me, if I weren�t already taken ..."

"I understand."

Olivia stood. "I should go."

Katarina walked with her to the door. "Thank you for coming here to tell me in person."

"Of course."

Katarina kissed her on the cheek and then opened the door to her suite. "Until tomorrow then."

"Yes, till then."

As soon as the door closed, Olivia headed for the elevator. As the doors swooshed closed, her cell phone rang. She smiled when she saw the farmhouse number on her caller ID. "Hello?"

"Olivia?"

"I�m so happy to hear your voice."

"Have you eaten?"

"No."

"Will you come out to the farmhouse and have dinner with me? If you�re not too tired, that is."

"I ... I�d love to." Wow, I wasn�t expecting this. "Is, uh ... is Rafe going to be there?"

"No, he went into town with Frank, so it�ll just be the two of us."

"I guess I can live with that." Olivia smiled when she heard Natalia�s giggle. "So ... is now good?"

"Yes, now�s perfect. I can hardly wait to see you."

"Okay, I�m on my way."

Olivia was certain something had happened. Natalia had said Rafe had gone into town with Frank, so that meant Frank had probably been out there. Maybe he�d said something or maybe he�d tried to kiss her again. Whatever it was, there was an indefinable change in Natalia�s tone, and Olivia was anxious to find out what it meant.

I think it�s a good change. It sounded kinda good. God, I hope it�s nothing bad.

Olivia remembered how she�d decided to let Kat down easy by going to her room and talking to her in person. Natalia would do the same. She�d tell her to her face if she�d changed her mind about the two of them.

Stop that, Spencer! The two of you just spent all afternoon making love. Stop waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Olivia shook her head wearily as her wounded inner self wrestled with its demons. The problem with shoes is the other one always drops.

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

Continue to Chapters 71-80

 

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