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 81

(Author's Note: For anyone who�s not a longtime viewer of GL, I feel compelled to mention that any information in this chapter concerning Rafe�s past, including details of any crimes, is based on actual show history and is not a figment of my imagination.)

Natalia had spent the evening growing more and more distressed when there was no sign of her son. Finally she�d grabbed the handset and called Daisy. She�d already tried to call Rafe, but either his cell phone was off or he just wasn�t answering. Daisy told her she�d seen him, and yes, he was upset. She also readily admitted Rafe had told her why, but to Natalia�s surprise, Daisy seemed sympathetic to her. In fact, she said she�d told Rafe that while she didn�t know Olivia really well, she�d always liked her, and she thought it was great his mom had found true love. Natalia was amazed at Daisy�s attitude, but then maybe she was more typical of her generation than her son. Unfortunately, Daisy also said Rafe had gotten mad at her and stomped off, and she had no idea where he might be headed.

Natalia briefly considered calling Frank, because she felt fairly certain he�d be next on Rafe�s list, but she just couldn�t bring herself to do it. She�d just have to pray her son would come home soon and the two of them would be able to work through all this.

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

"Have a seat," Olivia said, motioning toward the couch.

"I don�t want to sit down," Rafe said.

"Well, what do you want then?" Olivia could tell Rafe was angry. She would have to be an idiot not to notice the menacing scowl on his face. She�d seen him like this before. In fact, it occurred to her this was probably exactly how he looked when he�d pointed a gun at Jeffrey.

"I want you to stay away from my mom," Rafe said, his voice increasing in volume with each word.

Olivia gazed at him steadily. "Why?"

"Why? You ... you�re ... because it�s wrong, that�s why."

"Rafe, I�m not going to try to have a discussion with you about religion. You�ll have to talk to someone else about things like that."

"I didn�t come here to talk about religion."

"But I will talk with you about your mother," Olivia continued. Her eyes flickered over Natalia�s beloved son. He was wearing baggy khaki shorts, a white baseball jersey, and an aggressive expression. He was a good-looking kid, but in her opinion he was otherwise nothing like his father, who�d never had a completely out-of-control temper like his son. I sure hope you�re going to your anger management sessions. From the looks of you, I�m thinking maybe you should double up on those.

"I can�t believe what you�ve done to her."

"You mean you can�t believe I love her?"

"I can�t believe you�ve done something to her to make her think she loves you. How did you do that, anyway?"

Olivia regarded her angry visitor cooly. "You should be ashamed of yourself."

"Me?"

"Yes, you! Look at how you treat your mother. She sacrificed everything for you, Rafe, and she�s spent her entire life working hard to make sure you had everything you needed. And just look at how you repay her! She tells you she�s in love, and you treat her like she�s a criminal."

"She shouldn�t be with you!"

"What the hell business is it of yours who your mother is with? Do you ask her permission before you ask a girl out?"

"No, but ..."

"I thought you wanted your mother to be happy."

"I do."

"Well, guess what. She�s happy with me."

"That�s wrong."

"So loving someone is wrong?"

"No, but two women together is wrong."

"Your mother struggled with that, but I know she prayed about it till she came to peace with it," Olivia said. Shit, Natalia should be the one to tell him about that. "You know what? You�re incredibly lucky to have such an amazing mother, but it makes me sick to see how you treat her."

Rafe looked as though he was about to say something, but he didn�t. He just stood there glowering.

"You talk about your religion. Well, I�m no expert, but I think somewhere in the Bible it says something about honoring your mother and your father."

"Yeah, but ..."

"But what? Only when it�s convenient for you? Yeah, I�m sure that must be what God meant." Olivia could feel her temper attempting to break free of its traces and briefly gave thought to trying to rein it back in. Nah, screw it. I�m sick of this shit. "It also says �judge not lest ye be judged,� but for heaven�s sake, Rafe, you�re one of the most judgmental people I�ve ever been around."

"That�s not fair."

"Oh, really? Well, personally I don�t think you have room to be judging other people, Rafe."

"What�s that supposed to mean?"

"Well, let�s see ... you mugged Josh Lewis for money when you first came to town, and you actually cut him with your knife. Then a few days later in juvie you tore a phone off the wall and used it to assault Coop Bradshaw, who was only there to teach some classes. Later you stole candy off a guard, and when he found out, you fought with him and grabbed his gun. Your own father had to stop you that time. And then, as if all that weren�t enough, you shot the DA and ended up in prison, so who are you to be pointing a finger at anyone else for their behavior? And you especially shouldn�t be judging your own mother, who, as you should know, is a near saint."

"That�s not fair!" Rafe snapped.

"Oh, really? And not listening to your mother is fair? Not honoring her is fair? Judging her is fair? Not even trying to understand is fair?"

"You just want to ruin her life."

"Why the hell would I want to do that? I love her! We fell in love. And yes, we were both surprised and we were both scared at first, but you know what? It is what is it, as your mother would say, and what it is is love."

"It�s hard to believe my mom would fall in love with another woman."

"Look, Rafe," Olivia said in a softer tone. "I can understand how you�d be shocked. Hell, I was shocked. Your mother was shocked. But you know what? The important thing is we love each other, and we�re happy together. I�d do anything for your mother." Olivia watched him for a moment, trying to gauge if anything was penetrating that thick skull of his. "Haven�t you ever been in love?"

"Yeah."

"With Daisy, right?"

Rafe nodded.

"What if I�d come to you and told you I thought that was wrong."

Rafe frowned. "Why would you?"

"What difference does it make? You�re not giving me a choice about hearing your opinions about who I love. The point is would you have stopped loving her if your mom or I or Daisy�s family had told you to?"

"No, but I don�t see what that has to do with this."

Christ! Sometimes it�s hard to believe you came from Gus and Natalia.

"I think maybe the part you�re not getting is it�s not up to you who your mom loves. Like it or hate it, she loves me, Rafe, and I love her. We�re happy together. Doesn�t that mean anything to you? Don�t you want your mother to be happy?"

"Of course, I do, just not with you."

"That�s the part that�s not up to you. She is happy with me. Now are you going to grow up and show your mom some respect and try to accept her choices, or are you going to make your mom�s life a living hell just because you don�t approve?"

"But the church ..."

"I told you that you should talk to someone else about the religious stuff, not me. I�m not trying to tell you what to believe. You should be able to believe whatever you wish, but I can see you�re cherry-picking which teachings to follow and which to ignore, which is pretty much the definition of �hypocrisy.�"

"What do you mean by that?"

"It means you think it�s wrong for your mother and me to love each other, but you think it�s fine for you to judge us." Boy, he looks livid. Well, fine. Somebody needs to tell him the facts of life, and it looks like that someone is me.

"I�m not judging my mother."

Olivia laughed. "Come on, Rafe. I know you�re smarter than that. You are judging her. And why? Because she loves someone you don�t approve of, someone you don�t like, but didn�t she tell you how happy she is with me?"

Rafe shook his head, his belligerence palpable. "She should have married Frank."

"Oh, really? Well, you know what? I thought you really loved your mother, Rafe, but when you come up with complete crap like that, I have my doubts."

"Of course I love my mother. How dare you say that?"

"You love your mother, but you�d want her to marry a man she doesn�t love? A man who just hurt her enough to leave ugly black bruises? A man who�s starting to scare her?"

"He didn�t mean to hurt her."

Jesus Christ! What in the hell will it take to get through to you? If I didn�t know better, I�d think Frank was your real father and you�d come by this whole "not listening" thing honestly.

"Rafe, I�m so disappointed in you. I know you and I don�t see eye to eye on a lot of things, but I truly thought you cared about your mother. I really thought you loved her and would protect her."

"That�s what I�m trying to do."

"You want to protect her by trying to bully the person she loves into staying away from her? You want to protect her by hoping to see her with a man she not only doesn�t love, but fears? That�s not love, Rafe. That�s control. Control has nothing to do with love."

"What do you know about love?"

Olivia�s expression softened. "Before your mom, not a lot. She taught me what real love is."

"I don�t believe you."

"Fine, don�t believe me. Hate me. Whatever. But you owe it to your mother to look at your own behavior and see what you�re doing to her."

"I would never hurt my mother."

"Rafe, she came over here right after you walked out on her in the park. Trust me. You hurt your mother. You really hurt her, Rafe. Now what are you going to do about it?"

Rafe seemed on the verge of hurling another insult, but instead he spun toward the door, flung it open, and left, leaving the door wide open in his wake.

Olivia sighed and slowly walked over to close it. Gee, that went really well.

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

Natalia was startled when the phone rang, but she sat up on the edge of her bed and grabbed the handset off the night stand. "Hello?"

"Natalia?"

"Olivia, I�m so glad you called." Suddenly her world didn�t feel so cold and dark.

"I wanted to let you know your son just paid me a little visit."

"Oh no. Was he angry?"

"Yes, I think it�s safe to say he was angry."

"What did he say?"

"Oh, I think you can probably guess."

"I�m afraid to."

"He told me to stay away from you."

"What did you say to him?" Natalia could feel her muscles clenching. Olivia didn�t need to tell her the conversation had gone badly. She knew in her heart it had.

"I told him I loved you."

"Is that all?"

"I might have mentioned he should show you some respect."

"I�m sure he loved hearing that."

"Not so much, actually. I also suggested he take a look at his own behavior before he goes around judging other people."

"Do you think you got through to him?"

"No, not really."

"I�m sorry if my son disrespected you, Olivia. I�m just so sorry."

"I don�t want you to worry about that. I can tell you one thing, though. I�m going to delay letting Emma come home for at least a little while longer. I don�t want her around the level of anger I saw in Rafe tonight."

Natalia�s head dropped forward and her eyes welled with tears. "No," she said slowly, "that wouldn�t be good for a little girl."

"I just talked with Ava about it. The good news is Emma�s having so much fun out there that she hasn�t been begging to come home yet. She�s missing day camp, but it�ll still be here when she comes home."

"Olivia, I�m just so sorry."

"Listen to me. This is not your fault."

"He�s my son."

"I know, but he�s plenty old enough to know better. This is all on him, not you."

After they finally hung up, Natalia felt even more depressed about her son. Where had she gone wrong that her son behaved the way he did sometimes? She thought about her last visit with Sister Anne, in which the nun had encouraged her to take control of her life, saying it was not only the right thing for her, but also the most loving thing she could do for her son. That advice was making more and more sense as time went by.

Natalia was almost asleep when she heard the downstairs door open. She hoped it was Rafe, but the sudden adrenaline rush that swept through her body was clear evidence she wasn�t sure. She pushed away thoughts of Frank and Jacob and other scary things that might come out of the darkness of night and pulled on a robe. When she got to the top of the stairs, she hesitated, afraid of what she might find down there.

"Rafael?" she called out hesitantly.

"Yeah."

Her relief was immense, not just that it wasn�t an intruder, but that her son really had come home. That has to be a good sign, right? She started down the stairs and met Rafe halfway. "I�m so glad you�re here," she said.

"I�m not staying," he said, avoiding looking at her.

"What? Why not?"

"I talked to Frank."

Natalia could feel her stomach lurch. "You did?"

"Yeah, it helps to talk to him."

She wasn�t sure what to say or what to ask him.

"He�s going out of town for at least a couple of days, and he said I could stay at his place."

"You�re going to stay at Frank�s?"

"Yeah, I want to be alone."

"I was hoping we could talk."

"What else is there to talk about?"

"I just want you to understand about me and Olivia."

"Well, I don�t."

Rafe pushed past his mother and continued up the stairs to his room where he began to stuff clothing and other items into his backpack. Natalia went in after him.

"Then stay and talk with me. Maybe I can help you understand."

He stuffed his baseball mitt in on top of his clothes, zipped the backpack closed, and hefted it onto his shoulder. "Why her? I just don�t get it."

"Because the more I got to know her, the more I discovered how wonderful she is."

"Olivia Spencer?"

"Yes. Rafe, I�ve told you about some of the things she�s done for both of us."

"But what about when she took the house?"

Natalia looked at him for a moment, trying to think of a way to reach him. "Have you ever done anything you regretted?"

The anger in Rafe�s face seemed to fade somewhat and his eyes dropped to the floor before returning to his mother�s face. "Yeah."

"Do you want people judging the person you are today, the person you want to be in the future, based on the things you�ve done in the past that you�ve come to regret?"

He looked down again and this time he didn�t look back up. "No."

"Why do you hold a harsher standard for Olivia than you do for yourself or for me or ... or for Frank?"

Rafe slowly shook his head.

"Is it because of your father�s heart?" Natalia watched her son�s face harden again.

He shrugged.

"Rafael, there was nothing the doctors could do to save your father. Before he died, he did everything in his power to try to get Olivia to the top of the donor list and to keep her from giving up hope. He loved her. If he could have had a say, I have no doubt he would�ve agreed with my decision to allow the donation." She could see a hint of tears in Rafe�s eyes.

"It just seems wrong that he died and she lived."

"I know you feel bad your father died, especially just when you were getting to know him, but it�s not Olivia�s fault he died. It was God�s will. You�ve got to stop blaming Olivia, Rafael." Natalia thought she saw a slight nod of his head. Maybe I got through to you this time. "Rafael?"

"Yeah, I hear what you�re saying. I guess I�ve always blamed Olivia for living when my dad died."

"But can you see it�s not her fault?"

"Yeah."

Natalia thought he looked a little lost, just like when he was a small boy and something went wrong in his little universe. She drew him into a hug, and to her relief she felt his arms encircle her waist. "I love you so much," she said.

"I love you, too, Ma."

"Everything�s going to be okay," she continued. "You�re getting your life back on track. You�re working and you�ll be starting classes in the fall. Everything will work out. You�ll see."

Rafe nodded.

"Look, it�s late. Why don�t you stay here tonight and then in the morning you can decide what you want to do next, okay?"

Rafe dropped his backpack onto the floor and sat on the edge of his bed. "I guess I could do that."

"All right, Rafael." She kissed the top of his head and started to leave.

"Is she going to be moving in here?"

Natalia stopped in the doorway, startled by the sudden question, and slowly turned back to face her son. "Nothing�s going to change right now."

"But you want her to live here, right?"

"Yes, I do."

Abruptly Rafe grabbed his backpack and headed out the door of his bedroom and down the stairs. Natalia followed him to the landing.

"Rafael, wait!"

He turned back with an angry scowl. "I won�t live here if she�s going to move in."

"She�s not moving in right now. We both know you need time to get used to the idea of ... us."

"I�m just telling you. Either I live here or she does, but we can�t both live under the same roof. You choose."

Rafe quickly passed through the living room, and then Natalia could hear her car start up.

There it was, the thing she�d dreaded. Her son wanted to force her to choose between him and the woman she loved.

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

Chapter 82

Olivia woke earlier than she wanted and pried one eye open just enough to see the green LED display on the clock on the night stand, which confirmed her suspicions it was too early to be awake, even though it was nearly eight. She knew she didn�t have a meeting until late morning and had hoped to sleep in; however, nightmares about an angry young man had pushed her to flee dreamland, and now she debated whether to just give in and get up, or try to get her dreams focused back on a more pleasant subject, such as the angry young man�s beautiful mother.

An unexpected knock on the door made the decision for her, and reluctantly she dragged herself out of bed and stumbled in the general direction of the door, though her powers of navigation seemed to be alarmingly compromised. God, you�d think I was drunk. I�m so not a morning person. When she finally reached the door, she leaned her forehead against the cool wood for a moment before cracking it open enough to see who was there. To her surprise, it was Natalia. I guess Rafe didn�t go home, otherwise there�s no way you�d be here so soon.

She opened the door wider, and Natalia stepped over the threshold and then stood uncertainly in the middle of the room. Olivia noted she was already dressed for work, but looked as though she hadn�t slept in recent months. Unsure what to say, she just held her arms open and Natalia immediately stepped into her embrace. As soon as Olivia hugged her, she could feel the tension in her body. This isn�t good. I thought sure he�d go back home after he left here last night.

Natalia was the first to pull back. "Have you eaten anything yet?"

Olivia shook her head.

"I�ll order you something. What are you in the mood for? Pancakes? Omelet?"

"Omelet sounds good, and, of course, coffee." For the first time Olivia saw a hint of a smile and a brief glimpse of dimples that disappeared all too quickly.

"Of course."

"I hope you�re eating with me." Olivia smiled with relief when Natalia nodded. She sat on the couch and leaned her head back with her eyes closed while her unexpected, but totally gorgeous, visitor called room service. Afterward, she was surprised when she heard Natalia sit at the desk instead of joining her on the couch. Hard to give you a morning kiss with you way the hell over there. Or ... maybe that�s why you�re way over there in the first place.

She opened her eyes to see if she could tell something from Natalia�s expression. Olivia thought she looked beautiful in her dark blue skirt and blazer with a white blouse that provided a perfect contrast to her dark hair and eyes, but her expression was alarmingly grim.

"Maybe you should tell me what�s wrong," Olivia said.

"I think we should wait till you�ve had some coffee ... and food," Natalia said. "It�ll keep."

Wow, this is gonna be bad, isn�t it?

"All right, how about if I take a shower real quick then?"

Natalia nodded and Olivia pushed herself up and headed for the bathroom. By the time she finished and returned to the main room wearing a fluffy white robe over her matching pink bra and panties, the breakfast cart was there and Natalia was setting food out on the coffee table.

Neither spoke. Natalia seemed distracted, and Olivia was becoming increasingly worried about her solemn demeanor. I�m sure something�s wrong. I wish you�d just spit it out. She knew Natalia well enough to realize there was no way she�d tell her anything until she saw Olivia get some food down, so Olivia simply resigned herself to her fate: She�d have to wait till the breakfast police was satisfied before she could find out what was going on.

Natalia set a cup of coffee in front of Olivia, much to her relief. She was having trouble tracking and hoped a jolt of caffeine would sharpen her wits, what few she could muster. When she was halfway through her omelet, she set her fork down, noting Natalia had barely touched her own breakfast.

"Please tell me what�s wrong," Olivia said.

"Rafe came home last night."

"Really? That�s good." No, wait. You still look upset. "It�s not good?"

"At first I was really happy he�d come home."

"Did you argue?"

"Not really. In fact, I think I made some headway with him."

Olivia picked up her coffee and drained the remainder. I�ve got to wake up �cause I�m just not seeing the problem here. "I�m glad, but ... you look upset, so I know something else must have happened."

Natalia got up to get the coffeepot off the cart and refilled Olivia�s cup before sitting back down on the couch. "When he first got home, he started packing a bag to go stay at Frank�s. He said Frank was going to be out of town for a couple of days, and Rafe said he wanted to be alone to think."

"Okay, I�m not surprised he went to see Frank. Did he tell you anything Frank said?"

"No, but Rafe and I talked about ... well, about a lot of things."

"Like me?" Hey, I know I was a prime topic of conversation. How could I not be with Rafe so pissy about me loving his mom? Olivia thought for a moment. Or rather pissy about his mom loving me. I don�t think he gives a damn what I feel or think.

"Yes, your name came up."

"I�m not surprised."

"I�ve thought for a long time the main reason he�s always so angry with you is because of his father�because Nicky died and because you got his heart."

"I�m aware of that."

"I told him it wasn�t your fault his father died. I also said if Nicky could have had a say, he would�ve wanted you to have his heart."

Olivia looked down. It was still hard to think about Gus�s death, especially knowing it was what led to her second chance at life.

"I told Rafe he needed to stop blaming you for his father�s death, and I think I actually got through to him."

"That�s great." Not to mention a freakin� miracle, �cause I know how that kid just doesn�t listen. Frank would be so proud of his surrogate son.

"I even talked him into staying the night at the farmhouse since it was so late. He actually set his backpack on the floor and sat on his bed."

"Wow, I assumed from how upset you seemed that he hadn�t spent the night out there."

"He didn�t."

"I thought ... okay, so what happened?"

"He asked if you were going to be moving into the farmhouse."

Olivia felt as though someone had just dumped a pitcher of ice water on her head�a pitcher with plenty of big, hard ice cubes that made her current headache ramp up from the unexpected little frigid blows. "What did you tell him?"

"I said I wanted you to move back, but nothing was happening right away because we both knew he needed time to get used to the idea of �us.�"

I already know something bad�s coming.

"And?"

"He said he wouldn�t live under the same roof with you. He told me I�d have to choose."

Olivia propped her elbows on her knees and dropped her face into her hands, suddenly too tired to hold her head up any longer. "I understand," she said wearily. Now I know why you�re so upset. You�ve come to break up with me. You can�t choose me over your son. I get it, but it�s killing me. I guess the one good thing is at least the other shoe has now dropped. Just waiting for that damned thing to fall has been nerve-racking.

"Olivia, did you hear what I just said?"

Olivia shook her head. "Sorry, I didn�t hear you. I was thinking and ... well, I just want you to know I understand. I know you don�t want to break up any more than I do, but ... this is your kid. I get that. I really do." Olivia leaned back against the couch and closed her eyes again. She felt as though every iota of energy had drained right out of her body. She wanted to cry, but she just didn�t have the energy to manage it. Maybe later. Yeah, later is good. She felt Natalia�s hand on the side of her face gently turning her head in her direction, but she kept her eyes closed. It would just take such a huge effort to try to get them open, she figured why bother?

"Olivia, I need you to listen to me."

"I did listen. You had to make a choice. I told you I understand. What else is there?"

"Well, there�s what I said after that."

Shit, I guess we have to thrash through it then, even though I really don�t feel up to it, but okay, fine.

"All right, I�m listening."

"I said there is no choice."

"And I told you I get it."

"I mean I�m not going to make a choice between you and my son."

Olivia�s eyes snapped open and she found Natalia sitting very close, gazing intently into her eyes. "I don�t ... understand."

"I�m not going to make a choice like that, Olivia."

God you look gorgeous when you�re all somber like this. Wait, that�s an inappropriate thought in the middle of a conversation like this, isn�t it? I really need to work on that.

"So ... are you saying you don�t want to break up?"

"That�s exactly what I�m saying."

Nah, that�s not going to work. Clearly you haven�t thought this through. Or maybe I�m still missing something.

"Look, if you don�t make a choice, you know what that means. Rafe will move out permanently. Is that what you want?"

"No, but I keep thinking about what Sister Anne told me about taking control of my own life and how that was the most loving thing I could do for my son. At first I understood what she meant about taking control of my life, but I didn�t get how that could be better for my son if it meant that sometimes I might do things that would upset him, but lately I�ve begun to figure out what she meant."

"So you think it�s better, not just for you, but also for Rafe if you ... make decisions that are right for your life, even if your son disapproves?"

Natalia finally smiled, and it was a real smile complete with dimples at full mast. "I couldn�t have put it as well, but yes, I think that�s the right thing for both of us�well, for all of us, including you and Emma."

Olivia could feel her eyes getting watery. Damn it, I said I�d do that later! I really don�t want to cry right now. "All of us?"

Natalia took Olivia�s hand and pulled it onto her lap, where she gently ran her thumb to and fro over the back. "Olivia, I told you that you and Emma are my family, and I meant it. In my heart, you�re just as much a part of my family as Rafe."

"But ... but what are you going to do about him?"

"Nothing. I�m going to tell him I love him and I hope he�ll stay at the farmhouse just like we planned. He knows staying in the dorms is too expensive on top of tuition and books and everything, so I have no idea what he�ll do."

"Look, if that�s what he wants to do, stay in the dorms, I�ll help."

"No!"

Olivia was startled by Natalia�s sudden vehemence. "I thought we just discussed couples helping each other out ... you know ... farmhouse and all that. I thought you were finally okay with that."

"You are not going to help him anymore as long as he treats you the way he did last night."

"Did he ... uhm ... did he tell you what happened?"

"No, he didn�t have to. He was angry with me, he went to Daisy and got mad at her, and then he headed to your penthouse. Nobody has to tell me how angry he must have been by the time he got to your place."

"He did seem a bit ... miffed."

"I�m sure."

"So I guess he told Daisy about us?"

"Yes. I called her looking for him. She said she told him she�s always liked you and she thought it was great you and I had found love."

"Wow, I�m ... impressed." I knew I�d always liked that girl for some reason. She�s an independent thinker. I totally approve. "But listen, if Rafe living in the dorm would help ease the situation and let him get some sense of the independence we both know he wants, why not just let me help?"

"Because I don�t want my son disrespecting you one minute and taking money from you the next as a reward for his bad behavior."

Damn! Who is this gorgeous woman and what did she do with Natalia?

"It�s hard to believe you, uh ..."

Natalia sighed. "I know. It�s been hard for me to get to this point. I doubt I�d be here now if it weren�t for Sister Anne. I�ve spent my entire life feeling guilty that because of my mistake�my sin�my son has been deprived of a father, of grandparents, of a great-grandmother, and of a life that could have been much easier and better than the one I�ve been able to give him."

"Natalia, you�ve done an amazing job raising your child. I honestly don�t know how you did it. Don�t forget I got pregnant around the same age as you, and I would�ve had no idea how to take care of a baby all by myself."

"I did my best, but look at all the trouble my son has gotten into. I realize I must not have been a very good mother or he wouldn�t have done the ... the bad things he�s done."

"You�re talking about Jeffrey?"

"Well, yes, but that�s not the only thing. Remember how he hurt Josh?"

"Yeah."

"He had a knife, Olivia!"

"I know."

"And he cut him!"

"Yeah, I know. I know what he did."

"Then he hurt Coop and that guard at juvie, and worst of all he took a gun with him when he went after Jeffrey," Natalia said. "No, that�s not the worst thing."

"There�s something worse?

"I mean the worst thing is every time he did something like that, I felt like it was my fault, like if I�d been a better mother and given him a better life, he wouldn�t be so angry and he wouldn�t be taking it out on other people." Natalia�s eyes drifted away from Olivia�s. "The problem is I�ve always made excuses for him instead of ... I�m trying to remember what Sister Anne said. I think she said I never held him �accountable� for his actions. And you know what? He�s gotten worse. He�s a very angry boy and he just lashes out at people."

"He�s an angry man."

Natalia looked back up at Olivia then. "Did he hurt you?"

"No ... he, uh ..."

"Were you afraid he�d hurt you?"

"I remember thinking I bet that�s exactly how he looked when he held a gun on Jeffrey."

"Olivia, I�m so sorry. I�m also worried. I�m worried about what�s going to happen to my son, but I don�t want him to hurt you, and I don�t want any of this to affect Emma."

"Don�t worry about Emma. I�m not letting her come back here for a little while, not until I think it�s okay."

"I�m glad. Well, I wish Emma could come back and you could both move into the farmhouse right now, but I know we need to wait just a little while longer."

Olivia sighed. "I know."

"But the important thing is Sister Anne helped me see I need to change how I deal with my son, and even though I didn�t believe her at first, somewhere along the line I realized she�s right. So that�s what I�m doing now. I�m trying to do right by my son, by all of us. The hard part is figuring out what that is."

"So what have you figured out so far?�

"I figured out it�d be wrong to let him force me to give you up."

"So you�re not giving me up?"

Natalia smiled. "No, I�ll never give you up."

Thank god,

Olivia thought as she leaned forward and kissed Natalia. She suddenly pulled back as it struck her that if the other shoe hadn�t dropped yet, she still had that to look forward to. Damn it! And now I�m cursing again. Shit! God, it�s like I have internal Tourette's or something.

Olivia quickly forgot about shoes and cursing and possible neurological disorders when Natalia pulled her back and Olivia began kissing her again, still astonished at how arousing it was when their lips simply came in contact.

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

When they finally drew apart, Natalia lay her head on Olivia�s chest, which was now rising and falling a little faster than usual. She could hear the reassuring sound of Olivia�s steady, if somewhat rapid, heartbeat, and it felt wonderful to have such a soft and sensuous pillow beneath her cheek. She loved the lush curves of Olivia�s body and how she herself felt when she looked at her or touched her. I�d be happy if we could just stay here like this all day, she thought dreamily and then blushed as she realized she�d definitely want that to include more of Olivia�s impassioned kisses.

"I think I should do something special for Sister Anne," Olivia said as she slowly combed her fingers through Natalia�s long, dark tresses. "Like maybe make a donation to her favorite charity or something like that."

Natalia smiled. "I think you�re serious."

"I�m very serious, especially if you meant what you said awhile ago about you doubt you�d have ever gotten to this point without her help."

"I did mean it ... although I should have said it was because of both her and you."

"Me? I don�t know what I�ve done."

"It�s really been both of you though�Sister Anne, because of her wise counsel, and you, because you�re the first person I�ve loved enough that it�s forced me to really see the person my son has become."

"And that�s why you looked so upset when you got here this morning."

"Yes." Natalia sat up so she could see Olivia�s face, but she pulled her hand back onto her lap so she could still maintain contact. "It�s not easy realizing how many mistakes I�ve made. I�ve even continued making some of the same mistakes because I didn�t really get what Sister Anne was trying to help me see."

"Like what?"

"Like ... well, if I let Rafe treat me as though my life and my choices and my feelings don�t matter as much as his, what I�m really doing is teaching him how to treat other people, especially the women in his life, like a girlfriend or a wife. I couldn�t see that when Sister Anne first mentioned it, but since then I�ve begun to understand what she means."

"I know he loves you, but he doesn�t always treat you very well."

"I know, and it makes me feel ashamed."

"I know it must be hard to feel ashamed of your own son."

"No, I meant it makes me ashamed of myself, because I�m the one who�s always put myself second, no matter what. Rafe is part of the reason I agreed to marry Frank. I wanted him to have that big family he would�ve gotten with the entire Cooper clan, instead of being the son of a woman whose family ... threw her out." Natalia could feel her throat constricting. She tried never to think of her family. It was too painful.

"Hey, don�t you think you�re taking on too much blame?"

"No, I really don�t. And now all I can do is try to make better choices, starting with not allowing my son to force me to do something I don�t want to do, especially give up the person I�m in love with." Natalia smiled at Olivia�s sudden mischievous grin, which, for some reason, made her begin to get that now familiar achy feeling "down there."

"You�re in love with someone?" Olivia asked as her eyebrows lifted in mock surprise.

Natalia grinned and nodded.

"Anyone I know?"

"Yes, someone you know really well."

Natalia was surprised when Olivia abruptly cupped her face and pulled her close for a kiss that turned out to be passionate and deep and prolonged enough that she forgot about everything except the wonder of how Olivia made her feel. Olivia�s love and passion and intensity never failed to sweep her out of the everyday world and into a magical universe of sensuality and pleasure and desire that she now knew came only with true love.

By the time either of them noticed someone was knocking on the door, they were both lying on the couch so absorbed in kissing and touching that they almost missed the intrusive and annoying rapping entirely.

Finally Olivia sat up. "Damn it!"

"What is it?" Natalia asked, still not hearing anything but her own heavy breathing.

"Somebody�s at the door."

"I didn�t hear�" Natalia stopped when she heard the loud knocking. "Oh."

They both laughed.

"I guess I better get it. Could be important," Olivia said. "And maybe you should pull yourself back together," she added, looking pointedly at Natalia�s chest.

Natalia quickly began to button her blouse and then tucked it back into her skirt. "Maybe you should pull yourself back together," she said, overlapping the two halves of Olivia�s robe that had come apart and tying her belt snugly around her waist. "Would you like for me to get it since I�m the one who�s dressed?"

"Fine," Olivia said with a laugh.

Natalia grinned back at her over her shoulder before opening the door. "Doris," she said when she saw the mayor standing there staring at her.

Mayor Wolfe entered the penthouse and strode directly to where Olivia sat on the couch.

"Please come in," Natalia said softly as she watched Doris traverse the room and take a seat by Olivia on the couch.

"What brings you by so early?" Olivia asked.

"I needed to check with both of you," Doris said. Her eyes shifted to Natalia and she suddenly grinned when Natalia perched on the arm of the couch next to Olivia.

"Something amusing?" Olivia asked.

"Well, I think I interrupted something," Doris said with a lift of one thin brow.

"What makes you say that?" Olivia asked.

Doris nodded in Natalia�s direction and Olivia looked at her and laughed.

Natalia was confused about what could possibly be so funny. "What?" she asked Olivia.

"Buttons," Olivia said, glancing at her chest.

Natalia glanced down and then felt an immediate flush of heat in her cheeks when she saw the buttons on her white blouse weren�t lined up properly. She quickly stood and turned her back on the two women staring at her with undisguised mirth so she could fix the problem. Afterward she sat back on the couch arm.

"No need to be embarrassed," Olivia said, taking her hand. "After all, Doris knows about us."

Natalia looked down at her lap aware the heat in her cheeks was intensifying. She realized Doris knew, but for some reason she couldn�t help blushing. She thought Olivia might be surprised to know she did that sometimes when she was alone thinking about the sexy woman she loved without the overly observant mayor watching her and reading her inner thoughts and feelings. It�s Olivia, she thought. She just makes me feel so ... off-balance. She could see from Olivia�s grin how much she loved her sudden shyness. Maybe she felt like this because it was the first time she�d had a relationship in which her emotions were so fully engaged�and in which her body was so unbelievably responsive, she thought, turning even redder. Whatever the case, she was relieved when Olivia turned back to Doris.

"So what�s up?" Olivia asked the mayor.

"Has either of you heard from Frank?" Doris asked.

"I haven�t," Olivia said. "Why?"

"As you know, he�s on a one-week suspension from the force."

"Yeah, we know," Olivia said. "So?"

"Nobody has seen him," Doris said.

"So what?" Olivia asked.

Natalia saw Doris�s eyes narrow, which made her feel uneasy. She was already concerned about Frank. She hoped he was going to give up on a relationship with her, and hopefully he already had, but he seemed so ... off. She could feel something just wasn�t right about him.

"So what? For starters he didn�t show up for the counseling session that Chief Wolfe recommended. He was supposed to be there yesterday afternoon, but he didn�t show, and then this morning when the police chief tried to contact him, he was nowhere to be found."

"Did they check with Buzz or Marina?"

"Yes, we�ve called everybody who might have any idea where he is, but no one seems to know anything."

"Rafe saw him last night," Natalia said.

Doris looked at her in surprise.

"Where?"

"At Frank�s place. He told Rafe he could stay there for a while. He also said he was going out of town for a couple of days."

Doris�s eyes narrowed. "Oh really?"

"Oh, come on, Doris," Olivia said. "He�s probably gone off to be by himself. My guess is he�s on a bender somewhere."

"That�s no way to deal with his problems," Doris said.

"I don�t know that�s what he�s doing, but I do know when he gets really upset, he drinks ... heavily," Olivia said. "And maybe he didn�t want to do that here in Springfield around people he knows."

"You could be right. He was a little drunk the day he accosted me on the street. I�m just lucky I�d hired bodyguards, because he was so amped up it took both of them to subdue him."

"Maybe it�s good he went out of town," Natalia said. "Maybe he needs some time alone to get his life back on track. He just hasn�t seemed like himself lately."

"That�s right," Doris said. "It�s clear he�s changed since the wedding didn�t take place. Personally I think he has some pretty big mental problems, and it concerns me. He should have kept his appointment with the psychiatrist. The fact he didn�t tells me he still hasn�t accepted that he has a problem�or maybe he�s just unwilling to work on it."

Natalia glanced down at Olivia, who looked worried.

"What are you saying?" Olivia asked. " That he�s mentally ill?"

"People dealing with crises do develop mental illnesses sometimes, Olivia. That�s why we have mental health professionals. They don�t just deal with people in institutions, you know."

"Yeah, I guess," Olivia said.

Doris stood up. "I�ve got to go," she said as she walked toward the door. "But I just wanted to warn both of you to be careful."

"I don�t think Frank would do anything to hurt either of us," Natalia said. "Not after what happened the other night at the farmhouse."

Doris paused with her hand on the doorknob and looked back at the two women sitting on the couch. "Oh really? And you�ve just done such a great job figuring out what Frank is capable of up to now, haven�t you, Natalia?" Doris twisted the knob and opened the door. "I am telling both of you that you better be careful." Doris stepped into the hallway and shut the door behind her.

Natalia stared at the closed door, trying not to believe Doris�s ominous warning.

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

Chapter 83

Olivia tugged on Natalia�s arm to get her attention off the door Mayor Wolfe had just closed and back onto her. "Hey, where�d you go?"

Natalia turned back and looked down at Olivia from her perch on the sofa arm. "I�m not sure what to think about what Doris said."

"Look, we already knew we needed to be careful around Frank, and we will."

"I�m afraid of what he might say to Rafe."

"We have no control over that. Besides, Rafe is already upset about us without any help from Frank. And as to your ex-fianc�, I really do think he�s probably off somewhere drowning his sorrows. I�m sure he�s feeling disgraced after the suspension, so maybe he doesn�t want to spend his week off around here where he�s likely to run into people he knows."

"Maybe."

"Now where were we?" Olivia asked as she pulled Natalia off the arm of the couch onto her lap, leaving her lover off-balance and dependent on Olivia�s arm to keep her from falling flat on her back onto the cushions.

Natalia laughed and struggled to get loose. "I think maybe we should be getting to work, don�t you?"

"Why? What�s going to happen?" Olivia asked as her hand caressed Natalia�s cheek. "You afraid maybe we�ll get fired?" I�ve got you right where I want you. Why would I let go now?

Olivia let her free hand slide down Natalia�s side to her hip and pulled her closer while she sought out those delectably soft lips to prevent the protest she knew Natalia was about to launch. As Olivia kissed her, she could feel her going limp in her arms as she ceased her efforts to wrestle her way loose from Olivia�s firm grip. That�s more like it, Olivia thought when Natalia finally just gave in and let Olivia do what she wanted, which at the moment was explore her lips and her mouth as if she�d never experienced the wonder of such an intimate invasion.

The sound of the phone ringing startled them both.

"Oh, for Christ�s sake," Olivia muttered. "Let�s just let the damn thing ring."

"It could be Ava," Natalia said.

"Yeah, I guess." Olivia helped Natalia up and then got up herself and grabbed the handset off the desk. "Hello?" She shook her head at Natalia and glanced at her watch. "Sure, that would be fine. We�ll see you in my office shortly."

"Problem?" Natalia asked.

"Not really. That was Katarina. You and I both need to make sure we�re proficient with the new software before she leaves, and since I want her gone sooner rather than later, I guess I better get dressed."

"So we�re meeting with her now?"

"Yes. You didn�t have other plans did you?"

"No, I�m here to work. In fact, why don�t I check the Beacon email account while you get ready?"

"Okay, I won�t be long." But I�d much rather stay here with you on the couch necking. With one last wistful glance at her sexy and delightfully curvy lover, Olivia headed to the bathroom to finish getting ready for work. She was immensely relieved Natalia had been unwilling to submit to Rafe�s emotional blackmail. Olivia knew there�d been a time when she might well have succumbed. I really need to find out what Sister Anne�s favorite charity is. She�s been nothing short of amazing.

It wasn�t long before the two of them got on the elevator headed to Olivia�s office.

"By the way, in all the excitement lately I forgot to tell you Kat dropped by my room yesterday after you left to meet with Rafe." Olivia had to fight to keep from grinning at the sudden little frown on Natalia�s face. Oh my gosh. I can�t believe you�re still jealous of her. At least I�m pretty sure that�s what that look means.

"What did that woman want?" Natalia asked.

Yep, I think you�re actually a little jealous. How adorable is that?

"She wanted to tell me Frank had asked her to meet him for drinks."

Natalia�s frown deepened. "Why would she want you to know that? Do you think she was trying to make you jealous?"

This time Olivia couldn�t stop her grin or the small chuckle that accompanied it. "No, she wanted to warn me that Frank�s not my friend. Apparently he didn�t have very nice things to say about me."

The elevator doors slid open, and they both stepped into the corridor.

"Olivia, I�m so sorry he blames you for the wedding not taking place. That�s so wrong, especially after the way you helped him win me over."

"Well, he sure needed help."

"I know now he never could have come up with the sweet and thoughtful things he did for me all on his own, not because he wouldn�t have tried, but because he really didn�t know me that well."

"Oh, I know."

"That�s one way I know he doesn�t really love me. Well, not the real me. He doesn�t know me. He just doesn�t know who I am, so how could he love me?"

"Don�t ask me. I�m too in love with you to figure out how anyone else could not be."

Natalia giggled and opened the door to Olivia�s office. Olivia went immediately to sit in the executive chair behind the desk while Natalia lingered by the door. Olivia was aware of dark eyes watching her as she sifted through a stack of files on her desk. Shortly afterward there was a knock, and Natalia let Katarina in.

"Good morning," Katarina said. "How are you two this morning?"

"Fine, thanks," Olivia said. "How are you?"

"I�m well," Katarina said, sitting on one of the two chairs in front of Olivia�s desk while Natalia settled herself on the other. Kat glanced briefly at Natalia before locking eyes with Olivia. "I wondered if I might bring up a personal matter before we begin."

"Of course," Olivia said. "I was just telling Natalia about our conversation yesterday."

"Good, then you both know of my concern."

"Yes," Olivia said, but then her eyes narrowed as she realized Katarina seemed edgy, which wasn�t at all like the cool and calm woman she�d come to know. "Is there something else?"

Again Katarina glanced at Natalia briefly before focusing back on Olivia. "Yes, Detective Cooper called me yesterday."

"Did he ask you out again?" Olivia asked. Maybe that�s how Frank wanted to spend his week off. Who could blame him? Katarina�s a knockout.

"No, he wanted to make sure I wasn�t planning to leave town yet," Katarina explained.

Natalia stirred restlessly on her chair. "Why would he care?"

Katarina turned crystal blue eyes on Natalia. "Because he told me if I wanted a chance with Olivia, I should �stick around,� as he put it."

Olivia watched with mixed emotions as the other two women conversed with each other. On the one hand, Kat�s concern about Frank made her feel wary, but on the other hand she couldn�t help but be fascinated by Natalia�s obvious territorial demeanor where Olivia was concerned. Who would have guessed you could be like this? I know it�s probably wrong, but it�s turning me on big time. In fact, I�m not sure how much longer I can wait to get you naked.

"I don�t understand why Frank thinks you�d have a chance with Olivia if you did stay around here," Natalia said. "No offense."

Oh my god that was priceless!

Olivia looked quickly to see how Katarina had taken Natalia�s remark. She looked remarkably unruffled. Nothing much fazes her, Olivia thought, except maybe Frank.

Katarina smiled. "None taken. I just wanted to let you know because a man like that ... well, I think he�s not to be trusted."

"So you think he�s up to something?" Olivia asked.

"Why else would he insist I�d get my chance with you if only I didn�t leave town too soon?" Katarina asked.

Olivia shook her head, clearly perplexed. "I have no idea. He knows I love Natalia," Olivia said, trying to figure out what Frank might be thinking. "No, wait. I take that back."

Natalia�s head whipped around toward Olivia. "What?"

Olivia could feel dark eyes flashing even before she turned to look at Natalia. "I mean ... I think Frank actually believes it when he says I�m just, uh ... using you for ... oh, I don�t know ... my own evil reasons, I guess. You know ... like another notch on the bedpost or something."

"Oh, I see what you�re saying," Natalia said.

"If he really believes that," Katarina said, "then that makes him a very dangerous man."

"Why would you say that?" Natalia asked.

"Because if that�s what he truly believes, then he probably wants to rescue you, the woman he loves, and he won�t stop till he does."

"But there�s nothing he can do," Natalia said. "I�ve told him I�m in love with Olivia."

Olivia�s eyebrows shot up. Wow, I see you�re not holding anything back. "Look, Kat, I really appreciate your concern and your warning. We�ll both be careful, won�t we?" she asked, turning her gaze on Natalia.

Natalia nodded.

"Good, because I have to tell you there�s something about that man that makes me feel very uneasy," Katarina said.

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

Natalia was glad when the training session was over and Katarina was gone. She knew Olivia wanted her to know as much about the inner workings of the Beacon as possible, which made her feel proud. She was aware her self-esteem had improved remarkably ever since Olivia had found her worthy of being her assistant. Olivia thought she was smart and capable, and moreover Olivia trusted her. No one had ever had that kind of faith in her or her abilities.

It had been a long road moving away from her tarnished self-image as a high school dropout, unwed mother, and outcast in her own family. The hardest to deal with had been the latter. How could she feel as though she had worth when her own family thought her sins too great to tolerate? And it wasn�t just that she�d gotten pregnant; it was also that she�d refused to obey their dictate that she give her baby up for adoption. It had primarily been her father who laid down that law, but her mother had sat silently by and let him throw her out of the house�or rather dump her off at one the Catholic Charities homes for unwed mothers, after which he made it clear she was never to return home again.

But now after a lifetime of low-paying, low-level jobs, she was an executive assistant. She�d learned to use a computer, she�d worked hard to get to know the staff and all the inner workings of the hotel, and she�d made every effort to make Olivia�s work life easier. Obviously she�d succeeded because even recently when she�d offered to quit because of what people might be thinking, Olivia wouldn�t hear of it. Natalia could tell it wasn�t just because Olivia loved her either. After all, Olivia knew Natalia could in no way resist her, job or not, nor did she want to. No, Olivia had seemed genuinely panicked at the thought of losing her as her assistant. It was one of the highest compliments anyone had ever paid her.

She was secretly relieved when Olivia refused to let her resign, not only because of what it said about Olivia�s high regard for her ability to do a good job, but also because she loved working with Olivia at the Beacon. In fact, when Olivia was still living at the farmhouse, Natalia had thrived on being with her at home, working on Beacon projects or problems together, riding into work together, working at the hotel together. She�d never been happier�and now, finally, they were so close to getting all of that back. She was living for the day Olivia and Emma moved back in.

The only dark cloud on her happy horizon was her son. She knew he was nowhere near accepting her relationship with Olivia, but she also knew if she gave into his demand that she give her up, she would be teaching him one more wrong thing�that it was okay for him to force someone else to do what he wanted. She prayed his anger management group and individual counseling sessions would help him get past the problem he had with lashing out at people, sometimes innocent people, like Coop or Olivia. It made her sad to think that right now they had to protect Emma from her son.

That�s just not right. I want to trust my son. I want to believe he�d never hurt Emma. Well, I do believe he wouldn�t deliberately harm her, physically or emotionally, but when he gets angry, he strikes out, and I don�t want Emma to see him treating Olivia badly, or me either, for that matter.

The phone rang, and after a nod from Olivia, Natalia picked it up and spoke briefly with the person on the other end. "That was Greg," Natalia told Olivia. "He�s pretty upset about some kind of booking issue."

"Would you please see if you can iron that out?" Olivia asked. "I need to make some phone calls."

"Of course," Natalia said with a smile. She knew she was one of the few people who could calm Greg down when he panicked. He didn�t do that very often, but when he did, you could feel his anxiety wafting through the hotel like poison gas. "I�ll go see what the problem is exactly."

"Thanks. What would I do without you?"

Natalia went around Olivia�s desk and leaned down to kiss her briefly on the mouth. "You�re not going to have to find out," she said softly. She was well aware she much too in love with Olivia to ever willingly leave her. Till death do us part, she thought. She couldn�t imagine any circumstance that would change that, nor any person�certainly not Frank and not even her own son.

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

Olivia�s fingers fumbled as she tried to get the shoestrings of her tennis shoe tied. She had to smile at her own giddiness. She�d made an after-work date with a certain beautiful latina, and she was just feeling downright excited. They�d both agreed they needed a break from work and all the chaos surrounding them, compliments of Frank and his prot�g�, Rafe. Olivia had suggested they change into casual clothes and take a picnic to the park. She loved the sudden sparkle in Natalia�s dark eyes at the prospect.

And then afterward, maybe I can talk you into coming back to my place. Well, actually, since you�re picking me up, you�ll kinda have to come back here, now won�t you? Pays to plan ahead,

she thought, pleased with herself that she�d nixed Natalia�s suggestion they meet at the gazebo.

Olivia glanced at her watch. I better get going. You�re probably down there waiting for me.

By the time she got downstairs, Natalia was waiting in her Beacon car. Olivia put a picnic basket prepared by the Beacon chef into the back seat, and then they both grinned when Olivia got in the front and they saw they were dressed almost identically in blue jeans and blue tops. The only difference was Natalia was wearing a sleeveless V-neck top, while Olivia had on a short-sleeved blouse.

"We look like twins," Natalia said as she pulled away from the curb and headed toward the park.

"I�m not sure anyone would actually accuse us of that," Olivia said with a grin. She knew they presented quite a contrast, she with her light skin and grayish-green eyes and Natalia with her exotic dark coloring. She loved how Natalia�s neckline plunged just far enough to show off her admirable cleavage. You wore that just for me, too, didn�t you? I wonder if it�s too late to talk you into picnicking in my room. She fantasized about how much fun they could be having there, but she knew it was too late because by the time her fantasy date was lying nude on her bed, her real date was pulling into the parking lot at the Olivia Spencer Memorial Park. That�s okay. Maybe you�ll come up to my room later. Hm, I wonder if you could even stay the night since Rafe is staying at Frank�s.

Natalia got the picnic basket out of the back, and they both strode off to find as isolated a picnic table as they could find. Although there was a designated area of the park where there were a number of tables together, there were also a few individual tables scattered here and there that provided more privacy. They found one near the butterfly magnolia that Olivia had had planted for Emma when she thought she was going to die before a donor heart could be found. She still loved the tree as it had come to symbolize life, not death.

Olivia watched as Natalia began to set food out on the table. "I kind of hate to bring this up, but ..."

"I tried to call him," Natalia said. "He�s still not answering his cell phone."

"So that means ...?"

"It means it�s either off or he�s not taking my calls."

"I�m sorry." Olivia didn�t really know what to say. She thought Sister Anne had the right idea, though. Rafe needed some tough love, and apparently Natalia was ready to give him some.

"It is what it is," Natalia said.

"What are you going to do?"

"I ..." Natalia paused and looked directly at Olivia. "I�m going to live my life."

Natalia sat next to Olivia rather than opposite her, much to Olivia�s delight. "Love the seating plan," she said.

Natalia giggled. "I thought you might."

Olivia moved closer so that their thighs were touching. "Yep, it�s an excellent seating arrangement."

She�d had the Beacon chef make grilled chicken salads, and he�d also thrown in Italian breadsticks, smoked cheese, and cubed seedless watermelon for dessert.

"I love grilled chicken," Natalia said.

"I know."

"And watermelon," Natalia added.

"I know that, too." Hey, I pay attention. I know what you like. Olivia�s eyes drifted down to Natalia�s enticing d�colletage. I know lots of things you like. Maybe if I�m lucky, there�ll be more for dessert than fruit, Olivia thought as she popped a watermelon cube into her mouth.

"What are you thinking?" Natalia asked.

"If you come back to my place later, I�ll show you." Olivia felt her body�s clearly lustful reaction to Natalia�s sudden blush and shy smile. Is it possible to just keep falling more and more in love? I swear it seems like I love you more every day. She was surprised when Natalia slowly reached toward her and ran her thumb over her lips.

"Juice," Natalia explained, licking the red liquid she�d just swiped off of Olivia�s mouth.

They both giggled and leaned against each other for a moment, before just sitting and looking into each other�s eyes, both smiling and completely absorbed in the other�so absorbed, in fact, that neither noticed two sets of eyes watching them from a distance.

A short time later they were startled when someone approached their table and spoke.

"Hi there."

"Daisy," Natalia said. "I, uh ... how are you?"

"I�m okay." Daisy smiled broadly at each of them in turn. "I don�t mean to interrupt."

"You�re not interrupting," Olivia said, smiling back at her. Daisy was firmly in her good graces after taking Natalia�s side against her son the night before.

"Have you seen Rafe?" Natalia asked.

"Well, that�s why I came over," Daisy said. "He was just here."

"Here in the park?" Natalia asked.

"Yeah, he called and wanted to talk, so I agreed to meet him here."

Interesting,

Olivia thought. Especially after he got so mad at you last night.

"Is he okay?" Natalia asked.

"I guess. Well, he, uh ..." Daisy glanced uncertainly at Olivia.

"It�s okay," Natalia reassured her. "I told Olivia what you told me."

"It really is okay," Olivia said.

"All right. Well, he�s still pretty upset. I�ve tried to talk to him. I mean it�s not like we�re living in the nineteenth century. Two women together is no big deal. Well, I mean ..." Daisy glanced at Olivia uncertainly.

"Really, it�s okay," Olivia said. "No need to feel awkward. I don�t."

"Okay, good," Daisy said. "Anyway, I told him he was being ridiculous."

"I bet he didn�t like that," Natalia said.

"Well, if he doesn�t like hearing the truth, he knows better than to call me," Daisy said.

I knew I liked this girl,

Olivia thought. "Do you think you got through to him?"

"I don�t know. He�s just so stubborn. The funny thing is when we saw the two of you sitting over here eating and laughing and ... well, you know ... uhm ..."

"Enjoying each other�s company?" Olivia offered.

"Yeah, exactly. When we saw that ..." Daisy looked at Natalia. "Like when you touched Olivia�s mouth or like how the two of you were looking at each other, I told him ... I said, �Look, they�re really in love, Rafe.�"

"What did he say?" Natalia asked.

"He didn�t say anything. He just got a funny look on his face, and then he walked off."

"And that was it?" Olivia asked.

"Yeah, but I wanted to let you know, Natalia, because I know you�ve been worried about him."

"You know Rafe pretty well," Olivia said. "Do you think there�s any chance he�ll ever accept this?"

"I just don�t know. I know he loves his mother," Daisy said. "I also remember how angry he got at me a long time ago after the ... well, after the abortion. He was furious at me, but eventually we became friends again, even though it�s not exactly romantic, at least not right now anyway."

"But at least that�s a positive sign," Olivia said.

"Yeah, it is," Daisy said. "Well, I should get going. Nice to see you two, and uh ... I�m really happy for you. I think it�s great."

"Thanks," Olivia said. "If you ever get tired of working at Company, come see me."

"I will," Daisy said with a grin.

"Thank you for coming over," Natalia said.

They both watched as Daisy strolled off, and then Olivia turned to Natalia.

"You okay?"

"Yes, at least I know he�s all right even if he�s still upset with me."

"I would assume he�s still staying at Frank�s."

"I�m sure he is."

Olivia sat quietly for a moment, debating her options. What�s that old saying? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. "Will you come back to my place with me?" Maybe I should make myself really, really clear. "I want you."

"Want me?"

Olivia sighed. Okay, I guess that wasn�t clear enough. "I want to make love to you."

And now we�re going to see just how well you�re really handling all this. Your son just saw us being lovey-dovey. I think that has to be hard for you, knowing he saw us like that, especially when Daisy reminded him we�re in love�like he could have forgotten�and then came over here and reported it all to you. So can you deal with knowing that and still want to be with me, especially when I just made it clear why I want you to come back to my place with me? I�m anxious to see what you decide because I think it�s going to tell us both a lot about whether or not you can deal with the reality of having a relationship with me under the disapproving eyes of your son.

"Or ..." Olivia continued, "we could go for a jog around the pond instead."

"Jog?"

"Yeah, you know ... like walking, only faster."

Natalia laughed.

"Or we can do something else, if you like ... maybe go for ice cream or see a movie. Of course, my first choice would be to have you all to myself at my place." Olivia reached for Natalia�s hand, which was lying on her lap. "So ... what do you think?"

Olivia wished she felt certain what Natalia would decide, but the truth was she didn�t. In fact, she had no idea. She sought the answer in Natalia�s eyes, which at the moment looked very dark and deep and unfathomable. All she could tell was that they were brimming with emotion, but was it love, desire, fear, regret? She waited impatiently for Natalia to say something.

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

Chapter 84

Natalia watched as Daisy�s figure receded into the distance, unaware of the myriad sounds and intricate scents of the park surrounding her as she sat on the picnic table bench next to Olivia. The sun was low in the sky, and the young woman was now a mere dark shadow in stark silhouette against the yellowing horizon.

What a shock it had been to find out her son had witnessed her loving interaction with Olivia. That he might be anywhere nearby had never entered her mind, and now she had no idea what he might be thinking or feeling, but the way he�d responded to the news she loved Olivia made her conclude he probably wasn�t happy to see them like that.

She could feel the warmth in her cheeks when Daisy told her what they�d seen. It wasn�t exactly that she was ashamed of her feelings for Olivia, because she wasn�t�not anymore, anyway�but she did find it difficult when other people found out, even Daisy, who couldn�t have been more supportive. It was different with Doris and Katarina, because both of them loved women, but it was sobering to think how many people in their community would disapprove.

She felt Olivia squeeze her hand to get her attention, and she dragged her eyes away from the spot on the horizon where Daisy had disappeared from view and focused them on the beautiful woman she could now see was watching her intently.

"Did you hear what I just said?" Olivia asked.

Natalia shook her head. "I�m sorry." Before her mind wandered off, she remembered Olivia had jokingly suggested they take a jog around the pond. "You didn�t really want to go jogging, did you?" She watched in fascination as Olivia�s eyes darkened into that intense, smoldering gaze that always seemed to turn her inside out and summon forth that achy feeling she associated with Olivia, the only one who�d ever made her feel like that.

"No," Olivia said. "I don�t. What I really want is for you to come back to my place with me."

Natalia could see the unspoken need in Olivia�s eyes, and she knew it wasn�t just a need for physical closeness. It was a need for reassurance that Natalia wasn�t going to dump her abruptly now that she knew her son had witnessed a moment of intimacy between them, clearly signaling that the going was starting to get seriously tough.

I know you so well,

she thought. I can almost feel what you�re thinking right now. You know I�m upset about my son�s reaction to us and you�re wondering if I still want us to be together�or rather if I can handle the two of us being together.

"Will you come back to my place?" Olivia prodded.

Natalia took a deep breath. "No ..." She could feel Olivia�s grip on her hand loosen, and then Olivia let it go entirely and clasped her hands together in her lap, where they now became the object of her acute scrutiny.

"Okay," Olivia said. "I understand."

"I want you to come home with me tonight."

"I get it. I, uh ... what?"

"I want you to spend the night with me at the farmhouse."

"You do? Are you sure? I mean ... well, I doubt Rafe would go back there right now, all things considered, but he might."

"Olivia, I�m tired of waiting to start my life with you. I�d really like for you to spend the night with me out there," Natalia said, covering Olivia�s entwined hands with one of her own. "And I hope you�ll move back in sometime soon."

"Really? I can�t believe it. I thought maybe ..."

"That maybe since Rafe saw us together, I�d change my mind about being with you?"

"Well, yeah. After all, he is your son, and I know you care what he thinks."

"Yes, I do care. I wish he�d reacted more like Daisy, that it was no big deal, that he was happy for me, for us, but you know what? Either I�m going to live my own life or I�m not."

"And you�re going to live it?

"Yes, hopefully with you. I�m in love with you, Olivia. I want to be with you all the time. I want you and Emma to come back home. Of course, I wish Rafe was willing to be a part of that, but I know he may never be. Either way, he�s growing up and moving on with his life, and that�s what I need to do, too."

"Move on with your life?"

"Yes, and grow up. Remember when you told me I needed to grow a backbone?"

"Well, yeah, but I was having a pretty difficult time back then, what with dying and all."

"I know, but you were right. That is what I�ve needed to do. Maybe if I�d done it sooner, my son wouldn�t have done some of the things he�s done."

"So you�re not getting rid of me yet?"

Natalia smiled. "I know you worry something�s going to happen that�ll change my mind, but if my son�s disapproval and ultimatum didn�t do it, what possibly could?"

"I don�t know. It seems like the other shoe always drops."

"Maybe there is no other shoe, Olivia."

"God, I hope you�re right."

"So, will you stay with me tonight at the farmhouse?"

Olivia grinned. "Do you really need to ask? I mean ... that�d kind of be like a nine-month pregnant woman taking a pregnancy test, don�t you think?"

"As in no real need to check?"

"Yeah."

Natalia laughed and hugged Olivia. She was just so funny and so sweet�and now that Natalia had her in her arms, she was reminded that she was also incredibly sexy. "Do you want to pick up anything at the hotel first?" she asked, suddenly anxious to be with Olivia somewhere private.

"No, let�s go. I always carry a toothbrush with me, and I can borrow anything else I might need from you, right?"

"Of course."

"Okay, let�s go then," Olivia said as she began scooping things up and haphazardly tossing them into the picnic basket.

Natalia had to grin at her obvious enthusiasm. How could you possibly think I�d ever willingly give you up?

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

It was dusk when they pulled up to the farmhouse. Olivia thought it looked beautiful in the diffused lighting between sunset and full night. The setting sun had tinted the landscape with a tinge of golden orange that encompassed both the sturdy structure and the profusion of shrubs and flowers she knew Natalia tended with loving care, while the diminishing light had encouraged dark shadows to stretch out lazily over the vast expanse of plush lawn, reaching toward the even darker tree line in the distance.

The truth was the farmhouse was the only place that had seemed like home to her since her mother died on the heels of their argument, leaving Olivia alone and pregnant from the childhood-robbing rape. Since then she�d lived in a number of different places, but she�d never felt at home, not even at the Beacon, which always seemed like a temporary dwelling. Even Emma recognized it wasn�t a "real" home, not like the farmhouse where her little girl had happily thrived.

And it wasn�t just the farmhouse. It was Natalia. Natalia had created a home for all of them. It was her love and her caring and nurturing presence that had transformed the old Jessup farmhouse into a real home that had become a safe harbor for Olivia, much to her surprise. Of course, that hadn�t been nearly as surprising as falling in love with the owner.

She stopped Natalia when she reached for the door handle of the car and pulled her back. "I�m so happy to be here with you," Olivia said softly. She kissed her, prolonging the intimacy until it occurred to her that even more fun things awaited them once they were inside. When she finally let Natalia go, she could see even in the dimming light that her dark eyes looked soft and unfocused.

"I�m so happy you�re here," Natalia said. "And soon you�ll be here all the time."

Olivia nodded. It was hard to believe that amount of happiness was within her grasp. Finally, I�m going to get my happy ending.

Once they were inside, Natalia put away the remains of their picnic while Olivia headed upstairs to the bathroom to brush her teeth and wash up. After a few minutes, she could hear Natalia in the downstairs half bath, no doubt doing the same.

As soon as she finished, Olivia went down to the living room and turned on the radio, dialing through the local channel choices to find something befitting the mood. We really need to get you a sound system and some CDs, she thought. She could feel a swell of happiness at the thought of doing something as simple as shop for music together and spend time afterward listening to their selections.

Olivia smiled when Natalia entered the room looking radiant just as she flipped to a channel that was just beginning to play Beyonc��s version of "At Last." She held out her hand to Natalia, who readily took it, and then she pulled her close. After all, it was a perfect slow dance song and her gorgeously curvy lover was the perfect slow dance partner.

"I love this song," Olivia whispered near Natalia�s ear.

Beyonc�: At last my love has come along ...

"Me, too. That�s not the version I�ve heard though." Natalia tucked her face into the crook of Olivia�s neck.

Beyonc�: My lonely days are over and life is like a song.

"You might have heard Ella Fitzgerald or maybe Etta James, but I really love Beyonc��s version." Olivia also loved the feel of Natalia�s warm breath on the sensitive skin of her neck.

Beyonc�: At last the skies above are blue ...

As Olivia swayed slowly to the music with Natalia in her arms matching her movements, she listened to the lyrics describe her life and her feelings. At last she�d found her true love, and finally her world was a happy place to inhabit. It felt as though the cavernous hole left in her heart at the age of sixteen with the loss of both her innocence and her mother was finally filled, and she could feel whole again.

Beyonc�: My heart was wrapped up in clover the night I looked at you.

She loved the feel of their bodies pressed close together, moving in sync with the slow, sultry melody brought to life by Beyonc��s flawless voice and sexy rendition.

Beyonc�: I found a dream that I could speak to, a dream that I can call my own ...

She tipped Natalia�s head up to steal a little kiss, but the jolt of electricity that sparked through her body when their lips came into contact inspired her to deepen the kiss, suddenly needful of a closer connection than even slow dancing so close could provide.

Beyonc�: I found a thrill to press my cheek to, a thrill that I have never known ...

She hadn�t really intended for the "little kiss" to become so hot and heavy, not yet anyway, but her hormones had suddenly burst forth and were now raging through her body as the beloved lyrics floated around her, reminding her of the miracle of their love.

Beyonc�: You smiled and then the spell was cast ...

When you smile at me, I am totally undone,

Olivia thought as she pulled back to look into Natalia�s eyes. As if on cue, Natalia smiled up at her, and she felt as though she could drown in that smile and those dimples. She glanced down. And that cleavage, she thought, suddenly anxious to move things upstairs.

Beyonc�: And here we are in heaven, and you are mine at last.

As the ending strains of the song played, Olivia caressed Natalia�s cheek. "Let�s go upstairs."

Natalia nodded, and Olivia took her hand and walked slowly toward the staircase. She felt as though she�d never wanted her as much as she did at this very moment, and she paused to kiss her one last time before ascending the stairs.

The heat between them as they kissed was palpable, and Olivia knew Natalia could feel it as well. "I want you so much," Olivia whispered.

Natalia was just about to respond when they both heard the door into the kitchen open. "That has to be Rafe," she said, abruptly pulling away from Olivia, who stayed by the stairs while Natalia moved through the living room toward the kitchen. She got as far as the couch when a man appeared in the doorway, but it wasn�t her son.

"Frank! What are you doing here?"

"I wanted to see you," Frank said with a good-natured grin.

"I told you not to just walk in here like this anymore."

"Oh, sorry. I knocked, but I guess you didn�t hear me. I got worried, so I thought I better come in and check on you since I saw your car outside. Well, the Beacon car. Rafe told me about that."

Natalia took a step back as Frank approached her. "I�m not alone."

"Is Rafe here? I only saw the one car."

Olivia walked in view and stood next to Natalia. "No, I�m here, Frank." She could see a disturbing shadow pass over Frank�s face, but it was quickly replaced by a smile.

"I see," Frank said evenly. "Well, that�s okay."

Gee, I�m so glad I have your approval.

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

Frank�s eyes lingered on Olivia�s face, even though he spoke to the dark-haired woman he professed to love. "I have a surprise for you, Natalia."

"I don�t want any surprises, Frank," Natalia said.

"Oh, you�re going to want this one," he said.

Olivia found his confidence and his "cat that swallowed the canary" smile unbearable�and a little worrisome. "Just let him show you so we can get it over with," Olivia suggested, watching Frank warily.

Natalia�s shoulders sagged noticeably. "All right, fine. Show me."

"It�s in the kitchen," Frank said, turning and heading back through the doorway.

The two women looked at each other and then followed in his wake. Olivia couldn�t imagine what in the world Frank could have brought to Natalia that would leave him looking so smug.

When they entered the kitchen, to her surprise she saw a man and a woman seated at the table. She didn�t recognize them, though the woman looked familiar. Where have I seen you before? she wondered. The only thing betraying her age was a streak of gray Olivia could see here and there in her otherwise dark hair, which she wore pulled back into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. Her smooth and youthful-looking olive skin presented a stark contrast to the white at her temples, and Olivia idly thought if she colored her hair, she�d look at least a decade younger.

Suddenly Olivia realized Natalia was standing next to her in stunned silence, and with a shock she realized why the woman at the table looked familiar. She was an older version of Natalia. She looked down at her lover, who was standing stock-still with her mouth hanging slightly open as she stared unblinking at the older couple.

Olivia tore her gaze away from Natalia and locked eyes with Frank, who glared back at her with an unmistakable look of triumph. She knew without doubt this was the other shoe�at last�and with a sickening feeling that began in the pit of her stomach and was slowly bubbling up her digestive tract like bile and beginning to leave a bitter taste in the back of her throat, she realized that not only had the other shoe finally dropped, but it was a clodhopper of such massive proportions, she knew it was fully capable of blowing her happy little fantasy world to smithereens. And Natalia�s current near catatonic state wasn�t at all reassuring, either.

Fucking hell! That bastard has finally found the one thing that could put an end to us.

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

Chapter 85

Natalia felt trapped in a vacuum, a space devoid of sound and light and even oxygen. The only thing she could see was her mother�s face�a visage that evoked childhood memories of the love and tenderness and safety she�d experienced in her mother�s arms. It was a face she had never expected to see again in this life, and the shock of seeing her now, of being in the same room with her, of seeing her beautiful and tentative smile as she gazed up at the daughter she�d lost so many years ago, was too much to assimilate all at once, especially when it was so totally unexpected.

And then even that one sight began to fade, and she felt herself slipping toward the floor�until someone caught her around the waist and helped her to a nearby chair at the kitchen table across from the older couple who sat on the other side. Then she felt someone holding a cold, damp cloth to her forehead and then the back of her neck, and soon the woman�s face swam into view again.

"Mami?" Natalia whispered.

"Mi�ja," the older woman responded. She started to reach out toward Natalia, but stopped and glanced at the man sitting next to her.

Natalia followed her gaze and saw a handsome man of medium height whose black hair was sprinkled liberally with white. Other than that he looked much the same as he had throughout her childhood, including the perennial stern expression he wore on his face as he stared at her across her kitchen table. As a little girl she had both adored and feared him. He was a strict disciplinarian, meting out corporal punishment with hand or belt or whatever object was close at hand when a little girl�s transgression, no matter how minor, triggered his temper. He�d always ruled over his household with the iron fist of a dedicated patriarch and the suffocating sense of entitlement engendered by his adherence to the worst manifestation of machismo tradition, which emphasized not only violence and aggressiveness, but also total domination of the females within his domain.

Like her mother, Natalia waited nervously for her father to speak, barely aware of Olivia�s hand on her shoulder as she stood behind her. She could feel his eyes on her, scanning her, judging her, and she felt the same anxiety she had as a girl, knowing she was likely to come up lacking in his quick and cool appraisal.

"Perhaps some introductions are in order," the man said looking pointedly at Olivia, obviously the only person in the room he didn�t know.

Natalia swallowed hard, realizing she was already guilty of inexcusably poor manners. "This is my ... my, uh ..."

Frank stepped forward, looking at Olivia with an air of condescension. "This is Natalia�s employer, Olivia Spencer, owner of the Beacon, the hotel where she works. Olivia, these are Natalia�s parents, Ram�n and Gloria Rivera."

"It�s a pleasure to meet you," Mr. Rivera said to Olivia. "Detective Cooper told us how well Natalia�s been doing since she turned her life around."

Turned my life around?

Uncertain what her father meant, Natalia started to look up at Olivia, but her father�s gaze was so intense as he stared at her across the table she couldn�t pull her eyes away. It had always been like this around her father, whether he�d caught her daydreaming when she should be doing chores or when she�d had to confess to her parents that she was pregnant. There it was, the expression in his eyes that said once again she�d failed to measure up to his expectations.

"It�s nice to meet you, too," Olivia said. "Both of you," she added, smiling down at Natalia�s mother.

Mr. Rivera smiled briefly at Olivia, but his smile faded when he looked back at his daughter. "Frank tells us you�ve done quite well in your current job. He told us a little about what you�ve been doing since you moved here."

Natalia wasn�t sure what to say. It had always been hard not to get tongue-tied around her father, and apparently it was no different now that she was an adult.

"She�s wonderful in her job," Olivia said. "I don�t know what I�d do without her."

For the first time he smiled at Natalia. "That�s very good to hear," Mr. Rivera said.

Natalia could hear the unspoken surprise in his voice that she�d managed to acquire such a good job at all, let alone excel at it. She had more pressing concerns though. She turned to her mother with the one question she feared most to ask. "Abuelita?"

"Tu abuela est� bien, mi�ja. Se qued� en Chicago porque un viaje tan largo en coche le ser�a demasiado di�cil."

Natalia was overjoyed that her grandmother was still alive. In fact, she inferred from what her mother said that her beloved abuelita might have made the journey to see her if the trip from Chicago to Springfield weren�t so long.

"Maybe Olivia and I should leave the three of you alone to get caught up," Frank said, moving toward the door while he kept an eye on Olivia.

"Yes, I think that�s a good idea," Mr. Rivera said. "Except I think you should stay, Frank, since you�re practically family."

�Of course I�ll stay, if you wish," Frank said, grinning at Olivia.

"Natalia?" Olivia squeezed Natalia�s shoulder.

Natalia looked up at her, not knowing what to do or say. She felt as though a tsunami had blown into her life and was now carrying her swiftly in a direction of its choosing, which at the moment was away from the harbor where Olivia stood. Her emotions felt raw and her mind was darting frantically about trying to make sense of a universe now turned upside down. She knew she needed to respond to Olivia. "I ..." She looked back at her father.

"I don�t have a way to leave. I came with Natalia in her car," Olivia said.

"That�s no problem," Frank said. "Why not just take her car? It�s a Beacon vehicle anyway, isn�t it? We can always arrange for transportation for Natalia, and meanwhile you�d be able to get back to your own place."

"Excellent solution," Mr. Rivera said.

"Are these the keys?" Frank asked, picking up a set of keys from the key rack by the door. When Olivia nodded, he handed them to her.

Olivia took them, but she looked down at Natalia again and touched her shoulder to get her attention. "Natalia, do you want me to stay?"

"My daughter will be fine, won�t you, Natalia?" Mr. Rivera said.

Natalia looked down and nodded. The shock of seeing her parents again coupled with the sudden domineering presence of her father had left her teetering on the edge of a dangerously high emotional precipice, and all she could see below was the endless darkness of the abyss that awaited her if she made the smallest misstep.

"All right, call me if you need me," Olivia said.

Natalia could feel Olivia�s eyes on her, but she was ashamed to look up. With her parents in the room, she no longer felt like the independent woman she�d fought so hard to become, the woman Olivia was proud of and loved. She was once again the little girl who never managed to live up to expectations and therefore was a constant disappointment to her god-fearing parents, especially when she committed the unforgivable sin of getting pregnant as a young teen, and she knew that person was certainly not worthy of Olivia�s unwavering love.

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

Olivia paced back and forth in her penthouse suite impatient for Mayor Wolfe to show up. She�d called her on the way back to the Beacon, desperate for someone to talk to. When she finally heard a knock on the door, she hurried over and admitted Doris into her angst-ridden personal space.

"What�s up?" Doris asked.

"Somehow Frank talked Natalia�s parents into coming over here from Chicago."

"Is that a problem?"

Olivia looked at Doris as if she�d taken leave of her senses, but reminded herself the mayor probably had no way of knowing much if any about Natalia�s backstory. Hell, she herself knew precious little. "Oh, I think it�s a big freakin� problem," Olivia said.

"Look, why don�t you just come sit down and tell me what�s going on," Doris said, sitting on the couch.

Olivia reluctantly followed Doris and dropped onto the sofa next to her, not certain if she could actually sit still while they talked. "Natalia got pregnant when she was just a young girl, fifteen or sixteen, something like that," Olivia said. "Her family�s Catholic, and I�ve always gotten the impression they were very strict. They insisted she give the baby up for adoption, but when she refused, they tossed her out. That was the last time she saw them�till Frank drove them over from Chicago today."

"Wow, that must have been a shocker. How did she take it?"

"She nearly passed out. In fact, she would have fallen flat on her face if I hadn�t caught her. I wet a towel with cold water and used it on her face and neck till she seemed to come to again, but the rest of the brief time I was there she seemed almost catatonic."

"Not good."

Olivia pressed her fingers against her forehead, careful to avoid the still bruised area on the side, and began a slow massage. "No, it really wasn�t. In just the few minutes I spent with them, I learned a whole lot about why Natalia�s the way she is."

"Meaning?"

"Her father was very ... domineering. Both her mother and Natalia herself seemed to allow him to completely control them. It was like she became another person." Olivia�s hand dropped back into her lap and she looked at Doris with a pained expression. "I couldn�t even find the woman I know in there anywhere. She just ... kind of vanished or something."

"Well, you said she was in a state of shock. You probably need to give her time to get her balance."

"Frankly, I just don�t see that happening."

"Oh, come on, Olivia. Don�t you think that�s a bit hasty, not to mention harsh?"

"Look, when I first met Natalia, she was hardworking and she�d lived independently from the time she�d gotten pregnant, but she didn�t really have a lot of self-confidence and she certainly didn�t stand up for herself. Now after meeting her father, I can see why she was like that. He�s an overbearing tyrant. I hated leaving her there with them."

"Why did you then?"

Olivia exhaled and leaned her head against the back of the couch. "I kind of didn�t have much of a choice."

"I don�t know what that means. There�s always a choice."

"Frank suggested he and I leave so the three of them could talk."

"That�s not unreasonable."

"Sure, but I think that son of a bitch already knew her father would want him to stay�which he did. I�m not sure what Frank told them, but Mr. Rivera said he was �practically family,� whatever the hell that means."

"I don�t like the sound of that," Doris said. "What do you think he told them?"

Olivia sat up again. "I�m afraid he may have told them they were engaged at one time and possibly implied that getting back together was inevitable."

Doris peered into Olivia�s eyes. "Listen to me, Olivia. Natalia loves you. She�s not going to marry Frank. There�s just no way."

"Earlier today I would�ve agreed, but you didn�t see how she was around her father. She wilted. She cowered. She could barely stay conscious. It seemed like both she and her mother looked to him for permission to breathe. It was ... horrifying," Olivia said. "You probably think I�m exaggerating, but I�m really not."

Doris was quiet for a moment. "I know you�re not. Do you know much about traditional Hispanic culture, specifically machismo? I only ask because it sounds like that�s what you�re dealing with here."

"Well, sure, I know what machismo means."

"I mean do you understand the ramifications of it within a family setting?" Doris asked.

"I�m not sure what you�re driving at." And you�re really starting to give me a headache. The truth was Olivia�s entire body hurt, as though she�d received a literal physical blow. One minute she�d been headed up the stairs with the love of her life, and the next minute Natalia seemed to surrender all control to the man who�d thrown her out of the house when she was just a girl. That�s just not right! If I were Natalia, I�d have told him to get the hell outta my house!

"There�s more than one interpretation of �machismo,� even among different Hispanic cultures," Doris said. "At its best it means the man is strong and responsible, the protector of his family, and there are certainly some Hispanic men who are like that; but the other less savory manifestation of machismo, which is what I suspect you�re dealing with here, means the man exemplifies some of the worst possible qualities."

"Like what?" Olivia asked.

"The �macho� man is dominating. He�s physically aggressive and uncompromising with other males, and because he views women as inferior, he�s often sexually aggressive and domineering with them. He�s sometimes violent, not only with his wife, but also with his children. Some of this attitude is intertwined with the Catholic religion, in that the woman, like the Virgin Mary, is expected to be pure when she marries and must then stay faithful to her husband, while at the same time the man, in the spirit of �machismo,� is entitled to have sex with any woman he chooses."

"Jesus! How do you know all this?"

"Legal research back when I was DA," Doris said. "I learned a lot about the worst type of machismo back then and the harm it can cause, the type of stuff that gets these violent men prosecuted by people like me. Image is everything to this type of man. He�ll fight, he�ll brutalize, he�ll even kill to protect his manly image, and within that culture it�s not only accepted, but expected for the man to act out in that way."

"That�s not good," Olivia said. God, and to think I left her out there with him. I should have just gone upstairs and waited.

"No, it really isn�t."

"So ... if that�s the kind of man we�re dealing with here�and based on the little I saw, I think it is�then Natalia grew up in a strict Catholic home with all this machismo crap that meant her father was the undisputed cock of the walk while she and her mother were inferior beings under his control just because they were female."

"Yes, that�s what I�m saying," Doris said.

"So when Natalia got pregnant, it wasn�t just that she sinned against the church, but that she caused her �macho� father to lose face because she defiled her body by having sex with a boy and getting pregnant before she got married."

"Yes, I�d also assume that�s why he was adamant she give the baby up for adoption. They might have been able to hide the pregnancy that way, maybe by sending her away for a few months and saying she was visiting relatives out of town or whatever, and then he could have saved face. However, she refused to give up her baby, so he threw her out as the only way for him to save face in any way."

God, this is a lot to take in, but it sure would explain a lot.

Olivia�s mind rambled over various aspects of Natalia�s background in context with Doris�s extemporaneous lecture on machismo. "I just had a horrible thought."

"Okay, tell me."

"I�m going to take a wild guess that within this tradition, this machismo tradition, same-sex relationships are very much frowned on."

"That�s right," Doris said. "By definition they would be exactly contradictory to the precepts of machismo, for both males and females�males because being gay would be the exact opposite of being macho, and females because they were not properly subjugated to a male."

"So Natalia would not only have the church telling her it�s wrong, but she�d also have her father�and her mother, by extension, since she seemed so completely under his thumb�adamantly opposed to any kind of relationship like that, right?"

"I�m afraid that�s exactly right."

Olivia leaned back against the couch again and closed her eyes. "I am so fucked."

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

As soon as Olivia left, Frank sat on the chair next to Natalia. "Maybe your parents would like something to drink, Natalia."

Natalia was horrified at her gaffe. "I�m so sorry," she said rising from her chair and taking a step toward the refrigerator. "May I get you something�coffee, tea? There�s even some lemonade."

Her father shook his head. "No, we stopped at Frank�s restaurant on the way here to have dinner. I think we should talk about the future."

Natalia drifted back to her chair and sank back down onto it, still mortified she hadn�t thought to offer refreshments to her own parents, one more unforgivable social blunder. "What about the future?"

"Frank tells us Rafael is starting college this fall," Mr. Rivera said.

"Yes."

"Even though the boy has been in so much trouble with the law," Mr. Rivera continued.

Natalia could feel the blood drain from her face, aware of the condemnation of her parenting implicit in that statement. She looked down at the table, too ashamed to meet her father�s scathing gaze. "Yes," she whispered.

"Obviously the problem is the boy�s never had a strong male role model�until Frank, of course, since his own father died before he could really take the boy in hand and get his life turned around."

"He�s doing really well right now," Natalia said.

"He�s a felon who�s still seeing a parole officer, correct?"

"Yes." Natalia felt as though she were on trial and the verdict headed her way wasn�t going to be good.

"Then I would say you had the right idea when you agreed to marry Frank."

"We ... uh ... we didn�t get married."

"Yes, Frank told us there were problems that delayed the wedding, but surely there�s nothing standing in the way now."

Natalia couldn�t believe her father actually expected her to marry Frank. She cast a sidelong glance at Frank, who was simply listening calmly, his face carefully devoid of expression. "We ... we can�t ..."

"Natalia!" Mr. Rivera leaned forward, arms resting on the kitchen table.

Natalia recoiled from the angry tone in her father�s voice, just as she used to as a little girl.

"You finally have a chance to turn your life around, to make up for your past mistakes, to do the right thing by your son, who needs a strong man like Frank to guide him," Mr. Rivera said, "and that�s exactly what you�re going to do."

Natalia felt ill, emotionally and physically. Why had her happy world turned into a nightmare?

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

After Doris left, Olivia headed down to the Beacon bar, too agitated to sit alone in her penthouse suite. She briefly debated returning to the farmhouse, but she was concerned that if she did, it might make matters even worse. She decided it�d be far better to wait until she could talk to Natalia alone. Meanwhile her nerves were so on edge she felt an overwhelming need to self-medicate, hence the trip downstairs to her favorite watering hole.

She was surprised to see Angelica behind the bar. "Where�s Brandon?" Olivia asked.

"He wanted to go to a wedding, so I said I�d cover for him tonight," Angelica said. "May I get you something?"

"Vodka, and keep �em coming," Olivia said. "Make it the good stuff."

"Of course," Angelica said with a sweet smile.

"And bring me a big glass. I don�t want one of those little thimble-sized ones."

Olivia noted Angelica was quick to set a coaster and medium-sized tumbler of vodka in front of her, much to her approval. She drained the glass without taking a breath, set it back on the coaster, and tapped the side.

Angelica quickly refilled it.

Smart girl,

Olivia thought as she tossed back her second drink. Didn�t even try to get me to go for a screwdriver like Brandon did the time I sat here and got plastered on his watch right after the argument at the spa. "Just leave the bottle here," she told the pretty blonde bartender.

"Yes, of course, Miss Spencer. Just let me know if there�s anything else I can get you."

Olivia nodded and poured herself a third drink, which she drank more slowly. Oh, I think I have everything I need right here, she thought, examining the Stoli label. Except, of course, my girl. Olivia could feel tears of frustration threatening to form. Damn it, not gonna go there. She finished drink #3 and poured a fourth. This is the good stuff. Shouldn�t I be starting to feel it by now? She drank half the glass, coughed, and downed the rest.

"Miss Spencer?"

"Huh?" Olivia was vaguely aware Angelica was hovering.

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah, why?"

"I just got worried when I saw you lay your head on the bar. I thought maybe you were feeling sick."

"Nah, feelin� much better. Where�s my bottle?"

"In your hand."

Olivia peered to her right, where she saw the empty tumbler on the same level as her eyes. "Nope, that�s my empty glass."

"Your other hand," Angelica said.

Olivia rolled her head the other way. "There you are," she told the bottle, which she held clenched in her left hand. She sat up enough to bring her two hands close enough together to try to pour a fifth glass. The vodka ran down the side till Angelica guided the neck of the bottle over the center of the glass. "Thanks," Olivia slurred.

Angelica nodded as she helped Olivia set the bottle back down on the bar.

"Here�s to true love," she said, raising the tumbler in a mock toast. After she finished her drink, she stood up to leave, swaying precariously.

"Would you like some help?" Angelica said.

Olivia was impressed that somehow her bartender had materialized on her side of the bar. How�d she do that? The girl has skills. "Nah, I�m good," Olivia said taking a tentative step in the direction of the elevator. Unfortunately she couldn�t remember what came next. Something to do with the other foot, I think. When she tried to lift her other foot, her body tilted precariously, but Angelica caught her before she fell and steadied her as she tried to regain her balance.

"What�s going on here?"

"Miss Lindstr�m, hello," Angelica said.

"What�s wrong?" Katarina asked.

"I think Miss Spencer ... isn�t feeling well. I was just going to help her up to her room."

"Don�t you need to stay here and tend to the bar?"

"Yes, I suppose I should, but I was worried."

"Where�s Natalia?"

"I don�t know. She�s not here anywhere. I called the front desk to see if anyone had seen her when Miss Spencer first seemed to get sick."

"All right, I�ll take her then."

Reluctantly Angelica released her hold on Olivia and watched as Katarina slipped an arm around Olivia�s waist and began to walk her out of the bar and toward the elevators.

As soon as they were on the elevator, Olivia seemed to notice for the first time that it was no longer Angelica assisting her. "Somebody switched blondes on me," she muttered. She was leaning against the back wall of the elevator and missed Katarina�s amused smile.

"Surely one blonde is as good as the next," Katarina said.

Olivia laughed. For some reason that struck her as hilarious. Either this woman is funny as hell or it�s the vodka. Speaking of vodka, I forgot to bring mine with me. "Gotta go back down," she announced.

"Why�s that?" Katarina asked as the doors opened on the top floor.

"Forgot my bottle."

"We can always get them to send it up."

"That�s a great idea."

"Come on," Katarina said, tugging on Olivia to get her off the elevator.

"Where we goin�?"

"To your place."

"Really? I tried to get a girl to come back to my place with me tonight."

"I take it that didn�t work out?" Katarina asked.

"Nope, not exactly."

"Where�s your key?"

"Pocket."

"Which one?"

"No idea."

Olivia giggled as Katarina began to search her pockets. She found it on the third try in one of the back pockets of Olivia�s blue jeans and used it to open the penthouse door.

"Home, sweet home," Olivia said as they entered the suite. She swayed and nearly fell, but Katarina caught her and guided her toward the bed. "What�re we doin� now?" Olivia asked.

"I�m taking you to bed," Katarina said.

Olivia laughed. "Good idea �cause I don�t think I can stand up very much longer."

"No, I don�t think so either," Katarina said as she helped Olivia sit on the side of the bed. "Let�s get you a little more comfortable, shall we?"

"Oh, I don�t know. I�m feelin� pretty darned comfy after having a couple of drinks."

"Interesting," Katarina said as she began removing Olivia�s shoes and socks. "I could swear your lovely bartender held up five fingers when I asked how many you�d had."

"Yep, there�s the problem," Olivia said. "Five�s just not enough."

"That was a pretty big glass, Olivia," Katarina said.

Not nearly big enough,

Olivia thought. After all, I�m still conscious. She looked at Kat, who was kneeling in front of her after removing her footwear. "We done here?"

"That depends," Katarina said.

"On?"

"On whether you need help getting out of those clothes. I can�t imagine you�d be very comfortable sleeping like that."

"Uhm ..." Olivia glanced down at her skin-tight blue jeans. "Yep, I should probably get these jeans off and ... yeah, bra too." She stared down at the front of her jeans. "Damn complicated contraptions."

"Are you talking about the zipper?"

"Yeah, and that other ... thingie."

"Snap?"

"Yeah. Why do they have to make things so complicated?" Olivia fumbled with her jeans but couldn�t seem to get them unfastened.

Katarina watched her fruitless attempts. "Would you like some help?" she finally asked.

"Aw, hell," Olivia said, letting her hands fall to her sides on the mattress. "Okay," she added.

Katarina easily undid her jeans and pulled them off with some drunken assistance from Olivia, who managed to raise her hips enough to make the removal of her pants possible.

Olivia reached behind and under her short-sleeved blue blouse for the hooks on her bra. "I know there�s a way to do this without taking off my shirt, but ... uh ... not sure how I used to do that."

"Here, let me help," Katarina said. She leaned closer so she could get to the back of Olivia�s bra and quickly undid it, and then reached under the sleeves and pulled the bra straps down. "There you go. Now all you need to do is pull your arms out of the straps and then just pull your bra down and off."

Olivia sat there mute, now just wearing her panties and blouse, with her bra straps hanging down from under her sleeves. "So complicated," she said.

"Don�t worry," Katarina said. "I�ll help." She helped guide Olivia�s arms through the straps and after a brief hesitation reached under her blouse and gently eased her bra down and off.

"�Kay, thanks," Olivia said. "Gotta lie down now," she added. You should always lie down when the room is spinning. Learned that the hard way.

"I think that�s a very good idea," Katarina said softly as she ran her thumbs over the silky material of Olivia�s blue bra.

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

Chapter 86

"Excuse me," Natalia said as she stood up from the table. "I�m not feeling well." She moved quickly toward the doorway into the living room, acutely aware of three sets of eyes watching her retreating back.

Once in the upstairs bathroom she splashed cold water in her face and then leaned over the basin with her hands braced on the cabinet, fighting a wave of nausea. When she finally looked up, she was shocked to see a stranger�s face staring back at her from the mirror, a face that looked haggard and drawn. Her eyes were red with puffy dark circles underneath, even though she didn�t remember actually crying, and there was such an overall expression of desperation and defeat that she couldn�t recognize this face as the same one she�d seen in this very mirror earlier that day.

This is what my life is going to be,

she thought. She knew the only reason her father had allowed Frank to bring them to Springfield was to reclaim control over his daughter, to force her to live the life he chose for her. She could remember the whippings she�d suffered at his hands, beginning when she was just a toddler. Sometimes she didn�t even know what she�d done to set him off. Other times her guilt and remorse for a real infraction, such as forgetting to put away her toys, were overwhelming, and the shame of being struck stayed with her, even into her adulthood. It�s why she never lifted a finger against her son, not even to spank him when he was little.

She patted her face dry with a towel and stepped out of the bathroom onto the landing. Although she started to go back downstairs, she turned instead and went into her bedroom where she sat on the edge of her bed and picked up a picture frame from the night stand, the one of her and Olivia and Emma on the couch last winter. She smiled when she saw how happy they all looked. I was so happy back then. We were so happy. The thought of losing that, of losing the dream of reclaiming that happy life made her feel physically ill.

She lightly caressed the image of Olivia�s face in the picture, a face she loved. And little Emma. She�d been looking so forward to seeing their little girl come home and experiencing her joy when she found out she�d be moving back into her very own room at the farmhouse.

How can I give you up? How can I give all this up?

She thought about her father. He�d always been the ultimate voice of authority in her life, someone to be obeyed without question. Even her mother catered to his every whim and simply endured his occasional rages, which more and more centered on his imperfect child. The one thing Natalia had learned from early on was that she did not dare disobey him. Any hint of disobedience was dealt with swiftly and harshly. It was how she�d been brought up. It was how she�d lived for many years. It was the one thing that had affected her to such a degree it had informed the person she�d become after leaving her father�s house. Even now she could feel the overwhelming pressure to conform, to obey, to accept her father�s control, just as she�d always done.

Her eyes scanned lovingly over the photograph, taking in even the minutest detail, and then with a sigh she pressed a kiss to Olivia�s image and resolutely set the frame back on the night stand. She knew what she had to do. Her decision was made. Now she just had to follow through on it, even though she knew it was going to be difficult. In her heart she knew there was really no other choice.

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

Olivia stirred restlessly on her mattress. She was lying on her back with her head cushioned on a pillow and the sheet down around her waist, as though it�d slipped there from a night of tossing and turning. It was early morning, and she was caught somewhere between asleep and awake. As she began to drift more and more toward wakefulness, she became aware of a warm body lying next to her, could feel an arm lying over her chest, a hand on her shoulder, a leg thrown over her thighs. Soft curves pressing into her arm told her the body next to hers was female.

It felt good to have someone holding her, making her feel safe, but then abruptly she remembered the last face she�d seen last night before falling asleep, the beautiful face of Katarina Lindstr�m, who had helped her�

Oh shit! I got drunk at the bar and Katarina helped me get back up here to my room, and then ... shit, shit, shit!

Olivia remembered Kat helping her undress. Oh god. What did I do?

She felt the woman next to her begin to move. She must have noticed I was waking up. Now what? She kept her eyes tightly closed as her mind raced frantically.

Before Olivia could say or do anything, she felt the woman move closer, and then she felt the softest lips pressing against her mouth, kissing her all the way awake. Olivia parted her lips to receive the woman�s eager tongue and just let herself enjoy the languid, deep kiss.

When the other woman finally drew back, Olivia sighed. "Thank god it�s you," she said softly, finally opening her eyes to gaze into the dark orbs she knew she�d find looking back at her.

"Of course, it�s me. Who else would it be?" Natalia asked.

"N-, nobody," Olivia stammered sitting partway up and scanning the room.

"Kat was sleeping on the couch when I got here."

"Oh, okay. What did she say?"

"She said you�d had �a little� too much to drink, and she�d helped you navigate your way to your room. I already knew that, though, because as soon as I turned on my cell phone I had voice mail from Angelica saying you needed me."

"I, uh ... I was worried and I just wanted to try to relax. I�m sorry."

"You don�t have to apologize or explain anything to me, Olivia." Natalia sat up cross-legged on the bed facing Olivia. "I owe you an apology." She caressed Olivia�s face. "And I really hope you�ll forgive me because I�m so sorry about last night."

Olivia sat up, too, trying to make her eyes focus. She was so not a morning person. "What do you have to be sorry about?"

"For how I acted last night. I was just so shocked to see my parents after so many years, I literally could not think straight."

"I can understand that."

"Well, I�m not sure I do. I mean I don�t understand how I could have just completely lost myself like that. It was frightening, kind of like everything I�d worked to achieve, everything I�d done to better myself as a person, had just suddenly gotten lost, like I�d never made any progress at all, kind of like I was still that little girl who was so terrified of her father�s disapproval and anger."

"I could see how shocked you were to see them after all this time."

"I know. It really was a shock."

"I don�t think that�s so unusual. I think anyone in your situation would have been shocked."

"And almost fainted?"

"Sure, that�s not surprising, although I have to say that after I left, I felt like maybe I�d made a mistake, like maybe I should�ve stayed even though it seemed at the time like the only thing I could do was leave and let you have your reunion with your family, but everything happened so fast, and it seemed like you wanted to talk to them alone."

"Olivia, I could have asked you to stay, but I didn�t, especially when you specifically asked me if that�s what I wanted you to do�but when my father said I�d be fine, I nodded in agreement with him. What were you supposed to do? I�m the one who let you leave. And you know what? I think things worked out the way they were meant to."

"Why would you say that?"

"Because if you�d stayed, I know you would have fought my fight for me, but it�s something I had to do myself."

Olivia knew Natalia was right. She would�ve been happy to take them all on, and by god she would�ve kicked ass, but then Natalia wouldn�t have had to deal with the parents who�d abandoned her when she got pregnant. "So what happened after I left?"

"Fortunately I got sick."

"What? Why was that fortunate?"

"Because when I saw myself in the bathroom mirror, I didn�t even know who I was. I looked pale and worn-out and scared and ... hopeless. My father had come back into my life to control my every thought and action, and he wanted to give me to a man who would act on his behalf when he wasn�t around to do it himself."

"Frank," Olivia said. I really want to smack that man.

"Yes, my father told me I was going to marry Frank so I could make up for my past mistakes and do right by son, the felon."

"The felon?"

"Yes, he pointed out my son was a felon because of my poor parenting skills. At least he was right about that."

Oh god. That was low.

"Don�t say that!"

"Why not? It�s true. But I swear to God I�m going to do right by my son, starting with making sure he never meets his grandfather. That is the last role model on earth Rafael needs."

"What about Frank?"

"I realize in a way Frank is just a nicer, more civilized version of my father. He tries to control me, not by fear or violence, but by manipulation�that�s what Sister Anne called it."

"You talked to her about this?" And what the hell did you mean by "fear or violence"? Olivia started to ask her because it sounded like a pretty ominous choice of words, especially coming from someone who wasn�t prone to exaggeration, but she could see Natalia was slowly wading her way through what she needed to tell her, so she decided to exercise some self-restraint and let Natalia tell her what she needed to in her own time. Always good to exercise self-restraint. God knows I need the practice.

"Well, I didn�t talk with Sister Anne about this situation specifically, but as you know, I�ve been seeing her at least once a week, and we�ve talked a lot about Frank because I�ve needed to discuss the problems with Rafe, and those two are very connected."

"I see." Olivia studied Natalia�s face. She looked so calm, serene even, and so different from how she looked last night. "So tell me what happened after you saw yourself in the mirror."

"Instead of going right back downstairs, I went into my bedroom and looked at that photograph of you and me and Emma on the couch."

"I remember that picture." Olivia loved that picture as well because it represented what she wanted back.

"I saw how happy we looked, all three of us, and it was like I could suddenly breathe again. When I saw my father last night, it felt like I was that frightened little girl I used to be. I was so happy to see my mother, but when I saw how awful I looked in that mirror, how pale and haggard and tense, I realized I was seeing my mother�s face. I love my mother so much, but I know how timid she always was around him."

Natalia paused, and Olivia noted her eyes seemed to be focused on some faraway point somewhere over her shoulder, as though she had traveled back in time.

"When he wasn�t in the house, my mother was like a different person," Natalia continued in a soft voice. "She smiled and sang and played with me or talked with me or read me stories or taught me things, like how to cook and how to sew, but the minute he walked through the door, the light went out of her eyes and this terrible, suffocating tension came over the whole house."

"That�s an awful way to live."

"Yes, it is. I didn�t even realize how awful till I got pregnant and they left me at the home for unwed mothers. Even though I was scared about having a baby and leaving home, I wasn�t fearful every waking moment, afraid I�d anger my father and get another ... beating." Natalia focused back on Olivia again.

SHIT!

"He beat you?" Olivia could feel a raw anger roiling in the pit of her stomach. "You never told me your father beat you."

"I never told anybody."

"I wish you�d told me. There�s no way I would have left last night. Oh my god! I left you there with a man who used to beat you. I didn�t ... I just had no idea. I�m so sorry I left." Olivia was horrified. If only I�d known, she thought over and over. If only I�d known what kind of man he is.

"Olivia, you had no way of knowing, and he would certainly never show that side of himself to a stranger. With other people he was always polite and gentlemanly. No one would ever guess what he was like in private."

"Why didn�t you ever tell me?"

"I was ashamed. Getting hit ... it can make you feel so ... ashamed. The older I got, the more ashamed I felt."

Olivia�s eyes narrowed as a terrible thought intruded on her mind. "So these beatings ... what did he do exactly?"

Natalia�s eyes dropped down, but then with effort she forced herself to look back up at Olivia. "Sometimes he spanked me with his bare hand. When I was little he always made me pull down my panties so he could spank my bare bottom. I, uh ... it was ... I hated that."

"I�m sorry. I shouldn�t have asked." Maybe it�s not good to dredge all this stuff up.

"No, it�s okay. You asked and I need to tell you. I want you to know everything."

"Everything?" Oh god.

"Sometimes he�d whip me with his belt."

"That�s horrible."

"Sometimes he�d be so angry he�d just pick up whatever was handy and whip me with that."

"That�s child abuse. Someone should have turned that bastard into social services." Finally finding out what Natalia�s childhood had been like was difficult to bear, especially knowing there was nothing she could do about it now.

"It was all I knew at the time," Natalia said, "but when I had my baby, I swore I�d never hit him�and I never did, not once."

"When did he stop?"

"Stop what?"

"Stop whipping you?"

"He didn�t," Natalia said, briefly glancing down, but once more she forced herself to look back up and directly into Olivia�s eyes.

"He didn�t?��

"No, he never stopped, not till he threw me out of the house."

"But you were, what, fifteen or sixteen by then?"

"Yes."

Olivia could see a flush of shame in Natalia�s cheeks, and it made her want to beat the crap out of the tyrant who�d treated his daughter so abominably. "That�s ... it�s just hard to believe."

"The last time was when I told my parents I was pregnant."

"Oh my god." Olivia got off the bed and began to pace. "I could kill him. I could fucking kill that bastard for treating you like that."

Natalia got up, too, and caught Olivia�s hands, pulling them to her bosom. "Maybe I shouldn�t have told you."

"Of course you should tell me. I don�t want you to keep things from me."

"I won�t. I just ... mostly I try not to think about that part of my childhood. It�s really only been since I began to meet with Sister Anne that I�ve begun to understand how much all of that has affected my life and the choices I�ve made."

Olivia was still worried about the extent of her father�s abuse. "Did he ever ... come into your room at night?"

"I ... well, sometimes. What do you mean?"

"Did he ..." Olivia was having trouble getting the words to come out, but she had to know. "Did he ever sexually abuse you?"

"No," Natalia said. "No, he never did that. He was physically and verbally abusive, but he never did that to me."

"Thank god!" I was so worried. That whole spanking a little girl on her bare bottom sounds perverted to me. "So what happened with your parents last night?" Olivia asked as she drew Natalia down to sit beside her on the foot of the bed.

"When I went downstairs, Frank said we were going to take them into town to Towers, where he�d booked them a room for the night. Of course, that would have also left me alone with Frank in his car, which I wanted to avoid. Clearly there�s something seriously wrong with him right now."

"So what did you do?"

"I told my mother how happy I was to see her and how much I�d missed her, and I asked her to send my love to my grandmother, which she promised she�d do."

"And then?"

"And then I told Frank and my father that I was not going to marry Frank, ever, not under any circumstances."

"Wow, how�d that go over?"

Natalia grimaced. "Not well."

"I guess they tried to talk you out of it?"

"My father tried to bully me like he always used to, but I kept an image of that photograph in my head, and it helped me stay strong and focused. I felt like I was fighting for my life, for our life together, and there was no way I was going to let myself lose that fight."

"I�m impressed," Olivia said. And I�m so sorry I doubted you. "So did they just up and leave?"

"No, Frank had to tell them about my �little problem.�"

"Uh-oh."

"He told them I was confused right now and needed time to get my head on straight after coming under a bad influence."

"Ah, I see my name came up."

They both laughed.

"I�m afraid so. Frank told them my employer was �after me,� and he was trying to save me from your evil clutches, because as soon as you lured me into your bed, I�d lose the relationship I thought I had with you as well as my job."

"Son of a bitch!" Olivia tried to shake off her white-hot anger because she knew she needed to stay calm and focused for Natalia�s sake. "Okay, so I�m guessing your father was none too happy about that."

"No, he called me some very bad names and pretty much said I was going to hell unless I changed my wicked ways."

"But you stood your ground?"

"Yes, even though I hadn�t planned to tell them. It�s none of their business as far as I�m concerned, and besides, I knew there was no way they�d ever accept it. Well, I could tell my mother still loved me, but there�s no way she�ll ever stand up to him."

Olivia hugged Natalia again. "I�m so glad you stood up to him."

"Me too." Natalia snuggled into Olivia�s embrace.

"I�m so proud of you!"

"I�m not sure I�d have had the strength if it weren�t for you, because of how much I love you and because I know how much you love me."

"Is that why you weren�t upset to find Katarina here?"

"Well, I can�t say I wasn�t upset," Natalia said.

Olivia was relieved to see a dimply smile accompanying her declaration.

"I always seem to feel uneasy when I�m around Katarina," Natalia continued. "She�s just so beautiful and I know how much she wants ... to be with you, but clearly she really was a friend to you last night when you needed a friend, and not someone who�d take advantage of you, which I know would have been easy to do."

"Well, I�m spoken for."

"Yes, you are, and don�t you forget it."

"I won�t," Olivia said with a grin. "So what now?"

"First, judging by how you look right now, I�m going to go order up your favorite hangover cures, along with a pot of coffee and some breakfast."

"Food? I don�t know."

"Yes, food. You need to eat. You�ll be fine once you get down one of those cures and drink some coffee. You�ll need some food on your stomach by then. And Olivia?"

"What?" Now Olivia was the one who felt uneasy when she saw the sudden serious expression on Natalia�s face.

"I think we should talk sometime about this excessive drinking when you get upset."

"Uhm ... yeah, okay." It sure wasn�t a good choice last night. What if you�d needed me?

Natalia picked up the phone from Olivia�s night stand and ordered the requisite items from food service. She knew the breakfast chef would know what hangover cure or cures to send up. It certainly wouldn�t be the first time that type of request had emanated from the CEO�s penthouse suite. "There, that should be up here soon. Meanwhile, I have a lot of things I have to get taken care of today, starting with talking to my son.

Olivia was no longer hearing individual words. She was only aware she�d gotten back the woman she loved, a woman who genuinely loved her and cared about her and would do anything she could to take care of her, just as Olivia would do for her.

"Did you hear me?" Natalia asked.

"Huh?"

"I said I need to talk to Rafe. I have to tell him what happened and why, and then I need your help with something."

"Of course, anything."

"I want to take out a restraining order on Frank, but I don�t really know how to do that. All I know is I refuse to let him keep doing things like this."

"What else could he possibly do?" Olivia asked.

"Didn�t we just ask that same question recently?"

"Good point. Okay, I�ll call Mel and ask her to come over and help. That should make it go quicker, especially since Frank�s still a member of the force, even if he is on suspension. In fact ..." Olivia thought for a moment. "Maybe I should call Doris first and ask her advice. It�s possible she could set this in motion even faster than Mel. She�d certainly be highly motivated to do it, and she already knows a little bit about what happened. She also knows the local judges pretty well, and that�s really who we need to issue the order."

"So you talked to Doris?" Natalia asked.

"Yeah, after I left the farmhouse last night."

"Good, I�m glad. Speaking of the farmhouse ..."

"What about it?"

"Olivia, I love you so much."

"I love you, too. Last night I thought sure I�d lost you. I really felt like Frank had come up with the one thing that could break us up."

"We�re not breaking up! In fact, I want you to move back into the farmhouse with me."

"I know, and I haven�t changed my mind about doing that whenever we think it�s okay."

"I want you to move back in today."

"Today? Are you serious?"

"Olivia, I�m completely serious. You are my life. I don�t want to be apart from you for even one more night. There�s just one thing."

"What?"

"You need to think about whether you�re really ready to do that."

"Oh, I�m ready. I�ve been ready for a long time."

"Are you sure? Because it seems like you�re still afraid something�s going to happen that�ll make me want to dump you."

"But now the other shoe has finally dropped."

"What does that mean exactly?"

"Let�s just say that now that you�ve stood up to your son and Frank and your parents, I know there�s nothing that could come between us."

"Do you mean that?"

"Absolutely."

Natalia smiled. "Okay, then will you move in?"

"I just can�t believe you want me to move in today."

"I know it might take longer than that to get everything moved in that you�ll want, but couldn�t we at least get most of your personal things moved�clothes, laptop, basic necessities?"

"Sure, I guess, but what about Rafe?"

"I�ll tell him when I see him this morning. I�m more motivated than ever to stand firm against his temper and his attempts to control the people around him, including me. Being around my father was a terrible reminder of how toxic that can be."

"What if he�"

"It won�t make a difference. I want you with me and I don�t want to wait. Well, unless you think we should wait to move you in until after you tell Emma about us."

Olivia thought for a moment about her little girl. "No, I think it�ll be fine. She�ll be thrilled to find out we�re going to live at the farmhouse again. She was always so happy there. Once we�re moved and she gets settled in, we�ll find the right time to tell her."

"So you�ll do it? You�ll move in with me today?"

"Yes." God yes! Olivia could hardly believe they were finally going to be together. No more forced separations. No more waiting to see if Rafe was going to accept them. No more worrying about what other people might think. They were finally going to be together, and she�d never in her life been happier.

Natalia smiled and hugged Olivia close. "I�m so happy," she said softly.

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

Natalia watched Olivia slowly perk up as she worked her way through the various goodies on the breakfast cart, starting with a very unappetizing shaker full of some kind of liquid hangover cure. Olivia had trouble swallowing it, but she did manage to gulp most of it down, followed by a cup of coffee. By then Natalia was able to talk her into eating an apple muffin, but only because she fed it to her by hand, a little exercise in fine dining that left them both more than a little turned on.

"I�m thinking maybe I should make you feed me all the time," Olivia said after eating the last morsel of muffin.

"That could probably be arranged," Natalia said, swiping a tiny piece of muffin from the corner of Olivia�s mouth, "especially now that you�re moving back in."

"I just can�t believe we�re actually doing it."

"Well, we are." Natalia was touched by how radiantly happy Olivia looked. Thank God I found my backbone last night. "By the way, I forgot to tell you I called Rafe while you were in the shower and asked him to meet me downstairs."

"You�re going to tell him about your parents?"

"Yes, and about Frank and the restraining order, and also about asking you to move in today."

"Wow, that�s a lot."

"Yes, I know, but it is what it is. I don�t want my son to be like my father or like Frank, and I�m going to tell him that. I�m also going to tell him I�d love for him to come and live with us at the farmhouse, but of course it�s his decision."

"He won�t do it. Are you sure you�re okay with that?"

"I don�t think he�ll do it either. It makes me sad, but I�m not going to keep my life on hold any longer, not even for my son. He�s moving on with his life, and I�m going to move on with mine. He�s starting college very soon, and I know he has to make an independent life for himself sooner or later. I�d just really like to see him move out of Frank�s."

"Wasn�t that supposed to be temporary?"

"I suppose, but I don�t really know. He was just so angry at the time�speaking of which, I�m also going to tell him how concerned I�ve been about how he might act around Emma, and I�m going to make it clear that any kind of anger or lashing out is not acceptable, not with anybody, but especially not around Emma."

Natalia became aware that Olivia was watching her open-mouthed. "What?" Natalia asked.

"I�m just so ... impressed with how ... confident you are."

"Yes, that�s exactly what I am. I�m confident. I know what I need to do, and I�m going to do it."

"I love you like this, all, like, sure of yourself. It�s a huge turn-on."

Natalia laughed until Olivia abruptly pulled her close and kissed her. She loved Olivia�s sudden passion and slow, deep kiss, but after a while she reluctantly pulled away. "You know what I think?"

"That we should go to bed and make love?" Olivia asked with a quirk of one eyebrow.

"Yes, but I think we should wait till tonight."

"That�s a long time off."

"Yes, but ..." Natalia glanced at her watch. "Rafe is probably waiting for me in the restaurant downstairs, and I also want to get going on the restraining order."

"Right, I need to call Doris about that. Okay, you go do what you need to do, and I�ll do the same. Then I�ll do some packing. I should probably call Emma with the good news, too."

"I�d love to be with you when you tell her."

"Okay, I�ll wait for you. In fact, we can call her on the speakerphone at the farmhouse later."

"That sounds perfect," Natalia said, stealing one last kiss. "Just like you."

"Don�t forget about our date tonight."

"Date?"

"Remember? I said we should go to bed ..."

"Oh." Natalia blushed. "I won�t forget."

"It feels like it�ll be our wedding night," Olivia said.

"Exactly. That�s exactly what it is."

They lingered over a good-bye kiss, and then Natalia finally headed off to meet her son. She had some difficult things to do today, including getting the restraining order on Frank, but she knew it was all going to be worthwhile�and the prospect of a wedding night with Olivia at the farmhouse made her smile and blush and want to count every single second until they were finally together.

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

Chapter 87

"Oh my god I�m so in love!" Olivia announced to the currently empty penthouse suite. All she could think about was getting to the farmhouse and the love of her life. I�m coming home, she thought. I�m finally coming home to you.

She was standing in the middle of several open suitcases lying open on the floor around her, like a pioneer amidst the protective circle of wagons. She�d already gotten through the difficult part of her day, including a discussion with Doris about restraining orders.

Doris recommended getting a lawyer to advise them and even go with them to the courthouse though it wasn�t strictly necessary. She said there might be problems, but a good lawyer could help Natalia maximize her case. She also suggested she herself might try to talk to Judge Hern�ndez about Frank�s fitness as a mentor for Rafe, though she couldn�t promise it would do any good whatsoever since Rafe himself was so vested in that relationship. "The boy needs a sane male role model," Doris had quipped, "and right now that �ain�t� Frank."

Olivia set up a meeting for the two of them with Mel, during which the lawyer explained there was some doubt as to whether a judge would actually grant even an emergency ex parte order of protection, which was the shortest-lasting of the three types of restraining orders available in the state, but that could be issued without Frank being present. It usually only lasted up to fourteen days or until there was a hearing, whichever came first, which was less time than the protection afforded by either an interim or plenary order of protection, Mel had said. Even so, it was not certain a judge would sign such an order in this case.

Olivia remembered how both she and Natalia had protested vehemently to the notion that a judge could possibly deny signing an order at all, but Mel pointed out that the single instance of physical injury against Natalia could easily be explained away as a one-time accident, and there was virtually no physical proof of it now since her bruises had faded so much it made it difficult to discern any traces of them on her olive skin, and what little one could see were not the clear handprint bruises previously viewable. Essentially it would be Natalia�s word against Frank�s since Olivia was still fuzzy on the details of that night.

Also, Mel pointed out Olivia was the one with the verifiable injury that required hospitalization, but she�d ended up not filing criminal charges after the meeting with Doris and Mallet (and Chief Wolfe in absentia) that resulted in Frank�s temporary suspension, an edification that had inspired a colorful string of invectives from Olivia, who still regretted not following her initial instinct to try to get Frank jailed, rather than suspended. Olivia had only been mildly mollified when Mel agreed with the advice the esteemed mayor had given them.

When questioned, Natalia admitted she�d never told Frank�or anyone else�her father was abusive, so she couldn�t claim Frank deliberately intended her harm by bringing him into her home without her knowledge or consent.

According to Mel, the best chance Natalia had to be granted an order of protection was to make a case that her ex-fianc� had been stalking and intimidating her by walking into her home day or night without permission and also by repeatedly insisting they get married. Here it was significant that Natalia had told Frank again and again not to enter her home and explained to him time after time she would never marry him.

In that context, Mel said the fact that Frank had unexpectedly brought a parent to help him bully Natalia into marriage and the fact both women had sustained physical injuries that night at the farmhouse�though only one could be verified by hospital records�would provide some credence that Frank might pose a real physical threat and was certainly causing her great emotional distress, and hence maybe they could at least get a temporary emergency restraining order, though it was not certain even that would do it. Mel�s parting shot to Olivia was a suggestion that she try to remember what happened that night.

Yeah, I�ll get right on that,

Olivia thought as she pushed the knotty restraining order problem out of her head and happily surveyed the chaos in her room. After all, they were meeting with Mel in the morning to fill out the necessary forms and file them with the court clerk, who would then take them to a judge. Till then there really wasn�t anything they could do.

Meanwhile she could do something about getting moved out to the farmhouse. She realized her packing was haphazard at best, but she was too excited about moving and too giddy about their "wedding" night to approach it with any type of planning, organization, or care, and even though she knew she could easily get someone from housekeeping to come up and help her, it was just so satisfying to do it herself she didn�t bother.

Suddenly tired, she plopped down on the foot of the bed and lay back, letting her legs dangle off the end while she stared at the ceiling and thought once more about how Natalia had looked and sounded that morning. Olivia was completely enthralled by Natalia�s impressive show of strength and determination and unwavering commitment to their relationship. Huge freakin� turn-on, that�s what it is, she thought as a smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

At first she�d been shocked at what seemed like such an abrupt change, but after Natalia left and she�d had time to think, she realized Natalia had been making steady progress in this direction for quite some time now, starting way back when she�d agreed to become Olivia�s assistant, a position with far more responsibility than anything she�d ever tackled before. She�d also taken on the challenge of buying and creating a home for all of them; she�d overcome the harrowing sexual assault and its emotionally draining aftermath; she�d stood up to Father Ray, and by proxy her church, and found her own peace with God; she�d laid down the law with Frank by insisting he stop barging into the farmhouse at all hours and making it clear there was no future for them; she�d held steadfast to their love even when her son found out and not only made his disapproval known, but moved out of the house and in with her "stalkerish" ex-fianc�; and finally, just last night she�d stood up to the tyrant from her childhood, even after Frank exposed her relationship with Olivia.

To her shame, Olivia had initially believed the arrival of her parents would be too much for Natalia to overcome. Before she realized the father was abusive, Olivia had thought it represented a chance for Natalia to get her family back�for herself and her son�and how could that be anything but an incredibly wonderful gift? Well, that�s what I thought till I found out today what an abusive bastard her father was. He seemed nice, but boy, can appearances be deceiving! Thinking about what happened last night and what might have happened had Natalia not already overcome so much was still scary, but Olivia decided to follow Natalia�s advice and let it go, at least for now.

She rolled over onto her side and drew her knees up to her chest as her thoughts turned to another issue her lover had brought up, namely Olivia�s readiness for a real commitment that moving to the farmhouse would represent. She had to admit that up until that morning she�d always had that one little niggling doubt in the back of her mind that at some point when the going got too rough, Natalia would abruptly withdraw, leaving Olivia shattered. It was the one thing she feared most. She knew she could handle anything else�telling Emma, dealing with reactions from the community, putting up with Rafe�s hostility, whatever. But in the end to be dumped by her one true love? She didn�t think she�d survive that.

But now she was giddy with the knowledge that every single time Natalia had been faced with a tough choice, she�d repeatedly chosen to stay in the relationship with Olivia, even when her son protested, even when her parents showed up, even when her despotic father tried to stop her.

I have never, EVER, had someone who chose me first,

Olivia thought. Not ever. Not once.

She saw an image in her mind of Natalia in the farmhouse kitchen stirring something on the stove, in the living room sitting on the couch on movie night, on the bench outside the door eating ice cream, on the stairway carrying a basket of laundry, in the yard pulling weeds from the flowerbed, on the landing coming out of the bathroom after a shower with her hair still pinned up and wet around the edges.

She closed her eyes as the images continued to kaleidoscope through her mind�Natalia looking pretty in a sundress, Natalia looking slender and cute in her jeans, Natalia looking adorable in her flannel jammies and scuffs, Natalia looking breathtaking in nothing at all.

"My god I am so in love," Olivia whispered to the still empty penthouse suite.

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

Natalia watched her son sitting across from her at a table in the Beacon restaurant. Currently he was frowning and visibly upset.

"I can�t believe my own grandparents were in town and didn�t even want to meet me."

"I�m sorry you�re hurt, Rafael."

"Why didn�t you ever tell me anything about them?"

Natalia took a deep breath. She had already decided she wasn�t going to hide things anymore. "Because they threw me out of the house."

"Why? What did you do?"

"I got pregnant."

Rafe started to say something and stopped abruptly, as though what she�d just said had sunk in. "So ... so they tossed you out because of me?"

"It wasn�t your fault. None of this is your fault. I�m the one who got pregnant so young."

"So just because you got pregnant they threw you out? That�s not cool."

"No, actually it was because I refused to give you up for adoption. If I�d agreed to do that, my father would�ve let me stay." Natalia could see Rafe trying to absorb this new piece of information. She�d always tried to protect him from life�s harsher realities, but she knew now was not the time to conceal family history, so she sat stoically waiting for his next question.

"And you refused to do that."

"Yes. My father took me to a home for unwed mothers and told me never to come back home."

"That�s ... that was a terrible thing to do."

"Yes, it was, but it wasn�t the only terrible thing he did."

Rafe looked worried. "What else did he do?"

"He was a very angry, short-tempered, violent man. He treated my mother badly and he used to ... well, he used to beat me ... for even the smallest things ... sometimes for nothing at all except I was handy when he got mad about something. He was physically and verbally abusive." She could see Rafe clenching and unclenching his fists now. And that�s exactly why I�m telling you this. I�ve got to make you see how damaging all this anger can be, not only to others, but also to yourself.

"That�s ... wrong," Rafe said.

"He would lose his temper and lash out. It was a terrible thing to live with."

"Yeah, it sounds awful."

"Listen, this isn�t a man you want in your life. He�s not a nice person. He was horrible to me and my mother, and I�d hate for you to be around him."

"Because you think he�d be horrible to me?"

"No, because I think he�d want to teach you to be like him." She watched her son�s face carefully, wondering if anything was sinking in.

"I ... I�d never do anything like that."

"Rafael, I�m glad to hear you say that, but honestly, I�ve gotten more and more worried about your temper."

Rafe looked down at the table and his half-eaten breakfast, but didn�t say anything.

"Seeing my father last night was a terrible reminder of how really bad that kind of uncontrolled anger can be," Natalia said, leaning forward as she watched her son carefully. "I want you to look at the things you�ve done, at the way you lose your temper and strike out at people, sometimes physically, sometimes verbally. I don�t want you to be like my father, Rafael."

"I�d never, ever be like that!" Rafe said angrily, clenching his fists again.

"But look at yourself right now. It seems as though your first reaction is always anger. Before you think, you react and it comes out as anger. That�s not healthy for you, and I can tell you it�s not healthy for the people around you."

Rafe relaxed his hands and sat back in his chair. "Yeah, I know. We talk about that in group."

"In the anger management group?"

"Yeah, and I also talk with the counselor alone sometimes. I ... yeah, I know I have a problem."

"Two things have happened lately that have made me see this in another light. I think I�ve been in denial about what a big problem you have, Rafael, just like you�ve been.

"So what two things?"

"The first one I�ve already told you. I just got a terrible reminder about what it was like to live with my father, but also, Emma is going to be coming home soon."

"So?"

"She�s just a little girl, and I realized I was worried about what you might do around her."

"I would never hurt Emma!" Rafe shouted.

Natalia regarded him quietly for a moment. "No, I don�t think you�d ever do anything deliberately to hurt her, but what if you lost your temper around her? Do you realize how frightening that could be for a little girl like that? I used to be that little girl who lived in fear of an angry man. I cannot begin to tell you how ..." Natalia could feel tears beginning to well up, and from the sudden expression of contrition on her son�s face, she knew he�d noticed. "I can�t tell you how frightening that can be, and suddenly I realized I was afraid my son might be someone who could scare a little girl."

"But I would never do that!" Rafe insisted.

"And what if you were angry at Olivia, as you�ve been before? What if you were yelling at her, as you�ve done before? What if Emma heard that or saw it? Can you understand how scary and how damaging that could be for a little person to hear her mother treated like that?"

Rafe�s head dropped down. "Yeah, okay. I ... you�re right." When he looked back up at his mother, he had a pained look on his face. "You�re right. I need to stop that."

"Good, that�s all I ask. I love you so much, but this is something I just cannot tolerate and I�m not going to tolerate it, not anymore."

Rafe nodded.

"Now I have two more things to tell you."

Rafe�s shoulders sagged. "Okay."

"First, I�m going to try to take out a restraining order on Frank."

"What? Why would you do that?"

"I was hoping that�d be obvious," Natalia said. "Frank has changed. He shouldn�t have gone behind my back and talked my parents into coming here. That was none of his business. He told them that marrying me was inevitable, just a matter of time. He hurt me, Rafe. You saw the bruises on my arms. He hurt Olivia bad enough to put her in the hospital. He keeps walking into the farmhouse day or night as if he owns the place even though I�ve asked him repeatedly not to. Can you understand how scary that can be, especially for a woman who�s been living alone way out there in the country? I�m starting to feel afraid of him, Rafe."

"Maybe I could talk to him."

"I don�t think it�s good for you to hang out with him. I wish you�d move back into the farmhouse, but if not, I wish you could live somewhere other than with Frank. He might have been a good mentor at one time, but I don�t think he is right now. It�s like he�s not in his right mind."

"I don�t know. When I�m around him, he seems okay."

"You�re in charge of your own life, Rafael. I�m just telling you what I think."

"Okay, you told me. What else?"

"Olivia and Emma are moving back into the farmhouse." She could see he looked surprised, even though she�d told him more than once this was what she wanted.

"When?"

"Olivia is moving in today, and Emma will be home from San Francisco sometime soon."

"So that�s partly why you were worried about Emma? Because she and Olivia would be moving into the farmhouse?"

"That�s right."

"Okay, I understand."

She waited for an outburst, but none came. Maybe I�m getting through to him about the anger issues, or maybe he�s starting to at least accept my relationship with Olivia, even if he doesn�t like it. Maybe it�s what I said about my concerns about Emma. Either way she felt as though she�d made a little progress.

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

Olivia knocked on the farmhouse door, which was quickly opened by a stunning latina wearing black jeans and a burnt orange tank top.

"God, you�re gorgeous," Olivia said as she pulled Natalia into her arms for a hug. "And you�re all mine," she added before kissing her hello.

Soon the "hello" kiss deepened into an "I want you now" kiss, but before it went any further, there was a second knock on the door.

"Oh shoot," Olivia said with a laugh. "I forgot I asked Boyd to help me with my luggage. He brought it over in one of the Beacon SUVs."

"That was a good idea."

"Well, I wanted to save my strength," Olivia said with a suggestive grin as Natalia opened the door.

"Come in, Boyd," Natalia said.

Olivia was amused by Boyd�s obvious nervousness around his longtime crush. He grinned and stammered the minute he saw Natalia, but at least he was a strapping lad, she thought, and quickly got her luggage carted upstairs to her room.

"Thanks, Boyd," Olivia said as she saw him to the door. "I may have more tomorrow. I�ll let you know."

As soon as he was gone, Olivia turned to Natalia. "I can�t believe I�m here ... here to stay."

"Me either, but I�m so happy."

"Happy enough to let me have a key?"

"Oh right. I have one for you. It�s next to your plate."

Olivia noticed for the first time that the table was set with Natalia�s fine chinaware, and there were even a couple of tall, white tapered candles waiting to be lit. She picked up the key. "You should have let me bring dinner from the Beacon so you didn�t have to cook."

"I love cooking for you," Natalia said.

Olivia turned the key over in her hand. "This looks new."

"It is. I called Josh for his advice on what locksmith to call, but he came over this afternoon to change the locks himself because he said that�d be faster than trying to get a locksmith out on such short notice. He put in a dead bolt and a chain lock, and he also brought me some door wedges."

"Uhm ... wow, that�s a great idea. Why did you decide to change the locks?"

"Because I�m pretty sure I locked the door last night, but somehow Frank still got in, so either he got ahold of a key or he picked the lock�or maybe I�m wrong about locking the door. In any event I�m just tired of him being able to walk in here. I told Josh about it and he recommended changing the locks, but also installing a chain lock and using door wedges to block the door from the inside. He said I might also want to consider putting in a security alarm."

Olivia nodded, momentarily sobered by the problem Frank represented. "I think it�s good. What about Rafe, though?"

"Rafe isn�t living here right now. If he changes his mind and decides to move back in, I�ll give him one of the new keys and we�ll have to figure out what to do about the door wedges, which means he�d have to keep me informed about whether or not he was coming home, and if so, how late he was going to be out."

"Wow, I bet he�d love that."

"Honestly, I don�t expect him to want to live here anyway. I�m hoping that once classes start, he�ll get his mind on other things, meet some new people his own age, start to think about his life goals ..."

"Here�s hoping." Olivia was still incredibly impressed with Natalia�s newfound strength and confidence. In fact, to her surprise just listening to Natalia calmly lay down the law on the locks and keys was making her feel a bit weak in the knees. Maybe we could just skip dinner and go right to the part where we go to bed, speaking of which ... "We should talk about sleeping arrangements," she said. No point beating around the bush.

"I�m sleeping with you," Natalia said with a huge smile. "Don�t even try to argue about it."

Olivia laughed. "Hey, no way am I arguing about that, I was just wondering ..."

"Well, I know we each need a bedroom, or more accurately our own rooms and closets to store things in, but ..."

"Yeah, I figured, but ..."

"I put fresh sheets on both our beds, but the one in your room is bigger, so I thought tonight maybe we could go there?"

"Sounds perfect."

"We can always get a bigger bed for the master bedroom, if you want. I haven�t thought this all the way through. I just wanted to get you here."

"Getting me here was a great idea. I totally approve."

"So tonight when we go to bed, we can sleep in your bed."

"Well, I don�t know about sleeping."

Natalia blushed and leaned into Olivia, holding her close.

"I don�t know about waiting either," Olivia said. "Do you realize we�ve never made love in the farmhouse?"

Natalia nodded.

"I mean ... we�ve kissed and stuff, but ..."

"I know. I�ve wanted to, though. I�ve really wanted us to be together here," Natalia said. "I feel kind of nervous, though, like it�s our wedding night, like it�s the first time in a way."

"Yeah, I know. Me, too."

"And I want you to know that I don�t need a ceremony to feel like we�re married, like we�re a real couple. I know in my heart we are, Olivia. I�ve known that for a long time, and I want you to know I�m completely committed to you and to this relationship."

Olivia kissed Natalia briefly. "I�m completely committed to you, too. I love you so much." Olivia tightened her grip. "I just don�t think I can wait to be with you. Please don�t make me wait."

Natalia looked into Olivia�s eyes, took her hand, and led her through the doorway into the living room and toward the stairs.

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

Natalia was so happy and so excited and so turned on already she could barely breathe, let alone navigate the stairs. Somehow they both managed to stumble their way to the top, pausing here and there to kiss. Natalia thought Olivia looked gorgeous in her emerald green blouse, which she�d tucked into her dark blue jeans. Her eyes looked darker than usual, almost the same shade of green as her top, and her smile was radiant. By the time they made it to Olivia�s bedroom, Natalia was anxious to make love to her. She couldn�t remember ever wanting her this much, which, considering how much she longed to be with her all the time, was really saying something.

Natalia tugged Olivia by the hand toward the low armchair that sat next to the night stand. "We really need to get these clothes off you," Natalia said.

"Okay." Olivia reached for the top button on her blouse, but Natalia stopped her.

"By �we� I guess what I really meant was �me.�"

Natalia pulled Olivia down for a slow kiss, and afterward she began to slowly unbutton her blouse, carefully slipping each dark green button through its slit one by one, aware that Olivia�s eyes were focused on her fingers as they steadily worked on their task. As soon as she undid the last one, she parted the blouse and Olivia reached up to pull it off. Natalia stopped her again by taking her hands and placing them at her sides. Then she slid the blouse off Olivia�s shoulders, pulled it off, and lay it on the arm of the chair.

Natalia smiled when she saw the matching emerald bra. "You�re so beautiful," she whispered as she ran her hands over Olivia�s shoulders and down her arms. "I love looking at you." Her hands glided up Olivia�s back, over her shoulders again, and then down her chest till they came to rest on her breasts. "And I love touching you."

She could see Olivia�s eyes were beginning to look glassy and her breathing had noticeably quickened. She massaged her breasts through her bra, knowing how sensitive they were and how much Olivia loved being touched there. She loved touching her like this, feeling her voluptuous soft curves beneath her fingers, feeling the tips quickly engorge and press against her palms, feeling her heart pounding beneath her hands.

"This needs to come off," Natalia said.

Olivia reached behind for the fasteners.

"Stop," Natalia said, grabbing her hands and pulling them away. "Please just trust me." She was aware of Olivia�s surprising discomfort with Natalia�s past attempts to remove her clothes. At best she�d let Natalia help, but mostly she whipped her clothing off herself. At some point Natalia realized it was probably an issue of control. She knew Olivia feared losing control almost more than anything else, probably because of what had happened to her at the embassy party. Up until now, Natalia had simply accepted it, but tonight she needed Olivia to trust her enough to allow her this simple privilege.

Olivia took a deep breath. "Okay."

Natalia kissed her again while her fingers quickly and easily undid the hooks of her bra. When she drew back from the kiss, she removed the bra and tossed it on top of Olivia�s blouse, pausing to look at her. "You have the most beautiful breasts," she said.

Covering Olivia�s bare breasts with her hands set off an even more urgent throbbing at the apex of her thighs, and she could feel a copious amount of liquid "down there," clear proof of her own arousal. She kissed the tip of each breast before undoing her jeans. She slid both jeans and panties down to her knees and then gently guided her to sit on the armchair so she could remove her shoes and pull her pants the rest of the way off, leaving her completely naked.

"You�re just unbelievably gorgeous," Natalia said as she pushed Olivia�s legs apart so she could kneel between them. "Sometimes I can hardly believe you�re mine."

"Aren�t you feeling a little overdressed?" Olivia asked, leaning forward in the chair and reaching for Natalia�s burnt orange tank top.

Natalia gently pushed her hands away. "Not yet."

"Not yet?" Olivia asked, both eyebrows rising to a nearly comical level.

Natalia thought Olivia�s astonishment was adorable, but she also wanted Olivia to know she wasn�t always in charge. "That�s right. Not yet."

"But I want to see you ... without all that on," Olivia insisted.

"You can see me all you want ... in a minute." Natalia said.

"But�"

Olivia stopped abruptly when Natalia leaned forward and took the tip of her breast in her mouth. Natalia loved tasting her, loved feeling her nipple become even stiffer as her tongue swirled around it, loved hearing Olivia�s gasps of pleasure, loved feeling her body begin to writhe from the pure pleasure Natalia was able to give her.

"God that feels amazing," Olivia said.

"I thought so, too," Natalia murmured as she switched sides. At one time she�d simply admired Olivia�s figure. Later she came to love her body, and somewhere along the line she�d become obsessed with it. Right now her need to make love to her, to make Olivia feel her love, was a driving force that made everything else fade away till there was only the two of them in their own little oasis of love and arousal and her burning need to establish as close a connection as possible.

"I don�t think I�ve ever been this turned on," Olivia whispered.

Natalia smiled. She was pretty sure that had something to do with Olivia finally relinquishing control in a way she�d never done before when they made love. "Me either," she said softly. She kissed her way down Olivia�s stomach, getting more and more turned on as Olivia continued to move restlessly beneath the ardent kisses she pressed to her smooth and silky flesh.

By the time she pressed a kiss to the hot flesh between her thighs, Olivia was gasping and her fingers were twining through Natalia�s hair. Natalia had done this once before, after Olivia had stopped her the first few times she tried. She was pretty sure that was related to Olivia�s attempt to control the removal of her clothing. She guessed it was harder for Olivia to feel in control when she made love to her like this, as it was too intimate and too sensuously pleasurable for her to maintain that little margin of restraint she could otherwise manage.

"I love tasting you like this," Natalia whispered. She remembered from before what Olivia liked. She knew she liked to feel her fingers inside her, knew just the spot her tongue could lavish attention on to make her little gasps turn to guttural groans, knew just how much pressure and how fast. Natalia could feel her own arousal growing as Olivia�s body began to rock with the movement of her tongue.

"I love feeling you come," Natalia added before returning to the task at hand. She was also aware how turned on Olivia got when she shared things like that, so she wasn�t at all surprised when Olivia�s magnificent body spasmed and her hands clutched Natalia�s head to signal she needed to stop. Still, Natalia couldn�t resist keeping her fingers inside to feel the rippling announcement of her climax nor pressing one last light kiss to flesh she knew could no longer stand to be touched.

The need to hold her became too great, though, so Natalia moved back up until she was able to rest her head on Olivia�s chest. To her vast amusement Olivia seemed unable to lift her arms to return her lover�s embrace. Natalia was happy to rest her head on Olivia�s chest, riding the rapid rise and fall, hearing the reassuring beat of her heart beneath her ear.

"I love you so much, Olivia," Natalia said softly.

Finally she felt Olivia�s arms wrap around her and tighten, and then Olivia tilted Natalia�s head up so she could lean down and kiss her.

"That was amazing," Olivia said. "I can�t even begin to tell you what a huge turn-on it is to taste myself on your mouth."

Natalia smiled. She was feeling very happy and incredibly turned on. Olivia had finally come home and she was there to stay.

"Is it my turn now?" Olivia asked. "Because I have to tell you," she said, gazing intently into her eyes, "I really want a turn."

Natalia looked into smoldering emerald eyes and shivered with anticipation.

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Chapter 88

I�m going to take that look as a yes,

Olivia thought, anxious to claim her "turn" with the beautiful woman kneeling between her legs watching her wordlessly. She felt as though she�d waited forever to be able to make love to Natalia again, even though she realized it hadn�t been too very long since they�d made love at the penthouse. Even so, this felt different, because today they were officially together in a committed relationship that she knew no one could tear asunder, and also they were finally together in the home they�d once shared at a time when all they could do was long for each other from afar. Now, at last, she could make love to Natalia here, as she�d imagined doing so many times in her fantasies.

Reality is way better than fantasy though,

Olivia thought as she stood up, drawing Natalia up with her. She�d hungered for her for so long, she felt impatient now, too impatient to take anything slow, especially getting rid of all those clothes she�d wanted off so badly earlier when Natalia had refused to cooperate. Well, they�re coming off now, she thought with lustful determination as she tugged Natalia�s tank top out of her jeans, pulled it over her head, and tossed it on the armchair.

She could see dark brown eyes darken further when, without ceremony, she immediately reached for the hooks on the back of her bra, freeing them quickly and removing the satiny garment, which she threw over her shoulder toward the chair. Soon she had her black jeans unsnapped and unzipped, but she backed Natalia up to the edge of the bed before yanking them down to mid-calf. She straightened back up to push her down on the bed, but changed her mind at the last minute when her eyes raked down her seminude body. Damn! You�re just so sexy. She had to steal a kiss�a kiss meant to be quick, but which, in reality, became prolonged as she explored the sweetness of her mouth while her hands wandered over luxurious curves.

"I want you so much," Olivia panted when she finally wrenched her mouth away from Natalia�s. "I�ve never, ever, wanted anyone the way I want you." The enormity of her love and her overwhelming desire had been an astonishing revelation for someone who�d been involved in numerous relationships and had even married several times.

Olivia made her sit on the edge of the bed so she could kneel and remove her sandals and jeans, after which she reached up and pulled down her one remaining article of clothing, which she tossed onto the growing stack on the armchair.

"Much better," Olivia said. "Now come and lie down with me."

Olivia smiled when Natalia obediently scooted back on the bed and stretched out on her back, moving toward the middle to allow Olivia room to lie down next to her. However, Olivia straddled her hips instead and began to lightly run her hands over olive skin�cupping her face, running her hands up and down her arms, sweeping them over her belly, gently kneading her breasts. "Just look at how beautiful you are," Olivia said as her fingers teased the tips of her breasts till they were fully erect. "You have the most amazing skin, so soft, such a gorgeous color."

Natalia smiled up at her, and Olivia quickly swooped down to kiss a dimple, dipping just the tip of her tongue into the tiny hollow before it disappeared.

"You have no idea how much I love your dimples," Olivia said, grinning when they suddenly reappeared. "And your beautiful smile."

Slowly Olivia�s grin faded as her hormones surged, and she was no longer content to stare down at her shapely lover. She needed to feel her and taste her and make her cry out from the exquisite pleasure she was determined to bring. Olivia leaned down and took her mouth captive, kissing her until she could feel her body begin to writhe from the pure ecstacy of the primal kiss.

Finally she sank down onto her, relishing the feel of their naked bodies meshing together. As she continued to kiss her, her hands roved wantonly over her body, touching her everywhere. She suddenly felt possessive, as though she needed to claim this woman as truly hers, something she�d never felt before; but now that she did, she discovered it was a heady as well as a lustful feeling, one that drove her to make her lover feel what she was feeling�that they truly belonged with and to each other now.

The need to get closer was overwhelming, and she finally slipped her hand down to cup Natalia�s most intimate flesh, which felt hot and wet and needy. She explored the complex terrain, noting the quickening of her lover�s breath and the restless movements of her body as her fingers glided over the velvety surface.

It still wasn�t enough. She wanted to be inside her. There was something so intimate about touching her like that, and Olivia needed that right now. She needed that feeling of intimacy and connection, and when she finally did penetrate her secret recess, she could feel her own body responding with a fresh surge of arousal.

She could tell it felt good to Natalia as well, so she continued to move inside of her in a steady, persistent rhythm while her thumb located and caressed the sweet spot that immediately elicited a tiny moan from her lover�s lips. Hearing the sounds her lover was making aroused Olivia even more, and she began to rock her body back and forth over Natalia�s in sync with the movement of her hand, which she now had braced against her own leg as she rode Natalia�s thigh.

"I�m so in love with you," Olivia whispered. She could see Natalia�s eyes were tightly closed while her lips were parted to utter small gasps with each thrust of Olivia�s hand. To see the look of ecstacy on her lover�s face and know they were now truly one was a transcendent experience.

"I�m so in love with you," Olivia repeated as she quickened her movements. To her surprise she herself suddenly climaxed, and as though they were toppling dominoes, Natalia quickly followed with a groan of pleasure Olivia could feel rippling through her nether muscles, prolonging her own delectable sensations.

She could feel Natalia�s arms tighten around her back now, and though she tried to shift her weight off, her lover wouldn�t let her move. So she just lay there, feeling Natalia breathing heavily beneath her, feeling the tremors coursing through her body, feeling Natalia�s love enveloping her in its protective embrace.

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

Natalia never ceased to be amazed by Olivia. She was like a force of nature�strong, intense, loving, and sometimes so overwhelmingly sexy Natalia felt transported to a wondrous state of bliss, a sanctuary where she felt loved and protected and cherished, not to mention so sexually satisfied she wasn�t sure if she was ever going to be able to move again.

The effect Olivia had on her still made her blush, even now, even after all the times they�d lain together like this in each other�s arms. I wonder if I�ll ever get past that, she thought as her hands idly skimmed up and down Olivia�s bare back. Somehow she knew in her heart she never would because she was too in love and too enthralled and much too vulnerable to Olivia�s considerable charms, sexual and otherwise, to ever lose that sense of wonder that this magnificent woman had fallen in love with her, Natalia Rivera.

She was pretty sure she�d finally be able to sleep tonight, which would be a blessing after spending most of the previous night awake, too keyed up over the riotous emotions sweeping through her as she closed the door on the terrors of her childhood and fully embraced the future, a future she knew she�d spend with Olivia, the love of her life.

She wasn�t sure how long they�d lain together like that. She only knew she never wanted either of them to move, but eventually she felt Olivia begin to stir. Her head was resting on Natalia�s chest, and she turned it just enough that she could press a wet, open-mouth kiss to the upper swell of her breast. Natalia brought one hand up to caress Olivia�s head as she moved lower and kissed the sensitive area beneath her breast and then traced along the crease with her tongue. Natalia was always surprised by Olivia�s unerring instinct to touch or kiss her in just the right way to make her blood begin to heat, as it was doing now.

She smiled as she felt Olivia�s mouth continue its lazy journey over her skin, surprising Natalia with the lustful response of her body to Olivia�s slow and measured exploration. To her amazement Natalia could feel her body becoming seriously turned on, even though she�d just experienced a powerful climax. She tried to fight her growing arousal because she knew Olivia must just be wanting to enjoy the intimacy of kissing her like this one last time before they got up to shower and eat and hopefully call little Emma, but the more Olivia�s mouth traveled over her naked flesh, the more her naked flesh wanted to feel the incredible reactions that sexy mouth could provoke.

Natalia was astonished when Olivia didn�t stop, but kept moving down until finally she was kissing her most intimate flesh, flesh way too sensitive to be touched yet, Natalia thought. "Olivia, I don�t think I can�"

Abruptly she stopped talking when Olivia�s tongue found that magic spot, which, to her utter shock, felt such a searing jolt of pleasure it seemed as though her entire body began to rocket unbelievably fast toward an even more intense state of arousal. All Natalia could do was gyrate agitatedly beneath Olivia�s touch and repeat over and over, "oh my god, oh my god, oh my god," until finally her body whipped taut and she felt an unbelievably deep and prolonged orgasm that left her so limp she could actually feel herself losing consciousness.

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

Olivia moved back up Natalia�s body to kiss her, aware she wasn�t fully conscious. She heard her mumble something she couldn�t quite make out, and then realized she�d fallen asleep. That�s me, Olivia Spencer, cure for insomnia, she thought, immensely pleased with herself and with Natalia�s reaction to her impromptu foray that had resulted in the additional benefit of fixing that little lack of sleep problem Olivia knew she�d had the night before.

She pulled the sheet up over the two of them, propped her head on her hand, and watched Natalia sleep for a while, loving the relaxed and peaceful expression on her face. After a while she made herself get up and shower, putting on one of the white terrycloth Beacon robes she�d stocked the farmhouse with last winter when she moved in. She doubted Natalia would stay asleep for long, so she decided to see if there was something in the kitchen she could be heating up so they could both eat as soon as Natalia woke up.

Before she made it all the way out of the bedroom, though, Natalia stirred and then sat bolt upright as though startled to find herself alone in the bed. Olivia quickly went back into her room and sat next to Natalia on the bed.

"I�m right here," Olivia said, surveying the lovely vision of her lover naked from the waist up with the sheet pooled around her waist. "God, you�re just so sexy," she said, reaching out to cup her breast. "I just can�t get enough of you."

Natalia leaned forward into Olivia�s arms, and Olivia just held her quietly.

"I need to get you fed," Natalia finally said.

"I tell you what. I was just about to head downstairs and see if there was anything I could heat up. Why don�t I do that and you can take a shower and come downstairs when you�re ready."

"Okay. I have makings for tacos, so the only thing that needs heating is the taco meat. It�s already seasoned and everything else is in the fridge ready to set out."

"Okay, I think I can handle that," Olivia said.

"Or, if there�s something else you�d rather have ..."

"Are you kidding? I love tacos! You know that."

Natalia giggled. "Yes, I do know, actually."

"You�re going to get me spoiled, you know."

"Yes, I am."

They both laughed.

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

By the time Natalia made it downstairs after her shower, wearing another one of the Beacon robes, Olivia had the taco meat heated and the fixings sitting on the table, which Natalia had set earlier. She thought Olivia looked adorably sexy in the fluffy terrycloth robe, and she found herself wondering if she was wearing anything underneath it.

When Olivia saw her, she picked up the matches she�d retrieved from the drawer by the stove and lit both white tapered candles, after which she turned off the overhead light.

Natalia watched as each wick burst into flame, casting flickering shadows around the kitchen and over Olivia�s beautiful face.

"I know tacos may not exactly match candles and fine china," Natalia said, "but I wanted to make something I knew you�d love, so ..."

"It�s perfect," Olivia said. "I love what you planned for dinner." She caught Natalia around the waist when she drew near and kissed her lightly. "It�s romantic and thoughtful and sweet, just like you."

The minute they sat down in their customary chairs at opposite ends of the table, they knew that wasn�t going to work for them, not that night anyway.

"Okay, are you moving or am I moving?" Olivia asked.

"Stay there. I�ll come to you." Natalia took her plate and silverware and moved to the chair on Olivia�s left.

"That�s much better," Olivia said, leaning over for another quick kiss as her hand slipped under Natalia�s robe to caress her inner thigh. "I think if I get much happier I may just burst."

"I�m so happy you�re here, Olivia. I just can�t tell you how happy I am."

"Good, I�m glad. I feel like I�ve finally come home."

"When can we call Emma?" Natalia asked.

"How about right after we eat? They�re two hours behind us, so she should still be wide awake."

"That�s right, and I guess she�d have to be adjusted to Pacific time by now."

"I�m sure she is."

When they finally finished eating and clearing away the remains of dinner, they gave Emma a quick call using the speakerphone in the living room as they sat on the couch side by side. When Olivia told her they were moving back into the farmhouse, Emma squealed with joy while Natalia flashed a broad dimply smile.

Now that she knew she was coming back to her very own room, Emma was suddenly anxious to come home as soon as possible. Olivia promised she�d try to book a flight for her and Jane the day after tomorrow, even though Emma pleaded to come back the next day. She was slightly mollified when Olivia explained it was unlikely they could book a flight on such short notice, and besides she and Natalia had an important meeting the next day.

After they hung up, Natalia hugged Olivia. "Our little girl sounded so happy."

"I know. You�d think she liked the idea of living here with you again," Olivia said. "Like mother like daughter," she added, stealing a quick kiss.

"We still need to tell her about us."

"Yes, and we will," Olivia said. "We�ll know when the time is right. I really think it�ll be okay."

"I hope so."

"It will be."

"We still have the restraining order to deal with tomorrow," Natalia said.

"Look, that�s going to be okay, too. Mel will help, and we know we can always count on Doris, too."

"Yes, I know, but I�m dreading it."

"I understand. I�m not looking forward to it either,"Olivia said. "By the way, I forgot to tell you Kat told me she�s leaving tomorrow morning."

Natalia nodded.

"I thought you�d be happy."

"I have mixed feelings. She helped you last night when you needed someone safe to watch over you, and I ... well, I know I have no reason to be jealous, but ..."

"Well, gee, I don�t know if I want you to give that up entirely. I mean ... you�re just so cute when that green-eyed monster gets ahold of you."

"Oh, I doubt that."

"You�d be surprised," Olivia said with a lift of one brow.

"Okay, now what?"

"Now ... I say we brush our teeth and head off to bed. It�s been a long day."

"And we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow," Natalia said.

"Yes, but once we get through whatever tomorrow brings, we can just look forward to Emma getting home�and then we have our entire lives to look forward to."

"This still feels like a dream," Natalia said.

"I know. It does for me, too." Olivia took Natalia�s hand and pulled her to her feet. "Come on, let�s go to bed."

Natalia grinned happily as they headed back upstairs. Once they were standing by the bed, Natalia watched with growing interest when Olivia began to pull off her robe. She wasn�t surprised to see she wore absolutely nothing underneath the white terrycloth.

Olivia tossed her robe on the nearby armchair and crawled into bed. She leaned back against the pillows, half sitting up, and pulled the sheet up to her waist, leaving her magnificent breasts bare and Natalia�s mouth hanging open as she drank in the sexy view.

"Coming?" Olivia asked.

Natalia nodded and slipped off her robe. She was wearing white knit shorts and a white knit tank top, but when she started to crawl into bed, Olivia stopped her.

"No you don�t," Olivia said.

"What?"

"It�s our wedding night. You can�t wear clothes to bed on our wedding night. It�s like ... a rule or something, I�m pretty sure."

Natalia laughed and turned her back as she reached for the bottom of her tank top."

"No, no ... stop."

"I thought you wanted this off," Natalia said, somewhat perplexed.

"I do, but I want to watch, so you need to turn around so I can see you properly."

Natalia slowly turned around toward Olivia. The minute she saw those beautiful green eyes glittering with anticipation her cheeks heated up from her sudden blush and her stomach entered that fluttery state Olivia often provoked. Nevertheless, she pulled her top off and lay it on the night table, aware Olivia�s gaze had dropped from her eyes to her chest, where her blush promptly spread.

"Keep going," Olivia encouraged.

Natalia slid down her shorts and panties at the same time and lay them on her top, turning back to see Olivia�s eyes had now drifted even lower.

"Okay, that was really good for me," Olivia said. "Now get over here."

Natalia trembled like a teenager on a first date as she crawled under the sheet and scooted toward Olivia�s outstretched arms. Olivia gave her such a heated kiss it made her body feel as though it hadn�t had any sexual relief in recent memory and was now insistent that it better get some fast.

As though reading her mind�or perhaps her body�Olivia cupped her hand "down there," and Natalia gasped from the surprising swell of pleasure she experienced. She didn�t think it was possible to get so turned on, especially not this soon, but clearly Olivia wasn�t at all surprised at her body�s enthusiastic response to this much attention. Before now, they�d had to fight to find a time to be together, but Natalia suddenly began to imagine what life was going to be like now that they were living in the same house.

As her sensitive flesh began to throb in earnest under Olivia�s knowing touch, Natalia clung to her, face tucked into the crook of her neck. "Oh my god, Olivia. Do you think it�s always going to be like this?"

"Yeah," Olivia whispered. "Yeah, I think it is."

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

Chapter 89

Olivia slowly drifted along in a shadowy in-between world, not quite asleep, not quite awake, while her mind clutched at the remnants of a sexy dream that was quickly fading, leaving only a single vivid image of a naked Natalia decked in a garland of flowers and rising like a nymph from the cool waters of a clear mountain spring.

Olivia squeezed her eyes tighter shut in a last attempt to prolong the sexy scene, but soon she found herself wide awake and anxious to find the real-world woman. With effort she rolled onto her side facing Natalia�s half of the bed and reached out to touch her�but her hand only encountered the cool fabric of the sheets. She blearily pried one eye open to verify that, yes, she was indeed waking up alone in bed. Damn, she thought with a wry grin. Little Miss Early Riser has fled the coop.

Thinking about her missing partner made her aware of how deeply rested and just plain fantastic her body felt, which called to mind memories from the night before. A "wedding" night to remember, she thought with a smile, her mind suddenly filled with erotic and enticing images of her beautiful and sweet and sexy "bride."

She remembered how the night had started with Natalia insisting on undressing her. Olivia realized she hadn�t even been aware of how difficult it was for her to surrender what might seem to others to be a minor bit of control, but for some reason she could feel her panic rising the minute Natalia stopped her from unbuttoning her own blouse and insisted on removing every single article of Olivia�s clothing herself. Ironically, Olivia had no problem with her own nudity per se, but to let someone else strip her bare like that was surprisingly hard. In fact, she�d almost felt like she wasn�t going to be able to let herself be undressed until she finally looked deep into those warm and loving dark eyes and saw the safety there. That act of surrender, of submission, of trust had resulted in one of the most profound sexual experiences of her life.

Resigned now to being awake, Olivia pushed herself up and swung her legs off the side of the bed. It felt a little odd to realize she was still wearing no clothes as it was the first time in a long time that she�d slept in the nude, but that made it all the more special�not to mention sexy�that this "first time in a long time" had been with the woman she loved.

She knew she should take a shower, but right now she just wanted to find the love of her life�if she could manage to get her eyes open just a little bit wider and navigate her way all the way downstairs, which is where she was sure she�d find Natalia, just like before, in her beloved kitchen making breakfast.

Olivia groaned from the effort it took to stand up, but she picked up her robe from the armchair and pulled it on before heading off in search of her love. She stumbled just as she reached the door and had to grab the edge of the dresser to keep from falling. Jeez, I really need to wake up more.

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

Natalia hummed as she stirred pancake batter in a large blue bowl. Waking up next to Olivia that morning had to be one of the highlights of her life. She happily watched her sleeping for quite some time before she finally slipped out of bed, careful not to wake her. Olivia just always looked so beautiful and so sweet when she was asleep, Natalia hated to leave her.

Later in the shower she thought about their unbelievable "wedding" night�a night of love and passion and surprises, not the least of which was how many times Olivia had made love to her. It was as though her lover and her body had some kind of secret pact to which she�d not been privy, because her body certainly responded ardently to Olivia�s insistent and repeated lovemaking.

The large wooden spoon she was swirling around in the batter slowed to a stop as Natalia remembered their last, languid good-night kiss before they�d both fallen into a deep sleep. She could hardly believe that they were finally together, that Olivia was going to be living with her at the farmhouse, that they could be together, in all senses of the word, anytime they wanted. She shivered in anticipation because she knew for Olivia "anytime" would mean a lot of the time, and she could hardly wait.

She turned toward the doorway to the living room when she heard a familiar whump. There she was, Olivia, and she�d obviously misjudged the opening and banged into the doorframe as she�d done so many times before. Natalia watched as she staggered a few steps into the kitchen and leaned against the counter to catch her balance, which was precarious at best.

Natalia moved quickly across the room to her, noting her eyes were not entirely open, and cupped her face in her hands. "Good morning," she said softly, and then she did what she�d wanted to do so many times before�in fact, every time Olivia had stumbled sleepily into the kitchen when she�d lived there last winter. She kissed her�and it wasn�t just a morning peck. It was a full-on kiss that she deepened as her hands moved from Olivia�s face to her shoulders and down her back so Natalia could pull her closer.

Olivia�s little moan deep in her throat at Natalia�s aggressive kiss inspired her to prolong the morning hello, and then she couldn�t resist the temptation to slip one hand inside the front of Olivia�s robe to cup and massage her bare breast, teasing the tip to tautness before she finally let her go and stepped back.

"Hungry?" Natalia asked cheerily, backing toward the stove as she noted Olivia�s adorable look of disorientation.

"Uhm ..." Olivia started toward the table, but swayed alarmingly.

Natalia hurried back to her side and guided her toward her chair, not leaving till Olivia was safely seated at the kitchen table. Only then did she pour her a big mug of coffee and set it front of her, smiling as she picked it up with both hands and guided it carefully toward her mouth. She knew to some people Olivia might look as though she were hung over, but Natalia was well aware of how difficult it was for her to wake up in the mornings.

Soon Natalia set a plate of pancakes and bacon down for each of them. She decided to sit in the chair near Olivia, as she�d done the night before, because her usual place was just too far away. Once Emma was there, she knew they�d sit in their usual seats�she and Olivia at opposite ends and Emma in the middle�but for now she delighted in sitting near enough to touch her.

It was fun to watch Olivia slowly wake up as she got more of her coffee down and began to eat her breakfast, because at some point she finally seemed to become aware of Natalia�s close proximity, which prompted her to hook her hand over a slender thigh.

"This is a great breakfast," Olivia said.

"So you don�t miss room service food from a real chef?"

"Love your cooking," Olivia said as she leaned over to kiss Natalia. "Love you more."

Natalia grinned. "I�m so happy, Olivia."

"Me, too. Thank god we finally got here."

Natalia�s grin began to fade. "We still need to go to the courthouse though."

"I know, but that�s not for a few hours yet."

"Are you going into work?"

"No, and neither are you. I�m going to make some calls. I need to book a flight for Emma and Jane, hopefully for tomorrow, and I�m also going to call housekeeping to pack up Emma�s things and the contents of my closets. I�ll get Boyd to bring it all out here later today."

"Okay, I�ll clean Emma�s room and get all the linens on her bed laundered so everything will be ready for her tomorrow. I�m so excited she�s coming back."

"Sounds good. How about I help you clean up after breakfast, and then we can take care of our chores before heading into town."

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

Doris showed up at the courthouse meeting room where Olivia and Mel were watching Natalia fill out the requisite forms to petition the court. Mel had made several suggestions on what to include and what wording to use, including the fact that Frank�s constant intrusions into her home and his repeated insistence they get married made her feel intimidated and harassed.

Mel also recommended being straightforward about how fearful of Frank Natalia had become, not only for her own safety, but also for Olivia�s since Frank blamed her for their breakup. Mel thought the fact Frank had put Olivia in the hospital might help Natalia�s case, and that would be one way to make that incident relevant in the judge�s eyes, even though Olivia was not the petitioner.

Mel had also told her to include the fact that she�d gotten all the locks at the farmhouse changed for fear Frank might have gotten ahold of an extra key or made a copy, and that she was also resorting to using door wedges as an additional deterrent and planned to install a security system as soon as possible.

Doris eyed the trio with a grim expression. "I�m going to see if I can get the clerk to take this to Judge Hern�ndez."

Natalia glanced up at Doris. "Do you think she�s more likely to grant an order?"

"I think a woman judge, in general, may be more sensitive to your situation, but I also think it�s a good idea that Judge Hern�ndez find out about this because of Frank�s unofficial role as Rafe�s mentor. I think she needs to be made aware of the problems there, especially since Rafe hasn�t figured it out."

"What do you mean �unofficial role�?" Natalia asked.

"The judge didn�t make it a court order," Doris said. "That mentor role was never mandated in any way. As I recall she said Rafe would benefit from any and all positive role models, and because Frank was a member of the Springfield police department, she said she�d view a friendship with Frank in a positive light. That�s all she said."

"Oh, I thought it was official," Natalia said.

"No," Doris said. "It�s entirely up to Rafe whether or not he spends time with Frank, assuming Frank is willing."

"I wish my son could see the man Frank is right now," Natalia said, "instead of the man he knew last winter."

Olivia had been listening quietly to the exchange between the mayor and Natalia. "That reminds me," she said. "Isn�t it significant that Frank didn�t show up for his counseling session? I mean at this point we know he went to Chicago to talk Natalia�s parents into coming here, ostensibly to get some allies so he could talk her into marriage, but he still missed that meeting."

"The problem with that," Doris said, "is it wasn�t made mandatory."

"I thought you said Chief Wolfe could make it mandatory," Olivia said, disappointed they might have lost one more thing that could help make a case for the restraining order.

Doris sighed and sat down at the table with them. "After the meeting we had with Frank and Mallet, I told you I was going to talk with the chief about getting Frank some counseling. At the time I told you Chief Wolfe �could� make it mandatory."

"Yes, I remember that," Olivia said.

"However, the chief decided to simply recommend counseling, as I mentioned to you the day I told you Frank didn�t show up for his counseling session. Unfortunately I think Chief Wolfe thought the counseling would be more effective if Frank were a willing participant, and I also think the chief thought the suspension would shock Frank into seeing how unacceptable his behavior had become and make him want to get some help without being forced."

Olivia frowned. "Well ... damn it!"

"Yes, exactly," Doris said.

"I think I�m done with this form," Natalia said.

All three women accompanied Natalia to the see the court clerk. Mel had already explained she�d need to sign the papers in front of the clerk, who would then take them to a judge, who might or might not want to ask Natalia additional questions before making a ruling.

Afterward, Doris nodded at them to leave while she stayed behind, presumably to wield her influence to get the petition taken to Judge Hern�ndez. Soon she joined them in the hallway, giving a thumb�s up, much to Olivia�s relief. She�d been impressed with Judge Hern�ndez at Rafe�s hearing and had hopes the judge would be willing to grant an emergency order.

It wasn�t long before the clerk found them in the hallway and told them the judge wanted to talk with Natalia in person. All four of them trooped into the judge�s chambers, where, to Olivia�s surprise, the judge�s only reaction to such a comparatively large entourage was a mild lift of her eyebrows as she motioned for them to take a seat in the chairs in front of her desk.

Judge Hern�ndez asked Natalia several pointed questions about the incidents Natalia had listed on her form, and then she turned her attention to Olivia. Mel had suggested they include a copy of Olivia�s hospital record from the night she was admitted into the emergency room unconscious, and Olivia could see the judge was perusing the document.

"Have you regained your memory of what happened that night?" Judge Hern�ndez asked Olivia.

"No, your honor, I haven�t." Damn it, Olivia thought. She�d tried and tried to dredge them up, but they seemed to be buried, or perhaps even lost forever. She was sure the judge wouldn�t take any of that into consideration, which might mean she wouldn�t sign the order, a possibility that made her want to tear her hair out in frustration. She glanced at Doris, who smiled reassuringly.

"Your honor," Doris said. "Maybe I say something?"

The judge nodded.

"I�m aware of some questionable acts in Detective Cooper�s past."

The judge�s eyes narrowed. "Such as?"

"Most notably, during a previous suspension from the force he attacked Alan Spaulding and pulled a gun on him�a gun he wasn�t supposed to have in his possession because of the suspension."

"Oh really? Is this in the records somewhere?"

"Yes, your honor. I brought a copy of the report I filed at the time. Frank managed to avoid prosecution by apologizing to Alan, who then agreed not to press charges."

Doris handed the judge an official looking document, which the judge took and immediately read. Afterward, she took off her glasses and leaned back in her chair.

"I�m going to sign an emergency ex parte order of protection, which will go into effect immediately. You�ll be given two certified copies of the order, Ms. Rivera, one of which you must keep with you at all times. An additional copy will be sent to the SPD so the department is made aware of the restraining order."

Natalia nodded.

"We�ll schedule a hearing in fourteen days, at which time we�ll decide whether or not to extend the order," the judge continued. "Meanwhile we need to arrange for a state marshal to serve papers to notify Detective Cooper of the order. If he appears on your property or comes anywhere near you after being served, you should notify the police that he�s disobeying the order and you wanted him arrest. You�ll need to present a copy of this order to them. Do you have any questions?"

"No, your honor," Natalia said. "Thank you."

Olivia could see the relief on Natalia�s face. She wasn�t surprised because she knew that recently Natalia�s frustration and irritation with Frank had changed into fear of a man she felt she no longer knew. Olivia was relieved the judge had granted the order, but she was still uneasy at what Frank�s reaction might be when he found out about it. After all, it was clear to her he wasn�t exactly the picture of good mental health these days.

Once they were in the hallway, Natalia thanked both Doris and Mel for their help.

"Doris," Olivia said, "is there any way you could talk to Chief Wolfe and convince him to mandate counseling? I mean ... I hope I�m not the only one who�s noticed Frank has a screw loose."

"No, you�re not the only one," Doris said. "In fact, that�s my next stop." With a jaunty wave she barreled off toward the exit, followed shortly by Mel.

Once they were alone, Olivia and Natalia hugged, holding each other in the courthouse corridor for a while before leaving. It�s a good first step, Olivia thought, but her uneasiness persisted.

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

"Are you sure you don�t want to come jogging with me?" Olivia asked, as they both stood on the porch outside the farmhouse.

Natalia laughed. "Very sure," she said. "I�m not used to running. I�d only slow you down."

"Well, I�m not as fast as I used to be and I can�t go as far, but I do like running," Olivia said as she bounced on the balls of her feet.

"I know you do. Maybe I can start doing that with you sometime soon, but right now I want to make certain everything�s ready for Emma�s homecoming."

"Maybe I should stay and help."

"No, I want you to go. It�s good for you."

"Well, I decided I�d better work on some healthier habits, like running and ... well, not going on a bender when I get upset."

"Maybe you won�t be getting so upset now." Natalia was aware Olivia�s recent drinking bouts had been about problems the two of them had, such as that unfortunate fight at the spa or Olivia�s fear that the arrival of Natalia�s parents spelled the end of their relationship.

Olivia cupped Natalia�s face and kissed her thoroughly. "I bet I won�t," she said, and then turned and took off at a slow trot across the lawn toward the pond. "See you in a little while," she said, turning her head and waving backwards over her shoulder.

Natalia grinned and waved. She�d put the disturbing events at the courthouse out of her mind and was now intent on getting the house shipshape, including watering the flowers in the front beds, which were in dire need of liquid refreshment. She stepped inside to retrieve the watering can, but before she could go back out the phone rang. It was Boyd from the Beacon checking to make sure someone would be home before he hauled out more of Olivia�s and Emma�s belongings. She assured him he could come anytime, the sooner the better, and he said he�d be out in an hour or so. She was sad that this was the day Rafe planned to pick up the rest of his things, but the thought of Emma�s stuff arriving filled her heart with joy.

She turned to go back outside, but was stunned to see Frank standing silently in her kitchen watching her. Her heart immediately slammed into overdrive, and she could feel the icy fingers of fear trailing over her body at the unexpected sight of her ex-fianc� inside her home. "Frank, what are you doing here?" she asked.

"I need to talk to you," Frank said in an even tone.

"If this is about my parents ..."

"No, it�s not about them. You were such a huge disappointment to your father night before last he insisted they leave that next morning."

"So they�re gone?"

"Yes."

Without thinking Natalia took a step backward. "Look, Frank, this really isn�t a good time. I have a lot to do."

"I told you we need to talk," Frank said in a slightly louder tone.

"I don�t know what else there is to say, Frank."

"Oh, I think there�s a lot to say," Frank said, taking a step toward her.

"I�m not alone," Natalia said.

"I saw Olivia leave a minute ago."

"You were watching?"

Frank suddenly frowned. "Yes, I stopped a ways back on the road when I saw the two of you."

Natalia felt her stomach pitch as she remembered Olivia kissing her good-bye before leaving on her jog. I hope he didn�t see that.

"I saw her kiss you," Frank said in a voice completely devoid of emotion, confirming her fear he�d seen their intimate moment.

"I think you should leave."

"I told you we need to talk."

"Frank, I went to the courthouse today ..."

"Oh, I know all about that," Frank said. "I got served a little while ago. That�s one of the reasons we need to talk."

"If you got served, then you know you shouldn�t be here."

"I�m here to talk some sense into you."

Natalia realized talking with Frank was doing no good, so she turned and picked up the handset from the base on the wall. She hated to have to call the police, but Frank was frightening her. She dialed nine, but before she could press any more numbers, Frank grabbed her wrist and applied pressure till she let the handset go. He took it from her and dropped it in his jacket pocket.

"You�re hurting me, Frank."

"I�m sorry," he said, releasing her wrist. "I don�t want to hurt you. I just want to get you to listen to me."

"Olivia�s going to be back here any minute, Frank, and Boyd is due out here soon with a delivery from the Beacon."

"That wouldn�t happen to be Olivia�s things, by chance, would it?"

Natalia felt panicked. She wasn�t sure what to say to him. So far nothing she�d said had had any discernible effect on him whatsoever. His eyes looked a little wild, and she could see no trace of the man she�d genuinely cared about at one time. She began to get seriously worried about what he might do next. She had a feeling from the way he�d asked the question that he�d already heard Olivia had moved in with her, and she was afraid if she lied, it might anger him further. She was all too familiar with the consequences of angering a man who thought he should be in control of her life.

"Yes," she finally said. "He�s bringing out more of Olivia�s belongings."

"Then it�s a good thing I came out here so I can stop you from making the biggest mistake of your life."

"Frank, it�s none of your business. Now I want you to get out." She tried to speak as forcefully as she could, but she could tell her tone hadn�t made an impression. "I told you Olivia will be back any second."

"That�s why we�re not going to talk here," Frank said.

"What?" Natalia moved further away. "I�m not going anywhere with you."

Frank moved quickly and grabbed her upper arm. "Yes, you are! And if you won�t come willingly, I�m going to have to ... insist."

Natalia struggled to get loose, but Frank easily dragged her out the door by her arm and down the walk toward his car. The closer she got to his vehicle the more panicked she became. She knew she didn�t dare let him take her with him. She suddenly twisted around violently and wrenched her arm out of his grasp. As soon as she was free, she broke into a run across the lawn in the direction Olivia had taken.

Within seconds Frank overtook her and tackled her to the ground. "Sorry about that," Frank panted as he put a hand in the middle of her back and held her facedown on the ground.

Natalia was shocked and scared witless when she felt metal snap around first one wrist and then the other. Hearing the cuffs snap into place removed any remaining doubt in her mind about Frank�s sanity. Clearly he�d lost his mind, which meant there was no telling what he might do once he got her alone someplace where no one could find them.

Frank pulled her to her feet and started dragging her toward his car again, but Natalia let her body fall toward the ground, refusing to help by continuing to stay upright. He easily hefted her onto his shoulder and didn�t set her down until they reached the passenger side of his car.

"Frank, think about what you�re doing," Natalia said, desperate now to try to find some way to slow him down. "Why are you doing this?"

Frank turned her around so she was facing him and leaned her back against the car with her wrists cuffed behind her while she stared up at him in fear.

"I want to save you," Frank said, suddenly earnest.

He looked almost like the Frank she used to know. If only she could reach some remaining part of him that was still sane. "I don�t need saving."

"The fact that you don�t even know you need saving tells me I�m doing the right thing."

"I don�t even know what you think you�re saving me from."

"I�m saving you from her," he spat out angrily.

Natalia recoiled from his sudden rage.

"She�ll ruin your life," Frank said. "You were a good woman once, a godly woman, a woman on the verge of marrying and leading a normal life, but because of that ... that woman, you�ve turned your back on your church and on your son and on your parents�and even on me, the man you loved. If it weren�t for her, we�d be married. We�d be happy. You might even be carrying my child by now."

His anger at Olivia suddenly made her as frightened for Olivia�s safety as she was for her own, and seeing he�d become distracted during his diatribe, she bolted once more across the yard toward the pond. Having her wrists bound behind her hindered her speed, and he effortlessly caught up with her again.

"Stop fighting me," he said, grabbing her upper arms and shaking her. "Now you�re coming with me ... right now!"

Once more he dragged her across the lawn toward his car.

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

Olivia was loping along at a slow speed, much slower than when she�d started out earlier. I really need to get into better shape, she thought, but she was overjoyed at the idea of being able to do that on their very own property. I guess I�ll be exercising more and drinking less. Also gonna be gettin� more loving, so it�s all good, she thought, suddenly anxious to get back to the farmhouse and the love of her life.

She was beginning to fantasize about the upcoming evening with a certain gorgeous latina when she approached the farmhouse and saw Natalia at a distance running in her direction, though she didn�t seem to have seen Olivia yet. She was also running rather awkwardly. Olivia was aghast when she saw a man run up behind her, grab her, and spin her around. Only then did she see that Natalia�s hands were bound behind her back.

Oh my god! It�s Frank.

Olivia broke into a flat-out run toward the duo, panicked that she was far enough away it would take her precious minutes to get there, probably not soon enough for her to stop him. She yanked her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed 911, panting out her cry for help. Afterward she speed-dialed Doris, all the while pumping her legs as fast as she could.

When she saw Frank grab Natalia�s upper arms and shake her, she had a vivid flash of him doing the same thing that night at the farmhouse. She remembered trying to stop him, remembered him violently shoving her back, remembered falling. Son of a bitch! she screamed silently in her head as the entire confrontation played out in her mind.

She could see Frank had now dragged Natalia to his car and was opening the passenger door. She ran as fast as she could, tears beginning to flow unnoticed as it looked more and more like there was no way she�d make it to them on time. Clearly Frank had gone off the deep end, meaning there was no telling what he might do if he took Natalia away. If only she hadn�t left Natalia there alone. If only Boyd had already arrived from the Beacon. If only she�d hired a bodyguard to keep an eye on her 24/7.

Olivia could see Natalia struggling as Frank tried to push her into the passenger side of his car.

She was now near the house, but still at least a minute from the car, sixty precious seconds that provided plenty of time for Frank to leave. Oh god oh god, I�m not gonna make it. She saw him shove her legs inside and then fasten the seatbelt around her, effectively putting an end to any chance for her to escape on her own.

Suddenly she saw Natalia�s car roll up next to Frank�s vehicle on the driver�s side. She knew it had to be Rafe, but would he realize what was going on in time to help? As soon as Rafe got out of the car, she began screaming at him. as she pounded across the yard toward them.

"Rafe! He�s got your mother," she shouted, racing to cover the last twenty yards that separated her from her love. "Stop him! He�s got her!"

Rafe looked at her and then peered through the driver�s side window as Frank approached the door. Olivia could see the two men talking, but she no longer had a clear view of Natalia, who she knew was strapped into the passenger seat.

As she got closer, she could see Rafe looked confused. She knew Natalia had to be crying for help ... unless Frank had gagged her after shoving her inside. At least Rafe�s arrival seemed to have interrupted Frank�s grim determination to take away the woman with whom he�d become obsessed. Olivia wasn�t sure whether or not Frank would attack Rafe. Hopefully the shock of seeing Rafe would stop him long enough for her to free Natalia. After all, she knew Frank had never shown this out-of-control side to Rafe, and she prayed that would continue to hold true.

When Olivia finally reached the car, she threw open the passenger door and fumbled with the seatbelt catch till she could get it free and pull Natalia out of the car. They both stumbled but kept going as Olivia scrambled backward toward the house, dragging Natalia along with her until she bumped into the side of the building, where she leaned back, completely winded after the nightmarish sprint that had left her leg muscles burning in agony and her heart pounding so hard she could feel it thrashing against the walls of her chest.

"I don�t understand what�s going on," Rafe said, looking back and forth from Frank to the two women huddled together against the wall of the farmhouse.

Natalia collapsed in tears against Olivia who grabbed her in a fierce embrace, glaring at Frank as though daring him to get anywhere near either one of them. She was furious that Natalia�s hands were handcuffed behind her like that, leaving her achingly vulnerable. To her surprise Frank simply stood there calmly watching them, but made no attempt to come after Natalia or flee. If he were sane, he�d at least try to get out of here, she thought. Maybe Rafe�s arrival had short-circuited whatever plan had been sloshing around in his scrambled brain. She wasn�t sure, though, so she kept a wary eye on him, still fearful he might try to take them all on.

"He handcuffed your mother," Olivia finally said.

"I can�t believe that," Rafe said.

"Wake the hell up!" Olivia shouted. "Look at her!" She watched Rafe�s eyes drop down to where his mother�s wrists were handcuffed together.

Rafe immediately whirled around toward Frank, hands balling into fists. "What were you doing with my mom, Frank?"

"I just wanted to talk to her, Rafe, and I knew we couldn�t do that here, not with her around," Frank said, jerking his head toward Olivia.

"Dude, you can�t just grab my mom and drag her off somewhere," Rafe said in a flash of anger.

"Rafe, get the key," Olivia said.

"What?" Rafe asked, glancing over at Olivia.

"Get the key to the handcuffs," Olivia said.

Rafe turned back to Frank. "You�ve got to give me the key, Frank."

Frank shook his head, but then they all heard the distant sound of sirens and within seconds a police cruiser roared up and two officers jumped out, guns drawn. Olivia immediately recognized Officer Jennings, the female officer who�d helped Natalia after the sexual assault, and another policeman she�d seen around the station, but didn�t know.

"She has a restraining order against that man," Olivia said, pointing at Frank. "There�s a copy in the house on the kitchen counter."

"I�ve already seen it down at the station," Officer Jennings said. "Ms. Rivera, I assume you�d like this man arrested?"

"Yes," Natalia said, still leaning against Olivia. "He trespassed on my property and entered my home even after he�d been served, and then he dragged me out of the house and handcuffed me, and he said he was going to take me somewhere we could talk alone."

"So he not only violated the emergency order of protection, but he�s also guilty of attempted kidnapping," Officer Jennings said, glancing at Frank with contempt. "Cuff him and read him his rights, Mike."

Olivia wasn�t surprised at the scathing look the woman officer shot at Frank. She remembered Natalia telling her how Officer Jennings was going to drive her back out to the farmhouse to pick up her car the day after the sexual assault when she�d gone into the station to answer questions for Mallet. Natalia told her Frank had grabbed her arm to stop her from getting into Officer Jennings�s squad car, insisting to both women that he would drive her because they needed to talk, but Natalia had jerked her arm away, telling him no. From the look on Officer Jennings�s face, it was clear she remembered that incident as well�and apparently had zero tolerance for Frank�s manhandling of Natalia today, detective or not.

"Could someone get these damned cuffs off her?" Olivia asked.

Officer Jennings holstered her weapon and quickly unlocked the cuffs while her partner kept a gun trained on Frank. "Are you all right, Ms. Rivera?" she asked.

Natalia nodded, but Olivia knew it was clear to all of them, including Natalia�s son, that she was anything but all right. They both watched as the policeman put Frank in the back of the squad car and slammed the door shut.

"What about Frank�s car?" Olivia asked.

Natalia showed signs of life for the first time. "I don�t want that here," she said vehemently. "I don�t want to have to look at his car!"

"We�re in an uncaged car," Officer Jennings said, "so we�ll need two officers to transport the prisoner back to the station. Sorry we can�t help."

"I�ll call Boyd and have him bring someone else with him to drive it back," Olivia said.

"I�ll do it," Rafe said.

"What?" Olivia asked, surprised Rafe might actually be volunteering to help. She was far too accustomed to being at loggerheads with Natalia�s headstrong son to have even thought to ask him for assistance.

"I�ll drive it back to town and leave it at his place," Rafe said, finally coming to his mother�s side.

"Thank you, Rafael," Natalia said.

Olivia quickly dialed a number and talked briefly on her cell phone as she watched Rafe hug his mother. It was the first time she�d seen that boy look rattled. "Boyd hasn�t left the Beacon yet, so, Rafe, I can have him pick you up at Frank�s and drive you back here to pick up your car."

"Thanks," Rafe said.

"Don�t mention it," Olivia said, surprised at his civil tone. Don�t tell me you finally got a clue.

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

Late that night after they finally went to bed, Natalia silently rolled toward Olivia, just wanting to be held. She knew Olivia instinctively knew what she needed and simply wrapped her arms around her. As she felt Olivia begin to stroke her hair, she started to weep silently. Olivia continued to hold her till her sobs finally tapered off and stopped, and then she kissed her forehead, squeezing her reassuringly.

"I was so scared," Natalia whispered. She knew the man who�d grabbed her and forced her out of her home wasn�t the man she�d agreed to marry.

"I know you had to be scared to death," Olivia said quietly. "I was terrified when I saw what was happening. It brought back those memories I thought I�d lost, which scared me even more. And then when I realized I�d never get there in time, I thought I�d go mad."

Natalia reached up to touch Olivia�s cheek and felt her tears. "We�re okay now, though," she said, suddenly aware of how difficult all of it had been on Olivia. "We�ll be okay."

"Yes, we will," Olivia said. "By the way, Doris called while you were in the shower. She said Frank�s law enforcement career was over."

"Did she say what she thought would happen?"

"She said she thought it was likely Frank would get a good defense attorney, who�d probably recommend he plead temporary insanity, but that would mean he�d get locked up in a mental institution rather than jail. Either way, she said, Frank wasn�t going to be able to harass you anymore."

"I�m so relieved he�s locked up now, even though I feel bad for him. Obviously something went terribly wrong in his head for him to act like this."

"I know, but at least now he�s going to get the help he needs," Olivia said. "By the way, did you notice how Rafe helped Boyd carry in my things when he got back here?"

"Yes, I did notice that. He told me he�d gotten the work-study job at the university, which means he can get a huge discount on a dorm room. That�s where he was headed when he left here with the rest of his things. He starts work tomorrow, but he said he could move into the dorm tonight."

"Are you okay with that?"

Natalia nodded. "Yes, I really think it�s the best thing for him right now. He wants to be on his own, and I think living in a college dorm will be good for him. I can afford to help him with that now that I won�t have to make mortgage payments on the farmhouse anymore. After today I even have some hope he�s beginning to accept the idea of you and me."

"I got that impression, too."

"It�s so sad about Frank, though" Natalia said.

"Yeah, but you know what? I think we should concentrate on happy things now, like, for example, Emma�s going to be coming home tomorrow."

Natalia smiled. "That�s right. Our little girl is coming home."

"Mm-hm, and I�m already here," Olivia said, suddenly grinning as Natalia looked up and their eyes locked.

"That�s right," Natalia said, suddenly aware of how close they were lying.

"Better to think about things like that," Olivia said, bestowing a small kiss on Natalia�s mouth.

That one little kiss reminded Natalia of how many happy things there were to concentrate on, and she leaned up to encourage another. Olivia kissed her gently and pulled back, but Natalia rolled onto her back, pulling Olivia over with her so she was lying partly on top of her.

"You do realize this is a dangerous thing for you to do, don�t you?" Olivia said.

Natalia could see the sudden fire in Olivia�s green eyes, and she nodded. She knew exactly how "dangerous" it was, and she could hardly wait for Olivia to show her. But even though she could tell how passionate Olivia was feeling, she was surprised by how tender and sweet she was as she kissed her and touched her and loved her with her mouth and her hands until finally she coaxed her body all the way to a shuddering climax that left Natalia feeling wonderful and fulfilled and just a little more in love than she�d been before.

Now the only thing we have to worry about is how Emma�s going to react to our relationship,

she thought as she began to kiss Olivia.

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

Chapter 90

Olivia was having the most amazing, most erotic, most realistic dream ever! Even as she felt herself beginning to wake up, she prayed her dream would never fade because the beautiful dark-haired woman she loved was making love to her naked breasts while her hand slid over Olivia�s now aching nether muscles in a sensuous, determined rhythm that was rapidly propelling her body toward what she knew would have to be an explosive climax.

The more she woke up, the more astounded she was at how lifelike the dream seemed, so much so that she thought for the first time she was actually going to experience a real orgasm from a dream.

Her body�s profoundly lustful reaction to her dream lover became so intense that despite her best efforts to stay asleep, she suddenly woke up, opened her eyes, and discovered her real-life lover was making love to her.

As soon as Natalia felt Olivia wake up completely, she moved up to kiss her, teasing her lips open so she could enter the sweet recesses of her mouth. She continued to kiss her and caress her until Olivia shuddered and groaned as she finally climaxed.

"Oh my god," Olivia panted as Natalia kissed her lightly on the lips.

"Time to get up," Natalia said sweetly.

"Oh my god. I thought I was dreaming."

"And I thought this would be better than your alarm clock."

Damn, that was unbelievable

, Olivia thought as she watched her full-of-surprises lover spring out of bed and pull a robe over her delectably curvy body before heading toward the door.

"Come back here," Olivia called after her.

"No time," Natalia said. "We need to eat and dress and get to the airport to pick up Emma."

"But ..." Olivia stopped as she realized she was now talking to herself since Natalia had made good her escape. Well, we�ll see about that, she thought, dragging herself out of bed and yanking on her robe.

By the time she made it to the kitchen doorway, she could see Natalia standing at the counter in front of the coffeemaker. She carefully aimed at the middle of the entryway and managed to make it through without getting hung up as she so often did. She walked up behind Natalia and leaned against her, trapping her against the cabinet.

"You have the most amazing effect on me," Olivia said softly as her arms snaked around Natalia�s waist over her terrycloth robe. She reached for the belt and loosened it, pulling it apart so she could feel what Natalia had on underneath. Nothing. Perfect.

"Olivia?"

"What?" Olivia asked as she cupped Natalia�s breasts and began to knead them. She grinned when Natalia slumped back against her.

"You should sit down and eat something. I made you some ..." Natalia groaned when Olivia caught both nipples with her fingers and began to pluck at them till they stiffened.

"Did you say something?" Olivia asked, massaging her breasts again. She loved feeling the now taut tips of her breasts rubbing against the palms of her hands.

"We need to ... need to ..."

"Sorry, didn�t quite catch that," Olivia said before she suddenly turned Natalia around and began to tease the tip of one breast with her mouth while her hand continued massaging the other. After a while she switched sides, amused and turned on by Natalia�s sudden inability to talk or insist they stay on schedule.

"Come over here," Olivia said, taking Natalia by the hand and leading her to the kitchen table. She pulled out the chair at the head of the table where Natalia usually sat and made her sit on the end of the table in front of her.

"What are you doing?" Natalia asked, suddenly groaning when Olivia�s hand pressed against the hot flesh between her thighs.

"I�d think that�d be obvious by now," Olivia said softly near her ear, "but maybe I can draw you some pictures later. Besides, you did just tell me to sit down and eat something, as I recall."

She pushed Natalia down on her back on the table well away from the two place settings at the other end and sat on the chair, slipping her arms under Natalia�s legs to provide support while, without preamble, she buried her face in her sex, quickly locating just the right place to make her lover moan and rock her hips and finally let loose one long cry as she came quickly and hard from the enthusiasm of Olivia�s unexpected morning sortie.

Olivia kissed both of her inner thighs before glancing up her body. She could see her stomach and breasts still heaving in the aftermath of her climax. Damn, this is a sexy view, Olivia thought with undisguised lust. I bet you�ll never quite look at this table the same again.

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

Natalia held onto Olivia�s hand as they stood in the airport waiting for a glimpse of Emma. She wasn�t even aware she�d taken hold of her hand. It was just a natural instinct, especially considering how excited she was to see their little girl. She glanced up at Olivia, who, no doubt feeling her gaze, looked down at her and squeezed her hand. That mischievous grin told her Olivia was thinking about the same thing she was thinking about, which was that unbelievable lovemaking session right on the kitchen table! Clearly life with Olivia was going to be one big surprise after another.

Finally Natalia saw Emma and Jane walking toward them. When Emma spotted them, she broke loose from Jane�s hand and barreled toward them as fast as her little legs could carry her, and soon both women were kneeling down holding Emma in a three-way hug.

"Hey, Jellybean," Olivia said. "How was your flight?"

"Long," Emma said.

When Jane caught up, Olivia looked up at her. "Thank you so much for taking such good care of Emma."

"You�re welcome," Jane said. "We had a lot of fun out there."

"Are we going to the hotel or can we go to the farmhouse yet?" Emma asked.

Natalia stood up and took a small hand in hers. "We�re going home," she said. "Your room�s all ready for you and all your things are already there."

"Okay, let�s go then," Emma said, grabbing both their hands and tugging them toward the baggage claim area.

"All right," Olivia said with a laugh. "We�ll get your luggage and drop Jane off, and then we�ll head out to the farmhouse."

Emma grinned up at her. "I can hardly wait!"

Natalia smiled at Olivia. I�m so happy. I�m just so very happy.

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

Olivia stood in the doorway of Emma�s room watching as Natalia helped her unpack and put away her things. It seemed like forever since she�d seen the two of them in this room together, and seeing them now filled her heart with so much love she thought it might burst.

"Is Rafe back too?" Emma suddenly asked.

"No, sweetie," Natalia said. "He�s starting college, so he�s going to be living in the dorm."

Emma paused. Olivia could see her face suddenly turn serious. "I thought he�d be here."

"You know what?" Olivia said, coming into the room and sitting on the end of Emma�s bed. "He�s a big boy now, and big boys like to have their very own places to live, but I bet we still get to see him."

"He was supposed to help me build a birdhouse. He promised," Emma said, her little voice bordering on a whine.

Natalia lifted Emma�s chin with the tip of her forefinger so she could look into her eyes. "Just because he�s in college now doesn�t mean we�ll never see him. We�ll just ask him to come help you with that sometime, okay?"

Emma�s grin immediately reappeared and she nodded vigorously. "Okay. Can I go outside?"

"Why don�t you change clothes first, baby," Olivia said.

"Okay," Emma said, heading for her closet.

Both women went downstairs to the kitchen where Olivia pulled Natalia into a hug and then began to kiss her, certain they had a few minutes of privacy before Emma could get changed and downstairs. After what couldn�t have been more than a minute, Olivia was astonished to feel a small hand tugging at her pant leg. She abruptly drew back from Natalia and looked down into the eyes of her small daughter.

"Mommy?"

God, that kid�s a fast dresser.

"What is it, Jellybean?" Olivia braced herself for the inevitable question about why Emma�s two mommies were kissing. She knew Natalia was nervous, too, because when she heard Emma�s voice, she immediately stiffened and drew back.

"Can I go see the ducks?"

"Of course, baby," Olivia said.

"Can we all go?"

Olivia exchanged a glance with Natalia whose eyes were wide with surprise. "Sure, I think we can do that, can�t we, Natalia?"

"Absolutely," Natalia said.

Emma giggled and raced toward the door into the yard. "Hurry up, slowpokes," she called back to them.

Olivia looked at Natalia and shrugged. "No idea why that didn�t warrant a question. Maybe she didn�t actually see us?"

"Oh, she saw us," Natalia said. "She definitely saw us."

"Well, then, I guess we just dodged that particular bullet for now," Olivia said.

Natalia smiled in obvious relief, and the two of them took off to catch up with their little girl, who Olivia guessed was probably halfway to the duck pond by now.

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

Natalia watched her two favorite girls grinning at each other over their empty spaghetti plates. Emma was so much like her mother in so many ways. She was smart and independent and sometimes obstinate, but she was also sweet and loving and always up for an adventure. A little too up for adventure sometimes, Natalia thought, making a mental note to keep a watchful eye on their little globetrotter. It wouldn�t do to let her "escape" and take the bus to wherever her little heart desired as she�d managed to do last winter.

It had done Natalia�s heart good to hear Emma�s squeal of delight when she saw what she�d fixed for dinner.

"I love spaghetti!" Emma had exclaimed.

"I know," Natalia had said, laughing at Emma�s obvious enthusiasm.

After they�d eaten and cleared away the dishes, Emma lingered with them in the kitchen.

"I have another question," Emma announced.

Oh dear,

Natalia thought, certain Emma was finally going to bring up the kiss. A quick glance at Olivia, who suddenly began massaging the bridge of her nose, confirmed that Olivia most likely agreed with her assessment. "What is it, sweetie?"

"Can we go to Company and get ice cream?"

"I ... uh ... " Natalia was surprised, but relieved not to have to field a question about that kiss. "Olivia?"

Olivia�s hand dropped to her side and she glanced quizzically at Natalia before smiling down at Emma. "I don�t see why not. I say let�s go. We�ll celebrate that our little Jellybean is finally home."

"Oh boy," Emma said. "Can we go now?"

"Sure," Natalia said watching Emma bolt for the door.

"Right now?" she called back to them.

"We�re coming already," Olivia said, laughing as she grabbed her purse and keys and Natalia�s hand.

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

Olivia quickly glanced around the small diner, spotting several people she knew. She didn�t see Buzz, though, and, of course, there was no sign of Frank, but she knew there wouldn�t be after his arrest the previous day. Company was relatively busy by the time they got there, but they found a table along the back wall and all three ordered chocolate sundaes. While they were eating their ice cream, Phillip approached them, and Emma quickly hopped up to hug her father.

"How�s my little girl?" he asked.

"Good," she giggled, holding onto his hand after they hugged.

"When I saw you three ladies sitting here, I wanted to come over and invite you personally to the Spaulding Labor Day barbeque," he said. "All three of you," he added, smiling down at Natalia. "And that includes Rafe, of course."

"Thanks, Phillip," Olivia said. She thought the rekindling of his romance with Beth had done wonderful things for Phillip�s mood, and for that she was grateful. After all, Phillip had accepted her relationship with Natalia with neither surprise nor criticism, and after her initial fears when he�d first returned to town, they�d managed to establish a mutually respectful and supportive friendship, much to her surprise.

"Then you�ll come?" he asked.

"Of course we�ll come!" Emma exclaimed.

"Sure, we�ll be there, right, Natalia?"

"I�d love to," Natalia said, "and I�ll let Rafe know, too. Thank you, Phillip."

"Okay, I�ve got to go, but I�ll talk with you soon." He hugged Emma and headed to where Beth was waiting for him at a nearby table.

"There�s Jody," Emma squealed. "Can I go say hi?"

Olivia nodded and then laughed when she saw Emma sprint toward a table on the other side of the diner.

"Is it my imagination or has she gotten a lot faster since she�s been gone?" Olivia asked.

Natalia grinned, but then her grin faded when she caught sight of someone approaching their table.

Olivia turned to see who it was. "Doris," she said as the mayor sat down beside Natalia in Emma�s vacated seat. "Please sit down," Olivia added with a laugh. There was a time in the not too distant past when she never would have guessed how fond she would become of Springfield�s chief executive.

"I thought you both might like an update on Frank," Doris said.

Olivia saw Natalia tense up immediately. "Yeah, tell us."

"Right now he�s in Ravenwood having court-mandated psychiatric tests to determine his fitness to stand trial. Dr. Silver is the court-appointed psychiatrist. I believe she�s the one who worked with Phillip recently. Anyway, I talked with Dr. Boudreau this morning and filled her in on some of the details of the case to get her opinion on what might be going on with Frank," Doris said. "You know Felicia, right? Mel and Remy�s mother?"

"Yes, of course," Olivia said. "What did she think?"

"Well, Dr. Boudreau did mention the possibility that Frank had suffered what she called a �brief psychotic disorder.�"

"What would that mean in terms of a trial or sentencing?" Olivia asked.

"It means it�s more likely he�ll be committed to a psychiatric hospital like Ravenwood rather than prison, so he can get the help he needs."

"I just want him to be okay," Natalia said. "I feel like this is all my fault."

Olivia was shocked to see Doris take Natalia�s hand and peer into her eyes. "This is not your fault," Doris said with an air of authority.

"But I�m the one who said I�d marry him and then left him at the altar."

"Lots of people get left at the altar and worse, but they don�t stalk, harass, and try to kidnap the person who left them. He physically dragged you out of the house. He tackled you to the ground. He handcuffed you, for god�s sake! Obviously there�s something seriously wrong with him, but it�s not your fault, okay?"

Natalia nodded, and Doris let go of her hand and stood up to leave.

"Doris?" Natalia said.

"What?"

"Would you and Flo like to come out to the farmhouse some evening for dinner? You�ve done so much to help us, both of us, and Rafe, too, and I�d really love to have you out sometime."

Doris glanced at Olivia.

"I think that�s a great idea," Olivia said. I�m freakin� amazed she extended the invitation, but I think the idea totally rocks.

Doris smiled. "We�d love to."

"Good," Natalia said. "We can talk sometime soon and figure out a time that�s good for all of us. I�ll make arroz con pollo."

"That sounds scrumptious," Doris said. "I�ll talk with Flo and see when I can pry her out of the hospital. I�m sure she�d love to come."

After Doris left, Natalia smiled sheepishly at Olivia. "I hope you don�t mind. It just suddenly seemed like a good idea, and I ..."

"I think it�s a wonderful idea," Olivia said, taking her hand. "And guess what? The minute you said �arroz con pollo� I remembered that amazing meal you made for me and the conversation we had about your grandmother, Rosa."

"I know you told me you remembered what Frank did, but I�m so glad you remembered our special meal together," Natalia said.

Olivia leaned toward Natalia and lowered her voice. "I also recall kissing on the couch later."

Olivia chuckled when she saw Natalia�s blush, but then a shadow fell across the table and she looked up to see Buzz staring down at Natalia. Oh crap! I didn�t think he was here tonight. He better not give her a hard time like he did when I was in the hospital after getting shot. "Buzz," Olivia said, struggling to head off any kind of confrontation.

"Natalia," Buzz said. "I�m so sorry about what my son did to you."

Whoa, wasn�t expecting that.

A quick glance at Natalia told her that her pretty companion wasn�t expecting an apology from Buzz either. After all, Natalia had experienced Buzz�s righteous anger on behalf of his son not that long ago, so it wouldn�t be a stretch for her to think she was about to get yelled at again.

"I�m just sorry he�s having so many problems right now," Natalia said.

"Doris told me about him bringing your parents here, and, of course, I also found out what he did out at your place. I don�t know what�s wrong with him."

"That�s just it," Olivia said. "Something is wrong right now. Hopefully he�ll get the help he needs now that he�s at Ravenwood."

"I sure hope so," Buzz said. "Meanwhile, sundaes are on the house, and the next time you come in for dinner, I want you to be my guests."

Olivia nodded. Once again Buzz had come through. He was still the man she�d cared about at one time and the true friend she�d come to rely on. "Thanks, Buzz. We�ll come in sometime soon when we�re all starving."

Buzz laughed. "Good, I�ll look forward to it."

Olivia was glad to see the look of relief on Natalia�s face.

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

They had now come to Natalia�s new favorite time of day�bedtime. Olivia had listened while she�d read to Emma till the little girl finally fell asleep. She looked so sweet in her little mermaid shorty pajamas, and Natalia�s heart was full just looking at her, finally at home in her own wee bed. The fact that Emma was so excited and happy to be back at the farmhouse made it even more heartwarming, as did Olivia�s expression of joy when she looked at either of them. Natalia wondered if Olivia had any idea how much she loved her. I doubt you do. It�s even amazing to me how much I love you. I just never knew what it was like to be in love before I fell in love with you.

It had been a long day, but now they were finally showered and alone in Olivia�s queen-size bed. She�d been able to feel Olivia�s growing passion as the evening had progressed, had felt it as they watched each other slowly licking ice cream off their spoons at Company, as they drove home in the waning light, as she read the bedtime story to Emma while Olivia listened.

So now when Olivia turned to her wordlessly and began to kiss her, she wasn�t surprised. She was also getting used to the fact that her body apparently had a mind of its own, completely independent of her own cognitive processes, and Olivia seemed able to communicate with it directly with her hands and her mouth and the full embrace of her body.

After what seemed like hours of slow, sultry, deep kisses, Olivia finally pulled her up and began to undress her, and then patiently allowed Natalia to remove her clothes for her. Afterward she lay on top of Natalia, positioning herself between her slender thighs, and rocked them both to an exquisitely intimate climax, after which they both fell asleep in each other�s arms.

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

The following morning Olivia was awakened by someone sitting down on the edge of the bed and shaking her arm. She struggled to pry an eye open and saw Emma perched beside her. She was acutely aware that her sexy lover was asleep�right in her bed where little eyes could clearly see her. Uh-oh. Here it comes.

"Mommy?"

"What is it, baby?"

"I need to get ready to go to day camp."

Olivia tried to get the other eye open as she turned her head to look at her clock. "Okay, baby. Why don�t you go get dressed, and I�ll be down in a minute."

Olivia followed Emma�s gaze and saw Natalia still asleep next to her, dark hair spilling out over the pale blue pillowcase.

"Is Natalia gonna make pancakes?" Emma asked.

"I�ll ask her," Olivia said, pulling the sheet up tighter around her neck as soon as she was awake enough to remember she was naked. She waited for Emma to ask her why Natalia was in her bed, but she didn�t seem to find it worth mentioning. Instead her little legs carried her swiftly back out of the room, presumably on her way to get dressed.

Natalia stirred and rolled toward Olivia, snuggling into her arms. Olivia quickly kissed her, keeping one eye on the door, which Emma had inconveniently left open.

"Our little Jellybean was just in here requesting pancakes," Olivia said.

Natalia became wide awake instantly and sat straight up in the bed, causing the sheet to slip down around her waist. When she heard Olivia�s soft whistle, she yanked the sheet up over her bare chest. "Did she say anything about me being here?"

"Nope."

"Did she even see me?"

"Yep." Olivia shrugged at Natalia�s puzzled look. "I have no idea why that didn�t seem odd to her. She knows you have your own room."

"Well, I think I better get downstairs and make some pancakes," Natalia said with a grin.

"And coffee?"

"And coffee. I could never forget the coffee," Natalia said as she got up and quickly pulled on a robe to hide her nakedness.

"I�ll come help." Damn, you�re gorgeous!

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

Natalia was in a very good mood. Emma was back from camp. Dinner was over. Rafe had even come out to the farmhouse after Emma called him with a plaintive reminder about his promise to help her with her birdhouse project. The tiny avian dwelling had turned out well, and Rafe even helped her suspend it from a low limb, holding Emma up so she could hang it herself, much to Emma�s delight. Natalia knew Rafe was genuinely fond of the "little one," as he called her.

Rafe had also helped Olivia carry in the new sound system she�d purchased for the farmhouse and then set it up for them himself. When Olivia thanked him, he nodded and went back outside to say good-bye to Emma before heading back to campus. Natalia thought he seemed excited about this new phase of his life, and she prayed it worked out as well as it seemed like it would.

After dinner, they watched Finding Nemo in honor of Emma�s newfound love of sea creatures and ate popcorn just like they used to do on movie nights. She could tell Olivia was pensive, and when Emma darted off to the kitchen to get more lemonade, Olivia scooted closer to Natalia on the couch while keeping one eye on the kitchen door.

"I�m wondering if maybe we should just go ahead and say something to her," Olivia said.

"If you think the time is right, then let�s do it." Although the thought of telling Emma made Natalia nervous, she couldn�t help but feel it would be okay, if not immediately, then certainly eventually. After all, Emma was the one who�d penned the infamous "My Two Mommies" report that had ended up on the local news and inspired Olivia to plant an enlightening kiss on her that had prompted a heated, though unacknowledged, response on her part. I think our little girl just kind of "knew" even back then, Natalia thought.

Before they could discuss it further, Emma bounced back into the room, set her lemonade on a coaster on the coffee table, and squeezed back in between them, where she�d been before.

"Hey, Jellybean," Olivia said, giving her a hug. "Natalia and I want to talk with you about something."

"Okay," Emma said, more interested in watching the end credits of the movie roll.

"It�s about me and Natalia."

"Okay," Emma said absently.

Olivia glanced up at Natalia, took a deep breath, and concentrated her attention back on the little person sitting between them. "You know, we�ve moved back into the farmhouse."

"I know," Emma said, laughing.

"And it�s not just because Natalia and I are best friends."

"It�s because we�re family," Emma said as she slipped off the couch to pop the DVD out of the player and return it to its box. "I love this movie."

"I know you do, sweetie," Natalia said.

"Yes, we�re family, but it�s also because Natalia and I love each other," Olivia said.

"I know. Can we watch another movie? I�m not sleepy yet," Emma said looking from one to the other.

"Baby, I don�t think you could stay awake long enough to make it through another whole movie," Olivia said. "How about we come up and read you a bedtime story instead?"

"Okay, that was fun last night, just like we used to do," Emma said. She started toward the stairs, but Olivia caught her around the waist before she could make good her escape.

"Come here, you," Olivia said with a laugh. "I want to make sure you understand about me and Natalia."

"I do understand," Emma insisted.

Olivia rolled her eyes at Natalia over the top of Emma�s head. "Here�s the thing, baby. You know how sometimes people fall in love and then they get married?"

"Yes," Emma said, "and sometimes they just live together."

"Well, that�s how Natalia and I feel about each other. We fell in love and that�s why we want to live together."

"I know."

"And, uh ... that�s why Natalia was sleeping in my bed with me when you came in this morning."

"I know."

"You do?" Olivia asked.

"Yes." Emma just looked at her calmly.

"How do you know that?" Olivia asked.

Emma shrugged. "Everybody knows you love each other. I told you Natalia was sad when she was supposed to marry Frank, remember?"

"Yeah, I do remember that. It was right after we went to that big dinner at the Spauldings with your father."

"And I told you Natalia would rather live with us at the farmhouse. I told you we shouldn�t move back to the hotel. And after we moved, I kept telling you we should move back, remember?"

"Uh, yes, I remember."

"Can we go read a story now?"

Natalia had listened to the entire exchange with rapt attention. I think our little girl is just very, very smart, just like her mommy. She was infinitely relieved that Emma wasn�t the slightest bit troubled by anything to do with her relationship with Olivia. "I think that�s a wonderful idea," Natalia said. "Why don�t you go on up and pick one out, and your mommy and I will be right up, okay?"

"Okay!" Emma bolted for the stairs and scampered up them, creating a small racket before the sound of her footsteps disappeared down the upstairs hallway.

"Wow, that went well," Olivia said.

"Yes, it did."

They fell into each other�s arms and kissed passionately until Natalia remembered they had a little person waiting for them upstairs, probably impatiently, which made her reluctantly pull back. She stood up and pulled Olivia to her feet. "Come on, story time."

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

Alone at last,

Olivia thought, watching as Natalia approached the bed. Olivia was sitting up leaning against a stack of pillows. She patted the spot next to her, motioning for Natalia to come sit by her.

"What�s up?" Natalia asked.

"I thought we could read," Olivia said.

"You want to read?"

"Sure, reading in bed can be fun." Olivia almost laughed out loud at the shock on Natalia�s face. "I also wanted to talk with you about the Spaulding barbeque."

"You want to go, right?"

"Yes, and I was thinking maybe it�d be a good time for us to go there and �be� together, just like any other couple."

"You mean ... not make any big announcement, but just be ourselves ... together?"

"Exactly. What do you think?"

"I think it sounds perfect," Natalia sighed.

"Okay, that�s settled. Now for our reading materials." Olivia reached into the drawer of her night stand and pulled out a handful of brochures, which she placed on Natalia�s lap.

"What�s all this?" Natalia asked.

"Well, take a look."

Natalia began to flip through the pamphlets. "These are travel brochures. Are you going somewhere?"

"No, we�re going somewhere."

"Are there more conferences?"

"Nope. I figured we had a �wedding� night, so now we should get to go on a honeymoon."

Natalia dropped her brochure-filled hands back down on her lap. "We�re going on a honeymoon?"

"Sure. What do you think?"

"I think that would be ... absolutely wonderful," Natalia said softly.

"Well, good. Now all we have to do is decide where." Olivia pointed at the brochures. "Tell me what you think. And if none of these appeal, just tell me, because we can literally go anywhere in the world you want to go."

"I can�t believe we get to take a honeymoon. I never had a honeymoon. Well ... I never really wanted a honeymoon till now."

Olivia loved Natalia�s sweet smile and the sparkle in her eye once she realized what all those brochures were really about.

"Okay, let�s see," Natalia said, starting with the first brochure.

"Those first ones are if you want to stay in this hemisphere," Olivia said.

"The Bahamas, Canc�n ..."

"Beach, sun, swimming, diving. There are some further-off places too," Olivia said, smiling at Natalia�s concentration. She could see her eyes gleam as she looked at the photos of exotic vacation spots.

"Switzerland, Ireland, England, Greece." Natalia laughed. "Olivia, there are just so many. How would we ever decide?"

"There should be one more."

Natalia looked beneath the Greece brochure and found one more. "Costa del Sol!" She looked up at Olivia in wide-eyed surprise. "Spain?"

"I think we just found a winner," Olivia said with a huge grin.

"We can really go to Spain? I�ve always wanted to go to Spain."

"Yes, we can really go to Spain. Of course, we�ll need a translator. Oh wait ..." She laughed, knowing full well Natalia was fluent in Spanish. As far as Olivia was concerned, Spain was an ideal choice because she�d always found listening to Natalia speak Spanish was a gigantic turn-on. She�d been pretty sure the Costa del Sol honeymoon would be the winner, and she was delighted she was right.

"When can we go?"

"You can pretty much go there year-round, but we should wait until after the Labor Day barbeque, and, of course, we�ll want to make sure Emma is doing okay in school. I was thinking she might enjoy spending a week with her father and Beth now. We can make sure they have Jane�s number just in case they need help with transportation to school or whatever."

"We get to stay a whole week?"

Olivia laughed. "Yes, a whole week of seeing you in a bikini. We�ll have to get you a different one for every day of the week. I�ll leave Sheila in charge of the Beacon, like we did when we went to Hawaii," Olivia said. "We can even go back to Hawaii sometime if you like."

"I�d love to do that," Natalia said. "I�ll always love Hawaii."

"Me too," Olivia said. She took the stack of brochures and tossed them on the night stand. "Meanwhile, I really think we should practice."

"Practice what? Spanish?"

"No, practice for our honeymoon on the Costa del Sol," Olivia said.

She turned toward Natalia, intending to pull off her pajama top, but before she could, Natalia grabbed her in a huge hug and then kissed her so enthusiastically Olivia thought she might just come form the sheer excitement of the unexpectedly passionate kiss from her oftentimes shy lover.

"Wow," Olivia said when Natalia finally pulled back. "I should take you to other countries more often."

They laughed, but then their smiles began to fade and they moved into each other�s arms again, this time kissing each other with great tenderness before slowly undressing and lying entwined on the bed naked. After staring into each other�s eyes for a while they began to kiss and touch again with a passion only possible for two people who are truly in love.

They carefully moved so that they could touch each other�s intimate flesh at the same time and they continued their slow, deep kiss until finally they both reached a peak of ecstasy as much from their love as from the mutual physical caresses. Afterward they continued to hold one another as they slowly fell asleep.

Olivia�s last waking thought was that she knew she�d never been happier in her life than she was at that very moment, for she�d finally found the one person who had put her first, someone she loved in a way she�d never loved anyone else before; and she knew in her heart that their love would never fade nor fail, but would protect and sustain them for all the rest of their days.

THE END

 

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