I Found My Heart in San Francisco
Book 11: Karma
Chapter Nine

By S X Meagher

 

Part 9

That night, Sara Andrews walked up a steep hill, wishing that she'd been able to find a parking spot closer to Ally's apartment. It wasn't that she minded the walk, she was just a little worried that she'd look like she'd been climbing hills, and it was very important to her to look her best.

She was unreasonably nervous, and had spent much of the day obsessing about everything from her current haircut to her clothing.

Her natural tendency was to dress stylishly. She knew that her clothing choices were often far too sophisticated for someone her age, but she felt comfortable with her chosen style. In addition, she had to dress well for work - and she didn't want to have to maintain two complete wardrobes. So, she usually wore stylishly feminine outfits for both work and play. That habit had always worked well before, but now she worried that she might have to change her style to better fit in with Ally.

The trainer dressed in typical bay area lesbian fashion: cotton or knit shirts, jeans, khakis or cotton pants, and black shoes or boots. Sara had that type of thing in her wardrobe, but she didn't feel comfortable dressing that way for a date, particularly when she was consciously trying to impress. Well, if one of us has to change, it's gonna have to be me, she thought wryly. Ally would look like a cross-dresser in a dress and heels!

Sara smoothed her chocolate-colored velvet blazer into place and twitched the matching short skirt a bit. Looking at her reflection in the glass panel of Ally's front door, she fussed with the collar of her pink angora turtleneck, nervously cleared her throat, then rang the buzzer for Ally's apartment, feeling her heart rate pick up when the front door buzzed open.

She heard an interior door open, and then Ally's soft, lightly-accented voice floated down. "Hi, there," she said. "Do you mind coming up?"

"No, not at all," Sara replied, following the lilting voice. When she reached the unit, she was met with a warm smile, and she almost leaned in for a kiss, reminding herself at the last minute that they had both agreed to take things very slow.

"Did you have any trouble parking?" Ally asked. She was lacing up her shoes, and Sara took the opportunity to check her out from behind. As she had on each of their previous meetings, Ally was wearing a long-sleeved cotton blouse, this one a light blue. Slightly faded black jeans hugged her hips, and Sara spent a moment fantasizing about peeling those snug jeans off her body.

"Uhm ... no, no trouble," she replied once she remembered it was her turn to speak. "Where should we eat? Do you want to go somewhere around here?"

"Yeah, let's do," Ally suggested. She stood up and let her eyes trail down Sara's body, her small smile growing larger as she progressed. "Boy, you look great," she murmured.

Sara just smiled at her, relieved that Ally didn't seem uncomfortable with the discrepancy in their styles. "Thanks. Not too dressy?"

"Mmm ... not at all. I love your look. Feminine, soft ... sexy."

"Thanks," she mumbled again. "You look nice yourself. Blue is a good color for you."

"Well, I think pink suits you just great," Ally decided. She leaned in and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "Don't let it get out, but I have a secret fondness for pink."

"I'll keep that in mind," Sara smiled, trying to catch her breath while allowing Ally to take her hand to guide her back down the stairs.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"How about Indian food?" Ally asked as they walked down Castro Street.

Sara nodded and said, "That sounds good. Do you have a favorite place?"

"Yeah. I eat Indian a lot. I'm not a strict vegetarian, but I generally avoid meat. Indian restaurants usually have a lot of vegetarian choices."

"I should eat less meat myself. Maybe you can guide me towards some of the better dishes."

"I'd be happy to."

The place was just a few blocks away, and as they walked along the moderately crowded street, Sara marveled that she didn't feel uncomfortable holding Ally's hand in public. Deciding not to overanalyze every element of their interaction, she tried to just allow herself to go with it and feel comfortable.

"Here we are," Ally said, holding the door open.

Sara led the way, but when the hostess saw Ally she gave her a welcoming smile and showed them to a nice table in a quiet corner of the restaurant. After a short recitation of the specials, she left them alone.

As an aficionado Ally knew a lot about Indian food, and she patiently described her favorite dishes to Sara, telling her the plusses and minuses of each item.

Smiling warmly at her, Sara said, "I can see why you're a good trainer. You're very adept at explaining things clearly."

"Thanks," Ally grinned. "My parents are both teachers, so I guess I learned how to offer cogent descriptions early on."

Sara closed her menu and gazed at her friend for a moment. "Would you order for me? I have a feeling that you'll do a better job than I would."

"Sure." Ally nodded to their server, and gave him their order. Then she leaned back in her chair and said, "That was strangely reassuring."

"What was?"

"The fact that you trusted me to order for you. I've been a little worried that you might secretly be one of those fiercely independent lawyer types. You know, the ones who can't stand to let anyone lend a hand?"

Chuckling, Sara said, "I work with a lot of them, but I'm not one of them." She gave Ally an inquisitive grin. "Do you have any more misperceptions that I can disabuse you of?"

"Uhm ... yeah, I actually might," the larger woman said. Their appetizers were delivered just then, and Sara's heart picked up a little bit as she waited for Ally to speak again. As the server left, Ally said, "I've been a little worried about how confident you are about claiming a lesbian identity. I uhm ... hate to be narrow minded, but I'm only comfortable dating women who are sure of who they are."

Sara nodded, then said, "I'll be honest with you, Ally, I've been fighting my identity for years; but I haven't doubted who I am, if that makes any sense. I just didn't want to be who I knew I was." Ally raised an eyebrow in question and Sara explained, "I've known I was a lesbian for years, but I've tried very hard not to have to publicly acknowledge it. I haven't spent any time thinking that I might be straight. There's no way that's true. I just have to work on being open about my orientation."

"Are you sure that you're ready, Sara?" Ally asked gently.

Her answer was immediate and decisive. "Yes. Without question. Telling my parents was, by far, the biggest hurdle. I lost what I'd been afraid of losing, and yet, I'm still standing," she said, smiling gently. "I wish they'd been more understanding, but they've done their worst. I have nothing to lose at this point."

"You have a lot to gain," the larger woman assured her.

"I know that," Sara acknowledged. "I really do know that."

Ally took a bite of her appetizer and chewed thoughtfully, with Sara doing the same. "Delicious," the lawyer said, holding her fork up near Ally's mouth. "Bite?"

Taking the morsel, Ally nodded. "That's always a good choice. Glad you like it." She offered Sara a bite of her dish as well, smiling when the smaller woman's eyes widened. "Mine's a little spicy. I thought you might like a slightly tamer choice."

With a twinkle in her warm brown eyes, Sara said, "I've been opting for the safe choice for too long. It's time to be a little wild." With a flourish, she took a hearty bite of Ally's dish, then smiled and proclaimed, "Delicious."

"Tell me about the safe choices," Ally said, her eyes locked with Sara's.

Taking another bite, Sara considered her answer. "I guess it started not long after I discovered that I was a lesbian." She didn't want to tell Ally about her experience with Ryan, so she intentionally jumped over it. "After I had my first lesbian encounter, I decided that I just couldn't handle it. I really took the coward's way out, Ally, and avoided even a hint of temptation. I just concentrated on school, and my sport, and tried to forget that I had a sex drive."

"Your sport?"

"Uh-huh. I played soccer at Cal for four years."

"Wow! I didn't know you were a jock!"

"Uhm ... I'm gonna choose to think that's not a reflection on how out of shape I look," Sara chuckled.

"No! Not at all! You look great, Sara, really great," Ally assured her. "You've just never talked about doing anything athletic."

"That's because I don't at this point. I really want to start playing soccer again, though. I have to do something more athletic than just run along the bay every morning."

"Hard to do because of your job, huh?"

"Yeah, but that's no excuse. I have to make time, just like I do for everything else that's important."

"I have a few friends who play. Why don't I hook you up? You're not averse to playing in a lesbian league, are you?"

"No, that'd be great," she said. "I'd really like that."

"Consider it done. Now tell me more about these safe choices," Ally urged.

Sara nodded. "I still find this hard to believe, but I didn't touch a woman for more than three years after my first encounter. I went out with a few dozen men," she acknowledged, rolling her eyes, "but I refused to let myself even consider being with a woman again. I don't even remember what caused me to finally break free, but when I was a senior, I took the plunge."

"In high school?"

Shaking her head, Sara said, "No, college. I was 21, and I had yet to really have sex."

"I see. But then you found a woman, right?" Ally asked.

Chuckling, Sara said, "You're jumping way ahead. I sucked up my courage and finally journeyed into the dangerous world of the Internet. I allowed myself the horribly guilty pleasure of going to a lesbian chat room on AOL."

"Wow," Ally said, shaking her head sympathetically. "You must have been terrified to have held off on your desires for that long."

"I was," she agreed, smiling wanly. "Ally, my hands were shaking so hard I could hardly log in. I didn't say one word that night, and as I recall the conversation was completely insipid. But I was so damned proud of myself." She shook her head as she recalled, "That night was the first time in a long while that I didn't feel disgusted with myself when I went to sleep."

"That must have felt great," Ally smiled.

"It did," she agreed, then laughed softly. "I developed a pretty heavy AOL addiction after that heady evening. The minute my roommate left the room, I was lurking in a chat room. Over time, I forced myself to interact with people, and within a few weeks I created another alias that indicated I was from the bay area. Finally, someone asked me to go into a private room, and much to my surprise, I did!"

"Did you hook up?" Ally asked.

"God, no! I was way too chicken for that. I played around in chat rooms for months before I finally agreed to actually meet a human being."

"Hey, don't be so hard on yourself. Everyone has to go at her own pace."

Sara nodded. "I guess you're right. My pace was just darned slow."

"So, did you have a date, or what?"

"You wanna hear the whole sordid story?" Sara asked, a little surprised.

"Of course I do. I'm interested in you, Sara. Your past is part of you."

"All right," she agreed. "I arranged to meet a woman who was a student at Stanford. Damn, I was scared. But I forced myself to get on the train and go down to Palo Alto on a Saturday night. We agreed to meet at a coffee shop at 8 o'clock, and I think I got there at 7," she chuckled. "I sat inside an ice cream shop across the street and watched the place like I was a police detective. Lee showed up at 8 on the dot, and somehow I found myself walking across the street to meet her. I'm sure she knew how nervous I was," she said, rolling her eyes. "At one point I laughed, and I sounded hysterical!"

"I bet she was nervous, too," Ally guessed.

"You know," Sara said thoughtfully, "she really wasn't. She was only a freshman, but she'd been out to herself since she was 15. She was from Hong Kong, and her family had left partially to get out before China reclaimed the colony, and partially to be with her when she went to college."

"Now, that's a close family," Ally laughed.

"You have no idea! We had a really nice time, but at 10:30 she said she had to go to her dorm room so her parents could call her. Apparently, they called every night at 10:30, and she had to be in the room or they'd freak out!"

Ally laughed and said, "Even if that wasn't true, it's a good way to get a woman to go home with you."

"It worked," Sara agreed. "And I'm sure I wouldn't have gone if she'd just flat-out asked me to."

So ... did you enjoy yourself?"

Sara nodded. "I've never made a decision that I was happier with."

"Wow, she was that good?"

Laughing, Sara said, "At the time, I had no idea if she was the worst or the best. All I knew was that I'd taken the biggest risk of my life and done something that I'd been mortally afraid of. The world didn't stop, the sun came up the next morning, and I didn't have a lavender 'L' tattooed on my forehead." She shook her head, still in awe of how she'd felt that night. "In retrospect, Lee was a wonderful lover for someone as inexperienced as I was. She was gentle, and considerate, and she really knew how to help me express myself. I've slept with women who were technically more proficient, but no one has ever made me feel as comfortable as she did."

Ally reached across the table and took Sara's hand in hers. Brown eyes shifted to meet compassionate gray/blue ones gazing at her. "That was very brave of you. I know how hard it can be, Sara."

Her eyes darting from Ally's large, warm hand to her intense gaze, Sara's heartbeat picked up, and she felt a faint shiver roll down her spine. "It was brave," she admitted, "but my bravery didn't last very long. We got together two more times, arranging things just like we had before. But when Lee wanted to exchange phone numbers and see each other more often, I panicked. I still can't believe I did this, but I changed my screen name and never spoke to her again."

"You just weren't ready," Ally soothed, her fingers lightly caressing Sara's hand.

"That's no excuse," she said. "That was the second woman I'd run away from, Ally, and I can't imagine that Lee wasn't deeply hurt." She looked up at her friend, her gaze level and intent. "I was a coward, and I let my cowardice hurt another innocent person." She shook her head, and said, "It took me a long time to forgive myself. But I finally did so by promising myself I would never hurt someone like that again. I'm glad to say that I haven't," she added quietly.

"That's all that you can do," Ally said. "You can just try not to repeat your mistakes."

"I know," Sara agreed. "I made sure that from then on every woman I met knew that I wasn't in a position to be in a relationship."

"Did you go out with a lot of women?" Ally asked.

Sara's head shook decisively. "No, I didn't. I uhm ... really didn't date at all. I'd chat with a woman until we decided that we wanted to get together, and then we'd go to her place and have sex. I got together with a couple of women quite a few times, but I wouldn't really call it dating since we didn't really go out in public together." She laughed softly and said, "I managed to find women even more afraid of disclosure than I was."

"Was the sex satisfying for you, Sara? Was it worth what you had to go through?"

Giving her a wry smile, Sara asked, "Wanna know the truth?"

"Yeah, I do."

"What I really needed was the closeness. I just wanted a woman to hold me and kiss me." Her eyes fluttered closed and she sighed. "That was worth it. That was worth anything."

Ally's hand shifted, and she linked her fingers with Sara's. "I predict that you will have a lot of kissing and cuddling in your future."

Her chin dropped slightly, and Sara gazed at her friend through half-hooded eyes. "I hope that's true. And I hope you're the one kissing me."

"That was part of my plan ... I mean, prediction," Ally grinned slyly.

* * * * * * * * * * *

On the way back to the apartment, Ally shot Sara a quizzical glance and asked, "I don't think you've ever told me what led you to become an attorney. Do you mind talking about it?"

The smaller woman smiled at her and replied, "I discovered that I had a certain talent for law. Not an overwhelming interest by any means, but I took the LSAT's on a whim, and did remarkably well. I figured that I needed a profession, so I might as well pick the one that came easy to me." She shrugged and said, "I certainly don't dislike what I do, but it doesn't fill my soul."

"What would?" Ally asked.

"I'm not sure yet," Sara admitted. "I haven't been doing it long enough to know if I could carve out a little corner of the law that I would love. I think I'll discover that over time, if it exists at all. How about you? Do you love what you do?"

"I don't normally think of it in those terms, but I guess I do," Ally said thoughtfully. "Training people really suits me, and I have no plans to change careers now, or in the future." Tilting her head, she asked, "Are you at all bothered by the fact that I don't want to do something more challenging?"

"God, no!" Sara gasped. "I respect people who find something they love, and then learn how to do it well. That's all that matters to me, Ally. I'd respect an expert ditch digger much more than an inept neurosurgeon."

Ally dropped Sara's hand, and slipped an arm around her shoulders, "I like you," she said softly, inclining her head until it rested against the smaller woman's.

"Ditto, Ms. Webster. It's unanimous." Sara tucked an arm around her friend's waist, and let her fingers play across the tight muscle she felt along her flank. "Good lord, Ally, how much do you work out?"

The large woman laughed gently and said, "I'm gonna be in a competition the weekend I come back from San Diego, so I'm really reducing my body fat. Believe me, you're gonna be glad I'm gone. I'm a real bear when I can't eat any of my favorite guilty pleasures."

"Do you get a lot of enjoyment out of competing like that?" Sara asked, unable to keep her hand still, letting it glide along the shifting muscle.

"I haven't made up my mind," Ally revealed, "but this might be my last meet."

"Really? Why?"

"Mmm ... a lot of reasons. I only compete in chemically free competitions, but in the last couple of years I've begun to doubt that some of the women are really clean. There are so many ways of tricking the system," she said, shaking her head. "It pisses me off to be completely free of banned substances, and lose to someone I have my doubts about. A lot of the other women are suspicious, also, and the meets have become big gossip-fests, where people spend their time guessing who's clean and who's not." She made a face and said, "I'm too old for that grade school crap."

"I can imagine that's really frustrating," Sara sympathized. "You have to be confident there's a level playing field."

"Exactly," Ally agreed. "But even without the doping controversies, I think I might choose to hang it up. I've spent a lot of years working on my body, and it's begun to feel like I'm too self-obsessed. I want to focus on people other than myself at this point in my life." She looked at Sara and said, "Bodybuilding was the perfect thing for me when I started. It gave me the confidence I lacked at the time, and made me feel strong and powerful. Being proud of yourself for making yourself strong is a very good thing, but losing sleep over your failure to add any bulk to your deltoids is really kinda nutsy. I think the odds are good that I'm gonna move on with my life after the meet."

Sara moved her hand, letting it slide up and down the incredibly well-defined arm. "You won't ... just lose this, will you? I mean, I hate to be small-minded, but I'd kinda like to see what a perfect body looks like," she chuckled.

"Come to my meet," Ally urged. "If you like muscles, it's the place to be."

"Well," the chestnut-haired beauty smiled, "I was particularly interested in seeing your muscles. Kind of a private show."

Ally gave her a squeeze, thrilling Sara with the power she felt enveloping her. "They won't disappear overnight. I rather doubt that you'd like the emaciated look I have to have to do well, anyway. I could be wrong about you, Ms. Andrews, but I'd guess you're the sort who likes the feel of muscles rather than just their definition."

"I'm not sure what I like," Sara admitted. "I've never gone out with a woman who was bigger or stronger than I am." She almost retracted her words, but then decided that she didn't want to mention Ryan's name.

"Well, we'll just have to experiment, then, won't we?" Ally said in a husky, sexy tone than nearly caused Sara's knees to buckle.

Her voice was much higher than normal when she managed to say, "I love a good experiment."

* * * * * * * * * * *

It was just 10 o'clock when they found themselves back at Ally's apartment.

They stood in front of the building, but the larger woman didn't invite her in. Instead, she placed a hand on each of Sara's shoulders and pulled her close, tilting her head to place a gentle kiss upon her lips.

Sara's knees almost gave out, even though the kiss wasn't passionate in the least. Ally's lips were just so soft, so warm and welcoming, that Sara desperately wanted to throw her arms around her and kiss her for hours. But after just a few seconds, Ally pushed her back into position and smiled warmly. "I had a great time. Can we go out again when I get back?"

Nodding automatically, Sara managed to say. "Have a good time, Ally. I envy you being down in the warmth of San Diego. It's supposed to be cold and rainy here over Christmas."

"Yeah, I'm looking forward to a week of warm weather," she agreed. "My sister and her husband live pretty close to the beach, so I might even get some surfing in."

"Have fun," Sara smiled again. She squeezed her friend's large, warm hand and watched her walk into her building. Ally paused at the door, and gave her a wink that made her heart skip a beat. Sara nearly floated back to her car, thinking, Oh, baby, I'm falling hard.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Hey, Ryan?" Jamie asked as she emerged from the bathroom that evening. As usual, her partner was sitting up in bed, laptop perched upon her raised knees.

"Yeah?" she answered absently, her fingers never slowing their rapid pace on the keyboard.

"I'd like to keep our portfolios going. I think it's fun to have a little something we can compete with each other over."

Raising one eyebrow, Ryan's crooked grin settled upon her face. "You still have to buy me five shares of 3Com, honey."

"I know," she chuckled, crawling into bed and settling close to Ryan's side. "E-mail?" she asked.

"Uh-huh. Writing to my cousin Cait. Just about done."

Knowing that was a polite way of asking for a moment of quiet, Jamie waited patiently while Ryan completed the letter. As she hit the send button decisively, she turned to her lover and said, "I'd be happy to keep the bet going. But we need a new end-date. How about the last day of spring term?"

"Okay. It's a deal. I ask for one concession. Can we start from the same point again?"

"Of course, sweetie. That's the only way it's fair. I'll transfer some of my holdings to your account so that we're equalized. How's that?"

"As expected, you're generous to a fault."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Late the next morning, the phone rang and Sara picked up on the first ring. "Sara Andrews."

"Hi," said a warm, melodic voice. "I have the names of the friends of mine who play soccer. Would you like them?" Waiting a beat, she added, "Oh, this is Ally."

"I know your voice by now, Ally," Sara chuckled. "It's nice to hear it again, by the way. And, yes, I'd love to have numbers for your soccer contacts."

"It'll cost ya," Ally said.

"Okay. What's the price?"

"Lunch. I'm free until 3. Name the place and I'll meet you."

Sara let out a soft laugh. "You want to have lunch today? That's not much notice, Ms. Webster. It's nearly noon."

"Are you free?" Ally asked.

"As a bird. Do you mind coming to my office? There's a central reception area on the 25th floor."

"No, I don't mind a bit," Ally said, with a touch of hesitancy in her voice, "but are you sure that's what you want?"

"Well, I thought you might like to see my office. But it's no big deal ..."

"I would like to see where you work," Ally assured her. "I just want to make sure you're comfortable having me in your work environment. People who've never seen a dyke in their lives know that I'm one," she chuckled wryly.

Sara was quiet for a moment, then said, "I wouldn't go out with a woman I was ashamed of or embarrassed to be seen with. I think you're absolutely adorable, Ally, and I don't have the slightest reluctance to have you come to my office."

"Adorable, huh?" Ally asked, her voice low and sexy.

"Definitely adorable. I could go on tossing compliments at you, but I think I'll save them until I see you in person. Ready to jot down my address?"

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ally showed up about a half hour later, looking completely comfortable when Sara arrived in the reception area to pick her up. She was leaning against one of the huge windows gazing out at the view, and Sara snuck a moment of guilty pleasure enjoying the view of Ally's backside. She couldn't actually see her rounded butt, since Ally was wearing a black leather coat that came to mid-thigh, but Sara took a great deal of pleasure in the view, nonetheless.

She had never really noticed how broad her friend's shoulders were, but the gleaming black leather highlighted them to perfection. Ally looked so confident, so completely at ease, that Sara immediately felt more at ease herself. "Hi," she said softly as she sidled up beside her and placed a hand on her back.

"Hi."

As usual, Ally's voice sent a shiver down her spine, and Sara found herself grinning like a schoolgirl.

"Ready to go? We can stop by my office on the way down."

"Sure." They started to walk towards the elevator, and Ally commented, "I think this is the tallest building I've ever been in. Actually, my apartment is as high as I normally get - since I stopped drinking - that is."

"I've gotten used to it," Sara commented, "but it sways a little on a very windy day, and I find that a little disconcerting. I try hard not to think of what would happen in the event of a major earthquake."

"Just stay away from the windows," Ally advised. "The building would undoubtedly be fine, but the glass would probably pop." She started to look a little uncomfortable, then gave Sara a sheepish smile and said, "Could we take off now? I uhm ... don't really feel like being in this building any longer."

Charmed by her honesty, Sara took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "You'll have to buy. I left my purse in my desk."

"I'll buy for the whole car if the damned thing would just come!" she said with mock alarm.

"Hey, if it'll make you feel better, we can walk down."

Ally looked down at the short, snug skirt, longish jacket and medium height heels that Sara was wearing. Tilting her head, she asked, "Would you really walk down twenty-five flights of stairs just to make me happy?"

"Of course," Sara said immediately. "Not a problem."

The elevator bell rang, and just before the doors opened, Ally leaned over and whispered, "I think you're adorable, too. Perfectly adorable."

* * * * * * * * * * *

"You know what I was thinking?" Ally asked while they ate their salads.

"No. Not a clue. I don't know you that well - yet," she added.

"I was thinking," Ally said, ignoring the tease, "that you might need a training program if you're going to get back into soccer shape. I'd be happy to help you devise one, or even train you if you think you'd like that."

"Wow, really?" Sara asked. "That would be great!"

"We can get started as soon as I get back from San Diego."

"Okay, but I'll have to find a way to pay you back," Sara declared. Batting her eyes, she asked, "Do I have any skills or talents you think you might like to tap into?"

"Heh heh heh." Ally gave her a sexy leer and said, "I certainly hope you do, but since we're taking it slow, how about if you help me buy and set up a computer instead?"

"You want to upgrade?"

"Yeah. From a pencil and paper," she joked. "I've never had a computer, but I'd like to start using email, and I think I can devise better training programs for people if I can keep track of their progress."

"You've got a deal," Sara chuckled. "We'll go shopping as soon as you come back." She looked at her friend for a moment, then quirked a grin at her and said, "I'm gonna miss you."

"Why do you think I had to come over for lunch?" the larger woman chuckled. "I could have given you those names over the phone, you know."

Sara reached over and traced a few blue veins on the back of Ally's hand, concentrating thoughtfully as she did so. "Are you always so open with your feelings?"

"No," she said honestly. "Actually, I usually don't reveal more than I absolutely have to. You just seem so forthright that I feel compelled to be the same."

"Good," Sara nodded. "That's good. I uhm ... have to admit that I'm not usually very open, but I've decided to turn over a new leaf. I want to do things differently this time, Ally. I want to do this right."

"That's exactly how I feel," the larger woman said. "I want to do this right - no matter how scary it is."

Smiling warmly, Sara said, "I can't wait until you come back. I think this is gonna be fun."

"If we do it right, it will be," Ally agreed, beaming a smile of equal intensity at her friend.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Ally insisted on walking Sara back to her office, shrugging off Sara's concern for her. "I was mostly kidding," Ally assured her. "I was pretty shaken up by the Loma Prieta quake, but I hardly ever think of it anymore. It was just odd being in a big building, and talking about quakes."

"You don't have to come up, Ally. Really."

Looking at her friend for a moment, Ally said, "One of my goals is to face each of my fears and try to break the hold it has over me. This is a little one, but little ones become big ones if you let them."

Sara reached down and gave her large hand a squeeze. "Let me know if you feel uncomfortable, okay?"

"Will do," Ally smiled. They made it to Sara's floor, and walked into her small, but neatly organized office. "Wow, this is really nice," Ally said. "Very lawyerly."

Sara shrugged. "It's all right. I spend so much time here that it seems a little like a tiny prison cell, but it's home."

"Speaking of home, I should get going." Giving her friend a sly smile, Ally pulled the door closed with her foot, then stood in front of it. "How about a goodbye kiss?" she asked, her voice low, and warm and sexy.

Approaching her tentatively, Sara stood in front of the larger woman and waited for her to pull her forward for a kiss, just as she had done the night before. But Ally didn't make a move. She just stood in front of the door, a half smile on her handsome face. Deciding that she'd have to act, Sara stood very close and rose up on her toes, holding onto Ally's shoulders while she inclined her head and brushed her lips across the soft ones that beckoned to her. She paused for a second, then lowered herself to the floor, keeping her hands on Ally's shoulders for another moment. "Hurry home," she whispered, then let her hands slide down the powerful arms, enjoying the definition even through the thick leather coat.

"See you soon," Ally said, giving Sara a sexy wink. She opened the door and strode out, while Sara stood in the doorway, watching her until she entered the elevator lobby.

Oh, boy, she sighed. How can my knees be weak from such a tiny kiss? What would happen if she really kissed me? The smirk that settled onto her face at the mere thought of that scenario remained in place for the better part of the day.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Catherine had just come down into the kitchen on Wednesday morning when Marta answered the ringing phone. "Evans residence," she announced.

Looking at the cook as she spoke, Catherine heard her say, "One moment, please, I'll see if Mrs. Evans can come to the phone." She hit the mute button and asked, "Will you speak with a Kayla Horwitz?"

"Kayla Horwitz? Who on earth is Kayla ..." Catherine's face blanched, and she stood to walk over to Marta, feeling her legs shake as she moved across the floor. "I'll take the call, Marta. Thank you." She placed the receiver against her ear and said, "This is Catherine Evans. What can I do for you, Ms. Horwitz?"

"I was sure you wouldn't take my call, Mrs. Evans. It's ... very generous of you to do so."

Catherine didn't respond to her compliment. Instead, she reframed her original question. "Is there something in particular that you wanted?"

"Yes, yes, there is," she said. "I know this isn't my place, Mrs. Evans, and I know that Jim wouldn't be happy with me for calling, but I feel like I have to clear something up."

"I can't imagine what that might be, but go ahead if you must," Catherine said, bordering on being rude.

"I know that you've called off your attempt at reconciling with Jim, and I think that you've misunderstood what was going on between us ..."

"Ms. Horwitz," Catherine said, her voice crisp and businesslike, "I hate to be curt, but this really is not your concern."

"Yes, it is," the young woman said firmly. "It is my concern."

"And how is that?" Catherine asked.

"It's my concern because I care very deeply for Jim, and he's in such a deep depression that I'm dreadfully worried about him," she said in a rush.

Catherine let her words sink in, then said, "I see. Well ... I certainly don't want to cause pain to either Jim or you, but this is between him and me. It's not something I'm going to discuss with you, Ms. Horwitz."

"I don't want to discuss it, per se," she insisted. "I just want to assure you

that Jim and I have not been intimate for quite some time. He broke up with me early in the fall, Mrs. Evans. We were not together when you saw me in the television shot."

"Oh! Now I understand why you're calling," Catherine said. "Well, again, I appreciate that you're trying to do something kind, but you're hardly the best corroborating witness that Jim could have. I don't know you, and I have no reason to trust you. But even if I did trust you, that incident was just the last straw for us. It wasn't the main reason I decided not to go forward."

"But you were working towards reconciliation until that happened," Kayla reminded her. "So it had to be an important reason."

"Ms. Horwitz, I'm just not going to discuss the details of my marriage with you. This is an intensely private matter."

"I know that," the young woman agreed. "Really, I do. I'm only calling because I'm worried about him, Mrs. Evans. Surely you have enough feeling left for him to be concerned about him, too."

Catherine didn't say a word. She let the silence continue until Kayla realized that she was not going to get a response. "He has a very good heart, Mrs. Evans," she said quietly. "When we broke up, he wanted me to go back to San Francisco. He was very worried about how it would look if you knew I was still here with him," she added. "It's my fault that this happened, because I convinced him that it would look very bad for me to be sent home after just a month. I was totally selfish, and he's the one who's paying for it now."

It sounded like she was crying, and Catherine found herself responding, against her better judgment. "How old are you, Kayla?" she asked gently.

"Twenty-six," she sniffed.

"Jim and I have been married since you were four years old," Catherine revealed. "In all of that time, many, many things have transpired that have coalesced to destroy our marriage. I assure you, you had little to do with it."

"But, Mrs. Evans, if I'd just gone home like he wanted me to ..."

"Kayla, I don't mean to be unkind, but if our marriage were important to you, you wouldn't have begun your affair. The same is true for Jim. It's a little disingenuous of both of you to have a sexual affair and then claim that you want to help salvage the marriage. The way to save it would have been to keep your hands off each other."

"I know," she said, her words obscured by her tears. "I'm so ashamed of myself."

"You deserve some blame for your actions, Kayla, but you didn't make a vow of fidelity to me. In my opinion, Jim wronged you, as well, by dragging you into this mess."

"No, no, it was me," she sobbed. "I was the aggressive one. I just thought we would have a quick fling. I don't know why, but I found him so attractive, Mrs. Evans. It's my fault."

"Nonsense. I've had many men show interest in me during our marriage. It's very easy to refuse advances if you don't want to accept them."

Kayla was quiet for a moment, then said, "I guess there's enough blame to go around. We don't have to fight over it."

"Yes, we all have some level of culpability," Catherine agreed. "But the participants are still just Jim and me. I appreciate what you've tried to do, Kayla, and I won't mention your call to Jim if we speak."

"Thank you, Mrs. Evans. I know you'll have a hard time believing this, but I'm truly sorry for what I've done."

"No, I can believe that, Kayla. I hope, for your sake, that you never find yourself in my position. It's not very pleasant to always feel second best in your husband's eyes." Catherine shook her head, angry with herself for asking for this young woman's sympathy. "My mind is made up. Jim and I will not be getting back together. You have my explicit permission to start seeing each other again."

"Thank you," Kayla said, her voice shaking again. "You're treating me with much more courtesy than I deserve."

"I'm trying to move on, Kayla. Holding on to my feelings of rancor for you, or even Jim, will only inhibit that process. I'm just taking care of myself."

"I hope you take good care of yourself, Mrs. Evans. You seem like a very kind woman."

Catherine smiled in spite of herself. "I have my moments. Take good care, Kayla. I hope things go well for you in Washington."

"Thank you again, Mrs. Evans."

"Call me Catherine," she said, then placed the phone back onto the cradle.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After Ryan's basketball practice on Wednesday, the two young women sat in the otherwise empty O'Flaherty house, and tried to plan the rest of their day. "Do you have anything you want to do today?" Ryan asked.

"I have everything I want right here," Jamie stated decisively, climbing onto Ryan's lap to rest her head on her chest.

After a moment, Ryan wiggled her eyebrows as she asked, "You know what would be fun to do?"

"Okay," Jamie said absently, standing to pull her sweater over her head.

"Not that," Ryan laughed, but she couldn't resist the urge to tickle the bare tummy that revealed itself. "I thought we could call Jennie's housemother and ask how they were fixed for Christmas."

"You mean the house?"

"Yeah, the house and the kids. My guess is that most of them won't be remembered by their families at all."

"And ..."

"And I thought that since we're not exchanging gifts, we could try to make this a memorable Christmas for people who really don't have everything they need."

"Oh, honey, that would really be sweet. I'm going through withdrawal a little bit since I agreed not to buy presents for you and your family, and it would really make a difference for those girls to have someone go out of their way for them."

"I think the kids need a ton of things. So let's call Sandy and get a list, and then go shopping."

"You're on, Tiger."

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

The six girls living in the house needed just about what Ryan assumed they would: nearly everything. Sandy provided sizes and color preferences for each girl, and related that she had not had enough extra money to provide a Christmas tree, either. Jennie was at home, so after talking to Sandy, Ryan spoke with her and arranged to take her and anyone else who wanted to go to pick out a tree after dinner that evening.

When she hung up, she turned to Jamie and said, "I think we can nearly make this a one-stop shopping experience."

"Sure we can if we go to a mall," Jamie agreed. "Which one should we go to?"

"No malls," Ryan decreed. "Let's go to Costco!" she said with a wild look in her eyes.

"Costco?"

"Baby, you haven't lived 'til you've been to Costco!"

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

Continued in part Ten

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