When Olivia thought back on it later, she was impressed at how long it’d taken for the awkwardness to set in.
All afternoon she had managed to avoid thinking about the monumental step she’d just taken. And because of the organised chaos of the move, the physical exertion of the softball game, and the mental effort of entertaining such a large group of people at dinner, she’d had plenty of other things to occupy her mind.
But now the guests had all gone home, Emma had escaped upstairs to unpack her things, and it was just her and Natalia, alone, sharing the task of washing dishes just like they’d done a million times before.
And yet, somehow, not.
Olivia tried to tell herself that everything was the same. Indeed, an outsider looking in would have seen nothing amiss – two women standing side by side: one washing; the other drying. But Olivia’s thoughts were not still – they churned in her mind like the soapy water spinning away down the drain as Natalia exchanged dirty water for clean. She couldn’t help but go over the events that had led her to this moment.
The move had been completed fairly smoothly, with lots of help from various people: some expected like Doris and Blake and Ashlee; some...unexpected. Like Rafe.
Rafe was certainly a puzzle. The last time Olivia had seen the boy he’d been spitting venom, crowing in triumph over the unexpected pregnancy that was bound, in his mind, to send his mother reeling back into Frank’s arms. What could possibly have happened in the short intervening weeks to turn him around so utterly that he was helping her to move in with his mother and choosing her to play on his team in a softball game?
Perhaps nothing more than what had happened to Olivia herself. She, after all, had effected a similar rapid change of heart.
But no...that wasn’t quite true. Her heart had not changed.
What she had changed was her mind.
I don’t trust you. The words haunted her still. They woke her up in the night now and then, bouncing around inside her head like shrapnel. Sometimes they were so perilously close to the surface that she wasn't sure how she stopped herself from saying them out loud, although she was sure they showed in her eyes.
But she had made a conscious decision to ignore the angry, wounded part of her that continued to urge her to hold back from Natalia. She had decided to take her own advice and do the opposite of everything she’d done before. So she had let go of the bitterness and the pain – crushed them beneath a love so complete and overwhelming that it dwarfed every other emotion.
And it had led her here. To an evening at the end of summer, a house filled with boxes waiting to be unpacked, and a woman painstakingly washing what seemed like every dish they owned and passing them to her to dry.
“You’re stacking them all wrong,” Natalia murmured, almost to herself. Olivia’s spine straightened.
“I thought we agreed that I am the master of dish stacking,” she said, glancing at Natalia with half lidded eyes and bumping her playfully with her hip. A slow laugh bubbled up and spilled from Natalia’s slightly parted lips.
“Mistress,” she corrected. “And I only said that to make you happy.” She shrugged, then continued in a quieter voice. “I’d do anything to make you happy.”
Olivia felt that simple statement almost physically. She blinked slowly, watching Natalia’s hands as they dipped again into the warm water. They were reddened slightly from the heat, and a little puckered around the finger tips. She remembered all the times she had watched those hands before, and all the places she’d imagined those hands exploring.
She wondered if Natalia had ever imagined the same things.
They’d talked about the sexual side of their relationship before, but briefly, and any conclusions they’d reached had been chased away by Rafe and his reaction. What did Natalia expect from her now? Did moving in mean moving in? Or was this something else altogether – some kind of rerun of the first time they’d lived together, with Olivia playing the role of the caretaker this time to Natalia’s pregnant damsel in distress?
“Natalia,” Olivia began hesitantly, but was interrupted by Emma’s running feet barrelling down the stairs.
“I unpacked my toys, mommy,” the girl said excitedly as she raced into the room and wrapped herself round her mother’s waist. Olivia’s hand angled down automatically to stroke through her daughter’s hair.
“That’s my girl,” she murmured. Emma beamed up at her mother with the pure, unadulterated joy of a child that knows she is safe and loved and protected. It was a smile Olivia hadn’t seen in long months and it made her heart ache in ways that were both wonderful and terrible.
“I have Spanish homework,” Emma said, looking from her mother to Natalia with a hopeful expression. Natalia shook a few water droplets from her hands and dried them on a convenient towel.
“Oh really? I wonder who you’d like to talk to about that...”
Emma giggled and Natalia grinned. Olivia busied herself stacking the last of the dishes while Natalia led her little girl to the table. For a few moments she allowed the easy, familiar sounds of their little family to wash over her and it was almost – almost – like old times.
“I’m just going to head upstairs and unpack a few things,” she said softly, trailing her hand down Natalia’s arm as she passed. Natalia looked up at her with a smile, tangling their fingers together just briefly before she let Olivia go.
Olivia ducked her head into Emma’s room before she began tackling her own belongings. The girl had been busy it seemed – the room looked practically identical to how it had been when they’d lived at the farmhouse before. Only the empty boxes carefully stacked in the corner hinted that the room had not been slept in the previous night.
Emma had missed the farmhouse terribly, Olivia knew that. The child hadn’t given her any opportunity to forget it; always dropping hints of anvil-like subtlety in the months after they’d left, when Olivia and Natalia were still dancing around each other, unsure of where they stood.
Not that Olivia really knew where she stood now.
Leaving Emma’s room as she’d found it, she headed for Natalia’s bedroom. In a fit of wild optimism she had instructed her makeshift movers to put her things in there. But now, as she loitered in the doorway, looking at the unfamiliar furniture and decor, nothing about it felt right.
If she unpacked her things in this room tonight then she would set a number of things in motion. Things she wasn’t at all sure she was ready for. She thought of what it might be like to lie down beside Natalia tonight, to kiss her, to make love with her, and her heart began to beat a little faster. And then she thought of the baby that would be between them – literally – and her libido evaporated like a puddle in mid-summer.
No. She was definitely not ready for that.
so, with a sigh, she gripped one large box and dragged it across the hall.
* * * * * *
“So I say...me gusta el helado...” Emma repeated hesitantly. “Is that right?”
Natalia nodded with a proud smile. “That’s right, baby,” she said. “And that’s a very good accent.”
Emma beamed. “I’m supposed to write five of my favourite foods,” she said. “How do I say tuna-noodle casserole?”
Natalia hesitated. “Uhm...why don’t you just put me gusta la cazuela de mi madre?”
Her heart swelled as Emma immediately bent to write down her suggestion. She’s really mine, she thought giddily. And so is her mother.
“Time for bed now, Jellybean.”
Natalia looked up, surprised to see Olivia back so quickly. “That was fast,” she said, with a slight frown. Olivia shrugged carelessly with one shoulder.
“I’ll do the rest tomorrow,” she said. “I’m pretty tired.”
Natalia’s frown deepened. “Are you okay? Did you remember to take your pills today?”
Olivia rolled her eyes. “Yes, mommy, I remembered to take my pills today.”
Emma giggled softly. “She’s not your mommy.”
Olivia turned to her daughter, sporting a mischievous grin. “No, she’s your mommy now, right? ‘Cause if she was my mommy that would make you and me sisters. And that’s not right at all.” She completed the tease with a fierce tickle. Emma laughed helplessly as she slid off the chair and bolted to the stairs. “Get into your PJs!” Olivia called after her. A muffled, incomprehensible yell was the response.
Natalia’s smile was wide and happy. “I love you so much,” she murmured. She stood and took two steps forward, so she was in Olivia’s personal space. Olivia stiffened just a little, but Natalia chose to ignore it. “So much.”
Olivia cleared her throat and looked down at her hands. “I love you too,” she replied softly. Natalia ducked her head down a little, searching for Olivia’s eyes and finding them.
“Hey,” she said. Olivia’s lips twitched just a little.
“Hey,” she repeated. Natalia moved forward a little more, so that finally they were touching. Their hands met between them in that old familiar way of theirs, and Natalia smiled.
“I can’t believe you’re here,” she murmured. Olivia looked away with a rueful grin.
“You know...neither can I.”
Natalia frowned and was just about to ask what she’d meant by that when Emma’s yell interrupted. “Mom! You need to tell me a story!”
Olivia pulled her hands from Natalia’s as she headed for the stairs. “More than one, I bet,” she said, throwing a small smile over her shoulder. “She’s so excited it’s going to take hours to get her to sleep.”
But in this prediction, Olivia was quite wrong. Emma was extremely excited, that was true, but it turned out to be the kind of excitement that drains rather than the kind that energises. Halfway through The Velveteen Rabbit, Emma was fast asleep, clutching her pillow and breathing slow and deep. Olivia gently closed the book and kissed her daughter’s smooth, warm forehead. When she turned to the doorway she found Natalia there, leaning against the door frame, watching her.
“She had a big day,” Natalia whispered, leaning over to turn off the light as Olivia approached.
“We all did,” Olivia agreed. There was a slight edge in her voice that Natalia didn’t understand, but she chose to smile invitingly rather than press the issue.
you want to come to bed?” She glanced over her shoulder as she left
Emma’s room, watching Olivia following her.
“About that...” Olivia murmured hesitantly. She ran her fingers through her hair as they both came to a halt outside Natalia’s room. “I...I don’t really know what you expected...I mean, we haven’t talked about it...” She sighed, and finally met Natalia’s eyes. “I moved my stuff into my old room,” she said at last.
Natalia’s face fell. “Oh,” she said, and that one syllable seemed to contain months’ worth of disappointments. “But I thought-”
“I need time,” Olivia interrupted. “And...space.”
Natalia stared blankly straight ahead, and this time couldn’t ignore the hints of fear and doubt creeping into Olivia’s voice. She longed to ease them somehow, but she had no idea how to go about it. All she had to offer was love. But love, she knew, was not the problem.
For a moment Olivia thought Natalia might repeat her earlier order to screw time and space. Her spine had straightened immediately after she’d spoken, and there had been a little fire in her eyes. But then she slumped. The fight seemed to bleed from her, and she just looked tired. “All right,” she said. “I...I’ll wait.” She shrugged. “It’s only fair, right? I...I made you wait for me.”
Olivia shook her head. “That’s not what this is about,” she insisted. “It’s not about tit for tat, okay? I just...I need...” She trailed off helplessly, then curled her fingers round Natalia’s jaw and tugged her head up. “I’m here,” she offered. “I’m with you, okay? I love you. So...give me a smile. Please?”
It took Natalia a couple of tries, but eventually she managed to do what Olivia wanted. It was a pale, watery smile, but a smile nonetheless. Olivia returned it with one of her own, and impulsively leaned forward to press a brief kiss to her forehead, just like she’d done to Emma.
she said, backing away towards her own room. Natalia cleared her throat.
she replied, and watched Olivia retreat into the second best bedroom. She
stood and stared at the closed door for a long time, but finally was forced to
admit that Olivia wasn’t going to change her mind, wasn’t going to come
rushing out and sweep her off her feet with heated words and passionate
Resolving to say an extra Hail Mary in her night prayers for that mental slip, Natalia quietly stole into her own room. The room she had so hoped to be sharing with Olivia now.
A stalemate of a kind seemed to have been reached. Natalia lay awake for a long time, tossing and turning as she imagined Olivia in the room opposite. Was she sleeping peacefully now? Or was she as disturbed as Natalia herself?
Sitting up, Natalia ran her hands through her hair with a sigh. Blindly, she reached for her rosary beads and began to pray a decade. This was always her routine when she couldn’t sleep. Other people counted sheep; Natalia prayed.
“Please help me to be patient,” she whispered into the stillness, after all the Hail Marys and Our Fathers and Glory Bes had been said. “I know this is what you want for me. So just...” She paused, searching for the right words. “Let her come to me,” she said at last. “Just let her come to me. Amen.”
With that, she curled herself around a hastily grabbed pillow and finally drifted into a fitful sleep.
Olivia arrived at The Beacon the following day feeling like a world class idiot, and the belief in her own dire stupidity only intensified as the day wore on.
For months – months – she had been dying to kiss Natalia. She had fantasised about it, dreamed of it, longed for it. She had been aching for Natalia’s lips since the moment she’d stopped kissing them the first time, if she was honest - which was something she had resolved to be, at least with herself. Last night Natalia had practically tied herself up with a silver bow and what had she, Olivia, done? Kissed her forehead and said goodnight.
“You’re an idiot,” she said aloud.
Olivia’s head snapped up and her eyes widened as she took in Ashlee Wolfe’s hurt face. “Oh God, Ashlee, I didn’t mean you.” She shook her head ruefully. “Sorry. I was just...talking to myself.”
Ashlee sat back in her chair. “Oh,” she said, in a confused tone. “So, why are you an idiot?”
Olivia coloured slightly and shook her head. No way was she talking to Ashlee Wolfe about her love life. Doris Wolfe, perhaps - if she believed for one minute that Doris wouldn’t make fun of her mercilessly. But Ashlee? No way.
“Let’s just go back to what we were talking about,” she said. “Uhm...what were we talking about?”
“Natalia’s baby shower,” Ashlee replied quickly, stopping with her pen poised over her very professional looking reporter’s pad. “Are you sure you want to hold it here? Wouldn’t the farmhouse be better?”
Olivia shook her head. “If we hold it at the farmhouse Natalia will end up cleaning up after everyone. Besides, I want it to be a surprise.” She trailed off as a goofy grin spread over her face.
Ashlee smiled. “It’s so romantic,” she gushed. “Giving Natalia everything she never had when she was pregnant with Rafe...she’s gonna love it.”
Olivia’s smile faded. “Do you think Rafe would come? I know it’s supposed to be women only, but...I think she’d like to have him there.”
Ashlee shifted a little in her seat. “I’ll talk to him,” she said, and something in her tone made Olivia’s ears perk up.
“You been doing that a lot?” she asked. Ashlee shrugged non-committally.
“He actually gave me some decent advice...you know, when I found out about my mom.” Her eyes widened. “Oh my God, please tell me you already knew. I don’t want to go around outing her everywhere. I mean...oh shit!”
considered letting the younger woman squirm a little longer, but finally
relented. “It’s okay, I know,” she said soothingly. “Your
mom and I are friends, actually.”
Ashlee nodded. “I know. It’s...it’s good. Mom hasn’t ever had a lot of friends.”
have I,” Olivia said, a little sadly, but then shook herself. “So Rafe
gave you good advice? Why do I find that hard to believe?”
grinned. “I know, he’s not really the advice type, is he? But it
was good, having him to talk to, knowing he knew what I was feeling...”
Olivia leaned slightly forward. “How did Rafe find out that I was moving back to the farmhouse?” She and Natalia had discussed telling him about it, but had come to an agreement that it would be better to present it to him as a fait accompli. She remembered Natalia’s delighted surprise when he’d not only shown up but had seemed to be fine with the whole idea.
“I called him,” Ashlee admitted. “After you called my mom. I...I told him he needed to take his own advice. Not make everything about him, you know?”
And suddenly Rafe’s presence began to make a little more sense. But still, she could sense there was something else, waiting to be discovered. To ascertain that, however, she feared she’d need to speak to the boy himself.
“Well, thank you,” she said. “I know Natalia really appreciates that he was there.” She leaned back in her chair. “Now...about the baby shower...”
She laid out her plans, and watched Ashlee urgently scribbling them all down. This was going to be the biggest, grandest, best baby shower Springfield had ever seen. She would make sure of that.
And when she got home tonight she would stop being an idiot.
* * * * * *
Around four hours later, Olivia found herself hesitating at the farmhouse door, her hand poised to knock before she stopped herself. A blush rose on her cheeks as she realised what she’d been about to do. She’d driven to the farmhouse purely on automatic pilot. “I’m going home, see you tomorrow,” she’d said to Keira and had then done just that. Gone home. To Natalia.
But she didn’t have to knock. This was her home; she had keys in her purse. Unless... Of course. Natalia had left the door unlocked. Making a mental note to talk to the other woman about that, Olivia stepped through the door and threw her purse onto the couch. A faint smile tugged her lips upwards as she breathed deeply through her nose. Natalia was baking bread. How utterly wonderful.
“Honey, I’m home!” she called playfully.
The response was instantaneous. “Hey,” Natalia said, slightly breathless as she appeared in the doorway. Her face was a little pink and there was a smudge of flour on her right cheek where she’d obviously rubbed at it while she was kneading the dough. Olivia felt her stomach drop as she took her in. She was so absolutely beautiful. Natalia. Her girlfriend she’d said to Jonathan just the day before. She remembered hesitating slightly over the word, testing it out. She tested it again now, looking at it from different angles in her mind, her heart beginning to beat faster at the wonder of it all.
“You’re my girlfriend,” she said aloud, with a hint of awe in her voice. The colour in Natalia’s cheeks deepened, but she didn’t look away.
“I’m your girlfriend,” she repeated firmly.
For long moments they stared at each other, feeling the familiarity of the house and their togetherness, along with the unfamiliarity of the tension and awareness between them. Neither was sure who took the first step. And in the end it didn’t matter, because they ended up in the same place – standing mere inches apart in front of the sofa, breathing the same suddenly thick air, feeling the same heat.
“You’ve got a little flour...just there...” Olivia murmured as she brought her left hand up, curled her fingers round the other woman’s jaw, and brushed her thumb rhythmically across her cheek. She watched the flour spread out, fade, then disappear. Natalia’s breath hitched.
“Gone?” she asked breathily. Olivia nodded.
“Gone,” she confirmed, but she left her hand where it was. Natalia’s eyes were wide, her pupils dilated. Slowly, Olivia brought her right hand up to mirror her left, and then she was cupping Natalia’s face and moving forward. “This is familiar,” she murmured.
Natalia nodded. “Very,” she agreed. Olivia could see the desire in her eyes. She searched their depths, looking for any hint of hesitation or fear or doubt. Her heart leapt when she found none.
“Don’t push me away this time,” she murmured, her mind returning for what felt like the millionth time to the only occasion she’d felt Natalia’s lips beneath her own. Natalia had kissed her back that cold January night, Olivia was sure of it. Fear had immediately taken over and she’d pushed her away, but for a scant moment Olivia had felt the other woman respond and suddenly everything had been clear, perfectly in focus for the first time. How different things might have been if Natalia hadn’t allowed fear to take over that night, so many months ago. How much pain, doubt, and heartache could have been avoided.
But then, maybe different pain, doubt, and heartache would simply have taken their place. There was no point in second guessing their journey now. All of those steps, both forward and back, had led them here; to this singular evening in the dying days of summer.
“Never,” Natalia promised, dragging Olivia back to the moment. “I’m not going to push you away.” She sighed as she leaned forward a little. Olivia could feel her breath on her lips, and a shudder danced down her spine as she was struck by the visceral memory of feeling that same sensation once before – in a hospital bed in March while she pretended to be asleep. Her eyes fluttered closed, but snapped open when Natalia spoke again. “I love you, Olivia.”
Olivia swallowed hard. “I love you too,” she managed to reply before closing the last few millimetres and claiming Natalia’s lips for that long awaited kiss.
In the back of her mind, Olivia had worried that their first real kiss, when it came, could not possibly match up to all of her hopes and fierce longings. Surely the bar had been raised too high after all those months of anticipation. No kiss, no matter how good, could ever live up to all of the dreams, the desires, the postponed moments.
But then Natalia brought one hand up to brace herself against her shoulder and curled the other round her neck and Olivia stopped thinking, stopped comparing this kiss to all those myriad imaginary kisses. This kiss was real. And, in the end, that was what made it perfect.
Natalia made a small noise of surrender, almost a whimper, and her lips parted in silent invitation. Olivia pulled her closer, sliding her hands from her cheeks to the back of her head, threading her fingers through the dark river of her hair. “Oh, God,” she moaned softly, and kissed her again.
Natalia felt like her heart was trying to beat out of her chest. She vaguely wondered if Olivia was feeling it too, then began to worry about the other woman’s pacemaker. But then, Olivia was probably experienced in kisses like these. It was surely only Natalia who felt dismantled, deconstructed, like Olivia had just taken her apart piece by piece and rebuilt her with all the same materials in a slightly different configuration.
But then she felt Olivia tremble in her arms and she realised that this was mutual. All the delightful, terrifying things she was feeling were reciprocated by the woman she loved. A thrill of power danced through her, but was quickly chased by the warmth of the knowledge that Olivia had an equal power over her. There was no disparity. Not in their lives, not in their love. And not in this kiss.
Olivia’s eyes were glazed when she pulled back and her lips were wet and swollen. Natalia immediately felt her stomach contract and she surged forward to kiss her again, her hands falling down to her waist. Her nails dug desperately, almost painfully, into Olivia’s sides. She gasped into the kiss when Olivia’s grip on her hair tightened, but she didn’t pull away. Nothing could have made her pull away now – the bread could have burned; Father Ray could have burst through the door quoting Bible verses; the house could have caught fire. Nothing was more important than this moment, this kiss, this woman.
Olivia finally wrenched away to breathe, throwing her head back as she desperately pulled air into her lungs. Natalia nestled blindly into the crook of her neck, kissing and nibbling every piece of warm skin she could reach. Olivia moaned, digging her fingers even deeper into Natalia’s hair.
“Are you trying to kill me?” she panted, laughing when she felt Natalia smile against her neck.
“No,” Natalia replied, lifting her head to regard the other woman with dancing eyes. “It’s just...we’ve been waiting so long. I want everything...all at once.”
Olivia released the breath she’d been holding as a gentle sigh. “I know,” she murmured. “I feel like if I don’t grab you now, you might just...slip away somehow...”
Natalia hid her face in Olivia’s hair. “I’m not going anywhere,” she promised, her voice thick with what she desperately hoped weren’t tears. She wouldn’t allow Olivia to see them if they were. She didn’t want sympathy. She didn’t deserve sympathy. Any pain she felt at Olivia’s lingering lack of trust was entirely self-inflicted, after all.
“I know,” Olivia replied in a soft whisper, but that doubt Natalia had sensed last night was back, creeping into the corners.
So Natalia did the only thing she could do. She wrapped her arms round Olivia’s shoulders and kissed her again, and again, and again, until she had chased away every feeling but love, tenderness, and desire.
“Natalia, I think the bread’s done.”
Olivia pulled away with a quiet gasp. For a moment she was frozen and stiff in Natalia’s arms, and then she physically forced herself to relax. “We’ll be right there, Jellybean,” she said with a quick smile.
When Emma disappeared back into the kitchen, Natalia risked a glance at Olivia. She was breathing a little harder than usual, although Natalia wasn’t sure if that was because of being caught by Emma or the lingering after-effects of their kiss.
“She didn’t...I mean, she wasn’t surprised, was she?”
Olivia shook her head. “Our daughter’s a smart girl,” she offered. “She knows what ‘being together’ means.” She laughed softly. “She’s seen me ‘being together’ with enough people in the past.”
Ordinarily Natalia would have felt some jealousy at the reminder of Olivia’s extensive romantic history, but only one part of her little speech had penetrated her foggy consciousness.
“Our daughter?” she repeated in wonder. “Did you say...our?”
Olivia smiled almost shyly. “Well...yeah. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
For a long moment Natalia was too choked up to speak. “Yes,” she spluttered eventually, and almost launched herself into Olivia’s arms. She grasped her face between her hands and kissed her, smiling and laughing at the same time. “Yes, yes, yes.”
Emma’s voice drifted through from the kitchen. “Natalia, can I take the bread out of the oven?”
Natalia tore her lips away from Olivia’s. “No, sweetie,” she called back. “Just wait – I’m coming.”
Olivia followed her silently into the kitchen, watching with a small smile on her face as Emma and Natalia rescued the bread before it burned. For the hundredth time, she found herself amazed by how right it felt – her and Emma and Natalia. A family. A late conceived family, but a family nonetheless. It didn’t matter who had given birth to Emma. She was equally theirs.
Olivia’s eyes strayed to the swell of Natalia’s belly, and a darker thought crept into the back of her mind. She tried to push it away, but it insisted on slithering in until at last she was forced to acknowledge it.
Emma was theirs. But the new baby...the new baby was just Natalia’s.
She let the thought linger for a moment, feeling it fill all the previously warm places in her heart with a cold, creeping dread. Then, slowly and deliberately, Olivia pushed the thought away. “It smells great,” she said with a smile, grabbing one of the warm rolls that Emma and Natalia had just placed on the cooling rack.
“Hey,” Natalia admonished, swatting her lightly on the arm. “You’ll spoil your dinner.”
stuck out her tongue, Emma laughed, Natalia flashed a dimpled smile, and
everything was so close to perfect it almost hurt.
But that dark thought clawing at the locked door in the back of her mind tainted the moment. When Natalia looked away, Olivia glanced at the crucifix on the wall and did something she hadn’t done in years.
Please, she prayed. Let me feel how she wants me to feel. I can’t lose her after everything...not over this. Please.
She closed her eyes for a moment, and when she opened them again all traces of what she’d been thinking were gone from her face. “So,” she said cheerily. “I think we could do with some soup to go with all this lovely bread...”
And, as she began to help Natalia prepare the rest of dinner, she forced herself to hope that everything would be okay. It had to be.
It just had to be.