ACT 1

Olivia stumbled into the kitchen and headed for the coffeepot and her favorite mug waiting beside it. It wasn't until she had filled the mug and taken a deep drink that she noticed the other occupants of the room. Natalia sat at the table, with Emma in the seat next to her eating her breakfast and Francesca in her high chair smearing her hair with her Cheerios. Leyla also sat nursing her own coffee mug.

"Morning," Olivia grunted her voice thick with sleep.

"Good morning." Natalia flashed Olivia a pair of perfect dimples. "Want some eggs and toast?"

Olivia shook her head. "I'll just have what this beauty is having," she said, leaning down and nuzzling Francesca's belly, making the baby giggle and start smearing the wet lumps of cereal in Olivia's hair.

"Ama!" Francesca laughed and Olivia pulled back.

"Yes, baby?"

"Mwah!" the little girl exclaimed as she made an exaggerated kissy face. Olivia interpreted this to mean 'I love you, Mommy!'

"Mwah, you too, my little Sweet Pea," she said, kissing her daughter on the top of the head, careful to avoid the smeared goo. She looked up to see her partner watching them with adoration. Leyla and Emma, on the other hand, wore matching smirks. She coughed to hide her embarrassment. "So…what are we working on?" she asked, pointing at the various magazines spread out among the breakfast plates.

"Emma and Francesca's Halloween costumes," Natalia answered. "We're looking for theme ideas."

"Well, Sweet Pea's is easy," Olivia said, topping off her coffee and then sitting down next to Natalia. "Just pop her in a pink onesie and sailor hat and she can go as Swee'Pea."

Leyla snorted. "And maybe Emma can be Olive Oyl and Frank Bluto?"

Olivia laughed and leaned over to kiss Natalia. "And you can be Popeye since you're the strongest one of all."

"And what about you?" Natalia asked with a saucy grin. "You like to eat your spinach."

"Me?" Olivia leaned back in her chair and mimicked pulling at imaginary suspenders. "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a Buzz burger today."

Natalia nearly spit out her orange juice with laughter. "Oh, you are so not Wimpy, my love."

They all turned as a knock sounded and then the door opened to admit Ava. Immediately the temperature seemed to drop a few degrees as Leyla glared at Olivia's daughter.

"Hi, honey," Olivia said quickly. "Sorry I'm not ready yet, but thanks for coming to pick me up for the meeting."

"No problem, Mom…I'm early anyway," she said. "We've got plenty of time."

"Came for some free breakfast?" Leyla asked with a sneer.

"Hello! Room service," Ava shot back.

"Not the same as home-cooked, is it?"

"I never see you slaving over the stove anytime I'm here," Ava retorted.

"I do plenty!"

Olivia broke in and said, "Bean, if you're done why don't you go get ready for school, okay?"

The little girl nodded and with a worried look at her sister and aunt, left the kitchen.

"Girls, come on, let's be civil," Olivia said.

"Civil?" Ava said. "She wouldn't know civil if it whacked her in her fat head."

"Hey!" Leyla protested.

"Nag, nag, nag all the time," Ava went on. "I feel sorry for anyone who'd want to marry a harpy like you."

"Ava," Olivia said, trying not to raise her voice. "Apologize this instant."

"I can't believe this," Ava said, turning on her mother. "You're taking her side, Mom? Oh that's just great."

"I'm not taking anyone's side," Olivia said, "but I expect the adults of this house to act like adults."

"It's okay, Olivia," Leyla said. "I don't need anyone to defend me. Besides, she's all bark and no bite."

"Oh, I'll show you bite, you bitch!" With that, Ava rushed toward Leyla and hit Francesca's chair with her hip, startling the baby who started to wail a moment later.

"Okay, that's it!" Natalia said, standing up to pick up the crying baby. "You two – take it to the barn if you're going to act like animals."

"Natalia…" Ava started.

"Out!" she pointed, her posture stiff with anger even as she tried to settle the baby. "I will not have this house and family disrupted by all this constant bickering."

Leyla huffed, shoved back her chair as she stood up and stormed out the door.

Ava turned to her mother, but avoided her glare. "Sorry, Mom," she said. "I'll wait for you in the car.

Once outside, the two women continued their arguing, their voices carrying through the closed door. Natalia stood at the window and watched as she soothed the still-crying baby. Olivia joined her a moment later and then asked, "Do they remind you of anyone?" She pointed at the fighting duo.

"Who?" Natalia asked, confused, and then her eyebrows scrunched together. "Oh no! Do not even go there, Olivia."

"I'm just sayin'…"

"Go get dressed. You and Ava have to get to that meeting," she said jerking her head toward the kitchen door.

"Yes, dear," Olivia said and kissed her. "Love you."

"Mwah!" Natalia blew a kiss at her departing partner.

***

 

Olivia glanced at her daughter's profile thinking about the events of earlier. Ava was focused on the road and didn't seem to notice her mother's inspection. After a few moments, Olivia asked, "Why do you let her get to you like that?"

"You mean Leyla 'the harpy' Rivera?" Ava asked with a sneer. "She doesn't get to me, Mom. She's just such a hypocrite. She's always accusing me of taking advantage of you and Natalia, but she's the one living in your home and working in your hotel. Does she even pay you two for room and board?"

Olivia decided not to answer that, especially since Ava's suite at the Beacon was comped. "I'm glad that Natalia's reunited with at least one family member. Having her sister here makes Natalia happy and that makes me happy."

"Yeah, but she's still only Natalia's sister."

Olivia sighed. "Ava honey, I know for a long time it was only the three of us and Sam off on his adventures, but weren't we always looking for more? Now we have it. We have a big, crazy and wonderful extended family. It's not perfect, but it's ours and I'm not letting go of any of it. So please, Ava…for me? At least try to get along with her."

"I'll try," she pouted. "But no promises."

"Thank you, baby," Olivia said and then opened up the file folder sitting on her lap. She glanced once again at the details of the property they were looking to purchase. "Okay, so let's figure out how we're going to tag-team this guy until he lowers his asking price."

She turned to Ava and chuckled as Ava made a point of expanding her chest to show off the revealing blouse she wore under her blazer. "That's my girl," she said with a proud grin.

***

 

Eleni Andros walked down the quiet and cool corridor of the Cedar's lower basement on her way to the morgue. Only one attendant was on duty and sitting at the desk. She showed him her identification and requested access to the small evidence and records room. He stood up and ushered her into the room after unlocking it.

"Thank you," she said, looking around the room and taking note of the various file cabinets and specimen lockers.

He hesitated a moment. "What is it you're looking for?" he asked.

"Not really sure yet," she answered. "But if I need any help, I'll let you know." After he left her alone, Eleni opened the closest file cabinet and pulled out a folder and began to read.

Sometime later, a short stack of folders lay on the desk. She intended to give them a closer review back at her office. Picking up the thickest, which was marked Winslow, E. SPD372891-D, she pulled a log sheet and walked over to the cold storage sample chest. Checking the cross-reference, she pulled several vials of tissue samples and left behind a chain of evidence form. She placed the vials in her kit. She already knew the samples would not prove to be from Edmund Winslow, but she wanted to double check. If the sample wasn't from Winslow, it would be further evidence of DeSilva's evidence tampering.

Checking her notes, she pulled additional samples from cases she suspected were also tampered with. On a few of them, she had noticed the investigating officer was Det. M. Cooper. Closing her evidence kit, she gathered up her files and left the room.

"Find what you're looking for?" the same attendant asked. She noted he had a sandwich and soda on his desk and realized how much time had passed.

"I've made a start, thank you," she said. "Tell me, most of the evidence here is less than two years old. What happens to the evidence from older cases?"

"If samples are not needed by the DA's office or the cases are sent over to the cold case files at the PD, then it's stored at a facility in Chicago. The ME's office will have the manifests referenced by case number."

"All right," she said. "Thanks so much for your help." She walked down the corridor in the direction of the elevator, her rubber soles squeaking on the polished tile of the floor. Turning the corner, she caught a glimpse of her daughter pushing her way through the stairwell doors. With a frown, Eleni picked up her pace to follow.

Once in the stairwell, she heard Marina's footsteps rushing up the stairs and then the sound of the ground floor door opening. By the time she reached the landing, she was nearly running and when she pushed through the door, she saw Marina looking carefully around the loading bay.

"Marina!" she called, finally catching up.

Marina's head snapped around. "Mom! What are you doing here?"

"Working," she answered, tired of her daughter's petulant tone. "What about you?"

"Same thing, not that it's any of your business," Marina said. "Since coming back on the force, I've got a lot to do."

"In the morgue?" Eleni asked. "Which case? There are no autopsies going on. I was there all morning and it was quiet."

"Just needed to check something for an old case," Marina said. "But I've got to run. Shayne is watching Henry and needs to get to work."

"Well, wait a second," Eleni said, stopping Marina's departure. "Some of the cases DeSilva worked on were yours and I have a few questions."

"Well…go through regular channels," Marina said with a scowl. "That's how we do things here in Springfield – by the book. Don't expect special consideration because you used to be married to the chief."

"Hey!" Eleni said, her temper finally breaking. She closed her eyes in an attempt to control herself. "I am still your mother and expect your respect," she said peering closely at her daughter. "So if you don't have time to answer my questions, then I'll have to find the answers elsewhere. But remember – I'm a scientist looking for the truth – don't expect special consideration because I'm your mother."

"What's that's supposed to mean?" Marina huffed as she put her hands on her hips.

"Nothing, I hope," Eleni answered.

Marina rolled her eyes. "Whatever. I've got to go get my son."

Eleni watched her daughter leave the loading area as she worriedly bit the inside of her lip.

***

 

"She's straight!" Doris exclaimed. She looked over the table at Olivia. Doris had invited her friend to lunch at Towers and had just mentioned the phone call she received from Blake that morning asking her to dinner.

"Doris," Olivia said. "Two years ago you and everyone else who knows me would have testified on a stack of Bibles as tall as the Empire State Building that I was the straightest woman in Springfield. But you watched me change over that time; why can't Blake change as well?"

"You don't know what it's like, Olivia," Doris said, shaking her head with a heavy sigh. "I've been with plenty of straight women. In college, I had LUGs coming out of the woodwork."

"LUGs?"

"Lesbian Until Graduation," Doris explained. "Women who use the freedom of college as a way to experiment with all that life has to offer before they settle down to their normal lives with their normal husbands and have their normal children."

"But Blake's already had all that," Olivia said, pointing emphatically at Doris. "She's a grown woman who has already experienced a lot that life has to offer. She obviously likes you and is open to the possibility of love. And…" Olivia gave her a wicked grin. "I happen to know for a fact that she likes toys."

Doris's mouth dropped open. "How the heck do you know that? Did Natalia share the contents of your toy chest with her one day during a book signing?"

Olivia chuckled. "No, nothing like that," she said. "Last year before Natalia and I got together I was feeling a little…frustrated…and Blake suggested her favorite remedy." Olivia smirked as Doris's eyes unfocused, her mind seeming to go to a very happy place. "Um, Earth to Doris?"

"What?" Doris snapped back to reality.

"Just give her a chance, Doris," Olivia said.

Doris sighed and glanced around the restaurant as she seemed to mull Olivia's words over. "I don't know," she finally said. "It's hard enough when a woman who likes only women hurts you, but when you get involved with a straight woman, your chance of getting burned is that much higher."

"Maybe so, but if you won't even give it a chance to work, it'll never even have a chance to fail," Olivia said. "Just think about it, Doris…there's no rush."

Doris smiled. "So…tell me a little bit more about Blake's favorite remedy."

***

 

Natalia rushed into her office at the Beacon and dumped her purse down on her desk. Turning on her laptop, she waited impatiently for it to boot up.

"Come on," she muttered under her breath as she clicked on her browser icon. Finally, the program loaded, but then she had to close the extra windows. "At last!" she said, pulling up the USO website. After a couple of clicks, she was logged into the family chat area and then sat back and waited.

Nibbling on her thumb, she waited until at last the computer dinged and showed an incoming message announcement. Bouncing in her seat, she eagerly clicked on the window.

"Hi, baby!" she typed.

"Hey, Ma," she received in her window. "Click on the webcam, remember?"

"Oh yeah, I forgot," she typed and did as he asked. After a moment, the video box popped up and her son's beautiful face came up on her screen. She felt her eyes fill with tears. "Oh, Rafael!"

"Hello, Ma," he smiled.

"Have you lost more weight?" she asked. "Did you take your blood sugar today? What was it before dinner?"

"No, Ma, I haven't lost weight. I'm still the same as when you saw me," he said. "And my sugar is fine. You're looking good. Everything okay there in Crazyland?"

"Oh yes," she said, resting her head on her propped hand as she looked at the image of her son. "We're getting ready for Halloween. It's Sweet Pea's first and we're looking forward to it."

"Don't forget to send lots of pictures," he said pointing at her through the screen. "I can't wait to see my baby sister in a costume."

"Don't worry," she said. "Olivia is an absolute fiend with her camera. She's filled up several external drives with photographs of Francesca alone."

Rafe laughed, his sun-darkened face brightening the screen. "That's classic. Hey! Don't forget that my baby shower gift will be done next month. Send a picture of it so I can show it off to all my buddies. They love hearing about our crazy family."

"You tell them about us?" she said, surprised.

  "Sure I do, Ma," he grinned. "You and Olivia are considered by the camp to be the hottest MILFs back home."

"MILFs?" Natalia asked, her face scrunching in confusion.

Rafe leaned forward and typed his answer in the chat box substituting a euphemism for the last word, laughing all the while.

Natalia's eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. "Rafael!"

"I'm just kidding, Ma," he said. "Everyone here just loves hearing about each other's families and believe me, there are lots of families that are just like ours."

"Thank you, baby," she said, tears in her eyes. "I'm so sad that you'll miss Thanksgiving with us again, not to mention Sweet Pea's first birthday."

"Yeah, me too," he said, his grin turning wry. "I don't suppose Olivia has any pull with the Commander-in-Chief?"

"I wouldn't put it past her to try," she said. "Should I ask?"

"Nah," he laughed. "Just kidding. Besides, I really need to be here, Ma."

"I know, baby," she said. "I'm so proud of you, mi hijo, but I'm so scared for you every day."

"I'll be fine, Ma," he said and glanced to the side. "Well, my time's up and the next guy needs the computer before it gets too late here. Te quiero, Mamá."

"Te quiero, también, Rafael," she said. "Sleep well and stay safe, okay?" Even though she knew it was senseless, she touched the screen wishing desperately she could touch his face.

"Okay, Ma," he said. "Give kisses to Olivia and my sisters for me and a big hug for Aunt Leyla."

"I will, I promise," she said. "Good night, Rafe."

"Night, Ma," he said and leaned forward to close the connection.

Natalia stood and wiped at her tears so that their employees wouldn't notice them and then she left the office to seek out a much needed hug from her partner.

***

 

Olivia looked up as a knock sounded on her office door frame and saw Natalia's head poke around it a moment later.

"Hey beautiful," she said with a smile, which immediately fell when she noticed Natalia's eyes. She glanced at the clock and saw the time. She quickly stood to take Natalia in her arms. "Oh hey, is he okay?" she asked.

Natalia nodded. "He's fine, he's good. He looks good – tanned and healthy. Strong."

"Then why the tears, baby?" she asked even though she knew the answer. Not a day went by when they both didn't worry for his physical safety and mental well-being, which only increased with each news report of another soldier killed. And ever since his last visit, when Rafe had finally fully accepted her into his heart and family, Olivia had come to love the young man for his own sake and not just for his mother's. Were anything to happen to him, she would be just as devastated as his birth mother.

Natalia shrugged, although she clung to Olivia even tighter. Then she let out a short bark of laughter. "He said his friends at the base think we're both MILFs."

"Oh really?" she said with a smirk. She leaned back and brushed away Natalia's tears. "Well, I'm the only one who has that particular privilege and I'll fight off a whole battalion of GIs if I have to for you."

Natalia rolled her eyes and Olivia knew her tasteless joke had succeeded. "How did the meeting go?" Natalia asked. 

"All right, I think," she answered. "Ava's crunching the numbers and will have a report to us by Monday. We'll be able to make a decision next week."

Natalia nodded. "Sounds good." Then with a sigh she said, "What are we going to do about Ava?"

"Ava?" Olivia asked and raised her eyebrows. "You mean about this morning? If I recall correctly, Leyla started it."

"Yeah, but she was just pulling Ava's chain; Ava was the one who got aggressive."

"Aggressive?" Olivia asked, releasing Natalia and taking a step back. "My daughter was just defending herself. Leyla was the one who instigated the whole thing."

"She may have started it today, but Ava is the one who takes everything my sister says out of proportion," Natalia said and held up a hand as she tried to explain. "That's how my family always was when I was growing up so I'm sure it was the same for Leyla, even though I wasn't there. I remember my mother and aunties working in the kitchen on Sundays going on and on about one thing or another. It sounded like they were fighting, but it was just a way to show who was boss at the moment. Actually, they all knew they were equals."

"Oh, so what you're saying is that Ava is disrespecting you and your sister's cultural upbringing?"

"Oh, my God! You are so not getting the point. I'm saying that the more aggressive Ava is, the harder Leyla is going to push. If Ava would just lighten up and laugh a bit at her, then Leyla would back off." Natalia ran her fingers through her hair in frustration.

"That doesn't make any sense," Olivia said, waving her arms.

"Maybe not in those words, but it was how we were raised. To us in the family, it was okay to talk trash to and about each other, but if anyone outside the family said the exact same thing, everyone stood together. Look at you and me, for example. Once you gave in, we started getting along so much better."

"So everything would be hunky dory if Ava just rolled over, bared her neck and acknowledged Leyla is the alpha bitch? Isn't that what I did with you, Natalia?" Olivia had her hands on her hips and her head tilted to the side, but her defensive posture let Natalia know she had to choose her words very carefully.

"No!" Natalia said. "I'm talking about the moment you stopped treating me like a rival or a subordinate and finally accepted me as your equal and let me help you. But we're not the point here; it's Ava and Leyla and their constant fighting."

"Oh, so you agree it's not just Ava anymore?"

Natalia sighed and rubbed her face. "Olivia…I think that what Leyla does is harmless – that in some subconscious way she's trying to help Ava because Ava is a part of her family. But what Ava does is destructive and I think it's going to keep getting worse."

"God, I can't believe this!" Olivia cried. "Ava is fine; she's just a little abrasive. She's just…she's just my daughter, okay?"

"Exactly!" Natalia said, pointing at her. "And look at all the ways you tried to self-destruct in the past."

Olivia stared at her partner. "You think I'm going to self-destruct again?" she asked quietly. "Do you have a time table for this, because I sure would like to know."

"No, Olivia!" Natalia said. "You've changed. I've watched you grow and become the wonderful and beautiful woman you are today. You're not going to self-destruct. But something's going on with Ava and I think she needs our help." She reached toward her, but Olivia pulled quickly away.

Olivia could hear Ava's voice from this morning in her mind accusing her of taking sides and she hardened her expression. "Just tell that sister of yours to quit the head games and leave my daughter alone." Turning her back, she strode quickly out of the office, leaving Natalia alone.

***

 

Sitting alone in her office, Eleni Andros sighed in frustration as she ran her hands through her long hair. Sitting in front of her on her desk were two piles of case files. Both of them were cases where DeSilva appeared to have tampered with evidence, either by falsifying records, or by losing or 'accidentally' contaminating samples. However, it was the larger pile of folders that concerned her the most. On all of them, her daughter had been the lead investigator.

She sighed again. It was time to speak with Frank, and it definitely wasn't a conversation she was looking forward to.

***

 

Natalia sat in a quiet corner of the Beacon's day care center as she nursed Francesca. Leyla sat at her small desk nearby bottle-feeding the infant boy of a nice couple staying at the hotel who were out making funeral arrangements for the woman's father who had passed away. The couple had been so relieved they wouldn't have to worry about the baby while they completed their difficult arrangements. Natalia smiled. The service the Beacon was providing would eventually more than pay for the added expense. As word got around, business would pick up. And extending the service to the staff had already proved to decrease absenteeism. She thought about the many times Rafe had needed to stay home from school and she had been forced to miss work if she couldn't find a sitter.

A stray thought made her chuckle. Leyla looked up and asked, "What?"

"Oh nothing." She smiled. Francesca finished feeding, so she shifted the baby to her shoulder. "Just thinking. I was marveling at how I went from being a maid in this hotel to becoming part owner."

Leyla laughed. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you slept your way to the top."

"Just the opposite," Natalia laughed along with her sister. "My refusing to sleep with Alan drove him crazy. He even said in his will that dying was the only way he could get me to take anything from him."

"Emma and Rafe's grandfather?" Leyla asked. "What was he like?"

"A tyrant," Natalia said. "Manipulative, diabolical, power-hungry. No wonder Olivia married him." She laughed at the thought. "But in the end he finally got it."

"Got what?"

"The real meaning of family," she answered. "How your family is the most important part of your life. Not money or power or fame. Olivia learned that lesson, too. Nicky got it from his adopted parents, which is why he was so torn when Rafe and I showed up in town. He wanted to take care of us, but it got in the way of his marriage."

Leyla thought for a moment. "I remember him…your Nicky," she said.

"You do?" Natalia said surprised. "You were so young."

"Yeah, I do. You must have been babysitting me and he was visiting. He brought me an ice cream from the street truck and sat on the fire escape to smoke."

"That was Nicky all right," Natalia said. "He didn't want to get me in trouble by smoking inside or doing anything to let the folks know I had visitors." She was silent as she thought about her first love. "I hated that I was responsible for the breakup of his marriage, but it was all part of God's plan."

Leyla blinked. "You really believe that?"

"Of course," she answered. "If I hadn't married Nicky, Olivia would probably not be here today and we wouldn't have the family we have."

"I wish I had that kind of faith," Leyla sighed. "I'm glad you two have each other and you're right, your family is amazing."

"Our family, hermana," she pointed out with a kind smile, but remembering her conversation with Olivia earlier, the smile turned into a frown. "Do me a favor, please? Take it easy on Ava. She's a good woman, but she's got a short temper. Every time you push her buttons, she's going to blow up and we don't need the headache."

Leyla's jaw clenched. "She takes herself too seriously," she said. "And she thinks she's a big deal just because she's Olivia's daughter."

"That's not true," Natalia countered. "She hasn't had an easy time of it and her relationship with Olivia wasn't always the best. And losing a baby is always hard on someone."

"She lost a baby?" Leyla asked, her hard tone of voice turning surprised. "I didn't know that."

Natalia nodded. "A son, Max," she said. "That's why she left Springfield for a while. It was too hard seeing Remy, the father, all the time and being reminded of her loss."

"Remy the cop?" Leyla asked. "The one whose wife just had a baby?"

"He's the one," Natalia said and looked down at Francesca who had fallen asleep. She gently placed the baby in a nearby crib and adjusted her blouse. "All right, I've got to get to my meeting with Blake. Everything okay here?"

"Yeah," Leyla answered. "This one's down for the count and it'll be quiet here until the older kids get off the bus."

"Okay, Leyla. Then I'll see you later." She gave her daughter and sister a kiss and left the center after a passing glance at Leyla's thoughtful expression.

***

 

Blake Marler pulled another manuscript from her tote bag and handed it to Natalia. They were seated at a table at Towers. Coffee cups and the remains of a light snack were pushed aside to make room for the various projects they were working on.

"I'm really not sure about this one," Blake said as she showed the cover letter to Natalia. "It's good and I think it's well-written, but I'm not sure if it will sell. It's not like anything out there."

"Sometimes that's an advantage," Natalia said, glancing over the paper. "I mean, you can only have so many vampire or apocalypse novels out there at the same time. Being a maverick can sometimes be a good thing."

"See, that's why I like working with you, Natalia," Blake said. "You're not afraid to take chances."

Natalia laughed. "That's what Olivia always says, but I think I've just been lucky."

"Still, you have a good feel for books." Blake reached into her tote again and pulled out an envelope. "That reminds me. This is for you."

Natalia's face scrunched in confusion as she opened the envelope and her expression turned to surprise as she pulled out a check. "Blake, what's this? I told you I didn't want to take any money simply for reading books. I enjoy working with you."

"That's just a small percentage of the profits on the books you've recommended. They're selling like hot cakes and that never would have happened without your contribution." Blake smiled. "Be proud of yourself, Natalia. You've got a gift and should be compensated for it."

Natalia's eyes goggled. "This is a small percentage?"

"Yes," Blake said with a laugh. "I've always been lucky that way as well, but your work has helped increase that luck. So take the money; put it in the kids' college fund if you want, but I insist."

"All right," Natalia said reluctantly as she tucked the check into her purse, then she asked, "If the publishing company is doing so well, why do you keep waitressing at Company?"

"Oh, I'd miss being in the center of things," she said, leaning back in her chair. "I really enjoy interacting with people. If I didn't go there every day and simply worked from home or an office, then I'd miss out on what's going on around town. And on seeing some of my favorite people every day like you and Olivia and…Doris."

"Okay, I can see that," Natalia said with a nod. "I did feel a little isolated after Francesca's birth. I love our home and our daughters, but I'm glad to be working again."

"Right," Blake said and squirmed a little in her chair. "So, um…that reminds me. Natalia? Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure, Blake," Natalia answered and picked up her cup to drain the rest of her coffee.

"How do you make love to a woman?"

Natalia choked and her cup clattered to the table. A waitress immediately came over and started to wipe up the spilled coffee before it could stain the manuscripts on the table. Natalia glanced around and noticed several patrons of the restaurant looking on. Finally, when the waitress left, Natalia said, "Blake! Whu…what?"

"You have right?" Blake asked, seemingly unaware of Natalia's embarrassment. "I mean, sure you have."

"Blake!" she exclaimed again. She looked around, but was relieved to note that the other people in the restaurant weren't paying attention anymore.

"Oh come on, Natalia! Everyone here knows you and Olivia are lovers. Heck, half of the people here were at Phillip's New Year's party when you two were going at it in the library."

"Oh, my God," she said, covering her face with her hands.

"You're not ashamed of it, are you?" Blake asked, blinking at Natalia and shaking her head.

"No!" she said loudly and then lowered her voice. "No, of course not. It's just…Blake, I'm not used to talking about it outside of the bedroom."

"You mean you never talked about sex with your girlfriends?" Blake goggled.

"I never really had time for girlfriends before Olivia," she answered. "And even if I hadn't been entirely cut off from my family, Leyla was still a kid and I couldn't have talked to her about that kind of stuff."

"Well, Olivia doesn't count anymore and Leyla is your sister," Blake said. "We're friends, right?" She waited for Natalia to nod. "And you're gay and I really, really need advice on how to seduce a woman."

Natalia simply stared at the woman sitting across the table from her.

"Please!" Blake whined.

Natalia closed her eyes and sighed. "Okay, okay!" she said. "I assume we're talking about Doris Wolfe here?"

Blake exaggerated her nod. "Yes! See, that's the thing. At least with you and Olivia neither of you knew what you were doing so it didn't matter if it wasn't good. But Doris has a lot of experience, so she's going to want someone who knows what she's doing."

Natalia frowned. "Okay, first of all, Blake…Olivia and I…our first time was good," she said her cheeks hot with embarrassment.

"Really?" Blake asked, surprised.

"Really," she answered. "It was very, very good and you want to know why?"

Blake leaned forward. "Why?"

"Because Olivia and I love each other," she said softly. "It didn't matter that we had never made love with another woman before or how much experience we had in regards to sex. All that mattered was that we are so in love that the ability to show that love physically made it totally mind-blowing. It was that way our first time and every other time since."

"Wow," Blake said with a long exhalation of air as she sat back in her chair.

Natalia gave her a stern look. "But Blake…if you're just looking for a new experience then go pick up a random woman down at Ladies Night. Doris has been hurt enough and if you're not serious about her and she ends up hurt again, then you'll not only have Olivia on your back, but me as well. Got it?"

Blake raised her hands defensively. "Got it," she said with an emphatic nod. She leaned forward again and gave Natalia a wicked grin. "So tell me, were you icked out the first time you…you know…to Olivia?"

"Oh, my God," Natalia said and dropped her head to the table.

***

 

In room 217 of Cedars, Lillian Cooper made a small adjustment to the I.V. of the comatose patient. She took a long look at his pale and gaunt face and tilted her head in thought. Picking up her pen, she made a note in the case file lying on the rolling table. 'Patient's color seems improved,' she wrote, and she initialed it and added the time. Closing the file, she exited the room.

A few seconds after the door had swung silently shut behind her, Edmund Winslow's eyes sprang wide open.

***