Chapter 1, Part 1
Easing the Pathfinder up the long driveway, Deven Masterson glanced over towards the front stoop of the house where her son was seated on the front step, his dark head slowly turning as his pale eyes tracked the progress of the vehicle. She parked the truck near the garage, stepped out into the early summers warmth and sauntered to where the boy waited. Their relationship had been growing steadily over the past few weeks and though she still harbored reservations about the situation, she had to admit she enjoyed the direction in which they seemed to be headed.
As she neared the child, he watched her approach with an expression of expectancy. She smiled at him and apparently that was what hed been waiting for because he rose to his feet and rushed out to great her, practically leaping up into her arms. Catching him easily, she lifted him up.
His small arms wrapped around her neck and his legs around her torso, and filled with happiness, he gave her a quick kiss before hugging her as hard as he was able.
The affection he so easily gave her was so unexpected and affected her deeply because she wondered how he could feel anything other than animosity towards her. It wasnt possible for him to understand why shed done the things she had with regard to him. Why shed made the decision to give him up in the first place, and then endeavored so hard to remain emotionally detached for the past four years. She supposed he might never understand, and in time, any negative ramifications of her decisions might still become known.
Even with the recent growth in their relationship, each time they spoke on the phone now or when she came to pick him up, he tended to hold back until he was certain they were okay. This wasnt really a new behavior on the boys part. As hed grown, hed become more reserved and shy around her, and she accepted that his reticence was her fault. Shed never given him any reason to trust her or to trust in her.
Still despite all that, as soon as he knew that everything was fine between them, he opened up, and his eagerness to love her was incredible for the woman. For her part, she tried not to hold back but often found that she had difficulty overcoming old habits and though she tried to remember to make him feel secure, that nagging voice in the back of her head made it hard at times. It was in her moments of greatest doubt that Rhian came through for her, always there to put her mind at ease and silence the antagonistic beast that lurked in the dark recesses of her mind.
"Hi, Tiernan. How are you doing?"
Leaning back in her arms, he beamed at her. "Good. Can we go now?"
His eagerness caused her laugh. It hadnt been that long ago that hed been somewhat tentative about going anywhere with her. "Sure." Glancing past his shoulder towards the front door, she watched while both her mother and sister came out of the house and stood on the step. From the looks of disbelief on their faces, she surmised that they had witnessed at least some of the exchange, and when her gaze met theirs, she almost burst out into to hearty laughter. It had been along time since shed been able to look at her mother without anything other than annoyance.
Still holding her child, she walked over and casually picked up his suitcase. "Hi, Laura. Mother."
Patricia looked at her eldest child with barely shrouded disdain, but Laura as always, strove to be polite. "Hello, Deven. Tiernan says youre taking him to dinner."
Ignoring her mothers derisive look, Deven focused on her younger sister. Laura, when are you going to get out from under Mothers shadow? Youre such a beautiful woman and an awesome mother, and shell never appreciate you. "Were having dinner with Rhian and her family. Theyre nice people, and theyre very fond of my boy here." She held up the suitcase. "Is everything here?"
"Yes," Laura answered even as she felt a pang of jealousy at the prospect of another woman becoming a part of Tiernans life. It was a totally unexpected development. Shed never had to deal with a situation like this before, and it left her uncertain about her future with the boy. "When will you have him home?" she asked, stressing the word home.
"Im not sure. Ill give you a call tomorrow to let you know whats going on." Eager to get out of there, Deven turned and walked towards the Pathfinder, her son still securely in her arms.
Mother and daughter stood silently side by side watching until the truck disappeared from view. "Well, it looks like things are going quite well between them," Laura commented.
Patricia glanced at her daughter, dismissing her pensive expression. "Looks can be deceiving, Laura. After all, this is Deven were speaking of."
"Tiernan was certainly happy to see her."
"Tiernan is a child. He doesnt know any better. Its our place to teach him."
Laura moved her attention from the vacant road to her mother. "Teach him what?"
"Teach him right from wrong," Patricia spoke with exasperation. "She certainly cant teach him something she doesnt know."
"I thought we were teaching him."
The older woman narrowed her eyes. "Deven is a depraved soul, and Tiernan needs to be protected from her."
Laura had never conceived of the idea that her sister could or would harm the boy. "She would never hurt him."
"Her very existence hurts him," Patricia said, her voice filled with contempt. "Youd be wise to consider how her lifestyle will impact that boy. And, you of all people know how much shes hurt him over the years. Shes been neglectful of the child and pushed him aside. Shes always put herself before him. Her deplorable and disgusting behavior has been more important to her then the wellbeing of her only child."
"I dont think she really meant to hurt him, Mother."
Patricia faced her daughter. "Laura, are you questioning me?"
The younger woman shook her head slightly. "No. I guess I just dont see it."
"You never did use the intelligence God gave you. Well, you need not see it because I do. And I can assure you, I will not let her damage that child."
"Mother," she began but was immediately cut off by the woman.
"Enough! Not another word."
Laura watched Patricia turn and walk away towards the guesthouse, her eyes filling with tears at the harshness of her mothers words. After one last glance down the road, she entered the house and retreated to the sanctuary of her bedroom.
Deven and Tiernan stood side by side in front of the collection of flowers and plants. Do I get them flowers? I mean they own a garden center. Would flowers be considered really stupid? She sighed heavily causing her son to look up at her.
"What are we doing?"
She gave him a small shrug. "Im not sure. Ive never dated anyone before, and Ive certainly never had to do the meet the parents kind of thing." He continued to stare at her, his confusion clearly visible on his face. Absently, she ran her fingers through his thick dark hair. "Its okay. One day youll be in this position and hopefully by then, Ill be able to give you some advice." Advice. Reaching for her cell phone, she hit the speed dial and waited.
Only one of two people, besides her new lover, that Deven actually considered a friend, Kelly was intelligent and straightforward, two attributes that the martial artist valued a great deal. There were things in their history together that neither woman was proud of, but theyd managed to put all that behind them and built a friendship that was quite rare in the martial artists life. A family lawyer, Kelly had supported her friends decision regarding the guardianship of Tiernan even while she adamantly disagreed with it.
Getting through the initial pleasantries as quickly as possible, Deven steered the conversation towards the point of the call. "I need your advice on something."
"Okay. Whats up?"
"Tiernan and I have been invited to have dinner at the Mackenzie house. Kind of a lets get to know our daughters girlfriend sort of thing."
"Hold up, Deven. What are talking about?" The astonishment was clearly evident in the womans voice.
Deven quickly provided a summary of Rhians unexpected coming out to her parents earlier in the week. It hadnt gone over particularly well at first, but it seemed that Mac and Kate Mackenzie were trying to deal with the situation. Unfortunately, Rhian had failed to let Deven know of the disclosure before shed learned it directly from Mac himself as he personally delivered the dinner invitation.
"Youre kidding me, right?" Kelly asked. "Rhians father actually asked you what your intentions are?" Her laughter filtered through the phone.
"Yeah, he did." The martial artist smiled at the memory. "It was kind of funny in a bizarre sort of way."
"I would have given anything to have seen your face at that moment." Kelly laughed for a few more seconds, and Deven indulged her, waiting as patiently as she could. Finally calmed down, she queried, "Are you okay with all of this?"
"Kelly, Im a nervous wreck, but Ill get through it somehow. I dont really have a choice. Im trying to decide what to bring her mother. Im supposed to do that, right?"
The lawyer sat back in her chair and smiled. Deven, you are downright adorable. "Well, it isnt mandatory, but it would be considered a nice gesture."
"What do you suggest?"
Kelly gave her friend a few recommendations to consider and then moved the conversation back to what was going on between Deven and the young landscaper. "How are things between you two?"
Deven couldnt suppress the full smile that appeared as she thought of her time with Rhian. "Good. Its been a little bumpy here and there, but mostly its great. I just wish this evening was already over, and we were back at my place. I think I understand where Mac is coming from, but I have no idea what to expect from Mrs. Mackenzie."
Memories of meeting her own in-laws touched Kellys mind, and she understood how Deven felt. "Look, my friend. Almost everyone who is seriously dating has had to face this. And believe it or not, the majority of them survive the experience. Youll be fine. Just relax and be polite."
Knowing that she was being foolish didnt seem to ease Devens uncertainty. Shed faced far more difficult situations in her life than this one, but still the idea of walking into that house and facing those people made her edgy. She glanced at her son who now wore an expression of complete boredom. "Right. I best get going or well be late. Thanks, Kelly. I owe you."
"Yes, you do. Lets get together next week. We can hook up at the Pit, say on Wednesday night?"
"Sounds good, but I have to check with Rhian. Her last experience there wasnt the best."
"True. Ask her. We can always go somewhere else."
Okay. Ill let you know. Bye."
"Bye, Deven. Have fun, and good luck."
She put the phone away and addressed the boy. "Okay, T. We need to get some flowers. You pick out something for Mrs. Mackenzie, and Ill get something for Rhian. Then well go grab a bottle of wine. What do you think?"
"Mommy? If youre on a date does that mean Im on a date, too?"
"Sort of, I guess. Its a dinner date, but it isnt quite the same thing."
"Is Rhian your girlfriend?"
His small shoulders shrugged. "I like her. Shes makes me feel good."
"Me, too." She makes me feel very good. Better then Ive ever felt in my life as a matter of fact.
His face turned thoughtful. "If youre dating Rhian, does that mean I have to date Seana?"
It was an effort, but she managed to keep her expression serious for his sake. "No, son. First of all, youre too young to be dating anyone and so is Seana. Second, I dont expect you to date her just because Im dating her mother. So, youre off the hook. But still we have to bring something nice to Mrs. Mackenzie as a kind of thank you for inviting us to dinner."
He stood a little taller and faced the assortment of flowers before pointing to a colorful bouquet. "I like those."
She picked up the neatly wrapped bunch and handed it to him. "Good choice." He beamed at her praise and without thought she caressed the back of his head. "My turn." She looked at the variety of blooms and finally settled on a grouping of roses. "What do you think?"
He looked at her selection and nodded solemnly. "Good choice."
"Why, thank you, son. Im glad you approve. Okay, lets get the wine and get going. Come on, rugrat."
He giggled while falling proudly into step beside her.
The closer they got to the Mackenzie home, the more animated Tiernan became and the tenser Deven got. Shed performed and competed in front of thousands of people and never felt nerves like this. Shed been photographed and videotaped. Her image had appeared on martial arts and sports magazines worldwide during her career, and shed even appeared on television. Shed competed legitimately and fought illegally in fights that could have taken her life. But the nerves shed felt on those occasions had been easily turned into adrenaline and then power. This was making her a wreck.
She parked the truck on the driveway behind Rhians small pickup and turned off the engine. Almost immediately the front door of the house opened and an exuberant Seana ran out to greet them. The door opened again and Rhian stepped out into the sunlight, and Deven thought her heart would stop. She is so beautiful. Inside and out. What in the hell is she doing with me?
That thought was almost enough to make her start the engine back up and head for home. But their eyes met, and the smile Rhian gave her quickly squashed the idea of running. She stepped out of the truck and walked around to the passenger side to assist her son and when she opened the passenger door, he looked up at her pensively.
"Do I have to hug and kiss her?"
"Seana," he whispered. "She always wants to hug and kiss me."
It was a struggled, but Deven managed to keep her face somber. "Ah well, no you dont, but you might want to consider giving her a little hug. She just likes you." He sighed heavily, and Deven bit her lip to keep from laughing at his predicament. "Sorry, T, thats the price you have to pay for being cute. Come on." She helped him out of the truck and no sooner had his feet touched the ground then Seana had him in a bear hug. The look her gave his mother was one of resignation.
Before she could step in to rescue him, she found her own arms full as Rhian embraced her. Unlike her son, Deven returned the hug with enthusiasm.
"Hi, beautiful," Rhian said.
The muscles beneath the younger womans hands were taut with tension, and she asked, "You okay?"
"I guess." The martial artist tried to make light of the situation but knew she failed when Rhian lifted an eyebrow at her in question. "Im a little anxious," came the admission and she felt the smaller arms squeeze her tighter. "Okay, Im a lot anxious."
"Nothing for you to be
anxious about, champ. Im not going to let them chew you up
and spit you out."
Deven chuckled at the absurd image of Rhian taking on her parents. "Thanks. Hang on a second." She retrieved the items shed purchased off the floor of the truck, and turning back towards the landscaper, she held out the bundle of roses.
The younger womans eyes lit up as she took the bouquet. "Thank you." Holding the flowers up to her face, she inhaled deeply of their fragrance and smiled.
"My pleasure," Deven said, relieved that it hadnt been a stupid idea. Anytime I can get you to look like that, its most definitely my pleasure. "I got this for your folks. I hope its okay."
Rhian looked at the bottle of wine. "Perfect. You didnt have to, you know?"
The martial artist shrugged dismissively. "I I just."
Reaching out, Rhian patted the taller womans side. "Hey. Relax, okay? Everythings going to be fine." Leaving her hand to rest on Devens waist, she slowly caressed the warm flesh through the womans shirt.
"Sorry. This is all pretty new," Deven replied as she glanced over at her son. "Tiernan, come here."
Seana released her grasp of the boy and immediately wrapped her arms around the martial artists leg. "Hi, Deven," the little girl said.
"Hi there, princess," she greeted Rhians daughter at the same time she handed the other bouquet to Tiernan. "You give these to Mrs. Mackenzie."
The boy accepted the bundle and turned towards the house. Seana walked beside him, talking a mile a minute, and as the two women watched their children, Rhian gave her friend another hug. "Shall we?"
Deven eyed the house warily. "I guess."
Leaving an arm around the martial artists waist, Rhian tugged her towards the door. "Come on. Oh by the way, Nicole and Jay are coming over. I figured youd feel more comfortable with them around. But please, as difficult as it is, dont give into the temptation to harass Nic."
Teasing Rhians best friend was the only good thing Deven could see in having woman around, and she smirked before responding. "Ill try." Then without warning she pulled Rhian to a stop. "Hey."
"I love you." That earned her a brilliant smile from the woman, and Deven felt a little flutter in her belly.
"I love you, too. Come on."
With one last deep breath, Deven allowed herself to be led into the house. On the outside, shed donned her normal expression of nonchalance but on the inside she thought she might be ill from the anxiety that bubbled in her gut. Not one to particularly care what people might think of her, this newfound case of nervousness was troubling.
She wasnt positive how it had happened, but a couple of hours later Deven found herself seated at the kitchen table with Rhian and Nicole while Kate busied herself fixing their dinner. Mac and Jays company was much more preferable to the martial artist, and she had managed to spend most of her time thus far with them. Theyd discussed the pros and cons of owning their own businesses, sports, martial arts, and she found the older mans company comfortable. They seemed to have a general understanding of each other, and she respected him.
But now she was under the scrutiny of Rhians mother and felt like she was about to face an inquisition. Of course, she did recognize the absurdity of that idea, but nonetheless, couldnt seem to dispel it. Perhaps it was the relationship she had with her own mother or that she didnt know this woman at all that filled her with unease. Whatever the reason, she was alert and ready to go on the defensive. Now if I can just figure out what Im defending against, everything will be fine.
Kate and Mac reminded her of the good cop and bad cop scenario, cliché as it was. Mac was laid back and easy going. Their conversation hadnt touched on anything specific about her past or personal life. Kate, on the other hand, was very direct and Deven had no doubt shed ask whatever she wanted to know. This whole situation was foreign to the martial artist because with anyone else, she would have just growled and told them in no uncertain terms to mind their own business. Can I say that to Rhians mother?
Deven felt her lovers fingers gently squeeze her thigh, and she took some reassurance from the gesture. Her fingers wrapped around the landscapers hand as she waited for the next question.
"Rhian says you have some family in the area. Are you close?"
"No, maam. My sister and her family live nearby. My mother lives with them. We arent particularly close."
So far Kate had inquired about her business, her relationship with Jay, and now her family. None of the questions had been difficult, but the next question started down a path she really didnt want to go with this woman. "How long have you known you were gay, Deven?"
"Uh well, since I was about twelve or so."
"Thats early. Have you dated a lot?"
"I guess. Sort of. I mean, I havent really dated exactly. Not like this." She clamped her mouth shut to stop from rambling. Nicole snickered at her discomfort and it took a great deal of Devens self control to not reach out and slap that smug smile off the womans face.
The tension building in her companion stirred Rhians protectiveness of the woman. Shed tried several times to steer the conversation away from subjects she thought were uncomfortable for her lover, but each diversion only served to momentarily postpone what she was beginning to perceive as an interrogation.
She looked closely at Deven. The pale eyes were definitely guarded and a faint sheen of perspiration lightly coated the womans forehead and upper lip. Without thought, Rhian reached out and gently wiped it away, a gesture that wasnt missed by her mother.
"Tienan is such a beautiful boy, Deven. He certainly favors you."
"Is his father around?"
Rhian watched as her lovers complexion paled slightly. Theyd never discussed Tiernans father other than in general terms. She knew nothing about him other than the fact that Deven had said he was a friend. Enough already! In an instant of poor judgment, she rose to her feet and addressed her mother. "Why are you doing this? You dont grill Michaels girlfriends?" It would have been best all the way around if shed stopped right there, but once Rhian started to speak, her temper got the better of her. "Hell, I dont remember you grilling Sean at all. Why Deven? Because shes gay?"
Devens first reaction was a defensive one, and she almost rose up to protect Rhian though she had no idea what it was exactly she was protecting her from. She exchanged a look with Nicole who shook her head slightly, and taking a cue from the other woman, Deven sat back in her chair and out of the line of fire between mother and daughter. What a kick. Shes defending me. Her lips quirked into a smile at Rhians protectiveness, but it quickly disappeared as soon as Kate took back control of the situation.
The older woman turned, fully faced her daughter, and placed a hand on each hip. "Rhian Quinn, you best put that attitude away right now before I get a mind to take you over my knee."
Nicole snickered at the reprimand, earning her a full glare from her best friend.
"Why in the world would I grill your brothers girlfriends? He has a different one every week. Your father and I are trying to deal with all of this the best we can, but how can we possibly do that without getting to know Deven? So, drop the attitude, sit down and behave yourself!"
Rolling her eyes, Rhian scoffed at her mothers threat but quickly resumed her seat in a purely reflexive action when the woman took a step towards the table. Well, that was embarrassing.
Deven looked from mother to daughter, and then at Nicole who was trying to contain her laughter. What the hell just happened here?
Kate stepped up to the table and placed her palms on the surface, leaning closer to Rhian. Deven noticed that the corners of the womans lips were straining against a smile, and she relaxed a little.
"Rhian, my love, your passion is admirable. Your desire to protect Deven is also commendable though I truly suspect this woman is quite capable of protecting herself against the likes of me. Im not the enemy. Im your mother who loves you very much and wants nothing but happiness for you. Im just trying to understand."
"Well, couldnt you be a little less obvious about it?" the landscaper asked, the question coming out mostly as a whine. "These are all really personal questions, and you havent even gotten to know her yet."
Reaching out under the table, Deven took the younger womans hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. Rhians behavior was adorable if somewhat baffling, and the martial artist gained an insight at the moment as to what this woman must have been like as a little girl.
"Mommy!" Tiernan yelled while running into the room. He tried to stop too fast and had to grip the edge of the table to keep from falling onto the floor. Only Devens quick reflexes kept the table from sliding with the child and gave him the anchor he needed to regain his balance.
She closed her eyes for a second and then looked at the boy in annoyance. "Tiernan, Im right here. You dont need to shout, and you dont come running into a room interrupting a conversation."
"Sorry." He glanced contritely at the adults in the room, and for a second, Deven thought he was going to cry.
"What do you need?" she asked.
Shyly, he moved around the table to where his mother was seated. "Can we go to the park?"
"May we go to the park?" she corrected quietly.
"May we go to the park?" he repeated.
Deven looked over at Rhian. "What park?"
"Its just a little County Park at the end of the road. Its adjacent to the elementary school." Quickly seeing this as an opportunity to escape if only for a little while, Rhian suggested, "Why dont we take them for a bit? Let them blow off some steam?"
"Good idea, Rhian," Kate replied. She knew exactly what her daughter was doing and effectively outmaneuvered the younger womans attempts at diverting the conversation. "Why dont we all go? Mac? Were all going to the park."
The older woman walked out of the room, and Rhians forehead settled on the table top with a dull thud. "Sorry."
"Its okay. Its obvious that they love you." Deven reached out a hand and gently stroked the landscapers back. "Its just a little weird for me. I mean my family couldnt be any more different than if we were from Mars. Who knows? Maybe we are."
Lifting her head, Rhian sighed. "Come on. Theyll only come looking for us if we dont go on our own." The three woman rose and before turning towards the door, Rhian wrapped her arms around the martial artist and held on tight.
"Hey, whats up?" Deven asked as she settled her arms around the womans shoulders.
"I just dont want you to freak on me and go running from the house."
"Not to worry. Im okay." Loosening her hold, Deven placed two fingers under Rhians chin and gently lifted her head. She smiled down at the younger woman before brushing her lips softly with a kiss. "Dont go picking anymore fights with your mother. I have a feeling she could take you with her eyes closed and both arms tied behind her back."
Both Nicole and Rhian laughed. "You got that right," Nicole said. "But as a mom, shes the best."
Rhian released her grip on the woman. "Okay, lets go."
The group leisurely walked to the park with the kids leading, followed by Michael, Jay, Nicole, Rhian, and Deven next, and then Mac and Kate casually bringing up the rear. To Rhians chagrin, her mother brought along a camera and spent the next hour snapping picture after picture of them.
Deven took it all in stride, even posing when requested to do so as shed made up her mind to try and be amiable for Rhian. It was a lot of work for her to keep and maintain the friendly demeanor because she was growing anxious at always having to be watchful of everything she said and did. It was wearing down on her, and so once they reached the park, she jumped at the opportunity to become physically active and burn off her nervous energy.
The children were playing happily on the nearby playground equipment, and that freed the adults to toss a football around. The game of catch naturally migrated into an impromptu game of scrimmage, and Kate and Mac sat watching the whole scene from a nearby picnic bench. "What do you think?" Mac asked his wife.
"Rhian loves her, and I have little doubt that Deven loves Rhian."
"Yeah, I got that, too."
"For someone who is supposed to be so intimidating, Deven sure can look like a cornered child at times," Kate observed.
"No," Kate drawled out. "A couple of times in the kitchen I thought for sure she was going to bolt. Especially when I asked about her family and Tiernans father. But then shed look at Rhian and you could see her expression change. Not that reserved indifference she projects. Shes a fascinating woman in some ways. So complex, but Rhian doesnt seem to have any trouble with her at all."
They watched the game for a few minutes in silence. The teasing banter between Deven and Jay was born of a long-term relationship, and to the older couple watching, showed an aspect of the dark haired woman that was playful and relaxed. "If you didnt know any better youd think those two were siblings," Mac commented.
Kate agreed. "Rhian says they grew up together and have always been close."
Their attention was drawn back to the game as Rhian and Deven squared off against each other. The exchange was comical as the landscaper tried to out maneuver the martial artist. Rhians parents laughed at their daughters bravado against the older woman and cheered her on despite knowing that their daughter didnt have much of a chance. Despite the definite difference in overall size and strength, Rhian managed to almost break free of the taller womans grasp until Deven picked her up and carried her with the ball to the imaginary end zone scoring a touchdown for her team.
More than anything else, both Mac and Kate noted how absolutely happy Rhian was in the presence of the other woman. Her laughter was light and easy. The brief moments when the two women stared into each others eyes revealed a depth of love that couldnt be denied, and it was easy for both of her parents to see that the emotions Rhian showed for this woman had never been present with her ex-husband, Sean.
The children joined them at the picnic table and Kate handed each child a carton of juice from the small cooler theyd brought along. Both children sat contentedly sipping their juice until a slight movement caught Seanas eye. A yellow and black butterfly landed on the ground not far from where she was seated and slowly flexed its wings up and down. The little girl got up and reached down to touch the small creature only to stir it into flight. Undaunted, she followed it as it flitted through the air, unaware that her quest was taking her directly into the path of the game.
Rhian happened to glance over and smiled at her child until she saw where her daughter was headed. Jay, who was running backwards to retrieve a pass, was on a crash course with the toddler. "Seana! Get out of the way." The child failed to hear her, and Rhian began to panic. "Jay, stop!" The man didnt seem to hear her either and continued moving towards where the little girl was now squatting to better view the butterfly.
Mac jumped up from the table but knew he couldnt reach her in time. "Seana!" he shouted.
Shifting her attention from the game, Deven quickly assessed the situation. If she failed to stop her friend, the injury to the child would be substantial and so, she changed direction, running as fast as she could on an intercept course. Running full out, she charged Jay and hit him full force with her shoulder. The impact sent him sprawling out of the way but altered her own course of direction towards the child.
Twisting her body in mid air, she managed to just barely sail over Seanas head like a high jumper clearing the bar. Her momentum slowed rapidly and she was too close to the ground to right her body or correct her position before impact. Landing solidly on her back, the air was forced out of her in a single gush. Her hip and head impacted with the ground at almost the same time, and small white stars appeared behind her closed eyelids.
Jay turned to her angrily. "What the hell are you doing?"
Rhian ran up and knelt next to martial artist who wasnt moving. "Deven!"
Kneeling next to Rhian, Jay studied his friend, observing her struggle to breathe. "Come on, Deven, open you eyes."
The martial artist took a sudden intake of air and moaned. Slowly opening her eyes, she looked into Rhians worried face and then closed her eyes again as the little stars seemed to increase in number.
"Are you hurt?" Rhian asked as she tentatively reached out and placed a hand on the womans arm.
Jay watched as his friend took several breaths, each a little deeper then previous one. "She got the wind knocked out of her. Serves you right."
"Bite me," Deven rasped.
Her fear turning to anger, Rhian regarded the man. "Seana ran out chasing a butterfly. If Deven hadnt stopped you, you would have run over her! I yelled for you to stop. Didnt you hear me?"
He felt the rebuke and shifted back away slightly from the smaller woman. "No, I didnt hear you. My attention was on the game. Sorry."
Rhian turned her attention to her daughter. "Seana! You have to watch where youre going. You could have gotten really hurt."
The little girls lip quivered and her eyes filled with tears.
Deven slowly sat up, groaning at the sudden pain in her hip. She waited for the torment to subside and then said, "Its okay." Bringing her hand up to the back of her head, she felt the knot beginning to form there. "Ouch!"
"Let me see." Rhian slowly ran her fingers along her lovers scalp and groaned at the bump she found. Pulling her hand away, she was grateful there wasnt any blood. "Are you hurt anywhere else?"
"Nothing serious, Rhian. Just some bumps and scratches. Im fine." She looked at Rhians dont bullshit me expression, and sighed. "Okay. My hip hurts and my shoulder hurts a little."
Rhian moved behind Deven and gasped. "You have a nasty cut back here, and your shirt is ruined. Im so sorry."
"Its okay. Just a shirt."
Looking at her daughter again, Rhian spoke softly but with an unmistakable command. "Seana, tell Deven youre sorry."
"Im okay, Seana." The child let loose with a wail and flung herself at the martial artist. The startled woman slowly embraced the weeping child and held her gingerly for a second or two before passing her to Rhian to comfort.
Deven started to stand, but a jolt of pain in her hip stopped her. "Oh boy. Jay, give me a hand."
Both Mac and Jay stepped behind her, and each lifted under an arm helping the woman gain her feet. Once standing, she slowly applied weight to her hip and expelled a gasp at the sharp pain.
"Whats wrong?" Rhian asked with concern.
"Bad hips, remember? All that training and kicking. Come here." Rhian stepped closer and Deven draped an arm across her shoulders. The landscaper immediately wrapped an arm around the taller womans waist and helped support her as she tentatively walked. After several steps, the sharp pain receded to be replaced with a dull ache.
"I think we should head back to the house and get you patched up. Can you walk or should I go get the car?"
Though the question had been asked purely out of concern, it kicked Deven right in the pride. "I can walk," she said harsher then she meant to. Noting the wounded look in the younger woman's eyes and acutely aware that they were the center of attention, she immediately regretted her outburst. "Sorry. Im just a little frustrated."
The landscaper nodded in understanding. "I know. Come on."
With their arms still around each other, they walked back to the house in silence. By the time they reached the kitchen, Devens hip was no longer hurting, and she could walk straight. "Can you come downstairs?" Rhian asked.
Leaning forward, Deven whispered in the younger womans ear. "I can come anywhere."
It took a few seconds to catch the meaning and then she chuckled a little self-consciously. "I dont doubt that. Come on, stud."
Once downstairs, Rhian helped Deven remove the damaged shirt and guided the martial artist to sit down on the stool by the drafting board. "You scraped this up pretty good. Let me get some stuff to clean it up." She went into the bathroom and retrieved some cotton balls and peroxide. Returning to the room, she glanced at Devens bra-covered breasts and naked abdomen, and flushed from the desire that hit her hard. That she responded so strongly to this woman was a wonderfully intoxicating feeling, and trying to ignore the slight tingling of arousal, she stepped behind the martial artist.
"Come home with me?" Deven asked.
"What about the kids?" Rhian countered as she careful cleaned the worst of the scrapes.
"What about them?" the martial artist turned slightly to look into the other womans face.
"You up for that?"
"Sure. Besides, theyll fall asleep and then." Rhian silenced her with a kiss that did more than hint at the passion that was brewing underneath and both women forgot where they were.
Kate hadnt intended to intrude. She was mildly surprised but pleased that the sight of the two women kissing didnt seem to bother her. Shed been concerned that the physical aspect of this relationship would be too much to handle, but all she saw at this moment, was passion and love. It was strange to her, but not offensive and that was a relief.
Clearing her throat to announce her presence, Kate smiled as the two women pulled apart quickly. She registered Rhians deep blush, and the fact that the martial artist appeared a bit self-conscious surprised her more than the kiss had. "Ive brought the antibiotic cream."
Rhian took the offered medication from her mother without looking up. "Thanks, Mom."
"I also have one of Macs shirts in case you wanted to change," she added as she held the polo shirt out to the seated woman.
"Thanks, Mrs. Mackenzie."
The martial artist lifted her eyes. "Yes?"
"Do you love my daughter?"
Deven looked at Rhian and then back at Kate. "Yes, maam."
"And you dont really want to piss me off, do you?"
"Then stop calling me maam and Mrs. Mackenzie. My name is Kate." She laughed at the befuddled expression on the martial artists face, and then stepping forward she cupped Devens face in her hands and placed a kiss on the startled womans forehead. "Thank you for protecting my granddaughter."
Deven started to protest that she hadnt done anything, but was cut off by the emotion that rose up and closed her throat. She couldnt remember a time in her entire life that her mother had ever kissed her. She had to swallow hard several times before she could finally speak again. "Youre welcome," she finally managed to whisper.
Intuitively, Kate felt that there was great deal of depth to this woman and much of it was painful. She suddenly had the urge to wrap her in a motherly embrace but didnt know quite how Deven would take that. Stepping back, she looked at both women. While she didnt understand what attracted them to each other, she felt better about the situation having seen how they interacted. "You could leave the kids here," she offered.
Deven glanced up at her. "Thank you, but I promised Tiernan that Id make him pancakes for breakfast and give him another swimming lesson."
"Me, too?" Seana asked hopefully from where shed seated herself at the bottom of the stairs. The child had been uncharacteristically quiet since the incident at the park, and she looked up at Deven with an expression so similar to Rhians that the woman felt a shifting of her attitude towards the little girl.
"Come here, rugrat." Deven lifted the child up onto her lap. "You want to come to my house?"
The toddler wrapped her arms around the martial artists neck and murmured, "Yes."
The martial artist looked to Rhian to answer the request. "Sure. After dinner well go."
"I love you, Deven," Seana whispered.
The woman chuckled and tickled the little girl. "You love my pool."
Seana squealed with laughter and Rhian smiled at the picture of her lover and her child. Her mind was already memorizing the scene so that she could sketch it later. She glanced at her mother who smiled and nodded slightly. Acceptance was understood, and Rhian felt like crying. She knew there was still a ways to go towards everyone becoming completely comfortable with the situation. Hell, theres a long ways to go with just Deven and I without throwing family and friends into the mix. But just knowing that her parents were willing to try meant a great deal to her. Clearing her throat, she returned her attention back to Devens shoulder. "Okay. Sit still so I can finish cleaning this."
Basking in the afterglow of their shared intimacy, Rhian reclined against the beds pillows as her hand idly stroked the dark head resting on her lower belly. The martial artists eyes had closed some time ago, and the younger woman smiled at how relaxed her lover was. Deven lay on her side, and Rhians gaze scanned the womans long nude form, immediately aware of the impact the vision had on her own body. Warmth spread throughout her, both from the love she felt for Deven and from the smoldering desire the sight of the womans body stirred in her. How is that possible? All I have to do is look at her, and Im craving her touch. Again.
Her head fell back into the soft down, and she stared up at the ceiling. The evening with her family had gone well, and Rhian felt a sense of peace knowing that her life wasnt going to be torn in two. That she wouldnt have to choose between her lover and her family. She wasnt so naïve as to believe that everything would be perfect, and she knew there would be many more issues to face over time. But she believed that things were on the right path and that eased her heart and mind.
She smiled as she remembered how at the first available opportunity, she and Deven had packed up the kids and returned here. She felt a little guilty about their rapid departure though her parents hadnt seemed to mind. Weird. Mom will probably give me an earful later. Oh yeah. I can hear it know. Rhian Quinn, I raised you better than that.
Instead of taking two vehicles, theyd decided to ride together in the Pathfinder. And from the moment theyd pulled out of the drive, Deven had begun to tease her with subtle comments and touches insufficient to draw attention from the children but bold enough to fuel her desires and needs. By the time the children had fallen asleep she was on fire and couldnt wait to get Deven alone. That somehow they hadnt awakened the children with the amount of noise theyd made as theyd raced up the stairs and down the hallway to the bedroom was inconceivable. And damn lucky. Because there was no way I was waiting until they fell asleep again.
After the years of dreading sex
with Sean, it seemed incomprehensible to her how much she could
feel and how much she craved this womans touch. How much
Deven could arouse in her with a look or a kiss, and how much the
mere memory of their time together stirred the hunger within her.
Her sight leisurely tracked down Devens body again, and she unconsciously licked her lips. Shed been thinking a lot lately about the things shed like to experience, and she wondered not for the first time what it would be like to know every part of this woman. She loved the way Deven made love to her. She had absolutely no complaints there. But but I want more. God, is that selfish or what? She looked back at the martial artists face and smiled. She is so sexy.
Devens eyes fluttered open, and she stretched languidly before settling back on her side. "Hmm, that feels good. You can do that all night. I wont mind."
Rhian grinned. "Okay." With the end of her forefinger, she traced Devens face, pausing as she brushed across the full lips, and watched in sensual wonder as her finger was sucked into the womans warm mouth. Strong teeth held the digit still while a moist tongue circled the tip, and Rhian released a small moan of pleasure as her nipples hardened in a sympathetic response.
Releasing the finger, Deven smirked at the younger womans reaction. "Youre insatiable."
"Your fault," Rhian quickly countered.
The martial artists eyes closed again. "I can live with that."
Stilling her hand, Rhian rested it gently on the side of her lovers neck. "Hows the shoulder?"
"Not bad. I have a really great nurse. She cures all that ails me." Deven wiggled her eyebrows at the younger woman but kept her eyes closed.
"I do my best. How about your head? Is the headache gone?"
"Yeah, it is. You should know by now that I have a really hard head."
Rhian lightly massaged the scalp, purposely avoiding the still tender area in the back. "Thank you, Deven."
Pale eyes regarded her. "You never have to thank me for that, baby. It is definitely my pleasure."
"Masterson, youre such a hopeless romantic. Not!" Rhian attempted to appear stern, but was unable to maintain the illusion as the martial artist chuckled softly before placing a wet kiss on the center of her stomach. Taking a deep breath, she sought to push aside the warmth spreading to lower regions and maintain her composure. "Im serious, Deven."
"Sorry," the martial artist replied before running the tip of her tongue around Rhians belly button. "What are you referring to?"
Closing her eyes, Rhian felt her senses converge to the point where Deven touched her and barely registered the question. "Hmm. What? Oh, um, protecting Seana."
Lightly running her fingers across the flesh of the landscapers abdomen, Deven smiled as the muscles beneath the skin quivered slightly. "Ah. No problem."
"You scored points with my folks today."
"Yeah?" Deven looked up and considered the comment. "Thats good, right?"
"Did I score any points with you?"
With some effort, Rhian suppressed a smile. "Always. Good thing, too, with all the demerits you earn."
Deven scowled at the younger woman and asked huffily, "Excuse me?" The scowl quickly turned to a look of disbelief as her lover began to laugh.
"Dont get all indignant. Youre a bad girl and you know it."
Rolling over with remarkable speed, Deven settled on the smaller form. "And you love it," she purred. Her hand barely grazed Rhians side and paused just below the ribs. She stared into the womans hunger filled eyes and then smiled devilishly as she began a tickle assault.
"Stop!" Rhian struggled to get free. "Please, Deven. Stop!" She squirmed fruitlessly in an effort to escape. "Stop! Youre going to wake up the kids!"
Cant have that! Deven moved her hand away from Rhians ticklish spot and shifted to settle her hips between her lovers legs.
"That wasnt nice," the young blonde said before a perfect pout claimed her lips.
"Let me make it up to you." Deven lowered her head and sucked on a soft earlobe. "Ill show you how bad I can be," she whispered.
"Oh, no you dont. You think you can." Rhians words were muffled by a kiss. "And Ill just." Again the mouth pressed to hers swallowed the words, and her playful protests were replaced with moans of pleasure. Pulling out the last of her reserves, she broke the kiss. "Deven, may I ask you something?"
"Yes, now," she said uncertainly.
Something about Rhians expression warned the martial artist that this was important to the woman and so she backed off a little. "Sure."
"Whenever we make love, you." Rhian paused trying to find the words to explain her concern. "I dont know how to say this."
Immediately, Devens defensive nature surged forward, and her expression became guarded. "Is something wrong?"
"Good heavens, no!" Uh oh. Stepping on the ego, Rhian. "Its incredible. Youre incredible. Its just that Im confused about something."
"What?" Suddenly feeling the need to put some physical distance between them, Deven shifted to move off of the landscaper.
"Dont," Rhian said as she held onto the woman. "Stay there. Please." Once the martial artists body rested back against her own, Rhian reached up and lightly traced Devens face. "I know that I dont have much experience. I know that Ive still got a lot to learn, but you never seem to want me to, you know."
Feeling guarded, frustrated and embarrassingly insecure, Deven couldnt keep the exasperation out of her voice. "Rhian, you have got to learn how to say what you mean. I dont know what youre talking about!"
Rhian looked away from the martial artists intense stare. She could feel her skin warming as she struggled to say what she needed to say and cursed the blush. "You dont want me to love you," she finally managed to get out.
"Is that it? Rhian, you do."
"Not really." She studied the beautiful face above her. "I mean not like you do to me." The younger woman chewed on her lower lip for a few seconds, and then asked the question she dreaded to know the answer to. "Is it me?"
"No." The conversation continued to be uncomfortable for Deven, and she couldnt quite shake the defensiveness that gnawed at her.
Feeling the tension in the muscles of Devens shoulders, Rhian kept her tone soft and light. "Then what is it? You make me feel so unbelievable. I just want to be able to do the same for you. I know it might take me awhile to get the hang of it, but why wont you let me try?"
"What is it you want, Rhian?"
The younger womans eyes darkened and her voice came out low and breathy. "I want you to lie back and let me have my way with you." She lay still, watching Devens expression turn somber. "It is me. You dont want me to make love to you." Her eyes filled with tears at the thought that she wasnt what Deven wanted or needed.
Oh, shit! Deven was beginning to get angry as she felt any control she might have had in this situation seeping away. "Thats not true. I just." She watched as the tears cleared the pale lashes and coursed silently down the sides of Rhians face. Explain this one, Deven. If you can. "Thats not how I do things."
Angrily brushing the tears away, Rhian fought to keep her emotions at bay. "I dont understand. Not how you do what?" She could tell just from the look on Devens face that this was another one of those things in the womans life that pushed her beyond her emotional comfort zone. Another layer to be peeled away. Not how she does things. What could that mean? Understanding began to formulate and with it came the anger. "I see."
The landscaper tried to keep her voice even but failed to keep the sardonic tone from the words she spoke. "Sure. You have to be the one in charge, because youre used to being completely in control. Calling all the shots. It makes you nuts not to be in charge, doesnt it? Doesnt matter how I feel about it as long as you dont have to give up any of your cherished Masterson control."
"Rhian." The martial artist could feel the aggravation building in Rhians body.
"Am I wrong? Look me in the eyes and tell me that Im wrong."
Deven didnt answer because she couldnt. She wasnt exactly certain herself, but she understood there was truth to what Rhian was saying.
"Fine! But just tell me why its so wrong for me to want to love you? To want to make love to you?"
The martial artist moved in an effort to roll off her lover only to have Rhians strong legs wrap tightly around her hips. This was the second time shed found herself trapped by this woman in exactly the same position. She knew she could get out of it, but in so doing, she also knew that she might hurt Rhian in the process. And perhaps, you dont want to get out of it.
Everything about dealing with Rhian was new and confounding for Deven. The changes her life were undergoing as a result of allowing herself to feel, to love this woman, reminded her somewhat of a time when shed watched a block of ice converted into a piece of art. Not that youre anything like a piece of art, Masterson. The sculptor had removed parts of the block in chunks, chiseled away rough pieces leaving jagged edges. These were then removed by melting the ice, resulting in a clear smooth surface.
Dealing with the issues of the past left her feeling like parts of her were being gouged out, leaving her raw and vulnerable. Some of those wounds were healing slowly, and in time she hoped the festering would fade bringing her closer to the human being she wanted to be than the degenerate she believed she was.
She relaxed against the smaller body. "It isnt wrong. Ive just never been comfortable lying there while someone takes control of the situation. Control of me. What do you want me to say? Yes, I like being in charge. Yes, I like calling all the shots. Thats just the way its always been."
Rhian thought about that for a few seconds. "Since the rape, you mean."
"I dont know. Maybe. I guess." Deven didnt want to talk about that time in her life. Telling Rhian all about her past had been extremely difficult, and she just didnt want to go down that road again. Once had been enough. "What difference does it make?"
The landscaper looked into eyes that reflected the tempest the martial artist was fighting as she tried to overcome her emotions. "It doesnt and I can understand that. And I like that take-charge attitude of yours. Most of the time." That Deven still had trouble dealing with her feelings was evident, and Rhian knew she needed to be cautious in how she guided the woman through these turbulent moments. "Do you think I would do anything to hurt you? That I would want to hurt you?"
Would she? Sure she would. I mean, why not? Everyone else seems to like taking pot shots. Deven could hear the self-pitying tone in her head and despised it. Stop it! Shes never done anything to you, and you know it. With a sigh of resignation, she answered, "No."
"You realize that you arent really relinquishing control at all? No matter what position youre in, we both know you could easily break me in half." Rhian lifted her hands and lightly traced Devens features with her fingertips. She trailed her fingers along Devens jaw and down her neck, pausing to caress the powerful shoulders before moving back up to touch the face that held her captivated.
Why cant I just let this happen? What is the big deal, Deven? I dont know! Deven leaned into the touch and closed her eyes. This was never supposed to happen. I was never going to be in this situation. Well so what? You are. You gave your heart away and gained hers in return. And is this such a big price to pay for what she has brought into your life? A trickle of fear seeped into the pit of her stomach from a source she couldnt seem to pinpoint.
Damn it all to hell! This will require another one of those damn leaps of faith! True, but every leap youve taken with this woman or because of this woman has proved to be the right thing. She laid there, her flesh pressed to Rhians and the younger womans hands languidly roaming her body leaving a trial of stimulated flesh in their wake. Opening her eyes, she stared into Rhians. So much had passed between them in such a brief period of time. Shed bared her sins to this woman and been embraced in spite of them. Shed lain in Rhians arms, crying and vulnerable, and been held and loved. "Okay."
"Okay? Okay what?"
Deven smiled at the confusion on the younger womans face. "Release me, and you can have your way."
Rhian slowly unlocked her ankles and watched as Deven started to move away from her. "Wait a minute. I dont want to do anything you dont want to. If you really dont want me to touch you, I wont." The thought that Deven might not really want her touch hurt Rhian deeply, but she wasnt going to do anything to this woman that would cause her pain.
Deven rolled over onto her back, and she smiled gently as she realized that she did want Rhian to touch her. "I want you to."
Now that she had succeeded in getting to this point, Rhian was terrified she was going to fail miserably. She rolled onto her side and gazed at Devens strong face. She loved this woman deeply and just wanted to be able to express it. Deven always made her feel so much, and she wanted to give that back. She wanted their love to come full circle, and she didnt see how that could happen if it were mostly one-sided. Not give and take by both of them but a relationship limited to her taking what Deven gave.
She reached out a tentative hand and lightly traced the contours of Devens face and neck before leaning forward and placing soft kisses along the same path her fingers had taken. Bringing her lips to Devens, she kissed the martial artist ethereally, hoping to impart to the woman the depth of her love. And with her passion rising, Rhian deepened the contact. Her need to love this woman continued to fill her, driving all other thoughts away, and as her craving to touch and taste Deven grew stronger, she allowed it to take over, bringing her ardor to a new high.
Deven felt Rhians light caresses and soft lips everywhere they touched her, and she tried to relax. She wanted Rhian to love her, but she feared she wouldnt be able to lie there without trying to take charge. She just didnt submit. It wasnt the way shed ever approached sex. You moved beyond sex with this woman a long time ago, Masterson. You want so badly to control something, start with your damn mind! Pushing her troubled thoughts away, she concentrated on the feel of Rhians hands and lips. The tentative contact was surprisingly erotic and was definitely igniting a fire within her.
Giving into the desire to taste the woman, Rhian pressed her tongue forward against Devens lips. As the younger woman slowly explored her mouth, Deven felt the rest of her body roused from its restrained state. Sensitive flesh was beginning to swell and grow firm, rising up in ardency and mingling with her newly discovered longing for loves touch. The kiss moved from gentle to insistent at the same time as hands began to glide over her skin, flowing across peaks and valleys.
Pulling back, Rhian watched her fingers glide across the soft flesh as it mapped out the sensual terrain of her lover. "Youre so beautiful."
Reaching a hand up behind the blondes head, Deven pulled her forward until their lips met again. She hungrily sucked Rhians tongue deep into her mouth while guiding the woman to lie on top of her. It took a great deal of restraint on her part not to push Rhian. She battled with the impulse to tell the woman what to do and with the understanding that she needed to allow Rhian to continue her exploration.
Pulling back again, Rhian panted heavily while staring into eyes darkened with want and fire. Her craving for and her love of Deven were a heady combination that made her nearly drunk on a sensual high. She couldnt seem to get enough, to feel enough. And so her fingers, lips and tongue greedily sought to contact every part of this woman. Her hands caressed the contours and textures as if lovingly molding the flesh, bringing it to life.
Encircling a nipple with her lips, her heart soared as Deven gasped in response. The sound fed her confidence and she used her tongue to incite the tender nub to rise further, teasing it, as she savored the notion that she was the one causing such a response.
Devens rising level of excitement blind-sided her. Her chest lifted in reaction to the attention her breasts were receiving, and her hips struggled to lift up and make contact but were held in place where Rhian straddled her.
Watching Rhian love her stirred something in the martial artists mind. Shed never been emotionally intimate with anyone and there had always been a definitive line between sex and familiarity. There were certain things she wouldnt share with anyone, and she could easily count on one hand the number of women shed permitted to touch her like this, to taste her, to be this intimate with her body. Never in any of those instances had there been any emotion to it and always shed orchestrated what they did and when.
Deven ran her hand through Rhians soft hair to the back of her head. Pulling gently she guided the younger woman to increase the pressure. "Ah, yes," she whispered. Her hand tightened in the blonde hair as her arousal lifted up another notch. Its been so long.
Those words echoed in her head and without warning her mind transported her back eight years to the last time shed been in a similar position. She was lying on her back in the apartment living room, her roommate doing much the same thing Rhian was at this moment. Only it wasnt being done out of love or respect or even desire. It was because the woman had no choice. Deven had come home from a workout and with an economy of words and actions, demanded the woman service her.
Shed been enjoying the sex and thinking how well shed trained the woman whose mouth was dutifully arousing her when whispered words of love filtered up from the lips tasting her flesh. Deven had grabbed the woman by her hair and jerked her head up hard, twisting it at an awkward angle. Shed glared into the dark eyes that stared back at her with a combination of fear and surprise. "There is no love!" shed shouted at the woman. "Now, shut the fuck up and get busy!"
Two nights later, that same woman had stabbed her. Oh, God. A sense of near panic gripped Deven, and she reached out blindly to push the woman away. "Stop!"
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