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DISCLAIMERS: No specific disclaimers are required because the characters are original. Physically, however, they may remind you of… well…you know. The story takes place in and around the Twin Cities and Northern Minnesota. Some of the locations are real and some are not (that’s why it’s called fiction, folks). "Crimson Snow" is intended for an opened minded, mature audience. If you’re not both of those things, exit now. I'm a lawyer, not a writer. You have been warned. This work is protected by COPYRIGHT 1999 Advocate, all rights reserved.

Violence/Profanity: (R-rated) This story contains graphic violence and some profanity.

Sexual Content: (R-rated) This is alternative fiction. It contains women in love and the physical expression of that love. Okay... there's sex. If for any reason you shouldn’t be reading this… please don’t.

Hurt/Comfort: Yep. Big time alert on this one. If this disturbs you, run don't walk.

Sequel Alert: This story is the sequel to Connections. It is not, however, necessary to read that story in order to enjoy this one.

Beta Readers and other Help: Without the assistance of my fabulous beta readers: kd bard, Barbara Davies, and Ellie, this story would be illegible. As God is my witness, these women actually know how to use a semicolon. You guys are the best. Kudos to Iliana for supplying the cool title. Also, I'd like to acknowledge the excellent assistance I received from several experts via Lunacy's Expert Directory.

Special Thanks: With all my heart I'd like to thank my husband, Bob. His love, companionship, and patience, teaches me everyday that a soulmate isn’t someone who completes you… it’s someone who gives you the tools to complete yourself. I said this in my last disclaimer, but it's worth repeating.


Amanda took a deep breath, reveling in the comfort and warmth of her current position. She shifted slightly, but not so much as to wake the woman who had fallen asleep literally on top of her. Carefully, she lifted her hand and began stroking the long midnight black hair splayed across her abdomen. God, I love her hair. It's so soft and always smells so good.

Green eyes fluttered shut in quiet contentment as the form sprawled over her mumbled something unintelligible and brushed a light kiss on Amanda's belly, all without waking. The bedroom was still dark and Amanda found herself with the rare opportunity to hold her partner and just think. Both woman had been exceptionally busy lately, and in Amanda's mind, these peaceful moments were all too infrequent. But still, she was torn. Most of her was selfishly enjoying these silent stolen moments. A small part of her, however, wished her lover would wake up so they could languidly trade kisses and quiet conversation before starting their day.

It was customary for both women to wake up before the alarm and spend long moments snuggling and talking. Claire seemed so open at these times, even talkative, a word Amanda was sure was never associated with the normally reticent attorney. That fact alone made Amanda cherish the time. But in the aftermath of hectic days and correspondingly shortened nights, this special time fell victim. Amanda found herself a little surprised at how her heart ached for it.

Having gone to bed early the night before, she felt well-rested and refreshed even at the ungodly hour of... her eyes drifted to the clock...4:00 a.m. It wouldn't be light for nearly another 3 hours. The days are so short this time of year.

Heavy wet snow from the night's storm had plastered itself on the window, making the room even darker. But the howling wind had died down and the large home seemed to be insulated by a blanket of quiet darkness.

Amanda pulled up the soft navy comforter and settled it around Claire. Not that you'd ever be cold, sweetheart. Heaven forbid. But still... why take chances?

The differences in their sleeping habits had been an unexpected source of frustration for both women. Amanda liked lots of blankets, the warmer the better. Claire, on the other hand, was warm-blooded by nature, and even during the brutal Minnesota winters she rarely used anything more than a sheet. As with all things, a compromise was quickly reached. Amanda simply laid a spare blanket next to her side of the bed so when the inevitable happened, and Claire kicked off their coverings in a mid-night fit of heat frustration, she had a spare handy.

The blonde grinned, considering Claire's hot nature. Heh. At least that means she sleeps naked. Privately, Amanda considered that more than made up for any small concessions she had made.

Never one to let an opportunity pass her by, the young psychologist resolved herself to staying awake in her current state of decadent bliss, and allowed her mind drift any place it wanted to go. Predictably, her mental wanderings stayed close to home and the people she loved. Home. Our home.

Amanda mentally calculated the number of months since the azure-eyed attorney's investigation led her to the Cornerstone Clinic. Has it only been 8 months since we met? And 3 months since Missy and I moved in here? That's sounds like such a short period of time. The heated breath on her belly warmed her heart as much as her skin. This doesn't feel like eight months, she marveled as she lightly traced the soft skin between Claire's shoulder blades. It feels like forever. No, I take that back, forever isn't long enough.

Claire frowned in her sleep and Amanda could feel the lawyer's face tense against her skin. She continued her rhythmic stroking until she felt the tension leave the taller woman's body. "That's it," she softly cooed. "Relax, love."

Amanda spared a moment of worry over the long hours Claire had been keeping lately. Ah, Gumby, you're just plain worn out. The blonde smiled gently at the nickname her partner claimed to despise. But she knew Claire took it for what it was, a term of dear affection, albeit an unusual one.

Who'd have thought a hard-as-nails lawyer would be such a sucker for toys? The therapist's smile broadened as she pictured Claire removing the bendable green figure from her glove box and attaching it to her steering wheel each and every time she drove.

"Why are you awake?" a deep voice mumbled, tickling Amanda's bare stomach.

The smaller woman jumped slightly. "I thought you were asleep." Her hand moved up and traced a warm cheek.

"Was. Why are you awake so early?" Claire repeated, her voice slightly slurred.

"I'm just thinking. But the more important question is why are you awake? And don't try to tell me you're not still exhausted."

A dark head lifted and Claire opened her mouth to argue. Abruptly, the mouth closed. She's right. I'm wiped. "You're right. I need more sleep." The brunette yawned and kicked off the comforter as she tightened her grip on Amanda and laid her head back down. "I've got a lot to take care of today if we wanna leave next week." Claire lightly patted the belly below her ear. "Am I okay like this?"

"Very okay," Amanda said affectionately. "Go back to sleep. We don't need to get up for a couple of hours yet."

"Night, Mandy," Claire murmured.

"Goodnight, honey."

Several moments passed but Amanda was still wide-awake. I could still get two more hours of sleep before I have to get up and face the day. Amanda pushed down a feeling of dread. What is wrong with me? I can't let this bother me so much. It's not like it hasn't happened before. But somehow this doesn't feel the same. What started out as a small nagging sensation in the back of her mind had turned into full blown, stomach churning worry. Okay. I need to stop being such a worrywart. Things will be all right. I just need to take control of the situation. And if that doesn't work, I'll talk to Jody. There's no need to worry Claire. She'll just get upset. Yeah. That's what I'll do.


Claire yawned and stretched a little, but stubbornly kept her eyes closed. I don't wanna get up! And nobody can make me, she added petulantly.

The tall attorney could hear the shower running and knew her lover was already preparing for work. A fleeting thought of joining Amanda in the shower was easily bowled over by a wave of lethargy. Just ten more minutes. Then I'll get up.

Several moments later, Claire felt the bed move and fuzzily noted the shower had stopped. Mandy must be finished. She slowly pried open her eyes to find two sea-green orbs only millimeters from hers. Confused and startled, Claire nearly flew out of the bed. Holy Shit! "What in the...?" she screamed.

Her feet landed on the floor with a resounding thud, and the figure in the bed began giggling helplessly. Claire tried to calm her furiously beating heart. Why does she love doing that so much? You little rat! Wait until you're old enough for me to tell you the story of the insane asylum patient who escaped in our neighborhood! Then we'll see who has a heart attack.

Amanda emerged from the bathroom towel drying her newly shorn red-gold tresses. Her black slip clung to the patches of skin that were still damp. She turned to Claire, who was standing in the middle of the floor in a defensive posture and breathing heavily. "She did it again, huh?" She smiled sympathetically at her disheveled lover. Twisting sharply, she raised her hands to hips and spoke sternly to her nearly hysterical daughter. "Missy, are you scaring Claire again?"

"Yeah, Mama," the two-year-old giggled and buried her fair head deep into a pillow.

Amanda tried not to laugh. Why does she love doing that so much? "I thought I told you not to do that. It's not nice to scare Claire."

Missy lifted her head from the pillow and turned round, innocent eyes on Claire. "Sorry, Cwwair."

Claire smiled at the toddler, now that her brain seemed to be warming up. "You little stinker!" She approached the little girl in a mock-threatening manner. "I'm gonna have to make you pay for that!" A buck-naked Claire pounced back on the bed and began mercilessly tickling an equally naked Missy.

Amanda's eyes roamed appreciatively over her partner's lean muscular form until it fully registered that Missy was naked in their bed. "Did you go potty, Missy?" Amanda questioned.

Claire eyes widened and she pulled her hands off Missy as though she'd been burned. Amanda couldn't help but chuckle. Her lover's inexperience with children, although greatly reduced over the past eight months, occasionally poked through. Potty training had been... interesting. And now getting the little girl to keep her clothes on was proving to be an equally difficult challenge. Looking at Claire, she wondered if that was a challenge she was destined to fail.

"Missy..." Amanda warned in her best maternal voice. She pointed out the bedroom door and the little girl pushed herself off the bed until two tiny feet dangled over the edge. With a final grunt, she dropped onto the floor and ran out of the room toward the other bathroom.

Claire shook her head and smiled as the prancing child turned the corner. Next came a loud thump. She and Amanda both cringed when they correctly guessed that Missy had gotten tangled in her own feet and fallen.

Lucky we've got extra thick carpet, Claire mused as Amanda followed after her daughter. The older woman heard a muffled conversation from the hallway way that ended with an affectionate smack on a chubby bottom and the command "scoot".

Running her hands through damp hair, Amanda reentered the bedroom. Claire was sprawled out on the bed, intently focused on the bedroom door.

The therapist's eyes traveled the length of long, toned legs; over the curve of slim hips; around the swell of firm breasts; finally landing in a sparkling pool of blue. My God, she's fantastic! Amanda felt her pulse quicken at the sight and slowly crossed the thick gray carpet until she reached the bed.

"Claire, have I told you how magnificent you are?" Amanda purred in a voice an octave below normal. "And how much I love you?"

Claire swallowed convulsively as Amanda leaned over and placed light kisses in the smooth valley between her breasts. Amanda's lips were warm and soft and the lawyer's body responded immediately. When Claire didn't answer, Amanda peppered a light trail of kisses across her collarbone and lifted her head. She arched a thin, pale eyebrow.

Claire realized some sort of response was required. "Umm...well...I mean," the taller woman babbled. The light musky scent of her companion's skin and the sweet aroma of her shampoo were driving Claire to distraction. "I...um..."

"Well..." A light kiss on the cheek "...you are." Another kiss. "And I do." Amanda grinned evilly, stood up, and marched back into the bathroom, knowing full well the state she'd left her partner in. It wasn't often that Claire was on the butt end of this type of teasing and she was determined to enjoy her small victory.

Claire sat motionless wondering what had just happened. She didn't want to give Amanda the pleasure of hearing her groan so she clutched her pillow to her face. After taking a moment to compose herself, she called into the bathroom. "Oh, I get it. You're both trying to kill me. Tag teaming is not nice, Mandy." Mandy's slip alone is enough to make me pass out. She heard the smaller woman's laughter over the sounds of the blow dryer. "I don't know who's more satanic, you or your daughter."

Amanda emerged from the bathroom wearing a fitted black skirt and a silver silk blouse, which still was mostly unbuttoned. She crossed the room and bent deeply at the waist, opening the bottom drawer of her dresser and fishing out a scarf. This time Claire did groan out loud, causing an unseen smile to crease Amanda's face.

"You!" Claire blurted out in undisguised anguish. "You are definitely the more evil of the two," she moaned.

Amanda turned and laughed at her friend. Crossing the room once again, she perched on the bed alongside Claire. "I'm sorry for the teasing, Gumby," she apologized sincerely. Looking at her watch, she sighed. "I still have to get Missy fed, dressed, and dropped off at Mrs. Fisher's, all in the next hour."

Claire pouted and leaned closer to Amanda. She began trailing her hands down the soft silk of Amanda's sleeves.

"Claire..." Amanda warned. "I have my first appointment today at 9:00 a.m. and I really need to catch up on some paperwork before then." God, I love it when she touches me.

"Uh Huh," Claire grunted as her hands slid across Amanda's shoulders and found their way underneath the top of her blouse. In an excruciatingly erotic movement, Claire slowly pushed the blouse off Amanda's shoulders, trailing her fingers down with the blouse.

The younger woman shivered as warm fingertips caressed cool silk and then bare skin. Claire leaned heavily against Amanda and the therapist's resolve began to weaken. Then it simply broke. Screw my paperwork! The blonde moaned softly as Claire's lips replaced her fingertips.


"Yes," she answered breathlessly.

The lawyer pulled back and looked at her partner. Amanda's skin was flushed, and her breath was coming in short pants. She's the one who's magnificent. Blue eyes twinkled. "I'll go get Missy dressed." With that, Claire stood up and proudly marched out of the bedroom.

Amanda stared at the empty doorway with wide, unbelieving eyes. When it registered that Claire wasn't coming back, she flopped back gracelessly on the king sized bed. Ugh! Well... Mandy. What did your mother always tell you? If you play with fire, you get burned. With an audible groan she sat up, her senses still ringing from her partners touch and voice and smell...Ugh! She couldn't help but laugh at her own misery. Oh, Mama... I'll bet you never imagined fire like her. Amanda smiled wryly and moved back into the bathroom.


Amanda walked up the sidewalk of the Cornerstone Clinic with fifteen minutes to spare before her first appointment. The Cornerstone was a renovated brownstone home, located on Grand Avenue in the heart of St. Paul. The neighborhood was a combination of trendy eateries, antique shops, old churches and college hangouts. It suited Amanda and her longtime friend and business partner, Jody Penbrook, perfectly.

Amanda pushed open the clinic door and found Jody restocking the brochure rack by the front desk. "Brr... It's freezing out there. Hey! You're cleaning the waiting room?" Amanda asked surprised. Her eyes drifted to a pile of cleaning supplies at Jody's feet.

The stout psychologist frowned. "My 9:00 a.m. cancelled. So I figured I... And just what's so shocking about that?" she interrupted herself indignantly.

"Oh, I don't know." Amanda tapped her foot. "Could it be the fact that I've actually seen your apartment?" she intoned sarcastically. "You're the only person I know who makes Claire look neat. Hey, maybe we could start a support group for the hopelessly messy. We could call it Slobs Anonymous. And you could be the reigning president."

"Wake up on the wrong side of your broomstick this morning, Amanda?" The taller brunette reached down and picked up another stack of pamphlets refusing to turn brown eyes in the direction of her rude friend.

"Ouch! Sorry," she apologized sheepishly. I can't take out my frustrations on Jody. It's not her fault.

Both women chuckled as Amanda tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. The motion didn't go unnoticed by the other psychologist. "Still not used to the new 'do', huh? Did Claire like it?" Jody simply crumpled up the remaining brochure that wouldn't fit into the rack.

"What should that matter? It's my hair!" Amanda snapped back more sharply than she'd intended.

Uh Oh. Claire... You better not have done anything other than offer glowing praise, you big dumb lawyer.

"Sorry again, Jody." Amanda sighed and willed her hands away from her head. "I'm just a little edgy this morning." Try a lot edgy. But I can't think about that right now. Besides, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm just overreacting. The younger woman looked at her business partner regretfully. "I've gotta go hide my broomstick before my first appointment arrives, it tends to freak 'em out."

Jody winced and tried to think of something nice to say. It was clear that something was bothering her friend. Amanda was nearly to her office door before the short-haired brunette's mind engaged and she piped up. "You look pretty today. Why so dressed up?"

By unspoken decree, the atmosphere of the clinic was resolutely casual. It wasn't uncommon for either woman to show up to work in jeans. Jody had commented many times that this fact alone was enough incentive to own your own business.

Amanda shrugged. "I'm meeting my dad for lunch today on campus." Now probably wouldn't be a good time to confess that all my casual clothes are in the dirty clothes hamper, she admitted wryly.

Before Amanda could escape into her office. A large woman pushed her way through the clinic door and sat down heavily on the couch. She was tightly clutching an enormous black handbag and smacking her gum loudly. Trailing behind her was an extremely thin, pissed-off looking man. He sat as far away from the woman as humanly possible. Jody raised her eyebrows and flashed Amanda a smile that said, "Sucks to be you this morning."

Green eyes narrowed at Jody but smiled brightly at Mr. and Mrs. Johannson as she waved the couple into her office ahead of her. She hesitated for only a second before taking a deep breath, moving forward, closing the office door behind her.


"You're not serious?" Claire slammed down the file she was holding, causing an echo to ring out in her small office.

"I am serious, and you'll do it." Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Mark Gustafson refused to back down, even to his best friend and associate. Although he didn't agree with them, he had his orders. The tall blonde's normally pale skin began to flush with anger. A tiny bead of sweat rolled down the side of his thick neck. "We're on the same team here, Claire," he reminded, his frustration leaking into his voice.

In the six months that Claire had been a prosecutor she'd never clashed with her friend over a case. She sighed inwardly. There's a first time for everything. "I don't care what the boss says." Claire leaned forward, her knuckles bearing down on the desk. "I won't do it. If he wants it done, he'll have to do it himself!"

Mark leaned over the other side of Claire's desk, forcing the two friends to stand nearly nose-to-nose. "It's not his job to do it. It's yours."

Claire looked up into sincere hazel eyes and allowed her own expression to soften. "It was rape, Mark. I won't call it something else." I should have done more.

The big man straightened and sighed. His meaty hand reached up and loosened the red paisley tie circling his neck. "Shit, Claire. You think I don't know that?" He threw his hands up in frustration as he sat back into the chair waiting behind him, his large frame causing the chair to moan and creak in protest.

Claire stood for several seconds before she exhaled loudly and sat back in her own chair. Both prosecutors were silent. Finally, Claire spoke. "We could still take it to trial." She leaned forward and threaded long fingers together. "We've got the statements from the school psychologist; that might be enough."

"What part of 'offer him a plea' don't you understand, Claire?"


"No goddamn buts!" Mark slammed his fist down onto the stack of files that swamped Claire's desk. "The girls have all recanted everything. Even his stupid wife is sticking by him. We have no evidence other than the shrink's reports. We have nothing!"

Fuck! I know he's right... but... fuck! "Marko, I know you're right but... well... God... they're his own stepdaughters. It started before they were even teenagers. They were practically babies! How can I offer him simple assault? He won't serve more than a year in the local county jail."

Claire had wholeheartedly thrown herself into this assignment. She'd worked late nearly every night for the past three weeks hoping she could save her rapidly disintegrating case. One of the Hanson girls had told her high school counselor about her father's 'late night' visits to her and her sister's bedrooms. When the counselor spoke to each girl separately, they independently admitted to similar experiences that took place over a six-year time period. But one by one each girl recanted, saying they were just mad at their stepfather, that they had lied, and were trying to get back at him for not allowing them to stay up late one night and watch a movie.

Mark couldn't ignore the dejected look on his friend's face. "Do you have anything else?" he asked hopefully. "Anything at all we can take to the boss to bolster the case?" If it was out there, I know you'd find it.

Claire's face twisted into a frown and she nervously picked at her brown twill slacks. "No." She shifted uncomfortably, feeling the full weight of her failure. "I've been working my ass off but I've still got nothing. I've spent hours on research, and interviews and re-interviews and more research, and I'm still where I was a few weeks ago. Without the girls' testimony, or the mom's testimony, or a confession, I don't have squat."

Claire's face went icy. "The mother knew, Mark. I could see it in her eyes when I interviewed her." Her stomach roiled as she remembered the experience.

Cold dark eyes had told her to mind her own business. That this was "family" and it wasn't her place to interfere. Mrs. Hanson had said she'd stick by her husband through anything, so Claire might as well give up. After all, she wasn't pretty like Claire, and she was lucky to find such a good provider. It took all of Claire's considerable will power to keep from striking the woman then and there. How could she do that? How can she sleep at night... with him? How can she even look at those girls? Claire wondered. Her thoughts naturally turned to Missy. A surge of protectiveness washed over her. I'd kill anyone that laid a finger on her like that.

Mark could almost feel the eerie change in Claire's demeanor as her eyes took on a steely quality and her jaw clenched. He squirmed under the weight of her stare, it didn’t matter that he could see she was looking right through him.

After a few more dark thoughts Claire refocused on the other prosecutor. Great. Now he probably thinks I’m nuts. "Sorry, Mark, I zoned out there for a second." She quirked an eyebrow. "You know how I hate to lose."

The big man relaxed when Claire’s face went from deadly to merely furious. "I was right," the man's deep voice finally declared. "Prosecuting suits you in a way corporate law never did." She’s already one of the best prosecutors in the Twin Cities. With her fire and brains, if I don't watch out, she'll be my boss in a few years. Humph...I guess that wouldn't be so bad. Oh yeah, with Claire running the show the bad guys would run for the county line! "This is the battlefield you were meant to fight on. This is where you're gonna change people's lives and make a real difference."

Bright blue eyes rolled at her friend's overly dramatic language and Claire smirked. "Been reading those Harlequin romance novels again, Marko?" she teased, but privately acknowledged he was right. He and Mandy… they can both read me like a book. What is it about you idealistic blondes that I find so irresistible?

Mark smiled and ignored the jibe. Then his rugged features turned serious. "Listen, my friend." He reached out and grabbed Claire's hand. "Part of this job is knowing when to say when. You’re gonna burn out if you keep up like this. You can’t take these cases so personally. You need to pick your battles. Let this one go, Claire."

Claire nodded, although her heart didn’t agree. But those girls are still in the house with him! How does Mandy deal with cases like this all the time? They make me physically ill. Claire blew out a grumpy breath. "It's just that the guy's such a pig. And he's basically gonna get away with it," she whined.

"I wouldn't call a year in jail getting away with it."

Claire flashed him an evil glare.

Mark immediately held up his palms to forestall her next comment. "Okay, okay," he conceded. "At least not totally getting away with it. But regardless, you need to offer him the deal."

Aww. Shit. "Fine," she said grumpily. "I’ll make the offer this afternoon." Maybe the asshole will be too stupid to take it. It doesn't hurt to hope, she reassured herself.

"Great!" Mark stood up and brushed his slacks. I hate fighting with you. "You think you can finish everything..." he stared pointedly at the messy piles on her desk "...before we're supposed to leave for the cabins next week?"

"Hell, yes! I've been killing myself! There is no way I'm gonna let this paperwork drag me under." Claire eyed the files in challenge. Where's a match when you really need one.

The only way the relatively new employee could schedule a week's vacation right before Christmas was to beg, borrow and steal. Claire now owed favors to nearly every attorney in the building, and she was doing her best to pay them all back before leaving on their trip.

Mark looked at the stacks again and shook his head. "Whatever you say." He turned and began walking out of the office. "I'll talk to you later." With a short wave, he was gone.

Claire nodded her goodbye and picked up the file on the top of the tallest pile. Lucky for you Mandy, you're totally worth this.

Months ago, Claire and Amanda had discussed taking a trip up to the Boundary Waters. But Claire's new job had put a stop to any short-term vacation plans. When Amanda's former professor and mentor, Iris Park, offered her the use of her two cabins for the week before Christmas, she couldn't resist.

Missy's regular childcare provider, Mrs. Fisher, had agreed to keep Missy for the week in exchange for use of Amanda's condo over the holidays. It's a shame that Amanda keeps paying maintenance fees for a condo she never uses anymore. I wonder why she doesn't just sell it? Maybe she wants to keep it in case things don't work out between us? A pesky voice answered. It's not like you've really discussed a long-term future with her, it continued. I know, I know. But it would be wrong to pressure her.

Besides I've been so damn moody lately I couldn't blame her if she wanted to leave. So you'd understand if she wanted to leave? You'd just let her go? The voice taunted. No! She screamed mentally. I just want her to be happy.

Claire rubbed her temples. I'm not being fair. Mandy's been great these last few weeks, even when I've been a total bitch. I can trust her. She wouldn't just leave without saying something. But she won't put up with this shit forever. I'll make it her up to her on this vacation. With that, Claire pushed the troublesome thoughts aside and opened the top file. It was going to be another long day.


"Crap!" Amanda's breath filled the car with a white fog. She furiously slapped the steering wheel of her Audi. "Nooo. I can't be late today." She tried the key again. GRR...GRR...GRRRRRRR. Silence. I hate winter. It's fifteen degrees below zero. No wonder my freakin' car won't start! GRR...GRR...GRRRRRRR. "C'mon!" Still nothing. "Fine!" Amanda angrily withdrew her keys and hurriedly made her way back into the clinic, her movement slightly impaired by her atypical business dress and her bulky winter coat.

Jody's office door was open, so the rushing blonde didn't so much as slow down before running into her best friend's office. Jody had her back to the smaller woman, and was standing in the corner considering a new arrangement for several out of what Amanda estimated to be hundreds of knickknacks. She didn't bother turning around when she addressed the younger counselor. It had to be her, Jody reasoned, no one else could make that much noise entering a room. "I thought you were meeting your dad for lunch." She picked up a tarantula encased in a solid glass ball and considered whether her Malibu Barbie would mind the unusual company.

"I am. But my car won't start. Can I borrow your truck?"

"No problem. The keys are next to the ant farm on my desk." Golden- brown eyes focused on the swaying hips of the wall-mounted Elvis clock. "You'd better hurry, the metro traffic is in full swing by now."

Amanda grabbed the keys from a tiny flower-shaped crystal dish next to the ant farm and laughed to herself. Jody, you are so weird. "Thanks, Jody. I'll be back at least 2 minutes before my next appointment," she joked.

"Oh, Amanda?"

Amanda stopped, her body half inside and half outside of the office. "Yeah?"

"Save a little time for me tonight. I'd like to talk to you about something."

Amanda frowned. Jody didn't usually set up a time to talk. They just did. She took a couple of steps back into the office noticing that her heels were already starting to blister in the uncomfortable shoes. "Is something the matter?"

Jody shrugged and continued to sort through her flea market treasures. "Nah... It'll keep. Go have lunch with your dad. I'll talk to you later."

Amanda raised pale eyebrows in question. "Are you sure? Because I could..."

"I'm sure. Now go, will ya? I've got a kleptomaniac coming in at noon and I've still gotta hide all my good stuff."

Amanda's face crinkled into a smile. "Very funny," she laughed.

The wavy-haired brunette cocked her head toward the King's blue suede shoes. "I know you're not still here, Amanda"

Amanda grimaced at Elvis. I'm never gonna make it on time and Daddy only has an hour between classes. "Okay, I'll stop in before I go home tonight," she called on her way out.

Amanda tightened her scarf and opened the clinic door as a blast of frigid December air caused her to shiver. Even though it promised warmth, she approached Jody’s truck with evident distaste. The massive vehicle was a shocking shade of purple, which Amanda was certain would only be tolerated in the Twin Cities where the Minnesota Vikings were worshipped openly.

She stepped up into the high cab and shut the door behind her. This truck was definitely not built with someone 5'4" in mind. She adjusted the massive seat and turned the key. The engine obediently roared to life. Humph. That’s what I get for buying a foreign car. Now… she pulled out onto the street …is it even possible to make it to Hamilton University in five minutes? Amanda shook her head and sighed. Nope. Well, at least it’s only Daddy I’m meeting. Mother has a fit when I'm late. Of course, in order to have a fit she’d have to be speaking to me.

The blonde’s estrangement from her mother was taking its toll. While Amanda had never been especially close to her mother, she still considered their relationship to be normal, if a little formal. It had been nearly 8 months since she’d spoken to her, their last encounter marred by a vicious argument from which neither woman would back down.

Initially, her mother had supported Amanda’s adoption of Missy from her older sibling. After all, Monica showed no serious interest in keeping the child herself. But more than a year and a half after Missy was born, Monica returned and demanded Amanda give Missy back. Amanda was shocked when Violet Greer stubbornly sided with her oldest daughter. Violet reasoned that although Monica clearly had a drug problem... that was something that could be cured. Amanda’s 'life-choices', as she called them, were here to stay.

The psychologist considered her mother's words and actions nothing short of a betrayal. And now, all these months later, the young counselor found herself fondly remembering the days when her relationship with her mother was merely strained rather than nonexistent.

"Yesss," Amanda hissed in victory. She thanked the "gods of good parking" when a spot directly across from the English department opened up. In tribute, she stuffed eight quarters into the hungry meter. The cold air burned deep in her chest as carefully navigated the icy steps leading into the building.

Tucked neatly away amidst the storage rooms and a few private offices on the corner of the fourth floor, was Professor Harold Greer's office. Amanda smiled a little. It had been several years since she’d come to school to see her father but familiar smell of old dusty books was very much home.

Harold was a rather short, heavyset man, who was by any standards, old enough to be Amanda’s grandfather. And at nearly seventy years old, his teaching days were rapidly coming to a close.

The professor’s gentle demeanor and accepting heart wouldn’t permit him to join in his wife’s castigation of his youngest child. He loved her, plain and simple. Who Amanda chose to love couldn’t change that. But today, he found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to tell Amanda that Violet expected to see Missy at Christmas... only Missy.

"Why do I let you talk me into these things, Violet?" he muttered around a bite of chicken salad sandwich. Although his wife was nearly 20 years his junior, there was no denying that she ran their household. He simply found it easier do as Violet asked rather than deal with her wrath. Poor Amanda. I do believe that fearsome temper is the only quality she inherited from her mother. Harold set down the remaining half of his sandwich and looked at his watch. Where is that child? She’ll be late to her own funeral!

"Daddy." A familiar voice rang out in the empty hallway. I hope he waited.

The white haired man stood up from his desk and opened his door. "In here, Pumpkin," he answered.

Smiling green eyes met their twins. "I’m sorry I’m late. My car wouldn’t start." Amanda sat in a chair next to her father and began peeling off her heavy black wool coat. Whew! I should have remembered it's like an oven up here.

"That’s okay, Sweetie." He took a good look at his daughter and removed his bifocals. "You've done something to your hair, haven't you?" The old man chewed the tip of his gold metal frames as he appraised his daughter. "I think it's quite becoming," he finally stated. "I see lots of the young girls wearing short hair these days."

Amanda let out a breath she didn't know she was holding. The therapist fussed with her bangs self-consciously but grinned at the compliment. She still appreciated her father's approval though it was something she'd never really had to work for. "Thanks, Daddy."

Harold leaned over and kissed her on the cheek and she was magically transported back in time. She giggled as she always did, when his beard and mustache tickled her skin. "I’m glad you came." His eyes suddenly turned regretful. "I’ve missed you."

"I’ve missed you too," she said seriously. "I never thought mother would take things this far."

The white head shook in agreement. "I know. She’s decided to be difficult about this. I’ve discussed it with her but…"

"I know, Daddy. It’s all right." Amanda dearly loved her father. His constant affection and support had given her a solid emotional foundation for which she was eternally grateful. But when it came to his wife, he could only be described as weak. Amanda had never once seen him stand up to her mother. And if it hasn't happened by now, it's not going to happen. "What is it you wanted to see me about?" she asked, stealing a bite of what was left of his sandwich.

Harold smiled knowingly and pulled out another large sandwich from the thermal lunch bag in his desk. "Here." He thrust it forward. "Take this before I don't have any of my own lunch left!"

Amanda cheerfully unwrapped the sandwich and immediately dug in, humming her approval with every bite. I wish I could make good chicken salad. Claire would love this too. I hope she remembered to take that Tupperware of soup I left in the refrigerator for her. She's been skipping too many meals lately.


"Hmm?" Amanda refocused on her father.

"You mother has certain expectations for the holidays," he started uncomfortably.

The psychologist stopped mid-chew. "And?" She hastily swallowed the remainder of the bite.

"And she'd like for you to bring Missy over for Christmas," he said, his eyes not meeting hers.

"Really?" Her surprise was clear. "That's great. I didn't think..."

"She wants you to drop her off. You can pick her up the next day."

Pale brows lifted but Amanda said nothing. Finally, she grabbed her coat and stood. "I see. She expects me to deposit my daughter for the holiday and simply pick her up when she's finished."

Harold nodded.

"MISSY IS NOT MY DRYCLEANING!" she ground out in a booming voice.

The old man winced when he saw a flash of the hurt hiding behind her anger. "Amanda..."

"Don't you dare defend her, Daddy. I've made numerous attempts to call her, even after she sided with a drug addict over me, and she won't even come to the phone! How can she even think I'd leave Missy in her care after what happened the last time?"

Amanda felt her temperature rise as she remembered the last visit between Missy and her mother. Violet had called Amanda and asked that Missy be allowed to spend the night at their home. Reluctantly, Amanda agreed, only to find out later that it had all been a ruse so that Monica, who had checked herself out of yet another drug treatment center, could see Missy without Amanda being present. That evening, Monica and her deadbeat husband had simply showed up at the Greer home while Harold was still at school and 'taken' Missy. Thank God, they weren't so strung out that they couldn't find their way back. Amanda shuddered at the thought of how lucky she was that Missy had been returned to her parents' home safely.

"You know she didn't want that to happen," her father said reasonably.

"And how do I know it won't happen again? Mother has made it perfectly clear that she thinks Missy would be better off with Monica than me. Never mind the fact that I adopted Missy and I've been the only parent she's known since she was born. My 'lifestyle' has been deemed unsuitable for my own daughter." Amanda wrapped her scarf around her neck. She'd had enough of this conversation.

Harold tossed the remainder of his lunch in the wastebasket alongside his desk. His appetite had flown out the window along with Amanda's smile. "We haven't heard from Monica in months. There's no reason to believe..."

"And just how many times has she disappeared, only to pop up out of the blue when it suits her?"

Monica had finally successfully completed an entire treatment program. Amanda had last visited her older sibling at the secure treatment facility late in August. Her sister's appearance was so vastly improved that tears came to Amanda's eyes when she first saw her. Monica had gained a sorely needed 20 pounds. The dark circles under her eyes had faded and her hair and clothes were neat and clean. It was like looking at the treasured girl she grew up with and loved.

Amanda had expected to pick up Monica after her 'graduation'. Instead, on the day of Monica's release, the facility director told Amanda that Monica had left several hours earlier and hadn't given any forwarding information. Since her bill was paid in full and her treatment was complete, they didn't inquire any further. No one had heard from Monica since.

Harold looked down at his shoes, trying not to project the shame he felt over his oldest daughter's actions. "You know as well as I do that she's done it several times."

Amanda pulled on her gloves. "Tell mother, when she wants to be part of my family, which includes me, to let me know. I don't trust her with Missy and until she does something to change that, I can't risk leaving Missy in her care." Or yours, Daddy. I'm sorry. "Goodbye, Dad."

Amanda turned and walked out of the office. Harold listened quietly to the loud clacking of her heels as they echoed down the long dim hallway. "Merry Christmas, baby," he said to the retreating form.


Amanda added a few more notations to a file and locked the folder in a metal cabinet along the wall of her office. Unlike Jody, who appeared to be having a love affair with her laptop, Amanda preferred to take longhand notes. The act of long handwriting seemed to help her focus. For some reason, she just couldn't duplicate the mental process on a computer. Besides, you can't chew on a computer, she thought as she removed the key.

A pencil can on her desk stuffed with half-gnarled pencils was a testament to her oral fixation. Amanda dug through the can and threw away of few of the worse casualties. Lucky for me I never started smoking. I'm sure I would have killed myself by now.

The blonde looked at the clock and allowed herself to feel a moment of relief. Maybe he won't show up.

Before she could even finish the thought there was a light knock on her office door. Amanda felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. Guess not. Okay, suck it up, Mandy. It's nothing you can't handle. Her steps were slower than normal when she crossed her office and opened the door.

"Hello, Dr. Greer." The man smiled. "Dr. Penbrook told me to go right to your office since you were waiting."

Thanks, Jody. "That's fine, Cory. Come in and have a seat." She motioned toward a small tan couch that was flanked by two lamp tables. In front of the couch sat a glass coffee table and a comfortable recliner.

Amanda sat down in the recliner and waited for Cory to find his way to the sofa. I won't make that mistake again. During their last session Amanda made the mistake of sitting on the two-seat sofa. Cory immediately sat next to her leaving the recliner conspicuously empty. Normally, Amanda wouldn't have given this admittedly unusual action a second thought. But with each visit Cory's actions were becoming more and more 'familiar'. His comments had taken on a suggestive quality that worried Amanda. Okay, so maybe he has a little crush. I'll nip it in the bud and we can move on.

"You're thinking about where I sat last time, aren't you?" His voice was cold. The slender man sat down on and propped his heavy, dripping work boots on the coffee table.

"No. Not at all," she lied. Shit.

"You're lying," he challenged flatly.

That's a switch. He's becoming more bold. "Cory, are you comfortable where you're sitting?"

The man slowly shook his head.

"Good. I'm comfortable too. Can we start?"

"No. You're mad at me. You don't like me anymore." Just like all the others. Women are such teasing bitches. First they flaunt their bodies, then they expect no reaction.

Uh Oh. "I'm not mad, Cory. I promise." Amanda could see he didn't believe her. From their other sessions the therapist had already gleaned that he had trust issues that went bone deep. "I've never given you any reason to doubt me, have I?" He needs to trust me if I'm ever going to be able to help him.

He shrugged off the heavy-weight denim coat, exposing a gray T-shirt that showed off a myriad of tattoos. "I guess not." God made all women temptresses. To lie is in their nature. All things are bound by their natures.

Amanda's eyes were irresistibly drawn to the artwork on Cory's arms. In the two months he'd been coming to the Cornerstone Clinic he'd never worn a short-sleeved shirt before. Some of the designs were truly amazing. The detail was unlike any Amanda had ever seen.

"Do you like them?" he asked proudly. They call to you, don't they? Just like I call to you. God made you for me. I know you can feel that.

"They're very interesting," Amanda answered noncommittally. The therapist drew her eyes up from the strange markings with an expression that was all business. "How did the exercises go that we discussed during your last visit?"

The young man didn't answer, he just continued to stare at Amanda. You can hear me talking to you, can't you? I don't even need to use my voice.

"Cory?" Amanda questioned. "Did you finish the exercises?"

"No," he finally answered. "I didn't have time for them this week." Dark eyes swept over Amanda. "You look pretty today. I like your hair."

Figures. "Thank you." One step further, Cory, and I'm gonna have to listen to my gut. "Let's use our time today to work on them then." Amanda was glad for the excuse to get up and get a piece of paper and pencil from her desk.

"You're not married, right, Dr. Greer?"

Amanda frowned. Not this again. "No, Cory. I've told you that before. I'm not married. But I am seeing someone." That's it, you're crossing the line.

A real man would marry you. I will. "A beautiful woman should be married." God made you beautiful so that I would notice you.

Oh... Boy. Amanda set down the paper and pencil on the coffee table and moved back to the recliner. "Cory, we need to talk about these questions." Amanda smiled reassuringly but kept her tone firm. "It's okay for you and I to have a friendly therapist/patient relationship. You know that, right?" She didn't wait for a response. "But we can only ever be therapist/patient. I'm your therapist, period. Anything else would not only be unethical, it would be wrong. I..."

"And if you weren't my therapist?" he asked reasonably.

"Then there would still never be anything between us. As I said before, I'm already in a relationship and I'm very happy."

Cory abruptly stood up and scrubbed the top of his flat-top hair. "How can you be in a happy relationship if he won't even marry you?" God made you for me, Amanda, no one else. Why can't you see that? He picked up a small silver-framed photograph of a blonde child wearing a pink swimsuit and playing in a wading pool. "Is this your daughter?"

The therapist's blood went cold over the simple question. "Cory, my personal relationships are none of your business." Amanda stood up and cocked her head slightly to the side. He's not getting the message. "Maybe I didn't make myself clear before." She approached Cory who had stopped poking around her desk and was listening intently. "There will never be any relationship between us, other than the one we share now. Even if I wasn't already seeing someone, and you weren't my patient, I would never become involved with a former patient."

The man stood silently. He was staring again. His dark eyes were beginning to frighten Amanda. She was prepared for acceptance or anger but not this... this... nothing. "Do you understand?" Her eyebrows lifted in question.

"Yes, I understand," he answered smoothly. In nature the strongest male mates with the female of his choosing. The weak are eliminated and the strong continue. It is God's will. We have no choice.

Amanda looked on doubtfully. "You understand that we can only have a professional relationship?" What's behind those dark eyes? I can see I'm not getting through to you.

"I understand the truth." Without warning he stepped forward and tightly grabbed Amanda's arms. "Do you?"

Amanda immediately pulled free from his icy grasp. "What do you think you're doing?" she asked angrily. He had never touched her before. Whoa, I really misjudged this one. There's no way I can continue to treat him now, no matter what he says. Maybe, I can give him a referral to a male colleague who's a specialist? He needs help, just not from me. "I think you should leave." Amanda stood her ground.

Cory nodded. You're already mine. You just don't know it. "I'll see you next week," he said as he grabbed his jacket off the sofa.

"No. I don't think that's a good idea. I'm not the right person to help you. I know that's why you're here and I'd like to make sure that you continue with therapy. I'd like to refer you to..."

Cory walked out of the room without a backward glance. The door slammed loudly behind him.

Amanda dropped her chin to her chest. "That went well," she muttered sarcastically. I can't believe he grabbed me. She looked down at her arms wondering if they'd bruise.

It's time to talk to Jody and go home. When her car wouldn't start with a jump, Amanda called and had it towed to her mechanic. Maybe if Jody is almost finished for the day she can give me a ride so I won't have to call a cab. Crap! I forgot to take Missy's car seat out the Audi.

A dark head poked its way into Amanda's office. "Are you okay?" Jody looked around to see if Cory was still there. "I'm surprised you still have anything on your walls. I haven't heard a door slammed that loudly since my divorce."

"I know." Amanda looked at the now crooked watercolors that hung on her wall. "He was pissed."

Jody came in and shut the door behind her. She motioned for Amanda to join her on the sofa. "Treatment not going well?" she asked.

Amanda unceremoniously plopped down next to her best friend and laid her head on Jody's shoulder. "I guess you could say that. I'm no longer treating him."

"Really?" Jody couldn't hide her surprise. Amanda usually stuck with even the most difficult patients. "Do you want me to take a whack at him?"

The pale head shook. "Absolutely not. I'm not sure it would be safe."

"Safe? What in the hell are you talking about? Are you saying farm boy is dangerous?

"He grabbed me."

"What?" Jody immediately stood up and looked down at her friend. "Shit! Why didn't you say something? Are you okay?"

"Calm down, Jody." Amanda patted the spot on the sofa next to her and Jody reluctantly reclaimed her seat. "I'm fine." The blonde settled back into the couch with a sigh of relief. "The last couple of visits Cory's been showing all the signs of a crush."

"Go on." Jody stretched out the words. The darker woman didn't find this surprising at all. It was a common occurrence, especially with Amanda. Her warm personality and caring demeanor gave her an instant rapport with patients that sometimes left these troubled people wanting more. And the fact that you're so damn cute doesn't help things either. But the smaller woman usually dealt with these situations extremely well.

Amanda laughed at her friend's gentle prodding. She knew Jody was dying to shake her until she got to the point. "And... I set him straight and he didn't take it very well. I told him I wouldn't see him anymore, but he stormed out before I could discuss him seeing a specialist."

"So you're okay?"


"And it's over?"

"Yep." At least I hope so. Amanda felt a momentary pang of guilt over losing the patient but was honest enough with herself to admit that she was relieved. Cory had been giving her the creeps and she already felt as though a huge weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

"Enough about this." The blonde nudged her friend. "What is it you wanted to talk to me about?"

Jody shifted uncomfortably. "Um..." Not today. She's already dealt with enough today. "I um...I was just wondering if you'd need a ride home tonight?" Yuck! Way to think on your feet, dumbass.

"That's what you wanted to talk about?" Speculative green eyes studied Jody. "Yeah, right," she snorted. "Spill it."

"So how did you like riding in the purple people eater?" Jody asked lightly, hoping Amanda would let the subject drop.

Amanda rolled her eyes in exasperation. "Fine, don't tell me then. And I felt ridiculous like I always do."

Jody smiled, not caring at all that Amanda didn't share her taste in vehicles. "So do you want a ride home or not?"

The younger woman mock-grimaced at the thought of riding in the truck. Ah... but beggars can't be choosers. "That would be great. Are you finished for the day?"

"You betcha. My last patient cleared out 30 minutes ago. Just let me get my coat."

Amanda got up and moved over to her desk where she grabbed a manila folder to take home. "I'm right behind you." The two women walked out of the office and over to the coat closet. "I gotta tell you, Jody. I'm already dreaming of taking a steaming hot bath."

"Alone?" Jody teased.

"I said dreaming not fantasizing." Then a wicked smile crinkled Amanda's nose. "But now that you mention it..."

Jody chuckled. She looks about 10 years older when she gets that look on her face. "Ever notice how I never call you 'spinster' anymore."

The blonde's smile went from wicked to satisfied. "Oh yeah."


"See you tomorrow."

"Goodnight." Amanda stepped down out of the tall cab. Only 30 more seconds and these shoes can be history.

She waved at Jody as the truck disappeared behind the curves of the long secluded driveway. For the millionth time Amanda considered how beautiful this property was and how truly happy she and Missy were here. She cheerfully inhaled the cold scent of wet snow and pine.

It always amazed Amanda how isolated she felt even in the heart of this Twin Cities suburb. The property was very large and lined with a deep layer of trees, giving it a feeling of privacy her condo sorely lacked. Only a few yards up the driveway and sounds of the city disappeared. A heavy blanket of snow added to the profound silence.

Amanda opened the front door and was greeted with the rich sound of classical music pouring out of the living room. She's home early tonight, she thought delightedly. Stowing her coat in the closet, the therapist shed her shoes and softly padded toward the melodic notes. I wonder if Claire knows she's like to Pied-Piper when it comes to me?

Turning the corner, she wasn't surprised to find her lover seated in front of the glistening black baby grand piano dressed in sweat pants and a red Indiana University sweatshirt. Missy was perched on her lap, buck-naked, and was giggling furiously. From the doorway Amanda watched as Claire performed the intricate piece flawlessly, as though she didn't have an exuberant 2-year-old on her lap squirming ever second. At the very end, the tall attorney pointed to a key, which Missy excitedly pushed. Then both pianists cheered. Amanda shook her head and savored the sweet moment. The simple sight pushed away all thoughts of the day gone by and refocused her heart on the two people that lit up her world.

Loath to break the moment, she nevertheless pushed forward into the room. The smile on her face was as involuntary as the flutter of her heart when she saw Claire pick up her reflection in the far window.

Claire turned to face her and answered with her a heartfelt smile of her own. No more late nights for a while, Mandy. I've missed this too much.

"Mama!" the little girl screamed and scrambled off Claire's lap.

"Hi, sweetheart." Amanda bent down and hugged the toddler tightly. Straightening, she placed her fingertip on the little girl's nose. "Why are you naked, young lady?" The toddler's clothes were strewn throughout the room.

"It was almost bath time. But we got distracted," Claire sheepishly offered in explanation.

Amanda stepped forward and kissed her partner soundly. A pale eyebrow arched in question. "Then why aren't you naked too?"

Claire grinned broadly then began peeling off her sweatshirt.

"Yaaahhhh!" Missy squealed with delight. In unison she and Claire shouted, "It's bath time!"

The half-naked lawyer grabbed the little girl by her ankles and lifted her high in the air as she made her way up the stairs. Half way up the steps, she looked back at Amanda who was still standing at the bottom. The tall woman paused. "Coming?"

Amanda inspected her beautiful lover's athletic but feminine physique. I hope to be, soon! is what she thought, what she said was, "I'll be up in a minute."

Claire wriggled her eyebrows, promising things to come after the little one's bedtime, then disappeared at the top of the stairs. With a feeling of undiluted bliss Amanda began shedding her own blouse. Soon, three very different sized sets of clothing littered the floor of the contented home.

Outside, dark eyes watched as the second floor lights went on and living room turned black.


Not long after moving in, Amanda had been shocked to find out that Claire hadn't taken an actual bath since she was a child. It was a situation the shorter woman quickly remedied. Amanda easily considered the gigantic tub one of their finest acquisitions as a couple. Though she had to admit, she had done most of the comparison-shopping. To her amusement, shopping with Claire consisted of the taller woman entering a store, scanning the merchandise, and grunting in the direction of what she wanted.

Amanda smiled warmly at the memory of 'initiating' her lover into the joys of a nice roomy tub. Now, just 6 weeks later, she had as much trouble getting Claire out of the tub as she did Missy. Which was okay, she supposed, considering she felt the same way. After the long communal bath and a quick dinner, Missy was exhausted and went to sleep without the usual fuss that accompanied bedtime. And both Amanda and Claire were looking forward to time alone together.

The young therapist donned a pair of soft flannel, tartan pajamas and deposited herself on the low padded stool that sat in front of a mahogany dressing table. The lighting in the bedroom was muted, casting a soft, golden glow around the room. Mossy green eyes scanned the tabletop.

"Sweetheart, have you...?"

A large soft bristled brush suddenly appeared in front of Amanda. The blonde looked up into the large mirror to see Claire standing behind her with a grin twitching at her lips.

"Thanks." She took the offering. "What's so funny?" Strong fingers began kneading Amanda's shoulders. "Ugh." The pale head tipped forward. "That… feels… awesome."

"Aren't you gonna ask where I found it?"

"What?" Amanda was finding it hard to concentrate on anything other than the loving attention her tired shoulder muscles were receiving.

Claire smirked. "The brush. Aren't you gonna ask where I found the brush?" Deft fingers moved up into the fine blonde hairs at the base of Amanda's skull.

"Hmm...Yeah, right there," Amanda groaned as her head dropped lower. "Ah, I wasn't. But you can tell me anyway."

"The crisper."

Amanda looked at the mirror in confusion and Claire laughed lightly, deciding further elaboration was clearly in order. "It was in the crisper with the peaches."

The psychologist’s eyebrows shot skyward and she brought the brush to her nose for a sniff. "Mmm. I wondered what that smell was." Shaking her head, she let out a small laugh. "Missy was using it this morning so I'm not surprised. She’s really getting into everything. Hey, you don't have any guns do you?" Amanda teased.

"Nope." The taller woman slid her hands down to rest on rounded shoulders. She knelt behind the shorter woman, unable to keep herself from leaning closer to her companion. "No guns," she chuckled, enjoying the sweet scent of Amanda’s freshly shampooed hair.

Snaking her arm around Amanda, Claire held her hand out for the brush, which she received with a smile. The lawyer began gently brushing her lover's unruly tresses. I guess this job won't take as long as it used to. Experimentally, she ran her long fingers through the shaggy short locks. Hmm. I've been dying to this for days. Why did I wait so long?

Amanda sighed, loving the feeling of Claire's strong hands caressing her scalp. "Are you mad at me for cutting it?" Amanda suddenly whispered.

"What?" Confusion colored the deep voice. "Why would I be mad?"

Amanda shifted her position until she was facing Claire. She studied her partner with a serious expression. "Well, you hardly spoke to me that evening or the next day for that matter."

"But… it… I didn’t…" The lawyer stopped her confused babbling. Shit! Blue eyes conveyed regret. "No. That wasn’t it at all." She reached up and lightly stroked the soft skin of Amanda’s cheek. "Your hair looks beautiful," she said earnestly. You’re beautiful. "I should have told you that before." Stupid! Stupid!

"Then you’re not mad?" Amanda questioned, still a little insecure over her partner’s initial reaction.

In response, Claire leaned forward and gently brushed her lips against her mate's. She fought the urge to deepen the kiss when the soft lips against hers parted naturally. Claire pulled back and brought up her palms, cupping the smaller woman’s cheeks. "I was never mad, just insensitive." And self-centered, and obsessed with work. "Forgive me?" There was a hint of pleading in the voice that drew a worried frown from the younger woman.

"Of course I forgive you." She smiled reassuringly and tangled her hands in dark thick hair, pulling Claire closer. "What’s wrong, Gumby?" she asked gently. "And don’t you dare tell me nothing. You’ve been saying that for weeks and we both know it’s not true," she added firmly.

"Tonight was fun, huh?"

The warm palms dropped from Amanda’s face, and she fought her own irritation at the apparent change in subjects. "It was great," she answered cautiously, not understanding the direction of the conversation. "We haven’t spent time together like that in a while. But…"

We do need to talk. "Let’s talk in bed, okay?" Claire stood up and grasped Amanda’s forearms to help her up.

"Ouch!" Amanda grimaced and quickly pulled her arms back, causing her to plop back down onto the stool.

"I’m sorry, Mandy," Claire said in a rush. "I didn’t mean to hurt you. I…" Dark brows knit in confusion. "I didn’t grab you that hard. What’s the matter with your arms?" Without waiting for an answer, Claire pushed back a loose fitting flannel sleeve exposing bruises that were clearly in the shape of fingers. The darker woman felt her hackles rise and she instantly took hold of the other arm, silently repeating the process. Where did these come from and why didn’t I see these in the tub? Did the bubbles hide these? They weren’t there yesterday.

"Ow… I forgot about these." Amanda briskly rubbed her arms and pushed down her sleeves. "I was hoping they wouldn’t bruise," she went on, oblivious to her companion's building rage.

Claire’s worry for her lover was warring against her hurt and anger. Why didn’t she tell me about these?! Anger won. "Did you get these when you went to visit your father today?" Claire’s voice was low and controlled, giving no hint of her internal struggle for control.

"Of course not! My father would never hurt me!" Amanda was clearly shocked by question.

A dark eyebrow arched. "And I’m sure you would have said the same thing about your mother. But if I recall, you were sporting a bruise on your face after your last visit with her," she intoned sarcastically. "And you didn’t tell me about that either, I had to hear it from Jody."

"That was a one time thing under extreme circumstances and you know it." The smaller woman's temper flared at her partner's implied lack of trust. "Are you accusing me of lying?" Amanda asked angrily as she stood up and faced Claire.

"Are you?" The attorney slammed her fist down on Amanda's dressing table causing a loud crack to ring out in the room. Why is everyone protecting people that hurt them! Claire couldn’t help but draw the parallel between Amanda and the case she’d grudgingly pleaded down earlier that day.

"I can’t believe you’re even asking me that," she spat, her anger rushing out in full force. "What the hell is wrong with you? Of course I’m not lying! How dare you even say that?"

Amanda began to storm out of the room, but before she got to the door she changed her mind and spun around to face Claire once again. Her hands were on her hips and green eyes were flashing as she approached her partner. "Well? I'm still waiting for some answers! WHAT… IS… WRONG?" she shouted furiously, her voice rising in volume with each punctuated word.

"Mama? Cwairr?" A small voice sounded from outside the bedroom door.

Both woman immediately went silent, realizing that Missy probably had awoken because of their argument. Amanda shot Claire a look, letting her know that their discussion wasn’t over, before opening the bedroom door.

Poor kid. Isn't this the stuff that's supposed to give kids nightmares? I know it does me. Claire stepped forward alongside Amanda and looked down at a bottom lip that was quivering and cheeks that were glistening with tears.

The older woman knelt in front the child and pushed back a lock of blonde hair that was sticking up wildly in all directions. Just like her mama. "What’s wrong, Kiddo?" she questioned softly, still trying to stem the tide of adrenaline coursing through her.

The toddler wiped her eyes and sniffed pathetically. "Nothin'."

"If there’s nothing wrong then why are you up?" Amanda asked kindly as she wiped the tears from Missy’s face. "Do you want me to tuck you in?"

The pale head nodded, and Claire stepped back allowing Amanda to pick up Missy and exit the room.

GODDAMMIT! Claire clenched and unclenched her fists as she stalked around the empty room, not knowing how to handle her anger. She was furious with Amanda for not telling her what happened, livid at whoever had hurt her, and just plain disgusted with her own inappropriate reaction. No wonder I’ve lived alone all these years. I’m too pathetic to handle anything more. The attorney stood in the center of her bedroom, helplessly ill-equipped when it came to what to do next. She quickly disregarded the choices that immediately came to mind. Somehow, getting drunk or confronting everyone who came in contact with Amanda today didn’t strike her as particularly comforting. Although, she had to admit, both ideas were appealing in their own way.

The tall woman lay back on the bed and closed her eyes, allowing her insecurities free rein. This is why she’s keeping the condo. She’s probably planning a way to sneak out on the crazy woman at this very moment. I wouldn’t blame her, she thought miserably. Maybe she’s seeing someone else? They could have put those marks on her arms. Maybe she was afraid to tell me, afraid I wouldn't understand?

That would explain why she didn’t tell me. Claire’s stomach twisted at the thought. No, she wouldn’t do that. Things have been strained lately but not that bad. Tonight was great… Well, at least until I started interrogating her.

Blue eyes traveled to the clock and noted the early hour. It was only 9:30 p.m. and Claire knew she wouldn’t be able to sleep for several more hours. After a few more moments of lying alone and stewing, her confusion and hurt finally gave way to indignation. Claire abruptly stood up and walked out of the bedroom. She could hear muffled sounds of Amanda’s melodic voice from the room across the hall, and guessed she was telling Missy a bedtime story. She fought the urge to go into the child’s room and beg Amanda’s forgiveness. She’s the one keeping secrets! Why should I apologize? If she trusted me she would have told me.

Claire padded down the stairs in a rush to be anywhere but in her own home. Part of her knew that it was childish to run from an argument. But a larger part was eager to embrace the quiet solitude of her Pathfinder and the easy companionship of Gumby, who, she irrationally reasoned, never kept secrets and would always love her. No matter how much I fuck-up. At the moment, she was seriously having doubts about Amanda.


Amanda pulled the covers up around Missy's chin and placed a light kiss on the toddler’s cheek before quietly ducking out of the room. She pulled the door closed behind her with a light 'click.' She had heard her lover's hasty retreat down the hall and the loud slamming of the door leading to the garage.

Sometime between the fairy godmother's first appearance and the stroke of midnight, Amanda's anger had begun to cool, only to re-ignite at the sound of the slamming door and the realization that Claire was running away.

Many times when Claire was worried or upset, Amanda would hear the darker woman taking out her frustrations with furious but precise piano keystrokes. She had even learned to gauge the extent her partner's distress by the composer and piece she selected. But tonight the living room was hauntingly silent. This was the first time Claire had simply walked away.

Amanda sighed heavily. Claire’s sour mood and excessive workload had pushed Amanda’s patience to the edge. She knew a confrontation was inevitable but that didn’t ease the sting of Claire’s words. Her mind flashed to angry, azure eyes that had gone watery before Missy’s interruption. God, I hate fighting with her. But not as much as she hates fighting with me, her heart reminded. I know. I know.

The young psychologist went back to their room and glanced ruefully at the large empty bed. Passing over the bed completely, she walked to the window and pulled back the light curtains. It was a hazy, moonless night. But if she looked carefully, she could barely make out the large, heavy flakes that were slowly drifting by the window. I shouldn't worry. I won't worry. She's fine. She’s just angry and needs some time alone to cool down. But despite her words, Amanda knew her heart was driving around somewhere in the cold snow.

I should have told her what happened with Cory. Now she thinks I was intentionally keeping it from her. I wasn’t, dammit! I was having such a nice time tonight, I didn’t even think about it. Amanda reached into the closet and began rooting around on the floor. Finally. She sat down in the doorway of the closet and slipped on a pair of warm fuzzy slippers.

Not wanting to go to bed until she'd a chance to speak with Claire, she decided to go downstairs and spend some time on her latest watercolor. While it wasn’t as dramatic as Claire’s pounding, the soft brush strokes and gentle mixing of colors were relaxing.

The psychologist clicked off the light and headed toward the beautiful studio Claire had lovingly set up in a spare bedroom. As she moved from the second to first floor she noticed the drop in temperature and wrapped her arms around herself, idly wishing she’d remembered to grab a robe. She entered the studio without turning on the light and stood quietly in front of the partially completed picture. Amanda reached out and absently grabbed a brush from a small metal tray and began chewing on the gnarled wooden tip. I have the horrible feeling I’m going to have a long time to work on this.



Amanda jumped at the sound of someone furiously pounding on the front door causing her to accidentally brush a bright red streak across the ocher paper. "Crap," she muttered. Laying down her brush, she removed her paint smock and checked her watch as she hurried to the front door. 1:00 a.m.? I didn’t realize it was so late. She must have forgotten her house keys.

On pure reflex, she looked through the peephole before opening the door. Mark?

A stab of worry lanced through her as she opened the heavy wooden door for him. Why would he come here so late? When the psychologist opened the door she was greeted with a nearly painful blast of frigid night air, a sheepish looking Mark, and a very drunk Claire.

Mark stood on the porch intently studying his boots with an apologetic look on his face. His thick arm was tightly wrapped tightly around Claire, who was obviously having trouble standing.

Amanda scowled and grabbed both her friends by the front of their coats. With a sharp tug she pulled them into the house. "Get in here. It’s freezing!"

"Owwff. Geeze, Amanda, we’re coming," Mark choked. Uh Oh.

"Well, not fast enough," the blonde groused. She pointed an angry finger at Claire. "You’re damn lucky you're okay, Gumby. I’d have kicked your butt otherwise." The threat was spoken firmly but the crack in her voice belied the emotion underneath. Determined not to show Claire how worried she’d actually been, she turned to Mark. "What happened?" As if it wasn't obvious.

Claire was leaning heavily against her friend, who was doing his level best to make it look like she wasn’t. "She… um… came over to my house… and um… she was really upset… and…"

"Don’t tell me you’ve been drinking too!" Amanda grabbed the tall man’s collar and roughly jerked his face down to hers.

Normally strong self-assured features twisted into a fair imitation of a deer caught in headlights. "No… No!" he sputtered and swallowed hard. "I was driving because she was too drunk!" Mark abruptly pointed to Claire, effectively abandoning his best friend to save himself.

Amanda sniffed loudly as if checking his breath for alcohol. When she was satisfied he was telling the truth, her eyes softened and she released her grip. The big man straightened and breathed an obvious sigh of relief.

Claire snickered at the other attorney’s evident discomfort.

Mark’s eyebrows disappeared behind fair bangs. "Ingrate!" With a jerk, he released Claire from his iron grip and she unceremoniously flopped onto the carpet.

A single contemptuous blue eye rolled up and glared at the beefy man. "You shithead," she slurred before she tried unsuccessfully to pull herself up onto the sofa.

"Mark!" Amanda chastised, but didn’t move to help her partner. Now that she was sure Claire was safe, her temper was beginning to reassert itself.

"She deserves a lot worse than that," he complained. "You should see the inside of my car!"

"Eww." Amanda made a face. "I’d rather not." The shorter woman glanced down at Claire who was now face down on the carpet with a light snoring sound buzzing from her head. She reached down and brushed back dark bangs. You're gonna feel this in the morning. Well, at least it's Saturday. No more running away from me this weekend, Claire. With a soundless sigh, she stepped over her lover’s body and sat down on the couch. A small hand patted the spot next to her and Mark eagerly moved to join her.

"Thanks for bringing her home safely, Mark," she said gratefully, squeezing a muscular shoulder.

He shrugged and unzipped his heavy parka. "Well, of course. You know I'd eat broken glass for either one of you." He smiled wryly. "And spending the evening with Claire when she's angry and depressed and drunk makes ground glass look like an appetizing alternative. Man, and I thought she was upset this afternoon."

"What happened this afternoon?"

"You mean she didn't tell you?" He was obviously surprised. "What's with you guys suddenly keeping secrets from each other?" Mark reached out and gently touched Amanda's forearms. "Claire told me about the bruises." His eyes went deadly serious. "If you're seeing some guy behind Claire's back and he did this and you're afraid..."

"WHAT???" Amanda jumped up and then stumbled as she tripped over Claire's sleeping form. Her mind reeled as she tried to process what Mark had just said. "What do you mean 'seeing' some guy?" she whispered, hoping she'd misunderstood.

"Claire told me that she's been nearly impossible to live with lately and that you didn't tell her about the bruises and..." Mark suddenly stopped and took a good hard look at Amanda's face. She was in shock and it was clear she had no idea what he was talking about. Oh no. Thanks a lot, Buddy. I'm in so deep there isn't a shovel big enough... "There's no guy, is there?" Mark queried in a defeated but relieved tone.

"She thinks I'm having an affair?" Amanda finally asked tonelessly. I think I'm gonna be sick.


"Is that what she thinks, or not?" she questioned angrily, her hands involuntarily wringing a soft, pale comforter that lay on the arm of the couch.

"I think you need to talk to Claire about this." But the green eyes that bore into his wouldn't be denied. His will was no match for Amanda's, and he knew it. Not when it came to something that meant this much, that meant everything. "She thinks it's a possibility. She's really upset about the bruises and... well... some other things too." Speaking of which, now that I can think of something other than you breaking my best friend's heart... "Are you okay?"

Amanda's mind was a jumble of past conversations. How could she think I'd do that? She knows how much I love her, doesn't she? I've never even looked at another woman twice! And certainly not a man. Mark was waiting patiently. "Hmm? Oh, sorry, Mark. What did you say?"

"I asked if you were okay. These must hurt." With a gentleness that was at odds with his large hands, he gently pushed back one of Amanda's sleeves, exposing an angry bruise that was obvious even in the dimly lit room.

Amanda shooed his hands away dismissively. "These are nothing. They mean nothing. I have a patient, or I guess I should say former patient, who has a crush on me. When I made it clear that I was off-limits, he got frustrated and grabbed my arms. End of story. The only reason I didn't mention it to Claire was that it slipped my mind. I'm sure I'll never even see the kid again."

"Did you call the police?"

Amanda rolled her eyes. "Of course not. Mark, he's just a confused kid who thinks there might be something between us."

"Define kid."

"God, you're as bad as Claire. Fine. He's twenty years old. A little young for me in any case." Amanda's eyes traveled down to Claire. On the other hand, you my dear are perfect for me. The therapist shook her head in amazement. Even with you passed out drunk and furious with me, all I can think about is how much I ache to wrap my arms around you and love you until your insecurities and doubts evaporate.

"Oh right, and you're sooo old. Twenty-nine right? Believe me, Amanda, when I was twenty if I'd of thought I had a chance at fabulous woman like you I would have had majorly pathetic crush. But under no circumstances would I have ever grabbed you. A twenty-year-old is a man, not a kid. I want to check this guy out downtown."

"You're overreacting, Mark. Besides, I don't care anything about that now. It's over. The situation with Claire isn't." Amanda suddenly remembered Mark's earlier statement.

"What happened earlier today to upset her?"

Mark blew out a heavy breath and rubbed his temples as though the very subject matter gave him a headache. "Claire was ordered to offer a plea bargain to Mr. Hanson. Are you familiar with the case?" It was clear that the couple hadn't been talking much lately, and even though the case was extremely important to Claire, Mark wasn't sure she'd even mentioned it to Amanda.

Amanda's head bobbed up and down. "She's been working day and night on it."

Good. "He accepted the plea. No rape charges, the girls stay in the house, and he does less than a year in jail. It's a conviction, but I don't think that's making Claire feel any better. The first time she met the youngest Hanson girl, the kid starting crying and Claire promised she'd help her. I think she feels like she let everybody down, especially the kid."

"But what happened wasn't her fault!" But of course you wouldn't believe that, would you, Gumby.

"I know. And I think Claire does too. It's just that her heart is having trouble agreeing with her head."

Amanda sighed. The tall man knew Claire inside and out. "Don't worry, Mark. I'll talk to her tomorrow and we'll work all this out. I should never have let things get this far out of hand. I don't know why she always so insecure about..." About us.

"Probably because of what happened with Sarah," he answered absently.


Hazel eyes widened. She never told you about Sarah? SHIT... FUCK... SHIT... She's gonna kill me! Dead man walking! SHIT. "Um...ah," he hedged.

"That was a girl she knew in college right? She mentioned her when we first starting going out but didn't hasn't said anything about her since. What would she have to do with this?"

Amanda's curiosity was piqued. Although, her normally reticent partner had opened up about a lot of things, Claire was still an intensely private person. And the subject of old lovers, while not exactly taboo, was an area she was extremely reluctant to discuss. Amanda likened it to pulling teeth... from a porcupine... a wiggling, agitated porcupine.

"Yeah, she knew her in college. Listen Amanda, I..."

Amanda forced down her own inquisitiveness out of respect for both her Claire and Mark. "Relax. I'd never ask you to betray Claire's trust. She'll tell me when she's ready."

Thick pale eyebrows shot upward and Mark's lips formed a small circle. "Wow," he finally uttered. "I can't believe you're gonna let me off the hook." His smile turned wry. "Claire wouldn't have, you know." He laughed a little, relieved he may actually live to see Christmas. "She makes Curious George look dull."

The two blondes both chuckled at the truth of Mark's words. Claire's curiosity, drive, and dedication made her a terrific advocate. She left no stone unturned, and because of that, was rarely beaten. Unfortunately, behind the competent, stern exterior, was a woman who tended to take things personally. And Amanda understood that, for Claire, the adjustment from corporate law to criminal law was a difficult one. The tall woman cared little about money. But she did care about people, and in her new arena, the victims were disturbingly real and their suffering hauntingly vivid.

"So you guys are gonna be okay, right?" he asked hopefully. "You know that you're my role model for a happy relationship. Sometimes watching you guys is downright sickening."

"Of course we'll be okay. We just haven't taken the time to sit down and really talk to each other lately. But that's gonna change this weekend." Even if I have to tie her down. "Speaking of relationships, how are things going with you and Jody?" Amanda grinned and wriggled her eyebrows.

A huge smile caused deep creases to form in Mark's cheeks. No wonder Jody's so crazy about you, Mark. You are truly gorgeous. Amanda pushed down a brief flash of jealously. Although Mark was clearly happy with Jody, his feelings for his best friend were impossible to miss. He simply worshipped Claire and vice versa. When the two were together, their looks and sheer presence would put any Hollywood couple to shame. They didn't just turn heads, jaws dropped.

"Great!" The smile suddenly dropped from his face. "Although, she's been awfully quiet for the last few weeks. I kind of get the idea she doesn't much like the holidays."

Amanda frowned in answer. "That's not something I've ever noticed before, but I guess it's possible." Then again, I usually spend the holidays with my family so how would I know. Not this year, she thought sadly. But as real as that heartache was, it was substantially eased by the simple fact that she had Missy and Claire. Although she loved her parents, her feelings for them weren't even in the same realm with what she felt for her lover and daughter. Amanda found herself looking forward to this Christmas in a way she hadn't since she was a child.

"Do you think Jody ever thinks about spending her life with someone?" Mark asked out of the blue. His eyes betrayed a deep need to know that his voice didn't.

Amanda tried not to sound shocked by the question. "Are you talking about a long-term commitment like marriage?"

He looked away. "Maybe." That's exactly what he was talking about and he knew it.

Now it was Amanda's turn to be uncomfortable. "Well, honestly I was surprised when she got married the first time. Jody's always been kind of a free spirit. And after what happened with Chester, I'm really not sure she'd consider it again," Amanda finished honestly, hoping she hadn't hurt the big man's feelings.

"Her ex-husband really did a number on her, didn't he?" It was a statement more than a question.

The reddish-gold head nodded. "He was, and is, a despicable excuse for a human being," she hissed, her voice tinged with venom. "He deserves coal in his Christmas stocking for the next thousand years. Not everyone stays friends like you and your ex," she added whistfully.

"We needed to stay friendly because of the boys." He shrugged. "And she's an excellent mother, that's what's important now. We actually have a better relationship now than we ever did while we were married."

"That's not the case with Jody and Chester."

"I know. Jody told me about finding Chester in bed with another woman. I can only imagine how she must have felt."

Amanda cringed at the painful memory. "I don't have to imagine it. I was there. We'd just returned from the out-of-town wedding of one our buddies from our old National Guard unit. We walked in on them..." Amanda gestured wildly "...you know." She dropped her hands. "Jody was beside herself."

Mark's face darkened and he shifted deeper into the couch, obviously distressed. "I'd like to beat the shit out of that guy."

To his surprise, Amanda laughed. "You don't have to worry about that. Jody already took care it. She broke his nose and three ribs; if I hadn't finally stepped between them, I'm not sure he'd be walking around today."

"And the woman?"

Amanda snorted. "You mean the girl? She was his seventeen-year-old summer intern. I ushered her out the door with a kick in the ass before Jody could get to her." She quirked her lips. "Two murders would have been a little excessive, don't ya think?"

Mark smiled weakly, though he was convinced that at least one would have been justified. "Yeah, I suppose so."

The therapist laid a gentle hand on Mark's knee. "Be patient with her, Mark. She's had a rough time. On top of the humiliation of his affair, she got taken to the cleaners in the divorce and she is still very bitter."

"I'm in love with her," he said as though it were a revelation.

Green eyes twinkled gently and Amanda fought the urge to say 'duh.' Mark wore his feelings on his sleeve for the entire world to see. "I know." She smiled reassuringly.

"I should go."

"You should stay," came the warm response. "It's really late and the guest room is sitting empty."

"Nah, the boys are gonna be at my place early for our Christmas shopping trip." His eyes traveled to his passed out friend and back to Amanda. "Are we still on for tomorrow?"

"You bet! She's not getting out of shopping because of a little hangover. We'll be there," she added confidently. Assuming we don't kill each other first. "Besides, Missy's been talking about seeing Keith and Bobby for days. I don't want to disappoint her."

Mark slapped his hands down on his thighs and leaned forward. "Okay then, let's get her to bed." Despite the innocent meaning behind the statement, he blushed.

"You are so cute!" Amanda laughed and leaned over to give him a soft peck on the cheek.

"Yeah... well..." The blush deepened.

Having pity, Amanda stood up and carefully moved around Claire. She held a hand out to Mark. "C'mon, I'll lead the way."


"Oh my God!" Claire groaned. "I'm dead and this is hell."

A light chuckle sounded in the background and Claire heard the rustling of the curtains. Suddenly, a painfully bright light blinded her.

"Time to get up, oh suffering one."

"Ugh... Kill me... I'm begging you!" The lawyer buried her throbbing head into her pillow and tried to block out any trace of irritating light. Then Claire remembered the fight she and Amanda had the night before. With a unpleasant grunt, the dark head lifted and Claire pried open her eyes to spy on her partner.

Amanda was standing in front of the window, backlit by the streaming rays of morning sun and looking adorably disheveled. She had a serious case of 'bed head'. Her oversized pajamas were wrinkled and hanging slightly to the side, and her face was still creased from the pillow case seam. To Claire's eyes she was the most exquisite creature in all the universe.

"Are you still talking to me?" Claire's voice cracked. Her tongue felt twice its normal size and like it was lined with a fine grained sandpaper.

"It would appear so. Would you like some water?"

Claire nodded pathetically and accepted the cool glass from Amanda. "Thank you." She gingerly took a sip, hoping her stomach wouldn't decide to rebel. Pleased with the outcome, she closed her eyes and drank a little more. "Oh, that is so good." She opened her eyes again when she felt several tablets being pushed into her palm. Without a word, she downed the pain relievers. Another long swallow and she finished the water, placing the glass back in Amanda's outstretched hand.

The younger woman sat the glass on the nightstand and perched on the bed alongside Claire. Affectionately, she pulled aside an errant wisp of dark hair that had worked its way across Claire's cheek. Her lips replaced her fingers with a feather-soft kiss.

Bloodshot blue eyes immediately filled with tears. "Mandy, why are you being so nice to me?" she whispered.

Amanda cocked her head to the side and smiled gently down at her friend. "Because I can tell you're hurting and even though you did it to yourself, I can't stand to see you in pain." Smooth fingertips traced Claire's eyebrows causing her eyes to flutter shut at the sweet contact. "When you hurt, I hurt too," continued the sincere response. "But mostly because I love you."

When Claire's eyes opened again, the tears that had been steadily pooling, spilled out. She ran a frustrated hand across her cheeks. "I'm sorry, I don't know why I'm crying," she sniffed.

"You shouldn't drink, Gumby," Amanda softly chided. "It always makes you feel worse." The psychologist grabbed a Kleenex from the nightstand and carefully wiped Claire's face. "Can we talk about yesterday?" she asked hesitantly, not wanting to rush Claire, but not wanting to wait either.

The brunette moaned and Amanda jumped to her feet. "Are you going to be sick?" she said in a rush.

It was a full minute before Claire knew how to answer Amanda's question. "No, I don't think so, and yes, we should talk about last night." With great effort, the larger woman scooted over in the bed and motioned for Amanda to slide in next to her. The blonde did so without hesitation and Claire shifted onto her back, pulling Amanda closer. Just having her next to me makes me feel better.

Amanda noticed Claire's sigh of relief. "Feeling better?" she asked in a voice so full of concern that Claire nearly melted on the spot.

"Much. Thank you. And by the way, I love you too." Her own face broke out into a smile when she felt Amanda's lips curl against the skin on her chest. Okay, it's now or never. "Will you tell me what happened to your arms?"

Amanda pulled back a little and propped herself on one elbow. "Of course I'll tell you." She reached out and grabbed the edge of the blanket, pulling tightly around them both. "Things got out of hand with a patient. He was hoping our relationship could be more than therapist/patient. He got frustrated when I assured him it couldn't, and he grabbed my arms. Then he let me go and stormed out of the office." The short version but still...

Claire pulled Amanda into a tight hug, adjusting her across her chest. "You're not seeing him again." She felt Amanda's head shake no. "He didn't do anything else, did he?" The lawyer's worry leaked through into her voice.

"No. I'm fine. I'm sorry I didn't mention it earlier." VERY sorry. "I was enjoying myself so much last night it didn't even cross my mind. I wasn't trying to keep it from you."

Amanda lifted her head and looked directly into Claire's eyes. "I promise." Her tone left no room for doubt.

Thank God. Claire felt a profound rush of relief. It wasn't Jody or one of her parents or...Uh Oh. Oh shit, let me have kept my mouth shut while I was drinking... just this once. Mark is worse than a gossipy fishwife.

Amanda snuggled back down onto Claire, happy that at least that much of their misunderstanding appeared to be settled.

"It was nice of Mark to bring me home," Claire tentatively began.

"Very nice," Amanda agreed.

"Did he stay long after he dropped me off?" Say no, say no, say no.

"Actually, yes. He stayed a while and we had a really nice talk."

Shit. Of course you did. Marko undoubtedly spilled his guts.

"Oh really?" Claire was going for total nonchalance. "Talk about anything interesting?"

"Umm...Hmm. Several very interesting things."

Must my every insecurity be paraded in front of Mandy? "He told you didn't he?" Claire asked defeatedly.

"I guess that would depend on exactly what you're referring to. But it really doesn't matter. Suppose you tell me how you could... I mean why..." She choked on the bitter taste of the words. "Why you think that I might be seeing 'some guy'." How, when I'm lying here in your arms in our bed, could you even think something so...so...ridiculous? Amanda tried to keep the anger and hurt out of her voice. The last thing she wanted was for this to escalate into another argument.

Claire closed her eyes again. How could I think that? Did I really think that? Christ, I don't know. "Mandy, it's... well it's hard to explain." Long arms wrapped tighter around her partner, hoping to convey a physical reassurance her words didn't.

That's not good enough, Claire. Amanda schooled herself in patience. "Try."

"Do we have time for this?" Claire asked, hoping for a reprieve. "Isn’t Missy going to come charging in here at any moment?"

"Yes and no. Missy woke up early and is already asleep again. It’s later than you think. Talk." Talk to me before I beat it out of you. Talk!

Claire took a deep breath, then exhaled in a long tortured groan. Amanda could feel the nervous tension roiling through her partner. After a few moments of silence, when she was sure Claire wasn’t going to answer, she carefully prompted the other woman again.

"Please, Claire. Please talk to me."

There. That was all it took. Claire knew she couldn’t deny Amanda anything when she attached that word to it. Another exhale. "Mandy, I never really believed you were seeing someone else. I was just feeling lousy and decided to wallow in something I knew would make me even more miserable." Man, was I ever right. "And that was the worst thing I could think of," Claire confessed in a wistfully painful voice that made Amanda’s heart hurt.

At last. Getting Claire to talk about what’s bothering her was always the hardest part. "Why would you want make yourself miserable?" Amanda felt a rush of protectiveness surge through her and found it odd that sometimes the person she most wanted to protect Claire from was herself.

"Because I’ve been feeling exceptionally stupid lately," she offered lamely. "All kinds of crazy thoughts have been rattling around in my head."

Amanda propped herself up again to look at her lover, confident that once Claire started, she wouldn’t stop. "I’m sorry about the Hanson case. I know it didn’t end the way you wanted it to."

How did she...? Oh yeah. Mark. "You’re right, it didn’t." I need to make this good. "Mandy, I am so sorry I accused you of lying. Seeing the bruises hit a nerve. Those girls are all being hurt and they can’t or won’t move to stop it. I couldn’t bear the thought that you might be protecting someone who had hurt you." Claire’s hand traced Amanda’s arm as she spoke.

"How do you do it?" Claire wondered aloud. With strong arms, she pulled the smaller woman on top her and lowered her voice. "How do you deal with these types of issues all the time without going crazy?" she asked in frustration. "I… I can’t stop thinking about how it was my job to help those girls, even when they wouldn’t help themselves... and I just couldn’t."

Whoa. I should have known this case was really bothering her. I still ask myself that from time to time. "A lot of it is practice, I guess. I mean, you can’t become so emotionally involved that it makes the job impossible. But unlike you, I have the luxury of not intentionally dealing with certain kinds of cases. Have you ever heard me talk about counseling kids, not teenagers, but children?"

Claire shook her head. "Are you bad at it?" she questioned, finding it hard to believe that Amanda wouldn’t be especially great with kids.

The blonde paused for a moment and allowed herself to truthfully consider the question. "No," she finally answered. "I think I do a good job with that particular patient. But it’s too consuming. I can’t distance myself the way I should, and my personal life suffers because of it. I very rarely take those cases anymore. And even when I do, I work closely with Jody and try to be extremely careful."

Amanda gave in to her body’s craving and placed a light kiss on the lips below hers. "You can’t save everyone, Claire. No matter how much you want to." And just how long did it take me to accept that?

"I know that."

Amanda lifted a challenging eyebrow.

Ugh. That's what I get for falling in love with a shrink. "Okay, I sort of know that."

"What else?"

"Why does there have to be anything else? I’ve been working like a dog on this case, I let the girls down, and that pervert is probably with one of them as we speak! Isn’t that enough?"

"Enough for you to think I might be seeing someone else? I don’t think so," Amanda persisted.

God… I do not want to talk about this. Not now. Not ever.

"I know you don’t want to talk about it. But it’s important."

Claire’s eyes widened. Jesus! Do you read minds now too?

"Yep. But only yours," Amanda answered. Despite the serious nature of their conversation, she couldn’t help but smile at the bug-eyed look on Claire’s face. "C'mon, Claire. You’re so nervous you’re practically making me sick. It wasn’t hard to figure out." The smaller woman placed a reassuring kiss on Claire’s cheek and then moved her lips next to Claire’s ear. "Have I done something that makes you think that?" she said softly.

The attorney screwed up her courage and decided to just ask. It’s better to know, right? NO! I don’t wanna know. If she goes, Missy’ll leave too and I don’t want to be without them… ever.

Amanda pulled back when the heartbeat below her fingertips started pounding furiously. She was met with teary, fearful eyes, whose intensity nearly caused her to shudder. The waves of anxiety that were pouring off Claire were palpable and the darker woman suddenly looked pale.

Her lover’s distress was unnerving and Amanda found herself unable to curb her answering panic. "You’re scaring the crap out me, Claire!" Hot tears rolled down her cheeks. "For the love of God, just say it!"

Claire swallowed hard and willed her voice not to shake. "How long are you and Missy going to stay here? With me, that is."

A profound silence.

What? The younger woman’s chest constricted painfully and she awkwardly pushed off the bed in disbelief. Claire reached out to stop Amanda’s flight but she was already on her feet. "You… you..." She stopped and ran a shaky hand through her hair. Her bewildered voice dropped to a barely audible whisper. "You want us to leave?"

The stark pain that echoed through the words was unmistakable, and Claire realized immediately that Amanda had misunderstood. "NO! NEVER! I don't want either one of you to leave!"

Amanda shook her head in amazement as she sat down on the floor at the foot of the bed. "This is why you’ve been so moody and upset lately? You’ve been trying to end things between us?" she mumbled to herself, Claire’s last words not registering.

"No, that’s NOT what I want." Claire scrambled to the floor, practically falling off the bed in an attempt to get between Amanda and the door. She pulled the smaller woman’s hands into hers and swallowed the solid lump that had formed in her throat. "NO! Don’t you see? I... I..." Shit! "We’ve never really talked about how long and… you’ve never gotten rid of your condo... I... um...assumed you didn’t think of this as permanent."

Amanda tried not to fall into the vulnerable, glassy blue eyes staring so earnestly into hers. She thinks I kept the condo so I'll have a place to go back to when I leave her? Oh, Claire, is that what is this is all about? "You’ve been waiting for Missy and I to get tired of you and leave? Is that it?"

Mid-nod, Amanda hurled herself into Claire knocking them both down in the process. With a loud 'humph', Claire fell onto the carpet with Amanda plastered on top of her. In a quick move, the psychologist was straddling the older woman. "You…" She kissed the startled brunette lightly. "Are…" she muttered against Claire’s lips as deft hands moved into the dark mane of hair and held Claire's head firmly in place. "Never, ever, ever, getting rid me or Missy. Is that completely clear, Gumby?"

Claire opened her mouth to speak but Amanda slapped her palm over the gaping hole before Claire could utter a sound.

"Wait. I was wrong. I'm not finished. This..." Amanda waved her free hand indicating their situation. "...will never happen again because you're never going to wonder how I'm feeling or what I'm thinking without just asking me, right?" she commanded vehemently.

God, I love her!

With her hand still over Claire's mouth, Amanda moved her palm up and down, forcing Claire's head to bob with her words. "Good," the blonde said smugly. "I knew we would agree on this." She felt the warm lips on the sensitive skin of her hand curl into a smile.

"Next..." Her voice lost its teasing edge, and Claire found herself riveted to her partner's face. When she gets serious something behind her eyes melts. They get so clear.

"In my heart..." Amanda grasped Claire's hand and laid it across her chest. She opened her mouth several times but couldn't find the words. The psychologist was uncharacteristically flustered.

How do I make her understand that my heart beats for her? How can I explain what just 'is'. As she usually did, Amanda decided on a simple truth. "In my heart we're a family. And it's... well... it's been like that..."

"Forever," Claire mumbled through Amanda's fingers.

The pale head nodded. And youthful features broke out in a brilliant smile that crinkled her nose and extended to the farthest corners of her face. That's exactly it, Gumby. "Forever."

Claire felt ten years younger and 100 pounds lighter as her world righted itself. On sure footing once again, she felt comfortable asking about Amanda's townhouse. "So if you don't intend moving back there, why keep the condo? It's been sitting nearly empty for months." The lawyer's hands found a natural resting spot on Amanda's waist.

"My realtor told me I'd get a better price in the spring."

Blue eyes rolled back dramatically and Claire groaned. "You mean my ass has been twisting around in the wind for months because you were waiting for the housing market to improve?"

"Umm. Yes?" Amanda answered with a sympathetic cringe, knowing that although Claire's question was a teasing one, her suffering had been all too real. I'm sorry, baby. No more wondering how I feel. Whether you ask or not, I'll be sure to tell you.

Amanda admitted to herself that she'd made a conscious effort not to push Claire forward in their relationship. Although the taller woman made it perfectly clear that she adored her and Missy, the therapist was still a little concerned that gaining a live-in-lover and two-year-old all in one flail swoop might send Claire into overload. Now, she realized that her caution had been mistaken for indifference. That won't happen again, she vowed.

"Well, is it time for makeup sex yet?"

"What?" Amanda laughed and feigned innocence. "I'm not sure we should," she hedged, knowing she would give in without the slightest provocation.

"No fair! I've earned it! I humbly apologized for my idiocy and the throbbing in my head has receded to a dull roar. What other requirements could there be?"

Amanda moved off her partner with a groan. Standing, she sat back on her side of the bed and glared at the clock as though it were evil incarnate. This sucks! "I predict Missy will sleep for another thirty minutes max., and Mark should be calling within the hour. He's going to pick us up in your car."

"Why is he driving my car?" Claire whined, thinking of all the dings in his truck and how much she wanted to jump Amanda's bones.

"It seems you left a small 'remembrance' of your drinking escapade in his truck last night, so I gave him the keys to the Pathfinder. His car is waiting for you and a big bucket of soapy water. He said he'd call before he stopped over to pick us up."

Claire took three long steps forward and bent down until she was nose-to-nose with Amanda. The lawyer spoke in her most breathy voice. "Oooh, Mandy, you make me so hot when you talk about puke and buckets and Mark."

A flashing white smile greeted Claire's words. It's about time. Welcome back, Gumby. The blonde burst out laughing but played along. "Did I forget to mention that I've been moonlighting as a phone sex operator? When you think you're ready, I'll tell you about diapers and lard."

The attorney put on her best game face but when Amanda wriggled her eyebrows suggestively, she dissolved into a helpless fit of laughter that ended in near sobs.

Amanda simply opened her arms and folded Claire in a tight hug. "I know, honey, it's alright," she soothed, allowing the attorney the full opportunity to ride herself of the pent up frustration and worry that had plagued her for weeks. When the tears had finally stopped, Claire pulled back and smiled sheepishly at her companion. "Sorry about that," she murmured. "I don't mean to be such a big baby."

Amanda handed Claire another tissue. "It's really okay, you know. I haven't seen you cry since Zane's and your Uncle Luther's deaths eight months ago. I think you were due." Taking back the soggy tissue, she dropped it into a wastebasket at the side of the bed. "Although, I don't know how you made it through 'Old Yeller' last month. I was practically a wreck," she teased with a wry smile.

The familiar banter caused Claire's own smile to reappear. "Join me in the shower," she offered innocently. "We still have time for a nice shower."

"Just a shower," Amanda asked doubtfully. "Mark should be calling anytime."

"Well, maybe not JUST a shower? I was sorta thinkin' we could..."

Claire leaned in and whispered in her lover's ear. She pulled back with a smirk when even the tips of Amanda's ears turned brick red.

Without another word, the lawyer walked out of the bedroom and into the bathroom.

As if drawn to the sirens' call, Amanda moved to follow Claire, shedding her pajamas with each step. When she reached the telephone on the nightstand, she simply yanked the cord out of the wall and continued on her way.


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