Act I

Wind, sand, and gravel combined to whirl around his head. It was deafening, a roar so loud as if an avalanche had taken up permanent residence between his ears. Grains of sand were imbedded in every orifice of his body. Not just any sand; toxic sand, according to rumors that circulated throughout his unit. This sand, rumor had it, was rich in high levels of neurotoxin agents when ingested; as if he and his fellow soldiers had a choice not to swallow this wretched poison.

Loud voices bellowed orders assaulting him. The recurring nightmares were driving him over the edge.

Only one thing would stop all the noise. He groped for the tubes controlling the drug. He knew which tube it was; he wasn't stupid. The nurse had talked her way through the hookup so he knew. More drugs meant no nightmares.

"It was my shift last night. He was so agitated. Dude almost lost his mind," the young nursing assistant said in hushed tones to the on-duty physician. "They gave him a shot to put him out."

"He is not a dude. He is a soldier." Dr. Yamato gave the young man a steely glare. "And, it's not a shot, it's a sedative to calm him down. Aren't you still on probation? You need to learn some protocol here young man, if you're going to make it at the VA." Dr. Yamato roughly handed him the chart.

Chastised, the young man did not argue. He really needed this job. "Yes sir, I'll try."

He was tired of this patient who was bull-headed and uncooperative. He squinted at the name again. Rivera. Must be something in the genes he mused. He himself was a Rivera and as stubborn as they came. Most of the men in the Rivera family were stubborn, one just had to look at his grandfather.

"PFC Rivera." He squinted again at the chart, making sure he had the right patient; he needed to take some vitals.

Rafe abruptly opened his eyes to see a young man, not much older than he was standing by his bedside.

"I need to draw some blood," the nurse sighed.

Rafe closed his eyes again, willing himself to be left alone. "Go away."

"My job is to draw blood. And I'm going to get it whether you like it or not," the nurse gritted out between clean white teeth.

Now wide-awake, Rafe tried to buck and launch himself at this insistent pain in the ass.

"You're strapped down, big man."

Rafe took his chuckling nemesis in. Black wavy hair framed an olive skin face and shadowy peach fuzz covered his upper lip and chin. Like Rafe, he was a failure at trying to grow a moustache. Dark eyes were hidden by black-framed glasses.

The young man pulled on the tourniquet and gave Rafe a rolled up paper to squeeze.

"You could be gentler," Rafe complained. Rafe caught a glimpse of his name badge: Rivera. "You're a Rivera?" Rafe attempted to sit up.

"Uh huh, lay still I'm almost finished." He labeled his last vial and removed the tourniquet. "Here's some juice."

Exhausted, Rafe took the juice and drank it quickly. Closing his eyes, he quickly drifted back off to sleep.

****

Olivia pushed the Caesar salad around her plate, knocking a few croutons onto the table. "I'm so over salad." A low sigh emphasized her disgust before she took a sip of her iced tea. "I hate Towers iced tea. Tastes like colored dish water." She continued her rant. "Salad is good for you. It's nutritious. Good for your heart. Blah, blah, blah." Her mock indignation made Doris laugh. Olivia stared her down.

"Shall I assume those are the words of your better half?" Doris continued to dress her hamburger with mayonnaise, pickles, relish, tomato, and cheese piled onto the double-patty.

"So not good for you, Wolfe."

Olivia watched impassively as Doris popped the top of the bun on and proceeded to take a big bite. She rolled her eyes to heaven. "This burger isn't as good as the one you burned for me the other day. No burger for you? Guess the little woman has you on a short leash, Spencer."

"You're a witch, Wolfe," Olivia growled and jokingly went to stab her hand.

"Tell me what's really wrong, Olivia." Doris downplayed the next big bite. "Salad is not the issue."

Olivia put down her fork and leaned in over the table. "It's Emma."

As Doris was running a French fry through a stream of ketchup, Olivia reached across the table and speared two French fries.

"Ketchup?" Doris asked with her mouth full.

"No ketchup. I'm on a diet and besides I'm sure it's bad for my heart."

They chomped away in silence.

"Is it about what happened at Phillip's the other night?" Doris waited for Olivia to spill, but her patience was running low. "I was busy playing the mayor while you were rounding up Emma, but I did hear some loud voices. Guess that was you?"

"Yeah." Olivia put down her fork and clasped her hands. Her thoughts whirled around her head trying to organize her thoughts about Emma's hurtful remarks. Staring at something over Doris's shoulder, Olivia took a deep breath before continuing. "Anna mentioned something to me the other day. She said that when she and Emma had their lesson the other day, she and Emma had a long talk. Emma said she knew." Olivia paused, regret and sadness evident in her expression but when she looked over and saw Doris's confusion, she added, "She knew about Jeffrey."

"Oh my God! How did she find out?" Doris set the coke down she'd been sipping. Olivia's words seemed to wash over the shocked woman, leaving a heavy feeling of sadness.

Olivia held up her hand. "I'm not sure if she knows Jeffrey...," She swallowed hard. The word was still very painful to say. "I have no idea. Perhaps she had overheard me talking to Ava, or...honestly, I have no idea. It's not something Natalia and I talk about while sitting on the couch eating cookies."

Doris was losing her appetite. She gazed across the table. What she saw tugged at her heart. She had known Olivia to be a strong, take no prisoners kind of woman; instead what she saw was a vulnerable, scared woman feeling overwhelmed about the changes in the family.

Doris reached over and squeezed her hand, her blue eyes filled with tenderness.

Olivia shrugged and proceeded to laundry-list all that transpired over the past few months. Doris had heard it before, but listened politely realizing that Olivia needed to vent.

Olivia tapped over her heart, tears welling up in her eyes. It had become a habit, but she went there when she felt overwhelmed. "I've tried so hard to protect Emma from pain and loss. She lived through Natalia's leaving. She knows little about my relationship with Phillip, except that I didn't trust him for a long time." Olivia refilled her ice tea glass with disdain. "But, Jeffrey." Olivia continued, running her hands through her hair, trying to pull herself together. "She knows Jeffrey is Ava's father and she knows that he hurt me."

Doris shook her head. "It infuriates me that that man is still breathing. And, he's going to be prosecuting Phillip." Doris took a deep breath. "Bastard; he should rot in hell."

She glanced up and saw the sad look on her friend's face. "I'm sorry. I know he's Ava's father, and you've managed to forgive him and all, but he's still an ass."

Both women sat quietly for a few moments alone with their thoughts. "What do I tell her when she asks?" Olivia pushed her salad away with a sigh. "Because, at this point it's not an 'if', but a 'when' situation."

"I honestly don't have an answer for that. You're lucky you have someone who can help you through this minefield." Doris motioned for another coke then reached across the table again to comfort Olivia. She also wanted to change the subject. "Augh, can we change the subject? I'm fond of you Spencer, but I don't do this touchy, feeling thing well."

Doris smiled at Olivia's smirk.

"Yeah, yeah. You're the tough, butch type. Gotcha, Wolfe!" Olivia joked, relieved to move onto a happier conversation.

Doris pulled her hand away in a mock scoff then smiled. "Seriously, I had a good time the other night with you two. It seems like you're getting along better."

Olivia smiled wistfully at the memories of her more intimate moments with Natalia recently. "Yeah, we're doing much better. Sometimes I feel like I'm spinning my wheels and getting nowhere. Between running to the therapist, keeping up with Emma's escapades, now Phillip and worrying about Rafe, we have little time to think about ourselves." Olivia speared another French fry. "Working with Anna seems to calm Emma though."

Doris was mum. Anna. Hearing the woman's name ignited a feeling of longing.

Olivia put down her fork and fidgeted with her napkin. "Honestly, there's so much on my plate right now that I can't think straight. My mind is a jumble. I'd love to whisk Natalia off to New York to get married, maybe just elope rather than relive the nightmare. But, I know she wants a real wedding, you know the whole nine yards so I just keep my thoughts to myself."

The sad exasperated look on Olivia's face tugged at Doris' heart. She was mired in her own living hell with Blake. The return of Ross had changed everything. Reconnecting with Blake the other evening at the farmhouse ignited the flame that was burning just below the surface. She knew Blake missed her; she could feel it when they were together. Many times Doris felt herself going through the motions most of the day. She was at war with herself over why she had let the wisp of a woman invade her heart. Straight women break hearts. Hell, lesbians break hearts too, she mused silently. Anna. Blake. Maybe she should toss a coin.

"I wish Natalia would bring it up."

"What?" Doris broke free from her fog.

"Are you listening to me?" Olivia was annoyed with her.

"Yeah, yeah." Doris offered a little advice. "Olivia, the woman doesn't know what you're thinking or feeling. She's not a mind reader."

When the waitress returned to see how they were doing, Olivia ordered a latte. "Make that non-fat and decaf, which means a no taste latte." Olivia winced and smiled sweetly.

The waitress just rolled her eyes at Olivia's antics.

"Olivia, don't swallow your own feelings and needs. It'll only lead to resentment. Believe me, I know." Doris started to stand and she put a few bills on the table to cover her meal. "Look, I hate to bail on you, but I have a city council meeting to get to." Doris scrunched up her nose. "So long, my friend." Doris called over her shoulder as she left, "Heed my words."

A few minutes later, Olivia had settled the bill at Towers and was sitting in her car. She pushed the key into the ignition and thought about Doris' words. The past few months had been hellish; a merry-go-round without the laughter and fun that goes with the circus ride. Emma, Jeffrey, Phillip, and now this new detective who rattled her nerves. He seemed to be an equal opportunity heartbreaker by asking Ava and Leyla out. She worried that Ava would get hurt if he dumped her for Leyla. Yet, how could she possibly condemn him? Hadn't she made the dating circuit when she first arrived in Springfield? She wouldn't even call it a 'dating' circuit, more like a 'bed 'em' circuit.

Thinking about it made her cringe. She had been promiscuous as hell not caring if the men were married. She rubbed her eyes. In fact, the prey was more exciting if they were married. God, what a home wrecker she'd been. She had a hard time imagining she was the woman that she now despised.

Her thoughts drifted to Natalia. Natalia knew Olivia 1.0 and still loved her. She wanted to cry; tears of joy because someone loved her, warts and all, and tears of despair for the kidnapping that had upset the safe world they had created in the farmhouse. Olivia was trying desperately to get that feeling back for all of them.

****

"Hey, are we related?" Rafe twisted and turned, trying to prop himself up in the hospital bed, but his legs were useless. As a result, he pulled out the catheter that made a real mess. Frustrated and soaking wet, he fell back onto the pillows.

He couldn't remember how long he had been at the VA in Chicago. He couldn't remember how long he'd been in Afghanistan. What he could remember was the relentless sand that crept into every crevice. There was always noise in these desolate hovels, people talking loudly in a language he couldn't understand.

"Probably not, you're a pain in the ass." Rafe's constant attempts to get up left a tangled mess of tubes and wires. The young man seemed annoyed with him. "Now I have to change all your bedding, wash you up, and change and your pants. We're doing the best we can here. Why can't you just lay still?"

"You lay in this bed and then you'll see…" Rafe tone was sharp. He was disgusted.

Finished untangling Rafe and rolling him side-to-side to change the bedding, the young man stood up; hands on hips.

"You think people owe you a living, well they don't," the nursing assistant spoke brusquely.

That remark just made Rafe more furious.

"I know your job was hard over there, but there are some hurt worse than you and they don't complain. They still manage to be nice to me. I've seen guys and women with no arms. Or their brain has been fried, yet their attitude is better than yours."

****

"Just you and me." Olivia dried the last dish and put it away. "A weekend in Chicago, we can stay at the Elysian Hotel Chicago. It's a new boutique hotel near Michigan Ave. I want to check out the competition." Olivia wrapped her arms around Natalia's waist. "You mentioned we should get away."

Natalia snuggled back into her embrace. It felt wonderful lying against Olivia's bosom; this is where she wanted to be, needed to be. Her thoughts drifted back to their tryst the other evening in the barn. Wanting Olivia was not the issue; life just seemed to get in the way.

"Olivia, it sounds wonderful but I don't think now is the time." Natalia knew her lover would be disappointed and felt the need to explain. "I know I suggested we get away, and I'd love nothing more than to have you all to myself, but it was wishful thinking. Olivia, Emma is still unsettled, and I'm worried about Rafe." Natalia turned and draped her arms around Olivia's neck. She nuzzled her nose into Olivia's hair drinking in the scent that was purely Olivia. "You always smell so delicious."

Olivia closed her eyes, soaking in the intimate connection she desperately craved.

"I have an idea though," Natalia whispered in her ear. She leaned back and saw how Olivia's smile lit up the room. Natalia went back to finishing the dishes, while Olivia threw down the towel and headed off to the computer.

Natalia wiped up the sink, her mind whirling in a million directions. She felt terribly guilty that it was taking her so long to feel whole again. She felt guilty when they took some quiet time for themselves. Olivia had taken the brunt of her wrath and she was still here, trying to make it all better, loving her regardless of her wicked moods.

Saturday couldn't come soon enough. Olivia had arranged everything. At Natalia's suggestion, she had booked a day at the Touch of Healing spa that had been recommended by one of Olivia's business associates. Even if for one day, she and Natalia would be pampered and pamper each other. A massage, hot oils and body wrap, and the rest of the day luxuriating in a suite with built-in jacuzzi. The moment Natalia had suggested a day trip, Olivia asked Ava to keep an eye on Emma, while she swapped a weekend with Frank to take Francesca. They wouldn't have to rush back home which made Olivia giddy with delight.

In spite of her quirky moods as of late, Natalia was excited about the prospect of a day at the spa, considering her one and only experience with a massage was the first time she and Olivia had gone away to figure out their relationship. She didn't find it particularly sensual, perhaps because there was a third party in the room. Afterwards, she and Olivia had tiptoed around each other, then Emma showed up and which made any chance of cranking the relationship up a notch was a mute point. This time though she had greater expectations.

****

When they arrived at the spa on Saturday, Natalia mused about the grand foyer, taking in the waterfall and the plants that curved around the cedar staircase that led to upstairs rooms. The airy breeze almost felt tropical even though they were just outside Chicago's heart. Taking a deep breath, she relaxed contentedly. Before long, a guide took them to the first of the day's planning.

"Oh, Olivia…this is just divine." Natalia settled herself next to Olivia for their couple's massage. The massage table held the both of them; two masseuses would work on them side-by-side.

"Just you and me." Olivia smirked recalling the previous fiasco with Blake. "Let's enjoy our time together."

Olivia had requested the whole nine yards. Massages, facials, and a relaxing bath in the lavender scented infinity pool. Afterwards, there would be a light lunch and two hours of alone time in one of the well-appointed luxury guesthouses.

"Umm, yes...," Natalia dreamily sighed. She never had the money to be extravagant. She couldn't remember ever being massaged in her entire life before she met Olivia, but now with Olivia's coaxing she allowed herself this luxury. She could feel herself drifting as the fingers expertly kneaded knotted shoulders and worked their way down her spine. She turned toward her partner and found the table empty.

Alarmed, she rose partially off the table only to feel soft two hands push her gently back down.

"Natalia, relax. I've got you." Olivia had paid off the two masseuses who quietly left the room. "I didn't want to share you with anyone." Olivia positioned herself over Natalia's shoulders and began her work. For the next hour Natalia luxuriated in Olivia's touch.

Olivia helped her partner off the massage table wrapping her in a luxurious, fluffy robe.

"Olivia, your hands are marvelous." On her tippy toes she leaned in and kissed her lover thoroughly. "But I already knew that. I want to feel them all over me."

She couldn't remember feeling so relaxed. Olivia had taken liberties others would not have dreamed of...her hands smoothing oil on the inside of Natalia thighs close enough to touch her sensitive mound, her palms rubbing the sweet almond oil over her breasts circling her nipples, but never touching. Olivia ministrations had revved up her libido. "Take me back to the room." Natalia tugged on Olivia's hand as the older woman donned her robe.

Cobb salads, mineral water and a bottle of chilling champagne greeted them. Natalia smiled as her lover had been so thoughtful. Her body tingled with anticipation as she heard the door lock click. The jacuzzi looked so inviting.

On to the Afterdark