The Dangerous Truth by Curiositee

The Dangerous Truth
by Curiositee

Chapter 1

Bridget Stone leaned forward in her chair, thumbing through documents in the file that lay in front of her. Her green eyes narrowed as she studied a photograph tucked in amid the papers. One foot tapped impatiently on the floor.

Bridget really hated story meetings.

Especially when she had such a juicy lead just begging to be followed. Absently, she twirled a lock of reddish gold hair between two fingers, shifting uncomfortably in the light gray skirt and trying to nonchalantly straighten a bind in her pantyhose with the same motion. Glancing up at the other inhabitants of the conference room, Bridget’s face betrayed her impatience.

Twenty-two people were seated around the large table. At the moment, most eyes were focused on a well dressed woman in her forties. Bridget groan internally as she listened to Victoria Carlyle drone on about the Mayor’s ball she had attended the night before. Most women Bridget knew named Victoria had adopted the nickname Vicky. But not this one. Glancing up at the perfectly coiffed, impossibly blonde hair and impeccable jewelry, Bridget thought ruefully that the name Victoria suited her much better. The gossip columnist’s eyes were practically dancing as she spoke.

She was relating a sordid tale of the Lt. Governor’s wife and a local stage actor disappearing at conveniently the same time for the better part of an hour during the soiree. Try as she might, Bridget just didn’t understand the fascination. The idle pleasures and intrigues of the rich were all right for mini-series and cheesy romance novels. However, they had little place in the life of an investigative reporter. She kept up a general knowledge of what was going on, largely because it was impossible to work at the Chicago Tribune and not catch the idle gossip. But as she glanced once again at the brutally murdered corpse of a young runaway that lay, grotesquely contorted, in the photograph at the front of her file, she couldn’t see how a lower ranking public official’s wife’s brief interlude with a second-rate actor could possibly compare.

Bridget flipped once again to the preliminary autopsy report. No sign of drugs or any type of intercourse was detected. Glancing at a different photograph, one clearly taken for a high school yearbook, she could hardly believe it was the same face. Stacy Miller. The girl had taken quite a beating before she died, been thrown into Lake Michigan, and not to be found until the next day. The happy, smiling expression of the young student was a far cry from the abused and disfigured face of the corpse. Bridget felt a sudden, irrational anger. Anger at a world that would let such things happen. ‘Why would anyone do that to you, Stacy?’ Her mind asked the smiling young face. She silently determined to find out the truth.

Distracted by a low chuckle that ran through the room, Bridget glanced at the pained expression on her editor, Claude Nelson’s, face. She knew why Victoria was allowed so much time to weave her tale. The Carlyle family had made a generous contribution to the newspaper. Though clearly nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to find some occupation for their high strung daughter, the money had been needed. And so Claude had little choice but to let Victoria have her say, no matter how long it took. Bridget had already outlined her own story for the meeting, as had most of the other reporters who were working on new or hot stories. Now, if Victoria would only shut up, she could get down to East Side and track down one of her best informants. Finally, the gossip columnist ended her tale of intrigue with a catty remark about the actor having poor taste and the meeting mercifully came to an end.

Bridget was out of her chair immediately, heading for the door.

“Bridget, hang on a minute.”

Closing her eyes and stopping in her tracks, the reporter groaned, with a resigned sigh for good measure, before turning around at the voice of her editor. Claude’s white hair and close trimmed white beard framed a face sporting a worried grimace.

“Are you sure you won’t take a partner on this one? I know you’re used to working alone but this could turn in to a pretty volatile situation. Maybe you could. . .”

“Claude,” she began somewhat impatiently, “I need to gather information, and I don’t want to have to drag someone along with me everywhere I go. My sources like to deal with me, alone.” It wasn’t exactly true, but it was a good excuse. Bridget had worked hard to prove herself and her abilities. Every time she had taken on a partner, Bridget had done most the work and gotten almost none of the credit. She had come to term it as the ‘sidekick’ complex.

At twenty-six, Bridget still had a very youthful appearance, despite long hours running and practicing kick-boxing to harden her muscles. People, almost invariably, looked on her innocent- looking face, reddish blonde hair and slight build and immediately assumed that there was nothing upstairs. Or at least, not enough to bother with. If she asked a question, the answer was directed at her partner. Male or female didn’t matter. The reporter’s girlish looks got her immediately responded to as nothing more than a tag-along. Since insisting that she work alone, tenacious and insightful reporting had slowly earned her a reputation throughout the city. And Bridget wasn’t about to give that up because of a little bit of danger.

Claude sighed at the stubborn set of her jaw. “Just be careful, all right?” He patted her affectionately on the shoulder.

Biting back her annoyance at being treated like a child, Bridget smirked up at the fatherly man who had looked out for her since she was a green intern.

“I’m always careful.”

With that, she flashed him an impish smile and headed out the door.

Stopping briefly at her apartment, just a few miles away, she exchanged the skirt an hose for sneakers and jeans, much more appropriate attire for where she was heading. Securing her tazer, cell phone and tape recorder within a beat up leather jacket that her father had left her, she headed out, taking only a small wallet secured in her Jean’s pocket. Intentionally leaving her Mustang parked safely in the large underground garage of her apartment building and crossing the courtyard quickly, Bridget hailed a cab.

The driver shot Bridget an odd look when she told him her destination. Looking her up and down, he not-so-politely asked if she was certain of the address. With a cold glare and a clenched jaw, she repeated the address firmly.

“The 4000 block of E. 106th.” Shaking his head, the obviously disapproving cab driver muttered under his breath as he turned to shift the car into gear. With a sigh, she couldn’t really blame his reluctance. It was definitely an unsavory part of town. But Nate, a homeless junkie with good eyes and a big mouth, usually hung out there. And the girl from the photograph had been found just a few blocks away. If anyone had seen anything in the area, Nate would probably know about it.

Absently flipping through her file again, Bridget couldn’t help but be grateful for her good luck. This was the fourth body to be found in a similar condition over the past year, but this one’s body had washed up quickly enough to allow for a swift identification. Though not hot, the trail was still at least lukewarm, and she had no intention of losing it.

His eyes darting around nervously, the cab driver pulled over near the curb of the dangerous East Side street. Sensing his concern, Bridget wordlessly handed him a generous tip as she exited. He smiled briefly at her before rapidly disappearing around a nearby corner.

The smell was the first thing to assault her senses. A heady mixture of the crisp tang of the nearby lake, and the stench of human waste. Swallowing down a wave of nausea, Bridget thought ruefully that nothing else quite compared to the reek of a downtown street. She glanced around, taking in the usual number of homeless people milling about. It was too early for any prostitutes to be out, but she noted a few drug dealers hanging out in small groups nearby.

Unconsciously gripping her tazer in the deep pocket of her jacket, she walked purposefully toward a nearby alley. The reek grew stronger as she came close to it.

“Nate?” She called into the dark alleyway. “Hey, Nate, it’s me. I got some questions for you.”

After a few moments, the object of her search emerged from the shadows of the alley. As always, he was filthy. He wore a beat up army jacket and torn jeans, with fingerless gloves and a ratty t-shirt. He was shaking slightly, and Bridget realized that he probably needed a fix.

“Well hey there! If it ain’t Lois Lane herself!” Nate laughed at his own joke, nervously and a bit too loud. His eyes darted around the streets.

“I got some questions for you, Nate. You up for it?” With that, Bridget removed the photograph from within her jacket and showed it to the junkie. Glancing at the gruesome sight, he immediately turned and was lost in a series of dry heaves. The reporter sighed, glancing around and intentionally not watching Nate’s dilemma. She saw an unfamiliar face walking down the sidewalk toward her, a little over a block away. Her eyes narrowed. He was too well dressed for this neighborhood. Wearing mirrored sunglasses and a long black leather jacket, he walked slowly down the street. Brown hair was mostly hidden under a nondescript ball cap.

Bridget’s keen sense of danger exploded in her chest, but she remained still. Slipping her hand back inside her jacket to grip her tazer gun, she turned back to Nate, who appeared to have recovered somewhat from his indisposition.

“Tell me.” Her sense of urgency caused her to be abrupt. She couldn’t be sure that strange man had anything to do with her. And she had no intention of leaving this hell hole without getting the information she wanted.

“That’s Stacy.” Nate said finally, his eyes averted from the image. “She was picked up about two or three nights ago by some dude in a fancy car.”

“What kind of car?” Bridget’s eyes glanced toward the stranger. He was still approaching, now less than half a block away.

“I dunno.” Nate whined. “I didn’t see it, that’s just what I heard. When she didn’t come back, they figured she picked up a good ride.”

“Nate,” she looked at him closely. “Who was it that saw her?”

He shrugged, as if not able to remember. Bridget pulled out some bills from her pocket and fingered them meaningfully.

“Uhhm, I think it was that new kid, Patty.”

Peppermint Patty. Bridget recognized the name of a young runaway that had shown up on the streets only a few months before. That made sense, Patty and Stacy had probably been friends. She could now hear the approaching footsteps, the pace was quickening. Looking up at him, Bridget saw one of his hands disappear underneath his long coat.

“Get out of here.” She hissed at Nate, throwing him a few bills as she turned and hurried down the street, knowing full well she’d never find a cab around here. She cursed herself for letting the other cab get away. Her eyes darted around, looking for an escape route. Her body pounded with excitement and tension.

Turning, she saw the man had begun to jog slowly toward her, knowing he had been seen. Now certain that he was after her, Bridget allowed herself the fleeting thought that she must be onto something big for something like this so early in her investigation. All charades gone, she turned and bolted down the street, hearing the pounding footsteps following after her.

Reaching a corner, she rounded it with quick steps and bumped into a tall figure. Looking up into the startled blue eyes, Bridget felt a shock of recognition. But the sensation left as quickly as it had come and glancing back around the corner at her pursuer, she took off again, angling across the street. She passed a few small gatherings of locals, but they paid her no heed as she ran full speed past them.

Now, beginning to feel desperate, Bridget headed toward an alley, thinking that if this were going to be a fight, at least she would have him in close quarters where she would stand a fighting chance. Ducking into the alley, she glanced around, finding an old 2×4 and grabbing it hurriedly.

When he came around the corner, she could see the flash of black metal emerging from under the jacket. It was semi-automatic pistol. Bridget knew full well that gunfire in this neighborhood would only warrant passing curiosity. Knowing instinctively to act, rather than react, she lunged forward, smashing the 2×4 into the man’s elbow. He let out a satisfying grunt and the gun skittered to the ground. Rearing back again, she leveled the wood at his head.

But her attacker had quickly recovered, his leg lashing out in an lightning-quick crescent kick that knocked the board from her hands. Seeing an opening, she sent a roundhouse kick into his side. With another grunt, the assailant took a step backward and Bridget threw a quick jab, followed by a sharp right hook. His head whipped to the side from the force of her blow. Bridget’s hand fell into her pocket in search of the tazer, while she circled around, hoping for a good angle to take out his knee. A quick fist smashed into her face and stars exploded in her head. Blinking, the reporter saw him bend down to retrieve his gun. She grasped the tazer gun and pressed it against his skin He had turned, however, gun in hand, at the same moment and out of sheer luck managed to knock the weapon from her hand.

Tasting fear, Bridget found herself looking down the barrel of her fate.

“Why?” She didn’t know why she said it. It wasn’t as though she expected an answer.

With a wide grin, the man chuckled. “I’m a problem solver. And you’re a problem.”

“Oh, I don’t know. She doesn’t look like much of a problem to me.”

A low voice came from somewhere behind the man. He tensed, but didn’t move the gun. Bridget was shaking as she saw his finger slowly begin to squeeze on the trigger. Her eyes glued to the gun, she only caught a flash of movement out of the corner of her eye.

Not knowing exactly what happened, Bridget only saw the would be assassin slump to the ground, the arm holding the gun drop away.

A dark figure moved forward and hissed in his ear. “I don’t like to be ignored.” The figure hauled him up by an arm, locking his shoulder to keep him bent at the waist while one hand smashed into his forearm, knocking the gun away.

As the dark stranger turned, Bridget realized it was the same woman she had run into a few moments earlier. Her smudged face and ratty clothes identified her as mostly likely one of the inhabitants of this alley, or one similar. Bridget’s eyes widened as the woman, while still holding his arm immobile, shot a quick kick into the man’s face and another into his chest. Noting that she was wearing combat boots, Bridget could hear the dull thud of each impact. The woman altered her grip on the assassin’s arm and threw him roughly against the brick wall of the alley. As he bounced forward, she let loose a vicious series of punches. A strange sound touched the reporter’s ears. Bridget could have sworn that the woman was actually laughing as she pounded away. The series of blows ended with a wide, arching backhand. The force of impact picked the man completely off the ground and threw him a few feet away, where he slumped to alley floor, unconscious.

The woman turned her gaze on Bridget, her eyes angry. “What’s a woman like you doing in a place like this?” She snapped the words. “And what was all that about?”

Too stunned for a moment to say anything, Bridget was surprised by the business-like, and slightly angry, tone in the stranger’s voice. Shaking her head, the reporter’s thoughts turned back from the enigma in front of her, to the mystery at her feet.

Glancing nervously at the unconscious man, she knelt quickly to search his pockets, not answering the angry glare of the strange woman.

“Don’t bother. He wouldn’t be carrying anything that would be of use to you. He was a professional. And you still haven’t answered my questions.”

Bridget blinked up at the woman, her tone was so certain, her eyes bright with intelligence. Why would a homeless woman be familiar with common practices of professional assassins?

The assassin stirred, groaning slightly. With a flash of sudden anger, Bridget grabbed her tazer, pressing it to the man’s neck and sending a jolting current through his body. He convulsed once and then was still. Jumping up quickly, Bridget turned to the mysterious stranger. “Let’s get out of here and I’ll tell you all about it.”

The woman looked at her suspiciously for a moment. Then, with quick movements, she scooped up the assassin’s weapon and instantly dropped the clip out of the gun, popping the remaining bullet out of the chamber as well and threw them all a good distance down the alley. Bridget couldn’t help but note that the woman seemed very familiar with the weapon. Without comment, the two turned and walked rapidly out of the alley, breaking into a light jog when they hit the street. A few minutes later, at a fairly safe distance from the alley, the woman grabbed her arm and motioned for her to stop.

Glancing around nervously, Bridget complied. The stranger’s stare was direct and questioning. “Now, do you want to tell me what that was all about?”

“I’m just a reporter working on a lead.” She forced herself to meet the woman’s eyes, angry at letting herself be intimidated. “I have no idea who that was.”

The woman smirked. “Well, that’s enlightening.”

Suddenly, Bridget began to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation. Someone had just made a serious attempt on her life, and now she was being berated by the Cat-woman of the homeless crowd. The laughter quickly threatened to give way to tears and her knees started to buckle as the reality of the situation, and what had almost happened, hit her.

Feeling a firm hand on her shoulder, she looked up into the woman’s eyes, realizing that she must be close to six feet tall. “Are you all right?” The stranger had a deep, rich voice that seemed to show honest concern. Bridget blinked. She was struck by a strong sense of deja vu. Something about that gesture was so familiar.

“Well, considering that I was almost dog meat back there . . . I’m perfect.” Bridget shook her head, the sense of familiarity still very strong. She let herself take a moment to look closely at the woman. Dark hair that was tucked up into a knit cap. Her eyes were an astonishingly clear blue.

A reality suddenly hit her.

“You saved my life.”

To her surprise, the woman shrugged as if it were of little matter.

“You shouldn’t have been there.” Came the surprising reply. Bridget’s jaw clenched and she stiffened.

“I was doing my job.” She gritted the words out.

“Well, you should learn to take better care of yourself, little girl. Either that, or find a new line of work.”

For a moment, Bridget simply stood with her mouth open. Of all the . . .

“Now, look.” She poked her finger into the woman’s stomach. “I’m a damn good reporter, and I’ve been down here dozens of times . . . Now I don’t know exactly what’s going on . . . Yet.” She emphasized the word with another poke. “But I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you or anyone else intimidate me out of doing my job.” Bridget took a deep breath, noting with satisfaction, the surprised look on the woman’s face at the fervor of her response. “Now, my name is Bridget Stone and you just saved my life. So just shut up for a minute and let me say thank you.”

The woman paused for a moment, seemingly stunned. “You’re welcome.” Came the soft voice from a surprised, if very dirty, face.

“That’s better.” Bridget smiled, feeling her anger dissipate. “I wish I could do something to thank you.” Her eyes raked over the woman’s dirt encrusted clothes, from knit cap to combat boots, and an idea struck her. “I know,” she began, “how about I offer you a bath and a hot meal as a thank you. Maybe a nice place to spend the night?” Her reporter’s instinct told her that there was a story behind this mysterious stranger, and she didn’t want to let her go without an honest attempt to unravel it.

Looking into the woman’s face, she found the blue eyes watching her face very carefully, as if trying to figure out the answer to a question. Bridget’s brow furrowed. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Came the quick reply. “But what makes you think you can trust me?” Her eyes flashed dangerously.

The reporter’s brow knit further. “Call it a gut instinct.” She said finally, feeling herself flush under the woman’s scrutiny. Why did she suddenly suspect that the woman wasn’t talking about stealing her VCR or her grandmother’s silver? And why did the thought of what she might mean send a hot shiver through Bridget’s body?

“Is that the same instinct that told you coming down here . . . alone . . . was a good idea?” The woman’s voice dripped with sarcasm.

Bridget’s eyes narrowed at that. “The man was a professional. I wasn’t in danger just because I was down here. He was looking for me, and he would have found me wherever I was.”

With that thought, came the disturbing realization that her life was in real danger. She hurriedly cast a nervous glance at the surrounding street. If someone was out to kill her, this might be just the beginning.

As her gaze fell on the woman again, she looked at her curiously. “What’s your name anyway?”

The woman’s eyes met hers again, making a decision. “Alex.”

“Alex what?” The reporter’s instinct kicked in again.

“Just Alex.” Bridget sighed in disappointment. She wanted to do some checking on her mysterious new friend. And it would be much easier if she had a full name to go on.

“Well then, Alex. What do you say we get out of here before we find out if our friend had any colleagues?”

With a terse nod of agreement, the two set out again at a quick walk, hoping to encounter a cab quickly.

Chapter 2

Alex let her suspicious gaze fall over the surrounding area. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. As she walked beside the smaller woman, Alex wondered how exactly she had managed to get herself into this. The past months had been little more than a blur. She still felt so numb inside. Nothing had been able to penetrate the haze that surrounded her life so long.

Why now?

When the young reporter had run into her on the street, something odd had passed between them as their eyes met. It sparked something inside of her. The first tangible emotion she could remember in such a long time . . . curiosity. It wasn’t much, like a sliver trying to fill a gaping void, but she clung to it instinctively. Her mind told her that she should refuse the invitation, crawl back into her little box and stay there. It was where she belonged.

Yet she kept walking, away from filth and stench of the alley that had been her home for the better part of a year, not fully understanding that she would never return.

When Bridget finally tracked down a cab, Alex didn’t fail to note the distasteful look the driver cast in her direction. She met his gaze with an icy stare, noting with some pleasure how he had looked away nervously. It surprised her how good that felt, how familiar, despite her time in self-imposed exile from society.

“River West.” Alex turned to watch Bridget’s face as she gave the driver her address. “665 North Sangamon.” Recognizing the area, Alex realized that Bridget must certainly not be hurting for money. Watching the reporter carefully, she suspected that Bridget had some kind of inheritance. Reporter’s salaries weren’t that good. There was no wedding ring, and no mention of anyone else living with her that might object to Alex’s presence. Yes, probably an heiress.

She let herself take in the reporter’s features. With her youthful face still flushed from excitement, Alex determined that Bridget was easily one of the most beautiful women she’d ever seen in her life.

After a few moments, Bridget pulled out a cell phone. Probably calling the police, Alex summarized. She stiffened slightly at the thought. The last thing she needed was to be grilled about her past by some overambitious detective. To her surprise, the young reporter seemed to be talking a friend at work.

“Paul? Hey, yeah, it’s me. Listen, I need you to do me a favor. . . yeah . . . I need all the information you can get me on a street kid called Peppermint Patty. She’s about seventeen, hasn’t been around very long. . . Yeah . . . everything you can find. I need to get in touch with her. . . What? . . . No, nothing’s wrong. I just don’t want to lose this lead. And I don’t really want to go wandering aimlessly through the streets looking for her, you know? . . . Okay, thanks . . . yeah, I won’t be back in today. Can you send it to my home account? . . . You’re the best. Thanks.”

Alex felt her curiosity flaring up again. Peppermint Patty? Probably a hooker. What had

the reporter stumbled onto that would lead someone to bring in a professional? She thought briefly about asking, but rapidly dismissed the idea. For some reason her instinct told her that Bridget was a naturally talkative person, and whatever she was working on would no doubt consume much of her thoughts. She’d almost certainly divulge the information herself without Alex having to ask for it.

The cab ride was quiet and uneventful. Though certain that the reporter was burning with questions to ask her, Alex noted that, to the girl’s credit, she wasn’t blurting them out. Most likely she was playing the same game Alex was, hoping to have some information volunteered. But unlike Alex, Bridget was going to have very little luck with that tactic.

Once they’d arrived outside Bridget’s building, Alex observed that this was most certainly the haunt of those who had money to spend. Probably the best way to describe it was simply, right in the middle of everything.

Actively ignoring the looks she was getting from each resident they passed, Alex realized that she must look pretty bad. It struck her as an odd thought. She hadn’t so much as looked in a mirror in months. Bridget made a few idle comments, about the building, certain residents they passed. Most seemed to know the young woman. All seemed concerned about the company she was keeping.

They took an elevator up to the fourth floor, much to the dismay of the other occupants, who attempted to surreptitiously hold their noses. Yep, she must smell pretty bad too. Oh, well.

The door to Bridget’s apartment opened to a short hallway, marked by a couple of closets on one side, and lead into fairly large living room, rather Spartanly furnished. Her heavy boots thudded against the hardwood floor as her eyes took in decor. The room ended in a narrow balcony, framed on either side by a gas fireplace and a closet, most likely for the furnace. Hanging from the ceiling near the furnace, she was surprised to see a large punching bag, obviously well used. A few stray pieces of duct tape covered small tears. No wonder the reporter had been able to hold her own fairly well with her attacker.

A large television set adorned the right wall, facing a long sofa and single recliner which angled away from the opposite wall. Another hallway opened up just past the television set, and what seemed to be an office was located just beyond it. As Bridget disappeared quickly into the hallway, Alex found herself wandering toward the office. Three large bookshelves, each completely filled, lined the walls and a computer desk sat in the corner. Two framed diplomas hung on the wall over the desk. Squinting, she could make out a Bachelor of Arts degree from Northwestern, and a Master’s diploma from Columbia.

Another chair sat angled against the opposite corner, this one was old, covered with well worn leather, and from it’s appearance was quite comfortable. A small table, stacked with at least half a dozen books, and a floor lamp sat next to the chair. Glancing at the surrounding walls, Alex was surprised to find a small shelf, with what looked like an old leather whip and beat up Fedora sitting on either side of a picture, obviously taken long ago, of a smiling woman, who seemed to be wearing both of the objects. And who looked a great deal like Bridget herself. Looking more closely at the Fedora, Alex observed what seemed to be a bullet hole toward the top.

“That’s my great aunt Janice.” Bridget supplied, having walked into the room and noticed Alex’s interest. “Well, she’s not really my aunt, actually she was my grandmother’s cousin. But she used to come over and tell me stories when I was a little girl. She was an archeologist before the war.”

Alex nodded without comment. Being an orphan, she always got a hollow feeling inside when she heard people talking about their families.

With a wistful look at the picture, Bridget turned back to Alex and smiled. “So, what do you like to eat? I’m actually a pretty good cook.”

To her embarrassment, Alex’s stomach rumbled loudly at the mention of food. Like so many other things, she couldn’t remember the last time she ate a good meal. She dropped by shelters every few days, but hadn’t eaten regularly in quite a while.

“Anything is fine.” Despite herself, Alex felt comfortable around Bridget. The young reporter had a warm smile and seemed to look on Alex without the vaguest sense of judgment. There was curiosity there, certainly, but then she was a reporter and that was to be expected. She really didn’t understand why the young woman had been so ready to take a homeless vagabond into her home, no matter what Alex had done for her.

“Well then, how about some good old fashioned red meat?” Grinning, Bridget took Alex’s arm and lead her out of the office and toward the kitchen. “I can thaw out a couple of steaks and pop a couple of potatoes in the oven.”

Smiling at the thought, Alex nodded, watching as Bridget had to get up on her toes to reach back into her freezer. She came out with two very large T-bone steaks.

“Would you like to go ahead and get cleaned up? You can take your time, this will take a little while.” Alex looked down at her tattered clothing, as if taking notice of it for the first time. “I don’t know how much I have that would fit you.” Bridget looked at her thoughtfully. “Guess we’ll have to make due for now.”

Her eyes narrowing, Alex briefly mulled over the potential meaning of the term ‘for now.’ She wondered what the next day would bring, even the short time that she had spent in Bridget’s company made the thought of going back to the streets seem somehow unbearable. Walking past her from the narrow entrance to the kitchen, Bridget led Alex down the short hallway. To the left was a large linen closet and at the end of the hallway was a small half-bathroom, impeccably clean, with a wine colored rug and towels to match.

To the right was the doorway which lead to her bedroom. The thumping of her boots against the wood floor abruptly ended as she stepped onto soft tan carpeting. This room was most decidedly not as clean. The bed was rumpled and unmade. A grey skirt and jacket lay across it, while grey pumps sat in the floor just outside the door of a large walk-in closet. On the nightstand lay another pile of books. Next to the closet was the entrance to the larger bathroom. Peeking inside, Alex noted the cosmetics strewn over the counters and old towels thrown about the room. Her eyes did catch site of what looked to be a large, whirlpool bathtub, though. And her body tingled at the thought.

Bridget disappeared into the walk-in closet and emerged a moment later with pair of black shorts and a red Bulls sweatshirt.

“Here, these should be all right.”

Taking the clothes, Alex’s ears suddenly picked up a faint growling sound that seemed to be coming from the closet. Moving closer to investigate, she caught site of a what appeared to be a kitten, with short coal-black hair and blue eyes, whose ears were laid back and the hair on its back was up. Alex realized that all inhabitants of the apartment didn’t consider her a welcome guest.

“Princess.” Bridget scolded as she reached down to scoop up the cat. Once she was out in the light, Alex realized that it wasn’t a kitten, but merely an extremely small cat. In fact, the word scrawny came to mind. “She’s just not used to company.” Bridget apologized, tossing the cat lightly onto the bed as she headed into the bathroom. After pointing out where the clean towels and other amenities were, Bridget turned to leave, instructing Alex to yell if she needed anything and to take as much time as she wanted.

Watching the young woman’s face, Alex expected to find a note of pity, or condescension at the least. But found only genuine concern. In return, she found herself smiling in thanks, thinking dimly that she had probably smiled more in the past hour than in the year leading up to it. There was just something familiar and comforting about this woman. Watching as Bridget shooed Princess out before shutting the door and leaving her with her privacy, Alex wondered how the reporter seemed not concerned at all that she might rifle through her possessions, that she was really nothing more than a vagabond stranger that she had met less than two hours before.

Shaking her head, Alex walked into the bathroom, stepping over the cat dish that lay just inside the doorway. Once inside, she turned to the mirror that hung above the sink and looked at her own reflection for the first time in months.

It was like looking in a stranger’s face.

Her skin was almost completely covered with dirt and grime. Feeling almost numb with shock, she reached up to pull off her knit cap and watched as her hair spilled down her back, tangled and dirty. The only recognizable feature was her eyes, and even those looked hollow and drawn. She felt the warm tightening of tears welling up in her eyes.

Tears?

How long had it been since she’d shed a tear? Looking back, Alex honestly couldn’t remember. She wondered how in the world she had gotten here. It was like waking from fitful sleep. For so long she simply hadn’t cared about herself one way or the other. Grabbing a washcloth and jumping into the bathtub, she turned on the water and adjusted the showerhead, not caring that the water was cold. All she knew was that suddenly, she desperately wanted to be clean.

After soaping her body and washing her hair once, she began to shiver and adjusted the water’s temperature. Not satisfied, she repeated the washing procedure two more times, scrubbing until her skin was raw and her scalp tingled. She turned to adjust the water again, turning off the shower and let the bathtub begin to fill. Sitting down in the large tub, Alex lay back and let the hot water slowly cover her body, feeling decadent, almost feeling clean.

As she relaxed, visions began to flood into Alex’s mind, unbidden. Blood. Screams. The loud crackling of gunfire. Familiar faces lying cold and dead around her. The bittersweet taste of victory in her mouth. Vengeance.

She swallowed back the bile that rose in her throat, pushing the memories away. It didn’t hurt quite as much now. That surprised her a bit. But then, perhaps it was just because she had been numb inside for so long that nothing would ever be the same again.

Her mind then filtered over the events of that afternoon. It had felt ridiculously good. But why had she done it? Why save the life of a total stranger? She didn’t care about the danger to herself, that was beside the point. What surprised her was that she cared at all one way or the other. Something about watching this young woman fight so hard for her life had sparked Alex’s imagination. Somehow she’d forgotten that there were still people of courage out there in the world who fought for themselves, and for what they believed in. To see the young stranger lose her life in that struggle had been unthinkable.

For so long Alex had felt out of control, unfocused. But not anymore. After so much that she couldn’t control, here was something that she could. It had almost been a surprise how easily her skills had come back to her, as if they were ingrained within her bones, themselves. To have a sense of purpose again, it had just felt so . . . right.

And now she felt different. As if that one action had forever changed her once again. Troubled by the thought, and it’s implications, Alex pushed everything out of her mind and let herself relax into the warm oblivion of the bath.

All too soon the water began to cool, and she sighed regretfully as she rose to grab a towel. That had felt entirely too good, and her muscles felt like they had turned to water. Drying herself, she padded back over to the mirror once again, wiping the condensation away and taking in her reflection. She had lost a great deal of weight. Ribs protruded under her skin and her cheeks seemed to have sunken in.

Trying to get used to the face that stared back at her, Alex grabbed a brush and began the process of removing the tangles from her hair. Conditioning three times had helped, and it was much easier than she had anticipated. In the end, she had to admit, she looked almost human again. And with that thought, Alex realized she felt almost human again too.

She tugged on the sweatshirt and shorts, noticing that they weren’t a bad fit due to her weight loss. Smiling at the feel of the soft, clean smelling clothes against her skin, Alex moved to open the bedroom door. The hardwood floor was cold against her bare feet as she looked around for Bridget. Not seeing her in the kitchen, though some interesting smells were coming from that area, Alex turned and walked toward the study.

Bridget sat with one foot propped up on the office chair, the glow of her computer screen illuminating her face. The leather jacket had been removed and now she sat in only a simple white shirt and jeans. Her eyes were intensely studying the screen as one hand sat on a mouse, clicking periodically, while the other hand absently twirled a lock of reddish gold hair.

For a long moment, Alex merely watched the young reporter, surprised by the sudden rise of another emotion that had been long dormant inside her. Desire.

Chapter 3

Her thoughts moving in several directions at once, Bridget set about the task of scrubbing the potatoes. Putting them on to bake and mixing a quick marinade for the steaks, she turned to head for her study. Water had been running for quite a while in her bathroom, and she wondered absently what was going through Alex’s mind.

It was obvious to her that Alex was quite unlike any other homeless person she had ever come across. She’d seen runaways, junkies, families and individuals that had simply fallen on hard times. But there was something different about Alex, almost like she had chosen that life. Her reporter’s instinct in full force, Bridget determined that she would find out why. It would just take some time.

As her mind retraced the events of the day, Bridget shivered at the thought that someone was trying to kill her. This murder was the only thing of any real interest that she had worked on in a few weeks, and she had barely begun her investigation. It just didn’t make any sense. She wasn’t on the verge of some major breakthrough, at least not that she had any indication of. Perhaps it had been some kind of a mistake. That was unlikely, though. The man had specifically come for her.

She wondered too if she had made a mistake in not contacting the police. But then again, what could she really tell them? And how would she explain Alex’s involvement? Plus there was the very real possibility that Alex would have reasons of her own for not wanting be around the police.

Sighing, Bridget pushed the thought out of her mind. There was nothing she could do about it now except keep on doing her job. If that was where this mess had begun, then that was where it was going to have to be fixed.

Switching on her computer, Bridget set about downloading her e-mail. Paul’s message came through. He hadn’t been able to dig up very much information. Only that Patty’d been picked up once for solicitation, and questioned a few times for suspected drug use. Judging from the reports, she was out and about mostly on the weekends, and near the same area Bridget had been that afternoon. Biting her lip, she had to dismiss the idea of going in search of Patty tonight. Tomorrow was Friday, she’d have a better chance of finding her. Besides, Bridget reminded herself that she had a guest for the evening who was proving to be an interesting mystery herself.

Paul had sent her another message as well, one that contained the complete autopsy report. She was scanning through the contents when she heard a noise. Turning, Bridget’s mouth fell open.

Alex stood in the doorway, silently watching her. She’d never gotten a good idea of what Alex might look like under all that grime, and the sight took her breath away. Long black hair flowed around her shoulders, framing a face which, though gaunt and a bit pale, was still incredibly striking. Blue eyes were all the more prominent now, and she felt the temperature of her body rise as they watched her. After a long moment, Bridget felt a burning in her chest and was surprised to realize that she’d been holding her breath.

With an embarrassed laugh, she leaned back in the chair, carefully clicking on a password protected screen saver.

“So . . . um . . . how do you feel?” She asked, feeling suddenly shy and awkward. A nagging thought rattled around in her head that this woman’s face was familiar to her.

“Better.” Alex’s voice was low, almost subdued.

Bridget smiled warmly at the answer as she rose to move toward her guest. “That’s great.”

Still feeling somewhat awkward, she walked past Alex, crossing through the doorway and moving toward the kitchen. It had been a long time since anyone had elicited such a strong response from her body. “So, how do you like your steak?” She asked the question over her shoulder, not quite trusting herself to look Alex in the face again.

“Well done.”

Shaking her head, Bridget smiled as she turned into the kitchen. “Okay, one burnt steak, coming up.” She took the steaks out of the light marinade and set them on a small, indoor grill that she had already heated. Looking up, she saw Alex leaning against the doorway, watching her quizzically.

“Burnt?” There was the hint of a humorous smile on the mysterious woman’s face, and Bridget felt her heart leap at the sight.

“Yeah, well, I like mine rare. Never really understood why anyone would want all the flavor cooked out.” That earned her a bigger smile from her new companion.

“I prefer my food to actually be dead, and not crawling across the plate.” Bridget smirked, and playfully stuck out her tongue. Both women seemed mildly surprised by their easy comradery.

Princess had ventured into the kitchen, meowing loudly and alternating between reaching up as far as her small body would take her toward the edge of the counter and meaningfully rubbing up against Bridget’s legs. Though she still shot occasional suspicious glances toward the intruder in her domain, hissing once or twice for good measure.

“Princess, be nice.” Bridget scolded good-naturedly. Casting a rueful glance up at Alex, Bridget explained, “Like I said, she’s not really used to other people being around. I don’t really have people over very often.”

“Oh, no boyfriends?”

Bridget raised an eyebrow at the question. That sounded suspiciously like flirting, or was it just wishful thinking? “Uh, no, not really.” She let her answer be deliberately ambiguous. “Kind of married to the job, you know? Don’t really have time for much else.” Oh, that sounded lame, the reporter thought with annoyance, why don’t you just tell her you don’t have a life?

“Common problem.” Alex answered vaguely.

“Well, I guess that’s the price you pay for having a job you love.”

“So you’re a reporter, right?”

Bridget blushed, realizing how little they really knew about each other. “Yeah, I write for the Tribune. Been there for almost three years now. I did my undergrad internship there and was lucky enough to be asked back after I got my Master’s.” Pausing for a moment, Bridget let her curiosity get the best of her. “So, did you go to college?”

She noticed that Alex stiffened up a bit at the question. Damn. “No.” Came the tight lipped reply. Okay, Bridget told herself, back off for now, you don’t want to scare her off.

“Well, I think I only went to college to get away from my hometown. I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, there was a college nearby and my folks really wanted me to go there. But I got a scholarship to Northwestern, so I was gone with the wind.” Bridget couldn’t tell if Alex had any interest in her life story, but she had no idea what conversation the woman might be comfortable with, so Bridget could only prattle on for a while and hope she eventually decided to reciprocate.

“Small town life just wasn’t for me. I’ve actually only been back twice since.” With that thought came the memory of the last time she had been home. It sliced through her like a wound and she pushed it out of her mind. It had been over two years, but it still just didn’t seem real.

“What’s the matter?” Shaken from her reverie, Bridget found Alex looking at her with concern in her eyes.

Taking a deep breath, willed herself to say the words. “The last time I was home was for my parent’s funeral. They were killed by a drunk driver a couple of years ago.” It still hurt so much, even after all this time. “My brother still lives there, though. He comes out to visit every once in a while, but he took over dad’s ranch, so he’s busy most of the time.”

An uncomfortable moment of silence followed as Bridget’s thoughts were consumed by the past. Alex shifted awkwardly, clearing her throat.

“Ranch, huh?”

Sighing, Bridget let her thoughts drift to the history of her family’s ranch, letting it bring a smile to her face.

“Yeah, my great, great,” Bridget’s eyes rolled upward as she mentally counted, “great grandmother went west for the Land Run. Apparently she had quite an adventure actually getting a piece of land. After it was over she said that . . . after all she went through, she wasn’t ever going to give it up.” Chuckling at the thought, Bridget shook her head. “Anyway, we’re pretty stubborn I guess. Our family’s held onto the land ever since. In fact the house that they built is still standing there. The visitor’s bureau is always after us to turn it into a museum.”

“Sounds like you’ve got an interesting family.”

Bridget thought she detected a slightly sad note in Alex’s reply. “Yeah, I guess I do.” Suddenly she found herself staring at Alex, as if she were trying to remember something. And just as suddenly it hit her. That’s why she looked so familiar!

“Wait here a minute.” She instructed Alex excitedly. Running quickly towards her office she rifled through her bookshelves until she found an old photo album. Flipping through it as she walked, Bridget moved over to the couch. “C’mere.”

“What is it?” Alex’s voice betrayed her confusion.

“Aha!!” Exclaiming excitedly, Bridget turned the book over to show it to Alex. “Look, I knew something about you seemed familiar.”

Alex’s eyes widened in shock as she looked down at the old photograph, now brown with age, of two women standing beside an old-fashioned truck.

“That’s my Aunt Janice, you remember?” Alex nodded absently, her face still looking shocked. “Well that lady standing next to her was her best friend, Mel.”

“Mel?”

“Yeah, let’s see it was short for . . .” Tapping her finger against her jaw thoughtfully, Bridget tried to remember the stories that had been told to her when she was a girl. “Melinda . . . Yeah that’s it . . . Melinda Pappas. The resemblance is amazing, don’t you think? Do you think she could be part of your family?”

“I don’t know. I . . . I don’t have any family.” The words were all but mumbled as Alex stared at the woman that could have been her twin.

Bridget’s brow furrowed in confusion. No family? “So, you’re . . .”

“An orphan.” Alex finished the sentence, still staring at the photograph. “What do you know about this woman?”

“Uhm, well . . . I think she was from the south. One of the Carolinas, maybe. She was scholar. You see, my aunt was an archeologist and Mel used to help her translate ancient syntax. I don’t remember all that much, but I could find out. Aunt Janice kept a journal, I bet there’s more information in it. It’s back at the ranch. I . . . I could call my brother and ask him about it, if you wanted me to.”

The still stunned woman’s only response was a brief nod of her head. Sniffing the air, Bridget jumped up quickly. “The steaks!” Running quickly toward the kitchen, she turned the meat over, noting that hers would be done soon. “Hey, Alex, what do you want to drink? I’ve got beer, tea, or pop.”

“Uh, beer’s fine.” Bridget smiled at the reply, she detested the taste of beer herself and never really understood why she kept a six-pack in her refrigerator, considering that she almost never had any company.

She took a can out to her new friend and found her still examining the photographs.

“So, that’s pretty weird huh? You don’t know anything about your family?”

Alex was silent for a moment, the reporter imagined she was trying to decide how much information she was willing to reveal.

“According to my birth records, I was born in Raleigh, North Carolina. The rest of the information is sealed.”

Sealed, huh? Bridget wondered if she might be able to get a hold of the records. “So you were just a baby? I’m surprised you weren’t adopted.”

Alex stiffened again. Uh oh, Bridget warned herself, touchy subject, tread lightly. “I was in foster care for a while. Never had much luck finding a family that was willing to put up with me.” She looked up at Bridget with a rueful expression. “I was something of a problem child.”

Bridget chuckled. “Well, I was a goody two shoes, myself. Right up until I left town and never looked back.” She realized suddenly how that might sound and hurried to clarify. “I mean, my family was great and all. They just . . . I don’t know . . . they never understood me. You know? They were more interested in who they wanted me to be, then who I really was.”

With that, blue eyes met her own with something that looked very much like understanding in them. She smiled in response. They watched each other for a moment before Bridget felt her internal temperature begin to rise again and quickly returned to the kitchen.

Taking her own steak off the grill, the reporter moved idly through the kitchen, more for distraction from her hormones than because there was that much she really needed to do. Princess rubbed against her leg, begging for a piece of her steak. With an indulgent grin, she sliced off a small piece of meat and tossed it to the floor.

Noting that Alex’s steak was done, she turned off the grill and arranged the meat on a plate next to a steaming, buttered potato.

“Here, it’s ready.” It felt odd to be cooking dinner for someone else. Though she was quite a good cook, there was little appeal in preparing a big meal for one, especially when a TV dinner was always convenient.

When Alex moved into the kitchen to retrieve her plate, her eyes glowing at the site as she muttered, “Outstanding.” Bridget beamed at the compliment.

“I don’t have a table. Like I said, I don’t really entertain that much. So I guess we get to make due with the couch.”

To the reporter’s surprise, Alex ate her meal very slowly and didn’t even finish half of what was on her plate, though repeated questioning seemed to reveal that she thought it was delicious. As they ate, while trying with varying degrees of success to keep Princess out of the food as her dislike of the stranger was apparently suspended when she was a potential food source, Alex prodded her for as much information as she could recall about Mel Pappas. She decided to put a call in to her brother the next day and ask him to mail her the journal. Though she wasn’t looking forward to the argument she was sure it would bring up, Bridget decided it was worth it.

After the meal, she excused herself to go back and look through her e-mail once again, inviting her guest to look through the photo album or watch television. As she glanced at the autopsy report, Bridget realized how distant the events of that afternoon seemed now, as if it had all been some kind of bad dream. But she knew it wasn’t. To her surprise, Alex hadn’t asked her anything about the story she was working on that had seemed to put her in so much danger. She let her mind ponder what exactly she was going to do the next day, there wasn’t a lot she could do until she got in touch with Patty. But that still left the mystery of how or why anyone would want to kill her.

Bridget had the highly frustrated feeling that someone was about three steps ahead of her in this game, and she hadn’t even figured out what the rules were yet. With that troubling thought, she turned off the computer and headed out to find Alex snoozing in front of the television set.

Walking as quietly as she could, Bridget approached the mysterious woman, pausing for a moment at the opportunity to look at her more closely. Yes, she thought, this is most definitely one gorgeous woman. With a smile, she put her hand lightly on Alex’s arm to wake her.

In a sudden explosion of movement, Alex jerked up, knocking her hand aside sharply and lunging forward, pinning her backwards on the couch with a wild-eyed expression on her face.

In shock, Bridget could only stare up into intense blue eyes, not really certain how she had gotten into this position. Alex lay almost completely on top of her, one forearm pressing against her throat. For a long moment, all Bridget was aware of was the sound of their breathing, the thudding insistence of two hearts, and those eyes. Blinking finally in recognition, the tall woman jumped up, moving away rapidly.

“I’m sorry I . . . Why did you do that?” There was a slightly irritated tone to Alex’s voice.

“I was just going to get you up so I could make out the sofa bed for you. It’s a little lumpy, but much better than the couch.” Bridget’s voice was quiet. She’d been shaken by the exchange, as though suddenly realizing that she had a potentially very dangerous human being under her roof. How had all this happened?

Shaking her head as if to clear it, Bridget rose and quickly pulled the coffee table out away from the couch, wincing at the sound of the legs scraping against the wooden floor. Together they removed the cushions from the sofa and folded out the bed. Retrieving a blanket out of the linen closet and a spare pillow from her bed, she made up the bed. It wasn’t much, but she suspected it beat the hell out of a cardboard box.

“Goodnight Alex, sweet dreams.”

“Goodnight.” Came the somewhat gruff reply.

As she closed the door to her own bedroom and pulled on a T-shirt and shorts to sleep in before climbing into bed, Bridget began wondering what would happen with Alex tomorrow. She had offered a bed and a meal for the night, but now she was certain she didn’t want her newfound companion to leave. There was something more there than a reporter’s rampant curiosity about a mysterious stranger. She couldn’t quite put her finger on why, but she felt somehow connected to Alex. It was a ridiculous thought. She was really nothing more than a total stranger who happened to save her life, and wouldn’t even tell her last name.

She had grown up an orphan. Bridget could only imagine that it must have been a hard and lonely experience. But there was a lot more there. Alex was most certainly hiding something, though she could only imagine what it might be.

That thought sent a sudden thrill through Bridget’s body. There was the air of danger and mystery around the woman that made for an intoxicating combination, especially when added to the striking features. And of course, those eyes.

It had been a long time since Bridget had given any thought to being with another woman. Her background in that area had not exactly been positive. A brief relationship with a friend while they were teenagers, which had been as much about curiosity as passion, and a drunken encounter with an old college roommate were the sum and total of her experiences with women. Both had proved memorable only in their novelty.

Whether by intention or design, she had managed to escape deep romantic entanglements for the most part. At first, she told herself it was because she was in a small town that she had no intention of staying in and didn’t want anyone to tie her down. But she had no such excuses now. The few boyfriend’s she’d had, had all eventually come into conflict with her devotion to her job. And so, finally, she had just quit looking. Surrendering her libido to the occasional dirty movie, and a few trusty toys that she kept in her nightstand, Bridget had basically given up on dating.

But now she found herself wondering about the woman laying just outside her bedroom door. And as her thoughts traveled back and forth from memories about how the remarkable woman had somehow materialized out of the darkness to save her life, to the unmistakable desire she was now feeling, Bridget let herself drift off into a fantasy, and eventually into a sleep filled with very vivid dreams.

Chapter 4

Alex slept surprisingly well. It was almost as though Bridget’s apartment was a haven from her dreams as well as from the streets. Though she still woke well before dawn, this time it was cozy and warm on a reasonably soft, if somewhat lumpy, mattress instead of next to the unyielding cold of concrete. It was like waking to a dream.

It surprised, and worried, Alex how quickly she had grown comfortable here. And how much she didn’t want to leave.

Her eyes moved to the photo album that lay on the nearby coffee table. She was still uncertain what the implications of the woman in the picture were. But even the remote chance that it might lead her to a family, her family, had sparked an emotion inside of her which surprised her far more than any other. One that had been gone from her life for so long that she could barely remember having it in the first place. And one that was potentially the most dangerous. Alex found herself filled with hope.

Finding her family might lead to answers. Who she was. Why she was driven to do the things she had done. It held the promise of understanding herself. Not since she was a child had Alex let herself entertain such notions.

As she lay staring up at the ceiling, while the amber light of morning filtered through the sliding glass doors of the balcony, Alex found herself entertaining other notions as well. Ones that had very little to do with her family, and everything to do with the beautiful young woman who had come into her life the day before and somehow turned everything upside down. The young woman whose body she had felt pressed under hers for an exquisite moment.

She hadn’t mentioned any boyfriends. In fact, she seemed to have been deliberately ambiguous about it. They had shared a few looks too, ones that Alex felt reasonably certain could only have reflected mutual desire.

What was she thinking? Bridget had shown her nothing but kindness and now she was entertaining thoughts of seduction? If she really cared anything about the reporter, Alex told herself, then she should get up and walk out the door forever. The last thing Bridget needed was a potential lover with enough baggage to sink a small cargo ship.

And yet she didn’t move, didn’t make any attempt get up, or quietly make her exit from the reporter’s life. Instead Alex waited quietly for the day, and whatever it might bring.

A short while later, she heard the high pitched whine of an alarm clock. Noting with chagrin that it blared for almost five minutes before it was shut off. She listened to the muffled sounds of movement coming from the other room, footsteps, running water, a flushing toilet. Soon, the door opened quietly and Bridget’s rumpled head peeked out to check on her guest. A warm smile lit her face when their eyes met.

“Good morning.” She offered, moving out of her bedroom wearing dark shorts and a t- shirt with her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She carried a pair of small boxing gloves and shin guards.

“Morning.” Alex found herself smiling in return.

“I hope you don’t mind, this is when I usually work out. Is it going to bother you?”

Work out? Alex’s ears perked up at the thought. “Uh, no of course not.”

“Great.” The reporter quickly pulled on the gloves, which looked like karate sparring gloves, designed to protect the hand while allowing for movement of the fingers. She then knelt to slip on the shin guards, which had a small flap that came down to protect the tops of her feet. She hopped up and down a little bit as she moved toward the punching bag, working her arms and shoulders around, warming up the muscles.

Alex found herself staring as Bridget began with a series of short jabs and uppercuts, throwing a few roundhouse kicks that sent the bag spinning, the chains that held it suspended from the ceiling creaking from the movement.

“I could . . . spot you if you’d like.” Alex offered.

Another bright smile fell across Bridget’s face as she nodded, wiping an errant strand of hair away from her face. Moving over behind the bag, Alex braced it with her body planting her bare feet as firmly as she could on the slick wood floor.

She was quite surprised by the power behind the reporter’s blows. Firm muscles danced in Bridget’s arms as they lashed out. And Alex noted that, though they were short, Bridget’s legs were quite firm and muscular. As she warmed up, the blows started coming harder and more quickly. Alex found herself hard pressed to brace against the full force of the kicks leveled at the bag. Finally, Bridget delivered a quick three punch combination and then let her whole body spin around to deliver a spinning-heel kick that sent a very surprised spotter stumbling and almost crashing into the wall.

“I’m so sorry, are you all right?” Bridget was slightly breathless as she moved to Alex’s side, placing a hand on her back. The young woman’s body was flushed and covered in a sheen of sweat.

“I’ll live.” Alex muttered, irrationally embarrassed at being caught off guard.

“I guess I just had some . . . pent up energy to get rid of.” Bridget explained with a sheepish grin as she unstrapped her gloves. “You’re sure that you’re okay?”

“I’m fine.” Alex could help but wonder if she had anything to do with all that energy.

“Well, I’d better get my shower. Help yourself to anything in the kitchen.”

Alex felt a knot in her stomach, wondering what was going to happen when Bridget was ready to leave as she watched the reporter disappear into her bedroom. Chiding herself for the thought, Alex moved about the task of folding up the sofa bed and repositioning the furniture while she listened to the sounds of running water coming from behind the closed door.

Afterward, she wandered into the kitchen and looked in the refrigerator. Lunch meat, leftovers from the night before, part of an old salad, a bottle of soda, five cans from a six-pack of beer, and a large container which apparently held the tea Bridget had mentioned were readily visible, while a good number of condiments lined the door and a few eggs sat in a specially made compartment. With a sigh, Alex almost wished she had any kind of skill at cooking. Instead, she pulled out the package of lunch meat, and some mustard. She had only just finished making a quick sandwich when Bridget emerged from her bedroom once again. This time she was dressed in a light blue business suit. The skirt was well tailored and came to just above her knees, a short- sleeved white silk shirt was tucked into the soft fabric. In one hand, she carried a pair of matching blue pumps and in the other, a long jacket that also matched the skirt.

She bore slightly troubled look on her face.

“Uhh, Alex?”

“Yes.” Her jaw clenching slightly, Alex steeled herself against whatever the young woman was preparing to say.

“I’ve got something to say . . . and, uh . . . I’d appreciate you just hearing me out before you say anything, okay?”

Her brow furrowing, Alex couldn’t help but think that sounded a little bit promising. Keeping her face carefully neutral, she nodded.

Bridget sat down on the couch, leaning forward to put on her pumps. “Now, I know this is going to sound a little bit strange and everything, especially considering that we really don’t know each other that well . . . But . . . Well, you saved my life yesterday. I’m not even sure why you did it, really. But you did. And that . . . that means a lot to me.” Taking a deep breath, Bridget paused as if to collect her thoughts before continuing. Alex wondered if she’d been practicing this little speech. “The thing is . . . I . . . I want you stay . . . here, that is . . . with me.”

Despite herself, Alex felt her heart leap at the words. She opened her mouth to respond, but Bridget held up a hand to silence her.

“You don’t have to decide now. I’m going to leave you a key, so you can think it over and if you want to go out or something . . . well, you won’t have any trouble getting back in. Now, I know that it’s a little crazy giving someone I hardly know a key to my apartment, but well . . . like I said, I owe you my life. I think the least I can offer is my hospitality.”

Alex felt Bridget watching her closely as she finished, trying to get a read on what her response might be. The openness of this young woman surprised Alex once again. No subterfuge, just ‘I want you to stay.’ Alex realized how wildly out of place it was for anyone to put such trust in her. Yet she wanted it, relished it. And she knew in her heart that she’d rather die than break that trust.

“Thank you. I . . . I appreciate it.”

The smile that greeted her words was positively beaming. The reporter leapt to her feet as if an enormous weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Suddenly, Alex found herself the surprised recipient of a warm hug. Her eyes a bit wild, Alex didn’t quite know what to make of the gesture. She let her arms lightly settle on the shoulders of the young woman, resisting the urge to lay her head in soft blonde hair. She could smell the clean smell of soap and shampoo, as well as perfume. A light, almost sweet, musky scent that invaded her senses and sent waves of desire coursing through her body. Alarmed at the power of her body’s reaction to the scent, Alex forced herself to pull away, thinking she detected a sigh of disappointment.

“Well, we’ll talk more about the arrangement later, I’ve got to get to the newsroom. I’ll drop back and bring some lunch, okay?” Alex had to smile, Bridget was practically bubbling as she said the words.

The reporter quickly grabbed her jacket, buttoning it into place and grabbing a small briefcase that lay in the corner. Suddenly, she stopped and turned to face Alex, a serious look on her face.

“Alex?” A gnawing worry crept into Alex’s stomach once again. “What’s your last name?”

Taking a deep breath, Alex knew exactly what Bridget was asking and what she’d do if she found out the answer. How much of her past would the reporter be able to dig up? What would she do if she found out the truth? Would she throw her out? Or worse?

Apparently Bridget could sense the conflict and gave Alex a reprieve.

“Well . . . we can talk about it when I get back, okay?” Such kindness filled soft green eyes. It ate at Alex’s conscience to know that she wasn’t worthy of it.

“Be careful.” Alex found herself worried about her new friend, remembering the events of the day before.

“Hey, I’m always careful.” Bridget grinned, but the hint of fear and worry hovered somewhere right behind her eyes. Alex suddenly wished she were going with the reporter so she could look after her. But instead, she merely watched as Bridget disappeared out the door.

To her surprise, Alex already felt the young woman’s absence like an ache in her chest. Turning to the empty apartment, Alex saw blue eyes watching her from on top of the sofa. As she walked across the room, Princess stood up, her back arching and growled. A wicked gleam in her eye, Alex leaned down and growled back, sending the tiny cat running for the safety the bedroom.

She wandered to the balcony, wondering if she could catch another glimpse of Bridget as she left. Stepping over the cushioned lawn chair that took up most of the small space, Alex leaned over the railing. Even though she was four stories up, she could clearly make out the faces of the people on the street.

After a few moments, she saw Bridget come out of the building. She watched her journey across the courtyard and toward the street. Just before she reached the edge of the sidewalk, Bridget turned as if she felt herself being watched. Her eyes moved to the balcony and even from that distance, Alex could clearly see the smile that was flashed in her direction.

She watched as Bridget turned back and took a few more steps until she was a couple of feet out onto the street.

And then everything seemed to move in slow motion.

A dark car swerved, heading directly for Bridget. Alex took in a breath to yell a warning, but it was too late. She watched in horror as the car slammed into the young reporter’s body. The sound of the impact reached her ears a few seconds later. Then Alex clearly heard the sickening thud as Bridget hit the concrete.

Her mind predominantly blank and her eyes wild, Alex turned, her gaze focusing on the lawn chair. She quickly grabbed it, snatching it away from the chair it had been covering. She flung one of her legs over the railing, positioned the cushion in front of her, and quickly scanned the ground below her.

Alex didn’t take the time to think about what she was doing, whether it was possible, whether she was going to get herself hurt, or killed. The only thing that registered in her mind was the still form of a young, trusting reporter that lay amid a quickly gathering crowd on the street.

And she jumped.

Flipping a few times in her descent, Alex was aiming for a small tree that sat on the edge of the courtyard. The cushion gave her some protection from the branches as they slowed down her fall. As soon as she felt the last branch go by, Alex tucked her body, pitching forward with her legs as they absorbed the jolt of her contact with the ground. Rolling quickly, Alex sprung to her feet in a dead run, her bare feet slapping on the concrete.

Thrusting people out of her way, she knelt next to the still form, gently feeling for a pulse and letting out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding when she felt one. A gash on her head appeared to be the only serious injury. Prying open one of Bridget eyes, Alex saw that the pupil was still responsive. Good sign. She quickly felt along the young woman’s body for any more serious injuries. There were none she could detect.

Careful not to move her body, for fear of a spinal injury, Alex turned quickly to the gawking onlookers and yelled.

“Get an ambulance.”

Chapter 5

The first thing she became aware of was the pain. It stabbed through her mind, robbing her of all thought.

After a time it became more bearable, and she crawled slowly back toward consciousness. As her other senses came to life, she noted other pains coursing through her body. Finally, with a deep groan, Bridget opened her eyes, blinking several times at the light which assaulted her.

Very slowly, the room around her came into focus.

A hospital? Why was she in a hospital?

Desperately, Bridget tried to ignore the pain and pull her thoughts into coherency. What was the last thing she could remember? Getting ready for work, asking Alex to stay. She said yes, didn’t she?

Suddenly Bridget had the awful thought that it had all been a dream, her meeting the mysterious woman, the bond she felt between them. Perhaps it was too good to be true.

“Hey, there, looks like someone’s awake.” A gentle voice called from above her. Trying to focus on the speaker, Bridget saw a smiling young man in white pants and shirt.

“How?” Her voice was little more than a croak as she suddenly broke into a fit of coughing that seemed to magnify the pain in her head.

“Take it easy, it’s all right. You had a little accident. You were hit by a car this morning.”

A car? Bridget tried desperately to remember what had happened, but couldn’t recall anything beyond getting into the elevator. The rest was blackness. “I don’t remember . . .”

“Hey, that’s okay. It’s pretty common to blank out a little bit of time before a serious accident. Especially since you got a nice little concussion.” Blond hair fell around the man’s face and as he smiled dimples emerged on either side of his face. “My name’s Tony, and I’m your nurse. I need to ask you a few questions okay?”

Bridget nodded, willing the pain to ease. With gentle hands, Tony began testing her eyes, her reflexes, making sure she didn’t have any other serious pains. All the time, he spoke to her softly, telling her a nonsense sense story about his two dogs. She clung to his soothing voice as a haven from the pain.

“How did I get here?” She managed to croak out after he’d finished, while he turned to write down some information on her chart.

“You were brought in by ambulance. A woman came with you, apparently she’d been taking care of you until the paramedics got there. When they took you, she insisted on riding with them.”

Alex. It hadn’t been a dream.

“Where is she?” Bridget began looking around the room for signs of Alex’s presence.

“Well, that’s the funny thing. She disappeared. They said she paced around the emergency room, grabbing anyone that would come near her for information. Then she just left. Do you know who she is?”

She left? A wave of panic began to flow through Bridget. What if she doesn’t come back? An annoying beeping sounded near her head.

“Hey, hey, calm down.” Tony moved to her side, putting a calming hand on her shoulder while his eyes were trained on her heart monitor. “Take it easy, I’m sure she’ll be back. They said she was very concerned about you.”

Closing her eyes, Bridget forced herself to calm down. Finally the heart monitor ceased its beeping and Tony seemed to relax as well.

“Listen, I’m going to go get your doctor. In the mean time, I think you’ve got some visitors waiting to see you.” With another dimpled grin, Tony turned and left the small room. A few minutes later, familiar faces began filtering into the room.

“Hey there kiddo. You gave us quite a scare.” Claude leaned over the bed, placing a fatherly hand over hers, dimples of his own emerged beneath his close trimmed white beard as he smiled. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Bridget smiled, though the throbbing in her head certainly didn’t feel fine.

“We were worried about you.” This came from the nasal voice of Paul Jones, a researcher for the paper. His short brown hair arranged wildly about his head, Paul adjusted his wire rim glasses. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that standing toe to toe with a mack truck isn’t a good idea?”

Chuckling slightly, Bridget winced at the pain. “I’ll try to remember that next time.”

For the next few minutes, various friends from the newsroom came by to check up on her. So many that she joked with Claude that no one was left to work on the paper. Every time the door opened to admit a new guest, hope sprang in her chest that it would be Alex. It never was.

Finally, the stream of visitors slowed to a trickle and then to a halt. Claude had been needed at the paper, but Paul had stayed behind, hovering near her bedside.

Soon, a couple of detectives showed up to take her statement. They asked some perfunctory questions, but it was evident that with no memory of the accident, Bridget’s statement wasn’t much use to them.

Tony came back in a short while later, followed by a doctor that gave her a quick exam, made a few notes and disappeared. Bridget couldn’t help but wonder how much the five minutes of work was going to cost her. Mercifully, the doctor had prescribed her some pain medication. So before long, the reporter no longer cared how much it cost.

“Paul?” Bridget blinked hazily, feeling as though her head were floating some distance away from her body. She found her thoughts drifting aimlessly over the night before and the conversation she and Alex had. “How hard is it to get a hold of birth records that have been sealed?”

Paul was, by almost anyone’s definition, a nerd. He was both incredibly bright and adept at almost anything electronic, and hopeless in any remotely social situation.

“Well,” he began thoughtfully, “I guess it depends on which state your looking in. You see . . .”

“North Carolina.” Bridget cut him off before he could launch into a lengthy explanation of what was involved in searching for the records.

Paul’s eyebrow rose. “Well, I’m sure I could manage it. What do you have in mind? Something about this story?”

“Uh, sort of.” Bridget answered ambiguously, having no desire to try to explain a situation even she didn’t fully understand.

“So, did you have any luck finding that Peppermint kid?”

Sighing, Bridget realized that her accident would keep her from looking for Patty tonight as she’d planned. “No. Something came up last night, I didn’t get to go look for her.”

“Oh,” Paul’s face was thoughtful again, and then it suddenly brightened with excitement. “Hey, I know! I can go find her for you!” Bridget groaned. “Yeah, I’ll just head down there tonight and . . .”

” . . . and what, Paul? You don’t even know where to look. And how are you going to take care of yourself?”

“Oh, great, this coming from the woman who tries to play chicken with a car.”

“Paul, look, I know you want to help. But that’s a dangerous neighborhood. And I don’t want you to get hurt. Promise me you won’t go down there, okay?”

Bridget knew that was a cruel thing to do. She was very aware of the crush Paul had on her, and she felt like she was taking advantage of it. But she didn’t think she could forgive herself if anything happened to him while he was trying to help her out. With a sick feeling, Bridget realized that her accident was most likely not an accident at all, but another attempt on her life. There was no way she could tell Paul the truth without the whole newsroom being aware of it before the night was over and that was the last thing Bridget wanted. This was her story, and no one was going to steal it out from under her. Besides, she was certain Claude would saddle her with a partner if he knew. No way.

Though he looked crestfallen, Paul nodded his agreement.

“Good. Look, you don’t have to hang around here all day. I’m just going to get some rest, okay?”

Still looking disappointed, Paul agreed. Though he promised to check back in on her that evening. Tony came in as he was leaving, bringing her dinner with him.

“Well, I hope you’ve got a good appetite.”

As she eyed the suspicious looking plate, Bridget smiled wanly. The meal turned out to be very dry fried chicken, lumpy mashed potatoes, a small salad, and jello, complete with some suspiciously amorphous fruit floating in it.

As she picked through the meal, carefully avoiding the jello, the reporter’s thoughts were filled with Alex. Where had the woman gone? Was she back at the apartment? Or had she disappeared from Bridget’s life as enigmatically as she entered it? Pushing the tray away, the reporter lay back, letting her weariness carry her into a fitful sleep.

She awoke sometime later to a darkened room. City lights filtered through the windows and she realized that night had fallen. Gratefully, she realized that the pain in her head had subsided a great deal. As she gazed out into the darkness, Bridget sighed, wishing she was out there searching for her witness. She was tired of being behind in the game, especially since someone seemed to be playing dirty. Frustration was quickly giving way to anger.

“Where are you?” Not even realizing that she said the words out loud, Bridget wasn’t sure who she was talking to. Alex. Patty. Or whomever had decided to toy so easily with her life.

“I’m right here.”

Nearly jumping out of her bed at the sound, Bridget’s eyes widened as she saw a figure emerge from the shadows on the other side of the small room.

Alex. Somewhere within herself, relief flooded into Bridget so powerfully that she almost started to cry.

“Hey, hey. Take it easy. It’s all right.” Alex’s voice was low and soothing as she moved to the bedside.

Still staring incredulously at the beautiful face, mostly hidden by shadow, that regarded her, the reporter finally found her voice. “Where have you been? They said that you came here with me and then . . .”

“I’ve been close.” The deep timbre of Alex’s voice had the relaxing effect of a narcotic. “I just didn’t want to get in the way with all your friends here.”

Bridget translated that to mean that Alex didn’t want to be seen. She noticed that the enigmatic woman was still wearing the same shorts and sweatshirt that Bridget had given her the night before, and that her legs and feet were still bare. She could make out a few small tears and greenish stains on the clothes, which were accompanied by a good number of small scratches and bruises on Alex’s legs.

“What happened to you?” The reporter indicated the marks.

“Oh that,” Alex chuckled a little. “Long story.”

Not satisfied, but willing to wait for now, Bridget gave voice to the other question that was nagging at her mind.

“What happened to me?”

Her companion’s face grew very somber at the question. “How much do you remember?”

“Nothing. The last thing that’s clear is leaving you with a key to the apartment. They said I was hit by a car.”

“You were.” Even in the dim light, the reporter could see the muscles in Alex’s face twitch with anger.

“So it’s probably the same guy, right?” Bridget let her voice be cool and professional, despite the fact that they were talking about an attempt on her life.

Alex’s eyes narrowed as she watched the reporter’s face closely. “Probably. Or at the very least, the same person was behind it. That car swerved on purpose.” Taking a deep breath, she began to pace about the room with her hands clasped behind her back. “I was hoping you might have seen who was driving, I didn’t get a good look at the car.”

“You saw the accident?”

“Yeah.” Alex coughed uncomfortably and Bridget could clearly tell she was leaving out part of the story. “Anyway, so it looks like we’ve got a serious problem here.” Her face danced in and out of the shadows as she spoke. “Why is someone trying to kill you?”

Bridget took a deep breath. “I’m not entirely certain.” She admitted. “Right now, I’m working on a murder story. But I haven’t made any breakthroughs or anything.”

“Can you think of any other possibilities?” Intensity shown on Alex’s face as she spoke.

Closing her eyes, Bridget mentally inventoried the stories she’d been working recently, and the higher profile stories from the past couple of years. “No, I just can’t.” She said finally. “I can’t think of anyone who’d have a reason to grind an axe this sharp. I mean, I’m a good reporter and everything, but I’m still more or less just a beginner.” She was a bit surprised by the honesty of her words. But then, her life was on the line. And for some inexplicable reason, she trusted Alex.

Still pacing, Bridget could almost hear the wheels turning in Alex’s mind. “Okay, so if it’s this case, then maybe you should tell me about it.”

The reporter quickly sketched in what little information she had to go on, concluding finally with Stacy’s death and her conversation with Nate.

“So you need to find Patty?” It was as much a statement as a question.

“I was going to look for her tonight. Do you know anything about her?” The reporter realized that Alex lived on the streets in the same area as her witness. To her disappointment, Alex shook her head.

“I didn’t socialize much.” The words were delivered with a good-natured smirk.

“So I’ll just have to make sure I get sprung tomorrow. I’ve got to find her.”

“No.” Alex’s voice was very firm. She had stopped in her pacing and was standing at the end of the bed, her legs slightly apart and her hands clasped behind her back.

“What do you mean, ‘No’? I’m going . . .”

“I mean, it’s too dangerous.”

“Now just a minute . . .” Bridget felt her anger rising. “Who exactly do you think you are to tell me what I can and can’t do?”

Alex’s mouth worked for a few moments, as if she was trying to formulate a response. “I’m going with you.” She said finally, her tone was commanding, leaving no room for argument.

The reporter was torn. Part of her was overjoyed at the prospect of having Alex with her. But she wouldn’t have Alex, or anyone else, thinking she was some helpless little girl. “I can take care of myself.”

The shadowed face regarded her silently for a moment, one eyebrow arching up. Slowly, Alex turned her face about the room, eyeing the medical equipment meaningfully before turning her gaze back toward Bridget.

“I’m going with you.” Her tone was more subdued this time, but her eyes flashed dangerously.

“What, have you appointed yourself my own personal bodyguard?” Bridget knew her words were little more than bravado.

“Call it whatever you like.” Alex’s eyes held hers from across the room. “But I am going with you.”

A sudden inspiration hit Bridget. “Only if we make it official.”

Her self-appointed bodyguard narrowed her eyes in response. “What are you talking about?”

“I’m saying that if you’re going to insist on being my bodyguard, then I’m going to insist that you let me pay you for it.” Bridget almost lost her bravado as Alex’s gaze turned ice cold.

“I’m not for sale.”

A cold shiver coursed down Bridget’s spine. “I . . .I didn’t say you were.” Her throat suddenly dry, Bridget swallowed a few times, feeling her irritation grow again. “But, I’m not a charity case either. And I can’t have you running around risking your life because of me just because you feel like it. Protecting someone is a job. Plain and simple. And if you’re going to do it, then I’m going to pay you for it.” Alex’s jaw clenched and unclenched a few times. “Look,” Bridget let her tone lighten and the hint of a smile cross her face. “I’ve got the money, that’s not even a concern. And what I’m offering is a good deal . . . for both of us. I’m not trying to buy you, or your trust. But I just wouldn’t feel right about accepting your help unless it goes both ways.”

Alex’s features softened a bit at the words, but she still seemed uncomfortable with the idea. Bridget decided to go in for the kill.

“If it makes you feel any better, I could offer you an insultingly low salary.” The reporter grinned impishly.

The newly hired bodyguard smiled despite herself.

Chapter 6

A bodyguard?

Alex let the word filter through her mind. Well, it was a way of getting what she wanted, right? After spending the day berating herself letting the reporter out of her sight in the first place when she knew her life was in danger, Alex was ready to compromise. Though she still wasn’t comfortable with the idea, the newly-titled bodyguard could tell that Bridget was going to be impossibly stubborn about this. Besides, how could she explain why it bothered her without revealing too much? There just wasn’t any other way.

Slowly, she let the tension that had built throughout the day begin to melt away. Alex had been entirely unprepared for the emotional response she’d had to Bridget being injured. One moment she was seething with anger at whomever was responsible, the next at herself for letting it happen, and then her heart had careened into deep despair at the thought of losing her new friend.

It had been a difficult day, trying to stay nearby, making herself as inconspicuous as possible. Alex had carefully watched each and every visitor that entered Bridget’s room, searching for danger signs.

After a few hours of loitering in the hallway, Alex had been distracted by a soft voice coming out of the room across the hall from Bridget’s.

“Emily . . . Emily.” The cries continued for a while, sometimes quiet, sometimes loud. Around noon, a nurse had opened the door to enter the room and Alex caught sight of the frail form of an old man. His arms and legs were tied to the bed with restraints that he struggled against weakly.

“Emily.” His voice was louder this time, sounding odd in the speaker’s toothless mouth. The nurse, a kindly looking woman, overweight with short, dark brown hair bustled about the room for a moment, checking the machines attached to the old man, adjusting his I. V. and checking his vitals. When she had finished and moved toward the door, Alex caught her attention.

“What’s the matter with him?”

Looking back at the still struggling figure with compassion on her face, the nurse’s voice was businesslike. “Late stage Alzheimer’s . . . He’s been in a nursing home, but had a stroke a couple of days ago so they brought him here.” The woman eyed her bare feet and legs, as well as the various small injuries Alex had received during her little impromptu leap that morning with a raised eyebrow, but no comment.

Alex noticed the lack of any flowers, or any other sign of family or concern. “What about his family?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t ever seen anyone visit him.” With that the nurse departed, though she left the door open. Alex stood in the doorway for a while, watching the old man’s futile struggles. Something about the solitary figure touched her heart. She chided herself for being so emotional.

Hearing an elevator door opening, Alex saw what looked to be two police detectives moving down the hallway. Looking around quickly, she walked into the old man’s room, closing the door half way and moving over to the other side of his bed, making sure she still had a clear view of the door to Bridget’s room.

“Help me!”

The old man cried out, to Alex’s alarm, just as the detectives came into view. She quickly moved to his bedside, taking hold of one of his hands and looking down at him letting a concern filled look fall across her face. Glancing up, she saw one of the detectives looking her way. Giving him a sad smile, she let her other hand reach forward to gently stroke the old man’s balding head.

When she looked up again, Alex was relieved to see that the detective had moved on into the reporter’s room. She let go of the old man’s hand and moved away from the bed.

“Emily?” The voice was much softer this time.

“No. I’m not Emily.” Alex’s voice was sharp, almost harsh, brought about mainly by her apprehension about what Bridget might be telling the police. The old man flinched away from her. Regretting her tone, Alex spoke again, this time letting the timbre of her voice be low and gentle. “What’s your name?”

“Billy.” Came the toothless reply. It sounded so much like a child’s voice. Struggling at the restraints again, the old man looked up at her with watery blue eyes. “Let me go . . . please?”

Surprised at how sad and helpless she felt at the plea, Alex shook her head. “I can’t. I’m sorry.” With that the old man grew silent, letting his head fall back on the pillow and continuing to struggle against his restraints.

Alex knew a little bit about the disease. She knew that it stole the victim’s memory. Leaving the body but taking the mind, one piece at a time. She realized that Billy probably didn’t have any idea of where he was, or what was happening to him. It was entirely possible that he had little memory of his life left at all. He seemed to have focused on some specific time in his past, perhaps in his childhood, and one specific person.

There were times in her life when Alex would have wished for such a fate. But she realized, as she watched the fragile old man struggle helplessly, that she had never truly considered the consequences. Her life, such as it was, had brought her to that alley the day before, had given her the skills to save a life after she had taken so many. While she couldn’t change the past, or wish it away, and running from it had nearly cost her what little humanity she had left, perhaps there was something she could do about it.

But how?

The only clear answer that came into her mind lay injured in a room across the hall. Alex promised herself that she wouldn’t let anything like that happen to Bridget again. Not if she could help it. And even though she hadn’t used them in a while, Alex had many skills.

She wasn’t entirely certain why she felt so responsible for the young reporter. Perhaps it was just that there was so much inside of Bridget that Alex had thought forever lost from the world. Trust. Kindness. Selflessness. But Alex’s heart told her it was more than that. There was a fire in Bridget’s eyes, and a stubbornness that might even equal her own. And there was a quiet, unassuming strength about the woman that seemed to somehow filter into the air around her. If she didn’t know any better, Alex could almost believe she was falling in love.

While she continued to keep an eye trained on the reporter’s room, Alex’s thoughts traveled back to the frail old man. She wondered who this Emily might have been. A sister perhaps, a girlfriend, a wife. It didn’t really matter. It was someone he had loved. Someone he needed. At any other time in her life, Alex wouldn’t have understood that at all. But now, she was beginning to, and with that understanding came an even greater sympathy.

After a few more hours, the nurse returned, this time carrying a tray of food. She looked at Alex quizzically, as she sat in the visitor’s chair, carefully arranged to afford her a clear view of the door. Alex merely shrugged. “Let’s just say I’m a volunteer.”

Oddly, the nurse accepted this without any further comment. She put the tray on the small adjustable table and raised the head of his bed.

“All right William,” her voice was loud as she leaned over into the man’s face. “It’s dinner time. Are you going to behave?” Uncovering the tray, Alex noted that it was covered with a small assortment of cups and bowls, all containing well-processed foods. She could identify carrots and some kind of green substance that might have been green beans, but the rest was a total mystery. Grabbing one of the bowls, the nurse dropped a spoon in and began to stir vigorously. “Okay, William, open up.” The nurse brought a spoonful of the green substance to just outside Billy’s mouth, which he was refusing to open.

For some inexplicable reason, Alex was annoyed by the nurse’s tone. She moved forward, taking the bowl from the surprised woman’s hand, tired of standing back and putting up with situations she didn’t like.

“I’ll do it.” To the look she received, Alex only shrugged again. “A volunteer, remember?”

Hesitating for only a moment, the nurse surrendered the bowl to Alex’s hand. “Just get him to eat as much as you can.”

Nodding, Alex took the spoon as well as she watched the nurse leave.

“Billy.” She called softly. The old man’s head turned toward her. “Open up, Billy.” Obediently, the old man opened his mouth and she deposited a spoonful of the green substance. She pulled back for a moment to watch his face contort as he tasted the concoction. Luckily her eyes caught the warning signs as his lips pursed. Ducking, she barely got out of the way in time as Billy spit the mouthful all over the wall behind her. Chuckling softly, Alex shook her head. “Don’t like that, huh? Well can’t say I blame you. Let’s try another . . .”

Though he tolerated some kind of brown substance that Alex sincerely hoped was pureed meat, and seemed to enjoy what looked to have once been peaches, the vast majority of his food now decorated the hospital wall. When she was finished, Alex carefully wiped his mouth off for him. Praising him for eating so well.

The last of Bridget’s visitor’s seemed to have left a short time before, and Alex was anxious to go check on the reporter’s condition.

“I’ve got to go now, Billy.” Her voice was soft as she spoke, letting her hand fall into the old man’s once again, trying to ignore the restraint attached to his wrist.

“Emily?” His voice came again, childlike and almost fearful.

Alex felt another surge of compassion well up inside her. Not really understanding why she was doing it, she leaned forward until her face was very close and spoke softly. “Yes, Billy. It’s Emily, I’m here.”

To her surprise, the old man started to cry softly. His hand fought against the restraint, as if he were trying to touch her face. “Em?”

“Yes.”

“Can you forgive me? Please? I’m so sorry.” His voice was heartbroken as he gazed into her face. Though she had no idea what he had done, or who Emily was, Alex spoke without hesitation.

“Yes, of course I can Billy. I forgive you.”

Still holding his hand, Alex let her other hand move up to stroke the soft skin of his, nearly bald, head. “I forgive you.” She leaned down and let her lips brush against his forehead. “Rest now.” The haggard old face seemed to relax at the words, as Billy lay his head back on the pillow and shut his eyes.

She continued to hold onto his hand for a while as he drifted off to sleep. Then, with a deep sigh, Alex turned to leave the room. She glanced back at the frail sleeping figure, alone, a shadow of the man he’d once been, and Alex knew she could have been looking at herself. With that thought, she walked out into the hallway quietly closing the door behind her.

Bridget had been asleep when she entered. For a long time, she merely stood against the wall, watching the young woman sleep, comforted in the steady rise and fall of her chest.

“Come on Alex, please?” Alex’s thoughts jerked back to the present as she listened to Bridget’s entreaty. “It wouldn’t take very long.”

“No.” She answered firmly.

“Why not?” Alex rolled her eyes, the reporter could be so incredibly frustrating! Did she have to question everything? Somewhere in the back of her mind, a little voice said ‘be careful what you wish for.’

“I agreed to be your bodyguard, not your gopher.”

“But, Alex . . .”

“I said no. You’ll just have to make due with what they’ve got here. And I can wait until tomorrow. They’ll make sure you have something to wear home when the time comes. I’m not leaving you alone. ”

“Alex, I’m in the middle of a hospital. Nothing is going to . . .”

“Look,” Alex let her eyes lock with the frustrated green eyes of her new employer. “You seem to be under a bit of a misconception here. I am the one in charge of protection, right?” She paused, forcing a nod from a frustrated reporter who was quickly realizing that she’d been caught in her own trap. “Then it’s up to me to determine whether it’s safe for you to be alone now, right?” Another nod, this one more sullen. “Good. Then don’t argue with me.” Alex spoke in the sure tone of one accustomed to being obeyed. Bridget huffed, but relented.

After working out a sketchy idea of what the terms and conditions of this new position would be, Alex was letting herself get used to the idea. She had to admit, it was nice to have some measure of control over the situation. But there was still one thing that remained. Bridget hadn’t mentioned it. She seemed to be waiting for Alex to bring it up.

It was a question of trust. But then, Alex knew she’d have to take the chance. To trust in order to be worthy of trust in return. Her thoughts traveled back to Billy, laying across the hall, sick and alone. His words echoed in her head, ‘Can you forgive me?’ She wondered when the time came for her to ask that question, what the answer would be. Steeling herself against the unwelcome fear that flooded through her, Alex let a word fall from her lips.

“Bryson.”

Bridget looked up, confusion on her face as Alex answered a question she hadn’t asked.

“Bryson.” Alex repeated softly. “My name. You wanted to know. It’s Bryson. Alexandra Bryson.” Alex was reasonably certain that Bridget wouldn’t be able to dig up the whole truth. She’d learn enough to know what questions to ask, though. But then, Alex would just have to dive off of that bridge when she came to it.

She thought briefly about volunteering more information, but decided against it. Let her work for it, she told herself. Bridget accepted the information without any further comment.

A short while later, a nurse had entered, ready to wake Bridget up to give her a sleeping pill. She seemed quite surprised to find her not only awake, but with a guest.

“Visiting hours are over.” She informed Alex.

In response, the newly hired bodyguard simply planted herself in the visitor’s chair and folded her arms across her chest, regarding the nurse cooly.

The battle of wills lasted only a few minutes until the nurse gave up with a huff and exited the room.

Bridget had succumbed to the effects of the sleeping pills a short while later. As she watched the young reporter drift off, Alex sat wondering about the unexpected path her life was now taking. Wondering if she could ever forgive herself for her past. She thought too about the old man, hoping her words had given him some comfort. He deserved to feel the peace of forgiveness, no matter what he had done.

With that thought, she drifted into a sleep filled with familiar demons.

Chapter 7

Bridget woke slowly to a number of realizations. First, the pain in her head had lessened a great deal. Her fingers tentatively traced the bandage wrapped around her head, wincing at the soreness. Secondly, Alex sat in the chair sleeping, her feet propped up on the end of Bridget’s bed. Thirdly, the soft light of morning appeared to be filtering through the window. Fourthly, and most importantly, she had to go to the bathroom.

She really, really had to go to the bathroom.

Now, under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t have been an issue. However, considering that she had not actually been on her feet since before the accident, not to mention the IV that was illogically placed on the wrong side of the bed, it proved an interesting dilemma.

She certainly wasn’t going to wake Alex up and ask her for help going to the potty.

Eyeing the door of the small bathroom that lay only a few feet away with determination, Bridget began to quietly work her way to the edge of the bed, reasoning that she’d have to go all the way around it, in deference to the IV. She winced when her bare feet touched the cold tile floor. Bridget rose slowly to her feet, fighting against the surge of dizziness that threatened to overwhelm her.

Gritting her teeth, she refused to sit back down, but merely waited for the sensation to subside. As she began to walk, Bridget became increasingly aware of the other injuries her body had sustained. Each step seemed to herald a new pain or ache in her abused body. And each new pain bolstered her determination to find out who had done this to her, and why.

Having learned the hard way that it wasn’t a particularly good idea to wake Alex up when you were within grabbing distance, Bridget moved as slowly as she could around the sleeping figure, careful to make as little noise as possible.

After painstakingly negotiating her way around the sleeping form of her self-appointed savior, Bridget sighed with relief and quickened her step, her body’s insistence increasing with her goal so close at hand. She made it to the doorway just before a more powerful wave of dizziness flooded through her, darkening her vision. Groaning softly, she felt herself begin to fall.

Her descent was halted in a sudden jerk of motion, followed quickly by an explosion of pain that caused her to cry out. To her surprise, it wasn’t the cold floor that greeted her senses, but a pair of strong arms.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Her head still swimming, Bridget didn’t have it in her to be upset at the harsh tone in Alex’s voice.

“If I were you, I’d be less concerned with what I’m doing, and more worried about where it is I’m going to do it. Because if I wait much longer, I won’t have a choice anymore.” She shot meaningful glances first into Alex’s confused face, then to the two feet of porcelain that lay almost within reach.

Catching the hint, Alex stood slowly, carrying a grimacing reporter up with her and began to maneuver her into position. Bridget was almost too relieved to be embarrassed.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Alex’s tone was still scolding.

“What? And miss out on all this fun?” Bridget’s voice was dripping with sarcasm. “Now, if you don’t mind . . .” Though her raised eyebrow spoke volumes, Alex walked outside the small bathroom and closed the door without comment just before a dreamy smile fell across Bridget’s face.

Tony came in to check on her a short time later, and her doctor followed soon after as he made his morning rounds. Pleading her case for early release, Bridget promised to get plenty of rest and stay off her feet once she got home. Alex sat through her persuasive speech with an impassive face, accentuated every now and then by a subtle lifting of an eyebrow, knowing full well that Bridget had no intention of keeping those promises.

In the end, she had won the doctor over. There were, of course, advantages to having a youthful and innocent-looking face.

The paperwork had been completed by lunchtime.

Bridget was mildly upset by the state of the clothing she had been wearing. Her jacket and skirt were torn and bloody, and her silk shirt had also been completely ruined. Her body was incredibly stiff and sore as she fussed with the clothes, shooting occasional accusing glances at Alex for not getting her some spare clothing like she had asked, noting that Alex didn’t seem to feel guilty in the slightest. Finally satisfied that the garments would at least cover the things that needed to be covered, and losing an argument with both Tony and Alex on whether or not she would be wheeled out of the hospital like an invalid, the reporter’s brief hospital visit came to a merciful end.

As she was wheeled out into the hallway, Bridget was surprised when Alex stopped just outside her door. Turning to see why she had stopped, the injured reporter found her friend staring into the empty room that had been across the hall from her own. Alex walked to the doorway, her eyes trained on the carefully made bed.

“What happened to the man that was in this room?” Though her face was impassive, Bridget thought she caught a trace of emotion in Alex’s voice.

“He passed away last night.” Tony replied sadly. “He had a stroke in his sleep.”

Though the expression on her face never changed, Bridget was surprised to see a trace of sadness flash across deep blue eyes. Letting her gaze fall once again on the empty bed, Alex took a long, deep breath before turning around and walking quickly down the hallway toward the elevators, never once turning to look back.

The cab ride had played host to a small argument concerning where their next stop would be. Bridget had finally won out in her bid for a clothing store by proclaiming that Alex would look pretty funny wearing her torn shorts into the newsroom.

They stopped at a casual boutique, whose saleslady had immediately looked on the peculiar-looking pair with disdain. Bridget won her over rather quickly, however, by flashing a piece of plastic that might as well have been made of platinum as its name suggested. Though she rarely resorted to such means of persuasion, being somewhat sheepish about her family’s wealth, Bridget was quite capable of recognizing when a situation demanded it. And a small, guilty part of her enjoyed the sudden change in the haughty saleswoman’s demeanor.

Alex seemed completely unimpressed by the entire situation.

The reporter quickly picked out a loose-fitting pair of tan slacks and a long-sleeved cream blouse for herself, changing into the new clothes with relief as she dropped her other garments in a trash can. Her new employee proved to be a more finicky shopper. Though she had pointed out a number of outfits that she felt would look quite stunning on the dark-haired woman, her suggestions were most often met with raised eyebrows and cool, wordless stares. When Alex had picked up a single pair of jeans, Bridget calmly inquired if she intended to wear that same garment every single day. Her commentary didn’t seem to be appreciated.

Finally, her new companion had relented on a few pairs of jeans, some simple shirts and blouses, and a black vest and slacks that Bridget had insisted on. Though she was hardly a fashion expert, the reporter seemed more than capable of deciding what would look good on her new companion.

Alex blanched when the price tag was wrung up, but Bridget didn’t bat an eyelash. Their next stop was at a shoe store nearby. A few pairs of tennis shoes, and a pair of black dress shoes had been picked out for Alex, along with a pair of loafers for Bridget to wear with her new outfit. Bridget had made certain that her new friend hadn’t been anywhere near the cash register when she paid for their purchases.

During the shopping excursion, Bridget had only a few faint spells of dizziness, and found the pain to be bearable, but quickly realized that she had to actively try to hide any and all discomfort from her newly-appointed protector, who seemed to take her job quite seriously. But she had to admit, she was glad when it was over and they were safely in a cab heading for home.

They reached Bridget’s apartment about fifteen minutes later. With Alex hovering anxiously around the increasingly irritated reporter as they walked. Though she was still a bit dizzy, Bridget did her best not to let Alex know about it.

Princess was relieved to see them return, though she meowed loudly in complaint for having been left alone for the night. After spending a few moments rubbing the tiny black cat’s ears and filling her food and water bowls, Bridget was rather quickly forgiven. To her surprise, though she continued to look at the dark-haired woman warily, Princess didn’t growl or hiss at Alex’s presence.

Bridget contemplated a shower, but with the continued dizziness she didn’t feel up to it, promising herself that she’d do it tonight. So instead she washed as well as she could in the sink, trying to ignore the scrapes and bruises on her body. Her hair was hopeless. She simply pulled it back into a loose ponytail, doing her best to ignore the pain in her head.

The reporter thought briefly about taking one of the pills the doctor had prescribed for pain, but gritted her teeth and decided against it. She needed a clear head now. She’d just have to worry about the pain later.

After carefully pulling on her newly acquired outfit once again, Bridget glanced in the mirror. It wasn’t great, but it hid most of her smaller injuries from public view. And right now, that was about the best she could ask for.

Moving out of the bedroom, Bridget found Alex prowling around her apartment like a caged cat.

“I’m finished. Would you like to grab a quick shower?” Alex looked up at her with a confused look, as if the thought hadn’t crossed her mind. She glanced down over her appearance and sighed.

“Yeah, I guess I’d better. Are you all right?”

Bridget laughed ruefully. “Well, not really. But I will be.” Alex didn’t seem to appreciate the humor. “Go on and get your shower, I want to get to the newsroom before five.”

The dark-haired woman scowled. “I still don’t like the idea . . .”

Bridget held up a hand to silence her. “I can’t just sit here and do nothing. We talked about this. If we’re going to figure out what’s going on, then I need to do my job. I’m not just going to sit around and wait for whoever is doing this to come back and finish the job.” Alex muttered something under her breath, which Bridget gathered wasn’t overly complimentary, but nodded her head tersely.

As Alex disappeared into the bathroom, the reporter forayed into her office so she could have some privacy of her own. Waiting until she heard the water running, Bridget picked up the phone and hit the speed-dial that would connect her directly to Paul’s desk.

“Yeah.” Paul’s distracted voice sounded over the phone.

“Hey, Paul. It’s me.”

“Bridget? Where are you? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. I’m at home but I’ll be in a little bit later.”

“Uh, I don’t think that’s such a hot idea Bridget, Claude’s not gonna like it.” Paul’s nasal voice sounded skeptical.

“Yeah, well, he doesn’t have to like it. If I’m lucky, he doesn’t even have to know about it. Look, I need another favor.” Unconsciously, Bridget’s voice lowered to just above a whisper. “And Paul, this is just between you and me, all right?”

The researcher seemed to perk up at the idea. “Okay, shoot.”

“I’m serious, Paul. I want you to make sure no one sees what you’re doing. No hard copies. Nothing. All right?” Feeling a bit like she was spying, the reporter wanted to make certain that if they did uncover something that was particularly bad, as few people knew about it as possible.

A long pause greeted her words. Finally Paul agreed, his voice sounding concerned. “Okay. Whatever you say. But what have you gotten yourself into?”

Taking a deep breath, she decided Paul didn’t need to know any specifics. “I need a full background check. Everything you can find on an Alexandra Bryson. You got it?”

“Bryson.” The researcher repeated dutifully. “What’s this about?”

“Uhm . . . well . . . let’s just say it’s personal.” She knew Paul wouldn’t be happy with the idea, but it would just have to do. “I’ll be there in about an hour.”

Finishing her conversation, Bridget quickly downloaded her e-mail. Alex made her appearance as she was skimming through the messages. She wore a pair of jeans and a black turtleneck that accentuated her dark hair. Bridget had to once again remind herself to breathe.

“You look really nice.” The reporter was alarmed when she felt herself blushing at the words.

“Thanks.” Alex seemed a bit uncomfortable with the compliment.

She found herself feeling a bit guilty for probing into her mysterious new friend’s past. It wasn’t as though Alex wasn’t aware of what she was doing. But, for the first time, Bridget began to worry about what it was she would find. She really had no idea what secrets might be lurking in Alexandra Bryson’s past. Just about the only thing she was reasonably certain about, was that they probably weren’t going too pleasant.

A girl scout leader, Alex wasn’t. But what was she? And more importantly, what would Bridget do if it was worse than she had imagined? Not that she had imagined anything specific, but she had let herself get caught up in the dark, mysterious fantasy. It was exciting and stimulating. But soon she would begin to learn the reality. And that thought was considerably less romantic. In fact, it made her nervous. Very nervous.

Trying to rein in her emotions, Bridget went to the kitchen to throw together something to eat. She was surprised to find the sandwich that Alex had made the morning before lying on the kitchen floor, it’s meat having apparently been confiscated by Princess.

“Alex?” She asked the darkly clad woman who leaned against the kitchen doorway.

“Hmmm?”

“When was the last time you ate anything?”

When Alex’s eyes had rolled upward in thought, Bridget knew she hadn’t eaten since her first night in the apartment. Muttering a few off-color comments of her own, she made three sandwiches instead of two.

Her head had begun to pound insistently, so the reporter moved out onto the balcony as she ate to get some fresh air. Alex had wordlessly joined her. Bridget was quite surprised to find the cushion gone from her lawn chair.

“Alex, what happened to the chair?”

Her new friend’s mouth was suddenly too full to comment, apparently. Instead she merely shrugged and looked a bit guiltily toward the courtyard below.

Bridget followed Alex’s gaze, her eyes widening when she caught sight of the missing cushion on the ground far below laying below a tree in the courtyard. Its seams had been ripped open somehow and most of the cushioning appeared to be gone.

The reporter looked from the mangled cushion to the tree and then to Alex, remembering the scratches and stains that had covered her body. She leaned over once again and eyed the distance to the ground. Then she looked back at Alex.

“You didn’t.”

Alex coughed uncomfortably. The stunned reporter looked at the ground again.

“You did.” Bridget’s face was incredulous. Four stories? She jumped four stories? “How in the . . .”

The flustered reporter’s question was cut off by the insistent ringing of her telephone. Promising herself to pursue the topic later, she turned to walk inside.

“Hello?”

“Bridget? Oh great, I’m glad I caught you.” Paul’s voice sounded excited.

“What’s up? I told you I’ll be in . . .”

“Uh, I don’t think you’re going to want to come here right now. We just heard it over the police scanner, they’re fishing another girl out of the lake.”

A powerful wave of nausea swept over Bridget’s body. She sat heavily in the chair as the throbbing in her head threatened to overwhelm her. Another girl? Oh God, no.

“Where?” Emotion threatened to fill her voice.

“Same area, over by the East Side.”

The reporter took a deep breath, willing herself to calm. “Is it the same M.O.?”

“We haven’t heard anything official yet.”

“Okay . . .” another breath, “look, tell Claude I’m on my way down there, all right?”

“Uh uh. No way. I ain’t gettin’ in the line of fire. You’re gonna have to tell him yourself . . .”

“Paul, please, I’ve got to get going. Just . . . just tell him that a friend of mine,” she glanced at Alex, who stood in the doorway, “is going with me to make sure I’m okay. I’ll be fine, really.”

“A friend?”

“Paul . . .” There was a hint of frustration and warning in Bridget’s voice.

“Okay, okay. A friend. I’ll tell him.”

“Thanks . . . and Paul?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for calling me. Don’t worry. I’m on it.”

“Be careful, all right?” Why did everyone always say that to her?

“Hey, you know me. I’m always careful.”

Chapter 8

“No, you’re not.” Hands on her hips, feet planted, Alex stood in a small parking garage, just outside the driver’s door of Bridget’s tan Mustang.

“Yes, I am.” Bridget’s teeth were gritted as she spoke.

“Bridget, you have a concussion. You are not going to drive.” Alex tried for a reasonable tone in her voice. “If you don’t want to take a cab, then give me the keys.”

The unhappy reporter fumed for a moment, weighing her options before depositing the keys in Alex’s hand. “Fine.”

As Alex slid into the vehicle, she moved quickly to adjust the seat so the steering wheel no longer resembled part of her anatomy. She shot a worried glance at her young friend. Her face was pale, and she had dark circles under her eyes. It was clear that she was in pain, though she tried not to show it. And the subtle weaving of her body as she tried to walk hinted that she was still experiencing dizzy spells.

If she’d had a choice, Alex wouldn’t have allowed Bridget to take this trip. But in the short time she’d known the stubborn young reporter, Alex had found that the quickest way to make her angry was with any insinuation that she couldn’t do something by herself.

Putting the car into gear, the worried bodyguard knew this was going to be a long evening.

It had been a long time since she had driven such a small vehicle, or any vehicle at all, she reminded herself. So Alex paid extra care as she negotiated the busy streets. Turning south on the Dan Ryan Expressway, she headed back toward the streets that had very recently been her home.

As she drove, Alex couldn’t help but think that there was a big piece missing out of the puzzle that had led to attempts on Bridget’s life. That the reporter had been injured, and therefore taken out of the way for the evening, only to have a body turn up later was a little too convenient to be coincidence. There seemed to be a clear method to this madness, she just hadn’t figured out what it was. Yet.

It took well over an hour to make their way through the evening traffic and find the police barricade that had been set up on the windy shore of Lake Michigan. As she parked the car, Alex’s keen eyes made out a tarp covered figure lying close to the water’s edge. Good, the body was still there.

Carefully locking the doors, though she knew very well it was a futile gesture in this neighborhood, Alex followed closely behind the reporter as she made her way through the small crowd of onlookers that had gathered. The sun had begun to set, casting long shadows over the rippling waves.

“Hey, Eddie.” Bridget called out across the barricade, apparently recognizing one of the officers. A short, blond-headed detective with an easy smile turned at the sound and headed toward them.

“Hiya Bridget.” His gaze fell to the bandage that was wrapped around her head. “What happened?”

“That’s my line.” Bridget joked good-naturedly. “Seriously, I’m fine. I just had a little accident. So tell, me. Is it the same guy?”

“Yeah.” The police detective shook his head. “Too bad too, this one is messed up worse than the last one.”

Only because she was paying close attention to her young friend did Alex see the tremor that ran through her small frame at the words. With a sigh, Alex realized that Bridget somehow felt responsible for the girl’s death.

“You got an I.D.?” To her credit, Bridget’s voice was calm and steady.

“Nah, not yet. You know the urchins around here, they aren’t interested in talking to us.” At the word urchins, the young reporter glanced instinctually at Alex, a small smile of apology on her face. “Who’s your friend?” Eddie had followed Bridget’s gaze.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. This is Alex.” Turning her eyes back to Alex, Bridget motioned toward Eddie. “Alex, this is Detective Hunter.”

As she took the detective’s proffered hand he grinned. “Works for me.” As her brow knit, Alex looked in confusion at Bridget who’d begun to giggle. “Sorry,” Eddie snickered, “small joke.”

“So, care if I take a look?” Bridget’s tone was light. “I know a lot of the faces around here.” Eddie looked uncertain.

“Uh, I dunno. I’ll have to clear it with the Sarge. Hang on a minute.”

As Detective Hunter disappeared amid a sea of uniforms and plastic gloves, Alex leaned down toward Bridget’s ear. “What was the joke?”

The reporter laughed. “You watch TV much?”

“No.”

“Then you wouldn’t get it.” Though she was unhappy with the explanation, Eddie had reemerged, bringing with him a tall, muscular figure.

“Hi Bridget, I was wondering when you’d show up.” The taller man wore a detective’s badge also, his brown hair was pulled back into a short ponytail. He teased the young reporter with a friendly grin. As he stopped by the barricade, Eddie came up beside him and lifted the tape for Bridget to walk under.

“Sarge says it’s all right. But just you and no pictures.”

“You got it.” Bridget agreed quickly. Before her bodyguard could protest, Bridget turned to hand her small leather briefcase to Alex and promptly disappeared into the crowd, moving alongside Detective Hunter toward the tarp covered body.

“I’m Rodney, by the way.” The taller detective had stayed behind and was smiling at Alex.

“Alex.” She replied simply, shaking his hand, noting that he held onto hers a little bit longer than was necessary.

“So, are you a friend of Bridget’s?” Oh goody, she thought, small talk.

“Yes.” She said the word politely and with a smile, but nothing else. Her eyes remained on the area where Bridget had gone out of sight.

“Are you from around here?” Alex bit the inside of her lip to keep herself from laughing at the question, wondering what the detective would think if she told him that she’d been residing in an alley about three blocks away.

“Yes.” She replied.

A moment later, Bridget and Eddie came back into view. Alex’s eyes went to the reporter’s face, observing that she was even more pale and seemed to be leaning just a bit on the detective.

“Rod.” Eddie called as they got closer. “We’ve got an I.D. She’s a street kid, went by the name Peppermint Patty.”

Alex’s eyes moved quickly to Bridget’s face to confirm what she was hearing. There was a deep hurt and worry laying just beneath the surface of the reporter’s expression.

“Listen, she’s not doing too well. Maybe you ought to get her home.” Eddie’s face held concern as he helped Bridget back under the police tape.

“I will.” Alex assured him honestly as she reached out to pull the young reporter closer to herself. Saying quick good-byes to the two detectives, Alex began moving Bridget back toward her car. They had almost reached the door when Bridget stopped.

“Where are we going?” The reporter’s voice sounded numb.

“I’m taking you home.”

“No, you’re not.” Bridget shook her head. Her mouth set in a firm line. Alex wasn’t sure what the young woman had in mind. But she had a feeling she wasn’t going to like it.

“Oh, really. And where exactly had you planned on going?” The sun had almost completely disappeared behind the tall buildings of downtown Chicago, leaving the city cast in the pale grey of dusk.

“I need to find Nate. He’ll be close by.”

Alex clenched her jaw, her eyes unconsciously scanning the area for any sign of someone out of place. The identity of the victim had confirmed Alex’s suspicions about the real reason for Bridget’s little accident the day before, she didn’t want to take any more chances of the young woman getting caught in the way of someone who was trying to cover a bloody trail.

“We can come back tomorrow, he’ll . . .”

“No.” Bridget’s tone was angry, her jaw set. “I’m going to look for him now. You can do whatever you like.”

Though she knew the reporter was hurting and upset, she couldn’t help but feel a small sting at the words. With a sigh, she relented. “Okay, fine, then let’s get this over with.”

With chagrin, the Alex noticed that Bridget had begun to weave even more as she walked, and her face was still frighteningly pale. She was careful to never be more than a step or so behind the smaller woman, ready to catch her should she fall. And thinking that she’d never met a more stubborn person in all her life. And that was saying quite a bit.

They searched the surrounding area for about an hour with little luck. It felt peculiar to Alex as she looked around. It was like seeing it all for the first time. Had she really stayed here for so long? Though it had only been a few days before, it seemed like a lifetime. As she watched the determined young woman who walked just ahead of her, Alex wondered if she hadn’t really been the one saved in the alley that day.

Bridget questioned a few of the streetwalkers they encountered, asking if they’d seen whoever picked up Patty, or if they knew where Nate might be. Finally, they happened across a trio of worried looking young girls. Their eyes were slightly glazed over as they spoke. Junkies. The reporter seemed to realize this as well. She flashed a couple of bills in front of them as she asked her questions about Nate.

A small blonde with torn stockings, a pair of bright pink hot pants, and a tight black tank top volunteered that she had seen Patty the night before. She’d been picked up by a john in a what she could only describe as a ‘big black car.’

Alex stiffened. The car that hit Bridget had been black.

Though they hadn’t located Nate, Alex suspected they had found out all they were going to for the evening. After Bridget had given the girl a few bills, Alex had quite firmly began to lead the, now only mildly protesting, reporter back to where the car had been parked. She hoped it was still there.

Luckily, or perhaps due to the few policemen still milling about the crime scene nearby, the Mustang was right where they had left it. With a sense of relief, Alex hustled Bridget into the car and took off for her apartment. Her eyes scanned the road for any cars that might be following them, wishing that she could more easily make out the colors of the vehicles behind her.

As she drove, Alex mulled over the situation. She had a strong suspicion about what one of the missing puzzle pieces might be. Whoever was behind all this had just a little bit too much information.

Though she didn’t know about any of the others, Alex was certain that Patty’s murder hadn’t been random. Somehow the killer had identified her as a potential witness. That left only two strong possibilities. Either they had gotten the information from Nate, just as the reporter had. Or it was someone who had access to the Tribune newsroom, or more accurately, had access to Bridget.

And Alex didn’t like that possibility at all.

Not being able to find Bridget’s informant would seem to lend credence to the first scenario. But Alex’s gut told her it was the second. Too many pieces fit into place. Whoever it was, was using Bridget’s own investigation to help cover their trail.

Taking a deep breath, Alex wondered if the reporter would come to the same conclusion on her own. She decided not to mention it for now. More than anything, Alex wanted to have a look around that newsroom. Or more accurately, to have a look around the faces in that newsroom. A quick trip around the parking lot might not be a bad idea either.

With that thought, she pulled back into Bridget’s parking lot. The reporter swayed dangerously as they walked toward her building. She made it to the elevator without a major incident. But when the elevator began to move, Bridget passed out cold.

Luckily, Alex had been ready. This time she caught the reporter much more gently than she had that morning. Praying she wouldn’t encounter anyone in the hallway, Alex quickly carried her into her apartment. Relieved for now to leave the world outside. As she looked into the darkened room, her protective nature won out. Setting the girl down on her couch, Alex made a quick tour of the apartment, checking in closets and under beds for any sign of foul play.

Satisfied, she moved back to lightly tap the girl on the shoulder.

“Bridget.” She called softly. When there was no response, she called again.

Finally, she was met with a groggy. “Hmmmm?”

“Come on, you need to get up.” Finally, green eyes opened to greet her own. “That’s better.” She praised gently. “You need to get ready for bed.”

Bridget swayed heavily again as she stood, her hand moving to her head. Alex escorted her to her bathroom, staying just outside the door and listening intently for signs of trouble. She heard the rattling of a pill bottle and water running.

When the reporter emerged, her blouse was unbuttoned. She seemed to pay little attention to her hovering protector as she left a trail of clothes behind on her way inside the closet, emerging a few moments later in only her underwear with a t-shirt in her hand. Alex did her best not to ogle the soft flesh that was exposed to her, though she didn’t succeed very well.

Wincing and grimacing, Bridget pulled the t-shirt over head as she sat down on the bed. Weariness gave the young woman’s face the appearance of being much older. She looked as though she had been carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders.

“Can you eat something?”

Bridget grimaced again. “I don’t think so. But you should eat something.” Alex shook her head, after all that had happened to her today, she’s still worried about my eating habits?

“I’m not hungry.” She replied softly.

The young woman began to blink sleepily, and Alex realized that her pills were taking effect. She moved up to settle the covers over Bridget’s shoulders and was surprised to find her arm caught in a strong grip. Murmuring something unintelligible Bridget insistently pulled Alex down on the bed next to her, snuggling up against her arm.

Waiting a few moments for her friend to fall asleep, Alex tried to disentangle herself, but only succeeded in winning another muttered phrase that sounded vaguely like ‘please don’t leave.’

With a sigh Alex kicked off her shoes and tried to get comfortable. After a few minutes, she felt a movement at the end of the bed. Princess stood regarding her with curious blue eyes.

Cautiously, the tiny black form moved to sniff at her feet, then climbed onto her legs. Eventually traversing the length of her body, she stood lightly on top of the, apparently no longer unwelcome, guest’s chest. Her nose working furiously, the little cat leaned down to sniff Alex’s nose and mouth.

Finally, her curiosity apparently quenched for now, the cat began kneeling her paws contentedly. After a moment, she began curving her body around in a tight circle until she found a spot she was happy with. Then she curled up into a tiny, purring ball and closed her eyes.

Chapter 9

Grey mist hung all around, filtering out the light so that the air was filled with a nebulous haze. The soft gurgling of water came from somewhere nearby. Bridget walked forward blindly, not certain what she was looking for, knowing only that something was compelling her onward.

Soon, an eerie moaning touched her ears. The disembodied sound seemed to come from all around her, taunting in its misery.

“Hello?” She cried out, voice disappearing into the misty air. “Where are you?”

An oppressive silence greeted her cries, punctuated every now and then by another low moan. Moving forward, Bridget’s eyes soon picked up a dark, indistinct shape laying on the ground in front of her.

She approached it slowly, filled with an overwhelming foreboding.

Reaching out, she settled her hand lightly on the shoulder of the figure. It turned toward her and Bridget cringed back, looking into the bruised and bloodied face.

“Patty?”

Her features contorted, the girl’s cold, dead eyes glared at Bridget accusingly. “Why didn’t you help me?”

Jerking awake, Bridget shivered as the dream image of the murdered girl remained vivid in her memory. She took a moment to reacquaint herself with her surroundings. Only the soft greenish light from her alarm clock illuminated her bedroom, glancing at it she groaned in annoyance. 4:43 a.m.. What an ungodly hour.

Feeling much as though her head were filled with sand, Bridget yawned, rubbing her eyes. Memories of the previous evening flooded back to her as she woke more fully. A wave of nausea threatened her as she recalled seeing Patty’s body. It had shaken her more than she would have admitted to anyone. There was something deeply disturbing about seeing the body in person, without the benefit of the sterile anonymity of the morgue, or the safe, two-dimensional distance of a photograph. The reporter instinctively knew that she would live with that memory for the rest of her life. Partly because she felt responsible.

Bridget’s logical mind told her that the girl’s death wasn’t her fault. That she had been laid up in a hospital, and there was nothing she could have done. But her heart just wouldn’t believe it. She should have seen, should have known that the girl had been in danger. Or at the very least, she should have let someone else from the Tribune go out and follow the lead since she wasn’t able to. But her pride had insisted that no one was going to get their hands on her story. She was too selfish, too proud to ask for help. And now a girl was dead because of it.

And not just any girl, but the one she had needed. The one who might have held a valuable clue to a killer’s identity. Her faceless nemesis had just upped the stakes. She had to find a way to make that work in her favor.

Now, at least, Bridget had a better idea of why she had been a target in the first place. It was the fact of her investigation itself that was making the killer nervous. Though she would have liked to believe it was because of her magnificent reputation, Bridget knew better. There were undoubtedly other reporters covering the story, the rivalry between the Sun Times and Tribune would guarantee that, not to mention the police investigation. And out of all those experienced investigators, she had become that target. There was only one reasonable explanation why.

The killer had not only known that she was working on the story, but known about it far enough in advance to have arranged for a professional killer to come after her on her first real day of leg work. Muttering curses under her breath, the reporter chided herself for not thinking more about that before. Plus there was the undeniable fact that it had almost certainly been her own information about Patty that had lead to the girl’s murder. Someone was playing her for a fool, using her own investigation to cover their tracks. And that someone almost had to work at the Tribune.

Staring at the darkened ceiling, Bridget let the memories of Patty’s body flood through her. The sight, the smell, all of it sifted down through her consciousness, hardening her resolve. It was almost like a chess game. Her opponent had tried an early gambit, but had also revealed part of his strategy. Though she’d lost a valuable ally, the reporter was far from being beaten. Now she understood the game, and what was at stake. Her determination setting in, Bridget was never one to walk away from a challenge.

A sharp noise, sounding vaguely like a slap, hit her ears. Cocking her head to the side, Bridget listened intently. Reaching under her bed for the baseball bat she always kept there, she slid slowly out of bed, ignoring the pain and soreness of her muscles. She crept toward the bedroom door, gently turning the knob and easing it open. Her hands gripping the bat firmly, the anxious reporter peeked her head out.

The lights were out in her living room, the only light coming from those that filled the Chicago skyline, filtering through from the balcony. The multi hued illumination cast long, deep shadows through the room. But one of the shadows was moving.

As Bridget’s eyes adjusted, Alex’s form became more distinct. Her skin glowing softly in the dim light, as she moved her body in a complicated pattern. Knees deeply bent, the shadowy figure lunged, her fist shooting out, before quickly retreating. Bridget could hear an exhalation of breath with each imaginary strike. As she watched in fascination, the woman was performing what her rudimentary knowledge of martial arts identified as Kung Fu, though she didn’t know enough to identify the style.

With an ageless grace, the lithe body flowed from one move to the next. One leg lashed out, her bare foot slapping against her own hand held high above her head. The move was followed quickly by a sharp upward blow, punctuated by a hand that was open, palm up, fingers bent and claw like, as her legs twisted into a low stance. Just as quickly, she twisted out of the stance, pivoting on one foot as her other arm swiped through the air with an audible ‘whoosh.’

Bridget stared wide-eyed at the display of grace and power playing out before her, as her mysterious new friend danced, catlike, across the floor.

And then she suddenly stopped, turning to where Bridget was standing as if she had felt her presence. Her mouth dry, Bridget fought down a lump in her throat. Wow, she thought.

“Wow.” She said.

“What?” Came a confused, and slightly breathless reply.

“Uh,” Bridget cleared her throat, “nothing. I just . . . what was that you were doing?”

Her face almost completely shadowed as she faced away from the window, it was impossible to read Alex’s expression. “It’s called five animals.” She responded finally. “It’s a version of an old Shaolin technique.”

Bridget burned with curiosity about this newly revealed facet to Alex’s life. But she held her questions back, not certain what the enigmatic woman would be uncomfortable talking about.

“How are you feeling?” Alex’s voice finally cut through the silence.

“I’m okay. Just couldn’t sleep.” Glancing over to the couch, Bridget saw that the bed had not been pulled out. “Did you get any sleep?”

“Oh, uh . . .” Alex followed her eyes to the couch. “Yeah, I slept for a few hours.”

Though she could have sworn there was something Alex wasn’t telling her, Bridget decided not to press the issue. She merely headed for the kitchen, squinting as she flipped on the light.

“So, do you like tea?”

They shared a quiet breakfast, each lost in her own thoughts. Bridget suspected that they both might be thinking about last night’s murder, and the ensuing dilemma. But neither spoke of the matter.

Perhaps the only benefit to rising so early was that it allowed each of them to get ready at their leisure. After studying her reflection, Bridget pulled on another loose pant suit, carefully picking out a long-sleeved shirt once again. She’d be damned if she was going to parade her injuries around the newsroom for her would-be killer to gloat over.

Carefully removing the bandage from her head, Bridget eyed the small stitches that were healing up the gash on her forehead. The swelling was going down, and the discoloration of the skin seemed to have lessened as well. She wondered if it was going to leave a scar. Pushing the thought away, the reporter carefully arranged her bangs so that they fell in front of the wound.

Though she didn’t have any great urge to drive, Bridget argued the point with Alex anyway, just for the hell of it. She enjoyed the myriad of expressions that the woman was capable of when she was annoyed. Bridget briefly toyed with the idea of telling Alex that she was cute when she got so huffy, though she prudently decided against it.

In truth, the protectiveness Alex was displaying toward her was a little unnerving. She didn’t quite know what to make of it. After all, they were little more than strangers. Weren’t they?

During the short drive from her apartment, the reporter found herself remembering standing on the balcony the day before and realizing that Alex had actually jumped off the building, somehow remaining relatively unscathed. But the thought that followed was even more unsettling. She hadn’t just jumped off a building.

Alex had jumped off a building for her.

Why?

Why in the world would a woman she had only met the day before, risk life and limb by playing Greg Louganis off a fourth-story balcony? Oh, Bridget was quite sure of the answer she wanted to believe. That this woman was somehow falling desperately, madly in love with her.

In the depths of her heart, it had always been Bridget’s dream to be loved. Really loved. To have someone care more about her and her own well being than they did about themselves. She wanted all that sweeping romantic passion poets were always writing about.

It was out there, she was certain of that. Her parents had that kind of love. She remembered how her father used to hide little ‘I love you’ notes all over the house for her mother to find. Not for any occasion, just because. Bridget strongly suspected that if she were to make a thorough search of the house to this day, she’d be able to uncover a few of those notes that were never found. Maybe watching the two of them had spoiled her. Once you’d seen the real thing, everything else paled in comparison. But she’d never been able to find the faith that anyone would ever feel that way about her. She wished for it. She dreamed about it. But she never really believed it.

And now this woman had come into her life, with all the subtlety of a hurricane, and turned her heart inside out. What was she, crazy? She didn’t know anything about this person. She’d soon begin to find out, though, she thought as they drew closer to the newsroom. Paul had completed his background check by now. She’d just need to get away from Alex long enough to go talk to him about it.

It was going to be bad, there was really no way around that. The reporter thought it best not to borrow trouble by speculating as to just how bad the truth might be. Well, she thought ruefully, as long as there wasn’t a SWAT team or anything like that waiting for them outside the Tribune building, it couldn’t be all that bad. Right?

Alex had risked her life, twice, to help her out in situations when she had no reason to. Her heart told her those weren’t the actions of a bad person. She carried that thought with her like a shield as she directed Alex through the parking lot.

Clear blue eyes seemed to be methodically scanning the cars they passed.

Bridget’s appearance in the newsroom was met with a number of concerned gazes. Her fingers unconsciously toyed with her bangs, making certain they were still in place over her injury. Alex followed her like a shadow, never more than two steps behind. Her gaze seemed to be taking in the bustling noise and motion of the room with a calculated ease. Bridget followed her look around the room. Her eyes fell on all the familiar faces, wondering which of them had a secret worth killing for.

“Bridget!” Paul’s voice called from across the room, rising above the voices, ringing phones and other miscellaneous noise of the large room. Smiling thinly and waving back, Bridget groaned inside, knowing that Claude was undoubtedly now aware of her presence in the newsroom. This was not going to go over well. But she had another problem. She needed to get rid of Alex, fast, before Paul had the chance to blurt out anything.

“Uh . . .” She turned to Alex, her mind racing. “I’ve got something to take care of . . .” Oh, this was turning into an embarrassing situation. Luckily, Alex seemed to be in the mood to make things easy.

“That’s all right, I’ve got something I need to look into.” Bridget’s brow furrowed. Something to look into? She wondered just how much Alex had guessed about the killer’s identity. The taller woman leaned down slightly, looking her in the eyes to convey her sincerity. “I want you to stay out in the open while I’m gone. Don’t so much as go to the bathroom, all right?” Yep, she knows, Bridget thought.

“I won’t, that’s my desk over there.” She pointed a cluttered cubicle. “I’ll be close by.”

Alex paused for a moment before she left, holding Bridget’s eyes, her face unreadable. The reporter realized that Alex knew only too well why she had needed to be alone. Blue eyes burned into her own, as if they were trying to read her mind. Finally, Alex took a deep breath, half-turning in preparation to leave.

“I hope you don’t have any trouble with what you’re looking for.”

Me too, Bridget thought. “Thanks. See you in a bit.” A nervous quaver touched her voice.

“Yeah.” Alex’s tone was low, but deceptively calm.

As the woman turned to walk slowly away, Bridget realized she’d never felt more like a rat in her entire life. But I’ve got to know, she thought. For both of us.

“Bridget?” Paul tapped her on the shoulder.

“Hmm?”

“Who was that?” Bridget took a deep breath. That’s what you’re about to tell me, she thought.

“Just a friend . . . Did you get that information I asked you about?” A knot of nerves lay heavily on her stomach.

“Yeah,” Paul exclaimed brightly, “come on, I’ll show you. You said no hard copies. Boy, you picked a hard one to find, you know that?” Chattering away, Paul lead her through the sea of bodies.

Unable to help it, Bridget laughed. “Yeah, I guess I did.”

They reached his desk a moment later and Bridget watched intently as Paul fingers flew across the keyboard. “Okay,” he began, “Alexandra Francine Bryson: Born August 22, 1967 at the Park Medical Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her birth records are sealed, but it seems as though she became a ward of the state. She was placed in foster care almost immediately.”

Francine? Ugh, poor thing. “What do you know about her foster parents?”

“Well,” Paul’s fingers fluttered against the keyboard once again. “The first family she was placed with were the Brysons, Phillip and Doris. They were an older couple, had never had any children. It seems the arrangement worked out well, after a year they petitioned for adoption. And they had almost made it through the adoption process when Mrs. Bryson got sick. The details are a bit sketchy, but apparently, she tried to hide her illness from the doctors and the state adoption board. She seemed to be hoping to have the adoption finalized before she got treated so that it wouldn’t have any impact on the process. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. She passed out in the middle of a grocery store one day. When they took her to the hospital, she learned that she had ovarian cancer. She died five months later. Alexandra was three at the time.”

Bridget pulled up a chair from nearby and sat next to Paul, one hand moving up to nervously twist a lock of hair. Such pain for a little girl to deal with.

“Anyway, so it seems that Mr. Bryson wanted to keep custody, but the adoption board apparently stonewalled him. He was fifty-three by this time, and a single parent. Not their ideal candidate for an adoptive parent, right? But, he fought to hold on to her, and they eventually relented to let her stay in his care. But four years later, he began to get sick as well, and she was taken out of his custody.”

“So she was about . . .”

“Seven.” Paul nodded. “It seems like she never quite got over being taken away from him. From that point on, she spent the next ten years bouncing around from foster homes to orphanages and back again. Her juvenile record has been sealed, but I take it she had a number of arrests and spent some time in a juvenile care facility.”

A problem child, Alex had said.

“So she goes on like that until she is emancipated, and then immediately joins the Marines. Records show she enlisted September 12, 1985.” He pointed to the screen where the date was printed.

A soldier, that made sense.

“She went through basic training in Parris Island, South Carolina. Specialized in Field Artillery. She rose through the ranks, and was a Gunnery Sergeant by the time Desert Storm rolled around. And that’s where things start to get murky.”

“You wanna be a little bit clearer about that?” The reporter unconsciously leaned forward in the chair, twisting harder on the unoffending lock of hair.

“I wish I could. All I was able to find out is that there was a friendly fire incident that involved her company. About a half-dozen of them were killed, and she was wounded pretty badly. Well, an inquiry was launched and it was determined that the incident had been her fault. She was still recovering from her injuries when she was dishonorably discharged.” Paul paused for a moment, straightening his glasses.

“So what happened then?” She urged him impatiently.

“Well, that’s the strange part in all this. I have absolutely no idea what happened then. It’s like she dropped off the face of the planet.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean she just disappeared. A missing person’s report was filed in Yucca Valley, California about two months later. That’s just outside the Marine’s Air Ground Combat Center where Alexandra had been stationed.” Paul flipped to a different screen that held the police report.

“Who filed the report?”

“Let’s see . . . it was filed by a Teresa Wong.” Bridget wrote the name on a small pad she always carried with her. “So, anyway . . . almost seven years go by without a trace of her. And then, for some reason, this Teresa just comes back in and asks that the case be closed.”

Alex must have contacted her somehow, Bridget thought. “When was this?”

“About 10 months ago. That’s the last thing I could find. So what’s up with all this anyway? Do you know this woman?”

Bridget took a minute to digest the information she’d been given. No one just disappears for seven years. She had to be somewhere . . . but where? “Yes, I do know her Paul. But I want you to keep all this between us, okay?”

“It’s her, right? That woman who came in here with you.” Paul’s tone was suspicious, with just a hint of jealousy. Bridget contemplated the situation, there was nothing really bad in the information she had learned. And if Alex were going to be around, he was bound to find out soon enough. Better to do damage control now.

“Yeah, it is. Look, this is kind of hard to explain, but she’s helping me out. And . . . well, you could say I owe her. So please, just . . .” Bridget’s words trailed off as she heard some yelling coming from near the door. She strained her ears, trying to make out what was being shouted.

“Call the Police! She’s got a knife!”

Bridget’s heart nearly dropped into her stomach, she rose quickly and broke into a dead run toward the door.

Chapter 10

Alex woke suddenly as the bed shifted. It took her a few seconds to identify her surroundings. She was still in Bridget’s bed, though the young reporter now lay on her back, having relinquished her hold on Alex’s arm at some point during the night. Peeking over Bridget’s head at the clock, Alex noticed that it was almost four a.m.. She doubted there would be any more sleep for her this night, waking up before dawn was second nature to her now.

Rolling onto her side, Alex watched the peaceful expression on Bridget’s face as she slept. Glancing down the young woman’s body, she saw that one leg lay almost completely outside the covers. Even though relaxed in sleep and surrounded by the darkness of the room, the hardness of the muscles was quite apparent. Like Bridget herself, there was a surprising well of strength there. As her eyes trailed up the soft flesh until they reached the barrier of cloth, Alex felt her pulse quickening and her mouth begin to dry out.

It had been a long time since she’d had a woman for a lover. Not since Teri. She sighed as unwelcome memories assaulted her mind and struggled to push them away. Her choice in lovers had been more out of necessity than anything else. It was so much easier to control the relationships she had with men. There was a simplicity to it. She knew what she wanted from them, and they knew what they wanted from her. In contrast, the women she had known tended to expect more from her, or maybe it more accurate to say that expected more from herself. In any event, such . . . entanglements . . . had become a liability.

Her eyes focused on a small bruise high on Bridget’s thigh, the discoloration of the skin clear to her sharp eyes in the dim light. Drifting off into a fantasy, she imagined herself tasting the skin, kissing softly, knowing it could be an exquisite sensation on the sensitive, bruised flesh.

Alex shook her head, a bit angry at herself for letting her emotions get so carried away. Predominantly because they were carrying her body right along with them. With a deep sigh, she forced herself up and away from such temptation.

Once outside, she prowled restlessly though the apartment, winding up finally in Bridget’s study. Settling into the soft leather chair, Alex flipped on the small floor lamp. Her eyes scanned the books piled haphazardly on the table nearby.

One eyebrow arched slightly at the eclectic array of titles, sitting below Ovid’s Metamorphosis were a couple of well-worn paperbacks entitled Warrior’s Woman and Once a Princess. Sandwiched between the romance novels and a leather bound edition of The Canterbury Tales, were copies of Katharine Hepburn’s Me and Postcards from the Edge by Carrie Fisher.

With a curious expression, she picked up Warrior’s Woman, taking in the shirtless, blond Adonis gracing the cover, as he held a swooning woman in one hand and the rounded hilt of a large sword in the other. Shaking her head with a wry grin, Alex thumbed through the book.

A short while later, feeling decidedly . . . energetic, Alex rose, carefully replacing the book and turning out the light, and began pacing about the apartment again. Her steps lead her invariably back to the bedroom door, and she noticed that Bridget had begun to stir in her sleep, caught up in a dream. Thinking only that she really needed a way to channel her . . . energy, Alex scooped up the pair of shorts and sweatshirt that she had been wearing the day before.

After changing, she placed herself in the middle of the large open space in Bridget’s living room. She closed her eyes for a long moment, concentrating, mentally running through the series of animal-like movements that made up the five animals form. It had been a long time, she was almost afraid that she had forgotten. But slowly it came back to her. And soon, her body fell into the easy familiarity of the movements. After running through the form once, satisfied that she had remembered it correctly, Alex took a deep breath. Closing her eyes and emptying her mind, she let her body take over.

About halfway through, she sensed herself being watched.

Turning, Alex found Bridget standing just outside her bedroom door, still wearing only a t-shirt and underwear, a baseball bat held firmly in her hands. Just don’t look at her legs, Alex warned herself.

The reporter was quiet throughout most of the morning. In truth, Alex was grateful for the silence, with the events of last night and her restless morning laying heavily on her mind. As if it weren’t bad enough that she was having these thoughts, the object of her growing affection’s life was in very real and immediate danger.

As she drove into the Tribune parking lot, Alex systematically identified all black or darker toned vehicles. There was a possibility that some trace of evidence might be left from Bridget’s accident, and identifying the car meant identifying the killer.

She watched the young reporter carefully as they entered the newsroom. Bridget’s shoulders were back and her head held high as she walked purposefully through the room. She knows, Alex thought. She knows that whoever hit her is probably somewhere in this room right now, and she’s not going to show any weakness. Her gaze took in the room and its inhabitants. To her slight chagrin, it was a sea of noise and movement. It was going to be next to impossible to get a good read on any one person in this crowd. That left the cars outside as the best place to begin.

“Bridget!” A nasal sounding voice called from the other side of the room. A brown haired man with glasses and a striped oxford shirt was waving. She had seen the man coming and going from Bridget’s hospital room, in fact he had been the last to leave.

Bridget seemed to stiffen slightly at as she waved back. She turned to Alex with a moderately guilty look on her face. Ah, so that must be Paul, she thought, the one who’s in charge of digging up my secrets. Sizing him up as he made his way through the room, Alex felt even more confident that he wouldn’t have the imagination to come up with anything she really needed to worry about.

“Uh, I’ve got something to take care of . . .”

“That’s all right,” Alex cut her off quickly, saving the reporter from having to make up a convenient lie. “I’ve got something I need to look into.” Truthfully, Alex was grateful for the distraction, it saved her from having to come up with an excuse to go have a good look around the parking lot. She knew that Bridget, caught in a half-lie herself, wouldn’t question what she was doing. The one thing that did weigh heavily on her mind was leaving Bridget alone. She leaned down, meeting the younger woman’s gaze with sincerity in her eyes. “I want you to stay out in the open while I’m gone. Don’t so much as go to the bathroom, all right?”

Recognition of the danger flickered in Bridget’s eyes and she nodded her head seriously. “I won’t,” the reporter turned, pointing out a desk nearby that was piled with papers, “that’s my desk over there. I’ll be close by.”

Satisfied, Alex turned to leave. She felt suddenly nervous, despite her assessment of Bridget’s friend, that he had somehow managed to stumble across something incriminating. Slowly, she turned again to face the idealistic reporter, wondering what she would think if she knew the whole truth. Afraid she already knew the answer.

“I hope you don’t have any trouble with what you’re looking for.” Once again, a look of recognition passed between them.

“Thanks, see you in a bit.”

“Yeah.” Bridget still looked a bit sheepish for her deception, as Alex turned to make her way out of the bustling room.

She took a deep breath of air once she stepped back outside the building, glad to be away from the noise and motion. Making her way through the large parking lot, Alex began a casual examination of all darker colored vehicles. It helped that she had gotten a glimpse of the car from above, allowing her to rule out certain body styles outright.

She had eliminated about ten cars when she heard a commotion coming from nearby. Jogging quickly, she headed toward the noise.

A small crowd had gathered near the door way. Looking around, Alex could see a couple of security guards trying to push their way through to determine what was going on. After a brief, mental argument, Alex too began pushing her way through the people.

She could hear a woman yelling. “You’re a heartless pig, you know that?!” As Alex got closer, she saw a woman, thirtyish with short dark hair, who had a hold of the lapels of a fortyish, rather dumpy looking, man in a cheap suit.

“You’re crazy.” The man sneered at her. “Somebody get this bitch away from me!” The security guards had come through the crowd and begun to move between the two of them.

“No!” The woman screamed. She reached into her bag and pulled out what looked like a large kitchen knife, swinging it at the guards in warning. Surprised, the guards backed off, holding their hands up in a conciliatory gesture.

“Now, just take it easy.” One of the guards spoke, his voice betraying his nervousness. The man in the bad suit had gone pale, trying to back away, but only running into the surrounding crowd. Just go and take it away from her, Alex berated the guards mentally. Her eyes narrowing, Alex began to move slowly until she was positioned behind the woman. The crowd continued gawking at the scene as if it were a show being put on for their benefit.

“Take it easy, my ass.” The woman yelled, swinging the knife again. “Do you know what that son of a bitch did? HUH?” She turned to address the crowd. “Do you?” Her voice raised an octave as she screamed. Come on guys, Alex eyed the guards with a disgusted smirk, will you do something before she works herself up into a rage. “This so called reporter,” the woman practically spat the word out, “wrote a story about my daughter being raped the other day, and he decided to take it upon himself to put her name in the story!”

Uh oh, Alex thought, suspecting that she knew where this was going. With another look at the useless guards, she decided it was better to head this off now.

“And she killed herself.” Alex supplied in a low, calm tone. The woman swung around to face her, the knife held awkwardly away from her body, a look of shock on her tear-streaked face.

“How did you . . .”

“Her friends found out about it through the article, and she didn’t think she could live with everyone knowing. That is what happened, isn’t it?” Alex’s tone was soothing, and the woman began to cry softly. Meanwhile her mind was racing. She mentally edited out a half ways to get the knife out of the woman’s hand, as they would all have ended with the knife protruding from her body somewhere. Alex was, after all, used to playing for keeps. She then edited out about ten more plans, each of which would have resulted in a moderate injury to the woman. Finally deciding on a plan of action that would hopefully keep anyone from getting injured, she took a step forward, carefully watching the woman’s hand as it gripped the knife more tightly.

A movement flickered in the corner of Alex’s eye, and she saw that Bridget was now standing on the inside of the crowd, watching her with wide eyes. “Just give me the knife.” Alex held out her hand. “You know this isn’t what she’d want you to do.”

“No!” The woman screamed again, shaken from her tears. She took a swipe at Alex to back her away. “He’s going to . . .”

Alex had danced out of the knife’s path, her hand shot forward and grasped the woman’s wrist tightly. Her other hand reached out to take hold of the hand holding the knife, she thrust her thumb into the V between the woman’s thumb and forefinger. Gasping in pain, the woman’s hand opened reflexively and the knife clattered harmlessly to the sidewalk.

The two guards stepped forward again, their dedication to their duty obviously having increased now that the danger had passed. They grabbed hold of the woman, a little more roughly than was necessary, and began hustling her inside the building.

The man in the bad suit was now breathing much easier, although his face was still red. As she knelt down to pick up the knife, Alex noticed that he also seemed to have trouble controlling his bladder.

Bridget had walked over to where she was standing. “I can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I?” Though her tone was light, Alex could still see concern in her eyes.

“Just having a lucky week.” Alex replied dryly. Smiling in response, Bridget turned to face an older man that was walking up behind her. Alex recognized him as another one of the hospital visitors.

“Bridget, what are you doing here?” The man’s tone was a bit exasperated.

“Hi Claude,” casually ignoring his question, the reporter leaned forward to give him a little hug. “I’m fine, I told you that.”

Claude smirked in response. “Who’s your friend?” He gestured toward Alex.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Bridget smiled again. “This is, Alex Bryson. She’s been looking after me since my accident.”

One eyebrow raising, Alex knew that the reporter would never have so casually revealed her last name if she had found out anything serious. Part of her was relieved, but she knew it was likely just postponing the inevitable.

“Alex, this is Claude Nelson. He’s the Editor of the Tribune.”

Claude extended his hand with a grateful smile. “I think you just saved me some serious trouble there Ms. Bryson, I don’t know how to thank you.”

Shaking his hand, Alex replied, “I’m just glad no one got hurt.” She cast a glance over at the reporter in the bad suit. “Its a shame it had to happen in the first place.”

Claude coughed uncomfortably. “Uh . . . yes it is.” He followed her gaze over to the man. “Gerald, do you think I could see you in my office for a moment?”

Alex watched his face carefully, trying to determine if he was upset because there was going to be a potential law suit, or because the reporter had carelessly contributed to the death of an innocent girl. “Well, it was nice to meet you.” He turned back to Alex. “And thank you, for that . . .” He motioned toward the knife she still held. ” . . . and for taking care of Bridget. Any friend of hers is welcome here.”

The smile that he directed toward Bridget was fatherly. “And you . . .” he placed his hand on Bridget’s shoulder. “Go home and get some rest. I’ll make sure Paul sends you the autopsy report as soon as we get it.”

Bridget sighed, but to Alex’s surprise, nodded her head. Apparently not trusting Bridget’s response, Claude turned to Alex. “Make sure she does . . . please?” Looking into his eyes, she could see only genuine concern for her young friend.

“I will . . . Here,” she held the knife out to him, “I think you’d better give this to the guards.”

As Claude took the knife, then turned to walk back into the building Bridget let out a long sigh.

“I’m at a dead end.” Alex wasn’t certain if the reporter even realized she said the words out loud. “I know it’s someone in there,” she pointed to the building, “but I have no idea how I’m going to figure out which one.”

Opening her mouth to respond, Alex caught site of a black car that was pulling into the parking lot.

The car had a dent on the right side of the hood.

“Come on.” She said firmly, grabbing Bridget’s arm.

“What . . .” Bridget tried to pull her arm back.

“Shhhhh.” Alex motioned with her free hand as she continued pulling the reporter. “Just come on.” Walking quickly, blue eyes scanned over the cars. She caught sight of the black car pulling into a space on the far side of the lot. Breaking into a jog, Alex pulled Bridget along with her. They made it about a fourth of the way across the lot when the door opened.

A sophisticated-looking woman with carefully styled, blonde hair emerged. Alex turned toward Bridget, gesturing with her head toward the woman as she headed toward a nearby entrance to the building.

“Who is that?”

Following her gaze, Bridget caught a glimpse of the woman before Alex carefully moved in front of her, shielding her from the woman’s view.

A confused look on her face, Bridget gazed up into Alex’s eyes. “That’s Victoria Carlyle, she does the gossip column.”

Narrowing her eyes, Alex glanced over her shoulder, making certain the woman had entered the building. She then turned, taking Bridget’s arm once again and moving in the direction of the black car. “There’s something you need to see. And then I think you’d better tell me everything you know about Victoria Carlyle.”

Chapter 11

“Oh, you can’t be serious!” Bridget’s face was incredulous as she stared at the dented black hood of Victoria Carlyle’s sedan.

Victoria? A woman who went to parties for a living? No way.

Alex didn’t respond, but kept an eye trained on the doorway.

“But she’s . . . she’s,”. . . rich enough afford the price tag of a professional assassin, the reporter’s mind supplied.

“She’s coming.” Alex said with insufferable calm. Bridget’s eyes grew wide and she felt the stirring of panic in her chest. No matter what the truth was, it seemed fairly certain that this woman was involved somehow. Seeming absolutely nonplused, the taller woman turned and placed her body between Bridget and the door as she walked them both casually away from the vehicle and toward her own car, parked a few lanes away.

“Did she see us?” Bridget whispered, not really certain why she was whispering.

“I don’t think so.” The reporter wondered how Alex could seem so unconcerned.

Once they’d reached her car, Bridget peeked around Alex’s shoulder to see Victoria getting into her car, apparently not noticing their presence. She heaved a sigh of relief, fervently hoping that Alex was right.

Glancing at her watch, Bridget saw that it was almost ten. She turned to Alex. “Do you think you could follow her without being seen?”

A toothy grin and a mischievous twinkle in blue eyes flashed in response. “Fasten your seatbelt.”

Alex’s face was as animated as Bridget had ever seen it as they pulled slowly out of the parking lot, keeping a good distance behind Victoria’s car.

“Are you sure you won’t lose her from back here?” Bridget eyed the surrounding traffic nervously.

“I’m sure,” was the only response as blue eyes gazed intently ahead.

Bridget opened her mouth to reply but stopped short as Alex cut around a cab, squeezing the car into a space between cars that was just barely big enough to hold it. Gulping, Bridget tightened her seatbelt and gripped the handle of the door.

Thirty minutes later they pulled to a stop near a beauty salon. From across the street and about half a block away, they watched Victoria disappear through glass double doors. Wincing, Bridget began trying to pry her fingers off the door handle. Her eyes were wild and if she looked in a mirror, the reporter felt certain she would find that a good deal of her hair was sticking straight up on her head.

“And I thought that Indiana Jones ride was bad.” Bridget muttered under her breath. Finally successful in freeing her hand, she shook it vigorously and began rubbing her fingers, hoping the feeling would return soon.

“So, where’d you learn to drive like that anyway?” The reporter said the words without thinking, only aware of the harsh tingling that had overtaken her hand. When only silence greeted her question, she thought about what she had said. Looking up, she saw her companion staring off across the street. “Uh, look, I didn’t mean anything by that. It’s just, I’ve seen less exciting rides on the NASCAR circuit . . . I still can’t believe you missed that truck!”

Though she still looked away, Alex smirked at the statement “I wasn’t anywhere near that truck.”

The reporter rolled her eyes. “Oh, yeah . . . right. Then why did the driver look at us like that?”

This time Alex looked toward her, a wider grin surfacing on her face. Her voice was wry. “Well, my guess would be because you were squealing your head off.”

“Squealing?” Bridget huffed. “I do not squeal.” She replied haughtily.

“Oh really?” Came the mirth-filled response. “Well what would you call it then?”

Narrowing her eyes, she stuck her tongue out at her companion. “How should I know? I was too busy seeing my life pass before my eyes.”

“Well . . . how’d it go?” Alex leaned back in the seat comfortably.

“How’d what go?” Clenching and unclenching her hand, Bridget was relieved that the tingling was almost gone.

“The life.” Alex’s eyes sparkled playfully.

“Well, it seems to have picked up quite a bit over the past few days, that’s for sure.”

“Is that a good thing?” The words were spoken casually, with Alex’s eyes trained on the glass doors once again. Somehow, though, Bridget realized that she was being asked something more. A smile touched her lips as she answered.

“In some ways, yeah.” The words brought to mind several ways in which her life had most definitely not improved over the past few days. Highest on the list was the woman whom they were following. As she let her gaze fall on the doors leading into the salon, Bridget sighed deeply. “What are we going to do?” As soon as she said the words, Bridget wondered when she had started thinking in terms of ‘we.’

“I’m not sure.” Blue eyes turned to gaze at her thoughtfully.

“Well, we need proof.” The reporter began thinking out loud. “I think by now she’s covered her tracks well enough to make that improbable.”

“How much do you know about her?”

Sighing again, Bridget let her mind flash back over what little knowledge she had of Victoria Carlyle. “Well, she comes from a lot of wealth, a very high society family. From what I understand, she’s the black sheep. Always getting herself into trouble and relying on her family to get her out of it. They sent her to Paris after she graduated from college, but she came back about three years ago. That was right after I graduated and came back to the Tribune. Her father all but bullied Claude into hiring her as a gossip columnist.”

“Is she any good?”

Bridget shrugged. “She’s a gossip columnist. All it takes is someone who’s nosy and loves to tell other people’s secrets. She’s a natural.”

“Well, if we’re going to get any proof, the first thing is to figure out why.”

The reporter sighed, she hadn’t even had time to contemplate ‘why.’ She was still trying to process ‘who.’ Dropping her forehead into her hands, a dull throbbed to life again behind her eyes. “So how exactly am I supposed to figure out why she’s doing it?” A droll voice inside her head supplied, ‘Damn it, Jim. I’m a reporter, not a psychiatrist.’

Whatever Victoria was having styled, peeled, massaged or plucked, the process took her well over an hour. During that time, Bridget discovered that idle conversation with someone that didn’t have anything to say about herself or her past ran out in a hurry. Bridget did note, though, that she felt a little bit more comfortable being around Alex now that she had a few of the blanks filled in. The reporter spent a few of the long silences that passed between them contemplating what she’d learned. Her active imagination tried to picture the woman sitting next to her as a confused, troubled child, as a soldier.

For some reason, she found it hard to believe that Alex had been responsible for the deaths of the soldiers in her company as the report Paul found had said. It was nothing more that a gut feeling. Or, she thought ruefully, perhaps the source of the ‘feeling’ was a little bit lower than that. But nonetheless, her reporter’s instinct was often just about all she had to go on, she’d learned to have faith in it.

Whatever had happened back in the desert of Iraq could very well hold the key to the missing years. And that, Bridget reminded herself, was where the true mystery lay. How had a woman disappeared shortly after being dishonorably discharged, only to turn up homeless on the streets of Chicago seven years later?

And for that matter, why Chicago? Nothing in the biography Paul had given her mentioned any connection to Chicago.

Abandoning her contemplation of Alex’s past for more immediate concerns she watched as Victoria emerged from her beauty session looking, Bridget observed, exactly the same as she had when she’d entered it.

Victoria’s next stop was at an auto body shop. As she watched the black car being driven into the large garage to have the last remnant of incriminating evidence removed from the hood, it hit Bridget how close they had come to missing the clue at all.

“I think I’m suddenly glad that Victoria was late this morning.” Bridget shook her head. “I don’t want to think about what would have happened if you hadn’t seen that dent.”

“We were lucky to catch it before she had it fixed.” Alex agreed.

“But, of course, that leaves us without any sort of proof that she’s the one who hit me.”

“That wouldn’t have been enough evidence, anyway.”

Twirling a lock of hair nervously, the reporter wondered how they were going to get the proof they needed. Soon after, Victoria climbed into a rented grey Thunderbird. To Bridget’s surprise, this time Victoria turned south and headed into what could only be described as a seedier part of town. Eventually, she parked in front of a small bar called The Tavern.

“Now, this is about the last place I’d expect someone like Victoria to hang out.” Bridget eyed the run down buildings. The Tavern, complete with a neon Budweiser sign in the window that was almost burnt out, was flanked on either side by an adult bookstore and a small convenience store.

As she turned toward Alex, Bridget found her companion staring intently at a blue Porsche parked on the street near Victoria’s Thunderbird. As she glanced from the car, to the street urchins and locals that milled about the area, the reporter realized that the presence of such a car in this neighborhood was only slightly less surprising than the fact that no one seemed willing to get within ten feet of it.

“You said Paris, right?” Alex’s voice was clipped and urgent, her eyes never left the car.

“What?” Bridget replied with confusion.

“Paris . . . You said she went to Paris when she was young, right?” The impatience grew in Alex’s voice as she turned her eyes to the door of The Tavern.

“Uh . . . yeah. She . . .”

“Stay here.” Alex’s words cut her off as the tall woman was out of the car so quickly Bridget didn’t have a chance to respond. Shutting the door, Alex ran quickly across the street, opening the door and disappearing into the bar.

It took a few moments for Bridget’s shock to wear off and her anger to set in at being left behind. Chewing on her lip, she had to dismiss the idea of going into the bar. Victoria would surely recognize her if she did and that might lead to another attempt on her life.

As she stared at the Porsche for a moment, it occurred to Bridget that her time could be spent productively. She eased out of her car, scampering across the street as she pulled out her cell phone.

“Hello?” Paul’s voice sounded on the other end of the line.

“Hey Paul. Can you run a license plate for me?”

“Sure.” Though his voice was surprised, Bridget heard him tapping quickly on the keys of his computer. “Okay, go ahead,” he said after a moment.

“It’s a California plate . . . personalized. B A D B O Y.”

“BADBOY?” The word was said with more than a hint of sarcasm.

“I know, I know. Just run it, okay?” Paul muttered something unintelligible.

“Hey there, pretty thing.” A gruff voice said from behind her. Turning, Bridget dropped the phone from her ear as she stood looking at a group of three boys dressed in jeans and plaid shirts. The oldest was probably around seventeen.

“What do you want?” She slowly put the phone in the pocket of her pants, freeing her hands, as she carefully eyed each of the boys, trying to determine if they were carrying weapons.

“Well, you can hand over that phone, to start with.” The leader wore a cocky grin as his friends moved to either side of her.

“Sorry, can’t help you there.” Bridget held her empty hands up in front of her body, she slowly shifted, spreading her legs slightly for balance. Her eyes focused on the leader, keeping track of the other two with her peripheral vision.

“Oh, I think you can.” The boys each advanced a step closer, until they were in a small semicircle around her body. Bridget mentally measured the distance between them.

“I don’t want any trouble.” Keeping her hands in front of her, Bridget stepped backward about half a pace.

“Well, that’s just too bat bi . . .” The young punk’s words were suddenly cut off as Bridget swung her arms for leverage, spinning on the ball of her left foot, and throwing her right leg into a high arc. Her heel connected with the jaws of two of the boys and sending them reeling. Moving quickly, Bridget brought her leg down and regained her balance. Before the third boy had a chance to react, she sent a sharp side kick into his stomach.

A sudden and powerful wave of dizziness hit her as her head began to throb painfully. She blinked, trying to regain her balance.

Balling her hands into fists, Bridget knew in her condition she’d never be able to outrun the thugs. The boys had begun to recover, each muttering obscenities as they advanced on her again, though this time more cautiously.

“Now boys, where are your manners?” A light-hearted voice sounded behind the boys. Trying furiously to quell the swimming in her head, Bridget glanced up to identify the speaker.

The man stood in a well-tailored charcoal suit with a grin on his face. His skin was a burnished brown with a well-trimmed mustache and goatee. Long, black hair flowed into a ponytail that hung past his shoulders.

“D . . . Dominick.” The boy who had received the kick to the stomach sputtered. “We were just . . .”

“You were just about to apologize, right?” Though he still wore a lively grin, his deep brown eyes were hard as they gazed at the boys.

“Right.” The boys agreed quickly. They muttered quick apologies to Bridget before taking off down the street.

“You’ll have to excuse them. Boys will be boys, after all.” His manner was positively charming as he walked toward her, extending his hand. “I’m Dominick Vincent.”

“Bridget Stone.” She replied as she took his hand.

“Well, Bridget Stone,” Dominick replied with an enigmatic glint in his eyes as he swept her hand up to place a gentlemanly kiss on her knuckles. “If you’ll pardon the platitude . . . What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?”

A misplaced streak of sarcasm tempted her to say that she was going to the bookstore. “I got lost.” She said instead with a shrug and girlish look on her face. The simplest lies were always the best. “A friend of mine gave me an address to meet her for lunch, and I guess I took a wrong turn somewhere.”

“Well, why don’t you tell me the address and I’ll make sure you get there.”

“That’s okay, I just called her and told her I couldn’t make it.” Bridget wondered how long he’d been watching her. That would explain the phone call, at least, if he’d seen it. “But if you could tell me how to get up to the West Side, I’d be very grateful.” She put on her very best, ‘dumb blonde’ face.

“Would you now?” Deep lines curved around Dominick’s eyes as he smiled broadly. “Well, I’d never pass up an opportunity to win a beautiful woman’s gratitude.” His brown eyes glowed. “I don’t suppose you’d allow me to buy you lunch to make up for the one you missed.”

“Uh, sorry. I’ve got to get back to the office. My boss wanted the report typed up by this afternoon.”

“Ah, well. Perhaps some other time, then.” Dominick didn’t seem at all surprised by her refusal. He gave Bridget detailed directions out of the neighborhood, which she had him repeat three different times with a confused look on her face.

To her chagrin, once he was satisfied that she understood the directions, Dominick insisted on walking her over to her car then waited for her to pull out. Try as she might, the reporter couldn’t come up with a plausible excuse to wait for Alex. She suspected that Alex knew this man and didn’t want to take any chances on an untimely reunion.

The most immediate problem, however, was that the car seat was set so far back that she couldn’t reach the pedals without a pair of stilts. And having to adjust the seat in a car that she had supposedly been driving would have looked utterly suspicious. Trying to look nonchalant as Dominick watched her from near the door, Bridget scooted up in the seat until she could at least get a couple of toes on the gas pedal. With a smile and a wave, she set off down the street, watching her rearview mirror closely for any signs of Alex.

Stopping at a red light about a block away, she had to practically crawl all the way into the floorboard to reach the brake pedal. Bridget quickly reached down and adjusted the seat. She went about five blocks, careful to make sure she was a safe distance from the bar before turning and heading back toward the bar on a nearby street.

Once she’d gotten back near the block where The Tavern was located, Bridget carefully watched the for any sign of Alex, staying near the corner and off the street she had been on before. She had no intention of going directly in front of the bar again. Bridget was startled when suddenly the passenger door opened and Alex jumped inside seemingly out of nowhere.

“I told you to stay put.” The woman practically growled the words.

Momentarily stunned, it took Bridget a few seconds before she could stutter a response. “I was just trying to . . .”

” . . . What . . . get yourself killed?” Alex’s eyes glinted in anger. “Come on, let’s get out of here. They’re both gone now.”

Bridget opened her mouth to reply, but the look on Alex’s face stopped her. The taxi behind her blared his horn and shot her a gesture that, despite its nickname, looked absolutely nothing like a bird. Sighing in frustration, she stepped on the gas and headed back toward home.

After safely navigating her Mustang onto the expressway, Bridget’s growing irritation with Alex’s moody silence drove her to ignore her better judgment.

“So, do you want to tell me who Dominick Vincent is?”

Chapter 12

“No!” The word was little more than a growl as it crossed Alex’s lips.

“Why not?” Bridget’s own voice rose with her exasperation. Alex rolled her eyes skyward, wondering how in the world she could ever have found this little woman’s stubbornness endearing. They had indulged in a half dozen variations of this same argument during the drive back to Bridget’s apartment, without either side making any discernable progress.

Now they stood facing one another in the middle of Bridget’s living room. Each woman had her hands planted firmly on her hips.

“I told you, because it’s safer for you not to know . . . Last time I checked, I was supposed to be the one in charge of keeping you safe, remember?”

“Oh, yeah, right.” The reporter’s tone dripped with sarcasm. “Why do I get the feeling this has a lot more to do with protecting you, than protecting me?”

Whatever response Alex had been planning died on her lips as she looked into angry green eyes. Shifting uncomfortably, she realized that Bridget might be right. Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, Alex tried sort through her muddled thoughts. Seeing Dominick’s car had thrown her mind into turmoil. Of all the times for her past to catch up with her, this had got to be the worst.

There were probably less than two dozen people left in the world who both knew enough about her, and her past, to be dangerous, and could also recognize her on sight. And today she had almost run headlong into one of them. Her shoulders slumping in defeat, Alex realized that she didn’t want to tell Bridget anything about Dominick because of her own connection to him.

The fates had just upped the stakes on her.

If Bridget were to learn the truth now, and pull away from her because of it, then she would have an almost impossible task in protecting the young woman. Specifically from the danger that had sauntered into her life in the form of Dominick Vincent. By the same token, Alex knew that if Dom were to find out about her own presence, and guess any connection between the two of them, then Bridget’s life would be in even greater peril. Caught between the danger of Bridget’s present, and that of her own past, Alex realized she had very few choices left.

To make it through this, she was going to need Bridget’s trust. And that would require truth. Not too little, but by necessity, not too much either. Besides, Bridget was in this already. She deserved to know what she was dealing with.

“Sit down.” Alex motioned toward the couch, her hand moving to cradle her forehead.

The young reporter obeyed without a word, accepting her victory graciously.

Pacing, Alex tried to sort out what she was going to say, and how much she could get away with leaving out.

“You want to know who Dominick is,” she began finally. “But that’s not as important as ‘what’ he is.” Bridget’s brow furrowed in confusion, but she waited silently for an explanation. “Dom’s a profiteer. He’s a jack of all trades, specializing in whatever people want and are willing to pay for. If it can be bought, sold, stolen or traded, he’s probably dealt with it at one point or another.” Pausing, Alex continued to pace around the room, mentally editing her words before she continued. “One of his favorite rackets is to set up a venue . . . have you ever heard of shoot fighting?”

“You mean, like Extreme Fighting?”

Alex nodded absently. “Yeah, like that. Fighting, one on one. No holds barred . . . Well, Dom likes to set up a kind of arena, invites the kind of people who have money to spend and like to see blood . . . And he gives it to them.”

“What makes you think that’s what’s going on here?” Bridget’s gaze followed Alex as she prowled around the room.

“That place we were at today, The Tavern. When I was inside, I saw Dom and your dear Ms. Carlyle coming out of a back room. I didn’t get much of a look inside, but I could see some weights and bags.” Coming to a stop near where Bridget was sitting, Alex crouched next to her, looking her in the eyes. “Dom uses places like that to recruit fighters. He’s got to keep his customers happy, after all. For the most part, he targets young guys that just want to prove how tough they are, and that need the money.”

“Just how bad are these fights?” Inquisitive green eyes seemed to search Alex’s face.

Sighing deeply, Alex dropped her head, her dark hair falling about her face like a cloak. “That depends on the fighters.” She kept her voice low and quiet. “They’re . . . encouraged . . . to make it bloody and brutal.” Her face came up once again to gage Bridget’s reaction. “That’s what the people want to see.” A tremor seemed to run through the young woman’s body at her words. Almost shyly, Alex let her hand rest on Bridget’s knee, her long, slim fingers squeezing gently. “This is probably going to get ugly, Bridget. You’ve got to know that now. You’ve got to prepare yourself.”

“It’s already ugly.” Bridget’s normally soft voice sounded hollow. Alex guessed she was remembering the body of the girl she had seen. “So what does all this have to do with Victoria?”

Squeezing firmly on the muscular thigh before releasing her grip, Alex ran her fingers through dark hair. “I wish I knew.”

Silence passed over the pair for a few moments. Alex rose and moved to settle herself into the plush cushions of the recliner sitting a few feet away.

“So how do you know Dominick?” Closing her eyes, Alex had known a question like that would be coming.

“I’ve had . . . dealings . . . with him in the past.” She said finally, opening her eyes and letting them fall on the young woman who was looking her over as if she were being appraised.

“Did he see you today?” One dark eyebrow rose, that hadn’t been the question she was expecting.

“No.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes.” Alex willed her young companion to accept another cryptic answer. She didn’t want to explain that merely making it out of the bar alive was proof that she hadn’t been seen. Dom might not have killed her on sight, but he would most certainly not have let her leave.

“You knew him in Paris?” Alex found herself admiring the reporter’s style. She asked simple, yet leading, questions, never pushing so far as to make her enigmatic companion too uncomfortable. Aiming for a subtle gathering of knowledge rather than one big, and improbable, confession.

“No . . . I knew he was headed there the last time I saw him, though.” A small smile quirked at the edges of her mouth as she saw a look of frustration pass over Bridget’s face. She could almost feel guilty for thwarting the reporter’s attempts at gathering information about her.

“What happens if he sees you?” Oh, you’re good, aren’t you? Alex asked silently, a grudging admiration showing on her face. Bridget let her inquiries stretch just beyond what she knew for certain, letting Alex know how much she had already guessed.

“It would be . . . bad . . . if Dom were to see me.”

“How bad?” Each question came more quickly than the last. Bridget unconsciously leaned forward, toward her companion, resting her elbows on her knees.

Feeling as though she were under a predator’s hungry gaze, Alex set her jaw firmly. “Bad enough.” Cool blue eyes locked with deep green in a battle of wills as she mentally drew a line in the sand. Despite herself, the thought that passed through Alex’s head was how beautiful the young, earnest face regarding her was.

To her surprise, Bridget relented first, leaning back once again with a wry smirk and a sigh. Alex had the uneasy feeling that she was merely experiencing a strategic retreat. The end of round one.

“So he’s got to have another place, right? Where he holds the fights.” Bridget’s small hand moved up to twirl a lock of hair.

“That’s right.” Alex nodded, surprised at how much she enjoyed just looking at Bridget. With her eyes lost in thought, green darkened to a deep turquoise, her brow crinkling periodically.

“Well, we’re going to have to find it.” The young woman stated finally. Alex felt her whole body tense.

“I don’t think that’s a very good idea.” She said the words diplomatically.

“Well, do you have a better idea?”

With a sigh, Alex shook her head. A deep feeling of apprehension had overtaken her at the prospect of taking Bridget to a place like that. And yet, she knew it was probably going to be necessary.

Bridget rose and walked into her office. After a moment, Alex heard her speaking on the phone. Standing, Alex wandered toward the guest bathroom. She stopped just inside the door, flipping on the light and gazing at her reflection in the mirror. The black turtleneck she wore combined with her dark hair to frame the paleness of her face. As she considered the problem, her concern grew.

Looking into her own eyes as though she were regarding a stranger, Alex tried to understand what she saw. Who she was looking at?

A bodyguard? What a joke. How foolish it had been to let herself believe that making a new way, a new life would be so easy. Without a doubt, Alex knew that she was leading Bridget into danger. More than that, she was leading the young woman into a danger that had been largely her own creation. Memories bombarded her. As quickly as she pushed one away, another would take its place.

Watching the blue eyes in the mirror, Alex saw them harden in frustration, and then finally settled into the glacial cool of anger. And with the passion of her anger, Alex felt the predatory stirring of the monster she knew lurked just beneath the surface. As it woke, the monster began to whisper in her ear. Reminding her of who she really was.

“Alex?” Bridget’s voice sounded tentative. Alex shifted her gaze to the young woman’s reflection as she stood just behind a dark clad shoulder. “Paul had already run a check on Dominick’s holdings. He owns a trendy club called The Coliseum near Highland Park.” Bridget’s face wore concern as it watched the Alex’s reflection.

“What am I doing here?” The cold eyes of that dark face in the mirror narrowed, and its jaw clenched and unclenched.

“You . . . You’re here because I need you.” For the first time, she felt a genuine sense of fear coming from the diminutive woman that had exploded into her world. The savage in her stirred again.

And it smiled.

She slowly turned to look down into nervous eyes. “You don’t even know me.” The words were a whisper, a warning. Bridget swallowed reflexively, and seemed to be fighting the urge to back away. “What do you want from me, Bridget?” This time, with the whispered words, Alex’s head bent slightly, letting her breath fall over fair skin.

From this distance she could see the dusting of freckles that covered Bridget’s nose. She could feel the heat that had begun to emanate from her body, setting a pinkish cast to her cheeks.

“Wha . . . what’s happening to you Alex?”

So close now that she could feel the rise and fall of the young woman’s chest, could almost discern the wild pounding of her heart, Alex felt her own body begin to come alive with sensation. “Answer,” she tiled her head, her nose almost brushing against Bridget’s, “my,” one hand moved up, letting fingertips slide against soft skin, “question.”

With an almost whimpered cry, Bridget’s hands came up and forcefully pushed Alex away. “What are you trying to do? Scare me?” Green eyes flashed with anger. “What do you want, Alex? Do you want me to throw you out so you won’t have to deal with whatever it is that’s haunting you? Haven’t you run long enough?”

The truth of those words struck Alex more deeply than Bridget could have ever realized. She turned and stalked out of the small room, with Bridget close on her heels.

“You asked me what I want from you? I just want honesty. I want to see who you are.”

Her anger flaring again, Alex stopped and turned back toward her pursuer so quickly that the young woman’s body bumped into her own. Strong hands latched onto Bridget’s shoulders, pressing her backward until she was pinned against the wall.

“This is who I really am.” Her tone low and harsh. Alex held Bridget’s gaze, unrelenting. To her surprise, the fear seemed to be replaced with something else, she couldn’t tell if it was passion, anger, or something that existed in between.

“This is part of who you really are. Not all.” Refusing to back down, Bridget glared at her defiantly.

“Are you willing to bet your life on that?”

Bridget paused for a breath, then two, then three, as Alex watched the subtle play of emotions cross her face. As she drew in her breath the fourth time, it came out a whispered, “Yes.”

Her mouth suddenly dry, Alex searched Bridget’s eyes for doubt, any uncertainty that would mirror her own. But she couldn’t find it.

“Why?” Gazing incredulously down into the beautiful face, Alex felt the warm, unfamiliar sting of tears.

“I don’t know.” Bridget replied honestly. Her mouth worked for a moment as if searching for the proper words to explain. “I just feel . . . this is just . . . it’s right, Alex. I know it is.”

Strong arms circled her chest as Bridget leaned forward, letting her head rest on Alex’s shoulder. For a long moment Alex wasn’t sure what to do, her arms hung awkwardly at her sides while this remarkable young woman nestled further into her body. Unfamiliar emotions coursed through her.

Finally, Alex let her hands circle gently around Bridget’s shoulders. As they had before, the presence of the firm body, and light scent that she carried, began to wreak slow havoc on Alex’s senses.

But the monster inside had already awakened, and it wasn’t interested in such things. It whispered in her ear once again, reminding her of the danger, of her need to protect the woman she held in her arms. And of the limited choices. If she were going to do this, it would mean facing Dominick. And facing Dom meant facing her past. If Dominick saw her, the word would spread quickly, and then her life would be worth less than the cardboard box that had been her haven all these months. And Bridget’s would be worth even less.

Alex could almost laugh at the irony. Bridget was able to somehow implicitly trust that she would be able to keep her demons at bay. And yet, it was the monster inside that held the power to save her, to save them both.

With that, she settled into the calm of resolution, the effortless familiarity of a clear, stark purpose.

Dominick had to die.

Chapter 13

Bridget reluctantly pulled back from the embrace, knowing that she had indulged in it for too long. She looked somewhat sheepishly up into Alex’s face, intending to apologize, though she couldn’t quite decide what it was she would be apologizing for.

What she saw there stopped her short.

There was that look again. The same one Alex had worn a few moments before when she had descended upon Bridget in the bathroom. The only word that seemed to do it justice was . . . predatory.

But this time it didn’t seem to be directed at her. Instead, cool blue eyes stared off into the distance.

“Alex?” She called softly, finally catching the woman’s attention. “Are you all right?”

Her dark companion didn’t respond. But she shivered involuntarily as those eyes turned to regard her. There was something in that gaze Bridget couldn’t put her finger on. Something dark, almost wild, that hadn’t been there before. Or at least, that she had never seen. Alex’s predatory demeanor earlier had been for her benefit, meant to scare her. This one was different. It portended danger, and power lurking just beneath the surface. It reminded her of looking at a tiger through the bars of a cage.

But what bothered her most of all was her own reaction to this change in Alex’s demeanor. It excited her. Much, much more than it should have.

Her face flushed slightly again. With an embarrassed laugh, Bridget sidestepped around the taller woman, taking a deep breath only when she was a comfortable few steps away. Alex’s eyes followed her as she moved across the room and sat down in the recliner, nervously fidgeting with her hair.

Without Alex’s immediate presence interfering with her senses, Bridget began to mull over what had just happened. Or more accurately, what had almost just happened. Alex made a pass at her.

Didn’t she?

Her mind racing, Bridget tried to decide what to do about it. Letting the moment pass meant taking the chance that she would never get another. She finally settled on a subject that had been nagging at her since they met, and especially since she learned of Alex’s impromptu leap off her balcony. It was a dangerous question, precisely because Bridget knew in her heart what answer she wanted to hear.

“Alex?” Her voice broke slightly in nervousness. “You asked me what I wanted from you. But there’s something I don’t think I understand, I . . . what is it you want from me?” Without looking up to gage Alex’s reaction, she hurried on. “I mean, I know why I’m doing this. Or at least I think I do.” Please don’t ask me what I mean by that, she thought. “But why would you risk your life for all this? You said yourself, this could get pretty ugly. You’ve got no responsibility here. Why take the risk?”

Hearing Alex sigh deeply, Bridget looked up to find her enigmatic protector staring absently at the floor.

“I don’t know that I have an answer to that, that would make much sense.” Running slim fingers through her dark hair, Alex turned a contemplative gaze on Bridget. A long pause followed, as Alex seemed to mull over her response. Bridget accepted the silence with a patience that surprised herself. “I think you know that I’ve done some . . . bad things . . . in my past. I’ve hurt people, Bridget . . . or worse. For no better reason than that I wanted to, or that I had something to gain from it.” Sighing again, Alex moved over to couch, sitting down on the arm and resting her hands on her knees.

Bridget sat very still, surprised by the rush of words and afraid to interrupt for fear she would bring it to a halt.

“There’s no way I could ever make up for the things that I’ve done.” Alex continued slowly, clearly struggling for the words. “But now . . . now, I’m in the position to do something that’s good. Be a part of something positive. I haven’t felt that way since . . . well, in a long time.”

Studying her hands, Bridget chided herself for the stab of disappointment that she felt running through her. What had she expected? A declaration of love? No, that wasn’t it. Bridget just wanted to know that in some way, Alex was doing all this because she felt the same deep, frighteningly intense bond that she did.

Her disappointment quickly segued to frustration, which in turn lead to irritation. Until that moment, Bridget didn’t realize that she had done the one thing she always promised herself she wouldn’t, she let herself believe. What a fool.

She stood and walked toward the glass doors leading to the balcony, her eyes gliding over the cushionless chair. Her irritation grew into a kind of reckless anger. What the hell, she thought. If you’re going to get shot down, do it right.

“Alex . . .” She began shakily. “In there, if I hadn’t stopped you . . . were you going to kiss me?” Though her heart beat wildly, she kept her voice carefully neutral. Staring intently out at the skyline, she caught fleeting glimpses of people, small and indistinct, living out their lives. Some were looking through their own windows, perhaps watching her as well. Bridget could see her own reflection gazing transparently back at her, but she looked beyond it.

Though the silence was oppressive, she refused to turn, or give in to the urge to rationalize away the question and let them both off the hook.

Her eyes closed as she felt Alex’s presence move up behind her, standing a few feet away. She could also feel the look she knew was leveled at her. Her jaw set, she didn’t turn, or move at all. She simply waited.

“I wouldn’t have hurt you.” Alex’s deep voice was tinged with a rare softness as she said the words.

Letting out a breath she didn’t even realize she’d been holding, Bridget opened her eyes, fighting the urge to turn around. “That’s not what I asked.”

Another long, torturous silence followed.

“Yes.”

Alex’s tone was defeated, but Bridget felt victorious. A smile curled at the edges of her mouth. But a nagging uncertainty stayed with her.

“Why?” Though she told herself she was being cruel, twenty years of self doubt refused to give in to anything less than an outright admission of desire.

“I wanted to.” This time the smile fell across Bridget’s face unabated. It wasn’t Shakespeare, but to an insecure heart, it might as well have been. Letting her relief show on her face the reporter turned, finally, to face the object of her affection.

There it was again, that caged tiger look. She shivered as a hot wave of desire traveled to points south.

Here, kitty kitty kitty, she thought.

“And what about now?” She let her voice drop lower, the smile still playing on her face.

Though Bridget wasn’t quite sure what answer she was expecting, it certainly wasn’t the one that she got. In two quick steps Alex was next to her, and half a second later she felt strong hands on either side of her face, tilting it upward.

And then all she knew was sensation.

A warm flush fell over her entire body as a surge of desire, the likes of which she had never known, swept through her. To her muddled mind, the kiss seemed to be everything at once, both soft and hard, gentle and insistent. Delicately animalistic. When the hot tang of Alex’s tongue swept into her mouth, her knees went out from under her with a groan.

Breaking contact for the briefest of moments, Alex’s arms swiftly curled around her chest, neatly stopping her descent, and lifted her back up. As their lips met again, Bridget felt herself being lifted completely off the floor. Her arms circled Alex’s head, resting on her shoulders and her legs instinctually wrapped themselves around a slim waist. She could feel a heady, raw, sensual power emanating from the woman in her arms.

Even dreams were never this good.

Settling into the embrace, Bridget cried out as she felt herself rub up against Alex’s abdomen. Her head fell back and she felt Alex’s lips descend immediately on her neck. Unable to help herself, Bridget began to laugh, her shoulder drew up and forced Alex’s insistent mouth away from her neck.

Pulling back, blue eyes looked at her questioningly. Grinning sheepishly, Bridget explained. “I’m ticklish.”

One dark eyebrow slowly ascended as a devilish gleam showed in her eyes. Bridget gulped. “Oh, really?” Alex purred, her head teasingly bending toward Bridget’s neck.

Giggling, Bridget buried her fingers in the hair on either side of Alex’s head and leaned down into a forceful kiss of her own. Her hips began a subtle rocking motion.

Just then, a loud knock shattered the silence. Jerking away from the kiss, Alex glanced toward the door. She paused for just a moment, waiting until the knocking sounded again. Spouting curse words in languages Bridget didn’t recognize, Alex lowered her to the floor.

“Wait here.”

“But, Alex . . .”

One slim finger touched her lips to silence her before Alex turned to walk across the room, until her form was barely visible in the waning light as it disappeared down the short hallway leading to the door. Since there was no peephole, Alex unlocked the door and cracked it slightly, leaning around to look outside.

In an explosion of motion, the door flung backwards, catching Alex in the chest and knocking her back and out of Bridget’s sight. Two dark-clad men moved quickly through the door, one of them pulled out a gun and Bridget heard the high-pitched yelp of a silenced round. Her eyes widening in horror and her heart beating wildly, she had taken two steps toward the fallen woman before she caught herself, wondering what in the world she thought she was going to do. Never taking her eyes off the doorway, she backed quickly through the door of her study, peeking out of the shadows.

One of the men pulled Alex’s still body into the middle of the room, while the other shut the door before moving beside his companion. The one who was carrying the gun reached down to pull what looked like a small dart out of Alex’s upper chest.

Bridget breathed a sigh of relief. At least it wasn’t a bullet, she told herself. She’s still alive.

“Wait a minute.” The second man put his hand on the gun-holder’s arm as he was about to bend down toward Alex. “That’s the wrong one.”

“Are you sure?” The gun-holder had begun to place the gun back under his coat but stopped at his companion’s words. He looked quickly around the apartment and Bridget sank back further into the shadows.

“Yeah. The one we want is a blonde, short. That is definitely not her.”

“Do we have the right apartment?”

The second man reached inside a pocket and produced a small piece of paper. “This is the place.” He confirmed.

“I thought she lived alone?”

“So did I.”

“What should we do with this one?”

“I’m not sure, but I don’t think Dom would be very happy if we brought any messes for him to clean up.”

“You’re probably right.” He glanced down at Alex. “Too bad.”

In response, the second man pulled a gun out from a holster behind his waist. “Yep, but I don’t want to take any chances. We’d better do it here. Go check the place out, Blondie might be hiding somewhere.”

The first man disappeared toward her bedroom as the other purposefully cocked his gun, checking to make sure there was a bullet in the chamber. “Sorry about this, beautiful.” He spoke down to Alex’s still form. “It’s nothing personal.”

In a blind panic, Bridget stepped backward. Her head brushed against the small shelf that hung from the wall. As she glanced up at it, her eyes could just make out its contents in the darkness.

She made her decision without a second thought, grasping the stiff leather of her Aunt Janice’s whip and sliding it down, letting it uncoil at her feet. Moving as silently as she could, Bridget crept to the doorway. The man standing over Alex had just finished screwing a silencer onto the barrel of his gun and carefully took aim at Alex’s head.

Bridget whipped her arm forward, praying her aim was still good. With a satisfying snap, the sturdy old whip coiled itself around the man’s arm. Grasping the handle tightly, Bridget jerked back with all her might. Crying out in pain, the man lost his grip on the gun, watching as it skittered across the floor.

With a growl born of determination, Bridget ran forward, launching her body into a side- kick that sent the stunned intruder to the ground with a sharp thud. She chanced a quick glance at Alex before seeing the second intruder emerge, wide-eyed from the bedroom. With a quick jerk, the whip lashed out again, cracking next to the skin of his hand, and causing his gun to drop to the floor as well as he cradled his hand, in pain.

Turning back, she saw that the first man had begun to rise, and desperation began to set in. They were after her, there was no reason for Alex to die too. As she glanced again from the still, helpless form, to the two men, Bridget knew there was only one thing her conscience would allow.

Making her decision, Bridget dropped her whip. Adding a quick ‘thanks Aunt Janice,’ before she stepped quickly over to the first man. Kicking him squarely in the face, Bridget headed for the door. Once she reached it, she turned to the men and taunted.

“You want me? Huh? Well, you’re going to have to catch me first!”

Opening the door, she ran full speed down the hallway, hitting the doorway leading to the stairwell mid-stride. She jerked it open, taking the stairs two and three at a time. Her steps echoing through the narrow walls. Bridget heard her pursuers footsteps sounding behind her before she had even made it down one flight.

She didn’t hold out a lot of hope for a clean escape. But every step took them further away from Alex, and for now, that was enough.

The men were in sight by the time she made it to the bottom floor and lunged through the door leading to the courtyard.

Startled glances greeted her as she ran across the grass. She reached the pavement, wishing immediately that she weren’t wearing dress shoes. They clicked loudly on the concrete and threatened to slip out from under her.

Risking a glance backward, her pursuers were less than ten feet behind her and catching up rapidly.

Pivoting, she headed into the street, to the blare of horns and the screeching of tires. She dodged and weaved through the moving cars, moving on sheer adrenaline. Hearing a grunt behind her, she half-turned to see that one of men had bumped into a car.

She heard the driver’s voice shouting obscenities at the him, but turned back quickly, determined to make use of the delay. Reaching the other side of the road, she took off full speed again, the only thought she gave to her direction was that it was away from where Alex was.

The first one caught up to her before she could reach the end of the block.

Bridget could feel panic grip her as his hand closed over the back of her shirt, jerking her backwards forcefully. Pain stabbed up from her side as she felt a gun pressed firmly under her ribs.

“You know, ” he hissed in her ear. “I don’t have to bring you back alive.” Gulping, Bridget was silent, wincing at the pain as the gun was jammed further into her flesh. “You try that again . . . or anything, and I’m going to start shooting. And I don’t care how many people I hit . . . just as long as you’re one of them.”

With those words, Bridget looked up for the first time at the frightened faces of the onlookers. She saw a young couple, and a woman carrying a toddler in her arms and hurrying away. Forcing herself to relax, she gave up any thought of getting away. “All right.”

The second man caught up with them a moment later, breathing hard from the exertion of the chase.

“Do we go back for sleeping beauty?” He huffed, motioning back in the direction from which they had come.

The man holding Bridget considered the question for a moment while she held her breath, praying it hadn’t all been for nothing.

“Nah.” He said finally. “Too risky. Let’s just deliver this one.”

“Dom’s gonna have our butts.” The breathless man complained as they turned Bridget and lead her away.

“And who says he’ll find out anything about it? I ain’t risking my life just so the Ice Queen can have another playmate. We’ve attracted too much attention as it is.”

His companion grunted in agreement.

After a few moments, they reached a dark sedan. While his companion opened the door, the man holding Bridget shoved her forcefully inside. Glancing around quickly, the one by the door pulled out his gun and aimed it for Bridget’s side.

“Nightie night.” He grinned.

Bridget felt a sharp sting in her side and then a numbness that seemed to grow from the spot, spreading until it overtook her body and brought her the welcome peace of oblivion.

Chapter 14

“Here we are again.” A familiar voice pierced through the blackness that surrounded her. Alex struggled to clear her thoughts.

“What? Who are you?” In response a tall, imposing figure materialized out of the darkness in front of her. Gasping, Alex stared into a mirror image of her own face. Identical except for the eyes, which were black as death.

“Don’t remember huh?” The woman grinned. “Ah well, never mind. That’s not important. It was a very long time ago, after all.”

Alex’s vision seemed to improve as her eyes roamed over the figure. Her dark hair was pulled back into a pony tail. She wore camouflage pants, tucked into heavy boots, and dark green cotton tank top. Her shoulders back, the hard, tanned muscles in her arms and upper body flexed periodically. A heavy black belt at her waist held a holstered pistol, which Alex recognized as her Glock, several rounds of ammunition, and a sheath that held a long jagged knife. Swallowing reflexively, Alex could remember the feel of the knife’s hilt in her hand, its well balanced weight.

Stunned, Alex stared at the woman, at herself.

“What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?” Her own voice called to her, light and taunting. “Oh, no. That’s right. You got interrupted before you could get to the good part, didn’t you?”

With those words, the memories flooded back to her. Holding Bridget in her arms, the feel of her soft skin, the incredible sweetness of her mouth. And then the door. Pain. And blackness.

Murmured sounds began in the distance. Voices, cries, the hollow crackling of gunfire.

“Poor Alex. Never did have much luck with women, did you?”

“Shut up!” Alex snapped, feeling rage begin to boil inside her. Her eyes searched the surrounding darkness for some means of escape. She had to get back. Bridget was in trouble.

“Oh, it’s too late for that.” Alex’s dark twin informed her gleefully. “They’ve got her now.”

A low growl sprang from her chest as Alex leapt forward, grasping the straps of her tank top and staring into coal black eyes. “What are you talking about? Who’s got her? Who are you?”

White teeth flashed behind a grin as Alex’s twin easily dislodged her hands, tossing her away as if she were a doll. “Tsk tsk. Look at you Alex. Half-starved, weak . . . you are pathetic.”

Jumping to her feet, Alex fought back the urge to charge at the woman again. “What do you want from me?”

“Wrong question, dear sister.” The woman shook her head, her dark eyes dancing. “The question is, what do you want from me?”

“I don’t want anything from you!” Alex spat the words.

“Oh, really? Well, who is going to save your little friend, Alex?”

Her heart lurching in panic, Alex looked around again for a means of escape. The murmurs and voices grew louder, more distinct. “I will.”

“You?” The dark eyed woman mocked. “What are you going to do? Look at yourself Alex. No weapons, no plan, no allies. A weak, pathetic fool. You’re going to get yourself killed, Alex, and your little friend along with you.”

Her mind racing, Alex tried to deny the truth of her twin’s words. “I’ll find a way.” She said grimly. An explosion sounded somewhere nearby, and the gunfire intensified.

“Without me? I think not.”

“You’re wrong, I’ll . . .”

“You’ll what? . . . What Alex? What are you without me? Some homeless miscreant with a tortured soul? A love-struck fool with dreams of salvation? Oh, my heart is weeping for you.” The dark eyed woman had begun to move, circling around Alex as she spoke. “You were going to let me out, Alex, weren’t you? Let me slit Dom’s throat for you and then try to sweep me back under the carpet again. Well forget it, that’s not good enough!”

Her mouth dry, heart beating wildly, Alex wished that she could just get away for a moment to think, to collect her thoughts. “What are you saying?”

“I’m saying that I’m tired of being your dirty little secret.” She sneered. “I may be the worst part of you, Alex, but I’m the best of you as well. Why fight it? Why fight against me? Against who you are?”

“NO! That’s not me any more!” Alex yelled, closing her eyes. She flinched as a sharp scream ripped through the blackness as another explosion rocked the ground. Loud shots rang out all around her. The black void that surrounded her began to melt away, revealing a green canopy of forest.

“Yes.” The darker Alex was relentless. She grasp Alex’s shoulders firmly from behind, leaning forward and hissing words into her ear. “It is . . . Come on Alex, isn’t it worth it . . . to save her life?” A nearby tree came into view, then another. It all looked so familiar. Too familiar. The screams grew louder, more insistent.

“I . . . I can’t.” Alex’s breath came in gasps, she looked down in surprise to find the cool familiar weight of metal in her hands, her old M-18. God, no. Please. Not this.

“You can.” Her twin urged. Another scream. A loud explosion nearby almost shook her off her feet. Her darker self yelled above the growing noise. “Was it so terrible, Alex? What you did? Was it worth giving it all up? Did it take the pain away? Turning your back on everything we were, everything we’d achieved! And for what?”

“I had to . . . they . . . I . . . killed them . . . I killed them all.”

Suddenly there was only silence.

Alex looked down to see splattering of blood painting her arms and clothes. Her finger wrapped around the trigger of the M-18 while her other hand wrapped around the long thick barrel of the grenade launcher tucked under the gun’s barrel.

“You had to kill them,” the low, coaxing voice sounded in Alex’s ear. “They betrayed you. Acted against your orders. We had no choice.”

The lifeless bodies of men, her men, lay scattered and sprawled around her. Small fires burned here and there amid the once lush green of the forest floor. Now many of the trees were blackened, broken down by the force of her grenades. No sound, no life, save her own.

“This is what you are, Alex. This is who we are. All of them together weren’t even a match for us. You can’t do it alone, Alex. Can’t save her without me. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You can’t run and hide from this. It’s you. It’s us. Feel the power of it, Alex. The strength. Can you honestly say you haven’t missed it?”

Nausea threatened to overtake her. It was so real. The smell of blood, of charred flesh. And the awful, delicious taste of vengeance in her mouth.

“What do you think they’re going to do to her, Alex? Will she wind up like one of those girls? Beaten. Broken.” The image flashed through Alex’s mind. “You couldn’t even stop them from taking her tonight, could you?” No. “You need me.” No. “We can save her, Alex. You and I . . . Together . . . For her.”

Memories of Bridget flooded Alex’s mind. Her smile. Her laugh. Her touch.

The screech of tires and sickening thud as she was run down. Her broken, limp body. The pale cast of her skin. Fury, blind and consuming, swept through Alex’s heart, burning away her doubts.

For her. “Yes.”

The sound of victorious laughter echoed in her mind, and then was gone.

With a groan, Alex’s eyelids opened slowly. She struggled to focus her gaze, until finally Bridget’s ceiling became clearer above her. Her body felt dull and heavy, and her mind fluttered in a hazy cloud.

“Meeeoow.” She winced as the high pitched cry touched her ears. Princess nuzzled her head under Alex’s chin, as if encouraging her to wake up. “Meow.” Soft blue eyes met her own as the small cat seemed almost relieved she was awake. “Mmmmmoow.” The small face informed her gravely.

Sitting up, and dislodging Princess in the process, Alex took in her surroundings. The old whip that had belonged to Bridget’s aunt lay on the ground a few feet away from were she was sitting. There were minute signs of struggle here and there. The sun had set completely, Alex estimated she’d been unconscious for at least a few hours.

Jumping up quickly, despite the protesting of her throbbing head, Alex scanned the apartment, and then the hallway. No blood. That was a good sign. Alex was surprised by the calmness she felt. Bridget was all right. She knew it. It was almost as though she could feel it.

Princess rubbed up against her leg, crying again.

Alex reached down, scooping up the tiny body. “Don’t worry,” she rubbed gently behind black ears, “I’ll get her back.”

As Alex looked around, wishing she could piece together what had happened, she couldn’t help but wonder why she was alive at all. Or why she had been left behind. Sloppy work. Was that another good sign? Or did it just make Bridget’s abductors more dangerous?

Dropping Princess to the floor carefully, she strode into Bridget’s office, searching her desk until she found a sheet of paper where Bridget had scrawled the address of The Coliseum. Paper in hand, Alex wandered into Bridget’s bathroom. She glanced up into the mirror and froze in shock.

What the fuck?

With startled eyes, Alex looked down at her own arms. They were tanned. The muscles stood out toned and firm. Her pale, gaunt face was now fuller, more rounded, with a healthy flush in her cheeks. Flexing her hands, she could feel the strength flowing through them.

It was her. Not as she had been a few hours ago, but as she had been a year ago. When . . . Oh, God.

She thought back to her dark, dream image of herself. Had it been a dream? It couldn’t have been. She pinched the firm flesh of her arm. This was real.

Long tendrils of fear began to creep through her body.

Alex was overcome by the uneasy feeling that she had just made a deal with the devil. And she had no idea what the consequences might be.

Taking a deep breath, she pushed those thoughts out of her mind. For her. She told herself. This was for Bridget. The only way she’d be able to save her. Alex knew she wasn’t walking into some back alley fight. She was going to be walking into a building filled with professional fighters. She’d already failed Bridget once this night. Alex swore on her life she wouldn’t do it again.

For her.

The dream image had been right. No weapons, no back up, the only thing she had going for her was the element of surprise. As she considered the dilemma, a plan began to form in her mind.

Adapt. Improvise. Overcome. The familiar mantra coursed through her mind.

A small grin greeted her reflection. You can take the girl out of the Marines . . .

First she’d need to look the part. Rummaging through Bridget’s closet, Alex pulled out the black slacks and vest Bridget had bought for her, thinking how foolish she had considered the purchase at the time.

The shirt was more of a challenge. The blouses that Bridget had bought for her had fit just fine before, but now, with her unexpected increase in size, they no longer allowed her a free range of motion. Unacceptable.

She scanned through the closet, her eyes roaming over Bridget’s incredibly large wardrobe. Shaking her head, she wondered if the girl ever wore the same clothes twice. Her gaze finally settled on a dark blue blouse. It was short-sleeved and made of silk. Drawing the soft garment around her shoulders, Alex tested her arms mobility. Much better.

Alex dressed slowly, with attention to detail. Her worry for Bridget played in the back of her mind, but she forced herself into an almost inhuman calm. Focus, she told herself. Everything else is useless now.

A few minutes later, she appraised the results. Not bad. The blue silk shirt was tucked neatly into the black slacks. She left the vest unbuttoned, letting it fall open freely to accentuate the swell of her breasts. As an afterthought, Alex undid the top two buttons of her blouse. The material fell open, revealing a good deal more cleavage and almost showing the edge of the black lace bra she had borrowed from Bridget, and was therefore almost a full size too small.

“Well,” she spoke aloud, as if addressing her reflection, “they’re not going to be looking at my face. That’s for sure.” It was hardly subtle, but then, it really didn’t need to be.

Alex spent almost twenty minutes putting on makeup. It was a sorely unpracticed habit on her part, and it took a good deal of time before she was satisfied with the results. Bridget’s stash of makeup was primarily earth tones, tans and browns, that complemented Alex’s newly, and mysteriously, tanned skin well. As a final touch, Alex applied a dark red shade of lipstick.

Inspecting her efforts one final time, Alex wondered idly if she would survive the night. It didn’t really matter, as long as Bridget did.

Feeling a bit guilty for it, Alex dug through Bridget’s purse, taking out her wallet and removing the cash from it. Forty seven dollars. It should be enough. As she was replacing the wallet, Alex’s eyes fell on a notepad that lay inside the bag. There was a name scrawled on the paper. Teresa Wong.

“You’ve certainly been doing your research, haven’t you Bridget.” It seemed as though a lifetime had passed since she’d seen Teri. So many mistakes. “When we get out of this,” Alex promised the pad as if she were speaking to its owner, “you and I are due for a long talk.”

Taking the keys, Alex bent to pat Princess’ head one last time before she walked through the door.

The drive took almost an hour in the evening traffic. As she’d expected, The Coliseum was posh and flashy, easy to find. As she paid the cover and walked through the doorway, greeted by the pulsating rhythm of a techno-beat that she didn’t recognize, Alex was aware of the eyes that followed her. The bouncers near the doorway grinned at her.

She returned their looks with a suggestive smile, turning to give them a better view of her cleavage. That’s right boys, she thought, enjoy it now. Because you’re going to be in for a long night.

With that she turned and disappeared into the moving sea of humanity.

Chapter 15

Bridget groaned and grabbed her head as the world came into focus around her. For a moment, she believed that she was back in the hospital once again, for the pain in her head had returned with a vengeance. Soon the memories returned, though. The intruders. Her dash down the stairwell. Alex’s still form lying on her floor. Glancing down, Bridget realized that her hands had been bound in front of her. Her feet had been bound as well.

As she woke more fully, Bridget became aware of the insistent thrumming of bass coming from outside the door. The walls muffled the song, but the low rhythmic beat filtered through to her ears. Trying to clear her thoughts, the reporter realized that she was most likely somewhere inside Dominick’s club, The Coliseum.

Struggling to sit up, Bridget found that she was lying on a plush sofa in what looked to be a large office. Her eyes were immediately drawn to the walls. They were wood paneled, and hanging from each were a large variety of masks. The face of each mask was shaped almost like a bird’s face, with large, oblong eyes and a beak pointing downward in front. Coming from the top of each mask were a variety of colored feathers. A few weapons hung here and there, a pair of crossed wooden escrima sticks, each about a foot long, were hanging prominently on one wall, while some short swords adorned hung between masks on another.

The masks were different sizes, some large, sporting dozens of multi hued and differently shaped feathers rising from the top like a crown. Others were smaller, the feathers shorter, but still brightly colored. Several pairs of dark, hollow eyes stared at her, as if in judgment.

It was like waking up in an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

A tall glass case that stood at least six feet high and three across sat in a far corner, darkened so that she could not see inside. To her left was a broad, wooden desk that held a PC. Its surface was scrupulously clean, without so much as a pen out of place, and so highly polished that it shined. A large, soft leather office chair sat behind it.

No windows let in light or color. The only light source was a small overhead lamp, casting the room in pallid illumination.

Bridget began to work on the bonds that held her, but as she twisted her hands, trying to loosen the thick rope, she only succeeded in rubbing a good part of the skin off of her wrists. The rope around her ankles proved to be just as troublesome, the knots so tight and intricate that she could not work them free.

The reporter had no idea how much time passed as she sat in the dimly lit room. It seemed like hours. Despite herself, Bridget found herself worrying about Alex. Hoping her attackers had not changed their minds after drugging her and gone back to kill her friend. Friend. The word didn’t seem broad enough anymore. As the low bass sounded in her ears, almost as though the room itself had a heartbeat, Bridget let herself remember the white-hot intensity of the kiss she and Alex had shared.

Never in her life had she experienced passion like that. Trying to shut out the reality of the situation she found herself in, a romantic heart struggled to hold onto the memory of what she could only describe as feeling love. Feeling it as though it were a tactile sensation flared to life by Alex’s touch. Feeling it for the first, and only time in her life.

One way or another, Bridget knew that she probably wasn’t going to survive the night. A hot tear slid down her face in mourning for what might have been, and the cruel trick that fate had played on her. Giving her a taste of what she had always wanted, craved, dreamed about, only to rip it from her grasp.

But Alex was okay, Bridget reminded herself. To think otherwise was unbearable. A hard knot of worry settled in her stomach despite her self assurances.

She wondered too, what Alex would do when she woke up to find that she had disappeared. The reporter hated that part of herself that wished fervently that Alex would come for her. That wanted desperately to see Alex crash through the door and carry her off to safety like a hero in a fairy tale. Her whole life she had rallied against such things, against those who wanted to protect and shelter her, choosing instead to clear her own path in the world. How could so much have changed so quickly?

A burst of noise startled her as the door opened, letting in the blaring music that thrummed outside the walls. But the noise ended almost as quickly as it had begun as the door shut again.

Turning her head, Bridget found herself staring at the haughty form of Victoria Carlyle. Her short blonde hair was hanging loosely around her shoulders, large green eyes flashing with mirth and danger as she looked across the room toward Bridget. She was wearing a loose-fitting leather skirt, and a dark leather sleeveless shirt that looked as though it had been molded to her skin. Her muscles were much more toned than the reporter would have guessed from their casual acquaintance.

The strangely clad socialite did not speak at first, but instead wandered around the room, seeming to check for anything out of place. Green eyes scanned over the ropes binding Bridget’s hands as well, satisfying herself that they were still secure.

“So how do you like my collection?” She began, the amicable tone in her voice overshadowed by the callous glint in her dark green eyes.

“C . . . collection?” Bridget fought desperately to shake the shock she was feeling and clear her thoughts.

“Yes,” Victoria practically purred the words as she walked toward the masks hanging on the wall across from where Bridget was sitting. “They’re ceremonial Amazon masks.” She reached out a lazy finger and traced the curve of the large mask nearest her.

Bridget blinked, wondering how they could be discussing decor. “What’s going on, Victoria?”

Large, cold, green eyes turned to regard her impassively. “I think you know that much already, Bridget.”

“What are you talking about?” Bridget didn’t really hold out hope that the dumb blonde act was going to work on Victoria, but it was worth a shot.

“I’m talking about power, Bridget.” A cold smile touched Victoria’s lips. “It’s all about power.” As she spoke, Victoria walked toward the large glass case. “Money is power, and I’ve got that. And when you have power . . . you can get anything you want.”

In demonstration, Victoria reached behind the darkened case she had moved next to, apparently flipping a switch that turned on an internal light. When the case was lit up, Bridget could see three more masks, similar to those that adorned the walls. Only these looked much older, the feathers were darkened with age and limp, the bird-like faces were cracked and chipped at the edges.

“The others are replicas.” Victoria answered the unasked question. “I had them made based on ancient texts describing Amazon rituals. But these . . .” She touched the glass reverently. “These are real.” She ran a lazy finger over the glass as if she were caressing its contents. “And they are mine. Not in any museum, or gallery. Not for public consumption. Just mine.” She pointed toward the largest of the three masks, which was displayed above the other two. “That one there was a queen’s mask . . . Amazon royalty.” Her eyes practically glowed as she spoke. “A race of women warriors the likes of which the world had never seen, and hasn’t since. This was the mark of their leader . . .” She turned to Bridget, a smug smile on her face. “And now it is mine.”

Bridget stared at the mask as if she were trying to call forth a memory. Yet it eluded her.

“So what does that have to do with me?” Shaking her head, Bridget wondered if she weren’t still feeling the side effects of the drug. Staring at the masks made her feel fuzzy and light-headed.

“Well, my dear. I get what I want. Always.” She motioned toward the room around her as if indicating the building itself. “I financed all of this. Dominick and I have an . . . arrangement . . . you see. He gets what he wants.” She indicated the building again. “And I get what I want.” With that Victoria moved to the wall and took down the escrima sticks.

“And what is it that you want?” Bridget watched Victoria with growing apprehension. Her eyes darted around the room again, wishing for a window, or other convenient means of escape. She had a firm suspicion the door was guarded. Damn. The reality of the danger she was in settled over her heart. No longer a vague, faceless threat, Bridget’s enemy stood before her.

The question earned her a cold chuckle from Victoria. “Well, at the moment, I wanted you.” The blonde women tested the weapons in her hands as if getting the feel for them, spinning each in the air with confidence. “Did you know these were originally an Amazon weapon? They were called chobos. So simple, yet elegant . . . capable of inflicting so much pain.” Bridget’s brow furrowed at the non sequitur, yet she was quite certain that Victoria was playing with her.

The socialite eyed the wooden weapons lovingly, then seemed to remember where she had left off in answering Bridget’s question. “I wasn’t sure how much you had found out about my involvement in the story you were writing . . . until you showed up outside of Dominick’s this afternoon.”

A surge of nausea threatened Bridget’s equilibrium and she had to fight the urge to lie back down again.

“If it’s any consolation, Dominick knew who you were the moment he saw you. I gave him a picture when he sent the first hit man after you.” Victoria shook her head, leaning against the large desk. “That was such a good plan too, would have taken attention away from the murders. An innocent reporter killed in what was probably a gang related shooting. Would have made the headlines.”

The reporter raced to digest the information. Once again, she had been no more than a diversion.

“I never did figure out exactly how you got out of that, by the way.” Victoria said thoughtfully. “But then, I want to be sure I get the truth, so I’ll wait to get that answer until I’m sure you have proper . . . motivation for being honest.”

Bridget struggled to keep any signs of fear off her face. Not willing to give this woman the satisfaction.

The socialite continued relentlessly. “I suppose I should be thanking you, though. You did help me get another playmate, after all. Not to mention the entertainment you will provide.”

There was a spark of maniacal passion in those dark green eyes as she spoke the words that sent chills through Bridget’s body. She unconsciously strained at the bonds that bound her hands, wincing at the pain on her raw skin.

“You know,” Victoria began again, standing up and approaching Bridget slowly. “Pain has always fascinated me. They say the body can’t remember pain, and yet . . .” One of the sticks sliced forward, aimed for Bridget’s face. It stopped short less than an inch away from its target. Bridget unconsciously cringed back from the weapon. “You flinch when you think you are going to experience pain. It’s peculiar really. The body fears pain. Why would it fear what it can’t remember?”

Bridget listened numbly as Victoria rambled on, it was clear this was one of the socialite’s favorite subjects.

“It’s fascinating, though, to watch people’s different reactions to pain. It’s rarely what you would have expected. The strongest men turn can turn into whimpering fools.” She paused thoughtfully. “I think it’s because they are so unused to the pain, except for some athletes, now they have much higher tolerances. But still, they break so easily.” Victoria shook her head disapprovingly.

The fear that had begun to overtake Bridget redoubled its effort as she realized that Victoria seemed to be speaking from experience. Dozens of questions popped into her mind. But she no longer had any doubt at all that this was the killer she’d been after. The first thought was ‘why?’, yet with Victoria’s rambling discourse on pain, the reporter suspected she was going to find out her answers soon enough.

Victoria turned to wander about the room, her eyes glowing as she warmed to her subject.

“But, you know what I’ve found? The ones that fight the hardest are those that are already accustomed to pain. Outcasts, runaways, all those kids that are young enough to still have hopes and dreams, and old enough to know what the world is really all about.”

Watching another maniacal gleam sweep across Victoria’s eyes, Bridget felt her heart breaking as she remembered the pictures of the girls, beaten and broken for this woman’s pleasure. The fear and nausea began to transform into a deep pit of anger. One with intensity the likes of which she had never known. Victoria seemed to ignore her presence, totally caught up in her discourse.

“Young girls like that are the ones that can handle the truly . . . exquisite pain.” She smiled again, white teeth flashing behind red lips. “It’s so peculiar, the ones whom it would seem had the least to live for . . . are often the ones who fight the hardest to survive. Almost as though the whole idea of struggling and fighting against the pain is so ingrained in them that they do it without thought. The instinct to survive . . . Most of them never break until the very end. Ah, but when they do . . . Now, that is power.” She toyed absently with the sticks still in her hands, twirling them.

Clenching her jaw, Bridget forced herself to bide her time. The rage that was building inside her simmered, threatening to boil to the surface. “No,” she said cooly. “That is insanity.”

Victoria merely smiled, seeming to ignore Bridget’s commentary.

“You know something else, Bridget? It’s so satisfying to see the fear in their eyes, all mixed in with their anger, the helplessness.” Green eyes looked at her as if they were appraising a new dress. Victoria reached out with one of her sticks, nudging it underneath Bridget’s chin until they were looking directly into each other’s eyes. “You came out of that hospital pretty quickly after bouncing off my hood.” Another grin touched her lips. “I’ll bet you have a high tolerance for pain. Don’t you, Bridget?” The words weren’t harsh, just cold, delivered with an inquisitive tilt of Victoria’s head. Her eyes seemed to light up at the prospect. “I suppose we’ll find out soon enough, though. Won’t we? I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise.”

At various times in her life, Bridget had come across people who wanted to hurt her. She’d seen cruelty in many of its forms. But never before had Bridget looked into eyes so filled with a kind of generalized malice, an all-encompassing cruelty so deep that it seemed to reach beyond this life, or even this lifetime. As though it came from her very soul. Bridget was looking into the eyes of a woman that meant to kill her. Meant to beat and torture her until she could stand no more.

For the first time in her life, Bridget wondered if she had it in her to kill another human being, even if it meant saving her own life.

“You need help, Victoria.” The reporter surprised herself with the gently spoken words. “What you’re doing . . . these are peoples lives.” Bridget leaned forward, her voice calm and reasonable. “Those girls were nothing more than children. Just like you used to be. They deserved a chance at life. Not more pain.”

The leather clad socialite paused for a moment, meeting Bridget’s gaze. “Pain is universal. But no one can hurt them now.”

“What happened to you? Why are you doing this?”

Victoria considered the question. “Because I want to.” The cool malice returned to her voice. “Because I can.” She moved closer, standing close to Bridget and looking down into her face. “And the rest is none of your business. You should never have gotten in my way.”

Bridget didn’t falter as she met the hard, accusing stare. “I did what I had to do.”

“As do I.”

Two pairs of green eyes remained locked together for an eternal moment, as if each were testing the other’s will.

Finally Victoria turned, moving over to her desk and setting down the escrima sticks on the desktop as she moved to lock a drawer. From it, she pulled out a long, curved dagger, intricately tooled. With a sadistic grin on her face, Victoria walked slowly back toward the reporter. Kneeling on the floor next to her, and looking Bridget in the eye once again, she cut through the ropes that had been binding her legs.

“I’m going to enjoy this.” Standing, Victoria motioned for Bridget to do the same. Her legs felt wobbly and weak, almost unable to support her weight after long hours of immobility. But she struggled to keep her balance, staring defiantly at her nemesis.

“It’s not over yet.” The words weren’t meant with bluster or bravado, merely with a subtle promise, to herself, as well as her captor.

Instead of being taken aback, Victoria seemed to enjoy Bridget’s defiance.

“Oh, no.” She promised. “The fun hasn’t even started yet.” With that Victoria replaced the dagger in its drawer and reclaimed her sticks. “But not here. I wouldn’t want to get blood all over my office, after all.”

“Of course not.” Bridget agreed wryly.

The loud music assailed her ears again as Victoria led her into a narrow corridor outside the office. A large man that had been standing just outside the door exchanged terse nods with Victoria before falling in behind her as they began to walk down the hallway. Bridget could feel the noisy thrum of the music coming from above her and realized they must be under the club itself. Walking along quietly, her eyes scanned all around her for any sort of opening.

Reaching the end of the corridor, they rounded a corner and the reporter saw her chance. A few yards away there was a doorway. And a small window in the door revealed that there were stairs on the other side.

She moaned suddenly, bent over and clutched at her thigh as if she were having a terrible pain. Victoria, who had been walking a few steps behind her moved closer. Just close enough. Clasping her bound hands together, the reporter leveled a blow at her captor, catching Victoria on the side of the head and knocking her into the nearby wall. The guard moved up to grab her, but Bridget fell to her knees, lashing both arms out with as much strength as she could, jabbing into the man’s groin.

The guard groaned loudly and doubled over, clutching at his injury with both hands. Bridget jumped to her feet, smashing a foot into the side of his knee. She didn’t stop to watch the large figure crumble to the ground as she bolted for the doorway. Relieved to find the door open, the reporter plunged through it, trying to keep her balance despite her bound hands as she raced up the stairway as quickly as her short, muscular legs would carry her.

Chapter 16

To an untrained eye, it looked like any other door. Obscure and nondescript, it was settled in the dimly lit recesses of The Coliseum.

At another place and time, it might have been the entrance to a supply room, a broom closet, or perhaps an employee restroom. But Alex cooly took in the inconspicuous guards on either side of the door, and knew better. Each man seemed merely to be part of the bustling crowd that filled the room, moving vaguely in time to the pulsating rhythms filtering through the air. Yet neither, at any time, moved more than ten feet from the doorway, that distance decreasing to five feet whenever any of the patrons moved too close to the door. Not only guards, but professionals. And well trained.

Narrowing her eyes, Alex knew the setup meant that entrance into the real heart of the club would be granted by invitation only. Those guards were there primarily to keep people out rather than encourage entrance. While a bit troublesome, this revelation was hardly surprising. Dominick was often a bit more cautious than need be.

Turning toward the bar, Alex went in search of her invitation.

It took only a few minutes to find what she was looking for. He was tall and blond, with an expensive suit but a cheap haircut. And just a bit too handsome for his own good. Perfect.

She briefly considered planting herself in his line of sight and waiting for him to come to her. However, Alex wasn’t feeling particularly patient at the moment, so the direct approach would just have to do. Doing her best to ignore the insistent thrumming of the music, she made her way through the crowd toward the end of the long curving bar where he was seated.

“You look like a man who knows his way around.”

He turned at the sound of her voice, pausing at the display of cleavage. His skin sported a good, healthy flush by the time he glanced up at her face. With a small grin, Alex stood at least an inch closer to him than was necessary, even with the crowd.

“And you look like a woman who’s got good taste in men.” He countered with a rakish grin. His eyes were a grayish blue in the neon light, his face almost boyish, yet framed with lines caused by worry. His dark suit, neatly tailored to his tall frame, clearly marked him as a man who lived beyond his means.

“I hope so.” Alex watched as his eyes roved over her body once more. “Tell me, do you know where I could find a little bit of excitement around here?”

“Excitement?” He grinned broadly as he turned toward the bar to grab his half-filled glass of scotch. “Well Miss . . . ?” He gestured questioningly.

“Alex.” She supplied.

“Alex,” shifting his drink to his left hand, he extended his right. “I’m Trevor, and you’ve come to the right place, and the right man.”

“I’m sure I have.” She grinned.

“Can I buy you a drink?” He lifted his arm to motion for the bartender.

“No thanks,” Alex demurred. “That’s not quite the kind of excitement I’m looking for.”

Though a brief look of disappointment crossed Trevor’s face, he recovered quickly. “Oh, really? Then what kind of excitement can I provide you with?”

Alex looked into the boyish face, grinning suggestively at her. “You tell me.” She had to admit, he had the charm down pat.

“Why don’t I just show you?” Trevor held out his arm chivalrously.

“Sounds good to me.” Not so long ago, she would have not only taken him up on all his offer promised, but shown him as much excitement as he could handle in return. She could certainly remember losing a few weeks here and there in that manner. Alex sighed almost wistfully.

This night, however, would be filled with a different kind of excitement. She followed him onto the dance floor, staying close as they bumped and grinded their way through the crowd. It was difficult to determine their direction for all the bodies pressed close to them, but after a couple of songs Alex was not at all surprised to find that they had come to a stop in front of the guarded doorway.

As expected, the guards had moved in to flank either side of the door. One placed his hand squarely on Trevor’s chest, halting his approach. Unruffled, Trevor leaned forward, whispering something in the guards ear as his hand dropped a few bills into his pocket.

Exchanged a quick confirming glace, the guards stepped back allowing the pair to pass. As the door opened, Alex’s eyes quickly began scanning the interior.

“Welcome to the Playground.” Trevor supplied with a flourish.

“What is all this?” She asked as she continued to examine the room.

“This, baby,” he boasted, “is the best show in town.”

It looked as though the room had been designed specifically for the activity it held. The area was dominated by a large rectangular hole in the center of the floor, roughly thirty feet long and fifteen wide, surrounded by a short fence to keep onlookers from falling while providing them with an unobstructed view of the action below. Rows of seats sat along the two longer sides, while the shorter edges seemed to be standing room only.

Bet takers stood at every corner, while a few more milled about among the small crowd that had already gathered. One wall of the room, around which many of the patrons stood, held a number of small computer screens. While one larger screen, located high on the wall flashed pictures of fighters, showing brief footage of each in action while displaying the odds for each match up. As they moved closer to the screens, Alex could see various statistics and fighting clips being displayed on each. Four large television screens hung from the high roof above the arena, facing in each direction. Each showed fights which had taken place previously in the arena below, where there were obviously cameras set up to record the mayhem for posterity, and for profit.

Barbarism had reached the information age.

Before long, they moved close enough for Alex to get a good look into the sunken fight arena. Thin mats covering the floor and walls were spotted here and there with blood stains. One door sat on each end of the small room, presumably for each fighter’s entrance.

As she took in the set up, Alex had to admit that she was surprised. This was far more high tech than she had expected. Something like this would require more capital than Dom would ever be willing to put out for one facility. Her plan began to alter a bit as pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

Trevor took her around the room, providing rudimentary information about this Playground, he had brought her to. Alex became quickly impatient, realizing she no longer needed the company of her invitation. What she did need was leaning against a wall nearby. A familiar face.

Excusing herself from Trevor, Alex made her way over carefully, making certain she wasn’t seen until she wanted to be. She crept up on him from the side, close enough to whisper in his ear before he realized she was there.

“Well, hello Kermit.” A broad, cruel grin stretched across her face as his turned toward her in shock.

“You!” True to his name, the word croaked out as he involuntarily brought a hand up to the large scar on his throat. Short, with a scraggly salt and pepper beard, his eyes bulged as he stared into her face. “But you’re dead!”

Ignoring his surprise, Alex glanced meaningfully down at his neck. “How’s that throat doing? Still giving you problems, Kermie?”

His face reddened in anger as he consciously removed his hand from the scar. “One of these days, I’m going to pay you back for that.” He promised

“Careful Kermie, make a promise like that and a lady might just expect you to keep it.” She made no attempt to hide the humor in her voice.

“You’ve got to be crazy to come here.” His words seemed to be meant as a warning.

“I’m crazy?” Alex snickered, “You’re the one talking to a dead woman.” She paused as he fumed for a few moments. “Why don’t you just make things easier on both of us? Hop on over and tell him I’m here.”

“Don’t move.” He croaked before turning to head toward a phone which hung from the wall nearby.

Crossing her arms, Alex leaned against the wall. “I’m a stone.” She called toward him.

Her jilted invitation stood nearby, watching the scene with interest as he waited a moment for Kermit to move away. “What are you doing?” Trevor hissed as he walked toward her, finally. “You don’t want to mess with that guy! Come on.” He seemed genuinely frightened as he motioned for them to go.

“Sorry,” she shrugged helplessly, “I’m not supposed to move.”

With a frustrated sigh, Trevor seemed to plead with her. “You really don’t understand . . . we’ve got to go!”

“Oh?” Came a smooth voice from behind him. “And why is that? I seem to recall Ms. Bryson enjoying the pleasure of my company.”

Without looking beyond her sputtering acquaintance, Alex smiled. “Hello Dom.”

“Alex. My, my. It has been a while, hasn’t it?” Dominick Vincent strolled casually past Trevor, taking Alex’s hand.

“You look good.” She offered as he lightly kissed her hand. “It’s amazing what plastic surgeons can do these days.”

Dom tensed slightly before breaking into an even bigger grin. “Yes, it is.” He agreed amiably. “But Alex dear, when I said I liked it rough, that wasn’t exactly what I meant.”

“Oops.” Shrugging with a mischievous grin, she took his hand and kissed it in return. “Live and learn.”

Trevor now stood open-mouthed, staring at Alex.

“Indeed.” Dom agreed. “Only your taste in men seems to be slipping.” He turned toward Trevor. “And if memory serves, you have a balance to settle at the desk if you intend on making any more wagers, Mr. Stevens.”

Trevor began to look around nervously. “Of course, Mr. Vincent. I . . . was just going to take care of that.”

“I’m sure you were.” A dangerous gleam flashed in Dominick’s eyes as Trevor turned and headed quickly for the door. “So, Emmitt tells me that you’re sense of humor’s as fun-loving as ever.” Brown eyes were filled with mirth as they turned back toward her.

“Well, Kermit always did know best.” She smiled sweetly as the man in question glared at her from behind Dominick’s shoulder.

“You shouldn’t tease him so much, Alex.” Dom chided her half-heartedly.

Alex pouted slightly. “What? No frog’s legs for dinner?”

Dom laughed out loud as Emmitt stalked away, grumbling under his breath.

“I must say, this is a surprise, my dear.” Dom admitted. “So what brings you to my doorstep, business or pleasure?” He motioned for her to follow him toward a doorway.

“It’s always a business doing pleasure with you, Dominick.”

Chuckling again, Dominick bowed. “Flattery will get you everywhere.”

“I’m counting on it.” Turning, Alex gestured toward the display of technology. “You certainly seem to be moving up in the world.” Her eyes met his. “Must be the company you’re keeping.”

Dominick’s face grew serious for a moment as he regarded Alex. After a moment he merely shook his head. “Same old Alex.” His eyes wandered around the room. “Perhaps I should offer you the grand tour.”

Smiling, Alex nodded her assent.

“Speaking of company.” Dom, spoke casually as he lead her through the room. “I know someone who’s been missing yours.”

“Really?” Alex replied, clearly not surprised.

“Oh, yes.” He turned toward her once again. “You know, he tore half the world apart looking for you. We’d all given up hope of seeing you again.”

“Now, Dom.” Alex chided. “You should know better than to count me out that easily.”

“Yes,” he grinned in agreement. “I suppose I should. But one day, Alex dear, you’re going to have to tell me where you’ve been keeping yourself.”

“You’d never believe it.” She told him truthfully.

They turned right at a narrow hallway, Alex’s eyes quickly scanned both ways. The hallway ended a few yards to the left, but ran toward the right much longer, with several doors on either side. Directly underneath the public side of the club above, Alex calculated that was most likely the area in which Bridget was being held. She held onto her patience with an iron grip.

“You’re probably right,” he agreed as they stopped at the first door, which Dominick opened to reveal a large office. “But I’d still like to know.”

“I’d rather hear what you’ve been up to, Dom.” She took in the spacious room. “After all, it seems you’re the one who’s been moving up in the world.”

Walking over a small bar, Dominick produced a couple of beers, which seemed somehow out of place in the luxurious setting. Motioning for her to sit on a soft, leather couch, Dominick handed Alex one of the bottles. “Perhaps you’d like to tell me.”

Detecting a clear challenge in his eyes, Alex took a sip of the drink, leaning back comfortably. “All right. Let’s see. The last time I saw you, you were one your way to Paris for a little bit of plastic surgery as I recall.”

Dom inclined his head in agreement.

“While you were there, you made a new friend. An American heiress whose tastes run along similar lines to your own. Only perhaps hers were a little bit more . . . exotic . . . than your own.”

Shaking his head a bit in wonder, Dominick relaxed back into the chair and listened.

“Seeing an opportunity . . . and never being one to let one pass you by . . . You struck up a relationship with her. Before too long, her family grew tired of her getting into trouble and she came back stateside, and you followed soon after.” Alex paused in her narrative to take another drink. “Eventually, the two of you struck up a bargain that was . . . mutually beneficial. She agreed to bankroll your little Playground, and you agreed to . . . shall we say . . . satisfy her appetites.”

Taking a deep breath, Dominick chuckled. “You amaze me, my dear. How did you come up with all that?”

“One does one’s best.” Alex inclined her head with a mischievous gleam in her eye. “But for the most part it’s a simple case of logic.”

“All right, so where do you come into this picture?” A serious expression on his face, Dominick leaned toward her.

“Another bit of logic.”

“Do tell.”

“You partnership has grown stale. You’ve gotten what you wanted, after all. This place can easily finance itself now, with a tidy profit to spare. I’d say she’s become more of a liability to you now.”

Dominick’s face darkened at her words. “And you?”

“I . . . am looking for a quiet way to deal myself back into the game. You and I both know how imperative it is that I keep a low profile. I think it’s you and I that can help each other now.”

“You want to be my partner?” A grin tugged at the corners of Dom’s mouth.

“Silent partner.” Alex corrected. “After all, wouldn’t you rather have a partner that took care of your headaches rather than causing you more of them?”

“And what makes you think you can do anything for me that I couldn’t do for myself?”

She laughed. “Because if you could, you would have taken care of this problem before now. I mean, come on. Those bodies are kind of piling up in the harbor, don’t you think? And I’m betting,” Alex gestured over toward a locked case filled with video tapes. “Those tapes caught all the fun in living color.” She shook her head disapprovingly. “Sloppy, Dom. Very sloppy. If I figured all this out, how long do you think it will be before someone else does . . . someone who doesn’t have so much to gain?”

One hand came up to scratch at his chin thoughtfully. “So what is it exactly that you are offering?”

“I’ll take care of this for you. Tie up all the loose ends, no questions asked. In return, you deal me in, forty/sixty . . . to start . . . and keep my presence here just between us.”

“Mr. Vincent!” A man burst through the door, his voice urgent.

“What?” Dom sprung to his feet. The man paused when he saw Alex. “It’s all right.” Dom waved his hand. “What happened?”

“We’ve got a problem.” The panic was clear in his face.

A wide, catlike grin spread across Alex’s face as she stood to regard Dominick. “It sounds like you need a good problem solver.”

Chapter 17

Bursting through the door at the top of the stairwell, Bridget didn’t pause to notice onlookers. Spotting a large crowd a few feet in front of her, she raced toward it. Squirming between the group and crouching slightly, the reporter tried to lose herself amid the den of club goers. A few heads turned her way, giving her looks ranging from confusion to amusement. But none saw fit to investigate further.

The noise was deafening. The hard, quick beat of the music thudding through the room so loudly the floor itself vibrated, like the heartbeat of a giant beast. Laughter and conversation from all around her blended into a constant, indistinct, rumble.

As she moved further into the mass of bodies, Bridget stood up straight and began trying to get her bearings. Rising to her tip-toes, she looked back in the direction from which she had come. A small group of burly men, most wearing suits, had already begun to gather around the opened door and were scanning through the crowd. At the center of the group, the reporter could make out the blonde hair of Victoria Carlyle as she gave quick orders. With clipped gestures, she directed groups into the crowd to search for her escaped prey.

Taking a deep breath to quell the thrum of panic coursing through her body, Bridget struggled with the bindings on her hands. Pain burned through her wrists as the course rope dug into skin already raw. Wincing, she worked at the knot with her teeth, but it stubbornly refused to yield. Giving up for the moment, and ignoring the odd assortment of looks she received, Bridget decided to concentrate instead on finding an escape.

“Come on, guys.” A voice from near by touched her ears over the low roar of the crowd. “Is this really necessary?”

Turning quickly, Bridget saw a tall blond man being hustled toward the door by a pair of bouncers. Each of his arms gripped tightly as he was pushed forward insistently, the man struggled slightly against the two larger men. The crowd parted like a wave as the unhappy group barreled through. Biting her lip, Bridget decided to take a chance. She fell in step just behind the larger of the two bouncers, angled slightly so that no one on the other side of him could see her clearly.

Forcing a deep breath, Bridget tried to appear nonchalant as she walked, careful to stay in step with her human shield. Her eyes darted around for proof that her presence had been detected. Though she could barely see him, the reporter could hear the, soon to be departing, man try to reason with his captors.

“I’ve got the money.” The blond insisted, craning his head to look from one impassive face to the other. “Just not with me. . . really. Besides, I wasn’t going to bet. I was just trying to show a lady a good time . . .”

They neared the bar, where the crowd thinned out considerably and the door lay clearly in view only a few yards away. Glancing down nervously at her bound hands, Bridget quickly tugged her shirt out from her slacks and, ignoring the burning pain in her wrists, carefully slid her hands under it, obscuring the rope. Every muscle in her body was tensed as she waited for any sign that she’d been discovered.

With the door only a few steps away now, her whole body seemed to reach out for it. It took every ounce of willpower she possessed not to bolt through it.

The bouncers at the doorway shot disgusted looks at the blond on his way out. Bridget quickly stepped back and fell in directly behind the man she’d been following so that the two guards didn’t get a clear view of her until she was almost past them.

Her entire body pulsating with fear, Bridget forced herself to look up at the nearest guard, smiling and nodding her head slightly as she walked by. He gave her a mildly suspicious look, but made no move to stop her as she took one step, then two, and with her third had reached the sidewalk.

Outside.

Her whole body was shaking now as she turned to her right, walking as quickly as she dared away from the club, not daring to turn around. Her ears strained against the night, listening for voices, footsteps, anything that would give her an excuse to let go of the last of her self discipline and dash down the street with a speed born of pure terror.

Less than half a block from The Coliseum, the reporter reached the nearest alley. She paused for just a moment, trying to determine the lesser evil. Finally her better sense gave way to her fear and Bridget turned quickly, disappearing into the shadows of the narrow alleyway.

All pretense gone, she ran as fast as she dared, tripping over boxes, and even a complaining resident or two along the way. Bridget turned left as soon as she hit the next street, not daring to slow or look behind her as she fled.

Though this wasn’t, strictly speaking, one of the worse areas in town, the reporter’s plight was still met with little interest by those she passed. Her eyes scanned the area for a pay phone, or an open store, but with no luck.

Her strength held out for two more blocks before the burning in her lungs and the burning in her wrists had grown too great to be ignored. Coming to another alley, she glanced quickly behind her and, seeing no one pursuing her, stepped into the shadows once again. Leaning back against cold brick, the reporter’s entire body began to shake violently. Her legs gave out from under her and she sank to the ground.

Head back, gasping, Bridget felt the hot sting of tears as they spilled down her face. Too frightened still to be relieved, the reporter fought to regain some measure of control. She blinked, trying to clear her mind, and think of how to get help.

Still trembling, she brought her wrists back up where she could work at the bindings with her teeth. The coarse rope was now stained with her blood, the pain so intense that her hands were partially numb.

She didn’t sense the presence at first, her attention consumed with pain. The dark figure was almost upon her before she glanced up, letting out a sharp shriek as she instinctively lunged forward, trying to jam the figure’s knee with her shoulder. But the agile form jumped neatly away from her desperate blow.

“Hey.” The low voice touched her ears. “Calm down.”

She didn’t believe her senses at first, thinking it must be an delusion brought on by the pain.

“A . . . Alex?” Blinking, she looked up, trying to make out a face from within the shadows. “But . . . how?”

Kneeling next to her, the dark-framed face might as well have been out of a fantasy. One finger touched her lips as Alex looked cautiously toward the nearby street. She reached down firmly and pulled the shaken reporter to her feet.

Unable to help herself, Bridget threw her arms over Alex’s head and around broad shoulders, ignoring the burning in her arms, and burying her head in Alex’s chest. She almost sobbed with relief.

She felt a strong hand move to her back and one cradle the back of her head, holding her firmly.

“Are you all right?” Alex whispered as she pulled back, concern clear on her face, despite the dim light.

Bridget drew her arms back over Alex’s head, grimacing.

One slender hand reached down toward the bindings on her wrists. Bridget winced as she touched the ropes, noting that her friend’s fingertips were coated with her own blood as she pulled them back.

With a tired smirk, she glanced up into dark blue eyes. “Define ‘all right’.” She whispered back.

Sighing thoughtfully, Alex moved away from Bridget to glance around the nearby corner, scanning up and down the street quickly.

The reporter’s brow furrowed as she watched the tall form move through the yellow tinted street lights. She blinked again, trying to convince herself that her eyes were deceiving her. She moved a step closer to get a better look.

She was wearing the suit Bridget had bought for her, but her arms strained at the sleeves. Hard muscles pressed against the back as well. Her eyes went to the face once again, examining, noticing the fuller curve of her cheek and her chin.

“Who are you?” Her voice was low, her eyes slitted as she stared at the woman.

The familiar face looked back at her, confusion crossing her features. She followed Bridget’s gaze down to her upper body.

Bridget backed up a few steps, looking around for a weapon. “What’s going on?”

“Bridget . . .” The woman began, taking a cautious step forward. “You’ve got to listen to me. I know this is hard to believe, but it is me. I know I look a little bit . . . different . . . but it is me.”

Taking another step or two backward, Bridget’s shoulder brushed up against the wall. “You can’t be Alex.” Her voice shook with nervousness. “You . . . You’re . . . It’s not possible.”

“I can’t explain it.” The woman’s face looked earnest. “Or at least, not right now.” She conceded with a quick shrug. “There’s no time. But it is me, Bridget . . . I just . . .Something happened to me.”

“Something happened to you?” Bridget blinked sarcastically at the understatement. “Look, I don’t know what kind of a fool you think I am . . .”

The woman cut her off by stepping forward quickly, grasping the sides of her face and smothering her doubts with a kiss. It was urgent and forceful, pressing her tensed body back fully against the hard brick.

It was also unmistakably Alex.

Her heart warred with her head, which swam in confusion, trying to get a hold on the situation. Arms hanging limply in front of her, exhausted, Bridget simply surrendered to it. Trusting in what her senses knew, rather than what they saw. Perhaps wanting so badly to believe that it overrode her common sense.

When Alex finally drew back, she watched Bridget’s stunned face closely. While, Bridget took the opportunity to study her companion more closely in return. Aside from the physical differences, other, more subtle, changes had taken place.

Even in the shadows, she could see the change in Alex’s eyes. When she’d looked there before, Bridget remembered seeing that caged tiger prowling around just beneath the surface.

Only now the cage was gone. And only the tiger remained.

Gulping reflexively, the reporter knew a number of things in that moment. Whatever happened to Alex had unleashed that part of herself she tried so hard to fight, and to hide from Bridget. Though, she had no idea how or where her intuition came from, Bridget trusted it implicitly. This was Alex, and yet it wasn’t. This Alex was different. More . . .confident, and self-assured. More powerful. But also more dangerous.

Part of her didn’t know whether or not to trust this Alex.

“We have to get out of here.” The reporter said finally, silently acknowledging Alex’s identity.

A mild look of relief passed over the darker woman’s face, before she shook her head quickly. “No.”

The reporter’s brow knit again. “What do you mean, no? Alex, they’re going to be looking for me! If we don’t . . .”

“Listen,” Alex interrupted, lowering her voice to a whisper once again.. “Dom sent me after you.”

“What?!” The reporter whispered loudly.

“I’ve got a plan. We have to go back and . . .”

“You want me to go back?” Bridget’s face was incredulous. “Alex I barely made it out of there in the first place. If I go back, they’ll kill me.”

“And what if you don’t?” Alex leaned down to look her in the eye. “What happens then? They know where to find you, Bridget.”

“I’ll go to the police.” Bridget reasoned.

“With what? You don’t have any proof of your claims. And I guarantee there won’t be a person in that entire club that will ever admit to having seen you there. Do you really want to be looking over your shoulder, waiting for them to come for you? Knowing it will only be a matter of time? Victoria is a very rich and powerful woman.”

“So she informed me.” She muttered. Her heart thumping in fear again, Bridget considered the truth of Alex’s words.

Seeing the reporter’s certainty wavering, Alex pressed on. “Besides, I know where you can find irrefutable proof of what Victoria’s been up to. Dominick keeps video tapes of all her . . . amusements.” A distasteful look crossed her face. “By taking you back there, I’ll be assured of Dom’s trust. And that’s all I’ll need to be able to get those tapes.”

“But what about me?” The reporter fought against the fear that once again gnawed at her. Trying to ignore the pain in her arms, her mind struggled to keep up with all that Alex was telling her. “If Victoria gets her hands on me . . .”

“I’ve got a plan for that too.” Alex’s voice, though whispered, was filled with certainty. “When you’re alone with Victoria, just try and defend yourself. It’s important you hold her off for as long as you can.”

Bridget’s face mirrored her utter confusion. “What are you talking about?” She held up her bound and bleeding hands. “How in the hell am I supposed to defend myself?!”

“I’ll take care of that too.” Alex assured the dubious reporter. “You just buy me all the time you can. And leave the rest to me.”

Bridget took a deep breath, her mind racing. She wasn’t sure what to trust in, or believe, but she knew Alex was right about at least one thing. She had no proof. Without that, there was no way to keep Victoria from doing whatever she pleased, with whomever she pleased.

“We have to get back.” Alex leaned out to scan the street again. “If I take much longer, Dom will know something is up.” Dark blue eyes turned back toward her. “And I’ve got to have his trust.”

The reporter nodded slowly, feeling tears of fear threaten to spill down her face once again. A cold voice sounded in her memory, ‘Why didn’t you help me?’ She thought back to the beaten, twisted form of Patty, the girl she had practically lead Victoria to. Not to mention Stacy, and the others, whose faces had once been nothing but gruesome photographs on her desk. And those were just the ones they knew about.

Setting her jaw, Bridget closed her eyes and made a promise to them, and to herself. This had to end. No matter the cost.

“You’ll be all right.” A strong hand settled on her shoulder, squeezing slightly. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Bridget did her best to trust in that, but found it did little to quell her doubts. It took an almost superhuman effort to convince her body to move forward. She repeated the words like a mantra in her head as Alex stepped behind her, with a hand on either shoulder.

This has to end.

“Just remember.” Alex’s low voice sounded a warning in her ear. “Dom has to trust me, so act as though I’m just another guard bringing you back.”

Without waiting for a response, she was pushed forward, turning back down the darkened street toward The Coliseum.

Instead of leading her back through the alleyway toward the front entrance, Alex walked straight down the block, stopping in front of what looked like nothing more than an old warehouse building. She knocked on a poorly lit door which was quickly opened by a grim, dark- suited man. Another standing just behind him took in her presence with a brief nod and turned to disappear through a doorway.

As they turned and walked down a narrow flight of stairs, Bridget had to force her body to take every step. Her whole body felt as though she’d been trying to run a marathon carrying a refrigerator strapped to her back. The fear was stifling.

This has to end.

Turning down a long corridor, Alex lead Bridget to a nearby door, pausing again to reach over Bridget’s shoulder and knock. This time they were greeted by Dominick Vincent himself, sporting a Cheshire grin at the sight of her.

“Ah, Alex.” He stepped back to wave them inside. “I knew I could count on you.”

Another man sat on a long sofa inside the room. He looked sourly at Alex. As he stood Bridget noticed a large, ugly scar on his throat.

“You see, Emmitt.” Dominick spoke to the man good-naturedly. “You should know by now, Alex always does what she sets out to do.”

I certainly hope so, Bridget thought.

“And you.” Dominick’s attention turned to her. “You’ve been more trouble than you’re worth.” Bridget’s jaw clenched as she looked up into deep brown eyes, menacing despite the smile that wrinkled around the edges.

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Alex’s voice was a deep purr as she lightly pushed Bridget forward, sending her stumbling into the center of the room. “She might just turn out to be the answer to all your problems.”

“I don’t know, Alex.” Dominick sounded doubtful as he turned from Bridget, walking over to pour himself a drink. “It’s a big risk.”

“But,” Alex grinned broadly as she moved to Dominick’s side and casually pulled the drink from his hand, taking a long swig. “It’ll have a big payoff.”

“And what if she loses?” He watched Alex downing his drink with amusement.

“Then I get to have my fun.” Her blue eyes sparkled with a devilish gleam.

“And what if she wins?” The scarred man’s voice was a muffled croak.

Alex turned to smirk at the man. “Then, Kermie,” She shot an enigmatic look toward Bridget. “I still get to have my fun.”

Bridget felt as though she’d swallowed a stone as the three of them casually discussed her fate. She was a bit taken aback by how comfortable Alex appeared in Dominick’s company, and had to remind herself that it was all an act.

“So how do we talk her into it?” Dominick’s face turned serious as he turned a speculative eye toward Bridget.

“That’s your problem.” Alex said casually. “It shouldn’t be that hard. Just remind her about the masks.” She downed the rest of the drink, handing the empty glass back to Dominick. “You can’t tell me she won’t enjoy the attention.”

After a brief pause, Dominick turned to the other man. “Go get her.”

Though he cast a suspicious glance in Alex’s direction, the scarred man complied without commenting.

“What are you going to do about that?” Dominick motioned toward the door after Emmitt had departed.

A low chuckle answered him, as Alex flashed a large, toothy grin. “I’ll think of something.” She turned back to Bridget, grasping her by the arm and ignoring the whimper of pain. “But for now . . . we’ve got business to attend to.”

“Down the hall, last door on your left.” Dominick answered the unasked question.

Alex nodded shortly and lead Bridget forcefully out of the room. Once outside, the reporter wanted desperately to ask Alex to explain what just happened. However, she noticed that a few extra guards had been posted in the hallway, for her benefit apparently, and so was forced to hold her tongue.

When they reached the specified room, Alex opened the door and shoved Bridget in unceremoniously. Shutting the door behind her, the taller woman moved quickly to the sliding doors of a closet, pulling out a couple of leather garments that looked similar to those Victoria had been wearing.

“Strip.” Her voice held the firm note of command. With a cold, impassive face she turned and tossed the clothes toward Bridget.

Chapter 18

Alex watched Bridget’s face closely. She hadn’t thought to warn the young reporter about the cameras that were almost certainly planted throughout the room. Dominick could be cautious to the point of absurdity at times.

But she wasn’t complaining. Far from it. It was that very fact which was going to get them out of this.

It hadn’t taken long to convince Dom of the merits of her plan. A public battle between Victoria and Bridget, with both masked to disguise their identities, ensuring Bridget at least the chance to defend herself. After her having managed to escape from the building, it wasn’t that hard to convince Dom that Bridget might have a chance at victory. Either way, it gave him a showcase fight for his patrons, and Alex’s guarantee that she would clean up whatever mess remained when all was said and done. One way or the other, Dominick was sure to be the winner.

Part of Alex’s brain protested that she should have taken Bridget and ran while they had the chance, that she was taking a great risk bringing her back here. But it was too late now. In truth, it had been too late from the moment Alex walked into The Coliseum.

A myriad of emotions played across Bridget’s face. There was fear, and uncertainty, some of it directed toward Alex herself. Despite herself, Alex winced slightly at the suspicion in the gaze that was leveled at her. Please trust me, Bridget. She silently willed the young woman. There had been no way, in those few moments in the alley, to make Bridget understand what kind of risk she had taken by coming here and exposing herself to Dominick. Nothing in Bridget’s world could prepare her for that kind of stark reality.

Yet it was that very fact, and Dominick’s understanding of it, which had been the key to earning his trust. She was taking an awful chance and they both knew it. Just as they both knew that one short phone call from him could destroy her. A fact which would put Alex firmly under his control, indefinitely, something Dominick had craved from the first time they met.

But it all depended on Bridget, how she behaved now, and how well she could defend herself when the time came. And that would give Alex the freedom and the opportunity tie up all the loose ends, both hers and Bridget’s, in one fell swoop.

Bridget made no move to pick up the garments that had been tossed toward her. Wordlessly, she held up her bound wrists to Alex, a gesture more of accusation than appeal. Her eyes moved to the blood stained ropes, trying to ignore the twinge of sympathetic pain that shot through her chest. Alex had trouble controlling the surge of anger and guilt the sight caused. She had to remind herself that she was doing this to save Bridget’s life, both from her own enemies, and those from Alex’s past as well.

Alex forcibly expelled the doubts and emotions from her thoughts. She focused her will on the problem at hand. Until it was solved, nothing else could matter.

Her jaw clenching reflexively, Alex moved to the bathroom adjoining the room, searching through drawers until she came across a pair of scissors. Bridget whimpered as the thick blades sliced through the coarse rope. As she slowly unwound the rope, Alex could clearly see that nearly all the skin was gone from Bridget’s wrists. As she felt an overwhelming surge of emotions threaten to overtake her, Alex bit sharply on the inside of her lip. The blood flowed almost instantly.

She would not lose control.

Making a quick decision, Alex lead Bridget back toward the bathroom, rummaging around until she found some first aid supplies.

“Come on.” She forced annoyance into her voice. “You’re no good to us like that.” It wasn’t the best of excuses, but she’d have to trust that it was good enough. Taking each arm carefully, Alex applied antibiotic cream to the raw areas, wrapping a few layers of gauze around to protect them.

Bridget accepted the aid without comment or emotion. Alex hazarded a few glanced at the young woman’s face, trying to determine what was going on in her mind. She saw a speculative gaze leveled at her, as though Bridget were doing the same.

The salty taste of blood was still in her mouth as she finished with the bandages. “Get those on.” She gestured to the leather garments laying on the floor. Alex almost had to grin at her luck when Dominick informed her of Victoria’s fanatical fascination with things she termed as ‘Amazon’. The clothes did indeed look as though they had been designed with hand to hand combat in mind.

Bridget flexed her hands a few times, moving her wrists experimentally. She closed her eyes as grimaces of pain marred her features. Finally, with slow, deliberate gestures, Bridget turned and walked back to the garments. Her hands moved to the buttons of her blouse, carefully removing it before undoing her slacks and sliding them off as well.

As she watched, Alex’s emotions became harder and harder to control, until she had to finally turn away. Busying herself with putting the first aid supplies away, Alex caught a glimpse of her reflection gazing back at her. She stared at the image for few moments, as though she were trying to read its mind.

It had to be done. There was no other way.

When she moved out of the bathroom, Bridget was fastening the ties of the short leather skirt. It hung to her mid thigh, accentuating the muscles of her legs. The shirt fit her snugly, the leather parted in the middle, revealing the skin from between her breasts to her navel, with a cris- cross pattern of ties binding each side together.

The hard muscles in her arms and shoulders were revealed by the sleeveless top. Bridget’s face had become almost impassive as she regarded Alex. Her shoulders back, she looked as though she had been born to wear these clothes. Shaking herself out of her reverie, Alex moved back to the large closet, scanning the floor until her eyes fell on a pair of tall boots. Searching the top of the closet, she found a pair of thick, leather bracers ornamented with latticed metalwork.

As she examined the pieces, noting the craftsmanship, Alex knew they would afford some measure of protection to Bridget’s wounded arms. She couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the site of Bridget as she completed the outfit. There was something so very familiar about the sight of her. The young woman’s demeanor had completely changed, her jaw was set, her face almost regal as she regarded Alex.

A loud knock sounded on the door, and Alex was surprised to note she’d been staring.

“It’s time.” Came a gruff voice from the other side of the door. Without comment, Bridget strode toward the door, her hands clenching and unclenching periodically. They moved out the door, and followed a tall man down the hallway to a large, double door that opened to reveal what almost looked like a small armory. Two more guards stood just inside the doorway on either side. Various weapons lined the walls, several varieties of whips, swords, lances, spears and daggers gleamed to the right. While to the left were more blunt weapons, nunchakus, escrima sticks, and staffs of varying sizes.

Sensing a presence behind her, Alex turned to see Dominick walk in carrying a large, bird- like mask.

“Here it is.” He handed the mask to Alex. “But we’re going to have to be careful, she’s suspicious.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Alex’s voice was casual. “Once she’s out there, it’ll be too late. No matter what happens, she’s not going to take that mask off in the arena. She won’t risk that many witnesses that could tie her to this place.”

“I’d forgotten how much you like playing with fire.” Dom shook his head and smiled at her.

Alex couldn’t help but grin at the irony.

“What’s she going to fight with?” Dom had moved forward and way casting an appraising gaze over Bridget’s body.

Alex’s brow knit, she hadn’t really counted on that. “They’re using weapons?”

“Sure, Victoria’s got a fondness for escrima sticks, likes to call them ‘chobos’. There’s no way she’d go out there without them.”

Without commenting, Bridget stepped to the side and grabbed a quarterstaff. Dominick raised an eyebrow and shook his head with a chuckle. “I guess that’s it then. Come on, I’ve got the best seat in the house.” With a devilish grin and a gleam in his eye, he motioned for Alex to follow him.

“I’ll be up later.” She looked back toward Bridget. “I want to make sure we don’t have any more creative exits this evening.” A flash of disappointment, and possibly suspicion crossed over Dominick’s face. But he seemed to recover quickly.

“All right. Just be careful you don’t miss the show.”

“Not a chance.” Alex leveled a broad grin at him, watching as his eyes ran over Bridget’s leather-clad form one last time. He licked his lips quickly before turning and disappearing out the door.

The guards remained, though, and Alex wished there was a good excuse to get rid of them so she could speak again with Bridget. But she quickly shook the thought from her head. It was too late now, better to wait and sort everything out once it was over.

She watched curiously as Bridget played idly with the staff in her hand, testing its weight and balance. The reporter seemed incredibly calm given the circumstances.

A few minutes passed in relative silence before Dominick’s voice could be heard announcing the first fight of the evening. The crowd cheered as he promised them a spectacle like none they’d ever witnessed before. With a small, malicious smile, Alex knew she was going to make good on that promise. In spades. The patrons, who now cheered in expectation of the coming show, were in for a night that none of them would soon forget.

One guard had moved to the doorway on the far side of the room, grabbing Bridget roughly by the shoulder and pushing her forward. Taking a few steps forward, Alex stopped the guard, turning Bridget toward her. Green eyes met her own for a long moment. She could see the fear there. The fear that Bridget was trying so hard to hide. Alex had to resist the urge to take her out of this place, right now, before there was any more chance of her being hurt. Reminding herself what was at stake, Alex instead took the bird-like mask and settled it on top of Bridget’s head, catching one last glimpse into her eyes before sliding it down in front until it covered Bridget’s face.

Trying to swallow away the lump in her throat, Alex nodded to the guard, who took Bridget’s shoulder again. As the cheering reached a crescendo, he opened the door quickly. The bright lights from the arena flooded into the small room.

Despite herself, Alex couldn’t help the panic that constricted in her chest as she watched the large man push Bridget through the door. Stepping beyond the door, Bridget half turned, seeming to look at Alex for a brief moment before the heavy door shut between them. Glancing down, Alex saw her hands shaking and could hear the thrumming of her racing heart even over the cheers from the crowd.

For her.

It was showtime.

In a flash of motion, Alex grabbed a small dagger from the wall. With a flick of her wrist, she embedded the weapon hilt deep in the neck of the guard as he turned back from the doorway. Though momentarily stunned, the two remaining guards started for her even as their companion slumped to the floor. Turning, Alex took two quick steps toward them, lunging toward the guns that were emerging from beneath their jackets. Her hands came up just under the barrel of each gun as she jerked upward, hearing small bones snap in the hands that had been holding the weapons.

Jerking the guns free, Alex discarded them behind her. Another cheer rose from the other side of the door as Alex stepped forward, grasping the head of the nearest guard firmly and giving it a violent twist. She felt, as much as heard, the snap of his neck as she released him quickly, raising her forearm to block an overhand blow the remaining guard leveled at her.

As soon as her arm made contact with the guard’s, Alex twisted her body, twining her arm around until she clutched the man’s upper arm firmly. Stepping forward again, and using her own weight as leverage, she slammed her other arm high into his back, bending the large man forward at the waist. She slammed one foot into his ankles from behind, sending him sprawling backward. Before his upper body had a chance to reach the floor, Alex had jumped forward, thrusting her knee into the center of his chest.

The satisfying crunch of bone met the jarring impact as the man was driven into the floor by both his own momentum and the force of Alex’s blow.

Taking a deep breath, Alex jumped up, scanning over the three motionless figures for the briefest of moments before turning her attention back to the weapons lining the walls. Spotting what she was after, Alex moved to take down a long dark brown leather whip, pointedly ignoring the gurgling that came from the throat of the guard, who still lay motionless on the ground with a dagger protruding from his throat. Uncoiling the whip with a snap of her wrist, Alex tied it quickly around her mid section, so that it almost looked like a belt. Satisfied, she turned and moved quickly toward the door leading to the hallway. Opening it, she casually left the room and the gruesome sight within it, carefully closing the door behind her.

She moved purposefully toward Dominick’s office. Another cheer rose from the crowd outside, and Alex forced herself to ignore it as she slid into the darkened room. Switching on the light, she moved over to the locked case that held Dom’s collection of video tapes. She eyed the lock for the briefest of moments before deciding she didn’t have the time to deal with it. Alex quickly slid her vest off her shoulders, wrapping it around her right hand. Taking a step back, she thrust forward, shattering the glass panel.

Her hand still wrapped in cloth, she quickly brushed most of the broken glass out of her way, her eyes already scanning over the tapes. She finally found a tape with the date she was looking for. Unwrapping her hand, Alex shook the vest quickly, turning her head slightly as small shards of glass flew in all directions. Slipped it quickly back over her shoulders, she grabbed the tape and sliding it underneath the waistband of her slacks until it rested snugly in the small of her back. The vest hung loosely, concealing the tape somewhat.

Yet another cheer came up from the throng and as moved toward the door, having to remind herself not to run. Stepping out into the hallway once again, Alex’s eyes quickly scanned for any sign that her earlier activities had been detected. A grim smile touched her face when she found none. Turning toward the stairwell that would lead her to Dominick, Alex paused for a moment, walking up to one of the few guards that milled about the corridor.

“Do you have a cigarette?” She inquired politely, flashing him a brilliant smile when he produced a half-filled pack. Taking a cigarette out and holding it loosely between her fingers, Alex waved off the guards wordless offer of a light as he pulled the lighter out of another pocket. “No thanks. I’ll take care of it upstairs.” Though the guard looked momentarily confused, he shook his head, replacing the lighter and moved on down the hallway.

Alex took the stairs two and three at a time as she headed for Dominick’s Playground. The crowd’s attention was riveted on the spectacle taking place in the arena as she moved through them, toward one end of the large pit and the table where Dominick was seated. Unable to help herself, Alex glanced down into the arena and felt her heart lurch in her chest. Bridget was on the ground in one corner, with Victoria advancing toward her. Her staff lay a few feet away, just far enough to be out of reach. The large mask still covered her head.

Unconsciously, Alex had taken a few steps toward the pit, on the verge of throwing what was left of her plan out the window. Before she had the chance, Bridget responded. A low cry came from the woman as she slid forward, sweeping her legs around and knocking Victoria’s out from under her. Before the socialite could respond, Bridget had somersaulted backward, grasping her staff again and springing to her feet.

Good girl, Alex thought as she looked down with some surprise to realize just how close she had come to the edge of the pit. She looked up to find Dominick’s eyes on her, his face speculative. Emmitt sat next to Dominick, his face openly hostile. Toying absently with the cigarette in her hands, Alex forced her attention completely away from the pit, despite hearing the telltale grunts and blows of hand to hand combat. A few steps away from Dominick’s table, she came across a waiter.

“Would you bring me a scotch, straight up?” Her voice was casual and polite as the young man nodded studiously before heading off to fill her order.

“I have to hand it to you Alex,” Dominick’s voice was light as she reached the table. “You were right about that girl putting on a good show.” He motioned toward the crowd, who stared into the pit, enraptured. “But you almost missed it. What took you so long?”

Alex easily read the dangerous tone in Dom’s voice. She smiled. “I had something to take care of.”

His eyes narrowed. “Oh really, and what might that be?”

Alex had opened her mouth to respond when the waiter returned, setting her drink down in front of her. She smiled and nodded to the young man. As she turned back toward Dom, her eyes flashed up to large television screens hanging above the arena, Bridget was deflecting a blow and caught another in the stomach, doubling over in pain.

Her jaw clenching, Alex took a long drink of scotch, feeling the bitter liquid burning her mouth. She put the cigarette up to her lips, turning toward a guard that stood a few feet behind her with an expectant look in her eye. Dominick’s eyes were still on her, she could feel it. But it didn’t matter anymore.

The guard stepped forward, producing a lighter from his jacket. As he flicked it, sparking the flame to life, Alex grasped his wrist. Letting the cigarette fall out of her mouth, she brought the small flame to her lips. Taking a quick, deep breath, she blew the liquor through the flame, sending a ball of fire into the terrified face of the guard. He screamed, his clothing quickly catching fire as his hands moved to protect his face from the flames that licked at his skin.

Two more guards had tried to help the man, their clothes catching fire as well as they got too close to the blaze. Jumping up, Alex sent a swift side kick into the man, throwing him backwards into the large television monitor that sat against the wall. In an explosion of sparks, and yet another scream, the wall itself seemed to catch fire as the electronic equipment in the walls erupted into sizzling, crackling flames.

Turning back, Alex grabbed the table, flinging it toward Emmitt, who had stood and was reaching under his jacket. The force knocked him backwards into the low fence surrounding the pit. Dominick had jumped back from the table, his eyes wide as he took in the mayhem that had suddenly exploded around him.

The patrons had begun to panic, screams and cries filled the air as they ran for doorways and exits, effectively trampling over and blocking the path of any guards trying to reach her. Instead of panic, anger flared in Dominick’s eyes.

Her face was cold as she returned his glare.

“Why?” He growled.

A broad, feral grin broke out across Alex’s face. “For her.” She said simply. A brief look of confusion crossed over his face. In that instant, Alex sprang forward, landing a hard backhand that sent Dominick reeling before reaching forward to grasp his hair, yanking his head backward and bringing him down until he was on his knees in front of her.

Smoke had taken over the air and surrounded them, giving the illusion they were alone, despite the screams and riot that could clearly be heard around them. For a brief moment, fear flickered in his eyes as he watched her, knowing what was to come. Then he started to laugh, a deep bitter laugh, filled with irony.

“He’ll find you, you know.” Dominick taunted, as she drew her hand back. She paused for the briefest of moments.

“You’re probably right.” She agreed, her voice sad. “Good-bye Dom.” With that, her arm lashed forward, smashing the bridge of his nose.

Letting him fall from her grasp, Alex scanned the area around her. Nearly blinded by the smoke she clasped a hand over her mouth, moving quickly to the railing she threw her legs over, dropping into the pit below.

Chapter 19

Bridget glanced up into the blue depths of Alex’s eyes as she watched the dark haired woman place the ornamental mask over her head. A inexplicable calm had taken her over since putting on the strange garments. They felt comfortable to her. More than that, she felt comfortable in them. And yet, as she heard the cheers and cries coming from outside the door, she couldn’t help the fear that had begun once again to pound in her chest.

The reporter searched Alex’s face for some clue, some measure of certainty she could carry with her. Though she tried to hide it, there was concern hovering behind those eyes, lurking somewhere just beyond the frightening intensity that had so taken over her features. Strangely, it was the concern that eased Bridget’s fear. She knew that as long as some part of Alex still had such concern for her, there was hope of making it through this.

Blinking as Alex lowered the mask over her face, Bridget tried to acclimate herself to impairment of her vision. It was hardly her idea of the ideal circumstances for a fight. But she gripped her staff again and took a deep breath, sending a silent prayer of thanks to Donnie, her old martial arts teacher that had insisted she practice weapons drills to aid in her coordination. The staff had always come easiest to her, its firm weight felt natural in her hands. And Donnie had praised her aptitude more than once. It had been a few years since she practiced her drills with any kind of regularity, though.

She gripped the weapon again, trying to ignore the, now constant, burning in her wrists.

This was going to end, here and now. It was too late for doubts or regrets.

An irrational, childish voice in the back of her head protested that it wasn’t supposed to be this way. The hero was supposed rescue her, not send her out to the lions. Taking a breath to calm herself, Bridget called on the sense of innate trust she had always felt for Alex. There was a reason for this. There had to be.

Since the moment they met, Alex had acted as her protector. Even then, when she had no reason, no cause to help some nameless stranger. Yet she had.

With another deep breath, Bridget gritted her teeth, drawing up her courage. Alex was still protecting her. She found the strength somewhere in her heart to trust in that. Alex just needed her to protect herself for a while. Right? Right.

But as she watched Alex nod grimly to the guard standing behind her, Bridget silently promised herself that after this was all over, they were due for a long talk later about Alex’s methods.

She felt the guard push her back toward the doorway, and squinted as the bright lights assaulted her vision. Pushed forward roughly, Bridget risked a one last, brief glance at the dark haired woman whose shadowed face, discolored by the mask, looked almost frightened, before the door thudded to a close behind her.

The crowd cheered as she turned and glanced up. Their faces were fuzzy and indistinct through the eyepieces of the mask. To Bridget they looked like nothing so much as a mass of scavengers, hovering over her, waiting to feed on her flesh.

The door on the other side of the arena opened, as Victoria strutted regally through it. She threw her arms up, acknowledging the crowd and seeming to bask in the cheers that rained down on her. She appeared to pointedly ignore Bridget at first, as if she were of little consequence.

Bridget set her jaw. Despite everything, she really didn’t want to hurt the woman. But in the pompous strut that Victoria displayed as she moved around the arena, working the crowd, Bridget imagined the torture this woman had inflicted on those young girls. She remembered the maniacal gleam in Victoria’s eyes as she described the fascination their suffering had held for her.

Just hold your own, Bridget reminded herself. Give Alex time to do whatever it is she’s going to do and then this will all be over with. As Victoria completed an impromptu circle of the arena, coming back to her position opposite Bridget, the images of those girls flashed through her mind. She felt almost as though they were feeding her will.

Dominick’s voice sounded down from above them. Bridget didn’t even bother to glance up as he announced the beginning of the fight. She raised her staff to a defensive position and did her best to ignore the cheers of the onlookers as Victoria strode arrogantly toward her, lightly spinning the sticks in her hands.

“So, looks like we get to play after all.” Victoria’s voice was low and taunting.

“I think I like these odds a little better than what you had in mind.” Bridget gripped her staff meaningfully.

A low chuckle came from behind the other woman’s mask. “It won’t matter.” With that she lunged forward, coming at Bridget from a high angle. Bridget stepped forward quickly jabbing one end of her staff into Victoria’s stomach. The woman lurched and stumbled backward.

“Yes,” Bridget disagreed grimly, “it will.”

Victoria recovered from the blow quickly, but now seemed more cautious in her approach. “You know you can’t beat me.” The woman teased.

“I suppose we’ll find out.” The crowd had begun to shout encouragements at the two women, eager to get their money’s worth. Bridget took a deep breath, trying to shut the sounds out completely and set her sights on the task at hand.

Victoria stepped forward again, feigning an overhand blow with her left. When Bridget brought her staff up to block, Victoria moved low, landing a solid blow into Bridget’s side with her right. Bridget winced and whipped her staff around to back the woman off.

She huffed at the pain, trying to catch her breath again. Victoria spun the sticks in a tight figure eight around her body, moving forward slowly. Bridget unconsciously backed away, knowing that a blow could come at her from almost any angle. Swiping her staff again to keep the socialite at a respectable distance, Bridget cursed the masks that covered their faces. She had always been taught to watch her opponents eyes to predict their moves. But that was impossible.

Victoria darted toward her, surprising the reporter with her quickness, and landed two hard blows to Bridget’s upper thigh before dancing out of the path of her staff. Bridget could hear the mocking laughter coming from behind the macabre bird like face staring at her as she grunted in pain. She was being toyed with, and she knew it. Victoria had the clear advantage. And she planned on whittling Bridget down, blow by blow, with pain upon pain.

They both knew that despite Bridget’s bravado, she didn’t have much chance of winning. But, Bridget reminded herself as she took another cautious swipe with her staff, she didn’t have to win. She only needed time.

And that made her staff her second most valuable weapon.

Victoria lunged in again, and Bridget deftly blocked a blow angled at her ribs but the socialite quickly countered with another blow to her legs, this one landing just above her left knee. Losing her balance, Bridget fell to her knees. With a sharp cry, she whipped her staff around, reversing the grip and slammed the weapon as hard as she could into the back of Victoria’s right shin, feeling the weight of that leg give away and the force of her blow crash into her other leg as well.

Landing hard on her back, Bridget heard the grunt of the air being knocked out of the woman’s lungs. Using her staff for leverage, she climbed back to her feet, testing her leg gingerly. With a relieved sigh, she realized nothing was broken. Victoria scrambled back to her feet, straightening her mask with an angry, clipped gesture.

“Why are you doing this?” Bridget was careful to keep her voice low enough so only her opponent could hear it.

“Oh, we’re not going to go through that again, are we?” The socialite’s voice sounded bored.

“No, not that. I mean this, out here . . .” she gestured toward the crowd, “what’s the point? You didn’t do this with any of the others, did you?” Keeping her staff in front of her defensively, Bridget began to move slowly around the arena, trying to keep as much distance between them as possible.

“This,” Victoria gestured to the crowd, mocking Bridget’s, “is just for fun . . . Think of it as foreplay.”

“I’d rather not.” Bridget quipped. “I’m not much of an exhibitionist.”

“You are tonight.” Victoria’s voice was low and filled with humor as she as she poked a stick forward, aiming for Bridget’s chest, laughing again when the reporter knocked the blow away with irritation.

“What about you?” The reporter countered. “Why take a chance of exposing yourself in front of all these people?”

“These people?” Victoria laughed harshly. “They could care less who I am, as long as they get their show.” The socialite lunged in again, but danced out of the way of Bridget’s defensive strike and landed a hard blow to the reporter’s left shoulder. Bridget grimaced again, clutching her arm to her body reflexively, having to concentrate to not lose her grip on the staff. Spinning around quickly, Victoria landed another solid blow, this one to the side of Bridget’s head. An explosion of color tainted her vision as the room seemed to spin around her.

Blinking several times, Bridget lashed out an angry blow, hearing a satisfying grunt as she felt the staff make contact.

“You know what I think?” The reporter’s voice sounded thick to her ears, as she fought against the dizziness that threatened to overtake her. “I think you’re being set up.”

“What are you talking about?” Victoria demanded angrily.

“I think Mr. Bad boy up there is hoping that I’ll win and get you out of his hair.”

Victoria laughed harshly. “Nice try. But we . . .”

Bridget jumped forward quickly, leveling a wide, arcing blow that caught Victoria on the side of her head and whipped her body around. Taking a step closer, the reporter gripped her staff firmly, sending one hard blow into Victoria’s right shoulder, then another sharp blow into her left side.

She backed off quickly, taunting Victoria as she danced out of the path of her defensive blows. “But I don’t have any chance of winning, right?”

With a low growl, Victoria’s leg shot forward, knocking the staff out of Bridget’s hands a moment before sending a kick into her mid-section that sent the reporter flying into on corner of the arena.

Momentarily dazed, Bridget blinked up toward the leather clad form that was advancing on her again. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Victoria’s low voice sounded a bit less certain than it had before.

“Don’t I?” Bridget pushed herself forward, spinning her legs in front of her and sweeping Victoria’s legs out from under her with a small cry. Rolling backward, Bridget caught site of her staff laying nearby and grasped it again as she sprang to her feet.

Cautiously, she backed toward the other side of the small arena, trying to put more distance between them. Her legs felt like lead and the throbbing in her head had intensified once again. Victoria was up quickly, advancing on her once again.

“Dominick needs me,” the words were practically growled. “And he knows it.”

“Oh, really?” Bridget continued to back away from Victoria, trying to circle around the arena, keeping as much distance between them as she could. “Are sure about that?”

Victoria paused again, her head cocked slightly to the side in thought. It was an odd bird- like gesture which caused Bridget to focus again on the mask itself. Without being able to help it, or even understand why, she began to laugh.

The noise seemed to enrage Victoria, she jumped forward with a wild blow aimed at Bridget’s head. Bringing her staff up quickly to block it, Bridget couldn’t counter the second blow, which caught her squarely in the stomach.

Doubling over, Bridget struggled for breath. She heard Victoria move around her, feeling a sharp blow catch the back of her knees, sending her sprawling to the floor, while the socialite loomed above her. From somewhere above her, Bridget heard a sharp scream, followed by what sounded like a small explosion. Panicked cries from the crowd filtered down to her as she looked up to see smoke coming from near where Dominick had been sitting.

Dropping her staff, Bridget sat up, doubling her hand into a fist and jabbing as hard as she could into Victoria’s lower abdomen, taking advantage of the woman’s distraction. Rocking back, she curled her knees up to her chest, kicking them both squarely into Victoria’s chest. The woman flew backwards, her arms clutching at the air and landed on her back again with a loud grunt. Looking up, Bridget saw a dark shape drop into the pit, moving toward her with quick, long strides.

She wanted to cry with relief.

Tearing the mask off her head, Bridget looked up into Alex’s face. “Well, it’s about damn time!”

With a wry grin, Alex reached down a hand and helped her up. “Let’s get out of here.” They started toward the door through which Bridget had entered the arena.

Trying the knob quickly, Alex didn’t seem surprised to find it locked. She pushed Bridget backwards a few feet, preparing to kick at the door. The panicked cries continued to rain down on them, as the acrid smell of smoke began to filter though the air. Alex kicked at the door once, then twice, cursing slightly as it refused to give under her powerful blows.

“BRIDGET!”

The loud voice boomed from behind her. Turning quickly, Bridget saw Victoria stripping off her own mask. A snarl touched her lips as she reached behind her back, pulling out a small curved dagger that seemed to have been concealed in her clothes. Before the reporter could react, Victoria’s arm whipped forward, sending the weapon hurtling end over end toward her with a triumphant laugh.

There was a quick blur in front of her eyes as a hand whisked by, snatching the dagger out of the air only a few inches away from her face. In a single motion, Alex pivoted sending the dagger back with a sharp snap of her wrist.

The laughter died on Victoria’s lips as she looked down just in time to see the weapon sink, hilt deep, into her chest. The air flew out of Bridget’s lungs as if she had taken the blow herself. Unbidden, tears stung her eyes and began to fall as the green eyes raised, meeting her own with a look filled with hatred as Victoria sunk slowly to her knees, and then fell backward.

Trying to blink away the tears, Bridget turned her gaze up to Alex, who returned her look with concern.

“Are you all right?”

A soft, humorless laugh came from Bridget’s chest as she tried to catch her breath. “Just get me out of here.”

Nodding sharply, Alex turned back toward the door, trying once again to kick it in. Finally she seemed to give up, quick hands moving to a whip that was coiled around her waist. “Come on.” She took the reporter’s arm, leading her over to a nearby wall where she quickly uncoiled the whip, snapping it around a rail of the fence that surrounded the pit.

Bridget’s eyes had unconsciously gone to the still form that lay only a few feet away. Feeling Alex tug at her arm again, she wrenched her eyes away.

“Can you climb?”

Bridget coughed as the smoke began to thicken. “I don’t know.” She replied honestly. But reached forward for the whip anyway, struggling to pull herself up. She felt Alex pushing on her, trying to give her as much leverage as possible with her legs. With the boost, she made it almost to the top with little effort, then struggled mightily for the last few feet, feeling a horrible burning in her arms.

Reaching the top, Bridget’s coughing became more harsh as she slid her body underneath the railing. Once through, she lay face down on the floor, one hand covering her mouth while the other tried to abate the stinging in her eyes. Looking up, she could see flames snaking their way across the ceiling, reducing the lights and video cameras it met into showers of sparks.

After a moment, she heard Alex reach the top. Glancing up, she saw the tall woman swing her legs quickly over the railing and move to her side quickly, helping her to her feet.

“Not so fast, bitch.” The harsh, croaking voice came from behind them. Turning, Bridget recognized the man who had been in the room with Dominick when Alex brought her in.

“I don’t have time for this right now, Kermit.” Alex’s voice was a low, dangerous growl.

“You don’t have time for anything else.” The man countered, pulling out a pistol and leveling it at Alex’s head.

Her eyes watering at the smoke, Bridget glanced at Alex who stood barely a foot away from her, the tall form tensed and blue eyes focused intently on the man. She half turned, her hip bumping into the railing and looked down into the pit once again, noting that she could barely make out the form of Victoria below through the haze.

Suddenly, Bridget felt an odd whoosh of air around her. Turning back quickly she looked up, but saw nothing in front of her. But she felt it. No matter how much she tried later to convince herself otherwise, Bridget always knew that she felt it.

Out of the insubstantial, smoke-filled air, she felt a quick, hard blow that caught her high in the chest, knocking her backward solidly as she felt her body curve over the railing. In horror, Bridget felt her feet fly off the ground, her arms flailing as she caught one brief glimpse at Alex’s shocked face and heard her anguished cry as she toppled over the edge.

Twisting her body violently, Bridget clasped her hand reflexively when she felt it brush against something solid. She felt a hard jerk and an explosion of pain in her left shoulder as she looked up to realize that she had somehow managed to catch hold of the whip which still dangled from the railing. Her entire body shaking, either from the shock, the terror, or the pain, she couldn’t tell which, Bridget threw her other hand up, trying to take some of the weight off her left shoulder. Her legs wrapped around the thick leather of the whip as she tried to pull herself upward, tears streaming from her eyes from the effort and pain.

Looking up, she could see only hazy forms in the smoky air and but could tell that the roof was now totally engulfed in flames. After a few moments that felt like an eternity, Bridget saw the railing come back clearly into view. She heard Alex’s voice shouting something as she crawled upward. A dark form stood a few feet away from the railing. Squinting, Bridget could tell it was the man who had been holding the gun on them. She struggled to pull herself up, sliding quietly under the railing once again. Alex was on the other side of the man, the gun still pointed toward her. Taking a deep breath, Bridget swept a kick along the floor that landed solidly in the side of the man’s knee. He grunted and crumpled to the side as Alex was on him in a flash, pushing him backward, both their hands clutched around the gun as a couple of shots rang out toward the flame engulfed ceiling.

Rolling, Bridget tried to get away from the edge as Alex and the man were locked in a struggle against the rail. She heard a loud grunt as Alex’s knee came up, slamming into the man’s side as she twisted the gun sharply out of his grasp and let it fall into the pit below. Her arm now free, Alex grasped his throat, a savage grin on her face as she deliberately pushed him over the edge.

A series of small explosions sounded from somewhere above them and the loud creaking of metal twisting and straining filled the air. Suddenly a large object seemed to fall from the ceiling with a deafening roar, flames and explosions seemed to follow its path as it crashed into the pit below.

Hard coughs racked Bridget’s body as the smoke and heat began to overwhelm her. She felt strong hands touching her arms and tried to look up, but darkness clouded her vision and then everything faded away.

Chapter 20

Alex blinked at the tired stinging in her eyes as she watched two figures flicker across the screen of Bridget’s television. Taking a deep breath, she started coughing again, her lungs still protesting the copious amounts of smoke they had been exposed to that night. While her eyes went to the doorway leading to Bridget’s bedroom.

The reporter had only, briefly, regained consciousness a couple of times since Alex carried her out of the burning remains of Dominick’s Coliseum. The first time had been when Alex settled her into the car, rousing the young woman long enough to ask if she wanted to be taken back to the hospital. Though she seemed dazed, Bridget had asked her not to, which Alex knew was primarily for her own benefit rather than Bridget’s own well being. But she couldn’t argue with the logic.

The second time Bridget had awoken was to cry out in pain when Alex had checked the swelling of her left shoulder. It didn’t seem to be broken or out of joint, but there was no doubt that muscles were badly strained. Though she wasn’t much of a nurse, Alex had more than her share of experience dealing with small injuries. She had carefully removed Bridget’s clothes, checking the numerous bruises, cuts and abrasions that practically covered the young woman’s body. Fortunately, they still had the pain pills prescribed to the reporter after the accident. It seemed to have taken some of the edge off the pain and allowed her some sleep.

A cry from the television called Alex’s attention back to the present. Her eyes narrowed as the two-dimensional form of Victoria Carlyle gleefully torturing a young girl. She watched Victoria with interest, the menacing joy on her face as she circled the girl, toying with her, feeding off her pain and fear.

With a sigh, Alex’s hand moved to the remote, cutting off the image as Victoria was advancing toward the girl yet again. She tossed the remote onto the couch, drawing a sleepy look from Princess, who was curled up next to the arm. One weary hand raised to rub at her eyes, almost wishing she could rub away the memories of this night. How many had she killed this time? Six, seven at least?

Well, at least it was over. For now.

Alex knew that in her own way, she was just as bad as Victoria. There was a large part of her that fed off the darkness, the thrill of power. With a deep sigh, she leaned her head back, staring at the ceiling. She’d almost gotten Bridget killed tonight. Her arrogance had put the young reporter squarely in harm’s way. Bloodshot eyes closed tight at the memory of Bridget’s face as she stumbled over the side of that pit. For a few awful moments, Alex believed she was gone. She shivered unconsciously at the thought.

Never in her life could she remember feeling so consumed by any emotion as the boundless rage that settled over her in those few moments. Rather than an explosion, it was more like an awful chill, and with it, a startling calmness and clarity. It felt like every emotion she ever knew had frozen within her heart until there was only the blind, unfettered, all-consuming hatred.

And then it had disappeared almost as quickly as it had come. The vision Bridget laying there, her innocent young face twisted in pain had flooded through her body, thawing her blood. The terrible intensity that had so consumed her seemed to evaporate, replaced with only fear and concern for her young friend.

Her hands had been shaking as she reached down to carry Bridget to safety, narrowly avoiding the police cars and fire trucks that were screaming toward the club. Glancing down, Alex noted that her hands were still trembling just a bit. Her gaze moved over her arms, and then along the rest of her reclining form. Not a scratch. Not a single bruise. The mild throbbing of the inside of her lip where she had bitten it was all she had to show for her night’s effort.

Bridget hadn’t been nearly so lucky.

With that thought, Alex rose and walked slowly back into the bedroom. She stopped just inside the doorway, watching the slow rise and fall of Bridget’s chest as she slept, knowing that in her own way, she was as responsible for the her injuries as Victoria had been. With a rising dread, Alex wondered what Bridget was going to think of her now. She hadn’t set out to kill Victoria, and certainly not right in front of Bridget, but her instinct had taken over. The look of horror on those soft green eyes . . .

In that moment, Alex wanted nothing more than to walk away. To crawl back into that box that had been her haven from the world and disappear again.

How foolish to have allowed herself to care so deeply.

Yet somehow she knew that she hadn’t stood a chance. From the moment Bridget Stone had crashed into her life, Alex had been lost. Or maybe it was better to say she’d been found. Whatever it was that had sparked between them in that instant, Alex knew it more powerful as anything she had ever experienced in her life. More powerful even than the deep despair and emptiness that had taken over her heart after that bloody day in the jungle when she had killed those that had fought beside her and been her constant companions for years.

With a groan, Bridget began to stir. All other thoughts disappeared into the back of her mind as Alex moved quickly to the bedside, leaning over and watching the beautiful young face closely. Slowly, her eyes fluttered open, a brief look of confusion crossed the reporter’s face as her eyes focused on the dark figure looming above her.

“How you feeling?” Alex’s voice was low and gentle.

Bridget shifted with a grimace. “Sore.” A small grin touched the corners of her mouth despite her response. But as she struggled to sit up, a fit of coughing tore through her chest and she sank back onto her pillow wearily.

“Here.” Alex quickly picked up a glass of water that was sitting on the nightstand. She curled a hand around Bridget’s back, raising her slowly until she had taken a few drinks.

As the young woman settled back onto the bed, a long silence passed through the air. Finally, Bridget cleared her throat and looked up at Alex.

“You know, you had me worried there for a while.”

With a sigh, Alex lowered herself onto the bed. “I’m sorry. I . . .” Her voice trailed off. This was something new for her, she didn’t know how to explain her manner or emotions. No one had ever cared enough to demand that of her. No, that wasn’t true, Alex corrected herself. Teri had cared. But Teri had always been more interested in the person she wanted Alex to be, rather than the reality of who she was. “I just . . .”

“You did what you had to do.” Bridget finished for her, and Alex looked up into her face in surprise. Seeing the look, Bridget struggled once again to sit up. “Look,” she started with a sigh and another cough, “I’m not saying that I liked it that much . . . and we really need to work on our communication . . . but you saved my life, again, and I . . .”

“Saved your life?” Alex cast a stunned look into the earnest young face. “Are you kidding, I nearly got you killed!”

“Alex,” Bridget reached out a hand to cover hers, “you didn’t take me there in the first place, or make Victoria decide she wanted to kill me.” Bridget shifted again, the discomfort clear on her face. “That place . . . they were killing people for sport. You didn’t create that. But you did stop it.”

“Bridget,” a low warning edged into Alex’s voice, “don’t paint me in as the hero in this story.”

“Why not?”

Alex’s brow furrowed. Could she be that naive? “Because those clothes just don’t fit this body, Bridget.” Taking a breath, Alex leaned in, capturing the young woman’s gaze and holding it firmly. “Don’t get any illusions about me. I’m a killer. That’s what I did tonight. I killed.”

Bridget paused a moment, a look of pain and sadness crossing her face, but her gaze never wavered. “You did what you did for a reason, Alex. There’s a difference.”

“How can you say that? You saw what I did.”

“Yes, I did. I saw you save my life.” Before Alex respond, Bridget rushed on. “Don’t get me wrong, I wish . . . well . . . I wish there had been another way you could have done it. But under the circumstances, you did what you thought was best, right?”

Alex stared into her face as if she were looking at a different species. “You don’t under . . .”

Bridget cut her off with a wave of her hand. “Alex, I’m tired.” She smiled gently. “And all I want right now is a nice hot bath. Can’t we argue about this later?”

Shaking her head with a bemused smile, Alex looked down at Bridget’s face, seeing the weariness that had once again settled there. “Yeah . . . but I don’t think a bath is a good idea. You shouldn’t get those wounds on your wrists wet yet.”

Bridget smirked. “Well then I just won’t put them in the water, but I really need that bath.” When Alex opened her mouth to protest, Bridget added quickly. “If you’re so worried about it, you can come supervise.”

Having already opened her mouth to disagree, the dark haired woman froze, looking down to see a mischievous twinkle that danced in Bridget’s eyes. “W . . . What?”

“Well . . .” a soft blush crept through the young woman’s cheeks. “I just thought that since I’m kind of, the walking wounded here, that you might . . .uhmm . . . give me a hand?”

The sense of trust and caring that rushed through Alex’s heart at her friend’s shy words left her in awe. With a dazed expression, she looked deeply into emerald green eyes. “Who are you?” Her voice was a soft pitched whisper, the question born of a deep desire to understand this intriguing creature that seemed so far removed from anything or anyone Alex had ever known in her life.

Bridget held her gaze with a serious expression for a moment, her brow crinkling in thought. “Tell you what,” she said finally. “I’ll answer that question when you can do the same for me.” She smiled again, and Alex could have sworn the whole room grew brighter. “Now how about that bath?”

With a defeated sigh, but a smile playing at her lips, Alex moved to the bathroom. She was adjusting the temperature, testing it with her hand when she heard a few groans and moved back to the bedroom to see Bridget struggling to get up. The covers had fallen away and her friend seemed to have noticed for the first time that she was naked.

Her face flushed slightly as she glanced up at Alex. “Do I want to know what happened to my clothes?”

Alex grinned. “Probably not.” Moving over to stand by the bedside, Alex put a gentle hand on Bridget’s arm. “Here, let me help.” With easy grace, she reached down and lifted the small body gently off the bed. Though she yelped softly in surprise, Bridget settled easily into the strong arms. The sensation was quite unlike anything Alex had ever felt, in its own way as intense as the embrace they had shared much earlier in the evening. Rather than the heated passion, what she felt now was a surge of protectiveness, and a profound sense of peace and affinity. Alex felt overwhelmed, and almost awkward, taking even greater care as she carried Bridget to the bathroom.

Settling Bridget into the quickly filling tub, kneeling down beside it, Alex noted that Bridget’s gaze had fallen to her arms. A confused look settled over the young reporter’s face as she looked back up at Alex.

“Can you tell me now?” She asked softly.

Damn, she’d almost forgotten about that. With a deep sigh, Alex turned off the water, settling herself down on the floor so that she was facing Bridget. She spent a few moments in silence, trying to come up with the words. Not since she was a small child had Alex ever tried to explain, or even spoke about the odd things that sometimes happened to her. It had been part of her life for so long, that in a peculiar way it had become almost commonplace.

She glanced at Bridget again, wondering how she would accept the truth. Well, what the hell, the young woman had seen a lot of the worst she had to offer this night and not run screaming, perhaps she might be able to understand this as well. Her mind wandered back to the deepest reaches of her memory. This was a story that could only be understood from the beginning.

Resting her elbows onto her knees, Alex leaned forward, searching for the words to begin a story she’d never thought to tell. “I was . . . about four,” she began haltingly, seeing the look of confusion on Bridget’s face, “playing out in the yard. I had a ball . . . and, like any kid, when it rolled away from me into the street, I followed it.” She paused again, her lips pursing in thought. “I never saw the car, not until it was all over. All I remember is that I . . . felt something . . . like a burst of wind, and then there was this loud crash. I remember hearing screams and tires squalling. And when I looked up there was this car that was stopped right in front of me. Only,” she brought a hand up in front of her at the memory, “the front of it was caved in, like it had hit a tree or something. D . . . Mr. Bryson, came out and grabbed me, and I remember everyone scrambling around to figure out what happened, but they never did.”

She glanced up again at Bridget’s face, her brow was furrowed, but she listened in silence. “That’s how it began.” Alex explained, she reached over and grabbed a sponge that sat on the edge of the tub, dipping it in the water and running it lightly over the skin of Bridget’s arm. “Or, at least, that’s the first time I remember anything like that happening . . . Mr. Bryson said that maybe I had a guardian angel looking out for me.” A wistful smile came to her face as she remembered Phillip Bryson, the closest thing to a family that she had ever known. She paused to dip the sponge in the water once again. “For a long time, I thought he was right. I used to feel like something was looking out for me. When I got older, it almost became a game. I’d get myself into trouble, climb too high in a tree, lean too far out a window, and something would be there, stopping me from falling.”

Alex was surprised how easily the words came now, as she let herself sift through her memories. Her eyes had begun to trace the path of the sponge as it moved lightly over the soft skin, moving up over Bridget’s sore shoulder with agonizing gentleness. “Then when I got to be a teenager, it became a different kind of a game . . . and I started getting myself into different kinds of trouble. I hung out with bad crowds, in the wrong neighborhoods. I had this . . . reckless kind of confidence that I would always be protected. I mean . . .” she drew the sponge over Bridget’s chest, her eyes following the path of the water droplets as they cascaded down to her breasts, “I didn’t have a steady home, or family. I was just this punk kid that nobody wanted. And this was . . . like . . . the one thing I always felt like I could count on.” Alex’s eyes moved up to the young woman’s face, unconsciously searching her eyes for acceptance and understanding.

“It was my secret. And it made me feel special, and protected.” She dipped the sponge again, leaning forward so that the sponge could continue it’s slow trek. “I would take these crazy chances, not even thinking about what I was doing . . .”

“Like jumping off a fourth story balcony?” Bridget supplied, a smile touched the edges of her mouth. Alex ducked her head sheepishly.

“Yeah, like that.” She sighed, dipping the sponge again. “I used to fantasize that it was my mother . . . my real mother . . . looking out for me.” With that, Alex paused. That was something she hadn’t even admitted to herself in a long time. But she went on, now feeling the need to get it all out, driven by the acceptance she felt coming from her friend. And maybe, after everything that had happened, she needed to hear the words as well.

“Is that what you think it is?” Bridget’s voice brought her out of her reverie, she looked up into the soft features. Gently reaching down to draw one of Bridget’s legs out of the water, the sponge continued to explore as Alex steeled herself for the rest of the story.

“No,” she continued quietly. “Not anymore. When . . .when I got old enough, I joined the service, figuring it would be a place where I could make a name for myself.” The words came more hesitantly now, the sponge slowed in its journey. “Anyway, time passed, and eventually my company was sent over to the Middle East.”

“To the war.” Alex looked up into the reporter’s face and realized that she must know at least part of this story. The official part. The sponge stilled against the skin of Bridget’s calf.

“Yes,” Alex agreed. “To the war.” A lump formed in her throat and she tried, unsuccessfully to swallow it away. “One day . . . we were settled out in the blasted heat, ordered to keep watch over a supply road. I remember . . . I was sitting there playing cards with my Lieutenant when all of a sudden all hell broke loose.”

Closing her eyes, Alex shivered at the memory, flinching involuntarily as if the rounds were going off inside her mind. The sponge dropped into the water. “We never really knew what hit us . . .” she licked her lips, taking deep breath and brought the heels of her palms up to massage her temples. “When I woke up, I was in triage, so was most of my company. Lt. Jennings was dead . . . along with about a half dozen others. I was . . . I’d been hurt, but not nearly as bad as most of the others.”

Alex let her hands rake roughly through her hair. “But it was after that I realized . . . this thing was no angel.”

Bridget reached out gently, setting her hand on Alex’s forearm. “What do you mean?”

She lifted her head to meet the reporter’s gaze, feeling the sadness well up inside her. “Anything . . . anything at all . . . that was really looking out for me,” her voice was hollow, her face a mask to hide the rampaging emotions, ” . . . would have let me die that day, and spared me what was to come.” The silence stretched between them once again, and they both let it.

Alex sat back until she was leaning against the wall. When she spoke again, the bitterness made its way into her tone. “The first round that hit us was less than two feet from where I’d been sitting,” she explained, “there was no way in the world I should have survived. When they debriefed everyone, mine was the story that didn’t match up, didn’t make any sense. They knew as well as I did that if I’d been telling the truth, I should have been dead . . . It was friendly fire . . .they needed somebody to blame.”

“Why you?” The confusion in Bridget’s tone was evident. “What about the people that shot at you? It wasn’t your fault.”

A sharp, humorless laugh answered her. “There are all kinds of guilt, Bridget.” She took a breath, knowing that this was part of her story that she couldn’t let herself completely explain. “Even though I didn’t realize it at the time . . . what happened . . . was because of me.” When Bridget looked like she was going to ask what that meant, Alex purposefully moved on with the story.

“Anyway, so . . . tonight, when you were gone . . . I had a dream . . .and, it was like I was talking to myself, only . . . only I knew it wasn’t really me.” She paused, taking a frustrated breath. That didn’t make any sense, but she didn’t know how else to explain it. “And it made me realize what I was going to have to do if I was going to help you.”

“Made you realize? Or offered it to you like some kind of bargain?”

Alex’s head shot up, her eyes narrowing as she looked at Bridget, knowing that the look on her own face was as good as an admission that it was the latter. She shrugged. “I didn’t really understand what had happened at first. And . . . I guess I haven’t had much time to think about the consequences.” Silence filled the room yet again, as Alex let her head drop into her hands.

“Alex?” Bridget called her softly, waiting until she raised her head. “What do you think it is?” Intense green eyes were searching her face.

“I don’t know.” Alex admitted.

Another long silence stretched between them, until Alex took a deep breath and glanced over toward Bridget. The reporter seemed lost in thought, but the exhaustion of the past few days was written clearly on her face. Grabbing the sponge and laying it back on the side of the tub, Alex decided that the rest of this conversation would have to wait for another day.

“Come on, you need to lay down.” She stood quickly, bending down to help Bridget stand. Grabbing a towel from nearby, she began to trail it lightly over Bridget’s body. The earnest young face tilted up toward hers and they both suddenly became aware of the intimate nature of the caress. She looked down into the woman’s face. There was nothing there to suggest that she didn’t believe Alex’s story. She’d never doubted or questioned any of it.

She seemed to just instinctively believe, just like she seemed to believe in Alex, herself. She only wished she were worthy the faith this woman had in her.

Like a moth beckoned by the seductive flame, Alex leaned closer. Their lips brushed and then slowly came together. More softness than passion, Alex let the kiss linger only a few moments before pulling away. Bridget, her eyes still closed, leaned her head forward and into Alex’s chest.

“I wish I was up for picking up where we left off before.” The words were mumbled into Alex’s shirt.

Reaching a tentative hand up to the back of Bridget’s head, Alex smiled. “Well, for the record, me too.” She felt a soft chuckle against her skin. “But . . . All things considered, I’d be willing to accept a rain check.”

Bridget laughed harder, but her body tensed in pain at the movement. With a sigh, she pulled away, but cast a impish grin upwards. “Do you think I could request a repeat performance of that trip in here?”

“I think I could manage that.” Alex scooped the small body into her arms once again, negotiating the short trip carefully before depositing her on the bed once again. When she started to stand, Bridget put a gentle hand on her arm.

“Stay in here with me.”

Alex’s face was uncertain. “I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”

“Why not?” A small pout formed on Bridget’s mouth. Alex’s eyes narrowed. She could tell she was being manipulated, but didn’t seem to have any defense against it. “I promise not to try and take advantage of you.”

A dark eyebrow curved toward the ceiling. “And that’s supposed to be incentive?”

Bridget laughed again and tugged harder on Alex’s arm.

“All right. Hang on, I’ll be right back.” She snickered and shook her head before turning to make a careful tour of the apartment, checking doors and windows. Satisfied, she returned to the bedroom, feeling Bridget’s eyes on her as she slid out of her clothes. Pulling a t-shirt over her head, Alex turned out the light and crawled into the soft bed.

Bridget settled her body nearby, letting her hand rest on top of Alex’s, her fingers tracing a lazy path across the skin.

“Alex?” She said after a moment.

“Hmmm?”

“Next time . . . You,” she emphasized the word with a poke in Alex’s chest, “get to fight the psycho. Okay?”

An incredulous look passed over Alex’s face as she turned her head toward the young reporter, who was sporting a wry grin.

“What do you mean, ‘next time’?”

Epilogue

Doing her best to ignore the various pains running rampant through her body, Bridget let her hand return to the mouse. Clicking periodically, she carefully reread the article. It was all true, but barely contained a fraction of what she knew. Instead, her article about the murders was centered on the videotape that Alex had recovered from Dominick’s club.

Mindful of the power and influence of the Carlyle family, Bridget was careful to write only what she knew the videotape could prove. The rest of it, from the other girls, to Dominick’s involvement and the club was all left out.

She wasn’t kidding herself, it wasn’t just the fear of a lawsuit. Bridget knew that no one could ever know what had happened that night, what had happened to her, or what Alex had to do to save her life. Searching her heart, the reporter knew that it was for the best. Even now, it all seemed like a nightmare. But the insistent throbbing of her head, the burning in her wrists, and the constant ache in her shoulder reminded her vividly of the reality of this night.

She’d have to be careful. But, the fire seemed to have gutted the building, effectively destroying the evidence of their activities. Unfortunately it also destroyed the rest of the evidence of the murders. But then, it really didn’t matter anymore. Victoria wouldn’t be hurting those girls, or anyone else, ever again. Leaning back, Bridget thought about the woman, remembering the burning hatred in her eyes, even as she fell to the floor. And yet, despite it all, she still felt tears threatening to fall at the memory.

Taking a deep, purposeful breath, Bridget queued the article to the editor’s desk. She glanced at the clock, 5:30 a.m.. Reaching over she picked up the phone, hitting the speed dial.

“Night desk.” The familiar voice of Carmen, the night editor of the Tribune, sounded in her ear.

“Hi Carmen, I just sent you an article. You might want to look at it.” She listened to the keystrokes as Carmen pulled up the article and then the long pause as she scanned the contents.

“Mother of God! Are you shitting me?” Came the shocked voice.

“Nope. I’ve got the tape here. I’d appreciate if you’d send over a runner for it, I’m not up to getting out right now.”

“How in the hell did you happen upon this tape?” Carmen’s voice was loud in her excitement and the reporter winced and put a hand on her forehead.

“It was left for me anonymously.” The lie tasted bitter in her mouth.

“No shit?”

Taking a deep breath, Bridget chose her words very closely. “Look, I don’t think the police have a copy yet. I’d appreciate it if you would make a dub and send it to Detective Hunter for me.”

“You got it. Man, oh man I’d love to see her face when the black and whites show up to haul her prissy ass to jail!” Carmen chuckled.

“Me too.” Bridget’s voice was sad and hollow, but she keenly felt the truth of the words. “Listen, one more thing. I’m still not feeling great, I’m going to have to take a couple of weeks personal time. Would you leave a message for Claude?”

“You . . . are taking a vacation?” A short pause stretched over the line. “Are you okay?” Carmen’s voice softened with concern.

“Yeah, it’s . . . well it’s just been a long week and I’m still feeling that accident. I just want to give my body some time to recover.”

“Okay, no problem.” Though Carmen’s voice still sounded concerned, Bridget was glad it didn’t seem suspicious. “I’ll tell him. He’ll probably pass out, but I’ll tell him.”

Laughing softly, Bridget fingered the videotape. “Thanks, I appreciate it. I’ll wait up for the runner, but then I’m going to get some sleep. It’s been a long night.”

“That’s good. Been a long night for us too.”

Though she was curious for any news about the fire, Bridget bit back the question. Better to just let it rest. She could hear Carmen talking to someone in the background.

“Okay, runner’s on his way. You take it easy girl, okay? And enjoy your break. You’ve earned it.”

“Thanks Carmen, for everything.”

With that, she hung up the phone, shutting down her computer and leaning back into her chair. Her body was begging to lie back down, but her mind was still racing. She had tried to sleep earlier, but the pills had worn off and allowed her mind to time to take over once again. Finally she’d just given up, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to sleep until she’d finished the article.

Sighing in disappointment, the reporter had hoped that it would give her some kind of closure. But she supposed that she should have known better. The memories of this night would haunt her for a very long time.

She pivoted her chair around, tired eyes falling on the picture sitting on the shelf nearby. Bridget wasn’t entirely certain why she didn’t tell Alex about what happened to her. In truth, it was all more than a little bit frightening. Hearing Alex describe the events of her childhood had brought the memory of her experience tonight back to her with a vengeance. Yet somehow, she couldn’t bring herself to say the words. Even after all Alex had told her, it just sounded so crazy.

And yet she knew that it was real. She knew that something had tried to kill her tonight. By the description, it was the same something that had been protecting Alex her whole life.

But what? And why?

Her eyes flickered back up to the picture of Janice Covington. She closed her eyes and tried to remember the stories she’d been told as a child. Tales of ancient warriors, mystical weapons, and gods walking the earth.

But that was crazy. Those were just bedtime stories.

And yet, here was a woman who was the spitting image of Melinda Pappas. What was that story Aunt Janice had told her? That Mel was a descendant of that warrior. Just as she was supposed to be descended from the woman whose stories were passed down through the generations, telling the tales of a Warrior Princess.

Oh, this is insanity, she told herself.

Insanity that just happened to offer a very plausible, if equally ridiculous, explanation for all that had been going on. The more she turned it over in her mind, the more sense it made.

But if that was the truth, then it was nothing short of terrifying.

She let her forehead fall into her palm, her logic and reason struggling for a grasp on the situation. Finally, she determined to call Jeremy today. It was Sunday, he’d be at church or out for most of the day, but she could catch him tonight. They would fight. For some reason, she and her brother always fought these days. But she needed that journal.

Her own memories of those stories were a bit sketchy, but Aunt Janice had meticulously recorded them all. Almost as if she knew that they would be needed one day. Once she had it, it would be easier to explain her suspicions to Alex.

She looked down to find Princess rubbing against her leg, begging for attention. Doing her best to ignore the pain, she reached down, scooping the small cat into her lap and listening to the contented purrs as she scratched behind her ears.

“Tell me something, Princess.” She looked into the small face. “How exactly do you go about telling someone that you think their guardian angel . . . is the God of War?”

 

The  End

Continued in The Beautiful Lie

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